You Don’t Have to Give Bullshit a Platform

After the 2016 election, the New York Times underwent a cynical rebranding. Blithely ignoring its own role in perpetuating decades of anti-Clinton propaganda, up to and including a front page spread featuring five(!) stories on what eventually turned out to be a complete nothingburger in the form of Comey’s letter, the Times decided to brand itself as the #voiceoftheresistance. Subscriptions skyrocketed, presumably driven by gullible liberals who wanted to believe that someone, somewhere might actually pretend to care about the truth.

Naturally, the Times then decided to take all this goodwill, shit on it, set it on fire, and then dump the flaming shit on their readers when they hired Bret Stephens as an opinion columnist. Stephens’ schtick comprises nothing more than the standard conservative tropes about how very intolerant liberals are, how diseased Arab minds are, and how fake global warming is. This last one turned out to be what Stephens would lead with when he wrote his first column (you want to work your way up to the thinly disguised racism), and as you might expect from 750 words hastily typed up on the john, it’s shit. Not even the good shit, but the kind of shit you wouldn’t turn in if you were a college freshman, much less a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist[1].

Here’s Bret:

In the final stretch of last year’s presidential race, Hillary Clinton and her team thought they were, if not 100 percent right, then very close.

This is a classic denialist trick: at one point people were certain about X, but look, X turned out to be false! Thus, other people who are certain about a different thing are also wrong! I am very intelligent!. The poverty of this rationale is so stunningly obvious and indefensible that Stephens then spends two paragraphs detailing the provenance of the above anecdote, like a child padding a book report. Several more paragraphs are devoted to revolutionary ideas like “sometimes models are wrong” and “you should update your models when you get more data.” You can tell this is Pulitzer-level writing because it takes an inordinate amount of time to get to a point we knew was coming all along. Either that, or it’s pornography.

Bret goes on for a bit more, setting up the rhetorical frame on which he intends to hang his “evidence”, misrepresenting along the way both the statements of Andrew Revkin and the IPCC. Ultimately, like every scientifically illiterate swamp-dweller nurtured by the right-wing welfare gravy train, Stephens lays bare the true source of his incomprehension and dishonesty:

Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future.

This is the sort of statement that could only be made by someone with no comprehension of what a climate model is, or what a scientific model more generally is, or how evidence is processed and incorporated into models, or, indeed, any part of the actual process of generating scientific predictions. To castigate a model or a theory for only offering a “probability” is, in the possibly-apocryphal words of Wolfgang Pauli, not even wrong. It’s tantamount to attempting to make a chess move while playing poker. It is a category error of the gravest nature, a product of either a fundamental confusion or a fundamental dishonesty. Or both.

It is in fact the case that our most successful physical theories run on probabilities. Quantum mechanics and thermodynamics, two foundational theories that give rise to such miracles as me typing these words and you being able to read them, are fundamentally probabilistic at their core[2]. The more complex global climate models that power projections like those made by the IPCC are built on top of those theories: you start with the basic theory of quantum transitions in molecular systems, work out a theory of radiation transfer in the atmosphere, and build in higher-order effects such as feedbacks[3]. Because your model is going to have some free parameters that aren’t part of the basic theory, you perform measurements to try and come up with plausible values for them. Typically this means coming up with a range for those values, and any given model is going to contains many of these parameters, so you then run your model across an entire range of the multidimensional space spanned by your parameters. And because different models themselves make different assumptions about the relevance of various mechanisms, you end up with entire ensembles of models, run across many sectors of parameter space, which you then average into some overall projection[4].

So the probability that Stephens expends so much rhetorical effort to decry is in fact the primary piece of information yielded by any empirical model. The range of model outcomes represents different assumptions and different trajectories within the parameter space, but they are all based on the same underlying physics. And in the end, it turns out that the models have been quite good at tracking observations.

That models, of any kind, do not generate “certainty” is not actually a knock against them. Metaphysical certainty is not the kind of thing that exists in the real world; there are only better models and worse ones, and the only way to judge them is by measuring them against observed reality. This observation, by the way, is an incredibly difficult thing to perform; vast amounts of technical work goes into things like instrumentation, calibration, and data analysis, all in the service of getting the highest quality data. People devote their entire lives to finding better methods of reconstructing temperature from tree rings or ice cores, or developing better statistical methods for analyzing time-series. Thousands of highly skilled professionals devote an incredible amount of time and effort to solving these problems, and here comes Bret Stephens and shits on their work with his child’s understanding of probability.

Of course, Stephens wouldn’t even have a platform to peddle this garbage if it weren’t for the fact that the New York Times decided to give him one. Many other commenters have pointed out the problems with the Times’ editorial page; I will instead confine myself to the response to this fiasco given by Liz Spayd, the Times’ Public Editor. After Stephens dropped his turd on Times readers, they understandably were less than enthused and let Spayd know it:

Jim Thomas is a gay man living in a red state. He has friends who voted for Donald Trump and he interacts daily with people whose political views he finds questionable. Which is fine, because he believes that hearing perspectives different from your own is essential to healthy public discourse. Only not the views of Bret Stephens, the newly hired conservative columnist on The New York Times’s Op-Ed pages.

Why not Stephens? Thomas sees in him a provocateur who intentionally tried to incite his audience by choosing for his first column a subject of urgent concern to the left. “What troubles me is that he had to have known that writing about climate for his debut column was a meaningful and disturbing choice,” Thomas said. The Missouri resident believes Stephens is trying to create niggling doubts about the dangers of climate change by employing a tactic similar to that of some industries that stand to lose from stiff environmental regulation.

Jim Thomas… is right. He’s entirely correct. He has sussed out the essence of Stephens with an uncanny accuracy. Jim Thomas for public editor of the New York Times.

Thomas is among the thousands of readers who have written in protest since Stephens, a conservative, took a seat among the elite,

If you don’t think the guy who went to boarding school, the University of Chicago, and the London School of Economics and followed that up with stints at various right-wing op-ed shops is elite, you are a sucker. I’m not sure whether Spayd is a sucker, liar, or both, but she definitely has no respect for the intellect of her readers.

and mostly liberal, ranks of Times Opinion writers.

