Tag Archives: framing

Is an Intelligent Cancel Culture Discussion Possible?

https://theweek.com/cartoons/970913/editorial-cartoon-kaepernick-dr-seuss-potato-head-gop-cancel-culture

Maybe. But we’ll have to cut through a lot of nonsense first.


In case you missed previous posts like “Why You Can’t Understand Conservative Rhetoric” and “Silly Season in the Culture Wars“, here’s what I’ve concluded: The rhetoric on “cancel culture” is wildly overblown, and articles denouncing it almost invariably

  • fail to define what they’re talking about, making me wonder if “cancel culture” is really a thing at all,
  • use a bunch of imaginary examples that fall apart as soon as you look at them, like the “cancellation” of Mr. Potato Head or Dr. Seuss. [1]

Mostly this is a debate between the Right and the Left, with conservatives prophesying the fall of civilization and liberals wondering what the problem is. But a segment of the mainstream commentariat has tried to stake out a middle position, recognizing that Green Eggs and Ham is in no danger and Pepe Le Pew should have disappeared a long time ago, but still repeating right-wing talking points about the Jacobin nature of the “woke mob”.

Bai and Hennessey. Case in point: Matt Bai, warning in Friday’s Washington Post about the dangers of the ongoing “cultural revolution” (and admitting that he’s invoking Mao intentionally). He brushes off the Fox News freakout about Mr. Potato Head, but then takes aim at people like me. [2]

the overwhelming leftist response to Republican hysteria has been to say that there is no such thing as “cancel culture,” no actual threat to free expression. It’s all just a lot of Trumpian nonsense, propagated by racists and sexists.

This isn’t true, and it isn’t helpful.

You know what would be helpful? If folks like Bai would define their terms and offer actual examples that can be be analyzed and compared, so readers don’t just have to take his word for what is or isn’t true. But instead, he makes this sweeping but totally unsupported claim:

A culture of self-censorship pervades media and the arts — a fear that using the wrong word or recommending the wrong book can derail a career.

We are, in fact, witnessing the most direct assault on free expression in my lifetime, mainly because a loud segment of younger activists view free expression as a convenient excuse for perpetuating oppression.

Despite the once-in-a-lifetime gravity of this situation, Bai does not find it necessary to identify a single career that has actually been derailed for “using the wrong word or recommending the wrong book”.

So what exactly is he talking about? If I don’t already know, he’s not going to tell me.

Most sensible liberals I talk to — in politics, news, entertainment or academia — understand this. But there’s a palpable fear of getting on the wrong side of the woke mob, and it doesn’t seem worth the risk.

Who is in this “woke mob”? He doesn’t say, beyond “younger activists” (which, sad to say, leaves me out as I research my Medicare options). But apparently my advanced age has not made me “sensible”, because I have no idea what he means.

Bai is not an isolated example. One of my unimpeachably liberal Facebook friends linked approvingly to this New York Post article by Matthew Hennessey, which tries to rally Gen-Xers against cancel culture’s “millennial Maoists”. (What is it about Mao?) Predictably, Hennessey also doesn’t define “cancel culture”, and (unlike Bai) recites the right-wing litany of imaginary examples. (The article’s illustrations include images from The Cat in the Hat and Gone With the Wind, both of which remain readily available.) And he perversely advocates fighting back against cancel culture by canceling anti-racists:

We will have to engage in a thousand tiny battles every day and it will be terribly uncomfortable. It’ll be hard standing up to school administrators pushing an ‘anti-racist’ curriculum on your kids.

Yeah, how dare the still-unidentified “woke mob” try to teach your children about slavery or structural racism? You absolutely need to protect freedom of speech by censoring that curriculum before the kids ever learn anything from it.

OK, I’ve got that out of my system now. Let’s see if it’s possible to find something here we can think about with some amount of rigor.

Outlines of a reasonable discussion. I suspect the term “cancel culture” is now poisoned beyond recovery. But let’s see if we can tease some kernel of legitimate concern out of the mass of nonsense. Let’s begin with some ground rules.

The phenomenon we end up discussing can’t have political bias built into it, as “cancel culture” currently does. I’m not willing to adopt a frame in which, by definition, only conservatives can have a grievance. If Gina Carano is a victim of whatever-it-is, then so are Colin Kaepernick and the Dixie Chicks.

Whatever-it-is has something to do with the proper limits of free speech. And that discussion needs to start by acknowledging that some limits, both legal and cultural, are necessary and proper. For example, there is room to argue about whether Trump’s January 6 speech should qualify as an illegal “incitement to riot”. But if he had openly said, “Now go to the Capitol and do whatever you need to do to stop Congress from counting the electoral votes”, he should go to jail. Freedom of speech can’t be absolute.

As for cultural limits, consider the example of an announcer’s I-didn’t-know-the-mic-was-live moment at a girls high-school basketball game in Oklahoma Thursday night. (When some of the student athletes knelt during the national anthem, he commented: “Fucking niggers.” [3]) I don’t think you have to be a Maoist to believe he should be fired for that. Not jailed, not lynched — but there should be consequences when somebody goes that far over the line.

And finally, there’s a difference between tolerating someone’s right to say something and providing them a platform so they can say it again. That’s another aspect of the basketball-announcer example. If a guy sitting in a bar makes the same comment to the TV screen, the people who hear it should give him strange looks, and that might well be the end of it. But should a network keep giving this guy a microphone?

To give another example, The Birth of a Nation is a racist movie from 1915, which you can watch in its entirety on YouTube. I’m fine with that, and I’d also be fine with Google (which owns YouTube) deciding not to host it. I would oppose a law that made distributing or watching the movie illegal.

But providing a public venue to screen the movie is a more complex discussion. If I were part of a university community — as either faculty or student — I’d be fine with an on-campus group showing it as part of a larger conversation about racism in film, one that allowed for discussion of the ways it misrepresents the Reconstruction Era. But I would protest if the movie were brought to campus without any context, in a hey-you-might-like-this way, or in any other way that used the university as a platform to promote the film’s racist point of view. [4]

So: It would be valuable for American culture to have a broad conversation about the proper limits of free speech and the proper ways of responding to offensive speech. A worthy goal would be to develop impartial standards that balance what I can do against what can be done to me, regardless of whether I am liberal or conservative.

Another valuable conversation would involve how we want to look at our history. How should we judge people who lived in other eras, when cultural values were different? What points of view have been systematically excluded from our history, and how does the story change when we let those points of view in?

I’ve heard a lot of people claim that eventually we’ll be renaming the Washington Monument, but I’ve never heard anybody seriously propose that. As in the previous discussion: What are the proper limits? Acknowledging someone’s historical significance is not the same as continuing to celebrate that person. We can leave people in the history books without naming schools after them.

Is anybody having that discussion? Maybe, a little. I’ll point you to a couple of worthwhile recent contributions.

First, Scott Illing’s interview with Jeffrey Sachs at Vox. Sachs has recently written an article at ARC on the bills state legislatures are considering (and even passing) that suppress critical race theory. In the interview, he contrasts the left-wing and right-wing threats to free expression.

I’m not comfortable either saying that one side is more dangerous than the other. What I will say is that the threats from the left tend to involve informal mechanisms of sanction, and they are no less censorious for that informality. They can do enormous damage, and it’s a significant problem that can be addressed if more college and university administrators grow a backbone and stand up to that kind of behavior.

Whereas the censorious instinct on the right is largely coming from off campus, and it involves much quieter tools that escape the notice of many commentators.

“Quieter” mainly because the national media doesn’t cover small-state legislatures like South Dakota, where a bill under consideration would

prohibit the use of any material designed to promote an ideological view of history, but simultaneously Gov. Kristi Noem has proposed or has requested $900,000 to overhaul the state’s history curriculum in order to promote the idea that “the United States of America is the most special nation in the history of the world.”

I hope Sachs eventually tells us specifically about the “enormous damage” to colleges and universities that he sees the Left doing. But the distinction — the Left operating mainly on campus and using social pressure, while the Right uses its political power in red-state legislatures — is useful.

Another worthwhile article is “Cancel Culture is Not a Movement” by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in the New Yorker. Wallace-Wells looks at particular cases and questions whether the “woke mob” operates more as a fear-inducing mirage than as a political force.

To Dr. Seuss Enterprises, it might have seemed possible that a progressive mob was waiting, ready to turn on “McElligot’s Pool” and “Mulberry Street.” But it is also possible—to me, it seems likely—that there was no such consensus at all. …

The college president, the city-council subcommittee, the panel of experts: these figures are often described by their political opponents as if they were as coherent and determined as a closed fist—that there is something cohesive that could be called cancel culture. My own sense is that something close to the opposite is true. The claims of racial justice have upended liberal élites in interesting and profound ways, and left them deeply uncertain: about how much history should be revised, about what kinds of retributive steps should be taken, and, above all, about how many people, really, want radical change.

Just about everyone left of center recognizes that white supremacy persists and is unjust, but “white supremacy” isn’t just a law that can be repealed or a corporate policy the board can change at its next meeting. So the desire to be on the right side of history often runs up against practical uncertainties: What can someone in my position actually do? And how much political capital does the will to change actually have? Will the apparent support for organizational change evaporate if I ask people to commit serious resources or accept significant change in their own lives?

The result can be bold announcements that lack bold follow-through, like Minneapolis City Council members vowing to “end policing as we know it”, but not allowing a police-defunding proposal to go to the voters. Or symbolic actions of little real impact, like San Francisco renaming its schools, or Speaker Pelosi wearing a kente-cloth stole to a demonstration.

College administrators can fire the people at the center of incidents, and sometimes do so too quickly and without due process, because they feel a need to demonstrate that they take the incidents seriously. Tech companies like Facebook and Twitter can boot people off their platforms, but the algorithms that identify such people are often no better than the algorithms that show us so many off-base advertisements. Publishers can decide not to publish objectionable books, either before or after someone objects to them. Stores can pull products off their shelves. Individuals can carry signs at Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Such actions display concern, but how well thought-out are they, and what next steps do they lead to?

The sum total of these actions can create the impression of a vast conspiracy reaching out to change every aspect of our lives, when the reality is quite different: A small group of activists has identified a problem that a much larger group of sympathizers recognizes as legitimate. But the larger group is fumbling to decide both what it can do about it, and how much it is willing to do.


[1] Jeff Tiedrich expressed this point with a little more vigor than I usually do.

[2] I would be amazed if Bai has ever heard of me or this blog, but he’s aiming directly at the arguments I’ve been making here. It’s hard not to take it personally.

[3] It’s always a question whether to quote exactly what someone said or alter it in some way, like “f**king ni**ers” or “effing N-words”, or to refer vaguely to “a racial slur”. When I’m tempted to do one of those things, I always ask myself, “Who would I be protecting?” In this case, I think I’d be protecting the announcer, by making his words sound less serious than they actually were, so I repeated the offending phrase as he said it.

This policy is open for discussion. The one caution I would give is: Don’t try to speak for other people. I want to know what offends you, not what you think would offend someone else.

[4] In giving these examples, I’m modeling the kind of conversation I’d like to see. In particular, they make the conversation real in a way that the Bai and Hennessey articles are unreal.

Silly Season in the Culture Wars

https://www.gocomics.com/johndeering/2021/03/05

If the only message you have is to stoke your base’s grievances, occasionally you have to make some up.


This week contained a lot of important news, so you might imagine that conservative news networks would have a lot to talk about. You might even say they had work cut out for them.

  • President Biden’s $1.9 trillion (with a T) spending bill was being debated in Congress, and the opposition message wasn’t getting through to the American people. In one poll, the proposal won support from 68% of Americans, including 37% of Republicans.
  • The battle against the Covid pandemic had major developments: Biden announced that enough vaccine for all adult Americans would be available by the end of May, two months earlier than previously thought. Meanwhile, Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi were removing mask mandates and other pandemic-related restrictions from their economies, and others were thinking of following suit — despite the fact that daily case-numbers and death-totals are either worse or not much different than when those restrictions were announced.
  • The Senate has been holding hearings on the January 6 insurrection, including testimony from the FBI director.
  • Police reform and voting rights bills passed the House.
  • Refugees are returning to our southern border.
  • A big-state Democratic governor is battling scandal.
  • The Senate still has Biden nominees to confirm. Surely one or more of them has done something worth getting upset about.
  • Biden is planning another trillion-with-a-T infrastructure bill to rebuild America in ways that Trump promised but never delivered on.

Serious stuff. Worth calling viewers’ attention to. Some of it even invites a conservative spin.

But instead, right-wing hosts like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity filled entire segments of their shows with Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss, two purported examples of “cancel culture” that (1) are trivial by comparison to several of the issues I just listed, and (2) don’t stand up to even a small amount of scrutiny.

Let’s examine the reality at the root of these controversies.

Mr. Potato Head. Not quite two weeks ago, Hasbro announced that it was changing how it markets its Mr. Potato Head toys:

Hasbro is officially renaming the MR. POTATO HEAD brand to POTATO HEAD to better reflect the full line.

In other words, Hasbro is de-centering masculinity: Instead of being an “accessory” to her husband, Mrs. Potato Head is now an equal member of the family. Horrors! Your daughter might get the idea that she can find her own place in the world, and doesn’t need a man to define her. And then the Hasbro announcement got even more sinister:

Launching this Fall, the CREATE YOUR POTATO HEAD FAMILY is a celebration of the many faces of families allowing kids to imagine and create their own Potato Head family with 2 large potato bodies, 1 small potato body, and 42 accessories. The possibilities to create your own families are endless with mixing and mashing all the parts and pieces.

