Let’s Get Down to Business


The Sharpie and legal pad of Presidential dignity.

This post is an attempt to work out an apparent paradox: why it is that any economically struggling Americans would see a champion in a billionaire businessman with a golden toilet most famous before his political career for ritually firing people on a TV game show? Some would say that there’s no paradox, they were never motivated by any economic distress, that their prime motive was racism. There is much to support this idea, but I think the dichotomy – race or economics – misses something. They are inextricably intertwined such that economic plight is blamed on an assumed racial favoritism. Still, though, the catchphrase of The Apprentice: “You’re fired!” Can it really be that any American employee would find a man famous for that phrase to be an economic ally?

To understand why requires understanding the ways in which capitalism and authoritarianism mutually reinforce each other. It’s a theme I’ve written about before, but which has rarely if ever been so blatantly and grossly relevant to our political reality as now.

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Local Politics in the Age of Trump

There is much to say about the amazing new political reality in which we find ourselves. For now, I want to talk about taking politics to a local level, something progressives (a “popular front” term encompassing liberals and leftists alike) are not used to. It’s something I’ve been learning to do for the past few weeks. As part of that, I’ve been involved in attempts to make the Congressional Representative for my district (District 1 in New York), Lee Zeldin, more responsive to our interests.

The impetus for this is a strategy developed and advanced by a group of former Congressional staffers for a progressive audience. Called Indivisible, it emphasizes what members of Congress respond to and the need for progressives to fight like the Tea Party. So, on January 28th, I participated in a protest action with the aim of informing Zeldin that his constituents feel he is not communicative enough with and responsive enough to them. We had to stage this outside the entrance of a restaurant on the night when Zeldin was to be honored by the Rotary Club with a “Man of the Year” award because his personal appearances in the district are so rare.

It’s indicative of what we’re up against in the way his office has characterized the event to the press:

“As for the protesters at the Rotary Club dinner, it is greatly unfortunate that they chose reprehensible tactics to harass attendees, including banging on the sides of the cars driving by and jumping in front of cars to stop them. Requiring a police presence just to get cars through into the venue does not reflect well or help their cause,” [Zeldin’s communications director Jennifer] DiSiena said.

These are, to be clear, lies and convenient half-truths. I was there and I never saw any banging on cars. The police did have to remind us once or twice to keep to the sides of the road, but this is basically over-enthusiasm to get our message heard. Some may have leaned or stepped forward to make sure their signs were seen, but no one “jumped in front of” any cars. Now, there were a lot of people there. It’s possible that things like this happened out of my sight. We’ll store this possibility away for later once we have a fuller understanding of the meaning and purpose of this kind of claim.

In a separate communication to one of the organizers of the event, one of Zeldin’s executive assistants, Nicole Paciello, explained why it is that Zeldin had cancelled a public appearance that he’d previously promised to appear at to speak with constituents:

This meeting was co-opted, renamed and rebranded by a group of liberal activists who were already holding strategy meetings to turn it into a disruptive show for their own political theater. It is greatly unfortunate that this great event, which the Congressman has attended before, was hijacked…

This is perhaps the most significant thing to come out of Zeldin’s office about the possibilities for progressive local political action. As I mentioned, the Indivisible movement is an effort to get progressives to fight like the Tea Party. How can we characterize the Tea Party movement? Were they “conservative activists” who “held strategy meetings” and created “political theater” at the functions of members of Congress? Yes, but whatever else you want to say about them, they were simultaneously concerned constituents exercising their Constitutional rights to confront their Congressional representatives.

Here, Zeldin’s office pretends that these are mutually exclusive. This characterization demonizes his own constituents as some kind of shadowy political cabal with no legitimate grievances and a desire to create spectacles for no productive end. Perhaps he would be better served by considering why his constituents are so displeased with him.

Clearly, delegitimization by several means, such as slander and othering, are what we can expect. Since that is Zeldin’s unmistakable defensive method, I think we need to consider how such tactics work and develop a more productive understanding of protests and the things that happen there.

The claim of “banging on” and “jumping in front of” cars is part of a larger rhetoric of political violence. (It is telling that they had to reach for really low-grade misbehavior like this.) Its method is to taint any protest with the sin of violent behavior. This, to be clear, is how it works regardless of anyone’s intent. We can see this in the reactions to protests of professional bigot-troll Milo Yiannopoulos’s speaking engagement at Berkeley. The focus of the rhetoric is on the violence, not the cause, not the overall protest, not the object of the protest.

