Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

27 January 2018

The Real Effect of Trump’s Solar-Panel Tariffs


[FOR COMMENT ON THE STATE OF THE UNION SPEECH, CLICK HERE. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

Introduction: Trump is not all bad
Missing perspectives
The tariffs’ effect on system prices
    Discussion
    Table
The tariffs’ effect on solar-energy costs
    Discussion
    Table
The tariffs’ likely economic effect
Conclusion: the desperate need for more private investment


Introduction: Trump is not all bad

President Donald Trump may corrupt and cheapen everything he touches. His style may be lying, erratic and unpredictable. The way he Tweets, talks and operates may justify catcalls of narcissism and suspicions of instability and mental illness, whether or not he is clinically committable.

But not everything he says or does is bad. The latest iteration of his “policy” on the Dreamers—protecting 1.8 million of them and providing a path to citizenship—is a consummation devoutly to be wished. He may lack both the political skill and the staying power to make it happen, but his latest shift in position is a good thing.

Those with cooler heads, including members of his own party and those who resist him, must examine everything he says and does with a fresh eye and an open mind, precisely because he changes his mind so often. We should not be put off by his execrable personality and style so much as to refuse reflexively to take yes for an answer.

One thing for which a skeptical but open response would be helpful is Trump’s new tariffs on imported solar cells and panels. Imposed by presidential proclamation, they go into effect February 7. No doubt there are ships queuing up in our harbors right now, hoping to beat their onset.

Missing perspectives

The New York Times, prominent economists, and most of our business community seem to have piled on a reflexively negative view. They all pan the tariffs as thoughtless, poorly motivated and likely to be counterproductive.

Wednesday’s front-page New York Times story (Jan. 24 at A1), opened with an irrelevant “feature” on a solar farm in Zebulon, North Carolina, then got down to numbers on page A15. It accurately noted that the tariffs phase down linearly from 30% to 15% over four years, from 2018 to 2021. It also noted that the first 2.5 gigawatts of capacity each year are exempt from tariffs. But then it revealed that “260,000 [Americans] are employed in the solar sector, but fewer than 2,000” in manufacturing.

It thus implied that Trump’s solar tariffs would cut off our nation’s nose to spite its face. They would cost us, the Times’ story seemed to say, tens of thousands of jobs selling and installing solar arrays (and manufacturing their non-silicon-cell infrastructure), merely in order to save or add a few hundred jobs making solar cells and panels. A later op-ed piece by one Varun Sivaram (Jan. 25 at A27) and a more recent column by Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Krugman (Jan. 26 at A21) were explicit and highly critical on this point.

It’s natural, I suppose, for business analysts and economists to fret about jobs. And, as we’ll see, the Trump tariffs may indeed cause layoffs in solar sales and installation, at least in the short term, as the tariffs wind down to their steady state.

But the Times and its business and economic writers all missed two vital points about our solar industries. First, no one but distributors and other intermediaries buys solar cells or panels by themselves. The end-users—who pay the bills—buy them only as parts of whole systems. This simple fact vastly reduces the economic impact of the Trump tariffs, as simple arithmetic below shows.

The second point is a whole series of broader perspectives on the tariffs and their aims: the scientific, technical and long-term perspectives. The Times, Sivaram and Krugman seemed prepared to abandon American manufacturing and innovation in solar cells and panels in order to keep our sales and installation industries thriving in the short term. Krugman practically said as much. But if that happens, the endgame of the current economic strategy for this industry is clear: Americans will sell and install solar photovoltaic devices designed and made abroad, mostly in Asia.

Isn’t that precisely the opposite of how China is beating us at our own capitalist game? In industry after industry, China is moving steadily up the scientific and technical food chain, transitioning (for example) from making lawn chairs and hand tools to making iPads and computers. Now it’s developing electric cars and quantum-computing devices of its own.

Do we Americans really want to devolve from inventors into passive consumers of devices that are the key to humanity’s vast future transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy? Do we want to do so even as China is doing exactly the opposite, assuming leadership in innovation and manufacturing in industry after industry, often by stealing our own intellectual property or using the commercial incentive of China’s vast market to induce our capitalists to transfer it?

So let’s take an unjaundiced view of the Trump tariffs, with a more open mind and a broader perspective than are possible in a short newspaper column or in “news” stories written by reporters with little or no background in economics, let alone science or technology.

The tariffs’ effect on system prices

No end-user buys solar cells or panels for or by themselves. In the end they become part of working systems to generate, control and (in some cases) store electricity generated from solar energy. So insofar as concerns demand, it’s the price of the total system that matters, not the solar cells or panels that are only part of it. In order to understand the tariffs’ practical effect, we have to calculate precisely how much they affect the price of the entire system.

Next, we have to know an economic factor that every college student of economics studies: the “price elasticity” of demand. This economic variable is usually a function of total industry output. In the solar industry it’s also a function of the ultimate price variable: the price of solar energy, per kilowatt-hour, generated by the entire system. All this may seem complicated, but it doesn’t involve much more than simple arithmetic.

In several analyses on this blog (1, 2, 3 and 4), I’ve broken installed solar-system and energy pricing into two basic variables. The first is the purchase price of solar cells or panels per Watt capacity. This is a standard industry price factor, used to evaluate progress in solar-cell manufacturing. (It is not the price of electrical energy that the cells or panels generate; that variable is expressed per kilowatt-hour, not Watt, and requires some additional arithmetic to discover.)

The second fundamental variable is what I call the “turnkey factor”—a dimensionless multiplier applied to the per-Watt-capacity price of the cells or panels to arrive at the per-Watt-capacity installed price of the entire solar array. This multiplier accounts for the prices of assembly and installation and the rest of the array, including foundation, supports, wiring, inverters, control and switching equipment, and (if any) storage batteries.

The price of the entire array is what matters to buyers. So the turnkey factor is crucial in analyzing the effect of the tariffs. In solar arrays for consumers, the turnkey factor can be as high as 10. That was the actual factor for the (nominal) 6 kW ground-mounted solar array for my house, pictured here and installed in 2013.

If the turnkey factor is 10—as it was for that array, based on actual prices paid (not including the federal tax credit)—the price of the panels is only one-tenth of the total price. That’s 10%. Thus the Trump tariffs, if in place when I installed that array in 2013, would have raised the total price by only 3% in the first tariff year and by 1.5% in the fourth.

Now let’s look at the price effect of the tariffs for various types of solar arrays. Probably big ground-mounted arrays like mine still have turnkey factors as high as 10. Roof-mounted arrays don’t need expensive aluminum or steel support structures or concrete pads, so they might get down to a turnkey factor of 6. Large-scale commercial arrays, with their huge economies of scale, can get the factor down to 4, according to industry reports.

