The Individual and the Herd

How the rhetoric of freedom can lead us astray.


The question Governor Chris Christie was asked seemed simple enough:

There’s a debate going on right now in the United States, the measles outbreak that’s been caused in part by people not vaccinating their kids. Do you think Americans should vaccinate their kids? Is the measles vaccine safe?

He could have just said: “The measles vaccine is safe and parents should get their kids vaccinated.” That appears to be what he believes, and the question required nothing more. But instead he decided to expand the context and give a more complex answer:

All I can say is that we vaccinated ours. That’s the best expression I can give you of my opinion. It’s much more important, I think, what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official. And that’s what we do. But I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.

In response to follow-up questions, he explained that vaccines for different diseases have different risks and benefits (which is true), so the government should be careful about which ones it mandates and which ones it leaves up to parents (which hardly anyone disputes). “I didn’t say I’m leaving people the option,” he protested. And when asked again whether vaccines were dangerous, he responded: “I didn’t say that.” But he also stopped short of saying: “The measles vaccine is safe.”

In short, if you parse Christie’s words very carefully and give him just a little benefit of the doubt, he didn’t say anything all that objectionable. But the question lingers: Why did he go there in the first place? Why not just give the simple answer, if that’s what he believes? After all, that’s the image Christie works so hard to project: a man who bluntly says what he thinks without a lot of political doubletalk. Why couldn’t “Is the measles vaccine safe?” get a “yes” answer, rather than a long-winded discussion followed by a denial that he was saying it was dangerous?

The obvious implication was that (as he progresses towards an as-yet-unannounced presidential campaign) Christie was trying not to offend some bloc of Republican voters. And many then jumped to the conclusion that the bloc in question is the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists, who believe the scientifically groundless theory that vaccines cause autism.

The controversy Christie’s remarks started might have died out quickly, if rival presidential hopeful Senator Rand Paul hadn’t jumped in and said explicitly what Christie was accused of implying:

I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.

(He later backed off, claiming that after just means that vaccines and mental disorders are “temporally related”, not that one causes the other. So I’m sure he won’t mind if the media publishes a slew of stories of the form: So-and-so did something horrible after listening to Rand Paul. Or maybe a headline like “ISIS Beheads Hostage After Paul Speech”.)

But here’s the problem with the pandering-to-Republican-anti-vaxxers theory: First, there just aren’t that many anti-vaxxers. [See endnote 1]  And second, they aren’t all Republicans. There’s a liberal version of anti-vax that focuses the conspiracy theory on drug companies rather than government. [2]

So the theory that a Republican primary might be decided by anti-vaxxers casting a single-issue vote is a little sketchy. That’s why as soon as their position got labelled as pandering to anti-vaxxers, other potential candidates took the opposite side of the argument [3] and both Christie and Paul had to back down to a certain extent.

So who were they pandering to? The Libertarian/Theocrat side of my model in “The Four Flavors of Republican“.

Again Paul was the more explicit:

The state doesn’t own your children. Parents own their children. [4]

In other words, decisions about vaccinations shouldn’t be made by the American people as a whole through the democratic process, or by the medical experts that the people delegate those decisions to. Libertarians believe those issues should be decided by sovereign individuals, and Theocrats want them decided by the fathers that God made sovereign over their households.

When you look at the world through either one of those lenses, vaccinations aren’t the point, they just symbolize larger issues about authority. So sure, I’m going to vaccinate my kids, but the decision should be up to me. “It’s an issue of freedom,” Paul said, and when the CNBC interviewer pressed him, he got sarcastic. “I guess being for freedom would be really unusual.”

This ties vaccinations to other “freedom” issues, like your freedom to go without health insurance rather than accept ObamaCare, your freedom to let your kids grow up ignorant rather than send them to a government-approved school (or report their home-schooling progress to an education bureaucrat), or your freedom to take the low wages and poor working conditions an employer offers rather than negotiate through a union. Newly elected North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis defended the freedom of food-sellers to set their own hygiene standards rather than be bound by government regulations:

“I was having a discussion with someone, and we were at a Starbucks in my district, and we were talking about certain regulations where I felt like ‘maybe you should allow businesses to opt out,'” the senator said.

Tillis said his interlocutor was in disbelief, and asked whether he thought businesses should be allowed to “opt out” of requiring employees to wash their hands after using the restroom.

The senator said he’d be fine with it, so long as businesses made this clear in “advertising” and “employment literature.”

“I said: ‘I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says “We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom,” Tillis said.

“The market will take care of that,” he added, to laughter from the audience. [5]

So in Tillis’ ideal republic, you would have to study the diverse hygiene practices of all the places you eat, so that you can make an informed decision about whether it’s safe to eat there. Because freedom.

Taken to its logical extreme, the freedom agenda says that you should be free to drive on the left side of the interstate. You wouldn’t, of course, because it’s dangerous and you’re not stupid. At least, you wouldn’t most of the time. Most people wouldn’t, most of the time.

But it wouldn’t take many to screw everything up. What if, of all the drivers who would be traveling north during your next trip south down the interstate, you knew that only one would be using his freedom to drive on the left side and come straight at you? How would that change your driving experience?

Here’s what it boils down to: Human beings are simultaneously individuals and members of society, not fundamentally one or the other. Some issues (like free speech) are easier to understand from the individual point of view, while others (like traffic) require a  social point of view. [6]

Public health is fundamentally social. Germs pay no attention to your individuality; they just spread through the herd. You personally may do everything right, but whether or not you get sick also depends on social things like the quality of the sewage system, whether other infected individuals have access to health care or paid sick leave, how well your city controls rats and other vermin, whether restaurant workers wash their hands, and what percentage of people get vaccinated. In extreme cases, it depends on really draconian government interventions like quarantines and travel restrictions.

No matter what kind of intellectual contortions you do, you can’t square all that with a pure individual-freedom agenda. What if a free individual exposed to Ebola doesn’t want to be quarantined in a treatment facility? (Maybe he has his own theory about diseases and doesn’t believe all this germ-and-virus nonsense. Or maybe he was only probably exposed, and he’s willing to risk it.) If your ideology limits you to looking at everything from the individual-freedom viewpoint, your thinking about public health is going to be crippled.

So that’s who Christie and Paul were pandering to this week: people whose thinking about public health has been crippled by individualist ideology. If either becomes president, he may continue to pander to them.


[1] Anti-vaxxers only dangerous because it doesn’t take many to screw up herd immunity, which protects people who can’t use the vaccine. (In other words: Even if you can’t be vaccinated or haven’t been vaccinated yet, you’ll be safe because you are unlikely to come into contact with sick people.) According to the World Health Organization, as reproduced in Wikipedia, the herd immunity threshold for measles is 83-94% vaccinated, so as few as 6% in a local community might be enough to make that community vulnerable to an outbreak.

If you think of this in terms of the free-rider problem, the herd immunity threshold measures how many free riders the vaccination system can stand before it starts breaking down.

[2] Anti-vaccine liberals are sometimes used to prove that in their own way Democrats are just as much at war with science as Republicans who deny climate change or evolution. But here’s the clear difference: Anti-science liberals are on the fringe of the Democratic Party, and elected officials seldom pay much attention to them. Conversely, climate-change denial is a core position of the conservative base, so virtually every elected Republican has gotten in line.

[3] Marco Rubio demonstrated that a Republican presidential contender can give the simple, direct answer: “There is absolutely no medical science or data whatsoever that links those vaccinations to onset of autism or anything of that nature. And by the way, if enough people are not vaccinated, you put at risk infants that are three months of age or younger and have not been vaccinated and you put at risk immune-suppressed children that are not able to get those vaccinations. So absolutely, all children in American should be vaccinated.”