This takes different forms depending on who deploys it. Those hostile to the cause nakedly conflate the whole of the protest with those parts of it that were violent. This is a very old tactic:


Look for the word nonviolent to appear in scare-quotes, for calls for the whole protest to account for the violent part, for claims of the hypocrisy of any and all nonviolent protesters on account of only some of them. But this is not limited to opponents of the cause. Those who are either neutral or even sympathetic pick this rhetoric up and run with it. They express a moralistic concern: that while they can see the protesters’ point of view, this violence is never justified.

Whether sympathetic or not, wittingly or not, reproducing this rhetoric has one actual function: to delegitimize all protest. The fact is that these acts of violence are likely to happen. You will often find that in situations where large numbers of people are agitated enough to protest en masse, some of them will be agitated enough to commit violent acts. (And even if they don’t, political opponents and agents of the government can and do provoke violence to provide a pretext for crackdowns.) This is why I say that the function of this rhetoric is overall delegitimization. You often just can’t have one without the other, and those who aren’t violent do not actually have to answer for those that are. Yet this rhetoric puts them on the defensive.

You’ll note that I have not made any token distancing condemnations of the “of course this is awful, but…” sort. That’s precisely because I refuse to be put on the defensive and thereby become complicit the attempt to slander my own political actions. I will be frank as well that I do not believe in blanket condemnation of political violence. In tactical discussions with my fellow activists, I might discuss it critically, but I will not legitimize an opportunistic rhetoric of guilt by association. My aim is not to defend anyone’s actions from detractors (whether those acting in bad faith or those with genuine concern). Rather, I am on the offense against this kind of dirty rhetorical trick. When Republican governments are gearing up to crack down on protest actions, there is nowhere else that this delegitimization goes besides suppression of all active political dissent.

If you are an opponent of my causes: I see you and I see what you are doing. You’re not fooling this one. If you are not, and especially if you feel somewhat sympathetic to them, please think a little more carefully about who actually benefits from your expressions of concern and calls for the moderates to condemn the extremists. We are in for a long hard road politically, and I can already see the effort to delegitimize myself and my political actions at the local level. Don’t help those who want to silence me.

Update: I recently found an excellent example of why this matters. “Michigan Republican suggests ‘another Kent State’ for liberal protesters.” Please do not enable people like this by adopting their framing of protest actions.

Update (2/9/17): Supposedly, Protesters Force[d] Zeldin to Change Office Policy. I have to say I like the implication of the URL more than the current headline. Not really clear to me that given the possibility of having to face his constituents, changing his office policy was his only option. However, I want to call attention to a sharp observation from one commenter about a similar statement from an Arizona Representative: “‘(The forum) is about trapping people in a political ambush for political theater,’ this is the exact quote from Zeldin[‘]s office as well. The Conservative Obstructionists were given a script to repeat when anyone wants to meet with them.” It’s not quite an exact quote, but it uses the same scare-term, “political theater.” Seems like a consistent line and strategy has formed.

Between Jefferson and Sieyès?

I don’t want to dwell on the political argument of this National Review piece arguing that Bernie Sanders’ upholding of Denmark as a model for his kind of socialism is wrongheaded and reflects ignorance of the nation he’s such a fan of. Needless to say, it’s pretty bad. But I’ve returned to posting here with the intention of making this more into a history blog than a politics blog. So, here’s some history according to Kevin D. Williamson:

The American revolutionaries emerged from a Puritan-Quaker culture shaped by the hardships of colonial life with the savage frontier in front of them and the Atlantic Ocean at their backs; the French revolutionaries emerged from a decadent Catholic culture shaped by court life and European rivalries. Both parties cried “Liberty!” but one produced the Bill of Rights and the other produced the Terror. The cultural distance between 21st-century Anglo-American liberals and tribal jihadis in the Hindu Kush is rather greater than was the distance between Thomas Jefferson and the Abbé Sieyès.

I’m also not going to talk very much about the Orientalist musings into which this is awkwardly embedded. I just want to address a few points on the histories of the American and French Revolutions. Williamson has not cited any sources for this brief lesson, and while it’d be unreasonable to expect detailed citations for such an off-hand comment, it forces us to rely on his own personal authority as a “roving correspondent” for the National Review, which does not fill me with confidence. I won’t be citing anything either, relying on my personal authority as a student of history whose research focuses on the influence of the French Revolution on the United States and comparative revolutions, but I’d be happy to do so for any of my claims on request.

