In a story that ran in Saturday’s edition headlined “De Blasio Picks More Liberal Activists Than Managers for City Posts,” The New York Times declares that “In Bill de Blasio’s City Hall, it seems more and more, there is only a left wing.” It points to recent appointments of Steven Banks, “a longtime critic of city policies affecting low-income residents” to be HRA commissioner as evidence that the mayor “has built a team filled with former activists—figures more accustomed to picketing administrations or taking potshots from the outside than working from within.” The list of lefties reads as follows:
Carmen Fariña, his schools chancellor, had quit the Bloomberg administration in protest over its emphasis on standardized test scores. The mayor’s top political strategist, Emma Wolfe, rose from campus activist to organizer for the advocacy group Acorn, the health care union 1199 SEIU and the Working Families Party before helping Mr. de Blasio get elected public advocate in 2009. His wife’s new chief of staff, Rachel Noerdlinger, was the longtime gatekeeper for the Rev. Al Sharpton. And his new counsel, Maya Wiley, was most recently in the running to lead the N.A.A.C.P. Laura Santucci, his chief of staff, is a former acting executive director of the Democratic National Committee and a former political aide at 1199 SEIU. Zachary W. Carter, his corporation counsel, was an appointee of President Bill Clinton as the United States attorney in Brooklyn and led the prosecution of police officers in the beating of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant.
The article goes on to say that “at least a few appointees have been less ideological and more managerial,” naming Deputy Mayor Anthony E. Shorris and Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.
Oddly, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton—one of de Blasio’s first and most important appointments and the one that earned him raised eyebrows from some leftists and street protests from others—is not mentioned. Maybe that’s because Bratton was an outspoken critic of his predecessor Ray Kelly and therefore, while no left-wing nut, not sufficiently managerial.
Indeed, you could enter into evidence many names that run counter to the idea that de Blasio has stacked his administration with progressive activists. His deputy mayor for human services, Economic Development Corporation head, NYCHA general manager, homeless services commissioner and youth services commissioner all come directly from the Bloomberg administration. His deputy mayor for economic development comes from Goldman Sachs, and his deputy mayor for strategic initiatives comes from an organization that gave Mayor Bloomberg an award for his anti-poverty crusade. The planning chief has deep roots in the midtown business community, the budget boss is a career adviser to the state legislature and the child welfare chief is moving from the Cuomo administration. A developer heads the Housing Development Corporation. I could go on. You can bet your favorite pair of Sansabelt slacks that none of these people have The Anarchist’s Cookbook on their bookshelves.
Now, it is true that some of de Blasio’s more recent appointments, namely Banks and Wiley, are very vocal advocates for a very different way of governing than Bloomberg practiced. And, yes, some appointments are more important and influential than others, so lefties could be outnumbered in de Blasio’s cabinet without being outgunned. I’ll also admit that some lefty handwringing about the composition of the de Blasio team—in which I have been a sweaty-palmed participant—missed the forest for the trees. And the questions about de Blasio’s ability to communicate and to manage the city (as long as they are questions and not, two months into his term, conclusions) are fair game.
But what is definitely off-target is the notion, which the Times repeated Saturday but certainly didn’t invent, that “more managerial” appointees are somehow ideologically neutral.
This misconception underlay a lot of the skewed analysis of the Bloomberg administration, which was seen as apolitical, as merely interested in unimpeachable goals like efficiency and transparency. Observers were apparently thrown by the fact that Bloomberg combined liberal social beliefs with a devotion to market forces, and wed a comfort with activist policy to a $26 billion-wide blind-spot to the perils of plutocracy. It was a complex ideology—and hard to categorize because we have so few classic liberal Republicans these days—but it was an ideology nonetheless. Calling it otherwise gave many of Bloomberg’s ideas a nonpartisan sheen they didn’t deserve. (“What’s wrong, man: Are you against efficiency?”) Ideology is not like a beard, that some people have and some people don’t. It’s like skin color: even white guys have it.
This misconception threatens to get de Blasio compared to Bloomberg not as a progressive taking over from a centrist but as an ideologue seizing power from a technocrat. And that means that de Blasio’s policies could be debated not on their merits or the critique behind them but merely on the fact that they reflect a strong belief. That’s something de Blasio’s cabinet will have to resist, even if “working from within” is new to some of them.
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy on de Blasio’s latest appointment—a liberal veteran of the Legal Aid Society.
So it’s beginning already.
It was probably inevitable, given widespread left-wing disappointment with Obama and longstanding reservations about Hillary Clinton, that we’d see another outbreak of electoral nihilism: the conviction that it doesn’t really matter which of the two parties holds the presidency. This myth has tempted radicals for a long time. In 1960, back when Commentary was still a liberal magazine, Dwight McDonald took to its pages to declare the outcome of the Nixon/Kennedy election a matter of indifference, as “the effect of one as against another built-up-torn-down candidate is in the realm of metaphysics and so of little interest to sensible people.” Fourteen years ago, this belief led otherwise smart people to declare that there was no meaningful difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush.
The shock of the Bush presidency cured this delusion, for a while—there was remarkable acceptance of John Kerry in 2004, despite his nakedly militaristic convention, and progressives twice mobilized for Obama. Yet here, with the 2016 primaries not yet begun, comes an essay on the cover of Harper’s Magazine arguing that liberals are too focused on winning elections for Democrats.
“Each election now becomes a moment of life-or-death urgency that precludes dissent or even reflection,” writes Adolph Reed, the University of Pennsylvania political scientist, in “Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals.” He continues, “For liberals, there is only one option in an election year, and that is to elect, at whatever cost, whichever Democrat is running…. True, the last Democrat was really unsatisfying, but this one is better; true, the last Republican didn’t bring destruction on the universe, but this one certainly will. And, of course, each of the ‘pivotal’ Supreme Court justices is four years older than he or she was last time.”
