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27 Jan

On Hugo Chavez…

John Kerry: “Throughout his time in office, President Chavez has repeatedly undermined democratic institutions by using extra-legal means, including politically motivated incarcerations, to consolidate power.”

New York Times: “A Polarizing Figure Who Led a Movement” “strutting like the strongman in a caudillo novel”

Human Rights Watch: “Venezuela: Hugo Chávez’s Authoritarian Legacy”

On King Abdullah…

John Kerry: “King Abdullah was a man of wisdom & vision.”

New York Times: “Nudged Saudi Arabia Forward” “earned a reputation as a cautious reformer” “a force of moderation”

Human Rights Watch: “Saudi Arabia: King’s Reform Agenda Unfulfilled”

On Public Intellectuals

26 Jan

I’m ambivalent, as I’ve said before, about the category “public intellectual.” It’s precious and pretentious, and unfairly denigrates the virtues and vocation of talented scholars who devote themselves to obscure questions no one else is asking, questions that may not interest broader audiences at the time but that may, one day, be of vital importance to more than a narrow few. Or that may, regardless of people’s interest, simply advance our understanding of some small part of the universe.

But if we are going to hold onto and repeatedly invoke the category, I wonder if there may not be a fundamental problem at the heart of it. Public intellectuals are thought of as not only generalist writers speaking to non-academic audiences about issues that matters, but also as moral voices and political actors, men and women who say the unsayable, speak truth to power, confront injustice and oppression, and any one of a number of cliches that fall under the broader rubric of political prophecy.

That sort of vocation requires three things:

  1. Knowledge: A deep understanding of an injustice or oppression and why it needs to be confronted.
  2. Judgment: A political sense of how to confront it, how to marshal whatever combination of rhetoric and force that will ensure that even if it is just a voice speaking out in the wilderness, it is a voice out of the whirlwind rather than lost to the wind.
  3. Courage: An ability and willingness to act on that knowledge and that judgment, whether in speech or deed.

If these are the requirements, I’m not sure intellectuals are necessarily the best candidates for the job.

Intellectuals, particularly on the left, sometimes think the question of political involvement can be reduced to having “good politics,” that elusive combination of metaphysics and morals, truth and values, that used to go by the name of “the right line.” But when it comes to a political struggle of the sort where we might look to intellectuals, public or otherwise, for guidance, I’ve often not found that those with the right line are the best guides: they haven’t a clue where that line goes or how we might get there. Most important of all, they underestimate just how hard it will be to get there, how many forces are arrayed against them, and how easily and quickly they will succumb to those forces.

Looking back on her early years as an academic-in-training, and the collaboration with the Nazis so many of her colleagues would ultimately engage in, Hannah Arendt had this to say:

My early intellectual formation occurred in an atmosphere where nobody paid much attention to moral questions; we were brought up under the assumption: Das Moralische versteht sich von selbst, moral conduct is a matter of course. I still remember quite well my own youthful opinion of the moral rectitude we usually call character; all insistence on such virtue would have appeared to me as Philistine, because this, too, we thought was a matter of course and hence of no great importance—not a decisive quality, for instance, in the evaluation of a given person. To be sure, every once in a while we were confronted with moral weakness, with lack of steadfastness or loyalty, with this curious, almost automatic yielding under pressure, especially of public opinion, which is so symptomatic of the educated strata of certain societies, but we had no idea how serious such things were and least of all where they could lead.

Courage is not always a virtue; it depends on cause and context. But neither is it a common virtue. Not simply because most of us aren’t brave but also because courage requires judgment and knowledge. Possessing all three at the same time is a rarity. Why we would think to look for it among intellectuals is not clear.

Let’s Make a Deal

21 Jan

I promise not to blame Obama for not doing what the Republicans prevent him from doing, not to exaggerate the power of the presidency, to acknowledge the constraints of a bicameral Congress, the reality of Blue Dogs and unreality of Green Lanterns, if…

…you STFU about SOTU, POTUS, and the next presidential election.


