Sanders, “Disgusting” and “Pushy”. I am “Scum”: A Pulitzer Winner Speaks

My continuing support for the policies associated with Bernie Sanders and the movement which developed from his campaign is known to most of my acquaintances.

Nor is it lost on me that many of them disagree with me, something which occasionally becomes apparent when we comment on each other’s Facebook threads.

One instance occurred yesterday, provoked by a friend (a real “meat space” as opposed to virtual friend) having circulated on Facebook the long standing criticism that Sanders’s support is limited to whites. I took issue in a comment posting results from a recent Gallup poll.

As the numbers indicate, the reality is the exact opposite of what my friend and other Sanders detractors assume to be the case: Sanders is overwhelmingly popular with non-white voters and only marginally popular with whites.

My making this observation provoked some pushback from another commenter-a friend of my friend. Typical of much internet discourse, he didn’t dispute the data presented in my post (which consisted only of that), but simply issued a one word dismissal of Sanders as “disgusting.”

I responded by reposting the same word including underneath it pictures of Sanders getting arrested at a civil rights demonstration in the early sixties


and that of Clinton (this commenter’s preferred candidate in 2016) appearing at Donald Trump’s wedding.

 “not disgusting”

The discussion devolved from there, as might be expected, ultimately leading to the commenter characterizing Sanders as “pushy” for delivering his own state of the union response (as he has done for the past three years).

For a child of a holocaust survivor that set off alarm bells.
“A pushy jew,” I commented. “Charming.”

Unsurprisingly this resulted in a freak out and his blocking of me, though not before his referring to me as “scum,” a designation I welcomed coming from a self-identified antisemite.


Two comments on this exchange seem worth making.

First, the poster in question was not, unlike myself, a random internet nobody but someone who would be uncontroversially characterized as a media elite. Indeed, he is a Pulitzer Prize winner, having been employed for many years at the Washington Post among other prestigious outlets.

This should not come as a surprise: mainstream, corporate media contempt, indeed, sheer hatred for Sanders has been obvious since his 2016 campaign began to pick up steam, anyone not recognizing it by this point being willfully blind. So universal is the hatred for Sanders among the elite media class that the poster simply assumed that he could issue his one word attack and receive universal approval in the comment thread. When I failed to deliver it, he referred to me as not being “house broken.”

Again, that’s an entirely accurate description, one which I proudly accept-I may put it on my tombstone. And that brings me to the second point which is that the individual’s work is as a classical music critic and here again, we shouldn’t be surprised. This is, after all, the musical genre most closely associated with social, economic and cultural elites. That they fear and disdain the political figure directly targeting the system through which they accumulate wealth and privilege and who threatens their ability to exercise it is a virtual law of political physics.

While it’s not pleasant to have to confront the venom which they can be counted on to spew in unguarded moments, it’s useful for them to reveal the intensity of their hatred and for all of us to recognize the interests they serve.

NC vs AOC: The Politics of (Cartesian) Common Sense

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC):  When I meet everyday people, they are eager to learn more, ask great questions, & embrace nuance.

I inherently reject the paternalistic idea that some subjects are too complex for everyday people to engage. If we present compelling, solid info+common sense arguments, we can win.


BILL MOYERS: Does a citizen have to have far-reaching, specialized knowledge to understand the realities of power, to understand what’s really going on?

NOAM CHOMSKY::  It’s not absolutely trivial, but I mean, as compared with intellectually complex tasks, it’s pretty slight. It’s not like the sciences. I mean, I think there’s a big effort made to make everything seem mysterious, but there are things that you have to study and know something about. But by and large, what happens in social and political life is relatively accessible. It does not take special training. It does not take unusual intelligence. What it really takes is honesty.


NOAM CHOMSKY: : Yes, if you’re honest you can see it.

BILL MOYERS: Do you believe in common sense?

NOAM CHOMSKY: : Absolutely. I believe in Cartesian common sense. I think people have the capacities to see through the deceit in which they are ensnared, but they’ve got to make the effort.

