Black Friday Shopping: Why People Act Like Lunatics

Published: mic (November 28, 2013)

As Americans plan on observing Black Friday, it’s worth taking a few minutes to observe the origin of this infamous “holiday.”

Although the term “Black Friday” was initially coined in reference to an economic panic caused by financiers Jay Fiske and Stephen Gould on September 24, 1869, it was first used to refer to the shopping day immediately following Thanksgiving in the November 1951 issue of Factory Management and Maintenance. Even then, however, the title didn’t take off in usage for another decade, when Philadelphians in 1961 began using it to refer to the post-Thanksgiving consumer frenzy that had gripped their city. The rest, as they say, is history.

And what an ugly history it has been. To list some of the more infamous recent incidents:

– In 2008, a Walmart employee was trampled to death as customers stormed the store while four other shoppers, including a woman who was eight months pregnant, were injured.

– Also in 2008, two men shot each other to death at a Toys R Us after a fight erupted between the women accompanying them. Although the shooting was confirmed to have been unrelated to consumerism, the heated emotions inspired by Black Friday almost certainly played a role.

– In 2011, a 61-year-old man collapsed from a heart attack while shopping as customers passed by him either unaware of or indifferent to his condition.

– Also in 2011, a woman was arrested for pepper spraying other customers (including children) who tried to buy an XBox so she could make sure she had the first one.

Last year, a man faced charges after he was videotaped threatening to stab other customers who pushed him or his children while waiting on line at a Kmart in Sacramento.

So why does Black Friday bring out the worst in us? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

Insofar as the psychology behind Black Friday is concerned, the best explanation was recently featured in a Huffington Post article. One element at play is the “scarcity principle,” which involves people becoming instinctively obsessed with obtaining items that they believe are rare, will soon run out, or are difficult to obtain. Because Black Friday has been promoted as the ideal time to acquire valuable consumerables at low prices, it feeds into this impulse. Exacerbating it is the “social proof principle,” wherein people follow the example of large groups around them because if they see others affirming something’s value, they assume that it must indeed be good. Because Black Friday is trumpeted up by everyone else, they reason, it must indeed be worth prioritizing.

How can we handle this?

For one thing, it’s important to keep our heads on straight no matter how many people around us are losing theirs. While Black Friday may offer great deals and access to first-out-of-the-assembly line gift options, it is hardly the only opportunity consumers will have to buy the products they want at prices they can afford. Just because everyone else is chomping at the bit doesn’t mean that they have good reason for doing so. If you don’t want to feel like a cow in a herd, you can start by avoiding cattle-think.

It’s also helpful to look at the list of horror stories included at the beginning of this article. Ever since the advent of the digital age, it is impossible for people who behave like truly egregious jackasses not to get noticed and publicly humiliated as a result. No matter how tantalizing that offer may seem, or how infuriating the behavior of your fellow shoppers may be, do you really want to appear on lists like the one featured here? Shame can be a valuable tool for social management, and Black Friday is a prime case of that.

Finally, it may be helpful to remember the true spirit of the holidays we’re celebrating. As I explained in my last piece on Thanksgiving shopping, it’s easy to let dollars and cents get in the way of decency and common sense. Whether you’re celebrating the religious Christmas, the secular Christmas, Channukah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, or another holiday altogether, it’s important to realize that materialism — though one of the undeniable guilty pleasures of such events — is not the ultimate point therein. If people just kept that thought in mind, Black Friday might not have such a terrible connotation.

Why Millennials Should Avoid Getting Sucked Into Black Friday

Published: mic (November 27, 2013)

According to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation, nearly one in four Americans are willing to shop on Thanksgiving. Indeed, of the 33 million shoppers expected to hit the streets tomorrow, the one anticipated to turn out in the largest numbers are those between the ages of 18 and 36 – i.e., millennials.

This is a disgrace.

When the legendary German sociologist Max Weber took it upon himself to describe the capitalist work ethic that dominated America’s socioeconomic life, he wrote of “the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order,” one “now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force.”

