Thursday, December 18, 2014

Putin's Blues Prove Obama Is Great At Foreign Policy

So the Russian economy is melting down like various Soviet era nuclear reactors. Meanwhile we get to hear from Republican politicians and much of the foreign policy pundit community that President Obama is "bad" at foreign policy.

I feel like this is two trends intersecting. In our age of highly polarized political parties it makes sense to always attack the president always, for any reason you can come up with. The Middle East descending into chaos is obviously a good way to do this.

The other trend is for pundits to announce that basically everything that happens in the world is due to the foreign policy of the President. It's Green Lanterism, or maybe American self-obsession, writ large. Thus the "Arab Spring" was a great vindication of the policies of George W. Bush, until it started to not go well, and then it was proof that Obama was a feckless cretin.

The universal theme in Arab Spring punditry was of course, America. The idea that the political upheavals in Egypt were do to the choices, actions, and agency of 80 million Egyptians was of course ignored.

It's like reading Cosmopolitan Magazine's latest piece on how to get boys to like you, at the end of the day, it's all about me.

Which brings me back to the theme of Russian economic tribulations. Isn't the whole Russia meltdown a great example of how the idea of strengthening and enlarging global liberal institutions of the world was correct? We don't need to "arm moderates" or invade Russia in response to Crimean aggression, instead the liberal world order of states acting fairly inside international institutional constraints works very well.

That is to say the obvious way for Russia to deal with it's economic problems would be to run to the IMF for a bailout, but of course they can't do that. Putin has told everyone in the world that they can go fuck themselves time and time again. The world is now responding that he is in fact the person that can in fact go fuck himself.

Anyway I think Obama's foreign policy is going great.

Friday, October 17, 2014

No Arming The Syrian Rebels Wouldn’t Have Fixed Everything

One of the more annoying threads in Washington foreign policy punditry as of late focuses on the idea that if Obama had only intervened in the Syrian Civil War earlier, everything would be okay. Former Iraq hawks like Jeffrey Goldberg and Peter Beinart are great examples of this, but you see it all over the place.

To be sure they are completely wrong. Marc Lynch recently pointed out in a great post on The Monkey Cage blog that the political science research is pretty conclusive that American intervention was highly unlikely to have made much of difference. Let alone replace the monstrous regimes of Assad and ISIS with a pleasant democracy.

And that’s just the beginning. As one expert put it on a War On The Rocks podcast, the whole idea of turning the Free Syrian Army into so guardian of liberal democracy was insane because it is, “neither free, nor Syrian, nor an Army.” Meanwhile the “moderate” rebels we were supposed to support are often Islamic extremists that just aren’t as extreme as ISIS or groups that styled themselves as western democrats but oftentimes cooperate with Islamic extremists. Oh and also the aid that was advocated was always pretty small compared to the mass quantities of money and weapons that have poured into Syria in the last three years from Russia, Iran, and the gulf.

Plus nobody ever talked about giving the Syrian rebels the types of weapons they’d need to really turn the tide of battle, that is sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. And rightly so! You’d have to be insane, or possibly work for the Heritage Foundation, to advocate sending stinger missiles to Islamic extremists who style themselves as democrats to Jeff Goldberg.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see a nice article in The New York Times detailing a secret CIA report that outlined how poorly our attempts to arm various rebels have gone since the end of World War II:
The still-classified review, one of several C.I.A. studies commissioned in 2012 and 2013 in the midst of the Obama administration’s protracted debate about whether to wade into the Syrian civil war, concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.

The findings of the study, described in recent weeks by current and former American government officials, were presented in the White House Situation Room and led to deep skepticism among some senior Obama administration officials about the wisdom of arming and training members of a fractured Syrian opposition.
So yes, arming the Syrian rebels wouldn’t have fixed everything back when, and arming them now probably won’t either. Which isn’t to say Obama “was right” back then or is "wrong" now. Rather it’s to say that the Hawks that dominate foreign policy debates in our country don’t know what they are talking about.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Feminism Post

(Warning, mansplaining ahead.)

I consider myself to be a student of politics and social movements. It's something I enjoy learning, thinking, and writing about and one thread of that I've been following recently is the on going battles inside the feminist movement over what feminism should mean and how it should go about trying to influence the world we live in.

I should probably state up front that while I'm sympathetic with the ideas that feminism espouses and it's goals, indeed I basically agree with them, I certainly don't consider myself a feminist and probably never will. If only because it seems to me that at least some feminists don't really want men to be part of their movement. And that's fine, to each her own (look at what I just did there! See feminists, I'm not totally awful!) This raise the interesting question of why some people want to be part of a social movement that doesn't seem to want them. But it also raises, for me at least, the bigger question of why a movement would decided to exclude 49 or so percent of the world's population up front from being part of the team.

Which brings me to the main point I want to make in this piece: feminism the social movement may be in the service of noble ideals and worthy goals, but it often uses methods that seem counterproductive, or at least may be questionable.

Recently The Guardian published a piece that seemed like a checklist of these sort of choices by Roxane Gay. Simply put Gay doesn't like the fact that the wrong people, that is to say celebrities, are also climbing on board the feminist bandwagon:
But it irks me that we more easily embrace feminism and feminist messages when delivered in the right package – one that generally includes youth, a particular kind of beauty, fame and/or self-deprecating humour. It frustrates me that the very idea of women enjoying the same inalienable rights as men is so unappealing that we require – even demand – that the person asking for these rights must embody the standards we’re supposedly trying to challenge. That we require brand ambassadors and celebrity endorsements to make the world a more equitable place is infuriating.
There's no nice way to say this, so let me just say it and if you'd like to call me a sexist jerk in the comments section feel free to: yes the world is filled with unfairness and awfulness of every kind. And yes the methods, compromises, and work necessary to enact social change can be infuriating. None the less, this is how social change works and this is the path your have chosen to take.

So yeah it's fine to be irked and infuriated and whatever by these sorts of things, but that's just part of the game. It's not clear to me about pointing these things out is going to help anyone. Gay goes on to explain the real problem with feminism, (after quoting none other than Taylor Swift, is she the type of feminist we're looking for? It's also not clear, but anyway):
This is the real problem feminism faces. Too many people are willfully ignorant about what the word means and what the movement aims to achieve. But when a pretty young woman has something to say about feminism, all of a sudden, that broad ignorance disappears or is set aside because, at last, we have a more tolerable voice proclaiming the very messages feminism has been trying to impart for so damn long.
Again, this is something I'd agree with, feminism has consistently been painted by powerful forces in a negative light since basically forever. But at the same time it's remarkable that Gay refuses to even contemplate feminists own agency in terms of why so many people might have negative opinions about it as a social movement. Or why the fact that the public is more open to the moderate and welcoming language that Swift deploys than language about why you, yes you, are "privileged".