Reed has been making a version of this argument for many years in many different elections. In 2000, he voted for Nader and dismissed the importance of the Bush vs. Gore election. During the primary in 2007, he wrote a column titled “Sitting This One Out,” saying, “This time, I’m not going to acquiesce in the fiction that the Presidential charade has any credibility whatsoever.” But the placement of this essay on the cover of Harper’s, and the enthusiastic reception it’s been given by people like Bill Moyers, suggests that the case has renewed resonance.
There are a number of things to argue with in Reed’s piece, among them the strange idea that Bush wasn’t really that bad. (He may not have destroyed the universe, but he presided over the destruction of Iraq, New Orleans, the American economy and a Supreme Court remotely sympathetic to organized labor, among other things.) Other people, I’m sure, will take on his argument that Obama has continued Bill Clinton’s work of moving the Democratic Party rightward. (Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it,” while Obama enacted the biggest expansion of the welfare state since LBJ.) What I want to highlight is an internal contradiction in the case Reed makes against what he calls “electoralitis.”
“Nothing Left” has some very incisive things to say about the broad collapse of the left as a political force. He’s right about how the absence of a positive, fully articulated vision of the future has been paralyzing; as Slavoj Žižek has said numerous times, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Without a clear program, writes Reed, “the left careens from this oppressed group or crisis moment to that one, from one magical or morally pristine constituency or source of political agency…to another. It lacks focus and stability; its métier is bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity, and the event or the gesture. Its reflex is to ‘send messages’ to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or for the oppressed.”
Reed argues, persuasively, that a vibrant left can only be grounded in a rebuilt labor movement: “Pretending some other option exists is worse than useless…. We need to reject the fantasy that some spark will ignite the People to move as a mass.”
But here’s the thing: arguments for ignoring electoral realities, for backing some quixotic third-party candidate or imagining that leftists can sway the system through ultimatums, are based on precisely this fantasy. Movements lead politicians, not the other way around, and simply deciding that the politicians we have aren’t good enough won’t will a movement into being. A left that absented itself from the dirty work of electing a president would be indulging in the very reflex Reed decries: trying to send a message to those in power rather than contending for power itself.
The right understands this; it has simultaneously, over decades, systematically taken over the GOP from the bottom up, built a huge network of interlocking intellectual, legal and political institutions and mobilized every four years to try to elect a Republican president.
Occasionally, over the years, conservatives disgusted by the inevitable compromises of electoral politics have threatened to turn their backs on Republican presidential candidates. When Reagan was in office, the right complained about him in language strikingly similar to left-wing denunciations of Obama. In 1983, Richard Viguerie even suggested that Reagan shouldn’t run for re-election. Think of how much better off we’d all be if right-wingers had refused to support what they saw as the lesser of two evils. Instead, they spent decades organizing within the party until it had no choice but to do their bidding.
And despite Reed’s pessimism, similar work is finally happening in the Democratic Party. Consider the new left-leaning mayors in New York, Seattle, Boston and Minneapolis, and the major initiatives to raise wages in metropolitan areas across the country. A new New York Times story is headlined, “De Blasio Picks More Liberal Activists Than Managers for City Posts.” Some of these people will, with enough work, become tomorrow’s national leaders. This is a bizarre moment to assert that there’s no significant difference between Democrats and Republicans.
So yes, for liberals, there is only one option in an election year, and that is to elect, at whatever cost, whichever Democrat is running. The rest of the time, those who find the current choices intolerable should join in the long, slow groundwork that would allow for better ones.
Read Next: Can the GOP win back big-money donors before 2016?
UPDATE I: As predicted, President Obama is under heavy pressure from the right and from members of Congress to take strong action immediately to confront Russia. The New York Times summarizes the pressure, but it’s coming from many directions: Senator Bob Corker (R.-Tenn.), Senator Marco Rubio, who’s trying to build his thin foreign policy credentials, from John McCain, the NATO expansion advocate, and many other hawks and neoconservatives. The way it’s being posed is: Obama has supported diplomacy with Iran and Syria, he’s cut the military budget, and he’s generally weak in regard to Russia and China, so he’s reaping what he’s sowed. That’s ludicrous – but, when the pressure starts to include Kerry, other administration officials, and perhaps (let’s see) Hillary Clinton, then Obama might, against his better judgment, opt for a more confrontational stance. The statement from the Foreign Policy Initiative goes so far as to advocatean “emergency NATO meeting” and “forward deployment of NATO forces in the former Warsaw Pact countries.”
Speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee today, McCain accused Obama of having a “feckless” foreign policy – feckless meaning, in this case, not invading other countries. The crisis in Ukraine, he said, “is the ultimate result of feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America's strength anymore.”
ORIGINAL POST Vladimir Putin, Russia’s autocratic president and would-be reviver of Russian greatness, must back down.
Unfortunately, Russia’s jingoistic media is hyping the threat to “Russians” and “Russian-speaking” Ukrainians, they’re playing up pro-military demonstrations by “patriotic youth” and other Russians—even as security forces in Russia arrest antiwar protesters—and they’re reporting on the happy “tea and sandwich brigades” helping out in now-occupied Crimea. In one absurd passage, RT reports:
Russia’s biggest bikers’ club, the Night Wolves, has staged a major motorbike rally in the capital in support of Russian speakers in Ukraine. Despite the fact that the motorcycle season hasn’t yet kicked off, over 100 bikes participated in the rally.
It’s outright war propaganda. A statement from Moscow described Putin’s call with President Obama thus:
In response to the concern shown by Obama about the plans for the possible use of Russia’s armed forces on the territory of Ukraine, Putin drew attention to the provocative, criminal actions by ultra-nationalists, in essence encouraged by the current authorities in Kiev…. The Russian President underlined that there are real threats to the life and health of Russian citizens and compatriots on Ukrainian territory. Vladimir Putin stressed that if violence spread further in the eastern regions of Ukraine and in Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and those of Russian speakers living there.
The trick for President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry is to create a face-saving way for Putin to accept the fact that Ukraine, including the disputed Crimea, isn’t Russia’s any longer, and neither the Russian empire nor the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics exists any longer. And the venue has to shift to the United Nations.
