Matt Yglesias and the sinister language of neo-liberalism

Matt Yglesias is a blogger for whom I have much respect, and one I read regularly. Prior to his Slate days, he was one of the best widely read bloggers on the web in my opinion. He’s intelligent, doesn’t talk down to his audience, and often quite insightful.

One of the reasons I appreciate him is he’s one of the few economy bloggers who has covered the post-2008 conditions with a consistent concern for the lives of working class westerners. The human tragedy of economic collapse and austerity policies is not talked about enough, especially in the circles he blogs in, and Yglesias stands out in this regard.

This is what makes his attitude toward foreign workers in this slate post (for which he’s been taken to task by many and since issued a clarification) so frustrating.

Yglesias is a genuinely smart and often insightful blogger, but when critiquing his work it should always be mentioned that what launched his career was his since-admitted wrongness about the Iraq war. This should tell you that he’s an intelligent blogger who is also capable of some gigantic lapses in judgement, as is the case here.

Interestingly, his lapses in judgement mostly seem to have a common thread of gross indifference to human suffering in deference to some greater good, usually American-dominated global capitalism. He commits the same error many communists did and the “libertarians” do today; his faith in his system is more powerful than his love for his fellow human beings. Any suffering caused by the system must be accepted, because the system will eventually make everything better.

I don’t think this is all Yglesias’ fault. Talking about the intrinsic value of human lives isn’t a viable strategy for someone in his position who is trying to get ahead or even stay in his position. The media and the political world both are full of powerful incentives for those involved to compromise basic principles such as “innocent until proven guilty” or “all men are created equal”. And inside a power system such as the one in which Yglesias functions, you’re not going to get far without acknowledging the legitimacy of the system itself, or at least using the language that the system uses to legitimize itself.

As such, language in this debate works in an interesting, and sinister, way. People talk about the trade-off involved in weighing what they call ‘safe jobs’ or ‘minimizing accidents’ versus what we call ‘growth’ or ‘jobs’.

Terms like ‘safe jobs’ and ‘minimizing accidents’ are functioning as sort of weird reverse-euphemisms for what is more properly called human life. But when we talk about human lives we sound drippy and sentimental, and that doesn’t help anyone trying to claw their way to the top of the commentariat through their powers of nod-inducing wisdom combined with snarky nonchalance. So what is really a trade-off between the lives of some people vs the money of others gets described in absurd language like “implementing unnecessarily immiserating workplace safety standards at the cost of economic well-being”. By allowing the system to place a lower value on Bangladeshi lives than on American lives, we are actually doing the Bangladeshis a favor! We’re giving the freedom “to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum”.

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Something must be wrong with me…

…because so far the attack in Boston hasn’t validated or reassured me of a single previously held opinion.

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Have you been working out?

We tend to think of it as a simple choice, but having sympathy for other people can take immense mental strength and self-discipline. Like physical strength, though, it gets easier with exercise.

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Bring back Postal Banking

This opinion piece from psmag seems like a pretty smart take on the Post Office, the nature of its budget problems (manufactured by Republicans), and why it would be smart to bring back postal banking.

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The Heart of Darkness

A typical, succinct liberal defense of the drone program from a discussion I recently participated in:

There clearly needs to be better policy around deciding when and how to use drones. They cannot be used to assassinate those who simply disagree with the US but for targeting leaders or resources that are a clear and present danger to US lives. Imagine if China decided anyone speaking against its leadership was a danger and they flew drones in to the US to kill dissidents.The US cannot do the same. There has to be some certainty that Target X is actively involved with terrorist activity that targets the US.

While I can understand Pakistanis being resentful of the drone strikes, I also have no empathy for them. At a very fundamental and basic level, Pakistan has continued to harbor and actively shelter actor like Osama Bin Laden who have openly declared war on the US and have taken innocent US lives. We have not declared war on Pakistan, but their policies towards the US and terrorists place them firmly in the realm of being an enemy state. Its just that neither side will openly say it.

I am sure the residents of Dresden resented the fire bombings much like the residents of London resented the bombing of their city. The distinction without a difference is that the US and Pakistan have not openly declared war like Germany and England in WWII.

The comments above do a great job of crystallizing the monstrous morality behind drone strikes. He says “While I can understand Pakistanis being resentful of the drone strikes, I also have no empathy for them…Pakistan has continued to harbor and actively shelter actor like Osama Bin Laden..” According to him, there is no such thing as an innocent Pakistani. In fact, there is no such thing as a human being in Pakistan with any rights whatsoever.

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Highway robbery

A Detroit cop indicts law enforcement for its use of traffic enforcement as a revenue source.

This is unjust by itself. No one should profit from crime. The justice system exists in part to ensure crime doesn’t pay. When it becomes a revenue source to someone, suddenly crime goes from something we want to minimize to something we need. Even if it means creating more of it by defining new activities as “crime”. Like lowering speed limits.

But more importantly to me, and more unjust, is the way traffic violations and other civil infractions are assigned penalties that are vastly harsher on the poor than on the rich. A heart surgeon speeds and it costs him an hour’s wages at most, and it will mean no real impact on his life other than some minor inconvenience. A laid off factory worker does the same thing and they are faced with choosing between food and electricity.

Just one of the glaringly obvious injustices that we tacitly accept every single day.

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I am different now

I intent to post something more in depth soon, but for now I just want to say I find myself in a strange position. My politics seem to have changed dramatically. Not on any actual positions, I’m on the left of nearly all issues as I have been for most of my life. But because of a few things in my life that I’ll go into later, and because I cannot stomach Obama’s drone-warfare program and other abuses of power, I find myself no longer welcome among some of my long time friends and allies.

The short of it is, I’m tired of liberal politics in which principles are something that are nice tools with which to win an argument, but can be safely abandoned at the slightest hint of danger. I’m tired of Democrat-party loyalists who regard putting principles above politics to be naive or old-fashioned. American’s rights to marriage? Don’t tread on them or risk being buried beneath the moral truisms (and rightly so). But a Pakistani’s right to not be killed? Well, we can’t worry about that when there are more important things on our plate, like American issues in America.

I’m especially tired of macho-tough-guy liberalism. The kind that takes pride in its ability to every bit as savage as anyone else, but thinks itself superior because it’s “smarter” about its use of violence. Because I suppose there is something “smart” about rationalizations in which Americans have the right to life and liberty, but people in other countries not so much.

Fuck. That.

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The End of Something that Counter-intuitively Should Have No End: Everything you thought you knew is completely the way it has always seemed.

Most of the worlds conflicts are fundamentally the same kinds of power struggles that humans have always prosecuted. Yet, the media entertainment culture and the social-climbing nature of the blogotwittersphere conspire in a few ways to make sure we don’t talk about these conflicts in the dusty old language of power and history.

One of those ways that occurred to me today, is the oft-decried tendency of Slate-type journalism to employ some kind of entertaining, counter-intuitive hook. The secret of the success of this method often goes unmentioned. though: shock provides an easy impostor for information for the lazy news outlet, pundit, or publisher.

To present Middle East conflicts to an audience as if they an old fashioned story of powerful people seeking to secure and increase their own power – boooring! Do that, and no one will come to see you perform. You’re saying the same things other people have said before, and no matter how informative or factual your presentation is, you’re nothing but an old fuddy-duddy at best. Or worse, you’re an irritating, idealistic naif, far too unserious to be taken seriously by serious people. You’re some kind of save-the-whales Occupy slob.

But come up with some kind of counter-intuitive hook that shocks people, and Then You’re Serious. No one wants to read a book called “Education is good for you, so you should probably go to College if you can.” Snooze. No one’s going to feel informed by that book. But, if you’re Ross Douthat and you’re willing to write a book about how college sucks, then you can be an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, and list your Harvard education in your bio. (Harvard…that’s a college.) And if, like Ross Douthat, you prove to be absolutely incapable of writing coherently about an issue as simple as gay marriage, it doesn’t matter. Because you can just write something else counter-intuitive like “Why Moderates Should Like Paul Ryan” and it doesn’t matter how stupid the piece is, people will click on it and feel like they’ve been exposed to a “new idea”, or some such.