Also Ted Cruz: “On the question of whether kids should be vaccinated, the answer is obvious, and there’s widespread agreement: of course they should.”

But both avoided a direct endorsement of mandatory vaccinations, like Ben Carson’s.

[4] Rekha Basu of the Des Moines Register had the right response:

No, we don’t own our children. From slavery to child sexual abuse, the notion of owning another human has led to nothing good. Legally, we’re responsible for our kids and their care, feeding and safety until they’re old enough to take care of themselves. But they are autonomous human beings, which is why, unlike property, there are laws and standards governing what we can and can’t do to them.

[5] We’ve seen this two-step before. The same politicians who say that a well-informed public can sort things out without government help will also oppose any regulations that inform the public. Today, Tillis says he’d make Starbucks post that sign, but when the time came to vote on it he actually wouldn’t, for exactly the same reason: The market can sort out whether businesses should have to post their hygiene policies.

[6] It’s like the wave/particle thing with light, if that analogy makes sense to you. If not, forget I mentioned it.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week was a lesson in the unpredictability of presidential campaigns. Who knew Republican candidates would be talking about the measles vaccine? Maybe next week they’ll argue about whether cities should have fire departments or some other issue no one is thinking about now. (BTW: This has been an example of why I haven’t been taking Rand Paul’s candidacy seriously: He has never figured out how to downplay his loonier views, so if he ever becomes the focus of the campaign, the other candidates will maneuver him into spending a week talking about eliminating public schools or something.)

If you’ve been listening to the vaccination debate and wondering “Why are we talking about this?”, this week’s featured article will take it back to its roots in “The Individual and the Herd”. It should be out by 9 EST.

The weekly summary will say more about the measles outbreak, then talk about the wonderful talk President Obama gave at the National Prayer Breakfast — and the fevered response to the two lines in which he pointed out that Christianity is open to abuse just like Islam is.

I’ll also mention some of the minor matters that got lost in all the sturm und drang about measles and the Crusades, like next year’s federal budget, and state budgets whose main purpose is to promote the governor’s shot at the Republican presidential nomination.

The summary will close with a very creative smash-up that turns the Coen brothers’ movies into one big conversation. Expect that by noon.

And in case you’re wondering: It’s still snowing. If Shakespeare had set “Twelfth Night” in New England, Feste would sing, “The snow, it snoweth every day.”

Drive It Home

When teetotalers are the only ones willing to say “maybe you’ve had one too many,” because your friends are worried about sounding like abstemious scolds, the advice is a lot easier to dismiss. Which is fine until it’s time to drive home.

– Julian Sanchez, “Chait Speech

This week’s featured post is “The Liberal-on-Liberal Debate Over Political Correctness“.

If you’re in the area, you can hear me speak next Sunday at First Parish Church in Billerica, Massachusetts. I’ll be talking more about religion than politics, but some of you may find it interesting.

This week everybody was talking about political correctness

Jonathan Chait’s “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” should be written up in textbooks as an example of how to make yourself the center of an argument on the internet. It’s simple:

  • Start with a controversial topic, preferably one centering on a buzzword that different people use differently.
  • Take a position your usual friends will hate and your usual enemies will love.
  • Don’t do a particularly good job, so that the people who hate what you say have a lot to work with.
  • Make sure there’s a legitimate point somewhere in the background, so that the people who agree with that point will have to come rescue it, even if they don’t want to rescue you.

I am in awe of the master. And I collect some of the best points people made (and at least one bad one) in “The Liberal-on-Liberal Debate Over Political Correctness“.

and in Europe, Greece was the word

A quote that’s been attributed to various people at various times goes something like this:

If I owe a million dollars and can’t pay, I am lost. If I owe a billion dollars and can’t pay, the banker is lost.

That’s usually when some government steps in with a bail-out. It may look like the debtor is getting bailed out, but really the rescue helicopter is coming for the banker.

The illusion that the debtor is the beneficiary, though, is usually used to get some concessions out of him. But if the conditions of the bail-out are too harsh, eventually the debtor starts asking, “What exactly am I getting out of this?”

That’s more-or-less what happened in the recent Greek elections, where the left-wing party Syriza won, making its leader, Alexis Tsipras the new prime minister. The new government is giving hints in both directions, saying sometimes that its creditors will just have to write off some of its debt, and at others that it will pay everything off.

An even more interesting question is whether the revolt of voters in debt-ridden countries against the bankers will spread to larger European countries like, say, Spain, where the local left-wing party held this demonstration:

and 2016

As recently as last week, I was making fun of people who wanted to talk about 2016 already. But now Republicans are out there in front of real audiences of activists and donors, trying out their stump speeches and seeing if they can raise some interest.

The conservative activists were at the Iowa Freedom Summit. You can watch the YouTubes of the speeches. I thought Ted Cruz did  a good job staking his claim as the true leader of the anti-Obama movement. Scott Walker impressed a lot of people, and is rumored to be the first choice of establishment donors who want a new face rather than, say, Jeb Bush. I thought Rick Perry did surprising well. Maybe his problem in 2011 really was that medication for his back made him ditzy. (What’s Sarah Palin’s explanation for her disjointed speech? The model Jonathan Korman presented in 2013, using the Orwellian term duckspeak, seems to work better and better all the time.)

Meanwhile, the Koch Brothers were putting on the invitation-only Freedom Partners candidate forum to help its network of donors decide who to support. It was mostly behind closed doors, but the discussion among Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul was public (transcript). And if you want to see the full influence of big-money donors on today’s politics, watch Rubio, Cruz, and Paul tiptoe around the idea that big-money donors might have too much influence.

We even have a poll out of Iowa now, showing Scott Walker in the lead with an I-guess-that’s-formidible 15%. And Marco Rubio won the straw poll at the Koch event.

And finally, Mitt called it quits on a third run for the presidency, which started a rush to claim his donors, most of whom are believed to be shifting to Jeb Bush. Among my friends, I hear people starting to panic about a third Bush presidency. But I remember how inevitable Rick Perry seemed for a brief moment in 2011. Money matters, but performance on the campaign trail also matters. There’s a long way to go.

and the weather

Well over two feet of snow here, and more falling as I type. I loved this tweet from Ringo Starr.

and you also might be interested in …

Is it wrong for me to enjoy watching Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin snipe at each other?


As a New Englander and a Patriots fan, it’s best I say as little as possible about the Super Bowl. But Matt Yglesias has a plausible explanation of what Pete Carroll was thinking when he called that pass.

And you don’t have to be a football fan at all to appreciate the night Malcolm Butler had. Beginning the year as an undrafted rookie (i.e., a player nobody really wanted), he was first the victim of one of the craziest bounces in Super Bowl history, and then (two plays later) the guy who won the game.


Last year in “What Should ‘Racism’ Mean?” I recalled a a series of examples to illustrate this claim:

There’s a type of faux scandal that’s been happening … well, I haven’t exactly kept track, but it seems like there’s a new one every month or two. They all fit this pattern: President Obama does something that symbolically asserts his status as president, and the right-wing press gets outraged by how he’s “disrespecting” something-or-other related to the presidency.

Well, this week we had another one: The flap over Michelle not covering her head at King Abdullah’s funeral. Nobody much cared when Laura Bush left her head uncovered in the conservative Muslim kingdom.


Guillotine bait: A guy who got rich shorting subprime mortgages says

America’s lifestyle expectations are far too high and need to be adjusted so we have less things and a smaller, better existence.

Naturally, he doesn’t mean himself. His own five mansions aren’t going anywhere.


Vox does one of its 3-minute explanations about what’s wrong with American Sniper.

and let’s close with the best school-cancellation announcement ever

The Moses Brown School of Providence, Rhode Island, did a parody of Frozen‘s “Let it Go”. If you’re a kid with an unexpected day off school, the cold never bothered you anyway.