Russia’s actions, so far, indeed amount to acts of war. Its troops have invaded Ukrainian territory, and Putin—sounding like George W. Bush vis-à-vis Iraq—has asked Russia’s legislature for permission to use Russian troops throughout all of Ukraine. Memo to Putin: like Iraq, Ukraine is a sovereign nation, whose territory is inviolable. And Crimea, though Russia has legitimate interests there—its Black Sea fleet, after all, is based there according to a lease arrangement with Kiev—is part of Ukraine.
It may not be possible, at this stage, to resolve the crisis peacefully at all. It may be that nothing the United States can do, whether threatening Russia with economic sanctions and expulsion from the G-8, can change Putin’s mind regarding Ukraine. In that case, Russia will seize and consolidate control of Crimea, build support for broader Russian intervention in Ukraine’s pro-Russian east—the country’s industrial heartland—and back the ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, or some other pro-Russian proxy as a vehicle for expanding Russian involvement into Ukraine’s west. In the Russian argument, the accord that was negotiated last month, which would have allowed Yanukovych to remain in power until new presidential elections were held, is still valid—which is utter nonsense. The change in Kiev is permanent, and the fact that it was so violent and chaotic is a testament to Russia’s overplaying its hand.
The fact that the United States has few, if any, real options to stop Russia doesn’t make Russia’s aggression any less ominous. Fact is, the fragile US-Russian relationship, which has been spiraling downwards for years, is critical to resolving several world crises: the civil war in Syria, the nuclear talks with Iran and the stabilization of Afghanistan after 2014, just for starters. If Russia expands its invasion of Ukraine, beyond what it’s already done, all that is at risk. And not just at risk: Russia’s actions in Ukraine could tip the balance in Washington sharply against President Obama’s recent, more pronounced shift toward diplomacy rather than conflict. With the president already under fire from hardliners and neoconservatives, as well as hawks within his own administration, Obama’s very inability to halt the Russian action in Ukraine could lead him to accede to the demands of those who, for instance, want to take military action in Syria.
It’s true that Russia has profound strategic and economic interests in Ukraine, and it’s also true that the United States, really, has none whatsoever. But that’s an argument for both Russian patience and American forbearance, since eventually the turmoil in Ukraine will settle into some sort of stability, and Russia’s overwhelming presence in the region will allow an accommodation in which Moscow, Washington and especially the European Union—and not NATO!—all can have relations with whatever government emerges in Kiev.
So far, Obama and Putin have had a least two tense and unproductive telephone discussions in recent days. Appearing on Meet the Press on Sunday, Kerry issued the starkest warnings yet about consequences if Russia doesn’t hold off. He said—and there was some question about this—that all of Europe’s major powers will join the United States is taking economic measures to isolate Russia unless the invasion is halted. And Kerry said:
He is not going to have a Sochi G-8. He may not even remain in the G-8 if this continues. He may find himself with asset freezes on Russian business. American business may pull back. There may be a further tumble of the ruble. There’s a huge price to pay.
Threats and promises of punishment to come are one thing, but if the crisis is to be resolved without catastrophic consequences in international affairs, then the United States and Europe have to offer some sweeteners to Moscow, too, at least in private. Incredibly, though, in his Meet the Press appearance, Kerry refused to rule out a military response to Russia’s actions, even though there is no credible American action to take and, if the United States did engage militarily, it would undoubtedly be the most serious event since the 1962 Cuban missile showdown. Still, Kerry said: “The last thing anybody wants is a military option in this kind of a situation,” and then added, “But.”
President Obama has made a series of statements on Ukraine, including the March 1 White House statement after speaking with Putin and his February 28 remarks on the crisis in Ukraine.
Obama’s remarks, in his February 28 statement, did in fact acknowledge Russia’s substantial interest in Ukraine:
I also spoke several days ago with President Putin, and my administration has been in daily communication with Russian officials, and we’ve made clear that they can be part of an international community’s effort to support the stability and success of a united Ukraine going forward, which is not only in the interest of the people of Ukraine and the international community, but also in Russia’s interest.
However, we are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine. Russia has a historic relationship with Ukraine, including cultural and economic ties, and a military facility in Crimea, but any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia, or Europe.
But the president needs to go further to outline how the crisis might be resolved, to Russia’s advantage and in the interests of the Ukrainians and world affairs, if and when Russia halts its military actions.
Read Next: Nicolai N. Petro on the growing threat of military confrontation in Ukraine.
As the crisis in Ukraine deepens, media commentators and members of Congress are returing to Cold War rhetoric on nuclear weapons, calling for a halt to already-negotiated cutbacks in the massive U.S. arsenal and/or extending the reach of our nuclear umbrella to Kiev. Sen. Marco Rubio on 'Meet the Press" called for expanding our so-called "missile shield" defense.
Still, it's worth remembering that it could be much worse. No nukes is good news, in Ukraine.
Remember that when the Soviet Union broke up, several of the breakaway republics took with them some of Mother Russia’s nukes. Ukraine had many of them, the biggest budget and a lot of animosity toward Russia. But somehow, with our help, they gave them up. Bill Maher even shoved this fact down the throat of Bill Kristol last night on his HBO show when Kristol disparaged diplomacy.
The terrific Amy Davidson of The New Yorker reviews the history here.
It was not obvious where all these missiles would end up, particularly not in the case of Ukraine, which was stronger than the others and more sharply at odds with Russia; it thought it might find better friends. (Steven Pifer, of the Brookings Institution, has a useful review.) The new Ukrainian government also thought that Russia was not negotiating in good faith (from a certain perspective, it had absconded with Ukraine’s tactical warheads). Russia, meanwhile, suggested that the Ukrainians were not decent stewards of the weapons: they didn’t know how to take care of them, and they would deteriorate and turn into public hazards—“much worse than Chernobyl,” the Russian Foreign Minister said at the time. The disaster at Chernobyl had given the Ukrainians a look at a nuclear accident; it had also underscored a sense that Moscow was neglectful and mendacious. They also knew that I.C.B.M.s, even if they had no use for them, contained highly enriched uranium that was extremely valuable. And Ukraine needed money. In September, 1993, the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine fell apart.