So here’s a table, for turnkey factors of 10, 6 and 4, of how the Trump tariffs affect the total-system price of working solar arrays in the first four years:

Price Increase of Entire Solar Array
Due to Trump Cell/PanelTariffs

Year2018201920202021
Tariff30%25%20%15%
TURNKEY FACTOR
10
(Ground-mounted consumer arrays)
3%2.5%2.0%1.5%
6*
(Roof-mounted consumer arrays)
4.8%4%3.2%2.4%
4
(Utility-scale arrays)
7.5%6.25%5%3.75%

* Estimated

As you can see, the effect of the Trump tariff on the price of the entire working solar array ranges from 7.5% for utility-scale commercial arrays in the first year to 1.5% in the last year for ground-mounted consumer arrays like mine.

The tariffs’ effect on solar-energy costs

Are these industry-killing price increases? In order to answer that question, we have to look at the effect on the ultimate price variable—the cost of energy, per kilowatt-hour, generated over the array’s useful lifetime.

In an earlier essay, I showed how to calculate the lifetime cost of energy from any solar array from first principles, including reasonable (and conservative!) estimates of the effects of night, latitude and weather. These first-principle estimates are accurate within twenty to thirty percent. For my own solar array, based on figures from actual operation, the calculated estimates of energy output were about twenty percent low, and therefore the calculated cost estimates were about 20% high. Anyway, as we’ll see, that general level of accuracy is sufficient to analyze the probable effect of the Trump tariffs on demand for solar arrays.

Here, taken from the table in my earlier analysis (and interpolated for turnkey factors of 6), are the costs per kilowatt-hour of energy produced by solar arrays, the cost after application of the Trump tariffs over its four-year ramp-down, and (for comparison) the utility cost of producing a kilowatt-hour with coal or natural gas at today’s prices (without considering the “externalities” of pollution and global warming) and nationwide average figures for the industrial, commercial and retail prices of electric energy:

Per-Kilowatt-Hour Solar-Array Energy Costs Before and During Trump Tariffs
Compared to Cost of Coal and Natural-Gas Electricity and Prices of Conventional Electricity,
all Rounded to Nearest 0.1 Cent

YearPre-Tariff2018201920202021
TariffNo Tariff30%25%20%15%
TYPE OF ARRAY
Ground-mounted consumer arrays
(Turnkey Factor 10)
5.6₵5.9₵5.8₵5.8₵5.7₵
Roof-mounted consumer arrays
(Turnkey Factor 6)*
4.1₵4.4₵4.4₵4.3₵4.3₵
Utility-scale arrays
(Turnkey Factor 4)
With three panel replacements
(at 25-year intervals)
**
2.6₵3.6₵3.6₵3.6₵3.6₵
Utility-scale arrays
(Turnkey Factor 4)
With no panel replacement
2.6₵2.8₵2.8₵2.7₵2.7₵
Coal-plant generation cost4₵4₵4₵4₵4₵
Natural-gas-plant generation cost4₵4₵4₵4₵4₵
Nationwide average industrial
price of electricity (11/17)
6.8₵6.8₵6.8₵6.8₵6.8₵
Nationwide average commercial
price of electricity (11/17)
10.6₵10.6₵10.6₵10.6₵10.6₵
Nationwide average consumer
retail price of electricity (11/17)
13₵13₵13₵13₵13₵


* Interpolated

** These figures assume that the tariffs apply only to the original solar panels, i.e., that the tariffs will be phased out within 25 years. They are conservative in assuming that solar-panel prices will not fall over a century—an assumption contrary to the steady development of technology and the manufacturing learning curve. Note that the rounded price of energy doesn’t change with tariffs because the tariff-induced changes are small compared to the price of panel replacement; so rounding erases the small differences.

The important thing to know about this table is that the price increases apply for the entire life of the solar array. Why? Within ten percent, the price of energy from solar arrays depends entirely on the initial capital investment—the price of buying and installing the solar array system. Solar power requires no fuel or pollution remediation, and so has only one variable cost: maintenance. The maintenance figure for the entire utility industry is about ten percent. It’s likely to be much less than ten percent for solar power, which requires little maintenance. In comparison, fossil-fuel generators have huge maintenance costs: they have electric generators and other rotating equipment operating at high temperature, and they have pollution “scrubbers” whose active elements must be regularly replaced.

The tariffs’ likely economic effect

The tariffs’ effect on solar-energy costs suggests several conclusions. First, the Trump tariffs are not likely to motivate a shift (at least one based on price alone) from solar back to coal or natural gas. For utility-scale arrays, the Trump-raised cost of energy over an array’s entire working life does not exceed the cost of generating energy with coal or natural gas (let alone its retail price), at any time during the four-year ramp down. In addition, the cost of solar energy is certain (fixed at the outset by the capital investment in the array), while the cost of power from any coal or natural-gas plant will depend on the vagaries of market prices for fuel over the entire life of the plant. The investment in solar arrays thus provides something highly prized by business: certainty.

Although the Trump tariffs may raise the cost of energy from consumer arrays above the (utility) cost of generating energy from coal or natural gas, no consumer is going to build a coal or natural-gas power plant in his home. As the table shows, the cost to the consumer of generating energy from a solar array will always be less than the price the consumer would have to pay any electric utility at retail, or even at commercial or industrial rates. So consumers will still have an economic incentive to install solar arrays, although the incentive will get a bit stronger as the Trump tariffs ramp down. Consumers will also still have a basis for amortizing the cost of their arrays to “payback,” the more so if they use their arrays to charge electric cars.

Thus the Trump tariffs may reduce the price advantage of solar arrays over coal and natural gas, but they will not eliminate it. Based on the cost per kilowatt hour of energy produced, solar-array buyers will have and retain no rational alternative, perhaps besides windmills. And windmills are much harder for consumers to permit, build and maintain than solar arrays.

Timing, however, is another matter. Some buyers of solar arrays may wait three years to buy in order to get the lowest tariff-raised prices. This effect will be most pronounced for utility-scale installations, for which the Trump tariff’s system-price increase is highest, due to the low utility-scale turnkey factor. Some utility-scale buyers may even try to get out of contracts for which imports of solar cells and panels will not occur by February 7 (the tariff’s effective date). For contracts under negotiation, many utilities may delay importation of solar devices and their actual installation until the Trump tariff drops to 15% on February 7, 2021.

