Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Whom Do We Trust? What Is The Moral Thing To Do?

I said that I was not going to comment on Matthew Yglesias, but this bit so exemplifies the elitist attitude of our ruling class that I had to make an exception.
On Juan Williams
Since my Think Progress colleagues are sort of “part of the story” in terms of Juan Williams getting sacked from NPR I’m a bit hesitant to comment on it. But as in the case of Rick Sanchez it seems to me that if you assume Williams has been doing valuable work all these years, firing him over this single incident is excessive. But as an NPR listener, I’m a good deal more familiar with Williams’ work than I am with Sanchez’s and it seems clear to me that Williams has not, in fact, been doing valuable work all these years. If Williams had never made these remarks about Muslims and NPR announced his firing this morning on the grounds of general lameness and lack of valuable contribution to their programming, I would have applauded the move so I’m hardly going to deplore what actually happened.[...]

First, on what basis does Yglesias decide that Williams hasn't been doing valuable work? He was a scholarship student at a prep school in NY and earned another scholarship to Haverford. Williams has had a distinguished career as a journalist and writer and has worked on several excellent projects and won awards for his work. He just realized that he could make money playing both sides of the aisle, writing about the Black experience for the left and and insulting the Black experience for the right. How is that different from your basic libertarian or centrist, who kisses up to liberals regarding civil rights while telling the right that the liberals want to give all their money to minorities?

Second, minimum standards of decency don't apply to "valuable" people? How very convenient for them. This statement should speak for itself, but, sadly, many people don't realize that being rich or important doesn't make you moral. In fact, the fewer morals you have, the greater your chance of becoming rich and important. "The rules don't apply to highly educated, well-born, well-paid people like me" is what has brought us to the brink of an economic depression and two--no, three--no, four--wars. The elite are not better than us, and anyone who says so needs to be laughed off the public stage.

There is not nearly enough mocking going on in this world, for the sharpest, most devastating weapon that exists is laughter. It spread like fire and there is no way to fight it, especially as the right is totally unarmed for a battle of wits. Ridicule works, which is why the right pays Rush Limbaugh $400,000,000 dollars to ridicule the left, year after year after year. The right is angry and therefore mean. They should be angry, although it would be infinitely preferable if they were smart enough to be angry at the people who are actually harming them instead of liberals who are too afraid or too comfortable to fight back. We're not talking about physical fighting, or revolution, or social upheaval, or even something outrageous like helping the poor to undercut the rich. We're talking about words on the internet. And most liberals won't even do that. No wonder they are kicked by everyone around them, including their own leaders.

Think Progress is a great blog and it's wonderful to see liberal values being funded and supported, which makes the presence of Yglesias so annoying. They are fighting back, yet they are also paying Yglesias to yammer on about the elite and meeting in the middle, as if the middle hasn't moved a thousand miles to the right. Why is the left supporting people who don't even realize that they are not making the moral choice?

Yglesias links to a post of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who talks about how he almost got into a fight during an assignment for The Atlantic. It was 2008, and he had been hired to write about Michelle Obama. Coates writes that it would have been a terrible mistake to fight with a critic who wouldn't back off and how he would have lost his job. He's absolutely right; there was no reason to physically fight with a critic. But when Ross Douthat said that people like Coates, unmarried fathers, were contributing to the downfall of society he backed down again. When Megan McArdle burbled on in her unconscious racist way about how Black people shouldn't give their kids funny names and how the Black Panthers were jerks (Coates' father was one), he backed down again. His leash is a long one, but it is still a leash and when it needs to, it yanks him up short.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of having dinner with James Fallows, along with a few other Atlantic folks. Fallows offered some really wise words on how to criticize people in print, the gist of it being, "Speak to those you would criticize as though they were standing right there."

That's a high standard, but one I've generally tried to maintain. My sense of my role here is as follows: I'm not here to try to humiliate people I disagree with. That goes as much for Jeff Goldberg, who is my friend, as it goes for Bob McDonnell, who is not. For sure there is a little more hot sauce on the thing, when I don't know the person. But by and by, I hope to speak to McDonnell as I would speak to Goldberg--not the other way around.

It's fun to be mean, and it makes your side howl--and sometimes it's even necessary. But my game is as follows--stating my opinions directly, clearly and without equivocation and without undue malice. I am not a violent writer. Fuck Pat Robertson was cool. But that's a small part of me, that I am endeavoring to make even smaller. When it starts becoming larger, I need to go do something else.

