Cheap Talk (Link Round-up 1/31)

Cheap Talk are things I read and wanted to blog in response to, but did not have the time, energy, or content to justify it.

Anne Coulter Speaks the Truth!

…kind of. I don’t agree with her in “I Was Hoping for a Taller Honest Man“, but it is a fantastic insight into what is going on in the heads of Trump supporters. Yes, you’ll be giving World Net Daily and Anne Coulter a click, but you’ll also be illuminating why so many conservatives do.

China and Same-Sex Marriage

Looks like a Chinese court is taking a same-sex marriage case . Odds are against, especially since it took arm-twisting to get the case taken in the first place, but I don’t know enough about China’s bureaucracy to say for sure what is going to happen. China is hard to read and has a complicated political system.

Also, let’s get meta. Notice the interest in rights. There is a persistent myth that China and its citizens are not concerned with rights. Since the disaster that was The Great Leap Forward, huge strides have been made to create a system of rights for citizens and place checks on the government. This can be a bit bewildering in the West because they have adopted the Confucian/Communist view that rights spring from communities and relationships. For example, China has very strong union protections; if your union takes on the central planners, you are fairly strongly protected. None of this is to assert that China does not have problems, nor that their system is better, just to point out that there is a lot of confusion around China.


I will beat the dead horse about Bernie Sanders until it is the deadest horse around. Also, I can’t stand Robert Reich (and need to do a post about that), so this made me…uh…cringe:


What does “qualified” even mean here? Where has Sanders ever in his life changed a large system? He was peripherally involved with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, but to suggest he was an architect of the change is a gross misreading of even the optimistic case for that. What Reich means is that Sanders talks a good game. But he does not even have a plan on record for changing deep seated interests, no down-ballot support, and has only superficially engaged with it means to be wield presidential power. These are not qualifications.

A Thought about the Bundy Occupation

I’m a month late to blow this into a full post, so if you really want it write it yourself. If you thought Occupy was justified, you don’t disagree with the methods of the Bundy occupation. (Qualification: you could have some objection about how the respective occupations are governing themselves, which would be the exception that proves the rule.) The left has a long history of occupying spaces as a form of protest so there is a fair amount of hypocrisy in citing “rule of law” here. Sure, I don’t think the Bundies have a legitimate reason to be protesting either. But occupation and civil disobedience has a long tradition in America.

Well, You Could Sell Your House in Flint

Whenever there is a certain kind of scandal that impacts poor blacks, a certain segment comes out because this time will be the revolution. They are batting 0 for quite a lot. It has been no different with Flint. I hope Michigan voters absolutely rout the republicans this year and in 2018. Now that it has come to light that Snyder knew a year ago that water wasn’t safe, I hope that appropriate steps are taken to bring whatever the full force of the law is against him.

But that rumor going around that you can’t sell your house if it has a known lead problem? Not true. It is totally legal. Snopes is admittedly unbiased to a fault, and that milquetoast comment that residents would have some trouble selling these homes is understatement. There is a nearly endless well of terrible things that have happened in Flint that we need not make any up to Tweek, mmmk?

A Pairing

This short piece about Richard Dawkins being disinvited from a skeptics convention pairs nicely with this longer interview about moving away from Dawkins-style New Atheism towards spiritual-ness.

Ta-Nehisi Coates Knows a Thing or Two about Racism

In some free advice to liberal bloggers, the headline “Ta-Nehisi Coates Does Not Understand Racism” reveals more about your understanding of race than his.

Ben Studebaker is not on unsound footing with his premise once we get past that. The essence of the debate Coates is weighing in on is whether or not there exists some fundamental form of oppression in class, or if race is a separate but intertwined struggle. Coates believes the latter and Ben has long advocated the former. While I align with Coates, I am more floored by Ben’s sloppy argument.

I don’t buy the standard Marxist argument that—and I’m strawmanning a bit to streamline the post—because categories of race were contrived to justify economic systems that they have always been economic. For starters, they were popularized by people with differing agendas, often for surprisingly altruistic reasons. In my view, race, once made, took on a life of its own.

