I expected better of Current Affairs.
Current Affairs is a premier socialist magazine in American politics. Its commentary is supposed to be nuanced, insightful, and honest. It’s supposed to tell the truths the smarmy neoliberals are afraid to confront.
Which is why I am so disappointed in this takedown of Pete Buttigieg that I recently read on their site. It is not nuanced. It is not insightful. But above all, it is not honest. It alters direct quotes to make him seem less genuine. It makes claims its own sources contradict. It uses the same tired tropes conservative politicians use to push sexist attacks on progressive politicians. Sometimes, it just makes shit up.
To clarify: I am not planning on voting for Pete Buttigieg for President. There are legitimate criticisms you can make of him and his campaign. Some of them are in the Current Affairs piece, and I won’t be covering those. Those are fair play.
I’m not writing this to protect my chosen champion. I’m writing this because I don’t like liars.
1. Abusing Ellipses
Current Affairs wants you to think Pete is not a real progressive. They want you to see Pete as a self-obsessed, privileged, centrist establishment candidate who doesn’t care about the real issues.
And when you read a quote from Buttigieg’s book like this one, it’s hard not to think they have a point:
“Striding past the protesters and the politicians addressing them, on my way to a “Pizza and Politics” session with a journalist like Matt Bai or a governor like Howard Dean, I did not guess that the students poised to have the greatest near-term impact were not the social justice warriors at the protests […] but a few mostly apolitical geeks who were quietly at work in Kirkland House [Zuckerberg et al.]”
It seems like he’s blandly dismissing those silly socialist SJWs here. They aren’t accomplishing anything. It’s Zuckerberg and the technocratic establishment who get the job done!
There’s just one problem: that little “[…]” in their quote. I’m not against using brackets like that to make a block quote more readable, if what you’re cutting from the quote is irrelevant to the subject. But it turns out that when you read the actual passage, bracketed-out part and all, the meaning of the sentence is very different. From Buttigieg’s book:
“Striding past the protesters and the politicians addressing them, on my way to a “Pizza and Politics” session with a journalist like Matt Bai or a governor like Howard Dean, I did not guess that the students poised to have the greatest near-term impact were not the social justice warriors at the protests, NOR THE MORE BUTTONED UP TYPES I WOULD FIND AT THE INSTITUTE OF POLITICS, but a few mostly apolitical geeks who were quietly at work in Kirkland House [Zuckerberg et al.]”
Emphasis mine. If Buttigieg is dismissing the Social Justice Warriors here, he’s also dismissing the establishment politics jockeys Current Affairs wants us to believe is Buttigieg’s tribe.
But that phrase doesn’t fit the narrative. They want “Socialist good, Buttigieg bad”. So they cut the line where Buttigieg throws shade at the political establishment on campus, and hope that you don’t notice.
Oh, and you see the link they have on Howard Dean’s article, the one that claims he’s an insurance lobbyist who opposes single payer? I have no idea what they’re talking about.
This isn’t the only time the article is dishonest in reciting direct quotes. Later, they quote an interview he gave to New York Magazine, where he was asked about his consulting work with McKinsey & Company (note: McKinsey has been in the news a lot lately for an incredibly long list of awful misdeeds, most of which seem to have happened years after Buttigieg left). In the article:
“Buttigieg even became a bit defensive, suggesting that consultancies might be singled out arbitrarily for ethical judgments:
You don’t see blanket denunciations of law firms that serve any number of these clients, because the thought is just, client service is what it is. And you serve people and represent their interest. But there seems to be a higher expectation of consultancies.”
Current Affairs is right: it would be a weird point to make that we are hypocritically arbitrary in condemning consulting firms but not law firms. So it’s a good thing that’s not what Buttigieg was saying at all. The full quote:
“But there seems to be a higher expectation of consultancies, and it may be because consultancies take a lot of pride in the work that they do with foundations and other great causes. They don’t want to be as amoral as a law firm.”
That’s not arbitrary. He gave a distinction between consultancies and law firms, that one claims a moral high ground and the other does not. They cut him off mid-sentence.
I should also mention the sentence immediately before what they quoted:
“But, in the end, when you have an apparatus like that that is so woven into the American private sector, it’s going to be as moral or immoral or amoral as the American private sector itself.”
Spoken like a true corporate stooge.
