Monday, December 30, 2013

The Yearly Sift

The root motivation of the Tea Party isn’t the deficit or ObamaCare or any other policy it’s currently focused on. The root motivation is tribal: a feeling that People-Like-Me used to own America, but it is being taken away by People-Like-Them and needs to be taken back.

-- "The Method of Madness" 10/28/2013

review all the Sift quotes of 2013

This week everybody was talking about ... Duck Dynasty?

I grew up around enough uneducated rural white people that I don't find them exotic, so I've never been tempted to watch Duck Dynasty. Anyway, DD star Phil Robertson gave GQ writer Drew Magary a tour of his domain, and along the way said a lot of ignorant crap about gays and blacks and non-Christian cultures. Then the A&E network suspended him from the show indefinitely, which turned out to be nine days.

The suspension made Robertson a poster child for the Christian persecution complex, whose culture warriors are now crowing victoriously. I've already posted what I think about Christian "persecution" in general. With respect to this case, Salon's Elizabeth Stoker observes that persecution is about never having to say you're sorry, no matter how much of a jerk you are:
If Christianity is posed as an institution on the defense, persecuted successfully by powers greater than itself, then it need not take stock of the impact of its chosen frames. The fantasy of the persecution of Christianity in America is thus mostly a technique aimed at protecting a particular approach to framing issues in the cruelest, least considerate method possible.

Along the way, conservatives showed their usual complete ignorance of the Constitution by claiming that Robertson's First Amendment right to free speech had been violated.

From my point of view, the Duck Dynasty story isn't about censorship at all, it's one big orgy of freedom: Robertson is free to speak his mind without being fined or jailed by the government. A&E -- a joint venture of Hearst and Disney -- is free to disassociate itself from Robertson (or not) if that's in the corporate interest. Robertson's fans are free to respond by protesting or even boycotting A&E, as are the insulted gays, blacks, and non-Christians (who probably don't watch the show anyway). The rest of us are free to judge those protests as we like.

Freedom reigns all around.

You know what DD fans ought to have been upset about? The way corporatism creates bland homogenized culture. In a perfect world, Duck Dynasty would be a transaction between the Robertsons and their fans, who could decide for themselves whether to go on supporting celebrities who promote such views. Instead, the Disney corporate brand is involved; hence the flip-flops in response to controversy. The Robertson saga ought to motivate people to break up the media leviathans. Needless to say, it hasn't.

On the substance of what Robertson said, the anti-gay comments have gotten the most attention, but I find the racial ignorance more worrisome. (The claim that Nazi Germany was a non-Christian country is just too stupid for me to worry much about; maybe I'm being naive. In reality, the early electoral strongholds of the Nazi Party were areas dominated by rural Protestants, i.e., people a lot like the Robertsons. The urbane, gay-tolerant, Jew-tolerant, post-religious Germans mostly counted themselves among Weimar's Social Democrats and Communists, i.e., the first people Hitler locked up.) Charles Blow and Ta-Nehisi Coates explain better than I can why Robertson's black-people-were-happier-under-Jim-Crow notions are self-serving and anti-historical.

But let's get on with reviewing the year.

In the Weekly Sift, 2013 had two themes

The Sift is an attempt to make sense of the news one week at a time, so I never go into a year looking to emphasize some particular theme. But invariably at the end of the year I see that I've been writing about one or two ideas over and over again.

2013 had two very different themes: minority rule and race. They overlapped in discussions of voter suppression and immigration reform, but mostly were two separate threads.

Minority rule. 2013 started with a focus on gun control. The Sandy Hook school shooting the previous December had seemed like a tipping point; now we were finally going to do something. In poll after poll, 90% or more of the public wanted to strengthen the gun laws at least a little. Pro-gun forces never convinced the public to agree with them, but they did manage to keep our democratic government from doing what the public wanted.

That special-interest victory set the tone for the entire year: no immigration reform, no jobs bill, a government shutdown (that wasn't even popular among the Republican House caucus that caused it) used to attempt a minority-rule repeal of ObamaCare, and a year-end cut-off of unemployment benefits. All the tools of minority rule were on display: the threat of unlimited campaign spending on primary challenges, gerrymandering, voter suppression, the Hastert Rule, the filibuster. And those tools themselves became issues: the Senate eventually weakened the filibuster, but the Supreme Court strengthened voter suppression.

