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June 15, 2017

NYT: "An overly cautious, centrist ideology"

Yesterday, in a New York Times op-ed piece, Bernie Sanders made a number of sound points concerning where the Democratic Party should be headed. (Basically, to become an actual labor party.) Even before happening upon the piece, I had been thinking for a while about the NYT's treatment of Sanders, his supporters, and policy specifics they champion like single-payer healthcare.

Predictably, the paper has been somewhat dismissive, at times condescending. Recent examples can be found here, here, and here; the first of the three also appeared in yesterday's paper a few pages before the Sanders op-ed.

Sanders's choice of forum was apt, as I am sure he's aware of the NYT's viewpoint. When he states in his essay that "too many in our party cling to an overly cautious, centrist ideology," he chose words certainly appropriate to the Times's orientation.

The NYT prefers its Democrats cut from the Clinton-Obama bolt of fabric. And anything a sixteenth of an inch to the left of what are basically Republicans from a bygone era is treated with a patronizing, avuncular patience.

With 2020 in mind and the 2018 midterms soon in sight, many of the forces working against substantive political progress in the United States will be "liberal." This despite the fact that the policies that Sanders and his supporters are talking about have majority support. They are, in point of fact, centrist.

On the topic of healthcare and the midterm elections, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi recently maintained that "state-level action was more appropriate" as an overall party strategy. "The comfort level with the broader base of the American people," she argued regarding a single-payer system, "is not there yet" (third "here" above).

The polling data for now many years, however, tells a different story. And little by little, especially in places like California, universal healthcare is getting the attention it deserves.

A general leftward drift seems afoot—and not just in the United States. More precisely put, the drift is toward where the population actually stands: the center. Yet, liberal establishment entities like the Times are very mindful of their parameters, especially the left-most edge. When reading the NYT, which I recommend (see Feb. 28 blog post), this is the slant one can expect. And I suspect this ideological rigidity will become more evident as the political conversation in this country moves in a progressive direction.

June 6, 2017

Racism

The 2014 blog piece by writer Reni-Eddo Lodge has been receiving increased attention on the Guardian's site. The essay, entitled "Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race," is a meditation on structural, systemic racism. And one worth reading. (The original blog piece comprises the first dozen paragraphs of this newer, longer piece by Lodge.)

I feel it pairs well with Newsweek's recent cover story on the ongoing problem of school segregation. In contrast, this report provides an investigative analysis of a very specific aspect of structural racism.

And while reading these two essays, I kept mentally returning to the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay, which was released last year and is streaming on Netflix. The film is an incisive and intense exploration of the US prison system, who's in it, and why. The late film critic Roger Ebert said that the film Crash (2005) was one of the few movies that had "the possibility of making their audiences better people." I would say the same applies to 13th.

These three items work well together, and encourage one to consider a reality that frequently doesn't present itself if you are white. Being white and male for 45 years now, I have some experience; there is a long list of things I don't have to think about. This is not to suggest that white people don't have problems or suffer hardship. An appropriate analog would be realities that exist for women, but that are out of sight and/or out of mind for men. A man isn't necessarily sexist because of his obliviousness—an obliviousness that women cannot afford. But by being more conscientious, men can improve the lives of women, bringing to bear a responsibility.

Racism is not limited to explicit language and white supremacy. It can be quite subtle: eye contact, a knowing grin, silence, the sound of car-door locks. And with overtly racist language increasingly frowned upon, racism among whites has in large part gone into a kind of silent mode. Among educated, upper-middle-class whites (to choose a demographic with which I'm familiar), racist language is commonly viewed as being ill-mannered, as being blue collar, and being "low class." Being a racist, the thinking goes, is fine; but one should tend toward refinement.

A corollary to this genteel racism is that it encourages the mindset that "I'm not a bigot." If one doesn't speak or act or comport oneself as such, then one isn't. Complicating this picture further is the fact that people (pick a hue) tend to view themselves as being virtuous, regardless. The result is an admixture of bad-faith mentalities.

Hence the "I work with a black guy" testimony.

Hence the proud avowals of colorblindness, frequently deeming blackness as something akin to being in a wheelchair: "I don't see Kevin as being black."

Hence the fact that I have never personally heard Barack Obama criticized because of his color, when I strongly detect that many whites, especially my age and up, are resentful that an African-American made it to the White House.

Hence "anti-racist" tactics such as asking "Why are they called African-Americans? I don't call myself a German-American. We're all Americans." The intended message: everyone should be equal. "All lives matter." The actual message: "See how they are?" (Note: Obama is precisely a Kenyan/African-American; and the black students I've talked with, mostly college age, don't care, are fine with "black," and would just prefer to not be treated like dirt.)

