Category Archives: Articles

ISIS is losing, but what happens next?

When people do something that doesn’t fit their self-image, they often have a hard time remembering it. “Me? No, I couldn’t have done that. It just doesn’t sound like me at all.”

Collectively, the American people are that way about fear. We see ourselves as a courageous country, so if you give us a good scare, and then the thing we were afraid of doesn’t happen, the whole episode has a way of slipping our minds. And if somebody deserves credit for avoiding what we were panicking about, well, too bad for them, because … us? afraid? What are you talking about?

President Obama has suffered from this kind of public amnesia before. The day before he was elected in 2008, USA Today ran a reassuring article telling people that a Second Great Depression was “unlikely”, even if things sort of looked that way.

Failed banks. Panicked markets. Rising unemployment. For students of history, or people of a certain age, it all has an all-too-familiar ring. Is this another Great Depression? Not yet.

By any measure, our current economic suffering pales in comparison with what the nation endured from 1929 through 1939. Still, most economists are predicting a long, difficult period ahead. Could it eventually become a depression? It’s possible — but not likely.

That’s what a calm, reasonable voice sounded like in November, 2008: Total catastrophe might happen, but it probably won’t, unless it does. At least it hasn’t happened yet.

But who remembers? If we discuss Obama’s economic record at all now, we probably talk about how anemic the recovery has been. Wages should be higher, poverty lower. “What’s wrong with this guy? Depression? I never worried about a Depression. That doesn’t sound like me at all.”

Something similar has happened with regard to the Islamic State. When ISIS first burst into the public consciousness in the spring of 2014, we weren’t afraid of handfuls of terrorists slipping across borders to carry out operations like the Paris attack last November. Nor did we worry about American individuals giving ISIS the credit for killing sprees like San Bernardino or Orlando (which without the credit to ISIS would be hard to distinguish from secular non-ideological killing sprees like Sandy Hook or Aurora).

In the spring and early summer of 2014, the question was on a different scale: whether Baghdad would fall, leading to the complete collapse of Iraq as a country. Maybe the restored Caliphate, the one Bin Laden had dreamed about but never expected to see, was happening right before our eyes.

In a widely discussed Atlantic article in the spring of 2015 (which I critiqued here), Graeme Wood told us what made ISIS different and far more dangerous that Al Qaeda had been: Large chunks of sharia describe a Muslim’s duties towards the Caliphate, and have been moot since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives,” Choudary told me. “These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate—“and now we have one.” … In theory, all Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is applying these laws.

By controlling territory and declaring himself Caliph there, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was filling a role that an underground leader like Osama bin Laden never could. His advancing forces stirred memories of Muhammad’s armies improbably exploding out of Medina to capture the entire Arabian peninsula, then his successors continuing that rapid expansion until their empire was the largest in the world. The Emperor in Constantinople hadn’t been able to stop the armies of Allah; maybe the President in Washington couldn’t either.

So that was the challenge Obama faced two years ago when he formulated his anti-ISIS strategy: Stop al-Baghdadi’s advance and throw his forces back. But a new American invasion of Iraq (plus Syria) wasn’t a good idea because it would simultaneously

  • play into al-Baghdadi’s end-times fantasies
  • support ISIS’ narrative that it represents all of Islam in a Muslim/Christian holy war
  • cost fabulous amounts of money
  • get lots of American troops killed
  • not be supported by the American people
  • involve us in a new occupation that in the long run would probably be as counter-productive as the last one.

So Obama opted for a slow-strangulation approach instead: Use air power to prevent ISIS from advancing with a massed force, and also to kill its leaders and degrade its territory’s economic resources; aid local anti-ISIS forces like the patched-back-together Iraqi army, the Kurdish peshmerga, and whatever bands of Syrian rebels seem remotely trustworthy; together with our allies, prevent new recruits from emigrating to the Caliphate; and use our economic power to cut off ISIS’ sources of foreign funding.

He doesn’t get much credit for it, but it’s been working. By January, 2015, ISIS’ forward momentum had ground to a halt, robbing it of its greatest propaganda weapon. Since then, it has slowly but inexorably been losing territory: Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, Manbij, and maybe soon Mosul and even the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa. Turkey has intervened in northern Syria, reducing the Islamic State’s ability to shift forces between Syria and Iraq.

One measure of how well the strangulation strategy has been working is that (no matter how often they proclaimed Obama’s ISIS policy a failure) none of the candidates in the Republican primaries offered a real alternative. Any detailed policy they offered was more-or-less what Obama is already doing, perhaps seasoned with some additional macho rhetoric like “carpet bombing” that they didn’t mean literally.

So now it is possible to imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when ISIS no longer holds territory, and is only a caliphate in some vague metaphorical sense. Al-Baghdadi himself may go down with the ship, or he may survive as a Bin-Ladin-style underground leader, but his mythic status as a caliph will be gone. Then what happens?

An article by Mark Jurgensmeyer in the The Cairo Review of Global Affairs tries to answer that question. In his view, ISIS is really three things:

  • a local Sunni empowerment movement
  • a global jihadist movement
  • an apocalyptic cult

The end of the al-Baghdadi caliphate, Jurgensmeyer thinks, will unbundle those three aspects, and each will have its own future.

Local Sunnis. No matter what happens to ISIS or al-Baghdadi, a lot of Sunnis will still live in eastern Syria and western Iraq, and they still will feel no loyalty to either the Alawite-dominated government in Damascus or the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Eventually, and probably before too long, some political and/or military force will represent their interests again.

The three possibilities are: (1) Baghdad and Damascus re-assert control, but manage to give Sunnis enough respect and local autonomy to keep them happy, (2) Baghdad and Damascus decide they’re glad to be rid of those troublesome provinces and allow the creation of a non-jihadist Sunni state that covers most of the territory ISIS controlled, or (3) the region becomes a failed-state territory, nominally under government control but in practice ruled by warlords of one sort or another. Jurgensmeyer sees some combination of (2) and (3) as the most likely scenario:

In the Sunni heartland of eastern Syria and western Iraq, the Sunni tribal leaders will continue to maintain order, however, the way they always have done. There will be a de facto Sunnistan though not one officially proclaimed.

Global jihadists. For young Muslims who feel alienated from the Western or Western-dominated society where they live (and from the local mosque that attempts to fit into that society), ISIS has been a symbol, a brand, an identity, and a virtual community accessed via the internet. (TPM recently had a more detailed article on ISIS’ use of the internet.) The actual territory of ISIS is a place of aspiration, but most never go there. Recently, the Islamic State has been encouraging sympathizers in the U.S. and Europe to carry out attacks at home.

When Raqqa falls, it will be a huge blow to ISIS’ propaganda, and some recruits may see the err of their ways. But like the Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, they will still be alienated. They will still be searching for an identity as Muslims, and the online jihadist community will be there to welcome them.

The pictures show the ISIS brotherhood together in physical space, but the sense of community appears to be almost as strong in the connections provided through the media of cyberspace.

For this reason, the cyber community of ISIS will likely persist long after the physical control of territory in Syria and Iraq has been abandoned. The digital apparatus of websites, cybermagazines, video uploads, Twitter communications, and dark web locations has been well established and though it may be interrupted by ISIS’s territorial defeat, it likely will be maintained in some form somewhere in the world other than in the ISIS-controlled cities of Raqqah and Mosul. There is no reason to think that they will be entirely dismantled.

… This branding of autonomous terrorist attacks may be part of the dark future of the ISIS global jihadist network. The encouragement of ISIS for individuals to take up bombs against secular and non-supportive Muslim societies leaves room for a plethora of acts of terrorism undertaken for mixed motives but given the legitimization of ISIS ideology through ISIS-branding. Individuals can be comforted by the fact that even though their horrible actions are condemned by most people, including most Muslims, around the globe, their comrades in the online communities forged through Internet connections will digitally applaud their crimes.

In other words: Capturing Raqqa or killing al-Baghdadi won’t stop the next Orlando attack.

This is one reason why American Islamophobia is so counter-productive. Anyone who proclaims that we are at war with Islam is telling our Muslim youth that they have no place in the West and never will. So why shouldn’t they try to burn it all down?

Cultists. One achievement of Wood’s Atlantic article was to introduce the American public to the apocalyptic vision of ISIS’ inner circle. Al-Baghdadi sees himself leading not just a liberation movement, but moving towards a long-prophesied battle of cosmic significance. Jurgensmeyer also emphasizes the importance of this belief:

The reason why some of the foreign fighters are so passionate about the ISIS enterprise is that they are convinced that it is at the leading edge of a cosmic battle between good and evil that will usher in the last days of the planet and signal the arrival of the Islamic savior, the Mahdi. Though only some of the fighters are propelled by this belief, and few Sunnis in ISIS-controlled territory share it, this is a dominant motive of the inner circle of the movement.

This Islamic Armageddon is supposed to happen at Dabiq, a town within ISIS’ control that also provides the name of its online magazine.

When Dabiq falls and the world keeps on spinning, the cultists will have suffered a major blow. Likewise, when al-Baghdadi’s forces splinter into underground bands of rebel fighters and can no longer be called an army in any meaningful sense, the final battle may start to seem very far away.

However, apocalyptic thinking pops up in almost all religions, and never completely goes away. Jurgensmeyer sees this aspect of ISIS surviving in small groups, many of which will be benign because they will lack the means to carry out their visions. However, the ability of small groups of extremists to occasionally do horrible things should not be forgotten.

Summing up. For a time, al-Baghdadi assembled religion, propaganda, territorial control, and military force into a threat to the Western-dominated world order that went far beyond anything Bin Laden wielded. President Obama’s strategy has addressed that threat without over-reacting. It has not given us the falling-Saddam-statue moments many would like, but it has been effective. Soon, probably during his successor’s term, that special threat will be broken.

But when it is, the Bin-Laden-style terror-attack threat will continue, and the political problems of Sunnis in Iraq/Syria will remain. The wellspring of violence is not charismatic leadership or clever propaganda, it is an alienated populace. That’s something you can’t solve with air power or the conquest of cities.

Instead of Dumbing Down

If you think the way to communicate with less-educated people is to dumb down your ideas, you’ve been misinformed.


The commenters on last week’s post about Trump voters made me proud. They were almost uniformly civil and thoughtful. They fixed some of my mistakes, and added worthwhile points of their own. But that post also sparked a few discussions on social media, and there I ran into one of my least favorite phrases: dumb down.

It’s a simple notion, and I’m sure you’ve come across it before: The ideas in my brain are just too big for yours, so if we’re going to have a conversation about them, I’ll need to dumb them down, i.e., shrink my thoughts to the size of your brain. What I end up saying will sound stupid to me, and probably won’t quite be true, but that’s your fault, not mine. You should be smarter.

I just said it in as offensive a way as I could, because that’s how I hear it. The term only makes sense inside a frame that I find arrogant and disrespectful. Explaining things can be hard, but in my experience the problem is rarely that people are just too stupid to understand.

There are a handful of exceptional circumstances where the term is appropriate. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a conversation about quantum mechanics that wasn’t dumbed down to a certain extent, often because I was the one who couldn’t have participated otherwise. And if I had to explain the thesis that got me my math Ph.D., we’d be here a long time. (Given how long ago that was, I’m not sure I could still do it.) But not much that happens in the public arena is quantum mechanics or algebraic geometry. The information that you need to take an informed position on a political issue is just not that complicated.

I don’t know whether you’ve noticed — if I did my job perfectly, most of you wouldn’t — but The Weekly Sift is accessible to people at a wide range of educational levels. I know that some kids of my friends read it, probably because they want to understand what their parents are talking about. I don’t quiz them for comprehension, but the questions I get tell me that high school (and sometimes even middle school) students are following the discussion well enough that they keep reading. Maintaining that accessibility hasn’t stopped me from talking about why it’s so hard to see your own privilege, the difference between bigotry and hatred, how the Fed creates money, how liberal reporters can wind up slanting the news in a conservative direction, and a bunch of other fairly complex topics.

Explaining things to people who don’t have the same background you do can be challenging. But if you can’t do it, that’s not entirely your audience’s fault.

