Friday, December 26, 2014

The "Serious" Zombie Returns

Glenn Greenwald —fairly early in his career — criticized the "serious" pundits then supporting the Iraq war, whose sole rhetorical arrow in their quiver was the ad hominem. On the eve of a potential Iraq war, Jim Webb mentioned the very specific problems associated with that war: "wars often have unintended consequences", and "occupation of Iraq... is the key element". After the invasion,
Each and every one of the dangers about which Webb warned has come to fruition. But thoughtful, sophisticated, rational and -- as it turns out -- prescient analysis like this was haughtily dismissed away by the tough-guy political and pundit classes as unserious and wimpy, even when coming from combat heroes. Instead, those who were deemed to be the serious, responsible, and strong national security leaders -- and who still are deemed as such -- were the ones shrilly warning about Iraqi mushroom clouds over our cities; handing out playing cards -- playing cards -- with pictures of the Bad People underneath their comic book nicknames; and making predictions about Iraq which the most basic working knowledge of that country should have precluded.
As with the Obamacare disaster, I get the same sense reading a series of columns from the frequently reasonable Freddie deBoer that I did with Greenwald's then-current criticisms of the likes of Marty Peretz, Mark Steyn, and George Allen (not to mention Tom "Suck. On. This." Friedman). That is, "serious" is basically a synonym for "agrees with me", and is not to be taken, well, seriously, as in, an actual argument. The first such I want to treat is his commentary about a Darren Orf Gizmodo post discussing how shutting down the website The Pirate Bay has done nothing to stop actual piracy. This, I think, is really the nucleus of his post:
Gizmodo specializes in a kind of aggressive moral childishness, but the tech culture is full of this stuff: I’m going to take what I want whenever I want it because I want it and I won’t ask or care what the costs of that behavior are.
Yet, deBoer frees himself of this very same restriction. He spends not one sentence considering the consequences of an Internet that could constrain writing, audio, or video to a centralized authorization scheme. That such a world would be amenable to all sorts of studios and tyrants both (and would be of dubious real utility, as the original Gizmodo piece makes plain) should be trivially obvious. Yet he sees only future (and likely, present) paychecks vanishing. I have heard from others in the film/TV business who tell me that they consider their "right" to make a living an absolute, not to be interfered with at any cost. Yet I wonder if they would be willing to trade 100% of their right to free speech for a centralized copyright system that could suppress any speech the operator thought noxious, or infringing, or illegal, for whatever reason. To label these real and significant arguments "childishness" only reveals the author's own superficiality, at least in this matter. He does a better job discerning the differences between North Korean pressure on Sony Pictures and Chinese soft censorship, but it's hard not to notice how there, he has no commercial interest.

 The second post I want to shine a light on is deBoer's commentary about the status of public employee unions, the public schools, and police. It's worth pausing early on for this, because it's illustrative of the progressive tribalism that all too frequently infects deBoer's writing:
Now, looking at the tendency of the state to murder its most economically and socially disadvantaged people and declaring “you know what the problem is? Unions” is inherently self-parodic for libertarian types, to the point that I’m almost content to let Wilkinson’s post undermine itself.
In other words, I don't have to actually answer any of the arguments Will Wilkerson employs about the adverse consequences of the public employee unions upon poor people, I can just smirk at those silly libertarians. But let's take a look at the soft-pedal job he does do in rebutting Wilkerson's essay. He doesn't apply a word toward the smear job done to a Costa Mesa city councilman by that city's police union after he threatened to reduce police pensions, nor Miami's recalcitrance toward police cameras by their police union, not to mention the real sense of entitlement from the NYPD Patrolmen's Benevolent Association on the subject of killing subjects citizens; apparently, these things simply don't exist, and all one needs do is ignore them, along with FDR's reasoning for rejecting public employee unions. Even in his linked New Yorker backgrounder on Corey Booker and Newark's horrid schools,
There was no question that the Newark school district needed reform. For generations, it had been a source of patronage jobs and sweetheart deals for the connected and the lucky. As Ross Danis, of the nonprofit Newark Trust for Education, put it, in 2010, “The Newark schools are like a candy store that’s a front for a gambling operation. When a threat materializes, everyone takes his position and sells candy. When it recedes, they go back to gambling.”

The ratio of administrators to students—one to six—was almost twice the state average. Clerks made up thirty per cent of the central bureaucracy—about four times the ratio in comparable cities. Even some clerks had clerks, yet payroll checks and student data were habitually late and inaccurate. Most school buildings were more than eighty years old, and some were falling to pieces. Two nights before First Lady Michelle Obama came to Maple Avenue School, in November, 2010, to publicize her Let’s Move! campaign against obesity—appearing alongside Booker, a national co-chair—a massive brick lintel fell onto the front walkway. Because the state fixed only a fraction of what was needed, the school district spent ten to fifteen million dollars a year on structural repairs—money that was supposed to be used to educate children.
How did this happen? deBoer doesn't say, and apparently doesn't care. Teachers' unions, it seems, weren't on the scene, and had nothing to do with and didn't benefit from it if they were. Never mind that compelling contrary evidence about the deleterious effects of public school unions isn't too hard to find, and supported by government data, too. If there's an argument to be made here, deBoer again shirks it.

I don't want to lay out deBoer generally, because he frequently enters the orbit of planets where actions have consequences, and not always the ones you want, as witness his analysis of the Rolling Stone rape story, or his clear-headed observation that stripping due process protections from individuals accused of rape will eventually be used on the most powerless in society, i.e. young black men. I just wish he would do it more often.

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