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
The Obama administration recommended on Thursday that private companies begin searching for oil and gas reserves off the Atlantic Coast, an area that has been closed to drilling for decades. More than 3 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 312 trillion cubic feet of natural gas may lie in the area, which extends from Delaware to Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Oil and gas companies have lobbied administrations since the 1980s to lease ocean tracts in the Atlantic, to little effect. The release of an environmental impact study by the Interior Department that concluded undersea seismic testing could commence is a step toward doing so, although it can’t happen before 2017; the current five-year plan for the Outer Continental Shelf keeps the Atlantic out of bounds. Oil industry groups, along with a coalition of governors from coastal states, are hoping to influence the next five-year plan as it develops, a staffer who has worked on offshore issues for Alaskan governor Sean Parnell told me on background. Practically, they’re hoping to find new reserves: nine companies have already applied for surveying permits, according to The New York Times.
“It would be really ironic if the Obama administration, which supposedly understands climate change and thus the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, was the one to open these areas,” said Steve Kretzman, the executive director of Oil Change International. The president previously green-lighted exploratory activity in the Atlantic three years ago, but scuttled the plans after the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April of 2010.
The prospect of new activity in the Atlantic, even if years or decades away, raises a question that environmentalists have found themselves asking often lately: How does the administration reconcile its commitment to fighting climate change with its long standing support for expanded oil production? Obama’s approach to climate is largely focused on reducing demand for fossil fuels, by promoting investment in renewables and tightening emissions standards for power plants and motor vehicles. (If Congress could ever put a price on carbon, that also would affect demand.) The implicit assumption of Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy is that policies intended to discourage consumption will be effective even if fossil fuels become more readily available.
By this logic, the United States might as well reap the profits from our fossil fuel reserves so long as demand exists—until people don’t need oil and coal, someone will continue to supply it. Some of the profits from domestic oil production could even help power the transition to cleaner energy if they were funneled into a research and development fund for renewables.
So why have climate hawks focused lately on cutting off the flow of carbon-intensive fuels? For example, the major environmental fight right now, over Keystone XL, is about keeping tar sands oil in the ground. Part of the answer is that policymaking and activism have different goals, as David Roberts has argued. Even if the most effective practical way to lower carbon emissions is to stop consuming so many fossil fuels, effective activism may depend on picking different fights.
Furthermore, ramping up production, even while we know 80 percent of known reserves (meaning, not including whatever is off the coast of the Atlantic, since those are unproven) have to stay in the ground if we’re serious about staying below two degrees Celsius, has political consequences that directly undermine the demand-side policies the administration is counting on. After I spoke with Kretzman he sent me a longer response to the question of why supply matters, and his argument is worth reading in full:
It’s not either/or. We have to work on both the supply and demand sides of the oil and gas equation. As the supply of oil and gas goes up, the cost the market perceives for it is going down, thus encouraging more consumption—which is exactly the signal the climate demands that we do not send. If we had a perfect market for energy, working on the demand side alone might do it. But we’re not remotely close to that. Oil is controlled globally by a cartel, heavily subsidized by taxpayers around the world, and insulated from paying various substantial costs such as health, pollution clean-up, military support, and of course the social cost of carbon.
Importantly, stopping greater supply is the best way to stand in the way of Big Oil’s power. You give them access to more oil and gas, they’ll make more profits, and spend more money both looking for even more oil and gas as well as bribing politicians and throwing armies of lawyers at regulations. [Emphasis added]
These industries are based on, and profit from, finding more and more of something that science says we have more than enough of. Every additional field is a step in the wrong direction. It has to start stopping somewhere.
What’s particularly important here is the connection drawn between increased production and the political power of the petrochemical industry. This is an industry that has every interest in blocking climate change legislation; to that end, it has poured millions into shoddy research in an attempt to discredit climate science, and its political donations prop up the lawmakers who trot out the same hack work to justify obstructing legislative action. It’s true that Obama can’t do anything unilaterally that truly meets the scale of the crisis. In order for comprehensive policies aimed at cutting consumption to pass, we need a different political climate, one that’s not dominated by fossil fuel interests. Giving those interests greater access to public resources is a poor way to change the status quo.
Read Next: Zoe Carpenter discusses health concerns linked to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
Bill de Blasio, who has promised aggressively activist government when it comes to early childhood education, reducing traffic fatalities and constructing subsidized housing, was this week asked to take on a role that might be too ambitious even for the mayor’s taste: becoming a buyer of last resort for Staten Island homeowners who’d rather move out than build back after superstorm Sandy.