Hence the age-old axiom that there are black people and there are those deserving of derogatory classification. The mechanism at work here is clear enough: by drawing such a distinction, the racist gives himself an out, and now cannot plausibly be labeled as a racist on account of his finesse. And underlying his argument is the assumption that racism is wrong, or at least vulgar and crude. The unapologetic racist, on the other hand, is also virtuous. And the evidence is his racism: he knows good from bad, and he (good) is not like them (bad).

Non-white frustration with racism among whites—and the corresponding social, political, and economic structures—is understood. Many whites don't know what racism is or how it works. And the degree to which they do, they are either innocent of it or righteous participants.

February 28, 2017

Blog repost: Essay on NYT

One of the recurring themes since election season has been that of fake news. The designation has now mutated from having a specific meaning—news that is fake—to meaning news that some don't like. The label is now being wielded by those who have used, benefitted from, or purveyed fake news.

President Trump has repeatedly accused mainstream organizations such as CNN, the networks, the New York Times, and others of being fake news, or at least of dealing in it. In these instances, the president is using the classification "fake news" as an epithet. It is, however, because the major organizations are reporting on him with some measure of accuracy that he has declared them an "enemy of the people"—curious language for the leader of a democracy. He of course means that they are an enemy of him. And in a sense they are, in the same way light is an enemy of mold.

The New York Times is and has been at the top of the president's list of news sources he strongly does not like. I couldn't say I love it either. So, he and I feel similarly on this matter, but for very, very different reasons.

The Times's coverage of the president, his campaign, and his performance so far in the White House has been reasonable, as one might have expected. The NYT, when it comes to domestic policy, operates around the political center. That is, on matters such as the environment, healthcare, and abortion, its positions approximate where most Americans sit on these issues. The president and his administration being rightwing and stylistically an aberration, a staid, centrist journal such as the Times could be expected to do actual journalism.

Some personal context: I read the NYT every day and have for many years now. I usually carry the day's paper (or days' worth of them) on me just about everywhere I go. During any downtime, I can be found poring over it (or them). A lot of this downtime is spent on college campuses, places of abundant foot traffic. It is noteworthy how often I get questions and comments—mostly the latter—concerning the paper. (I of course read other sources, but I have only the Times delivered in print, to help ensure I read it more thoroughly, among other reasons.)

The comments I receive are invariably negative or dismissive: "The Times is kinda leftist, isn't it?" Or: "I've heard it's pretty biased." Or: "It's elitist." Or: "I have no use for it."

The close attention I pay to the NYT is not based on fondness (I'm rather critical). Nor that it reinforces my worldview (I wouldn't describe myself as liberal). In addition to the Times being a reliable resource, my choice is based to a degree on the paper's prestige and the window it offers into the culture that produces and reads it. But this requires some elaboration.

I've therefore decided to repost an article I published on CounterPunch about four years ago, which examines the NYT and discusses why, despite its flaws, it's my first media port of call.

http://www.gregoryharms.com/harms_2012.01.14.html

Especially in the current atmosphere, being informed is crucial. And just as crucial is understanding that choice and preference are two different things. The goal is to improve our understanding and gain insight, not seek opinion confirmation and judge according to the metric being applied in the Oval Office.

November 8, 2016

A brief comment on Election Day

We will continue to be told we're divided, and to a certain extent this is true. A division of sorts does exist, but it's artificial. When we enter into the political arena, we enter into a polarized environment that partitions people into ideological camps. The result is the abandonment of our true political wishes.

The presidential candidates for the two dominant political parties are an expression of this reality. However, owing to its severe movement to the right, a rift has formed in the Republican Party, and its future has never been more uncertain. Its candidate, reviled by many within the GOP, is a byproduct of the party's white working-class constituency being weary of the "establishment" failure to produce anticipated results: jobs and a stable economy.

But due to adherence to the party line, the preference (chosen from an underwhelming line-up of Republican primary candidates) is instead for a perceived renegade who speaks to their lower instincts, while bloviating a message not unknown to history: "I know what you're going through, everything (everything) is a mess, you know whose fault it is, and I alone am going to fix it."

At present, a large segment of the population seems to have trouble differentiating between bad and far worse. Voting for Trump simply because "I hate Hillary" indicates a preference for far worse over bad. When we consider the data clearly indicating what most Americans actually want from a president, Clinton comes closer to the mark. She is by no means ideal. She is, in fact, far from ideal. Clinton is a career politician who is attentive to which way the wind is blowing. She is operationally a Republican. She is Wall Street friendly. And her foreign policy will likely be violent; the Middle East will surely be in for more of the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama procedure.

As for her opponent, about his personality we know much and his politics little.

In this election I have two priorities, and they are, for me, of equal weight: (1) a third party that is left of the Democrats gaining ground, and (2) the GOP not entering the White House. The first one I can act on. Living in a solidly blue state, I have chosen to vote for Jill Stein (Green Party) in hopes that increased support for a third party will help influence the Democrats, just as popular support for Bernie Sanders influenced Hillary Clinton's campaign.

