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The Nation - November 20, 2017

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W cratic Party?
A new report offers a bracing autopsy
of the 2016 election—and lays
out a plan for revitalization.
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Dispatches From
the Front Lines
The Farm Bill of the Future
A new
Nation series
We read with interest and enthusiasm the special issue titled “The Future of Food” [Oct. 30]. However, we
are saddened that there was no real
discussion of the upcoming renewal
of the US Farm Bill in 2018 (other
than a brief reference in Lindsey
Shute’s piece). Yet the upcoming
legislation to renew and revise the
Farm Bill gives liberals and progressives a chance to reconnect with rural
America. Here is how this happens.
Liberals and progressives should
begin by putting much more emphasis
on supporting small farms that grow
more nutritious food. This provides
jobs for young adults in rural America
who are currently out of work and may
be interested in a career in farming.
A Farm Bill that contains adequately
funded programs to train people in
sustainable-farming techniques can
provide incentives for young people
in rural America to remain instead
of migrating to urban areas. In other
words, such programs can help reverse
the depopulation of rural areas across
the country.
Implementing these measures in
the Farm Bill also means more nutritious food available for everyone in
America. There is ample evidence
that the demand for healthier food
is growing each year. Since the Farm
Bill covers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, we can
also encourage recipients of SNAP
to switch to healthier food choices.
This will help to address the obesity
and diabetes epidemic in the United
States, which is a growing problem,
especially in rural America.
There should also be much greater
funding of research into sustainable
farming, including organic-farming
methods, and ways to use technology
in support of sustainable farming that
are scalable. This research is badly
needed to counter the decades of fund-
ing into research for large-scale production farming, which has created as
many problems as it solves.
The Farm Bill is massive, with
many parts. We recognize that it will
not be simple to turn these ideas into
operational Farm Bill language. But
these ideas are gaining support across
America, giving liberals and progressives a golden opportunity to show
that we are the ones who care about
rural America, not the conservatives
who have time and time again used
the Farm Bill to support large-scale
agribusiness with no concern for the
health and welfare of everyday Americans—especially rural Americans.
Douglas Hillmer
silver spring, md.
Jon H. Oberg
lincoln, neb.
Lone White Wolves
Laila Lalami’s “The Color of Terrorism” [Oct. 30] was one of the greatest articles ever written. I was literally nodding along by the end. Lalami
writes: “We are supposed to accept
that mass shootings can happen
because no one can predict when an
armed man will snap.” All of us with
like minds have to believe this; however, I would rewrite the sentence to
say, “We are supposed to accept that
mass shootings can happen because
no one can predict when an armed
white man will snap.”
Lalami’s arguments were pointed
and truthful. Yes, there is a distinct
difference between “unavoidable”
and “preventable.” The media had no
idea what to call the Las Vegas shooter as soon as they found out he was a
white millionaire—especially on Fox
News. The phrase “lone wolf” just
candy-coats the truth.
Frank E. Shirley
yakima, wash.
Comments drawn from our website
(continued on page 26)
The Nation.
since 1865
3 Trump’s Year—Very Sad!
John Nichols
4 The Price of Injustice
Peter Edelman
5 The Score
Mike Konczal
Trump’s Year—Very Sad!
he best moment for Donald Trump’s presidency came
in the early hours of November 9, 2016, when the “billionaire populist” claimed a victory that surprised him as
much as it did the rest of the world. It’s been downhill
for Trump—and the United States—ever since. The final count revealed
that Trump actually lost the popular vote by
nearly 2.9 million and only stumbled into the White Justice Department’s investigation into the hacking
House because an archaic Electoral College system of the 2016 presidential election by the Russians.”
allows losers to assume the presidency. Trump has For as long as Trump occupies the White House,
never come to grips with the reality that more Amer- he is going to be dogged by the questions he raised
icans wanted Hillary Clinton as their president— when he admitted firing Comey because of the way
a fact confirmed by the tweeter in chief’s obsessive the FBI’s investigators had approached “this Russia
griping about his former rival, his outlandish claims thing.” Trump’s ability to generate fake-news cover
about “illegal voting,” and his appointment of a for the wrongdoing of his associates, and for his own
“very distinguished” voter-fraud panel that is itself a high crimes and misdemeanors, will dwindle with
fraud. Yet even as the popular-vote loser
each new indictment.
