Elizabeth Warren and the "controversy" that never was

Conservative attacks attempt to draw our attention away from what's truly important.

You may have noticed a pattern in American politics. Whenever conservatives have no answer to pressing social and economic issues, they change the subject, usually by attacking opponents in such a way as to draw our attention from those pressing issues. It happened to Martin Luther King Jr., and, absurdly, it is still happening. Every year on the February day commemorating the life and legacy of the civil-rights hero, white nationalists come out of the woodwork to calumniate his memory by claiming that he was a drinker, philanderer and plagiarist.

White nationalism continues to influence mainstream views of President Barack Obama. He can't be a legitimate president, because he wasn't born in the US (false). He won the presidency, because he was black (ha!). He isn't American, because he was born a Muslim (huh?). He's weak (um, cf. Osama bin Laden). He isn't smart because he needs a Teleprompter (ugh). And the most ridiculous of all: He's a socialist (Oh yeah; the fact that he's done more to shrink the federal government than Republican Presidents Reagan, Bush I and Bush II defines socialism!).

We saw something similar happen to Elizabeth Warren last week. She is the Democratic rival of US Senator Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican who won a special election in 2010 after Edward Kennedy died. Warren rose to become a candidate after working with the Obama administration on financial reform legislation (known as Dodd-Frank) and on the creation of a federal agency to protect consumers against Wall Street chicanery. As a result, Warren has become a folk hero of sorts, especially to those sympathetic to the Occupy Movement, because of her plain-spoken way of talking about money, power and how they distort American ideals. She may be best known for a viral video in which she explains why asking the rich to pay their fair share is not class warfare but instead part of the social contract:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. ... You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. ... Part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that [wealth] and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Yet for the last month, Warren has been dogged by questions about her Native American lineage. At issue: Why did Harvard University, where she has been a professor of law since the mid-1990s, list her as a minority when the New England Historic Genealogical Society has no evidence that she is or is not descended from a Cherokee ancestor? The implication on the right is that Warren lied about being a minority to advance her career, thus discrediting and casting a pall of doubt over the economic populism.

Warren believes she is part Cherokee because her family told her she was. On Wednesday, she told the Boston Globe: "My mother and my grandparents and my aunts and uncles often talked about our family's Native American heritage." Yet her explanations raised suspicions. She said she didn't know Harvard identified her as a minority until a reporter told her. Later on, she said she'd discussed her ancestry with Harvard after being hired. That apparent discrepancy was enough to fuel one of two suspicions: 1) that she is political novice unprepared to run with the big dogs or 2) that she is an opportunist using affirmation-action laws to get ahead, thus mocking the ideal of equal opportunity that she says all Americans deserve.

But, as Timothy Noah points out, this is a canard. Warren denies that her minority status had anything to do with her hiring and Harvard Law confirms this. Even if she had benefitted from affirmative action, it wouldn't have been because she is Native American. It would have been because she's a woman. At the time of her appointment, almost all faculty at Harvard Law were men, and its priorities, in terms of race, were to hire African Americans. And besides, Noah writes, Warren wasn't covering up anything. She just didn't remember what she said: "You ask me what I ate for breakfast. I say I don’t remember. You point out that I have a stain on my tie that looks like fried egg. Oh, right, I say. I had a fried egg. Is that 'coming clean'?"

Even so, this appeared to ding her credibility. To her conservative and Republican adversaries, she is the affirmative-action candidate just as Obama is the affirmative-action president, which according to the absurd logic of white nationalism means that neither had to earn success. Instead, it was given to them.

Perhaps bigotry like this inspired a writer for the National Review, a conservative magazine, to dash headlong into accusations that Warren is a plagiarist (recall that MLK got the same treatment). The writer charged that a book Warren had co-authored, All Your Worth: The Ultimate Money Lifetime Plan, was copied from Getting on the Money Track by Rob Black. Some passages are identical, but, as Alex Pareene of Salon wrote, Warren didn't plagiarize Black. Black plagiarized Warren. His book came out months after hers.

You'd think with all this whipped up worry about Warren's credibility that Massachusetts Democrats might have reconsidered their support for Warren during the Democratic Convention on Saturday. And you'd think that Warren might have toned down her message of economic populism. But you'd be wrong.

In a speech that night, she blasted Brown, and called into question his reputation as a moderate. "Whoever he once was, I can tell you who he is now," she said. "Scott Brown is a Wall Street Republican. A big oil Republican. A Mitt Romney Republican."

That's why Republicans are worried. Not only is Warren an expert in financial law; not only does she express herself in populist tones; her rise comes as Americans are unsatisfied with talking about "opportunity." Instead, they want to talk about "fairness." The American Dream is powerful, perhaps doubly so in reverse. If people feel the game is rigged, they get mad, and when they get mad, watch out.

With the delegates tallied, it was official: Warren had won the most delegates in Massachusetts history, with almost 96 per cent of the vote. The margin of victory was so wide it obviated the need for a primary, and it seemed to put to rest the counterfeit controversy over her Cherokee ethnicity. A new Globe polls shows Warren in a dead heat with Brown, with 72 per cent saying that the Cherokee thing is over.

Not so for Brown.

After the Democratic delegates were counted Saturday, he told reporters that he expects questions of Warren's ancestry to continue due to her "patterns" of lacking credibility. But that's not the pattern we should be watching for. Instead, what we'll see is Brown bringing up Warren's background any time he doesn't want to talk about economic justice. As conservatives have since the time of Martin Luther King Jr. and beyond, he will attack in ways that draw our attention away from what's truly important.
 

Elizabeth Warren. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle