Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait have had a fascinating exchange on race over the last couple of weeks. Chait has been arguing from a perspective of culture. Coates, while spending time on culture, has also tried to get Chait to see the connection between culture and the lived history of the African American community. And Chait repeatedly fails to even acknowledge that (large) part of Coates’ thesis.
Coates refers to the “jaunty and uplifting narrative” that Chait believes in: “One can believe in the continued existence of racism and still think that the scale of the evil has fallen enormously since the 19th century.” He has been arguing, with increasing truculence, that the story of blacks in America is one of “steady progress.” It seems to confound him that Coates does not see it the same way. But there’s no reason for Chait to be confused. Coates has laid out exactly why he feels that way, yet Chait seems literally incapable of processing the information.
For instance, on the subject of slavery, Chait has a very simplistic understanding. We “progressed from chattel slavery to emancipation” and that’s about all there is to the story. Coates responded: yes - but look at how it happened.
Our greatest president, assessing the contribution of black soldiers in 1864, understood this:We can not spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horse-power and steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.The United States of America did not save black people; black people saved the United States of America. With that task complete, our “ally” proceeded to repay its debt to its black citizens by pretending they did not exist.
Lincoln was very clear elsewhere as well: Preserving the union was his main purpose for the Civil War, and he only changed his mind on emancipation as circumstances dictated. Here’s what the Civil War was not, at least not until it was well underway: The North feeling the great evil of slavery created a moral urgency that the country, in fidelity to the soaring ideals of its founding documents, must act on immediately. Even when the issue was added to the cause, it wasn’t for those reasons. Lincoln just needed the bodies. (He did make the moral case as well though.) Chait sees it as, 1860 - slavery legal. 1865 - slavery abolished. Progress! He can’t seem to understand how Coates could see it differently.
Over and over, Coates tries to show how those who claim to be allies to the African American community have acted in ways more suggestive of political expediency than altruism. Yet instead of grappling with that, Chait just writes it off as a newfound pessimism in Coates. Of course, if that is the problem then Chait doesn’t have to engage what I suspect is an uncomfortable proposition for him: “The notion that black America’s long bloody journey was accomplished through frequent alliance with the United States is an assailant’s-eye view of history.” No, Ta-Nehisi is just feeling blue lately.
Coates has a more historically grounded view of what Chait calls progress. He looks at events not just as data points, but in the context of which they happened. Progress, such as it is, has often happened at a much slower pace and with a more brutal price because nominal allies were absent - or antagonistic. Chait seems to prefer a history with such episodes airbrushed out. Tressie McMillan Cottom characterized it thus: “Black anger about white violence, white racism, and the veneer of white civility is acceptable to white liberals only when it is in service to their role as caretaker.”
Here’s the kicker. Chait praises himself as being concerned only with “the task of designing incrementally more just and effective policies in an unjust world.” Among those “successful anti-poverty initiatives” he numbers KIPP schools. Yet charter schools are just the latest in a long standing project to privatize schools - for profit if at all possible. Across the country - in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Newark and other cities - the charter movement, funded by wealthy interests, is energetically working to destroy public schools, break teacher’s unions, and replace long-term local workers with short-term temporary ones. Caretaker zeal included.
This is an example of a just and effective policy? Teaming up with wealthy neoliberals to attack one of the most important institutions in black American life? Is he unaware how unpopular the privatization project has become, or does he just think those who oppose it don’t know what’s good for them? His selecting such a contentious issue to hold up as the kind of poverty-remediating program he favors only serves to justify Coates’ and others’ skepticism. Maybe they could be excused for thinking they’d be better off without his brand of urban renewal.
Events like school closings and wholesale disenfranchisement are actual things that are happening right now, and will have a profound and negative effect on the quality of life in those communities. Instead of looking at real events, Chait invokes culture - an empty vessel into which he can pour all his predispositions. Perhaps systemic racism deserves more attention than appeals to an amorphous culture. And maybe it would be good to examine those issues in some depth rather than blandly grade today against a curve of horrific brutality. However much worse things were in the past, things are still pretty bad right now.
The whole debate has been characterized by Coates pointing out historical and contemporary examples of dubious assistance from the improvers, and Chait not noticing. From Chait’s lofty perch he just sees the arc bending beautifully towards justice. Hey, at least you’re not slaves any more (you’re welcome). Meanwhile, Coates is saying: boy it sure could have bent more there and there and there; with allies like that who needs foes? Chait can only respond by complaining that Coates has turned into a real downer - and to sound more and more like George Bush did towards Iraqis: How can you not be grateful after all we’ve done?
