Saturday, April 30, 2016

The pseudoscience of liberal discourse gaming

The prospect of influencing and even manipulating public opinion has attracted some fairly rigorous and sophisticated intellectual inquiry for thousands upon thousands of years. You can find early traces in works as old as the Bhagavad-gita (in asides about how it is a "restless man's mind" that can be "strongly shaken") that extend in a fairly straight line towards modern scientific research (empirical experiments on how stress impacts amenability to persuasion, for example). En route, we've developed a fairly extensive body of knowledge about what works and what doesn't spread out over multiple fields: marketing, public relations, political science, psychology, and so on.

As in most fields of empirical knowledge, it turns out that many of our assumptions and historical ideas about public opinion are factually incorrect. To pick a trivial example, we now know that ancient rationalistic conceptions of humans as the "reasoning animal" are plainly false, and that people are afflicted with all kinds of powerful and irrational cognitive biases. These biases are often extraordinarily subtle, counterintuitive, and can't be recognized through sheer conjecture; usually, they can only be teased out through elaborate, carefully controlled experiments. If you study the literature, you'll understand how this works; if you don't, you won't understand it, and you're likely to conclude that people are rational in ways they are not.

So it's immensely frustrating to see armchair liberal discourse gaming, where we get sage advice grounded in theories of public opinion that just aren't true, and that no one in the field thinks is true. For instance, Jill Filopovic writes:
I think we've seen evidence that shutting Trump down fires up the GOP base & potentilly makes white voters sympathetic to him.
This is an empirical claim. What evidence? Think of how you would even substantiate this:
  • One thing you could do is just ask voters directly how "getting shut down" affects their attitudes towards Trump, and look for some unique reaction among white voters. But self-reporting on this kind of question is terribly unreliable methodology, and in any case no such polling has (as far as I know) actually been done.
  • More likely, Filopovic is relying on the related and enormously popular pundit methodology of relying on a personal sampling of anecdotal evidence culled from the self-reporting of various tweets and talking heads. This places all kinds of similar problems: while I'm sure TrumpTrainDad88 definitely said "This makes me want to support Trump even more!" there's no reason to conclude that his outrage is either reliable or representative.
  • Another thing you could do is look for any appreciable change in general favorability polling before and after such an incident. This has all kinds of serious problems too, however, since such changes are overdetermined and express all kinds of different factors - but hilariously, even if we set aside this problem, the polls actually falsify Filipovic's claim. For instance, prior to the Arizona protests, Trump's favorability was at 43% among white voters; that number dropped to 39% after the protest.
The fact is, if you look at the data on this kind of thing, what you find is people respond unreliably and inconsistently to disruptive protests. When Filipovic says "I think we've seen evidence" on this, I can't imagine that she's actually looked for evidence in any kind of rigorous or compelling way. (She's shown significant difficulty in understanding even basic polling in the past). What's more likely here is that she has an intuition about how the discourse works, largely informed by her conflict-aversion and her reflexive preference for polite rationalistic discourse, and that she will now backfill all kinds of anecdotal and statistically unsound "evidence" to substantiate this.

When liberals call for "an exchange of ideas on the left about the most effective ways to counter" opposition messaging, this is fine - but that exchange of ideas should be at least minimally informed by our understanding of public opinion and how it actually works. The notion that these ideas can be grounded in nothing more than ideology and personal preference makes such calls for dialogue little different than the Creationist calling for "an exchange of ideas" about the origin of species.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Kevin Drum's scathing critique of Bernie Sanders, Kevin Drum

I want to step back a bit and explain the big-picture reason that I never warmed up to Bernie Sanders...I think he's basically running a con, and one with the potential to cause distinct damage to the progressive cause...
Bernie's explanation for everything he wants to do—his theory of change, or theory of governing, take your pick—is that we need a revolution in this country...[but] the revolution that Bernie called for didn't show up. In fact, it's worse than that: we were never going to get a revolution, and Bernie knew it all along. - Kevin Drum
So as far as I can tell, Drum opposed Sanders because...he uses the same revolutionary rhetoric that everyone else does? Clinton's campaign surrogates are quite openly "ready for the revolution". Obama's 2008 candidacy routinely relied on all kinds of revolutionary rhetoric, from his promises to "fundamentally transform the United States of America" to the Soviet agitprop aesthetic of his famous Hope poster; as Sara Robinson wrote at the time:
Barack Obama is walking away with the moment because he talks of "hope" -- the very first thing any would-be revolutionary needs. And then he talks of "change," which many of his followers are clearly hearing as a soft word for "revolution."
Indeed, Clinton attacked Obama for this rhetoric at the time, just as she and her surrogates are attacking Sanders for it now. Listen to Drum today, and you hear the direct echo of Clinton's 2008 critique:
...if you want to make a difference in this country, you need to be prepared for a very long, very frustrating slog...In place of this, he promises his followers we can get everything we want via a revolution that's never going to happen. And when that revolution inevitably they give up? I don't know, but my fear is that some of them will...
I recall reading some compelling criticism of this kind of "false hope" rhetoric at the time:
...the most jarring statement I heard...was Hillary Clinton's admonition that "we don't need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered." ...the way she put it was horribly off-putting...I'll bet that "false hope" line stuck in a lot of craws. After all, I'm pretty sympathetic toward her, and it stuck in mine.
That was 2008's Kevin Drum, who seemed fine with revolutionary rhetoric when it was coming from Obama. In fact, he wanted more of it:
Obama obviously has the talent to move people, and at some point he's going to have to decide whether he's willing to use that talent to start persuading the American public of the value of liberal policies, not merely the value of coming together and "making change." The latter might get him elected, but it won't get him elected with a tailwind of public opinion actively in favor of implementing a liberal agenda... 
"Change on a scale that much of the status quo should find terrifying"? ...Frankly, I'd be pleased to see a hint of this now and again in Obama's campaign, but I just haven't...I don't really see him tapping into popular anger at all. There's a part of me that wishes he'd dip a toe in those waters occasionally, but I haven't seen it yet.
Relying on "a tailwind of public opinion actively in favor of implementing a liberal agenda" despite entrenched right-wing opposition sounds a hell of a lot like what Sanders is calling for, but I guess Drum thinks he's actually calling for something more analagous to a straight-up proletarian revolution? If only.

It don't make no difference

A conspicuous wave of messaging over the past few weeks has somberly reminded Sanders voters of history's greatest monster, Ralph Nader, and the evils of not voting for the lesser-evil. Historically, this criticism has just relied on the cynical, brick-dumb logic that singles out Nader as the cause of a massively overdetermined outcome; but we live in the Age of Wokeness, which means that the old arguments need a new coat of paint.

Thus we get the ridiculous spectacle of bougie Cosmo dilettante Jill Filipovic sagely lecturing people with "lucky lives" about their democratic responsiblities - just eight days after she skipped out on voting for Hillary for a trip to Kenya.

What's hilarious here is that Filipovic's substantive position is relatively defensible: a wide spectrum of liberal-left voices, from centrists at one end to radicals like Noam Chomsky at the other, have always maintained that the (sometimes narrow) differences between candidates can have major consequences. But because she's an elite centrist liberal, Filipovic can't resist the impulse to repackage this point with an addition claim about privilege that's demonstrably untrue. She suggests that people who are less privileged are more likely to appreciate the differences between the candidates, but in fact, voting trends suggest the exact opposite. The poor, for example, are the only income demographic with a majority preference: they don't bother voting.

And anyone with any basic connection to the poor knows exactly why this is: as @kraydiobelly notes in the same thread, "'it don't make no difference' is like the default political position of poor Americans of all stripes." They have good reason to think this. For instance, the last Clinton Administration was long credited with reducing poverty, but today it has become clear that Bill Clinton's welfare law (which Hillary actively supported) only accomplished this by making extreme poverty much, much worse. This is perhaps one of many reasons why Nader had a stronger 2000 performance among voters making less than $15,000 a year than he had with any other income demographic:

So there's a basic detachment from reality when we get articles like this one from Michael Kang, rueing his vote for Nader and suggesting that refusing to vote for the Democrat is a movement of privilege:
I’m sure as I write this some opportunistic free market capitalist is already having a factory in China print up “Don’t blame me, I voted for Bernie” bumper stickers.
Would you be shocked to learn that Kang, like Filipovic, has a prestige media career? Our content providers for the liberal elite have the privilege of not needing to worry too much that their jobs could get outsourced to China (at least not yet). Kang may have cast his vote as a "symbolic" gesture so that he could feel "empowered and unapologetically righteous" - this is because he wasn't one of the Teamsters who supported Nader in "opposition to trade policies of the Clinton administration, in particular NAFTA and the recent House vote conferring normal trade status upon China." Kang may think that people who refuse to back Clinton "are voting solely with their hearts" - and there's a good explanation for that, too:

Wealthy people aren't just the ones who are most likely to vote - they are, by far, the ones who are most likely to specifically vote for Clinton. Ordinarily, we'd be skeptical of people with this kind of privilege condescending to the oppressed that they "are voting solely with their hearts." But media conversations about privilege, of course, are completely dominated by the well-off - so it's easy to see why the poor look at liberal privilege policing and conclude that it don't make no difference, either.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The future of bourgeois press and the end of the media elite

Today, the bourgeois press still relies on personal brands as a marketing strategy. We have star columnists and journalists with distinct voices and so on, and publications pay them large salaries and give enormously outsized personal platforms, and readers have particular favorites who they follow from outlet to outlet. To get in these positions, you have to have a personality and political orientation that's compatible with capitalist marketing imperatives.