This sums it up the Thanksgiving shopping craze quite neatly: We live in a society where material acquisition is the foremost priority among our citizens. If millions of Americans are thus encouraged to forego the act of thankfulness in the name of crass consumerism, so be it. If countless families have a national holiday ruined because their employers force them to work, then that’s their problem. After all, they are mere human beings with families, friends, and lives that they hope can be spent in ways that don’t involve constant working. When Abraham Lincoln spoke of an ideology that was “for both the man and the dollar, but in case of conflict the man before the dollar,” he was arguing for values modern commercialists deem antiquated.

A few states are finding ways of dealing with this. In states with blue laws like Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, retailers are prohibited from forcing their employees to work on Thanksgiving, with the implicit idea being that even a morsel like a family-oriented holiday ought not to be ground up in the gears of unbridled commercialism. Unfortunately, far more have had their appetites whetted by the potential profitabilty of Thanksgiving shopping.

If millennials want to make a difference tomorrow, they can start by protesting this desecration.

Fellow PolicyMic pundit Nina Ippolito has already gotten this off to a good start, circulating the term “Brown Thursday” as a way of insulting the new prequel to Black Friday. On a more meaningful level, millennials can make a point tomorrow of not succumbing to their baser instincts. It’s not like we weren’t forced to spend all previous Thanksgivings indulging in quaint pastimes like (gasp!) spending time with our families and (shudder!) avoiding thinking about practical or materialistic considerations. Instead of taking advantage of this new trend meant to exploit workers and drain money from consumers, we should show that the Thanksgiving spirit is stronger than the uglier side of capitalism.

On a deeper level, though, we need to confront the social trends that fueled this particular fire in the first place.

Just as the spirit of Christmas was in many ways dampened by the crass commercialism that began to overtake it, so too is Thanksgiving at risk of being eclipsed by the same shopping frenzy that gave Black Friday its name. This is because, whenever an argument is presented in favor of promoting commercial considerations, there is an outspoken contingent that insists on silencing all protests. In America today there is a strong impulse to assume that anything which lines the pockets is good for society, that using the term “bottom line” as interchangeable with making money is obvious because, after all, what other “bottom line” could there possibly be?

We are indeed living the age when Weber’s old prediction is bearing out:

“Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.”

Let us cast off this iron cage that is being shackled on us. To millennials: Don’t go shopping on Thanksgiving.

‘Family Guy’ Killed Brian, and Here’s Why That Was Brilliant

Published: mic (November 25, 2013)

 

JFK Conspiracy Theories: Should We Pay Attention?

Published: mic (November 22, 2013)

Is conspiracy theorizing a problem?

As America recognizes the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the conspiracy theories continue to abound. Among the most prevalent are:

– That he was murdered by the CIA as revenge for his post-Bay of Pigs personnel shake-up and/or his alleged plan to de-escalate the Vietnam War.

– That he was murdered by the mafia both because of his brother’s role in prosecuting major dons, and because of his failure to oust Fidel Castro, who interfered with their business interests in Cuba.

– That he was murdered by the Soviets and/or Castro through Lee Harvey Oswald (who had known Communist ties), because they wanted to exact vengeance for the Cuban Missile Crisis.

– That he was murdered by then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who was concerned that a financial scandal might convince Kennedy to drop him from the 1964 ticket.

– That he was murdered by the Federal Reserve, which believed that Kennedy’s issuing of Executive Order 11110, instructing the Secretary of the Treasury to issue $4.2 billion in silver certificates, was the first step in a larger plan to diminish its power over the currency.

Much of this has to do with traits of the American political psyche. As William Saletan of Slate recently wrote, conspiracy theorists “aren’t really skeptics. Like the rest of us, they’re selective doubters. They favor a worldview, which they uncritically defend. But their worldview isn’t about God, values, freedom, or equality. It’s about the omnipotence of elites.”

After reiterating this perspective, The New York Times recently concluded, “Psychologists aren’t sure whether powerlessness causes conspiracy theories or vice versa. Either way, the current scientific thinking suggests these beliefs are nothing more than an extreme form of cynicism, a turning away from politics and traditional media — which only perpetuates the problem.”

This idea was perhaps best summed up by former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski: “History is much more the product of chaos than of conspiracy.”

While there is merit to the Slate/New York Times/Brzezinski school of thought on the mindset of conspiracy theories, it is excessively reductive. For one thing, there have been verified conspiracies throughout history. From the Reichstag fire and Operation Ajax to the NSA’s PRISM program, our textbooks are filled with verified accounts in which small cadres of powerful elites plotted to increase their power through manipulative means.