But he didn't. He pulled his punches (in this case regarding Jeffrey Goldberg's bias towards Israel), and told himself that he was doing the right, moral thing; that anger was bad and fighting for what is right is simply violence and hatefulness.

Not that his choice was a surprise. The Atlantic is, in its polite, well-bred way, virulently pro-business. Ta-Nehisi Coates is against affirmative action. Corporations hate affirmative action. One day they'll call in their marker and he will do what he's told to keep his job, no matter who it hurts. That is the only reason why a corporate whore like The Atlantic would hire him. His writing ability and safe, anger-free tales of long-ago racism are just gravy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2008:
Senator John McCain said today that he supports the Arizona Civil Rights Initiative, which would ban preferences based on race, ethnicity, and sex in the state’s public contracting, education (including university admissions), and employment programs. Essentially identical initiatives will be before voters this fall in Colorado and Nebraska, and have been enacted in California, Washington, and most recently Michigan.

Disappointingly, Senator Barack Obama immediately criticized McCain: “I think in the past he’d been opposed to these Ward Connerly initiatives as divisive. And I think he’s right. These are not designed to solve a big problem, but they’re all too often designed to drive a wedge between people.”

Obama’s criticism is wrongheaded for at least three reasons: (1) it is obviously preferential policies that are divisive, not their abolition; (2) the “big problem” of helping people from disadvantaged backgrounds can be addressed by helping people of all colors who are disadvantaged, rather than crudely and unfairly using race as a proxy for disadvantage; and (3) Obama himself has recognized as much, albeit fitfully and inconsistently, in his own statements—for instance, acknowledging the divisiveness of preferential treatment (in his Philadelphia speech), and the fact that his own daughters, for starters, come from privileged backgrounds and thus are “probably” not deserving of preferential treatment.

Kudos to John McCain! This is a solid, important commitment by him to the principle of E pluribus unum, and Americans across the political spectrum, but especially conservatives, should applaud him. As for Barack Obama: This is a critical moment in his campaign. Is he a candidate of change who will transcend race and bring us all together, rejecting divisive policies he knows in his heart are outdated and irrelevant—or just another Democratic pol who lacks the courage to stand up to powerful but aging interests in his own party, which remain hopelessly infatuated with identity politics and insist on perpetuating a set of policies that have always been unfair and divisive and are now outmoded to boot?

As per Lashawn Barber:[WTF?-SoT]
The whole point of the civil rights movement was to bar the government from preferring one citizen over another based on factors like race. But our government continues this odious practice, and I can think of nothing more unfair or divisive, no matter which race or sex benefits from the discrimination. A government with the power to discriminate in favor of blacks has the power to discriminate against blacks.

No acknowledgement of the fact that White America preys on, uses up and tosses aside Black men. Authoritarians will always side with the elite. That is why they can't and shouldn't be trusted, even if they appear to be on our side and we usually agree with them. These people are utterly useless; they will try to maintain the status quo forever while the nation slides slowly into poverty and decay.

By the way, Obama thinks the same way about Black America.


CaptBackslap said...

How did you get from "if you assume Williams has been doing valuable work all these years, firing him over this single incident is excessive" to "being rich or important doesn't make you moral?" That's really not what Yglesias (whose work I do not enjoy) was saying there, and the whole thing feels like a strawman.

And the attack on Coates (whose work I do enjoy) was just nasty and uncalled-for. The guy plain disagrees with you on race-based affirmative action. That doesn't make him "utterly useless." You might as well have asked if he's With Us or Against Us. Hell, next time just go ahead and call him a house slave and get it over with.

Whimsy said...

I very often agree with you, Susan, but I have to disagree on this one. I've been listening to Williams for 10 years on NPR, and I've never understood why NPR gave an ever-rising series of positions to a journalist who just never seemed cogent, prepared, or insightful.

Susan of Texas said...

Whimsy, I am being kind of sarcastic about Williams. I agree that he's all you say, and want to criticize the tendency for libertarian-types to ignore their own obedience to authority.

CaptBackslap, I'm criticizing Yglesias' assumption that "people of value" can get away with things that others cannot.

Now, Coates. I like him and I like his work but I don't respect him. I understand that lots of people do, and maybe they're right and I'm wrong. But I don't believe so. He's working for the same magazine that hired Jeffrey Goldberg and Megan McArdle. He knows that, and he is careful to never upset that apple cart. That's great for him, but he is not someone whom I would turn to for advice and insight.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but this is wrong, simply wrong.