Yes it's true that lots of people don't really know anything about feminism or feminist thought, but that's because lots of people don't pay attention to politics at all. Lots of people don't even follow what Congress is up to let alone open a JSTOR account and start pouring through articles about intersectionality. This isn't because they are bad people, rather it's because they are people. They live busy lives, they find academic writing (and people who use that style in blogs and articles) difficult if not impossible to access, and they are too occupied by the problems in their own life to add 50,000 years of men doing horrible things to women to the pile.

I'm not a stranger to these sorts of political problems. Reading about monetary policy and the Federal Reserve has really changed my opinion about economic policy, and in some ways politics in general, quite a bit. It turns out things like interests rates set by some obscure group called the Federal Open Market Committee influences how the economy is doing more than Congress passing some law or the President giving some speech. Which in turn influences things like who gets to be president. So yeah, it irks me that the media treats the Fed and monetary policy as some sort of technocratic topic that no normal person could possibly understand, it's infuriating that President Obama has been so slow at nominating people to be put on the Fed's board of governors, and I wish people weren't so "willfully ignorant" about monetary policy. But at the same time I am willing to allow that liberals and progressives and all us social-justicy-commies have done a terrible job of explaining these topics to people. Indeed liberals and progressives basically ignore them, instead we write lots of articles about celebrities.

Maybe part, just part, of the reason so many of the unwashed masses are "willfully ignorant" about feminist ideas is that feminists, like liberals who care about the economy, haven't been doing a very good job of explaining their ideas. I'm not a huge fan of Freddie deBoer, but he did write an excellent piece about how a lot of what he calls "online social liberalism" might be a bit off putting those of us who haven't been initiated into the higher mysteries of the faith:
If you are a young person who is still malleable and subject to having your mind changed, and you decide to engage with socially liberal politics online, what are you going to learn immediately? Everything that you like is problematic. Every musician you like is misogynist. Every movie you like is secretly racist. Every cherished public figure has some deeply disqualifying characteristics. All of your victories are the product of privilege. Everyone you know and love who does not yet speak with the specialized vocabulary of today’s social justice movement is a bad, bad person. That is no way to build a broader coalition, which we desperately need if we’re going to win.
This is an exaggeration, but is he really that far off? After all Gay tells us about, "...the all-too-often sexist music we listen to and the movies we watch that tell women’s stories horribly (if at all)..."

The interesting question for me is if these forms of communication make any sense in terms of building an effective social movement? It's true that historical and social factors can have profound impacts on our life outcomes, but does it make sense to tell people they are "privileged", even if they find that insulting? Especially when the whole thing can seem like a "personal insult posing as a social critique"? Are you going to convenience them to help you advance your goals or just make them mad? This is not mere cant, from my personal experience if you tell a tenured professor about how they are privileged because they basically have guaranteed employment for life they start ranting about how hard they worked to get here and how the deserve it.

That is they sounds like a CEO at a fundraiser for Mitt Romney.

Does it make sense to tell people who might disagree with you that they need to educate themselves before they can voice an opinion? Maybe, but maybe those people read some books about this stuff in college and still might write a blog post disagreeing with you. Does it really make sense to try and change culture by attacking TV shows and movies as being morally wrong and warping people's minds, like some people of a different political stripe did long ago? Or might a better strategy be to go out and make your own movies via a kickstarter that gives you the ability to tell stories, like a neo-noir set in backwoods Virgina, that Hollywood would never make in the first place?

I of course don't have the answers to these questions. And that's because nobody does. Social movements ultimately make their own choices and determine their own fates. That is to say they have the agency they chose to exercise and the purposes they chose to give to themselves. For all I know these strategies might be working, and leading to a better world. But it is still an interesting thing for me to watch. Personally I think when lefties focus on internal power struggles it doesn't go well, and might even strengthen the hand of their opponents. But then again that's just me.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Some Thoughts About ISIS

Or ISIL or IS or whatever you want to call it. A lot of other smart people out there can talk about this sort of stuff in a far more informed manner than me, but I still have some thoughts so lets go bullet point style:
  • ISIS may seem to be in the military ascendency now, but that's largely because it's opponents on the ground are either unwilling (like Asad's regime in Damascus) or unable (like the Iraqi Government) to confront them. They failed to take Baghdad, and can't overrun Erbil (in no small part due to American air power) and so they've kind of reached their limit.
  • They are basically screwed externally. Yes ISIS is a monster, from selling prepubescent girls into sexual slavery to massacring religious minorities to massacring everyone else they are like something out of a Clive Barker novel. But at the same time step back and look at a map. They are a landlocked wannabe state surrounded by enemies. They are armed to the teeth for now because of looting Syrian and later Iraqi military bases, but they have no means of resupply for the things like tanks, APCs, and artillery that have given them an edge so far. Every vehicle they lose is one they can't replace, especially now that Turkey has bellied up to the bar and is willing to confront this Frankenstein.
  • Al-Qaeda is old news. According to some news reports I've read even the Bin-Laden Boys think ISIS is behaving in an immoral fashion. It shouldn't surprise us, after all Albert Spear was all for the Nazi Party, but when Hitler ordered him to destroy Germany because the Master Race hadn't lived up Hitler's expectations, well Spear balked at that. Hopefully this means Al-Qaeda will just sort of fade away, as ISIS is the new ticket to sign onto. That is if your some sort of lunatic Islamic extremist.
  • The big political point everyone is missing here is that ISIS will never work in the long term. Their political ideology is at it's core fundamentally flawed. Basically they believe in a world of Islamic political ideals as a means of replacing our system of Democracy and individualism and respect for human rights. As Adam Curtis explained it, "It said that those who had become involved with western style politics and power had entered into a state of barbarism or "Jahiliyyah" and that this meant they were no longer Muslims. That, in turn, could be interpreted as meaning that they were impious, or "takfir" - and that meant you could kill them. The danger was that there was no objective way of defining who was impious or not."   
  • And that's the problem right there right? If I can be grandiose this system of politics is doomed. The ideal, that is the pursuit of the perfect and rejection of anything that isn't the perfect, is not something that belongs in politics. And don't take my word for it, read Ardent, read Machiavelli, read Saint Thomas Aquinas, Read Plato. Hell watch Game of Thrones and tell me how Ned's focus on politics driver by a sense of personal honor ended up.
  • In conclusion ISIS can style themselves all fancy right now, but it's not going to last. This isn't our nadir, this is the opposite. They are doomed, and it already appears to be slipping away from them. 
  Anyway, that's what I think.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Falklands War Revisited

With the 2016 cycle approaching I think I need to step my foreign policy game up a little bit so I've been trying to read and write more about these sorts of things. It looks like Hillary is going to be the Democratic nominee so I guess if she wins we'll be in for a healthy dose of do-gooder interventionism. This isn't what I'd prefer (the great blog War On The Rocks made me recently discover that I'm a realist) oh well, I guess it can't be helped. But since war and peace are kind of important issues so I guess I should write about them in a broader context than why invading Iraq was a terrible idea.