The Liberal-on-Liberal Debate Over Political Correctness

A fascinating argument was touched off when Jonathan Chait, a writer I usually like, posted “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say: how the language police are perverting liberalism” on the New York magazine site.

Chait began by recounting an incident that really is objectionable: A Muslim man at the University of Michigan wrote a column for the campus conservative newspaper of the sort that campus conservatives think is clever, a spoof of someone from a marginalized group looking for things to be offended by. Not my cup of tea (or probably Chait’s either, for that matter) but what upset Chait was the reaction: Four people littered the steps of the student’s apartment building with copies of his column written over with insulting and hostile messages.

Up to that point, Chait was on firm ground; that kind of intimidation isn’t an appropriate response. But from there he segued into a stream of conservative tropes:

Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.

Naturally, conservative writers loved watching liberals argue about this. The Federalist‘s Robert Tracinski wrote:

I have observed several times before that the actual essence of the Obama era’s “post-racial” politics is: white people calling other white people racist. The true icons of racial politics in our era are not a fiery Jeremiah Wright or Jesse Jackson or even Al Sharpton, taking the white man to task for keep black folk down. No, it is the average Obama voter—a left-leaning, college-educated white person like, well, like Jonathan Chait, who uses his support for Obama and the Democrats’ agenda as evidence of his enlightenment, which in his mind makes him superior to Obama’s critics, who must be motivated by insidious, secret racism. … So you can see Chait’s dismay at seeing good white “liberals” have their Not Racist credentials challenged by those who are farther out on the left. Don’t they know how the system is supposed to work?

Because that whole “racism” thing is such a scam in the post-Jim-Crow era, when we all have equal opportunities and are treated the same wherever we go.

I thought about writing my own Chait-response article, but other liberals — mostly people Jonathan Korman linked to on Facebook (thanks!) — have been doing a better job than the first ideas that occurred to me, so I’ll mostly just link to them and decide at the end whether I have anything worth adding.

My problem with Chait is simple: As long as we’re not talking vandalism or violence or physical intimidation — and we’re not, in almost all of the cases he mentions other than that first one — saying that somebody’s view is “bigoted and illegitimate” is just as much an exercise of free speech as whatever that person said in the first place.

But wait, Belle Waring said it better:

People like Chait also don’t merely want to be allowed to say whatever they wish about whomever they wish for the sake of debate itself. Because he can already say whatever he damn well pleases! Look at him go! What he wants is the right to both say things which are offensive to some people and remain a liberal in good standing once he has said them. This is a stupid right which no one should have. … Chait wants to say offensive things and not be criticized.

And for Chait to write off such objections as “political correctness” … doesn’t that label represent the same kind of de-legitimization he is objecting to? But Vox‘s Amanda Taub has that covered:

First things first: there’s no such thing as “political correctness.” The term’s in wide use, certainly, but has no actual fixed or specific meaning. What defines it is not what it describes but how it’s used: as a way to dismiss a concern or demand as a frivolous grievance rather than a real issue.

Chait identifies a long list of disputes that he describes as examples of “p.c.” demands that are hurting mainstream liberalism. But calling these concerns “political correctness” is another way of saying that they aren’t important enough to be addressed on their merits. And all that really means is that they’re not important to Jonathan Chait.

Because it’s up to white men (like me and Chait) to decide whether your concerns deserve attention, or if you’re just being too sensitive. We’ll let you know what we decide, but until then try to keep the noise down so that you don’t disturb the neighbors.

Anti-war activist Fredrik deBoer offered a more nuanced opinion: Chait may be full of it, but that doesn’t mean there’s no problem in left-wing discourse. He described a series of situations where he’s seen left-wing groups chase away potential young recruits by coming down way too hard on them the first time they say something that offends a marginalized group — which is bound to happen, because marginalized groups have been marginalized; if you don’t belong to the group, you probably have never been taught how to consider their point of view, and you won’t figure it out until you go through a certain amount of well-intentioned trial and error. In the long run, might it be more productive to point out and correct those errors in a nicer way?

I don’t want these kids to be more like Jon Chait. I sure as hell don’t want them to be less left-wing. I want them to be more left-wing. I want a left that can win, and there’s no way I can have that when the actually-existing left sheds potential allies at an impossible rate. But the prohibition against ever telling anyone to be friendlier and more forgiving is so powerful and calcified it’s a permanent feature of today’s progressivism. And I’m left as this sad old 33 year old teacher who no longer has the slightest fucking idea what to say to the many brilliant, passionate young people whose only crime is not already being perfect.

An interesting detail: In deBoer’s examples, the people coming down hard on the newcomers are themselves from privileged backgrounds, which suggests that a cycle-of-abuse thing might be going on: I got hazed when I joined the movement, so I’ll be damned if I let you get away with anything.

Like deBoer, Julian What’s-He-Doing-At-the-Cato-Institute Sanchez starts with an accurate critique of Chait:

For people accustomed to seeing their opinions greeted with everything from dismissive condescension to harassment and death threats, a successful writer complaining from a perch at New York magazine about his friends being “bludgeoned… into despondent silence”—because people are mean on social media—simply sounded whiny.  Chait also moves a bit too seamlessly from real, honest-to-God censorship by public institutions to more informal social pressure in a way that makes it sound like he’s conflating them—claiming that criticism is somehow tantamount to censorship or repression.

But then he goes deeper. Every movement, Sanchez says, needs to watch out for a certain discussion-constraining dynamic: When the group’s extreme fringe takes its good ideas too far, it’s a thankless job for anyone within the movement to say, “Hey, wait a minute.” So instead, that criticism winds up being made by opponents, who just want to shut the group down. And once that starts happening, any insider who raises a similar point is siding with the enemy, and implicitly endorsing the whole ream of bogus criticisms enemies raise.

When teetotalers are the only ones willing to say “maybe you’ve had one too many,” because your friends are worried about sounding like abstemious scolds, the advice is a lot easier to dismiss. Which is fine until it’s time to drive home.

You see this dynamic, in fact, with the response to Chait’s essay: Progressives who think maybe he’s kinda-sorta got a point quickly move on, ceding the field to those who want to revoke his ally card and conservatives eager to welcome him, at least for the next ten seconds, to “their” side. … And this makes it still easier to conclude that nothing interesting or valuable is lost by any self-censorship that may be occurring. We know what the counterargument looks like, after all: It’s the garbage those assholes are spouting. Discourse gets increasingly polarized and, in the process, stupider. Which, again, seems like a bad outcome even if you don’t particularly care whether Jon Chait gets his feelings hurt.


So, do I have anything to add to that? Maybe I’ll just kibbitz a little to resolve the apparent contradiction between two people I think are both right: Taub saying PC doesn’t exist and Waring talking about it as a real thing that has positive value.

Let’s start with the definition I gave in “A Conservative-to-English Lexicon“:

Political correctness. The bizarre liberal belief that whites, men, straights, Christians, the rich, and other Americans in positions of privilege should treat less privileged people with respect, even though such people have no power to force them to.

Removing the snark: political correctness is the attempt to extend to powerless people the same kind of courtesy that powerful people can take for granted.

Just as an example, suppose you work for a large corporation and somehow find yourself talking to the Big Boss. Maybe you’re on an elevator together or standing in line next to him at the cafeteria, hard as that is to imagine. Naturally, the wheels in your head are spinning as you try to imagine his point of view, so that nothing you say or do will accidentally offend him. But if you were in a similar situation with a janitor or some other person of low rank, you probably wouldn’t work your empathy nearly so hard.

Maybe you should. Or maybe you should at least work your empathy harder than most of us usually do.