Very jarring (to me) to see one favorite blogger slag off another favorite blogger. So I'm fighting to see if I've missed something along the line. I just keep seeing arguments that don't hold up.

I'm torn about criticizing someone who has the guts to put her opinions out there for public consumption, but I couldn't in good conscience not say anything.


Susan of Texas said...

I can understand the criticism and suspected it might happen, but I have made these same criticisms many times before about McArdle. Why is it okay to criticize the Atlantic and its salons and corporate massaging when it's about McArdle, but not Coates? Why is his silence okay and hers isn't? Is the Atlantic suddenly okay on Coates' blog but a bad actor on McARdle's blog? Why is it okay to criticise Obama for putting the onus of racism on Black men (which he did, and I wrote about it critically) but not Coates?

The whole point of this blog is that we excuse away wrong things if we identify with and feel a belonging to a tribe or group or individual. But that individual does not identify with or feel loyal to us. They are loyal to their authority. It's easy to see and criticize when the right does it but not so much with the left. Other people even say that Obama's bombings and wars and civil rights abuses are okay because it's Obama, not Bush. That is incredibly dangerous for our democracy.

I criticize obedience to authority. If I refused to criticize anyone I liked or was on our side, at least in my eyes, I might as well quit, because then I've become exactly what I criticize--someone who cares more about people liking her than the truth, someone who wants hits more than she wants to tell the truth, someone who shuts her mouth instead of saying the truth. And then I'd be utterly useless.

NomadUK said...

You go, Susan; stick to your guns.

I remember Juan Williams — from 'way back when I used to actually listen to NPR — as being an utter tool who forced me to switch stations to remain on the road. Yglesias — well.

As for Coates, I have no idea, as I haven't read The Atlantic in years, but am willing to accept your opinion as probably valid.

nanute said...

I'm with Susan on this one. If you can't be critical of your "friends", you've got no validity in criticizing your opposition. Speak the truth, the consequences be damned.

Susan of Texas said...

Thanks vey much nanute and Nomad UK. I hestitated to publish this because I know Coates is popular with people I like, but so is Obama, and if I refused to say what I thought out of fear I would be a coward.

Anonymous said...

Too much to do at work to get into this now, but I'm puzzled at what it is exactly Ta-Nehisi is being criticized for.

Working at the Atlantic?

Working together at the Atlantic with Megan McArdle?

Not punching out a guy who got in his face about what Coates wrote about him?

Not speaking the truth to authority?

Being useless?

I dispute vigorously the contention that if we don't object to Susan criticizing Megan McCardle then we shouldn't object if she criticizes Ta-Nehisi Coates. Sure, if he deserves criticism (as Our Megan almost contiuously does), then criticize away. But that's where I come up short - what's being criticized?


Anonymous said...

Wait, so you're criticizing Coates of not criticizing McArdle, while you're ... anonymous?

Susan of Texas said...

No, I'm criticizing Coates for working for the Atlantic (jut like I do with McArdle).

Susan of Texas said...

By the way, when are people going to start to argue that affirmative action is bad and Coates is right and that it is identity politics, unfair and divisive and no longer necessary? Or that it's okay to work for Atlantic and its salons and its pro-drug company and oil company propaganda? Please, let's address Coates' behavior as well as my temerity to criticize a nice guy with talent.

Anonymous said...

Slam away. I don't have the stomach to read McCardle, and Coates-- well the few times I've read him, he just struck me as boring in the same way that Matt Bai is. Mushy.
Yglesias is a train wreck that I cannot keep my eyes away from, however. I cannot understand why Think Progress is paying him to blog. No, Matt, you are not interesting because you went to Dalton and Harvard. You are pretty damn average based on the circumstances of your upbringing. (Most of us are-- I include myself in the average group). You have nothing new to say. I'm tired of your cheerleading for Michelle Rhee--as if you have any clue what goes on in public schools. And, if you are not go! go! globalism, this does not mean that you don't care about all the poor brown people of the world.

Clever Pseudonym said...

On the subject of Willilams - I'll just paraphrase what Roy Edroso tweeted yesterday - I wouldn't have fired Juan Williams for what he said. I never would have hired him in the first place.

And I have to stick up for Susan here as well, though she's done a damn fine job herself. Calling Coates a house slave? Are you kidding me? What? Is she supposed to be less honest about her opinions of his work than she is of others because of his race? Because that would be ultimately insulting.

Anonymous said...

Susan, let me get this straight. If the Atlantic approached you about joining its blog roll - let's even kick it up a notch by saying that you'd replace one of their current bloggers because you eviscerate her so regularly - you would refuse?