The Times employs walking sexual pathology Ross Douthat and David Brooks, a conservative who unironically taught a class on humility before marrying the woman who was his research assistant on a book about character. I wouldn’t call Thomas Friedman a “liberal” because it’s not even clear whether Friedman is even writing in any known human language. The farthest-left voice allowed at the Times is mainstream liberal Paul Krugman.

His first column last weekend — arguing that climate data creates the misleading impression that we know what global warming’s impact will be — produced a fresh geyser of complaints, either to the public editor, on the letters pages or posted on the column itself. No subject since the election has come close to producing this kind of anger toward The Times. Among the scores who have taken to social media are several of Stephens’s new colleagues in the newsroom, some welcoming him aboard, others not so much. I expressed my own concerns about Stephens after his hiring, but I support the general principle of busting up the mostly liberal echo chamber around here.

This is the point where Spayd really exposes the ideology that drives the Times’ op-ed page. Her argument is based on multiple false premises: first, as shown above, the Times’ op-ed page is hardly some liberal echo chamber, even “mostly”, and Spayd knows this. She’s comfortable lying to her readers about even the most trivial, easily fact-checked things in the service of preserving the fake neutrality that is the Times’ hallmark. But more importantly, she is miscasting the question of factual accuracy as a question of political affiliation.

Now, this is not a claim that the operations of science are somehow apolitical. Science, like any human activity, is subject to the vagaries of human experience and behavior; this is inescapable. Nevertheless, we are not, in fact, locked in some Foucauldian discourse prison where only power dictates what is true. There is an objective physical world out there[5] and objective physical processes that determine what is true and what is not. Quantum mechanics and thermodynamics do not care about your politics, so for Spayd to argue that this is in the service of “breaking up the liberal echo chamber,” is actually to admit that she is fine with having a professional liar and obfuscator on staff on the grounds that his lies and obfuscations are different from the “echo chamber” that is the truth.

Institutions that take truth-seeking seriously as an activity do in fact perform gatekeeping functions to keep out cranks, and appropriately so. Serious AIDS researchers steer clear of Peter Duesberg; serious cosmologists don’t publish “electric universe” theorists in their journals; (most) serious economists don’t entertain gold bugs. The reason for this is that these people are wrong because the empirical evidence does not support their views. Spayd thinks that the basics of climate science are debatable in the way that, say, the proper level of taxation or Constitutional interpretation is debatable, but it isn’t. There are people who are correct, because they’ve worked for decades to come up with physics-based models that reflect reality, and there are people who are wrong, because they are bullshitters. If Spayd was honest with herself and her readers, she would say, “Bret Stephens is a bullshitter and that’s fine; we have him on staff mostly to rile people who know what’s what.” She cannot say this, of course, but it is still true.

Since his column published last weekend, I’ve been sifting through the rubble, poring over complaints and reaching some readers by phone. The goal wasn’t to resolve the finer points of atmospheric physics, but to get an answer to a simple question: Do you actually want a diversity of views on the Opinion pages, and if so, what’s the matter with Bret Stephens?

Again, Spayd pulls a procedural maneuver where the situation calls for a substantive one. I do not want a “diversity of views” on climate science because there is no virtue in this diversity. I do not want it any more than I want a “diversity of views” on the question of whether abortion causes cancer, say, because it does not. This is not a question of diversity, it is a question of who is right or wrong.

This of course is a perfect illustration of the sort of procedural liberalism that is practiced by the Times. If you are an honest person, then you must confront the question of whether the arguments presented to you are actually true, but if you are a dishonest both-sides hack, then the only thing that matters is that there are multiple arguments. The substance of the arguments doesn’t actually matter because truth-seeking is not the function of the op-ed page (though it should be). In general, faced with real, genuine conflicts of truth and value, the standard liberal maneuver is to retreat into proceduralism and hope that the whole thing will work itself out somehow. But procedural norms on their own are useless, except insofar as they encode substantive norms that we think are valuable. Spayd believes that the fake “marketplace of ideas”-style neutrality is the overriding norm, but in fact that norm is only useful because it serves as a kind of first-order organizational principle for debate. Once an idea has been shown to be false, it needs to be kicked out of the marketplace; it no longer merits the real estate taken up by its stall. And Stephens is peddling exactly such false and discredited ideas. That Spayd is comfortable allocating space to this bullshit indicates that she doesn’t actually understand (or doesn’t accept, which is even more troubling) that truth ought to be an actual standard that institutions like the Times should be held to.

It’s worth pausing here to note a very obvious thing: there are absolutely limits to what the Times will tolerate. The Times’ op-ed page unquestionably acts to police the bounds of acceptable discourse. Here’s a small sampling of views you will not find there: anti-interventionism, left-wing economics, crude right-wing racism (scientific racism a la Nicholas Wade is fine though), gold bugs, homeopaths, conspiracy theorists. This of course is not to say that the Times should give a form to all of these people, but if they were really committed to disrupting the “liberal echo chamber,” then these views would do just as well. Why not, as Jesse Myerson said on Twitter, give space to someone who thinks Jews have horns and drink the blood of Christians?

The fact that the Times doesn’t give space to any of the above is prima facie evidence that it is engaged in discourse policing of a particular sort. The kinds of opinions allowed on its op-ed page are carefully curated to range from “median Republican” (which in our present world amounts to “frothing mad lunatic”) to “just a hair’s breadth left of the median Democrat”, so, Paul Krugman. That’s it, that is who is allowed to opine with regularity at the Times while drawing a salary from it. This is a direct outcome of the fetishization of a procedural neutrality and procedural diversity at the expense of substance; in reality, you end up limiting the substance anyway (how could you not?) but you give yourself a kind of cover to pretend you’re not doing it.

