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Mon Feb 02, 2015 at 06:08 AM PST

The Chaitgasm: Good Faith & Bad Acting

by Shef

I wish the Internet came with a manual. I wish my parents had sat me down as a lad and told me, “John, this is when you should argue in good faith; this is when you should hold your tongue; and this is when you should just troll.” Of course the Internet is the Wild West, and my parents maybe knew how to use AOL when I was growing up, so, when New York Magazine let Jonathan Chait’s 5,000 words of #content slide onto the Internet, I had absolutely no idea what to do.

I confess my first impulse was to troll — or try to, anyway. I’m not a very adept troll. I read with relish Alex Pareene’s Gawker piece, “Punch-Drunk Jonathan Chait Takes on the Entire Internet” (of “here is sad white man Jonathan Chait” fame), posted it approvingly to Facebook, and tried to canoe myself into a couple of Twitter fights on the subject. No one bit. An old professor mentioned that this might be a time for holding my tongue, which was probably good advice.

Before I could turn off the part of my brain that gets annoyed at Internet-thinkpieceoffery, an old blogging friend decided to engage, approvingly posting Fredrick DeBoer’s first long response, “I don’t know what to do, you guys”. DeBoer notes that:

Jon Chait is a jerk who somehow manages to be both condescending and wounded in his piece on political correctness. He gets the basic nature of language policing wrong, and his solutions are wrong, and he’s a centrist Democrat scold who is just as eager to shut people out of the debate as the people he criticizes. That’s true.
DeBoer’s piece was exhilarating. It handily sidestepped Chait’s argument while making several good points about the excesses of what Chait would call “p.c. culture”. If I could, I would commission DeBoer to write Chait’s piece for him. I don’t doubt that it would still have inspired vociferous debate — DeBoer is a polarizing figure — but I think the debate would have been less sensational, less personal, and a whole lot more productive. But, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you write the thinkpiece about the other thinkpeice you have, not about the other thinkpiece you want.

Because of that vociferous debate, Chait released a follow-up piece, and let me tell you, he is shocked — shocked! — that people are reading him into his piece. In his new rebuttal, he quotes this tweet by Rebecca Schoenkopf: “[I]t’s a lot easier for you all to roll your eyes and go ‘white man’ than actually discuss whether chilling of disagreeable speech is okay.” I agree. It is easy to say that Chait is a manbaby whose #maletears taste good. (I don’t necessarily disagree that Chait is a manbaby whose #maletears taste good, but that’s another piece altogether). If Chait wants us to take him at his word that his piece — replete with sad ones who are being accused of mansplaining — is not about him, well, I suppose I ought to engage with that. So, let’s engage.

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Mon Oct 27, 2014 at 06:17 AM PDT

A Few Good Trolls

by Shef

Central Question: How do we engage with reactionary movements? (Warning: this discusses the Tea Party and #GamerGate—both are noxious, but the latter ought to come with a trigger warning because #GamerGate.)

On the 17th of December in 1773, George Hewes smeared coal dust on his face, dressed up as an Indian, and threw tea into Boston Harbor. “I have never gotten over,” writes Garret Keizer in Harper’s, “the notion that the history of the United States begins with an act of masquerade.” I haven’t, either: men dressed as Mohawks, wielding hatchets, shouting huzzahs and storming ships.

The earnestness — the almost-innocence — of that scene is mirrored in those today who call themselves Tea Partiers, who don tricorn hats and drape them with tea bags. If you can put aside the reactionary politics, there’s something almost sweet about them in their blessed naïvety.

And in our post-post-everything moment, we laugh — which is probably a good thing. When discourse breaks (and make no mistake, it’s broken), there’s little left but to troll. I love the flippancy of the word troll: monosyllabic and compact. Sometimes we don’t feed them. Sometimes we make acrostics out of BENGHAZI and @ mention prominent conservatives.

But I have to remind myself that the Internet is a dangerous place.

When Anita Sarkeesian was driven out of her home, I didn’t call them trolls; when men threaten rape, they are not trolls. The word is too diminutive, and we ought not be flippant about what happened to Sarkeesian. We ought not be flippant about what happens to women when they wander down the back alleys of the Internet.

Let me back up.