BILL MOYERS: Seems a little incongruous to hear a man from the ivory tower of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a scholar, a distinguished linguistics scholar, talk about common people with such appreciation, and common sense.

NOAM CHOMSKY: : I think that scholarship, at least the field that I work in, has the opposite consequences.

My own studies in language and human cognition demonstrate to me, at least, what remarkable creativity ordinary people have. The very fact that people talk to one another is a reflection- just in the normal way, I don’t mean particularly fancy- reflects deep-seated features of human creativity which, in fact, separate human beings from any other biological system we know. You get tremendous respect for human beings when you begin to study their normal capacities.

Open Borders Means Death: Angela Nagle’s Red Line

Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies was a modest attempt to engage a question which the left should be interested in answering: why was the on line alt-right succeeding in swelling its ranks by appealing to economic and social insecurities now more than ever experienced by students and those entering the labor market. It should be the left which reaches out, speaks to their needs, and provides a welcoming environment for new recruits.  Why have so many been driven away?

As it turned out, the left didn’t want Nagle’s answer. Or, more likely, it didn’t want any answer at all as this would require taking a hard look at the institutions and leaders which have consigned it to generations of irrelevance.  As is often the case for those bringing the bad news to those who didn’t want to hear it, Nagle was barraged with attacks which, even allowing for the tendency of on line exchanges to privilege brainless ad hominem pile-ons,  were not only rampant but unusually toxic.

The reception of Nagle’s recent piece “The Left Case Against Open Borders” reprised the earlier appearance in eliciting a high volume of high intensity attacks. On several occasions she was referred to by commenters as a Nazi. Others claimed that she “want(s) people dead or erased.” Others went in for Zombie-like repetition of the mantra “Angela Nagle is not a leftist” as if each iteration magnified the truth of the proposition.

Probably most common was a lower octane smear based on Nagle having published her piece in American Affairs, a journal with a problematic lineage having made its initial appearance promoting Donald Trump’s candidacy. What escaped Nagle’s critics’ notice was that the same issue featured contributions by James Galbraith criticizing Keynesian economics from the left as well as Heiner Flashback’s demolition of E.U. enforced neoliberal austerity. Previous issues featured political theorist Nancy Fraser whose piece touched on the hot button issue of the left’s dysfunctional relationship with identity politics.

These were granted an exemption from the excommunication which was demanded of Nagle for reasons that remained unexplained. The asymmetry constitutes a de facto admission that Nagle’s critics were dismissing a position based on its packaging. In other words, they were advocating that you should judge a book by its cover. As this was a lesson contrary to what most of us learned in kindergarten and haven’t seen any reason to revise since, Nagle’s critics’ rejection of it provides a good indication of the intellectual level on which some were operating. Continue reading Open Borders Means Death: Angela Nagle’s Red Line

Fred Lerdahl’s Achievement

Introduction to Fred Lerdahl:
Tonal Space, Text Setting, and Musical Narrative

Schoff Memorial Lecture Series

Columbia University

November 26, 2018

As he mentioned in last week’s Schoff lecture, Fred’s magnum opus, the Generative Theory of Tonal Music (or GTTM) had its roots in Bernstein’s Harvard Norton Lectures of 1973 later published as The Unanswered Question. Bernstein was a celebrity, perhaps the last which classical music was able to produce, so these were major cultural and intellectual events. I attended along with Fred and his eventual collaborator on GTTM Ray Jackendoff and probably several thousand others.

I was 14 at the time and while I didn’t know Fred, I did know Ray who, as an MIT graduate student in my father’s department, assumed the status of something like a cousin, as many did, routinely joining us for meals and celebrating holidays with us. An accomplished clarinetist and active freelancer in and around Boston, Ray’s performances of Stravinsky Three Pieces for solo clarinet were revelatory for me as was his post-performance discussion of the perceptual ambiguities resulting from the shifting meters and how performers can choose to resolve these-or not.

Given that some of my initial exposure to sophisticated ideas about music came from a linguist, it makes sense that my initial understanding of linguistics would be channeled by Bernstein through music. Bernstein’s command of the field was significantly impoverished, as many, including Ray and my father, noted at the time.  But it did at least invoke some of the core vocabulary and, most importantly, managed to communicate something which is to this day not well understood: that long standing mysteries about the nature of language were finally being addressed or at least coherently formulated in the hallways of MIT building 20.