My writing style and overall attitude about explaining things was strongly influenced by somebody you probably wouldn’t guess: sports geek Bill James, who is now recognized as the godfather of modern baseball statistics. Back in the 1970s and 80s, he published a book-length Baseball Abstract that would come out every year about the time spring training started. On the surface, the Abstracts were about all the usual spring-training topics: players, teams, and their prospects for the coming year. But woven through that project were all kinds of new ideas about how you figured out who was better than who, and why certain perennial baseball debates actually had objective answers. Along the way, he ended up explaining a lot of statistical and sometimes even epistemological ideas. But most of his readers probably didn’t realize they were getting an education in anything but baseball; they just wanted to know whether a home-run hitter like Mike Schmidt was more or less valuable than a high-batting-average hitter like Pete Rose. (Answer: more.)

But if he needed anything more complicated than a graphing calculator, he’d explain it, sometimes so seamlessly that if you did have the background, you had to take a step back to realize what he’d done. (OMG! He just explained standard deviation, what a mathematical model is, or the difference between uncertainty and risk.) Most of the time, any junior-high student who could read and cared enough about baseball could follow what he was doing. (Mythbusters played a similar role for a more recent generation. Viewers learned that if you have proper scientific technique, you can answer questions rather than just argue about them.)

What James understood is that communicating an idea from one mind to another is more about caring than about IQ or college degrees. The Abstracts worked because James and his readers all cared about baseball. James cared enough to explain things and his readers cared enough to understand them.

When you can’t explain something to somebody, it’s usually not because their brains are too small. More likely, it’s either that

  • you haven’t grounded the conversation in something they care about, so as soon as things get difficult they don’t bother to follow you, or
  • you haven’t won their trust; they don’t believe that you know something valuable and want to communicate it.

Dumbing down doesn’t solve either of those problems. If I don’t know why I should care about, say, systemic racism, then I’m certainly not going to care about a dumbed-down version of systemic racism. And if your dumbed-down explanation comes wrapped in a superior and condescending attitude, then I’m even less likely to trust that you want me to understand something real and true.

Conversely, educational miracles happen when motivation changes. Kids who are flunking Introductory French pick up the language pretty quickly if they get stuck in the French countryside for a few months. During World War II, people with the most unlikely backgrounds acquired all sorts of skills, because the government suddenly needed to teach them and they saw good reasons to learn. (Abstractly, you may not care how diesel engines work, but if your tank breaks down and the enemy is drawing closer, you’re going to want to get it moving again.)

That’s why the first step in explaining is understanding — not just understanding the idea you want to communicate, but understanding the people you want to receive it. Why should they care? Where in their lives does their lack of understanding screw them up, or screw up people they care about? What mysteries that they already wonder about would be solved if they grasped what you want to tell them? How would the knowledge you are offering give them power in situations where they currently feel helpless, or confidence in situations where they feel vulnerable? [An aside: That’s usually the angle to take on racism. A lot of whites believe that not being viewed as racist involves learning an endless list of rules that are constantly changing, so they feel vulnerable whenever they deal with non-whites in any context. If racism is actually simpler than that, and you can explain to them how to navigate those waters safely and confidently, you have something valuable to offer.]

It’s really hard to answer those questions if you can’t make yourself care about the people you’re talking to. If you just think of them as evil or stupid, and you can’t imagine that they have any motives you can empathize with, well, guess what? All your explanations are going to sound like aggressions against them. You want them to understand how evil and stupid they are. News flash: They don’t want to understand that, and you can’t make them. (Remember Sun Tzu: “The worst strategy of all is to besiege walled cities.”)

Once you have a why you can move on to a how: The idea is probably not going to fit into their worldview the same way it fits into yours. They have different experiences and know different things. They may be ignorant of something that is key to how you think about the idea, but so what? Everybody is ignorant about something. Do they really need to adopt your entire worldview to grasp this single point?

The particular bias of educated people is that we rely too much on our vocabularies, and think that other people can’t grasp an idea until they learn all the words we use when we think about it. (Goethe: “When an idea is wanting, a word can always be found to take its place.”) Academic papers usually start by defining a bunch of terms, and only eventually get around to showing what they’re good for. But good popular explanations often turn that around: Through examples, metaphors, and stories, you put an idea in someone’s head, then tell them what it’s called. (Once people see the use of an idea, they’re usually grateful to find out that it has a name.)

In general, it’s a symptom of immature understanding to believe that some bit of knowledge can only be approached via the path I used to learn it. People who fully understand something can approach it from any direction. There are a bunch of Einstein quotes about this, most of them apocryphal. But this one from the great German mathematician David Hilbert (from the generation just before Einstein) is genuine: “A mathematical theory is not to be considered complete until you have made it so clear that you can explain it to the first man whom you meet on the street.”

As a graduate student, I remember hearing this (possibly also apocryphal) quote from a nameless professor trying to cover a difficult concept: “I explained it to the class, and no one understood it. So I explained it again, and still no one understood it. Finally, I explained it a third time, and this time I understood it.”

So that’s what I suggest as an alternative to dumbing down: See if you can care about your listeners or readers enough to understand why they should want to know this and what direction they can approach it from. Then work on your own understanding of the subject until you grasp it well enough to approach from that direction yourself. In the short term, that may not be as satisfying as ridiculing their stupidity, but in the long term I think it works better.

Trump voters: Where they’re coming from, where they’re going

Long-term, is there anything progressives can do to cool them off or win them back?


The most fascinating character of the 2016 election cycle isn’t Donald Trump, it’s the voter who has identified with Trump and stuck with him in defiance of all previous conventional wisdom. Again and again during the Republican primary campaign, Trump said and did things that in any other cycle would have been career-destroying gaffes. And whenever his opponents waited for the resulting wave of voter anger and shame to wash him away, his popularity grew.

That tactic has been less successful in the general-election campaign: Trump’s Judge Curiel and Captain Khan attacks both hurt him, and while the double-digit lead Hillary Clinton built after the conventions has receded, she still seems to be ahead. But even this outcome, if it holds, leaves many progressive bewildered: How can 40-45% of the electorate imagine turning the country over to an inexperienced, unstable, hateful, and — let’s be blunt about it — ignorant man? What can they possibly be thinking?

So the most interesting question of 2016 is not what to do about Trump, because the answer is obvious: beat him. If he loses, he will probably be too old and too disgraced to trouble us again in 2020 or beyond. But the voters he has awakened and given a political identity will still be here. Particularly if they buy into Trump’s ego-saving excuses about skewed polls and voter fraud, or if he starts an alt-right Trump News to continue pandering to their worst fears, they may come out of a 2016 defeat more alienated, more angry, and perhaps more violent than before. (If the country is so far gone that voting no longer works, what’s left but guns?)

Obviously, not everybody in that 40-45% sees themselves as part of a Trump movement. Many are simply Paul Ryan Republicans who can’t face another four years of Democratic rule, with all that would mean for the Supreme Court, taxes, regulations, and other long-term issues. Many voters of all stripes are disgusted with their general-election choices, and will happily line up behind someone completely different in the next cycle.

But what if 10-20% are enthusiastic Trump supporters and will be looking for another Trump-like candidate in 2020? (After all, somebody is showing up at his rallies and cheering wildly. Crowd size and enthusiasm may not be reliable predictors of victory — just ask Bernie Sanders — but they do mean something.) If they are sufficiently alienated and angry, and if they include (and make excuses for) an even smaller violent element, 10% is more than enough to destabilize a democracy.

So who are they? What do they want? Do they have legitimate grievances the rest of us can or should respond to? And if we do respond, is there any hope of soothing their anger and welcoming them back into more orthodox political channels?

Who are they? Non-college whites. A lot of good work has been done on this question, painting their portrait in both statistics and narratives.

In the primaries, the core of Trump’s support came from whites without college degrees. Look at the exit polls from the Ohio Republican Primary, the only one won by John Kasich. Overall, Kasich beat Trump and Ted Cruz 47%-36%-13%. Those results were virtually the same across both genders and all age groups. The Republican electorate was overwhelmingly white (94%), but although Trump did worse among non-whites (28% rather than 36%), the finishing order was still Kasich-Trump-Cruz.

Hidden in that apparent homogeneity, though, were two very different Republican Parties having two very different primaries. Among those who never attended college, Trump beat Kasich 47%-34%. They tied 41%-41% among Republicans who had taken some college courses but not graduated. Those with bachelor’s degrees went for Kasich 52%-31%, and among those with postgraduate degrees it was no contest at all: Kasich beat Trump 60%-25%.

That educational divide preceded Trump, and was already apparent in a Pew Research survey conducted over a year ago. On many issues, college Republicans were split, while non-college Republicans were united. For example: asked whether immigrants strengthen or burden the country, college Republicans narrowly said strengthen, 44%-42; non-college Republicans decisively said burden 62%-26%. Other questions created night-and-day differences. Was South Carolina right to remove the Confederate flag from its statehouse grounds? College Republicans said yes 56%-37%; non-college Republicans said no 57%-36%. College Republicans liked elected officials who make compromises, 52%-46%; non-college Republicans preferred those who stick to their positions, 64%-33%.

If Trump does lose to Clinton, it will probably be because of his inability to hold college-educated whites, who Mitt Romney won by 6% in 2012.

Who are they? Not who you think. The Washington Post published a lengthy summary of an even longer report from Gallup, based on 87,000 interviews. The gist was that common stereotypes of Trump voters are false: They’re not poor whites who have lost their jobs to Mexican immigrants or Chinese competition.

According to this new analysis, those who view Trump favorably have not been disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration, compared with people with unfavorable views of the Republican presidential nominee. The results suggest that his supporters, on average, do not have lower incomes than other Americans, nor are they more likely to be unemployed.

Yet while Trump’s supporters might be comparatively well off themselves, they come from places where their neighbors endure other forms of hardship. In their communities, white residents are dying younger, and it is harder for young people who grow up poor to get ahead.

They also don’t live in neighborhoods that are being overrun by immigrants.

Although Trump voters tend to be the most skeptical about immigration, they are also the least likely to actually encounter an immigrant in their neighborhood. …

[Jonathan] Rothwell [the Gallup economist in charge of the survey] finds that people who live in places with many Hispanic residents or places close to the Mexican border, tend not to favor Trump — relative to otherwise similar Americans and to otherwise similar white Republicans.

Among those who are similar in terms of income, education and other factors, those who view Trump favorably are more likely to be found in white enclaves — racially isolated Zip codes where the amount of diversity is lower than in surrounding areas.

In other words, when they cheer his attacks on immigrants and foreigners, Trump’s supporters are reacting not so much to their own experiences as to the experiences they imagine people like them are having. They are not poor, but worry that their children will be. They are susceptible to absurdly negative stereotypes of immigrants because they don’t know any actual immigrants. They live in communities disproportionately afflicted with health problems related to despair: depression, substance abuse, and suicide — even if they are not depressed, addicted, or suicidal themselves.

Their “deep story”. In the current issue of Mother Jones, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild reports on her five-year study of Tea Party supporters in Louisiana. (The article gives us a taste of her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land.)

When I asked people what politics meant to them, they often answered by telling me what they believed (“I believe in freedom”) or who they’d vote for (“I was for Ted Cruz, but now I’m voting Trump”). But running beneath such beliefs like an underwater spring was what I’ve come to think of as a deep story. The deep story was a feels-as-if-it’s-true story, stripped of facts and judgments, that reflected the feelings underpinning opinions and votes. It was a story of unfairness and anxiety, stagnation and slippage—a story in which shame was the companion to need.

To Hochschild, this underlying narrative explains the attraction of otherwise baseless conspiracy theories like Obama’s Muslim faith, government plots to confiscate guns, and so on. People believe such things not because the objective evidence is compelling, but because they are looking for stories that externalize their inner experience. [1]

What the people I interviewed were drawn to was not necessarily the particulars of these theories. It was the deep story underlying them — an account of life as it feels to them. Some such account underlies all beliefs, right or left, I think. The deep story of the right goes like this:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black — beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? [2] As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

I checked this distillation with those I interviewed to see if this version of the deep story rang true. Some altered it a bit (“the line-waiters form a new line”) or emphasized a particular point (those in back are paying for the line-cutters). But all of them agreed it was their story. One man said, “I live your analogy.” Another said, “You read my mind.”