This, in my view, is the deepest dishonesty of all. Bret Stephens is a bullshitter, but we know how to deal with bullshitters. What’s much harder to do is to combat a media organ that at once presents itself as a neutral forum for ideas while factually discriminating against all sorts of ideas that it finds unpalatable. By allowing Stephens space in its op-ed page, the Times is trying to say, “look, we’re not just a liberal echo chamber,” but of course exactly this kind of faux-diversity and slavish devotion to both-siderism is emblematic of the hollowed-out post-value elite liberalism in which the Times traffics.

There is no virtue in playing this shell game. If you are legitimately willing to open your forum to all kinds of dissenting voices, do so. I do not believe that every idea is worth discussing or deserves a private forum, and I’m fine with publications that choose to filter their content on a substantive basis. I no more expect to read paeans to the free market in Jacobin than I expect to read paeans to Marx in the National Review. It’s hard to see why the Times’ op-ed should be any different, especially in light of the fact that the Times’ climate desk actually does some excellent reporting on the issue of global warming. But what the Times should not do is to present itself as a neutral arbiter while being very much engaged in a filtering process that keeps voices it deems unacceptable out of the public eye. That is rank dishonesty.

Spayd goes on:

That’s an important question. The Times, both in the newsroom and on the Opinion side, has proclaimed a public commitment to reflecting a broader range of perspectives in its pages. What its mostly liberal or left-leaning base of readers thinks about that strategy obviously matters. They represent the business model, after all, and many are threatening to cancel their subscriptions (although three weeks in, relatively few have).

There it is again, the same dishonesty as before. Substantive disagreements are transformed into a “someone said/someone else said” fake neutrality. Gotta hear both sides!

Most of the people I spoke with said they welcome opinions they don’t share and resent the suggestion that they prefer an ideological safe house. But many are incensed by what they felt was the gall of Stephens to take on climate change as his first column, and then to obliquely suggest that the data underlying climate science may be flawed, just like the data that predicted a Hillary Clinton win in November.

Most of the people Spayd interacts with on daily basis are almost certainly the same sort of milquetoast process liberals like herself, who think that it’s important To Be Scrupulously Fair to cranks and charlatans. It’s telling that apparently even many of those people are incensed at the obvious bullshit being published by the Times; apparently there are lines that even some milquetoast liberals won’t cross.

Rich Posert of Portland, Ore., said he would be happy to see a libertarian on the Op-Ed pages, or someone like Ross Douthat, another Times conservative columnist. But Posert said he doesn’t understand giving a platform to a columnist he sees as intentionally casting doubt on climate science. “It’s just too important,” Posert said. What made matters worse was when he saw the comments of two Times editors dismissing angry readers as people who reject free speech or alternative viewpoints. That’s when he canceled his subscription.

It turns out that if you publish someone who is openly misleading about the state of the science, people will object to this open dishonesty. That anyone could see this as a “free speech” issue just speaks to the utter derangment of senior people at the Times.

Ella Wagner, a graduate student at Loyola University Chicago, said she too favors a mix of opinions, but given the cast of mostly older white men on the Op-Ed pages now, she doesn’t see Stephens as some wild departure. “Instead, they found someone whose point is to destabilize the current science on climate change,” she said. “What really annoyed me was seeing Times ads promising to pursue the ‘truth’ and then you get this alert saying, ‘Read this column that questions the fundamental believability of facts.’”

Ella Wagner, a person who understands the difference between “things that are true” and “things that are not true,” is rightfully annoyed that the Times has chosen to give space to a person who peddles the latter.

Also among the readers was a climate scientist, who in an email went on for many paragraphs challenging Stephens’s “fallacious and misleading argument.” And a priest, who told me that, unlike the others, he took it upon himself to subscribe to The Times, as a gesture of reward for letting all voices speak.

A person who knows what they’re talking about is up in arms about a bullshitter who doesn’t know.

The bottom line: Few readers question the notion of having a conservative on the Op-Ed pages, with some caveats. But they thought it was a pugnacious move on Stephens’s part to choose climate change as his first target, a subject as flammable to many younger readers as the Middle East has long been to older ones.

“It turns out that unlike the straw-objector that I made up, actual people who understand how this game works object not to general conservative views, but to the specific proliferation of lies and obfuscations which the Times has abetted!”

That’s the readers’ side. Up the elevator on the 13th floor was Stephens, who sat beneath empty bookshelves in his new office. He was answering questions from readers for his next column, and was ready to take mine.

No one gives a fuck what “Stephens’ side” is. His “side” is to lie about climate science.

“It’s been an education,” he said of his maiden voyage into Times territory from the more conservative compound of The Wall Street Journal. “Some reader comments have been really smart and engaging,” he said, while many on Twitter, he said, have been less so. One tweet in particular left him explaining to his 11-year-old boy what it meant that someone wanted his dad “Danny Pearl-ed.”

Some people tweeted gross things at Stephens. All objections are therefore null and void. Give this man another Pulitzer!

He says he chose climate not to intentionally incite anyone, but because he was being attacked on that subject before he even arrived. He felt he couldn’t dodge it. What about the assertion that his broader purpose, like that of many industries, is to stoke doubt about global warming and thus reduce the need to act?

He chose to troll the readers of the Times because he knew they could be trolled. He’s in this respect no different than the people who use racial slurs because they know that it annoys decent people.

The first column was meant to recognize our fallibility. When I quoted the old Jew of Galicia, about someone who’s 55 percent right, that meant me. I am far from infallible, and I screw up all the time. I’m not offering my comments as statements of absolute truth. What I’m trying to do is offer statements about issues that matter in hopes that they approximate the truth. Just as I want to persuade readers, I understand that they might end up persuading me.

More dishonesty; if Stephens had been interested in the truth, the truth has been publily available to him for decades. He could have done the reading, he could have reached out to actual climate scientists, he could have educated himself in any number of ways. Instead what he did was to provide a glib and false summary of the state of climate science and then tried to pass off his bullshit as “wisdom.” When challenged on this, he takes refuge in an anecdote; I’m sure we’ll be hearing from Stephens in short order about how climate science is actually anti-Semitic.