Last week several environmental groups called on the president to not speed up permitting for liquefied natural gas exports. In response White House adviser John Podesta met with reporters and forcefully rebutted arguments they had not made.
“If you oppose all fossil fuels and you want to turn that switch off tomorrow, that is a completely impractical way of moving toward a clean-energy future” he thundered, answering a charge articulated by no one. “With all due respect to my friends in the environmental community,” he continued against his fictional adversary, “if they expect us to turn off the lights and go home, that’s sort of an impractical suggestion.” It was an admirable performance, a rare and special display of the kind of soaring creativity not normally encountered outside of a child’s imagination.
In point of fact, the groups were simply arguing against the latest excuse to ramp up fracking - and they can’t do much more than appeal to conscience. They certainly aren’t in a position to launch primary challenges or force other unpleasant consequences on Democrats. Meanwhile the fossil fuel industry - which, granted, doesn’t wield the fearsome clout inside the Beltway that, say, Friends of the Earth does - has managed to scrape together some meager resources to try to get its message out.
Since the Obama administration is a huge fracking cheerleader - Podesta reiterated that support - I can understand why activism against it is a sore spot. He also was careful to point out that the administration is finalizing plans to reduce methane emissions from fracking. Details to follow, um, later. Meanwhile, the existing dirty practices continue.
Presumably the EPA will be in charge of regulating methane, which doesn’t inspire much confidence considering that the EPA is currently being sued for failing to regulate methane. Podesta’s spiel boils down to a vague promise that eventually a captured agency will do something. In addition, we are to trust that - against all recent experience - the industry won’t dilute to meaninglessness any worthwhile proposal that somehow miraculously emerges.
Since this was a Politico story no pushback like that greeted Podesta, of course. He pretty much got the stenography treatment: An official said something and whether or not it has merit, it’s newsworthy. In a similar vein the article links to a piece with a headline trumpeting popular support of Keystone XL “(Also on POLITICO: Poll: 65 percent back Keystone),” support based largely and falsely on expected job creation. The fact that only 35 permanent full time jobs will be created by Keystone doesn’t reflect on the validity of the poll though. People said they liked it, with or without accurate information, so the result must be reported. Journalism, friends.
As you might expect, a dumb comment from a White House official turned into amplified stupid elsewhere. One might expect an analyst to analyze that distinction in the poll, or a reporter to report on the contrast between peoples’ urgent concerns about jobs and the anemic results unconventional extraction has delivered. An enterprising journalist might even look into why unconventional extraction has become such a big thing.
After all, what if the talk about “peak oil” turned out to be true and that we’ve picked all the low hanging fruit? What if the turn to fracking, tar sands, and so on reflect a new reality? One where continued use of fossil fuels will require ever greater investment? What if it turns out that we are now coming up against the law of diminishing returns, and have to decide just how much money we are willing to pay in order to maintain the status quo?
Here’s another possible angle: Podesta has trumpeted fracking as providing a bridge to a renewable energy dominated future. Yet the fossil fuel industry’s pals are busy wiring dynamite to that bridge’s foundation. Maybe all that talk about bridges is just a way to allay public fears about the ferocious consequences of human induced climate change. Maybe the subtext of all that bridge talk is: “Hey, let us go ahead with this next round of extraction and then we’ll clean up our act.” Maybe the absence of any actual bridge building by the people talking it up is worth a look.
Yes, Podesta’s comments offer many potentially compelling story lines: Pushing back on his bullshit rhetoric, examining the gap between jobs promised and jobs created, looking at the specter of having passed peak oil, following up on the chimerical promises of a clean energy future from those with dubious interest in it. Lots of interesting columns that someone with an outsized platform could check into, right? Daily Beast columnist Lloyd Green took stock of the possibilities and concluded: effete liberals.
He starts by citing the poll (vox populi!) and links its support to “job-craving America.” He doesn’t note the actual lack of jobs Keystone will provide.1 All that matters to him is the mistaken impression among the majority. He then claims Democrats “have a problem with the non-government employee middle class” (?) and that contemporary liberalism “sounds more like reactionary 19th century Toryism.”