Thoughts on Violence

14 Jan

In my post yesterday on Irving Howe, I linked to an essay I wrote about ten years ago on language and violence. Several readers expressed an interest in the piece, so I’ve decided to repost some excerpts from it here; the full version is here. Though it came out in 2006, it speaks, from a distance, to some of the issues we’re currently wrestling with in France and elsewhere.

* * * * *

In 1965, George Steiner asked, “Is there any science-fiction pornography?”

Mostly rhetorical, the question was a typically Steinerian prompt to a typically Steinerian rumination on the relationship between sex and language. With its ability to alter “the co-ordinates of space and time” to “set effect before cause,” science fiction would seem the natural workshop of pornographic invention.

But it wasn’t. “Despite all the lyric or obsessed cant about the boundless varieties and dynamics of sex, the actual sum of possible gestures, consummations, and imaginings is drastically limited,” Steiner wrote. “There just aren’t that many orifices.”

These limits necessarily meant there was precious little, and certainly nothing new, to say about erotic arousal. “The mathematics of sex stop somewhere in the region of soixante-neuf; there are no transcendental series”—and thus there could be no science-fiction pornography, at least not in the sense of “something new, an invention by the human imagination of new sexual experience.”

Yet, here we are, more than thirty years later, swimming in porn, with the pool growing larger—the images more startling, the words more fanciful—by the day. Cybersex has probably not altered the coordinates of time and space, but the union of telephone and computer has certainly introduced new dimensions to an old experience. Far from exhausting the capacities of language, porn now seems to occupy entire continents of discussion; the blogger’s “money quote” is only the most recent outpost.

Steiner may be right that all this talk is doomed to be repetitive, but repetition does have its pleasures, not all of them the same. Ironically, Steiner may have anticipated this verbal plenitude in his own essay: whatever his misgivings about the possibilities of a public language about sex, the title of his piece, “Night Words,” not to mention its fevered pitch and prose, did hint at a coming Esperanto of eros.

It should be no surprise that violence, sex’s Siamese twin, should inspire a similar performative contradiction from our leading intellectuals. How many times have we been told by writers that violence is a nullity about which there is nothing interesting or new to be said, only to discover, from these very same writers, that there is much that is both interesting and new to be said about it?

Throughout her career, Hannah Arendt spoke at length, often imaginatively, about violence, without ever questioning her notion that “mute violence” was sheer redundancy. Elaine Scarry began The Body in Pain with the claim that pain’s “resistance to language is not simply one of its incidental or accidental attributes but is essential to what it is”—and then spent more than three hundred pages demonstrating, sometimes inadvertently, that that was not the case.

Perhaps Robert Paul Wolff expressed this contradiction best when, in his 1969 essay on the topic, he opened with the following disclaimer:

Everything I shall say in this essay has been said before, and much of it seems to me to be obvious as well as unoriginal. I offer two excuses for laying used goods before you. In the first place, I think that what I have to say about violence is true. Now, there are many ways to speak falsehood and only one to speak truth. It follows, as Kierkegaard pointed out, that the truth is likely to become boring. On a subject as ancient and much discussed as ours today, we may probably assume that a novel—and, hence, interesting—view of violence is likely to be false.

With due respect to Arendt, it is difficult to accept her proposition that violence is mute when philosophers expend so many words trying to figure out what it is. When, after all, is the infliction of pain an act of violence as opposed to an exercise of force, power, coercion, or punishment? Must violence be intentional? Must the pain it administers be physical? Does violence require a perpetrator—and a specific act—or can it be the damaging effect of a faceless system?

The debates over whether what happened at Abu Ghraib was “torture,” “abuse,” or “misconduct”—and who or what was ultimately responsible for it—suggest that these language games are not wholly academic. And though jurists and civil libertarians may object to the conflation of language and violence entailed by the notion of hate speech, that conflation probably expresses a commingling of categories we simply cannot escape.

