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2/28/16

Yes, the libertarians want to bring back feuding

This weekend I was one of a handful of leftists who infiltrated the 2016 International Students for Liberty Conference in Washington, DC. The highlight of the weekend definitely came when Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova brutally trolled her hosts by appearing for an on-stage interview in a Bernie Sanders shirt, smirking "I hope Trump works out for you all" with the kind of savagely dry delivery that only a Russian can pull off and igniting a massive chorus of boos:


There was also all of the usual hilarity you see at an event like this, such as the fittingly vacant "Poverty Cure" booth and the inevitable vandalism that crops up when your conference is based on the absolute rejection of disciplinary authority. They also had a plan to solve war with, somehow, Bitcoins - but it's a testament to the gimmicky radicalism of the modern libertarian movement that this wasn't even their craziest conflict resolution scheme.

That award goes to David Friedman, son of infamous right-wing huckster Milton Friedman, and his plan to effectively legalize feuding.

Credit where credit is due: unlike his father, who was a vicious and mean-spirited demagogue, David comes off as a kind of affable old crank. His politics are dangerous and ridiculous, and anyone who advocates them should obviously be shamed and reviled as irresponsible sociopaths; but one gets the impression that he's at least earnest in his beliefs, not shamelessly cynical like so many of his colleagues. In another era, he would have been an aging dilettante bug collector, living out his twilight years poring over butterfly wings and thumbing through dusty old books in the study of his feudal manor.

But this is America in the 21st century, where the preferred hobby of rich olds is right-wing political agitation - so instead of butterflies, we get insane lectures about how maybe the bellum omnium contra omnes isn't so bad after all.

Friedman's theory is that society can manage interpersonal conflict by privatizing policing and judicial functions presently administered by the government. If you're wondering who will police the police and judge the judges, the answer is the same one that it always is for libertarians: capitalism. The invisible hand will make our police companies police fairly and our judicial CEOs judge wisely, at least if they want to stay in business.

To prop up this theory, Friedman relies on a hilarious mash-up of wishful thinking and half-baked anthropology. His standard move is to point to some aspect of this or that preindustrial feuding culture as proof that his feuding society can self-regulate. This is where his lecture was most interesting, since Friedman used it as an opportunity to drop lots of (often irrelevant) trivia about other cultures - one moment he'd segue into a digression about feuding in the Icelandic sagas, the next he'd launch into speculation about prehistoric feuding arrangements hinted at in Mosaic law.

But too often, Friedman's appeal to historical precedents ignored crucial complications that completely undermined his case. For example, one basic and immediate problem with feuding is that it often escalates and protracts conflict rather than resolving it. To address this, Friedman brought up the Finnish Romani as an example of a culture that de-escalates feuds through avoidance: if the conflict can't be resolved, belligerents are simply expected to avoid each other. But this sort of practice is well documented in the anthropological literature, and it has proven a non-starter in modern civilization for obvious reasons:
...separation did allow societies to avoid being constantly in conflict. Today, such buffer zones are almost impossible to maintain. In the Middle East or the Balkans, given the military technology, rockets, mortars, and other long-distance weapons, no-man's-lands would need to be wider than the twenty miles or so typically found for noncomplex societies, or the more than one hundred miles found between the Yumans and Maricopas. Instead, modern adversaries are, at best, only a few miles apart. On a global scale, with today's rapid transportation you can fly across a country in less time than a tribal farmer would need to transit a prehistoric buffer zone. Without workable buffer zones, conflict can become so continuous that the fabric of daily life disintegrates, a situation that cannot long continue. (Constant Battles, LeBlanc and Register)
Or consider Friedman's theory that feuding would create a market of private representatives who could resolve conflicts even for poor people, and that the market would guarantee their efficacy if they could compete for a portion of any winnings. As Matt Bruenig incredulously whispered to me at this point in the lecture, the problem with Friedman's system is that we already have it: the representatives are called "lawyers" and their conditional winnings are called "contingent fees". His plan to resolve conflicts for the poor is the one that is already in place and not working for them, again, for all kinds of well-understood reasons.

It's this apparent ignorance about crucial points of his argument that makes it difficult to take any of Friedman's scholarship seriously. If he is even aware of the anthropological and sociological literature on avoidance as a conflict resolution strategy, he is not engaging with it; if he knows about contingent fees, he is not explaining how it is that they've failed to solve the problem he thinks they would solve.

Somehow, the audience seemed even less worried about these complications than Friedman. The bizarre libertarian Uber fetish made a brief appearance when one young libertarian asked if a market of proxy feuders could be implemented using an online auction-style bidding system; one might think that overthrowing the entire criminal justice system has some more serious challenges to overcome, but these nerds were mostly interested in what the app would look like. One skeptic reasonably asked how the feuding system's guarantee of retaliation could protect from murder a pariah with no social allies; when Friedman responded that "no system's perfect", the audience just laughed.

And that's precisely the problem with the libertarian feuding scheme: it is being advanced by people who see it as a fun thought experiment, and who would suffer from it the least. Friedman is taking on justifications for the state that date back to Hobbes, and that are considerably buttressed by volumes of scholarship in anthropology, criminology, political science, and so on. If he is wrong - and he is wrong - the consequences are catastrophic: civilization devolves into a bloody, hilariously dystopic neo-feudal chaos where criminal justice only exists for the elites who are powerful enough to afford it. Friedman would probably make it through this okay, as would the majority of his young jet-setting libertarian disciples, but most of us wouldn't be so lucky.