But Ben does not lay out this case. His argument appears to be a rather simplistic model of racism, a terrible bastardization of intersectionality, and then some grade-A misreading of an interview that Coates gave once. This post isn’t about whether or not the conclusion is wrong. It is, rather appropriately, arguing Ben has not even got in sight of the burden of proof for his claims.

Two Things First

This makes an appearance in Ben’s pice:

Neil Drumming: “OK. That’s like–I feel like for This American Life, you’re going to have to explain that.’

Ta-Nehisi Coates: “What bougie means? So ‘bougie’ is a term that black people use—and I guess white people have used it now, ’cause I see white people using it—which I think people think is interchangeable with ‘snob.’ But I actually don’t think [that’s right]…a bougie’s a snob who looks down…bougie people want to be part of a crowd…they want to be part of the right crowd. So for instance, I don’t want to put my son in some exclusive club or something, literally like some sort of societal something or other. Do you know what I mean?”

(Emphasis mine.) The obvious reading of this absent all other facts is that Coates is talking about usage in slang or AAVE. The reading that Coates doesn’t know its origins in Marxist theory are, I suppose, plausible taking this and only this. But Coates has publicly engaged with Marxism, for example here. It seems doubtful that someone who tried to parse socialist writers’ views on whether or not the American South was pre-industrial, an important aspect of Marxist theory, missed one of the vocabulary words that even precocious high schoolers pick up.

Finally, the Counter-Punch article that Ben links to actually distinguishes between “Bougie” and “Bourgeoisie” directly after the lifted quote. I know Ben and I don’t think he was being duplicitous, but that does not change that it is an uncharitable reading used to conclude without further warrant that a black critic is not well-read enough to be taken seriously. While I do not think it is intentional, I am stunned that he linked a piece he did not give a sufficient reading to prove Coates is poorly read.

Second, there is this:

Bernie Sanders understands that to break the cycles of poverty and racism, the left needs to build a broad, solidaristic coalition that includes significant numbers of white people. One way to do this is to propose welfare spending that is not explicitly race-based. As we can see in the above chart, blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately poor, and welfare spending will disproportionately benefit them, but by allowing poor whites to also be beneficiaries, the left shows that it is committed to opposing oppression in all forms for all people. This undermines the right’s ability to use race to split the poor. Sanders and Trump are competing for many of the same voters–people who feel that the political system is not looking out for them. Sanders invites poor whites to join him in a coalition with blacks and Hispanics to rollback the power of corporations and the wealthy to create a more just and sustainable distribution of wealth. Trump tries to tell those same poor white voters that Sanders will just take their hard-earned money and give it to “those people”. Those who support reparations have the very best of intentions, but in real political terms they are helping Donald Trump.

(Emphasis mine.) Ben is not wrong, though I might quibble about what solidarity can mean when whites have to be prioritized for political reasons. It is quite one thing to say that a candidate who puts black interests first is not electable. It is quite another to say that Coates does not understand racism because of it. Racism is the belief that whites come first and the structures that produce outcomes that put whites first. Ben baldly makes this argument that we must prioritize the interests of white voters to make Sanders electable, as do many Sanders supporters.

The argument is revealingly incrementalist: Collaborate with white supremacy and we can erode it. Perhaps, but it is still white supremacy.


Coates is talking about a deep fight that divides socialists and has since the movements began. The “class-first” position is decidedly socialist orthodoxy. If you’ll permit me to clean up a messy history, the divide has evolved something like this: The resistance to that position goes back to first wave feminists, who actually convinced Engles to change a lot of his sexist positions and view women as having struggles separate, if related to class. Activists in the 60s had an uneasy alliance with socialists, which is how Sanders ended up working with black radicals. There was a good deal of internal conflict as socialists tried to put class issues first on the agenda over the objections of black activists. In the 80s, bell hooks wrote the book that launched a thousand Tumblrs (albeit later), formalizing a lot of those complaints into Intersectionality. A few other things happened, obviously.