How can we square this notion of violence as a linguistic nullity with the riot of talk that surrounds it? The example of pornography might prove instructive. The sexually forbidden naturally provokes a sense of titillation and curiosity, which, when satisfied, is succeeded by feelings of mute depression—whether because it is only the taboo that makes the sexual act in question exciting or because a proper acquaintance with the act reveals that it is not all that one imagined it would be.

Perhaps violence operates in a similar fashion: when we hurt or destroy a feared or hated object, we experience a sense of loss because the object that aroused such passion within us is now no more or is sufficiently subdued to claim our attention no longer. As Forster wrote in A Passage to India, “The aims of battle and the fruits of conquest are never the same; the latter have their value and only the saint rejects them, but their hint of immortality vanishes as soon as they are held in the hand.”

And so we drift—from dirty talk to silence, from violence to the void.

But there may be a less exotic explanation for our contradictory attitude toward violence, particularly political violence, which is what most concerns writers on the subject.

On the one hand, we like to think of violence as the antithesis of civilization, law, morality, and rational discourse. On the other hand, political violence requires, as Arendt herself acknowledged, organization and planning among men and women, who must be in agreement about what they are attacking and how they will attack it. It requires instruments of hurt and pain, which are the products of written if not spoken design. It is regulated by law and structured—some would say constituted—by social mores. It must be justified by reference to some higher purpose: God, the Revolution, the State. No wonder we talk—and talk— about violence; the only wonder is that we think we don’t.

[What followed was a discussion of a book on violence by William Pfaff. I’ve omitted that discussion here.]

Why is it that when confronted with extremist violence and its defenders, whether on the right or the left, analysts resort to the categories of psychology as opposed to politics, economics, or ideology? Pfaff is certainly not alone in his approach: consider the recent round of psychoanalysis to which Al Qaeda has been subjected or Robert Lindner’s Cold War classic, The Fifty-Minute Hour, which featured an extended chapter on “Mac” the Communist.

Psychological factors influence anyone’s decision to take up arms or to speak on behalf of those who do. But those who emphasize these factors tend to ignore the central tenet of their most subtle and acute analyst: that the normal person is merely a hysteric in disguise, that the rational is often irrationality congealed. If we are to go down the road of psychoanalyzing violence, why not put Henry Kissinger or the RAND Corporation on the couch too?

There is more than a question of consistency at stake here, for the choice of psychology as the preferred mode of explanation often reflects little more than our own political prejudices. Violence we favor is deemed strategic and realistic, a response to genuine political exigencies. Violence we reject is dismissed as fanatic and lunatic, the outward manifestation of some inner drama. What gets overlooked in such designations is that violence is an inescapably human activity, reflecting a full range of concerns and considerations, requiring an empathic, though critical, attention to mind and world.

I was recently reminded of this bifurcated approach to violence by two articles in the same issue of The New Yorker. In one, a profile of Oriana Fallaci, Margaret Talbot tells how Fallaci’s father inspired and encouraged his teenage daughter to work against the Fascists in Italy. Roused by her father’s example, a pig-tailed Fallaci “carried explosives and delivered messages” and led escaping American and British POWs across dangerous minefields.

When Fallaci’s mother later discovered what her daughter had been doing, she scolded her husband, “You would have sacrificed newly born children! You and your ideas.” But then she softened: “Well, but I had a feeling you were doing something like that.” Talbot relates this story without comment, allowing it to serve as the capstone of a charming—and entirely political—tale of one family’s idealistic rebellion against evil.

At the back of the magazine, David Denby takes a different tack with a vaguely similar story. This time the setting is the Middle East, and the topic is a new documentary, “The Cult of the Suicide Bomber,” a dense political history of suicide bombing.

Denby is not interested, however, in the politics of the bombers: “The real center of interest, for me, at least, lies in the families of the young men who died.” But his interest is frustrated by the refusal of these families to express their grief in public, leading him to wonder whether they have any grief at all.