As a general rule, if you find an ellipsis in a block quote in this article, it’s hiding something that directly contradicts the point the author is trying to make. Take this passage on why Buttigieg decided to run for mayor in the first place:
“The reason to run—the ideal reason to seek any job—was clear: the city’s needs matched what I had to offer. The city was fearful of losing its educated youth, and I was a young person who had chosen to come home and could encourage others to do the same. Its politics were mired in the struggle between two factions of the Democratic Party, each with its own candidate in the race; I belonged to no faction, and could arrive without strings attached. … This didn’t just feel like an opportunity; it felt like a calling.”
It sure sounds like he’s a vapid, self-obsessed politician with no interest in what communities actually need. But before the last sentence, there’s that dreaded ellipsis. What secrets is it hiding?
“And as the administration struggled to generate economic growth and maintain confidence in the business community, I had a professional background in economic development and was fluent in the language of business-even while having fought and bled politically for organized labor in the auto industry.”
Ah, so that’s what he was offering the city of South Bend. Pro-worker business acumen. They’ve also cut any mention of his union work, because otherwise their readers might be wondering why this corporate neoliberal spent so much time fighting for labor.
These are not the only examples, but if I went through every single time they misquoted Pete Buttigieg, I’d hit a word limit somewhere. But I shouldn’t have to. One misquote like this is unacceptable in a high-quality publication. Three is borderline journalistic malpractice.
And we’re only getting started.
2. Cooking the Books
The article portrays Pete Buttigieg’s time as mayor as a technocratic failure, one where he invested time and money in WiFi-enabled manhole covers and ignored real problems like homelessness and evictions, and one where he reliably ignored or used community leaders of color.
The sources they themselves cite tell a different story. Take the coverage of Buttigieg’s “1000 homes in 1000 days” initiative. When he first took office, South Bend had a problem with lots of dilapidated, abandoned, and unsafe homes. So he set a goal: they would demolish, or repair, 1000 of those homes within 1000 days. And they did. Buttigieg lauds it as one of his signature accomplishments.
Current Affairs sees it differently:
“But news coverage of the plan makes it sound a little less savory:
By leveling fees and fines, the city leaned on homeowners to make repairs or have their houses demolished. In many cases, Buttigieg said, the homeowners proved impossible to find amid a string of active and inactive investment companies. In other cases, he said, they were unwilling or unable to make repairs.
Make repairs or have your house flattened? Wait, who were these people who were “unable” to make repairs? Were they, by chance, poor? Also, how did these houses become vacant in the first place? Were people evicted or foreclosed on? Look a little deeper into the coverage (NOTE: this links to the same article they cited earlier, so apparently “look a little deeper” means “read the next paragraph”) and you’ll find that this was not simply a matter of “efficient and responsive government,” but a plan to coerce those who possessed dilapidated houses into either spending money or having the houses cleared away for development:
Community advocates in poorer, often African-American or Hispanic neighborhoods began to complain that the city was being too aggressive in fining property owners over code enforcement. The city leveled fines that added up to thousands of dollars, in certain cases, to pressure homeowners to make repairs or have their houses demolished.”
Yikes. That certainly doesn’t sound good. It would be horrifying if Buttigieg had sat back and let his flagship program demolish the houses of black residents.
Which is why it’s a good thing that, according to the same source they just cited, “no one lost the homes in which they were living and the city made every effort to reach and work with homeowners.”
It’s true, there were issues with the initial rollout of the plan. But the city government immediately took steps to address the problems. From the same article: “South Bend began providing more incentives for people in poorer areas to fix up their homes, she said, including a $2 million grant program for home repair and a $2 million program to provide affordable housing.”
The “she” in that quote, by the way, is Regina Williams-Preston. She’s one of the black community organizers who originally disapproved of the program. She had this to say about Buttigieg:
“I think it’s really a mark of a true leader to hear that maybe ‘I’m doing something wrong’ because, quite frankly, there were a lot of mistakes made,” said Williams-Preston, who is running to replace Buttigieg as mayor. “But what happened was he did slow down and he did listen and he did change course. And so many people would dig in their heels and just kind of keep going.”
Current Affairs seems incapable of talking about Buttigieg’s record in South Bend without obviously lying. They claim Buttigieg did nothing to combat the gentrification problem. From the same source they “looked a little deeper into” earlier, another black community leader named Stacey Odom describes a time she approached Buttigieg about a redevelopment program that would push out black tenants in the area, and asked for $300,000 to help local inhabitants keep their homes instead. He cancelled the redevelopment plans and offered her $650,000 instead.