But this, of course, is the story of the entire libertarian conference, and of the movement in general. Whether they are advocating the dissolution of the welfare state, opposing government mandated action on climate change, destroying unions, or fighting the minimum wage, libertarians are always playing the same game. Wealthy old men endlessly invent cynical new arguments for extending their power; young contrarians buy into them as entertaining intellectual novelties; and before you know it, the liberal welfare state has been overthrown by a handful of fedora-wearing nerds.

2/27/16

Republicans have a more rational anti-Trump strategy than the Clintonites

A majority of Republicans oppose Trump as their nominee, and would prefer just about any alternative. To defeat him, however, they would have to rally behind a single opponent, which means that most would have to abandon their preferred candidate. But there is really no rational way to determine which Republicans should have to do this: they're trapped in what game theory calls a volunteer's dilemma. It's a perverse situation, but it's not one that any given voter can do anything about.

For Democrats, the problem is a lot simpler. To guarantee the best chance of beating Trump, the supporters of one of two candidates have to abandon their preferred nominee - but since there are only two options, the calculus is completely straightforward. If you want to beat Trump, your best bet is to nominate the candidate who polls much better against Trump in head-to-head matchups. Constistently, that candidate is Bernie Sanders.

One can, I suppose, maintain that electability arguments against Trump are illegitimate this early in the election. That is not, however, a position that most Clintonites have actually accepted. This places them in a less rational position than Republicans, who, as confused as they are, have no clear solution to the Trump problem. Clintonites do - and they're rejecting it.

2/25/16

Black voters and the 2016 primaries, Part 2: The establishment firewall

This is the second part of a three-part series on the role of black voters in the 2016 Democratic primaries; the first part is here.

In my last post in this series, I analyzed six months of biweekly crosstabs and teased out three key indicators of black support for Democratic candidates: name recognition, favorability, and preference. I concluded that while black preference for Clinton is somewhat variable - it is generally deteriorating, and was only boosted when Joe Biden dropped out of the race - black preference for Sanders is significantly correlated with name recognition:


From here, the point I would make is simple: the name recognition gap is almost entirely explained by national media coverage. This is obviously how Americans almost always learn about national figures. While candidates often make a show of their retail politicking - glad-handing constituents at the local diner, or talking policy with concerned parents at the kitchen table - even this is largely a spectacle staged for dissemination to a national audience. As David Paul Kuhn put it, "All presidential politics is wholesale."

And here is where narratives of Clinton running "against the establishment" and representing a populist groundswell of black support run aground, because national media exposure is a privilege.


Institutional media racism

The overwhelming domination of the national media by wealthy, powerful, white patriarchal interests has been a standing left critique for decades. Even on the internet, most Americans get their news from major media outlets - and today, over 90% of them are controlled by just a handful of giant corporations. And as Chomsky and Hermann note in their seminal Manufacturing Consent, "It is this top tier...that defines the news agenda and supplies much of the national and international news to the lower tiers of the media, and thus for the general public."

Consider what this means in terms of race. In Race After the Internet, Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White report on diversity in media ownership:


A second major (and particularly relevant) contributor to media bias is sourcing. Here, Chomsky and Hermann are worth quoting again, at length:
The mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity...[which] dictates that they concentrate their resources where significant news often occurs...The White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department in Washington, D.C., are central nodes of such news activity...The magnitude of public-information operations of large government and corporate bureaucracies that constitute the primary news sources is vast and ensures special access to the media...[Meanwhile] Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers.
This dynamic should be utterly familiar to any black American or comrade to black Americans who has had to fight for even minimal media coverage. The media typically conceptualizes the concerns of black Americans as "special interest issues" and allocates proportionally minimal resources to them. Newsrooms invest relatively little time and energy into cultivating and maintaining contacts with black leaders and activists - particularly at the local level, where much of black activism is relatively concentrated - because they are busy prioritizing their relationships with major government institutions. Meanwhile, black Americans and organizations are dramatically under-resourced compared with major government and corporate institutions, which often have press offices exclusively dedicated to media publicity.


Collateral damage

These are just two of a whole plethora of factors that institutionalize bias in the media against black Americans. They are what we talk about when we talk about systematic and structural racism - the kind of racism that has less to do with interpersonal bigotry than with large-scale socioeconomic arrangements. One could, of course, imagine an ultra-concentrated corporate media that just-so-happens to be dominated by black owners - but there are obvious historical reasons why this has not actually happened, and they're all complicit in racism. The organization of corporate power amplifies that, and a major project of white supremacy is to maintain and defend this media concentration so that rich white men can stay in control.

This is, again, all standard left analysis of the way that corporate hierarchy and consolidation and capitalist resource allocation practices all work together to facilitate and amplify privilege - including white privilege, male privilege, class privilege, and so on. But I am spelling it out because left analysis of this election has consistently (but inexplicably) failed to take the next step, which is to recognize how these systems have also been made to work for Hillary Clinton and against Bernie Sanders. 