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Wed Jun 04, 2014 at 07:09 AM PDT

Data Journalists are not Sociopaths

by Shef

This story starts in Bangladesh on a Wednesday morning. It was early—say 8:56—on April 24, 2013. There were 3,000-odd people crammed into an eight-story building called Rena Plaza. One minute later, Rena Plaza ceased to function as a building should, and where that building should have been, there was a mound of rubble and 1,129 dead bodies.

The story starts here, but I’m not going to write about Bangladeshi labor laws or the tragedy of that day. I’m not going to write about how our contemporary moment, the zenith of this thing we call capitalism, means that we had and will continue to have horrors like the one in Bangladesh. No, this story is much narrower and much less important than that one.

This is a story about other writers’ stories (I think the cool kids call that a thinkpiece). This is a story about the stories we inhabit and the ethics of how we tell them.

(See me on the flip for more...)

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Mon May 26, 2014 at 10:34 AM PDT

Liberalism is Dangerous

by Shef

Ramesh Ponnuru, writing at Bloomberg View would like to cleave the world in two. When Clayton Lockett tortured and killed his victem and then, for the better part of an hour, was tortured and killed by the state of Oklahoma, the“core” of the issue, wrote Ponnuru, is the abstract question of whether the state should kill when it doesn’t need to. All the rest—racial bias, innocent men, means of execution—sits somewhere else, on the periphery, far removed from the principle of the thing.

In short, Ponnoru would have us believe that there is a Platonic institution of capital punishment—one where there are no wrongfully convicted men, there is no racial bias, and executions go off without a hitch. Maybe it exists, that ideal institution.

It isn’t the one we have now.

Institutions are mirrors. They reflect back the people and histories that create them. We, sadly, are an imperfect people, and we have an imperfect history.

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:

In American imagination, the lynching era is generally seen as separate from capital punishment. But virtually no one was ever charged for lynching. The country refused to outlaw it. And sitting U.S. senators such as Ben Tillman and Theodore Bilbo openly called for lynching for crimes as grave as rape and as dubious as voting. Well into the 20th century, capital punishment was, as John Locke would say, lynching 'coloured with the name, pretences, or forms of law.'

The youngest American ever subjected to the death penalty was George Junius Stinney. It is very hard to distinguish his case from an actual lynching. At age 14, Stinney, a black boy, walked to the execution chamber

with a Bible under his arm, which he later used as a booster seat in the electric chair. Standing 5 foot 2 inches (157 cm) tall and weighing just over 90 pounds (40 kg), his size (relative to the fully grown prisoners) presented difficulties in securing him to the frame holding the electrodes. Nor did the state's adult-sized face-mask fit him; as he was hit with the first 2,400 V surge of electricity, the mask covering his face slipped off, “revealing his wide-open, tearful eyes and saliva coming from his mouth ... After two more jolts of electricity, the boy was dead.
More to the point, we have an imperfect present. We executed Cameron Todd Willingham. We executed Troy Davis. For the better part of an hour, the state of Oklahoma tortured Clayton Locket to death.

Liberalism is dangerous. It’s radical. It’s prideful. It tells us that we can build a better world here and now, that we are called not to wait for heaven to appear but to make the world better now. We are idealists, I suppose.

The idealism of Ponnuru is of a different species. It closes its eyes and speaks soothing words; ours bares its teeth and growls.


Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 11:57 AM PST

Twisting the Knife

by Shef

Sean Wiletnz starts his New Republic hatchet job, "Would you feel differently about Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange if you knew what they really thought?", off right—which is to say, he starts it off with poor prose and a bit of misdirection. "We live in the age of the leaker," he writes. "Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Julian Assange are celebrated as heroes on op-ed pages and across glossy magazine spreads." And, just like that, he's managed to fit ten pounds of bullshit in a two sentence bag—and that was just the lede.

Really, the entire first section is a continuation of that first trick: make Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange the Goliath, and make yourself the David. Let's take a look: Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange are "celebrated as heroes." They receive "adulatory treatment", and their "ascent to heroism" was met with a surprising "breadth of support." Meanwhile, the leakers' opponents are cast as the plucky underdogs: "To criticize the leakers," Wilentz intones, "as the legal journalist Jeffrey Toobin and a few other writers have done, is to invite moral condemnation." You can almost see him shaking in head in sadness.