Political correctness. To college-educated liberals, one of the most mysterious aspects of right-wing discourse is the rage against political correctness, as if it were a problem on the scale of illegal drugs or the lack of good jobs. To liberals, PC is just a way of talking that shows respect for people and groups that have traditionally been disrespected. So if adult females in the workplace want to be called women rather than girls, or if I have to learn how to use words like cisgender and transgender, it doesn’t seem like that big a sacrifice. I grew up saying that hard bargainers jew people down, but decades ago I learned that Jews don’t like that expression, so I dropped it. It just didn’t seem like that much to ask of me.

So how does this attempt at courtesy become an issue of such portent that it is “ruining our country” (as Ben Carson put it)? Why do white working-class men need a Trump to defend them from this terrible scourge?

Melinda Selmys of the blog Catholic Authenticity proposes an answer.

My tentative hypothesis, which I think is probably true in at least some cases, is that the objection to political correctness is not actually so much a knee-jerk defense of racist or sexist attitudes as it is an inarticulate objection to classism.

Classism is problematic, in that every intelligent person on the left knows that it is bad, bad, very bad – but none the less, leftist discourse is constantly, profoundly classist. Discussions of how to end oppression, including the oppression of poor, marginalized, and less educated people, are routinely carried on in language that can’t even [be] parsed by someone with a high-school reading level. As a theoretical category of social problem, the poor and underprivileged are given great respect. But when an actual person who can’t spell very well, speaks in a regional dialect from a lower-class area, and can’t express himself very articulately tries to argue that he also needs protection from oppression, he’s often dismissed as an “entitled” white man who doesn’t understand the systemic barriers endured by marginalized groups.

Let me illustrate with an analogy: Imagine you’ve recently moved to a foreign country, and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t get the language right. Your accent is awful, your nouns have the wrong genders (inanimate objects have genders?), your verbs the wrong tenses, and whenever you try to use an idiom, you end up saying something ridiculous. [3] The natives might respond to your mistakes in a variety of ways.

  1. They can ignore your screw-up and respond as if you had correctly expressed what you obviously mean.
  2. They can correct you politely, and then respond to what you mean.
  3. They can correct you sharply, as if you are an idiot child, and refuse to acknowledge your meaning until you can manage to express it properly.
  4. They can ridicule you for saying something so stupid.
  5. They can put the worst possible construction on what you say, and use that interpretation to reinforce their negative stereotype of visiting Americans, i.e., that we’re all assholes who constantly insult them and then try to wriggle out of the situation by lying about our command of their language.

If you experience a lot of 1 and 2, you’re likely to see the natives as patient and kind. If 3 and 4, you’ll be wary of them and inclined to shut up even when you have something worth saying. (Later, you’ll resent feeling muzzled. You’re every bit as smart as these people, and you’d run rings around them if they had to speak English.) If 5, you’ll probably conclude that they are the assholes; they know perfectly well what you mean, but they’re misconstruing you for their own hostile purposes.

Most working-class white Americans are — let’s be clear about this — native speakers of American English, so the analogy isn’t perfect. But serious political discussion in this country is dominated by professional-class people who use language in a college-educated way. The talking heads on TV, the columnists in newspapers, and almost all our politicians are college-educated people who sound like college-educated people. [4] Even the ones who don’t — James Carville comes to mind — often seem to be doing a man-of-the-people shtick rather than just talking.

So when a working-class person talks politics, professional-class people tacitly assume the discussion should happen in their language and be judged by their standards. [5] And the worker’s “mistakes” are often slapped down hard: Either he is an idiot who should shut up and let smarter people talk, or his ignorance of the currently approved vocabulary shows that he is some kind of reprehensible person: a racist, a sexist, a homophobe.

So it should be no surprise that a lot of working-class whites (or even professional-class whites whose degree is in a technical field rather than a liberal art) cheer when Donald Trump bullies and insults the people they feel have bullied and insulted them.

What can we do with this? Understanding someone doesn’t mean you have to give in to them, and often you just can’t. For example, politically correct language was invented for a good reason: Traditional ways of speaking can institutionalize traditional injustices. (Who would you rather have running your department: a man or a girl?)

Also, the way the world feels to a group of people, as compelling as it may seem to them, is not necessarily how the world is. Your deep story might embed assumptions that are unfair or untrue. Hochschild’s line-cutting metaphor, for example, contains an assumption of entitlement: I was in line first. And (as Hochschild explains), a lot of the “advantage” of the line-cutters comes from the self-imposed restrictions of the line-standers: They find it dishonorable to take government hand-outs like food stamps or welfare, even when they qualify. So they face a choice between dishonor and falling behind people who don’t share their scruples. That sucks for them, but it’s really not the fault of blacks or refugees or career-driven women.

If we can’t just agree with Trump voters, we still can do somethings with these insights:

  • Look for legitimate grievances where we can make common cause with them.
  • Frame our proposals and arguments so as not to alienate them unnecessarily.
  • Disrupt right-wing attempts to manipulate them.

So, for example, working-class whites who live in dead-end communities (like factory or mining towns after the factories and mines close) have a real problem we should be able to sympathize with. But since climate change and cheap natural gas are real, we can’t just bring back the coal industry and the mining jobs that it used to provide. And if “making America great again” means recreating the manufacturing economy of the 1950s, we can’t do that either. But we need to recognize that our current low-growth, low-opportunity economy is creating a real sense of hopelessness — and not just for inner-city non-whites.

Trump capitalizes on that white hopelessness by offering scapegoats: Immigrants and foreigners and the other line-cutters have taken all the opportunities, and that’s why you (and your children) don’t have any. Liberals have our own story to tell here, and we need to tell it loudly, putting aside our fear of offending rich donors: You have so few opportunities because wealth has gotten over-concentrated at the top. America has had decent (if unspectacular) economic growth for seven years now, but it all flows up the pyramid, not down to people who get paid by the hour. When working people have money, they spend it and create jobs for other working people. But past a certain point, money at the top just stays at the top. The 1% may want you to identify with them, and to think of their taxes as your taxes, but you really have more in common with black and immigrant workers than with the Kochs and Waltons.

The problem isn’t that late-comers are cutting the line, it’s that the people already seated have shut the doors.

When we design government programs, whenever possible those programs should change the landscape, rather than require people to form new relationships with government and ask it for help. When I went to a state university in the 1970s, for example, I benefited tremendously from subsidies that were invisible to me. My parents paid the price the university charged, not noticing or caring that it was artificially low. That’s how we should make college affordable again, rather than by asking “needy” students to prove that they qualify for government help. I freely and guiltlessly use public parks and libraries and highways because they belong to all of us; it would feel completely different if I had to apply for government aid to defray the cost of membership in private systems.

We can focus our attacks on the demagogues and propagandists who create right-wing conspiracy theories, rather than the low-information voters who believe them. The believers need our instruction, not our ridicule.

And finally, we can listen to the Trump voter’s concerns with more forbearance, even the ones we see as misstated, self-serving, or based on misconceptions. To the extent that our verbal or analytic abilities are superior, we could help them refine what is legitimate in their complaint and express it accurately, rather than humiliate or stereotype them.

I realize this forbearance can turn into what is called tone policing — making oppressed groups tiptoe around the too-easily-offended sensibilities of their oppressors, sometimes to the point that they have to apologize for noticing their own oppression. [6] But I suspect that what most annoys a Trump voter isn’t the black or woman or immigrant who asks for better treatment; it’s the fellow white or man or native speaker of English who is holier-than-thou because of his newly discovered PC superiority to the unwashed masses who still use the bigoted old words.

So I close with this modest suggestion: If you are confronting non-PC talk as an ally of traditionally oppressed groups rather than as a victim of oppression, dial down your outrage. Correct the speaker lightly, and give a generous construction to what he probably meant. Explain rather than reprimand. Remember: Even if whiteness or masculinity give them other advantages, people who sound like hicks, have limited vocabularies, and never got the benefit of a liberal education are also a despised class. They need allies too.


[1] If you’ve ever known someone with full-blown paranoia or depression, or experienced it yourself, you’ve seen how outward-projection-of-inner-reality works.

The fundamental fact of a paranoid’s inner life is a feeling of danger. Fleshing out the details of the plot against him is actually a soothing experience, because if the danger is out there somewhere, then it might be managed somehow. So he can’t accept your argument that his delusion is baseless and he is actually safe. Even if you convinced him, he would need to uncover a different threat, because he is in danger. That’s the one sure thing he knows.

Depression follows a similar pattern: The depressed person knows that he sucks and his life is hopeless, and so he constantly generates narratives that elaborate on that knowledge. If you argue down one story, he’ll just have to find another.

Same thing with politics: You mean Obama isn’t a Muslim? Well, he must be a Communist then.

[2] Probably the same way J. D. Vance (the similarly father-abandoned white-working-class author of Hillbilly Elegy) paid for Yale. In his book, Vance discusses how surprised he was to discover that if you can get accepted and qualify for financial aid, a rich school like Yale will probably cost you less than a run-of-the-mill university. One disadvantage of growing up surrounded by non-college-educated people is that quite possibly no one will tell you this, so you won’t bother to apply.

[3] One of my friends tells the story of a Russian, who at the end of a big meal proudly showed off his command of English by announcing that he was “completely fed up”.

[4] Going to college at Michigan State didn’t just teach me things, it changed my accent. The Midwest, where I grew up, has two white accents: an educated one that is the model for TV announcers, and a rural/working-class one that resembles lower-class Southern or Appalachian accents, and shows up in a lot of country-western songs. I suspect that Trent Lott, who grew up as a sharecropper’s son but speaks in the educated Southern accent now, had a similar undergraduate experience at the University of Mississippi.

[5] That’s what classism is: the assumption that the manners and habits of your class define what is right and proper.

[6] The Daria theme song either expresses or satirizes such tip-toeing:

Excuse me. Excuse me.
I’ve got to be direct.
If I’m wrong, please correct.
You’re standing on my neck.
You’re standing on my neck.

About the Foundation

Somehow, we have a pay-for-play scandal without either pay or play.


[You can think of this article as a sequel to “About Those Emails“.]

Most of the articles about the possible conflicts-of-interest involving Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation dive right in to some set of details: Somebody wrote an email to somebody else, and then something did (or did not) happen, maybe (or maybe not) because of some other consideration.

But before we go there, it’s worthwhile to take a step back and observe how bizarre this whole controversy is: It’s being billed as a pay-for-play scandal, but two essential items are missing:

  • pay: No one has yet postulated any credible mechanism by which money from the Clinton Foundation gets back to the Clintons. A considerable sum ($4.3 million, according to The Washington Post) has flowed from the Clintons to the Foundation, but nothing in the other direction.
  • play: There are no specific examples of a Foundation donor receiving some inappropriate government concession [1], and no examples of someone who was denied something, then contributed to the Foundation and got it.

None of the Clintons — not even Chelsea — draws a salary from the Foundation or gets reimbursed for expenses. The Foundation doesn’t own mansions the Clintons live in or fleets of cars or planes to take them places. It doesn’t fund their political campaigns or buy their books or pay them speaking fees. It just does charitable work, spending a remarkable 88% of its money on programs and only 12% on overhead.

So trying to bribe Hillary Clinton by giving money to the Clinton Foundation is a lot like trying to bribe the mayor of your town by giving money to the local United Way drive, or to the hospital that has a wing named for his family. You can hope that the mayor hears about your donation and thinks good thoughts about you, but you’re not paying him off in any meaningful sense.

On the “play” side of the so-called scandal, two recent developments have been presented by the media as raising suspicions, when it’s not clear why they should: State Department emails released by a conservative organization, and an analysis of Hillary Clinton’s schedule as Secretary of State by the Associated Press.

