Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 28, 2011

Matt Bai gung-ho against public sector unions

Filed under: financial crisis,media,workers — louisproyect @ 7:55 pm

Matt Bai

Back in 1967 when I was working for the welfare department in Harlem and already becoming convinced of the analysis that would persuade me to join the Trotskyist movement, I went out on strike. The union was led by Judy Mage, who was married to Shane Mage at the time I believe. Even though I had learned how to read the newspaper of record with a jaundiced eye, I was still not prepared for the outright propaganda. The paper argued that our strike would hurt welfare mothers when in fact Judy Mage was a tribune fighting to preserve benefits.

If anything, the paper has become even more propagandistic over the years—a function no doubt of the declining power of labor. But it took some degree of chutzpah for them to print Matt Bai’s gargantuan (6600 words) puff piece on New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie, whose attack on public service unions is as vicious as that being mounted in Wisconsin. Bai writes:

Like a stand-up comedian working out-of-the-way clubs, Chris Christie travels the townships and boroughs of New Jersey­, places like Hackettstown and Raritan and Scotch Plains, sharpening his riffs about the state’s public employees, whom he largely blames for plunging New Jersey into a fiscal death spiral. In one well-worn routine, for instance, the governor reminds his audiences that, until he passed a recent law that changed the system, most teachers in the state didn’t pay a dime for their health care coverage, the cost of which was borne by taxpayers.

And so, Christie goes on, forced to cut more than $1 billion in local aid in order to balance the budget, he asked the teachers not only to accept a pay freeze for a year but also to begin contributing 1.5 percent of their salaries toward health care. The dominant teachers’ union in the state responded by spending millions of dollars in television and radio ads to attack him.

“The argument you heard most vociferously from the teachers’ union,” Christie says, “was that this was the greatest assault on public education in the history of New Jersey.” Here the fleshy governor lumbers a few steps toward the audience and lowers his voice for effect. “Now, do you really think that your child is now stressed out and unable to learn because they know that their poor teacher has to pay 1½ percent of their salary for their health care benefits? Have any of your children come home — any of them — and said, ‘Mom.’ ” Pause. “ ‘Dad.’ ” Another pause. “ ‘Please. Stop the madness.’ ”

By this point the audience is starting to titter, but Christie remains steadfastly somber in his role as the beseeching student. “ ‘Just pay for my teacher’s health benefits,’ ” he pleads, “ ‘and I’ll get A’s, I swear. But I just cannot take the stress that’s being presented by a 1½ percent contribution to health benefits.’ ” As the crowd breaks into appreciative guffaws, Christie waits a theatrical moment, then slams his point home. “Now, you’re all laughing, right?” he says. “But this is the crap I have to hear.”

Acid monologues like this have made Christie, only a little more than a year into his governorship, one of the most intriguing political figures in America. Hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers linger on scenes from Christie’s town-hall meetings, like the one in which he takes apart a teacher for her histrionics. (“If what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, then I have no interest in answering your question.”) Newly elected governors — not just Republicans, Christie says, but also Democrats — call to seek his counsel on how to confront their own staggering budget deficits and intractable unions. At a recent gathering of Republican governors, Christie attracted a throng of supporters and journalists as he strode through the halls of the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel like Bono at Davos.

Done regurgitating? Okay, then let’s proceed.

Bai is one of the more toxic figures associated with the N.Y. Times, competing with Tom Friedman, Bill Keller, Judith Miller, A.M. Rosenthal, and other venomous creatures who have made the paper required reading for those of us monitoring the talking points of the liberal wing of the class enemy.

Bai has his own style, however. Unlike a pompous toad such as the late A.M. Rosenthal, he tries to come across as a breezy, non-ideological observer of political horse races, the kind of guy who would make an ideal panelist on Bill Maher’s show.

On his website, he includes this bit of telling information on his bio page:

I grew up in Trumbull, Connecticut, a nice little town just outside of Bridgeport, the city where both of my parents were born. Those who have ever driven through Bridgeport will understand how I came to care about politics and industrial decay. In fact, I’ve never lived more than a few miles from a housing project, which probably explains my skepticism toward both Darwinian social policy and the notion that expansive government can fix everything. I went to Tufts and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, where the faculty generously awarded me the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship.

So what is the point being made here? If there is “industrial decay” and what we can assume is a run-down housing project, the conclusion Bai draws is that “expansive government” cannot fix everything. Just the kind of guy who fits in perfectly with the Democratic Party nowadays–a party that he proffers advice to on a regular basis.