So the toy is no longer hetero-normative. If they want, children can build a family with two Mommies or two Daddies. The branding no longer fights that. (Like that matters. I mean, you never cross-dressed Barbie and G. I. Joe, right? Sure. Me neither.) Of course, if you want a Potato Head Family with a Mommy, a Daddy, and a Tater Tot of your own gender, that still works too. (And you can still remove Daddy’s mouth, so he can’t yell at the Tot.) As best I can see, there are no losers here.

https://tribunecontentagency.com/article/20210303edshe-b-tif/

Dr. Seuss. The Dr. Seuss situation is similar: A private enterprise is managing its brand in a way that hurts no one.

When Theodore Seuss Geisel died in 1991, the copyrights on his works passed to his widow, Audrey Geisel, who lived until 2018.

In 1993 she founded Dr. Seuss Enterprises, whose stated mission was to “protect the integrity of the Dr. Seuss books while expanding beyond books into ancillary areas.”

Since then, DSE has done a pretty good job keeping Geisel’s flame burning.

Dr. Seuss — who died in 1991 — was one of the top-earning dead celebrities of 2020, with $33 million in total earnings, according to Forbes. That’s up from $9.5 million in 2015. His estate actually earned more than any late celebrity except for Michael Jackson, whose estate earned $48 million.

So maybe they know their business, and their judgement deserves the benefit of the doubt. Tuesday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that six of its more obscure titles would no longer be published.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises, working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.

None of these six was particularly popular.

“And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” one of the six books pulled by the estate, sold about 5,000 copies last year, according to BookScan. “McElligot’s Pool” and “The Cat’s Quizzer” haven’t sold in years through the retailers BookScan tracks.

For comparison, DSE sold over half a million of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!.

So what about these particular six books is “hurtful and wrong”? Unless you have copies lying around — and most people don’t, that’s what it means to be unpopular — it’s hard to judge for yourself. In situations like this, mainstream publications don’t want to call your attention to something just to demonstrate how hurtful it is. (And nether do I, so I’ll provide links you can chase if you’re curious rather than post the images themselves.)

The problem isn’t with the text of the books so much as the illustrations. None of them that I have seen is aggressively racist, like Nazi caricatures of Jews often were, but they contain demeaning stereotypes of Africans and Asians. (The anti-Japanese cartoons Geisel drew after Pearl Harbor, though, are aggressively racist, as many cartoons of the era were. None of them are currently being published by DSE.) You’re not supposed to hate these books’ non-white characters so much as find them different and strange. (The theme of Mulberry Street is that you don’t have to go far to see bizarre things, like “a Chinaman who eats with sticks“.) And a lack of diversity doesn’t help: The monkey-like African natives in If I Ran the Zoo would be less problematic (though still far from acceptable) if they weren’t the book’s only black characters.

(For what it’s worth, I’ll tell a story on myself: When I was three, I had pneumonia and my parents took me to the hospital. In the waiting room, I saw a Black family, maybe the first real-life Black people I had ever noticed. Dark skin was something I only knew from cartoons, when characters fell into mud puddles or got blown up with dynamite. “Mommy!” I announced (or so I’ve been told). “Those people are dirty.”)

If you’ve watched many old Disney or Warner Brothers cartoons — a lot of which have quietly been taken out of circulation — you know that none of this is unusual for the era. Explicitly non-white characters were rare, and the ones that do show up represent something “other”; you’re supposed to react to them, not identify with them. So the problem isn’t that Dr. Seuss was a bad man in the context of his time — in many ways his books were more progressive than their competitors — but that some of his work has aged badly.

What should be done about that depends on what you want Dr. Seuss to be in 2021. If he’s to be a historical figure — a leading children’s-book author of the mid-to-late 20th century — then his work should speak for itself. Leave it alone, and organize a conversation around it, as HBO Max did when it briefly withdrew and then re-launched Gone With the Wind. (GWTW is a spectacular example of 1930s movie-making, as well as a valuable artifact in the history of America’s attitudes towards race. So I encourage you to watch it. Just don’t imagine that its Lost Cause mythology is an accurate depiction of the Old South or the Reconstruction Era.)

But if Theodore Geisel’s legacy is supposed to be timeless — Audrey’s vision — if his work is supposed to live through our era and beyond, then it needs to be curated. Parents and grandparents should be able to trust the Dr. Seuss brand. When you sit down to read to your four-year-old, you should be able to pick up a Dr. Seuss book without worrying that you might put something bad into a developing mind.

That curation is precisely what Dr. Seuss Enterprises was doing when it removed these six books from its catalog. By taking this action, DSE is making it more likely that kids will still be reading The Cat in the Hat or How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 2050.

The conservative policy vacuum. To understand the overblown response to the Potato Head and Dr. Seuss news, think back for a moment to Reagan Era conservatism. Whether you loved it or hated it — and even if you believed some ulterior motive was hiding in its background — you knew its defining principles:

  • Bold foreign policy that maintains America’s military strength and isn’t afraid to use it.
  • Free trade.
  • Less regulation, lower federal spending, and lower taxes.
  • Local self-determination with less central control from Washington.

That all went out the window with Trump. He liked to spend a lot of money on weapons, brag about American military strength, and occasionally threaten other nations with “fire and fury”. But he also pulled back from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; distanced the US from allies like NATO, Japan, and South Korea; and let Vladimir Putin do whatever he wanted wherever he wanted to do it. Mao was probably wrong when he referred to the US of his era as a “paper tiger“, but Trump’s America really was one.

Free trade was replaced by tariffs and trade wars. Some regulations went away — particularly those protecting the environment — but others he stretched to interfere more aggressively in the decisions of US and foreign corporations. Big spending (and big deficits) weren’t worth mentioning any more. And no president in my lifetime did quite so much to impose federal policy on cities and states that didn’t want it. (Last summer, only resistance from the Pentagon kept him from invoking the Insurrection Act and sending active-duty troops into American cities.)

As a result of this reversal, and the absence of any new guiding principles to explain it, today’s Republican Party no longer has a policy agenda. The 2020 Republican platform was to support Trump — period. When the GOP controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, it couldn’t decide what to do with that power, other than pass one big tax cut for rich people. It couldn’t even fulfill its promise to repeal ObamaCare, because that would leave a void that it had no idea how to fill. “Complain all you want that the covid-19 relief bill has been packed with all sorts of unrelated stuff from the Democratic wish list,” Megan McArdle wrote yesterday. “At least the Democrats have a wish list. What’s the Republican equivalent?”

Conservatism today is defined not by principles or programs, but by a Leader, an identity, and (most of all) an attitude: Conservatives are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more. Mad at “Them” — the libs, the Deep State, Big Tech, the blood-drinking pedophiles — who keep threatening and insulting them.

But the Biden administration is policy-centered, so to the extent that Biden is driving the national conversation, Republicans have little to say. If they wanted to oppose Biden on substance, they’d need to have a Covid relief proposal of their own. (Ten GOP senators did make a laughably low-ball offer that they knew Biden couldn’t accept, but even they only represented themselves. The Republican leadership offered no proposal at all.) Or a coherent response to January 6 and the larger problem of domestic terrorism. Or an infrastructure plan. Or an immigration plan. Or something.

With no ideas to offer, they can only keep their base riled by promoting a never-ending string of “outrages”. Otherwise they’ve got nothing.

The cancel-culture freak-out. The essence of Trump’s message to his base (a message no other Republican is in a position to compete with) is grievance: Somebody is trying to take something from you, so you need a strong authoritarian leader to fight for you.

Some of these threats may be exaggerated, but they have at least a foothold in reality. Many Democrats really would like to take away assault rifles and other military-grade weaponry, or at least stop Americans from buying more. But the number proposing to “disarm” the country entirely is vanishingly small. Many Americans do compete for jobs with foreigners abroad and immigrants at home, though trade and immigration also create jobs and the balance is debatable.

But other “threats” are almost entirely imaginary: Non-white races are trying to “replace” you. Gays and lesbians are conspiring to destroy marriage and the family. Liberals want to criminalize Christianity. Big Tech is trying to steal your voice. Covid is a conpsiracy to take away your freedom. It has become a formula: When the Right needs to energize its base, they invent some nebulous force — “Them!” — that is trying to take away something that should be yours.

This week’s Seuss/Potato story has made this technique really obvious, because the frame fits so badly. Nothing is being taken away from anybody. Whatever you had hoped to do with Mr. Potato Head, you can still do. No one is coming for your Dr. Seuss books. And if you want more, you can buy more, except for a few books you probably had forgotten even existed. What’s more, the rights to those books never belonged to you anyway; if Dr. Seuss Enterprises thinks its brand is healthier without them, that’s up to them.

Conservative rabble-rousers did their best to pretend something else was happening. “They are banning Dr. Seuss books,” said Glenn Beck. They. Not the legal owners of the copyrights, or the organization created by Seuss’ widow to protect his legacy, but a nebulous “panel of ‘educators’ and ‘experts’.”

How much more do you need to see before all of America wakes up and goes “This is fascism!”? This is fascism. You don’t destroy books. What is wrong with us, America? Go out and buy those books today. Find out if you can get them. Buy Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, because it’s the end of an era. It is the end of freedom in America.

Beck is so strongly attached to these six books — none of which are being destroyed — that he gets some of their names wrong.

He wasn’t alone. On Fox & Friends, Donald Trump Jr. also warned about the sinister “they”, and seemed to imply The Cat in the Hat had been canceled.

There’s no place that they won’t go. This week alone, they canceled Mr. Potato Head, they canceled the Muppets. They’re canceling Dr. Seuss from reading programs. … I literally know The Cat in the Hat by heart without the book there because I read it so many times to my children.

(I almost forgot about the Muppets. Last month, Disney Plus began streaming all five seasons of The Muppet Show, making it more easily available than it has ever been. But Disney committed the unforgivable sin of putting content warnings on some episodes, like the one where Johnny Cash sings in front of a Confederate flag. But you can still watch it. No one has had the Muppets taken away from them.)

Kevin McCarthy similarly implied that the most beloved Dr. Seuss books were being canceled — not by the organization charged with maintaining his brand, but by people who don’t like Dr. Seuss. He tweeted “I still like Dr. Seuss” and then read Green Eggs and Ham on Twitter. Why didn’t he read If I Ran the Zoo and show us the primitive African natives?

Tuesday morning, as Christopher Wray verified that white supremacist groups were involved in the Capitol insurrection and Antifa wasn’t, Ted Johnson noticed a subtle difference in what news networks were covering.

The Washington Post provided the numbers:

Over the course of the past week, Fox News has spent 4 hours and 38 minutes on Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head and Biden’s comments about Neanderthals, according to a tally by the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America. That compared to 42 minutes from CNN and 39 minutes from MSNBC on those topics.

Fox News on Tuesday alone devoted an hour and nine minutes to Dr. Seuss — more than the combined amount it spent on the coronavirus vaccine and FBI testimony about the Jan. 6 insurrection.

https://www.mediamatters.org/fox-news/fox-news-dr-seuss-obsession-numbers

So this is what conservative media has come to: If you have nothing to say to America, and yet you need to keep your base riled up, then you need to rile them up about nothing.

Why You Can’t Understand Conservative Rhetoric

It’s not just that conservatives define terms differently. Sometimes their relationship to words defies definition entirely.


If you’re like most liberals, you probably from time to time take a walk on the other side of the line. Maybe you channel-scan through Fox News or even Newsmax. Or click on some of the links your Trump-adoring relatives send you. Or listen to a speech by some politician you can’t stand. Maybe you go so far as to read entire books written by people like Tucker Carlson or Newt Gingrich, or by academic types who are probably liberals themselves, but have spent years studying Trump supporters in rural Louisiana or in Evangelical churches.

And you still don’t get it.

It’s worse than just that you can’t follow the arguments, such as they are. You can’t even understand the words. Why is it “cancel culture” when Josh Hawley loses his book contract after cheerleading an insurrection, but not when Colin Kaepernick gets drummed out of the NFL for protesting racism? What does it mean when conservatives say “America is a Republic, not a Democracy“, as if that explained something obvious? Why are college professors and Hollywood actors “the elite”, but billionaires like the Kochs and the Mercers aren’t? Why is it “socialism” to subsidize windmills, but not coal mines? And who exactly are these “real Americans” that Donald Trump speaks for, when the American electorate rejected him by over seven million votes?

https://theweek.com/cartoons/964993/political-cartoon-kaepernick-gop-cancel-culture

The cancel-culture example. The usual liberal response when we run into one of these one-sided pejorative terms, terms that apply to us but never to them, is to charge hypocrisy. From the way the term applies to us, we intuit a definition, then ask why conservatives don’t apply that definition consistently. [1]

Wil Wilkinson, formerly a vice president at the liberal Niskanen Center, is sometimes pointed out as an ironic victim of “cancel culture”, because he recently lost his job after making an unfortunate joke on Twitter. [2] The irony comes from the fact that Wilkinson has been a critic of the whole cancel-culture conversation. To some conservatives, Wilkinson getting “canceled” is like the moment in a horror movie when the monster attacks the guy who’s been claiming there’s no monster.

Interestingly, though, Wilkinson himself still doesn’t believe cancel-culture is a thing. He defends his skepticism by stating his faith in something else: the power of definitions.

I also tend to believe that terms that successfully pick out real things in the real world — terms that aren’t merely vehicles for yay! / boo! sentiments — can usually be given a definition that allows us to get at least a rough handle on what’s included and excluded from the category. But I’ve yet to encounter a definition of “cancel culture” that overcomes my suspicion of sloganized epithets.

Wilkinson quotes L.D. Burnett: “There is no such thing as ‘cancel culture’. There is only culture.” In other words, societies have norms, and violating those norms leads to consequences. If you behave in ways your community considers unacceptable, people will shun you in an attempt to shame you into compliance.