One Iranian mother says of her son, who died in battle (presumably on a suicide mission during the Iran-Iraq War), “He became a martyr for God.” Such statements lead Denby to conclude that the parents “speak as if the boys had attained a purely official identity, as if they were not their own dead children.” (How these comments are any different from a Midwestern father telling a reporter, twenty years after the fact, that his son died defending his country in Vietnam, Denby does not explain.) Denby is equally frustrated by the fact that the parents insist on seeing their sons’ destruction through a political or religious lens and that “any kind of psychological explanation is ignored.”

Now, Talbot is a reporter and Denby is a critic, and they may not share the same opinion about political violence or the proper response of parents to the death of their children. Fallaci, moreover, managed to survive her ordeal while the sons in the film are dead. Indeed, survival and death were their respective goals. But something tells me that these factors alone do not explain the magazine’s opposing accounts of political violence—one emphasizing its humanity, the other its freakishness, one its politics, the other its psychology (or the lack of it).

Every culture has its martyred heroes—from the first wave of soldiers at Omaha Beach, whose only goal was to wash ashore, dead but with their guns intact so that the next wave could use them, to Samson declaring that he would die with the Philistines—and its demonized enemies, its rational use of force and its psychopathic cult of violence. And in every culture it has been the job of intellectuals to keep people clear about the difference between the two. Mill did it for imperial Europe. Why should imperial America expect anything less (or more) from William Pfaff, let alone David Denby?

But perhaps we should expect our writers to do more than simply mirror the larger culture. After all, few intellectuals today divide the sexual world into regions of the normal and abnormal. Why can’t they throw away that map for violence too? Why not accept that people take up arms for a variety of reasons—some just, others unjust—and acknowledge that while the choice of violence, as well as the means, may be immoral or illegitimate, it hardly takes a psychopath to make it?

The Touchy Irving Howe

13 Jan

Last night, I was trying to find a comment I had remembered Irving Howe making about Hannah Arendt, and I found myself holed up, late into the night, with a volume of his criticism. I run into these sorts of detours a lot. I set out for a destination, and before you know it, it’s 2 am, and I’m miles away from where I need to be.

I’ve read Howe’s criticism many times before, but I never noticed just how touchy he is about what he perceives to be the haughtiness of authors and critics. Howe is sensitive, perhaps too sensitive, to the power dynamics of fiction and criticism: how writers look down on the people they’re writing about or the readers they’re writing for, how they create scenes and settings in which the sole object is to put on display the superior sensibility that conjured them.

The first time I noticed this tendency in Howe was in his essay on George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle, which he reviewed in Commentary in 1971:

A phalanx of crucial topics, a tone of high-church gravity, a light sprinkle of multilingual erudition, a genteel stab at prophecy—it’s easy to imagine the strong impression Mr. George Steiner’s lectures must have made when first delivered for the T.S. Eliot Memorial Foundation at the University of Kent. And now, when we read his first sentence announcing that his book is written “in memoration” of T.S. Eliot, we are prepared for some decidedly high-class prose.

High-class prose. Well, I thought to myself, it’s Steiner, who is a terrible snob, often embarrassingly so. Even when he’s talking about fucking, Steiner can’t help sounding pretentious (“The mathematics of sex stop somewhere in the region of soixante-neuf; there are no transcendental series.”)

But then, as Howe goes on, the resentment gets hotter. He circles back to that tittering audience at Kent, those eminent and English souls, sylvan and stupid (“smiles of appreciative concord flit through the auditorium”). He can’t shake that image of the well-heeled Steiner: “Not for a moment does this cause him to strain his syntax, lose his cool, or breathe an ill-mannered rasp.” At times, he gets ugly: “His style, in all its mincing equanimity.” That word: mincing.

I moved onto Howe’s essay on Lukács and Solzhenitsyn, which appeared in Dissent in 1971. Howe wrote a manifestly sympathetic introduction to Lukács’s The Historical Novel back in 1963. Howe clearly respected Lukács then. And even in this later essay, even with his criticism of Lukács’s political compromises and apologias for Stalinism, he still respects Lukács.