The thing is, Stephens didn’t make any of the efforts he should have made because he knows there are no consequences for people like him. Incompetent mainstream pundits never die, they just fail upward into heaven! There’s no incentive for Stephens to be informed or honest because those would both require effort and self-reflection, whereas snarking on his readers is easy. The odds that any argument that a reader could make would “persuade” Stephens are less than epsilon; if he actually wanted to know the truth, it was there fore the knowing all along.

That may be where conciliation ends. From Stephens’s perspective, the gulf between his intentions and reader reaction is partly explained by how liberals tend to approach ideas with which they disagree.

“People who dare to point out that I’m wrong on the merits are actually suppressing my free speech.” –conservatives generally, Stephens particularly

“The dominant mode of liberal disagreement in many cases is to express contempt,” he said. “That’s a real problem, really for liberals.” Especially in the wake of Trump, he said, “The New York Times is a last bastion of objectivity and human civilization to many liberals. My presence here suggests there is a Fifth Column(ist) in the Citadel.”

People who are wrong and who peddle bullshit deserve noting but contempt. Stephens is actually contemptible, a loathsome, snarky little toad whose job is to defend the powerful from his position of privilege.

After a little prodding about whether conservatives share the same attribute, he maintained that they do not, but said that they have their own behavioral issues: They can be overbearing.

Ah, the “I hit you because I love you” defense. Very good, I think there’s a third Pulitzer Prize here.

If that’s how Stephens feels, life on The Times’s Op-Ed pages should stay interesting for a while, though maybe not productive.

Fuck his feelings.

For Stephens to win over new readers he’ll need to make a strategic pivot, from preaching to a choir of Journal conservatives to winning over a Times audience of suspicious liberals. Being steadfastly anti-Trump, as Stephens is, might count for something, but whatever trust was built up among Journal readers may be back on empty here. Showing some patience and respect for the new audience could start filling the tank.

Everything is measured in “winning readers,” not “telling the truth” or “being right.” Of course if you fetishize the market, you’re going to think that “number of readers” corresponds to “value of idea.” That Stephens would cynically exploit this is unsurprising; that the Times accedes implicitly to this framework should tell you everything you need to know about its leadership’s substantive commitments.

Readers, on the other hand, face the serious test of whether they can show tolerance for views they don’t like, even those they fear are dangerous. Stephens questioned the models of climate science, but isn’t it possible to take him at face value — to accept that he thinks global warming is at least partially man-made — and see where he takes his argument over time? He may not change opinions in the end, but at the very least he might concede that his stereotype of the contemptuous liberal is overly broad.

No, they actually do not face any such test. There is not a reasonable debate here; there is one person misrepresenting the state of the science, and a bunch of people pointing out that this is bullshit. It is not “possible to take him at face value,” because his arguments have no face value. They are utterly devoid of content and uninformed by any understanding of the relevant science. “Where he takes his argument” is irrelevant because the argument has moved so far ahead of him that he’s in the position of arguing for phlogiston at the 1911 Solvay Conference and then complaining that no one is taking him seriously. The place where his argument belongs is in the trash bin with Stephens’ entire career.

As for Stephens, I’m taking him at his word, that he has no intention of manufacturing facts and that he will be transparent with his audience about his ideas and intentions. That seems like a good place to start.

Yes, let’s extend good faith to liars and bigots. Because the most important thing is that we hear from another conservative who definitely does not have a platform for his views.

Ultimately, the problem of centrist media as gatekeeper that promotes conservative bullshit in the interests of faux-neutrality is much more serious than the conservative bullshit itself. There’s no obligation to give these charlatans a space to promulgate their falsehoods, but the Times does so anyway because it wants to be considered a “serious” paper. Of course, the people that it’s trying to pander to will never respect it anyway, and the people who would otherwise be its natural allies are going to be turned off. The Times can’t break out of this trap because it’s trying to have it both ways, to be a respectable filter while pretending its serving the cause of intellectual diversity. The way out is of course to decide that you aren’t going to publish things that are categorically false, but unfortunately that is a stronger commitment than the pillars of late liberalism are willing to sustain.

[1]: Not that a Pulitzer Prize, especially for commentary, has much intrinsic value. Any prize that Peggy Noonan can win can’t be worth much.

[2]: Don’t @ me, Bohmians.

[3]: Yes, I am aware that real climate models are substantially more complicated. This is just a general schematic.

[4]: Again, the process of aggregating the results climate models is much more complex than my brief sketch.

[5]: Don’t @ me, anti-realists.

Conway’s Game of Life

Here is one profile of Kellyanne Conway. Here is another. What did these pieces tell us that we didn’t already know? What is their purpose, other than to fill column inches? They recycle the same basic uninteresting facts about Conway and her rise, facts which anyone paying moderate attention to politics is already surely aware of. Nuzzi’s piece is mostly fluff, Ball’s is a little more serious, but they both fail to engage with the true subject at hand on anything more than a superficial level.

The political profile, complete with origin story, is one of the most worn-out cliches in the history of journalism. It exists because we would like to pretend that a present-day personality can be reverse-engineered by examining certain formative events in its subject’s history (“tough childhood,” “absent father,” etc.) This is journalism’s version of the “Great Man (or Woman) Theory of History,” a formalism in which personality is forged entirely in reference to the atomized subject and retains its primacy as the driver of events. Sometimes this works, but for the maneuver to pay off, the subject has to be someone actually interesting, a genuinely complex individual. This, Conway is not; to appropriate a Russian expression I’m fond of, she is as simple as a garden rake†. Since it is impossible to give three dimensions to something that has only two, both profiles founder on the inability of their subject to uphold their own conceit.