Extend that to groups. When you belong to a powerful group — say, men or whites or straights or something similarly normative in our culture — you can take for granted that nearly everyone you run into has a general appreciation of your point of view and knows better than to piss you off in obvious ways. Members of marginalized groups can’t assume that. They’re constantly being jostled or hassled or put on the spot; occasionally by haters, but more often by ordinary folks who can’t be bothered to think too hard about them. PC is the attempt to raise the overall level of consideration to the level that powerful groups take for granted.

That, I think, is the PC that Waring sees value in.

Taub, on the other hand, is talking not about PC as it would be defined by its practitioners, but about the undefined negative label that gets thrown around by critics. And she’s right: The most common usage of “political correctness” in the media is to label some issue as beneath my concern, because the people being offended or victimized or insulted aren’t people I care about, and aren’t powerful enough to make me care.

I think maybe I should add that usage to the Lexicon.

The Monday Morning Teaser

With two feet of Winter Storm Juno snow still on the ground, this morning I’m watching Nashua get a second blanket from Linus. (You don’t often get an opportunity for a pun like that; I couldn’t resist.) But the blogosphere has no snow days, here we go.

This week’s featured article collects what I see as the highlights of an interesting argument, the one touched off by Jonathan Chait’s article on political correctness. And by the way, what is political correctness anyway? Is it a real thing, or just an insult that conservatives throw around? (People I agree with argue both positions.)

In the weekly summary, I finally have to admit that the 2016 presidential campaign has started, at least on the Republican side. Suddenly, it isn’t just pundits speculating about whether possible candidates will announce that they are thinking about forming committees to study whether they should start raising money for a run. With the Iowa Freedom Summit and the Freedom Partners candidate forum now in the past, we have seen undeclared-but-really-running candidates trying out their stump speeches in front of real audiences, and putting the results on YouTube where we can all watch. And there was also that weird ramble by Sarah Palin, which I’m not really qualified to comment on since I’m not a psychiatrist.

But we won’t have Mitt Romney to kick around this year. We liberals who don’t have a quarter of a billion dollars will just have to pick another victim for our politics of envy. (The official Weekly Sift program of the 2016 race will appear next week.)

Also, the EU is trying to figure out what Greece’s turn to the left means, and whether the fever will spread to Spain. And there was another one of those nobody-cared-about-this-stuff-when-the-First-Family-was-white pseudo-scandals about Michelle not wearing a scarf to King Abdullah’s funeral. Texans demonstrated against the pending Muslim takeover of their state, and a bunch of other strange stuff happened.

And snow. There’s been lots and lots of snow. (Did I mention that already?)

The political correctness article should be out by 9 EST, and the summary by noon.

Prosperity Rises

There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.

– William Jennings Bryan, “Cross of Gold” (1896)

This week’s featured post is “Liberal Islam: Is it real? Is it Islam?

This week everybody was talking about the State of the Union

This was the first SOTU of what I’ve been calling the Aw-Fukkit Phase of the Obama presidency, when he might as well say what he thinks because there are no more elections to position himself for.

If you  haven’t seen the speech, the best place to watch is on the White House web site, where you get supporting slides like the one on the right. Also, for the first time in history the White House openly leaked the text of their own speech, so you could read along with the President if you wanted.

“Tonight we turn the page” was a polite way of saying: “I’ve finally cleaned up enough of Bush’s mess that there’s room for me to have my own vision.” Obama supported that view by telling the story of his administration’s mess-cleaning-up accomplishments: unemployment is finally lower than before the 2008 financial crisis; troop levels in Iraq/Afghanistan are down from 180K to 15K; high-school graduation rates are up; oil imports and the price of gas are down (a wrinkle there: gas prices are down from their pre-crisis levels; during the crisis the price got down to $1.61 because nobody was buying); and deficits are down.

State of the Union addresses always have an element of symbolism. This time, Obama framed his speech around a letter he got from a woman in Minnesota, whose family went through hard times during the Great Recession, but stuck together, worked hard, studied hard, and bounced back. Opponents like to imply that Obama only represents unemployed inner-city black single mothers or irresponsible sluts who need abortions so that they can stay promiscuous and child-free, so it was artful to frame the speech around a Midwestern white couple working two jobs and raising kids born in wedlock.

We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times. America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story. They represent the millions who have worked hard, and scrimped, and sacrificed, and retooled.

He referred to his policies as “middle-class economics”, implying a contrast with Republican trickle-down economics, which he did not name.

At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in fifty years. So the verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works.

The speech alluded to specific proposals but deferred the details, which started rolling out later in the week. They include proposals to promote and subsidize child care for working parents, to make two years of community college free, to give new tax breaks to middle-class families, and to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling.

Probably Congress will ignore all these proposals. But they will put Republicans on the spot, at a time when some of them seemed to expect Obama to ask, “How high do you want me to jump?”

and “no-go zones”

Inside the conservative news bubble, lots of nonsense goes unchallenged, like ObamaCare’s “death panels”, or the “stand down order” that supposedly prevented a rescue mission to Benghazi. So I was not particularly shocked when I heard that Fox News was helping spread the bizarre dystopian fantasy that there were “no-go zones” in Europe that non-Muslims have to stay out of, including the entire city of Birmingham, England, and certain well-delineated neighborhoods of Paris.

There is, of course, nothing to support any of this. British Prime Minister David Cameron treated the claims with the disdain they deserve:

I thought it must be April Fools Day. This guy is clearly a complete idiot.

and the Mayor of Paris is threatening to sue. But that didn’t prevent Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal repeating those claims at a speech in London:

It is startling to think that any country would allow, even unofficially, for a so-called ‘no-go zone.’ The idea that a free country would allow for specific areas of its country to operate in an autonomous way that is not free and is in direct opposition to its laws is hard to fathom.

and then blamed “the liberal media” for pointing out that he was just making stuff up.

For once, Fox News apologized for its “error”. (Personally, I don’t think Fox actually tries to get the news right, so wouldn’t call it an “error”, though I believe they do feel bad about getting caught.) The apology (and not the original claim) shocked Jon Stewart, who asked:

What did they say that was so much wronger than usual?


The tiny kernel of truth behind the Shariah-in-the-UK claim is outlined in this BBC article. If all parties agree, civil cases can be tried before Sharia councils. Similar to binding mediation in this country, the system is voluntary and does not apply to criminal cases.

and abortion

This abortion-and-rape thing, it’s a constant problem for the GOP. The pro-life base believes that a newly fertilized ovum has a soul (which isn’t Biblical, and on its Protestant side is a purely political doctrine that has no theological history at all), so a fetus conceived by rape has as much right to life as anybody else. But in front of the general public, passing a law that makes rape a viable male reproductive strategy is political suicide. So anti-abortion laws need some kind of rape exception.

But that raises the question: What kind of rape? And what kind of evidence should a woman claiming the exception need to present? If just saying you were raped is good enough, then we’re back to abortion on demand, because, you know, bitches be lyin’ about stuff like that. Ask Bill Cosby.

So this week the new Republican Congress was all set to pass a nationwide ban on abortions after 20 weeks (on the pseudo-scientific theory that 20 weeks is the threshold for a fetus feeling pain). But the supporting coalition ruptured on the exact wording of the rape exception: To claim it, a woman would have to have previously reported the rape to the police. Congresswoman Renee Ellmers objected to that requirement enough to remove herself as a sponsor. Reportedly, other Republican congresswomen also objected, and the House leadership was not willing to pass the bill without sufficient female cover.

The pro-life crowd then went apeshit, abusing Ellmers (previously a far-right-winger in good standing, one of Sarah Palin’s “Momma grizzlies“) in such misogynistic terms that even a liberal like Joan Walsh felt obligated to defend her.