In the Burnett/Wilkinson model, the examples of so-called cancel culture are just situations where norms are changing. Actions that used to be acceptable (like a male executive referring to his female secretary as “my girl”) have become unacceptable, and actions that used to be forgivable examples of bad taste (like making racist or sexist jokes at the expense of a co-worker) are now firing offenses.

If you still believe in the old norms, then the consequences that follow from violating the new norms are extreme over-reactions. But instead of openly debating the old norms versus the new norms, old-norm advocates simply apply a pejorative label to the new-norm consequences.

Slogans like “cancel culture” and “political correctness” are used again and again to short-circuit debate, avoid the underlying substantive controversy, and shift the entire burden of justification onto advocates of the rival position. … That’s why “cancel culture” tends to strike me as more of an evasive maneuver than a coherent idea with determinate content.

I was glad to see Wilkinson bring in “political correctness”, because that is an important example of the same phenomenon: Groups that used to be politically and culturally powerless, or even invisible, (like non-whites, women in the workplace, gays and lesbians, or Hindus) can now demand to be treated respectfully. If you show the kind of disrespect that used to be common, you will face consequences.

Instead of debating that norm-change openly, though, people who refuse to adjust to the new norms apply the pejorative label “political correctness” to the consequences. Like “cancel culture”, the term has no definition.

https://jensorensen.com/2015/07/28/advice-conservatives-never-give-themselves/

Let’s go meta. Burnett points out that labeling some action as “cancel culture” is itself an attempt to induce shame. In other words, it tries to enforce what the shamer sees as a norm.

Wilkinson’s article is also trying to enforce an unstated norm, one about how people are supposed to think and argue: Words are supposed to have definitions, and not be “merely vehicles for yay! / boo! sentiments”. Arguments are supposed to appeal to universal principles that go beyond just “my side is right and your side is wrong”. People who violate those norms should be ashamed of themselves, and the rest of us should refuse to take their arguments seriously until they change.

In academic circles, those standards go without saying. No one in any field would write in a journal article: “I’ve decided to leave ‘the elite’ undefined, so that I can apply the term pejoratively to my enemies but not my friends.” From the academy, similar norms have trickled down to the educated classes — who don’t always respect or observe them, but nonetheless accept that they ought to respect and observe them.

We sometimes forget, though, that not everyone thinks this way. In fact, there was a time when no one thought that way. Entire civilizations have functioned without definitions or universal principles.

Definition versus usage. If you’re a physicist, the word “red” has a very precise definition for you: light with a wavelength between 620 and 720 nanometers. For the rest of us, not so much. I’ve been using “red” for as long as I can remember, and I didn’t know that definition until I just looked it up.

It’s not that I have some other definition of “red”. I don’t have one at all, and yet I never feel the lack of it. I have a very clear idea what “red” means. I just can’t express it in words.

I don’t remember learning “red”, but I suspect it was the same way I’ve seen parents teach it to their children: Somebody pointed at red things and said “red”. When I tried to imitate them, they corrected my mistakes and cheered when I got it right. Eventually my performance became flawless.

Sometimes an undefined term has a paradigmatic example. At the paint store, “red” is specified by a color card: If something resembles the color card, it’s red. Similarly, “sweet” is the taste of sugar. To the extent that a taste resembles sugar, it’s sweet.

You could live your whole life without ever learning the dictionary definition of anything. Your community would train you in the proper usage of words, and when people disagreed, some paradigmatic example could resolve the dispute. The idea that you’re supposed to be able to define your words in terms of other words would just go right past you.

That’s what’s going on with “cancel culture”, “political correctness”, and the conservative phrases I listed above. They don’t have definitions, they have usages. People learn how to use these terms by hearing other people use them, then doing trial-and-error until their usage matches the rest of the conservative community.

So why isn’t Colin Kaepernick an example of cancel culture? Because it’s not used that way. If someone pointed at a dandelion or a banana and said “red”, I would just know that they’re wrong. I couldn’t explain why they’re wrong; they just are. “Red” isn’t used that way.

What does “America is a republic, not a democracy” mean? Nothing, actually. The phrase has a usage, not a meaning. Conservatives say it when liberals object to some minority-rule tactic like gerrymandering or the Electoral College or giving Wyoming the same number of senators as California, but DC and Puerto Rico none at all. If you’re hoping for some definition of “republic” that turns that usage into a meaning, though, you’re not going to get one.

Oral culture versus literate culture. If you want to see a society just beginning to grasp how to use the definitions and principles of logical thought, go read one of Plato’s dialogues. Most of them follow the same formula: Socrates is talking to somebody who uses a word, like “courage” (Laches) or “temperance” (Charmides) or “justice” (Republic). Socrates asks them what the word means, and they give him an example of its proper usage. So Laches says: “He is a man of courage who does not run away, but remains at his post and fights against the enemy.” Socrates points out that an example isn’t a definition, and they go round and round from there.

What becomes clear in these dialogues is that in Golden Age Greece, definitions were kind of a new thing, and the idea that you ought to be able to define the terms you use was novel, even a bit weird. Literate culture was still being invented, and it was trying to replace an oral culture where words had proper usages, but not definitions. Folks like Laches clearly expected a process like this: If two people aren’t sure they mean the same thing by a word, they trade examples (“Fire trucks are red.” “Ripe strawberries and tomatoes are red.”) until the agreement is clear.

Universal principles were similar innovations of literate culture. In the previous oral culture, traditional wisdom consisted of stories, and of aphorisms that might be the morals of stories. Aphorisms typically are not even trying to be universally true, like principles, but often come in contradictory pairs. So “Always look before you leap” contradicts “He who hesitates is lost”. Oral-culture discernment revolves around understanding the story you happen to be in. Is the current situation part of a look-before-leaping story or a hesitate-and-lose story? A stop-and-smell-the-roses story, or a make-hay-while-the-sun-shines story? [3]

Discernment is primarily a community process that depends heavily on tradition and authority. That gives it a resilience and stability, but also makes it prone to perpetuating a community’s bigotry and justifying the self-serving pronouncements of corrupt authorities. (It’s way too tempting to discern that we’re in a you-have-to-yield-to-me story.) Literate culture’s logic aimed at replacing discernment with more individual and algorithmic processes like measurement, calculation, and deduction.

In spite of its books and intellectuals, Evangelical Christianity is fundamentally an oral culture. Trumpist conservatism is built on top of it. One of the challenges conservative Christians have faced since pledging their allegiance to Trump is how to justify supporting a man who has literally no Christian virtues, and who appears to understand nothing about the Christian religion.

The answer they found was a story: the end of the Babylonian Captivity and the refounding of the Temple in Jerusalem. A key player in that story is Cyrus the Great of Persia, who was not a follower of Jehovah, but nonetheless was used by Israel’s God to fulfill His promise to Jeremiah and the Jewish people.

For believers who subscribe to this account, Cyrus is a perfect historical antecedent to explain Trump’s presidency: a nonbeliever who nevertheless served as a vessel for divine interest. For these leaders, the biblical account of Cyrus allows them to develop a “vessel theology” around Donald Trump, one that allows them to reconcile his personal history of womanizing and alleged sexual assault with what they see as his divinely ordained purpose to restore a Christian America.

That’s how oral culture works: This is the story we’re in, so we should do these things. No principles of action are being proposed, so you can’t argue about it in a Socratic sense. It arises from a process of community discernment, not a process of logical thought.

If you push further on Trump’s transgressions, you’re likely to hear that Christians believe in forgiveness. A text from the Bible will be quoted to prove it. Of course, they didn’t believe in forgiving Bill Clinton, but that also is Biblical, because the Bible contains both harsh and forgiving verses. Clinton was a harsh-verse situation, and Trump is a forgiving-verse situation. [4] If you can’t see that, you’re not part of the community. [5]

If you look at how QAnon works, it too is an oral culture. A few weeks ago, The New York Times profiled a “digital warrior” of QAnon.

For her, QAnon was always less about Q and more about the crowdsourced search for truth. She loves assembling her own reality in real time, patching together shards of information and connecting them to the core narrative. (She once spent several minutes explaining how a domino-shaped ornament on the White House Christmas tree proved that Mr. Trump was sending coded messages about QAnon, because the domino had 17 dots, and Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet.)

When she solves a new piece of the puzzle, she posts it to Facebook, where her QAnon friends post heart emojis and congratulate her.

This collaborative element, which some have likened to a massively multiplayer online video game, is a big part of what drew Ms. Gilbert to QAnon and keeps her there now.

“I am really good at putting symbols together,” she said.

Q has identified the story we are living inside [6], and the community now attempts to discern how current events fit into that narrative.

How should we respond? I wish I had a better answer. The main advice I have is to recognize what’s happening and stop doing things that don’t work, even if you think they should work.

The factor you have the most control over is your own thinking. So: Don’t read meaning into things that don’t have any meaning. And don’t respond as if they meant the things you think they ought to mean. “Cancel culture” and “political correctness”, for example, are a sticks-and-stones situation. If they meant something negative, and that meaning applied to something you were doing, then you should probably feel bad about it. But they don’t mean anything; they’re just words that are said in particular settings.

Rather than answer based on the meaning you imagine a phrase has, question it. If the person you’re talking to thinks a term has a meaning, let them explain it. Chances are that they can’t. Let them be frustrated rather than you. (WWSD. What would Socrates do?)

When dealing with people you know well, consider the possibility that they don’t know (or have forgotten) that literate culture and logical thought are even possible. Providing an example of a different way of thought will probably not produce sudden results. But over time it might be significant.


[1] A few conservatives also interpret this behavior as hypocrisy. Robby Soave of Reason wrote:

If you only criticize cancel culture when it’s your side being canceled, then you aren’t really attacking the concept—you’re just playing defense for your team.

[2] “If Biden really wanted unity,” Wilkinson tweeted, “he’d lynch Mike Pence.” The joke — that if Biden did lynch Pence, he’d be carrying out an ambition of radical Trumpists, thereby promoting unity — was lost on his bosses, who focused on the apparent call for violence. They don’t let conservatives get by with the it’s-a-joke excuse for endorsing violence, so they didn’t accept that excuse from one of their own either.

[3] Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato is all about life on the boundary between oral culture and literate culture. The reason Plato was so hostile to poets, in Havelock’s telling, was that poetry was the source of the aphorisms that competed with principles. As long as people revered the poets as fonts of muse-inspired wisdom, logical thought would never take hold.

[4] “The Christian’s Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same, but the medical practice changes.” – Mark Twain, Europe and Elsewhere, “Bible Teaching and Religious Practice”

[5] An example of how the same narrative can be either positive or negative: Compare the Biblical characters of Esther and Jezebel. Both are women who marry foreign kings, and use their influence to make the king more accepting of the religion of their homeland.

Esther is one of the Old Testament’s great heroines, and Jezebel one of its villainesses. The difference is almost entirely a my-team/their-team thing: Esther is a Jewish queen of Persia who uses her influence to save Jews from persecution. Jezebel is Phoenician queen of Israel who induces King Ahab to open Israel to the religion of Baal. (Trumpist pastors have begun calling Kamala Harris “Jezebel”. It appears to mean nothing more than that she’s a powerful woman they don’t like.)

[6] The story is that “elites” at the top of the media and the Democratic Party (but also some Republicans) are Satan worshipers who practice pedophilia and drink human blood. Donald Trump is the hero who is going to bring them down. The exposure and punishment of these crimes, leading to mass arrests and executions, is always just around the corner.

Why the Country Isn’t Rallying Around Trump’s Flag

There is a substantial national consensus and someone needs to speak for it.
Unfortunately, our current President can’t.


The bullhorn speech. The highest presidential approval Gallup ever reported was published on September 24, 2001. Just ten months before, George W. Bush had lost the popular vote to Al Gore, resulting in a bitter dispute over Florida, and a widespread belief among Democrats that his presidency was illegitimate. In the poll published on September 10, Bush’s approval rating had been a lackluster 51%, barely higher than the 48% who had voted for him in November. But now, suddenly, 90% of Americans approved of his job performance.

Bush was the same man he had been two weeks before, but something historic had happened in the meantime: On September 11, the United States suffered a humiliating and horrifying attack. In New York, the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell, killing almost 3,000. In Washington, the Pentagon had been damaged. A fourth hijacked airliner, rumored to have been targeted at the Capitol, had been brought down by a self-sacrificing passenger uprising.

Three days later, Bush stood in the WTC rubble.

The president, who had been in office less than eight months, grabbed a bullhorn and started thanking the fire fighters and other first responders at the scene, telling them that they were in the country’s prayers. Someone in the crowd shouted that he couldn’t hear the president, and Bush replied with the words that made history.

“I can hear you!” he declared. “The rest of the world hears you! And the people – and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” The crowd reacted with loud, prolonged chants of “USA! USA!”

In this electric moment, Bush captured the mood of the country, delivering just what the American people wanted a combination of gratitude for the rescue workers’ bravery and diligence, defiance toward the terrorists, and resolve to bring the evil doers to justice.

Rally round the flag. Other peaks of presidential approval reflect similar moments of national unity. In 1991 and 1945, the common emotion was pride and relief at the successful conclusion of a war. The first President Bush garnered 89% approval after the surprisingly one-sided victory over Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War. President Truman reached 87% approval after the surrender of Nazi Germany. Perhaps the moment that most resembled 9/11 was Pearl Harbor, when a similar sense of national determination pushed FDR’s approval up to 84%.

Crisis has a way of uniting Americans around their president. Past mistakes and doubts are put aside. Had W ignored the terrorist threat before 9/11? Had his father’s uncertain policy led Saddam to believe he could get away with invading Kuwait? December 7, 1941 was not just a “date that will live in infamy”, it was also a shocking defeat for the Navy that Roosevelt commanded, and was soon followed by the defeat of American ground forces in the Philippines.