Bai made his first big splash in 2007 with a book titled “The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics”, a prime example of the advice referred to above. It is focused on the Netroots and big donors to the Democratic Party, evaluating their “effectiveness” without once questioning the politics of a party that was throwing most of its New Deal legacy overboard. In fact Bai sees his role much more as that of a consultant, even offering his advice to the Republicans from time to time. On his NY Times blog, Bai suggested to John McCain that Condoleezza Rice would be a good running-mate back in 2008:

Strategically speaking, there are enough reasons to think that Ms. Rice wouldn’t be a great fit. She is closely tied in the public mind to an unpopular administration (what better way for Democrats to lash John McCain to President Bush’s foreign policy?), and she has no experience with the economic issues on which McCain is most vulnerable. Her presence on the ticket might signal something nice about inclusion in Republican politics, but it probably wouldn’t enable Mr. McCain to attract more than a sliver of African American voters anyway. All that aside, though, the stories about Ms. Rice have officially opened speculation on what kind of running mate Mr. McCain will ultimately choose.

Okay, so you get the picture. This is a really shallow guy who has lived his entire life with the sole ambition to write such drivel. Whether he learned to polish it at the Columbia School of Journalism that includes the wretched Todd Gitlin as a faculty member is an open question.

Bai also saw Obama’s candidacy as a confirmation that we were living in a “post-racial” America. In an August 10 2008 NY Times magazine article titled “Post-Race”, he wrote:

For a lot of younger African-Americans, the resistance of the civil rights generation to Obama’s candidacy signified the failure of their parents to come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their own struggle — to embrace the idea that black politics might now be disappearing into American politics in the same way that the Irish and Italian machines long ago joined the political mainstream.

”I’m the new black politics,” says Cornell Belcher, a 38-year-old pollster who is working for Obama. ”The people I work with are the new black politics. We don’t carry around that history. We see the world through post-civil-rights eyes. I don’t mean that disrespectfully, but that’s just the way it is.

”I don’t want in any way to seem critical of the generation of leadership who fought so I could be sitting here,” Belcher told me when we met for breakfast at the Four Seasons in Georgetown one morning. He wears his hair in irreverent spikes and often favors tennis shoes with suit jackets. ”Barack Obama is the sum of their struggle. He’s the sum of their tears, their fights, their marching, their pain. This opportunity is the sum of that.

This prompted the sagacious Glen Ford to write:

Matt Bai’s Sunday Times article is based on the same fact-devoid theory of Black rightward political drift and a yawning age divide. Even before his national debut at the 2004 Democratic convention, Barack Obama joined Cory Booker, Artur Davis, and then Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (TN) – once George Bush’s favorite Black congressperson – as exhibits in an endless series of “New Black Politics” articles, each one a clone of the last. This is what Bai mistakenly calls “the generational transition that is reordering black politics.” It’s not about age at all – other than that the young are hungrier and more malleable than their elders, and thus better prospects to march under the corporate colors.

Barack Obama does pose a dire threat to the coherence of Black politics, but not for Matt Bai’s reasons. Obama’s presidential bid is inseparable from the ongoing corporate money-and-media campaign to confuse and destabilize the Black polity – an offensive begun in earnest in 2002. Obama, a prescient and uncannily talented opportunist, understood which way the corporate wind was blowing at least a decade earlier, and methodically readied himself for the role of his life.

To the extent that African Americans expect more from Obama than they got from Bill Clinton, they will be devastatingly disappointed. His candidacy has at least temporarily caused Black folks to behave en masse as if there are no issues at stake in the election other than an Obama victory. It is altogether unclear how long this spell-like effect will last. The short-term prospects for rebuilding a coherent Black politics, are uncertain. But one thing we do know: the formation of a near-unanimous Black bloc for Obama – of which he is absolutely unworthy – is stunning evidence that the Black imperative to solidarity is undiminished. Unfortunately, the wrong guy is the beneficiary – but in a sense, that’s beside the point. Black people are not working themselves into an election year frenzy just to commit political suicide by disbanding as a bloc, no matter what Matt Bai and his ilk say.

Bai also came to the attention of Matt Taibbi, since the similarities of their names and the fact that they both are journalists (Bai even put in a stint at Rolling Stone at one point) led people to confuse the two, something Taibbi was anxious to clear up:

Bai is one of those guys — there are hundreds of them in this business — who poses as a wonky, Democrat-leaning “centrist” pundit and then makes a career out of drubbing “unrealistic” liberals and progressives with cartoonish Jane Fonda and Hugo Chavez caricatures. This career path is so well-worn in our business, it’s like a Great Silk Road of pseudoleft punditry. First step: graduate Harvard or Columbia, buy some clothes at Urban Outfitters, shore up your socially liberal cred by marching in a gay rights rally or something, then get a job at some place like the American Prospect. Then once you’re in, spend a few years writing wonky editorials gently chiding Jane Fonda liberals for failing to grasp the obvious wisdom of the WTC or whatever Bob Rubin/Pete Peterson Foundation deficit-reduction horseshit the Democratic Party chiefs happen to be pimping at the time. Once you’ve got that down, you just sit tight and wait for the New York Times or the Washington Post to call. It won’t be long.