The loony conspiracy theory of yesterday has too often become the official history of today that historians can no longer offhandedly dismiss theories without scrutiny. Indeed, this may be the foremost reason why conspiracy theorizing is ultimately healthy. Regardless of whether their claims are true, conspiracy theorists juxtapose an alternate historical narrative with conventional accounts, preventing purveyors of the latter from settling into scholarly complacency. If they’re right, then of course they deserve an audience; but even when they’re wrong, conspiracy theorists prevent a fate far worse than wrongheaded speculation — namely, intellectual atrophy.

Even more important than this, however, is what conspiracy theories tell us about our political culture. For this, I turn to a passage from Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” one that needs to be quoted in full:

“Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest — perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands — are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power — and this through distorting lenses — and have no chance to observe its actual machinery.”

In short, one of the primary reasons conspiracy theories continue to abound is because vast swaths of the American population feel shut out from the democratic mechanisms that are supposed to serve them. If Americans felt more closely connected to the political, social, and economic institutions that control their lives — you know, if our society was actually run according to democratic principles — conspiracy theories would be much less popular. Ordinary people wouldn’t feel like the society that controls their lives is run by forces beyond their control. When people feel powerless, a mystique inevitably develops over the places where power exists. This then proves to be a fertile breeding ground for conspiratorial mindsets.

Perhaps appropriately, this returns us to the ideals propounded by Kennedy himself. Regardless of which of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories is correct (if indeed any of them are), the bottom line is that a well-informed citizenry living in a transparently democratic society is one that needs no conspiracy theories in the first place.

As Kennedy himself put it: “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

Meet Matt Rozsa: Bibliophile, History Buff & Pundit Of the Week

Published: mic (November 22, 2013)

Matthew Rozsa is a Pennsylvania patriot, a self-proclaimed history nerd, and our thoughtful politics pundit of the week.

As part of the “pundit of the week” column, we spotlight one PolicyMic-er to share personal experiences with our community, and pose one never-been-asked question to a staff member. Matt asks me to take on his question about what PolicyMic has learned from our writers, and offer advice to aspiring pundits.

About Matt: He is a born bibliophile and a proponent of pugnacious progressive punditry. Matt’s heroes include Abraham Lincoln, Adlai Stevenson, Mark Twain, and Voltaire. At one point in his life, he wrote plays (and even had one performed).

Caira Conner (CC): First things first. When and why did you get involved with PolicyMic?

Matt Rozsa (MR): I first got involved with the site in February 2012 when Jake Horowitz saw an editorial of mine on Ron Paul and asked if I’d be interested in having PolicyMic run it. I looked up PolicyMic’s background, saw that it was a political site dedicated to cultivating intelligent debate among millennials, and became immediately interested in participating in any way I could.

CC: Most of your work on PolicyMic is for our politics section, but you’ve also written personal narratives.  Why is PolicyMic an effective platform for your cause(s)? Is there something you wish you could change about your user experience?

MR: When it comes to my political op-eds, PolicyMic is a great platform because I can discuss a wide range of topics. Hell, in the last five weeks alone I’ve written about budget policy, food stamps, immigration reform, gay rightsthe digital revolutionTed Cruzhorror moviesthe 2012 presidential electionanti-Semitism, and the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Not only have these subjects allowed me to incorporate my interest in American history with my passion for progressive political causes, but the variety keeps me on my toes and forces me to become a better writer. If I was still posting on my own small blog, I would have a much smaller audience, and it would be easy to fall into a creative rut. Because PolicyMic has such diverse political content, that doesn’t happen here.

While it wasn’t easy for me to open up about some of my more sensitive experiences, I eased into it when I saw how others were doing the same thing. It’s a bit like entering the ocean — you may bristle at the temperature and get tossed around by the waves, but if you stick around long enough to get used to it, the experience can be cathartic and rewarding.

In terms of my personal narratives, PolicyMic has a writing and editorial staff which is so supportive (as well as so open about their own personal experiences) that it creates a comfortable atmosphere. While it wasn’t easy for me to open up about some of my more sensitive experiences, I eased into it when I saw how others were doing the same thing. It’s a bit like entering the ocean — you may bristle at the temperature and get tossed around by the waves, but if you stick around long enough to get used to it, the experience can be cathartic and rewarding.