on election night, Trump was viewed a
But what if there had been no scanCOMMENT
good deal more favorably than he is now,
dals or inquiries? What if Trump had
after nearly a year of reckless governgoverned without chaos—including the
ing. Trump garnered 46 percent of the
firings or resignations of a nationalvote last November; now the Gallup
security adviser, a secretary of health
tracking poll puts his approval rating at
and human services, a chief of staff, a
just 33 percent—and there’s good reason
chief strategist, a communications directo believe those numbers will crumble
tor, a press secretary, and a Sebastian
as Americans absorb the news that the
Gorka? He’d still be politically vulnerpresident’s former campaign manager
able. Trump’s personal style is erratic and
is under indictment for “conspiracy against the frightening—especially when he’s threatening to
United States,” tax fraud, money laundering, and obliterate countries like North Korea. Yet there’s a
other charges.
method to the madness of his political style. Trump
The measure of Trump’s presidency, like that knows that his base is on the right wing of the Reof Richard Nixon’s, may ultimately be made with publican Party, and he plays to it: defending those
investigations, indictments, and articles of impeach- who march with neo-Nazis as “very fine people,”
ment. But even if Robert Mueller’s inquiry into ginning up attacks on NFL players who express
alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign solidarity with the victims of police violence, and
falls short of taking Trump down, it confirms the issuing an endless stream of “Muslim bans.” He has
assessment of former White House counsel John also kept the Wall Street wing of the GOP on board
Dean, who knows a thing or two about what hap- with promises of massive tax cuts and the dismanpens when a president goes off the rails. In June, tling of the administrative state.
Dean argued that Trump’s firing of FBI director
The agenda that Trump has embraced—in part
James Comey should be seen as “the worst mistake because of his own malice, in part because he knows
of his young presidency, because the ham-fisted so little about policy that he must borrow from
manner in which he handled it resulted in Deputy others—is that of House Speaker Paul Ryan and
Attorney General Rod Rosenstein—who is filling the cruelest conservatives. With cabinet picks and
in for the recused Attorney General—having no judicial appointments, with executive orders and
choice but to select a special counsel to continue the budget plans, this president has positioned himself
6 Deadline Poet
Memories of a
Conversation Between
Donald Trump and a
Gold Star Widow
Calvin Trillin
8 Subject to Debate
A New Day for Justice
Katha Pollitt
10 We the People
Safety in Numbers
Kai Wright
12 What Killed the
Democratic Party?
William Greider
A new report takes an
unflinching look at what
happened—and offers a plan
for the party’s revitalization.
16 American Decay
Zoë Carpenter
Millions of Americans can’t
afford dental care. So what
can one clinic do?
20 Conventional
Richard Kreitner
The Constitution lays
out two ways to propose
amendments. The second
has never been used—but
that may be about to change.
Books & the Arts
27 The Other Foucault
Bruce Robbins
31 All About Eva
Megan Erickson
32 A Guide to the Louisa
County Free Negro
& Slave Records,
1770–1865 (poem)
Kiki Petrosino
34 Oedipus (poem)
D.M. Aderibigbe
35 At Full Boil
Stuart Klawans
November 20/27, 2017
The digital version of this issue is
available to all subscribers
November 20 at
Cover illustration by Nurul Hana Anwar.
November 20/27, 2017
The Nation.
Number of
college men who
said they would
“force a women
into sexual
intercourse” if
they were
assured there
would be no
Number of rapes
and sexual
assaults against
inmates that
are committed
by prison staff
Number of
untested rape
kits across
the country
Number of rape
kits that remain
untested in
the highest in
the country
“What got
us here in
the first
place is
Christopher Kaiser,
director at the Texas
Association Against
Sexual Assault,
on the backlog of
untested rape kits
The Price of Justice
State and local governments are plundering the poor.
era Cheeks, a resident of Bainbridge,
Georgia, was ticketed for rolling through
a stop sign in 2014. The judge hit her
with a $135 fine and ordered her to pay
it in full immediately. Cheeks said that
she was unemployed and caring for her terminally ill
father, so the judge gave her three months to pay up,
during which time she’d be on “probation.” He sent her
to a room behind the courtroom, where a long line of
people—all of them African-American—were waiting
to pay money to a woman behind a desk. “It was like the
twilight zone, totally mind-boggling,” Cheeks recalls.
