Thursday, April 25, 2013

Destructo Salon: Does Matthew Yglesias Enjoy Murder?

Matthew Yglesias—a Norelco marketing experiment to see if a hand-drawn Sharpie beard on a peeled potato could sell men's earrings—wrote a morally and intellectually odious article at his second job yesterday. His Slate column, "Different Places Have Different Safety Rules and That's OK," addressed the deaths of 161 workers in a factory collapse in Bangladesh with the tone they so richly deserved: bored.

Writing off the death of 161 people with 370 words of vacuous unconcern requires the machine-like efficiency we've come to expect from places where pre-teens assemble Air Jordans. Yglesias' thesis, what little exists, is that the Bangladeshis are a people squalid enough that death is an acceptable randomly applied career path, and that dead Bangladeshis are what keep flat-front chinos at $29.99 at the outlet store. Our pants are cheap because their lives are, and cheaper things are innately good. Just think how much Upton Sinclair saved on hamburger as a young man. What an ingrate.

At best, one could chalk Yglesias' attitude up to the neoliberal worship of free trade, but ascribing any ideology to Yglesias is like trying to pin a Bad Citizenship medal on fog. He differs sharply from his Slate colleague Dave Weigel, who takes pains to acknowledge his affiliation with Koch-owned Reason. While Weigel seems like an affable guy who delights in mocking the ridiculous—and, with the GOP the party that forgot math, science and history, he finds common cause with the left—it's clear that liberals probably would not enjoy handing the budget over to him. This is how honest compromises are struck.

Yglesias offers nothing so concrete. He is a process acolyte, who never strays far from the orbit of Beltway centrist think-speak. His ideological bona fides extend to thinking that slightly-left people saying things identical to everyone else are slightly better than everyone else—all of whom are essentially right anyway, because why else would people agree? Ideas are less important than the formalism of tautologically explaining them, reiterating them, then deforming reality to accommodate them. His job is not to challenge them but hammer out a 500-word explainer detailing how wrong you are, while reassuring you that we're on the right track. Matthew Yglesias' voice is the same soothing one you use on your dog while the vet is euthanizing him.

That should bother you. Today, we hope to explain why in another "Destructo Salon." Please read on.

POINT: Matthew Yglesias Enjoys Murder

The bodies hadn't cooled. The facts couldn't be bothered with—not the reported death count at the time, nor that it was a collapse and not a fire. It didn't matter. It was mid-afternoon on a Wednesday, and Slate's blue-sky megathinker was ready. When Matt Yglesias chimes in with his take on the day's events, it's adorable in its ineptitude—like when a seven-year-old attempts his first magic trick. But no child ever pulled a Bangladeshi corpse from his hat and called it a rabbit.

Yesterday, this grim world decided it had one more tragedy in it, to add to last week's hurlyburly of bombings, spree shootings, earthquakes and explosions. In Savar, Bangladesh, an eight-story industrial building collapsed, killing at least 149 people and burying an unknown number in the rubble. The building, which housed 5,000 workers laboring in four clothing sweatshops, churning out low-cost exports for retail stores like DressBarn and Benneton, had been closed by government inspectors on Tuesday, following reports of cracks in the building's foundations and walls. Though engineers warned of a collapse, the building's owner, the politically connected Mohammed Sohel Rana, assured a Bangladeshi newspaper that the cracks were not serious, while his tenants ordered their workers back into the listing building. As hospitalized laborer Nurul Islam stated, "None of us wanted to enter the building. Our bosses forced us."

A fairly open-and-shut case of criminal negligence, inflicted on a horrifying scale against hundreds of the most vulnerable people on Earth—all of them impoverished, half of them women, and at least some of them children, crushed in day-care centers on the building's ground floor. The crooked owner, Sohel, had flouted the law over the past five years by illegally adding three stories on top of the building, likely causing the cracks. In contravention of the law, the sweatshop foremen coerced hundreds of people fearful of losing their jobs into dying instead.

I would call that murder. Matt Yglesias calls it "entirely appropriate."

In classic "Slate contrarian" form, Yglesias is committed, in his bland way, to discern a moral from this exploitation. Matt doesn't see the need for a global standard of workplace safety. Pish-posh! He sets the fools straight: in America, dangerous jobs, like "fishing, logging, and trucking... pay a premium over other working-class occupations." That's why Americans commonly say phrases like, "I'm as rich as a fisherman!" or, when you see a man in a suit flash a wad of cash, say, "Hey, Mr. Rockefeller, what are you, some kinda long-haul trucker?"