Paul Waldman of the WaPo’s Plum Line blog summarizes what we learned from the emails:

Judicial Watch, an organization that has been pursuing Clinton for many years, has released a trove of emails it obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, emails that supposedly show how donors to the Clinton Foundation got special access, and presumably special favors, from Clinton while she was at State.

The only problem is that the emails in question reveal nothing of the sort. What they actually reveal is that a few foundation donors wanted access, but didn’t actually get it.

Judicial Watch presumably highlighted the worst examples it could find, and came up with these (summarized  by Waldman):

  • A sports executive who had donated to the foundation wanted to arrange for a visa for a British soccer player to visit the United States; he was having trouble getting one because of a criminal conviction. [Top Clinton assistant Huma] Abedin said she’d look into it, but there’s no evidence she did anything and the player didn’t get his visa.
  • Bono, who had donated to the foundation, wanted to have some kind of arrangement whereby upcoming U2 concerts would be broadcast to the International Space Station. Abedin was puzzled by this request, and nothing was ever done about it.
  • The Crown Prince of Bahrain, whose country had donated to the foundation, wanted to meet with Clinton on a visit to Washington. Abedin responded to Band that the Bahrainis had already made that request through normal diplomatic channels. The two did end up meeting.

Unless you find it unusual or inappropriate for a Secretary of State to meet with the crown prince of an important ally in the Middle East, there’s literally nothing to see here.

Then we get to the AP article.

At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press.

That sounds really damning. I mean, 85 out of 154 is more than half. But there’s a problem with AP’s whole project. By limiting themselves to counting “people from private interests”, AP right at the start eliminates the vast majority of Clinton’s meetings, which are necessarily with people in the U.S. government or foreign governments. If you look at her whole schedule, those 85 donors are not 85 out of 154, they’re 85 out of well over a thousand.

And who are they? As Matt Yglesias points out, all the specific examples AP comes up with seem to be people the Secretary of State ought to be meeting with: Nobel Prize winners, people running charitable operations in foreign countries, and so on. Yglesias acknowledges the potential for sinister conflicts of interest when the State Department dealt with Clinton Foundation donors, but says the real story is that a major news organization invested a lot of time in this story and didn’t find anything.

Conceivably, there still might be a scandal here, among the people Clinton didn’t meet with: You could imagine equally deserving people who didn’t get through the door because they weren’t Foundation donors. But again, AP does not produce examples. If they looked for such people, they appear not to have found any.

There’s just nothing here. That’s the story. [AP reporters] Braun and Sullivan looked into it, and as best they can tell, she’s clean.

… The real news here ought to be just the opposite [of a scandal]: Donors to the Clinton Foundation may believe they are buying Hillary Clinton’s political allegiance, but the reality is that they are not. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is someone, somewhere whom Clinton met with whom she wouldn’t have met with had that person not been a Clinton donor of some kind. But what we know is that despite very intensive media scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation, we don’t have hard evidence of any kind of corrupt activity. That’s the story.

So let’s summarize: While Hillary was Secretary of State, rich and influential people gave money to the Clinton Foundation. That money went off to plant trees in Malawi or install solar panels in Haiti or construct playgrounds in Los Angeles, and in no way made it back to Bill, Hillary, or Chelsea Clinton. In exchange for your contribution, you could call up Huma Abedin and ask for the State Department to do you a favor, but as best anybody can tell, unless you had that service coming anyway you wouldn’t get it. Or you could ask to meet with Secretary Clinton, but unless you had legitimate State Department business to discuss with her, you wouldn’t get in.

That’s the pay-for-play scandal.


[1] The example that sticks in everybody’s mind is the one involving Russian interests buying Canadian uranium mines. For complicated reasons, the U.S. State Department had to sign off on that deal, along with nine other government agencies that weren’t under Clinton’s control. People interested in the sale donated large sums to the Clinton Foundation — mostly well before the sale was negotiated — and the sale went through.

That sequence of events sounded suspicious when Peter Schweizer called attention to it in his book Clinton Cash,  and over the last year and a half a lot of effort has gone into trying to make something out of it. But no one has been able to add anything substantive to the story; the juiciest details in the book turned out not to be true, and the author eventually admitted that he had no direct evidence of wrongdoing. Paul Waldman summarizes everything that was known about this as of April, 2015, and PolitiFact discussed it this June. I don’t know of any developments since.

Academic Freedom and Institutional Power at My Old School

The University of Chicago, where I did my graduate work in the late 1970s and early 80s, doesn’t make headlines all that often. It’s been a top academic institution for more than a century, but hasn’t had a great sports team since Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg was pushed out the door in 1932. The most famous thing that ever happened there — Enrico Fermi’s self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction in December, 1942 — was secret at the time. [1] And despite the occasional law lecturer like Barack Obama or econ professor like Milton Friedman who wanders into the public eye, the bulk of Chicago’s faculty does research far too esoteric to draw any reaction from the mass culture.

But like a disguised celebrity who succeeds in attending a public event without being recognized, the U of C community takes a perverse sort of pride in its relative obscurity: History will notice us, so CNN doesn’t have to.

Nonetheless, the University caused a buzz this week because of an unusual welcome letter the Dean of Students sent to the incoming freshman class. The letter made the Chicago experience sound more like boot camp than a nurturing environment where young people can find themselves and achieve intellectual maturity. The Dean warned his new flock that the rigorous academic debate they will hear “may challenge you and even cause discomfort”, and that the U of C

does not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not approve the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

The letter received a wave of acclaim from the sorts of elders who think the younger generation has gone soft, [2] or who wring their hands and clutch their pearls about “political correctness”. Like much of the discussion of political correctness, the Dean’s letter struck me as disingenuous. Academic freedom is not the simple issue Dean Ellison is making it out to be, and he is not necessarily on the side of the angels.

To begin with, he pulls together two issues — trigger warnings and controversies over invited speakers — that are related only through the false frame he has constructed for them. In neither case is the alleged over-sensitivity of today’s students the real issue. Most of the commentary on this has focused on trigger warnings (and I’ll get to that), but I think I’ll start with controversial speakers, because I have some history there.

Controversial speakers. The Dean’s statement that “we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial” took me back to the only protest I participated in during my years at Chicago: In 1979 a substantial segment of the student body was outraged when the University decided to give a prestigious award (for “outstanding contributions to international understanding”) to Robert McNamara, one of the con-men who had sold the American public the idea that we were winning the Vietnam War. The anti-McNamara demonstration was a true 60s flashback; Chicago cops dragged people away by their throats and everything. (I was on the sidelines and escaped unharmed.)

Nearly four decades later, I remain convinced that we were right and the University was wrong. By mingling Chicago’s prestige with McNamara’s toxic legacy, the administration was failing in its duty to protect the University’s reputation. And this absolutely was the student’s business, since we were working and paying to attach that reputation to our names.

That’s typical of the “controversial speaker” flaps that are still happening today. They’re not about limiting free speech or protecting over-sensitive students from upsetting ideas. They’re about administrators misusing (and hence endangering) their universities’ prestige.

So, for example, when faculty and student protests got former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to back out of speaking at the 2014 Rutgers commencement, the issue wasn’t that a conservative speaker might say something liberal students would find upsetting. The issue was that “commencement speaker” is a position of honor; a university implicitly presents the speaker as a role model for its graduates. Many in the Rutgers community found it inappropriate to honor someone who promoted the deceptions that started the disastrous Iraq War and collaborated in the Bush administration’s torture regime. Rather than expecting honors from universities like Rutgers, Secretary Rice should be happy that she’s not on trial at The Hague.

Appropriate gatekeeping. A university is not and should not be a podium from which all ideas are proclaimed equally. When a university presents speakers in some official context — at commencement, in named lectures, as course presenters, and elsewhere — it legitimizes their message. The university doesn’t necessarily endorse that message as truth, but it does say that the speaker deserves attention and presents a point of view that an educated person should be familiar with.

So while, for example, it could be entirely appropriate for a political science department to host Ben Carson so that he could discuss his experiences running for office, it would be malpractice for a history department to invite him to present his belief that the Biblical Joseph built Egypt’s pyramids to store grain. There are many academically legitimate theories about the pyramids, but that is not one of them.

The Tattooed Professor offers an edgier example:

To move from the hypothetical to the real, the Virginia Tech students who protested their university’s invitation to Charles Murray to deliver a lecture weren’t some sort of intellectual gestapo, they were members of a community calling out other members’ violation of the community’s ethos. Murray is a racist charlatan who’s made a career out of pseudoscientific social darwinist assertions that certain “races” are inherently inferior to others. To bring him to campus is to tell segments of your student community that, according to the ideas the university is endorsing by inviting Murray, they don’t belong there. This isn’t a violation of academic freedom. It’s an upholding of scientific standards and the norms of educated discourse — you know, the type of stuff that colleges and universities are supposed to stand for, right?

Especially in the internet era, when any kind of wild notion can gain a wide audience and corporate money can create an imposing facade of intellectual authority, this gatekeeping role is an important part of a university’s mission. For example, universities should promote a well-informed and wide-ranging debate about President Obama’s anti-terrorism policies, but not about whether he is secretly a Muslim in league with our enemies. A university that legitimizes baseless conspiracy theories diverts attention from topics that need and deserve it.

The major threat to universities’ ability to perform this function honestly comes not from students below, but from administrators above. Like political candidates, universities face a constant temptation to bend to the will of their funders, and the Koch Brothers and other billionaires are working hard to buy academic legitimacy for ideas that could not compete on their intellectual merit. Like big-name journalists, university presidents can also be corrupted by their exposure to power; once you get accepted into the social world of cabinet secretaries and corporate CEOs, their point of view takes on an authority it does not deserve.

Student protest is a counterweight to this executive corruption, and students should be commended, not condemned, for keeping watch on who their universities honor and which ideas they legitimize. To the extent that Dean Ellison’s letter intimidates students into shutting up, or emboldens other administrators to ignore students’ views, it undermines the mission of a true university.

Trigger warnings. This is not a new controversy, and a very good defense of trigger warnings appeared in New York Magazine in 2014. First, Kat Stoeffel explains the history:

They were popularized in the feminist blogosphere, to warn participants of the self-designated safe spaces about stories involving rape, abuse, or self-harm that might induce flashbacks to their own past traumas

From there the concept expanded to blog posts about racism and various other isms, until eventually they started showing up in university course descriptions. Stoeffel describes how she initially rolled her eyes at the whole idea, but has since changed her mind.

Why should trigger warnings bother me? Like many of trigger warnings’ loudest opponents, I have noticed, I have no firsthand experience with rape or racial discrimination or cissexism. And a few words at the beginning of an article (or on a seminar syllabus) are no skin off my un-traumatized nose.

In fact, what now strikes me most about trigger warnings is how small a request they are, in proportion to the backlash they incite. What is it about about this entirely free gesture of empathy that makes people so outraged? In their distress, critics have entirely overlooked an important distinction: Oberlin students aren’t trying to get out of reading Mrs. Dalloway because they’re special, sensitive snowflakes, or even get it removed from syllabi. They just want a three-word note on the syllabus giving them a heads-up that it addresses suicide. If that’s all it takes for instructors to prevent the shock it could cause a student who has been suicidal, it is, to me, a no-brainer.

Erika Price describes how this works from both an instructor’s and a reader’s point of view.

It is impossible for a professor or teacher to anticipate every student’s triggers, and frankly, I’ve never met a student who was demanding or entitled about having their specific triggers tagged in advance. What I have encountered, numerous times, are students who have a trauma history or a mental illness that involves triggers, who are only willing to gently and quietly request trigger warnings after I have made my pro-TW stance abundantly clear. These requests have always been polite and reasonable, and have never involved scrubbing my syllabus clean of challenging material.