The truth about Conway that neither Nuzzi nor Ball explicitly acknowledge (though Ball hints at it obliquely) is that she is a shameless grifter, an unprincipled operator who rose on the strength of her consistent willingness to defend the indefensible. She is about as banal as a political operative could possibly be, utterly devoid of anything resembling ideas and lacking any capacity for meaningful self-reflection (c.f her cynical invocation of feminism when she is criticized, while doing everything to destroy actual feminism). If Donald Trump is the distilled id of conservative politics, representing its substantive essence, Conway, in all her bullshitting vacuity, is the perfect instantiation of its form. Insofar as she has any ideology, it’s the reflexive cruelty of the Republican lizard brain; her chief asset is her willingness to lie baldly and maximally and without any sense of shame about everything and anything.

In a political landscape prepared by Fox News and right-wing talk radio to accept without proof any claims that damn the correct liberal targets, Conway makes perfect sense. Why bother with explanations or arguments when those have never convinced anyone anyway (and which in any case Conway herself is utterly incapable of making even if they were available, which they aren’t)? In another era, she’d be the perfect Politburo member, cheerfully condemning excessive formalism as a counterrevolutionary tendency or singling out people with glasses-marks on their nose for extermination in the prison camps. An utterly conscience-free human being, she’s the consummate avatar of conservative ressentiment.

So, in herself, Conway is an empty signifier. She is as personally uninteresting as anyone could possible be. What she points to instead is the purposeful and thorough stupefaction of our society to the point where the ability to make the basic dinstinction between fact and fiction, truth and lie, has nearly vanished from the public sphere. Conway is the seed that blooms in the ground tilled for decades (mostly by the right, cynically employing the tools of the left) to reject the foundational premise, necessary for any type of progress, that such things as facts even exist.

This is the uncomfortable reality that Nuzzi and Ball would have done better to explore, but it would have required a level of analysis and examination of self-complicity that I’m not sure either New York or The Atlantic could sustain. Maybe if Ball were still writing for the now-defunct Grantland, there would have been a venue for that kind of work, but there doesn’t seem to be anymore. And that’s a shame, because the question of how we got to the point where a human-shaped void like Conway occupies a central position in our political discourse is far more interesting than examining said void for signs of intellectual coherence.

[†]: “простая и незатейливая как грабли” -старая Одесская пословица

Some stuff I’ve been reading

An occasional update of what I’m reading: – Corey Robin on political fearThe purpose of TrumpismTrump and WatergateStructural causes of the racial wealth gapComparison of Trump and HitlerThe Reichstag fireMalfunctinoning SenatePresidential authority over immigrationTrump is a petty loserFuck the #nevertrumpersSome history of the AEATrump and the fascist aesthetic

Strangers in Every Land

I started responding to this piece by Emma Green on Facebook and before I knew I had written several hundred words, at which point I decided this would be better as a blog post.

I feel like this article asks the wrong question, and the reason it does so is that in American terms, “whiteness” has become a proxy for “legitimate member of the body politic.” This formulation makes sense in some ways because the cleavage between white and non-white has been the enduring fault line running through American history. But it’s also short-sighted because until very recently (in historical terms) people whose skin color wasn’t really a contestable issue as such (e.g. the Irish) didn’t really “count” as “white”; their integration into the mainstream of American society was accompanied by a sort of retroactive granting of whiteness while European racial divisions remained as fraught as ever.

Jews never properly fit into this dynamic; the author gropes at this problem but fails to apprehend it because, again, the framework she’s working from is the American framework of “whiteness” and “color.” But the knock on Jews was never that they weren’t “white” or even, I think, particularly that they were somehow racially flawed as such; that was Hitler’s particular innovation but again, there’s a lot of recency bias here making us think that it was always this way. But if you take a much broader historical view, one of the things that comes up, for example, is Christians using “Jew” as a broad category for “alien,” even in contexts where there were not even any actual Jews around to reference. The racist pseudo-science of the 19th century allowed for the possibility of grafting these views onto what was then perceived as “biological reality” but I think this was a convenient fusion of disparate streams of thought.

A much better framework for understanding this would be to read something like “Two Hundred Years Together,” Solzhenitsyn’s deeply anti-Semitic and yet also non-fascist history of Russian-Jewish relations. It’s not that Solzhenitsyn wants to send the Jews to the death camps or thinks they’re vermin, it’s that he fundamentally doesn’t believe that they can truly be at home within a Christian society. There’s more than a little parasite/host metaphor going on there, but the crucial point for me is that it operates in the long-standing tradition of viewing “Jewish” as synonymous with “fundamentally Other.” What could be more Other than the Wandering Jew, cursed with immortality for taunting Jesus and unable to find a home in any country of the world? The Jew’s fundamental rootlessness means that he can never truly be a citizen of anywhere, which is why it makes sense that many Jewish socialists and communists were purged by the USSR under the guise of being “rootless cosmopolitans,” who can’t possibly be trusted to be good citizens.

Viewed through this historical and trans-national lens, I think the question becomes not “are Jews white?” but rather “can Jews fundamentally belong to any place at all?” Or, for me as a Jew, the question is “can we ever have something other than provisional acceptance as Jews?” Because as we’re seeing, what can be made white can be made un-white (unmade white?) as long as the conception of the Jew as alien continues to underlie mainstream society’s attitude towards Jews.

What is the social purpose of David Brooks?

David Brooks is trash. This is so obviously the case that I will spend no time whatsoever proving it, except to link to his latest piece which equivocates between social democracy and the “alt-right,” or as we like to call it here in the literate world, fascism.

David Brooks being trash leads to an obvious question: what the fuck is he doing on the New York Times masthead? Who is so deeply invested in having him on board that they are willing to tolerate unceasing ridicule for it? It’s impossible to say for certain, of course, but I have a thesis.