This effect could cause layoffs in the sales and installation industry, but mostly for utility-scale projects. Smart incumbent firms will shift their focus to consumers as quickly as possible and for the tariff’s first three years. The tariffs will affect consumers’ costs of total systems (and consequently their cost of electric energy), but the tariffs will never raise the cost of energy above the retail price that a utility would charge, now 13₵ per kilowatt-hour. And this is so even if these first-principle estimates of the cost of energy from solar arrays are 30% low, rather than 20% high, as comparison with actual experience with my own solar array suggests.

Even in the tariff’s early years, when its price effect on arrays and their energy is highest, it will probably not even overcome the price-advantage of installations in new residential construction, as distinguished from retrofits. So during those years, the emphasis in selling solar arrays to consumers will probably shift to new-home construction and suburban development. Solar City, which makes solar panels that double as roofing tiles, will be particularly well situated to exploit the new-construction advantage.

If this analysis is right, there will be a surge of new utility installations and a resurgence of consumer solar-panel retrofits as the tariff drops, and especially as the tariff reaches its low steady-state in 2021. In the interim, employment in sales and installation firms will probably decline, as will employment in the industries that make the non-solar-panel parts of arrays, such as foundations, support structures, cables, control elements, and inverters.

The policy purpose of temporarily dislocating these industries is to give American solar-cell and solar-panel makers time and a price umbrella with which to recover from imports allegedly subsidized by foreign governments and therefore unfairly underpriced. Much depends on whether makers seize this opportunity, which they can only do by investing in R & D and manufacturing plants.

The tariff and the price advantage it gives American manufacturers decline to a presumed steady state after four years. So the sooner this investment is made, the better. In the best of all possible worlds, American makers of solar cells and panels should be making plans to invest in R & D and manufacturing right now.

In essence, the Trump tariffs invite American solar cell and panel makes to invest massively in R & D and plants at precisely the time at which their sales may be falling due a reduction of demand caused by the tariffs’ effect on total-system prices. That’s a tough ask.

Yet the theory is sound. If American makers continue to suffer a price disadvantage due to foreign governments’ unfair or illegal subsidies of foreign manufacturers, they will never have the money to invest in R & D or plants in order to gain a price advantage, and their technology will lag. Eventually, that vicious circle will result in foreign domination of innovation, design and manufacturing and a shift of American industry to selling and installing foreign products—an economic and technological dead end.

We are already well on the way to that dead end. Yet even Sivaram, in his op-ed diatribe against the tariffs, admits that American manufacturers still own 20% of American demand for solar cells and panels. That is no small thing.

Conclusion: the desperate need for more private investment

The Trump tariffs may be a Hail Mary pass to avoid further deterioration in the “front end” of the American industry, but they are a reasonable expedient. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any viable alternative. Further government subsidies of our own—even below-market-rate loans—would not only increase our already high government debt. They would also violate the very international rules that we are using to impose the tariffs, and they would encounter massive political resistance from conservatives.

The underlying problem is our fly-by-night American culture. Our money is simply not as patient as money in Asia.

You have only to look at our banks’ behavior leading up to the Crash of 2008, or the massive rise and recent drop in the price of Bitcoin, to understand how much the gospel of “get rich quick” drives our economy. Additional evidence is the rapid rise of firms, like Facebook and Uber, one of which has unwittingly undermined our democracy, the other of which has famously neglected real problems of its drivers and customers.

Solar and wind energy require patient money. Solar in particular requires a long time frame, for the large capital investment in a solar array makes sense—and produces the lowest cost of energy of any technology now known to mankind—only when amortized over the long working life of a solar array.

Today solar-panel makers provide a “linear warranty” of useful (albeit slowly and predictably declining) power for 25 years. But the physics of solar panels suggests that their useful lifetime is likely closer to a century, at slow, steadily and predictably declining power output. Even if it’s really only 25 years, the cost of replacing panels three times during the longer lifetime of the rest of the array’s equipment does not eliminate the cost advantage of solar over alternative technologies in utility-scale arrays. The reason is that, while replacement of course increases the total capital cost of the array (the numerator), it also increases the lifetime output of solar energy, by raising average energy output (the denominator) during the shorter periods of decline.

So exploiting solar energy properly requires a shift in time perspective analogous to, but longer-term than, the shift to thirty-year home mortgages in the last century. That shift jump-started our housing market and gave our country the highest proportion of home ownership in the world. A similar shift to longer-term thinking could renew our chances to lead the global conversion to solar energy as innovators and manufacturers, rather than just to follow as passive consumers and installers.

If we Yanks and our big banks can’t adopt or accommodate that long-term perspective for solar, no tariff will save us. We will inevitably lose the race that our whole species must run: to convert to renewable energy (principally solar and wind) before fossil fuels run out and/or we have pushed our planet so far from the temperature regime in which our species evolved that life on Earth become Hell.

So the Trump tariffs are a gamble at best. They accept temporary pain in the solar sales and installing industry in order to let the research and manufacturing industries regain the leads that they once had. It’s a reasonable gamble, but it depends on American money developing some staying power that it hasn’t much shown lately.

If they can’t find good reasons to invest in their own operations, American firms like Apple should consider investing in solar R & D the huge sums that the Trump tax cuts allow them to repatriate with historically low tax costs. The returns from doing so will be long-term, but handsome, both in money and enhanced prospects for the survival and happiness of our species.

Endnote 1. The cost of electricity from windmills is hard to calculate for two reasons. First, the cost of installing them is proprietary and therefore hard to find in public materials, let alone on the Web. Second, the cost of maintaining them is significant, far more so than that of solar arrays, whose “maintenance” consists largely of sweeping snow, dust and leaves off their surfaces when necessary. For windmills, maintenance costs, too, appear to be proprietary. I have had little success in locating good figures for either capital or maintenance costs, and not for lack of trying.

Endnote 2. One possible alternative is unlikely, if not impossible, in a Republican-led administration with a Republican Congress. The government could invest in leading-edge solar panel R & D as “basic research,” just as it once invested in atomic weapons and energy, synthetic rubber, the Internet and fracking technology. Then it could try to recover the expense by licensing the results of that research to American panel makers. But even if this solution were politically feasible, the four-year time scale of Trump-tariff ramp-down is probably too short to implement it effectively.

Endnote 3. In his broadside against the Trump tariffs,Varum Sivaram reports that one American company, with panel-manufacturing facilities abroad, fears that “any hit to short-term cash flow would force cuts in research-and-development spending.” But, at the same time, he accurately notes the importance of R & D in the survival of American industry:
“[I]nnovation is the only hope for the American solar manufacturing industry . . . . New solar technologies have recently made astounding strides in the laboratory. A front-runner, a material known as perovskite, could be printed in dirt-cheap rolls and achieve far higher efficiency than today’s solar panels.”
He can’t have it both ways. He can’t lament the tariffs’ hit to “short-term cash flow”—mostly to sales firms and installers, with a bit to American firms with foreign manufacturing—and at the same time ignore the opportunity that the tariffs provide for investors in American solar R & D now.