… Because I am a rape survivor with trauma triggers, I know firsthand that the experience of using trigger warnings completely contradicts the anti-TW stereotype. I am not a soft-willed, petulant baby. I am a battle-tested, iron-willed survivor who has faced far more personal horror than any anti-TW demagogue could. I do not use TW’s to “protect myself” from writing that challenges me intellectually. I read writing by people I disagree with on a daily basis, for both academic and personal enrichment; my use of trigger warnings to sometimes avoid rape- and stalking-related content is utterly irrelevant to that. And the use of trigger warnings does not make me weak. Trigger warnings empower me by allowing me to customize my reading-about-rape experience. I get to choose when and how I present myself with upsetting or triggering content. This makes it easier for me to do so regularly. [3] And for the record, when I am faced with triggering material, I am not a trembling, weeping wreck, fuck you very much.

Like anything else, the idea can be misapplied. [4] But we don’t abandon the whole notion of product-safety liability just because people sometimes sue for trivial reasons. By rejecting the trigger-warning notion wholesale, Dean Ellison is short-circuiting a potentially fruitful academic discussion: What kind of consideration do individual students have a right to expect, and when are they imposing too much on the group? By declaring this whole debate illegitimate literally from Day One, it is Dean Ellison who is retreating from ideas and perspectives at odds with his own. He “wins” not by marshaling a better argument, but by invoking his institutional power: ME DEAN. YOU STUDENT.

Safe spaces. I think this part of the discussion borders on the ridiculous. Nobody lives 24/7 in an environment of unfettered academic critique. Nor is that a goal anyone should aspire to.

I hope every student finds a safe space somewhere and retreats to it when under stress. Even if it’s just a friend’s dorm room or some remote corner of the library stacks that no one else seems to know about, everybody should have one. And if students collectively decide to create a limited space where, say, no one is going to tell you that rape victims had it coming, I don’t see the harm.

Ali Barthwell nailed it:

Imagine you’re inviting a friend over to your house and before they say yes, you go “Oh, by the way, I have a dog in case you’re allergic.” THAT’S a trigger warning.

Imagine your friend says they do have a dog allergy so you agree to keep your dog out of your living room and vacuum everything so there’s no dander. THAT’s a safe space.

That’s what you assholes are against.

Trauma and empathy. Every life contains some amount of trauma, which really ought to give us all empathy for people who have been through worse.

Twenty years ago, I accompanied my wife to a doctor’s appointment, where we heard an unexpectedly bad diagnosis. For a time, I was convinced that I would spend the next two years or so watching her slide into a painful death. (That didn’t happen; she’s fine.) Afterwards it was lunchtime, so we stopped at a Mexican restaurant we used to go to occasionally. It was the only time since childhood when I literally could not stop crying.

I’ve never been back to that restaurant. It’s not their fault, and I imagine their food is still good. But there are other Mexican restaurants where I don’t have to remember crying my eyes out in public, so I go to them instead. If you’re ever going out to lunch with me and innocently suggest that restaurant, I’ll politely nudge you somewhere else. Indulge me; it’s not that big an ask.

Most of us — even if we were never raped or held hostage by terrorists or forced to watch our parents’ murder — can recall some lesser trauma. And I suspect a lot of us have some place we don’t go or thing we don’t do or product we stay away from. Maybe we could all pluck up our courage and confront those limitations, but most of us don’t. Life is too short and courage too limited to spend it so freely.

Whatever traumatic moment you can remember, imagine somebody who went through something ten times worse. If they’re not asking you for much, maybe you could indulge them. That’s all this controversy is about.


[1] Funny story related to that: Decades before I came to Chicago, Eckhart Hall, which houses the Mathematics Department, was a Manhattan Project building. As a math teaching assistant I had an office in the basement, and for several years I spent about as much time down there as a troll spends in his cave. After I got my degree, I was packing up my books when workmen came in to grind off and repatch hotspots in the floor and walls, because the government had just tightened the standards for allowable background radiation. “Now you tell me,” I said.

[2] By any objective standard (other than maybe background radiation) the current generation of students has it much harder than mine did. Most of them will leave school with a vast amount of debt, and will enter a far more uncertain job market. Older folks should be looking for ways to make their lives easier, not harder.

[3] There’s an analogy here from the history of commerce: The insurance industry did not grow because ship captains became more fearful. Quite the opposite, the protection provided by insurance allowed captains to become more adventurous.

[4] Another resemblance to the political correctness debate is the high urban-legend factor. Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who read about a really outrageous example of a demand for a trigger warning (that for some reason could not be answered by a simple “no”). But when you go looking for verifiable examples of real damage to academic freedom, the pickings are pretty slim.

The one example that keeps showing up, Jeannie Suk Gerson’s discussion of teaching rape law at Harvard, seems to me to be as much about faculty laziness as student sensitivity. Gerson concludes:

If the topic of sexual assault were to leave the law-school classroom, it would be a tremendous loss — above all to victims of sexual assault.

Yes it would. But are “cover the topic insensitively” and “drop it” really the only options? I discussed a similar excluded-middle thought pattern with regard to policing in “Rich Lowry’s False Choice“.

What’s a 21st Century Equivalent of the Homestead Act?

A typical featured article on this blog is supposed to tell my readers something they might not already know, or at least to get them to think about it in a different way. But this time I’m just trying to raise a question, hoping that the combined wisdom and creativity of the readership will come up with stuff I haven’t thought of.

Before I ask the question, some background: One of the most radical things the United States government ever did was pass the Homestead Act (actually the Homestead Acts; there were a series of them). Beginning in 1850, and picking up steam after the Civil War, the government gave away relatively small plots of land — usually 160 acres — to settlers who over a period of five years would build a home on the land, live there, “improve” the land to make it farmable, and then farm it. Wikipedia claims that 10% of the total area of the United States was given away in this manner, to the benefit of 1.6 million families. [1]

I doubt Karl Marx had much influence on the U.S. Congress (though he was writing during this era) and there’s nothing particularly communist about establishing 1.6 million plots of private property. But I like to look at the Homestead Act in the light of the Marxist concept of the means of production. In a nutshell, the means of production is whatever resources are necessary to turn labor into goods and services. So, in a given society at a given state of technology,

Labor + X = Goods and Services

Solve for X, and that’s the means of production. Today, X is complicated: factories and patents and communication systems and whatever. But for most of human history, the means of production had mostly been land. And it still could be, even in the 19th century with its growing industrial economy; if you had fertile land, you could work it and produce sustenance for yourself, plus some extra to trade.

To Marx, the problem of capitalism is that the means of production — land, factories, mines, and so on — wind up privately owned by a fairly small group of people, and everybody else can only get access to the means of production by negotiating with those people. In other words, your productivity is not up to you; you can’t just go work and collect the fruit of your labor, you need an employer to hire you, so that you can have a job and get paid. Your labor only counts if you can get an employer’s permission to use his access to the means of production. Otherwise, you’re like a landless farmer or an auto worker who has been laid off from the factory.

Marx foresaw a vicious cycle: The narrower the ownership of the means of production became, the less bargaining power a worker would have, and the larger the premium an employer could demand in order to grant access. [2] This imbalance in bargaining power would increase the concentration of wealth, making the ownership of the means of production even narrower.

Usually, communists end up talking about state ownership of the means of production, but I want to point out that that’s a method, not a goal. What is really important is universal access to the means of production. State ownership is one way to try to do that, and I’m not sure how many other ways there might be — that’s part of the question here — but the real goal should be access: If all the people who want to work can find a way to turn their effort into goods and services, without needing to make a extortionate deal with some gatekeeper, then we’re on to something.

Now let’s return to the Homestead Act. What it did was vastly increase the number of Americans with access to the means of production. Mind you, it didn’t establish universal access — if you were a freedman sharecropping in Georgia, or were making pennies an hour in some dangerous factory in Connecticut, you had little prospect of assembling a big enough stake to go out West and homestead for five years — but it was vastly expanded access.

So now you’re in a position to understand what I’m asking: What would do that now? What change could we make (where we includes but is not necessarily limited to the federal government) that would vastly increase access to whatever the means of production is today?


[1] Probably most of you have already realized that this was an example of robbing Peter to pay Paul. The only reason the U.S. government had all this land to give was that they were in the process of stealing it from the Native Americans.

I would argue that at this point the decision to rob Peter had already been made; I doubt any major figure in the government saw much future for the Native Americans other than being pushed back onto reservations or annihilated. However we do the moral calculations today, at the time Congress saw itself with the power (and even the right, though don’t ask me to defend it) to dispose of that land however it wanted.

Given that robbery-in-progress, I think the decision to pay Paul is still remarkable. It certainly wasn’t the only thing Congress could have done. The government could have applied the Spanish model, and created a bunch of large haciendas to be controlled by a wealthy elite. Or it could have applied the English model, and granted the land in huge swathes to public/private companies like the East India Company or the Virginia Company, who could develop it for profit. What it did instead created a middle class of small landowners rather than an aristocracy or a managerial elite.

[2] Workers don’t usually pay an explicit “premium for access to the means of production”, but it’s implicit when a profitable business pays low wages: Money comes in and the owner keeps the lion’s share. If you don’t like it, go get another job.

One way to read the productivity vs. wages graphs I post every few months is that access premiums have been growing since the mid-1970s, and really started to accelerate in the mid-1980s.

It’s not just Freddie Gray

The Justice Department’s new report shows how wide and deep Baltimore’s police problems are.


In Season 4 of HBO’s The Wire, a landmark TV drama centered on the Baltimore Police Department, a new gangster has been taking over the city’s drug trade. Normally this would mean a bloodbath, but strangely the bodies of rival gangsters haven’t been turning up. Eventually Detective Freeman figures out where a dozen or two of them must be hidden: inside abandoned houses that have been re-boarded-up using a recognizable type of nail. When he explains this theory to his colonel, he gets this response:

You’re asking us to call out half of public works, and pull the plywood off thousands of vacant houses, all so we can raise the city’s murder rate by 10%.

The Wire has a lot of underlying themes, but one of the key ones (particularly in Season 4) is just how badly the statistics-based management fad interacts with municipal government, where statistics never quite capture exactly what you want. Think about it: What measurable quantities can define a good education, an efficient transit system, usable parks, or a safe and livable community?

Worse, the statistics you end up trying to optimize largely come from the people you will judge by those statistics. So for them, it will always be easier — and more tempting — to manipulate the count than to genuinely improve outcomes. It’s easier to teach to the test — or maybe just to change the answers later — than to provide a better education on a smaller budget. It’s easier to make more arrests and give out more tickets — or maybe even to misclassify crimes — than to improve public safety.  And if the statistical goals are set are unreasonably high, even people who are committed to the public they are supposed to be serving might end up cooperating with deception, because fudging the numbers is the only way to avoid the unfair and destructive consequences of perceived failure.

That’s what Detective Freeman is running into: The gang-war murders have in fact been committed already, but they don’t show up in the stats if the bodies are never found, so until then no one has to explain to the press why the murderers haven’t been caught. Finding the bodies — a genuinely good piece of police work — makes everybody look bad by raising the murder rate. Why should BPD do that to themselves?

In real-life policing, optimizing “productivity” statistics interacts badly with another idea that sounded good for a long time: the Broken Windows theory. Broken Windows says that police can keep a neighborhood from turning bad by strictly enforcing relatively minor laws. By doing so, they maintain public order and keep the citizenry from retreating behind locked doors and leaving the streets and sidewalks to the criminals.

Baltimore’s version of Broken Windows was called “zero tolerance”, a strategy that (according to the Justice Department) “prioritized attempts to suppress crime by regularly stopping and searching pedestrians and arresting them on any available charges, including discretionary misdemeanor offenses.”

Put a statistics focus together with zero tolerance, and police start to have a predator/prey relationship with the community: When a policeman drives through a poor neighborhood, he isn’t looking for a way to help, he’s looking for someone he can turn into a statistic that will look good on his record. Arrest someone for loitering or jaywalking or driving with a broken taillight, and you’re having a productive day. If the stop turns into more than that, so much the better. Stop a fight before it starts, and you have nothing to show for your effort; arrest somebody for assault, and you’re doing your job.

A year ago, a Slate reporter took a drive through Baltimore with former cop Michael Wood Jr., who explained the motivations embedded in the system.

Now you have the background to appreciate the new Justice Department report on the Baltimore Police Department and its relationship with its poorer citizens, who are mostly African-American. The executive summary gives you the highlights:

BPD engages in a pattern or practice of:
(1) making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests;
(2) using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans;
(3) using excessive force; and
(4) retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally-protected expression.