At an event on the island on Monday where the mayor discussed the city’s lagging rebuilding efforts (a report released that day found that the Bloomberg administration’s recovery program had not completed a single renovation), the borough president of Staten Island, James Oddo, pressed in both a private meeting with the mayor and at a subsequent press conference for an “acquisition for redevelopment” program.
De Blasio didn’t commit to the program—or much of anything—on Monday, promising only that his administration’s recovery plan would come out soon. It will be interesting to see how de Blasio plays Oddo’s request, which offers big risks along with potentially significant upsides.
Oddo for months has been calling for an acquisition initiative—inspired, he says, by a visit to New Orleans, where he learned about the Louisiana Land Trust. After the federal levee failure and flood in 2005, the Trust purchased thousands of parcels and distributed them to neighboring property owners and developers. The borough president’s plan, the scope and specifics of which remain to be determined, would differ from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s federally funded NY Rising program, which has bought up hundreds of parcels that were clearly no longer inhabitable with the goal of returning them to nature—forever. Two sections of Staten Island are part of the Cuomo program.
In other areas near the water and not covered by the Cuomo initiative, Oddo wants the city to cut a check to homeowners who can’t afford to elevate their homes or don’t want to wait for the money to come through to do so. Then the city would bundle the properties and use a request-for-proposals process to develop them. “To me it’s the best of all worlds,” Oddo tells City Limits. “We give people a chance to start their lives over [and] it gives government a chance to step back and develop these properties the right way.”
Apart from a single acquisition in October from a woman who had suffered a uniquely horrible personal tragedy in the storm, the Bloomberg team showed no interest in bailing out homeowners. “They were going to go in and go house by house and try to elevate each home,” Oddo says. “To me, that wasn’t visionary. That wasn’t transformative. That didn’t take all this pain and all this loss of life and didn’t honor that.” By gathering small parcels together, Oddo argues, developers could take advantage of economies of scale and create more sustainable, weather-ready housing. He doesn’t know how he’d structure eligibility, and is calling for the city to survey residents, determine the level of interest and and then decide what it can afford to offer.
The downsides of the beep’s idea are pretty clear. At least temporarily, the city would be responsible for the upkeep of acres and acres of territory. Throwing open the exit door could destabilize neighborhoods. Depending on where the eligibility lines are drawn, some homeowners will feel left out. A burdensome precedent might be set for future disasters. The auction could be a windfall for developers, and could squeeze out homeowners and renters who want to hang on. And of course, there’s the question of where the money would come from—though it’s possible federal funds could be used (the state’s original plan for spending that money did leave open the possibility that some property might be bought and rebuilt).
But the idea could braid together help for distressed homeowners, a way to more efficiently make New York more storm proof, a chance to rationalize development in the city’s fastest-growing borough and—perhaps—even a boost to de Blasio’s affordable housing plans. In a blatantly political move, Bloomberg in his first term downzoned much of Staten Island, which assuaged local fears of over-development but basically eliminated the possibility of constructing new affordable housing in the area.
Oddo doesn’t want to increase density much, and given the limited mass transit the area probably couldn’t absorb too many newcomers, but the prospect of buyouts might just be the leverage the mayor needs to get Staten Island to accept some smart growth. In the 1980s the city built and preserved hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing using its stock of tax-foreclosed properties. The dwindling supply of such land has been a challenge to affordable housing development in the past decade. This program could give the city at least a little more land to play with.
Susannah Dyen, the policy coordinator at the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, notes that on some of the parcels Oddo is talking about there were, before Sandy, “a ton of basement and accessory dwelling units that were very affordable.” Oddo himself notes that the neighborhoods have long provided housing affordable to the middle class.
Dyen is reserving judgement on Oddo’s idea, for now. “It depends a lot on what gets redeveloped. Overall the buildings that did the best in the storm were the newer buildings, so the idea of building new in these areas make sense,” Dyen says. But new construction is often the least affordable housing. “If there are affordability requirements that are including in that rebuilding, that would make a big difference.”
Read Next: Wen Stephenson on Occupy Sandy and the rise of “climate democracy.”
Yesterday, President Obama launched a new initiative called “My Brother’s Keeper,” aimed at improving the quality of life for young black and Latino boys in this country. Let me be clear: when he said, “This is an issue of national importance. This is as important as any issue that I work on. It’s an issue that goes to the very heart of why I ran for president,” I believed him. There’s no doubt, in my mind, that the president cares very deeply about the pervasive inequality in education, incarceration, poverty and violence afflicting black and brown boys and he wants to do something about it. This is important and commendable. But I take issue with what the president considers “something.”