Intersectionality means different things to different people, so it is a good idea to either define it yourself or reference a specific author. That said, there are some commonalities that I’ll be using for the rest of this post. Intersectionality is the recognition that there are multiple kinds of oppression, none are “fundamental”, and that multiple oppressed identities are different than the sum of their parts. The author bell hooks memorably put the second criterion as, “there is no hierarchy of oppressions”.

Ben, for his part, does not create a hierarchy, but nor does he create an intersection. He creates a cycle:


On the subject of a charitable reading, Ben likely knows this is simplified. That is not exactly the issue here—all models are simplifications and all blogging requires some creative cutting. That’s not my beef. If this were an intersectionality model, even a simple one, then some of the nodes would be double reinforcing.

Poverty, for example, should point back at “fewer blacks being economically successful” because poverty is reinforcing. It also should directly point at “racism denies blacks resources and poverty” because poverty interacts in potent with race. I include this because it is the intersectionality for policies which substantially address poverty. Coates has never deviated from that message.

But it is worth noting that the boxes, “white people notice how badly off blacks are” and “white people use this as an excuse to do nothing” has no one-for-one equivalent in a theory of white poverty; it is a racial phenomenon. The first box is one of many observations that white people have made to justify their power, and many of those boxes would reinforce each other. Minorities have a harder time accessing welfare, meaning that Ben’s cycle should probably be bidirectional at its simplest. These are hurdles that white poor people simply do not face, in the same way that women working within socialism had problems that were unlike Engle’s problems and a product of gender. This would imply there is no hierarchy of oppressions.

Ben’s cyclical model is ultimately too supperficial to serve as proof that Coates’ more nuanced writing is false. It never really rises above counter-assertion. In doing so, it shortchanges a number of theorists who have put forward a strong case that intersectionality is a real phenomenon. Coates, bell hooks, and others who propound intersectionality have argued that everything Ben says is true. It just is not exclusively true.

Curiously, Ben hedges by arguing that black people face a unique disadvantage. He argues, in short, that reparations would create a backlash. It is certainly an important policy consideration. But, if race and class are essentially the same, welfare should fail because poor people will face a backlash. The answer is obvious: race has taken on a life of its own.


The obvious next question is whether or not class-first or intersectional models are better. Many authors have made the case better than I could, and I will not rehash it here—besides, this is a long post already. Ben is free to parse the evidence differently, as do many (but not anything close to all!) academics. To be honest, I was convinced of intersectionality doing organizing work and hitting hard-to-solve realities about power in supposedly progressive spaces. Ben’s graph above feels like a compelling slice of a bigger problem to me and Coates is directing everyone to look at the cake. Not everyone, even leftist scholars, think Coates has this right, of course, but Ben is wrong if he thinks Coates is not aware of this.

Ain’t I a Woman should go on Ben’s reading list; it almost certainly was on Coates’ at some point.

Where is the Rest of the Sanders Revolution?

Obama’s words about not being able to make politicians get along, quite apart from being startlingly naive, drove home for me how much I do not believe electing Sanders would fix anything.

A fun game to play during an 8th State of the Union address is to imagine different candidates giving it. Trump would have something amazing to say. Clinton would hit all the right notes, but lack that deeper charisma that has always alluded her. (She is a better official than figurehead, I endlessly maintain.) And Sanders would be greeted with cold, cold silence.

Sanders is not a Democrat. This fact is easy to forget while he is running on the ticket. While I have transparently supported Clinton, I am not thrilled with the way the DNC has treated Sanders*. That said, Sanders is crashing the party, pun intended. He has been a vocal critic of the party and its platform for decades and is pulling people who are not Democrats towards voting in the primary. If someone as right of Clinton as Sanders is left were doing this, a Republican would have a third of the Democratic vote. Before you justify this, I agree: Sanders has nowhere else to go. Does not make him a Democrat.