So what’s the problem? It may seem too small, too petty, to get worked up about. But that’s what’s so infuriating: this was not a well-thought-out explication of history, which indicates that this is what Williamson comes up with by absentmindedly scraping around the bottom of the history barrel. It’s the thoughtlessness of it that’s the problem, the fact that these kinds of cliches and factoids and mythic narratives are what so many people turn to in order to understand our past and our place in the world.  Where did these ideas come from? Why do they keep plaguing us? And how do we get rid of them?

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The Heroic Master and the Fortunate Slave

Apparently, The Economist magazine published a review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism that was too hot for them to handle. They have since retracted it. Much of the coverage of this review focuses on its explosive final lines: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.” Sure, this is bad enough to deserve a retraction, but what does it mean? And is there anything at all of merit in the review? I set out to find out, and in so doing, uncover the mystery of black slaves who weren’t victims and white masters who weren’t villains.

The review sums up Baptist’s thesis and offers an initial point of critique:

…Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.

Now, we only have the reviewer’s word and a quoted phrase to go on that Baptist outright dismisses these factors rather than merely questioning their importance. However, these factors were embattled long before Baptist’s book. Worse is that the review never really substantiates this counterclaim:

Take, for example, the astonishing increases he cites in both cotton productivity and cotton production. In 1860 a typical slave picked at least three times as much cotton a day as in 1800. In the 1850s cotton production in the southern states doubled to 4m bales and satisfied two-thirds of world consumption. By 1860 the four wealthiest states in the United States, ranked in terms of wealth per white person, were all southern: South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia.

Mr Baptist cites the testimony of a few slaves to support his view that these rises in productivity were achieved by pickers being driven to work ever harder by a system of “calibrated pain”. The complication here was noted by Hugh Thomas in 1997 in his definitive history, “The Slave Trade”; an historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen adequately speak for all.

So, if we assume that the review is at least honest and accurate in this summary, Baptist argues that the increased productivity of slave labor was the result of increased brutal discipline. Here, I struggle to see how “individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies” are plausible alternate explanations for slavery’s increased productivity. Perhaps if individualism exists only for white planters, perhaps Puritanism secretly became a major religious force in the South during this period, perhaps the “lure of open land and high wages” refers to slavery’s western expansion or the increased price of Upper South slaves in the Deep South. On the other hand, we can give ingenuity some credit, since the cotton gin did breathe some new life into slavery by making cotton easier to process, and government policies protecting the right to own slaves, and to treat them however their owners saw fit, certainly played a bit of an important role.

The reviewer’s point, that the sources may not support Baptist’s explanation for slavery’s productivity, has a kernel of fairness. The testimony of former slaves can tell us about the conditions of bonded servitude, but not necessarily about the large-scale economic results of those conditions for the entire slave system and the capitalist economy based on its commodities. However, the reviewer does not make any such counterargument. The  problem, rather, is that the testimony of only some “few” former slaves was used to characterize slavery as painful and brutal. It is possible that these informants do not “speak for all.” What the reviewer seems to be pointing at here is the possibility that other freedman informants might tell of a bearable, even comfortable, enslaved life. Well, who knows? I am not familiar enough with slave narratives as a source to say that no such testimony exists. So, let’s assume for the sake of argument that some does. What does it mean? The explanation is found in the climax of the whole thing, the context for the now infamous final lines:

Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

In other words, if some other slaves, whose testimonies Baptist did not use, recalled decent conditions, this reflects masters having had an interest in keeping their property in good condition. At last the mystery is revealed: it is possible that some blacks weren’t victims and some whites weren’t villains in the antebellum South because some blacks were maintained as healthy and well-fed livestock by white masters who had the same conception of enslaved human beings that modern “free range” ranchers have of cattle! Well… that seems like damning with faint praise, doesn’t it?

In summary, I can only say that there is very little of value in this review and that what little there is, is unintended by the reviewer. In trying to defend the now-discredited conception of slavery as a generally benign paternal system, the best argument the review could make implicitly relies on dehumanizing slaves so that the logic of the property owner’s interest in cultivating his property can apply to people treated as valuable instruments of another’s profit. In doing so, the review reinforces the old truth, going back to the antebellum debates over abolitionism, that some theoretical relations of kindness and decency between hypothetical slaves and masters do not negate the evil of the system overall. Treating people as property is monstrous regardless of how big an investment a person with a price might be.

