Five Best Wednesday Columns
Kelefa Sanneh on Brad Paisley's accidental racism, John McWhorter on the use of "illegal immigrant," Alex Pareene on Mitch McConnell's cunning, Farhad Manjoo on the Bitcoin hype cycle, and Thomas Friedman on the legacy of the Arab Spring.
Kelefa Sanneh at The New Yorker on Brad Paisley's accidental racism After country star Brad Paisley's latest effort, "Accidental Racist," exploded on YouTube and beyond this week, focus shifted from the incendiary lyrics to Paisley himself. "Paisley has long been one of the genre's most mischievous and self-conscious stars—he is preoccupied with the question of what makes country country, and why," writes Kelefa Sanneh, who profiled Paisley in 2010. With "Accidental Racist," Sanneh observes, "Paisley was hoping to provoke; judging from the reaction he got yesterday, when the song appeared online, he may have succeeded too well." After mining rapper LL Cool J's perplexing cameo, Sanneh appraises the song's sentiment: "Accidental Racist," he argues, is "a more interesting artifact than some of its detractors admit—an awkward but earnest song about being 'caught between Southern pride and Southern blame,' sung in the voice of a white man who suggests there are good reasons for both." Eric Weisbard at NPR largely agrees: "There is a history to 'Accidental Racist,' the history of how white Southern musicians — heatedly, implicitly, at times self-servingly and not always successfully — try to talk about who they are in answer to what others dismissively assume they are." In saying that he "can understand why an artist like Paisley would be attracted to an artist like LL Cool J," The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates delivers some harsh realities: "The assumption that there is no real difference among black people is exactly what racism is," he says, later adding that if Paisley really wanted to push boundaries, he "would have to be more interested in a challenging conversation and less interested in a comforting lecture."
John McWhorter at The New Republic on the use of "illegal immigrant" Can a human being be designated as "illegal"? The Associated Press's decision to drop the phrase "illegal immigrant" from its copy re-upped a long-running debate, fueled by the journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, about how to talk about people who lack identity papers but permanently reside in the United States. To John McWhorter, the argument seems overblown: "The idea that illegal is misused in applying to a human being has a visceral appeal, but founders on both logic and custom," he writes, assessing the relationship between language and policy. "The claim 'A person shouldn’t be called illegal' is a handy slogan but sloppy logic, unless we are prepared to accept that a person shouldn't be called a convicted felon because no human being qualifies, in their dignified essence, as 'convicted.' Decrying the designation of the people as illegal is like trying to put out a housefire with an eyedropper: language’s record on seriously transforming thought is scanty indeed." Alistair Denvil at PolicyMic assents. Illegal immigrant, he argues, "isn't a slur and it doesn't involve deriding anyone. It simply refers to people who, in entering a country, did so by breaking the law. That's all." But Tanya Golash-Boza at Al Jazeera argues that language exerts a powerful influence on the way people think. The AP's decision, she writes, "is crucial because it will help us avoid dehumanising language. One action a person committed — crossing the border without permission or overstaying his/her visa — should not define him/her. ... This debate over language drives home the point that all language is politicised."
Alex Pareene at Salon on Mitch McConnell's cunning The revelation that someone had recorded a conversation among Mitch McConnell's campaign staff (during which they discussed the mental illness of would-be opponent Ashley Judd) offered a rare opportunity for McConnell to win support among the conservative base. Alex Pareene explores how his staff used Mother Jones's scoop to gather support for the Senate Minority Leader. Pointing to a quickly-assembled website accusing unnamed foes of "wiretapping" McConnell's office — and the senator's flagging support among movement conservatives — Pareene notes, "Mitch McConnell ... needs to get conservatives excited to support him, and a fantastical tale of wiretapping by leftist thugs will help. ... While Tea Party types distrust McConnell, they loathe all liberals. That’s why McConnell kept repeating that the “bugging” of his office was carried out by 'the political left,' and that’s why he broadly attempted to associate that phrase — though not assign responsibility for the taping — to the Kentucky liberal group that recently made headlines for a racist attack on McConnell’s wife." Michael Walsh at National Review assesses offers a larger picture: "The point of the [Mother Jones story] is not to dispute the substance of the conversation, nor defend [Judd's] honor ... but simply to show that the GOP is trying to defeat Democrats. That’s it."
Farhad Manjoo at Slate on the Bitcoin hype cycle As the stateless currency Bitcoin continues its upward climb, it's worth pondering the relationship the Bitcoin market has with the often-excessive media coverage surrounding it, argues Farhad Manjoo, who worries about a bubble forming. "The world’s supply of Bitcoins is essentially fixed, but because people in the media keep talking about it, demand keeps rising. This leads to higher prices—and as prices go up, people who currently hold Bitcoins develop greater and greater expectations for the currency. ... Thus, by writing about Bitcoin, I’m serving, in some small way, to raise its price." Manjoo emphasizes that we still don't know much about the long-term future of Bitcoin. "When the bubble will burst, at what price and for what reason, is completely unpredictable And until then, while prices are going up, you could make a lot of real money from this digital funny money." Timothy B. Lee at Forbes, however, is less worried about Bitcoin as a volatile currency (or commodity) and more enthused about its potential to disrupt current industries, like banking and payments: "When people dismiss Bitcoins because they can’t think of how they’d use it, they’re missing the fact that Bitcoin is a platform, not a product in its own right."
Thomas Friedman in The New York Times on the legacy of the Arab Spring "The term 'Arab Spring' has to be retired," Thomas Friedman argues, after surveying the recent history of a post-Spring Arab world. "There is nothing springlike going on. The broader, but still vaguely hopeful, 'Arab Awakening' also no longer seems valid, given all that has been awakened. ... It's best we now speak of the 'Arab Decade' or the 'Arab Quarter Century' — a long period of intrastate and intraregional instability, in which a struggle for both the future of Islam and the future of the individual Arab nations blend together into a 'clash within a civilization.'" Friedman takes pains to credit those responsible for organizing the Spring's widespread movements. "These uprisings began with fearless, authentic quests for dignity by Arab youths, seeking the tools and freedom to realize their full potential in a world where they could see how everyone else was living." Daniel Larison at The American Conservative takes issue with Friedman's comparison to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the tectonic-shift connotation that accompanies it. "Making forced analogies between Arab uprisings and very different historical events from other parts of the world is almost certain to create more confusion and misunderstanding than it eliminates," Larison argues before assessing Friedman's prior enthusiasm for the Arab Spring. "It's not surprising that Friedman has veered from offering one of the more optimistic assessments of these uprisings to now offering one of the gloomiest ... No one loses hope faster than a disappointed optimist."