The Yearly Sift: 2014

Hindsight is always 50-50.

— NFL quarterback Cam Newton

review all the Sift quotes of 2014

look at “The Yearly Sift: 2013

This week everybody was still talking about …

last week’s murder of the NYPD’s Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.

Conservatives like Rudy Giuliani blamed the murders on — who else? — President Obama.

We’ve had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police.

Since nobody can find any record of Obama saying anything about hating the police, WaPo’s fact checker awarded this claim four Pinocchios. In fact, no one can come up with any record of the leaders of the black-lives-matter protests calling for violence against police — there is no H. Rap Brown “Burn, baby, burn” quote — but somehow it’s their fault. (There was one group at one protest that chanted for “dead cops”, but no one knows who started the chant, no one endorsed it afterwards, and most protesters never even heard it. This incident has been covered in the right-wing media as if it encapsulated the whole anti-police-brutality movement.)

Media Matters collected the various times when right-wing crazies have killed cops, including the time when they draped the Gadsden flag over the bodies. Oddly, Fox and other right-wing media outlets did not hold conservative leaders responsible for this.

If fingers are going to be pointed anywhere other than at the actual shooter this time, I’d point one at the prosecutors who manipulated the grand juries into not indicting policemen for killing Michael Brown and Eric Garner. As any regular Gotham watcher knows, vigilantes rise when the people lose hope of getting justice through the system.

The worst reaction of all was Bill O’Reilly’s: that Mayor Bill de Blasio is the “true villain” of this story, and should “resign today” because he has “lost the respect” of the NYPD. This call was discussed by other Fox News hosts on their own shows as if it were a sane and reasonable proposal.

It’s not. Treating the police as if they were an equal-or-superior branch of government, rather than employees of the city, flies in the face of American principles that go back to the Founders. In third-world countries that are trying to achieve democracy, you worry about whether the elected government can get along with the army. But such notions should never come up in America.

Nobody elected the NYPD. If public employees don’t feel that they can submit in good conscience to the duly elected officials, they should resign. Remember when Scott Walker was having so much trouble with Wisconsin’s teachers? I don’t recall O’Reilly — or anyone — calling on Walker to resign. The teachers who wanted to be rid of Walker had to work through the democratic system by petitioning for his recall. If NYC police want de Blasio out, they also should have to proceed democratically.

Charles Pierce makes a similar point, and connects it to the CIA torture scandal:

It is very simple. If the CIA is insubordinate to the president, whom the country elected, then it is insubordinate to all of us. If the NYPD runs a slow-motion coup against the freely elected mayor of New York, then it is running a slow-motion coup against all the people of New York. … If we render our torturers superior to the political institutions of the government, and if we render the police superior to the civil power of elected officials, then we essentially have empowered independent standing armies to conduct our wars and enforce our laws, and self-government descends into bloody farce.

But let’s get on with reviewing 2014’s Weekly Sifts.

Themes of the Year

Every year I begin the Yearly Sift with the same caveat: I write the Sift week-to-week, without any larger plan to illustrate themes. But inevitably, I see themes when I look back at the end of the year.

Roots of conservatism. Like a lot of liberals, when I listen to conservative speakers, I often feel like I’m hearing something in code. The leaps of logic, the connections they see between events that look unrelated to me, the refusal to see connections that I consider obvious — there’s something behind it all, some frame, some vision, some unconscious attitude, some set of unstated prior assumptions — true or false — that make sense of it all.

This year I spent a lot of time trying to decrypt conservative thought, looking for its historical roots and hidden assumptions. I didn’t set out to be ungenerous, but I doubt many conservatives approved of the ways I described those roots and assumptions.

In the year’s most popular post, “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“, I traced contemporary conservative ideas back to the Confederacy, arguing that the Tea Party is using the tropes and tactics that won Reconstruction for the South and reversed the apparent outcome of the Civil War. That article became necessary because previous articles “Cliven Bundy and the Klan Komplex” and “Rights Are For People Like Us” were too speculative and needed more supporting research.

After the election, I tried to abstract a the worldview from the Republican messages I had been hearing about immigration, Ebola, moral decline, and the general “otherness” of President Obama. In “Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.” I described that story as: America is a city on a hill with barbarians at the gates. I groped towards a liberal equivalent mythology in “Can We Share the World?

A more light-hearted — at least I thought it was light-hearted — look at the conservative worldview was “A Conservative Lexicon With English Translation“, which resulted in so many good suggestions from commenters that I put out a second edition. Commenters on that post said that I should have combined the two into one post, which I have finally done in a page that I hope to update from time to time.