The second one I can only hope on. Yet, my hope is not abstract. Specifically, I hope that women, African-Americans, and Latinos get to the polls in large numbers, especially in swing states. Trump has insulted you for a year and a half. Of course, he has insulted and belittled many others (including his core supporters, but their devotion seems unwavering for the time being). But, looking at this practically, there are simply more of you. And in sufficient numbers, you can stop this from happening.

And should Clinton win, we can then go back to having a president who is simply bad. And from there, hopefully we will do a better job of reaching across the artificial divide, while advocating for better candidates.

July 16, 2016

It's not about sharia

As is routine, some of the commentary following the recent attack in Nice, France, has attempted to shift the discussion to religion. Despite being nonreligious and having no known sympathy or affiliation with an extreme Islamist group, the perpetrator's name was Mohamed and the victims were mostly white Europeans. Therefore, a certain mode of analysis is brought to bear, namely, we in the West are under siege by an alien Islamic enemy.

Former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich recently made remarks encouraging Americans to focus on sharia law, not a first for the former speaker. As he commented on Fox News: "Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported ... Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization."

Concerning his assertion that Western civilization is in a war with the Arab-Islamic world, I've treated this matter at some length in book form. But it should suffice to point out that from the Crusades to the present, the story has been Western interference in the Middle East, not the other way around. To pick one telling statistic: from the 1991 Gulf War to the present, the United States can claim responsibility for the death of approximately 1 million Iraqis, which includes both major operations and the devastating UN sanctions regime between them. And because of the US-led destabilization of Iraq, the byproduct of terrorist violence has become an epidemic in that country. According to the Global Terrorism Index, in 2014 alone, Iraq suffered 9,929 deaths due to terrorism attacks, "the highest ever recorded in a single country." And, of course, to this we can add the emergence of ISIS.

Gingrich's stated anxiety over sharia, on the other hand, suggests their faith is corrupt, and therefore Muslims are suspicious. Yet, as mentioned, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the truck driver in Nice, was by all accounts not a religious man. And so far, there is no ISIS or al-Qaida connection. Nevertheless, let us suppose for a moment that Bouhlel was a devout Muslim, a person for whom sharia played a central role in his day-to-day decision making. To top it off, an ISIS sympathizer. What then?

Even under these hypothetical circumstances, driving a truck into a crowd of people is not representative of Islam, nor of sharia law as observed by Muslims all over the world. Terrorism is against Islamic law and forbidden in the Quran (see Juan Cole's informative essay on the subject).

However, one can maintain anything while wielding a religious vocabulary. Tribal brutality in Afghanistan, such as burying waste-deep and stoning adulterers, is executed under the professed license of Islam and sharia. Likewise, a Christian carrying a sign proclaiming "God Hates Fags" can do so with easy self-assurance that he or she is doing the Lord's work. Jewish Israeli settlers have committed acts of utter viciousness against Palestinians in the West Bank, also with an air of divinely-inspired righteousness. Yet, and correctly, there is no follow-up anti-Halakha sentiment in the press, or suggestions to ban kosher delis.

Sharia is simply the code of Islamic law for living a Muslim life (see BBC's helpful primer). It is used as a set of guidelines and regulations addressing almost all aspects of life, from food to marriage to contracts, and so on. Its sources come from the Quran, the collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (the Hadith), and judgments issued by Islamic scholars, called fatwas. Sharia is an interpretive, faith-based practice encouraging and guiding followers toward a virtuous life as defined by Islam. And, no different from the rest of the world, adherence to the rules can at times be flexible. I couldn't help but take amused note of this recent headline in the Washington Post: "Despite Islamic fatwa, Pokemon Go is the rage of the Arab world."

Around 75 percent of Americans are Christians, citizens of a country that has made major contributions to the problems in the Middle East. It is at least conceivable that an anti-Christian or anti-American attitude would prevail in the Arab world. But this is not the case. As imaginable as it is that "they" would hate us, they don't. This should inspire us to concentrate on what violence like this is about, not what it isn't.

March 10, 2016

The nation is not divided. And still prefers Bernie Sanders


[This piece was originally published on CounterPunch, Mar. 10, 2016]


The reportage of the presidential primaries has been heavy on personalities and the latest numbers, and light on information useful to voters. Comparisons to a horse race are apt. Were the news to take a documentary approach instead, the campaigns would be revealed as they are: something existing contrary to the public's interests.

One need only consult the public opinion record to see the primaries (and their coverage) in the correct light. In other words, by looking at the polling data on the various issues—putting aside party ideology, the artificial liberal-conservative polarity, and the cult of personality—it becomes immediately clear how Americans would vote outside the highly charged blue-red contest.