My very first problem is that the initiative is aimed solely at young men. When fighting racism we are often exhorted to help our men and boys overcome it. But women and girls are affected by racism, too, and also suffer from race-based disparities. It’s as if to say that the path to equality for black and brown people is to uphold patriarchy. It’s counterproductive.
Also, the president said over and over again “young men of color,” but was only really addressing black and Latino boys. If that’s his focus, so be it—there are specific disparities black and Latino boys face in education, incarceration and economic opportunity—but repeating “of color” and only meaning black and Latino erases other nonwhite people who fall under that umbrella term.
So we’re talking about black and Latino boys. Then let’s talk about them.
Black and Latino boys are disproportionately targeted by police actions like stop-and-frisk. One in every fifteen black men and one in every thirty-six Hispanic men are incarcerated, as compared to one in every 106 white men. They receive harsher punishments in both schools and the justice system. They experience an unemployment rate typically double that of the national average. These are the statistics My Brother’s Keeper is concerned with.
President Obama has made it clear that he’s of a class of thinkers who recognizes America’s longstanding history of racism, but ultimately believes that the way forward for black and brown youth is to not let their race or gender be an “excuse.” In his view, no matter your circumstances, you can achieve if you’re willing to work hard. That’s the promise of America.
But that has never been the case for black and brown people. We have worked hard for centuries. That work has been exploited, undervalued and at times criminalized. To dismiss that, as the president does (and most other people do), is to take an uncomplicated view of a complicated history.
When President Obama says, “We can reform our criminal justice system to ensure that it’s not infected with bias. But nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life,” he’s not pandering. This is what he actually believes.
But that’s ignoring the root problem. We can turn every black and brown boy into a “respectable” citizen. But the moment we do, the rules for what constitutes “respectable” will change. That’s how racism works (check this history of American barbers and facial hair for one example). That’s how white supremacy sustains itself. It isn’t a rational ideology built on facts, statistics or empirical observations. It’s a system of oppression meant to concentrate power and resources into the hands of white people at the expense of the livelihoods of all nonwhites.
If it’s meaningful that our first black president is able to articulate the experience of young black men in this country, it’s also meaningful when that same first black president lends legitimacy to the racist beliefs of someone like Bill O’Reilly. It’s not an achievement to get O’Reilly in the same room as Rev. Al Sharpton, as the president joked during his address, when nothing about this initiative is going to challenge the racist worldview the FOX News host and his followers hold dear.
I’m sure this initiative will have real benefits for a good number of black and Latino boys. They will be provided mentorship and role models, be afforded opportunities that may have previously existed outside of their imaginations and know that someone out there cares. But that’s a severely limited view of what is needed. It’s basically charity. “Philanthropy is not policy,” Princeton professor Imani Perry said on last night’s All In with Chris Hayes. The role of government should be making philanthropy less necessary.
My Brother’s Keeper is in essence an initiative aimed at helping black and Latino boys find success within a racist system. In some ways, it’s admirable. But finding “success,” however narrowly defined, in the face of racism is not the same as defeating racism. In order to cure what truly ails us as a country, it will take a more concerted effort to reckon with our actual historical record and undo the system of racism that has produced the conditions people of color face today. That’s beyond the power of one American president. But he could put it on the agenda.
Read Next: Jordan Davis and the refrain of black death
If Chris Christie, Scott Walker, John Kasich and perhaps Bobby Jindal—orthodox Republican conservatives all—hope to run for president in 2016, they’ll may have to perform a tricky maneuver: winning the backing of the GOP’s mainstream, big-money donors, including the US Chamber of Commerce, while rallying the electoral support of ultraconservatives who support the floundering Tea Party movement. But it might turn out that the Tea Party isn’t so influential after all.
The Tea Party—the institutional Tea Party, not necessarily the bloc of the GOP electorate that identified with it—continues to have its difficulties, especially in the wake of the 2013 government shutdown. Yesterday, at a conference in Washington, DC, the Tea Party Patriots organization celebrated its fifth anniversary as a force in American politics, but it was decidedly a lackluster event, and even The Washington Times headlined that it is “struggling.” Among other things, its preferred candidates in Republican primaries around the country seem at a loss, as Michael Gerson, a conservative pundit at The Washington Post, noted:
Tea party challenges have fizzled in Kentucky and Texas. They are fading in Kansas, Tennessee and South Carolina. And even in Mississippi—where Sen. Thad Cochran is a vulnerable incumbent—the tea party insurgent struggles to explain his recent skeptical reaction when asked about Katrina relief funding.