What this means in practice is that we have a whole industry that attracts some of the worst people in the world, that fetishizes their opinions and intellect, and that puts them in our face constantly. This, for all kinds of historical reasons, is the particularly obnoxious way that capitalism advances its ideology.

There are a lot of significant reasons to suspect that this state of affairs isn't going to last. In most industries, marketing has moved over time from personal to impersonal brands. This is particularly true in industries where the worker is significantly alienated from his product (through divisions of labor, for example) and where production is automated - both increasingly prominent trends in the media. Moreover, the same market pressures that depress wages and cultivate precarity also increasingly disincline outlets from investing too much in individual workers.

It seems to me that in the long run, we're quite likely to see a media industry dominated by impersonal corporate brands instead of personal ones, with content produced from rote-reporting and press conference stenography, corporate marketing department press releases, Medium / Tumblr style IMHOs from randoms, lazy Twitchy-style second-hand aggregation, and (in a final insult) completely automated composition from increasingly clever AI. We are well on this road already.

This is going to be a much more cost-effective way for capitalism to disseminate its ideology, and as it becomes inreasingly microtargeted, narrowcasted and prolific, it's probably going to be significantly more persuasive. This will be a dystopia of a different sort, but one major consolation is that our media elite is going to wither away. I am, however perversely, looking forward to it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Sanders youth vote and the ratchet effect

Despite the visible and enthusiastic support from the left Bernie Sanders has received throughout his campaign, he has also faced a familiar genre of left-flank criticism. The soft critique maintains that the Sanders campaign is at best irrelevant, a symptom of a much deeper left movement that would exist with or without him. The hard critique maintains that his campaign is actually politically counterproductive for the left, since Sanders functions as a "sheepdog" who will ultimately channel leftist energy towards Clinton's campaign.

I think there's some truth to both of these positions, but surely neither holds for every voter. If we're assessing his net impact on American politics, the question is whether those considerations outweigh any positive contributions he's made to building the left; we have to do a cost-benefit analysis, rather than simply pointing at costs and concluding that they're dispositive. And some of those benefits, the Washington Post suggests, are extraordinary:
"...He's moving a generation to the left," Della Volpe said of the senator from Vermont. "Whether or not he's winning or losing, it's really that he's impacting the way in which a generation — the largest generation in the history of America — thinks about politics."
Della Volpe cautions that it's impossible to predict how millennials' views will shift in the future, but people change parties only rarely after about age 30, researchers have found.
That latter point is crucial, because one's early experiences don't just ratchet in a party preference - they ratchet in a whole way of thinking about and relating to politics. Right now, what young people all around America are learning is that social democratic policies are not just preferable, but plausible, and in fact almost within reach; that "socialism" is not a word they need to run away from; that liberal Democrats are not only unreliable allies, but often a major obstacle to their aspirations; and that left political campaigns are uphill battles for ideals that terrible people will dismiss as radical and unrealistic. A substantial body of evidence suggests that they will carry these lessons with them for the rest of their lives.

Compare that to the alternative: if Sanders had not run, there are plenty of young people who would have learned the exact opposite lessons. We have some significant data on this. As of October 16 of last year, here are who Sanders voters were calling their second choice:

These numbers would likely be somewhat different drilled down to voters under 30, but other indicators suggest that faction of young voters who might have considered another candidate is substantial. For example, YouGov / Economist suggests that Sanders got a 10-point bump among young voters between October 12 (36%) and November 9 (46%). That just happens to span the month when Joe Biden dropped out of the race; Biden, incidentally, was winning 12% of the Millennial vote.

Instead of supporting any of these relatively centrist candidates, advocating their neoliberal policies, and rationalizing their establishmentarian affiliation, these young Sanders supporters have spent their formative first year in politics arguing against such voters. This possibility was always latent in their politics, but it needed the right candidate to catalyze it, to give young people a viable alternative that they could rally around. There is no reason to believe this would have happened without Sanders, and every reason to believe that this impact on American politics will resonate for generations to come.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Clinton's climate science denial

Liberals are enjoying a bit of shade Hillary Clinton threw at the Koch Brothers this afternoon, dismissing them as "people who deny climate science". Unfortunately, as climate centrists, their position is not meaningfully distinct from libertarian denial. A quick look at just two graphs from the US Environmental Protection Agency tells the story:

Here are the EPA's projections for the future of CO2 concentrations in four different scenarios. Conveniently, the red line (RCP 2.6) shows what happens if global climate emissions peak during Hillary Clinton's first term. By the way, nothing like this is on the table in Clinton's agenda. Her stated goal is merely to "reduce greenhouse gas emissions [in the US] by up to 30 percent in 2025 relative to 2005 levels and put the country on a path to cut emissions more than 80 percent by 2050."
So what happens if emissions don't peak by 2020? The science is straightforward on that, too:

Again: the bottom line, RCP 2.6, shows what happens if emissions peak during Clinton's first term. The others show what happens if they don't. Every alternative has us at or near a 2 degree Celcius rise in temperature in the next 84 years.

Two degrees, remember, is the infamous tipping point in climate science where everything starts really going to hell. Two degrees is where warming processes start triggering other warming processes and the cycle becomes irreversible. Two degrees is where significant coastal areas (particularly in east Asia) start drowning beneath rising tides. Two degrees is where food production in populous nations like India and China begins to drop precipitously. Two degrees, as Gwynne Dyer writes, is where the geopolitical situation becomes so unstable that there is "a probability of wars, including even nuclear wars...Once that happens, all hope of international cooperation to curb emissions and stop global warming goes out the window."

Climate centrists may smugly claim the scientific high ground over radicals like the Kochs, but if they aren't even trying to peak global emissions within the next four years, they haven't actually accepted the science.

Temporarily embarrassed executive editors

The New York Times plans to lay off a few hundred staffers this year, according to a report in the New York Post. And the major reason for the delay? Ownership and management are negotiating "a deal to provide reduced severance to those affected". On top of that, they are even moving staff from its Paris office to London, "where it can have better control of letting staff go, since French law makes it very difficult and expensive for companies to lay off workers".

This is the first of what will obviously be only a handful of token articles about the coverage. Compare that with the 1000+ news articles we saw in the month following the firing of Forbes Powerful Woman Jill Abramson from the NYT in 2014, and you get a pretty clear idea of where the media's priorities are and how much it actually cares about the problems of sexism and employment. Or you can compare the coverage of Abramson to media coverage, that very same week, of the thousands upon thousands of women who took to the streets to fight for a living wage. Those people, of course, only won any significant media coverage when another bougie white woman tried to take credit for their efforts.

The way that the media fetishizes the rich and powerful while ignoring the plight of poor and working class women is as predictable as it is disgraceful. Obviously the sponsors and stakeholders who fund corporate media - including corporate media's boutique "liberal" brands - don't care about the poor, and neither does the increasingly alienated petit bourgeois class of six figure managers and editors who play a primary role in setting and shaping coverage priorities. Nor, of course, do the growing ranks of independently wealthy / trust-fund dilettantes for whom media is little more than another novelty on an ever-growing CV.

Solidarity, or ambition?

That said, what I find particularly odious are the working-class-traitors in journalism who clearly just do not give a fuck about their comrades and colleagues. Obviously the media rank-and-file only have limited-to-nonexistent opportunities to cover and push for more coverage of the plight of working class women; the problem is largely structural, having to do with the hierachies and commercial incentives of industrial capitalist media, and no one should blame them for this. But what I've found in my conversations with so many liberal journalists, in reading their personal writing, and in observing their personal activism, is that many of them wouldn't even focus on the working class even if they had the opportunity.