Privilege — the way life works differently for blacks and whites, men and women, rich and poor — has turned into a continuing background theme of the Sift since 2012’s “The Distress of the Privileged“. This May, Time published a privilege-justifying essay by a Princeton freshman, and I responded to him with “Privilege and the Bubble of Flattery“.

Specific varieties of privilege also got my attention. “Not a Tea Party” was the culmination of a race-and-history thread going back to 2012’s “A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System“, “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“, “Ta-Nehisi Coates Goes There: Reparations“, and “Are You Sure You’re White?“. The most popular post from the first half of the year was “What Should ‘Racism’ Mean?“, a discussion of implicit and unconscious racism, using reactions to the Obamas occupying the White House as examples.

Ferguson and its related issues of race, police violence, and the biases in our legal system became an event-driven theme of its own. The best post in this series was “What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson“. But (in addition to being discussed in many weekly summaries) Ferguson also figured in “The Ferguson Test“, “Infrastructure, Suburbs, and the Long Descent to Ferguson“, “Five Lessons to Remember as Ferguson Fades into History“, and “This Time Will the Outrage Matter?“.

The Donald Sterling incident brought up just about any kind of privilege you can think of. So of course the conservative media decided he was the victim, which I addressed head-on in “No, Donald Sterling Isn’t the Victim“.

Male privilege also came up, most often in the context of violence against women. After the Isla Vista murders I wrote “#YesAllWomen and the Continuum of Aggression” to explain why men and women viewed the events so differently:

Men look at Elliot Rodger and say, “I would never do something like that.” Women look at his victims and say, “That could totally happen to me.”

That piece later got picked up by UU World magazine. Male entitlement was the focus of my review of Angry White Men. Domestic violence was the subject of “Is Ray Rice’s Video a Game-Changer?

Law. Making sense of important court rulings is a continuing focus of the Sift. Those legal-analysis posts never get really big readership, but I still believe they’re a public service, since the mainstream media does that job so badly.

This year I explained the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, the Schuette decision about affirmative action, and the McCutcheon decision on campaign finance, plus lower-court decisions involving net neutrality and a series of same-sex marriage decisions that I covered throughout the year, and then collected in October’s “Is the Battle for Same-Sex Marriage Nearly Over?” (Not yet; the Supreme Court is going to have to take the case.)

The Books

This year the Sift had fewer book reviews, but more posts that were the result of long reading projects.

“Not a Tea Party” could have used a bibliography, as it rested on Jefferson Davis: American by William J. Cooper, Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name (which had gotten its own review in March), Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman: a historical romance of the Ku Klux Klan, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, the two Douglas Egerton histories Year of Meteors and The Wars of Reconstruction, W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction, and Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, and a few other books not specifically named, like Away Down South by James Cobb and John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union by John Niven.

If I rewrote the article today, it would have to include some quotes from R. L. Dabny’s A Defense of Virginia and the South from 1867; I’ll be looking for opportunities to tell you more about that, as I see Dabny’s book as the best existing first-person account of the Confederate worldview. (A teaser: The mistake at the root of the North’s misbegotten abolitionism is social contract theory. Once you start thinking that government depends on the consent of the governed, you’ll end up not just freeing the slaves, but giving them the vote. And women too, God forbid!)

One book review that did get a lot of attention this year was of Michael Kimmel’s Angry White Men.Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.” was at least partially a review of Narrative Politics by Frederick Mayer. Justice John Paul Stevens Six Amendments got reviewed in “Restoring the Constitution is Now a Liberal Issue“.

Two reviews that fit in with the year’s deep-history theme were Aviva Chomsky’s Undocumented: how immigration became illegal, and Daniel Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line, a marvelous biography of three mixed-race American families that (over generations), migrated from black to white.

A mini-review of Meline Toumani’s There Was and Was Not made it into a weekly summary.

The Mosts

Most prescient comment. You may remember that January opened with a polar vortex, provoking the usual round of I’m-cold-so-global-warming-is-a-myth articles. I’m proud of this response on January 13:

Even when 2014 was just a few days old and wind chills were below zero for most of the country, there was a bet you could make that was almost a sure thing. No matter how it started, by its end 2014 will be yet another warm year. And by warm I mean: The global average temperature will wind up well above the 50-year average and the 20-year average.