Before I get to it, it’s important to point out that Brooks has virtually no qualifications to comment on anything; he owes his current position to nothing more than a moderate intelligence and a talent for social climbing. A child of two comfortable academics, he attended the University of Chicago where he begged William Buckley for a job via satirical sketch (no, really). He worked the crime beat for a local news service for a bit and then interned for the National Review; he also spent some time at the Hoover Institution. His only real job involved being editor of the book review for the Wall Street Journal, after which he promptly switched to the opinion page, where he pretty much has remained ever since. Brooks’ only qualifications for doing so involve being a “conservative commentator” of impeccable lineage, which is to say that he did time on the wingnut welfare circuit just like all the other washouts and losers who constitute the conservative “intellectual class.”

During his stint at the Times, which is ongoing from 2003, Brooks has repeatedly proven himself to be a howling void of thought, incapable of engaging on a serious and direct level with any idea he doesn’t already hold. His sociology is risible, and his lack of self-awareness is legendary; this is, after all, the man who unironically taught a class at Yale on the subject of humility and assigned them his own columns. His one constant is the rhetorical trick of always taking the most centrist position of milquetoast liberalism and the most insane positions of the right wing, splitting the difference, and then planting himself firmly in the “center” of political discourse that he has just engineered out of nowhere.

Again, what purpose does this serve? Who is actually moved by this? The answer, I think, is twofold: one is that David Brooks has the job that he has not because of any special qualifications (as shown above, he has none) or any critical capacity for insight (ditto) but rather because he knows the right people. Brooks went to the same schools they went to, interned at the “correct” magazines (in the upper echelons of boomer liberalism the National Review is incorrectly considered to have intellectual value), and has held the “correct” positions at more mainstream publications. That he is a waste of space doesn’t matter to anyone; once you ascend sufficiently high in this world, you can never fail out of it. No number of terrible columns or terrible books or terrible classes taught will ever disqualify Brooks from his post. His defenders will always shrug and point to his publication record, as though bylines and one’s name on a book jacket were more important than the actual work. In that sense, Brooks’ social value consists entirely of demonstrating how chummy quasi-nepotism and speaking the language of the elites is more important than one’s actual intellectual contributions.

The second answer is that Brooks remains a kind of lodestar for a certain class of Times reader: the relatively affluent, centrist (maybe even center-left) boomer, who of course does not at all go in for the vulgarity of a Trump, but finds protests by black people over their arbitrary murder at the hands of police just a bit too gauche. Brooks is their safe space, ready at all times to validate their fears of the masses they imagine must be assembled with torches and pitchforks right outside their castle gates. This goes double for Brooks’ liberal readers: they get to paint themselves as “openminded” and “willing to listen to the other side” by reading a man who will gently mock their bourgeois-liberal sensibilities while serving as a stalking-horse for your standard loot-the-country-and-fuck-the-poor Republicanism. Brooks provides the illusion of dissent which merely reinforces the circumscribing of acceptable political opinions into a boundary that just barely includes the center-left but mostly caters to the right. This works out very well for the center-left leadership of the Times, which cements its claims to “legitimacy” by employing obvious cranks like Brooks as a sop to the right while at the same time punching hard to the left to avoid any serious criticism of its own role in our coming nightmare. The twin poles of managerial liberalism and center-right culture-shaming generate between them a kind of affective niche occupied by the Times that it then markets to its readers.

David Brooks is trash, but he wouldn’t have a job if some other people weren’t socially predisposed to hiring him for frivolous reasons. Which is also why he’s going to keep that job until they carry him out of his office (real or metaphorical) feet first, and why we’re going to be reading his therapy notes in the form of thinly veiled columns about his divorce throughout the Trumpocalypse.

English and the Political Language

Among the strangest phenomena of American political life is one politician accusing another of “playing politics.” This terrible locution is bipartisan, employed as often by liberals as by conservatives, and I don’t know of another area of human activity in which practice partly consists of denying the existence of the very activity you are engaged in. To accuse a basketball coach of “playing basketball” or an egineer of “playing engineering” would be nonsensical, and yet in politics we routinely hear such accusations leveled.

Like any piece of widely employed nonsense, this phrasing does, of course, carry a certain kind of semantic content, one conveyed not so much by the phrase itself as by the fact of it being uttered. What does it mean, to “play politics?” That depends on where and how you split the phrase. In its naive usage, “playing politics” is normally used to signify that one’s opponent has taken a “non-political” question and rendered it political, somehow. For example, liberals are often accused of “playing politics with the troops” when either attempting to curb American warmaking abroad or provide some support for returning soldiers domestically; by the same token, conservatives will be called out for, say, “playing politics with women’s lives,” when attempting to enact limits on reproductive rights.

The paradoxical nature of the “playing politics” maneuver is its ubiquitous deployment by political actors engaged in the political process of achieving political goals. What is the question of, say, reproductive rights, if not a political issue? The actions of politicians carried out in the course of their professional work are almost definitionally “politics,” and the attempt to prevent the political success of an opponent is, again, definitionally political. So: what purpose does it serve? On my reading, one operation accomplished by the accusation of “playing politics” or “politicization” is the suggestion that politics itself is a kind of alien enterprise that no one should engage in. At the same time, by deploying this rhetoric, its user seeks to position themselves on the ground of consensus: all reasonable non-political people acknowledge the universal rightness of my position, and it is only the political operative who disagrees. Thus: to be political is to stand in fundamental disagreement with a presumed rightness. And more: to be political, to politicize, is to acknowledge conflict where the accuser demands recognition of trans-political necessary truth. It’s not just that the personal is not held ot be political, but even the political itself is transformed into a dishonorable practice.

That’s the “politics” fork of “playing politics.” What about the “playing?” To accuse someone of playing is, firstly, to accuse them of a sort of insincerity. You are not truly a fan of 1960s avant garde Czech cinema; you are merely playing at being one for nefarious purposes (hipster cred, presumably). In politics, that translates as follows: you are not really concerned about the issue that you claim to be concerned about; you are merely putting on a sort of act by pretending concern. While it’s certainly true that political debates are full of what might generously be described as concern-trolling, we do have a language for calling bullshit on those things: we merely say that the speaker is lying. Whether true or not, an accusation of lying is at least intelligible and, presumably, open to some sort of independent adjudication with reference to the facts at hand. But “playing politics” is precisely the kind of slippery non-phrase that can never be proven or disproven. Are we truly concerned or is our political face merely another actor’s mask we wear on the face we present in everyday political life? How can you tell the dancer from the dance? This of course is an unanswerable question, with unanswerability being just the point: the goal is not to establish a fact but to sow doubt.