Usually, liberals will deny this, and insist that their focus on the temporary inconveniences of rich women emerges from a broader concern about inequality. But read closely, and that focus is just as often tied with another concern: ambition. Watch how the former seamlessly shifts into the latter:
If even Abramson can’t get equal pay for equal work at the Times, what does that mean for the 22-year-old college graduate scrambling to climb from an unpaid internship to a real living as a reporter? The women out there who dream of ascending to the top of the Times masthead— is a dream all that will ever be?
So we move from the shared struggle with workers to make "a real living" to a struggle against the workers - to the "dream of ascending to the top", which means, of course, that someone will remain at the bottom. It is not the ethic of equality at the heart of feminism that animates this dream, but just the opposite - a resignation to inequality, albeit one of a different sort.

This is what I see in liberal journalists who call themselves feminists, but who only care about the problems of rich women: a toxic blend of apathy for their comrades and ambition for themselves. If America, as Steinbeck supposedly put it, is a land of "temporarily embarrassed millionaires", liberal journalism is an industry of temporarily embarrassed executive editors, would-be Jill Abramsons who are fine with laying off hundreds of women as long as they're the ones who get to do it.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Leftists have a good critique of Emmett Rensin's "smug" essay. Liberals? Not so much

Friedrich Nietzsche is the seminal philosopher of smugness, so I think that Emmett Rensin's The smug style of American liberalism would have done well to grapple with him; in many ways, their arguments are directly at odds.

Rensin insists that the smug belief in a "failure of half the country to know what's good for them" should be understood as "a psychological reaction to a profound shift in American political demography" - specifically, the shift of liberalism from "union halls and little magazines...into universities and major press, from the center of the country to its cities and elite enclaves". "The smug style arose" among the remaining liberal elites as an explanation for their abandonment. It is, that is to say, a political phenomenon that emerges from their rationalizations.

Nietzsche would argue that this gets it backwards. There are certainly smug liberals, but liberal smugness isn't really a significant or consequential force in politics - reactionaries just don't care what liberals actually think of them. What is significant, however, is the psychology of ressentiment among the oppressed. The conservative working class feels its powerlessness, feels its immiseration, and gets that elites are much better off; and for that reason, they are driven to rationalize and justify their opposition to their oppressors. The imputation of unearned entitlement and a superiority complex among elites is an inevitable expression of this.

The crucial thing to notice here is that the perception of smugness precedes any actual instances of smugness. If this is true, then no amount of diplomacy, outreach or sensitivity to the right-wing underclass will alleviate this particular problem; even if liberals are optimally gracious and understanding, the right will still invent reasons to read smugness into everything they do.

Nietzsche's law, and Jante's law

It seems clear to me that much of the criticism of Rensin's essay is coming from elites who feel indicted by the piece - as they should. But some of the more susbtantive criticism, I think, can be explained by the tension between these two theories of smugness. Nietzsche's argument does not require him to make claims about whether elite smugness is warranted - he simply treats it as a perception. Rensin, however, declares that the smug style's "case against its enemies" is "tenuous". This exposes him to the criticism that liberalism's case is often not tenuous - a point that Weird Twitter, of course, picked up on immediately.

That said, if we accept Nietzsche's conception of the problem, it seems that we have only two possible responses to the problem of smugness.

The first - Nietzsche's response - is to accept it as a fact of life, the inevitable expression of hierarchies that we will never be able to get rid of. If we insist that some people will always have more power than others, the disempowered will obviously always resent this, and will read smugness into any attempt the powerful make to justify themselves. Powerful people should not worry too much about this; haters gonna hate.

An alternative response, of course, would be to tear down socioeconomic hierarchies, empower the oppressed, and dethrone the elites. That would take away the superiority and inferiority complexes, the psychology of ressentiment, and the perceptions of smugness that all come as a package deal with hierarchy. This philosophical disposition has its own historical precedents, for example in the Law of Jante, which notably emerged in the markedly egalitarian societies of Scandinavia. Here, the left argues that you can't get rid of elite smugness by getting rid of the smugness - you have to get rid of the elites.

Liberalism's response

These divergent lines of thought have some obvious parallels in contemporary American politics. The left has clearly adopted the second position, which sees socioeconomic inequality as the primary (though not exclusive) driver of various forms of ressentiment. This is not a position that necessarily entails dismissing liberal positions as "tenuous", and neither does it have to ignore instances where liberals are indeed smug. Reactionaries, meanwhile, have clearly adopted Nietzsche's response, and concluded that hierarchy and smugness are here to stay, and even laudable.

What can liberals say to all of this? How can they escape Rensin's critique without embracing the hierarchies of Nietzsche and the right - or worse, accepting the radical egalitarianism of the left? Rensin writes,
This is not a call for civility. Manners are not enough. The smug style did not arise by accident, and it cannot be abolished with a little self-reproach.
Liberals clearly believe that manners are enough, that civility and privilege-checking and all kinds of careful diplomacy can win over the underclass. Instead of abolishing hierarchy, liberals hope to eradicate perceptions of smugness with an ethic of magnanimity from above and grateful submission from below. This of course is embarrassingly naive, and amounts in practice to a de facto defense of Nietzsche's position. Liberals may nominally and even intentionally oppose smugness, but in their defense of hierarchy they guarantee that it will persist.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Who got owned by Clinton's million dollar troll campaign?

Everyone's having a good laugh over Hillary Clinton's ridiculous million dollar troll campaign. Oddly enough, this seems to include a lot of people who got caught up in it. As far as I can tell, the idea seems to be that if you did not personally enlist in the War Against Bernie Bros, and maintained some degree of agnosticism or ambivalence over the whole affair, that you managed to escape complicity in Clinton's idiotic scheme.

This is absolutely ridiculous. It betrays a grossly uninformed and simplistic understanding of how this sort of influence operation works. The elite mobilization of provacateurs against the left has a long, well-documented and well-understood history, with predictable and deliberate objectives that the professionals who plan these campaigns are well aware of. A few of the more obvious ones:

  • SHIFT THE OVERTON WINDOW - The goal here is simply to promote "Bernie Bros are #problematic" into the spectrum of tolerable and respectable opinion. This is easy to do with centrists: just take an insane radical position that Sanders supporters are all white male crypto-Marxist racist sexist neo-Paultards, and then stand back while Ron Fournier types stroke their chins and conclude, "Maybe both sides have a point." A whole genre of centrists managed to avoid putting their feet in their mouths too badly here - but still went out of their way to hedge their comments with obligatory "of course, there has been some harassment" concessions that no one would bothered to make if we'd treated it like the non-issue it actually was. They got trolled.
  • PROVOKE OVER-REACTIONS - Perversely, a major goal in this sort of campaign is to goad immature, emotionally unstable or unusually reactionary opponents - the kind one finds in every campaign as a matter of statistical inevitability - into saying or doing something that will embarrass everyone else. Let that sink in: here, the goal was clearly to incite precisely the climate of racism, sexism, and general antagonism that Clintonites have been wringing their hands about for the past year. We know that they've done this before, and it's an obvious and utterly foreseeable outcome of this kind of strategy. Did you say dumb things about how Sanders supporters were somehow complicit in or responsible for DogBoner88 throwing around some bigoted slur? You got trolled.
  • FOMENT DISCORD AND DAMPEN ENTHUSIASM - Even when the targets of this sort of campaign understand what's going on, there are always going to be internal disagreements about how to handle it. This is fine as long as the debate stays comradely and proportional to the challenge; decent and intelligent people can disagree on how to handle situations this complex and fluid. But instead, what often happens is that the targets of this sort of campaign turn on each other, and displace onto allies reactive aggression that should be channelled towards the people who are causing the problem in the first place. This kind of internal argument fosters discord and becomes an energy sink, which of course is precisely as intended; and if you're blaming a comrade for a problem Clinton caused, you got trolled.
  • BLAME THE VICTIMS - A related but distinct outcome from the previous three is a pseudo-agnostic or conflict-averse tendency to blame the targets of this sort of campaign for defending themselves. Even people within the targeted movement will do this on occasion, but it's more common among above-the-fray type third parties who think the whole controversy will go away if the victims unilaterally stand down. Of course, when you're running a million dollar troll campaign, flamewars are going to happen whether or not any particular people get involved; and when targets are getting smeared as bigots and partisans, they have every right and reason to defend themselves and their movement. So yes, if you were making some variation on the mealy-mouthed "these Bernie Bro articles are stupid but their complaints about them are just obnoxious" or whatever, great work: you got trolled.
Honestly, anyone who came into this primary with even a trivial amount of skepticism, a basic familiarity with how the Clintons campaign, and any kind of dim intuition about how modern online marketing / astroturfing works should have been able to recognize the million dollar troll campaign pretty quickly. It is absolutely criminal that journalists, who are supposed to be far more familiar with all of this, didn't blow the lid off of it themselves, and mostly just waited for Correct The Record itself to admit what was going on. And if you got what was happening, the appropriate response every step of the way was to call Clinton out on it and not let any of it turn into an indictment of Sanders.