Yet the tariffs provide only an opportunity. It’s now up to American investors (or foreign investors in America) to step up to the plate. Perhaps the USTR could keep an eye on industry investment and phase the tariffs out more quickly if investment is not forthcoming.

President Trump’s State of the Union Speech

Let’s give the Devil his due. Donald Trump managed to contain his inner demons long enough to deliver a lengthy speech prepared by skilled writers. As PBS’ new White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor observed, he kept his ad libs to a minimum.

Trump’s diction was good, his delivery workmanlike. The man can read and perform.

Like all such speeches, Trump’s was a group effort with clear partisan political aims. His was well crafted. It showed how much more effective Trump could be as a leader if he just stuck to the script in public, resolved disputes in private, and stuck to backroom deals once made.

All in all, it was not a bad speech. It tried to compensate with unity for a year of over-the-top divisiveness. It had some concrete proposals, although few specifics about them. Its tone was positive, not negative. It didn’t insult anybody, not even Kim Jong Un. And it tried to repair the President’s well-deserved reputation as a racist with “optics,” namely, a series of human props including many who were black or Hispanic.

Those props themselves told a story that no pundit seemed to notice. The much-vaunted “State of the Union” speech is undergoing an historic transition. It’s morphing from a chief executive’s honest summary of past successes and plan of action to a bit of show business. And who better to accelerate that transition than “reality” show master Donald Trump?

David Brooks had the facts at his fingertips. There were more human props in this speech, he said, than in any State of the Union Speech since Ronald Regan introduced human props in 1982.

The human props’ stories were dramatic and moving. Most had tears in their eyes as they stood for extended applause. But virtually all their stories had a single unstated message: we are a nation under siege. From natural disasters, through our forever wars, to the opioid epidemic and the depredations of immigrant gangs, we need to circle our wagons.

The unstated subtext was masterfully subtle: “We need a strong man to lead us, and here I am.” Trump even lead the frequent applause as Soviet leaders used to do, his loud claps amplified through his open mike.

The President reinforced his authoritarian subtext by emphasizing, again and again, in how many ways he had begun to erase Obama’s legacy. He pointed at lowering taxes, exalting fossil fuels, repealing the “Obamacare’” individual mandate, adopting a policy of ambiguity and perseverance in war and diplomacy, and imposing vast restrictions on immigration. The subliminal message again was loud and clear: “I alone have put America back on the track to greatness.”

The speech also blew some dog whistles for Trump’s base. It impliedly disapproved the kneel-during-anthem protests and called repeal of the Obamacare’s individual mandate a step toward “choice.”

Although short on detail, the specific policy proposals were apt and potentially enticing. They included: (1) $1.5 trillion for an infrastructure program, leveraged with state, local and (“where appropriate”) private money, (2) a paid family leave program, (3) vocational education, and, of course (4) a grand bargain on immigration—citizenship for 1.5 million dreamers in twelve years, in exchange for the Wall, restricting family immigration to spouses and children, and eliminating the lottery.

All in all, the speech had an overwhelming message for Democrats and progressives: never underestimate your enemy.

Donald Trump may be a political ingenue without perceptible skill, whose intemperate personality is self-defeating more often than not. But the Republican Party is anything but. It’s a permanent minority party whose minority is getting more permanent by the day. Yet it has managed to capture all three branches of our government, and its propaganda apparatus, including Fox, is the most effective in human history.

To use a term from the Trump-bumped stock market, the GOP has “outperformed.” Trump’s first State of the Union speech, which was self-evidently a Party product, was just one example.

The Dems’ body language told the story. Throughout most of the speech, they sat mute, stony faced, some even bent over in obvious dejection. They applauded rarely, just for obviously obligatory tributes to the hero-props and our military and first responders. Only Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), ever the courtly and flexible legislator, stood and applauded ideas that Dems could readily support. A few others followed his example.

If you had looked only at the “optics,” you would have seen a closely divided Congress, with one side triumphant and celebratory and the other beaten and dejected. It was not a sight to light up a progressive’s eyes.

Joe Kennedy’s Response

In his official response, Congressman Joe Kennedy (D. Mass.) took a big gamble. Far more than Trump’s speech, his was virtually all emotion. From our Pilgrims to the present day, he extolled the virtues of immigrants, the value of diversity and equality, and the long and fruitful struggle to achieve them, which is far from won.

Kennedy’s response had no memorable reference to policy. It was almost entirely an appeal to identity politics. It seemed directed entirely to the Dems’ “base,” including his immediate audience. In stark contrast to the sea of grey hair in the Capitol, Kennedy’s audience seemed even younger than he is at 37.

Unlike Trump’s speech, Kennedy’s seemed not directed at broadening the “base.” It was well written and well delivered, apart from Kennedy’s apparent nearness to tears on several occasions. But compared to Trump’s triumphant and “leaderly” tone, reinforced by relegating divisiveness to dog whistles, Kennedy’s fell short. In comparison, and despite its occasional poetry, it came off as the whining of disempowered youth.

In the best case, Kennedy’s speech will serve its purpose of energizing the Dems’ base and will be utterly forgotten by November. In the worst case, if Dems’ campaign this way all year, they will either lose the midterms or win far less decisively than they ought to.

Hate Trump and his backers they may. But they cannot win on tribalism and whining. They must ally with minorities of all kinds, but they must do it quietly, below the radar of everyone, including the mainstream media. (This is what Barack Obama and Eric Holder are now doing so well.) They must eschew the words “socialism,” “left,” “left wing” and even “progressive” as if they were the political equivalent of Trump’s “shit-holes.”

Instead, the Dems must promote specific, concrete proposals for action, such as Medicare for All. They must describe them with neutral, comprehensible (not tribal!) words that any voter can understand. And they must explain, in words of one syllable, why and how those proposals will make the average voter and family better off. In short, they must act like the political professionals who drafted Trump’s State of the Union speech and so advanced his and the GOP’s agenda.

Trump may be anything but a professional pol, but the people now backing him are. Politics is a profession, one which takes years to master, despite the rush to declare Oprah Winfrey president. If nothing else, Trump’s State of the Union Speech reminded us all of that lost truth.