A secondary, complementary meaning of the accusation of “playing” is to imply that the accused regards the process as a kind of game, games being the sorts of things you play. In other words: the accused may or may nor really care about the issue at hand, but is really employing it as a kind of point-scoring maneuver in a game that has no purpose beyond itself. This dovetails neatly with the first fork, which seeks to convey the sense of politics as a fundamentall alien activity. If politics is, in fact, alien, that is, if it has no real relevance to our lives, then of course any political engagement can only be understood not as an expression of particular principles, but rather as just another game in which the goal is not to achieve any particular end, but rather to “defeat” whatever opponent stands in your way. Couple that to the accusation of insincerity, and more doubt is sown. The irony of this reading is that there really does exist an entire class of people for whom politics really is something of a social game; it’s just that this class overwhelmingly comprises various pundits and other political hangers-on (e.g. David Brooks, Tom Friedman, Maureen Dowd, etc.) for whom actual political practice would entail, well, too much work. But the people actually doing the work, whether you deem that work good or bad, are not playing but practicing.

The reason I object so strongly to the use of this formulation is because, like all euphemisms, it crowds out meaningful understanding of its subject. To insinuate that politics is something apart from life is to mistakenly assume that it can be bracketed off from your existence; to accuse an opponent of being engaged in a kind of sophisticated pretense is to misjudge their motivations and the strength of their convictions. The accusation of “playing politics” serves to conceal the existence of genuine, perhaps ultimately irreconcilable conflicts by removing those conflicts to a realm of seeming abstraction inhabited by people who are not engaged in anything real.

Unfortunately, American political discourse is fundamentally infantile, conducted on a level that should be embarrassing to a sixth-grader, much less to grown adults. So we get constructions like this, in which the very act of achieving a political end takes the form of denying that politics exists at all. Our political language is in quite a bad way.

Stupid People Arguing About Stupid Things

Earlier today I was listening to yesterday’s podcast of the Diane Rehm Show on which the panel was discussing what the Amtrak accident means in light of our decaying infrastructure. Unfortunately, as is often the case with discussions of public transit, the debate got bogged down in the end in a very stupid Republican talking-point. Basically, any time Republicans encounter government money being spent on something they don’t like (as opposed to Good And True things like bombing Middle Eastern countries), they’ll complain about those things being “subsidized.” Why are we subsidizing Amtrak passengers?! cries Rep. Andrew Harris of Maryland, idiot.

Ed Rendell, a person who seems to have something resembling a functional nervous system, sensibly replied that all transit systems everywhere are subsidized. Unfortunately, while getting the particulars right, Rendell neglected to defend the larger principle. Ignore for the moment the fact that automotive transport has been the beneficiary of innumerable government subsidies for decades, not least of which is the actual interstate highway system the imminent collapse of which is going to kill us all presently because we won’t spend the money to repair it.

The larger principle that Rendell should have defended, but which apparently cannot be uttered in polite company, is that sometimes it makes sense to subsidize stuff. We “subsidize” public education, for example; we do it poorly and often reluctantly, and usually in racially inequitable ways, but we do do it. There are undertakings that we, as a society, deem worthwhile, and that means that we can choose to spend public resources on them. There’s nothing wrong with that determination! Rendell’s hemming on the issue serves to obscure this basic point, but it’s just as true of alternative energy or education as it is of infrastructure or public transit. There’s no magic way to get something you want without paying for it, and yet the inability to openly acknowledge this basic fact continues to hamper the ability to push for necessary public works

These are the fruits of decades of well-poisoning on the part of conservatives with regard to any notion of the public good. Even people who ostensibly favor such public efforts cannot bring themselves to say with a straight face that yes, these things are good, and we can and should spend money to achieve them. “Subsidy” is not a dirty word; it’s an integral part of development throughout the history of this country.

Melian Dialogues

I don’t have anything terribly original to say on the topic of the current events in Baltimore. Anyone with two eyes, a few neurons to rub together, and a sense of history can understand for themselves that, whatever you think of riots as a political or moral phenomenon, it is impossible to detach those events from their manifestation as the reaction of a brutalized populace. Take a few minutes to read Ta-Nehisi Coates on this topic, then come back if you feel like it.

So now, a few words about the rhetoric of (non-)violence. Hardly anything in American political life is so reliable as the Grave Concerns of Very Serious People whenever more than three black people show up in the same spatiotemporal vicinity to express some degree of dissatisfaction with their treatment by the American police state; the ritual bemoaning of violence is metronomic in its regularity. Curiously, those same Very Serious People are somehow very quiet when it comes to the violence perpetrated upon those very same black people. Instead, we are subjected to the standard casual racism disguised as responsibility politics: that guy shouldn’t have run, this woman shouldn’t have spoken up, this other guy should have complied. Ad nauseam ad inifinitum.

There just isn’t any way of reconciling this double-standard that’s actually fair to the facts at hand, which is why any conversation on this topic turns into a prime example of goalpost-moving and evasion. “But destruction of property is still wrong!” “But you should still comply with police orders!” “But what about black-on-black crime?” Anything to avoid the unpleasant fact that police are enabled by the state to take lives with virtually no repercussions whatsoever, and that the lives taken are disproportionately black ones. It’s Thucydides meets Weber: the the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must, coupled with the state’s monopoly on violence and discretion in its distribution. No one familiar with the history of race in America ought to be surprised when this lethal mixture distributes that violence disproportionately onto African-Americans.