American public opinion, on almost all major policy issues, exists as a solid majority, belying the persistent myth that the country is politically divided. The reality is that most Americans—generally by about two-thirds—stand united; they just don't agree with Capitol Hill.

Yet, within the partisan atmosphere, grievances and frustrations get channeled into the narrow confines of party and candidate rhetoric. The GOP, in particular, has managed to advance a so-called conservative agenda, by speciously appealing to religious devotion and white, blue-collar anger. The party can't rely on the limited votes of millionaires (its actual constituency) so votes must be secured elsewhere.

According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, 69 percent of Americans claim to be very or somewhat angry with regard to "the way things are going" in the country. Similarly, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicated about the same percentage agreeing with this statement: "I feel angry because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street or in Washington, rather than it working to help everyday people get ahead."

The GOP has championed (with Democratic cooperation) the very economic agenda that produced this anger in the first place, while managing to redirect their voters' aggravations toward distractions such as immigration. Lowering taxes for the wealthy, deregulating the financial sector, and aiding in the deindustrialization of the country are the causes of the downward economic trend of the last thirty years, and the reason for the above statistics.

The anger is real and justified and rational. So what do Americans want? A sampling of public opinion:

Support for raising the minimum wage: 70 percent. Support for free public college: 55 percent. Support for addressing "now" the rich-poor gap: 65 percent. Support for raising taxes on people earning more than $1 million per year: 68 percent. Support for Medicare-for-all universal healthcare: 58 percent. Support for the US-Iran diplomatic agreement: 55 percent. Support for the right to a legal abortion (including "certain circumstances"): 75 percent. Disagreement with the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision allowing corporate money to flood the political process: 78 percent.

Despite a plurality of Americans describing themselves as "conservative," the majority of Americans are, in reality, situated at the liberal center—what is described in the political discourse as progressive or far-left or "socialist." As summarized in a 2011 academic paper by political scientists Christopher Ellis and James A. Stimson,

When asked about specific government programs and specific social goals, the American public generally wants the government to do more, spend more, and redistribute more. But at the same time, citizens are considerably more likely to identify themselves as conservatives than as liberals. The American public, in other words, generally wants more government-based solutions to social problems, but overwhelmingly identifies with the ideological label that rejects those solutions....

If we calibrate the center of the political spectrum according to where most Americans stand on most issues, what we find is that Bernie Sanders resides squarely at the political center. And it merely follows that Hillary Clinton and certainly all the Republican candidates are positioned to the right of the population. Therefore, the bipartisan debate does not pertain to what Americans actually want from a candidate.

There's little question as to how America would vote in a rational setting.

What if on election day, Americans went to the polls and voted not for a preferred candidate, but for policy specifics? That is, what if we voted in blind elections? For instance, you enter the booth on November 8 and, instead of choosing a candidate, you fill out a questionnaire with regard to spending on X, spending on Y, how you feel about the minimum wage, income inequality, healthcare, the environment, and so on. Then, after voting, your ballot is compared to the different candidates and where they stand. The candidate awarded your vote is simply the one who best approximates your views. Under these circumstances, given the 2016 list of Democratic and Republican hopefuls, Bernie Sanders would win by a landslide.

This of course leaves to the side the likelihood of his success in getting laws passed through Congress. Likewise, it should be noted that Hillary Clinton's positions are commonly not so far from Sanders's, due in part to Sanders's successful campaign. (And given Clinton's track record of being the consummate politician, one can speculate as to how much she would walk her talk once in the White House.) The issue here isn't the mechanics of being president; the issue here is who the American people actually want as president. The body of data allows little room for debate.

The Republican party of Eisenhower and Nixon is no more, and has degenerated into disunity, ultra-nationalism, and destructive economics. Its future is unknown and unassured. The party's voting base is shrinking, the country is quickly becoming a majority of minorities (who are better at voting their interests), and the millennial voters coming up show similar inclinations. An unpleasant odor accompanies the death of many organisms, and the Republican field standing on the debate stage represents the smell of decomposition.

This leaves the Democratic party, where there seems to be a similar breach occurring. As is well known, within the GOP tensions exist between "establishment" Republicans and the far-right Tea Party-style politicians. Though perhaps to a lesser degree, a similar rift is forming among Democrats, one embodied by Clinton and Sanders. The Clinton-Sanders competition essentially amounts to a Republican and a Democrat vying for nomination. Eisenhower and Nixon, back from the dead, would likely guess Hillary Clinton to be a fellow Republican (along with Barack Obama). And Sanders, despite the rhetoric, is simply an FDR Democrat.

Put another way, within the Democratic party is where most Americans would prefer American politics to be situated.

January 13, 2016

SOTU: The Thousand Year Myth

Though from a reputable British news source, it is still difficult to imagine this article—and the sentiment of the tweets contained therein—running in any major Western news source, say, even ten years ago.

A signal of progress and an encouraging way to begin the new year.

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