CC: What is one outcome you’d like to result from your engagement with PolicyMic? Any ideas for the best way to make this happen?

MR: Obviously I would like to develop a meaningful brand for myself as a political pundit. In addition to that, I historically contextualize my analysis on political events as often as possible. While I don’t agree with the cliché about history repeating itself, I strongly believe that the events of the past can teach us a great deal about the present. No matter how much political, social, economic, and technological conditions change, human nature is constant, so one of the best ways to understand the present is to analyze how people have reacted to analogous scenarios in the past. If I’m able to do even a little in bringing that perspective to my take on current events, I will be very happy.

In terms of the best way to make that happen… Well, that’s difficult. The challenge reminds me of an observation by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who once wrote that “The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” Unfortunately, insanity spreads like wildfire in political discourse. I try my best to remain detached so that my partisan biases and ideological predispositions won’t put me on the wrong side of an important issue. I probably fail at this more often than I’d like to admit, though.

CC: You started with us on the now “old” PolicyMic site. How does it compare being a pundit on the relaunched platform? 

MR: For the most part, the experience is the same. It took a little time to adjust to the new format, but there aren’t any significant differences in how I write articles.

CC: Let’s go offline. What do you like to do when you’re not PolicyMic-in’?

MR: My main priority right now is completing my Ph.D program at Lehigh University. Because I’m a full-time student in the history department there, my hands are pretty full. I’m also as active as possible with the local Democratic Party and was even lucky enough to manage the campaign of one of the county council candidates. I also enjoy hanging out with friends (which I occasionally merge with my activities on this site, such as when I attended a film festival screening), going on movie binges (anything from Alfred Hitchcock to B-movie horror fare), and of course, reading. I’d like to say that my apartment has its own little library, but it looks much closer to what would happen if a library was hit by a tornado.

CC: Your turn. What’s one question you have for a member of our staff?

MR: My question is for you, Caira. What would you say are the main lessons you’ve learned from having interviewed so many PolicyMic pundits? What advice would you give to other aspiring writers, both here and from other sites?

CC: Ahh, excellent question. I’d say that PolicyMic is never going to run out of supremely talented pundits, never going to run out of original perspectives, and always going to have a community acting as our biggest resource pool. Bold to say “always” and “never”, but it blows my mind how intelligent and sophisticated these young writers are, and how enthusiastic each is to get their voice out in the open. It is inspiring, it is humbling, and sometimes, it is just baffling.

Advice for aspiring pundits? 1. If you want to be a writer, you have to write — even when you’re not getting paid, even when you’re not getting read, even when you don’t want to.  2. Persistence works when you’re smart about it. Cite specific reasons for why you’re the right fit for a role; “I’m available to speak on the phone about this opportunity” does not count. 3. Serif font does not, in fact, make an email eye-catching in a good way.

Thank you, Matt, for sharing your experiences and ideas with us. You help make PolicyMic great.

Why is This Speech So Famous?

Published: mic (November 19, 2013)

On Thursday, the Harrisburg Patriot-News printed a long overdue retraction. How long, you ask? Try about 150 years. Indeed, as the Harrisburg Patriot-News looked back to the days when it was still the Harrisburg Patriot & Union, it recalled how it had panned President Lincoln’s legendary Gettysburg Address, dismissing his words as “silly remarks” deserving “a veil of oblivion.”

Now, its editorial board proclaims: “In the fullness of time, we have come to a different conclusion. No mere utterance, then or now, could do justice to the soaring heights of language Mr. Lincoln reached that day.”

It goes without saying that this piece is composed in a very tongue-in-cheek fashion. Of course, it is equally true that the Gettysburg Address really is worthy of praise and attention. What are the secrets of its enduring power?

Its backstory is legend among Civil War and presidential buffs alike. A little more than four months after the Battle of Gettysburg left nearly 8,000 soldiers dead and more than 38,000 others wounded, captured, or missing, Lincoln was invited to deliver “a few appropriate remarks” at the ceremony consecrating the creation of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Instead of being the featured speaker, however, Lincoln was asked to deliver brief dedicatory remarks to follow a much longer address by Edward Everett, a renowned orator with a long career as a Whig Party elder statesman.