But the respect and the criticism are eclipsed by something else. A simmering contempt for Lukács’s “silken” captivity that reaches a boil in Howe’s conclusion. There Howe dwells on what seems like an over-reading (or at least an undefended reading) of Lukács’s use of the word “plebeian.” Lukács’s Stalinism, Howe suggests, is a function of his snobbery; his real sin is a condescension that cannot be contained.

But Lukács, like Steiner, is a mandarin, I thought, so perhaps Howe’s temperature is understandably raised.

Then I got to Howe’s epic broadside against Philip Roth (upon which Roth took some fun revenge in The Ghost Writer The Anatomy Lesson.) Roth was/is no mandarin, but he gets under Howe’s skin. So much so that we find Howe, midway through the essay, speaking like an outraged attorney on behalf of his clients, the aggrieved middle classes of Roth’s early fiction. “Even a philistine character has certain rights,” Howe thunders. Accusing the author of “not behaving with good faith toward the objects of his assault,” Howe defends the Patimkins against Neil Klugman, Mrs. Portnoy against Alex, the Jews against Philip Roth.

What one senses nevertheless in the stories of Goodbye, Columbus is an enormous thrust of personal and ideological assertiveness. In the clash which, like Jacob with his angel, the writer must undertake with the world around him—and, unlike Jacob, must learn when and how to lose—there can be little doubt that Roth will steadily pin his opponent to the ground.

For good or bad, both in the stories that succeed and those that fail, Goodbye, Columbus rests in the grip of an imperious will prepared to wrench, twist, and claw at its materials in order to leave upon them the scar of its presence—as if the work of fiction were a package that needed constantly to be stamped with a signature of self.

Their [Roth’s characters] vulgarity is put on blazing display…the ridicule to which she is subjected…immobilizing the Patimkins…straight-arming all the other characters…

Roth feels obliged to drop a heavy thumb on the scales by making his suburbanites so benighted, indeed, so merely stupid, that the story [“Eli the Fanatic”] finally comes apart.

There usually follows in such first-person narratives a spilling-out of the narrator which it becomes hard to suppose is not also the spilling out of the author. Such literary narcissism is especially notable among satirists, with whom it frequently takes the form of self-exemptive attacks on the shamefulness of humanity. In some of Mary McCarthy’s novels, for example, all the characters are shown as deceitful and venomous, all but a heroine pure in heart and close to the heart of the author.

You might say it’s a point in Howe’s favor—his almost intuitive grasp of the will to power of a writer, his willingness to stand up to the bully on behalf of the little guy—except that it recurs with such frequency that you begin to wonder whether the judgment is required more by the critic than his text. To turn Howe on and against himself, it’s as if he feels slighted by the writers he’s writing about, as if he needs to wrestle them into some properly belittled proportion.

You come away from Howe depressed. Not with enlightenment but with the sense that the world is ugly and small, that nothing can escape the irrepressible struggle for dominance, not even the words on a page.

In a throwaway line about Roth, Howe gives some sense that he knows this:

His great need is for a stance of superiority, the pleasure, as Madison Avenue says, of always being “on top of it.” (Perhaps he should have been a literary critic.)

It’s a moment of acute self-understanding. Yet it’s marred by one thing: the realization that Howe never took pleasure even in this, his momentary triumph over the object of his critique, even when that object was himself.

The Internationalism of the American Civil War

11 Jan

One of the topics I’ve long been interested in is the traffic between the European right and the slaveholding South in the US. We know a fair amount, now, about the relationship between the abolitionist movement in the US and the European left, including Marx, but less about the impact that slavery and its defense had on the European right.

What first piqued my interest in this issue was reading Nietzsche. Nietzsche talks a lot about slavery in his work, and it’s long been the conventional wisdom that his references here are metaphorical and philosophical rather than contemporary and literal. I’ve had my doubts about that, as I’ve written.