[Postscript clarification: My paragraph beginning, “The reviewer’s point,” should not be interpreted as an actual endorsement of either the proposition that Baptist’s book actually relies on only a few freedman testimonies, or that substantial testimonies portraying slavery positively definitely exist in such number as to be some kind of game-changer. The point of this paragraph, subordinate to that of the whole article, is that even if we take the review at face value and trust its claims and implications, its conclusions are still horrible. I was always skeptical that Baptist’s source base was this scanty, as there is no reason any historian of US slavery has to be so limited. In fact, as Baptist confirms, his sources are much more extensive. It is also worth paying attention to the implicit issue of objectivity and bias in the accounts of former slaves and former masters.]

“Freedom Industries” and the Freedom of Industries.

Apparently, when most people in my area think about West Virginia, they remember some incident involving a traffic jam. I mostly remember news stories about the trials and tribulations of the people involved in mining the coal that powers our electronic lives: their labor struggles, and the safety disasters which necessitate their struggles. The latest from West Virginia is a chemical spill that affects the drinking water of 100,000 to 300,000 people in the area of Kanawha, WV.

In the midst of this calamity and the human suffering it has unleashed, there is something almost poetic in its sublime rightness: the company responsible is named “Freedom Industries.” Is there any doubt as to what kind of freedom the company’s founders had in mind? If so, this incident is instructive.

Environmental regulators in the state found that the chemical company took “no spill containment measures” to stem the leak, according to the Charleston Gazette.

Regulators say the company violated the Air Pollution Control Act and the Water Pollution Control Act, the Gazette reported. 

State regulators said Friday that the company never told them of the leak, and found out only after residents complained of a strange smell, according to the State Journal.

Health, safety, and environmental regulations, we are often told, are infringements on freedom. They burden job creators with red tape that holds them back from their glorious pursuit of enlightened self-interest. Under the regime of this freedom, taking no measures to contain spills would be a perfectly legitimate business decision, and there would by no “acts” regulating pollution to violate. Anyone affected by the outcomes of any accidents which result will have recourse to lawsuits to resolve the issue; depending on how serious you are about freedom, it might be resolved by a privately hired arbiter! No conflict of interest, no distortion of justice from unequal wealth, could be imagined here.

Experts say there is no way to treat the tainted water aside from flushing the system until it’s in low enough concentrations to be safe, a process that could take days. People across the nine counties were told not to wash their clothes in water affected, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.

Even as the National Guard made plans to mobilize at an air base at Charleston’s Yeager Airport, many people — told to refrain from using tap water — weren’t waiting for outside help.

The “National Guard,” eh, comrade? That sounds like some kind of collectivist use of government force. The inappropriate kind, that is, the kind not applied to bombing people in foreign countries and suppressing the poor. Using collectivist government force to help people? When did I agree to pay for these peoples’ water? There are much freer alternatives, after all: perhaps the people affected could have had a bit more foresight and individually purchased various forms of insurance and personal countermeasures to pay for disaster recovery. I can foresee no problems with them being able to afford this, once the government stops sucking them dry with taxes. Private disaster relief companies will provide much more efficient responses than the bloated government.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey warned residents about price gouging on water, ice and other items, calling it “just plain wrong” to inflate prices and encouraging those who have seen such practices to report them to his office’s consumer-protection division.

Who let this Marxist radical into office? Doesn’t he understand the clear benefits of so-called “price gouging,” that is, the market at work? It is the most efficient way of rationing now-scarce resources. Those who cannot afford the new, fairer price of water can presumably just “economize” on their daily basic needs. Perhaps in the future they will have the foresight to devote more of their generous disposable income to stockpiling bottled water. In any case, the higher prices are sure to attract more intrepid suppliers, somehow, at some point. There’s no need for the jackbooted thugs of the “National Guard” to interfere, spending your tax dollars to provide the biological necessities of human life.

To step back from vitriolic polemic, there’s one other thing I think of when someone mentions West Virginia: its long history of labor struggle. With “freedom” like this increasingly on offer, I have a feeling that state might someday shock the country in the best possible way.

Quick Note: Should the Government Get Out of the Marriage Business?

Marriage equality is the issue of the day, and it’s been a really inspiring experience to see an outpouring of support from my friends and relations. Even if I admit to a little cynicism about “Facebook Fads,” it’s probably done real good for LGBQT folks to see so many declaring their solidarity with a simple change of their profile picture. As if in response to this, I’ve seen some novel suggestions from the self-declared sentinels of liberty that the whole issue is a sideshow, because the real government oppression is in granting marriage licenses at all! What to make of this?