Senator Lindsey Graham then told the Family Research Council that “I’m going to need your help to find a way out of this definitional problem of rape.” But the whole point of “defining” rape is so that anti-abortion bureaucrats can tell a woman that she’s wrong about having been raped. I don’t see any nice way to do that.

but I wish more people were talking about addiction

Johann Hari has a fascinating article up at Huffington Post, “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think.” Most theories of addiction blame either the addictive nature of the drugs themselves, biological propensities in the addicts, or moral weakness.

Some early experiments put a rat in a cage with two choices of water, a pure source and one laced with an addictive drug like cocaine. Most of the tested rats became addicts, and some killed themselves with overdoses. Eventually, though, researcher Bruce Alexander wondered whether the problem wasn’t the drug so much as being alone in a cage. So he created Rat Park, as utopian a rat community as he could imagine, except for the fact that it also has one pure and one drug-tainted water source.

The happy rats of Rat Park consumed about 1/4th as much of the drug as the bored and lonely rats, and none of them OD’d. What’s more, moving addicted rats from isolation to Rat Park often enabled them to kick the habit.

Hari compares this experiment to the real-life experience of American G.I.s, many of whom were heroin addicts in Vietnam, but didn’t bring their addiction home. Professor Alexander argues: “It’s not you, it’s your cage.”

and you also might be interested in …

If you’re wondering why the price of gas is suddenly so low, Daniel Yergin’s analysis is as convincing as any.


The only people who should be talking about 2016 this early are the comedians who make fun of people talking about 2016 this early. Andy Borowitz posted to Facebook:

Mental Health Professionals Report Alarming Increase in People Who Believe They Could Be President

And Jon Stewart commented on Mitt Romney’s hints that he might run again.

Quit being a nomination hog, Mitt. There’s a lot of people who deserve the chance to lose a presidential race.


Gun rights for black people continue to be mostly theoretical. Tuesday, a 62-year-old black man with a concealed-carry permit was tackled as he entered a WalMart by a white man yelling “He’s got a gun!” Afterward, a police spokesman cautioned vigilantes to “make sure there’s a good reason” before tackling gun owners. Just seeing an armed black man turns out not to be a good enough reason.


A few weeks ago I used torture as an example of how conservatives will intentionally break a word they don’t like through intentional misuse. Well, now they’re working on breaking theocracy. How else to interpret this exchange between Mike Huckabee and televangelist James Robison?

HUCKABEE: Now I’m not saying that a person should run [for president] and say, “Let’s have a theocracy”, because I don’t think we should.

ROBISON: It’s ridiculous.

HUCKABEE: No, that’s not what even our [garbled] want.

ROBISON: We have a theocracy right now. It’s a secular theocracy.

HUCKABEE: That’s it. It’s a humanistic, secular, atheistic [theocracy], even antagonistic toward Christian faith.

Yep, secular theocracy is the new liberal fascism. If the common usage of theocracy can be stretched to include “humanistic, secular, atheistic” versions, then for all practical purposes the word will stop meaning anything at all. And that would suit Robison and Huckabee just fine.

and let’s close with something amusing

It’s another year’s worth of Bad Lip Reading the NFL.

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.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Liberal reform in Islam — an authentically Muslim movement for freedom, tolerance, and democracy — is something that many Americans simultaneously wish for and claim is impossible. The innermost nature of Islam, we are told, is violently intolerant of all alternatives. The assassins, the suicide bombers, the religious police who forbid kite-flying and behead apostates — those are the real Muslims, and the best we can hope is that they magically transform into nominal Muslims, the Islamic equivalent of Christmas-and-Easter Christians.

Otherwise, we’ll just have to kill them all for our own safety.

This week’s feature article challenges that set of assumptions by reviewing the recent book Islam Without Extremes: a Muslim case for Liberty by Turkish author Mustafa Akyol. Akyol makes an argument for secular democracy, individual rights, and separation of church and state that is rooted in the Qur’an, and has flowered at various times throughout Muslim history — never quite triumphing, but not dying either.

Today, he sees that point of view gaining strength in his own country. Turkey today is far from a Jeffersonian utopia, but Akyol argues that it is headed in the right direction, and that the battles liberal Islam lost in medieval Baghdad and in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire are gradually being won this time. He holds out the vision of a free, prosperous Turkey — one that achieves its liberty step-by-step, without foreign invasion or colonialism — providing a model that other Muslim nations will want to follow.

The weekly summary will discuss the first State of the Union of the aw-fukkit phase of the Obama presidency, how the new Congress failed to pass a draconian abortion bill, and the Religious Right’s attempt to break the word theocracy by popularizing the oxymoron secular theocracy. (It’s the new liberal fascism.) Then we’ll close with some Bad Lip Reading of the NFL.

The Islam article is close to done, so I project it appearing around 8 EST, with the weekly summary following around 10 or 11.

Unreasonable Debts

St. Peter don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go.
I owe my soul to the company store.

– “16 Tons“, usually attributed to Merle Travis

This week’s featured post is “Can We Overthrow the Creditocracy?

Thanks to the Diary of Mindless Minions number 2703 blog, who named Maria Popova and me as “Two People Who Make the Internet Better“.

If trends hold, “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” will get its 200,000th page view this week.

This week everybody was talking about terrorist plots in Europe

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, Belgian police launched a series of raids on suspected terrorists, including one at Verviers that resulted in a firefight with men described as “extremely well armed”.

What seems to be different in the current European terrorist threat is that it’s a mixture of foreign-based and home-grown. Belgium turns out to have a comparatively large number of residents who either are fighting in Syria or have fought and come home. They’re Belgians, but their Syrian war connections give them access to heavy weapons and training in how to use them. Across Europe, we’re talking about maybe 5,000 people, 300 or so from Belgium.

and here, sort of

Twenty-year-old Christopher Lee Cornell from Ohio was arrested Wednesday for planning to kill people at the U.S. Capitol. Allegedly, his plan was to set off pipe bombs in or near the Capitol, and then shoot people as they evacuated.

Cornell apparently came to the attention of the FBI months ago for making pro-ISIS statements through social media. He devised his plan in discussions with an FBI informant, and was arrested when he bought two assault rifles. That was the first physical manifestation of his plan. He hadn’t yet bought any materials to make the pipe bombs, and was thinking he might hit the Capitol next December. According to the L. A. Times:

He was charged with the attempted killing of a U.S. government officer and possession of a firearm in furtherance of an attempted crime of violence.

I have mixed feelings about this news. On the one hand, it’s great that Cornell was stopped before he could kill anybody. On the other, it points out the unsettling vagueness of our anti-terrorism laws. Think about it: What did Cornell do, exactly? He had a violent fantasy, “plotted” (i.e., talked big to somebody he thought would be impressed) with an FBI informant, and bought two legal firearms.

For this, he gets national TV coverage and is known far and wide as a dangerous terrorist. Having been a young man myself once, I’m not sure this example is going to discourage would-be imitators.

These kinds of crimes carry very real sentences. Rezwan Ferdaus of Massachusetts is serving 17 years for a 2011 plan to attack the Capitol with radio-controlled airplanes. Again, he conspired only with the FBI. He was arrested when he took delivery of “grenades, six machine guns and what he believed was 24 pounds of C-4 explosive” from his FBI “partners”. Not only was no actual high explosive involved, it’s not clear he would have known how to get any without the FBI’s help.

I wonder how many people we could send to prison if we treated other kinds of “plots” this way. Imagine you have a bad week at work, and while you’re out drinking Friday night, you blather about how you’d like to go into the office some day and shoot all the people who bug you. (I’ll bet bartenders hear a lot of “plans” like this.) Suppose the guy on the next stool is a police informant, and starts asking exactly how you’d do it. A week or two later, you think it might be therapeutic to buy a gun, go to a shooting range, and imagine the target is your boss’ head. As you leave the gun store, police arrest you for starting to carry out your “mass murder plot”. “Police Avert Deadly Rampage” say the next morning’s headlines.