This pattern or practice is driven by systemic deficiencies in BPD’s policies, training, supervision, and accountability structures that fail to equip officers with the tools they need to police effectively and within the bounds of the federal law.

… The agency fails to provide officers with sufficient policy guidance and training; fails to collect and analyze data regarding officers’ activities; and fails to hold officers accountable for misconduct. BPD also fails to
equip officers with the necessary equipment and resources they need to police safely, constitutionally, and effectively.

… BPD deployed a policing strategy that, by its design, led to differential enforcement in African-American communities. But BPD failed to use adequate policy, training and accountability mechanisms to prevent discrimination, despite longstanding notice of concerns about how it polices African-American communities in the City.

 The background section on Baltimore is horrifying:

[A] recent Harvard University study found that Baltimore has the least upward mobility in America. In the nation’s 100 largest jurisdictions, Baltimore’s children face the worst odds of escaping poverty. … The City has nearly three times the national rate of lead poisoning among children. … This past year reflected a notable surge in violence. On a per-capita basis, 2015 was the deadliest year in Baltimore’s history with 344 homicides. The City’s overall gun violence increased more than 75 percent compared to the previous year, with more than 900 people shot.

BPD itself is largely an external force:

Most BPD officers are neither originally from Baltimore nor live in the City, and many commute long distances to work at the Department. Indeed, BPD leadership informed us that roughly three-fourths of BPD officers live outside the Baltimore City limits.

DoJ documents BPD’s predator/prey relationship with the community.

BPD’s law enforcement practices at times exacerbate the longstanding structural inequalities in the City by encouraging officers to have unnecessary, adversarial interactions with community members that increase exposure to the criminal justice system and fail to improve public safety.

… BPD frequently makes investigative stops without reasonable suspicion of people who are lawfully present on Baltimore streets. During stops, officers commonly conduct weapons frisks — or more invasive searches — despite lacking reasonable suspicion that the subject of the search is armed. These practices escalate street encounters and contribute to officers making arrests without probable cause, often for discretionary misdemeanor offenses like disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, loitering, trespassing, and failure to obey.

… These and similar arrests identified by our investigation reflect BPD officers exercising nearly unfettered discretion to criminalize the act of standing on public sidewalks.

and the role of statistics:

One of the reasons that the intended move away from zero tolerance policing has not sufficiently curbed BPD’s practice of unconstitutional street-level enforcement is a persistent perception among officers that their performance continues to be measured by the raw numbers of stops and arrests they make, particularly for gun and drug offenses. Many officers believe that the path to promotions and favorable treatment, as well as the best way to avoid discipline, is to increase their number of stops and make arrests for these offenses. By frequently stopping and searching people they believe might possess contraband, with or without requisite reasonable suspicion, officers aim to improve their statistical output, which will in turn reflect favorably in their performance reviews. … Other officers told us that they were denied the opportunity to work overtime because supervisors believed they did not make enough stops and arrests.

But of course, you can’t boost your numbers by manufacturing charges against middle-class white people. As the Slate narrator (Leon Neyfakh) summarizes:

To close out our tour, Mike took me to a part of Baltimore that was very different from everything we’d seen so far: a white neighborhood on the north side of town, where he was transferred after about four years on the force. He found the contrast astonishing. He also found it difficult to make his numbers, because all of a sudden he didn’t have anyone to arrest. His solution? Drive two blocks away, to a part of town where he could easily find young black men.

The DoJ report validates that observation:

Statistical evidence shows that the Department intrudes disproportionately upon the lives of African Americans at every stage of its enforcement activities. BPD officers disproportionately stop African Americans; search them more frequently during these stops; and arrest them at rates that significantly exceed relevant benchmarks for criminal activity. African Americans are likewise subjected more often to false arrests. Indeed, for each misdemeanor street offense that we examined, local prosecutors and booking officials dismissed a higher proportion of African-American arrests upon initial review compared to arrests of people from other racial backgrounds. BPD officers also disproportionately use force — including constitutionally excessive force — against African-American subjects. Nearly 90 percent of the excessive force incidents identified by the Justice Department review involve force used against African Americans.

This is where the process goes from here:

The Department of Justice and the City have entered into an Agreement in Principle that identifies categories of reforms the parties agree must be taken to remedy the violations of the Constitution and federal law described in this report. Both the Justice Department and the City seek input from all communities in Baltimore on the reforms that should be included in a comprehensive, court-enforceable consent decree to be negotiated by the Justice Department and
the City in the coming months, and then entered as a federal court order.

Democracy Will Survive This, With Damage

 

Donald Trump will lose, but afterward the Republic will be weaker and more vulnerable.


Almost as soon as President Obama took office, his opponents began trying to delegitimize his presidency. He couldn’t really be president, they claimed, because he wasn’t really an American, or at least not a native-born one, as the Constitution requires. Within two months of his inauguration, the Oath Keepers organization was formed, for the purpose of encouraging members of the military and the police to disobey the “unconstitutional orders” they were sure would soon come from the new tyrant.

It’s tempting to believe this is just how partisan politics has always worked, but in fact it’s new. In 2000, by contrast, there were very legitimate questions about whether George W. Bush had really won the election. But Al Gore conceded graciously, and when 9-11 happened ten months later, Democrats rallied around their president. As recently as 2008, John McCain politely corrected supporters who raised bizarre theories about his opponent. “No ma’am,” he told one elderly woman, “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”

After Obama was sworn in, though, everything changed.

Conspiracies. Every month or two for the last eight years, the fringe of the conservative media has found some new reason to tell its audience that we are on the brink of martial law or some other illegal seizure of power. FEMA is setting up camps to hold dissidents. ObamaCare is establishing death panels to eliminate the unworthy. New executive orders will soon confiscate guns. Obama plans to start a race warcancel the 2016 elections and stay in office forever. He’s secretly running ISIS from the White House. On and on.

Somehow, this apocalyptic mindset has achieved eternal youth. No matter how many times the predicted coup or edict or confiscation fails to materialize, the next one is absolutely going to happen, even if you’re hearing it from the same people who told you all the others. To conspiracy mongers like Alex Jones, the American Republic is like Kenny in South Park: Somebody has always just killed it, but with no explanation it will be back next week, when somebody else will kill it in a different way.

Occasionally — as with last summer’s Jade Helm 15 exercise — the mainstream press notices enough of the craziness to let the rest of us laugh at it. But usually these stories pass beneath most people’s radar until some uncle or cousin forwards them an email warning of the looming disaster.

GOP fellow travelers. Republican leaders have occasionally winked and nodded in the direction of this lunatic fringe. Maybe they “joke” about Obama’s citizenship, or pass laws to make sure that all future candidates have to present their birth certificates, or add legitimacy to one of these issues in some other way, without actually promoting them in so many words. They know these people are crazy, but they’re part of the Republican base, so why alienate them?

But the answer to that question ought to be obvious: Democracy only survives in a country as long as the overwhelming majority of people believe that it is working, or that it could work with some achievable revisions. The more Americans who believe in the kind of crazy crap that can only be corrected by an armed rebellion, the more fragile our whole system of government becomes.

The Trump normalization. Particularly since the conventions, Donald Trump has moved these fever-swamp issues into the spotlight, normalizing them as beliefs respectable Republicans might hold.

From the beginning of his candidacy, Trump has specialized in saying wild and dangerous things that draw media attention, whipping up white Christian anger, and flirting with violence. The sheer volume of bonkers things he says has overwhelmed the fact-checkers, [1] and can overwhelm our own ability to process each new outrage.

But it’s important to notice the recent shift in the kind of crazy he’s been promoting. As long as he was doing well (or could convince himself he was doing well), he played the bully, targeting politically weak groups like immigrants or Muslims. But as the polls turn against him, he has devoted more and more of his effort to undermining democracy itself.

Consider the claims in this week’s three major Trump stories:

  • He can’t lose this election, he can only be cheated out of it. [2]
  • Obama and Clinton are “founders of ISIS“, i.e., working for our enemies and against the American people.
  • If Clinton wins, only “Second Amendment people”, i.e., gun owners, will be able to stop her from “abolishing” constitutional rights. [3]

It’s hard to lay things out much more clearly than that: If Trump loses, then democracy has failed and it’s time to move on to more violent forms of resistance. After all, once an election has been stolen, what’s the point of waiting around for the next election? On the lunatic fringe, that message is coming through loud and clear.

This kind of talk goes far beyond fantasies about Mexico paying for a border wall or claims to have personally witnessed events that never happened. It strikes at the legitimacy of the government — or at least of any government that Trump doesn’t head himself. After he loses, a substantial number of his supporters are going to go on believing what he said about cheating and implied about violence. And that sets up a lot of bad things in the future.

We’ll get through this, this time. It’s important not to over-react. Despite his authoritarian and nativist tendencies, Trump is not Hitler. (As a friend recently pointed out to me, Hitler was more talented and more dedicated to his cause.) And all the signs currently point to him being soundly rejected by the American people. The more dangerous he sounds, the more likely it is that the electorate will turn out en masse to vote against him. Even many Republicans are disturbed by the idea that they are now in the party of Alex Jones.

In the short run, Trump’s loss might make things better. Mainstream Republicans seemed to have no answer for him in the primaries. But if Trump-like candidates appear in 2020, sane Republicans can at least say, “We don’t want to do that again.” A sound thrashing this fall might well send the Republican establishment back to the drawing board. Maybe they’ll conclude that pandering to the crazies wasn’t such a good idea after all.

But what about the sizable minority that will come out of the election believing what Trump said? That will be far fewer people than the 40-45% who will vote for him, but what if it’s 10%? What if 10% of the American electorate comes to the inauguration believing that their candidate legitimately won the election, but had it stolen? What if 10% believes that election fraud is not just a one-off event, but is how America works now? That our enemies are now in charge, that everything the government does is illegitimate, and that violent resistance is the only way for justice to prevail?

I don’t believe that there will be riots, assassinations, and civil war. As many people as might fantasize such things, I think few will try to carry them out. But Trump’s legacy could leave a very fertile ground for the next demagogue to mix politics and violence in a brownshirt fashion. As I said, Trump is not Hitler. But we may look back on him as Hitler’s warm-up act.


[1] The Week‘s Paul Waldman was already complaining about this in March:

The real genius of Trump’s mendacity lies in its brazenness. One of the assumptions behind the fact-checking enterprise is that politicians are susceptible to being shamed: If they lie, you can expose the lie and then they’ll be less likely to repeat it. After all, nobody wants to be tarred as a liar. But what happens when you’re confronted with a politician who is utterly without shame? You can reveal where he’s lied, explain all the facts, and try as hard as you can to inoculate the public against his falsehoods. But by the time you’ve done that, he has already told 10 more lies.

[2] Adding on to widely debunked comments he made last week, Trump said this Friday in Altoona:

Is everybody [here] voting? [Cheers.] If you do that, if you do that, we’re not gonna lose. The only way we can lose — in my opinion, I really mean this — Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on. I really believe that. Because I looked at Erie and it was the same thing as this. And I’ve been all over the state, and I know this state well. I know the state well. But let me just tell you, I looked all over Pennsylvania, and I’m studying it, and we have some great people here, some great leaders here, of the Republican Party, and they’re very concerned about that. And that’s the way we can lose the state. And we have to call up law enforcement, and we have to have the sheriffs and the police chiefs and everybody watching. Because, if we get cheated out of this election, if we get cheated out of a win in Pennsylvania, which is such a vital state. Especially when I know what’s happening here folks — I know it. She can’t beat what’s happening here. The only way they can beat it, in my opinion, and I mean this 100%, [is] if in certain sections of the state, they cheat.

We’re gonna watch Pennsylvania. Go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times. The only way we can lose, in my opinion – and I really mean this, Pennsylvania – is if cheating goes on. I really believe it.