Two influential writers who’ve penned articles for The National Interest, both credentialed conservatives, have analyzed the GOP’s ongoing civil war, or civil strife—or as Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a Tea Party favorite, called it yesterday at the Tea Party Patriots meeting, “civil debate”—and, in the articles and in follow-up interviews with Christie Watch, they outlined their takes on where the GOP might be headed.
In the first piece, “The GOP’s Identity Crisis,” Paul Saunders, the executive director of the Center for the National Interest, a conservative-realist think tank in Washington, says that the Tea Party has the support of about 38 percent of GOP voters, but that the Republican party’s mainstream establishment, which historically has had the upper hand, is still the dominant factor. In an interview with Christie Watch, Saunders said:
People have been excited about the Tea Party and the insurgent forces. But the fact that they were able to play such a big role on the debt ceiling doesn’t mean that they have taken over the Republican party or defeated the establishment. Normally, the establishment wins. Looking ahead to 2016, they should be able to incorporate—or perhaps co-opt is a better word—the Tea Party and move on.
Last year, he said, Christie “was in the strongest position to unify the establishment.” And, though damaged, Christie is still “attractive to many people interested in the ‘bigger tent’ approach.”
In a parallel article in The National Interest, “The Four Faces of the Republican Party,” Henry Olsen, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative, “Judeo-Christian” think tank in Washington, breaks down the divisions within the GOP. In it, he wrote, the biggest bloc, representing 35–40 percent of the Republican vote, are the “somewhat conservative” voters who “have a significant distinction: they always back the winner”—successively, Bob Dole (1996), George W. Bush (2000), John McCain (2008), and Mitt Romney (2012). The second largest bloc is the GOP’s “moderate to liberal” one, representing about 25–30 percent of all GOP voters. (In others words, liberals, moderate and somewhat conservative voters represent something like 60–70 percent of the party.) Olsen says that Christie, Kasich, Walker and Paul Ryan are competing for these voters most of all.
On the other hand, he writes, very conservative voters make up the rest, a minority. The “very conservative evangelicals” are about 20 percent, and the “very conservative, secular” bloc is perhaps 5–10 percent of the GOP vote.
In primaries, of course, the true believers, including the most conservative, militant Republicans, tend to turn out more heavily, skewing their influence.
And Olsen makes a crucial point about the future inability of the Tea Party to determine who wins the Republican nomination in 2016. So far, he points out, Tea Party primary victories in statewide contests have come almost entirely in small, inconsequential states, not the delegate-rich ones. He says:
Nor do the Tea Party Senate primary victories appear to presage a sea change in GOP attitudes. They generally have two characteristics unlikely to pertain in the 2016 presidential race. First, they occurred primarily in smaller states in the South and West. While these states hold the balance in the Senate, they do not elect most of the delegates needed to win a presidential nomination. Larger states, especially California and those in the Midwest and Northeast, still have substantial power to influence the nomination contest. As importantly, these victories tended to occur in one-on-one races or races with only two serious candidates. Tea Party candidates fared much worse in multicandidate races. In presidential contests, multicandidate races are the norm until well into March, suggesting a Tea Party candidate will find it difficult to win in the early stages.
In an interview with Christie Watch, Olsen notes that according to polls Christie is “most favored by the moderate-liberals in the party and least favored amongst the very conservative. As a result, he said, he’s most likely to do well in primary states, such as New Hampshire, and less likely to do well in caucus states, such as Iowa—no surprises there. But, Olsen told Christie Watch, center-right, establishment Republicans, which he described as led by “businessmen, managers, entrepreneurs”—i.e., Chamber of Commerce types—are, unlike very, very conservative voters and the Christie right, “spread out and influential in every state.” So that means that Christie, along with Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan and Scott Walker will be pushing hard to appeal to these voters.
The setbacks that Christie has suffered, says Olsen, mean that—unlike George W. Bush in 2000, who created an aura of invincibility early on—Christie won’t be able to create an early bandwagon for the nomination. “That’s been put on hold by Bridgegate,” he says.
Interested readers can get the latest complete polling data from a New York Times/CBS poll about 2016. What it shows, remarkably enough, is that as many as 59 percent of Republican and independent voters say that they “don’t know enough” about the various possible Republican challengers. Best known, by far, are Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, whose “don’t know enough” numbers ranged from 26 to 35 percent. Of those who did know enough to voice an opinion, 41 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of independents said that they didn’t want Christie to run, reflecting no doubt a mix of Tea Party types who despise and him and others simply turned off by the post-Bridgegate scandals. (Thirty-one percent of Republicans say they want Christie to run.) For Bush, who says he’ll announce whether or not he’s running later this year, 27 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of independents say that they don’t want him to run.
Read Next: Christie Watch asks whether Jeb Bush could rescue the GOP in 2016.