On a hike last week I heard an excellent episode of Radio Open Source, featuring Naomi Klein, David Graeber, and Pankaj Mishra. One of the segments of interest that stuck with me is this remark by Naomi Klein:
We need to examine the way in which politics has been taken over by the logic of corporate branding, which is not something Trump started. Trump was just better at it than anybody else because he is himself a fully commercialized brand. So the table was set for Trump, he just showed up and said, “Well, I know this game better than you jokers, I’m the real thing, I’m a reality TV star and I’m a megabrand. Step aside!”
(If I could, I would link you directly to that segment in situ, that’s something I had working a long time ago, but since audio quotation still isn’t a ubiquitous feature of the web, here’s the compelling minute of audio that contains that quote.)
I was previously aware of Naomi Klein but had never heard her speak, had read none of her books, and was only slightly familiar with her critique of corporatized politics. Her conversation with Chris Lydon on that podcast prompted me to read her new book, No Is Not Enough, published just a few weeks ago.
I was also slightly familiar with criticism of Klein’s views. So, in a moment when the president of the United States had just tweeted a video of himself performing a mock attack during his time as a reality TV personality on the pro wrestling circuit, I was curious to know her thoughts but also prepared to take them with a grain of salt.
Here’s the book’s table of contents:
The first section elaborates on the above quote. Human megabrands are, Klein points out, a relatively new thing. She writes:
People keep asking — is he going to divest? Is he going to sell his businesses? Is Ivanka going to? But it’s not at all clear what these questions even mean, because their primary businesses are their names. You can’t disentangle Trump the man from Trump the brand; those two entities merged long ago. Every time he sets foot in one of his properties — a golf club, a hotel, a beach club — White House press corps in tow, he is increasing his overall brand value, which allows his company to sell more memberships, rent more rooms, and increase fees.
I hope we can agree across ideologies that this kind of thing is unhealthy. In the audio clip I cited above, Klein notes that the antidote is not a liberal megabrand, not Zuckerberg or Oprah. Conflation of brand power and political power is just a bad idea, and we need to reckon with that.
The rest of the book builds on arguments made in her earlier ones: Capitalism’s winners exploit natural and man-made crises to consolidate their winnings (The Shock Doctrine); climate change presents an existential challenge to that world order (This Changes Everything). Since I haven’t read those books, and have only just now read a few reviews pro and con, I lack the full context needed to evaluate the arguments in No Is Not Enough. But that’s exactly the right setup for the point about fact-checking that I want to make here.
How reliable is Naomi Klein on facts? I came to No Is Not Enough with no strong opinion one way or another. I raised an eyebrow, though, when I read this passage about Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin:
Even among Goldman alumni, Steven Mnuchin has distinguished himself by his willingness to profit off misery. Afer the 2008 Wall Street collapse, and in the middle of the foreclosure crisis, Mnuchin purchased a California bank. The renamed company, OneWest, earned Mnuchin the nickname “Foreclosure King,” reportedly collecting $1.2 billion from the government to help cover the losses for foreclosed homes and evicting tens of thousands of people between 2009 and 2014. One attempted foreclosure involved a ninety-year-old woman who was behind on her payments by 27 cents.”
The last sentence sent me to Google, where I quickly learned it had been debunked in a tweetstorm by Ted Frank in January 2017. He works for a libertarian think tank, and I doubt we’d see eye to eye on many issues, but his takedown of the 27-cent claim was accurate. Politico, for example, corrected its version of the story.
This is unfortunate because everything else in the above quote seems to check out. And you don’t have to be a liberal snowflake to worry legitimately about the Goldmanization of the US Cabinet.1
I went on to spot-check a number of other claims in No Is Not Enough and again, so far as I can tell with modest effort, everything checks out. So my conclusion is that Klein, who says she wrote this book quickly, to respond to the current moment, with less attention to endnotes than usual, is generally reliable on facts.
The way in which I reached that conclusion is a pretty good example of the strategies outlined in Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, and a reminder that those methods aren’t just for students. All of us — me, you, Naomi Klein, everyone — need to build those muscles and exercise them regularly.
1. On another episode of Radio Open Source, in a remarkable dialogue between Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader, the arch-conservative Buchanan aligned with the arch-liberal Nader on that point:
I agree completely with Ralph, I did not know we were going to make the world safe for Goldman Sachs, and I am a little surprised to find three or four or five of these guys, one or two might have been OK.