The United States could have approached this in any number of ways. One might have been heedlessly, without a full understanding of the danger—gleeful about the spectacle, and glad to see the inheritors of the Soviet Union dispossessed of a few more bombs. We could have helped keep Ukraine a nuclear power, thinking that it would make the country, in some way, ours. Or we could have been excessively fearful, and supported Moscow’s contention that the Ukrainians had no right to these things, anyway, encouraging them to just go in and take them. This might have made the dissolution of the Soviet Union look a lot more like a civil war, in which our position was ambiguous. We could have postured, and lost the Cold War peace.
Instead, we offered two things…
Read on to see what happened. And see a full report by a Brookings expert here.
Then Davidson concludes:
What are the lessons for the current crisis, other than to be abjectly relieved that we don’t live in a world where nuclear weapons are even more loosely held than they are? One is to not disparage diplomacy, or treat it as a lesser form of foreign policy, or to think that there is no place for a calm middle. Another is to remember how human and fallible the actors are, and how much listening and getting a sense of their interests can help.
Read Next: Nation in the News: Stephen Cohen: The US Should Promote a Stable and United Ukraine.
Next week’s issue of The Nation will feature a report by Stanford Professor Cécile Alduy about the alarming rise of Marine Le Pen and the French far right. In recent years, Le Pen has skillfully, if disingenuously, attempted to scrub her National Front party of the most odious manifestations of the anti-Semitism, racism and outright xenophobia in which her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, specialized during his forty-year leadership of the party. At the same time, Alduy writes, the French mainstream—mistakenly scapegoating immigrants for the country’s economic malaise—has moved further to the right. Whatever the results of local elections slated for later this month and European Parliament elections in May, there is a serious risk that the toxic ideology of the National Front will become further enshrined and legitimized as a driving force in the public conversation—not only in France, but across Europe as a whole.
Although Le Pen “has managed to put a modern gloss on an old political brand,” Alduy writes, the underlying philosophy of the National Front remains almost exactly the same as it was under Jean-Marie Le Pen. It is perhaps useful, then, to re-examine the behavior of the wolf before it donned sheep’s clothing—and for such a mission there is no better guide than Daniel Singer, The Nation’s longtime European correspondent before his death in 2000. His numerous dispatches on Le Pen père—“the man whose name is synonymous with the recent revival of overt racism in French politics and society,” Singer wrote in 1985—show how mutable and dangerous remains the threat emanating from what Singer, in a recurring assortment of related metaphors, called France’s plague, poison and disease.
In “The Resistible Rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen” (September 7, 1985), Singer wrote of Le Pen:
Smiling, smartly dressed, he now seems—particularly on television, where he is on his best behavior—a frank and reasonable fellow saying aloud “what everybody really believes,” telling people “what they already know,” a man who merely echoes the basic precept of that great American Ronald Reagan: namely, that communism is the root of all evil. A red-faced, rather fat man who warns the “silent majority” against muggers, drug addicts, gays and crypto-pinkos, Le Pen might be described as a sort of French Spiro Agnew preaching law and order, except that he is not of Greek or any other foreign extraction. That is an important difference, because the man and the movement he leads, the National Front, trumpet the slogan “Frenchmen First” and spread the fairy tale that everything would be fine in the streets and hospitals, in the schools and even the factories were it not for the foreign hordes invading France, particularly those crossing the Mediterranean. France would be just marvelous without Marxists, Arabs and other aliens.…
The entry of avowed racists into the French Parliament is not in itself the worst prospect. As the old saying goes, you don’t bring the temperature down by breaking the thermometer…. More worrisome is the underlying ideological shift to the right, the radical metamorphosis of the substance and form of political debate, of which this plague is only a symptom.
Three years later, after the National Front had secured a new level of legitimacy when Le Pen won more than 14 percent of the vote in the 1988 presidential election, Singer wrote “In the Heart of Le Pen Country,” about a visit to Marseille:
Serious trouble does not begin when the men with jackboots or with cloven hoofs opt for fascism. It begins when the tinker and tailor, your neighbor and your cousin, are driven sufficiently mad by circumstances to vote for an admirer of Pinochet, a preacher of apartheid, a man for whom the gas chambers are a mere “detail.” As I looked down from the steps of the station, on departing this outwardly still-warm and attractive town, I could not help feeling that moral pollution is not so easily perceived. All the more reason to probe below the surface, to sound the alarm and, above all, to seek a cure—unless we want to wake up one day, too late, in a fully contaminated city or country.
* * *
Singer continued to track Le Pen’s rise throughout the 1990s. His dispatches from the time show an increasing concern about Le Pen’s staying power, and even foreshadows the more recent attempts by his youngest daughter, Marine Le Pen, to conceal the party’s underlying fascism by projecting a more smiling, human face:
“The Ghosts of Nationalism” (March 23, 1992):
Although unemployment in Western Europe is now roughly three times higher than it was twenty years ago, it has not reached the proportions of the prewar Depression, nor is the fate of its victims comparable. Although discontent is high, workers are not flocking en masse to Le Pen and his equivalents. The danger for Western Europe is not an immediate takeover by various National Fronts. The threat lies in the gradual extension of the disease: the spread of racism and the weakening of class solidarity, sapping society’s capacity for resistance should a really catastrophic slump bring back another bout of the deadly epidemic.
“Hate in a Warm Climate” (April 20, 1992):
Le Pen has been told that to win votes he must keep his tongue in check, so he’s on his best behavior. He makes no openly racist or anti-Semitic remarks. Yet, listening carefully, you can still judge the man. His reference to Jean-Claude Gaudin as “the bearded woman”—a not so gentle hint about the incumbent’s alleged homosexuality—gives an idea of his moral tone. The contempt he puts into the words “of every race and religion,” describing demonstrators he saw in London, is also revealing. So is his scorn for those who stir up unpleasant memories of World War II: “They only want to talk about Pétain and Touvier” (a wartime torturer, hidden for years by the clergy and only recently arrested). “Whatever the subject, it reminds them of Hitler and Vichy.”