So if you had wanted to disapprove of any of those presidents, you could justify it. But somehow none of that mattered. The nation yearned to be united, and there was only one president to unite around. Lingering disagreements and disappointments would have to be transcended until the current challenge had been met and overcome.

Over time, this pattern has baked itself into the American psyche so deeply that it has a name: the rally-round-the-flag effect.

What about now? Right now, we’re in another national crisis of historic proportions. More than 50,000 Americans have died of Covid-19, almost all of them in the last month. Hundreds of thousands are sick, and nearly every American has felt the impact of stay-at-home orders intended to “flatten the curve” and blunt the upward trajectory of death.

We’re mourning, we’re hurting, we’re frightened, and we’re angry. So why isn’t the rally-round-the-flag effect working for President Trump?

One theory is that the country’s partisan divide has gotten so wide that it’s impossible to cross over and support a leader of the opposite party. But that doesn’t explain why the effect is still working at the state level, for governors of both parties: Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York, whose televised briefings have made him a national figure, scored an 87% approval rating in late March. And Larry Hogan of Maryland and Ohio’s Mike DeWine are Republican governors with similarly stratospheric ratings: 84% and 83%, respectively.

All those states (especially New York) have been hard-hit by the virus, and you could easily imagine people deciding to blame the governor rather than support him. But that’s not what’s happening. Past disputes are being forgotten. Past oversights are being forgiven. New Yorkers, Marylanders, and Ohioans want to be united, and they only have one governor to unite around. So that’s what they’re doing.

Trump’s problem isn’t us, it’s him. We’re still capable of uniting; he’s just not capable of leading us.

The country tried to unite around Trump. In early April, when he had finally stopped trying to happy-talk the virus into vanishing “like a miracle”, and proclaimed himself a “wartime president”, his disapproval fell below 50% for the first time since early 2017, and his approval rose near 46%, an all-time high.

Democrats were beginning to get seriously depressed about the fall election. In a true rally-round-the-flag moment, it wouldn’t matter that he had been consistently wrong about the seriousness of the virus, or that he had failed to prepare either the government or the public for the battle we are now in. It wouldn’t matter that the economy, which Trump had counted on to be his ticket to a second term, had collapsed. We’d all be in this struggle together, and he’d be leading us.

But that trend fell apart pretty quickly. By this week, Trump’s 538 polling average was back in familiar territory: 52.4% disapproval, 43.4% approval — with the trend line decidedly negative.

Why?

How it works. Sometimes we talk about the RRtF effect as if it were a knee-jerk reflex: There’s a crisis, so I’ll support the president. But it’s actually a more complex process than that.

The first thing to notice is that ordinary politics is divisive, while crisis politics is unifying. Ordinarily, our national political conversation is about issues we disagree on: Should abortions be easier or harder to get? Should government do more to help people, or just get out of their way? Do refugees and immigrants continually revitalize our nation, or do they steal opportunities from the native born? Do whites and men have unfair privileges they need to relinquish, or have they yielded too much already?

We’re a two-party system, so we tend to divide into relatively equal sides.

But when a crisis hits, most of us suddenly find ourselves on the same side. When the planes hit the World Trade Center, everybody became a New Yorker. When Nazi Germany surrendered, parties broke out all over America.

Being on the same side, a lot of us find ourselves thinking the same things. After 9/11, a huge majority of Americans were all thinking: “We can’t just let something like this happen to us. We have to find who did it and stop them. We have to make sure nothing like this happens again.”

But at the same time, a crisis makes us feel small in our individuality. It was paralyzing to imagine being in the WTC when the planes hit. What could you have done? And if people on the other side of the world were plotting similar attacks right now, what could you do about it?

That combination of factors creates an opportunity for a leader: When Bush picked up that bullhorn, he spoke for us, and spoke with the strength that we had together rather than the weakness we felt as individuals. (There’s a long conversation to be had about how he misused that strength, but that’s a different topic.) He didn’t say, “Listen to me!” He said “I hear you!” and he promised to channel our unified will into powerful action.

That’s what 90% of America approved of.

The consensus today. If you listen to cable news shows or watch the President’s coronavirus briefings, you might imagine that the virus is an ordinary-politics divisive topic. But it really isn’t. Pretty much everybody is thinking and feeling and wanting the same things.

  • We’re afraid of getting sick and dying, or of passing the virus on to our more vulnerable loved ones and watching them die.
  • We wish we could do something.
  • We’re bored and frustrated with staying at home, but we’re willing to keep doing it if it actually helps.
  • We sympathize with people who have lost relatives or friends without being able to visit them in the hospital or hold their hands.
  • We’re worried about our financial future.
  • We’re rooting for our doctors and scientists to figure out how to beat this thing.
  • We concerned about the long-term effects on our communities. (Will our local shops and bars and restaurants and theaters and stadiums ever reopen? Will they be recognizable when they do?)
  • We miss the lives we used to have.
  • We worry that people will do stupid things to make it all worse.
  • We admire the people who are risking their lives to take care of others, and we feel responsible for the people (grocery workers, meat-plant processors, delivery people) whose jobs require them to take risks on our behalf.

I could go on, but you can probably extend that list yourself.

The arguments we’re having on social media (or that other people are having for us on TV) are mostly artificial. When we talk about reopening businesses, my worry that stupid people will make it all worse may conflict with your desire to get out of the house and your worry that we’ve been wrecking our financial future, but we share all those concerns. Literally everybody wants to restore normal life safely, but none of us know exactly how to do that. We all wish we did.

That consensus creates the opportunity that many governors are using to raise their popularity: They hear us. They’re speaking for us. And they speak with the power we have together rather than the weakness and fragility we feel as individuals.

Why not Trump? The singular virtue that made Trump’s political career is that he has the best-defined personal brand of anyone who has ever run for president. People sometimes say, “You know what he thinks” or “You know where he stands”, but neither of those is actually true. (In reality, he likes nothing better than to get on both sides of an issue and then claim victory no matter how it comes out. Last week I pointed out how he was doing that in regard to reopening the economy, but you can see the same pattern many places. Like China, for example: He’s an anti-China trade warrior, but he also brags about his great relationship with President Xi.)

The real underlying truth is “You know who he is, and he never changes.”

“Who he is” is a divider, not a uniter. The heart of his 2016 campaign was to channel the resentment and anger of rural whites who feel like America has slipped away from them. His whole public persona (and I suspect his personality) is based on resentment. Wherever he goes, he has to define enemies: the Deep State, the fake-news media, Crooked Hillary, Shifty Schiff … it never ends. He recognizes no loyal opposition; those who are against him (or just not for him ardently enough, like Jeff Sessions) are “horrible people”. He couldn’t forgive John McCain, even in death.

Unifying politicians have a way of co-opting their enemies — the way W co-opted the so-called liberal media in the run-up to the Iraq War — but Trump must defeat his. They must visibly surrender and pay tribute to his victory. President Obama found diplomatic roles for George W. Bush to play, as Bush in turn had made use of Bill Clinton. But it’s impossible to imagine Trump asking Obama’s help — despite (or perhaps because of) all the countries where Obama continues to be popular. Obama would have to bend the knee and beg first, and even then Trump would probably refuse (as during the transition, he accepted Mitt Romney’s submission, but refused to offer him a post).

So even trying to speak for the country’s consensus would break Trump’s brand. Who would the enemy be? How could he hold a press conference without demonizing the reporters? How could he be smarter than everyone if he agreed with everyone?

On a deeper level, it would also run counter to his psychology. Look again at Bush’s bullhorn speech. “I hear you,” requires a fluidity of ego that Trump does not have. He is himself, and he is right, and he is better than everybody else. Speaking for the consensus requires putting yourself to the side. Trump will never, ever be able to do that.

Instead, we have the spectacle of his daily briefings, where the reporters are enemies and the doctors are rivals whose loyalty he must constantly assess. The dead are not individuals to mourn and the bereaved are not objects of sympathy or empathy. They are possible sources of blame, and so they must be removed from the spotlight as quickly as possible. There is only one spotlight, and only one person it should illuminate. The opinions that are validated must be his opinions, which he came to first, before anyone else. They can’t be yours or mine or anybody’s but his.

Can Bankers Become Allies Against Climate Change?

The people who run the global financial system are beginning to recognize that “the stability of the Earth system is a prerequisite for financial and price stability”.


Bankers are easy to demonize. They are generally more interested in money than in people, and when they do show interest in people, it’s usually not the ones who are poorest and most in need of concern. On the contrary, they often align with large corporate interests that squeeze profits out of anyone they can victimize.

In short, if you approach the world from a moral perspective, you will often find bankers on the wrong side of the issues you care about. (At least in their role as bankers. In private life some may, for all I know, vote Green and write checks to the Sierra Club.)

But no matter how often they side with the dark angels, bankers are not themselves demonic. They are not into evil-for-evil’s-sake, and (unlike certain religious sects) they would rather not hasten the apocalypse. They just look at the world through a particular lens, and moral concerns have to bounce off several distant mirrors before hitting that lens.

Stability. One thing bankers do value is stability. Morally, that is sometimes a bad thing; it’s why they can be friendly to tyrants and skeptical of even the most justified revolutions. (In the lead-up to the Civil War, for example, few bankers were abolitionists, even in the North. Slaves represented a huge amount of capital, which collectively collateralized loans of enormous dollar-value. What would happen to the economy if all those people suddenly belonged to themselves, rather than to the owners who had borrowed against their value?) But stability is also a mirror in which they can see the threat of climate change: What could be more unstable than a world going through a climate catastrophe?

This week the Bank of International Settlements (described by the NYT as “an umbrella organization for the world’s central banks”) put out a report: The Green Swan: central banking and financial stability in the age of climate change. A lot of that report is full of banker-speak and is hard for non-bankers to read. But nonetheless I think environmentalists would do well to pay attention, because central banks could become allies in certain fights if environmentalists learn how to talk to them and recruit them. (The same might be said of generals, because the Pentagon also recognizes the dangers of climate change).

Perhaps more importantly, a lot of powerful people who don’t trust environmentalists or care about polar bears do trust bankers and care about the risk of financial collapse. Quoting the BIS (or the subsequent reports I hope to see from the Federal Reserve or the European Central Bank) will carry more weight with such people than quoting Bill McKibben or a report from the Environmental Defense Fund. Learning the language financial people use to express their climate concerns could help mobilize a larger coalition.

Background: black swans. One thing you need to understand about serious central bankers and macro-economists is that the Great Recession shook their confidence. A lot of them look back on the 2007-2008 collapse and think “Who knew that could happen?” Risks that they had been modeling as independent variables turned out to be correlated in ways nobody expected. So when the dominoes started to fall, the chain reaction went much further than anyone would have predicted.

That experience has led to interest in what have become known as “black swan events“. Black swans are an old metaphor for a simple fallacy: If you see a large number of things that look very similar (white swans), you start to assume that something radically different (a black swan) is impossible. But in fact black swans do exist. The term was popularized in financial circles by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who had the good timing to publish The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable in 2007.

The simple version of the black swan fallacy is that just because you’ve seen a lot doesn’t mean you’ve seen it all. You may feel confident because your data goes back 50 years, but what if there are catastrophic events that only happen every 100 years or 500 years?

The more complex version of the black swan fallacy is that statistical analysis often assumes that risk variables obey a normal distribution when the distribution actually isn’t known. That mistake can make extreme events seem far more improbable than they actually are. (When you hear statisticians talk about “long tails”, that’s what they mean.) Maybe something you’ve modeled as a once-in-500-years event is actually a once-in-40-years event that is overdue to happen.

Worse, there is a difference between risk and uncertainty. A risk is something that can be known and modeled. (A insurance company is taking a risk when it sells me life insurance, because I might die before I pay enough premiums to make them a profit. But the odds of a man my age dying in some particular future year are well understood.) Uncertainty is something you just don’t know. (Will Trump wind up in a war with Iran? How could you attach a number to that possibility?) Modeling something as a risk when it is actually uncertain can fool you into thinking you understand things much better than you do.

Green swans. One big problem climate-change activists have is that they are predicting things no living person has seen before. So rather than sober risk-managers, they can sound like religious fanatics. After all, somebody is always predicting the end of the world, and yet here we are.

We’ve seen a lot, so we think we’ve seen it all. And we’ve never seen Iowa turn into a desert or Miami get swallowed by the sea. (Until recently, though, we’d never seen Australia on fire either.) A very natural human response to such predictions is to say “That never happens.”

So the first challenge the BIS report has to overcome is its readers’ temptation to write the whole thing off as Chicken Littleism. That’s the point of its key image: the green swan. Green swans, like black swans, are unprecedented and largely unpredictable shocks to the system. But they don’t just surprise us because we’ve mis-estimated their probability; rather, they surprise us because we’ve entered new territory that we don’t really understand.

A green swan … is a new type of systemic risk that involves interacting, nonlinear, fundamentally unpredictable, environmental, social, economic and geopolitical dynamics, which are irreversibly transformed by the growing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate-related risks are not simply black swans, i.e. tail risk events. With the complex chain reactions between degraded ecological conditions and unpredictable social, economic and political responses, with the risk of triggering tipping points, climate change represents a colossal and potentially irreversible risk of staggering complexity.

