Drifting Towards Oligarchy

The risk of a drift toward oligarchy is real and gives little reason for optimism

— Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century

This week’s featured post: “The Real Politics of Envy“.

These last two weeks everybody has been talking about the missing airliner

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has become the very model of the news stories I try to avoid covering. It fits perfectly into the distraction/obsession/hype trap I outlined three years ago in “A Hard Week to Sift“.

  • Most articles and TV segments on the story reveal nothing new. (Or at least nothing new that also happens to be true.)
  • Unless you know someone on the flight, the story has no relevance to your life.
  • Even if you do take an interest, there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing you learn about Flight 370 is going to change either your behavior or your worldview.

So 99% of the coverage is what The Guardian‘s Michael Wolff has labelled “anti-journalism”. He explains: “Journalism exists to provide information.” But anti-journalism promotes “obsessive interest in the unknowable.” (The fate of Flight 370 may eventually become knowable, but right now it isn’t.)

Last Monday the NYT quoted an anonymous CNN executive shamelessly crowing about Flight 370 as “a tremendous story that is completely in our wheelhouse.” Hunter on DailyKos responded with this priceless piece of snark:

Little actual information to be conveyed? Check. New “facts” constantly being trotted forth, only to be retracted as false a few hours or days later? We got that. Rampant uninformed speculation, often by people with absolutely eff-all expertise in anything remotely resembling the actual topic at hand? Oh yeah. (Why Rep. Peter King in specific has needed to weigh in on multiple occasions on multiple networks in order to say that he knows exactly the same amount of jack-squat that any person off the street might, now that is a topic all its own, and ought to be seen as evidence of just how inexplicably invested both Peter King and the national media are in putting Peter King on the teevee as an authority on things. As opposed to, say, not doing that.)

If you entertain the possibility that Bill O’Reilly might actually be doing performance art rather than commentary, this is genius also: Network news is focusing on the Flight 370 story because they don’t want to cover “important stories like the IRS and Benghazi.” [links added]

Eugene Robinson got it right:

when we don’t know the answer, we should just say so — and then shut up.

So what should CNN be doing? It should limit itself to a chyron, which it could run below all the other stories it could cover with the airtime it was reclaiming: “Still nothing definite on Flight 370.”

and Crimea

Occasionally the networks managed to devote a minute or two to the Russian takeover of Crimea, which (even if you’re not Crimean or Russian or Ukrainian) ought to interest you because it might mark the start of a new Cold (or even hot) War.

Briefly: Crimea had its referendum on joining Russia. It won, though it’s not clear whether it would have made any difference if it had lost, since “stay with Ukraine” was not on the ballot. That’s probably why the Tatar minority (and probably a bunch of Ukrainians) boycotted the referendum, which consequently got 95% of the vote.

Russia followed up by seizing a Ukrainian naval base on the Black Sea. Ukraine has subsequently decided to abandon its military bases in Crimea, even though it officially holds that Crimea is still part of Ukraine.

It’s always problematic to make Hitler comparisons, since I don’t want to claim that death camps and genocide are on Putin’s agenda. But Hillary Clinton was basically right: There is a resemblance to the Sudetenland crisis of 1938. Then, Hitler identified an ethnically German region of Czechoslovakia that bordered his Reich. He encouraged local leaders to protest against the Czech government and claimed they were being persecuted and needed his protection.

The claim that one nation is the global protector of an ethnic group, even members outside its borders, is inherently dangerous. And if you take on that role, it’s one thing to provide a refuge (as Israel does for persecuted Jews), but quite another to claim sovereignty over a region because your compatriots live there.

As for what the United States or NATO can do, even Iraq-War-architect Paul Wolfowitz acknowledges that “we’re not going to get Putin out of Crimea” and the point is to make the economic price high enough that he won’t seize more Russian-majority territory in eastern Ukraine.

I keep looking at the Tatars, whose roots go back to the Mongol invasions, and who are scattered throughout the former Soviet Union because Stalin expelled them from Crimea. Isn’t Putin creating the new Chechens? And isn’t this a good time for the original Chechens to demand the kind of referendum the Crimeans just got?

and Paul Ryan

In the last Sift I read between the lines of Paul Ryan’s report on federal poverty programs. Later that week, he made close reading unnecessary and went straight for racial dog whistles:

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

In support of that view, he referenced the work of Charles Murray, who may not be quite the white supremacist some would claim he is, but certainly has that reputation. So if you happen to be a white supremacist who thinks poverty is all about lazy blacks who don’t deserve any help, you listened to Ryan and said, “Hell yeah!” Meanwhile, he gets to deny that’s what he intended. (“There was nothing whatsoever about race in my comments at all — it had nothing to do with race.”) That’s how dog whistles work.

