Saturday, June 21, 2008

Episodes in creative quotation

Reading Naomi Klein's most recent screed in The Nation, I didn't have particularly high expectations. Her book sucked, conflating a ludicrously jumbled series of villains (apparently Milton Friedman and corrupt government spending belong to the same network of global evil). Her politics are motivated more by confused anti-establishment moodiness than by any understanding of the facts. Even so, the approach of her anti-Obama broadside was a little jarring:
"For Furman, however, it's Wal-Mart's critics who are the real threat: the 'efforts to get Wal-Mart to raise its wages and benefits" are creating 'collateral damage' that is 'way too enormous and damaging to working people and the economy more broadly for me to sit by idly and sing 'Kum-Ba-Ya' in the interests of progressive harmony.'"
I instantly recognized these quotations: they're from a 2006 Slate dialogue between Barbara Ehrenreich and Jason Furman, which happens to be the best thing Slate has ever published. In a back-and-forth lasting less than a week, Furman systematically annihilated Ehrenreich, whose folksy argumentation proved no match for a smart economist who knew the facts.

Now let's look at the context of the remarks Klein quotes:
So, you want to go further to pressure Wal-Mart to raise wages and benefits, to make it a better company? If that's all it was about, count me in. But the principal methods are preventing the spread of Wal-Mart's benefits to new communities (like my hometown, New York City), living wages at $15 an hour, retail-specific minimum wage rules like Chicago's and Maryland's pay-for-play that target a single company that already provides decent health benefits.

The collateral damage from these efforts to get Wal-Mart to raise its wages and benefits is way too enormous and damaging to working people and the economy more broadly for me to sit by idly and sing "Kum-Ba-Ya" in the interests of progressive harmony. Not to mention the collateral damage to rational thought from many of the arguments made by the anti-Wal-Mart community, including the arguments I noted in my last post that undermine food stamps and the progressive taxation.
This is a critical point: what exactly do Wal-Mart critics want? If their goal is to pressure Wal-Mart to cough up some of its profits and increase wages, that's fine. I think it's unlikely that they will get anywhere with this agenda, since Wal-Mart is motivated by profit and thus inclined to pay the bare minimum necessary to attract and retain a qualified workforce, but I wish them well.

Most of the time, however, the actual effect of the campaign against Wal-Mart is to promote awful policies like the one in Chicago, whose effect on low-income consumers is clearly negative. The "collateral damage to rational thought" Furman mentions is very real, as advocacy organizations like Wal-Mart Watch decry a critical progressive program like Medicaid as "corporate welfare."

Of course, if you just read Naomi Klein, all you would know is that Furman opposes the "efforts to get Wal-Mart to raise its wages and benefits," apparently because he is part of the evil, capitalist Chicago boy conspiracy that is busy pillaging the world. She's rather clever about it: she replaces "these" in Furman's writing, where he discusses "these efforts" to pressure Wal-Mart, with an outside-the-quotation "the." This makes Furman appear to oppose higher wages in general, obviating the need to provide any supporting context. Ripping "collateral damage" out of Furman's sentence without including the rest of his argument is a particularly low blow. If The Nation's readers could see that Furman was defending key government-funded programs against mendacious rhetoric, they might understand that he's far from the right-wing caricature that Klein tries to paint. Of course, she can't allow that, so she has to carefully splice sentences in a way that gives her readers an incomplete and downright misleading impression of Furman's views.

Naomi Klein is a particularly dangerous creature: an anti-progressive progressive. She seems to think that she's fighting for low-income people, but she is so intellectually lazy that her advocacy is counterproductive.

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