But the thing Sanders has failed to do is create down-ballot candidates. So you want to invade the Democratic Party and move it left? Where is Congress in this vision? One problem is that a good number of Sander’s supporters simply overestimate the Presidency. A good way to imagine the President is as someone who can only say “yes” or “no”. (The rule-making process matters a good deal, as the recent kerfuffle about executive orders reminds us, so this is very simplified.) A good question to ask when you hear a presidential candidate make a promise is whether or not Congress will pass something close.

And so I picture Bernie Sanders, probably the most principled person who attended the State of Union, up in front of it. Would that Congress pass single-payer? Pass super-high tax rates on the rich? Increase the safety net significantly? The answer is very decidedly no. And getting a Democratic House and Senate, no small feat, won’t be enough for exactly the reason Sanders has gotten a raw deal from the DNC. These are not Democratic proposals.

This is not a revolution. It is a quixotic run that if successful will jam up American politics hopelessly for 4 years. Unless Sanders is planning on suspending the Constitution, he needs Congress to back him up. You think Obama had problems with one party against him? You have not seen anything yet!

Until he gets a Congressional movement, you have to put the relative merits of Sanders’ proposals on ice.

*The data breach notwithstanding. Stealing data, even if it is a lieutenant, is a terrible offense in electoral politics. I’ve said that the reversal was also correct and that Sanders handled the fallout exceptionally, but the DNC was well within their rights to protect the integrity of the primary.

On Sectarian Politics

The New York Times ran a, uh, questionable piece suggesting that 7th century theology could explain present day tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. This is excellently refuted by Marc Lynch in The Washington Post.

I am only stepping into the fray because a friend posted this piece, and I would like to issue a concurring opinion that looks at it a bit differently. The thrust here is that it is Orientalist to suggest that medieval theology drives current politics in the Arab world and that the West has moved beyond that. In broad strokes, I agree. And I want to zero in on the thought experiment that backs that assertion:

Let’s try a thought experiment to see the absurdity of Orientalist analysis. Let’s say Germany and France got into a dispute over the future of Europe. Would the New York Times run a sidebar informing its readers about Martin Luther and the rise of Protestant Germany in the 16th century, and the religious differences with Catholic France?

Agreed. Now, remember when a bunch of economies were failing in Europe? Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain? (PIIGS, because, ugh.) And France was on the edge? Now, the things these countries all have in common is that they are Orthodox, either Eastern Orthodox or Catholic. France was more mixed. There exists a reading in which this is somehow related to that curiosity. And James North’s point is that no self-respecting journalist would put their byline on that.

Here’s the twist: I think there is something going on there. No, I don’t think Catholic values or some other simplistic hypothesis explains the Euro crisis. I think Europe has had the same geography for a long time and that the same conflicts keep coming up. Southern Europe has faced resource shortages in a way that Northern Europe never has. Embracing a large, centrally organized institution to help redistribute wealth and maintain order makes more sense there. Church or State, it is the same broad functions.

This does not hold up to very fine scrutiny. Remember the time Germany hopped on the Fascist train with Southern Europe. (Of course, they had just been artificially impoverished.) And orthodox Russia and Eastern Europe have played the field against central Europe. But in North-South conflicts, sectarian affiliation has for centuries been predictive, not causative.

Viewing the conflicts in the Middle East as structural, and sects as a response to those structures, goes a long way to explaining why the same lines keep getting drawn. Persia (Iran) and the Arabs have long been fighting over the same resources, influence, and borders. Sect affiliation becomes part of the political identity and part of the fight. It is about who should lead Muslims, yes, but it is not stuck in the seventh century. Islam would have unified if those problems could have been solved. Until Tehran and Riyadh find a durable way to share resources and territory (spoiler alert: they can’t), they will continue to be pitted against each other. As long Protestant Europe and Orthodox Europe continue to have conflicting economies, they will be pitted against each other.

And sectarian identification with deep roots will keep growing into the present.