Consider, for example, the role of media concentration. If you believe that representation among media ownership and management matters, and that it can have systematic effects that can proliferate into even subsidiary media coverage - a standard and relatively uncontroversial argument in progressive media analysis - then it follows trivially that the politics of the ownership and management would be of interest. This is of course precisely the concern the left always raises whenever News Corp. buys out another media outlet - so consider how the so-called "big six" media companies are currently aligned:

This table doesn't even include Clinton's largest media contributors, such as Saban Capital Group ($2.5m) and Dreamworks ($2m). In total, the media gives more money to Clinton than any other industry except finance, topping more than $11m so far. By way of comparison, donors working in the media have given about $219k to Bernie Sanders - about fifty times less.

Or consider, again, the other source of media bias we noted: sourcing. Hillary Clinton has held a major leadership role in two out of the three "central nodes" of media sourcing that Chomsky and Herman identified: the White House, and the State Department. In both - as well in her multiple campaigns for public office - she had at her disposal massive budgets, resources and staff dedicated almost entirely to promoting her and her efforts in the media. They are both, of course, institutions that can typically command more national media attention than nearly any other due to their prominent roles in governance.

Even during Clinton's years in the Senate, when her media resources were comparable to Sanders', she had on top of that the multimillion dollar communications budgets of the Clinton Foundation. Sanders, meanwhile, has only had access to relatively small Congressional office and campaign media budgets, most targeted towards his constituents in Vermont.

The temptation here is to insist that Clinton media access advantages in these instances reflect her meritocratic ascension to prominent public offices - but that misses the point. Literally anyone who becomes a First Lady or a Secretary of State or runs a massive philanthropic corporation will have giant media access advantages over the rest of the world whether they have earned it or not, and whether they are competent or not. Media access does not reflect merit: it reflects one's role in our society's grossly inequitable economic hierarchies, which only quite incidentally ever has anything to do with merit.

Shut out of the media

At a minimum, the cumulative effect of all of these media concentration and access problems has been to enhance and maintain name recognition for Clinton while suppressing it for Sanders.

It is clear that Clinton had already achieved optimal name recognition well before any of her much-vaunted accomplishments as First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State. Contemporary polls show that within the first month of the Clinton Administration in 1993, around 95% of respondents already had opinions on whether she should use her family name, Rodham, or whether it even mattered. 

Meanwhile, Sanders began his campaign with a mere 50% name recognition among black Americans, and has struggled ever since to get his name in the media. In 2015, for instance, Sanders received only about 1/5 of the broadcast news coverage that Clinton did (20 mins vs. 121 mins), despite averaging nearly half her popular support and maintaining second place among declared candidates throughout his campaign. A more sophisticated analysis at DecisionData.org concluded that "Sanders is being ignored by the mainstream media to a shocking degree" and that proportional to public interest Clinton has received ten times as much media coverage as Sanders.

The consequences have been direct, as American Urban Radio Networks Washington bureau chief April Ryan told CNN: "People did not pay much attention to him or take him seriously in the beginning because he is an older politician from a small state who they did not know much about."

Hillary Clinton's real firewall

As I noted at the beginning of this series, media analysis of the 2016 primaries has routinely invoked a "firewall" of support that Hillary Clinton will rely on to prevent Bernie Sanders from securing the Democratic nomination. Clinton's partisans, meanwhile, have celebrated that firewall as proof of her progressive credibility as demonstrated by her overwhelming support among voters of color.

If we care about what voters of color actually think, however, it is clear that their preference for Clinton is largely (though not completely) a simply matter of name recognition. When voters of color know who Sanders is, they are much more likely to support him.

And when it becomes clear that Clinton's name recognition advantage reflects above all the institutional biases of corporate media - biases born of hierarchy and concentrated power - then it becomes clear what her "firewall" really is: privilege. Clinton's fame stands on the same platform of elite media that passively (and often actively) refuses access to marginalized and dissident voices; Sanders, for all his advantages, still stands beneath it. Partisans for Clinton who want to laud her support among black Americans are actually celebrating an apparatus of oppression and control that necessarily operates at the expense of black Americans.

It is understandable why well-off white women in particular would enjoy this seeming opportunity to wield corporate media to their advantage - but this is a deeply reactionary impulse, and a profound political mistake. As black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde famously argued in her critique of elite white feminism, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to women who still define the master's house as their only source of support."

2/24/16

The Post's semantic analysis of Sanders supporters on Twitter is a good step forward

Rebekah Tromble and Dirk Hovy at The Washington Post have finally done the obvious thing and conducted a semantic analysis of how Sanders supporters talk about Hillary Clinton on Twitter. This is a dramatic step past the lazy, anecdote-driven punditry that's dominated the discussion for months; but of course, there are clear reasons why the people who've spammed the internet with Bernie Bro articles didn't want to look at the issue with any rigor:
...of a total 52,181 tweets mentioning @HillaryClinton, just 606, or 1.16 percent, contained [gendered slurs]...The vast majority of the slurs were associated with Twitter users on the right — particularly self-identified Trump supporters. But 14.7 percent came from those backing Sanders...That is a mere 0.17 percent of all the tweets mentioning @HillaryClinton that we examined....our analysis does provide a better understanding of the extent and character of the attacks lodged against Hillary Clinton online. And it seems relatively little abuse originates from the left.
This is of course exactly what you would expect. It is actually much smaller than my ballpark estimate of around 4%. While women running for office may face institutional and systematic sexism, popular sexism is not presenting them with a significant challenge - and in fact among Democrats popular biases favor women.