Continue reading Fred Lerdahl’s Achievement

In Praise of Vote Shaming

After putting in several days with the thousands (yes thousands) of volunteers canvasing for Antonio Delgado in the hard fought NY19th congressional district, it occurred to some of us that the best use of our time time- that which was most likely to put the Democrat over the top- was to switch tactics.

The Green Party candidate in NY 19 was polling at over 3% in the week before the election. As has been the case for Greens for at least a decade, votes for him would accomplish few positive results if any-surely nothing in terms of building the infrastructure of a viable alternative third party.(1) They would have only one ultimate effect which would be to help “the most dangerous organization in human history” to maintain control of congress. Our convincing a few might make a small but possibly significant difference in the outcome, or so we hoped.

Continue reading In Praise of Vote Shaming

The Idiot Left Speaks

A Facebook comment by a well known radical journalist denigrates Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges for not being real leftists.


Because they “don’t want a violent revolution.”

“Real leftists” according to him, “want a violent revolution.”

It needs to be understood that his position goes well beyond the longstanding Marxist assumption of violent revolution as inevitable. Those who have accumulated wealth and privilege, so the story goes, will necessarily deploy violence to defend it and the working class should prepare itself to respond in kind.

While it might be a mistake, regarding violent revolution as a regrettable necessity is rational.

Wanting one, as the leftist in question does, is the opposite of rational.

It is insane.

To see why, it is worth itemizing what he can expect if his wish is fulfilled, which includes some if not all of the following:

**Witnessing your sister or daughter sodomized with rifle butts.

**Being chained to a wall while having electric cattle prods attached to your genitals.

**Subsisting on a diet of whatever rotting vegetables, raw oatmeal and canned food you managed to hoard during a famine precipitated by the breakdown of the food production and transportation systems.

**Not knowing for months or even years the whereabouts of friends and family only to discover that they were summarily executed by an informal revolutionary tribunal.

Recognizing that this is what a real -as opposed to fantasy-violent revolution entails raises a question: what term should we apply to those who want these and other atrocities to materialize?

Before answering it, it’s worth mentioning that this comment occurred within a thread bemoaning Amy Goodman’s failure to book the leftist in question to promote his new book on Democracy Now.

This points to an underlying “materialist” explanation (as the Marxists put it) for this kind of high dudgeon rhetoric.

It is a category mistake to understand it as in any way political.  Rather, it is  commercial-nothing more or less than a sales pitch to differentiate this leftist’s “brand” from the competition, i.e. other left media “product” available to us “consumers.(1)

It designed not to convince, but simply to move units among his target demographic.


And with that in mind, it is pretty easy to answer the question posed above. A one word description for this and other leftists in this line of work is not one they will want to hear but it is the fact of the matter. The word is capitalist.

The term idiot suggested in the title turns out not to be applicable to them since they know exactly what they’re doing.

It applies more to their followers who imagine that by feverishly clicking their assent and maniacally forwarding their rants to their network of followers they are doing anything other than helping to destroy the left.

(1) See here for some reflections on the ambiguities confronting left journalists in connection with the work of iconic left journalist Alexander Cockburn.

Updated 11/9: Minor editorial alterations for clarity.

My Delgado Endorsement (Part 2)

So that’s the endorsement.  Now, as promised, comes the self-critique which being applicable to myself is by definition of no general interest.  That said, it is worth discussing in that my specific circumstances are fairly typical in at least one important respect of my rough cultural, social and economic class.  In particular, those in our class position have a particular set of privileges and among these is being able to make political choices and to publicly express them without too much concern for the consequences of doing so. These include, as some of us have chosen, radical politics.