These days there seems to be major disagreements in the GOP between Marco Rubio style militaristic lunacy, Rand Paul style isolationist lunacy, and plain old lunacy lunacy embodied in this sage piece of advice offered by Ted Cruz that could have been said by George Marshall:
You can point to two points on the spectrum, where Republicans lie. On one side you have the views of John McCain. The other end of the spectrum, you have the views of Rand Paul. Now, with respect, my views are very much the views of Ronald Reagan, which I would suggest is a third point on the triangle.
When all else fails either start whipping the horse's eyes or invoke Ronald Reagan. But that's the modern GOP right? When you're a post policy party turning the spectrum into a triangle and announcing, "I do not support arming the rebels in Syria, because the administration has presented no coherent plan for distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys." Makes as much sense as anything else right?

BUT ANYWAY, a few weeks ago Robert Farley wrote a nice piece about the legacy of the Falklands War. I've always thought of the Falklands war as being one of the silliest wars ever fought, which isn't to say it wasn't an actual war. For the men, and they pretty much were all men, who were involved it was probably filled with horror and hardship and pain. All wars, even relatively small ones, are very real for the people who fight them, even if killing people to control windswept rocks covered in sheep shit is a very strange thing indeed.

Farley makes great points all around. (And yes this post is based on comments I wrote on the blog.)

Personally though I've always been impressed by the cultural impact of the war as well, particularly in Britain. Musical artists as different as Dire Straights, NOFX, The Fall, and Vampire Weekend have referenced the war (the best lyrics has to be Vampire Weekend's from their song "Mansard Roof "The Argentines collapse in defeat; The Admiralty surveys the remnants of the fleet"). Which when you think about it is strange. The Iraq War was a much bigger thing, but I only can think of a few songs about it. The best of course is Steve Earle's "Home To Houston."

Heck even The Simpsons have a joke about war for control of strategic sheep purposes and to solve domestic political problems. (Yeah and to also liberate those British subjects etc.)

But more than anything it I think the war reinforced the idea of Thatcherism as a political ideology in Britain. That is to say the idea that confrontation and destruction of your foes is the best way to go about conducting your political affairs. Accommodation? Compromise? Negotiation? "No! No! No!"

So you don't just make the miners accept cuts in subsides for their industry, you completely destroy their union and their way of life. You don't just criticize Michael Foot's politics, you humiliate him as a weakling and an eunuch on the front page of your tabloid paper daily. You don't just disagree with members of your cabinet, you scream at them at the top of your lungs until they resign or admit defeat. And you certainly don't let loyalty to the who woman plucked you out of obscurity (John Major I'm looking in your direction) stand in the way of your chance at glory. Thatcher had seen it work so well with the "Argies" so why not do the same thing at home?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Nicholas Kristof's Circular Logic

Nicholas Kristof recently wrote a column attacking Obama for his previous policy of not getting heavily involved in Syria's civil war. I think it encompasses a lot of the poor thinking that got us into the whole Iraq mess in the first point, and is filled with his naive tendency to divide the world into what Adam Curtis has called "goodies and baddies", but this one passage jumped out at me:
His [Obama's] “red line” about chemical weapons turned out to be more like a penciled suggestion. His rejection of the proposal by Hillary Rodham Clinton and David Petraeus to arm moderate Syrian factions tragically empowered both the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Nick is rolling out the classic circular thinking of American military adventures: if war works then that shows that war is awesome and should be done more often. If war doesn't work (as it didn't in Iraq) then that means that what we need is more war. In short war can never fail to improve things, it can only be failed by presidents that don't do it enough or do it well enough.

Hence the idea that giving more weapons to various Syrian factions would have automatically made things better that Nick cites. There's no evidence of this at all in the real world, for example nobody has ever even suggested giving the Syrian rebels the weapons they would actually need to turn the tide of battle, that is sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. And rightly so! In Ukraine rebels used such weapons to shoot down a Malaysian jet liner recently. In fact the whole reason ISIS is so powerful right now is they were able to capture a huge amount of weapons this summer that we supplied the Iraqi Army with!

But in Nick's military adventure world this contention proves itself. Since things are bad and we didn't give weapons to Islamic extremists not named ISIS (which is basically what a lot of the "moderates" are) Obama made a mistake, because weapons would automatically have made things better. And indeed in an alternative universe where we did give them weapons and things didn't get better Nick could say, "Obama didn't give enough weapons soon enough!" Or whatever. Likewise nobody thinks the bombing proposed by Obama last year would have ended the war, but again it was a failure because we didn't bomb and bad things happened.

In short, this is a bizarre way to think about the world. Unfortunately it's a pretty popular in our foreign policy establishment.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

On Being Done With Writing On "Culture"

The other day WaPo's Alyssa Rosenberg wrote a nice essay about " how we talk about politics is influencing how we talk about culture." It was about some of her own observations about how she thinks the world of culture writing has changed since she started.

I guess I would agree in someways with her take culture and politics but using her example Game of Thrones as an example, I diverge in an important way. As a fan I am totally open to people criticizing aspects of the show and in no way treat it as some holy writ that's beyond anyone's critique. Indeed, where's Strong Belwas or Donal Noye? Those are great characters and it's too bad they got cut out. But what I do find annoying is criticism, that like the bloviating of various political pundits, goes off course and degenerates into what you might call "cultural partisanship."

So for some it's not enough to say "I didn't like this scene", or "I wish they did X." Instead we get people like The Atlantic's Chris Orr calling the show "stupid and offensive" or other critics labeling it "dangerous" as if it's going to warp our children's' minds like so many Judas Priest albums in the 80's. It's at that point where I feel I have to draw the line and dismiss such criticism the same way i think that saying is going to doom Obama's presidency, indeed liberalism itself, (serious political commentators made these very claims!) is ridiculous hyperbole and should be ignored.

And in my view this is a major problem because "cultural punditry" is becoming how a lot of people, especially younger writers, are approaching writing about culture.

A classic example occurred a few weeks ago when the New Republic published an article detailing how Lana Del Rey's new album is a "sad indictment of post-feminism" that also "can be dangerous" and can "send out a sinister message."

Here I was thinking that Ultraviolence was Lana Del Rey's second studio album, instead it appears it was a political argument that failed somehow and will surly cause people to run out and commit school shootings the same way Marilyn Manson's music did.

It's hard for me to respond to this kind of (poorly reasoned) argument because it's not really about art at all. Or at least about how I understand art. Instead it's about art as a political argument. And sometimes art can be that, but sometimes it really isn't. What's the social and political argument of Othello? Don't let your daughter marry a black guy? Kill your wife if you suspect her of infidelity? Don't trust your best friend? Men can't be trusted?

You can write an argument that Shakespeare is making these arguments, but it really doesn't hold up that well at all. After all the tragedy is driven by the fact that Othello is overly suspicious of Desdemona and too trusting of Iago. Othello is an outsider because of his birth and color, but still is one of Venice's best soldiers and gets to marry the daughter or a prominent Senator. Iago's motivations are famously unknown. Thus in Othello trust can be necessary and destructive, men can be dangerous (Iago) but women can be naive (Desdemona) etc. etc.

So no art doesn't have to be a political argument. It can be a lot more than that.

Indeed I'd argue that what great art does isn't tell you want to think, it makes you simply think about stuff. So trust can be an important part of a relationship, but blind trust can be foolish. So the world has it's share of dangerous liars who will try to deceive you like Iago, but also it's Emilia's who will help protect you. Thus Lana Del Rey's music isn't suppose to argue that having your boyfriend punch you is great, she's instead exploring different types of relationships indeed different ways of thinking about what love can be. Love that can make you very sad, love that can feel like being kissed when emotionally you are actually being punched.

These are pretty basic ideas here, it's a shame they've been ignored or forgotten.

In other words I'm open to arguments about why someone thinks King Lear is better than Othello. But I'm going to dismiss someone who calls Othello "stupid and offensive" or "dangerous" or "misogynistic" because Othello kills Desdemona. And why? Well because these plays aren't about politics in the second decade of the 21st Century, they are about a lot more than that.

Which is a long way of saying I'm not going to be reading much cultural criticism for a while. If I want to read about politics I'll read about important people like Hillary Clinton, not unimportant people like Lana Del Rey. And if I want to read about culture I'm more interest in reading about how Lana dodged the dreaded "sophomore slump" and made an even better second album than her first great one.

Also for what it's worth the lyric that "he hit me and it felt like a kiss" is a Phil Spector lyric from the 60's, performed by The Crystals. So yeah Lana isn't saying she likes getting punch by her boyfriend, she could just be referencing pieces of pop culture from previous eras (which she does a lot of). Or doing something else entirely. In fact maybe you should ask the artist her intent instead of making a "sinister" one up for her.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Poor Writing On Pop Culuture

Vox published a look back at how Seinfeld influenced television the other day. Some of it is quite good, for example their look at how Seinfeld moved the way sitcoms are shot from a multiple camera style where people perform on a stage with different cameras covering different angles, think Cheers, to a single camera style with long shots and close ups, more like a film. The piece's points about how the show changed sitcom writing were also pretty good.

But the author really missed the boat when it comes to looking at the characters. He tries to do it through the lens or contemporary liberal writing about race and I think really misses the boat. For example he claims this about George:
George essentially believes he deserves to have sex with a beautiful woman because he's a white guy living in modern America, and when he doesn't succeed (but Jerry or Kramer do), he grows ever more petulant. He doesn't particularly want to strive to succeed. He just wants life handed to him on a silver platter. 
I think that really get's the character, and the show in general, wrong.

George doesn't "believe" that he "deserves to have sex with a beautiful woman because he's a white guy living in modern America..." he's a pathetic loser who really wants to have sex with beautiful women, not because of "white privileged" or anything but because he's a greedy person. Since he has neither looks, nor money, nor status, he is forced to go through all sorts of contortions to try and achieve his goals. And since he is so shallow and greedy hilarity ensues.

Hence George willing to pretend to be a famous neo-nazi author in "The Limo" as long as he can use it as a way to be able to date tall, blond, aryan-looking women. George doesn't care about the racial or ethical implications or what he's doing, he just wants to get the blond, hence pretending to be a neo-nazi while sitting next to his Jewish best friend no less! These aren't the actions of someone who thinks their race or nationality "deserves" anything, they are are the actions of a shallow person trying scam their way by hook and by crook into what they want. Another example would be George pretending to be an architect or marine biologist to try and impress women.

But it's not just George that is lazy and wants things handed to him. Kramer famously doesn't have a job and mooches of Jerry for almost everything. But even Elaine, the strong female character or whatever, isn't any better put together than any of the others, she's just better at hiding her dysfunction. Sure she has better jobs than George, but once she get's her big break with the J. Peterman catalog she screws it up with idiotic ideas like the urban sombrero.   

This is what makes Seinfeld's comedy about things like race or sexuality so good, and so potentially offensive to some people. George and the gang only address questions about things like race or sexuality when it directly affects them or how they could appear socially. Hence George and Jerry work frantically to try and prove to the world that they aren't gay, while also stressing, "not that there's anything wrong with that!" Meanwhile Jerry get's upset when another man asks his gay acquaintance out on a date while Jerry is sitting next to him. Jerry get's offended when someone doesn't assume he's gay and then goes back to trying to prove to journalists that he's not gay! Or more bluntly George wants to date a woman from Senegal because she doesn't speak English and hence he doesn't have to worry about what to say to her. Or he's excited to date a woman in prison because she is locked up and thus can't boss him around.

In short these characters only address these issues when there's some sort of social advantage to gain or faux pas to avoid, otherwise it's completely irrelevant to them due to their shallow narcissism. That's what made the show so funny.

But the biggest problem of the piece is that they forgot the fact that so much of the show was about pushing boundaries and making reference to themes that normally wouldn't be discussed on network TV. They did this by oftentimes talking about it in an opaque manner, like in "The Contest", but that was one of the biggest legacies of the show and it's a shame Vox missed that point.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

How Not To Write About The Iraq War

The Atlantic recently published a long expose about how terrible Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki is. It's not very good and frankly you can tell they've really missed the boat from their story's subhead, "How America empowered Nouri al-Maliki—and then failed to keep that power in check."