Two kinds of shocks to the system. Green swan events are of two major types: physical shocks and transition shocks. A physical shock is something that happens in the natural world: fire, drought, flood. Normally such things happen on a local scale that local systems can more-or-less take care of. But climate change could cause much larger physical shocks; for example, if a major ice sheet slid into the ocean all at once, raising sea levels suddenly rather than gradually. Think about this not from a human perspective, but from a central-bank perspective: Port facilities around the world all get wrecked at the same time; all the beachfront property in the world has suddenly dropped in value; banks that hold mortgages on that property are insolvent, as are insurance companies. As in the Great Recession, the financial dominoes start falling; you can’t pay me, so I can’t pay the other guy, and bankruptcies cascade to people and businesses nowhere near the ocean.

A transition shock is the market’s sudden revaluation of some class of assets, maybe because of a new government policy (like a carbon tax) or because some herd instinct causes investors to all change their minds at the same time. Dealing with climate change is going to involve revaluing a lot of assets. The biggest example is the value of fossil fuels still in the ground. Energy companies carry those assets on their books and value them at trillions of dollars. But if the world gets serious about climate change, most of those fuels will never be burned, so they’re not worth much at all. What happens to the world financial system if trillions of dollars of assets are suddenly worthless?

The two kinds of shocks trade off against each other: If we transition to a low-carbon economy quickly, we’ll see fewer physical shocks, but more transition shocks. If we move slowly, there won’t be so many transition shocks, but bigger physical shocks are coming.

The tragedy of the horizon. This is another bit of econo-speak that environmentalists can use. Every economist understands the “tragedy of the commons”, when a shared asset gets ruined because each individual can profit by overusing it.

So like “green swan”, the “tragedy of the horizon” plays off a well-understood concept. This time, the tragedy is that typical financial analysis happens on a timescale that minimizes climate effects. This is a “tragedy” because there’s no villain; financial analysis just isn’t trustworthy over long timescales, so practical people have learned to ignore it. (Example: Estimates of next year’s US federal budget deficit are usually pretty good, but nobody believes the ten-year estimate.)

This is what Mark Carney (2015) referred to as “the tragedy of the horizon”: while the physical impacts of climate change will be felt over a long-term horizon, with massive costs and possible civilisational impacts on future generations, the time horizon in which financial, economic and political players plan and act is much shorter. For instance, the time horizon of rating agencies to assess credit risks, and of central banks to conduct stress tests, is typically around three to five years.

One challenge the BIS report sets for the financial community, but does not solve itself, is how to overcome that tragedy. To appreciate the full scope of climate change, you have to look 50 or 100 years into the future. A climate plan that just tells us how to get by for the next ten years is all but useless. But how can that kind of thinking interact with models of inflation or unemployment or GDP that are pure fantasy at those timescales?

Epistemological breaks. A lot of the subtext of the report is that bankers are going to have to get used to living with uncertainty. Climate change is a large-scale multi-disciplinary problem that doesn’t lend itself to the kind of precise econometric modeling a central banker would like to see. (An unpredictable drought may cause an unpredictable migration of refugees and an unpredictable glut in the labor market of the sanctuary country.)

The term the report uses for this is the “epistemological break”. In other words: the way you’ve been thinking about things just doesn’t work any more. The kind of “knowledge” you’re looking for doesn’t exist.

The report calls for two epistemological breaks: First, to place less importance on predictive analysis based on past data (i.e., next year’s earnings estimates), and instead to stress-test against a variety of forward-looking scenarios (i.e., how would this bank do in case of a sudden jump in the cost of carbon emissions?).

[T]raditional approaches to risk management consisting in extrapolating historical data based on assumptions of normal distributions are largely irrelevant to assess future climate-related risks. Indeed, both physical and transition risks are characterised by deep uncertainty, nonlinearity and fat-tailed distributions. As such, assessing climate-related risks requires an “epistemological break” (Bachelard (1938)) with regard to risk management. In fact, such a break has started to take place in the financial community, with the development of forward-looking, scenario-based risk management methodologies.

And second, to be proactive in pushing both governments and the private sector to implement carbon-limiting policies.

Whereas they cannot and should not replace policymakers, [central bankers] also cannot sit still, since this could place them in the untenable situation of climate rescuer of last resort

Central bankers like to portray themselves as “above politics”, but they certainly express opinions about taxes and deficits; they should do so about climate policy as well. (The report regards some form of carbon tax or carbon pricing as a no-brainer. Governments should do at least that much.)

So what’s a central banker to do? Typical central banking picks up the pieces after disasters happen. That’s what banks and governments did after the Great Recession: bought up troubled assets and created a lot of new money to get economies rolling again.

The report says that won’t work as a green-swan policy, because of the “limited substitutability between natural capital and other forms of capital”. In other words, if the Earth stops producing the stuff humans need to survive, giving people money won’t help. In a limited disaster, money allows the people affected to import resources from elsewhere. But in a global disaster, there is no elsewhere.

Central banks’ main power is in creating money and setting interest rates, but they also regulate the banking system, which in turn influences the companies the banks deal with.

The ways in which accounting norms incorporate (or not) environmental dimensions remains critical: accounting norms reflect broader worldviews of what is valued in a society (Jourdain (2019)), at both the microeconomic and macroeconomic level. From a financial stability perspective, it therefore remains critical to integrate biophysical indicators into existing accounting frameworks to ensure that policymakers and firm managers systematically include them in their risk management practices over different time horizons

The report (in some of its more technical passages, which may have gone over my head) proposes a number of ways central banks might use this power to change the economy as a whole. By defining new measures of sustainability and demanding that client banks report those measures, a central bank can alter the overall financial culture, with the result that “climate-related risks become integrated into financial stability monitoring and prudential supervision”.

[A] systematic integration of climate-related risks by financial institutions could act as a form of shadow pricing on carbon, and therefore help shift financial flows towards green assets. That is, if investors integrate climate-related risks into their risk assessment, then polluting assets will become more costly. This would trigger more investment in green assets, helping propel the transition to a low carbon economy (Pereira da Silva (2019a)) and break the tragedy of the horizon by better integrating long-term risks

Adding up to this:

Faced with these daunting challenges, a key contribution of central banks and supervisors may simply be to adequately frame the debate. In particular, they can play this role by: (i) providing a scientifically uncompromising picture of the risks ahead, assuming a limited substitutability between natural capital and other forms of capital; (ii) calling for bolder actions from public and private sectors aimed at preserving the resilience of Earth’s complex socio-ecological systems; and (iii) contributing, to the extent possible and within the remit of the evolving mandates provided by society, to managing these risks

What’s it mean for us? The direction of the world seldom changes all at once, and different sectors catch on at different rates. As different segments of society change their minds, it’s important to let them do so, and to encourage them. Each will have its own language for talking about its new ideas, and they can’t be expected to learn our language just because we got there first.

During the transition period, people whose worldview comes from that sector will have both the new frame and the old frame in their minds simultaneously, and either can be activated depending on how you approach them. (This is similar to what George Lakoff says about swing voters. It isn’t that they have a well-worked-out in-the-middle worldview; it’s that their minds contain both a liberal frame and a conservative frame. Depending on how they are approached, one frame or the other will be activated.) If you want to get such people on your side, it helps if you learn the language of their new frame and bypass obsolete arguments, rather than sticking with the old terminology and insisting on winning those arguments.

John McCain Shot Liberty Valance

This week’s eulogies told us more about the hero we need
than the man we’ve lost.


In the classic John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a senator from an unnamed western state (Ranse Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart) is a living legend, and the legend goes like this: Once an idealistic young lawyer from the East, he arrived in the West to discover a town being terrorized by the gunslinger and gangster Liberty Valance. Though he barely knew how to shoot, Stoddard’s refusal to run away landed him in a gunfight with Valance, which he somehow won. Then Valance was dead and his tyranny ended.

Stoddard himself was ashamed to have killed a man in a lawless gunfight, but ever after, he was the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. On the strength of that reputation, he was chosen for the statehood convention, and then to represent the territory in Washington. When the territory became a state, he served three terms as its first governor, and then went on to the Senate. Now a national figure and a senior statesman, he is in line to be the next vice president.

But the truth about Stoddard is a bit more complicated: He did face Valance, got a shot off, and Valance wound up dead — but not because Stoddard’s shot killed him. Though he never promoted himself as Valance’s killer, he was never in a position to deny it either. So the story grew up around Stoddard and stuck with him because it was the myth that the West needed to tell: The Lawyer had killed the Gunslinger; the rule of law had ended the reign of violence.

Now Stoddard is finally able to tell the true story, because the man who did kill Valance is dead and can’t be tried for murder. But after he is done telling it, the local editor tears up his reporter’s notes and burns them. “This is the West, sir,” he explains. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

This week we celebrated the memory of another legendary western senator, John McCain. And we did it in pretty much the same way: We told the legend of the hero we need. That legend intersects with John McCain’s actual life in a number of ways, but the story of the real man is much more complicated — and in many ways less relevant to those of us who didn’t know him.

So by all means, let us discuss the legend, because it tells us a great deal about the times we live in.

The Trump Era. No president in my lifetime (or maybe ever) has dominated the national conversation the way Donald Trump does. Whether you love him or hate him, whether he fills you with pride or disgust, it’s hard to talk about anything or anybody else for very long.

The Trump style is made up of bombast, rudeness, and above all, divisiveness. Unlike previous presidents, he does not reach out to those who voted against him. [1] When he speaks, he does not talk to the nation, he talks to his base. He lies constantly, and his personal life is a parade of sleaze. [2] Every issue, first and foremost, is about him.

Trump’s story is full of irony. Having run on a pledge to “Make America Great Again”, his character is defined by smallness. There is nothing magnanimous about him, and there seems to be no situation that he is able to rise above. He cannot laugh at himself, and rarely laughs at all. Every personal slight must be answered, every blow returned with double force. Gold Star parents, bereaved widows of soldiers, leaders of our closest allies — it doesn’t matter. No one must be allowed to cast a shadow on Trump’s fragile ego.

Having taken offense at every perceived disrespect for the symbols of America — the flag, the anthem, the police — his own loyalty to the nation is questionable; when the Russians attacked our system of government, his weak and subservient response added to the speculation that he is in league with them. Having pledged to “drain the swamp”, he has flaunted his conflicts of interest and presided over the most corrupt administration in many decades. Having won on the strength of the Evangelical vote, he has governed as the anti-Jesus [3], concentrating his cruelty on “the least of these” and favoring the rich man over Lazarus. Famous for saying “You’re fired!”, he actually has no stomach for face-to-face confrontations, preferring to let John Kelly do the dirty work, or to tweet something nasty after he has left the meeting.

The hero we long for. What kind of hero do we need to celebrate in the Trump Era? One who embodies all the virtues that Trump so conspicuously lacks:

  • higher purpose
  • humility
  • willingness to endure hardship
  • courage
  • magnanimity
  • sense of humor
  • devotion to principle
  • idealistic vision of what America means and stands for
  • respect for opponents and willingness to ally with them on issues of common concern
  • compassion
  • honesty even when the truth is not flattering
  • willingness to confront facts and admit mistakes

It also wouldn’t hurt if that hero had a history of criticizing Russia. And it would be even better if he or she were a Republican, because a principled, virtuous, reasonable Republican Party is the single most conspicuous lack in America today. As a Democrat, I may yearn for a hero who can send the GOP into a long and well-deserved exile from power. But even better, I have to admit, would be to return to an America where the need to win was not so desperate, because Eisenhower-like Republicans could be trusted to preserve the Republic until we had a chance to make our case to the voters again.

McCain the legend. Was John McCain that hero? Sometimes. If we pick and choose properly, his life can bear the story we need to tell about it. [4]

He certainly endured hardship at the Hanoi Hilton, and in his final battle with cancer he showed that his fighter-pilot courage had not left him. President Obama said:

He had been to hell and back and yet somehow never lost his energy or his optimism or his zest for life. So cancer did not scare him.

Every time I heard him speak, at some point or other he stressed the importance of having a purpose higher than self. And it was there again (along with an idealistic vision of America) in his final message to the American people:

To be connected to America’s causes — liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people — brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.

McCain didn’t say it explicitly, but it’s clear that he didn’t envy the guy who lives in a golden penthouse and has sex with porn stars (who he then needs to pay off). “I have often observed that I am the luckiest person on earth,” he wrote.

Humility, sense of humor … I first saw McCain in 1999, when he was running against George W. Bush in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary. I wasn’t blogging then, so I have no record of what he said beyond my own memory. I recall that he made a point about his campaign’s momentum (he would eventually win that primary) by joking about how unpopular he had been at the outset: “The first poll had me at 2%, and the margin of error was 5%. So I might have been at minus three.”

I was blogging by the time he ran in the 2008 cycle, so I have this:

He answers questions — even hostile questions — patiently and with empathy. (“Meeting adjourned,” he announces in response to the first gotcha. The room erupts in laughter, and then he answers.) He tells corny jokes and at the same time manages to wink at you, as if the real joke is that you have to tell jokes to win the world’s most serious job. He runs himself down, confessing to being fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy, saying that his candidacy proves that “in America anything is possible.” And yet no one in the room forgets that he is John McCain, and he has survived things that would have destroyed any mere mortal. It is an amazing balancing act.

McCain invited the two men who defeated his presidential campaigns, Bush and Barack Obama, to speak at his service in the National Cathedral on Saturday. (Trump was eventually invited to attend — by Lindsey Graham, with Cindy McCain’s approval — but spent the day playing golf.) Obama noted McCain’s humor, magnanimity, and respect for opponents:

After all, what better way to get a last laugh than to make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience? And most of all, it showed a largeness of spirit, an ability to see past differences in search of common ground.

Lindsey Graham noted the contrast between McCain’s magnanimity and Trump’s churlish response to McCain’s death. (He raised the White House flag back to full staff until public outrage made him lower it again.)