Links to Popular Recent Posts



permalink

22 January 2018

NYT Buries Global Women’s March, Fox-Like


[For selected photos of creative signs from the Oakland, CA, branch of the Women’s March, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

Last Saturday’s “Women’s March” was not as big as last year’s, which was reportedly the biggest coordinated nationwide demonstration in US history, and the third biggest in recent global history. But this year’s March was enormous nevertheless. Early estimates suggested nationwide attendance by hundreds of thousands, and maybe a million or more in some 250 cities around the globe.

Nowhere near all the marchers were women. My fiancée and I attended the part of the March in Oakland, California. She thought there were about 30% men; I thought it was closer to 50%. The marchers we saw included a large proportion of families. Attendees were multicultural and multi-racial, a true cross-section of America.

But you wouldn’t know any of this from reading the New York Times, let alone its subtly misleading headlines. The Times’ Sunday edition had no front-page retrospective on the Saturday March at all. The front page had only a single photo, obviously taken from a helicopter, revealing no identifiable features other than buses stranded in the crowd. The verbal reporting, buried on pages 16 and (under “News Analysis”) 18, was misleading in important respects.

As a news reader, there are four things you want to know about any protest march, especially a nationwide one. First, how big was it really? Second, who attended: what types of people, and how diverse were they? Third, what was the tone, and was there any violence or lawbreaking? Finally, what was the purpose of the protest, according to the marchers themselves?

Getting this basic information right and in perspective is hardly rocket science. But the Times reports on last Saturday’s global Women’s March earned a passing grade on only the last point out of four, its purposes.

The most important thing about any protest is its size. In Oakland alone, I could see, with my ex-physicist’s quantitative eye, a crowd of 25,000 to 30,000 people from where I was standing. Police estimates were 40,000 to 50,000, again in Oakland alone. Los Angeles’ mayor estimated half a million in that city alone. Yet the Sunday NYT’s main news report, buried on page 16, reported only “thousands” of attendees.

On the type of marchers, the Times again earned a failing grade. The headline of its main news story on page 16 read: “United Against Trump, Women Take to the Streets.” (emphasis added.)

The body of the story consisted of random quotations from individual marchers, with no particular organization or theme. The headline was misleading in two respects and disrespectful in one. The March was far from all about Trump: sexual predation, women’s empowerment, racism, and women running for office were all major themes. Those marching were also far from all women: in Oakland men and youth were at least as big a fraction of the marchers as Trump supporters are of voters polled. As for respect, would anyone describe MLK’s march on Washington in 1963 (the locus of his “I have a dream” speech) as “taking to the streets”?

A rabble “takes to the streets.” Large groups of peaceful citizens “march,” “demonstrate” or “protest.”

Surely the headline writers on the New York Times, which has the greatest literary pretension of any of our four national newspapers, know the difference in tone, shading, and dismissiveness. Surely the subtle bias was no accident, else someone should be fired. Don’t close to a million people worldwide, marching peacefully and purposefully, deserve some respect?

The Times also utterly missed the tenor and spirit of the March. Maybe the less than handful of reporters it sent to cover it helicoptered in for a brief visit and wrote most of their stories from the Internet or advance written materials prepared by the March’s organizers, perhaps only in New York. It certainly seemed that way.

In all the reporting I have read, the March was utterly devoid of violence and lawbreaking worldwide. There were no reports even of discord. In Oakland the mood was determined but at times joyous, even festive, with large numbers of families and dogs. The Times reported none of this.

The Times only passing grade is on the March’s purposes. In fact, there were at least four: (1) protesting Trump’s presidency, including its misogyny, bigotry and racism; (2) highlighting and protesting sexual predation and harassment, including Trump’s own; (3) empowering women, especially female youth; and (4) encouraging women not just to register and vote, but to step up and run for office. Every one of these purposes was on display in the many original hand-made signs in the Oakland March, some of which appear in photos below.

The Times’ burial of the March was evident not just in the sloppiness (or absence) of its reporting and the main news headline. The placement of the main news story on page 16 played a part. It appeared opposite a full-page, full-color ad for Club Med. The story itself was a mere fifteen column inches, framed on top and bottom by color photos of the March. In both the facing Club Med ad and the photos, the colors pink (in prominently displayed “pussy” hats) and red (in US flags) showed matching highlights.

If color coordination of the two facing pages were the test, the Times reporting on the March would have earned an A+. But the resulting visual impression was one of lightness and frivolity. In fact, as I was looking for a serious story—any serious story—on this global march, I nearly bypassed the main news report for this reason. (The Times “News Analysis” on page 18 provided better and deeper reporting, not so much of the March itself as of the aims and divisions among the organizers and participants. But even this piece failed on precise numerical statistics; it also seems to have been prepared mostly from written materials available beforehand.)

Among many hand-written signs from Oakland that caught my eye was one that read “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” Perhaps the Times didn’t really intend to bury the March. But if not, it certainly was negligent. And the misleading and dismissive headline, coupled with the orders-of-magnitude underestimation of crowd size, contains the seeds of malevolence.

Among the most memorable James Bond quotations is this: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”

The tarring of six likely 2020 Democratic presidential candidates as “hard left,” without any specifics or differentiation among them, may have been happenstance. The subtle marginalization of what was likely the second-greatest nationwide protest-march in American history may have been mere coincidence, or just lazy reporting. But a nationwide march by women, even if it had been attended by women alone, is nothing to marginalize: women are more than half the electorate.

Therefore all Times readers—especially foreign and progressive ones—must stay vigilant in looking for that decisive third time: another clear sign that the Times is doubling Fox as an instrument of right-wing bias and a propaganda tool of our business ruling class.

There will be differences, of course. Fox is about as subtle as a kick in the solar plexus. The Times will be necessarily more subtle, as befits some of the brightest and most experienced reporters, headline writers and editors in all of “print” journalism. With multimedia ever creeping into “print,” we can also expect more subtle visual bias and shading, like the color coordination with the facing Club Med ad.

So the watchword for Times readers, especially foreign and progressive ones, is vigilance and caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). The old generation of Sulzbergers is gone, and the new one may be in the process of being co-opted by our oligarchic business ruling class. Only more time will tell, but damning evidence is piling up.

Note to Readers.

Some may wonder how I follow the Times’ coverage while refusing to subscribe. The short answer is that my fiancée, born and raised in New York long ago, subscribes to the print edition, which we both read when we are at her home in Berkeley. But I also use four free features of the Times: (1) its daily e-mail headline newsletter, (2) its daily opinion-page e-mail newsletter, by David Leonhardt, (3) (more occasionally) its online front-page, which tracks its print edition and has links to inside stories; and (4) the limited free monthly stories it offers on line to nonsubscribers.