If you didn't get what was happening, and proceeded accordingly, that's fine - this doesn't make you a bad person. It just makes you a sucker who got caught up in one of the largest and most aggressive troll campaigns in history. That's exactly what happened if you got involved in any of the above outcomes, even if you were clever and savvy enough not to take the bait hook, line, and sinker.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Of course the "Bernie Bro" smear was a PR campaign

Clinton Super PAC Correct the Record (CtR) admitted on Wednesday what has long been perfectly obvious to anyone paying attention: controversy over so-called "Bernie Bros" has been long driven by a coordinated and massively funded PR campaign:
The [Barrier Breakers] task force currently combats online political harassment, having already addressed more than 5,000 individuals who have personally attacked Secretary Clinton on Twitter... Lessons learned from online engagement with “Bernie Bros” during the Democratic Primary will be applied to the rest of the primary season and general election.
There's a lot of subtext in the press release that's easy to miss. For example, CtR notes that the task force
provide[s] a presence and space online where Clinton supporters can organize and engage with one another and are able to obtain graphics, videos, gifs, and messaging to use in their own social spaces...[and will share] their efforts and content with other groups.
This may seem relatively benign at first glance - but it takes on a whole new meaning when we consider a specific argument CtR made in May:
...campaign finance experts...noted that super PACs...cannot be coordinated with a candidate or political party...But Correct the Record believes it can avoid the coordination ban by relying on a 2006 Federal Election Commission regulation that declared that content posted online for free, such as blogs, is off limits from regulation...allowing independent groups to consult with candidates about the content they post on their sites.
It's obvious what's going on here. The FEC imposes all kinds of funding and disclosure rules on campaign communication operations. But there's a (dubiously) legal way to get around this: just let one of your super PACs "provide" staffing and resources in a "space online", and then tell them what to do. CtR has explicitly claimed its right to do this, and now it has created the opportunity for Clinton's campaign to do this. Why would they not be involved?

Who else is involved? CtR hints at this, too:
The task force staff’s backgrounds... include former reporters, bloggers, public affairs specialists, designers, Ready for Hillary alumni, and Hillary super fans who have led groups similar to those with which the task force will organize.
Of course, none of these people have ever disclosed their involvement in this effort (or the "similar" ones), none of them will unless they are forced to, and none of them will be held accountable for it. By the way, those "other groups" that CtR shares content with? Journalists.

One group who they do not admit is involved - but who almost certainly is involved, given the type of work being done and the vast sums of money going around - is PR firms. And on that note, I'll just remind everyone of this anecdote, which (to my ear, as someone who has worked in the field), sounds even more plausible now than it did before:
I am officially a former "digital media specialist" (a nice way to say "paid Internet troll") previously employed by Hillary Clinton's campaign (through a PR firm). I'm posting here today as a confession of sorts because I can no longer continue to participate in something that has become morally-indigestible for me. 
Just to give you an idea, here are some of the guidelines for our posting in October: 
1) Sexism. This was the biggest one we were supposed to push. We had to smear Bernie as misogynistic and out-of-touch with modern sensibilities. He was to be characterized as "an old white male relic that believed women enjoyed being gang raped". Anyone who tried to object to this characterization would be repeatedly slammed as sexist until they went away or people lost interest. 
2) Racism. We were instructed to hammer home how Bernie supporters were all privileged white students that had no idea how the world worked. We had to tout Hillary's great record with "the blacks" (yes, that's the actual way it was phrased), and generally use racial identity politics to attack Sanders and bolster Hillary as the only unifying figure.
3) Electability. All of those posts about how Sanders can never win and Hillary is inevitable? Some of those were us, done deliberately in an attempt to demoralize Bernie supporters and convince them to stop campaigning for him. The problem is that this was an outright fabrication and not an accurate assessment of the current political situation. But the truth didn't matter - we were trying to create a new truth, not to spread the existing truth. 
4) Dirty tactics. This is where things got really bad. We were instructed to create narratives of Clinton supporters as being victimized by Sanders supporters, even if they were entirely fabricated...These kind of posts are manufactured to divide and demoralize Sanders supporters, and are entirely artificial in nature. (The same thing happened in 2008, but it wasn't as noticeable before social media and public attention focused on popular forums like Reddit).
The whole thing is worth a read.

Popular language use and the propaganda of isolation

The past few weeks have provided two excellent examples of how ideology often relies upon the redefinition of words.

First, on April 12, columnist Jessica Valenti published an essay titled What do we mean by "abuse"? - a question one doesn't ordinarily ask about words that already have a popularly understood meaning. The new definition, we learn, includes a new coined category of "author abuse" - which refers to "demeaning and insulting speech targeted at the writer of [an] article" on public internet forums. This, I noted, is curiously identical to elite redefinitions of "harass" to mean the same thing - and both, certainly, are redefinitions of something we would normally just call "heckling" or "trolling". It isn't particularly difficult to see why bourgeois journalists would argue that they and their ideas are intrinsically worthy of respect, and that public ridicule should be necessarily understood as some kind of heinous "abuse"; the only interesting point here is that Valenti is explicitly redefining the word.

Then, on April 14, the Brookings Institute published a paper called The Five Evils: Multidimensional Poverty and Race in America. Arguments about poverty, they note, are "often restricted to a narrow, income-based conception of what it means to be poor". This standard use of the word is apparently a "problem" - but fortunately, since "there are hundreds of ways in which equality (or inequality) can be defined," they propose that we abandon "traditional, narrowly income-based" conceptions in favor of a "richer, multidimensional formulation". Again, it should not be particularly difficult to see what's going on here. There are obvious reasons why bourgeois economists might want to seize the word we use to refer to people who don't have much income and make it refer to other things. 


Language poses an intrinsic challenge to ruling elites: since meaning emerges from popular use, our vocabulary will always be fundamentally democratic. People will tend to use words in ways that they find useful, and will resist counterproductive attempts to change them; if they find it worthwhile to make a distinction between "abuse" and "trolling", for example, they'll keep doing so. And even if elites momentarily succeed in warping language, society will tend to rehabilitate it; for instance, if Brookings manages to co-opt our word for talking about poverty, people with low incomes will obviously just come up with a new one.

The work of propaganda, then, can often be understood as an attempt to overcome a powerful natural sociolinguistic force that fixes language to a democratic regime of meanings. This force is so overwhelming that some linguists have argued that it cannot be overcome at all; for instance, the father of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, wrote that
The signifier, though to all appearances freely chosen with respect to the idea that it represents, is fixed, not free, with respect to the linguistic community that uses it...No invididual, even if he willed it, could modify in any way at all the choice that has been made...
Other linguists, like Volosinov and Chomsky, have suggested (on different grounds) that semantic democracy can be overcome, at least temporarily - but it is Lacan, I think, who offered one of the most important insights into how this actually works.


Lacan - to egregiously oversimplify a notoriously impenetrable writer - argued that language gets pinned to meaning through a foundationally psychological process, which he occasionally referred to as sealing. At an early age, toddlers are faced with a basic choice: they can express their desires through cries and babbles, and expect the world to understand them and give them what they want - or they can adopt the words that society already uses to communicate. The latter option, Lacan observed, was a profound act of personal submission: we abandon attempts to dictate to everyone else how to communicate and agree to play by their rules.

Crucially, we build our identity around this act of submission. We internalize the way that society talks about the world, and even the way that it talks about us; this language becomes a part of our default, unconscious perspective, and we can only escape it through conscious scrutiny. And when we become emotionally invested in certain ideas about the world, or about ourselves, that investment always takes place in a particular currency of language. In this way, words become sealed to meanings - not because of some fundamental relationship between the two, or because of some ongoing rational decision to participate in social language conventions, but rather because of a deep emotional inertia within every individual.