The suggestion of structural economic inequality and exploitation in America is settled. In Bangladesh, it is very different. Why? No one is quite sure. Yglesias obviously feels no need to cite any information about Bangladesh; George Harrison did a nice concert for them once, and I think it was in one of the Roger Moore "Bond" movies. In Bangladesh, a country of non-English speaking chattel, "There are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans." Whereas the American truck driver's choice is usually between red or white wine with foie gras, Bangladeshis must choose between being fired from their $38 per month jobs, or entering a building that will collapse and kill them. There are very good reasons to make these choices, as Yglesias points out.

Imposing American rules like, "Pajamas cannot be made inside collapsing buildings," might be "unnecessarily immiserating." Apparently being forced to die stitching Matt's "Punisher" tees for pennies a day isn't immiserating in the slightest. Matt knows on which side his bread is buttered. Bangladeshi standards "would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States." Since rich people are our precious resources, we would not want any buildings falling on them. That shit eventuates elsewhere.

To describe extra-national events as problems mistakes their nature. "The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine." The proof Yglesias cites is that Bangladeshis have gotten richer over the past 20 years. I assume that Yglesias is revealing the long-sought idea that you can take it with you: "It" being the $38 you earned that month for 320 hours of back-breaking labor, with the destination of "you" being crushed beneath a crumbling death trap and the fungibility projections of your employer.

"Different places have different safety rules and that's OK."

And nowhere is it more OK than in Matt Yglesias's sparkling ivory tower (listed price: $1.2 million).

COUNTERPOINT: Matt Yglesias Lacks the Capacity for Empathy and That's OK

He's been called everything from "Humpty Dumpy" to "that guy who's always sweating in the elevator," but what Matt Yglesias has in personal flaws, he more than makes up for with a total lack of empathy. Sure, people might only resort to ad hominem in going after him, but what those people miss is his complete nonchalance in regard to the suffering of other people, even when their suffering is a result of the very system he staunchly defends.

Being a talentless hack who makes money by shamelessly propagating the highly remunerative Washington neoliberal consensus is easy: anyone can do that, and regularly they take that *fistpump* to the bank. But inuring yourself to the horrific conditions in which many people live while justifying those conditions with an incoherent mishmash of social darwinism, willful ignorance of how colonialism led to the abject poverty of "third world" countries and an arrogant tone that would make Dawkins proud, well, that's just a masterwork of callousness.

Critics focusing on how Yglesias is a manchild insulated from the reality of suffering in a bubble of self-important Beltway rhetoric overlook his many contributions to the discourse of exceptionalism and how some human lives are more important than others. Once you accept this ruthless worldview, exploitation reveals itself as superior people doing their inferiors a favor by tossing them a few pennies every day in order to mass produce the consumables superior people like Yglesias daily take for granted. When you look at it from his perspective, you can see how choosing the meager incomes and unsafe conditions in a sand-castle factory far outweigh starving to death in the poverty created by a long history of violent appropriation of resources by foreign powers. It just makes sense.

It would be childish to describe Yglesias' output as "slinging feces into the communal toilet known as Slate," and it wouldn't advance the dialog to conjecture that he expresses "vile opinions to project a well-earned self-loathing onto others." No, we should regard him as the happy posterchild for those sharkpeople who see other humans as objects instead of fellow subjects—who, so long as the suffering doesn't affect them personally, have no problem with the myriad human rights violations committed by countries and companies on a daily basis, and who, without blinking an eye, condemn those with the worst quality of life as perpetuators of their own situation, because we wouldn't want them so much if they weren't already filled with so much neediness.

Sociopathy comes cheap these days, but Yglesias, despite looking like someone stuffed a Van Heusen Oxford with ostrich eggs and then hastily crayoned a face onto the one sticking out of the collar, has the vision to take it to new plateaus. Yglesias champions one of the most horrifying and widespread implements of oppression and misery yet conceived—factories taking advantage of cheap labor, lack of environmental regulations, and a disregard for human life by those who profit most from having those factories in their countries—then pretends that it exists in a vacuum, where people in "those countries" are happy for these jobs, instead of acknowledging the closed system of the global economy, where those conditions are not only systemic, but inevitable and structural, in order for the wealth and prosperity of the "first world" to exist at all.

COUNTER-COUNTERPOINT: You Can Talk About Bad Textile Conditions After You Brave the Mall on a Black Friday

Sure, everything we wear smells like barbecue, but you like your shirtwaists triangular, don't you?

UPDATE: Actually, only 1,127 people died.