On a basic level that is correct. The US hasn't been able to control Iraqi politics. But the implied assumption in the subhead, and that runs throughout the piece, is that it was totally possible for the US to control Maliki or someone like him if we just did a few things a little differently. Personally I think it's interesting to think about what possible evidence could disprove analysis like this. Imagine a hypothetical scenario where a leader is picked who is destined to be a diaster. After he screws everything up you could always write this kind of piece saying "look at all the mistakes that were made!" And of course there would have been mistakes, what would a destined to fail but well run political regime look like?

Simply put when you set out to do something unreasonable or course terrible things happen along the way. It was always unreasonable to assume that the political reality in the Middle East was simply clay in the hands of the West, ready to be changed and molded as we see fit. The Bush Administration spent years trying to tear down the Palestinian Authority so something better, more American that is, would rise in it's place. Instead they got Hamas taking over Gaza. American presidents have pressured the Saudis to open their country to democratic reforms since the 70's, it hasn't worked. Name me one Middle Eastern country whose politics have been successfully controlled by Washington?

So yes Maliki was a terrible choice to lead a secular, democratic, liberal, and multicultural Iraq. But that doesn't mean there was some hypothetical better one out there that could have done it. How do you have a secular and multicultural democracy when most people vote for conservative Islamist parties that identify along sectarian lines? Indeed if eight years of occupation and a trillion dollars spent couldn't shape Iraqi politics they way we wanted, why would have Obama complaining to Maliki or "fewer missteps" have done any different.

This should be a pretty simple idea for most people to get, apparently they haven't learned that lesson yet at The Atlantic.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Glenn Greenwald In A Nutshell

I like most of the current wave of media sites that are being launched these days. I think Vox is great and The Upshot is a prime example of how traditional media organizations can launch their own "explainer blogs" while staying true to their traditional mission. I'm not a huge fan of Nate Silver's new FiveThirtyEight site, honestly I don't read it that much, but I certainly think it has a right to exist and might get better as we move into election season.

But if there is one project that is, well kind of pathetic, it has to be Glenn Greenwald's First Look Media "empire." I put "empire" in quotes because basically it still consists of one "blog" called The Intercept that publishes about one story a week usually about the whole Snowden-what-have-you or about why Greenwald hates President Obama (for the record he's hated President Obama since before he was sworn in.) I think that's fine for somebodies personal blog, I don't publish ever day and I took a break from Longwalkdownlyndale recently, but if you are a professional journalist with a big staff? That's just pathetic.

Now in Greenwald et al's defense they claim that they are still working through all that Snowden stuff and so can't "really" launch right now, even though they said they launched back in January. Umm okay. I think now is a good time to point out that they got $250 million to put do their "fearless" and "adversarial" journalism and this is all they can come up with.

Wow, just wow.

I'm a bit of a biased source here, I'm not a fan of Greenwald. I think he approaches journalism like a trial lawyer, that is he always skews things to support his side of the argument and if he can't skew facts that way he just ignores them. This makes sense for how a litigator should approach a trial, but it's a terrible way to go about journalism. In addition I don't think he really understands politics or how the government works at all and more importantly has no interest in learning.

But still, come on. Oh also I should point out that the whole First Look organization is set up as a tax exempt charity. Umm okay.

So for review Greenwald's new venture is a nonprofit with $250 million in assets that produces little to no output and is focused, for now at least, and just rehashing an old story (the NSA spies on people!) that just happens to be Greenwald's greatest (and only) professional triumph. Yeah that's about him in a nutshell.

If only we had some fearless and adversarial journalists to look into that whole set up, then we might have a juicy story.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

How The Political Media Thinks

Ezra Klein had a short post over at Vox the other day where he outlined how it's a good thing that Hillary is committing all these gaffes right now because now she has time to get back into the swing of things before the 2016 cycle really heats up. As Klein put it:
Hillary Clinton is rusty. Her book tour is proof. She got in a fight with NPR's Terry Gross over gay marriage. She said, ridiculously, that she and her husband were "dead broke" upon leaving the White House (you have to be pretty damn rich to be that broke). She told the Guardian that "we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off"  —  an odd statement for someone who is, by any measure, absurdly well off.

The gaffes have occasioned a rapid reassessment of whether Clinton is really the fearsome campaigner so many assumed. "She's an overrated politician," writes the Washington Examiner's Philip Klein. "Some Democrats fear Clinton's wealth and ‘imperial image' could be damaging in 2016," reports the Washington Post.
The big thing here isn't to argue that Clinton didn't commit any gaffes, yelling at Terry Gross counts as a gaffe when there are so many other ways to doge her questions. The big thing is to point out that gaffes don't matter. Yes they really, really don't (okay a Mel Gibson type meltdown would probably matter, but that wouldn't be called a gaffe right?) Indeed the big take away from 2014 (and 2013 I guess) is that Hillary is dominating the invisible primary as no non-incumbent Prez or VP has ever before. Meaning, bad radio interview aside, it's quite possible that Hillary has already wrapped up the nomination. Like right now. Which mean that Klein is really missing the big picture here.

Which makes me ask the question, how could a smart and talented reporter like Ezra Klein miss this big point? I don't think it's because there is something wrong with Ezra, I think it just illuminates a bigger point about journalists that cover politics. And so I want to coin my own way of describing this strange anomaly, let's call it Anderson's Razor which states that: to journalists in the political media, there is no politics outside of the political media.

What do I mean by that, well I mean that journalists like Klein see politics as being fully contained by the political media itself. In other words "politics" is everything that the political media learns about, writers about, and talks about amongst other people in the political media. So things like "dominating the invisible primary" doesn't count as "politics" for the political media because by it's very nature the invisible primary is impossible to cover. The collective opinions and actions of hundreds of thousands of party actors in the Democratic Party is at is core something you can't know, so the political journalist simply ignores the whole concept. Saying roughly, "it's not something that we can really cover, so it isn't politics", even though the invisible primary is very important in deciding who the next president will be.

This is a big part of why gaffes get so much coverage in the political media, even though they don't really matter. There's nothing else to write about! Since the self-imposed rules of Anderson's Razor keep you from discussing things like the invisible primary the only things that are happening in the 2016 race, that is in terms of things that the political media can write about, are the gaffes. There's nothing else to write about.

Now why do people like Klein follow these self created rules? I have no idea, but it goes a long way to understanding the poor coverage of the 2016 race.


I'm still posting regularly at The Good Men Project but I'm also going to start posting here more regularly as well. So feel free to come back, that is if everyone hasn't already left.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Jill Abramson Invented The Polio Vacine

Maybe not, but some of the writing about Jill Abramson reminds me of Larry David's old stand up routine about having to live next to Jonas Salk's mother.