It is, of course, never easy to make sacrifices-to take positions which challenge those with real economic, social and political power which is what if means to be a radical, after all. However, it is much easier to do so if one has resources which can cushion their impact. By resources I mean that in the most material sense, namely, access to capital: not income but accumulated wealth-both personal and family-which can be drawn on if, for example, one is fired from one’s job due to expressing one’s political beliefs, or isn’t hired in the first place. Of course, no one likes living on the margins, but the cost of being a “luftmensch” can be born by those with resources. Those who don’t have these can’t make the sacrifice and will rarely make it.

Continue reading My Delgado Endorsement (Part 2)

My Delgado Endorsement (Part 1)

I’m going to couch my endorsement of Antonio Delgado in the form of a moderate self-critique. Before I issue it in part 2, I’ll put on the table what I told a canvasser for Delgado months ago and have repeated to anyone who’s asked since, including to Delgado himself. And that is that anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of politics should have an inherent distrust of a candidate fitting Delgado’s profile: a white collar criminal defense lawyer from a notorious union busting firm whose multimillion dollar war chest was overwhelmingly acquired from the finance sector including massive contributions from Goldman Sachs employees and other unsavory corporate entities. Based on Thomas Ferguson’s golden rule of politics, I fully expect that Delgado’s tenure in office will be largely responsive to these interests.

This will not be an issue so much in his first term. Should he be elected, Delgado can be expected to vote party line on whatever initiatives the Democrats pursue to scale back the Trump  juggernaut. Where the rubber will meet the road will be in 2020 should a progressive Democrat representing the Sanders wing of the party take the presidency. The first hundred days initiatives will be key, with congressional votes on Medicare for All, banking reform, higher taxation on upper incomes, repeal of the carried interest deduction, maybe even (my own personal hope) the initiatiation of a wealth tax.

It is reasonable to assume that Delgado’s votes will reflect the views of those who financed his campaign. And that will mean a “no” on most if not all of these. In other words, he and others like him will, as the saying goes, “dance with those who brung him.” The likelihood that he will change partners is small if history is any guide. The result will be the failure of the progressive agenda in 2021.

This will, however, send a message, now stronger than ever, that the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party will need to be displaced.

Based on that, if the progressive wing has developed the kind of organizational infrastructure necessary to do so, all candidates fitting this profile will receive primary challenges in 2022. Delgado is likely to be one of these and I will be pleased to support and work for whoever his challenger is. We should be working to recruit him or her now.

At the moment, however, it should be all hands on deck for Delgado. I therefore strongly endorse not only voting for him, but working with as much enthusiasm as possible for his campaign, as I myself am doing.

On Voting and Responsibility: The Green Temptation in NY 19

A recent WAMC debate between the candidates in the closely contested New York 19th congressional district was a surprise in that, according to many of my friends from across the political spectrum, it was won by a candidate few had heard of, the Green Party’s Steve Greenfield.

It is likely, even certain, that some of those impressed by Greenfield’s performance will support him at the polls next week thereby taking votes away from the Democrat Antonio Delgado to the benefit of the Republican John Faso.

One outcome, however, is certain: whoever wins, it won’t be Greenfield who will acquire no more than a small fraction of the total votes.

Continue reading On Voting and Responsibility: The Green Temptation in NY 19

On Activism, Voting and Responsibility

(Revised and extended version of a talk delivered to Staten Island Peace Action on Sept. 29, 2018. Many thanks to Dan Falcone, Delfina Vannucci, and Richard Singer for inviting Brittany de Barros and me to address the group, and to the members of Peace Action for an excellent discussion.)

As most of us know, the history of left politics has had its share of sharp, even profound disagreements.

Sometimes these have been about the kind of society we want to achieve.  But often the arguments have been between allies who share the same goals but who are divided about strategy and tactics.  What follows will be in the latter category and I will issue a warning that I’m going to take a side and try to show why I believe the other side is wrong. I anticipate some pushback.  If I get it, that’s good thing in that people caring enough to argue is an indication (one of many) that the movement is reaching critical mass which I believe it is-something I’ll briefly discuss at the end.  It’s also a good thing because, the glib one liner aside, we usually get into arguments not because the stakes are low but because they’re high as they surely are in this instance.

Continue reading On Activism, Voting and Responsibility

Essays on politics, music and culture.