What Lies Beyond the L.A. City Council Debacle

Plus: Did Jon Stewart anticipate Tucker Carlson?

protestors holding signs demanding Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo, and Kevin de León resign
Mario Tama / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

A child born today will turn 18 in 2040. What attitudes and actions toward race and ethnicity would we adopt today if we had the best interests of that rising generation in mind?

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com

Conversations of Note

Los Angeles erupted in protests last week after covertly recorded audio emerged of three city council members, Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo, and Kevin de León, conversing with a labor leader about how to manipulate the municipality’s once-per-decade redistricting process. They sought to increase the political power of Latino politicians at the expense of other groups––and managed to speak about Black people, Oaxacans, Armenians, Jews, Koreans, and white people in ways so glaringly offensive that people on all sides of the culture wars were united in disgust.

“This entire ugly incident blows a massive hole in the narrative that many would like to believe about Los Angeles—and about California—being some sort of multicultural mecca, where Black and brown people build alliances to work together in solidarity toward solving problems,” Erika D. Smith wrote in the Los Angeles Times. (White Angelenos are also engaged in that problem-solving project, but set that aside.) “It’s true that South L.A., once a stronghold for Black Angelenos, is no longer that. Today, Latino residents make up roughly half of L.A.’s population but represent less than a third of the council’s districts. That raises questions about fair representation. But the answer cannot be a city run by Latinos only for Latinos.”

Many people would agree with that conclusion––but there are significant disagreements about the root causes of what went wrong on the Los Angeles City Council and how best to move forward.

“We have had a long-running debate in this country over how to think about racial categories,” David Brooks wrote in The New York Times. In his telling, one side sees American society “as a conflict between oppressor and oppressed groups. They center race and race consciousness when talking about a person’s identity. Justice will come when minority group power is used to push back on white supremacy.” Another side argues that “racial categorization itself can be the problem,” because racial categorization was a crude lie from the start, and so long as it is an organizing foundation of our politics, essentialist bigotries will follow.

I see why some people sense the pernicious ideology of white supremacy in the recordings. Councilman Mike Bonin, who is white, has an adopted Black son who is 3 years old. The kid was apparently being rambunctious, as toddlers are wont to do, on a parade float. “They’re raising him like a little white kid,” Martinez said on the recording. “I was like, this kid needs a beatdown. Let me take him around the corner, and then I’ll bring him back.” Was she suggesting that Black children require beatings by their parents in a way that isn’t true of white children?

What’s more, Martinez used a Spanish word for “monkey” to refer to the child and told her colleagues that Oaxacans, who hail from a region of Mexico with a large indigeneous population, are short, dark, and ugly. “In Mexican culture there’s always been colorism,” Erika Aquino, an immigrant from a village in Oaxaca, told the Los Angeles Times. “Myself, as a brown person, I have always felt and seen how our own kind sometimes favor someone of lighter skin. It’s always been an issue. And I think more hurtful when it comes from someone you know is your own.”

White supremacy and colorism should be opposed wherever they arise.

Still, I agree with Brooks that “if we use rhetoric that assumes that we’re all locked into rigid racial blocs and that group conflict is the essential element of public life, then group conflict is what we will get—Balkanization on a continental scale.” Across time and cultures, humans have discriminated against those they regard as “other” and––for better or worse––who we regard as “other” is highly malleable. If we center racial identity in municipal politics, so that people regard candidates of the same race as “us” and those of different races as “them,” prejudice and bigotry will follow, even if white supremacy is utterly eradicated.

After all, there are many kinds of prejudice and bigotry.

As Karen Stenner, a social psychologist who studies authoritarian personality types, once put it, “a good deal of what we call racial intolerance is not even primarily about race, let alone Blacks, let alone African Americans and their purported shortcomings,” though anti-Black, ideological racists do of course exist, and humans are harmed regardless of what in particular drives intolerance toward them. “Ultimately,” Stenner found in her fieldwork and the data generated from it, “much of what we think of as racism, likewise political and moral intolerance, is more helpfully understood as ‘difference-ism,’” defined as “a fundamental and overwhelming desire to establish and defend some collective order of oneness and sameness.”

How ought we handle these issues in a world with difference-ism in it?

“I do understand that politics is a full contact sport and that it divides people into groups,” Charles M. Blow writes. “Sometimes those groupings are around policy and vision. Sometimes they are around more basic things like identity and culture. To be clear, I believe in representative distribution of political power. Los Angeles is nearly half Latino. There should be strong, unapologetic Latino political power in that city. In fact, underrepresentation is a problem that continues to plague the Latino community.”

Los Angeles should never return to the all-white city leadership of its white-supremacist past. But given that Black Angelenos are currently overrepresented on the city council relative to their population, Blow’s logic would seem to imply that some of those councilmembers ought to step down, because if any racial group is overrepresented then another is underrepresented. Insofar as race is the organizing factor in L.A. politics and underrepresentation is seen as a plague, city politics will involve zero-sum competition along racial lines.

The Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian focused on this exchange from the recording:

City Councilman Kevin de León spoke of what he called the “Wizard of Oz” effect. Black Angelenos, he implied, are overrepresented in the city’s corridors of power, because they make so much noise. “When you’re at the side of the curtain, it’s like this big voice, it sounds big,” De León tells his colleagues. “It sounds like there’s thousands. And then, when you actually pull the curtain, is that you see the little Wizard of Oz. You know what? It’s the same thing.”

Labor leader Ron Herrera, who has since resigned, agrees that Latinos have more voting power than Black Angelenos: “It’s real simple,” he says. “You have 100 people, 52 of them are Mexicanos … I feel pretty good about my chances of beating your ass.”

City Councilmember Gil Cedillo then pipes up. “Twenty-five or so are Black, and the 25 Blacks are shouting.”

“But,” says De León, “they shout like they are 250, when there’s 100 of us.”

That’s what hyper-focus on representative distribution of political power yields in practice, at least when the elected officials aren’t aware that anyone else is listening: aggrieved resentment any time one racial group in the city achieves influence that another racial group covets. What’s more, if by magic the L.A. City Council always corresponded perfectly to the racial demographics of Los Angeles, that wouldn’t mean the body was actually representative of Angelenos unless one presumes phenotype is more important than other characteristics. For example, “while renters account for 63 percent of occupied housing units in L.A. and represent a majority in 12 of L.A.’s 15 council districts,” L.A. Curbed reports, “none of L.A.’s councilmembers are renters,” and “according to one estimate, a majority of them are landlords.”

I have no objection to a racially diverse Los Angeles City Council. All else equal, it’s what I would choose. But what I want more are better policies than Los Angeles now offers, a municipal politics where race is not at all a predictor of whether a politician shares one’s interests, and voters who pay no more attention to race than whether a candidate is right or left-handed. We aren’t there yet. I understand why. But that ought to be the goal that we’re moving toward, because continuing to raise the salience of race will cause more bigoted othering.

More in Bigotry News

Responding to a recent celebrity interview, Bari Weiss inveighs against another perennial scourge:

Some have argued that we cannot judge [Kanye] West—that he is mentally ill, and therefore isn’t in full control of what is coming out of his mouth. Let’s grant that argument. What you are left with is the reality that West has been made into a vessel for antisemites keen to amplify and memeify the most destructive lies about Jews. There is a moment in the interview when he says: “I want Jewish children to look at their Jewish daddies and say, ‘why is Ye mad at us?’” To which one of the hosts gives a Michael Barbaro-style “hmmm,” as if the musician has just made a profound and compelling point. The tens of thousands of comments on YouTube saying “great interview” and calling West a “genius” confirm it. More to the point: Ice Cube and Nick Cannon are not mentally ill. They have expressed the very same ideas as West with little consequence.

Theirs is just one variant of the ancient poison that has been unleashed and now nestles comfortably in so many corners of American life. In Brooklyn, where it’s now dangerous to be visibly Jewish. At U.C. Berkeley, where there are now nine major student groups that have banned any speaker who supports “the apartheid state of Israel”—in other words the vast majority of Jews who do not, in fact, want the Jewish state destroyed. (Under their rules, the current dean of the law school would be barred.) In Los Angeles last week, several billboards were defaced with a sign declaring, “Zionist Jews Control America”—Ye’s dark, twisted fantasy blaring in bold letters.

The Changing Politics of Building Stuff

Josh Barro is optimistic about federal reform legislation that would make it easier to build things such as housing in high-cost cities and infrastructure for energy that emits fewer greenhouse gasses. Thanks to a new law in California, he wrote, “the state’s public colleges and universities will soon be able to build on-campus student, faculty and staff housing without going through an environmental impact statement process.” Because permitting reform is a longtime Republican priority that passed in a deep blue state, he anticipates a political shift at the national level away from gridlock and toward a new bipartisan policy alignment:

Environmental laws that are about burying projects in red tape are great if your environmentalism strategy is largely about stopping things from getting built. But if you want more green things to get built—solar farms, electric transmission lines, transit projects, new homes in walkable locations with moderate climates—then you need an environmental review regime that makes it easier to build. That is, you need an environmental review regime that is … not identical to, but quite a bit more similar to the one Republicans have wanted all along. I remain optimistic that Joe Manchin’s permitting reform package, or something like it, will become law fairly soon, even though Mitch McConnell killed the plan to include it in the stop-gap government funding bill that Congress is passing before rushing out of town. I am optimistic because, as with the college housing issue in California, Republicans and Democrats now have an increasing degree of ideological alignment on an underlying policy question:

How easy should it be to make investments in projects that ease the production and transmission of energy within the United States?