Presumably, Clintonites are going to meet this study with three responses:

  • Misrepresentation (EG quoting caveats like "we do find some evidence of Bernie Bros’ bad behavior" as if they are final conclusions)
  • Methodological quibbling (EG complaints about how various words should have been flagged as "negative"); and
  • Silence
Suffice to say, whatever grievance you have with the study, it's an astronomical step forward from the ridiculous parade of anecdote and innuendo that preceded it. If Sanders critics want to insist that their perspective on the question is more credible than what's been supplied here, they should present their own study, and then we can compare them. Otherwise, this should - although it certainly will not - put the matter to rest.

2/23/16

Black voters and the 2016 primaries, Part 1: Name recognition

As the Democratic primaries depart the relatively white states of the northeast, Bernie Sanders has begun to encounter what the media calls Hillary Clinton's "firewall": her decisive advantage among voters of color. Routinely, liberal media understands this as a simple indication of comparative preference for Clinton's agenda over that of Sanders. But as I've argued previously, the data suggests a slightly different story - and since this dynamic may very well define the triumph (or defeat) of democratic socialism in this election, it's worth investigating in further detail.

To do this, I've gone through six months of crosstabs from biweekly YouGov / Economist polling, focusing on black voters in particular (since they're likely to prove the decisive constituency). 

Hillary Clinton

First, let's look at three crucial indicators for Hillary Clinton among black voters: name recognition, preference (versus other candidates), and favorability:


Most of this should be fairly straightforward and uncontroversial. Hillary's high name-recognition is a testament to several decades of national prominence, largely beginning with the presidency of Bill Clinton in the nineties. This is more of a test of political literacy than anything: the 9% who answered "don't know" when asked about her matches the minimal 9% who will generally answer "don't know" about any given political topic.

During this period, black voters have developed a fairly consistent opinion of Clinton: about 70% of them view her favorably, though that number has occasionally slipped a few points over the past half year. Crucially, however, the Clinton indicator that has shown the most variability among black voters has been actual preference. Though this number is back to where it started at around 64%, it has dropped to as low as 53% and climbed to as high as 77%.

The picture this paints of Clinton is fairly intuitive, though not quite as flattering as her advocates often suggest. Black voters overwhelmingly know her, and a significant majority of them like her - two factors that don't seem particularly variable over time. Nevertheless, a minimum 23% and as many as 47% of black voters have on occasion refused to back Clinton for president. Those are the numbers we should begin with when we consider the support of black voters for Bernie Sanders.


Bernie Sanders

When we look at the same three indicators for Sanders, another straightforward trend appears:


Across the board, Sanders' numbers have steadily increased among black voters throughout his campaign, typically climbing around 1% every week. You could probably come up with all sorts of elaborate circumstantial explanations for this involving various improvements in Sanders' platform, but this does little to explain the sheer consistency of his ascent. The simpler and more compelling explanation here is that Sanders started with relatively low name recognition among black voters, and that the more black voters get to know him, the more they like him.

There is of course no way to know if and to what extent this upward progression in Sanders would continue, given enough time. If we compare his numbers to Clinton's, however, I think we can begin to draw some basic conclusions about how black voters have aligned themselves in the Democratic primaries.

Competing for black voters

Here's how two of these trends compare for each candidate:


This chart seems to affirm quite clearly the theory just given: Sanders has primarily suffered from a lack of name recognition among black voters. His numbers are rapidly aligning themselves with Clinton's; at the current pace, his favorables would be identical with Clinton's by April, with name recognition for both candidates maxing out at around 90%. If we look at cumulative candidate preferences, however, a few separate trends emerge:


When we note that Biden dropped out of the race on October 21, a fairly clear story emerges about the Democratic primary.

Clinton's name recognition among black voters is essentially maxed out. This has translated into a favorability rating of 70% and a base of 55% support among black voters. Both show signs of steady but minor deterioration; however, in late October, Clinton  received a massive windfall of orphaned Biden supporters. This faction of her coalition - accounting for about 20% of the black vote - originally hoped to vote against her; it's not clear how strong their support really is.

Sanders, meanwhile, began the race with an extraordinary name recognition disadvantage among black voters, which appears to correlate directly with deficits in favorability and support. As his name recognition has grown, both numbers have grown proportionally.

If these trends over the past six months continue, it appears likely that Clinton's numbers would continue to deteriorate to her pre-Biden surge levels in the mid fifties, while Sanders' numbers would continue to climb into the mid-thirties. Crucially, while this still marks a significant preference among black voters for Clinton, it would not be enough to provide the so-called "firewall" she's relying on to win the nomination. For instance, all else being equal in Nevada, a 54-35 split of black voters would have been enough to hand Sanders the victory.

Without making any further predictions, it seems clear that name recognition has been Sanders' greatest disadvantage among black voters. His improvement in the polls seems almost entirely a matter of improved familiarity among black voters, which suggests that he may have started as many as 30 points higher if he were better known. That deficit also left him poorly positioned to pick up orphaned black Biden voters, who broke 2:1 for Clinton and gave her an additional 10 point advantage.

In my next post, I will discuss how the role of black voters in the primaries has been largely misunderstood by the media - often, of course, in the most reactionary way possible.