The Grave Concerns present an insurmountable double-bind. On the one hand, no one will speak for you if the police decide they like you better dead; on the other hand, no public expressions of outrage are allowed, lest you be labeled “violent.” Usually at this stage the Very Serious People suggest that the way to reform is through the voting booth, which only serves to remind everyone that none of these Very Serious People have ever lived as members of a politically disempowered community. The VSP’s tend to have a romantic notion of that decidedly un-romantic Weberian formulation, “the strong and slow boring of hard boards,” mostly because it allows an escape into cliche rather than obligating someone to actually do something, the way a real moral outrage would. After all, it’s not them who will have to do the actual boring, it’s other people, and for other people, especially other black people, justice can wait. Forever, if need be. Never mind that not being subjected to the arbitrary lethal power of the state manifested in its police force is one of those pretty basic things that one would think wouldn’t require “reform” to make happen.

This vicious circle will continue until it becomes an accepted fact in American politics that black lives are worth as much as white ones, and that a system of racial terror imposed on black communities is morally untenable. As long as that system persists, we’ll see more Baltimores for the simple reason that public protests are the only visible way that black communities have to protest against this. All the pearl-clutching over destroyed property and violence inappropriately issuing from rather than being directed at black people are just ways of avoiding that basic realization.

Priorities

A story has been making the internet rounds these past two weeks about a guy who got beat up by a group of bikers following a confrontation in which the bikers encircled him, did a brake-check, and then tried to break into his car when he tapped the dude who brake-checked him. The guy gunned it, fearing quite rightly for the safety of his wife and baby, who were in the car with him, and ran over one of the bikers in the process. The rest of the group decided to extract revenge, and here we are two weeks later with one idiot possibly paralyzed for life, a few more idiots probably going to jail, and a family that is undoubtedly traumatized by the whole thing. Way to go, America.

Here’s what I found weird about this. Go back to that link above and read the bit where it says “Update.” What is completely astounding to me is that the police knew about the planned ride all along. Not only that, but there were actual undercover cops riding with the bike gang! In other words, the police almost certainly knew exactly what the bikers were going to do, and did nothing to prevent it, allowing a bunch of outlaws to essentially terrorize a major highway in a major American city.

How the fuck, exactly, is this possible? The NYPD has spent untold amounts of resources spying on Muslims and college students, busting heads at Occupy protests, and racially profiling blacks and Latinos. Huge honking sums of money devoted to pretty much completely speculative undertakings that only served to build anger at the department itself. And yet, here, given a situation in which the police know almost exactly what is going to happen, they cannot muster up the resources to crack down on this? And the chief of the police feels entirely comfortable coming out and openly saying so?

This is beyond absurd. It is willful neglect. The NYPD knew about this and chose to do absolutely nothing. And its failure to act on information that definitively pointed to lawbreaking and endangerment of citizenry demonstrates exactly where its priorities lie: in covering its collective ass by falsifying police data, in making life difficult for non-white, non-rich residents of NYC (and indeed, for people living beyond its jurisidction), and in punching hippies. Oh, and in keeping the ride out of Times Square, something Ray Kelly seems to be quite proud of. Because if you’re not a tourist but just a regular driver on the West Side Highway, well, fuck you. This is what the NYPD cares about, this is what it’s for; certainly not for preventing entirely knowable illegal activities that pose real danger to the residents of the city which it is ostensibly tasked with protecting and serving.

This alone should be enough to get Kelly thrown out on his worthless ass. Here’s hoping that when de Blasio is elected he has the backbone to follow through with his promise to replace Kelly with someone who actually cares about protecting citizens, rather than turning the NYPD into a personal fiefdom.

Emboldening II: the Endumbening

So here I was, sitting in, how apropos, the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, and half-listening to John Kerry’s press conference where he’s outlining the case for bombing Assad. And there’s this one word that keeps coming up in these discussions, primarily from people who can’t get enough of bombing other countries, and that word is “embolden.” As in, “if we don’t bomb Assad, we’re going to embolden our enemies.” We’re going to look weak to them, you see.

Thesis: anyone who unironically uses the word “embolden” is either a credulous idiot or a lying piece of shit. Or both.

If you’re minimally aware of inter-generational trends in US military spending, you might know that the US spends more money on its military (excuse me, “defense”) than the next n countries combined, where n is a number that I’m too lazy to presently look up but which I’m quite positive is well into the double digits. If there’s anything that anyone knows at all about US foreign policy, it’s precisely that we’re not at all afraid of bombing anyone or anything we like. “We will wreck your shit,” has been longstanding US doctrine in one form or other for decades. I am willing to bet money that no one but an American would be stupid enough to think that the US needs to do anything to prove its willingness to use force.

The whole notion of “emboldening” is an absurd framework that falls apart at the slightest perturbation. The “emboldening thesis” holds that if a particular act (e.g. the use of chemical weapons) goes unpunished, then subsequent bad acts are likely to follow because everyone will assume the policing hegemon is too weak to respond. Italics because that’s the operative principle of the whole thing. But in reality, this has never been true; from the lowliest aspirant to Al Qaeda membership to the highest leadership of any other nation, everyone knows that the countries that end up suffering the wrath of the hegemon are those countries which are politically convenient to punish. The US will happily disregard international law in one instance (here, have some chemical weapons, Mr. Hussein!) where it suits it, while using it as a pretext elsewhere (bad, bad Bashar!), AND NOAH-WAHN DENIES THIS. The lesson any minimally competent observer will extract from this is not that the US is too “weak” to punish transgressors (because, you know, we just literally spent the last decade occupying two different countries, one of which we invaded for totally bullshit reasons), but that the US will just do whatever the fuck it wants when it wants, and it’s not going to explain anything to anyone.

There are lots of terrible reasons to launch a strike on Syria, including the fact that there’s no actual plan to do anything other than lob a few missiles, define whatever they hit as a strategic target, and declare victory. But I think the idea that “we have to do something because otherwise some bad people will be emboldened,” is probably the most idiotic reason for doing anything whatsoever; it flies in the face of all history and sense. The fact that this assertion is allowed to repeatedly go unchallenged in public discourse is just another testament to the sad state of our intellectual life.