As I have analyzed in depth, these four free features (and their counterparts in competing online newspapers) make an important contribution to free online journalism and so to our American Fourth Estate. In part for his obvious quantitative economic training, I find David Leonhardt to be the best all-round journalistic generalist in America today.

So I’m not oblivious to the Times’ contributions to journalism generally, and especially to the difficult transition of “print” journalism to the Internet and modern multi-media. Perhaps some of the examples of sloppiness and poor journalism of which I complain are artifacts of the Times’ rapid and sometimes chaotic push to expand its circulation and range of media in order to survive in the Internet age.

But Fox also originally sought, also successfully, to expand its circulation. It did so by appealing to the average worker’s “gut” prejudice, instant judgment, and loudmouth style—in other words, to the worst in us.

Becoming human history’s most effective and most dangerous propaganda machine may have been entirely coincidental, James Bond’s “happenstance.” But it happened to Fox.

It’s impossible to imagine the presidency of Dubya, let alone Trump, without Fox. It’s hard to conceive of the present rise of both corporate and political dysfunction in America, let alone the present surge of misogyny, racism and bigotry, without Fox. Whatever the mix of mere venal commerciality, sensationalism, and malign intent, Fox has done irreparable damage to us as a nation—our politics, our ability to compromise and seek practical solutions, our science, our collective belief in truth and expertise, and our basic honesty and competence, which once were unquestioned and now are doubtful.

If the Times follows Fox down that road, we are done. Our democracy will be finished, and our growing oligarchy will entrench. Our global leadership in politics and trade, let alone science, will disappear. Our standard of living will follow—and perhaps our very survival as a nation-state. After all, corporate oligarchy was a big factor in the Fall of Rome, and there are centrifugal trends among us even now.

So if I accentuate the negative, it’s not because I don’t appreciate the Times’ efforts to maintain good journalism and expand it in the Internet Age. I just see growing political bias, both subtle and not-so-subtle, creeping into that journalism, along with sloppiness and poor quality.

That’s all similar to what led me to cancel my thirty-year subscription to the Wall Street Journal, after having given Rupert Murdoch’s subversion a two-year try. The problem, as I’ve explained, was not just bias, but basic journalism: headlines that didn’t match the leads, leads that didn’t match the stories, and most-important facts appearing in the final paragraph, which contradicted both the headline and the lead. Nearly always the sloppiness listed toward the right, as did the Times’ recent dismissive reporting on likely 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and on the second global Women’s March.

So just consider me a canary in the coal mine. But above all, be prepared to look beyond the Times to the Post and to regional and foreign sources for real, unbiased news. Just as we no longer have three straight-shooting TV networks with solid professionals at the helm, we are going to have to “surf channels” to find good “print” journalism on line. Caveat lector! (Let the reader beware!)

Selection of Creative Signs from Women’s March 2018 in Oakland, California



Links to Popular Recent Posts



permalink

18 January 2018

The New York Times Doubles Fox


[For an update comparing the US to Europe in political name-calling, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

I hate to keep picking on the New York Times (see 1, 2, and 3), which still employs some of America’s best journalists. But all signs point to an inflection point in its brand of “journalism,” perhaps due to the latest Sulzberger’s advent as publisher.

The Times is teetering on a knife-edge of a decision that will be fateful for it and for our nation. Will what has long been our greatest newspaper continue to reflect the views of the most progressive city in one of our most progressive states? Or will it follow the lead of Wall Street and Fox and remake our once-great newspapers in the image of the right-wing businessmen who now govern us?

These questions are vital to the health of what remains of our American Fourth Estate. Steven Spielberg’s brilliant movie “The Post” has put them front and center in our national consciousness, reminding us how two great newspapers together (the Times and the Post) once helped terminate our history’s most disastrous blunder (Vietnam), brought down a rogue president, and so restored American democracy.

These questions are especially timely now, after the Times’ and the Post’s successful subscription models have slain the Internet dragon and put their newsrooms awash in money. There is no longer any business excuse for listing to the right—only the entrenched ideology of management.

The Times’ signs of growing bias are as clear as the English language: the use of words. In an earlier essay, I called it “applied philology.” It’s a variant of an age-old staple of politics—name-calling—but performed with subtlety, sophistication, relentlessness and effectiveness never before achieved.

Over two generations, Fox and the right-wing media have managed to confuse socialists with Communists, both with the Soviets and Chinese, and mild progressives with the threats that “Reds” posed to America at the height of the Cold War. By clever use of language, they have managed to make the negative connotation, even the fear, associated with these groups carry over to progressives as mild as President Obama.

The progression of name-calling has been both steady and brilliantly artful. But at base it’s very simple. It started with “Communists” and the very real threat of nuclear conflict with the Soviets during the Cold War. Then it morphed through the following permutations, in roughly the following order: socialists, leftists, “left-wingers” and today’s “hard left.” In the process it left a once-clear and positive descriptor (“liberal”) hopelessly soiled and abandoned in favor of the hardier and less twistable label “progressive.”

As I explained in my first essay on this applied philology, the strategy is both insidious and effective because it falls under intellectuals’ radar. Well-educated people don’t rely on labels; they look beyond the labels to see what’s inside the box. So most of them have no idea how powerfully and durably Fox and the other right-wing media have tarnished the names, reputations and even the histories of good progressive pols among voters who are not well-educated and do rely on labels. Those voters, by and large, have become Donald Trump’s irreducible “base.”

The chief victim so far has been Barack Obama as President. Racism of course played a big part. But for most voters targeted by this strategy, racism was just an unconscious motivation. There are not that many conscious and avid racists or white supremacists in America. Millions of Americans would be shocked to find that they are voting as if they were.

Yet by relentlessly calling Obama “socialist,” “liberal,” “leftist,” “left-wing” and “hard left,” Fox and its fellow travelers completely confused a vast swath of Americans on his signature issue, health insurance. Medicare is not “socialism” because its beneficiaries pay for it. And anyway, in his defining pre-election address on health insurance in May 2007, Obama (ever the political realist) rejected, as politically impossible, even trying to achieve single-payer or Medicare for All.

So the result he did achieve—so-called “Obamacare”—was about as far from “socialism” as you could possibly imagine while still getting 15 million more Americans insured. Yet as his unique presidency faded into history, vast swaths of rural and small-town America were utterly convinced that Obama’s mildly progressive new law had achieved a dangerous “left wing” or “hard left” coup. So convinced were they that they supported repealing Obamacare without having the slightest idea what, if anything, would replace it and what the practical effect of repeal on them would be. It was enough for them to vote and shout out to keep our nation from turning “hard left.”