“That’s the kind of person you want in office,” she said. “Someone who is looking at your best interests. And if they’re not (at first), if you go to them and tell them what your interests are, then they will take your concerns and make them their concerns.”
Then there is the charter school issue. Apparently, “A charter school company (“Success Virtual Learning Centers”) is trying to introduce one of those most hellish of things, the “online charter school” where students sit in a bare room all day being taught by a laptop instead of a teacher.” And Buttigieg has said nothing on the subject.
If you read the source, what’s actually happening is, a Michigan-based charter school group (which, to be fair, kinda sounds like a scam) started looking into opening one in South Bend last month. They had a preliminary meeting with the school district superintendent scheduled for late March.
They haven’t opened the school yet. They haven’t gotten any agreement from local officials. Nothing has actually happened. Apparently, “someone unpleasant is thinking about moving to South Bend” is now a ding against Pete Buttigieg.
That’s not to say there’s no legitimate criticism you can make against Pete Buttigieg. But that’s no excuse for padding your hit piece with blatant lies.
3. Character Assassination
It’s not enough for Current Affairs to convince you that Pete Buttigieg is light on policy and heavy on woolly “character” talk. They also malign that character.
It’s true that a lot of Buttigieg’s appeal right now comes from his folksy, midwestern vibe. But in this article, that brand is described as hollow and calculated, a political ploy inspired by focus groups and not the real Pete.
I don’t know Pete Buttigieg. I can’t tell you the deepest truths of his heart. But I can tell you when this article lies about them to make you think this man you’ve never met is an asshole.
The assassination begins with his childhood. Buttigieg describes his early years as a kind of small-town experience, which led to quite the culture shock when he left South Bend for Boston. Current Affairs takes issue with that: “So, even though he grew up on the campus of a top private university 90 minutes from Chicago, the Boston subway amazed him.”
Yes. It would. 90 minutes’ drive is a long way. 90 minutes will get you from downtown Boston to Connecticut. I’m sure he visited a few times, but Pete Buttigieg definitely didn’t spend his weekends riding the L to hang out with his friends. They’re arguing he’s a closet city boy because he lived the width of Belgium away from a major metropolitan area.
From there, they move on to his politics. I mentioned earlier that they misquoted Buttigieg’s paragraph on the Harvard living wage protests, but they also use this passage to claim that to Pete, “Activists are an alien species, one he “strides past” to go to “Pizza & Politics” sessions with governors and New York Times journalists.”
This is hard to reconcile with what they write only three paragraphs later: “Buttigieg takes pride in the fact that at a rally outside Harvard’s Science Center, he argued that the Iraq War did not meet the criteria for a “necessary war,” though he was convinced Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.”
Apparently, you can be giving headline speeches at anti-war protests, and Current Affairs still won’t believe you’re an activist.
At least it’s better than misrepresenting black community members in South Bend to pretend that they somehow had beef with Pete Buttigieg. They cite a passage in his book where he strugged to answer a black union leader when asked how they could know he wasn’t lying to them about what he would do in office. They describe the exchange as Buttigieg having no idea how to respond, as though this union leader “got him”. They leave out the sentence right after their quote revealing that he actually was satisfied by the meeting and the Fireman’s union endorsed Buttigieg.
That union leader’s name, by the way, was Kenny Marks. I got that from Pete’s book, which is surprising since the article told me that in the memoir, “the people of Kabul appear as anonymous pieces of scenery. (In this respect they are like the Black people of South Bend or the homeless people of Harvard Square: nameless nonentities whose opinions Buttigieg has never sought.)” In fact, all I’ve read of this book is the sample sections I can coax out of google, and I found a pile of minority community activists mentioned by name.
I couldn’t find any in the Current Affairs article. Perhaps because every quote I could find from actual minority community leaders in South Bend contradicted what the article was saying.
As bad as that is, it’s not their lowest point. The lowest point is in the section “Unity through Vacuity.”
“But here’s a fact about Pete Buttigieg: He picks up languages quickly. He already speaks seven of them, and you can find stories online of him dazzling people by dropping some Arabic or Norwegian on them. The lingo of Millennial Leftism will be a cinch for Pete. He will begin to use all the correct phrases, with perfect grammar. The question you should ask is: What language has he been speaking up until now?”