2/21/16

The "English only" smear on Sanders supporters wasn't just a mistake

Snopes has debunked a widely-reported accusation from civil rights activist Dolores Huerta that supporters of Bernie Sanders shouted "English only" at her during the Nevada caucus Saturday evening. Moving forward, any scrutiny on the incident will likely center on Huerta herself, since her statement launched the rumor. But instead of pursuing that, I'd like to ask a different question: how did such a rumor become credible in the first place?

The answer to that one is simple: Clinton's campaign and her media surrogates have spent nearly a year smearing supporters of Bernie Sanders as bigots. They've successfully placed the Sanders campaign under such a cloud of suspicion that nearly any smear, no matter how serious or implausible, will spread with no concern for the actual facts. Media figures have learned that they will not suffer any consequences for any lies or misinformation they spread, and that they'll be aggressively and belligerently defended if they face any criticism whatsoever.

Consider my previous reporting on the ridiculous Boss Hogg smear - another easily-debunked rumor of rampant bigotry among Sanders supporters. After that post received some significant media coverage, this is how the four people who helped spread that rumor responded:

  • Emily Nussbaum, the rumor's source, admitted her mistake - while still insisting there is "an abrasive streak among some pro-Bern tweeters";
  • Emily Cohn, who reported Nussbaum's false claim on Mashable, "clarified" her story by quoting Nussbaum's admission - leaving the rest of the piece unchanged;
  • Jamil Smith, who linked to Cohn's article as proof of "misogyny" among Clinton supporters, approvingly referred readers to a piece that used scare quotes to cast doubt on whether his accusation had really been debunked;
  • Kaili Joy Gray, who helped spread the rumor by linking to Jamil's piece, tried to ridicule Glenn Greenwald for reporting on this; even worse, she then tried to ridicule The Intercept for doing exactly what she should have done, admitting to a mistake. (And a completely unrelated mistake at that - "Probably a little bit dickish of me but oh, I forgot to give a fuck. Oh well." she said.)
The pattern is clear: Clinton's surrogates in the media will eagerly spread even the most ridiculous accusations of bigotry against Sanders supporters. If they are exposed, they will issue a token apology or "clarification" at best, all while insisting that the smear campaign is still credible. Typically, however, they won't even do that; instead, they will call the correction into question, as Smith does, or they will openly ridicule and attack their critics, like Gray does.

In this political landscape - where any accusation against Sanders supporters is presumed credible, any correction is disputed, downplayed, or ignored, and anyone who challenges any of this is ruthlessly attacked - in the media environment that Clinton's supporters have created, of course the "English only" smear is going to spread like wildfire. Just look at how eager all the usual suspects were to jump on this:


It's easy to dismiss this episode as a series of isolated and innocent mistakes - just a matter of people believing a rumor that turned out to be false. And in an utterly trivial sense, that's what happened here: Traister, for one, says that she simply trusted Huerta's account, and we can take her at her word.

But this abdication of skepticism and credulous belief in the bigotry of Sanders supporters is the utterly predictable and extraordinarily convenient outcome of a smear campaign that Clinton's media surrogates have been actively pushing for months. So when they spread this sort of rumor, and then plead innocent, it's a bit much to say that they've actually been fooled; the fairer way to put it is that they believed their own hype.

2/20/16

Kesha and the failure of liberal feminism

Pop star Kesha alleges that producer Lukasz Gottwald drugged and raped her, and has continued to abuse her throughout their partnership - but a New York Supreme Court judge ruled Friday that the two must continue to work together since she is under contract.

This is a horrific outcome and the backlash of criticism has been entirely justified - but it has also, I think, been fairly incoherent. For example, Jessica Kickman at SheKnows writes:
This case is admittedly very complicated. The judge technically made the right call in upholding the contract laws of the state. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that it was morally the correct decision in this case.
Madelaine Davies, writing for Jezebel, seems similarly conflicted:
Commercially reasonable, yes. Contracts were signed. Kesha entered into a legal agreement with Sony and Kemosabe...The ruling is so cruel as to seem almost mythological—Persephone stuck in hell as the result of a bad contract—but it’s not; the ruling is real.
From all of this, it would seem to follow directly that the law itself is immoral. If we expect a judge to enforce the law, but she cannot do so without inflicting a profound injustice on Kesha, then the law itself should be changed. Alternatively, you could insist that while this particular outcome is unfortunate, this law is justified and needs to be enforced consistently - but that is an argument that the ruling was not immoral and that the greater good has prevailed, a conclusion that most people with a conscience will understandably find unacceptable.

The problem here is that Kesha's advocates can't decide whether they want to defend feminism or liberal capitalism.

The sanctity of contract has always been a foundational doctrine of liberal capitalism. You can do society without it - for example, you can subject contract enforcement to the pure discretion of a judge or a jury - but you can't do capitalism without it. As Milton Friedman put it,
Government...should enforce contracts between individuals...When government - in pursuit of good intentions tries to rearrange the economy, legislate morality, or help special interests, the cost comes in inefficiency, lack of motivation, and loss of freedom. Government should be a referee, not an active player.
Ask a capitalist why contracts are so important and they'll give you all kinds of rationalizations, but the actual function is simple: capitalism needs to perpetrate all kinds of injustices to survive, and contracts give it legal cover to do so. Kesha is a particularly vivid example of how this disproportionately impacts women, but the damage is far more widespread. For example, so-called "right-to-work" laws - which justify themselves as a defense of the freedom to contract - drive down women's wages by 4.4%, compared with 1.7% for men. Incidentally, these same laws are also a serious barrier to workplace discrimination and harassment claims, a problem that also, of course, disproportionately affects women.