Final returns aren’t in yet, but 2014 may well be the hottest year on record. If any of your friends believe global warming is a myth, you should offer them the bet that 2015 will be a warm year too — maybe not another record, but clearly above the 20-year average. If instead it’s a cool year (it won’t be) I promise not to sweep that fact under the rug, because belief in global warming is evidence-based, not ideology-based like global-warming denial.

I also feel pretty good about taking a wait-and-see attitude towards the Bridgegate Scandal, which hasn’t delivered Governor Christie the knock-out blow many liberals were hoping for. On February 24, I criticized MSNBC’s saturation coverage, and said:

If you are similarly ignoring MSNBC and/or Bridgegate these days, I’ll let you know when something important happens.

Least prescient comment. As in 2010, I stayed hopeful about Democrats’ prospects in the mid-term elections far longer than I should have. A lot of comments could illustrate this, but I feel worst about something I didn’t say: In June, when I was giving advice about the best Senate candidates to support and where your support would have the most impact, I left out Mark Udall in Colorado, thinking he wasn’t really in that much trouble.

Sorry, Mark. You will be missed.

The best post nobody read. In March, I gave an unfortunate title to “Does Paul Ryan Care About Poverty Now?” I suspect a lot of my regular readers looked at that question, decided the answer was obviously No, and figured they’d already spent enough of their lives reading about Paul Ryan.

I have an excuse: Ryan’s committee had just put out its report, The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later, and it looked like he was laying down a marker that would turn into policy down the road. (I covered the second step down that road in August in “Can Conservatives Solve Poverty?“, which a few more people read. We haven’t heard the last of this.)

But the March article is worth reading because of the way it frames the whole national discussion of poverty, independent of Paul Ryan. Conservatives like to claim that liberals want to give people hand-outs while conservatives want to get them jobs, when in fact everyone would rather see the poor supporting themselves in good jobs. But the get-out-of-poverty-by-working plan might fail for four different reasons — ranging from “there are no jobs” to “I’m too lazy to work” — which I list.

And here’s where it gets interesting: The vast majority of Americans agree about what the government should do for people in each of those four situations. The liberal/conservative debate about poverty in fact revolves around which of those four situations is most common and most deserves our attention.

The numbers

By all measures, the Sift’s readership increased this year, with a significant bump in both occasional and regular readers following August’s “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“.

Last year this section was tricky to write, because I felt like the regular readership was growing, but the most obvious number to measure readers — page views — was down from 240K in 2012 to 215K in 2013. I had to explain that page views are tricky measure of a blog, because so much depends on the irregular timing of a few viral posts. (A little more than half of the blog’s 1 million views since moving to the new format in June, 2011 are for two posts: 342K for “The Distress of the Privileged” from 2012 and 183K for this year’s “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party”.)

So I focused more on stats like these: subscriptions tracked by WordPress went up from 504 to 908, and likes for the Sift’s Facebook page went from 183 to 256.

Well, this year had a viral post, so the numbers require much less explaining. Everything is up: Page views ballooned to 412K (with a few days to go), subscriptions to 2,281 (though I’m not completely sure that number measures the same thing as last year’s number), and Facebook likes to 382. Followers of the Sift’s Twitter feed went from 203 to 342.

I also started getting my wish for a commenting community; in the second half of the year it was a rare post that didn’t draw at least a couple non-spam comments. (In the short term I can be thin-skinned — that’s one reason I sometimes don’t respond promptly — but in the longer view I love comments. Even in cases when I feel a commenter completely misunderstands me, the comment helps me see how I’m being misunderstood.)

Obviously, “Not a Tea Party” was the most-viewed post of the year, followed by “Distress”, which garnered another 36,000 views in its third year. Then came “What Should Racism Mean?” with 32K, followed by 2012’s “A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System” (which had a renaissance because of its connection to “Not a Tea Party”) at 12K, “What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson” at 9K, and “#YesAllWomen and the Continuum of Aggression” and “The Sifted Bookshelf: Angry White Men” at 5.4K each.

A typical weekly summary now gets around 300 views on the blog, plus another 250 or so from subscribers. (I’m not sure how WordPress comes up with that number, but I think it knows whether subscribers open the email it sends them.) A year ago those numbers were more like 200 and 100. A featured post that doesn’t catch a viral wave gets 300-600, plus 250.

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Comments

  • Firebug2006  On December 29, 2014 at 10:30 am

    “Last year this section was tricky to write, because I felt like the regular readership was growing, but the most obvious number to measure readers — page views — was down from 240K in 2012 to 215K in 2013. I had to explain that page views are tricky measure of a blog, because so much depends on the irregular timing of a few viral posts.”