His I-can’t-really-lose claim flies in the face of the last four polls of Pennsylvania, all of which have Clinton up by double digits. And that ties the “cheating” claim to another bogus claimall the polls are skewed against Trump. (Romney supporters claimed the same thing before the 2012 election, and the results proved them wrong.)

Think about what this means: After Trump loses Pennsylvania — which he will — his supporters will have already denied any basis for claiming that he lost legitimately. The polls were biased, the election results were fraudulent — all that remains is Trump’s pure feeling that he would have won a fair election.

The substance of the fraud claim also deserves to be addressed, particularly since Sean Hannity and others have been backing Trump up on it. They have nothing. There is no reason to believe voter fraud played any role in 2012 or will play a role in 2016. 

Trump and Hannity discussed the fact that Mitt Romney got zero votes in 59 precincts of Philadelphia as evidence that some kind of fraud must have happened. Ryan Godfrey, an independent (former Republican) election inspector in Philadelphia, explained in a tweetstorm just how ridiculous that accusation is to anyone who understands the process.

Here’s how it looks to anyone who understands journalism: Hannity has been complaining about those 59 precincts since 2012, as if he were not part of a news organization and is helpless to investigate any further. But if in fact fraud happened in Philadelphia, it would not be hard for a real journalist to come up with solid evidence. That’s the beauty of that zero result: If you can turn up anybody who claims to have voted for Romney, that’s evidence of fraud.

So Sean, here’s how you could do it:

  1. First, get access to the Romney campaign’s get-out-the-vote data for these precincts, and see if they were expecting anyone to vote for him. (That’s how GOTV works: You compile databases of the people you expect to vote for you, then on election day you remind/cajole/nag them until they vote.) If there are no such people, then you’re done; the zero-vote outcome is credible.
  2. If there are, check publicly available records to see if any of them voted. (Again, if none did, you’re done; there’s no story.)
  3. If you still have some names on your list, contact them and see if they will testify that they voted for Romney in a precinct where no Romney votes were recorded. One person might be explained away, but if you get a half-a-dozen-or-so such witnesses, you can probably send somebody to jail and maybe get yourself a Pulitzer.

The Philadelphia Inquirer tried something like this immediately after the election: They went looking for registered Republicans in the zero-for-Romney areas. They didn’t find them. (In Godfrey’s tweetstorm, he notes that some of those areas didn’t record any votes in the Republican primary either.)

Take North Philadelphia’s 28th Ward, third division, bounded by York, 24th, and 28th Streets and Susquehanna Avenue. About 94 percent of the 633 people who live in that division are black. Seven white residents were counted in the 2010 census. In the entire 28th Ward, Romney received only 34 votes to Obama’s 5,920. Although voter registration lists, which often contain outdated information, show 12 Republicans live in the ward’s third division, The Inquirer was unable to find any of them by calling or visiting their homes.

… A few blocks away, Eric Sapp, a 42-year-old chef, looked skeptical when told that city data had him listed as a registered Republican. “I got to check on that,” said Sapp, who voted for Obama.

That’s real journalism: You go out, talk to people, and get answers, rather than just raise questions because you think something smells off. The fact that Hannity, after four years of suspicions, still can’t point to anything more solid than his feeling that zero can’t be right, tells me that he knows there’s no real fraud here. Either he has so little confidence in the charge that he didn’t even think it worthwhile to do the follow-up work, or he did the work, turned up nothing, and decided his listeners didn’t need to know that.

This is a general pattern in election-fraud stories: Somebody does just enough research to find something that sounds suspicious, and then runs with it. Either they never do the follow-up investigation that seems called for, or when somebody else does, it turns up nothing — like this case in South Carolina, which I told you about in 2013.

[3] This also deserves a lengthy discussion. Here’s the quote:

Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish — the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick [booing from crowd] if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.

The official Trump-campaign explanation — that he meant gun-rights supporters could use their political power to make sure Trump wins — is obviously nonsense. The scenario Trump had laid out in “if she gets to pick her judges” assumed she’d already been elected.

My favorite response was tweeted by Sarah Milov:

Maybe 19th amendment people can do something about Trump

(The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.)

Paul Ryan interpreted the quote as a joke gone bad, and if you watch the video, Trump’s tone and phrasing is consistent with a joke. But English-professor-turned-lawyer Jason Steed, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the social function of humor, explained in a tweetstorm that

Nobody is ever “just joking”. Humor is a social act that performs a social function (always).

A joke, he explains, defines an in-group that laughs and an out-group that doesn’t.

If you’re willing to accept “just joking” as a defense, you’re willing to enter [the] in-group, where [the] idea conveyed by the joke is acceptable.

This is why you should never tell a racist joke, even if everybody in the room knows that you’re joking: The joke itself normalizes racism; by laughing, your audience ratifies that normalization.

Rolling Stone‘s David Cohen connected Trump’s “joke” to the important notion of stochastic terrorism: when you mark someone for attack by the wackos that you know are out there, while keeping your distance from the attack itself. Last November, after a mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, Valerie Tarico explained the process:

1. A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons.
2. With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous — arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust.
3. Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past “purges” against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language — all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms.
4. When violence erupts, the public figures who have incited the violence condemn it — claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the “tragedy.”

Previous examples include the role Bill O’Reilly played in the assassination of the Kansas abortion-provider Dr. George Tiller, and Byron Williams, who shot two California policemen when stopped on his way to attack the Tides Foundation, which had become central in Glenn Beck’s fantastic theories.

BTW: Hillary Clinton has never called for “abolishing the Second Amendment” — essentially or otherwise. Here’s her list of proposals on guns, all of which are within current Supreme Court interpretations of the Second Amendment.

Sexism and the Clinton Candidacy

Open misogyny, like open racism, has become a fringe position in America. But even people who believe they don’t have a sexist bone in their bodies are still influenced by it.


I’m a guy, and I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. Lots of us are.

Naturally, I also know men who aren’t voting for her. But you know what I haven’t heard? Not one of the anti-Clinton men I know personally — not even in a wink-and-nod, just-between-us guys sort of way — says that it’s because she’s a woman, or that women in general have no business being president.

Of course, it’s also true that if you go looking for that opinion, you can find it. (Samantha Bee even found a woman who thinks women shouldn’t be in charge.) And if you want to rile yourself, it’s not hard at all to dredge up comments on Facebook and other social media calling the former Senator, First Lady, and Secretary of State a bitch, a cunt, or some other misogynistic name. If you visit the vendors outside a Trump rally, you can even get a misogynistic epithet on a t-shirt or bumper sticker.

But still, open misogyny has become a fringe position. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 92% of Americans said they could vote for a woman for president. Maybe that’s only because admitting otherwise has become uncool, but there are also more specific signs of progress. Just two election-cycles ago, during Clinton’s first presidential run, whether a woman could be commander-in-chief still came up from time to time. In this cycle, though, she has managed to turn that issue around, contrasting her own experience and gravity against Donald Trump’s impulsiveness. In a recent Fox News poll, voters trusted Clinton more than Trump on “making decisions about using nuclear weapons” by a 56%-34% margin.

So hurray! Sexism is over in American politics and we can stop talking about it.

Well, not exactly.

The racism parallel. Eight years ago, after we elected our first black president, a lot of people convinced themselves that racism was over. And if we’re talking about open KKK-style racism, they were almost right. Few people in 2008 or 2012 said they wouldn’t vote for Obama because he’s black. Using the N-word against him in public, openly calling for white supremacy — you can still find that if you look, but it’s a fringe position.

And yet, the last eight years have been a lesson in just how pervasive the more subtle forms of racism are. If few white Americans would admit — even to other whites — that they didn’t want a black president, many many white people have seemed to hunger for some non-racial reason to dislike or mistrust Barack Obama.

And so, based no credible evidence whatsoever, a large segment of the American public have decided that he isn’t really an American, and so isn’t eligible to be president at all. Another large segment (with considerable overlap, I imagine) has convinced themselves that Obama’s whole religious history is a fraud, that he is secretly a Muslim, and is probably rooting for the jihadi terrorists (the same ones that he’s been killing with raids and drone strikes).

Others look at his family through jaundiced eyes. To them, Michelle — a beautiful, elegant woman by any standard — resembles a gorilla. When Sasha and Malia wear typical teen-age-girl clothes they get admonished to “dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar“. The luxurious White House lifestyle, never an issue when white families lived there, suddenly looks uppity; and the cost of keeping the First Family safe on vacations — again, never an issue for the Bushes, Clintons, or Reagans — has been a point of resentment.

Whenever Obama acts like the President of the United States and accepts the deference that is due his office — like when a Marine holds an umbrella for him, or he puts his feet up on a White House desk — it just looks wrong. Sure, white presidents have been doing the same things for decades without irritating anybody, but this is different because … because … well it just is.

And the aura of respect that has sheltered even our most unpopular presidents from direct abuse in formal settings? That vanished as soon as a black man took control of the White House. Undoubtedly, Joe Wilson was not the first congressman to think a president had said something dubious in a State of the Union address. But none of the previous doubters had judged it appropriate to yell “You lie!”.

Summing up, a lot of Americans might say to President Obama: “I don’t hate you because you’re black. I hate you because so many of the things you do look wrong to me.” But if you take a step back and look at comparable situations from previous administrations, it’s hard to escape the realization that what is really wrong in Obama’s actions is that he’s black when he does them.

It’s not that blackness is bad per se — that would be the Jim-Crow-style racism we’ve almost all outgrown. It’s that for many Americans, blackness-in-power invokes a harsher standard of judgment that makes “This black president is bad” an almost inevitable conclusion.

Back to Hillary. So I think we should bring some skepticism to the idea that Hillary Clinton’s high unfavorable ratings are simply a fair public reaction to things she has said or done.

As with Obama and racism, not everybody who opposes Clinton is a sexist or dislikes her for gender-related reasons. But even if you can list apparently good reasons for not liking her, you need to consider the possibility that the things she says or does seem as bad as they do because Clinton is a woman when she does them.

Like racism, sexism may no longer dictate the views of most Americans, but it still has a strong influence.

Appearance. The most obvious way that Clinton is treated differently from male candidates is with regard to her appearance. Prior to Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, one of the most googled questions was what she would wear. A white pantsuit was the answer, a decision deemed worthy of historical analysis in The Atlantic.

For a man, of course, the question has a standard answer: a dark suit with a light-colored shirt and a red or blue tie. If a man wears that, he can count on everybody to forget what he’s wearing and concentrate on what he’s saying. But there is no standard choice for women, because no woman has ever been in this situation before. Whatever she wears, it just doesn’t look presidential. I mean, would Abe Lincoln wear a white pantsuit?

For contrast, look at the two men Clinton has run against — Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both men have unusual hair. Both take some ribbing for it, but it’s really not a big deal. (Clinton could never have turned a bad-hair day into a t-shirt, as Bernie did.) I doubt that either of their campaigns wasted a single minute of meeting time discussing “What are we going to do about his hair?”

Ditto for wardrobe. Trump wears expensively tailored suits, while Bernie sometimes looks like he slept in his. Both choices are OK and raise no issues. But every fashion choice a female candidate makes is fraught. Does she look too “frumpy“? Or is she too vain? Does she worry too much about her appearance, or spend too much on her clothes? (Both Clinton and Sarah Palin got skewered on that one.) It’s fine for Mitch McConnell to get increasingly jowly as he ages, but could Nancy Pelosi get away with that? And if she takes action to avoid facial sagging, that’s an issue too.

Clinton’s voice is another perpetual problem: It’s too shrill and she shouts too much. But Trump and Sanders also shout a lot without anybody making an issue of it. Bernie’s gravelly voice is far from what they’re looking for in broadcasting school, but somehow it makes him more authentic, like Bob Dylan.

Sex and marriage. There’s also a moral double standard. As we all remember from high school, someone who has a lot of sex is a stud if male, and a slut if female. That double standard hasn’t gone away.

Imagine, for example, if Clinton had a marital history like Trump’s. Picture her standing on the convention stage with a much-younger male model for a husband, waving to the crowd while surrounded by the children she conceived with three different fathers, all still alive. It’s an absurd vision, because no such woman could be elected to any office whatsoever.