“Liberté, Egalité, Racisme” (October 21, 1996):
In its new posture the National Front is increasingly reminiscent of the prewar fascist movements. Equally worrying is the fact that the phenomenon is not simply French. From Antwerp to Vienna, passing through northern and southern Italy, in the absence of rational prospects, all sorts of forces of unreason are gaining ground. Naturally, the situation should not be overdramatized. The economic crisis is not yet deep enough for a Le Pen to be voted into power in any Western European country. But the poison is spreading. It will not be halted by pandering to prejudices, making compromises, sticking to an increasingly conservative consensus. It won’t be stopped by decree, either. The counteroffensive will require relentless daily battles on the political, social and cultural fronts. If the respectable right is more to blame as the carrier of the disease, the main responsibility, nevertheless, belongs to the left: The rise of Le Pen will not be really resisted until the people, offered the prospect of a radically different society, start struggling for genuine solutions instead of seeking scapegoats. This French lesson, now read throughout Europe, does not lose its validity on crossing the ocean.
“Supping with the French Devil” (April 20, 1998):
Much having been written here about the resistible rise of Le Pen, we can sum up the spread of the disease in shorthand. When François Mitterrand was elected president in 1981 the front was insignificant. Deprived of office, the right invented the myth that growing unemployment was due to immigrant labor, forgetting that however low it would stoop, Le Pen could get lower still. Thus he acquired his stock in trade, imposing a phony debate on the nation. But he was able to consolidate his position only because the left failed to offer a radical alternative. With France experiencing a vague consensus on economic policy combined with rising social misery, Le Pen could appear to be the only outsider, gaining support notably among workers and the unemployed. His queer mixture of Reaganomics at home and opposition to globalization is incoherent, so whenever the social movement is active (as in the 1995 winter of discontent) the front is cast aside. But it recovers, feeding on the economic failure of the other protagonists.
Thus the fate of the National Front is really in the hands of the left. If it listens to the international financial establishment, opting for a deflationary policy and the dismantling of the welfare state, it will encourage the spread of the disease, which no changing of the electoral thermometer will cure. Only if it tackles unemployment head-on, radically reshaping French society, will the left be able to contain a cancerous growth that is already serious, although not yet fatal. The responsibility is historical because…the corpses of the past are still unburied. Pace Hegel and Marx, history may repeat itself not as farce but as tragicomedy.
* * *
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If I were reporting a story about social welfare programs in the city and wanted to talk to a source who could cite chapter and verse on how the de Blasio administration was or wasn’t fulfilling its moral and legal commitment to the poor, I’d call Steve Banks, the Legal Aid big-wig who for my entire career has been a monitor and critic of the Giuliani and Bloomberg administration’s approach to welfare, food stamps, homeless shelters and other threads of the safety net.
That phone call will be awkward now, because Banks will be running that policy for de Blasio, who on Friday named him the head of the Human Resources Administration.
A cynic might dismiss the move as shrewd politics: neutralize your most likely critic by making him your right-hand man. But there are plenty of other very vocal advocates in the city who will seamlessly continue their watchdog duties without Banks at their side. A more fair reading of the move is that this is de Blasio understanding that while some agencies are prepared to follow his more progressive marching orders—and therefore can be led by the kind of veteran insiders the mayor has appointed to lead them—HRA needs a deeper reorientation.
As Banks put it yesterday, “The impact that HRA has on the lives of very vulnerable children and adults in this city is really limitless. It’s there to be a helping hand and it should be a helping hand. Unfortunately, over the years it hasn’t been a helping hand for people that desperately need help…”
Under Mayor Bloomberg, HRA kept finger-imaging food-stamp applicants even after the federal agency that oversees the nutrition program, USDA, asked it to stop. Bloomberg refused to apply for a waiver to let more jobless adults without disabilities or kids get food stamps. The waiver was open to all counties with high unemployment, and New York easily qualified, but the mayor refused—even when his own aides wanted to do it, and, later, even when the post-recession stimulus bill made the waiver open to every city. Welfare rolls were static or even fell during the economic crisis, as lines at pantries grew and homeless shelter populations swelled, but the previous administration took the shrinking beneficiary population as a feather in its cap. And when the Bloomberg administration launched its much-ballyhooed effort to reduce poverty, HRA—the city’s welfare agency—bizarrely was not at the table.
As City Limits’s Neil de Mause reported three years ago, it’s hard for those of us who live comfortably to understand the outsize role HRA plays in the lives of the city’s 1.6 million poor people. HRA appointments and paperwork requirements can dominate poor people’s schedules, and its decisions on benefits and penalties are of extraordinary consequence.
If the city is serious about reducing inequality, and understands that government’s best tools for doing so are those that affect the low end of the population’s income distribution, HRA has to be part of the picture. The appointment of Banks suggests it will be. Said Banks:
we need to understand who it is that the agency is serving. The agency is serving people that are cycling in and out of low-wage work and are coming to the agency to get one-shot rent arrears [assistance] and things of that nature to keep a roof over their heads and keep them out of the shelter system. To an extent we have bureaucratic obstacles that were from another era, when the population was different and the ideologies were different, we have to look at all those barriers and see which one should be taken down in order to have proper policies that are aligned with the mayor’s values and the mayor’s goals.
Banks also put it this way: “We have to make sure that people are treated as human beings.”
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy on how de Blasio is making life better for homeless kids
—Samuel Adler-Bell focuses on labor, mass incarceration, literature and film.