If you are a feminist, the liberal capitalist contract fetish confronts you with three options.

Historically, the left's response has been to realize that capitalism is deeply implicated in the oppression of women, and to tie the feminist agenda to the broader fight for socialism. When a radical feminist encounters a case like Kesha's, her answer is straightforward: we cannot privilege the sanctity of contract at the expense of women. Judges and juries should be empowered to simply nullify contracts in cases like this, and if capitalists don't like it, they should stop raping women and giving the courts reasons to nullify contracts.

Alternatively, if you don't want to challenge capitalism, you can leave women at the mercy of wishful thinking, as Kickman does:
Sony should have...offered her a new, better producer and assured her that she was still going to receive the same publicity and promotion throughout her career despite the producer shift...Sony, we're watching. And, for women everywhere, we hope you do the right thing.
Or third, like Davies, you can resign yourself to empty fatalism:
It’s likely that “commercially reasonable” will almost always beat or “ethically reasonable” and is certain to beat “morally reasonable”...When a woman as powerful and high status as Kesha can’t win, the rest of us stand even less of a chance.
I see no other way around this. Particularly over the past several months, liberal feminists have spent a lot of time excrociating the left for being too focused on economic issues and inadequately focused on the plight of women. Kesha's case demonstrates quite clearly why we can't bracket those issues off from each other, but as long as liberal capitalists keep doing so, this kind of thing is going to continue.

2/16/16

Sanders punditry, and some armchair psychoanalysis

Over the past few weeks, two distinct genres of takes have emerged among the punditry about Bernie Sanders and his supporters. The first is exemplified by headlines like this:


Here, we find the odd, repeated fixation on the virility of young Sanders supporters. Their politics are propelled by their powerful sex drive, and their sex life is so active that it gets turns on by something as banal as a presidential debate. In both cases, the pundits are relatively old: Luntz is in his 50s, and Steinem is in her 80s.

The second genre of take has a different but related focus:


Here, there is a singular echo of the first take: Sanders politics are angry and ambitious, just as they are virile. But in contrast to that, in the voice of the older establishment, one can hear a distinct anxiety about our democratic impotence: revolution is unrealistic, and reversing mass incarceration is impossible.


The wisdom of youth

Predictably, older pundits are inclined to explain this generational disagreement among Democrats as a matter of youthful naivete clashing with the wisdom and experience of age. Krugman, for example, brags that "I was writing about the damaging rise of the 1 percent back when many of today's Sanders supporters were in elementary school."

There may be something to this, though it's not entirely clear why age would translate into a superior understanding of national politics. No one pretends that age implies some kind of wisdom about macroeconomics, for example, and it's pretty clear that if anything, one's political judgment tends to deteriorate with age:


That said, since armchair psychoanalysis of voter intentions has become so popular these days, I'll offer some of my own. 

The anxieties of aging

Freud largely ignored psychosexual development after one reached adulthood, but he did make a few stray observations, and his successors elaborated and refined them into a theoretical framework still in use to this very day. In Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, he invokes in passing an old German adage "junge hure, alte betschwester" - which translates roughly into "promiscuous in youth, a prude in old age". This doesn't map well onto our modern understanding of the relatively active sex lives of the elderly, but it does point to a psychological change in the sex drive that he noted in the same essay:
Finally, it is evident that mental application or concentration of attention on an intellectual accomplishment will result, especially in youthful persons...in a simultaneous sexual excitement.
As in so much of Freud, this is a primarily clinical observation that he then tried to understand theoretically - with varying degrees of success - but here, it corresponds well with our intuitive experience. Young people are physically more vigorous and energetic than older people; they have higher aspirations and ambitions in part because they feel they have the ability to pursue them. The ageing may rationalize their caution as a kind of "pragmatism" born of wisdom, but it would be surprising if their literal physical and mental deterioration didn't play a role here as well.

This dynamic has become most explicit, I think, in a curious bit of rhetoric that has become a standard line in Hillary Clinton's argument against single payer:
I do not want to see the Republicans repeal [Obamacare], and I don't want to see us start over again with a contentious debate.
Would Clinton be okay with a contentious debate that Republicans do not win? This reads awfully like explicit conflict aversion. If you already have Medicare or health insurance from your job, and your biggest problem in life is the inconvenience of going to town hall meetings or getting in arguments at cocktail parties, you might find this line attractive. But if you are young and poor, and you have a high tolerance for political struggle, you might find Clinton's position cowardly and selfish.

"Youthful longing...for the attainment of high hopes and distant goals," Carl Jung wrote,
changes into fear of life, neurotic resistances, depressions, and phobias if at some point it remains caught in the past, or shrinks from risks without which the unseen goal cannot be attained. (The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche)
This, he adds in The Soul and Death, is primarily an affliction of aging:
How different does the meaning of life seem to us when we see a young person striving for distant goals and shaping the future, and compare this...with an old man who is sinking reluctantly and impotently into the grave! 
Which is all to say something neither obscure nor even particularly controversial: old people get tired of fighting and become increasingly conservative. This is a point the boomers leaned on repeatedly during their own days of relevance, and their fixation on the active sex lives of Sander supporters suggests that they're well aware of where the youth and energy lies. Even Freud found his own regressive views challenged by his successors, and he complained about it ruefully: "Jung," he wrote, "insists on the cultural historical rights of youth to throw off any fetters that tyrannical old age with ossified view would forge for it."