I've haven't been using this blog for a while because most of my efforts are still being directed at The Good Men Project (you should go read my stuff over there) but I did want to comment on the whole Jill Abramson situation and so I am going to do so here. Since everyone is talking about "what it takes to be a great editor" and all those Pulitzers she won single-handed I'm going to break the tyranny of newspaper form and get to it with a listicle on why the coverage of Abramsongate is a little annoying:
  • A self-obsessed press: I've always thought that the the national media, especially the national media in New York, was filled with self obsessed people, but I think I've been giving them too much credit. About 50 times more words have been written about one editor losing her job than the fact that the world's largest democracy quite possibly just went through it's biggest political earthquake in half a century, possibly even longer. Yes Abramson's dismissal touches on important issues, and yes the Times is an important newspaper but a nuclear power with 1.2 billion people undergoing a radical change in government due to the the largest election ever conducted in the history of the human race is also, uh, important.
  • Please say "I don't know" when you don't: Yes it's possible that Abramson was fired because of her complaints over equal pay, or because of sexism at the Times, or any number of other unfair and terrible reasons. It's also possible that she really was hated by the newsroom staff, or couldn't get along with publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. or any number of other reasons that while not being very fair result in people losing their jobs every single day. As Ezra Klein pointed out the other day since all the principles involved aren't talking nobody really knows what happened. If you don't know, say "I don't know", especially if you are writing about this in a professional capacity. Or don't, but please be aware that you are guessing at best and at worst are just churning out Derp.
  • Turning a manager into a god: Yes the Times is making money and wining Pulitzers while other newspapers are struggling to stay afloat. Abramson deserves her fair share of credit for this. But so do all the other thousands of people who also wrote those stories, and sold those ads, and made sure the website didn't explode. When conservatives talk about "job creators" and such we progressives point out how unfair it is to assign success to one person and devalue the fact that other people were involved too (sometimes we call this devaluing labor). As Uncle Brecht liked to put it: "Young Alexander conquered India. / He alone? / Caesar beat the Gauls. / Was there not even a cook in his army?" Jill Abramson didn't write those prize winning stories, reporters did. She wasn't the only one to pull an "all nighter" after the Boston bombing. And she did it making half a million dollars a year plus stock options plus pension benefits plus full bennies plus the exposure to snag a book deal or launch a solo project or get a nice gig teaching basically anywhere. Good for her, but she sure as hell didn't do any of this alone.
So yeah, she might have been fired because of sexism, or the fact that Sluzberger is a dunce. But then again she might not have. She might have been fired for failing to up manage the publisher and chairman of the board and keep him satisfied. Which is the type of thing most of us peasants have to deal with throughout our miserable lives. Indeed all these things could be true at the same time, but that's no excuse for people to dive to the lowest common denominator when it comes to writing about it.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Problems With The Bechdel Test

Over at GMP Allan Mott had a good piece about the so called Bechdel Test, a feminist critique of the film industry when it comes to the portrayal of women in movies. It’s a good piece and I think you should read it, but if anything I thought that he was a little too forgiving (and yes this piece is largely based on the comments I posted over there). 

For people who don’t live in online-debate-world or feminist-theory-world the Bechdel Test is based on a 1985 underground cartoon where one female character points out to another that:

I have this rule…I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. ONE, it has to have at least two women in it, who TWO, talk to each other about THREE, something besides a man.

It’s a valid criticism of how gender roles and such are treated in a lot of movies, but as Mott points out it’s pretty terrible at actually judging an individual film. For example last year’s Gravity fails it, while Ilsa She Wolf Of The SS (uh, you probably shouldn’t play that trailer at work) passes with flying colors. 

I’d take the criticism even further, a lot great movies, like Vertigo, (one of the greatest movies ever made) fails while even worse movies than Ilsa (The Human Centipede, of which the less is said about the better) get through. Which has led me to want to make a new test for tests, the Anderson Test. The Anderson test says, “If Vertigo fails your movie test, your movie test sucks.”

Furthermore it seems to me that a lot of movies that nobody would call sexist or bad fail it as well. Is Fargo sexist or wrong-headed? Well there some gore and violence, but it’s pretty funny and at the end of the day Marge, the main character, solves the crime through smart police work and catches the killer (and fend of the advances Mike Yanagita to boot!)

To add to these problems there’s a lot of pretty good movies out there that if they were re-written to pass the test would lose a lot. How would you make Platoon pass the test? Or The Shining? Or To Live AndDie In LA? All three of which hallmarks of their respective genres. You really can’t, and while it might be better if there were more movies like Concussion or Monster, that doesn’t mean that The Shining is somehow a lesser film because Wendy talks with the pediatrician character about her husband Jack (a man) and son Danny (also a man). Indeed having Wendy talk with the pediatrician about something other than her son (how the Nikkei is doing, Reagan’s new tax plan) would be pretty silly. 

But even worse a lot of movies that obviously fail the Bechdel test make arguments that proponents of the test would presumably agree with. Take Glengarry Glen Ross, now I wouldn’t call David Mamet a feminist or anything but it’s really notable how all the salesmen define themselves through a tough male machismo (“Whoever told you, you could work with men!”, denigrating Jack Lemmon’s character as “Shelly”, Al Pacino manipulating his mark by pitching dodgy real estate as a way to reassert his manhood over his wife who has vetoed the idea). But as A.O. Scott points out in a great review the end result of this quest for man as macho bread winner is a world with, “no love, no family, no joy, no respite from the endless, pointless selling.” And, “despite all the bluster and bravdo of these men, there world is small, static, desperate.” In other words the socially constructed gender role of men as warrior/bread winner who “does what it takes” to Always Be Closing has, in its own way, denigrated these men just like it has denigrated the women who are excluded from it. Which hardly strikes me as the type of movie Bechdel was criticizing.

In the end I think the whole Bechdel Test problem arises because a lot of smart people took a general point from a 30 year old cartoon and decided to apply it literally and universally to the world. That might tell us something about modern feminism as a social movement (also see here) but it doesn’t tell us much about movies. Movies have a lot of problems, how they deal with gender is one of them, but that doesn’t mean Vertigo isn’t a great film. In fact it’s one of the greatest ever made.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Some Thoughts On Debo P. Adegbile

Jonathan Bernstein had a good piece on the defeat of Debo P. Adegbile who Obama nominated to head up the Justice Department's Civil Rights Department. Basically six Democrats joined the GOP in shooting down the nomination because Adegbile has links to the to the lawyers that overturned the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal. 