Read full article by Matt Taibbi here


  1. I agree with you and all too often have encountered Yuppie Liberals like Bai–self aggrandizing and reactionary. When the tide turns with the next big political awakening of the Left, he will worm his way into the upper echelons of Leftism, because that’s what careerists always do. They are devoid of principles.

    Comment by Hugh B. — February 28, 2011 @ 9:44 pm

  2. Another timely and well written article Lou, albeit preaching to the choir, but when I get home from a filthy day of work, I LIKE HEARING THE GODDAMNED CHOIR, especially when it so eloquently exposes schmucks like Bai for what they are (shameful opportunists) and gives a hat tip to thoughtful cats like Taibbi whose been on a roll lately, as has the Rolling Stone, which helped bring down that viscious prick of a war criminal Stanley McCrystal, (among other admirable things).

    There’s nothing like shooting up a big vial of anti-venom as antidote to the vile swill that passes for journalism today. I mean am I nuts or is it not incredibly hard not to get angry these days? Oh, hell, in truth I’ve been really pissed off ever since Reagan busted PATCO and haven’t cooled down since. They better cremate me and bury my ashes with nuclear waste because I’m so hot snow won’t stick to my grave.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 28, 2011 @ 11:18 pm

  3. Karl, you must remember that I write something like this even if I am the only person who will read it. I get so riled up by an article like that, I have to answer it or my head will explode.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 28, 2011 @ 11:24 pm

  4. This bloke reminds me of a discussion I saw a few years back on the BBC News programme where foreign correspondents from sundry European papers discuss recent events. How liberal they were when discussing general news items, culture and the arts; how anti-racist and pro-equality they were when discussing social problems in Britain. Then someone raised the matter of a forthcoming strike on the London Underground: each one of these nice liberals suddenly discarded his or her mask of tolerance and subjected the viewers to a barrage of hatred towards workers who had the temerity to strike for better conditions. Beneath their liberal exterior, these characters share the same class hatred towards militant workers as the old-fashioned bosses.

    Comment by Dr Paul — March 1, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

  5. The fact that this jackass went to graduate journalism school only proves that journalism schools are in fact the worst kind of preparation for a journalism career. What better way to ignore social history, economics, or any of a dozen other disciplines which might actually prepare a person to report on the world?

    You can learn all you need to learn by working for your college newspaper. The mechanics of journalism aren’t something you need 6 or 7 years of school to learn. Much better to spend that time actually learning something of value. But of course the fact that journalism schools turn out boneheads like Bai is no accident.

    Comment by David H — March 1, 2011 @ 7:16 pm

  6. Amen, David H.

    Often, journalists are the kids who want to be the “bohemian” in the cool-kid clique. Or the trustafarian kid that thinks he’s transcended his wealthy background by driving a beat up Subaru.

    By genuflecting to cosmopolitan sensibilities while rebuking anything that smacks of populism, they’ve staked out a position that puts them not only above the rabble they condemn but above the wealthy they serve. In that way, they may be worse that Koch’s of the world, who, after all, feel some fealty to their own class.

    Comment by Rojo — March 1, 2011 @ 8:22 pm

  7. Crappy, shitty rot-in-hell article from the crappy, shitty NT Times and the check-cashing idiot Matt Bai.
    But then I sat for a good 20 minutes of New Yorker dumbass Malcom Gladwell “interviewing” Teach for a Resume uber-fake “reformer” Wendy Kopp on C-Span, and those moments of torture from those ill-educated Ivy clowns was as bad, so where is that “arc of justice” again?

    Comment by Martin — March 1, 2011 @ 9:44 pm

  8. Another aspect of liberals is their cheerleading for violence – done by others to others, of course. Especially by a ‘strong man’ – that really gets them all excited. A right wing strong man, naturally. A powerful, articulate left winger is obviously just some demagogue. And if they’re working class, cue the hysterics.

    BTW. Louis, how about a piece on Ireland – Trots getting big votes and parliamentary seats, surely worth a mention?

    Comment by Doug — March 2, 2011 @ 11:05 am

  9. The whole of journalism has been permeated with this crap for as long as I can remember. Almost any mainstream article about public education in the last twenty years has reeked of this slop. And so it goes.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — March 2, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

  10. Right, Mike. Unrepentant Marxists never forget that being determines consciousness. This guy doesn’t know a union from an onion.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 9, 2011 @ 1:42 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: