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When it comes to Edward Snowden, the London Times of 1851 was ahead of the New York Times of 2013

1 Sep

After a summer of media denunciations of Edward Snowden, I thought this comment from Robert Lowe, a 19th century Liberal who opposed the extension of the franchise and other progressive measures, was especially apt. Lowe was a frequent editorialist in the London Times; this is from a piece he wrote in 1851.*

The first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation. The statesman collects his information secretly and by secret means; he keeps back even the current intelligence of the day with ludicrous precautions, until diplomacy is beaten in the race with publicity. The Press lives by disclosures; whatever passes into its keeping becomes a part of the knowledge and the history of our times….For us, with whom publicity and truth are the air and light of existence, there can be no greater disgrace than to recoil from the frank and accurate disclosure of facts as they are. We are bound to tell the truth as we find it, without fear of consequences—to lend no convenient shelter to acts of injustice and oppression, but to consign them at once to the judgment of the world.

It’s hard to believe in progress when a Times editorialist in 1851 is out in front of Times editorialists in 2013…

*Cited in Alexander Cockburn, A Colossal Wreck, a posthumously published memoir of the 1990s and 2000s by the wonderful radical journalist, which just came out this year.

Islam Is the Jewish Question of the 21st Century

28 Jul

Imagine a noted scholar of religion, who happened to be Jewish, writing a book on the historical Jesus. Then imagine him appearing on a television show, where he is repeatedly badgered with some version of the following question: “What’s a Jew like you doing writing a book like this? Raises questions, doesn’t it?” And now watch this interview with noted scholar Reza Aslan, who happens to be Muslim, and tell me that Islam is not the 21st century’s Jewish Question.

Thomas Friedman: You Give Clichés a Bad Name

7 Jul

I’m stealing the title of this post from Jim Neureckas. It’s a good summary of the thesis of this excellent piece from Jim Livingston. Jim (Livingston) takes apart the prose of a Thomas Friedman column—I know, easy sport—but as he gets ready to do it, he says something interesting about clichés.

Now I don’t mind the mental nullity of cliché as much as my colleagues, who seem eager, indeed desperate, to demonstrate the idiocy—no, the fallacy—of received wisdom as it takes shape in the vernacular forms of journalism, conversation, pop music, whatever.  In fact, I find comfort in this category of cliché, because its very existence suggests the subversive possibilities of transformation by repetition.  It’s the analogue of rhyme, the space where words sound different because their odd alignment makes new sense.  It’s the occasion of country music, and the origin of rap.

But unlike a country music singer, or a hip-hop musician, Friedman lets the cliché stand as the final word, not the incentive to make something new.

As a cliché-hater of the sort that Jim skewers here—though I never go after pop culture; it’s the journalists and writers who get to me—I have to say that this an interesting way of thinking about them. So it seemed worth sharing.

Edward Snowden’s Retail Psychoanalysts in the Media

18 Jun

As soon as the Edward Snowden story broke, retail psychoanalysts in the media began to psychologize the whistle-blower, identifying in his actions a tangled pathology of motives. Luckily, there’s been a welcome push-back from other journalists and bloggers.

The rush to psychologize people whose politics you dislike, particularly when those people commit acts of violence, has long been a concern of mine.  I wrote about it just after 9/11, when the media put Mohamed Atta on the couch.

I also wrote about it in this review of the New Yorker writer Jane Kramer’s Lone Patriot, her profile of the militia movement.

In October 1953, literary critic Leslie Fiedler delivered an exceptionally nasty eulogy for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the pages of the London-based magazine Encounter. Though the Rosenbergs had been executed for conspiring to commit espionage, their real betrayal, claimed Fiedler, was of themselves. Committed Communists, the Rosenbergs did more than mouth the party line; they walked, talked, ate, drank, breathed and slept it. Nothing they said or did was peculiarly their own. “Their relationship to everything,” Fiedler wrote, “including themselves, was false.” Their execution was regrettable, but not particularly notable. Once they turned into marionettes, “what was there left to die?”

Fiedler’s performance stands out in the annals of literary cruelty, not for its heartlessness but for its pitch-perfect rendition of the liberal mind at bay. For whenever liberal intellectuals are confronted with political extremism, the knotty social intelligence that normally informs their work unravels. The radical is reduced to a true believer, his beliefs a litany of crazy proverbs, his personality an inscrutable paranoia. Whether the cause is communism or the Black Panthers, feminism or the abolitionists, the liberal resorts to a familiar ghost story—of the self, evacuated for the sake of an incoming ideology—where, as is true of all such tales, the main character is never the ghost but always the teller.

Kramer hunts for clues to these touchy forest warriors in the dank wood of individual psychology. She writes that John Pitner, the militia’s not so fearless leader, “hated to have to answer to other people.” His father was an off-balance disciplinarian. One of Pitner’s devotees never “had friends, or even a date, in high school.” Right-wing politics provide a stage for the  insufficiently evolved to act out their personal, often adolescent afflictions. As Kramer writes of Pitner, “I sometimes wondered if the Washington State Militia wasn’t, at least in part, a way for him to rewrite the history of the Pitner family.” Reminiscent of Fiedler, she concludes that Pitner “didn’t have a life in any sense I recognized.”

She seems to find quaint and absurd Pitner’s belief that in the early days of the United States “the townspeople got together [and] if they wanted a new road, they all contributed money and they built a new road, if they wanted a new library, they all contributed money and built a new library,” unaware, apparently, that intellectuals from Tocqueville to Robert Putnam have believed much the same thing. That’s not to say that such statements are true (they’re not), but they scarcely denote some strange woodland mishegas.

Tromping through this political wilderness, Kramer falls prey to a New York strain of Tourette’s syndrome, ceaselessly remarking on the strangeness and ignorance of the Northwest, the provincialism and prejudice of the forest. Her sole field guide on such expeditions, which she frequently consults, contains familiar entries on the paranoid style of American politics and the authoritarian personality. The problem with such psychological arguments, of course, is that millions of men and women fit the profile but never join the militia. There are probably more than a few leaders of the Democratic Party who never had a date in high school. And need we even launch an inventory of the editorial staff at The New Yorker?

Lastly, I wrote about it at much greater length in “On Language and Violence: From Pathology to Politics,” a piece  I did for Raritan in 2006. There, I wrote more generally about how intellectuals deal with violence committed by the radical right and left. But the same strictures apply to the journalistic response to Snowden.

Why is it that when confronted with extremist violence and its defenders, whether on the right or the left, analysts resort to the categories of psychology as opposed to politics, economics, or ideology?  [Journalist William] Pfaff is certainly not alone in his approach:  merely consider the recent round of psychoanalysis to which Al Qaeda has been subjected or Robert Lindner’s Cold War classic, The Fifty-Minute Hour, which featured an extended chapter on “Mac” the Communist.  Psychological factors, of course, may influence anyone’s decision to take up arms or to speak on behalf of those who do.  But those who invoke these factors tend to ignore the central tenet of their most subtle and acute analyst:  that the normal person is merely a hysteric in disguise, that the rational is often irrationality congealed.  If we are to go down the road of psychoanalyzing violence, why not put Henry Kissinger or the RAND Corporation on the couch too?

There is more than a question of consistency at stake here, for the choice of psychology as the preferred mode of explanation often reflects little more than our own political prejudices.  Violence we favor is deemed strategic and realistic, a response to genuine political exigencies.  Violence we reject is dismissed as fanatic and lunatic, the outward manifestation of some inner drama.  What gets overlooked in such designations is that violence is a deeply human activity, reflecting a full range of concerns and considerations, requiring an empathic, though critical, attention to mind and world.

Every culture has its martyred heroes—from the first wave of soldiers at Omaha Beach, whose only goal was to wash ashore, dead but with their guns intact so that the next wave could use them, to Samson declaring that he would die with the Philistines—and its demonized enemies, its rational use of force and its psychopathic cult of violence.  And in every culture it has been the job of intellectuals to keep people clear about the difference between the two.  Mill did it for imperial Europe.  Why should imperial America expect anything less (or more) from William Pfaff, let alone David Denby?

But perhaps we should expect our writers to do more than simply mirror the larger culture.  After all, few intellectuals today divide the sexual world into regions of the normal and abnormal.  Why can’t they throw away that map for violence too?  Why not accept that people take up arms for a variety of reasons—some just, others unjust—and that while the choice of violence, as well as the means, may be immoral or illegitimate, it hardly takes a psychopath to make it?

In the same way that journalists call high-level leakers in the executive branch “White House officials” and low-level guys like Snowden “narcissists” or “losers,” so do they dole out accolades like “Secretary of State” to mass murderers like Henry Kissinger while holding the Snowden-like epithets in reserve for Al Qaeda, Communists, the Militia Movement, and the Weather Underground.

Panel discussion tonight: Hayek’s Triumph, Nietzsche’s Example, the Market’s Morals

3 Jun

If you’re in Brooklyn tonight, I’ll be joined by financial journalist Moe Tkacik, economist Suresh Naidu, and intellectual historian Thomas Meaney for a Nation-sponsored discussion of my essay “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” in the May 27 issue of the The Nation.  The discussion will be at Melville House in DUMBO (145 Plymouth Street) at 7 pm. Here’s a write-up of the event:

Is the Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek the link between the übermensch and the businessman?

In a provocative essay for the May 27 issue of The Nation, Corey Robin offers a radical reconsideration of the work of Hayek, its influence on neoliberalism and its elective affinities with Nietzsche’s thinking about labor and value. How did Hayek’s conservative ideas become our economic reality? Robin asks. By turning the market into the realm of aristocratic politics and morals.

Join us for a panel discussion about the essay and the issues.

Hope to see you all there.

Would It Not Be Easier for Matt Yglesias to Dissolve the Bangladeshi People and Elect Another?

25 Apr

Yesterday, after a building housing garment factories collapsed in Bangladesh, killing almost 200more than 250 workers nearly 350 workers at least 377 workers over 650 workers, Matt Yglesias wrote:

Bangladesh may o r may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.

The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good. Jobs that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary United States that’s primarily fishing, logging, and trucking—pay a premium over other working-class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work. And in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum….

Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans….The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine.

Today, after Matt Yglesias wrote these words, Agence France-Presse wrote these:

Hundreds of thousands of garment workers walked out of their factories in Bangladesh Thursday, police said, to protest the deaths of 200 people in a building collapse, in the latest tragedy to hit the sector.

Grief turned to anger as the workers, some carrying sticks, blockaded key highways in at least three industrial areas just outside the capital Dhaka, forcing factory owners to declare a day’s holiday.

“There were hundreds of thousands of them,” said Abdul Baten, police chief of Gazipur district, where hundreds of large garment factories are based. “They occupied roads for a while and then dispersed.”

Police inspector Kamrul Islam said the workers had attacked several factories whose bosses had refused to give employees the day off.

Managers had allegedly ignored workers’ warnings that the building had become unstable.

Survivors say the building developed cracks on Tuesday evening, triggering an evacuation of the roughly 3,000 garment workers employed there, but that they had been ordered back to production lines.

Would it not be easier for Matt Yglesias to dissolve the Bangladeshi people and elect another?

Update (April 26, 9 am)

New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse: “With death toll at 300, Bangladesh factory collapse becomes worst tragedy in garment industry history.” Matt Yglesias: “The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine.”

For more information and responses:

  1. Greenhouse’s lengthy reporting in the Times on the fallout of the building collapse.
  2. Dylan Matthews’s informative interview in the Washington Post with an expert on international trade.
  3. Some righteous, hilarious, and info-rich indignation from Mobutu Sese Seko and his crowd.
  4. Scott Lemieux on Yglesias’s Lochner-era reasoning re “choice.”
  5. Justin Doolittle’s further considerations on the collision of theory and evidence.

One Newspaper, Two Elections: The New York Times on America 2004, Venezuela 2013

15 Apr

In November 2004, 50.7% of the American population voted for George W. Bush; 48.3% voted for John Kerry.

The headline in the New York Times read: “After a Tense Night, Bush Spends the Day Basking in Victory.”

The piece began as follows:

After a long night of tension that gave way to a morning of jubilation, President Bush claimed his victory on Wednesday afternoon, praising Senator John Kerry for waging a spirited campaign and pledging to reach out to his opponent’s supporters in an effort to heal the bitter partisan divide.

“America has spoken, and I’m humbled by the trust and the confidence of my fellow citizens,” Mr. Bush told a victory party that was reconstituted 10 hours after it broke up inconclusively in the predawn hours. “With that trust comes a duty to serve all Americans, and I will do my best to fulfill that duty every day as your president.”

Flanked by his wife, Laura, and their daughters, Barbara and Jenna, and Vice President Dick Cheney and his family, Mr. Bush stood smiling and relaxed on a stage at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center to thank the campaign team that helped him to a decisive victory, outline his agenda and, 78 days before his second inauguration, speak somewhat wistfully of eventually returning home to Texas.

The Times “News Analysis” read as follows:

It was not a landslide, or a re-alignment, or even a seismic shock. But it was decisive, and it is impossible to read President Bush’s re-election with larger Republican majorities in both houses of Congress as anything other than the clearest confirmation yet that this is a center-right country – divided yes, but with an undisputed majority united behind his leadership.

Fast forward to 2013. Tonight, 50.6% of the Venezuelan population voted for Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro; 49.1% voted for his opponent Henrique Capriles.

The Times headline this time: “Maduro Narrowly Wins Venezuelan Presidency.”

And here’s how the article begins:

Nicolás Maduro, the acting president and handpicked political heir to Hugo Chávez, narrowly won election to serve the remainder of Mr. Chávez’s six-year term as president of Venezuela, officials said late Sunday. He defeated Henrique Capriles Radonski, a state governor who ran strongly against Mr. Chávez in October.

Election authorities said that with more than 99 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Maduro had 50.6 percent to Mr. Capriles’s 49.1 percent. The turnout, while strong, appeared to be somewhat below the record levels seen in October, a sign that Mr. Maduro may not enjoy the same depth of passionate popular support that Mr. Chávez did.

Update (1 am)

Nathan Tankus just pointed out on Twitter another point of comparison I missed: “I love the focus on ‘hand picked successor’. Pretty sure ‘son of former president’ sounds more nepotistic.” Nathan then updated that the phrase was “hand picked political heir,” which makes the comparison even starker!

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mr. Jon Lee Anderson

8 Apr

Last month, New Yorker reporter Jon Lee Anderson turned twelve shades of red when he was challenged on Twitter about his claim in The New Yorker that Venezuela was “one of the world’s most oil-rich but socially unequal countries.” A lowly rube named Mitch Lake had tweeted, “Venezuela is 2nd least unequal country in the Americas, I don’t know wtf @jonleeanderson is talking about.” Anderson tweeted back: “You, little twerp, are someone who has sent 25,700 Tweets for a grand total of 169 followers. Get a life.” Gawker was all over it.

What got lost in the story though is just how wrong  Anderson’s claim is. In fact, just how wrong many of his claims about Venezuela are.

Luckily, Keane Bhatt, an activist and writer at NACLA, has been on the Anderson file from the beginning, itemizing all of Anderson’s errors and forcing the New Yorker—which is widely renowned in the magazine world for its fact-checking department—to issue some corrections.