“Diary: Get Off the Bus,” by Rebecca Solnit. London Review of Books, February 20, 2014
Rebecca Solnit reports on the intensifying conflict between lower-income San Francisco residents and the youngish Silicon Valley gentry who’ve been migrating to (read colonizing) their city over the past decade. My favorite anecdote describes an unofficial “Beddazzle a Tech Bus” competition, hosted by a Mission District blog. The winning design—theoretically intended to beautify the austere, white, window-tinted coaches that shuttle tech workers from SF to their lavish campuses down the peninsula—features a Google Street View photo of the Clarion Alley murals, a colorful palimpsest of radical iconography and slogans, painted by local artists and community groups. If Google actually adopts the design, the resulting bus will perfectly embody the Silicon Valley ethos: an elite neo-liberal project, benefiting a very tiny fraction of the population, cloaked in the cosmetic trappings of countercultural rebellion. Get off the bus indeed.
—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.
“Is Venezuela Burning?” by Mike Gonzalez. Jacobin, February 25, 2014
As antigovernment protests in Venezuela capture the world’s attention, Mike Gonzalez provides a wonderful socialist take on the situation for Jacobin. For Gonzalez, there are many reasons that the protests have erupted. The objects of the protesters’ aggression demonstrate the obvious class character of the demonstrations: protesters have burned some of Venezuela’s new buses, attacked Cuban medical personnel in the country and have attempted to invade Bolivarian University, which provides free higher education to the poor. However, to focus solely on the sharp class divides in Venezuela is to miss the bigger picture. To the dissatisfaction of many, rampant corruption, speculation and inflation have wrecked Venezuela’s economy. The new Venezuelan bureaucratic class, “wearing the obligatory red shirt and cap of Chavismo,” are much to blame for this situation. They are “the speculators and owners of this new and failing economy,” writes Gonzalez, and they have enriched themselves while “institutions of popular power have largely withered on the vine.” Gonzalez’s solution is to deepen the Bolivarian revolution. This would require the dismissal of corrupt bureaucrats, the removal of speculators and expansion of participatory democracy. Sounds like a good strategy, and not just for Venezuela!
—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.
“Cult-like, corrupt and Christian conservative: Inside the campus group creating Walmart managers,” by Josh Eidelson. Salon, February 26, 2014
A fascinating book published several years ago by historian Nelson Lichtenstein introduced me to the complex and bizarre ideological apparatus behind Walmart: the corporation employs incredibly sophisticated strategies of social and emotional manipulation. All corporations dabble in emotional manipulation in the realm of advertising, of course, but outsiders don’t always realize that workers are often subject to the same tactics. Josh Eidelson’s interview with Curtis DeBerg, which mentions Lichtenstein’s book (The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business) expands our understanding of who is systematically manipulated by Walmart to include college students and teachers participating in the “enterpreneurship” competitions it quietly funds, even if the similarity between beleaguered business professors and actual employees can certainly be overstated. So can the uniqueness of Walmart—its practices are of course mirrored in kind, if not in scale, elsewhere.
—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.
“Why Study Philosophy? ‘To Challenge Your Own Point of View,’” interview with Rebecca Goldstein by Hope Reese. The Atlantic, February 27, 2014
I’m often disappointed by philosophers purporting to defend the field of philosophy and, inevitably, showcasing its frivolousness by harping on the importance of “knowing our place in the universe” and “debating the existence of free will”—not that these questions aren’t interesting. As emphasis is increasingly placed (by whom, even?) on the “practical education,” the study of philosophy seems more and more the residue left over from a more financially secure era. The Atlantic interviews philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex, whose vested interest is in preserving the integrity of her field. At many points in the interview, Goldstein appears to be an apologist, tossing off justifications for ethical studies only relevant to the bourgeoisie who sip tea with their pinkies out. But in arguing that “there’s a lot of philosophical progress, it’s just a progress that’s very hard to see. It’s very hard to see because we see with it,” Goldstein redeems ethics as a soil rich for fueling equal rights movements and activism.
—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.
“The Third Party That’s Winning,” by Sarah Jaffe. In These Times, March 3, 2014
For those interested in alternatives to the two-party system, a working understanding of the Working Families Party (WFP)—oft-mentioned on TheNation.com—is indispensable. Jaffe offers a comprehensive look at how the party got started, its impacts across the country and its nimble tactics. The WFP’s work within and around fusion voting systems and its blurring of formal and informal political institutions offer many lessons learned. For more on emerging political parties check out Andy Kroll’s recent Mother Jones feature on Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor Party and look into the rise of Net parties.
—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups’ relationship with technology and development.
“Rumours and ‘Fake’ Photos Prompt Calls for Responsible Social Media in Venezuela,” by Adriana Gutiérrez, translated by Victoria Robertson. Global Voices, February 19, 2014
Social media users have become an important force in popular organizing and information-sharing, but can they also successfully organize to mediate their own risk of promoting harmful misinformation? That risk was evident with the Boston bomber witch hunt on Reddit last year, and this piece in Global Voices—a site that itself builds many stories around social media reactions—looks at responses to inaccurate citizen journalism on both sides of the tensions in Venezuela. It quotes a parody of a zealous tweep: “It was a terrible picture: a police officer with a black uniform that I had never seen in Venezuela mistreating a student in a street that clearly wasn’t here…. I couldn’t resist, I had to retweet and share it with the world.” But the piece also offers hope for learning and dialogue, noting efforts—many by fellow social-media users—to instruct and empower netizens with the principles of fact-based reporting.
—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.
“Calculating Coups: Can Data Stop Disasters?” by Peter Dörrie. Think Africa Press, February 20, 2014
In the age of the quants, the reach of quantitative data spreads far. Here, in Peter Dörrie’s piece on political forecaster and academic Jay Ulfelder, it is being used to predict coups. Ulfelder’s data analysis has been pretty impressive, with Mali, the Central African Republic and Sudan all making it on to Ulfelder’s list before conflicts there broke out.
The role of statistical analysis and forecasting models has had a growing influence on political science, at times set antagonistically against on-the-ground interpretation of issues. Quantitative data is important, but how much of a role should it have in how we understand and study the world? In this case, it’s important to remember that it’s one way of looking at conflict, not the way.
—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.