I broke this out into its own article: "Themes of 2013: Minority Rule".

Race. Race didn't make as coherent a yearlong story as minority rule, but it just kept coming up.

For me, the year-in-race actually started last December, when the movie Lincoln made me wonder how the two parties had switched positions on race since 1865. That led to "A Short History of Racism in the Two-Party System", one of the most popular posts of 2012.

January 1, 2013 marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation taking effect, and 2013 went on to have many other significant anniversaries: the Gettysburg Address and the Dream Speech (when I protested against the "safe" MLK that gets celebrated), among others. But it wasn't just history that put race on the agenda. We also had the Zimmerman trial and verdict. Nelson Mandela died. The Supreme Court let Jim Crow out of his cage, and the former Confederate states seized their chance to resume suppressing the non-white vote. Pop culture gave us "The Accidental Racist", Miley Cyrus twerking (which led me to write about when and why borrowing from ethnic cultures not your own is or isn't legit), an argument about whether Santa has to be white -- and we just ended the year talking about Duck Dynasty.

Each new event evoked the pattern I had described in "The Distress of the Privileged": Whites felt persecuted by the very idea that someone could accuse them of racism, and insisted that their persecution be discussed first. President Obama's envisioned "national conversation on race" never got past that obstacle.

The post I'm most proud of in this thread is "Sadly, the National Conversation About Race Has to Start Here". Conservative opinion-makers did their best to de-legitimize the whole idea of a national conversation on race, turning it into an indictment of black culture that (from their point of view) had to be discussed before white racism could even be acknowledged.

I don't think those opinions really deserved any answer from the black community; the point was to shut down conversation, not promote it. But I'm white, and nobody was attacking me directly, so I thought I'd take the time to respond. I took four conservative voices that seemed representative -- Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Jennifer Rubin, and Victor Hansen -- and started from the point of view of their audience.

Two weeks later (after CNN's Don Lemon continued the black-culture bashing), "Acting White isn't Really a Racial Issue" addressed the criticism that working hard in school is "acting white" by pointing out that white working-class kids have a similar hostility to conforming to school expectations.

The sifted books of the year

Book reviews are one of the staples of The Weekly Sift, but this year I did fewer of them. 21 books got discussed in 2012, but only 13 in 2013. That wasn't a planned shift, it just worked out that way. (A discussion of Michael Kimmel's Angry White Men is going to happen any week now.) The subjects were all over the map.

Discussions about class and race led me to discuss Reading Classes by Barbara Jensen and Learning to be White by Thandeka. What Then Must We Do? by Gar Alperovitz and The Democracy Project by David Graeber reflected a rare attitude I labeled "Apocalyptic Optimism". The vision of an economy with more cooperation and less competition led me to discuss The Penguin and the Leviathan by Yochai Benkler, The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg, Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, and Assholes, a theory by Aaron James in "Nobody Likes the New Capitalist Man". Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise and Blur by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel informed an article about how the internet is changing the public discourse in "How do you know what you know?"

Tom Allen's Dangerous Convictions provided an insider's view of why Congress doesn't work. Enough is Enoughby Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill envisioned a sustainable economy not based on growth. And finally, Pope Francis' Evangelii Gaudium didn't change Catholic doctrine, but definitely refocused the church on issues of poverty and inequality rather than sex.

The mosts ...

My most prescient statement: In August, when everyone else was saying a government shutdown would never happen because the Republicans had nothing to gain from it:
Nothing I’ve heard in the last two weeks has changed my belief that we’re heading towards a major budget crisis, either when the new fiscal year starts in October or when we hit the debt ceiling in November. The gist of the conversation between the Republican leadership and their conservative base during the August recess — which I detail in How Republican Congressmen Spent Their Summer Vacation — has been the leaders’ warning that shutting down the government to stop ObamaCare is a doomed strategy, and the base responding “So?”

The Far Right really wants to see a Charge of the Light Brigade, and they may get it.
and my least prescient statement:
The reason Republicans are so desperate to get ObamaCare derailed right now is that the exchanges start up October 1. When Americans start dealing with the reality of ObamaCare rather than the monsters-under-the-bed conjured up by right-wing propaganda, they’re going to like it.