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Wed Jan 08, 2014 at 07:22 PM PST

Civilization Itself is Under Attack

by Shef

Heather Mac Donald over at the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial pages has figured out what ails civilization. (Hint—it’s not a “federal takeover of health care”, though that does make an appearance.):

In 2011, the University of California at Los Angeles wrecked its English major. … What happened at UCLA is part of a momentous shift that bears on our relationship to the past—and to civilization itself.
Two things to note here. First, yes, this article—published on the third of this month—is breathlessly attacking the UCLA English department circa 2011, which means Mac Donald and the Wall Street Journal have been sitting on this piece for like three years. Second (and I’m only being a little unfair here), yes, Mac Donald is actually drawing a line from the UCLA English course catalog to “civilization itself.”

For more, join me after the squiggle.

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Fri Jul 26, 2013 at 05:58 AM PDT

The Center Was Not Holding

by Shef

The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misplaces even the four-letter words they scrawled.

- Joan Didion, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”

The center was not holding. It was a center-less country—of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements—and when unarmed kids were gunned down in self-defense, some conservatives called them thugs.

The center was not holding. The House of Representatives was killing food stamps in the recovery—such as it was—from the Great Recession, Detroit—a whole goddamned city—was going bankrupt, and we wondered over a politician’s cock.

The was no center anymore—at least none that anyone ought to want to be a part of. What is the center position between killing and saving food stamps? What is the center position between calling Trayvon a thug and not? What is the center between fantasy and reality?

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Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 06:54 AM PDT

History is Like a Horror Story

by Shef

Let’s start at the beginning: Salvadore Allende is making his farewell radio address to Chile. In the background, you can hear the sounds of guns firing. It’s September 11, 1973. Elements of the Chilean military, supported by the United States, have decided that it’s time for Chile’s democratically-elected president—and 48 years of Chilean democracy— go.

Let’s start with the a story: Salvadore Allende goes out in a blaze of glory, firing the gun given to him by Fidel Castro—inscribed, “To my good friend Salvador from Fidel, who by different means tries to achieve the same goals”.

No, let’s start with the truth: Salvadore Allende kills himself with his AK-47.

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There's a new, and apparently virulent (at least among the right-wing brain trust), strain of conservatism in the wild: "Libertarian Populism." I'll let the New York Time's Ross Douthat tell you what it is:

[Libertarian populism is] a strain of thought that moves from the standard grassroots conservative view of Washington as an inherently corrupt realm of special interests and self-dealing elites to a broader skepticism of “bigness” in all its forms (corporate as well as governmental), that regards the Bush era as an object lesson in everything that can go wrong (at home and abroad) when conservatives set aside this skepticism, and that sees the cause of limited government as a means not only to safeguarding liberty, but to unwinding webs of privilege and rent-seeking and enabling true equality of opportunity as well.
This all sounds surprisingly lovely: "unwinding webs of privilege"—all for that; skepticism of big corporate interests—all for that, too. Indeed, if Douthat's definition of this "libertarian populism" holds, and if the phenomenon takes root and grows among in the conservative intellectual garden, I—and a good many other liberals—would likely applaud. Conservatisms problems are twofold: one is misplaced priorities; the other is intellectual dishonest. This allegedly new and different kind of conservatism would do much to remedy the latter (though, importantly, not the former).

Timothy Carney over at the Washington Examiner throws the picture into starker focus; he writes:

The new Republican populism should declare war on the cronies and special interests who use big government to rig the game in their favor and deny opportunity to those trying to climb the ladder and live the American dream.

It's time for free-market populism and a Republican Party that fights against all forms of political privilege -- a party that champions all who want to work and take risks in order to improve their lives and raise a family.

Again, here a conservative intellectual is stealing words out of my mouth. Insofar as the state has been co-opted by business interests and been "rigged" in the favor of those selfsame interests, "bigness" ought to be opposed. Political privilege, when thought of this way, is a dangerous thing, and a Republican party that fought against that would, in the eyes of many on the left, be good.

Of course, it's not good—more than that, it's the eliminationist right's wolf dressed in sheep's clothing.