In Green’s view, there’s a cadre of out of touch upper middle class progressives who oppose industrial development on aesthetic grounds, and embrace NIMBY-ism (Not in My Backyard) in order to preserve picturesque landscapes against unsightly signs of such activity. This is perhaps the most intellectually dishonest part of his article.
Green has a lofty, theoretical view of those opposed to doubling down on unconventional extraction. He refuses to acknowledge the concerns of those who have been (or might be) affected by the combination of aging infrastructure, lax to non-existent regulation and the malign neglect of political leaders. Places actually impacted, and the people forced to deal with the aftermath, do not appear to exist to him.
He could spend a week in West Virginia, bathe in and drink the water, talk to residents, and then tell us if they’re a bunch of NIMBYs. Or he could visit North Carolina and Virgina. Or he could come right here to Ohio. Who knows, he might even encounter some concerned citizens in the non-government employee middle class.
Spending time in some of the backyards in question might give him a different perspective on NIMBYs, were he interested in such a thing. He isn’t though. He’d rather talk about Martha’s Vineyard and wind farms in Nantucket - because it’s much more fun to goof on the Kennedy family than it is to get an up close and personal look at environmental hazard. (The likelihood of crying NIMBY is inversely proportional to one’s distance from a Superfund site.)
He winds up, funny enough, by criticizing Barack Obama for not delivering on his promise of green jobs, though he mysteriously neglects to mention the 600,000 fracking jobs the president promised a couple years ago. He gets in an obligatory wingnut reference to Solyndra, though in an admirable show of restraint he declines to link it to Benghazi. And because there will be an election in seven and a half months, the horse race must get its due: “die-hard gentry liberals” - presumably this year’s re-branded emoprog - will help throw support of the Senate to the Republicans with their constant griping.
That’s only true if all the people who stood in line in 2012, and don’t show up in November, are Downton Abbey liberals. I suspect the demographic breakdown is a little more diverse than that, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. As for Green’s implication that the environmental movement doesn’t know which side its bread is buttered on, I’ll just say this: There are a number of words that can describe someone overtly hostile to you on an issue of immediate and substantial importance; “friend” is not one of them.
1. The unconventional fossil fuel extraction industry has been notoriously weak in job creation. I know I’m repeating myself here, but fracking hasn’t led to job growth in Ohio. It has only led to modest bumps in industries serving the itinerant workers who fill most of the temporary jobs.
The failure to create jobs is a major flaw in the argument for these projects. Hammering away at that, and at the apparent ignorance or dishonesty of those peddling it, might be the kind of thing a friend would do. For the most part (with some highly important exceptions) it’s just been crickets from the Democrats.
UPDATE: See also Vast Left.
Eleven years ago today the United States used false pretenses to launch its war against Iraq. Happily, it has not yet become controversial to write those two things: That it was the US, and not some ridiculous coalition of the willing, that launched the war; and that the architects themselves were (at best) dubious about the given reasons for the invasion. Considering our ability to let the losing side end up with control of our war narratives, that’s no small achievement.
It would be nice if those architects had been summarily drummed out of public life and shunned by decent people. Demonstrating grotesque immorality ought ideally to have consequences, but unfortunately we live in an age of impunity for the powerful. If you are a member of that happy class and are willing to brazen it out, you will remain in good standing.
This explains how Douglas Feith, aka the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth, gets to weigh in on current events in Russia. It also explains how Bill Kristol, to Charles Pierce’s ongoing amazement, remains in good standing among the DC media. (Pierce is one of the few higher profile writers who has arrived at the proper estimation of Kristol. He’s also christened him with the title that ought to follow him to the end of his days: “Butcher’s Bill Kristol, the world’s dumbest political sociopath.”)
When it comes to Iraq there is a willful amnesia in Washington DC. No one in the elite media or political establishment wishes to think about it because it reflects so poorly on them. This explains how Dick Cheney could be invited on a Sunday show recently and not have the word “Iraq” appear once, not once. Months later, this continues to astonish me. It’s like interviewing Orville Redenbacher and not asking about popcorn.
Anniversaries are good occasions to revisit topics. The New York Times understands that, since it marked the third anniversary of the Syrian uprising earlier this week. The Washington Post has done even better, not just marking the occasion but looking at the human cost and taking every opportunity to embed its video of the situation as well.
The US did not engage its armed forces in any substantial way in Syria, though. Therefore there are no real stakes for the foreign policy establishment. Newspapers here are free to lavish attention on it without having to worry about damaging their access to Pentagon sources. On the other hand, Libya is in the process of turning into a basket case, and the US position has gone from “drop bombs to prevent genocide” to “sort it out amongst yourselves.” Don’t look for much coverage on that topic.