The woman behind the desk told Cheeks that she had
to sign a paper indicating that she had been placed on
probation and now owed $267—the fine plus $105 for
the (for-profit) probation company that would be monitoring her, as well as $27 for the Georgia Crime Victims
Emergency Fund. When Cheeks refused to agree to the
so-called probation and the additional sums, the woman—
who, it turned out, worked for the probation company—
told her that the judge would put her in jail for five days.
Cheeks still refused, and finally the woman demanded a
$50 payment on the spot if Cheeks wanted to avoid being
jailed. Cheeks’s fiancé raised the money by pawning her
engagement ring and Weed Eater lawn machine. That
avoided the crisis for the moment, but Cheeks was told she
would still be jailed if she was late on even one payment.
Cheeks went home furious. She says that people in
town knew something was wrong, but they were all too
scared to do anything. She Googled for three hours and
found her way to Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center
for Human Rights, who used Cheeks’s case to challenge
the threat of jail by private probation companies looking to extract exorbitant fines and fees from people who
can’t afford them. Geraghty resolved Cheeks’s issue—
and used the case to end Bainbridge’s illegal moneycollecting scheme—by pointing out that incarcerating
people unable to pay a fine was unconstitutional.
Cheeks was fortunate. She found a lawyer (and
a great one at that) and was forced neither to pay
an excessive fine nor go to jail when she couldn’t
afford it. But many poor Americans aren’t so lucky.
While most people in this country believe that
debtors’ prisons are a thing of the past, Americans
are in jail by the thousands for no other reason than being
unable to pay a fine and its accompanying fees—which is
unconstitutional, in many instances. Yet even when jail
doesn’t ensue, the courts’ policy of garnishing wages and
seizing tax refunds creates a prison of another kind. An
estimated 10 million people currently owe a collective $50
billion in court debt.
Meanwhile, even more people are locked up pending
trial on low-level misdemeanors or violations because
they can’t afford the bail set for them. Altogether, roughly
500,000 people are in jails across the country simply
because they are poor. These men and women haven’t
been found guilty of any crime. Rather, most of them
have merely been accused of low-level infractions that
shouldn’t be crimes at all and that often don’t carry jail
time. One result is that many low-income people plead
guilty just to get out even if they are innocent, leaving
them with a lifetime of collateral consequences. (For
more on this, see “The Injustice of Cash Bail,” by Bryce
Covert, in the November 6 issue of The Nation.)
The criminalization of poverty has metastasized into
other areas as well. We see it in
the use of police officers as the
Most people
front line of discipline in schools
serving low-income students,
leading to criminal records for
believe that
behavior that could be dealt with
in the principal’s office. We see
it in the vigorous prosecution of
prisons are
vagrancy laws against the homea thing of
less. We see it in rules that bar
the past.
ex-offenders from living in public
housing. And we see it in the
heartless practice of evicting poor women from their
homes for calling 911 “too often,” even when they’re
reporting domestic abuse. For far too many people, to be
poor in 2017 is to live under the constant threat of incarceration for no other reason than poverty itself.
Many of these practices began with the Reagan-era
anti-tax revolution and expanded during the Clinton era.
States and local governments, starved for revenues, turned
to their own residents—especially low-income people of
color—to subsidize everything from courts and prisons
(continued on page 6)
on the side of inequality, austerity, and the warped priorities that would rob from domestic programs and run up
deficits in order to supercharge military spending and
provide tax breaks for billionaires.