John McCain was a big man, worthy of a big country. Mr. President, you need to be the big man that the presidency requires.

Obama made a similar point more obliquely:

So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.

And Bush agreed:

To the face of those in authority, John McCain would insist: We are better than this. America is better than this.

Principle and respect for opponents were stressed by another of those opponents: former Vice President Joe Biden.

The way things changed so much in America, they look at him as if John came from another age, lived by a different code, an ancient, antiquated code where honor, courage, integrity, duty, were alive. That was obvious, how John lived his life. The truth is, John’s code was ageless, is ageless. When you talked earlier, Grant [Woods], you talked about values. It wasn’t about politics with John. He could disagree on substance, but the underlying values that animated everything John did, everything he was, come to a different conclusion. He’d part company with you if you lacked the basic values of decency, respect, knowing this project is bigger than yourself.

For Bush, McCain symbolized America, or at least the America we want to be:

Whatever the cause, it was this combination of courage and decency that defined John’s calling, and so closely paralleled the calling of his country. It’s this combination of courage and decency that makes the American military something new in history, an unrivaled power for good. It’s this combination of courage and decency that set America on a journey into the world to liberate death camps, to stand guard against extremism, and to work for the true peace that comes only with freedom.

And Meghan McCain drew the parallel most clearly, in a litany of statements about “the America of John McCain”, that culminated in:

The America of John McCain is generous and welcoming and bold. She is resourceful, confident, secure. She meets her responsibilities. She speaks quietly because she is strong. America does not boast because she has no need to. The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great. That fervent faith, that proven devotion, that abiding love, that is what drove my father from the fiery skies above the Red River delta to the brink of the presidency itself.

McCain the man. Unless we are willing to massage their stories and avert our eyes from unfortunate facts, no actual human being is precisely the hero we need. So it is no insult to point out that the actual John McCain was not that hero.

McCain had a temper and could be verbally abusive. His commitment to campaign finance reform arose out of his own scandal. His opposition to torture was never as complete as it seemed. In order to get the Republican nomination in 2008, he embraced the same evangelical preachers he had called “agents of intolerance” in 2000. He famously corrected a supporter who questioned Obama’s citizenship and religion, but he also empowered Sarah Palin to rouse that same rabble.

He vigorously supported the Iraq invasion, and opposed Obama’s withdrawal from that war. In 2013, Mother Jones published a map of all the places McCain had threatened with military intervention.

And despite that one key vote against repealing ObamaCare, McCain was not that big of an anti-Trump rebel; he voted with the president 83% of the time — more than 538’s model of his state’s electorate would predict.

He talked a good game against Trump, but how much did he actually do? He was chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which had only one more Republican than Democrat. With the Democrats, he could have led an anti-Trump majority. He had subpoena power; any Trump scandal with a national-security angle was within his purview. He did nothing with that power.

So no, the real John McCain was not the hero the Trump Era calls for. He was not the anti-Trump.

Should we be cynical about him? To a large extent, it was McCain himself who orchestrated this celebration of the anti-Trump hero. He had known he was dying, and gave serious thought to his funeral. He invited Bush and Obama to speak and stipulated that Trump not speak. He wrote an explicitly political last message to America.

He knew his death would be a political weapon, and he very intentionally set out to use it. His death, like his life, would serve a purpose bigger than himself.

As his daughter Meghan acknowledged, no one would have been more cynical about such a display than John himself:

Several of you out there in the pews who crossed swords with him or found yourselves on the receiving end of his famous temper or were at a cross purpose to him on nearly anything, are right at this moment doing your best to stay stone-faced. Don’t. You know full well if John McCain were in your shoes today, he would be using some salty word he learned in the Navy while my mother jabbed him in the arm in embarrassment. He would look back at her and grumble, maybe stop talking, but he would keep grinning.

It is tempting to denounce all this, as voices from both the left and the right have. And yet, I will not.

This era needs an anti-Trump hero. The perfect avatar of that ideal has not emerged yet. In the meantime, we have John McCain, whose life in so many ways can remind us of the thing we long for.

We should celebrate that; neither in ignorance nor in cynicism, but in hope. Someday the Trump Era will end. May that day come soon. And if the Legend of John McCain helps it come sooner, then I say: “Print the legend.”


[1] Liberals and conservatives, respectively, often think of George W. Bush and Barack Obama as divisive presidents. But each tried to appeal to those who voted against him.

Bush worked with Ted Kennedy on education policy. The day after winning re-election in 2004, he directed a  portion of his speech to supporters of John Kerry: “We have one country, one Constitution and one future that binds us. To make this nation stronger and better, I will need your support, and I will work to earn it.” For his part, Kerry recounted his post-election conversation with Bush: “We talked about the danger of division in our country and the need — the desperate need for unity, for finding the common ground, coming together. Today I hope that we can begin the healing.”

Obama hoped to start his presidency with a bipartisan compromise: His stimulus package was smaller than many advisers recommended, and tax cuts made up about a third of the package. (In the end he got no Republican votes in the House and only three in the Senate.) Later in his term, a variety of “grand bargains” with House Speaker John Boehner attempted to address what (at that time) was the Republicans’ central issue: the long-term budget deficit. But Boehner was never able to pull together enough support within his caucus.

Trump, on the other hand, is still tweeting about “Crooked Hillary”, pushing his Justice Department to prosecute her, and promoting conspiracy theories about the investigation that cleared her. I have tried to think of a similar situation in American history, and I have not come up with one.

[2] Think about where the hush-money story has gone. A long series of denials have collapsed, and Trump no longer bothers to argue about whether he had sexual affairs with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal during his marriage to Melania. He admits his lawyer Michael Cohen paid each woman six-figure sums so that they wouldn’t tell their stories before the election. The new line of defense is that the payments weren’t illegal, because the money ultimately came from his personal funds and not from the campaign. That’s how deep in the sleaze the President has gotten. I-paid-her-myself is a defense now.

Remember what a presidential scandal looked like during the Obama years? He put his feet up on an Oval Office desk. He ordered a Marine to hold his umbrella. His Christmas cards were too secular. Michelle wore sleeveless dresses.

[3] I’m intentionally not saying “anti-Christ”, because that evokes all the speculative Book of Revelation interpretations that have distracted so many Christians from Jesus’ teachings. I’m not postulating some end-times role for Trump, I’m just noting that it’s impossible to imagine him saying a single line of the Sermon on the Mount. Well, maybe: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” But the rest of it — turn the other cheek, love your enemies, blessed are the meek and the poor in spirit, “do not lay up for yourselves treasures on Earth” — no way.

[4] Something similar could be said about Ranse Stoddard, who really did have the virtues the myth assigned him. He didn’t kill Liberty Valance, but the people who thought he did were not disappointed when they met him.

Speaking in Code: Two phrases that no longer mean what they used to

To liberals, a lot of what conservatives say and do looks like hypocrisy. And some of it really is, like the pro-life congressman who urged his mistress to get an abortion, or the long list of people who denounced Bill Clinton’s illicit affairs while they were carrying on some of their own. That’s hypocrisy: piously announcing strict rules for other people while living by a looser set yourself.

But some things that look like hypocrisy to liberals are actually something else: Conservatives have repurposed phrases that used to mean one thing to express some other idea entirely. Both the speaker and his target audience know exactly what he means, and there’s no inconsistency between that meaning and his actions. It’s just that liberals never got the memo.

So let me catch you up on what two phrases you’ve known and loved in the past mean now when conservatives say them.

Religious liberty or religious freedom means special rights for Christians. Thursday, the Republican National Committee asked everyone on Twitter to thank Donald Trump “for his commitment to religious freedom”. One commenter expressed skepticism about Trump’s commitment to religious freedom by adding “unless you happen to be Muslim”.

I’m sure many people thought that commenter had launched a devastating barb, exposing a blatant example of Republican hypocrisy. Because we all know what religious freedom used to mean: Even if your religious community is small and powerless, no one can stop you from meeting. The government can’t tax you to support the views of other sects, or use the public schools to indoctrinate your children in the majority faith. In any legal proceeding, your religion does not count against you.

In the old sense, there is no more powerful opponent of religious freedom in America than Donald Trump, who ran on the promise to keep Muslims out of the United States, and who has signed numerous executive orders trying to work around the clear unconstitutionality of that idea.

But in conservative circles, that’s not what religious freedom means any more. Here’s what it means now: People who root their misbehavior in the teachings (or even just the common prejudices) of popular Christian sects can get away with things that no one else can.

Today, religious freedom means that you can violate anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT people, if you claim that your bias against them is the historical bias of your popular Christian sect. (You can’t exempt yourself from racial discrimination laws, though, because Christian sects that believe in racial discrimination aren’t popular any more.) You can refuse to do your job as a pharmacist, if the drugs your customer wants are implicated in behaviors your popular Christian sect disapproves of. You can limit the healthcare choices of your employees, if those choices would be sins according to your popular Christian beliefs.

None of these rights can be claimed by non-Christians, or even by members of unpopular Christian sects, except by happy accident. (Zoroastrians might be able to claim special rights in situations where their teachings happen to agree with Baptists or Catholics.) Imagine, if you can, pacifist Quakers trying to claim the same distance from war that Baptists want from abortion — not simply that they not have to do the killing themselves, but that they be kept clear from any connection to it. Imagine Hindus insisting that the FDA not inspect beef, because their tax dollars should not contribute to the killing of cattle. Such “rights” are ridiculous; they would be laughed at if anyone dared to claim them.

Special rights properly belong only to members of popular Christian sects. Everyone knows this. Some are even open about it, like Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, who offers this interpretation of the First Amendment:

By “religion,” the founders were thinking of Christianity. So the purpose was to protect the free exercise of the Christian faith. It wasn’t about protecting anything else.

The rule of law means getting undocumented Hispanics out of the country by any means necessary. Tuesday, Vice President Pence was the headliner for a rally in Tempe, Arizona organized by the pro-Trump group America First Policies. As headliners often do at political events, he gave a shout-out to some of the local politicians in the audience, including former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio probably would be in jail now if Trump hadn’t pardoned him, but instead he is running for the Senate.

A great friend of this president, a tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law — Sheriff Joe Arpaio, I’m honored to have you here.

For centuries, the rule of law meant that laws applied equally to everyone, and were not subject to the whims of whoever happened to be in power. It was related to the longer phrase a government of laws and not of men.

Arpaio’s career as sheriff is the paradigm for out-of-control law enforcement that is the exact opposite of the rule of law in its traditional sense. His legitimate job as county sheriff had nothing to do with border enforcement, but he squandered his office’s resources on that issue, harassing countless law-abiding Hispanic-American citizens (as well as Arpaio’s political enemies) along the way, and compiling a dismal record dealing with the crimes that were actually within his jurisdiction. His shoddy care for and outright cruelty towards his prisoners showed a similar lack of respect for his duties under the law, and resulted in the county paying tens of millions of dollars in settlements to mistreated prisoners (or their surviving family members). For details, see “The Long, Lawless Ride of Sheriff Joe Arpaio” and several other articles I collected after Trump pardoned Arpaio.

Arpaio is a “champion of the rule of law” only in one sense: He wants undocumented Hispanics out of the country.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a defender of the rule of law in a similar sense: His attempts to punish sanctuary cities may themselves be illegal, but they serve the goal of pushing undocumented Hispanics out of the country. Much of what ICE is doing now is also of questionable legality, but its actions are directed against undocumented Hispanics, so it is defending the rule of law.

The Newspeak problem. The problem with assigning new meanings to words and phrases is that the old meanings might still be important. (I’d hate to be a high school history teacher trying to cover “The Gay 90s“.) If the neologism takes, it may drive out the original meaning, making the issues related to that concept difficult or even impossible to discuss.

To a large extent, that is the point of Newspeak: to win arguments by making the opposing position inexpressible, or to avoid dissent entirely by keeping possible objections out of mind.

The rule of law is still being fought over, and rightfully so. In this era, when Trump is trying to claim the Justice Department as his own rather than the country’s, and is pressuring law enforcement officials to stop investigating him and start investigating his political enemies (or investigate again if they didn’t find anything the first time), it’s very important to have a term that captures the original meaning of the rule of law. We desperately need judges and prosecutors and law-enforcement officers who are loyal to the laws of the United States rather than to the President. Anything that makes that issue harder to talk about is a threat to American democracy.

But sadly, the old meaning of religious freedom and religious liberty is all but lost in popular discourse. There is still some small overlap, when Christians are genuinely persecuted in other countries, but many Americans, particularly conservatives, are just confused when atheists don’t want their children pressured to pray in public settings, or Muslims are denied the right to build a mosque somewhere. They don’t see how religious freedom can even apply to someone who isn’t Christian. To them, a religious freedom issue is whether the Christian clerk who refuses to process same-sex marriage licenses gets to keep her job, not whether a Muslim woman can wear her hijab to the airport without fear of being profiled as a terrorist.

To fight back, I think we must constantly retranslate the new usages back into older terms, and refuse to recognize them as legitimate. The Masterpiece Cakeshop case, for example, has nothing whatsoever to do with religious freedom; it’s about Christians claiming the special right to break discrimination laws. Denying federal funds to sanctuary cities does not defend the rule of law, it tears down the rule of law.

You know what would have defended the rule of law? Letting Joe Arpaio go to jail for his crimes rather than pardoning him.

Turn the Page

Since Ronald Reagan, America has lived under a regime of conservative ideas that Democrats have sometimes been able to resist, but not to overcome or replace. That aging regime is ready to fall, but Bastilles never storm themselves. The Democrats’ 2018 campaign needs to be negative, but not personal: Bad as he is, Trump is just one example of the larger problem.