Personally I think it's a great cometary on a lot of the arguments that progressives have been making about race and Obama over the last few years. I think it's a great example of the false promise of "twice as good"  that Ta-Nehisi Coates has been talking about for the last year or so:
I've spent the past couple of years thinking about the "twice as good" notion in the black community, and the bindings that we put on young black boys so that their country will not kill them. Of course "twice as good" ultimately means half as many arrive, and those who do receive half as much. Let us dispense with self-congratulation and great men. The question is not, "What did Jackie Robinson achieve in spite of racism?" It is, "How much more would he have achieved without it?" An ethic of "twice as good" divorced from any complaint, divorced from history is "Go for self" and can have no effect whatsoever upon a justice system, upon voter ID laws, upon asset forfeiture, upon Wells Fargo. The masses of the plundered will never be respectable to those who plunder them. The essence of plunder is disrespect. They can never respect you. They hate you, sir.
That is Adegbile can come from a single parent home, pull himself up by his bootstraps, pass his peers on the career track (who have far greater advantages than he ever did), and basically do everything right and be "twice as good" only to be disqualified for public service because he dared argue that John Adam's, Clarence Darrow's, and the Constitution's principle that everyone is entitled to a robust defense in our criminal justice system actually has meaning.

Meanwhile as Bernstein points out, this was a defeat for Obama! The correct move all along was never to fight the battle in the first place and find a palatable person who wouldn't rock the boat with his crazy ideas of equality before the law and working pro bono on death penalty cases (which by the way is what law students are taught is what folks in the legal profession should do with some of their spare time.)

I think Coates is right to point out the false promise of "twice as good", but where I differ from him is that he would like to shelf it for the more radical idea of race based policy itself. I just don't any reason how this could possibly work if so many people won't even accept "twice as good" at times. In short "twice as good" might be flawed but Obama might embrace it because it remains a radical concept even today, which is pretty disheartening to liberals, but might just be reality when it comes to the issue of race.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Maybe Policy Matters?

MinnPost has a pretty annoying article up about disagreements and conflicts on the Minneapolis School Board. I say annoying because it's indicative of a lot of whats wrong with political writing these days. That is rather than focusing on the structural realities that drive political disagreement over issues like partisanship, incentives, and interests it treats disagreements on the school board as being caused by "conduct":
Specifically, a majority of the board had opined that its members and the superintendent do not trust one another, work as a team or engage in joint problem solving. To add to the discomfort on display, they also gave each other low marks regarding “demeaning verbal or nonverbal communication.”
But here's the rub. Just a few paragraphs latter the article describes how the board is divided between a largely status quo majority block and a reformist minority block. But rather than explain what these differences are and why they might cause political disagreement the author of the piece goes on to talk about the idea of having everyone taking the, "Myers-Briggs personality instrument" as a way to learn about each others personalities or something.

Well maybe that's the problem, and maybe a round of hand holding and affirmations would help too. But maybe, just maybe, these politicians have different ideas about how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, what district priorities should be, and whose interests should be considered in decision making. Maybe since they don't all agree they come into conflict not because of a lack of personality tests, but because as Bonnie Honig once put it, "To take difference -- and not just identity -- seriously in democratic theory is to affirm the inescapability of conflict."

To put it another way, if you have a school board of two people where one likes charter schools and one thinks charter schools are evil, you are going to have conflict. Even if both people take personality tests before you try to reach an agreement.

Yes I understand that shouting at each other isn't helpful, and civility is a good thing in public life. But conflict is inescapable in a democracy and it's presence isn't necessarily evidence of poor "conduct" or general dysfunction. If you want a system where disagreement is rare go to Westeros, but you probably wouldn't like it there.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Paul Krugman's Stimulus Errors

Paul Krugman has a blog piece up going over (yet again) the legacy of the 2009 economic stimulus. This is ground that has been covered extensively before but I still think Krugman makes a few major errors in his analysis. Basically Krugman think that the stimulus's  legacy is mixed because while it helped the economy in the short term, it also caused major political harm to liberals and Democrats, "...mainly from the fact that the ARRA was too small and too short-lived to do the job, but partly also from a serious mistake in the way the administration sold it."

He's said this a lot over the years, but I think this type of analysis has some major category problems that people like Krugman have never really addressed. First of all Krugman assumes that making ARRA bigger was something that was easily attainable, but unfortunately Obama just didn't do it. To be blunt there really isn't a whole lot of evidence for that, most of the evidence I've seen over the years is that the size of the ARRA that passed was very much on the large size of any potential stimulus. Indeed it was almost twice as big as the initial proposal rolled out by the super liberal Nancy Pelosi. So maybe a more aggressive strategy by the White House Office of Legislative Affairs could have gotten another 20 billion for infrastructure projects or whatever, but Krugman and people like him have never presented any credibly evidence that say a 1.6 trillion dollar stimulus was possible.

Indeed I'd argue Krugman gives away the game later in the post when writes, "You can argue that there was no way the administration could have gotten a bigger plan. Actually, they could have used reconciliation to bypass the 60-vote hurdle; but that was considered too radical." Sorry Paul, the Senate could have passed a different bill via the reconciliation process but there is, and I can't stress this enough, no actual way the President can make the Senate do this. If you have a problem with that take it up with Harry Reid. And setting that (major) problem aside doesn't deal with the fact that it's Congress that has to actually vote for this thing. Christina Romer can write any number down in her briefing materials she wants, but that's doesn't automatically translate into Congress passing it. Even FDR faced considerable Congressional restrains on what the New Deal could and could not do.

Again maybe Obama did leave some money on the table, but there's no evidence that the stimulus could have easily been doubled in size.

Furthermore Krugman really fails to deal with the very real possibility that going for a massive stimulus could have backfired resulting the Congressional Democrats abandoning the plan and running for cover. Majorities seem ironclad until they aren't, and there was always a real threat that asking for a 2 trillion dollar stimulus, as some liberal bloggers have demanded over the years, could have been met with laughter putting the Obama White House in a more difficult position and ultimately getting an even smaller stimulus. How likely was this? I don't know, and neither does anyone else, but ignoring potential downsides is pretty foolish when making political decisions.   

In addition to these errors I think Krugman is really thinking about how voters react to the economy in the wrong way. He seems to think that they would be hyper-rational about the talking points Obama rolled out in selling the stimulus in the lead up to the 2010 mid-terms. But there's no real evidence that this is how voters think. It's very possible that they just ignored the talking points from 2009 on Election Day and voted against the Democrats because voters historically vote against the party in the White House during bad economic times. I, and most political scientists, would argue that this is what probably happened. To put it another way; there's no particular good way to "sell" the economic disaster that befell the world in 2008 and 2009 and a world with a larger stimulus and better talking points would have probably resulted in major GOP gains in 2010 anyway.

