You say “right-leaning,” I say “Alfredo Stroessner”

The phrases “right-leaning” and “left-leaning” have always infuriated me, for perhaps obvious reasons–it’s a symptom of the “one-the-one-side-on-the-other” pantomime of even-handedness by which American media depoliticize politics. That is, there are no real sides, and no fundamental disagreements; there is only a political blob called “the center,” on either bulging side of which different opinions may be found.

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New York Times, Sept. 13, 1992

My sense of this is that it’s a political fiction that dates to the 1990s, in large part because of Bill Clinton’s calcuated “post-political” stances. This is mostly  true, although the first decade of the 2000s is when the -leaning preface really takes off. It is also a feature of the Times‘ international reporting, where it seems to be a way to deal succinctly with the coalition politics of parliamentary systems. Israeli prime ministers, for example, routinely get the “-leaning” treatment, as do politicians in European democracies.

Left-leaning. The decade with greatest usage is 2000-2009.


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Right-leaning. 2010-14 is the highest column here.

“Left of center,” though, has an older lineage, dating back to the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt described himself that way (and his right-wing opponents countered with “right of center.”) Here, though, the phrase means “as opposed to far to the left”–that is, there’s a presumed socialist or fascist point of comparison here. “Left-leaning,” on the other hand, assumes that the profoundest way one can ever move in any political direction is to “lean.”

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New York Times, Jan. 17, 1937
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New York Times, Feb. 27, 1938

A pioneer in the -leaning school of political analysis by miniscule differences is Cyrus Sulzberger, member of the family that has long owned the New York Times and a foreign correspondent for the paper. In 1971–when, as you can see in the graphs above, the

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“The Hope of Liberty,” New York Times, Apr. 14, 1971

construction was relatively used–he characterized the military regimes of South America along a “leaning” axis. “Left-leaning” military governments ruled Peru and Bolivia then; “right-leaning” governments held power in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, which was ruled at the time by Alfredo Stroessner, he of Yo el supremo fame, who ruled the country with a personality cult for 35 years, outlawed all political opposition, and ordered the leader of the country’s Communist Party dismembered with a chainsaw as he listened on the telephone. Right-leaning! Juuuuust a bit.


Keywords for the Age of Austerity 31: Austerity

Our last new entry for a while! Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism arrives in December 2018, but here’s an entry that I found on the cutting room floor. It’s a word I should’ve defined a while ago: 

Austerity (n.)

Economist Mark Blythe defines “austerity” as “a form of voluntary deflation in which the economy adjusts through the reduction of wages, prices, and public spending to restore competitiveness, which is supposedly best achieved by cutting the state’s budget, debts, and deficit” (2).  The word has come into wide circulation since the 2008 financial crisis and the global recession it triggered, when public debts increased as tax revenues fell. “Austerity” is used mostly by its critics, though the word is more common in Britain, for historical reasons that may become clearer below. In the United States, the cuts to public spending are described as “budget cuts,” framed at an individual level in evasive, wonky terms: as tax reform or entitlement reform, for example. My sense (though this is really a sense) is that public spending is more easily framed in technocratic terms in the U.S. than in Britain. There, the class politics of tax policy and public expenditures are more obvious, or at least less easily disguised in a language of pragmatic, non-ideological “good government.”

While the contemporary politics of austerity in the United States and in Western Europe is shaped by the financial crisis of 2008, it does not begin there. To Blythe, the economic defense for austerity policies is a dishonest “morality play” in which blame for economic crisis shifts from the banks that caused the crisis to the state (14).  The idea of a morality play—a didactic allegorical drama pitting good versus evil—is present in the very word “austerity,” with its suggestions of ascetic self-discipline following on gluttonous self-indulgence. Austerity’s moral dimensions are paramount, and they derive in large part from the word’s metaphorical reference to the human body. Along with nimble, robust, lean, and flexible, austerity is a bodily metaphor for national and global economies. Unlike these last, though, austerity is a term favored by its opponents, since the word lacks the athletic glamor of nimble or even the efficiency of lean production Austere bodies are spare and emaciated, and it is difficult to reconcile the bodily metaphor of austerity with the ideal of “economic growth” that remains the horizon of much mainstream writing in economics. The authors of a 2013 IMF working paper on the effect of budget deficit-reduction policies on increasing inequality preferred the neutral, rather dry term, “fiscal consolidation.” (Note how this author puts “austerity” in scare quotes, unhappily conceding the term’s popularity.)

Austerity’s links to morality and the body go back to the Christian ascetics’ righteous denial of worldly comfort. More than “frugality,” which suggests a kind of humility and prudence, “austerity” is righteous self-denial. After the devastation of World War II, Stafford Cripps, the socialist Chancellor of the Exchequer under the postwar Labour government, oversaw an “age of austerity” marked by rationing and widespread shortages. It also included the nationalization of key British industries like coal–measures reversed under the “austerity” policies of Margaret Thatcher’s government four decades later (though even then, it was her opponents that preferred the word, “austerity.”) A 1947 New York Times profile of Cripps portrayed him as “Austerity’s Prophet,” describing him as a deeply religious vegetarian ascetic, an “English Gandhi” ready to fit post-war Britain with its national hair shirt. Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 4.13.54 PM.png Think, today, of all the ways public-sector cuts to balance budgets are routinely described in the American media: a “bloated public sector”; “trimming the fat from the state budget”; cutting public budgets “to the bone” or, occasionally, “with a scalpel” instead of a hatchet, machete, or ax; and less gruesomely, “tightening our belts” and “taking a haircut”: all metaphors that imagine the national budget as a greedy body that must be whipped into shape or a fatty piece of meat to be distended. The only possible exception here is “haircut,” more cosmetic than surgical, perhaps because that term is often used to refer only to the relatively painless losses that private creditors are expected to take during “fiscal consolidations.”