I keep hearing two theories about how Democrats can retake Congress in 2018 and start retaking the country. The first is to run against Donald Trump, who is an embarrassment to the nation, is historically unpopular, and may turn out to have committed impeachable offenses. The second is to run on a clear, positive agenda that can win back the working-class voters who have wandered away from the party of FDR and into the hands of the current huckster-in-chief.

Each approach has its virtues, and either would probably produce some gains in 2018, as mid-term elections usually do for the party out of power. But neither is quite right. Neither reflects the way that major change happens in America.

Beyond anti-Trump. The pure anti-Trump message is the easiest one to see through. The reason it’s not enough to run against Trump is that Trump isn’t the whole problem, not by a long shot. Yes, he’s corrupt. And yes, it’s dangerous for the country to have a president who understands so little about what presidents do. But think about the worst of what’s going on right now: trying to pay for a major tax cut for the rich by kicking millions of the working poor off Medicaid, undoing what little President Obama accomplished on climate change, and (though this isn’t getting nearly as much attention) sinking ever deeper into the quagmire conflicts of Syria and Afghanistan.

Just about any Republican president would be up to more-or-less the same stuff. A generic Republican president — picture President Pence, if you need a specific face — would also be favoring employers over their workers, letting big corporations manipulate the marketplace, looking for ways to make it harder to vote, insisting that God created exactly two totally distinct genders (and that only opposite-gender couples can form a real family), favoring Christianity over all other religions, and portraying the inner city as a war zone that needs an occupying force of militarized police (collateral damage be damned).

“Trump is bad” is not an argument against any of that stuff. If you’re an anti-Trump Republican, “Trump is bad” becomes an argument for keeping Speaker Ryan in place as adult supervision.

We saw in Tuesday’s disappointing special election in Georgia that Trump’s unpopularity isn’t necessarily contagious. In a historically Republican suburban district that nonetheless nearly went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, Jon Ossoff was a fresh young face with none of Hillary’s baggage. And yet, running against Karen Handel rather than Donald Trump, he couldn’t do quite was well as Clinton did (partly because Handel managed to reverse the demon-association playbook on him and run against Nancy Pelosi).

Major change doesn’t happen in America because the voters dislike one guy, even if that guy is the president. The root problem is the conservative worldview, the one that has been ascendant since Ronald Reagan. It won’t stop being ascendant just because Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing and can’t control himself.

Beyond our-policies-are-prettier-than-your-policies. But that raises an interesting question: How does major change happen? If you look at American history, a new national direction is never the result of a beauty contest.

If voters still more-or-less approve of the governing worldview, they never abandon it just because somebody else’s new ideas sound better. If they believe that the basic philosophy of the recent past still has promise for addressing the nation’s problems, they may occasionally choose a new face or opt for a pause while the country consolidates recent advances [1], but they won’t respond to calls for fundamental change. [2]

Big change, the kind we associate with names like Lincoln and FDR, happens because the public decisively rejects the ideas that have come before. Only then does a new way of looking at government have a chance to catch on. [3]

It’s important to understand what decisively reject really means. It doesn’t just mean that public stops buying the arguments in favor of those ideas. It means that the public loses patience with the very attempt to justify them. When a set of ideas has been decisively rejected, you don’t have argue against them any more; simply pointing out that these are the old, rejected ideas is enough.

FDR. So in 1932, the Great Depression was raging and Herbert Hoover was unpopular. Franklin Roosevelt probably could have won just on that. But if you look at Roosevelt’s speech accepting his nomination, he doesn’t mention Hoover’s name, or refer to him individually at all. He talks instead about “Republican leaders”, once mentions “the present administration in Washington” and twice more refers to “Washington” as short-hand. The case he makes is not against Hoover personally, but against the larger Republican worldview that had shaped the country since 1921, and whose roots went further back into the late 19th century.

There are two ways of viewing the Government’s duty in matters affecting economic and social life. The first sees to it that a favored few are helped and hopes that some of their prosperity will leak through, sift through, to labor, to the farmer, to the small business man. That theory belongs to the party of Toryism, and I had hoped that most of the Tories left this country in 1776.

Once elected, he didn’t reach out to the Republican Party, he destroyed it for a generation. They represented the “malefactors of great wealth” who had driven the nation into the Depression in the first place, and their worldview prevented the government from helping ordinary people.

For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent. …

We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.

What Reagan did to Great Society liberalism. The last major paradigm shift in American politics was the transition from Carter to Reagan. It was Reagan who established the defining principles of the Republican Party we know today: low taxes (especially on the wealthy), strong defense, alliance with the Religious Right (under the label “family values”), and less regulation of business. [4]

In 1980, as in 1932, the sitting president was unpopular: Inflation and unemployment were both high. (Traditional economics had said that was impossible, creating a national uneasiness that maybe nobody knew what to do.) Americans had been held hostage in Iran for a year, and Carter could neither negotiate their release nor rescue them militarily. Japan was winning the battle of international trade.

Like Roosevelt, Reagan did not just run against Jimmy Carter, but against the liberal orthodoxy of the previous decades. In his First Inaugural Address he laid out the story that conservatives are still telling: The boundless energy and creativity of American business will produce abundance for all if only government would get out of the way.

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. …  If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price. It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.

After Reagan, Democrats couldn’t just be liberals. Suddenly they were tax-and-spend liberals, big-government liberals, or some other discredited species. The first and best argument against a new government program was simply that it was a new government program: Of course it wouldn’t achieve its objectives, would cost more than the wildest estimates, and would entrench yet another bloated bureaucracy. Conservatives didn’t have to make that argument; after Reagan, it made itself.

You could still hear the Reaganite echoes when ObamaCare was labeled “a government takeover of healthcare“. No evidence was needed to show that such a “takeover” would be bad. That went without saying.

Where Obama failed. In 2008, President Bush was unpopular. But more than that, his failures were deeply bound up in the failure of Reagan-era conservatism: Bush’s tax cuts built a deficit without unleashing growth. When government regulators got out of the way, Wall Street bankers turned mortgages that should never have been approved into a multi-trillion-dollar tower of worthless securities (whose AAA ratings fooled the market just long enough to crash the economy, make the banking system insolvent, and endanger the retirement savings of middle-class Americans). Our strong-but-fabulously-expensive military proved to be good at breaking countries, but not so good at putting them back together or preventing the resulting failed states from exporting terrorism.

Obama won a landslide victory and brought big majorities in Congress along with him. But he failed to charge Bush’s personal unpopularity or the crisis Bush left behind to the massively overdrawn account of the conservative worldview. He did not proclaim the end of the Reagan Era and made no attempt to chase the old orthodoxy’s defenders off the public stage, as Roosevelt and Reagan did in their day. If he had succeeded in doing so, there would be a new set of epithets that every conservative candidate or proposal would have to struggle out from under, terms like Iraq invader or bomb-everywhere Republican or sub-prime conservatism or free-the-wolves deregulation or middle-class-destroying cuts. (Those are just off the top of my head; no doubt professionals could do better.) Those labels would be as instantly disqualifying as tax-and-spend liberal was in the 1980s.

Obama’s failure to turn the page is why conservative nostrums (that events have disproved again and again) are still popping up in the ObamaCare-repeal debate: Getting government out of healthcare will unleash the creativity of the marketplace to yield better coverage and care for consumers; yet another big tax cut for the rich will create the good-paying jobs that none of the previous tax cuts did; the millions who will be thrown off of Medicaid — mostly working-poor families who are struggling to get by on minimum wage or slightly more — are Takers who are about to get a much-needed lesson in personal responsibility, giving a break to the massively overtaxed and overburdened Makers who support them.

After the horror of Bush’s Great Recession, the tax-cut-and-deregulation Great Recession, no one should be able to say such things with a straight face and without shame.

Turn the page. After nearly 40 years, American political discourse still takes place in the rhetorical universe created by Ronald Reagan. Our world is still haunted by the ghosts of Cadillac-driving welfare queens, job-killing regulations, initiative-crushing taxes, and poor people whose will to succeed has been sapped away by their dependence on government. The heroic entrepreneur still fights his eternal battle against the villainous bureaucrat. Private-sector spending on Mar-a-lago memberships and gas-guzzling jet-skis and AK-47s is productive, while public-sector spending on parks and roads and libraries is wasteful. A private-school teacher is a hard-working professional, while a public-school teacher is a blood-sucking parasite.

This rhetoric is aging badly and losing its hold. Republicans at some level know this; that’s why their ObamaCare-repeal bills in both houses have had to be jammed through quickly with as little national attention as possible. You don’t do that if you believe in what you’re doing. If you think you have a compelling argument, you make that argument in the brightest spotlight you can find.

But aging regimes don’t fall of their own weight. Somebody has to push them down. The Bastille never storms itself.

The 2018 campaign needs to be negative, but not personal. You can propose Medicare-for-everyone into this environment if you want, and if you can manage to control the narrative well enough to keep everyone calling it that — even after you get outspent 5-1 or 10-1 — you’ll probably win. But if instead your proposal gets transmuted into a bureaucracy-bloating, tax-increasing, debt-busting, big-government takeover of the economy, you’ll probably lose.

Democrats can’t shy away from conservative rhetoric, and we can’t hope that it will just slip people’s minds if we change the subject by presenting our own solutions. We have to confront it directly: We’ve been living in a conservative era for nearly 40 years, and that is what has destroyed the middle class.

That central point needs to be backed up with direct rejections of conservative nostrums: You can’t cut your way to prosperity. Nobody succeeds in a failing community. Money isn’t speech. Fear creates violence, and cruelty will always rebound; more prisons won’t make you safe, and more invasions will just cause more terrorism. More freedom for the rich and strong means more servitude for the poor and weak. The free market destroys the middle class. The environment is economic; we are part of Nature, and if we destroy Nature we destroy ourselves. (Again, these are off the top of my head and professionals could do better. The important thing is to express similar ideas in a uniform way, so that voters will know they’re hearing the same point from many voices.)

Trump’s individual outrages and the specific problems of this or that policy should always be interpreted expansively: Specifics should be presented not because they are important in themselves, but because they anchor the larger critique. Trump isn’t an aberration, he’s typical. The ObamaCare-repeal bill isn’t just a bad policy, it’s the logical product of a bad philosophy.

Party unity. A handful of Democrats will feel left out by this message, because they hope to appeal not just to people who have been voting Republican, but to people who still believe in the Reaganite worldview. That seems like a fool’s errand to me.

But the vast majority of candidates, progressive and centrist alike, should be able to work with this national message. The positive proposals they present can be tailored to their own philosophies and their own districts. (Bernie Sanders, for example, knew better than to run on gun control in Vermont. Similarly, a rural district in Kansas, full of towns where there’s one convenience store and one gas station, both struggling, is not the place to run on a $15 minimum wage. Higher, yes; $15 no.) Some will vaguely want to increase access to healthcare while others will post a detailed 50-page plan on their web sites. As candidates succeed or fail with these specifics, other candidates will or won’t imitate them.

Some candidates will want to appear with Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, while others will invite Joe Biden or Cory Booker. But very few candidates will find themselves forced to run against the national message, or to choose between the national party and the voters they hope to represent.

Old and new. It’s hard now to remember how fresh Reaganite conservatism sounded in 1980. Whether you agreed with it or not, it started new discussions and opened new possibilities for experimentation. But what was once young and supple has become old and rigid. Discussions shut down now, because powerful organizations have staked out positions that brook no debate: There can be no new taxes. Nothing can be done about gun violence. We can’t talk to Iran. Defense spending can only go up.

That’s what old regimes look like. They’re brittle and have no room to maneuver when new problems appear. New voters come of age looking for insight, and hear only dogma. It may be hard to say exactly what should come next, but it’s easy to see when it’s time for an old worldview to go.

It’s time.


[1] The new faces I have in mind are Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton, both of whom represented their party’s acknowledgement that the game had changed, and did not reverse the country’s course. Eisenhower let New Deal programs like Social Security stand, and Clinton yielded to a key point of Reaganism by announcing that “The era of big government is over.” A “New Democrat”, as Clinton sometimes called himself, was a Democrat who had learned the lessons of the Reagan Era.

[2] This a political analogy to the process Thomas Kuhn described in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: As long as researchers believe that the old paradigm is still fruitful and can still lead to new solutions to important problems, new paradigms don’t get a fair hearing.

The political scientist most connected with this idea is Stephen Skowronek, who introduced the concept of “political time“. Basically, he breaks American history down into a series of multi-decade eras, each dominated by its own widely accepted view of what government is about. Each president grapples with problems within that era’s political orthodoxy, which he either promotes or resists. As the era proceeds, the ruling ideology becomes more rigid and unwieldy, until it collapses under an attack by a repudiating leader, who then “resets the political clock” and begins a new era.

[3] Lincoln is a particularly good example here, because the change he is remembered for — ending slavery — isn’t what he campaigned on. Point 4 of the 1860 Republican platform explicitly denies any intention to roll back slavery in the existing slave states, and rejects military force as a means to do so:

That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the states, and especially the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of powers on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depends; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any state or territory, no matter under what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.

What the election of 1860 represented was not an endorsement of abolitionism, much less of a future where free blacks could vote and be assured the due process of law. Instead, it represented a rejection (on both sides) of the political climate that had endured since the Missouri Compromise of 1820: The country could no longer lurch from crisis to crisis as moderates like Henry Clay or Daniel Webster or Stephen Douglas worked out complicated deals to maintain the North/South balance of power.

So the America that came out of the Civil War was fundamentally different than the America of 1859, but not because Lincoln designed a new set of policies and sold them to the electorate.

[4] These ideas are so entrenched inside the GOP that even when Marco Rubio campaigned on the need for “new ideas”, he simply repeated Reaganite orthodoxy.