Oratory. The big fear leading up to Hillary’s acceptance speech was whether she could match the great speeches of the previous nights’ speakers: Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and the ultimate master of the convention speech, Barack Obama.

By all accounts, she didn’t. It was a good speech that made her case and did her credit, but she didn’t even attempt to lift our spirits like Obama did in 2004, 2008, and 2012.

But consider this: Is an Obama-level speech even possible for a woman candidate in 2016? Would we know how to listen to it and recognize its greatness?

I don’t think we would. I’m not even sure that I would. We’re well trained to hear certain kinds of ideas from men, and respond in a certain way to them. Hearing the same speech from a woman would be a different experience entirely. For example, Joe Biden basically gave a Knute Rockne halftime pep talk. Could a woman have pulled that off?

“But what about Michelle?” you might ask. “She’s a woman and her convention speech was magnificent.” Indeed it was, but it was rooted in her experience as a wife and mother. She was not a candidate, and was not asking us to give her power. If she had been, say, running for the open Senate seat in Illinois, we might have heard her speech very differently.

The rogue’s gallery. The example of Bernie’s “authentic” voice points to an even more subtle pattern that is frequently overlooked: Just as there are negative stereotypes (like slut or ball-buster) for women, there are endearing stereotypes that make excuses for the flaws of men. As a result, if a man needs us to cut him some slack, it doesn’t seem like that big a stretch.

As Franklin Roosevelt is supposed said about a Central American dictator: “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” That line has been repeated about a number of American politicians since, including Richard Nixon. It’s a compliment of sorts: This guy may be immoral, but he’s going to do immoral things for us.

Trump’s long history as a con-man generates a similar excuse: Yes, he cheats people, but that’s why we need him: so that he can cheat the Chinese and the Mexicans on our behalf. Trump claimed that dubious virtue in his acceptance speech:

Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens.

Lyndon Johnson was known as a wheeler-dealer, a stereotype that makes a virtue out of a man’s ability to bribe and threaten. If he can wheel and deal his way to Medicare and the Voting Rights Act, so much the better.

A standard character in our movies and TV shows is the charming rogue: Indiana Jones, Rhett Butler, Serenity‘s Captain Mal. He’s a rebel, a rule-breaker. He may be annoying at times and completely unreliable, but you keep forgiving him because it’s just so entertaining to watch him wriggle in and out of trouble. Trump and Bill Clinton both benefit from this stereotype, and in some circles so does Ted Cruz. (“Shut down the government? That scamp! What will he pull off next?”)

Female leaders don’t have any of those forgiving loopholes available to them. When the FBI announced that Hillary’s email mistakes were not indictable crimes, her supporters sighed with relief and her critics seethed with anger. (“Lock her up!”) Literally no one was charmed by her skill as a escape artist. (“She’s so smart! They’ll never nail her.”) If she were a man, though, many would be.

Clinton has been known to lie or mislead when she’s accused of something, behavior which (as the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof pointed out Sunday) is pretty standard for an American politician. And yet, a fairly small set of examples is enough to support an image of exceptional untrustworthiness.

Meanwhile, it is virtually impossible to hold a conversation with Donald Trump — on any subject — without hearing him lie. (Kristof: “In March, Politico chronicled a week of Trump remarks and found on average one misstatement every five minutes.”) The result: Slightly more voters describe Trump as “honest and trustworthy” than say the same of Clinton.

This is a pattern we should recognize from racial discrimination: We insist on high standards from our leaders, except when we don’t. Members of privileged groups — whites, men — can wrangle exceptions. Only the non-privileged — blacks, women — are actually held to those standards.

“But I just don’t like her.” Any woman running for office has to thread a very narrow needle: She has to look good without appearing vain, to sound strong but not bossy, project as friendly but not soft, and have years of experience without seeming old and stale. (Donald Trump can have no track record in government and be an outsider. A comparable woman would just be unqualified.) For a lot of Americans — even the 92% who told Gallup they could imagine voting for a woman — there might not be an eye in that needle at all.

Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford’s Clayman Institute, writes:

High-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success – and specifically the behaviors that created that success – violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave. Women are expected to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing. Thus, if a woman acts assertively or competitively, if she pushes her team to perform, if she exhibits decisive and forceful leadership, she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she “should” behave. By violating beliefs about what women are like, successful women elicit pushback from others for being insufficiently feminine and too masculine.

Michael Arnovitz looked at the long-term graph of Clinton’s favorability and noted:

What I see is that the public view of Hillary Clinton does not seem to be correlated to “scandals” or issues of character or whether she murdered Vince Foster. No, the one thing that seems to most negatively and consistently affect public perception of Hillary is any attempt by her to seek power. Once she actually has that power her polls go up again. But whenever she asks for it her numbers drop like a manhole cover. … Most of the people who hate Hillary when she’s running for office end up liking her just fine once she’s won.

I’ve heard a number of people, even a few women, tell me that they wish the first woman nominee had been someone different. To which I respond: How different could she be and still have gotten here?

“But I’m not sexist! I’m voting for Jill Stein.” As every Green voter knows in his or her heart, Jill Stein is not going to be our next president. So the disorientation and the fear-of-the-unknown that Clinton evokes simply does not rise for anyone considering Stein.

Likewise, Stein hasn’t run the decades-long gauntlet (with its corresponding decades of unfair criticism and invented scandals) that puts a woman in position to be a major party nominee. If she had, I suspect she would seem like damaged goods too.

We’ve seen something similar to the Stein option with the Republicans and race. Herman Cain in 2011 and Ben Carson in 2015 both had moments in the sun, as Republicans waved their signs and said, “See! I’m against Obama, but I’m not racist.” Strangely, though, both candidacies had faded long before the first primaries. So no one ever had to cast a vote that had a serious chance of putting Cain or Carson into power. Similarly this November, no one will cast a vote that has a serious chance of putting Stein into power either.

A woman as a message-carrier? A woman as the symbol of an impossible dream? We’re all fine with that. But the prospect of giving a woman real power is something else.

Can we compensate? Obviously, it would make no more sense to vote for Clinton because she’s a woman than to vote against her for that reason. So what am I asking you to do?

Here’s my point: It is a very human reaction to instinctively recoil from something you’ve never seen before, to imagine that there’s something wrong with it, and then to go looking for reasons you can use to justify that pre-rational feeling of wrongness. I strongly suspect that lots of people who hate Hillary Clinton (and even a few who are going to hold their noses and vote for her out of disgust with Trump) have done that, or have been influenced by opinion-makers who do that.

Which is not to say that everyone who isn’t whole-hearted supporting Hillary is reacting out of sexism. She’s an American politician who has views, plans, and a record, none of which are perfect. No candidate — even great presidents who were white men — gets 100% of the vote.

But think about what you would like to have told those 2012 voters who were convinced that Barack Obama was a Kenyan-born terrorist-sympathizing fake Christian who hates America and wants to undermine our culture and society. Not that those wouldn’t be good reasons to vote against him, but why do you believe them? Could the thinking process that led you to those beliefs have been influenced by the subtle racism that infects almost everything in our society?

Our society is similarly infected with subtle sexism. Those things you believe about Hillary that make her uniquely objectionable, or so repellant that the difference between her and Trump seems too insignificant to take seriously, why do you believe them?

Could sexism have played a role in forming those beliefs? Think it through again.

Disbanding NATO: Why Vlad loves Donnie

Nobody’s sure exactly what Trump sees in Putin. But in the other direction, the allure is obvious.


Last week I characterized the idea that Vladimir Putin hacked the Democratic National Committee to help Donald Trump become president as “mostly a conspiracy theory” and “pretty speculative”. That theory got quite a bit more believable this week.

Trump even called for Russian hackers to try to find the emails deleted from Clinton’s server, though he later backed off and called the request “sarcastic“. (No doubt Trump would be equally amused if Clinton called on Chinese hackers to find the tax returns he refuses to reveal.)

Then he got caught in a tangle of his own previous lies. In the past he has exaggerated his connection to Putin, because that’s what hucksters do: namedrop to make themselves seem more important than they really are. But now that he’s accused of having an improper relationship with the Russian dictator, he says “I never met Putin.

In The Atlantic, David Frum lists the various ways Trump has deferred to Putin.

  • When asked whether he would tell Putin to stay out of U.S. elections, Trump said that he would not tell Putin what to do.
  • He has called NATO “obsolete”, and told the NYT he would not necessarily defend NATO countries if Russia attacked them.
  • He weakened a pro-Ukrainian plank in the Republican platform. (As Rachel Maddow points out, he showed little interest in the rest of the platform.) (Sunday, he appeared confused about Ukraine, saying that Russia was “not going to go into Ukraine” under a Trump presidency, when in fact it has occupied parts of Ukraine for two years.)
  • He replied “Yes, we would be looking at that” when asked whether he might drop the sanctions that were imposed on Russia after its takeover of Crimea. (Again, though, Trump may just be a victim of his own bluster. In TrumpSpeak “We will be looking at that” usually means “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He says it fairly often.)

Various people have proposed reasons he might be so pro-Putin. Maybe he admires Putin’s strong-man style of leadership. Or his investments are entangled with Russian oligarchs. Or he wants to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. So far, though, that’s still the speculative part of the theory.

But regardless of why Trump loves Putin so much, it’s obvious why Putin would want to help Trump: The best thing that could happen to Russia is for NATO to disband, and a President Trump might well make that happen.

NATO has not been a partisan issue in the U.S. since the alliance was formed during the Truman administration. But now it is. In an interview with the NYT’s David Sange and Maggie Haberman, Trump was explicitly asked whether he would defend the Baltic republics from Russian attack, as the NATO treaty obligates us to do. And Trump did what Trump does with any contractual obligation: He looked for a loophole.

SANGER: My point here is, Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations ——

TRUMP: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.

HABERMAN: And if not?

TRUMP: Well, I’m not saying if not. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.

At the time, I thought he was referring to a longstanding American complaint that the other NATO allies don’t spend enough on defense, leaving us to shoulder the burden. NATO guidelines call for members to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense, but only  the U.S., Greece, United Kingdom, Estonia, and Poland currently do. Getting tougher with the other members about their defense spending would be consistent with Trump’s “America First” slogan. (Even so, one member-nation failing to meet a guideline is hardly legal justification for another member to violate the treaty. To make an analogy: I retain my constitutional rights as an American even if I’m behind on paying my taxes.)

But in subsequent statements, Trump made a very disturbing word choice: He talked about NATO countries paying “us”. Not fulfilling their obligations to spend money on their own defense, but paying us for defending them.

Trump offered an even more explicit ultimatum to NATO allies.

“I want them to pay,” he said. “They don’t pay us what they should be paying! We lose on everything. Folks, we lose on everything.”

He went on to criticize former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy record: “She makes it impossible to negotiate. She’s not a negotiator. She’s a fool.”

“We have to walk,” Trump added. “Within two days they’re calling back! Get back over here, we’ll pay you whatever the hell you want.”

“They will pay us if the right person asks,” he said. “That’s the way it works, folks. That’s the way it works.”

Trump’s view of NATO, in other words, is not an alliance; it makes Europe an American protectorate, which it has never been before. Currently, member countries may pay the cost of the bases on their soil and then invite our troops to use them, but no NATO country pays us for defense.

If you know your classical history, this should ring bells: After the wars with Persia, Athens led the Delian League, an alliance of city-states that contributed ships, soldiers, and money to the common defense. Eventually, though, Athens moved the League’s treasury from Delos to Athens and told the other members of the league to just send money. In other words, Athens now collected tribute from its former allies, who became subjects in an Athenian empire.

Unless he just doesn’t understand what his words mean — another distinct possibility — that’s what Trump is proposing to do with NATO: We threaten to “walk”, leaving European countries to face Putin alone, and offer the alternative that they start paying us tribute and become provinces in an American Empire.

I strongly suspect that Germany, France, Britain, and Italy have no interest in being American tributaries, and so NATO would cease to exist in anything like its current form.

If I were Vladimir Putin, and I could get that result for the price of a few computer hacks, I’d consider it a very good deal.