While there are a lot of disagreements over details, both parties have now staked out a clear position that it should be significantly easier than current law allows—which will entail, in certain circumstances, reducing the ability of state and local governments and private litigants to interfere with the construction of infrastructure.

What Use Is a European Vacation?

After going on such a trip, the economist Scott Sumner pondered what about it added to his life and concluded that the waking hours spent abroad are actually just a fraction of the answer.

Here’s how he described the utility of his trip:

I see a number of factors:

a. The utility derived from planning the vacation—dreaming about what you will do.

b. The utility derived during the vacation. Some of that is the direct experience, some is daydreaming about how you’ll report the results to those back at home (which I’m doing now).

c. The utility derived from reminiscing about your vacation after the fact. In some cases, such as my Australian adventure of 1991, that’s almost all of the utility. I honestly don’t know whether I even enjoyed that vacation at the time, but I get massive utility out of recalling the events, over and over again. Even more than 30 years later.

d. The utility derived from extra vivid dreams during the vacation. When not on vacation my life is boring and my nighttime dreams are dull. On vacation, time slows down and my life becomes full of novel events, and this triggers much more intense and vivid dreams at night. I have a hard time estimating the importance of this factor, but it might well be more important than all of my daytime utility during the vacation.

To summarize, when it comes to vacations the utility is mostly in dreams, with relatively little in actual events like sightseeing and dining out.

When I travel, I take a good camera and try to take good photographs. I get utility from the archive of those photos—not only the best of them, but also bad photos that capture something I’d forgotten.

Provocation of the Week

In The New Atlantis, Jon Askonas argues that Comedy Central’s The Daily Show starring Jon Stewart anticipated, and helped establish the formula for, the Fox News Channel show Tucker Carlson Tonight.

He writes:

Stewart’s theory of what made Fox News so effective—that it was narrative infotainment for a loyal niche audience—took explicit form in the spin-off show he produced, The Colbert Report. Launching in 2005, it featured former Daily Show correspondent Stephen Colbert in-character as a bombastic conservative pundit … In the premiere episode, Colbert’s character proclaimed himself the emperor of “truthiness.”

“We are divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart,” he explained. The point was to offer the gentle viewers smug assurance that they still lived in the world of facts while the sheep over at Fox believed whatever felt right. To illustrate, Colbert used a clip of President George W. Bush defending the nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court: “I know her heart.”

But the quote was actually taken outrageously out of context. The punchline hit big, not because of anything brilliant Colbert had said, but because he understood exactly what his liberal audience already believed about the nomination. In calling out the scourge of truthiness, Colbert was being truthy. Then again, wasn’t that what Stewart had been doing all along?

Wasn’t it even what he promised?

What Stewart insisted on night after night was imposing his own context on the news, a narrative and meaning he decided. He argued that good journalism needed to do this too, that there was no such thing as “objective” journalism because the most powerful decision a journalist could make was to decide what was important.

Wrapped in layers of irony and humor, Stewart had already been relying on truthiness for years, reflecting the incredulity and ire his audience felt about politics and media back to them. The dark secret of Stewart and Colbert’s pastiche of conservative infotainment was that it only worked because their liberal audience wanted the same thing, adjusted for taste. “Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.”

Skip ahead to 2020:

Tucker Carlson Tonight surpassed Hannity to become the highest-rated prime-time cable news show, going on to break the record for highest-rated program in U.S. cable news history. More than any other pundit or comedian, he became the successor in stature and in style of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, whose real lessons he studied better than anyone, and without pretense. Today, journalism is truthiness all the way down.

Carlson hosts hard-hitting interviews, field segments that underline the outrages and absurdities in American life as his audience sees it, and clip compilations that emphasize the show’s underlying themes. He is a master at sifting through masses of information to find the material that shows how hypocritical, foolish, and insane his adversaries are. Just like Stewart, Tucker has the receipts. He makes no bones about where he’s coming from, routinely exercises editorial authority to highlight stories others have ignored, and takes as valid how his audience feels about the state of the world today, even as he often tries to adjust their understanding of the facts on the margins. His goal, and that of all his lesser imitators: to tell the story of America that weaves a compelling reality for his subscriber community.

The tragedy of it all is that this isn’t just a nightmare version of the world Jon Stewart dreamed of. It’s a world he built. In his quest to turn real news from the exception into the norm, he pioneered a business model that made it nearly impossible. It’s a model of content production and audience catering perfectly suited to monetize alternate realities delivered to fragmented audiences. It tells us what we want to hear and leaves us with the sense that “they” have departed for fantasy worlds while “we” have our heads on straight. Americans finally have what they didn’t before. The phony theatrics have been destroyed—and replaced not by an earnest new above-the-fray centrism but a more authentic fanaticism. Jon Stewart pioneered “fake news” in the hope it would deliver us from the absurdities of the old media world. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

There’s lots more analysis in the quite lengthy article. And that’s all for this week. See you Monday with some reader responses.