Clearly, though, the Times and the Post know how to mark an anniversary. If they did not have so much professional pride on the line with Iraq they could ask about the promises of a flowering democracy there, check that against the overall chaos as well as specific recent developments, and maybe inquire as to what exactly the fuck we are doing still sending arms there. Doing any of that would invite pointed questions about their role though, so better to just let the anniversary pass quietly.
If they really were the steely eyed truth tellers they seem to like fancying themselves as, the magnitude of their failure in Iraq would be a good occasion for some soul searching. Rather than leaving that kind of accounting to outsiders, they could turn that scrutiny on themselves and use it to an even larger purpose: An honest and unflinching examination of their systemic failures. Not just the technical glitches, but the really big picture stuff. A journalistic equivalent of Yom Kippur.
Some mistakes are easily addressed by the typical correction process. (“Ms Smith received a BS degree and not a BA degree as reported. We regret the error.”) Some are not. (“We credulously laundered Bush administration propaganda above the fold of our front page for months before the war, and were instrumental in legitimizing the fraudulent case for it. We regret the error.”)
Journalists have plenty of occasions to pat themselves on the back and give each other awards, but nothing (that I know of) that attempts to prick their collective conscience or remind them of just how wrong they can get it. Perhaps the anniversary of the largest such failure in the last generation would be good for that purpose. Not for self-flagellation or some other indulgence, but to confront uncomfortable truths that are otherwise too tempting to ignore.
Because ignoring those truths can prompt a newspaper to do ridiculous things. Like, for instance, marking the anniversary of protests against a conflict but not the start of the conflict itself.
One of the peripheral issues in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the pro-Russia reporting by Russia Today’s news outlet RT.com. There were many expressions of surprise (with varying sincerity) that RT would have such an unabashedly biased slant. One of its reporters actually quit on the air in protest, which if nothing else allowed DSWright to get off a memorable headline (“Liz Wahl Just Realized The R In RT Stands For Russia”).
Glenn Greenwald responded by pointing out that American reporting has not exactly been adversarial towards American foreign policy, so criticism from US outlets is at best myopic and at worst hypocritical. In fact, the whole episode has produced an abundance of hilarious cluelessness.
The most influential American outlets have a long history of advancing government-friendly narratives, particularly at crucial moments. When the US wanted to launch its war against Iraq the New York Times notoriously let Judith Miller launder Bush administration propaganda on its front pages. The Washington Post put a 100,000 person strong antiwar march on its Metro page.
Wild, unsubstantiated claims were put front and center, dissenting views off to the side (“the Page A18 problem”). Knight-Ridder was the sole exception, and full credit to them for it. The Post and the Times did some nice reporting at times once the war was underway, but in that critical period when the US was debating whether or not to invade Iraq there was a completely government-friendly narrative.
The fact that RT is not a credible outlet on the Ukraine war does not mean it isn’t credible at all though, just not in areas of urgent importance to its sponsor. While US outlets aren’t state sponsored, the heavy emphasis on access journalism amounts to a kind of quasi-sponsorship. (If self-censorship seems too crude a description, substitute this from Noam Chomsky: “I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”)
For instance, RT did a very nice job covering the protests in Wisconsin over Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation in 2011. And as the linked video shows, it did so at a time when American coverage was scant or non-existent. The corporate sponsors of American media were not interested in coverage of it, so it largely went uncovered. Similarly, Al Jazeera America focuses more on those farther down the economic scale than its upscale competitors have incentive to. You might not want to make Al Jazeera your go-to source for hard hitting news on Qatar, though.
Newer outlets are not immune to the pressures of sponsorship either. Greenwald’s new home, First Look, promises to be adversarial towards government in ways traditional outlets have often failed to be. Yet last month Pando Daily reported that First Look sponsor Pierre Omidyar has jointly funded Ukranian opposition groups with the US Agency for International Development. Greenwald responded at length but did not, as Erik Wemple noted, address the core issue.
And before you think Pando is the above the fray (it seems to be trying to re-invent itself as that), founder Sarah Lacy has generally run it as an uncritically pro-Silicon Valley trade site as chronicled by Sam Biddle here, here, here, here and here among other places. They have their own sponsors to answer to as well. In other words, getting a good picture of the news requires knowing who or what each outlet’s sponsors are and adjusting your estimation accordingly.