So it should be obvious why so many linguists regard as impossible on any kind of significant scale the sort of dramatic redefinition so often associated with propaganda. Orwell intuitively recognized what this would actually take, which is why so much of the brainwashing in 1984 turns on a protracted exercise in literal torture carried out on an individual basis through the deliberate infliction of overwhelming physical and psychological trauma. Even when this happens outside of fiction, it is rarely permanent; in Meerlo's classic The Rape of the Mind, he notes that white "It is now technically possible to bring the human mind into a condition of enslavement and submission" through torture, that condition tends to dissipate quickly after the torture ends.


All of this is why, contrary to popular belief (often built on a gross misunderstanding of Orwell), propagandists are typically not in the business of mass indoctrination through redefinition. It's a clunky, hamfisted persuasion strategy, and when writers try it they typically come off as iconoclastic sophists who are torturing the definition of words in lieu of torturing their audience.

As a rule, it is not the particular words that are in play, but rather (as Ellul put it) "the structure of present-day society [that] places the individual where he is most easily reached by propaganda." Since psychological sealing binds us so powerfully to the democratic language of society, propaganda must begin by removing us from society itself. Ellul continues,
If, by chance, propaganda is addressed to an organized group, it can have practically no effect on individuals before that group has been fragmented...Only when very small groups are thus annihilated, when the individual finds no more defenses, no equilibrium, no resistance exercised by the group to which he belongs, does total action by propaganda become possible.
Instead of breaking us psychologically, mass propaganda breaks us socially; it strategically severs our relationship with the linguistic community and locks us into shrinking echo chambers and tribal sociolects. Lacan's sealing mechanism binds our language use to society - so instead of trying to overcome that bind, modern propaganda simply re-engineers society. Isolation, not rational persuasion or clever sophism, is the foundation of the modern propaganda industry.

All of this is just a technical way of describing our scientific/theoretical understanding of ideas that everyone has long appreciated as a matter of common sense. Communities tend to have similar ways of thinking and talking about things, and it's often only by bringing people out of the community that you can get them to think and talk differently.

That's why one of the major challenges of the left is to resist the intellectual fragmentation and atomization of communities into isolated cliques who are vulnerable to elite coercion. First and foremost, this means insisting on dialogue among the working class despite and in defiance of bourgeois etiquette and civility rules. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Sanders critics adopting the libertarian position on climate change

When the International Students for Liberty Conference was in town back in February, I had the chance to speak with a representative of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) about the libertarian position in climate change.

For decades, of course, the standard libertarian position has been denial. Fossil-fuel funded think tanks and scientists have produced a massive body of disinformation designed to sew doubt and center national debates over whether the earth is even warming at all. The left, accordingly, has invested most of its energy in fighting this, and its environmentalism has often amounted to defending the basic point that climate change is real.

So I suspect that a lot of leftists would be surprised to learn that in recent years, libertarians have begun to concede this point entirely. As I spoke with the representative from PERC, she rehearsed the same line I've heard with increasing frequency: climate change is real, and free market capitalism is the best way to fix it.

"Global warming is indeed real, and human activity has been a contributor since 1975," the Cato Institute explains in its Cato Handbook for Policymakers. However, "Drastic action is unwarranted at this time," and we should instead "allow for the development of technologies that can result in lower emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere" rather than relying on government action that would "take away capital" (read: taxes) "in a futile attempt to stop warming, that would best be invested in the future".

These are the two major premises of the new climate denialism that I've identified previously: climate change is not an urgent problem, and it's within timely reach of market solutions. Like the old climate denialism, it's directly at odds with the science, which doesn't just demand action - it demands immediate action. But unlike the old denialism, this position isn't just defended by Republicans and libertarian radicals: it is rapidly becoming the consensus position of centrist neoliberalism, defended by Kochs and liberal Clintonites alike.

Which brings us to today's Washington Post:
Mr. Sanders is right that climate change demands an aggressive response, and he is right to favor a carbon tax. He should leave it at that: put a price on carbon, insist on adequate regulation and let the market find the fastest and most efficient road to slowing the warming of the planet.
This is the PERC position, almost verbatim. Unlike Cato, it rhetorically "demands an aggressive response" - but substantively, the only policy difference here is their advocacy of the empirically inadequate carbon tax. From the perspective of climate science, all three approaches are equally apocalyptic, for all the same reasons; once again, the radical right has lured liberals into an unacceptable position simply by inviting them to meet in the middle.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

There's no good argument for the liberal prohibition of heckling

Particular instances of heckling can certainly be reactionary, disproportionate, and unfair - but routinely, liberal discourse villifies heckling as problematic in general. Still, normative ethics typically rely on one of three kinds of arguments against this sort of behavior, and for the life of me I can't figure out how any of them can be maintained within the framework of modern liberalism.


A consequentialist argument would have to claim that heckling necessarily leads to bad outcomes. This is a difficult position to maintain if we are talking about first-order effects, since it's trivially easy to imagine trolling that just leads to funny outcomes, or outcomes in which the immediate good outweighs the immediate bad. For instance, when Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden recently attacked Bernie Sanders on Palestine, I pointed out that Tanden had serious conflicts of interest on this issue as revealed by recent email leaks. Practically speaking this jab probably accomplished little, but insofar as it has any moral weight whatsoever, it seems clear that the immediate value of exposing Tanden outweighs whatever discomfort the exchange made her feel.

To get around this, opponents of heckling usually starting dreaming up all kinds of second, third, and fourth order effects, and then insist that the heckler has a duty to prevent these outcomes. One common argument, for example, maintains that even if heckling Neera Tanden in this particular instance is warranted, this good act might inspire someone to commit the bad act of (say) heckling some undeserving third party.

The basic problem here is that this line of argument can obviously indict even the most benign and responsible criticism through all of the same vague mechanisms of "inspiring", "normalizing", "encouraging", and so on. The blanket condemnation of all heckling due to second order effects is too strong. You can only save legitimate criticism from its censure by introducing all kinds of considerations of probability ("is this likely to cause that?"), responsibility ("can we still blame someone for a third/fourth/fifth order effect?"), and proportion ("do all the good Nth order consequences outweigh the bad ones?") - considerations that, if we are being consistent, end up legitimizing some instances of heckling, too.

A second problem, pointed to in my consideration of proportion, is that post-first-order discourse effects are so complex, subtle, overdetermined, multivalent, prolific and unpredictable that they are basically impossible to evaluate in any kind of credible or morally compelling way. To make this sort of argument, what you would actually have to do is look at a given instance of heckling, figure out all of the Nth-order discourse effects (or at least a defensible set of them), and then weigh all of them against each other to decide whether or not it was justified. Otherwise, the argument just becomes an exercise in cherry-picking whatever remote possibilities helps make your case.

This, by the way, is the fundamental problem with a whole genre of liberal discourse theory. There are real-world situations where you can analyze second order outcomes in a way that's thorough and rigorous enough to draw compelling moral conclusions, and when we can we obviously should. But no one who has studied language, rhetoric, or sociology in any kind of serious way thinks that we can always do this with discourse. Most people intuitively get this, and center their discourse norms around the immediate consequences of what they say, only moving much beyond that in unusual circumstances. It's really only among liberal intellectual elites that one encounters these hubristic attempt to game the discourse like a butterfly trying to create hurricanes.


A virtue argument would have to maintain that heckling, in principle, reveals something bad about the heckler's character. This is what liberals are typically getting at when they suggest that heckling is an expression of personal bigotry, malice, dishonesty, and so on. Even if the heckling is somehow intellectually or pragmatically justified, one argues, it nevertheless reflects things about the heckler that we should condemn.

This, again, may very well be true in particular cases, but it's hard to see how the argument necessarily holds in principle. Once we accept argument (I) that heckling can have good outcomes, it follows trivially that heckling could simply express one's virtuous intention to do good. One can insist that this intention is necessarily misguided, but only by rejecting (I).

It's because (I) is so hard to reject (for reasons given) that the virtue argument against heckling usually leads to the assertion of ulterior motives. The heckler is accused of bad faith, of unconscious or unadmitted bigotry, of secret malevolence and sadism, etcetera. These sorts of motives are of course notoriously difficult to empirically establish even in a clinical setting, and online they usually just amount to the question-begging assertion that the heckler is evil because he has evil motives, with no attempt to ground any of this in reality.

Nevertheless, even if unvirtuous trolls exist (and they empirically do), this just means that some heckling is bad. Virtue arguments against particular instances of heckling may succeed, but once again the general argument clearly fails.


The deontological argument against heckling is paradoxically both the strongest and the weakest.