Charles Blow responds:

By suggesting that laziness is more concentrated among the poor, inner city or not, we shift our moral obligation to deal forthrightly with poverty. When we insinuate that poverty is the outgrowth of stunted culture, that it is almost always invited and never inflicted, we avert the gaze from the structural features that help maintain and perpetuate poverty — discrimination, mass incarceration, low wages, educational inequities — while simultaneously degrading and dehumanizing those who find themselves trapped by it.

And Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t willing to give progressives a pass on this issue either.

Obama-era progressives view white supremacy as something awful that happened in the past and the historical vestiges of which still afflict black people today. They believe we need policies—though not race-specific policies—that address the affliction. I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.

There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.

I wish more people were connecting the dots on corruption

Now that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is raising money for him, Senator Lindsey Graham is taking an interest in banning internet gambling.

In other corruption news, the Keystone XL Pipeline would connect the Canadian oil sands to the world market. You know who two of the foremost owners of those sands are? The Koch brothers, who are spending near-limitless money to elect a Republican Senate majority that will support building the pipeline. But don’t worry about their motives: Senator David Vitter assures us that the Kochs are “two of the most patriotic Americans in the history of the Earth”. Money can’t buy praise like that … or maybe it just did.

and you also might be interested in …

During my week off from the Sift, I gave a sermon-length answer to a critical comment on “The Distress of the Privileged“.


I thought this was classy. When Westboro Baptist Church went on its first protest after the death of founder Fred Phelps, counter-protesters modeled the civilized behavior we’d like to see from the Phelps-ites.

Justin Lee, executive director of The Gay Christian Network, also stayed classy:

The words and actions of Fred Phelps have hurt countless people. As a Christian, I’m angry about that, and I’m angry about how he tarnished the reputation of the faith I love so much. But as a Christian, I also believe in showing love to my enemies and treating people with grace even when they don’t deserve it. I pray for his soul and his family just as I pray for those he harmed. It’s easy for me to love someone who treats me kindly. It’s hard for me to love Fred Phelps. To me, that’s the whole point of grace.

Religion is easy when you can say “My enemies are God’s enemies, and God hates all the same people I do.” But religion shouldn’t be that easy.


In honor of the fourth anniversary of ObamaCare, Think Progress’ Igor Volsky goes blow-by-blow through the full Republican effort to repeal, disrupt, or otherwise sabotage the law. And TPM notes that there’s still no Republican replacement bill on the horizon. They float an occasional vague idea, or occasionally maybe even the framework of a proposal, but nothing they’re willing to spell out, bring to the floor, and vote on.

Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell is pushing a new ObamaCare horror story. Many similar stories have proved to be bogus in the past. Let’s see what happens to this one.


Funny or Die presents a brief message from Comcast, in which it responds to your concerns about its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable: “From the people who answer our phones to the people who write our TV shows, we do not give a f**k. … Hey America, go f**k yourselves.”


Ebola is back. 59 people are dead in West Africa.


I haven’t finished Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century yet. But Paul Krugman has.


No, I don’t think creationists are going to get equal time on Cosmos. At least not until scientists get equal time on The 700 Club. Or maybe they already are getting equal time — in the alternate universe where the evidence supports their views.

and let’s close with something fun

Mitch McConnell’s campaign released some wordless video of their candidate, apparently for the “independent” SuperPACs his campaign isn’t supposed to be coordinating with. But now that it’s out there, Jon Stewart has pointed out that anybody can add their own soundtrack. He’s even given this new art form a name and a hashtag: #mcconnelling.

Stewart provided a few soundtracks to get the idea across. (“Behind Blue Eyes” is my favorite.) But it’s gone a long way from there. This one’s pretty good:

Or you could go for a compilation:

I think “Wrecking Ball” is the best one there.

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Comments

  • ramseyman  On March 24, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    What drifting? We were already there, squarely in oligarchy, when the Continental Army overthrew the British aristocracy. Its commander became president without a popular vote, and all the revolutionary officials that wanted to become government officials did so. Democracy was plainly more ambition than fact. There is no reasonable definition of “democracy” that can be said to have been achieved so far. Enfranchisement has never been anywhere near 100%, although it had been growing until the Bush era. Even so, the powerful have had full control of all decision making, except in those rare instances when overwhelming popular opinion prevented it. The only drift is away from the slight progress made under Roosevelt, Johnson, Clinton, and a couple of others, but those are not exactly brand names of egalitarianism.

  • Dangerous Meredith  On March 24, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    Your sermon lengthed answer blog was a really lovely piece. I tweeted it. Hope it gets the readership it deserves.

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