Of course, despite speaking for 60 times the duration allotted to the president, Everett’s deliberately neoclassical speech (though well received) has been forgotten by all but the most dedicated scholars, while Lincoln’s brief afterthoughts have been immortalized as “the Gettysburg Address.” Indeed, even Everett himself later wrote Lincoln that, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

There is also the quality of the prose itself. Read it aloud and hear how easily it rolls off the tongue, at once sorrowful and yet, at the same time, doggedly hopeful. As a self-educated man trained in the literary style of the Bible and Shakespearean plays, Lincoln had a knack for capturing with immortal eloquence ideas that lesser writers have reduced to the thuddingly prosaic. Just look at the opening line, which captures the central fact of our national origin story in 30 words most American schoolchildren can recite by heart:

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

While this single sentence comprises less than one ninth of the total text, it establishes the prevailing theme of the entire address, providing the premise to which everything else in the speech directly or implicitly refers. When Lincoln introduces the “great civil war,” he frames it as a test over whether that nation, or any nation so conceived “in liberty” and so dedicated, can long endure.”

The men who fought and died at Gettysburg are cast as “those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” Their sacrifice must never be forgotten, Lincoln intones, because those still alive must shoulder the responsibility to carry on “the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced,” namely, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Just as the prose is beautiful, so too is the structure practically perfect. At no point does the speech ever lose sight not merely of the tragedy of the Gettysburg bloodshed, but of the higher cause for which its soldiers fought.

Finally, there is the accessibility of the speech itself. Particularly in today’s sound bite driven era, it’s hard to imagine a verbose elegy (such as Everett’s speech) being particularly resonant today. Even the best known modern presidential speeches are usually recalled based on a single catchy line:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

“Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

“Yes we can!”

Yet, the Gettysburg Address seems almost entirely to be comprised of those types of pithy sentiments. Like a great poem or theatrical monologue, its individual quotes feel tightly interwoven with the whole, making it almost impossible to extract even a single line without feeling the presence of the others pressing against your consciousness.

In short, if you have a couple of free minutes today, take the time to pay tribute to one of the greatest American speeches of all time.

Ron Paul Shamefully Absent in History Book on 2012 Election

Published: mic (November 12, 2013)

Double Down, the new book on the 2012 presidential election by John Heilemann and Mark Helperin, falls short in one way that has been overlooked by the media. While it contains nifty insider tidbits about Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and other major players from that epic political battle, it overlooks one man whose influence may prove as lasting as the others — Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

Believe me, I’m not writing this as a diehard Paulbot (as one of my more controversial comic articles on this site can attest). While I agree with some of his views on social and foreign policy, his zealotry for the gospel of Austrian economics, regular distortion of American constitutional history, and disturbingly cultish following are all significant turnoffs in my book. Like him or not, however, the historian in me recognizes that he had an enormous – and most likely lasting – impact on the shape of American politics. To overlook this fact in a work meant to chronicle the 2012 election is downright negligent.

Allow me to explain with an analogy. One of my favorite historical elections is the Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace contest in 1968, thanks not only to its unusually high melodrama (this was the year of the Lyndon Johnson renunciation, the Tet Offensive, the Martin Luther King assassination, the Robert Kennedy assassination, the Chicago Democratic Convention riots .…) but its role as a milestone in the integration of radicalism into the mainstreams of both major parties. This had little to do with the major party nominees themselves, as both Republican candidate Richard Nixon and Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey were moderates representing the center-right and center-left, respectively. Instead the lasting ideological influence came from the fringes; on one extreme was third-party candidate George Wallace, who managed to bring racist politicking into the post-civil rights legislation world by coding it in ultra-rightist rhetoric, and on the other were the New Leftists who either supported Kennedy or Eugene McCarthy’s presidential bids or conspicuously “dropped out” of established politics altogether. Although there had been forces pushing both parties farther to their respective extremes before 1968 (such as Barry Goldwater’s doomed Republican candidacy in 1964 or the radicalization of college campuses throughout the 1960s), 1968 was the turning point year. When Wallace picked up 13.5% of the popular vote and 45 electoral votes, President-elect Nixon and future Republicans realized that their future relied on adopting his tactics, a gambit that helped them win seven of the ten pre-Obama elections (including 1968 itself, in which Nixon used a lighter version of Wallace’s own rhetoric). The left, meanwhile, was largely disempowered as a result of this election, with the New Left’s neo-isolationism and countercultural ideas turning off large chunks of the New Deal coalition that had been responsible for Democrats winning seven of the previous nine post-FDR contests.