“Health Centers See Threat From ‘Private Option’ Medicaid,” by Phil Galewitz. Kaiser Health News, February 21, 2014
The problem with Republican governors pushing a “private option” Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act isn’t just political, it may also have a huge impact on how much funding health centers receive. Take Arkansas, which is using money from the federal government meant to expand Medicaid to place people on private plans instead (Utah and New Hampshire are considering doing the same). Doing so allows states and the politicians who run them to ideologically push back against expanding public programs, while still assisting lower-income citizens and boosting the private insurance sector. But there’s more than ideology on the line here: given that federal law requires higher reimbursements to health centers than what private insurers pay, health centers traditionally reliant on Medicaid reimbursements are seeing per patient funding slashed in half, threatening the overall strength and sustainability of the public healthcare system. (Pennsylvania and Iowa also use the “private option,” but require reimbursements at normal Medicaid rates.)
—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.
“We need money for aid. So let’s print it,” by Michael Metcalfe. TED, February 2014
Economist Michael Metcalfe is pushing a seemingly implausible solution to worldwide chronic aid shortages: just print the money. At this you can almost hear some some crotchety undergraduate economics professor muttering to himself, “What nonsense… increasing the money supply like that would trigger inflation!” Not necessarily, Metcalfe argues, recall what happened when, in order to save the financial system, the central banks of the US, UK and Japan created $3.7 trillion out of thin air… Nothing, as it turned out; the general level of prices for goods and services in these economies did not skyrocket. So, Metcalfe asks, if we can defy the sanctity of the money supply to protect the financial assets of the global elite, then why not in the service of a more noble objective?
—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.
“The Bane and the Boon of For-Profit Colleges,” by Eduardo Porter. The New York Times, February 25, 2014
In this article from the NYT, Eduardo Porter offers a reexamination of an often-maligned sector of higher education, for-profit universities. Many of the recent debates about the role of higher education come to the fore in his discussion: what’s the value of a college degree? Is everyone entitled to one? What should be the role of trade schools? The controversy around for-college universities, Porter shows, is ultimately indicative of the larger failure of higher education to provide access to higher education for everyone who’s looking for it.
Read Next: Aryeh Younger on Swarthmore’s Open Hillel, the first in the country.
The Los Angeles Times obtained an internal review of US Border Patrol’s use-of-force policies, which US Customs and Border Protection has refused to release publicly (members of Congress have seen a summary). While the Times did not offer the report in full, the paper did publish previously unseen snippets that portray a law enforcement agency operating under loose use-of-force standards and little accountability.
The review was completed in February 2013 by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit that develops best practices for law enforcement use-of-force policies. It examined sixty-seven use-of-force incidents by federal border agents near the US-Mexico border that resulted in nineteen deaths.
Here are some key findings of the review, revealed by the Times Thursday:
Border Patrol agents have intentionally and unnecessarily stepped in front of moving cars to justify using deadly force against vehicle occupants.
Agents have shot in frustration across the US-Mexico border at rock throwers when simply moving away was an option.
Border Patrol demonstrates a “lack of diligence” in investigating incidents in which US agents fire their weapons.
It’s questionable whether Border Patrol “consistently and thoroughly reviews” incidents in which agents use deadly force.
The report is especially scathing in its critique of agents who’ve stood in front of moving vehicles, recommending that they “get out of the way…as opposed to intentionally assuming a position in front of such vehicles.” The authors add:
It should be recognized that a half-ounce (200-grain) bullet is unlikely to stop a 4,000-pound moving vehicle, and if the driver…is disabled by a bullet, the vehicle will become a totally unguided threat… Obviously, shooting at a moving vehicle can pose a risk to bystanders including other agents.
The report recommends that Border Patrol bar agents from shooting at vehicles unless their lives are threatened and also from firing at rock throwers. An internal response by Border Patrol, also obtained by the Los Angeles Times, rejected both these recommendations. The agency said a ban on shooting at rock throwers would endanger agents because they work “in rural or desolate areas, often alone, where concealment, cover and egress is not an option,” and that a ban on shooting vehicles would empower drug smugglers to run over agents. The response echoes statements made by Border Patrol chief Mike Fisher in November.
At least twenty-one people have been killed by Border Patrol agents working on the US-Mexico border since 2010. In 2012, agents shot at a 16-year-old boy multiple times in the back, killing him. The latest fatality happened this month, when a border agent near San Diego shot and killed an undocumented migrant for throwing rocks, one of which struck the agent in the head. In all these cases, it’s unknown as to whether any of the agents involved were disciplined, as CBP does not make that information public.
Read Next: Colorado’s federal supermax prison is force-feeding inmates on hunger strike.
A Republican state lawmaker apparently regrets an entire career of making vile comments about AIDS, LGBTQ people, women, abortion and rape.
Representative Lawrence Lockman of Maine was thrust into the national spotlight when blogger Mike Tipping posted a collection of offensive comments the first-term Republican has made through decades of extremist activism and advocacy. Maine Democrats called for his resignation Tuesday. He released a statement of regret (no, not an apology) the next day.
As director of the Pro Life Education Association in 1990, he was quoted as saying:
If a woman has [the right to abortion], why shouldn’t a man be free to use his superior strength to force himself on a woman? At least the rapist’s pursuit of sexual freedom doesn’t [in most cases] result in anyone’s death.
Arguing against AIDS education in 1987, he wrote:
In the overwhelming majority of cases, people are dying because of their addiction to sodomy. They are dying because progressive, enlightened, tolerant people in politics and in medicine have assured the public that the practice of sodomy is a legitimate alternative lifestyle, rather than a perverted, depraved crime against humanity.
As vice president for Concerned Maine Families in 1995, he fought for a referendum that would ban discrimination against gay and lesbian people. That year, he wrote an op-ed saying of state antidiscrimination measures:
You can bet the rent money they will demand that employers set up goals and timetables to achieve 10 percent homosexual representation in the workforce and in government contracts.
That is by no means an exhaustive list. For that, check out Mike Tipping’s post.