After decades out of power, what we see now is that the young are beginning to insist on that right. This election is the last gasp of the boomers, and even if they manage one last victory before the demographic door closes, their time is almost up.

2/14/16

Scalia's jurisprudence was radically, objectively stupid

It's not every day that my niche academic background in critical legal studies has any bearing on anything going on in the news, but since I wrote my Master's thesis on the linguistics of Supreme Court jurisprudence, I have a few words to say on the occasion of Justice Scalia's death.

Scalia's major contribution to what he called "the science of statutory interpretation" was his doctrine of "textualism". I'll let him describe in his own words:
A text should not be construed strictly, and it should not be construed leniently; it should be construed reasonably, to contain all that it fairly means...while the good textualist is not a literalist, neither is he a nihlist. Words do have a limited range of meaning, and no interpretation that goes beyond that range is permissible. (Common-Law Courts in a Civil Law System, 98-99)
This rhetoric was the foundation for an extraordinary number of Scalia's arguments and opinions (except when he conveniently abandoned it completely - see also Obamacare). It will likely be associated with his name for decades to come, precisely because he made such a big show of owning it; he even wrote an entire ridiculous book about it. And it is remarkably, empirically stupid.

One basic problem here is that Scalia's textualism is mostly just a way of begging the question. Ask him how a text should reasonably and fairly be interpreted, and he replies that "it should be construed reasonably, to contain all that it fairly means". This sort of empty tautology gives us no insight into how interpretation works, no methodological approach for pursuing it. It's nothing more than a variation on the famously nonsensical pun of Alice in Wonderland's Queen of Hearts: "Sentence first - verdict afterwards."

Textualists, of course, would contest this critique by insisting that Scalia's assessment of fairness and reasonableness are ultimately grounded in what he calls "the objective indication of words".

Unfortunately for Scalia's "science" of jurisprudence, this notion that words have some "objective indication" is in direct contradiction with the actual science of linguistics. A full century ago, Ferdinand de Saussure - universally acknowledged as the father of modern linguistics - was quite plain on this point in his seminal text, Course in General Linguistics:

First principle: the sign is arbitrary
No one disputes the fact that linguistic signs are arbitrary...the principle stated above is the organising principle for the whole of linguistics, considered as a science of language structure...any means of expression accepted in a society rests in principle upon a collective habit, or on convention...It is this rule which renders them obligatory, not their intrinsic value. 
There is, that is to say, no "objective indication" of words, no actual or indipsutable meaning that you can appeal to when trying to argue what is "reasonable" and "fair"; words just mean whatever we decide that they mean.

As de Saussure notes, the "consequences that flow from this principle...do not all appear at first sight equally evident"; but for textualism, the consequence is that Scalia's entire jurisprudence is thoroughly invalidated as a matter of science. He can only save his argument from utter tautology by resting it on a foundation of objective linguistic meaning that does not actually exist. If he is right, a hundred years of linguistics is somehow entirely wrong, and all of this mysterious progress we've made in understanding how language works some kind of inexplicable illusion or stroke of sheer luck.

Scalia's textualism flatters the sensibilities of people who want to think of themselves as reasonable and fair without digging into what that actually means. It props itself up on just-so claims about the true meaning of words that are entirely and directly in dispute. For these reasons, textualism will remain forever popular as a rhetorical bludgeon - a dignified veil over the stubborn bluster of Scalia and his heirs. But no one else should take this nonsense seriously, or pretend that he contributed anything more than a ridiculous brand of jurisprudence and a lifetime of terrible opinions.

2/13/16

Anti-harassment politics and the problem of co-option

Cool dude Lowenaffchen posted a thing yesterday about the appropriation of anti-harassment rhetoric by elites against public criticism. He has several takes in here that I don't agree with, and IMHO, Ryan Cooper's critique was essentially right: the article's "overall point is obscured by a lot of extraneous claims," and a lot of them were just incorrect.

Here is how I would put it. Particularly during the last decade, the liberal-left has done an excellent job of popularizing a set of rhetoric meant to remedy (or at least counter) the harassment of oppressed communities. We recognize, for example, that women are exposed to more violent threats than men, that they are more likely to be victimized by people making good on those threats, and so on. We also recognize, for example, that men do not suffer from sexism as women do, so we object to gendered slurs against women in a way that we do not object to gendered slurs against men. In general, these discursive rules function (or at least aspire) to protect the powerless from the powerful; that is why they are good and justified.

Gaming the rules

The problem here is the same problem that liberalism always faces: powerful people are going to look for ways to game and co-opt the rules to their own advantage. This is what they do with financial regulations, this is what they do with international treaties, and this is what they do with discourse rules.

We all recognize how this happens in practice. The most obvious example is the phenomenon of so-called "reverse racism": white people invoke the language of tolerance and egalitarianism to insist that the greatest problem in American today is white people getting called crackers. Superficially, this grievance is playing by standard liberal discourse rules: all it does is extend the prohibition against racial slurs one step further. It is only when you drill down into questions of justification, and consider why we prohibit racial slurs in the first place, that it becomes clear why cries of reverse racism are so ridiculous: getting called a cracker is not an actual, consequential problem for white people.