If Pete Buttigieg makes good points, supports progressive positions, says and does things that blatantly contradict everything I’ve said so far, don’t believe him! He’s just pandering by using your rhetoric!
This is gaslighting. They want you to disregard your own perceptions of Buttigieg as you get to know more about him, and trust what they’ve been saying about his record instead. It’s sick.
The writers at Current Affairs should know better. Accusations that a lefty politician will use your rhetoric and speak your language without meaning it, that all he cares about is “advancing Buttigieg himself to the next rung of the political ladder”, aren’t new to politics. They’re the same tactics conservatives have used to attack progressive politicians, particularly women and minorities. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez uses verbal blackface to pander to the black vote. Elizabeth Warren doesn’t care about you, she just wants to be president.
It’s an effective tactic. That’s why they keep doing it. But I would have hoped we on the left would have more of a conscience.
A Quick Digression On False Modesty
At one point, the writer discusses a time Buttigieg misused the term “false modesty”, or ” the insincere performance of modesty by an egotistical person”, conflating it with plain old “modesty”. He uses this as a metaphor for how Buttigieg doesn’t understand false modesty, because he is the embodiment of the term. He can’t tell the difference between it and genuine modesty, because false modesty is all he knows.
He’s wrong. False modesty is when you act modest about something you’re actually good at. There’s nothing inherently egotistical about it. Pete’s usage was correct.
4. Who Watches the Watchers
Sadly, this article is part of a pattern I’ve found at Current Affairs. When I read one of their pieces on a topic I’m not well-versed in, architecture, say, I’m astonished by how nuanced, well-researched, and in-depth their content is. I come away having learned something, and feeling like I have new insights into the world around me.
But when I read an article on something I already know a lot about, I’m often apalled by how much they misrepresent the truth or blatantly take things out of context.
That is not a good sign. I started combing through the archives, trying to find the source of the problem.
Which brings us to Nathan J. Robinson. He is a PhD student in Sociology at Harvard, and the founder/editor-in-chief of Current Affairs. He’s also written or co-written more than half of the articles the magazine has published since February. One of those articles was “All About Pete”.
That’s unusual for a prestige magazine. Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, published one article in March, a note detailing his reasoning for running a cover piece by Yoni Appelbaum. Before that, his last piece was in 2018. Vox’s editor-in-chief hasn’t written any opinion or analysis since she got the promotion.
Journals do this to avoid potential conflicts of interest. Before an article goes live, it gets revised by an editor. That editor needs maximum leeway to require changes, cut sections that aren’t supported, or pull the story if necessary, without any fear of retribution. That leeway is impossible when the writer they’re critiquing is their boss.
Robinson isn’t just writing cover stories for the magazine he chairs. He’s providing close to 60% of the content. Who is editing that content? Who has the authority to require changes if he accidentally misrepresents a source? And if this callous disregard for the truth proves to be systemic and intentional, who has the power to tell him that his writing is not Current Affairs standard?
There is a word for an online platform where one person shares their views on various topics of the zeitgeist, without meaningful editorial oversight. It’s called a blog.
Conclusion: Don’t be Evil
We’re better than this.
We’re the adults in the room. That’s not much of an honor when our president is a racist who misspelled “tap”, but it’s ours. In a world where racism is resurgent and global warming is gearing up to kill us all, we’re the ones with the ideas for how to fix these problems.
We should be able to manage criticizing a politician without lying about them. We should be able to vet our presidential candidates without using black activists as props for an argument they don’t agree with. Neither of these things is hard to do.
This isn’t about whether Pete Buttigieg is a good candidate. Like I said at the beginning, I’m not voting for him. I support Warren. This isn’t about shutting down legitimate criticism of political leaders. There’s a reason I haven’t slammed the article for claiming Buttigieg is light on policy or too soft on our military. I want us to have a vibrant debate about who our next president should be. I want these guys to be vetted.
This is about honesty. The misinformation in this piece devalues everything else Current Affairs has ever published. If you think I’m being too harsh on the magazine here, bear in mind that journalists get fired for mishandling quotes the way this article did, and when they don’t, it’s a huge scandal.
You can dislike Buttigieg. You can decide not to support him. And you can do it without lying.
We’re the adults in the room. There’s something to be said for acting like it.