You well might, but you're setting an awfully high bar for the rest of us mere mortals.

I gather that your beef is more with the Atlantic than with Ta-Nehisi. The Atlantic may not have Twain, James or Hawthorne on it's blogroll anymore but be fair - who does?

As just one example, if one reads Coates regularly, you know that he has done a spectacular job this year dismantling the memes behind Confederate History Month. That alone is above and beyond what most bloggers ever achieve. Beyond that, he simply takes no quarter on that topic . . . and that's often his approach toward himself, which is another thing that makes him interesting to me. Oh, would all of his co-bloggers be as self-aware as he is.

You may disagree with his stance on X, Y or Z but c'mon, criticizing him because he works for the Atlantic seems to overlook his body of work and it also seems to be rather gratuitous relative to your generally marvelous body of work.

Over and out for now.


Susan of Texas said...

you would refuse?

Of course! And so would you if you wanted to say what I want to say. I don't even put ads on my site. If I were writing fiction or straight reporting or snarking generally I might, but you really can't rail against people who take corporate money when you take corporate money yourself. It totally undercuts and invalidates everything you say and you will inevitably start curbing what you say.

Because I believe this, I believe that Coates made a very wrong decision to work for the Atlantic. Just like McArdle traded her Ivy League reputation for her paycheck, Coates trades his reputation as a sensitive, intelligent, thoughtful Black man to work for a corrupt system.

We must all compromise to live. But we need to understand what we are doing and why, even if we only acknowledge it to ourselves. Otherwise nothing is real and we will be incapable of distinguishing truth from lies.

Anonymous said...

Aha, now I understand where you're coming from.

Admirable sentiments that I'm sympathetic to but we certainly differ on degree.

Thanks !


Anonymous said...

"...dismantling the memes behind Confederate history month" is not exactly controversial to those of the (corporate)creative class. Actually, I think it serves corporate interests quite well.

Anyway, I would recommend the piece on the return of "the culture of poverty" at Salon.

And, thanks Susan.

Susan of Texas said...

The author of that piece discusses racism and other structural reasons for the problem and quotes Coates about the culture of poverty (using the same post I quoted from!). It appears that Coates is saying structural problems--dealing with the harsh life meted out to Black men--contribute to the culture of poverty, but he blames Black people themselves, not the world that forces young kids to toughen up to survive in their environment. He seems to think of success as leaving behind one's class to fit into an upper class. Considering the venality of the group he has joined, there are better goals to have, such as not feeling like you have to be someone else to fit in. Coates understands this, but as he felt he was not "truly built for the streets," the dilemma doesn't affect him the same way it might affect someone whose father was not a notable person.

What is a young Black guy to think when a successful, admired Black man says that the guy's problems are his fault alone, and if he just had the right attitude he'd achieve success? We are responsible for our own actions, for each and every decision we make, but if we don't realize why we make decisions, what drives us both consciously and unconsciously, we can never truly make free choices. Coates was driven and is self-driven to succeed, but he seems to think that success is joining the corrupt White corporate mass media.

Maybe that's all he aspires to and is capable of and therefore it's the right decision for him. I don't think that's true. But if it is true, he's just another talented hack and not worthy of the respect and trust he's given.

CaptBackslap said...

I think it would be useful, both politically and as policy, to switch to a class-based form of affirmative action. And I guess I don't really see how TNC working at the Atlantic does anywhere near as much harm as good. I mean, a good writer with mostly liberal views gets a great platform to increase his exposure, but... what, people might click over to Megan's drivel and be immediately charmed?

And CleverPseudonym: The leash remark, combined with the implication that TNC was hired because he's a black guy against AA, pretty much sounded like house slave to me. It may not have been intended that way, but yes there are certain formulations that just don't go down as smoothly when they refer to a black guy.

nate said...

Chalk me up as another supporter, Susan.

Noam Chomsky said, many years ago, that in order to rise in the hierarchy of news media (in this country, at least), you have to internalize the beliefs of the power structure and elites you're going to serve. There's no need for overt censorship, because anyone who doesn't believe the right way never gets anywhere near a position to disseminate their views.

That's exactly what we're seeing with Coates. Shit, he says as much himself. He's got a career to protect. In a sense, I don't blame him at all, but you better goddamn well believe I think about that when I read his stuff. Intelligent, thoughtful, sure, also careful to protect his position.

Shell Goddamnit said...