Suppose, for example, you are in a cult of personality centered around nineties pop folk singer Jewel, and take her song lyric that "In the end / only kindness matters" as some kind of divine mandate. If one accepts this, then there's probably no case that one can possibly make for heckling, particularly if we have in mind Jewel's civility-centric ideas about what it means to be kind. You can't at this point make consequentialist or virtue arguments for heckling, because the deontological prohibition rules them out absolutely.

This, it's worth adding, is the ideological basis for most in-principle opposition to heckling, even when that opposition gets rationalized with consequentialist or virtue arguments. In general, I suspect this is because most liberals are so privileged that the worst thing they typically experience is interpersonal conflict; this creates an extreme, instinctive conflict-aversion. For this reason, they're willing to sanction all kinds of injustice and suffering for others just as long as everyone around them is polite and friendly - and the easiest way to rationalize these kinds of priorities is just to insist that civility and interpersonal kindness are the most important things in the world.

This claim faces two major problems. First, no one actually buys it. Even the strongest proponents of a deontological prohibition against heckling are themselves hecklers on occasion - and when they justify it, they justify it with consequentialist or virtue arguments, not deontological arguments. (Though it would be refreshing to see a hypocritical advocate of respectability politics simply admit that it's definitionally okay for him to do it.) Outside of elite intellectual circles, most people have a more relaxed view of heckling, and see it as potentially funny and occasionally warranted; this is why (for example) an extraordinary amount of sitcom humor revolves around verbal sparring, scathing zingers, and bad / obnoxious people getting their rhetorical comeuppance.

The second major problem this faces is that in a pluralistic society people are allowed to object to the Jewel doctrine. If (say) I make a consequentialist argument for heckling Neera Tanden, and you simply reply by decreeing that heckling is Always Bad, you may very well in some real and completely legitimate theological sense be right; but it isn't something anyone should find persuasive or compelling, for obvious reasons. This is particularly true since, again, an absolute deontological prohibition of heckling is at the most a fringe view held by privileged elites, which escalates its imposition from the realm of "anti-pluralistic" into "blatantly anti-democratic".

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

On blocking and the pathology of feud

A while back I wrote about a conference lecture I attended on Libertarian attempts to bring back feud culture in the modern world. Basically, Libertarians think that we can throw out most of our state apparatus of law enforcement and rely on a non-violent feud culture to adjudicate social conflict. Instead of attacking each other, belligerents would just sue each other, with the understanding that if they acted violently the state would no longer protect them from violent retaliation.

This is madness for all kinds of well-understood reasons having to do with basic anthropology and sociology. One major problem is that it seems like feud culture has to co-exist with a culture of avoidance; if people can't avoid each other, you get more conflict and a dramatically escalated risk of unilateral aggression. Feud culture is somewhat viable when relatively sedentary people spend their entire lives within a twenty mile radius and only ever run into a couple dozen strangers over the course of decades; it disappears as soon as you get cities and long-distance transportation.

A point I didn't bring up in that post, but that I'd like to consider here, is that avoidance doesn't just enable feud culture - avoidance encourages it.

As Freud argued in Civilization and its Discontents, social conflict is ultimately an expression of the fundamentally psychological drives that animate human behavior. It's only through our interactions with other people that we learn how to manage our infantile aggression, lust, and selfishness. Our relationships with our parents, Freud famously insisted, were the most consequential simply because they were the earliest and the most intimate - but this dynamic also holds at the broad level of society. Civilization is the process of people learning to peacefully interact with each other, directly and on a deeply interpersonl level; otherwise, psychological tensions go unresolved, and inevitably express themselves in aggression.

It's easy to see how avoidance culture can amplify this problem. People who don't interact with each other don't mature, don't develop their capacity for empathy, and don't broaden their perspectives. Avoidance culture doesn't just forestall conflict - it entrenches it through arrested development, epistemic closure and myopia, and atrophied tolerance. The institutions and customs we rely on for conflict resolution don't get built and maintined. Thus, when avoidance stops working, the stakes are considerably higher than they might have been otherwise, which is why feud culture provides little middle ground between avoidance and combat (and why the libertarian dream of civilized feuds is such a ridiculous fantasy).

Civilization, for thousands of years, has largely been a process of overcoming the feud/avoidance binary through the creation of all kinds of systems and norms that help humans live together. Our government institutions, our economic arrangements, our religions, our art, our entertainment - all of this contributes to that project. It's all driven by exponential population growth, the concentration of modern economies around cities, and the attendant increases in population density; all of these things shrink the world and force us to find ways to peacefully and sanely manage the fact that we're always up in each other's business.

So I think there is something genuinely new in the way that telecommunications has reintroduced avoidance culture into modern society. It facilitates not just the psychological process of socialization, but also the whole apparatus of attendant civilization - economic transactions, political negotiation, the dissemination of ideology, and so on - that sprung up precisely to mediate the kinds of interaction that came with the close proximity of dense populations.

But contrary to all of this, it also facilitates the kind of avoidance that is impossible in dense populations. You can now cut off socialization, economic interaction, political negotiation, ideological diffusion, and so on in ways that we haven't been able to for millennia - unilaterally, absolutely, and irrevocably. You can hang up phones, you can ignore emails, you can block social media engagement, and do all sort of other things to completely cut off and avoid interaction that you just can't do with people offline.

On one hand, then, things like astronomical population and economic growth, the rise of the modern nation-state and transnational institutions, the evolution of military technology and the explosion of income inequality mean that the potential and stakes of conflict are much, much higher than they were thousands of years ago. But on the other hand, civilization now facilitates, on a massive scale, a strategy of conflict management - avoidance - that we haven't seen in all that time, and that history and sociology tells us is inextricably linked with feud culture.

If this link is real, then much of our concern about the forces of alienation and atomization that characterize modern society may be too narrow. They aren't just personal problems that lead to things like loneliness and depression - they entrench us in ways of living and thinking that may be deeply incompatible with those of the people around us. Even as they sew anomie, they erode the social mechanisms we have to negotiate and reconcile divergent interests by attempting to finesse the problem through avoidance. This may work as long as controversies are purely digital, but when they have material implications, conflicts can't be finessed forever. Avoidance culture simply defers these conflicts, and guarantees that they'll be far more violent and powerful when they can no longer be avoided.

None of this is to say that (for example) blocking the trolls on the internet is something that necessarily leads to conflict. In some cases, it may do more good than harm. But when avoidance strategies become a crutch for large groups of people who want to avoid the hard and often unpleasant work of material co-existence, they are symptoms of a deeper pathology with clear anthropological implications.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Anticommunist testimony and the red-baiting of Bernie

The Atlantic has published an article that ostensibly explains Why Soviet Refugees Aren't Buying Sanders's Socialism. On the merits, it never gets off the ground; as so often happens with these demographic arguments against Sanders, the author never gets around to factually establishing her underlying claim. Olga Khazan does not even attempt to survey a significant number of Russian immigrants, nor does she cite anyone else's polling on the matter. Instead, the piece relies entirely on two points of anecdote and conjecture:
1. Khazan conducts "Interviews with more than a dozen the bay area...part of a small circle - indeed, they know each other." 
2. Khazan notes that "some researchers have found that Russian Jews tend to be both less religious than their American counterparts and more conservative," and cites a potential 30-40 point swing in their vote towards Republicans since 2012.
I'll address these in turn. 

Soviet Jews for Sanders

The first point barely warrants a rebuttal: it's trivially easy to find a handful of people from any demographic who share any perspective, and this implies zero about the broader community. One doesn't have to look far to find prominent Jewish former Soviets who openly support Sanders, from Regina Spektor to Milana Vayntrum; but in about an hour, I was able to track down plenty of immigrants who, it turns out, aren't particularly concerned about the dangers of a Soviet Sanders regime.

"The claim that Sanders is anything close to a communist, or would bring about a communist revolution is absurd," said Alik, a Sanders supporter who grew up in Ukraine. "There is little evidence that we would turn into an authoritarian leader. In fact, some of his opponents are much more in line with the ideology of authoritarian leftism, enforcing what they believe to be the appropriate liberating policy on the people."

Phil Michalski, who immigrated from Poland in 1978 and who describes his parents as "staunch anti-Communists," also dismissed the idea that a Sanders presidency would bring anything like communism to the United States.

"I think it's an outlandish idea," he said. "More worried that if Clinton becomes [president], we'll go down the neoliberal tubes so far that the natural reaction by a working class ground down by Clinton, et all, will be fascist blowback".

"Bernie's clearly not a communist," said Yasha Levine, a journalist who grew up in St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad). "His policies are more in line with a New Deal Democrat than anything else."