Shortly after the election, two popular books were released that attempted to cover it — An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968 by Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page and The Making of the President — 1968 by Theodore H. White. While both books vividly recall the personalities and events of that year, An American Melodrama is distinguished by its remarkable insight into deeper ideological dynamics. Whole chapters are devoted to dispassionately deconstructing Wallace’s third-party candidacy and the various facets of the New Left (to say nothing of the incipient attempt of Ronald Reagan to revive the Goldwater movement against Nixon, the growing role of advertisers and PR men in handling candidates’ images, the media’s own role in manipulating public emotions, and much more).

The Making of the President — 1968, on the other hand, is almost shockingly dismissive of anything outside the bounds of conventional politics. Wallace only appears six times, on each occasion briefly, before page 400 (in a 508 page book), and even after that is given only cursory attention, with White entirely failing to see the sophistication of his coded rhetoric and even cozying up to the GOP by claiming that “Nixon conspicuously, conscientiously, calculatedly denied himself all racist votes, yielding them to Wallace.” The New Left, meanwhile, was ignored entirely, with its members being lumped in with other groups — the Kennedy and McCarthy campaigns, the pre-existing civil rights and antiwar protest groups, the “crazies” (i.e., counterculturalists) who “sprout everywhere” and were dismissed as “a giant put-on, a visual pun, a strolling farce of lost and forlorn people” who bring tears to the eyes at “their diseases (mainly venereal), their health (decayed from malnutrition and drugs), and the disturbances, rarely dangerous, of their minds” — instead of recognized for their distinctive characteristics. Because White didn’t identify with either extreme, he refused to even attempt to project its potential future in American politics. Needless to say, his book suffered greatly as a result.

This brings us back to Double Down. Despite devoting entire sections to figures who, though media darlings, played either minor roles in the election (Chris Christie) or virtually none at all (Donald Trump), the book only mentions Ron Paul 12 times, 11 of them in passing. Indeed, whereas White at least had the presence of mind to recognize that movements existed in the New Left and behind Wallace, Heilemann and Helperin barely do that, with their most detailed reference to the Paul campaign occurring on page 237:

“As for Ron Paul, his radical libertarianism, out-front isolationism, and just plain kookiness — from his abhorrence of paper money to his ties to the John Birch Society — made him more likely to end up on a park bench feeding stale bread to the squirrels than become the Republican nominee.”

Compared to this contemptuous dismissiveness, White was downright kind to the hippies.

The point here is not that Heilemann and Helperin should have been kinder to Paul, or for that matter, that they should have been critical of him. What matters here is that Paul was important. He wasn’t a disposable assembly line Republican, be they neocons like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, Tea Partyers like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, or Christian right-wingers like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich (who Heilemann and Helperin inexplicably insist on calling “Santo,” which NEVER gets old). His ideology was something that, if not altogether new (see Calvin Coolidge, Robert Taft), at the very least has not had a spokesman nearly as prominent as Paul in quite a long time. He received more than 2,000,000 votes (or more than 10%) in the primaries, took cyberspace by storm, inspired legions of outspoken followers in every corner of America, and has a son, Rand Paul, whose watered down version of his father’s libertarianism has made him one of the top contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Even the actual libertarian candidate that year, Gary Johnson, almost certainly performed better than most third-partyers (although at 1% of the popular vote not enough to dub this election “Obama-Romney-Johnson” as opposed to “Obama-Romney”) because even after Paul bowed out, his movement remained.

In short, Paul and his libertarian acolytes may not have been the whole story in the 2012 election, but that they were major players in that contest and will almost certainly play a big role in upcoming ones. As journalists, Heilemann and Helperin had a professional responsibility to cover that story. By missing it, they did a terrible disservice not only to the libertarian movement, but to themselves. When future historians look to study the Obama-Romney contest, Double Down will be viewed as a great source for gossip, but not much else.