The mainstream GOP and Trump as president jumped on this bandwagon and have achieved large parts of repeal, also with minimal thought as to consequences. Many of them may find themselves seeking new work late this year, as the practical consequences of this effective name-calling become clear to suffering voters.

Not only has this applied philology managed to convert a mild and centrist progressive like Obama into a dangerous extremist in the minds of many voters. It has also moved the goal posts, indeed the entire field, of American politics inexorably rightward.

The object of the Fourth Estate’s truth-revealing in “The Post” was Richard Nixon. Although a racist and authoritarian himself, he would be considered an unelectable “left-winger” today. With his presidential signature or his action he: (1) created the Environmental Protection Agency that Trump’s minions are now trying to destroy; (2) fortified protection for workers’ health and safety that is now under attack; and (3) with his famous trip to Beijing with Henry Kissinger, opened the bilateral relationship with China that Trump now says has amounted to “rape.”

If someone like Nixon would be unelectable for being branded a “hard-left liberal” today, how far right have our national politics shifted? We have neither the language nor the metric to quantify the shift. But we do know that economic inequality is at an all-time high and that we no longer have a functioning democracy, but an oligarchy.

Against this background, how the New York Times uses language is immensely important. Given the Times’ prestige and reach, it could be a decisive factor in our national evolution.

In writing that the Times now “doubles Fox,” I am reaching for a musical analogy. Just as the “oboes double the clarinets and flutes” in some symphonies, the New York Times is now playing the same tune as Fox, insisting that anyone outside the business oligarchy is “hard left” and therefore dangerous.

Evidence is as near as today’s front page (Thursday, January 18, 2018). In the print version, the lead headline, on the upper left, reads as follows: “Hard Left Turn In Warming Up for 2020 Race.” The story that follows tars every single likely Democratic candidate for president in 2020 with the latest Fox epithet: “hard left.” Variants of this epithet appear not just in the headline; they salt the story like seasoning on a bloody steak.

In this context, the piece names six possible or likely Democratic candidates for 2020. They are: Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

There is no way that this could have happened by accident. The author of this story, one Sheryl Gay Stolberg, got a full, large-type byline. As a rule, reporters don’t write their own headlines, so the headline writer, the front-page editor, the copy editor (if any), and probably the news editor all had to know and approve. As my previous critiques of the Times (see 1, 2 and 3) suggest, it has perhaps the greatest pretensions to literary style and proper use of language of any of our four major national newspapers (Times, Post, WSJ and Bloomberg.com).

So a vital question hangs in the air, just as movie-goers learn how leaders at the Post and the Times once put their businesses and their lives on the line, risking imprisonment to save our democracy from an earlier imperial presidency. Has the Times joined Rupert Murdoch and Fox in declaring philological and political war on Democrats? Is what used to be our greatest newspaper now a tool of the oligarchy, although supporting a few well-meaning reporters who still ken the Fourth Estate’s proper role?

Only time will tell. But this applied philology and advanced name-calling are powerful techniques of propaganda. They are the newspaper equivalent of the 50 Megaton bomb.

At a Christmas party late last year, I found myself introduced to a well-dressed transplant from the Midwest to Santa Fe. His “Fargo” accent identified him as coming from the parts of our upper Midwest once settled by Scandinavians. Once this region of our nation was the heart of our native progressive movement. So I turned our conversation to politics, and he asked me whom I would support for President in 2020. I forthrightly replied, “Elizabeth Warren,” whom I have supported on this blog.

When my companion in conversation tarred her as “too left wing,” I was pathetically unprepared. I replied that after an abjectly failing right-wing government, a turn to the left would not be out of line. What I should have done was ask a few pointed questions, as follows:
“Left wing? Really? Is working hard to keep big banks from deluding, cheating and swindling their customers now ‘left wing’? I thought that was just requiring honesty in business.”
I despise the word “conversation” as applied to politics. It’s not a “conversation,” it’s a struggle that continues 24/7/365. In that struggle, words are weapons, used as much to confuse, delude and distract as to inform and enlighten.

Words like “left wing,” let alone “hard left,” are name-calling, designed to dissuade by invoking subconscious fear and loathing. In failing to correct the name-calling that had so deeply embedded itself in the nation’s consciousness as to infect even me, I had failed in my own personal political struggle.

If the Times also fails, American voters will have only the Post and Jeff Bezos’ deep pockets to fall back on. That’s why I’m withholding judgment on the Times’ direction, along with my subscription money. There is no way in Hell I will consciously give money to any person or institution that doubles Fox, which I devoutly believe has deliberately destroyed, for profit, the great nation I was born into.

Why Fox’ Propaganda is so Effective in the US

The foregoing essay got more hits more quickly than any essay of mine in several weeks. A majority of them came from outside the United States.

No doubt many foreign readers have trouble understanding how Americans can be so “gullible” as to fall for what sounds like childish name-calling. This essay attempts to elucidate the phenomenon inside the US and to look for analogues in Europe.

Language is a big reason why foreigners may have trouble understanding what is going on here. In Europe and other foreign lands, “socialism” and the “left” are accepted and common political positions. The words are not epithets, as they are here, but simple descriptive nouns. Pols and voters who describe their views with those words are proud to use them.

In many Europeans countries “socialist” and even “Communist” parties are legitimate, duly registered entities. Voters there can join and support them without fear of legal or moral condemnation or social ostracism. A prime example is the last President of France, Socialist François Hollande.

Not so in the US. We Americans have never had a socialist president, nor a socialist leader of either House of Congress, far less a “Communist.” We did have a “perennial” and marginal socialist candidate for President (Normal Thomas) in the last century, but he got nowhere and was a frequent object of humor.

As for Communism, the United States’ business ruling class purged it from our politics during the last century. Among the many methods it used were social ostracism, formal and informal blacklisting for employment (especially in the entertainment industry), the “hearings” of the House Un-American Activities Committee (“HUAC”) led by the notorious demagogue Joe McCarthy, mandatory loyalty oaths (especially for teachers), and outright banning of the party by state and federal laws.

The result of these various measures was a complete purge of Communism from America. It was not primarily a lethal purge. No one was executed but the Rosenbergs, who were convicted of selling the secrets of our atomic-bomb triggers to the Soviets. A few dozen workers were killed in clashes with private or public police, or army troops, while trying to organize unions or hold illegal strikes. But tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of Americans were jailed, detained, blackballed from employment, removed from positions, disgraced and ostracized, destroyed as political actors, or simply intimidated from exercising their supposed First-Amendment rights of free association and political activity.