Most people who use the word “austerity” today would agree that the only people never really required to undergo it are the already wealthy. Austerity, in other words, has a clear class meaning. A polity undergoes austerity to end up lean and nimble, always under some great political and economic pressure. This extends from the national to the local level. As John Summers pointed out in an essay on the aggressive wooing of the tech economy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it is not enough for the private sector to embrace its own market-worshipping mantras. Instead, he writes, “the whole community must conform,” in the form of tax breaks for tech companies, the demise of rent control, and other assaults on public goods. Austerity is a discipline. Conform, or be disciplined.


Ruin Porn, Meet Revival Porn

I was never much for the phrase “ruin porn” at its height between 2008-2011 (too moralistic, I think), and media criticism of coastal publications stumbling through the Rust Belt often seems pointless–but sometimes I can’t help myself. Besides, in the case of Detroit, so much of the elite media narratives of “revival” have a way of feeding back in so many other facets of public life in the city. “Revival” is the framework in which most mainstream stories about Detroit are told–and they are typically told from places, like downtown and “Midtown,” where “revival” seems most visible.

The feature in question, “Detroit Was Crumbling. Here’s How It’s Reviving,” appeared in the print edition and website of the New York Times as a photo essay by Emily Najera with brief, ponderous observations by Monica Davey, the paper’s midwest bureau chief.

Davey often often finds herself in a poetic mood when she visits Detroit. She is the author of one of the most ludicrous pieces on post-2008 Detroit to ever see print: the notorious 2010 cold-weather-bites-man story, “Cold Leaves Detroit Unfazed.” Reflecting on one Detroiter’s stoic indifference to the winter wind, Davey’s piece concluded, like some bootleg Carl Sandburg on a deadline:

Most were preoccupied not by the temperature, but by the hints its stiff wind seemed to whisper about the long haul that stretches, inevitably, ahead. “This is kind of like a prelude,” Mr. Stevens said quietly. [Ed. note: the wind is a symbol, for the economy]

In Monday’s feature, Davey puts obvious symbolism to work again. Opposite a picture of Matty Moroun’s Michigan Central Station, she writes:

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The building, like the symbol, must wait. And here is the first problem: if buildings are  symbols, in a story about real estate they are not very reliable ones. That is, they are also property, wealth, and power, and none of that is typically visible on the doorstep of an abandoned house. Sometimes, as when their slum landlord installs windows to distract from his neglect of the structure and its neighborhood, the symbolism is quite calculated–but there’s not a lot you can learn about Michigan Central Station’s abandonment just by looking at it. You wouldn’t know, for example, that the station is owned by a Grosse Pointe trucking magnate, Matty Moroun, who owns the city’s only bridge to Canada. Nor would you know that controlling the station and its rails allows Moroun to ward off a planned expansion of the rail tunnels that link the U.S. and Canada–tunnels that compete with Moroun’s current monopoly on truck traffic over the border. So much for symbolism. (See pp. 184-188 in the link.)

Most of Davey’s piece focuses on Brush Park, a neighborhood of Gilded Age mansions north of downtown. Much of the district had long fallen into dereliction by the turn of the last century, which lent a macabre appeal to the ornate gabled houses that remained. Davey interviews one new resident:

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“Economic indicators”? Who talks like this?

“Revival,” though, is mostly a story of “economic indicators”–bloodless numbers on spreadsheets. It’s more a story about symbols and buildings, in other words–and less a story about the people who inhabit and own them. Najera’s accompanying pictures of Brush Park seemed to answer the “ruin porn” photos of a decade ago–pictures which, in the national media, illustrated headlines of financial ruin with visible “symbols” of decline. Najera’s Brush Park pictures, by contrast, show rehabilitation. What they don’t show, oddly, is any more people than ruin pictures typically did. One of her pictures is clearly a calculated response to one of Andrew Moore’s pictures from his widely discussed (and widely panned, at least by me) 2010 book, Detroit Disassembled. On the left is Moore’s photo of a Brush Park townhouse; on the right, Najera’s 2018 response.


See what she did there? The blur of a passing automobile–one of the only hints of human presence in Najera’s photos–fills in for the steam of urban decline. The glistening windows fill in the darkened cavities of abandonment. But for pictures ostensibly depicting revitalization, there isn’t much in the way of vitality here.

Davey’s accompanying text included some expected to-be-sure paragraphs on parts of the city left behind, but the story is framed as an uplifting story of a fragile revitalization. What it shows, though, is that revitalization narratives are not the reverse of ruin porn’s aestheticization of poverty, they are its twin. Neither kind of story has much room for people–at least most people, anyway.