Or consider Lowenaffchen's example of the James Woods lawsuit. Superficially, Woods is deploying all of the same rhetoric: he complains that his troll is guilty of waging "a malicious on-line campaign" and even appeals to the uniquely amplifying nature of Twitter, insisting that "using social media" allowed his troll to "propagate lies" to "hundreds of thousands of Mr. Woods' followers." But obviously, what is actually happening here is that a rich white man is co-opting anti-harassment rhetoric to perpetrate wildly disproportionate retaliation against a relatively powerless critic.

Obviously it is rude and uncivil to accuse James Woods of being a cocaine addict, much like it is rude and uncivil to call a white guy a cracker. It's also funny as hell, and more importantly, liberalism isn't here to make sure everyone is nice and scrupulously observes Emily Post's rules of etiquette or parliamentary debate procedure. Liberalism has zero stake in protecting the powerful from ridicule and trolling; it is here to protect the powerless, and it is only justified insofar as it actually does so.

Who has the power?

I don't think anything I've written so far is particularly controversial - but in practice, these issues get murky is when it is not entirely clear who the powerless and who the powerful really are.

Consider, for example, Hillary Clinton. Obviously she is rich, white, straight, and a boomer, a member of four of the most powerful groups in America today. If this is all we knew about her, the case for trolling her would be just as obvious as it is for James Woods: liberalism has no stake in protecting people of privilege from everyone else. It might be uncouth to call Clinton bourgeois scum, or a cracker, or a gross boomer, and this is a good reason to not invite the trolls to your dinner party; but this is not a problem that deserves a claim to liberal anti-harassment rhetoric.

The complication, of course, is that not only is Clinton rich, white, straight, and a boomer: she's also a woman. For that reason, despite her overwhelming privilege by other measures, Clinton's partisans routinely invoke liberal discourse rules in her defense. But to what extent is that actually justified?

The answer here depends on one's intersectional analysis.

Here, I see a continuum of positions. At one end, you could conclude that Clinton's wealth, whiteness, orientation and age all disqualify any claim to anti-harassment rhetoric that she could possibly have. She is a woman, but she is an extraordinarily powerful woman, and for that reason it's ridiculous to get worked up over even the most grotesque sexism launched her way. For reasons given momentarily I don't think this analysis is at all correct, but it's entirely possible that some of her critics have made this calculation.

Hijacking the Gamergate critique

At the other extreme, however, is the tendancy that I suspect Lowenaffchen has in mind: the conclusion that Clinton's gender gives her an absolute claim to anti-harassment rhetoric, even when it comes to critiques of her use of power against the powerless. By this logic, any criticism or ridicule of anything about her must, in some sense, be understood as an attack on women in general; and for this reason, all of the usual anti-harrassment rhetoric moves are justified in her defense. That is how we get ridiculous tweets like this:

Sealioning, of course, is a term that was coined "by anti-GamerGate Internet users to mock perceived online discussion tactics employed by GamerGate supporters". Specifically, men were harassing women by asking questions "in bad faith" as "a way to demean, degrade, or otherwise destroy" them. It's completely understandable that we would be wary of this phenomena if it becomes a way for powerful people to oppress powerless people, as was often the case when Gamergate partisans were harassing women.

But that is obviously not what's happening here. What's happening here is that a man is complaining about a general tendancy to ask questions - even obnoxious questions - about Hillary Clinton's foreign policy.

The stakes here are obviously a lot bigger than dumb video games. More to the point, one can obviously criticize - and even harass - people about Hillary Clinton's drone policy without doing it merely because she is a woman. Droning is obviously a hugely controversial issue that people are going to disagree about and argue about and even be rude about for reasons that have zero to do with Hillary Clinton being a woman.

What I see here is an attempt to co-opt liberal anti-harassment politics in defense of the world's most powerful military murdering its most powerless people. And like so many centrist nerds, Greg is specifically doing this by hijacking the arguments and rhetoric that were used by Gamergate critics. His invocation of "sealion" is neither liberal nor feminist; it is not even intended to criticize misogynists, which is why he says "sealion people" instead of "sealion women". It is solely being used to shut down political discourse that he finds unwelcome and rude.

Functionally, this genre of rhetoric occupies an extreme position that awards Clinton a claim to anti-harassment rhetoric even if it comes at the expense of the powerless. Because it equates incivility and even criticism about any issue with oppressive harassment, it sets up a massive discursive barrier around Clinton and her apologists and becomes the exact opposite of the Gamergate critique: a weapon of the powerful.

The intersectional position

We return, then, to the basic problem: how does one navigate anti-harassment discourse when the power dynamics are complicated and not entirely clear?

It seems to me that an intersectional answer to this question is going to have to strike a complicated and controversial balance. On one hand, it will push back against rude or critical discourse that is oppressive to women - but on the other hand, it will have to protect criticism (and even rudeness!) mobilized in defense of oppressed groups, such as people of color, the poor, the LGBT community, the young, and yes, even women who Hillary Clinton would attack.

The lessons of Gamergate cannot be used to justify sexism, but neither can they be used to justify cries of reverse-racism, or James Woods lawsuits, or drone campaigns. The balance one strikes here is always going to be political and controversial, because no matter how carefully liberals try to refine discourse rules, they can always be abused by the powerful. Suffice to say that Sanders-skeptic-Clinton-apologist video game nerds do not get to be the final word on what counts as harassment; thank god for that.