    Another reason page views don’t tell the whole story–as an email subscriber, I don’t have to visit your website to “view” your posts. I can read them in the body of the email, which I frequently do.

  • Anonymous  On December 29, 2014 at 10:50 am

    I clicked the comment button to say what Firebug2006 posted a few minutes before me. Also want to tell you that I read your emails faithfully. I always find them well written, well thought out, well documented, and thought provoking. Thank you for the work you do. All the best in 2015 to you and yours.

  • kevnjacobs (@kevynjacobs)  On December 29, 2014 at 10:58 am

    I look forward to your email every Monday morning. Thanks for a great year.

  • Jeff R  On December 29, 2014 at 11:18 am

    Thank you for your thoughtful commentary. I am one of your new subscribers. For 2015, my wish is that the Democratic Party identifies and starts to operationalize a new vision — one that is not “We’re not quite so extreme and right-leaning as Republicans.” I think your efforts in this regard are praiseworthy.

  • Nancy Rubinstein  On December 29, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    Yup, since I subscribed to your emails, I’ve mostly read your blogs via my preview window — so there are probably a lot of us that don’t get counted. I’m delighted to have found your materials….

  • trophos  On December 29, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    Your posts are one of my favorite Monday things. I rarely (never?) comment – mostly because you’ve generally given me much to think about and reflect on, which means I don’t want to respond immediately – but I really enjoy your summaries and sifts. I’m glad it was a good year for you.

  • DSF  On December 29, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    Just want to say thanks for this site. Very recently found it (after seeing a link on Twitter), and I clicked on most of the links here. Lots of stuff that I was unaware of or disinclined to believe that I became informed about or convinced of. I consider myself pretty liberal so it’s not a major conversion, but it’s something. Really appreciate what you do.

  • portfoliolongo.com  On December 30, 2014 at 1:52 pm

    Thanks for articulating – so well – what I can hardly put into drawings:
    http://portfoliolongo.com/2014/12/28/political-car-sales/

  • LJ  On January 4, 2015 at 1:25 am

    I just wanted to pop in as another one of your usually-silent readers. I have a busy schedule but one of my favourite Sunday morning routines for the past year or so has been to sit back with a fresh mug of coffee and to read your blog. I really appreciate your thoughtful analysis of complex issues. I’m not an American, so I really appreciate the context that you provide for some of the zanier headlines that I see. Thank you for all of the work that you put into this blog, and I can’t wait to read more from you this year!

  • Anonymous  On January 4, 2015 at 5:41 pm

    I suspect there is a relation between these two segments of this post:

    “Conservatives like Rudy Giuliani blamed the murders on — who else? — President Obama.

    We’ve had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police.

    Since nobody can find any record of Obama saying anything about hating the police, WaPo’s fact checker awarded this claim four Pinocchios. In fact, no one can come up with any record of the leaders of the black-lives-matter protests calling for violence against police — there is no H. Rap Brown “Burn, baby, burn” quote — but somehow it’s their fault.”

    And:

    “Like a lot of liberals, when I listen to conservative speakers, I often feel like I’m hearing something in code. The leaps of logic, the connections they see between events that look unrelated to me, the refusal to see connections that I consider obvious — there’s something behind it all, some frame, some vision, some unconscious attitude, some set of unstated prior assumptions — true or false — that make sense of it all.”

    I suspect that conservatives interpret liberals in much the same way. Well, of course, no Democrat is going to say, “Kill the police!”–it would be political suicide! So, if one believes that this is the Democratic message, one is commited to a non-literal interpretation of their speech… and pointing out that they did not literally say, “Kill the police!” entirely misses the point.

    The gist being, arguing that the other side is “speaking in code” is likely to be correct, but puts you in a rather uncomfortable position from a rhetorical point of view. It should, at least, force you to realize that the other side probably sees your statements in the same way… correctly or not.

    • weeklysift  On January 4, 2015 at 7:58 pm

      The difference is that I take responsibility for my interpretations. Saying, “the other side’s underlying implication is X” is very different from “the other side said X”.

      • Anonymous  On January 4, 2015 at 9:15 pm

        True enough, and I certainly appreciate your clear and detailed explanations of the origins of Republican dog whistles and the justifications for treating them as dog whistles.

        My point is only that (correctly!) interpreting Republican statements as being made in bad faith does seem to leave a barn door open.

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