For those who resist Trump—in the streets and on
the campaign trail, as we head toward a 2018 election
in which the Republican majorities in Congress must
be overturned—it is vital to strike a balance between
the need to hold Trump to account and the necessity
of opposing the agenda of what is now the “Party of
Trump.” We must harness the widespread disapproval of
Trump and make it the fuel to get rid of those who enable him—starting with Ryan, who faces the most serious
electoral challenge of his career. We cannot be distracted
by the fantasy that Trump’s style is the problem—
a delusion exemplified by the empty “defiance” of conservatives like Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. We must also
provide clear alternatives to Trump’s policies. A cynically
crafted centrism will not mobilize the electorate needed
to overcome his determination to divide and conquer, to
frustrate and suppress the vote. Trump proved in 2016
that it is not enough to run against him. Instead, it is
necessary to run on policies that are diametrically opposed to Trumpism: for taxing the rich and busting up
monopolies, for higher wages and Medicare for All, for
averting wars and addressing climate change—and for
reforming a political system so corrupt that it produced
a President Donald Trump.
November 20/27, 2017
The Nation.
The Grifter Economy
n October 24, Vice President
Mike Pence joined 50 Senate Republicans and cast the
tie-breaking vote to give Wall
Street its biggest legislative
victory in years. Together, they repealed a set
of rules by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that allowed consumers
to sue their banks and credit-card companies
instead of being required to go into arbitration. The financial industry desperately
wanted this protection overturned, because it
would again give banks control over handling
complaints about their own impropriety.
Many people wondered if Donald Trump’s
surprise win in 2016 might lead Republicans
to overhaul their approach to economic issues. Trump sold voters on his promises
to invest in massive public-infrastructure
projects, take on bad trade deals, and generally fight for workers against the global
elites. But what we see in his agenda isn’t
Betsy DeVos has ended reforms, put in place
by President Obama, designed to protect
borrowers from the student-loan servicing
industry. Devos is also rescinding debt forgiveness for students defrauded by for-profit colleges. Worse, she has hinted that she will no
longer cooperate with the CFPB to investigate
wrongdoing in the student-loan industry. In
the past, the CFPB has policed these markets,
fining companies that were trying to improperly collect on debts. DeVos may be able to
eliminate this crucial function of the CFPB.
Thus far, President Trump hasn’t initiated
any large-scale projects to rebuild America.
But the reconstruction efforts on recently
destroyed infrastructure have a distinct grifter
quality to them. Whitefish Energy—until last
month, a two-man company—was awarded a
$300 million contract to repair Puerto Rico’s
electric grid in the aftermath of Hurricane
Maria. This move was likely part of an effort by
the board overseeing Puerto Rico’s troubled
finances to privatize the
island’s energy sector.
The terms of the no-bid
What we see in Trump’s agenda
contract were extraordiisn’t blue-collar nationalism; it’s the
narily generous, including
limitations on who could
beginning of a grifter economy.
audit the company’s
profits and costs. The
White House has denied any involvement
blue-collar nationalism; it’s the beginning
with Whitefish Energy, though the company
of a grifter economy. The administration’s
hails from the same town as Ryan Zinke,
economic plans are filled with low-grade,
Trump’s secretary of the interior. This is a
penny-ante efforts to allow the scheming
move straight out of the grifter’s playbook:
and powerful to swindle ordinary people.
It’s not just the banks. Under the Obama
capitalizing on a natural disaster, in this case
administration, the Centers for Medicare and
by turning it into the opportunity to sell public
Medicaid Services barred nursing homes that
resources to private, well-connected agents.
receive federal funding—which is almost all of
(Under pressure, Puerto Rico’s electric comthem—from including mandatory-arbitration
pany has since said it will cancel the deal.)
clauses in their contracts. By using its large
These policies are nothing short of a public
disaster. Trump’s tax plan is the libertarian
budget and footprint, the government set
dream of letting the owners of capital pay
standards that spread throughout the industry.
nothing while putting the costs of governThis is an excellent example of how public
ment on the backs of the people. Even the
programs can help. People in long-term care,
GOP’s final attempted repeal of the Affordespecially the elderly, are particularly vulnerable Care Act had a grifter component: The
able to fraud. The Trump administration is
Republicans wanted to send health-care dolnow in the process of revoking this rule.
lars to the states, but the way their plan was
Or take student loans: Education Secretary
structured, it encouraged the states to use
those dollars for other purposes, like building stadiums or cutting corporate taxes.