Let’s be clear. Communism as an economic system, including forced collectivization of agriculture and the complete abolition of private industry, has been a complete failure. It failed in China after a fair trial of three decades. It failed in the Soviet Union after a fair trial of seven decades. Today no major power has anything like a Communist economic system.

China still uses the name, but only for the sake of tradition. China’s actual system of government is authoritarian state capitalism. Its single ruling Party echoes nothing so much as the world’s very first technocracy: China’s ancient, highly educated Mandarin class.

So let’s not revive the old, dead debate over whether Communism is a viable, let alone superior, economic system. What we are discussing here is something quite different, and something quite odd. The United States boasts of being the freest nation on Earth. We Americans have a written Constitution that, we think, makes us so.

Yet here in our home country Communism didn’t die in free and open debate, far less after a fair trial as in China or the Soviet Union. It died in a deliberate and highly orchestrated purge by government and the ruling class—the starkest and most extreme purge in America since the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690s.

Our purge of Communists was authoritarian, oppressive and highly undemocratic. But it was also highly successful. To my knowledge, today’s United States has no one in a single important public office, nor a candidate for any, who calls himself “Communist.” The politics and the party have been wiped completely off our electoral map by the most successful political purge in American history.

This purge taught America’s business ruling class three things. First, it taught the practical benefits of pushing America’s legal system to its limits. The HUAC hearings stopped, and the purge largely relented, just as lawsuits wending their slow way up our legal system would have slapped them down vigorously. Second, our ruling class learned that even outrageous demagogues like Joe McCarthy can be “useful idiots.” When necessary, they can be abandoned and discarded without causing permanent damage to the cause of government by and for the wealthy and powerful.

Finally, and most of all, our business class learned that fear is an effective tool of politics. The nationwide purge of Communists succeeded so well because the ruling class managed to make ordinary workers and the general public fear the very pols and intellectuals who thought they were trying to help the working stiff. That’s worth stating again, in another way: the business ruling class found a way to get ordinary workers to fear and despise their natural friends.

It’s not hard to manipulate people who are poorly educated and unaccustomed to abstract thought. How many US college graduates can recite the chief distinctions between Communism and socialism: the forced collectivization of agriculture and the abolition of all private industry? How many know that the textbook definition of “socialism” entails government or collective ownership and control of basic industry? How many know that no serious pol in either American party has recently advocated government ownership of any big industry, including banks, aside from temporary control, as the price of bailouts, imposed after the Crash of 2008? How many know that no serious pol from either major party has ever advocated nationalizing health care (as in Britain’s National Health Service) or even nationalizing health insurance, but only authorizing a single government insurer, something like Medicare, as an alternative or supplement to the private market?

If most college graduates don’t know or understand these fine distinctions, how can we expect workers without college educations to do so? How hard can it be, let alone with endless repetition on Fox, to get them to confuse those who want to rationalize (not nationalize!) health insurance and enlarge our national insurance pool with “Commies,” “socialists” and extremists on the “hard left”? How hard can it be to transfer the fear and hatred of “outsiders,” “Europeans,” “Jewish agitators,” and foreign minorities that motivated the last century’s nationwide purge of Communists to pols like Obama, who are just trying to get more workers covered?

That’s what Fox does so brilliantly, making piles of money all the while. How does it do it? It makes its propaganda entertaining by aiming it directly at the educational level, prejudices and political “personality” of less-educated American workers.

There are few close analogues in Europe to this cultured and instilled political fear that has emasculated and truncated American politics. But the case of fascism is instructive. This “ism” nearly destroyed Europe in the last century, not just culturally and socially, but physically as well.

As a result, no European party today dares call itself “fascist.” Every single one with fascist leanings goes to great lengths to disguise itself, avoiding words like “fascist” or “Nazi” and covering its tracks with neutral-sounding words like “alternative” (as in the case of Breitbart’s “alt-right” here.). The difference, of course, is that fascism failed spectacularly in Europe, causing tens of millions of premature deaths and the devastation of vast swaths of civilization. In contrast, neither Communism nor socialism has ever even been tried honestly here, although both have been the subjects of what may be the most thorough and effective campaign of mass-media propaganda in American history.

Another flashpoint of word usage in Europe is Islam and “Sharia Law.” Europe has greater problems than we Americans do in assimilating Muslim immigrants because it has far more of them, and because it has more numerous and widespread cultural differences inside and among nations to begin with.

But one thing is clear. The federal-legal structure of Europe—although in some places less clear and less well established than that of the United States—has no room for the legalization of “honor killings” or the suppression of girls’ right to an education or women’s right to work. If a banlieue or small ville tried to take such measures or enact corresponding laws, the result would be a resounding slapdown at higher levels of the legal system, whether national or in the EU. The chance of some small town in Europe legalizing stoning of adulterers, murders of “straying” women by family members, or keeping females at home from school or voluntary work, is minuscule.

Yet propagandists on the right in Europe (and some here, too) regularly invoke the paranoid fantasy of Sharia Law at home as reasons to reject, oppress or hound Muslim immigrants. Europe will succeed, as we Americans have largely done, by being permissive on the small things, such as headgear and dress, while standing firm on the big ones—honor killings, punishment for crimes and women’s right to an education and work. You do not attract people to assimilate into your society by rubbing their noses in inconsequential differences.

Yet as this brief summary shows, there is nothing precisely similar in Europe to the general American fear of “socialism” and the “hard left” that arose out of the last century’s oppressive and successful purge of Communists and that has been perpetuated by the right-wing’s incessant disinformation and propaganda. The most threatening part of this propaganda is its possible adoption by the New York Times, as outlined in the main essay above. Foreigners should therefore be vigilant and thoughtful before adopting the Times as the “default” or “authoritative” source of news about America.

In a way, our American situation is counterintuitive. Fascism nearly destroyed Europe utterly, yet Europe permits proto-and crypto-fascist parties as long as they tone down their rhetoric and keep their fascist origins and connections veiled. We Americans won’t tolerate even a whiff of “socialism” or “hard left” politics, although neither Communism nor socialism ever gained a foothold here, let alone substantial influence. Maybe fear of a phantom is worse than well-justified fear of reality.

To some extent, this is all a bit of a word game. Bernie Sanders, not Donald Trump, might be in the White House today if he had understood how much business-elite propaganda had made the word “socialism” anathema here, and how much bashing corporations or capitalism is the kiss of death in American politics.

Perhaps the Democratic Party and its future candidates will be more careful to avoid these linguistic minefields and the pitfalls of our unique American history. “Medicare for All, with all the private supplemental or alternative insurance you can afford,” sounds so much less threatening than “nationalized insurance” or “socialized medicine,” doesn’t it?

Links to Popular Recent Posts



permalink