In an unrelated case, an Illinois teen-ager was arrested at O’Hare Airport before boarding a plane to Turkey, where he hoped to join ISIS.


Vox reports:

Writers at Vox have indeed been bombarded with threats for our Charlie Hebdo coverage. But not one of those threats has come from a Muslim or in response to publishing anti-Islam cartoons. Revealingly, they have rather all come from non-Muslims furious at our articles criticizing Islamophobia.

and still talking about Charlie Hebdo

One of my long-term wishes (that started to come true in 2014) has been for The Weekly Sift to develop a commenting community that consistently adds value to my articles. A good example of what I have in mind is last week’s “Am I Charlie? Should I Be?” While many commenters agreed with my main points, several had thoughtful disagreements concerning French language and culture, and provided links that are well worth reading.

A few French-speaking commenters — I’m a puzzle-out-with-a-dictionary reader of French, and can’t say much more than oui — discussed the correct interpretation of cons, which Vox translated as “idiots”, but seemed closer to “cunts” to me and the Saturn’s Repository blog. The truth seems to be that cons is more vulgar than “idiots” but not nearly so offensive as “cunts”. eganvarley and FrancoFile defended “idiots” as a translation, while SamChevre compared cons’ level of vulgarity to “assholes”, and Chum Joely interpreted it as “dumbasses”.

The interpretation of the images in Charlie Hebdo cartoons was another point of contention. eganvarley linked to Adam Gopnik’s article on Charlie. Jeremos linked to a discussion of the Boko-Haram-sex-slaves cover, velvinette to a collection of cartoons establishing Charlie‘s left-wing anti-racist bona fides, and orionblair to an explanation of the French context of some of the cartoons that seem most objectionable to an outsider. Several other commenters also disputed my criticism of Charlie. I apologize for not listing everyone.

Some of the articles made an analogy to this famously controversial New Yorker cover published shortly after Barack Obama had sewed up the Democratic nomination.

People who didn’t know the political context — including a lot of fairly well-informed Americans — interpreted it as a viciously anti-Obama cover: He’s dressed as a Muslim and his wife as a terrorist, while they burn an American flag in the Oval Office fireplace. But hipper viewers saw a parody of over-the-top anti-Obama rhetoric. “This is what you want us to believe? Really?” Several of the apparently racist Charlie covers similarly would be seen by in-the-know French readers as ironic critiques of their surface meanings.

While appreciating their main points, I have two quibbles with the links. First, there’s a tendency to equate bigotry with the Right, and to assume that once we establish that Charlie was on the Left, we’ve proved it wasn’t bigoted. (Talk to Alec Baldwin about that.) Similarly, being anti-racist in general doesn’t inoculate you against all specific forms of bigotry. To me, the appropriate American comparison isn’t the KKK, it’s Bill Maher. Bill is liberal on most issues and denounces bigotry wherever he sees it; but when it comes to his own bigotry against Muslims, he just can’t see it.

Second, privileged people tend to assume that when someone takes offense at what they say or do, all that really matters is their own intent. (If people think I insulted them, that’s only because they’re too stupid to realize I didn’t. Les cons!) This is one of the defining traits of privilege: the belief that your own point of view is paramount; if other people have a different interpretation of what I say or do, they’re just wrong.

But that easily assumed right-to-self-interpretation is only a dream for members of a marginalized group like French Muslims. Jamie Utt asks the right question on Everyday Feminism:

[I]n the end, what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us? … [M]aking the conversation about intent is inherently a privileged action. The reason? It ensures that you and your identity (and intent) stay at the center of any conversation and action while the impact of your action or words on those around you is marginalized.

Reportedly, one of the reasons Dave Chappelle gave up his TV show in the middle of taping the third season (and walked away from a pile of money) was his realization that his intent didn’t always define his humor. Skits that he intended to satirize racial stereotypes might reinforce them to some of his less enlightened viewers.

Now, the fact that out-of-touch foreigners like me don’t appreciate the full implications of a French cartoon is no fair criticism of the cartoon. However, French Muslims did feel insulted, and brushing that off with a “They don’t get it” isn’t an adequate response.

But I don’t want any of that criticism to cause readers to lose sight of the first point of “Am I Charlie? Should I Be?“: Nothing that people say or write or draw should get them killed. Whether or not I have undermined that point also came up in the comment stream, as Dan wondered how my criticism of Charlie differed from the victim-blamers who say that a raped woman “used bad judgment”. I replied:

The difference between the woman and the cartoonists is that the cartoonists knew exactly the risks they were running. The “bad judgment” comment implies the woman was foolish, while I think the Charlie cartoonists were courageous.

A better analogy would be to a soldier who volunteers to fight in what I believe is an unworthy war — but he obviously thinks it is worthy — and dies in that war. I honor his personal courage and respect his sacrifice. But if you ask me to identify with him, to say in effect “I am G. I. Joe”, then I have to ask if that means I have to support the war now. If it does, I can’t say it.

Thanks, everybody. I learned from you even when you didn’t completely persuade me.

and I should be careful what I wish for

because another commenter, Lady Mockingbird, nailed me for overstating my case in last week’s summary. I was summarizing James Fallows’ “The Tragedy of the American Military” which makes the case (and supports it well) that in the age of a volunteer military whose members make multiple deployments to war zones, comparatively few Americans have a personal connection to our troops under fire. I overstated that point like this:

Increasingly, wars are fought either by the underclass (who need a place to start their careers and have few other options) or by men and women from families with a military tradition. Outside that small caste of military families, middle-class and upper-class voters — the people whose opinions count most in our semi-oligarchic system — can have opinions about war with no consequences, or can ignore the military altogether.

Lady M pointed out that I had no support for  that “underclass” point, and she’s right. So I went looking and got surprised.

The Heritage Foundation is not one of my trusted sources, but I don’t have any reason to doubt that their Center for Data Analysis can do arithmetic. Their 2008 report noted that the U.S. military doesn’t keep data on the economic background of recruits, but you can make inferences from their home census tracts, which are reported. Using median census-tract income as a substitute for household income, Heritage-CDA computed that the richest 20% of the country contributes 25% of recruits while the poorest quintile contributes 11%.

Now, I don’t trust Heritage not to manipulate statistics, and quintiles are often used to hide the very wealthy among the upper middle class. So I still doubt that many children of the 1% are getting shot at. But even so, what I said last week is not right.


A friend pointed out in private email that my quick summary of where French police were in their pursuit of the Charlie Hebdo suspects was also muddled. Rather than list my mistakes, I’ll just recommend that you go to the Wikipedia article and get the story straight.

What can I say? My final editing pass last week may have been affected by a slowly rising fever as I developed the flu. I’m fine now, so any mistakes this week are inexcusable.

and you also might be interested in …

MLK Day: The perfect time to link back to “MLK: Sanitized for Their Protection“. King was much more radical than today’s media lets on.


It’s official: Globally, 2014 was the hottest year on record.


Friday, it got easier to visit Cuba.


Here’s a general rule about funerals that you’d think everybody would know: If you’re not in the casket, the service is not about you.

We’ve seen that rule violated in national news stories twice recently: December 27 when police turned their backs on Mayor de Blasio’s eulogy for murdered officer Raphael Ramos, and January 13, when Pastor Ray Chavez of Lakewood, Colorado’s New Hope Ministries interrupted the funeral of Vanessa Collier when he found out she was a lesbian. According to The Denver Post:

The memorial could not continue, Pastor Ray Chavez said, as long as pictures of Collier with the love of her life, the spouse she shared two children with, were to be displayed.

Chavez said there could be no images of Collier with her wife, Christina. There could be no indication that Collier was gay.

Mourners picked up everything and moved the service to the funeral home’s chapel. It was cramped, but there were no further interruptions.

In general, if something at a funeral offends your politics, sit quietly and bitch about it later. Or if you absolutely can’t endure it, slip away discretely. Nobody came here to be your audience.


chescaleigh explains how to be an ally to a marginalized group.


Chattanooga came to my attention in a good way and a bad way this week. The good way is in this graphic of internet speeds in various cities:

Chattanooga, Kansas City, and Lafayette also have surprisingly affordable internet, compared to the relatively slow internet in the rest of America. How come? Matt Yglesias explains what these cities did right:

The American cities that are delivering best-in-the-world speeds at bargain prices are precisely the cities that aren’t relying on Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time-Warner, etc. to run their infrastructure. In Kansas City, Google built a state-of-the-art fiber optic network largely just to prove a point. In Chattanooga and Lafayette, the government did it.

Your city could do the same, and the federal government could help by providing low-interest loans (the way it did for rural electrification in the 1930s). But Matt notes that Verizon et al. pay big bucks to lobbyists to make those policy choices impossible.


But the bad news about Chattanooga was in the talk “The State of Black Chattanooga” given recently by Tennessee State Professor Ken Chilton. If you define “college ready” as reaching the college-readiness benchmarks on all four parts of the ACT, last year zero students from two predominantly black Chattanooga high schools were college ready.

My sister, who taught in the Chattanooga public schools (and brought this article to my attention), comments that the Tennessee statewide average of 19% college-ready is nothing to brag about either. But zero — that should make people sit up and take notice. Will they do anything?


This week I discovered Slate’s “Ask a Homo” video blog. Current question: Do gay men like cat-calling? Unsurprisingly, the answer is: “It depends.” But the factors that come into play are interesting.

Naturally, the question is a response to the viral video “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” that documented all the un-asked-for comments a conservatively dressed young woman hears just by walking silently down public sidewalks. (It has gotten over 37 million views on YouTube so far.) A lot of men responded to that video by saying they’d be happy if female strangers were constantly complimenting them and trying to strike up conversations — which ignores the whole power-imbalance you-exist-for-my-entertainment angle.

Asking how gay men react is a different way to approach the issue. Here’s another: Suppose you’re a straight man and gay strangers are constantly telling you what a nice butt you have. Is your main reaction to be flattered by the compliments? What if the uninvited commenters outnumber you and are much bigger than you are?

and let’s close with something awe-inspiring

From Red River, New Mexico.

Can We Overthrow the Creditocracy?

In the long history of oppression, where are we today? And what can we do about it?


The simplest, most direct form of oppression is forced labor: Work for me, do what I say, or I’ll beat you. And if no beating short of death will induce you to do what I want, then the example of your demise will at least make my next victim more pliable.

Unfortunately for the oppressor, though, forced labor is also morally simple. The press-ganged victim knows I have wronged him or her. Given the chance to run away, or (better yet) kill me, he or she will feel completely justified.

That’s why history is full of attempts to dress oppression up and make its morality more confusing. If you want to be cynical, you might tell the whole economic history of the world that way: as a series of systems to dress up oppression and shift the guilt of it from the order-giver to the order-taker. In every era, the many work and the few benefit, but those who run away or revolt are the immoral ones. They are ungrateful wretches who bite the hands that feed them and repay their kindly benefactors with violence.

For example, from today’s perspective the slave society of the old South seems pretty stark: Do what I say because I own you and your children and your children’s children down to the last generation. And yet, the literature of the time — written by whites, naturally — often waxes lyrical about the great good the white man has done for his undeserving servants: given them the gift of civilization, saved their souls for Christ, accepted them in his home and fed and clothed them since birth, or perhaps purchased them from an animal-like existence under a slave-trader and bestowed upon them new names and new roles (however lowly) in human society.

How dare the slave forget his obligation and steal himself away!

Freedom without access. Most systems are more subtle than that. The people at the bottom aren’t owned, and in fact their freedom may be a central point of public celebration. But a small group controls access to something everyone needs to survive. To guarantee your own access, you must strike a deal with them — on their terms, usually — and do what they say. And because society frames its story in a way that justifies the access-control, the people who tell you what to do are not your oppressors, they’re your benefactors. You owe them for giving you the opportunity to serve.

Whatever that necessary something is, and however access to it is controlled, tells you what kind of oppressive system you’re in. In feudalism, a small group of lordly families control the land you need to grow food. To get access, your family must swear fealty to one of them, and God have mercy on the traitor who breaks his vows. In the sharecropper system that replaced slavery in the South, whites (often the same whites who had owned the antebellum plantations) controlled access to money and markets. Freedom and even a small chunk of land might be yours, but the wherewithal to survive until harvest had to be borrowed, and then you were obliged to sell your crop to your creditor, for a price he named — usually not quite enough to clear your debt. If you tried to escape this system, you weren’t a runaway slave (as your mother or father would have been), but you were a runaway debtor and the law would hunt you down just the same.

In the North, oppression took its purest form in the company towns immortalized in the song “16 Tons“, where the singer imagines that not even death will get him out. The company controlled every side of the transaction — not just access to productive work, but the scrip you were paid in, and the company store where you could spend it. The system wasn’t quite so obvious in the bigger cities, where many employers drew from the same labor pool, but basic outline was the same: To get access to what Marx called “the means of production” — land, factories, mines, or any other resource that human labor could turn into the stuff of survival — the masses at the bottom of the pyramid had to deal with a fairly small group of employers, who could dictate wages and working conditions.

As on the plantations or the feudal manors, the language of morality had been turned inside-out: The oppressor was the benefactor. Give me a job, the worker begged.

The American exception. Underneath all that oppressiveness, though, something new had been blooming in America from the beginning. Dispossessing the Native Americans of an entire continent had created opportunities for wealth so vast that the old upper classes couldn’t exploit them all without help, so common people were cut in on the booty.

Already in 1776’s The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith had documented that wages were considerably higher in the colonies (where there was so much work to be done and a comparative dearth of hands) than in England itself. The post-revolutionary Homestead Acts codified a system that had been operating informally for some while: For whites, American wages were enough above subsistence that you could build a stake of capital, buy tools and transport, and then set out for the hinterland and establish an independent relationship with the means of production. For one of the few times since the hunter-gatherer era, working-class Europeans could apply their labor directly to the land and live without paying for access.

Post-Civil-War American history can be told as a struggle by the capitalist class to claw back those hastily bestowed opportunities by manipulating markets, monopolizing the new railroads, and generally “crucify[ing] mankind upon a cross of gold” as William Jennings Bryan famously put it. But they never completely succeeded. Hellish as turn-of-the-century mines and factories could be, the vision remained: Capitalism didn’t have to be so bad, if workers had a way to opt out and employers had to compete to hire them.

The early 20th century brought a series of shocks to the capitalist system: the world wars, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and finally the very real threat of Communist revolutions. The devastated Europe of 1945 in some ways duplicated the opportunities of the New World: There was so much work to be done that for three decades (les Trente Glorieuses, as the French put it) full employment and rising wages could be the norm.

In the Cold War competition with Communism, Capitalism had to loosen up to maintain the workers’ loyalty. And so a mixed public/private social contract developed: The means of production would continue to be privately owned, but government would keep the worker in the game. Government would provide education at little or no cost to the student; guarantee a liveable minimum wage; protect consumers from unsafe products and workers from dangerous workplaces; prevent monopolies from forming; create jobs by building public infrastructure; defend the workers’ right to form unions powerful enough to negotiate with corporations on equal terms; maintain a safety net against unemployment, disability, and old age; and (except in the United States) take care of the sick. The political expectation was that a rising tide would lift all boats: If profits rose, wages would rise, and everyone would benefit.