Racism, Hot and Cold

It’s hard for conservatives to talk about race. Maybe we could make it easier.


Liberal/conservative conversations about race often go like this one that happened on MSNBC at the end of March.

There is an incident (in this case Sean Spicer scolding a black female reporter, April Ryan) that shows lack of respect for a person of color. The liberal (in this case, Jason Johnson) places it in a larger context, a pattern of disrespect, and calls it out as racism. The conservative (Matt Schlapp) takes offense at the accusation and a shouting match ensues, ending any real exchange of ideas.

To an extent, I think this is a calculated tactic on the part of conservative pundits (or, at least, somebody calculated it at one point and others have imitated): There can be no discussion of patterns of disrespect based on race or gender. Any attempt to start such a discussion has to be shouted down.

Accordingly, any individual incident has to be presented as a unique occurrence and explained by the details of that particular situation. (Schlapp explains that Spicer “got feisty” with Ryan because he was under pressure to get through a lot of news that day.) Attempts to put a racial context around the incident have to be shut down. [1]

But whatever Schlapp or other talking heads might have in mind, it’s worthwhile to consider why their conservative viewers approve of this tactic and never see it for what it is: In conservative circles racism has a very specific meaning that usually doesn’t apply to the situation at hand. To conservatives, racism means conscious hatred, an intention to harm or humiliate a person purely because of his or her race. It isn’t that racism doesn’t exist, but it applies only to the KKK or the Nazis.

To Schlapp, then, it is absurd and outrageous to imagine that Sean Spicer is at his podium thinking “I’m tired of black reporters getting uppity with me, so I’m going to slap this one down.” That’s what Schlapp means when he says, “You don’t know what’s in Sean’s heart.”

But of course, Johnson had never claimed to know what was in Spicer’s heart, or to see conscious hatred there. He was pointing to a pattern of behavior both for Spicer and throughout the Trump administration, in which non-whites are shown less respect. There might be all kinds of reasons for such a pattern.

For example, what if Spicer simply sees blacks (or women) differently than he sees whites (or men)? [2] What if it’s his mental habit to interpret black actions more negatively, and to feel that harsher responses are appropriate? In that case, he might have been entirely unaware that he was treating April Ryan differently than a white White House correspondent like Peter Alexander or Jeff Zeleny, because even if Alexander or Zeleny had done the same thing, it would have looked different to him.

To the conservative mind, though, that’s not racism. If there is no conscious hatred involved, then it’s totally unfair to suggest comparisons to the KKK, as they feel racism does.

“So fine, then,” a liberal might say, “give me the word that applies to this situation and we’ll use it.”

But then you hit the root problem: There is no conservative term for the habitual and perhaps unconscious tendency to see people of another race differently, judge them more negatively, and react to them more harshly. In the absence of such a term, there is no way to point out the phenomenon and discuss it. You can’t ask about the elephant in the room, because elephant refers only to mastodons, who died out ages ago. There is no word for the big, gray animal swinging his trunk around, so any attempt to discuss him inevitably veers off in some other direction.

A conservative might respond that I’m describing an esoteric phenomenon of so little consequence that it doesn’t really need a name or a discussion. But that is completely unconvincing after eight years of the Obama administration, during which conservative media outlets repeatedly raised their audience’s outrage when Obama did things white presidents had been doing without incident for decades. I don’t claim to know what was in the hearts of the people who felt that outrage — I doubt that most of them were consciously aware they were applying different standards to Obama — but the pattern of observable behavior was clear and obvious. [3]

Likewise, this is the whole issue behind Black Lives Matter. It isn’t that people become cops because they like to kill blacks. (I mean, some small number probably do, but I doubt it’s typical, and I believe the system tries to weed those guys out.) But white guys can safely carry semi-automatic rifles through Target, while a black guy in Walmart gets gunned down for picking up a toy. Cops just see young black men differently, judge their actions more negatively, and respond more harshly. We can’t have a rational discussion of that issue because conservatives refuse to call it racism, but don’t offer any alternative term for it.

We could give them one.

I know this isn’t a new idea. In liberal circles, there is already a distinction between conscious and unconscious bigotry. We often talk about implicit bias, and there is even a test you can take for it on the internet. But every term I’ve heard smacks of some liberal bastion like psychology or academia. None of them would sound right rolling out of a conservative mouth. A conservative talking about implicit bias would impress his fellow conservatives about as much as a macho man talking to his locker-room buddies about relationships and commitment.

If we want a real discussion to start, what we need isn’t technical jargon appropriate for an academic journal, but some ten-cent words already in everyday use, taking advantage of some metaphor that ordinary people might come up with if they happened across the phenomenon on their own, without ever attending a course in racial studies.

Here’s a common metaphor that might work: Emotions have temperature. Hate and anger are hot. If you feel a vague aversion towards someone, you are cool to them, and if the aversion got stronger you might want to freeze them out.

If we apply that metaphor to racism, then the kind conservatives already acknowledge, the conscious hatred that Emmett Till‘s killers must have felt, is hot racism. When Richard Spencer calls for “ethnic cleansing” to turn American into a “white ethnostate”, that’s also hot racism.

Cold racism, on the other hand, doesn’t actively wish harm on people of color, but simply fails to factor in their interests or to weigh them as heavily as the interests of whites. Those who watched Eric Garner die saying “I can’t breathe” and felt motivated to make excuses for the police choking him — most of them probably weren’t feeling hatred or anger towards Garner, they were just failing to feel compassion for a fellow human being. The problem wasn’t their heat it was their coldness. [4]

The kind of racism that whites can live with and not notice — the kind that simply sees blacks differently and then acts in a way that feels appropriate to that harsher perception, without any awareness of personal animus — could be described as room-temperature racism. The room-temperature racist feels like he is the one acting normally, and doesn’t understand why others are getting upset with him.

That, I believe, describes Sean Spicer. An avowed white nationalist like Richard Spencer knows that race is an issue for him. But Spicer just believes he’s responding appropriately to what he sees. The details of the Holocaust (to bring up another recent example) just don’t stick in his head. Why, he probably wonders, are Jews so bent out of shape about that?

If liberals started consistently applying a temperature gauge to racism, I think most moderates would understand the metaphor without much explanation, and conservatives might eventually get it in spite of themselves. Some talking heads — the ones who are consciously looking to disrupt discussions of race — might keep reacting with outrage to any mention of racism, regardless of temperature. But part of their audience might realize that finding room-temperature racism in the patterns of Spicer’s responses isn’t the same as fitting him for a white hood. They might eventually recognize that there is a consistent phenomenon in the incidents that carry that label.

Elephants, they might come to understand, are not mastodons. Occasionally there is one in the room. Maybe there should be a conversation about it.


[1] Conservatives, in their usual pot-and-kettle way, claim that it is liberals who shut down discussions by bringing up racism. But this is true only if you begin with the premise that racism can never be discussed. Apparently, it is impossible for conservatives to respond to “That’s racist” with a skeptical “How?”.

[2] In this article I’m going to focus specifically on racism, but what I’m saying could apply to any form of bigotry. We could talk about hot and cold sexism, hot and cold nativism, and so on.

[3] In 2014, I documented a long series of examples, but two moments should stand out in everyone’s memory: State of the Union addresses have contained debatable statements for as long as I can remember, but no white president was ever interrupted by “You lie!“. And the entire Birther theory, which as late as last summer was still given credence by a majority of Republicans, demonstrated that a large number of Americans were ready to believe anything negative about Obama, regardless of evidence.

There are comparable examples of baseless conspiracy theories about white presidents — that George W. Bush was complicit in 9-11 or FDR was secretly Jewish. But all of them stayed on the fringes of public debate. None ever caught on like Birtherism or stayed viable in the face of clear evidence and repeated debunking.

Now, does that mean that Joe Wilson was consciously thinking, “I can’t let that nigger get away with saying that”? Am I implying that everyone who doubted Obama’s citizenship is a potential cross-burner? Not at all, but it is part of a long pattern of seeing blacks differently, judging them more negatively, and responding to them more harshly.

[4] When I google “cold racism”, most of the examples are of the form “stone cold racism”, which is a different thing. It’s the hardness of the stone that’s being evoked, not the temperature of the feeling.

The Skittles Analogy

If endangered people are nothing more than tiny candies, trying to save them just seems stupid.


It’s been a while since I’ve talked about framing. In a nutshell, the idea is that people think in metaphors, so if you can influence the metaphor people use to think about some situation, you can shape their thinking about it, possibly without them even realizing it. For example, someone who thinks in terms of a war on drugs will come up with different proposals than someone who is thinking about addiction as an illness. So if you suggest one metaphor or the other with the phrasing of your question, you can change the odds on getting the answer you want.

Like any other communication tactic, framing can be used for good or ill. If you’re teaching, a good metaphor can stick in students’ heads better than a long explanation. And if a metaphor is apt, it can make obvious some connections that might otherwise be confusing. (One of my favorites when I was teaching math was to encourage students to think of mathematics as a language and equations as sentences in that language. Then it becomes obvious that first step in solving any word problem is to translate the paragraph from sentences-in-English to sentences-in-mathematics.)

One uncontroversial metaphor that just about everyone uses (usually without thinking about it) is to talk about life as a journey: We come to forks in the road, the path can be rocky or smooth, two people have a parting of the ways, and so on. We all do this because (1) we’re used to it, and (2) it’s convenient. It’s actually kind of difficult to talk about long-term life issues without using a journey metaphor somehow.

But metaphors also tilt our thinking. The life-is-a-journey metaphor, for example, tilts us towards belief in an afterlife, because journeys have destinations.

Using the wrong metaphor can make your thinking absurd, even if all the steps you take are logical within the frame. A lot of jokes are based on absurdities created by mis-framing some situation. (A comedian was in line at the supermarket behind somebody who was buying a single roll of toilet paper. “What?” he asked. “Are you trying to quit?” The question would make perfect sense if rolls of toilet paper were like packs of cigarettes.)

Metaphors become sinister when people create them in order to encourage and take advantage of these sorts of mistakes. A sinister metaphor can sneak in assumptions that would be either obviously false or too ugly to defend if they had to be explained explicitly.

And that brings us to Skittles.

Monday, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted this image with the comment:

This image says it all. Let’s end the politically correct agenda that doesn’t put America first.

If you stay within the frame, the answer is obvious: Of course you wouldn’t eat a Skittle if there were any chance of getting a poisonous one.

But what assumptions has the Skittles metaphor tried to sneak past you? Implicitly, it says that the refugees themselves are of no consequence: Skittles are inanimate objects that have only momentary significance. The implication is that you might get a brief feeling of sweetness from the thought of rescuing some Syrian from ISIS, but nothing more.

If a few of the refugees become terrorists, though, that’s a huge deal. Because now we’re talking about our lives, not their lives. And because we are Americans, our lives are very, very much more important than theirs. Vox sums up:

The only agenda that will “put America first,” according to Trump, is one that assumes even a tiny risk to Americans outweighs every other consideration. It’s a policy that assumes Americans’ lives are infinitely precious and that Syrians might as well be Skittles, abstract pieces in a calculation of risk.

It’s worth considering how badly this frame clashes with Americans’ self-image as a heroic people. In all our wars (at least since we were “keeping the world safe for democracy” in World War I), we’ve recruited with the idea that our soldiers and sailors risk their lives to save others. The young men and women who have felt that heroic impulse — were they just stupid?

Also, consider the phrase “Syrian refugee problem”. Again, they’re not people, they’re a problem. And this is where you should start noticing that you’ve seen this frame before. Chris Hayes gives you a big hint.

swap in “Jews” for everything Trump and Co says about refugees, Muslims and immigrants it’s immediately clear what they’re doing.

That’s the model for this kind of propaganda: Germany didn’t have Jewish citizens or residents, it had a “Jewish problem“. So the Nazis weren’t abusing people, they were trying to solve a national problem. (No wonder they eventually they came up with a final solution.) They had a poisonous food metaphor too, but it wasn’t candies, it was mushrooms. Nazi writer Julius Streicher (who would be hanged at Nuremberg in 1946) published it in 1938 in a children’s book called The Toadstool.

Just as a single poisonous mushrooms can kill a whole family, so a solitary Jew can destroy a whole village, a whole city, even an entire Volk.

It’s not just liberals who see the connection, American neo-Nazis see it too, and have seen it all the other times when Trump Jr. has retweeted white supremacist and alt-right memes.

When you understand what has been left out of a metaphor or hidden by it, sometimes you can put it back in. That’s what Eli Bosnick did in a Facebook post that (last time I checked) had been shared 47,000 times. He brought back the point of taking in refugees: Quite likely, you are saving their lives. If every Skittle you eat saves a life, then the calculation changes for everybody with even the slightest amount of heroism in their souls.

I would GORGE myself on skittles. I would eat every single fucking skittle I could find. I would STUFF myself with skittles. And when I found the poison skittle and died I would make sure to leave behind a legacy of children and of friends who also ate skittle after skittle until there were no skittles to be eaten. And each person who found the poison skittle we would weep for. We would weep for their loss, for their sacrifice, and for the fact that they did not let themselves succumb to fear but made the world a better place by eating skittles.

That’s what heroic people do. I don’t know if I have that much heroism in me, to gorge with the knowledge that it would probably kill me, but be worth it in the larger scheme of things. Even so, though, I also don’t think I could just pass the bowl to the next person and say “No thanks.” I may not feel as heroic as Bosnick, but I also don’t think I have it in me to be that selfish.

Trump Jr. does, though. And when he looks at the rest of us, those who would eat at least two or three Skittles before passing the bowl along, he thinks we’re being stupid. What kind of idiot, after all, takes even a tiny risk to help others?