Levine went on to observe, as most members of the community would confirm, that the Soviet diaspora in America often does include a distinct strain of immigrants - particularly the older ones - who conflate progressive / left politics with communism. "Can't blame the older generation too much," he said. "They're warped and broken politically. Life in the Soviet Union was hard - especially if you were Jewish, poor with no connections. It ruined the whole socialist thing, no matter how mild it may be."

What do the polls actually say?

This complicated reaction to their experienced in the Soviet Union, with its tendency to conflate all kinds of divergent politics, points us to problems with the article that are even more serious.

In passing, Khazan cites "preliminary data" that suggests a potential 40 point swing towards Republicans among Russian Jews since 2012. This is an odd point to make, since it directly defeats her argument: even if we attribute this entire swing to anticommunist fear of Sanders, 40% is a minority. Evidently, the majority of this community either opposed Obama in 2012 or would not oppose Sanders in 2016. However their experience of communism informs the politics of Russian Jews, these numbers just don't indicate any kind of unique concern about Sanders.

In fact, there's obviously no argument to be made about this statistic that could not be used against Clinton. It's sheer question begging to assume this shift is a referendum on Sanders - and to then appeal to that assumption as evidence of a referendum on Sanders.

Similarly, Khazan relies on sheer conjecture when she uses research indicating that Russian Jews are "more conservative" to establish some kind of unique opposition to Bernie Sanders. This is particularly true given the tendancy Levine cited: Soviet anticommunists in particular (and anticommunists in general) tend to flatten the significant diversity of liberal-left politics into a single, vaguely communist monolith. There's no reason to suppose that Clinton would escape this flattening, and as Khazan herself notes, "she’s far too left for them".

To establish some kind of unique opposition among Soviet immigrants to Sanders, you would clearly have to ask questions that are far more specific than anything Khazan can point to - or indeed, anything that any of the pollsters have asked.

To the extent that we do have anything resembling direct data on the topic, it does little to help Khazan's argument. Among the general populace, neither economic nor ideological indicators do much to suggest a significant role for socialism in this election. Among Americans who've experienced life in former Soviet states, about 75% support Sanders. If we're interested in Americans who've experienced the "mild socialism" advocated by Bernie Sanders, we could look at the countries he brings up constantly: the Nordic states. But there, the number is essentially the same: about 75% of American expats reporting from those countries also support Sanders.

When I spoke to Julia, a young Swede who lives in Stockholm, she suggested that even this degree of support could be misleading. "The most anti-Bernie people I've come across have been from the harder left who believe that our model of social democracy doesn't constitute real socialism, and this is a position a lot of leftists hold."

In other words, people from the European left - who have far more direct experience with variants of socialism and communism than their American counterparts - see Sanders' politics as relatively conservative.

"Support seems to range from leftists to social democrats to social liberals who would be considered right-of-center on the Swedish political spectrum," Julia said. "I think that has to do with the fact that even a lot of people who don't vote red have grown so accustomed to social democratic reforms such as free health care and higher education and a good welfare system that those things are now widely viewed as basic rights that should exist in any developed society."

Standard red-baiting

So while Khazan's claim that "Soviet refugees aren't buying Sanders's Socialism" may survive in the utterly trivial sense that she found some anticommunists at a San Francisco birthday party, she provides no direct evidence to believe that Russian Jews are significant opponents of Sanders in particular, or of his social democratic agenda.

And of course, there's only one reason to believe that their particular experience would be relevant in the first place: what Alan Barth, in his classic work on anticommunism The Loyalty of Free Men, describes as "the eager credence" red-baiters give to the testimony of former Soviets. Writes Larry Ceplair in Anti-Communism in Twentieth Century America: A Critical History:
Louis Budenz, who became the most ubiquitous professional witness, stated that "the most truthful people in the world are the ex-Communists." Arthur Koestler, perhaps the most famous ex-Communist, wrote that "only those who have worked inside the hermetically closed regime know its true character and are in a position to convey a comprehensive picture of it."
Not all former Soviets are former communists, of course, but the logic of identitarian deference holds, particularly among the left's critics: people who have lived under communism have authoritative testimony on its defects. Of course, no one ever extends this logic to everyone who happens to live under a capitalist regime, and few of Sanders' Democratic critics would even extend it without reservation to Soviet dissidents, particularly if they have names like Ayn Rand.

Still, Ayn Rand is famous for a reason. Democrats may not be willing to give radical Objectivists a platform themselves - but when they indulge in the old red-baiting trick of parading around cherry-picked Soviet defectors to punch left, they're legitimizing the politics that put Rand on the map. More thoughtful liberals learned that they need to engage their left-critics on the merits, rather than trafficking in sensational anecdotes; and above all, they needed to make careful distinctions among the many varieties of progressive, socialist and communist thought. After all, once social democrats are tarred as communists, liberals won't be far behind.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Check out the latest Chapo Trap House y'all

The problematic bros at Chapo Trap House were kind enough to invite me on their latest podcast to talk about right-wing militants. Will Menaker, Matt Christman, and Felix Biederman are easily three of the funniest guys on the internet right now, and CTH is an insanely good forum for their riffs on the news, politics, media, and so on. It already has a central place on my podcast rotation, right up there with Steve Austin Unleashed and The Mark Levin Show; if you aren't listening to it already, subscribe, ya dopes!

Right-wing militancy is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented political phenomena in America today. I wrote on this at length here, but the gist of the point is that the radical right isn't a reserve army of Jason Bournes and Solid Snakes - demographically, they tend to be aging doughy pampered suburbanites. And while the right likes to imagine leftists as hapless peacenik Pajama Boys, we in fact count among our ranks a growing number of police, military, union thugs, people of color who live under siege by violent cops, and (like me) working class radicals who grew up around guns.

One point we didn't get to on CTH, but that I'd like to touch on here, is how these misconceptions also get promoted by liberals. These are the people who, out of sheer contempt, like to portray the right as a movement of barbarians - and who like to glamorize themselves as besieged guardians of civilization holding the line against the brute savagery of the mouthbreathing rubes. They exaggerate the danger posed by the right as a way of flattering their own valor and courage.

And worse still, even as they do this, liberals routinely endorse right-wing stereotypes directed at their own left-flank. Thus, we get garbage like this from Michelle Goldberg:
It’s certainly possible that a Trump presidency could lead to violent political conflict. If it comes to that, however, my money is on the side with all the gun fetishists, not subscribers to Jacobin.
This burn only makes sense, of course, given the subtext that radical Jacobin subscribers don't have guns and wouldn't be able to defend themselves from right-wing militants. It's an obvious dog whistle to Republicans and liberals who like to think of leftists as sheltered white college communists; and it clearly revels in the implicit dependence of radicals on the magnanimous political alliance of centrist Democrats. "It'd be a real shame if the fascists were to take power and mow you down like the powerless fringe that you are," they gloat - "so are you going to vote for Hillary, or not?"

In its crass red-baiting, its factual naivete, its sad self-flattery, and its implicit leveraging of the threat of violence for political advantage, this genre of liberal rhetoric isn't particularly distinct from anything the #MolonLabe types have to say. When you listen to the latest Chapo Trap House, bear that in mind: the major difference between Republican militants and left-punching liberals is often just a matter of decades.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Calling it: Safe-state "leftist" Clinton advocates will not campaign for Jill Stein

A while back, several of Hillary Clinton's media surrogates gleefully circulated an article in which Noam Chomsky appeared to endorse her for president. In fact, Chomsky was simply rehearsing the same strategic voting argument that he has advocated for decades, insisting that he would only vote for Clinton "if he lived in a swing state such as Ohio." Consistently, Chomsky has always added to this the second rule of the so-called "safe-state strategy":
I happen to be in a non-swing state, so I can either not vote, or - I probably will, for Jill Stein, in the hope that it might be beginning of some genuine electoral alternative over time.
That quote comes from 2012, but it's particularly relevant in this case, because Jill Stein is running for president once again in 2016. And on the merits, Stein is far and away a preferable left-alternative to Hillary Clinton. She brings with her an ambitious and compelling platform that is far more progressive than anything Clinton has put on the table, and adds to that all the symbolic and representational value of a woman in the White House.

If guys like Tom Watson lived in Ohio, of course, Chomsky would advise voting for Clinton over Jill Stein. But Watson does not live in Ohio. Watson lives in New York - and New York, like most of the states that are home to prominent Clinton media advocates, will obviously vote Democratic in the general election. Here's how California, DC, and New York looked in 2012:

And though it's hard to get a read on how these numbers will change this year, early indicators suggest: not much.