The general shape of the argument is that marriage should simply be a personal, religious, and emotional arrangement which the government has no business regulating. Straight, gay, poly or mono, it’s just not the state’s business. The most amusing advancement of this idea I’ve seen, and the most telling, asserted that the government’s only proper role in civil society is to enforce contracts.

How someone can weigh in on an issue with such bold claims and so little knowledge, I don’t know, but it’s worth pointing out to these libertines that the government is already “out of the marriage business” in they way they describe. The government will not prevent any church from performing marriage ceremonies. You can take your lover to an oak tree, carve your names on it, do a small dance, and declare yourselves married for all the state cares. That’s not what’s at issue. What is at issue is, exactly, a contract. We care about marriage as a civil right, an institution granting certain legal privileges.

Of course, there isn’t exactly lockstep unity in the gay rights movement about this. On the more radical edge, you will find queer critics of marriage as an oppressive institution, as patriarchal and bourgeois, as a tool of the “straight state” to mold an ideal citizenry, which should be done away with entirely. I can at least see the merits of this critique, and think there’s room for healthy discussion about what marriage even means, or should mean. The major difference between the radical gay rights critique of marriage and the libertarian one is essentially one of nuance: proponents of the former “get it” on a number of levels which proponents of the latter do not. They at least understand what their moderate allies care about.

Those who support marriage equality, by and large, do accept a role for the state in regulating it as a contract. They don’t want the state to “get out of it” because they do want the rights and privileges of marriage legally provided, but provided more equally. The libertarian call for “getting the state out of marriage” is as tone deaf as so many of their stances on “liberty,” and as per usual, is only a superficial veneer of support for civil rights and tolerance. In fact, it effectively cedes the issue to social conservatives. I wish I could say I am surprised at seeing the sentinels of liberty acting as the neoliberal handmaids of a paleoconservative understanding of social relations and “family values,” but it happens far too frequently.

Quick Note: On Republics

How often do we hear the sage formula, with every pretense of nuance, that the United States is not a democracy but a republic? You don’t have to look far for examples of it in action: find any situation where one side complains that some policy proposed by the other violates the principle of democracy, and invariably, the other side will trot out this insight.

The lesson is one straight out of the political thinking of the 18th and 19th centuries: democracies are unstable and will lead to mob rule and (horror of horrors) leveling, etc. And so, there’s nothing for it but to limit democracy somehow, to make a government that represents the people (the Latin res publica), but does not grant them unfettered power (the Greek dêmos kratos). It’s not clear to me how this functions as a defense for any particular anti-democratic policy, but the unacknowledged implications of this line of argument are disturbing.

This country was indeed intended to be a republic. And like most good classical republics, it sharply limited the franchise; in our case, despite some local variation, mostly to rich white men. In the south you even had a slave society propping up a leisured upper class, mirroring those liberty-loving slave-owning city-states of Classical Greece. People touting the “republic” talking point never seem to know how right they are, but many Enlightenment thinkers considered Sparta a model of sound governance, and it shows.

What this talking point always seems to elide is that the development of American government since “the Founders'” limited vision of an elitist state is a process of democratization. On the one hand, more and more government functions became subject to the popular vote. The Electoral College, as originally conceived, had nothing to do with any number of regular citizens voting for presidential candidates. Nor were Senators popularly elected. On the other, there was a democratization of what it meant to be a voter: first, classist property requirements fell. Next, slavery was abolished and racist restrictions of the vote to white people were (in theory at least) lifted. Then, the sexist limitation of the franchise to men was abolished. When people drone on about how we are a “republic” because of “the Founders'” vision, what they are doing is repudiating 144 years of progress.

Interestingly, the racial barrier to voting isn’t actually a dead issue, thanks to conservative policy initiatives: from the racist enforcement of drug laws combined with disenfranchisement of ex-convicts; to dubious “voter fraud” reduction laws which, as implemented in the time frame proposed, would have effectively barred many African-American citizens, among others, from voting in the most recent election; to recent attempts to take advantage of gerrymandering to undermine the popular will in presidential elections. Additionally, there is a rising trend of actively rejecting democratic progress with an explicit call for a return to the Founders’ vision in political structure, chock full of all the old tropes about unstable democracies. It seems the “Lost Cause” of the “Old Republic” is still a vital motivating force for the political right.