That is what makes an independently sponsored blogosphere so important. Operations that run actually - not just theoretically - on reader donations have the great virtue of not being dependent on substantial patronage from anywhere. The proprietors might still be stupid or crazy of course, but at least you know it’s their own native stupid or crazy and not some other factor.
Sites like Hullabaloo, Eschaton and Naked Capitalism run mainly off of reader donations, and maybe some additional modest ad revenue. Agree or disagree with them, they run their own shops. Independent sites like theirs will probably never be wildly profitable, but it’s important for them to do well enough to keep running. No one of them is indispensable, but together they are able to provide analysis and reporting unencumbered by the kind of considerations inherent in sponsored outlets. That makes them an essential part of an informed citizen’s news diet.
One of the most interesting links I found while researching last week’s post on Teach For America was the item on how TFA hiring in Connecticut was denying job opportunities to local residents. It occurred to me that the author was getting an on-the-ground look at a similar phenomenon I’ve observed with the oil and gas industry in Ohio (and presumably elsewhere): both TFA and fracking rely on short term, out of state labor.
(I know TFA recruits have the opportunity to extend beyond their initial two year contract, but the very fact of a two year contract sends a strong message that the job is not intended to be permanent.)
The degree to which this is happening makes aggregate reporting on job gains inadequate. Necessary but not sufficient. With fracking, for instance, the numbers are terrible - and what were considered dire warnings from activists a few years ago about the dubious economic benefits of it are now blandly accepted as conventional wisdom.
Last summer the Plain Dealer reported that “employment levels increased by less than 1 percent in 15 eastern Ohio counties where the highest number of horizontal shale wells have been drilled.” Then it followed that up a few weeks ago with an article that painted a very rosy picture of a dismal reality: Jobs are going to migrant workers, and the main economic impact is bumping up business to the hotels and restaurants that serve them.
As a side note, moving the goalposts appears to be a feature of crappy job boosterism. In the August PD article, note that we are once again just a step further down the resource extraction path away from JOBS: “Future job growth will depend on whether Ohio’s shale wells produce ‘natural gas liquids,’ or NGLs, which are used by industry and whether the price of ‘dry gas’ used for heating, power production and manufacturing increases beyond the current prices.” Meanwhile, an industry flack mumbles that jobs were never the point anyway: “I think the real indicator is sales-tax receipts that have grown in the eastern counties where this activity is taking place.”
So the relevant question is, are meaningful jobs created? I’d say a meaningful job has three characteristics: It employs locally at a living wage for the long term. As I’ve written before the oil and gas industry would like the public believe fracking does all three, and will be an anchor for communities much like steel mills once were. The reality is far different.
Jobs created for migrants or in a boom town - where there isn’t sufficient housing for the influx of new workers, and those lucky enough to have a roof over their heads often have no toilet or running water - don’t seem like much to celebrate. (To be fair, it’s been positive for at least one ancillary industry.) Similarly, TFA’s transition from plugging individual vacancies to wholesale replacement of local workforces seems like a really raw deal for the communities targeted by it.
This process has been happening for a good long while now. A scrap of folk wisdom from the Clinton years shows how many people intuitively understood that. Deals like NAFTA (which ought to be called free capital agreements since trade is incidental to their purpose (via)) destroyed hundreds of thousands of good-paying manufacturing jobs, while new positions were created in the lower-paying service sector. The running joke went something like this: “I know they’ve created millions of new jobs. I have two of them.”1
That trend - which again, folks were very much aware of from the start and had no illusions to the contrary about - is our new reality. We should take that into account the next time we are assured that a good jobs report means that this time, for reals, pinky swear, the Great Recession is totally over. The jobs number by itself is not nearly enough.
We also need to know how much those jobs pay, who is filling them and for how long. It may not be possible to break it down to that level of detail, in which case fine. But such reports should be seen as of limited utility. People need steady work nearby at good wages, and a report that doesn’t address that isn’t (and shouldn’t be) of much interest.
1. Additional appearances:
- Here: “He said I created 11 million jobs. Well, I met a guy the other day that got three of them. “
- Here (PDF): “President Clinton has created millions of new jobs—I have three of them!”
- Here (PDF): “Oh sure, America is creating millions of new jobs. And I’ve got three of them.”
- And I remember seeing it in an editorial cartoon as well (that’s where I first read it) but don’t remember who or where.