First there was this error that Bhatt caught:

Anderson’s article, “Slumlord: What Has Hugo Chávez Wrought in Venezuela?,” is indeed filled with blatant misrepresentations. The New Yorker’s vaunted factcheckers somehow permitted the publication of the following statement: “Chavez suggested to me that he had embraced the far left as a way of preventing a coup like the one that put him in office.” While it is true that in 1992, Chávez attempted a coup against an administration that had deployed security forces to massacre hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilian protesters, Anderson is misleading his readers. Chávez was “put in office” much later, in 1999, through a free and fair election—not a coup—a fact which he did not see fit to include in his piece. He instead wrote, vaguely, that Chávez “assumed” power in 1999.

Then there was this:

In a piece published before Venezuela’s elections, [Anderson] wrote in error that “Venezuela leads Latin America in homicides.” The most recently available United Nations data show that Honduras, with 91.6 killings per 100,000 in 2011, has twice the rate of homicides as Venezuela, which recorded 45.1 in 2010. (El Salvador has 69.2.) When confronted with these facts on Twitter in February, Anderson admitted his mistake publicly, addressing even his editors at The New Yorker, and agreed to offer a correction. Over a month later, however, neither Anderson nor his editors have fixed his invented claim.

As Bhatt also points out, the headline on that second piece was originally given the hopeful title “The End of Chavez?” Once Chavez handily won reelection, the editors had to change it to “Chavez the Survivor.”

Thanks to Bhatt’s efforts—and that of his readers—both of these errors were eventually corrected.

But now we have this:

For Jon Lee Anderson’s most recent factual error, unfortunately, The New Yorker has thus far refused to issue a clarification or retraction. One month ago—the day Chávez died—Anderson wrote a third piece, for, claiming:

What [Chávez] has left is a country that, in some ways, will never be the same, and which, in other ways, is the same Venezuela as ever: one of the world’s most oil-rich but socially unequal countries. . .

As I pointed out in “Anderson Fails at Arithmetic,” this allegation misleads the reader in two ways. Inequality has been reduced enormously under Chávez, using its standard measure, the Gini coefficient. So one can hardly say that in this aspect, Venezuela remains the “same as ever.” Making Anderson’s contention even worse is the fact that Venezuela is the most equal country in Latin America, according to the United Nations. Anderson’s readers come away with exactly the opposite impression.

…A senior editor [at The New Yorker] sent me an email [that] offered a strained defense of Anderson’s position on inequality, arguing that Anderson’s point was valid, given that his claim supposedly combined Venezuela’s conditions of being both “oil-rich” and “socially unequal” as one assertion.

I pointed out in my response that any reasonable reading of the statement would portray Venezuela as both one of the world’s most oil-rich and one of the world’s most socially unequal countries. And the fact of the matter is that the CIA’s World Factbook ranks the country 68th out of 136 countries with available data on income inequality—that is to say, Venezuela is exactly in the middle, and impossible to construe as among the most unequal.

I also explained that when Anderson was confronted with this evidence on Twitter, the magazine’s principal correspondent on Venezuela expressed extreme skepticism toward publicly available, constantly used, and highly scrutinized data; he instead cited his own “reporting” and “impressions” as the authority for his assertions….

Lastly, I argued that the awkward formulation of combining “oil-rich” and “socially unequal”—a reading I reject—exposes Anderson’s contention as even further at odds with reality. Included in my email was the following list showing the top 10 most “oil-rich” countries ranked in order of their total crude oil production, according to the International Energy Agency. Each country’s corresponding Gini coefficient from the CIA World Factbook appears in parentheses—the higher the Gini coefficient, the greater the country’s inequality:

1. Saudi Arabia (unavailable)
2. Russia (0.42)
3. United States (0.45)
4. Iran (0.445)
5. China (0.48)
6. Canada (0.32)
7. United Arab Emirates (unavailable)
8. Venezuela (0.39)
9. Mexico (0.517)
10. Nigeria (0.437)

When provided with these arguments and data, The New Yorker’s senior editor fell silent in the face of repeated follow-ups. I received a reply only once: a rejection of my request to publicly post our correspondence.

Bhatt closes by urging his readers to get in touch with the The New Yorker.