Here’s Lockman’s statement on these comments:
I have always been passionate about my beliefs, and years ago I said things that I regret.… I hold no animosity toward anyone by virtue of their gender or sexual orientation, and today I am focused on ensuring freedom and economic prosperity for all Mainers.
Lockman was elected to Maine’s House of Representatives in 2012.
Read Next: Maine’s Paul LePage might be the worst governor of all.
Lately, MSNBC seems to be waking up every few mornings to find a celebrity rattlesnake in its boot. First, Bill Maher said MSNBC was obsessed with Chris Christie and that Bridgegate had become its Benghazi. Then Alec Baldwin took to the cover of New York magazine to denounce his former network for running “the same shit all day long.” “The only difference” between shows, Baldwin wrote, “was who was actually pulling off whatever act they had come up with.”
MSNBC killed Baldwin’s Friday night talk show after only five weeks when the actor made a homophobic remark, which he contends in New York wasn’t homophobic at all. He also calls Rachel Maddow, whom he suspects was behind his ouster, a “phony.” But such Hollywood hairballs, coming on the heels of a series of apologies, anchor defenestrations and schedule rejiggering, could make a casual viewer wonder, Could there be buried in Baldwin’s bruised ego a critique of the network worth listening to? And is Maher right that MSNBC is in danger of becoming the Fox News of the left?
First, Baldwin: he’s right about one thing. With exceptions like Morning Joe with its center-right tilt, the wildly erratic Chris Matthews and Steve Kornacki’s and Melissa Harris-Perry’s two-hour, in-depth weekend shows, there is a sameness to MSNBC’s roster. The daily, hour-long format, often featuring hosts from other MSNBC shows and a familiar rotation of guest pundits can be mind-numbing—just as it can be on Fox News and CNN. (I’m tempted to say, just as it’d be on any cable news network with twenty-four hours to fill. But Al Jazeera, by emphasizing granular reporting across the world, is disproving that old saw.)
Ronan Farrow’s new show may evolve, but when I flipped it on Monday and saw him chatting it up with MSNBC’s favorite Republican, former RNC chair Michael Steele, and MSNBC host Alex Wagner, it could have been any one of the network’s shows—this one just had a young semi-celeb at the glossy desk. MSNBC should at least give him some fresh material—and running a daily segment called “Heroes and Zeros” doesn’t cut it.
I admit, most of my frustration with MSNBC is my own fault: I watch it too damn much! It pulls me in. I still marvel that a TV network can be so unabashedly left-liberal and survive in the corporate media—much as I marveled during the several years of Air America radio (where Maddow began). MSNBC is light years ahead of its rivals in its racial diversity; most of its hosts are super-smart (unfortunately, producers keep trying to leaven the wonk with whimsy, like the ironic music accompanying Chris Hayes’s pre-taped pieces or Maddow’s too-cute re-enactments); and the network delves regularly into under-covered subjects, like the environment (which, by the way, Hayes and Maddow excel at).
Of course, you don’t hear a peep from MSNBC about its corporate parent Comcast and its controversial proposed purchase of Time Warner Cable. And it doesn’t often venture off the Democratic Party ranch. But until Keith Olbermann—who not surprisingly endorses Baldwin’s rant—fitted MSNBC with a left foot, Fox seemed to have snuffed out any hope that “the liberal media” might actually live up to its name.
Saying things on national TV once relegated to The Village Voice or The Nation understandably lends MSNBCers a confidence, almost a sense of triumphalism, which sometimes trips them up into merely nyah-nyah-nyahing the right. Fox does this with far more gusto at the left, but it doesn’t serve MSNBC well. A friend of mine says she can’t watch MSNBC anymore, because “they’re smug. Anyone who doesn’t agree with them, they treat like they’re stupid.”
The flip side of smug is a sense of insecurity. Hosts are coming (the estimable Joy Reid, as well as Farrow, debuted a show this week) and going (Baldwin, Olbermann, Martin Bashir, Dylan Ratigan). Clearly they’re under constant pressure to rack up ratings, something the Chris Christie scandals have indeed helped them do.
Which brings us to Bill Maher’s critique. Unlike Baldwin, Maher “loves” MSNBC. But in a Valentine’s Day post he decided to break up with the network because it’s preoccupied with another man, the New Jersey governor.
Maddow defended the heavy coverage on Maher’s HBO show the next week. “I am totally obsessed with the Christie story, unapologetically,” she said, “and will continue to be obsessed with it while amazing things in that story continue to happen.” Maher conceded that Benghazi isn’t a real scandal while Bridgegate most definitely is—though, he added, “It’s just that it’s not Watergate.” And he softened that too-easy trope that MSNBC is the Fox News of the left, saying, “I hate false equivalency. MSNBC, one of the great things about it is that they are scrupulous fact-checkers whereas Fox News are scrupulous fact-maker-uppers.”
If the non-Fox media have been hard on Chris Christie lately, it’s in direct proportion to how hard they fell for him before. For years, the media—and this includes MSNBC stars like Scarborough, Matthews and, on occasion, Al Sharpton—loved the blunt-talking, fuggedaboutit Jersey guy who had the guts to “work across the aisle.” When Bridgegate revealed that in fact he had been intimidating and threatening Democratic office-holders all along, it unleashed a torrent of pent-up, actual reporting.
So, yes, as Bill Maher says, MSNBC has been obsessed with Christie, but no, they’re not covering him too much. And yes, as Alec Baldwin says, in stronger words, the shows have fallen into a sameness.
It’s a problem, however, that can be remedied, sometimes as simply as having a host light out for the territory. Ed Schultz, for instance, is running a weeklong series on the Keystone XL Pipeline, reporting from Nebraska and listening to the citizens TransCanada is trampling over. Ed, who began as a (surprising) supporter of the pipeline, now appears to be leaning against it. It’s a change of heart and venue that’s making his show, and at least one hour of MSNBC, suddenly suspenseful and dynamic.
Read Next: Reed Richardson on journalism’s real hoax problem