Counterrevolution. But by the late 1970s, the failure of the Soviet system to make good on its economic promises made Khrushchev’s we-will-bury-you threat ring hollow, and Western capitalists started to wonder if they’d given away too much. The theme of their Reagan/Thatcher counterrevolution would be privatization. Wherever possible, get government out of the picture so that the natural power imbalance between worker and employer can re-assert itself.

And that has been the story of the last not-so-glorious forty years: Powerful unions and nearly-free state universities are mere memories. Inflation has pushed the minimum wage down towards subsistence. We are told that the wealthiest nation in the world cannot afford a safety net; if bankruptcy looms (or can be manufactured), the solution is not to commit new resources, but to slash benefits. Consumer and worker protection is “job-killing regulation”, and making up for a job shortfall with public works is unthinkable. Increasingly, even public K-12 education is under fire; if you really want a high-quality education for your child, perhaps a government voucher will defray the cost a little, until inflation eats up that subsidy as it has the minimum wage.

As a result, even as productivity-per-hour and GDP-per-capita have continued to rise, wages have not. Ever-increasing shares of the national income and the national wealth are controlled by the top 10%, the top 1%, the top .01%. Even in the uppermost levels of the economic pyramid, there is always an even smaller class of people just above you whose skyrocketing wealth is leaving you far behind.

Creditocracy. Andrew Ross’ book Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal points out that the goal of the counter-revolution is not just a restoration of late 19th-century capitalism, in which large employers dominate by controlling access to jobs. It’s a subtly different system of oppression entirely: a creditocracy.*

Everything the Cold War social contract promised is still available, you just have to pay up for it. How will you do that? You’ll get loans, and spend the rest of your life working to make payments. Rather than beg “Give me a job”, you’ll beg “Give me loan, so that I can get what I need to get and keep a job.” The bankers will be your benefactors, and then they will tell you what to do.

Education is where this project is most advanced. Probably there will always be some way to warehouse children at public expense while their parents work, either in public schools or in minimal private schools fully covered by a public voucher. But if you want the kind of education that gives a child options beyond minimum wage or welfare, you’ll have to pay up. Some people will be able to cover that expense, but most will have to borrow. If we’re talking about college, we’re already there. Working your way through college was once a realistic goal; it no longer is. The Federal Reserve recently estimated total student debt at $1.13 trillion, with about 1 in 8 borrowers owing more than $50,000 each, and a small but increasing number beginning their careers more than $200,000 in the hole.

If you just want to live somewhere, that won’t be a problem. But if you want to live in an neighborhood where potholes are fixed and police protect you rather than prey on you, you’ll have to pay up. Need a loan?

Public transportation? Forget about it. You can stay home for free, but if you want to work you’ll need a car, and cars cost. Calories are easy to come by, but safe and healthy food? Still available in certain upscale groceries, if you can afford it. Medical care? We’d never just let you die, and we have repayment plans with attractive rates. Clothes? I see you’ve got your body covered, but you’ll never get a job looking like that. Libraries? Parks? There are some you can join for a membership fee, though probably not in your neck of the woods. News? Comes from cable TV or the internet, via the local monopoly. Retirement? You can never be sure you’ll have enough to stay out of poverty, but maybe your kids will co-sign for you if you live too long.

During the post-war Trente Glorieuses, debt was a way to anticipate your rising income and get a few luxuries earlier than you otherwise might. But in the Creditocracy, debt is a necessity; all but the wealthy need to borrow to stay in the game. And once you owe, the onus is on you to toe the line: You’ll never cover your payments working in a field you love, or letting moral considerations control what you will and won’t do for a living. (Are you sure you don’t want to fight in our war? We’re hiring.) You don’t dare stick your neck out politically or socially, if you want to stay employed and keep making your payments. Maybe someday, if you get it all paid off, you’ll live by your heart and your conscience. But until then …

And where does this needed credit ultimately come from? It’s conjured out of the aether by the Federal Reserve, and distributed to the big banks by loans at rock-bottom rates. That’s the controlled access that makes the whole system possible. They have access and you need it, so they can tell you what to do and leave you thanking them for it. And if they ever push things too far and make loans that can never be repaid, then they’ll have the government behind them, bailing them out and sticking ordinary taxpayers with the bill. You may have lost your home, your savings, and God knows what else in the whole mess, but at least the banker will be made whole.

The Morality of Default. On the rare occasions when systems of oppression are beaten, they are first beaten morally. Slavery can’t be defeated until the runaway slave becomes a hero rather than a scoundrel, and the rebellious one can become a soldier rather than a murderer. The company town can’t be overthrown until the worker who refuses to work becomes a striker rather than a bum, and values solidarity with his comrades over the debt he owes his employer for “giving” him a job.

Today, it seems like an impossible dream that debtors could ever take the moral high ground away from creditors. Somebody who borrows and then won’t pay is a deadbeat, a moocher, a loser. It seems hard to imagine a debtors’ rights movement that could win popular support for a repayment strike or the outright renunciation of unreasonable debts.

But that’s what Ross envisions. To get there, we need to develop and popularize moral standards that separate good debts from bad debts. For example, view John Oliver’s piece on the payday lending industry, and then consider the idea that many of these loans — particularly ones where the original principal amount was paid back long ago, but the compounding interest has taken on a life of its own —  should just not be repaid. Similarly, the Consumer Financial Protection Board is suing ITT Educational Services for tactics that seem widespread in the for-profit college industry: using high-pressure sales tactics to push students into taking out loans, when they have little prospect of either getting a degree or paying off the loan. Some of the sub-prime loans of the housing boom were likewise made with no reasonable prospect of repayment, then sold off to investors anyway. The primary fraud came from the banker, not the borrower.

Other debt is perhaps no fault of the lender, but should not be charged against the debtor either. Medical debt — often as clear a case of pay-or-die as any highway robbery — is the best example, but much student debt fits as well. The debt exists because of society’s failure to provide what ought to be public goods. If any debt is going to vanish in the fancy bookkeeping of the Fed, this kind of debt should.

Some debts are legitimate, but there are equally legitimate claims in the other direction, ones that the Creditocracy does not take as seriously. Much of the developing world’s debt to the wealthy countries might be cancelled by fair reparations for colonialism, or by the responsibility that industrialized nations have for using up the carbon-carrying capacity of the atmosphere. Today, the obligations in one direction are considered iron-clad, while the ones in the other are optional. Why should that be?

Probably most debts should eventually be paid. But even they might also be part of a larger debt strike, to force action on the ones that should be renegotiated or just renounced.

In the long run, the infrastructure of the Creditocracy might be torn down and rebuilt into an economic system whose primary purpose is to create useful goods and services rather than profits, a world with more co-ops and credit unions and crowd funding, and less money swirling around in financial derivatives.

But long before that can happen, the moral structure that supports the Creditocracy needs to be challenged and shaken at many levels. Imagine, if you can, a world in which the debtor who does not pay — like the slave who runs away or the worker who sits down on the job — is a hero.

Not a deadbeat, a moocher, or a loser. A hero.


* One reason this “review” is so long is that although I think the ideas in the book are important, I don’t actually like the way Ross makes his case. His style is repetitive, needlessly polemic, and sloppy with numbers. So I’m recasting the ideas in my own way.

One example: While making some point about Google and Facebook, Ross mentioned what each “earned” in a particular quarter. The numbers seemed high to me, so I checked them. He had actually quoted the companies’ revenues, not their earnings.

He was making a qualitative point, in which revenues worked just as well as earnings (i.e., some other number was small potatoes to companies that big). So it seemed to just be sloppiness rather than deception. But I don’t have to hit many such examples before I start to doubt everything.

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