Noam Chomsky said, many years ago, that in order to rise in the hierarchy of news media (in this country, at least), you have to internalize the beliefs of the power structure and elites you're going to serve. There's no need for overt censorship, because anyone who doesn't believe the right way never gets anywhere near a position to disseminate their views.

And Chomsky was not the first by any means. Self-censorship has been a factor since owners and reporters became separate people.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I used to love reading this blog. But I've gradually come to realize that you don't have a single positive thing to say about anyone. McArdle deserves disdains, and Matt sure does say some dumb things at times -- I agree! -- but unrelenting criticism is just not helpful. Where are your links to arguments you agree with? Would that be too "bipartisan" for you?

Long time reader, reader no more.

Susan of Texas said...

Actually, unrelenting criticism is very effective. That's why the right does it and that's why I do it too.

As for linking to other bloggers, I could do that, but the people whose work I admire enough to "heh! indeed" them are much more negative and critical than I am. Arthur Silber, Chris Floyd, the people at Counterpunch and Tom Dispatch and quite a few others--they make me look like Little Mary Sunshine.

I also figure that the people who read me also read my favorite blogs, such as TBogg and Roy Edroso, Roger Ailes, Avedon Carol. I could easily link to them every day, but in the end I always talk about what struck me as interesting or outrageous or moronic, and what would help me explore the ideas I'm most interested in.

In the end I write for my own satisfaction, and if others enjoy it, great. If they don't, well, we all have different interests, needs, and wants and each person should find what makes him happy.

DocAmazing said...

Allow me to join in the applause for your taking a swing at Coates. His writing has bugged me for a long time, and it was hard for me to accept that he was joining the Bill Cosby School of Pull Your Flarn-Flarn Pants Up Black Pathology Criticism, given his family history, his previous writings, and his Afrocentric name. His decline has been incremental, but it is impossible to ignore.

As to Yglesias, well, being sold out by well-positioned semi-liberals is nothing new; Matt just brings a more up-to-date feel to the process.

Keep swinging, hermana.

digamma said...

My feelings about Coates are a lot like what Susan said about Digby here. There is a certain wall he can't see around.

But I think he is destined to break down that wall at some point. He came very close when he wrote, "When engaging your adversaries, that approach has its place. But it's worth saying that there are other approaches and other places. Among them--respectfully administering the occasional reminder as to the precise nature of the motherfuckers you are dealing with."

tenacitus said...

After reading Coates view on how privatizing education is the best solution to "America's school problem" I came to the conclusion that he is either very uninformed about what is going on in the schools or he simply has an ideology that he is advocating. Or maybe he is simply a lazy journalist who has bought into the lies about the free market.

Also he has an intellectual bond with Andy Sullivan. Sully has been trying to make himself into a sensible centrist as if all his years of being a loyal conservative who defended the indefensible. Tah-Nehsi like Sully hold many views that differ from mine. The biggest difference is that they will both side with power always. This is okay I just will never trust them.

It is interesting the Coates can go off on black bloggers in his "why We Can't Have Nice Things" post but will ignore all the times that media colludes with governments to marginalize people on the left, and yes especially people of colour.

aimai said...

I've liked some of what Coates writes, but increasingly over the last year or so I've gone over there because of a fawning link from some (white) blogger and found somethign that is largely ho hum or even highly questionable. Not all the time, but quite often. Coates seems to me to be like a kind of journalistic missing link: his youth, his background, his race and class experience inclines him to have perspectives and insights that were lacking in other Atlantic bloggers and on the "we link to him" blog circuit but his ambitions and his paychecks incline him to smother those unique attributes, or rather simply to market aggressively without living them or pushing them onto the readers.

That's actually a kind of failed affirmative action for good writers and political thinkers. Nothing to do with race--we'd see the same thing if Affirmative Action were limited to people from small towns, weird religions, or the lowest income levels. When the writer is hired for his unique perspective and begins cutting his cloth to suit his paymasters you are always going to see a dumbing down of an outsider's agenda, a muting of an original voice.

Say what you want about the right wing in this country and its affirmative action policies for hiring--hell, they have their own newspapers like the Washignton Times or their own TV shows like Fox--but their bloggers, writers, and thinkers generally stay firmly to the farthest right and never move towards the comfortable center.

The difference? Coates wants to be liked, and you don't get to be liked speaking truth to power over and over and over again. You eventually come to season your mildest criticisms with a whole lot of sugar to keep getting over.

But as I say Coates is transitional--he has to decide whether he wants to/can afford to speak his own truth or become Juan Williams.