One can hear in the opening passages of “The Greek State” the pounding march not only of European workers on the move but also of black slaves in revolt. Hegel was brooding on Haiti while he worked out the master-slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Though generations of scholars have told us otherwise, perhaps Nietzsche had a similar engagement in mind when he wrote, “Even if it were true that the Greeks were ruined because they kept slaves, the opposite is even more certain, that we will be destroyed because we fail to keep slaves.” What theorist, after all, has ever pressed so urgently—not just in this essay but in later works as well—the claim that “slavery belongs to the essence of a culture”? What theorist ever had to? Before the eighteenth century, bonded labor was an accepted fact. Now it was the subject of a roiling debate, provoking revolutions and emancipations throughout the world. Serfdom had been eliminated in Russia only a decade before—and in some German states, only a generation before Nietzsche’s birth in 1844—while Brazil would soon become the last state in the Americas to abolish slavery. An edifice of the ages had been brought down by a mere century’s vibrations; is it so implausible that Nietzsche, attuned to the vectors and velocity of decay as he was, would pause to record the earthquake and insist on taking the full measure of its effects?

There’s also Nietzsche’s tantalizing reference in his notebooks to Harriet Beecher Stowe as the inheritor, along with Rousseau and the French Revolution, of Christianity:

The French Revolution as the continuation of Christianity. Rousseau is the seducer: he again unfetters woman who is henceforth represented in an even more interesting manner—as suffering. Then the slaves and Mrs. Beecher-Stowe. Then the poor and the workers.

According to my friend Harrison Fluss, Domenico Losurdo’s long anticipated biography of Nietzsche, which came out in Italian years ago and is about to appear, finally, in English, discusses this and related passages (which don’t get much treatment in the literature), suggesting that Nietzsche may have been more aware of the question of slavery on this side of the Atlantic than we think.

In any event, I got a book in the mail a few weeks ago that begins to deal with the larger issue of the slaveholding South and the European right: Don Doyle’s The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. It’s about a much larger topic, as the title suggests, and I haven’t really dived into it yet, but I’ve read one chapter and the intro and have already learned some fascinating things.

First, slaveholder and race theorist Josiah Nott, whose writing I discuss in The Reactionary Mind, commissioned an English translation (for the US) of Gobineau‘s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, one of the main texts in Europe’s developing racial ideology. (Gobineau also had an extensive correspondence with Tocqueville, who appointed the younger man to a position in the Foreign Ministry while he was serving as Foreign Minister). Nott is one of the more fascinating writers among the slaveholding South, for the way he treats African Americans versus other groups in his Instincts of Races makes clear that he believes only African Americans are creatures of their physical estate, that only they cannot rise above their biological destiny, which is what he defines a race to be in the first place. In other words, read carefully, Instincts of Races suggests that, properly speaking, there is only one race in America: African Americans. If we keep in mind the dictum that there are in fact no races, only racism, Nott’s theory demonstrates quite well how the idea of race in the US was meant to serve the cause of racialized slavery.

Second, Doyle opens with a fascinating discussion of the efforts of the North and South to convince the world that their cause was the one that ought to be supported. What’s especially interesting about Doyle’s argument is how much these efforts look like what will later be called the “cultural Cold War,” that is, the conscription of writers, artists, and intellectuals throughout the world on behalf of the cause of the United States against international communism and the Soviet Union. As Doyle points out, both sides, but especially the North, quickly learned that outright propaganda was not particularly effective at generating international support. While neither side was above hiring journalists and editors to plant stories or circulate rumors, the North especially understood that “the most effective” agents for their cause “were not hired pens but volunteers who wrote and spoke with conviction and appealed to the fundamental values, ideals, prejudices, and fears of their people in their own idiom.” It’s an inexact analogy—we’re not talking about showcasing modernist art as an emblem of the Free World—but it anticipates some of the principles that underlay the CIA’s secret funding of magazines like Encounter.

Third, it’s clear that early on the North faced a major legitimation problem. The South had framed its appeal to the world in liberal terms: they stood for free trade and national self-determination, while the North was an imperial conqueror, set on protecting its markets from Europe and preventing the southern (white) people from governing themselves. The North, by contrast, had initially framed its position, at least internationally, in excessively legalistic terms. The promise of Lincoln, in his First Inaugural, not to interfere with slavery wherever it existed in the South, harmed the Northern position. Though crafted by Lincoln and Seward as a sop, in part, to international opinion, Doyle writes,

…it cost them dearly, and over the next four years, the Union’s greatest challenge overseas would be to retrieve the valuable moral capital that had been sacrificed to this early argument for a causeless rebellion.

