The Bernie Bro problem is real, and it could destroy the left

Bernie Sanders’s online supporters are a tremendous campaign asset. Their extraordinary numbers and hyper-connectedness have helped power a jaw-dropping fundraising behemoth. Their passion is a reminder that Sanders might be the only candidate with a real base in the race. And their ubiquity on social media serves as a counterweight to the bourgeois press’s open war against the promise of social democracy.

But some of them are also a liability.

The infamous Bernie Bro archetype that originated during the 2016 primaries is once again rearing its head — and there are many signs that an ascendant leftist movement is underestimating how much damage it could do to their cause.

Back in 2016, the context and the meaning of the term were different. There were two premises to the charge: (1) Sanders’s support was disproportionately white and male and (2) These white men were rude and aggressive and were typically inattentive to the experiences of racial minorities and other marginalized groups.

There was some truth to the first claim. During that primary season Sanders’ supporter base skewed white and male. The second claim I didn’t find convincing, and seemed overly reliant on a handful of reporters’ anecdotal sketches.

Overall, the charge of Bernie Bro was a crude weapon employed by some Hillary Clinton supporters. It failed to take into account how there was real diversity in the core of Sanders’ base: young people. And what vexed me most was that it effaced the many nonwhite and women lefties — both online and offline — who made a compelling case for Sanders based precisely on antiracist and feminist critiques.

This time around, the Bernie Bro charge is different. It’s widely known that Sanders supporters are extremely diverse in terms of gender and race and class, and the notion that only those “privileged” can afford to adopt a more radical worldview has been revealed to be absurd, as it always was. The second prong of the archetype has manifested again, though, but in a different form. Now the claim is that Sanders supporters online are disproportionately likely to be cruel and obnoxious, or bully and harass people.

Unfortunately I think this claim has some legitimacy. And I think that the many Sanders supporters online who are going to lengths to rationalize or defend the adversarial style are too plugged in to the incentives of social media popularity contests and out of touch with what it will take to win an election and build a sustainable leftist movement. Continue reading “The Bernie Bro problem is real, and it could destroy the left”

Notes on Pakistan

I find all travel to be profound, but my trips to Pakistan occupy a special plane. What does it mean to return to a home in which you never lived? I sip on chai and soak up the pleasant dizziness that comes from watching the axes of time and space torn from their tracks.

Growing up, my family and I used to travel to Pakistan, the country of my parents’ birth, every summer or every other summer. But after my parents divorced in high school, I’ve visited much less frequently. It has made every subsequent trip harder-hitting.

This trip I thought about Orwell’s classic aphorism, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” I’ve practiced mindfulness meditation on and off my entire adult life, but in the last year or so it has become a daily practice, and has grown intertwined with my consciousness. I anchor myself by paying attention to my breath, by listening intently to the clatter of the subway, by trying to feel a brisk wind whipping my face rather than recoil from it. This experience of untethering thoughts from physical reality through present-mindedness has been extraordinary, and I do hope to write in the future about it. But my recent trip to Karachi reminded me of the importance of being *transported*, and how there are specific kinds of distance that can bring clarity to life in a way that paying attention to what’s right before you never can.

It takes about a week for the spell that daily habits and concerns hold over me to dissipate. The gentle chaos of constant visitors to my grandmother’s house — the housekeeper, the cleaning lady, the tall man who brings bottled water for drinking, the short man who fills the water tank for the taps, the endless stream of aunts, uncles and cousins who come to say hello and goodbye — give the days a new rhythm. Life is spent running about town, gossiping and talking politics over tea and food. There’s also time for reading, chess, daydreaming.

I read Elena Ferrante and V.S. Naipul, local newspapers and history books. Ferrante and Naipul are trippy to read in these circumstances, since they’re such sharp observers of how place shapes identity. I think a great deal about how movement defines people: what it would have been like to grow up in Karachi — how different I’d be, how similar I’d be; my parents’ journey from Pakistan to England to America, and the audacity of building a life among strangers so far from home; how strange it is that Pakistan exists separately from India — the arbitrariness and the indelibility of it; how a rise in extremism and instability, fueled in part by the US-led war in Afghanistan, has made it harder for people to do as they wish in public.

I find Pakistan to be a surprising mirror into my personality, much the way that spending time with family members as I grow older tends to be. I say surprising because it entails noticing something about somebody else that I had thought of as my own trait, or at least a quality that I hadn’t considered the possible origins of. I chuckled as I remembered and recognized in myself the Pakistani farewell, which is essentially the antithesis of the Irish exit: a reluctant, lingering, comically drawn-out goodbye.

The concept of home is a complicated one for the children of immigrants, particularly those who grew up in the Global North but whose parents hail from the Global South. In popular discourse, these children have to “juggle two cultures” and feel pressure to strike a balance between the two. The term “American-born Confused Desi” explicitly frames this identity as a disorienting struggle for South Asian Americans.

The ABCD thing never resonated with me as I grew up. The fact that I didn’t fit neatly into America or Pakistan wasn’t a source of angst, but rather a gateway to liberation. One summer in Karachi when I was a teenager, my grandfather prodded me into realizing that it was not honorable to commit to values that one holds merely through the accident of birth. Islam was the first thing to slip away, but among other things there was also the collapse of international borders. I found that an identity forged around my beliefs and ideas and interests and the people I truly got on with was a natural way to find a place in the world. All this is to say that instead of feeling incomplete or homeless, I realized that it’s possible to build your own home with beams and bricks and shingles scattered around the world. I’ve found some of them in England, Colombia, Russia and elsewhere.

Before I left Karachi, I visited my grandfather’s grave. There was a mix-up when we entered the huge, disorderly graveyard, and we had trouble locating his tomb at first, having entered through the wrong gate. A custodian walked up and asked us who we were looking for. We told him and he repeated the name slowly, looking pensive. He wasn’t sure where we should go. We left that area and entered through another gate. My cousin was now sure we were on the right path, and we walked past graves polished and neglected. We found my grandfather’s tomb, which sits upon a hill overlooking the city. We stood next to it for a while; it was almost exactly five years after his passing. The sun was out, and an eagle circled overhead. Karachi, always bursting with life, felt quiet. I felt a heaviness in my chest, and then I felt the wind.

Newsletter: Joe Biden is exploding the theory that he’s the most electable Democrat

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Photo credit: Mark Nozell

This is an essay from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

Countless Democrats champion Joe Biden as the most “electable” candidate against Donald Trump. But the events of the last week alone illustrate just how rickety that theory is.

Last week the former vice president begged ultra-wealthy donors on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to support him and promised them that “nothing will fundamentally change” about their status in society. He also waxed nostalgic for a time where “civility” reigned in politics even as he worked with segregationists, and awkwardly reminisced about how the viciously racist Sen. James Eastland used to call him “son” instead of “boy.” And at a forum hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign he promised that he could break congressional gridlock by making efforts to “shame people” like Senate Majority Leader Mitch Mconnell into cooperation before a plainly skeptical audience.

These statements raise serious questions about Biden’s alleged lock on “electability.” I should note that the concept of electability, which tracks quite a bit with the hateful idea of “likability,” tends to buttress status quo thinking, gives an edge to white males, and leads people astray analytically — who thought Obama or Trump were highly electable during their primaries or general elections? But for the sake of engaging directly with proponents of this idea, let’s grant that electability is knowable and desirable. Recent events are a reminder that nobody should be confident that Biden has any special claim to it.

That’s because being eminently electable isn’t just about winning over moderates, it’s also about inspiring your base to vote for you in the first place. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss is a clear cautionary tale: Four million Obama voters, disproportionately young and non-white and fairly liberal, stayed home instead of voting for her. Given that Clinton lost by some 80,000 votes in three swing states, polling experts estimate that her inability to motivate registered Democrats to show up for her is a reason she lost the election. Biden’s sycophancy toward the 1%, his tone deaf ear on racial politics, and his naivete about the nature of power are liabilities for a candidate who must mobilize an increasingly liberal and diverse base in huge numbers in 2020. Remember: Trump caused Republican turnout to surge in the 2018 midterms — he’s not to be underestimated. In that context, electability isn’t just about being able to schmooze with blue collar voters in the Rust Belt, it’s about having your finger on the pulse of your own party. Continue reading “Newsletter: Joe Biden is exploding the theory that he’s the most electable Democrat”

Newsletter: Everybody’s a cop

This is an essay from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

Last week I read this remarkable story about how a new author tweeted something petty and nasty about a Metro worker in D.C., elicited a public backlash characterizing her as racist, and then had a distributor of her debut novel cut off ties with her, all in a matter of hours. And all I can say is: a pox on all your houses. Continue reading “Newsletter: Everybody’s a cop”

Bernie’s big speech was about taking back the idea of “freedom”

I wrote an analysis of Bernie’s hotly anticipated speech on democratic socialism for Pacific StandardHere’s an excerpt:

When critics of socialism warn against its dangers, they often invoke communist tyrants of the 20th century. So when Senator Bernie Sanders delivered a major speech on Wednesday about what democratic socialism means to him, those critics may have been surprised to hear that “freedom” was his watchword.

“What I believe is that the American people deserve freedom—true freedom,” Sanders said to an audience of supporters at George Washington University. “Freedom is an often-used word, but it’s time we took a hard look at what that word actually means. Ask yourself: What does it actually mean to be free?”

Sanders went on to list nearly a dozen examples illustrating how economic insecurity—in the form of low wages, unaffordable health care, meager pensions, and the like—is incompatible with anything that could be considered a free life. Moreover, Sanders said, this is by design: “Many in the establishment would like the American people to submit to the tyranny of oligarchs, multinational corporations, Wall Street banks, and billionaires.”

Sanders’ argument that democratic socialism is the path to true freedom is shrewd messaging: It’s an attempt to flip conservative talking points about socialism on their head, and to re-appropriate freedom as a principle of the left. It also allows him to sidestep interminable debates about what really counts as socialism by anchoring his ideology in a quintessentially American tradition of liberty.

Check out the rest of it here.

Newsletter: What happened to Ta-Nehisi Coates?

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Credit: Eduardo Montes-Bradley.

This is an essay from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

As far as I can tell, Ta-Nehisi Coates has disappeared from the world of journalism. He deleted his Twitter account in 2017 and resigned from The Atlantic in the summer of 2018. He is still writing — he’s reportedly working on film, television, and comic book projects and he has a forthcoming novel — but for the moment he has no public perch from which he routinely offers essays and reportage on America politics and identity as he used to.

Some people see this as the loss as one of the country’s greatest commentators. But I think it might be a good thing that he’s stepped away.

This isn’t to say that I don’t miss Coates’ writing. I certainly wish I could still watch him think out loud. I feel the absence of his epic lyricism and sanguinary preoccupations, influenced by his consumption of Civil War history, hip hop, Shakespeare, and comic books. I was very fond of his blog at The Atlantic, which was uniquely dialogic in nature. Coates engaged in careful conversation with books he was reading, songs he was listening to, the thinkers he disagreed with or found interesting, and the huge set of commenters on his blog. Technically all public intellectuals are meant to be doing this, but in reality very few do it in a manner that’s so fruitful for the reader. Unlike most journalists and essayists, Coates felt no shame admitting agnosticism or non-expertise or even total ignorance on a variety of subjects. Whereas most of his counterparts either cover up or distract from being out of their intellectual comfort zones, he saw those situations as learning opportunities, and reveled in embracing the mindset of the student, in channeling “the magic of childhood.” How many people whose job requires a reputation of intelligence film themselves stumbling confusedly through a foreign language they had just begun learning? (I can assure you nobody will see any such thing from me as I study and butcher the language of Spanish these days.) And in the instances when he had total clarity regarding an idea or an event, he was masterful at interweaving lived experience with the abstract.

I diverged from Coates on many issues. I found his work to often elide human agency and to imbue the horrors of American racism with a kind of mystical and transcendent quality. Despite grounding his analyses in historical context and grappling with the corporeal aspect of white supremacy, I found his writing to engage inadequately with the workings of political economy. I will have to revisit Between the World and Me, but in my initial reading — which I found far less compelling than his blog posts and shorter essays — I found no persuasive theory of change. Yet because Coates is such a pleasure to read and so deliberate with his chisel, even the writing I disagreed with was enjoyable, and a surefire way to sharpen my own thinking.

I miss his blogging, but it might be a good thing that he’s taken a break from the conventional journalistic world. Ta-Nehisi Coates had become larger than life. His fans had formed a religion around him and his work. Many of his critics reserved special stores of venom for him that were overly personal. I came to believe that both those who revered him and loathed him were suffering from the same affliction: they were trying to extract too much from one man.

Continue reading “Newsletter: What happened to Ta-Nehisi Coates?”

Newsletter: Venezuela Q&A with Alejandro Velasco

On January 23rd, Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled legislative branch, declared himself president of Venezuela. Within minutes, the US and several Latin American countries recognized him as Venezuela’s interim president and simultaneously rejected the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s sitting president who had been sworn into office for his second term earlier in the month. Since then, tensions have escalated as the US has imposed harsh new sanctions on Caracas and has boasted that military intervention is on the table.

As with all news related to Venezuela in the West, there’s a ton of glib analysis out there tainted by a reflex to treat the country as a battleground for narratives on socialism or foreign intervention, and there’s a scarcity of specific engagement with the Venezuelan experience. To cut through the noise last week I called up Alejandro Velasco, a Venezuelan historian of Latin America at NYU, to get his perspective on what’s driving this extraordinary turn of events, how the US left should be positioning itself on the issue, and why he feels overwhelmed by pessimism about his home country.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

ZA: How does someone who hasn’t been a presidential candidate simply declare himself president?

Alejandro Velasco: That has to do with a particular reading of the Venezuelan constitution that says when there’s a vacuum in the executive power, then it falls upon the president of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s legislative branch, to assume those duties.

The legitimacy at the international level is being claimed upon by appealing to Article 233 of the constitution. They claim, not without reason, that the elections that brought Maduro last year into office were highly irregular, were fraudulent, and so therefore he is not a legitimate president as of January 10th, when he swore himself into a new term of office.

It’s a legal argument that Guaidó’s banking on to assert legitimacy. The problem is that same Article 233 of the constitution also says new elections need to be held within 30 days. Even though Guaidó has said the plan is to hold elections, it’s been very vague. In fact it’s the third of 3 plans that he’s announced. (The first one is seizing the usurpation, the second one is establishing an interim governments.) The argument makes sense insofar as you won’t be able to call new elections with the existing institutional apparatus, which is controlled by chavistas. But the second you say that then you get into all sorts of legal confusion as to why are you calling upon this article in order to assert the legitimacy of rule.

Which is why it’s important to understand that what’s happening in Venezuela isn’t actually a matter of legality, it’s a matter of who can claim legitimacy of rule.

Continue reading “Newsletter: Venezuela Q&A with Alejandro Velasco”