Watson, of course, was clearly being cynical when he appealed to Chomsky, and would obviously be more likely to vote for Donald Trump than Jill Stein; still, a whole genre of Clinton advocates clearly think of themselves as leftists, and have consistently insisted that they support Hillary because she's a woman who's running the most progressive campaign. Jill Stein annihilates that argument completely, and living in a safe state nullifies any strategic argument Clintonites have for opposing her.

When Bernie Sanders drops out, historical precedent makes it clear that most of his swing-state supporters will ultimately back Hillary Clinton. If they were consistent, supposedly pragmatic Clintonites bringing up Chomsky would also take up the swing-state strategy, and that means that most of her media advocates should be knocking on doors for Jill Stein. Are they? Will they? Of course not.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Ds will rally around the nominee - but not because they like it

Matt Yglesias has written a thing arguing that the Democratic primary schism on Twitter is misleading, and that it actually veils an underlying consensus among the American left. Unfortunately, this is one of those instances where what's true isn't what's true isn't new.

First, to get the latter out of the way: Yglesias's publication has spent the past year or so breathlessly hyping Twitter controversies about the Democratic primaries, so it's nice to see Vox admit that this major staple of its political reporting is actually entirely irrelevant. But this point that Twitter is a dumb basis for political reporting isn't just something writers like  me and Matt Bruenig have been saying for months and months - it's data that we've had for years, and it's mostly common sense for anyone who lives outside the elite media bubble.

From here, Yglesias makes his own contribution, arguing that Twitter isn't distorting a Democratic schism so much as inventing it entirely. "In contrast to casual sample taking on Twitter," he writes, "statistically valid surveys done by places like the Pew Center consistently show that Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters have similar views on the issues."

But there's a reason why Yglesias has to immediately add that "One can, of course, quibble with these findings." Consider this finding from the very survey he cites:

Clinton is closer to Trump on this issue than she is to Sanders, and only slightly further away from Kasich. And hasn't precisely this divide been at the center of so many Democratic primary controversies? Clinton argues that we just need to "save capitalism from itself," that her ties with Wll Street are no big deal, and that we mostly just need a more diverse cast of plutocratic overlords; Sanders declares himself a democratic socialist, argues for breaking up the banks, and refuses to work with super PACs. These aren't peripheral or superficial debates; they are substantive and at the center of controversy in the Democratic primary.

One point that Yglesias gets right, unlike pundits who are opportunistically hyperventilating about the so-called #NeverHillary campaign: most Democrats are obviously going to rally about the nominee. But this only reflects a "consensus" in the same way that polling on some of the issues reflects a "consensus": by virtue of framing.

If you set up a two-party system that forces Americans to make a binary choice between Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton, obviously anyone who is oriented to the left is going to prefer Clinton. This is a comparative preference, not an absolute preference; all it tells us is that Cruz and Clinton are more different than Sanders and Clinton are. (The point holds for Republicns and Trump too, by the way - despite the #NeverTrump posturing, they will obviously rally around the nominee, just as Romney's totally antiestablishment, principled Tea Party critics predictably rallied around Romney.)

Similarly, if you only ask Americans "does the government have some vague responsibility to provide health care in some unspecified way (y/n)", obviously liberal centrists, progressives, democratic socialists, hardline Stalinists and third-world Maoists are going to tend to agree. This does not, when it comes down to policy specifics, imply any sort of actual, substantive, and meaningful consensus whatsoever; it mostly just means that a diverse political coalition rejects a major premise advanced by libertarian reactionaries.

Yglesias misses this diversity because he sees the right's "silent conservative majority vs. liberaldemcommiecrats" framing as essentially correct; he then reads the choice we are forced to make by the two-party system through the lens of confirmation bias, and concludes that the liberal Clintonites and socialist Sanderistas are basically the same. Twitter is a bad place to look to understand the Democratic primary, but the essentialisms of right-wing framing aren't much better.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Sanders on foreign policy: basically fine

Not to beat a dead horse here, but I haven't seen anyone do for Sanders on foreign policy what Mike Konczal and Peter Eavis did for him on the banks - so here, I just want to point out three instances where supposedly inadequate answers he gave in his Daily News interview were perfectly fine. This is not to say that I necessarily agree with all of them, but they certainly demonstrate the competence and fluency in foreign policy that one would reasonably expect; when he's wrong, he's wrong for the exact same reasons that Clinton is wrong, which is why you won't hear any of her apologists correcting him from the left.

Sanders: I'm just telling you that I happen to believe...anybody help me out here, because I don't remember the figures, but my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right? 
Daily News: I think it's probably high, but we can look at that. 
Sanders: I don't have it in my number...but I think it's over 10,000... 
Daily News: Okay, while we were sitting here, I double-checked the facts. It's the miracle of the iPhone. My recollection was correct. It was about 2,300, I believe, killed, and 10,000 wounded.
Sanders' substantive argument here is that "the attacks against Gaza were indiscriminate and that a lot of innocent people were killed who should not have been killed." This conclusion is directly at odds with Clinton's refusal to acknowledge those deaths, and it also happens to be correct. That he got there by on-the-spot conflating the dead with the injured does zero to undermine his reasoning, which merely needs to maintain that the violence was unnecessary and disproportionate.

Daily News: President Obama has taken the authority for drone attacks away from the CIA and given it to the U.S. military. Some say that that has caused difficulties in zeroing in on terrorists, their ISIS leaders. Do you believe that he's got the right policy there? 
Sanders: I don't know the answer to that. What I do know is that drones are a modern weapon. When used effectively, when taking out ISIS or terrorist leaders, that's pretty impressive. When bombing wedding parties of innocent people and killing dozens of them, that is, needless to say, not effective and enormously counterproductive. So whatever the mechanism, whoever is in control of that policy, it has to be refined so that we are killing the people we want to kill and not innocent collateral damage.

Sanders has correctly identified the central problem of drone warfare as laid out by essentially every major figure out there, from Rand Paul to Barack Obama to Noam Chomsky. The best solution is obviously to end US military interventions altogether, but as long as you are blowing up terrorists, the basic challenge is to avoid killing civilians while you're doing it.

This kind of problem doesn't have some kind of correct, abstract / acontextual solution: it depends just as much on the political circumstances of the moment, of what you can get through Congress or get away with unilaterally, as it does on all of the organizational and operation considerations that determine military policy. Coming into this with some set answer based on whatever whitepaper you commissioned and memorized a few weeks before would if anything be misleading about the fluidity of the politics at play, and would suggest precisely the sort of intellectual and analytical rigidity that one must avoid when approaching such problems. What Sanders needed to demonstrate here is that he is thinking about this the right way and has in mind the fundamental considerations that most Americans do.

Here, he makes a point of demonstrating sympathy for the victims and concern about the problem of blowback, two major priorities that most on the left share and that most of his opponents lack. Clinton, for example, has explicitly said "numbers about potential civilian casualties I take with a somewhat big grain of salt because there has [sic] been other studies which have proven there not to have been the number of civilian casualties." While her supporters may be impressed by her detailed fluency in studies that downplay the human cost of drone warfare, many Americans (and many drone victims, for that matter) may not be.

Daily News: What would you do with a captured ISIS commander? 
Sanders: Imprison him. 
Daily News: Where? 
Sanders: Actually I haven't thought about it a whole lot. I suppose, somewhere near the locale where that person was captured. The best location where that individual would be safely secured in a way that we can get information out of him. 

Again, Sanders is being asked a question with an answer that is utterly contingent on particular circumstances, including the nationality, of the terrorist; the location and circumstances of her capture, and the particular treaties and diplomatic relationships in play; and the various political constraints and considerations of the moment. Sanders hasn't thought about it precisely because this is not even necessarily a Presidential-level decision, and certainly not one you would lay out beforehand; it is very close to asking Sanders where the SOCOM commander should visit three years into his term.

The actual problem here is that the interviewer is playing coy with too-general phrasing; what he is really asking, as he later admits ("Yeah"), is "do [you] believe that terrorists could be safely imprisoned in the United States". And Sanders' response to this substantive question is specific and direct: "the answer is yes". This, incidentally, is the standard Democratic position endorsed by both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Note that these three answers don't just demonstrate that Sanders has the competence and expertise in foreign policy that his critics say he lacks; they also happen to be better than Clinton's position in two cases, and identical to it in the third. Moreover, they demonstrate a sharp and insightful analytical disposition that hones in on fundamental considerations and points of disagreement that is quite at odds with Clinton's tendency to get lost in completely frivolous technocratic trivia - one that, if it's more than a show and is actually influencing her judgment, appears to routinely make her miss the forest for the trees.