Readers can pose such questions to The New Yorker by contacting its editors at, by email at, or on Twitter at @tnynewsdesk. Such media activism plays a crucial role in engendering more careful portrayals of countries like Venezuela, which has long been the target of cartoonishly hostile, slanted, and outright false media coverage. Previous demands for accuracy and accountability have already prompted two admissions of error by The New Yorker, and can lead to a third, in spite of the magazine’s obstinacy. More importantly, the magazine now faces a real political cost to publishing sloppy reporting, as well as a powerful deterrent to running reckless news and commentary during a politically significant transitional moment for Venezuela.

I concur.

Market Morals: Nietzsche on the Media, Adam Smith and the Blacklist

2 Apr

On self-censorship in the media:

Making use of petty dishonesty.—The power of the press resides in the fact that the individual who works for it feels very little sense of duty or obligation. Usually he expresses his opinion, but sometimes, in the service of his party or the policy of his country or in the service of himself, he does not express it. Such little lapses into dishonesty, or perhaps merely a dishonest reticence, are not hard for the individual to bear, but their consequences are extraordinary because these little lapses on the part of many are perpetrated simultaneously. Each of them says to himself: ‘In exchange for such slight services I shall have a better time of it; if I refuse such little acts of discretion I shall make myself impossible’. Because it seems almost a matter of indifference morally whether  one writes one more line or fails to write it, perhaps moreover without one’s name being attached to it, anyone possessing money and influence can transform any opinion into public opinion. (Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, § 447)

On the invisible hand in the blacklist:

According to the prevailing folklore, our lives, our liberty, our pursuit of happiness are creatures of our diversity. This was a political elaboration on Adam Smith’s economic proposition that the pursuit of individual self- results in the public good. Or, as James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, a society “broken into so many part, interests and classes of citizens” was the best guarantee of civil and political rights.

This theory of countervailing powers had a pleasant symmetry. And yet, after HUAC arrived in Hollywood, it didn’t seem to work. Each element of the community indeed sought its own goals, worked for its own ends, fought for its own interests, yet the result was not a series of benign cancellations of evil….The clash of private interests resulted not in the public interest’s being served but in the blacklist.

The blacklist experience suggests that the old assumption that the public interest is composed of the sum of private interests just doesn’t work. We learn from our study of Hollywood’s guilds, trade associations, agents, lawyers, religious and civic organizations, and the industry itself that the utilitarian ethic, and the liberal individualism it presupposes, wasn’t good enough.When each organization operated in its own interest, the sum of private interests turned out not to equal the public interest. A flaw in the calculus of pluralism. Adam Smith doesn’t work in the marketplace of moral issues. (Victor Navasky, Naming Names, pp. 146, 423-424)

Ezra Klein’s Biggest Mistake

20 Mar

Like many people who supported the Iraq War, Ezra Klein has written his apologia.

But he fails to identify—indeed, repeats—his biggest mistake in supporting the war: When thinking of the US government, he  thinks “we.”

Iraq, [Kenneth Pollack] said, shouldn’t be America’s top priority. We should first focus on destroying al-Qaeda. We should then work on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Only then should we turn to Hussein. Moreover, when and if we did invade Iraq, we should do so only as part of a coordinated, multilateral operation…

After all, what other chance would we get to topple Hussein?

It wasn’t worth doing precisely because the odds were high that we couldn’t do it “right.”

Klein doesn’t think a state invaded another state; he thinks “we” went to war. He identifies with the state. Whether he’s supporting or dissenting from a policy, he sees himself as part of it. He sees himself on the jeeps with the troops. That’s why his calls for skepticism, for not taking things on authority, ring so hollow. In the end, he’s on the team. Or the jeep.

Update (11:45 pm)

While we’re on the subject of the Iraq War, Yasha Levine tweeted this classic line from a Nicholas Kristof 2002 oped:

President Bush has convinced me that there is no philosophical reason we should not overthrow the Iraqi government.

Being convinced by Bush of anything seems challenge enough. But to be convinced by Bush on philosophical grounds? That’s something.



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