I’m not, ironically, saying anything new here. But the insight I wanted to share was the way a journalistic narrative can use counter-intutitiveness as a sneaky substitute for actual information. People click on it, or “like” it, or sit through an ad to see it, because they are looking for some kind of new insight, some fresh new angle that maybe they can use to impress their friends or to genuinely feel informed. Some glimpse through the keyhole of How Things Really Are. (Because things being just the way they seem is boring. It’s not entertaining. And that’s the kiss of death in the private media of corporations and young social-climbing journalists.)

Once you’ve made someone say “wow, you blew my mind” then they feel like you informed them – even though those are two totally different things. You can declare “The End of History” and people will feel like you are informing them, even though you’re merely entertaining them with the tingly sensation of what it must feel like to become informed.

UPDATE: A few minutes after I finished this post, I saw several headlines about the “fiscal cliff”. Shock, pretending to be information. The 2012 equivalent of “<—Click here now!”

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What’s the difference between Mourdock and Deepak Chopra?

Lots of people, with good reason, are up in arms over Senate candidate Mourdock’s belief that if a woman gets pregnant from rape, then it must be God’s will. It’s very easy to see how someone could find this attitude dark, dehumanizing, repugnant. Especially someone who has been raped. I agree…I find that kind of view of the world to be horrifying.

It doesn’t seem to me, though. to be far off from an attitude that most of the people I love the most hold. Namely, that “everything happens for a reason”, or any number of variants thereof.

When people say this they believe they’re saying something nice, issuing a positive statement on the world and embracing life and all of its ups and downs. And I have no doubt that they are being sincere and that they are no less intelligent than I am for holding this belief. But when I have, on occasion, ventured to explain why I do not hold this kind of belief, and why I think “everything happens for a reason” contains within itself, hidden behind a veneer of positivity, an aspect of extreme, dark horror, I am almost always dismissed as having a negative world view, being a nihilist, etc. Any attempt to explain why I believe my attitude is actually the more positive and life-affirming, and that  ”everything happens for a reason” is, when you really think about it, itself a bleak and nihilistic and soul-killing outlook, and I’m not taken seriously.

But, apply my belief as a counter-argument for Mr. “Rape babies happen because God wants them” (who is essentially just saying “everything happens for a reason”) and I think it becomes clear why my beliefs – that the nature of life is ultimately absurd, chaotic, random and unfated, actually represent a love-filled embrace and acceptance of the world far beyond that which one can achieve through such a deterministic and teleological belief system.

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Renaissance; Maybe, Eventually

The NYT writes one of the same two columns about Detroit that we’ve been reading for 20 years (the other being “Detroit is a third-world hellhole on par with Darfur). Downtown Detroit has been making a “comeback” for as long as I’ve been alive.

There is a grain of truth here, though. Downtown (where for thirty years nearly ALL of Detroit’s revitalization efforts have gone) is doing great compared to what it used to be. When I started going to Cass in 1988 there was literally tumbleweed. The problem with all the press about Detroit’s “comeback” is that they act like it’s new, or sudden, or fast, and it feels, like we’ve been reading the same article, hearing the same news story since 1978. Because we have. There’s definitely a comeback, but it’s happening over a period of decades. And I think it’s as much an organic result of the public disenchantment with suburban living and people wanting to spend more time in urban spaces as it is due to successful efforts by the city. Probably more. But it’s happening.

Yet again, still, we get the same old story. Downtown coming back, neighborhoods failing. Same as it ever was. The hope is that more commerce downtown means more people working there, and more people paying city taxes. That’s happening – last year city income taxes were up 12 million dollars – but it’s a drop in a 2.7 billion dollar budget. And more than offset by the city losing 70 million dollars from having pension funds invested in the market! The deck is way stacked against Detroit, and it’s going to take a LOT more than what’s happening now to start creating real, livable, safe, functional neighborhoods. It was fucked, it is fucked, and if it wasn’t fucked people wouldn’t still be fleeing.

I think what Detroit is teaching us is that a thriving downtown surrounded by an inner ring of blight, surrounded by an outer ring of stable suburbs IS a sustainable situation. Desirable, no, but sustainable, yes.

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