But republicans, radicals, and revolutionaries in Europe pushed the argument, publicly, that the future of liberty everywhere hinged on the success of the northern cause. These radicals helped to make the cause of the North the “last best hope of earth,” not just in the US but throughout the world. While the slaves themselves as well as radicals and Republicans in the US obviously were critical to that shift, Doyle claims that the international left played an important role as well.

Learning from the transatlantic dialogue on the American question, Union advocates put aside their legalistic arguments against secession and fashioned an appeal to ideals of human equality and liberty against those of aristocracy.

While it’s too early for me to say anything about this definitively, Doyle’s introduction immediately made me think of Mary Dudziak’s argument in Cold War Civil Rights. There, Dudziak shows that a critical factor in moving American jurisprudence and policy in the 1950s was the Cold War, specifically the competition with the Soviet Union over the hearts and minds of the decolonizing world. While anticommunism often helped suppress activism on civil rights, it also proved to be an ironic ally to the movement. Forces in the State Department and the Eisenhower administration understood that the persistence of Jim Crow made it awfully difficult, particularly in Africa and Asia, for the United States to claim for itself the banner of democracy.

One of the things that is most fascinating, and usefully disorienting, about the African American struggle in the US is the way it reverses a trope of American exceptionalism and American imperialism. Where America’s hagiographers like to see the US as a City on the Hill, as a light unto the nations, African Americans have often upended that formulation, claiming that the United States is a laggard compared to the rest of the world. As Frederick Douglass claimed in his “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” speech:

There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Or, as Martin Luther King drily observed in Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.

The ongoing freedom struggle of African Americans demonstrates that when it comes to democracy, the United States often needs teachers, rather than students, from abroad.

NYPD Goes Full Mario Savio

8 Jan

Mario Savio, on the steps of Sproul Hall, 1964:

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

From today’s New York Times:

One arraignment courtroom instead of two. Clerks watching “Batman” on their computer screens and playing with their cellphones as they wait for something to happen. And Manhattan’s night court shutting down an hour early because there are no more cases to call.

Those were scenes from the city’s arraignment courts in the third week of a precipitous drop in arrests by the New York Police Department. The usual chaotic bustle of the courts — the odd mix of transgressors, from murderers to fare-beaters — has given way to unusual scenes of tranquil inactivity.

“It’s slow, crazy slow,” Marcy Seckler, a veteran Legal Aid lawyer, remarked with a smile, as night court started in Manhattan on Tuesday.

Things did not pick up: Over the course of the night, only 30 defendants came before Judge Abraham Clott, who often rubbed his eyes and yawned. On a typical night, he would see 60 to 90 defendants. No more than 12 people sat in the courtroom at any time, and court officers checked their watches and wandered away from their posts.

At 12:15 a.m. Wednesday, the judge looked out into the gallery and its nine rows of benches, which were all empty. There were no prostitutes, no one accused of publicly drinking or urinating — and there had not been any all night.

Judge Clott declared the session over — 45 minutes early.

For the last two weeks, New York City police officers have sharply curtailed making arrests and issuing summonses. Only 347 criminal summonses were written in the seven days through Sunday, down from 4,077 in the same period a year ago.

The sharp downturn magnifies a continuing divide between the rank-and-file and Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose standing had fallen so low among uniformed officers that some turned their backs to him at the funerals of two slain officers.

The number of cases handled by the arraignment courts fell 36 percent in December compared with the same month last year, and most of the drop came in the last two weeks of the month, court officials said.

Just in the last two and a half weeks, arraignments for misdemeanors have fallen about 60 percent, to 2,581, from 6,395. The drop was more pronounced for people arrested for violations, like disorderly conduct: a 91 percent decline to 97 cases, compared with 1,157 over the same period a year ago.


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