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Fri May 10, 2013 at 09:22 PM PDT

College Bored

by Shef

With their stupendously wrongheaded study, "Should Everyone Go To College?", Stephanie Owan and Isabel Sawhill have touched off a spate of articles, almost certainly written by college graduates, questioning the utility of a college education. As Dylan Matthews at Ezra Klein's Wonkblog writes:

The Wall Street Journal opened their article, “Even in a weak job market, the old college try isn’t the answer for everyone.” The LA Times’ headline was, “College is a bad financial bet for some, study says.”

The study does say that, and is framed by its authors as casting doubt on the assumption that everyone should go to college.

The gist of the study is that the ROI (return on investment) for some majors (mostly in the arts and humanities) and for some colleges and universities is not great. As the Wall Street Journal puts it:
At the same time, recent research by Canadian economists cautions that a college degree is no guarantee of promising employment.

Ms. Sawhill, who along with senior research assistant Stephanie Owen brought together recent findings in the Brookings paper, pointed to factors that affect the value of a college education. Among them is the field of one’s major: Students in engineering or other sciences end up earning more than ones who major in the arts or education. The cost of tuition and the availability of financial aid are other considerations, with public institutions generally a better financial bargain than private ones.

The return on an investment in college education is estimated here by (A recent survey shows that private colleges are getting the message, with some schools stepping up financial assistance.)

Matthews makes a solid attempt to defend the virtues of higher education, basically pointing out that while some majors and some colleges might not be as good as others, college is still a good financial bet:
Let’s back up. What’s at issue in the Owen-Sawhill report is the “return on investment” (ROI) to college. That’s the amount of money one can expect to get, having gone to college, in excess of what they would have gotten had they not gone at all. Generally speaking, the annual ROI for college is enormous. Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney at the Hamilton Project calculate that it’s stayed at around 16 percent for the past few decades ...

And that’s not including financial aid. Once you factor the increase in that in recent decades into the equation, the ROI has actually grown. And compared to the return on stocks (around 6.8 percent), corporate bonds (2.9 percent), gold (2.3 percent), long-term government bonds (2.2 percent) and housing (0.4 percent), it’s really, really high[.]


This sort of back-and-forth is demonstrative of a strain of contemporary thought—as seductively specious as it is dangerous—viz. the idea that everything is quantifiable. In this case, it's education that we've distilled down to a set of dollar signs, as though the success or failure of one's education is measured in wealth created.

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Mon May 06, 2013 at 08:00 PM PDT

The Trouble with Technocrats

by Shef

Martin Gilens, over at the Boston Review, pens a thought-provoking, if timid, piece on income inequality and the health of our Democracy. In his brief response, noted blogger andhuman punching bag Matthew Yglesias writes: "I struggle to think of another essay that brings such excellent data and analytical power to bear on an issue while reaching such a fundamentally wrong-headed conclusion." The piece is standard Yglesian fare, which is to say technocratic and liberal, and I struggled to think of another essayist that brings this kind of breathless gadflying—like a college freshman who just read Freakonomics—to bear on an issue while reaching such a fundamentally wrong-headed conclusion.

(Join me on the flip side for more...)

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Wed Nov 07, 2012 at 10:26 PM PST

Simpler Times

by Shef

The violent boys merely armed
with fists, the president
avuncular, his office unspoiled,

it's tempting to believe
we lived in simpler times.

- from Stephen Dunn's "Simpler Times"

It must be tempting to believe we lived in simpler times. But, the failures of the last decade—Iraq, Katrina, the Great Recession—bled onto this one, and young as I am, I can't quite remember anything else but worry. But I would have liked to have lived in simpler times.

I understand there was a time before all this, when an irascible Republican base and an implacable Republican congress might not have been so irascible or implacable. I understand there was a time when, if a candidate lost, Donald Trump wouldn't call for a revolution. I hear that once, when a "severe conservative" failed, it would be conservatism that failed, not the candidate who failed conservatism. And I just found out, from Bill O'Reilly, that "[I]t's not a traditional America anymore."

I wasn't sure what he meant when I first saw that quote over at Feministing, in Syreeta's excellent piece. So I followed the link to Politico, and learned that

Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly said tonight that if President Barack Obama wins re-election, it’s because the demographics of the country have changed and “it’s not a traditional America anymore.”

“The white establishment is now the minority,” O'Reilly said. “And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama's way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?”

“The demographics are changing,” he said. “It’s not a traditional America anymore.”

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