Trump campaigned on “draining the
swamp” in Washington, but he’s only adding
to the muck. His administration’s policies have
the reek of everyday scammers, swindlers,
and con artists, presided over by the grifter
in chief. And all of us citizens are the marks.
Feeling Swindled?
Welcome to Trump’s
Grifter Economy
Trump’s recent repeal of Consumer
Financial Protection Bureau rules
is part of a scheme that
hurts consumers.
The deck is stacked...
Mandatory arbitration means
consumers will rarely win.
How often lenders
win complaints
they initiate
Average amount
consumers were
ordered to pay
lenders cheat ordinary people.
1.4 million
nursing-home residents are
now forced to use arbitration
instead of lawsuits.
$19.1 million
in fines and restitution were
won by the CFPB to help
students in debt. The Trump
administration plans to stop
such reform efforts.
Sources: Economic Policy Institute; Centers for Medicare and
Medicaid Services; MarketWatch
2017 Infographic: Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz
The Nation.
More Than
Just a Game
Calvin Trillin
Deadline Poet
n October 27, Catalonia’s parliamentary
president, Carles Puigdemont, declared the region’s
independence. The following day,
Puigdemont could reportedly be
found enjoying a glass of wine
on the streets of Girona, on the
eve of perhaps the most symbolic
match in recent Spanish soccer.
Girona FC, a small Catalan club,
would be hosting the Spanish
super-team Real Madrid, a squad
long associated with former fascist dictator Francisco Franco.
The atmosphere ahead of the
game, wrote Guardian columnist
Sid Lowe, was “as if Madrid were
crossing the border, maybe even
the frontline.” It was Puigdemont
versus Spanish Prime Minister
Mariano Rajoy, David versus Goliath on a soccer pitch. Real Madrid
scored an early goal—business
as usual—and looked poised for
an easy win. But in the second
half, Girona stunned Los Blancos,
scoring twice in four minutes,
and came out with a victory.
“Memorable!” cried the cover of
the local paper, Diari de Girona.
Puigdemont himself tweeted
that the match was “a shining
example and a model for many
situations,” followed by a winking
emoji. Girona coach Pablo Machín
was less ecstatic: “In one game
you can beat [Real Madrid],” he
said, but he prefaced it by noting that “they will win more than
they lose.” He might have just
as well been talking about the
Spanish government. By Monday,
Puigdemont had fled the country.
—Miguel Salazar
(continued from page 4)
to private probation companies, piling on higher
and higher fines and fees. Oklahoma, for instance,
assesses 15 possible fees, including a law-library fee
and a forensic-science improvement assessment,
for minor infractions like failing to mow high grass
and weeds or drinking a beer on the front porch.
Between 1996 and 2013, Florida added more than
20 new fees. The Justice Department’s report
on Ferguson, Missouri, which revealed a system
geared more toward gouging residents than public
safety, opened the eyes of many to what is going on.
But most people still don’t appreciate that Ferguson is everywhere in America today.
here is, however, a rising response.
Across the country, a growing movement is pushing back, using everything from law to legislation to policy
to dismantle the vicious circle of debt
and incarceration that traps so many poor people.
Lawyers have been at the forefront of this
push. These are attorneys like Thomas Harvey
of ArchCity Defenders and Alec Karakatsanis of
Civil Rights Corps, who in 2015 sued the city of
Jennings, Missouri, just to the east of Ferguson,
and succeeded in emptying the jail of its mistreated
population. They also obtained $4.75 million for
almost 2,000 people who had been locked up for a
combined total of 8,300 days.
Around the same time, Karakatsanis,
along with Sam Brooke of the Southern
Poverty Law Center, won the release from
jail of 60 people in Montgomery, Alabama,
and the termination of the city’s debtors’prison policy. Also in 2015, the ACLU
joined forces with a private law firm to rescue Jayne Fuentes, who had been forced to labor
on a local work crew to pay off her debts, from
this unconstitutional treatment in Benton County,
Washington. They also obtained a settlement that
ended the county’s debtors’-prison system.