There aren't always easy technocratic solutions to problems. Even in hindsight.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Politics Is The Art Of The Possible, Or Something

Ross Douthat recently wrote a long blog post in which he expressed frustration that liberals aren't freaking out over the fact that guaranteeing health care to more people  might allow them to quit jobs they would otherwise have to keep working in if they wanted their health care. Fair enough, we really aren't. But where I think the post goes off the rails is when Douthat starts complaining that in addition, liberals aren't willing to accept a big overhaul of the welfare state in general with the goal of turning the big basket of direct and indirect subsidies that the poor and working class get into just a few large targeted programs:

"But it means that we should think seriously about what else we should be doing, and whether we should be spending as much as Obamacare spends on insurance when there are other transfers that might not offer as many work disincentives, might give a stronger boost to upward mobility, and might do more long-term good."

As a liberal I don't necessarily disagree with this statement, although I would add to it that it might make even more sense to fund transfers that help the worse off not by solely cutting their less helpful transfers but by also cutting the subsidies and transfers we give to the middle class and wealthy in forms of mortgage deductions lower capital gains tax rates etc. as well.

But the problem I do have is that this sort of argument is that it's parameters and prescriptions just don't exist in our political reality at all, not because liberals are saying no to it, but because conservatives are still obsessed with magically taking us back to the health care system we had in 2009 when every thing was great, or something. If conservatives were actually willing to compromise with liberals, over things like short term economic stimulus in exchange for long term entitlement reform or whatever, Ross would have a point. But since they as a movement and the GOP as a party has consistently said "no, no, NO!" to any kind of compromise about basically anything, there really isn't much to discuss.

So yeah, I'm not opposed to a hypothetical idea like this in principle but it's a bit like wanting to solve the various political problems in HBO's Game of Thrones with a UN sponsored peace keeping force. It makes sense from an abstract argumentative standpoint, but it has no bearing on reality and thus is a pretty pointless political argument.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Ideological Orthodoxy And Saint Elsewhere

Matt Ygleisas made a great point earlier today when he highlighted a throw away sentence from a Washington Post piece about how difficult it really is for the modern GOP to actually enact new policies. As the piece inadvertently points out basically their ideological orthodoxy is hemming them in:
As they cast about for ideas, Republicans are struggling to find policies that match the simplicity and gut appeal of such Democratic proposals as raising the minimum wage without violating core conservative principles by increasing spending or interfering with market forces.
As Yglesias then quips, "Many of us in America are struggling to find weight loss strategies that don't require us to spend more time at the gym or eat less food. It turns out to be challenging." This is precisely right. As long as the GOP refuses to spend money or "interfere with market forces" (whatever the hell that's suppose to mean) they aren't going to have much success coming up with economic policies that appeal everyone not in the 1%.
The logical solution here is to dump those orthodoxies, but I don't real see any evidence of that happening at all. Oh well.

My writing over at the Good Men Project has been taking up most of my blogging time as of late, so if you want to read more of my stuff I'd suggest heading over there. I'm not planning on shutting down Longwalkdownlyndale in the near term however and I hope to be able to post more in February. In the meantime here's three of my most recent pieces:

Obamacare is actually not going away.

Hillary Clinton is conintuing to pick up major wins in the invisible primary.

And my take on why the coverage of the State of the Union is often so bad.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

What Does It Mean To Be A Public Intellectual? And Saint Elsewhere

The recent media fiasco everyone is talking about Twitter was one that hit the trifecta of race, cable news, and the question of who is "America's foremost public intellectual." Basically Melissa Harris-Perry got in big trouble, that is people got mad at her on Twitter, after she made fun of Mitt Romney's grand kids while guest hosting a show on MSNBC. She ended up apologizing which makes sense, racial humor about a politician's grandchildren is "over the line" when it comes to American political culture.

But that wasn't the end of it, the whole apologizing incident caused another row after The Atlantic's Ta-nehisi Coates wrote about her and called her "America's foremost public intellectual." And Politico's Dylan Byer's went to Twitter (the best place to debate the subject of who America's foremost public intellectual is of course) to say "Ta-Nehisi Coates's claim that "Melissa Harris-Perry is America's foremost public intellectual" sort of undermines his intellectual cred, no?" This provoked another Twitter war, and it does seem unfair to me to criticize Coates's intellectual credibility because he disagrees with you.

But then again the whole fight struck me as being pretty silly, mainly because nobody defined their terms. Coates seems to think that all "intellectuals" must be academics or something, and that their CV's not their impact propels them to greatness. He argued Harris-Perry wins because:
Ph.D. from Duke; stints at Princeton and Tulane; the youngest woman to deliver the Du Bois lecture at Harvard; author of two books; trustee at the Century Foundation. I made this claim because of her work: I believe Harris-Perry to be among the sharpest interlocutors of this historic era—the era of the first black president—and none of those interlocutors communicate to a larger public, and in a more original way, than Harris-Perry. 
I suppose I should take the time now to say I had never heard of her until Coates wrote about how screw up on cable news.

Maybe that just means that I'm an idiot, or an uneducated philistine, but I think there's something more here, namely how detached from American society and actual politics academia has really become. I bet few regular people have ever heard of her, no matter how good her CV is. But that's just because few people follow academics!

A better way to look at it would be to look for "people who write stuff that has a big impact." Under that definition it's not really clear what impact Harris-Perry has actually had. The bogus study sited by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhardt and Kenneth Rogoff (published in their book!) which has been totally debunked was used an intellectual justification for lots of the austerity policies we've seen all over the developed world. By my definition that's a whole lot more important than anything anyone at the Tulane history department has done, because the effects of impoverishing whole nations matters more in the course of millions of people's lives and world history than being a trustee at the Century Foundation.

But maybe I'm just an idiot, since Coates doesn't really explain what she did and why it's important I'm sort of in the dark. Personally though I think if you are going to charge out with a huge sweeping statement that basically says some Tulane academic is more important than, oh I don't know John Nash, whose ideas about Game Theory underpinned the creation of the entire modern financial system that crashed in 2008-2009 creating the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression as well of much of the modern study of economics (as well as being used in "computing, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence, accounting, politics and military theory") well then I need more than she wrote two books.

But then again maybe that's just a round about way of saying the work of academics matter little in and of themselves, what matters is what happens once their ideas come out of the stuffy confines of their seminars and tomes and into the world of big business and politics.


Here's some links from my work at The Good Men Project:

Former Secretary of Defense’s New Memoir Shows Depressing Lack of Context.

Attention Liberals, Here’s How It’s Done.

Our Shrinking Prison Population.

North Carolina’s Unemployment Experiment.