In the long run, I still believe the point I was making: Much of the unpopularity of ObamaCare stems from horror stories that don't stand up to scrutiny; conversely, the reality of getting health insurance and knowing you can keep it is going to be popular, just as Medicare and Social Security are popular now. But the early implementation problems delayed that process considerably. Whether ObamaCare will be a plus or a minus for Democrats by the fall elections is still up in the air.

The year's most pleasant surprise: Pope Francis.As someone who went to a conservative Lutheran K-8 grade school before setting off on a fairly wide-ranging religious journey, I can look at Christianity as either an insider or an outsider.

To me, there are two ways to be Christian, one that I find inspiring and one that turns me off. There's what I call Pharisee Christianity (with apologies to my Jewish readers, for whom "Pharisee" means something completely different than it does in the New Testament context) in which the point is to be good according to a fixed set of rules, lest we piss God off. Pharisee Christianity is all about maintaining moral purity -- especially with regard to sex -- and avoiding contamination by sinners.

Most headline-making Christian leaders are actually Pharisees in this sense. The self-righteous essence of Pharisee Christianity was captured in that famous exchange between Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson after 9-11.
FALWELL: I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who tried to secularize America ... I point the finger in their face and say, "You helped this happen."

ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur.

The second way I call Samaritan Christianity, in which the point is to be motivated by love and compassion, and to go wherever that takes you. (In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan sees the traveler's limp body by the side of the road and risks becoming ritually unclean by touching blood or possibly a corpse, and so saves him.)

In Samaritan Christianity, the Ego is like the sound barrier: On the other side, there is a completely different way to move through the world. To be on God's side isn't to sing hymns of praise, or to be pure, or even to obey the letter of the law, but to care about what God cares about: people. The prophet Amos envisioned God saying this:
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river

And Amos is very clear what "justice" means in this context, or at least what "injustice" means: getting rich on the back of the poor. (BTW: The only place where the Bible explicitly states the sin of Sodom is in Ezekiel: "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." So when Paul Ryan tries to cut Food Stamps, he's practicing sodomy.)

What Pope Francis has done in his short time on the throne of St. Peter is to start turning the Church away from Pharisee Christianity and towards Samaritan Christianity. It's not a bit-flip, it's turning an ocean liner. But at least he's pointing and saying "That way."

The best post nobody read: "The Myth of the Zombie Voter". So far it only has about 200 page views. This is an article to bookmark and keep ready when your conservative friend emails you something alarming about voter fraud. It describes how South Carolina's attorney general made the tour of Fox News and conservative talk radio to claim that 953 dead people had voted in the last six years, including 207 in South Carolina's most recent election. Horrors!

What happened next? The same thing that always happens -- I mean always -- when somebody takes such claims seriously and investigates. Months later, state election officials came out with the boring report that all but 10 of those 207 had innocent explanations. Nobody covered it. Then the state police investigated those ten cases and found innocent explanations for seven of them. They recommended no further action be taken on the three they couldn't explain. So instead of 207 zombie voters in South Carolina in 2010, there were at most three and possibly none.

And the numbers

The general theme seems to be fewer viral posts and more regular readers, which was what I was aiming for when I changed the format in 2012.

The blog got about 214,000 hits this year, down slightly from last year's 240,000. Due to the way WordPress counts hits, though, that doesn't include the "syndicated views" of people who subscribe, and subscriptions are up significantly. On WordPress, the number of subscribers is up from 504 to 908. The Sift's Facebook page has 256 Likes, up from 183 last year. It's Twitter feed has 203 followers, up from 123. Google stopped supporting Reader this year, so I can't directly compare last year's 280 Google Reader subscriptions. But the Sift has 251 subscribers on Feedly.

For the second straight year, "The Distress of the Privileged" drew more than half of all the blog's hits: 173K in 2012, the year it came out, and 133K in 2013. Those numbers dwarfed the year's other popular posts: "Religious Freedom Means Christian Passive-Aggressive Domination" (8.2K), "Evolution/Creation for Non-Eggheads" (2.8K), "Nobody Likes the New Capitalist Man" (1.6K), and "Sadly, the National Conversation About Race Has to Start Here" (1.4K).

The weekly summaries have been more popular this year than last: 6 of the 7 weekly summaries with the most hits come from 2013.

My subjective impression is that the Sift is getting more legitimate comments this year, but I delete so many spam comments that I have no trustworthy numbers. (I could raise comment stats just by deleting less spam.) Obviously spam comments are up, for what that's worth.

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