Anti-Semitic Bullying Almost Killed Me

Published: mic (November 11, 2013)

While I’m no stranger to covering stories involving discrimination, this one was especially personal to me.

In the aftermath of a New York Times story on a rash of anti-Semitic incidents in New York’s Pine Bush Central School District, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced that he was directing the state police and Division of Human Rights to investigate any harassment, vandalism, or bullying that may have taken place. As CNN.com summarized:

“The alleged physical attacks against Jewish students included a swastika drawn on a student’s face against her will, the severe beating of one with a hockey stick, and repeated slapping of another in the head, according to the lawsuit that Maazel filed in 2012. Maazel adds that the harassment didn’t stop, even after the lawsuit was filed. In addition, damage occurred on school property, such as drawn swastikas that remained ‘for weeks or months,’ Cuomo said in the statement.”

The memories conjured by this report were all too vivid.

As I stated in an unrelated op-ed last year, I was also the victim of a violent anti-Semitic hate crime as a child, also in an upstate New York school district, only about an hour away from Pine Bush. For nearly three years I listened as my classmates accused me of worshipping Satan and killing Christ, remained silent as I saw swastikas that had been sketched onto binders and carved into desks, and endured being pelted with coins as a joke on being a “greedy Jew.”

Throughout that time, the people around me said that I should ignore the bullying, that responding would merely escalate my situation and encourage them to do more in the future (I always suspected, perhaps not wrongly, that the teachers merely said this because they didn’t want to deal with it). When I did react, I was nearly always overwhelmed by the sheer numerical superiority of my tormentors, whether that involved being shouted down during arguments or held back when I tried to physically fight.

And then, on June 6, 1997, they nearly murdered me.

The good news is that the half dozen kids who dragged me into a nearby lake and chanted “Drown the Jew!” were unsuccessful in their endeavor that day. The bad news is that, because of their legal status as juveniles and the connections of specific perpetrators to the local police force, the responsible parties went entirely unpunished.

Thankfully, there seem to be key differences between my experiences and what’s happening in Pine Bush today.

If nothing else, the ongoing anti-bullying campaign that has been sweeping America has made it much harder for any kind of youth harassment to be casually dismissed as “horseplay,” “kid stuff,” or “the product of a low self-esteem,” as happened to me on a regular basis. Indeed, the very fact that attention has been brought to this at all is a hopeful sign. Both The New York Times and Governor Cuomo deserve enormous credit for taking this so seriously.

At the same time, reports suggest that the unflattering spotlight currently shining on their activities has not dissuaded the Pine Bush anti-Semites in the least. That is because, whereas most bullies are motivated by a desire to assert dominance over others and are thus easily “shame prone,” the Pine Bush culprits are being driven by a hate that would have never flared to this level if shame could sway it. To effectively confront this problem, therefore, one must determine not why they bully, but why they hate Jews.

Part of the answer to this can be found in an essay by the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who observed that anti-Semites tend to project the various qualities they loathe and/or fear about modern society into the historic bugaboo of “the Jew,” thus providing them with a comfortingly simple worldview and a convenient villain instead of forcing them to confront the far more complex realities of modern life. By doing this, Jews served a basic psychological need for these anti-Semites. As Sartre succinctly put it, “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.”

Exacerbating this scapegoating tendency is the growing fashionability of certain anti-Semitic perspectives. Because there are specific Jewish individuals and institutions that warrant criticism — from inner-city slumlords in North America to the Likud Party in Israel — it is easy for anti-Semites to use these potentially valid criticisms as springboards for attacks on Jews in general (or, at least, particular Jews who have little to nothing to do with those issues). For those who don’t favor psychological smoke screens in their bigotry, old-fashioned calumnies are reaching millions of new readers thanks to the Internet, such as the works of Henry Ford or the conspiracy theory tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Until these deeper psychological and social factors are widely recognized and arrested, it is all too likely that incidents like the anti-Semitic outburst in Pine Bush will happen again. When they do, the best advice is to encourage those who have been victimized to immediately report what they experienced to authorities, and for the authorities to act, like Gov. Cuomo, swiftly and decisively.