Litigation to abolish cash bail is also making
headway. Karakatsanis won an enormous victory
in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston,
where he challenged the widespread mistreatment
of people during their arraignment. Federal Judge
Donald Trump says he has “one of the great memories of all time.”
— News reports
In testimony regarding the suit against Trump University, Donald
Trump says “I don’t remember” 35 times.
— News reports
His version, he says, is correct.
She’s wrong, and the matter is closed.
His memory’s one of the best,
Unless he is being deposed.
November 20/27, 2017
Lee Rosenthal accompanied her ruling with a 193page opinion holding, essentially, that it is unconstitutional to assess excessive bail, since it creates
two separate and unequal criminal-justice systems:
one for the wealthy and another for the poor. The
case is now under review in the Fifth Circuit Court
of Appeals and has the potential to affect policy
across the country.
Meanwhile, a new wave of policy reform has
begun. State judicial leaders have taken a strong stance
against high fines and fees and their consequences.
They speak out publicly and lobby personally. Many
legislators still claim that their cities and counties
need the money, but elected officials are joining with
chief justices and outside advocates to create change
in states like California and Texas, to name just two.
Policy reform on bail is making progress, too.
Based on careful research, states including Kentucky, New Jersey, Maryland, and New Mexico
have adopted a methodology that helps determine
whether an accused person will be a flight risk
Hundreds of
or pose a danger outside
thousands of
of jail. Not surprisingly,
bail bondsmen and unpeople molder
derwriters have been
in jails for
waging a fierce resistance
to these changes. When
the simple
bail reform was pending
“crime” of
in Maryland, intense lobbeing poor.
bying by both bail and
insurance interests nearly
killed it. More recently, bail-industry representatives filed two cases in New Jersey contending that
the state’s reform is unconstitutional.
Still, the fight continues, including against some
of the most entrenched structures. Rikers Island
is a sprawling jail complex in New York City that
holds people who have not been convicted of any
crime, simply because they cannot afford bail.
These include people like Kalief Browder, a young
man who killed himself in 2015 after spending
three years in Rikers without ever being convicted
of a crime. After an intense grassroots campaign,
Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that the city will close
the complex, marking a profound victory. But the
stated time frame for doing so is painfully long.
And so the effort to decriminalize poverty continues. As hundreds of thousands of people molder in jails for the simple “crime” of being poor, we
must all call out the legislative irresponsibility that
finances the courts on the backs of the poor, and
we must stand up to the bail bondsmen and their
underwriters, as well as the private prison industry
and the correction officers’ union, which all profit
off the misery of low-income people in a system
where injustice reigns. Justice demands it.
Peter Edelman is a professor at the Georgetown University
Law Center and the author of Not a Crime to Be Poor.
How To: Repair Your Body
One of 2017’s more
interesting innovations
came when Dr. Rand
McClain, the Los
Angeles based “Doctor
to the Stars,” released
his new technique for
what some are calling
the Body Restore
And the reason everyone’s talking about it is
because his method is
based on technology
that was actually
partially banned by a
U.S. Establishment in
2001. However, Dr.
McClain and his partners have found a way
that allows them to go
and take this discovery
straight to the American
Dr. McClain revealed
he’s already offering
this to his celebrity and
pro-athlete clients with
incredible results.
In the video presentation – he details how
some very big name
athletes are achieving
increased strength,
healthier bodies, and
even more energy.
But what’s really turning
heads is that the method involves one simple
views and is quickly
thing: A drink.
becoming “viral’.
McClain believes the
technique works best for
people over 40, particularly those who may
be experiencing fatigue,
weaker bodies, and
even “foggy” thinking.
And when Dr. McClain
GURSSHGWKH¿QDOERPEshell — video footage
of the results he experienced after using the
method on himself — it
became clear that the
discovery is nothing
short of incredible, of
course your individual
results will vary.
But the latest development in this story came
when the video version
of the presentation was
made available to the
public online.
As of this writing, the
video has over 3 Million
This is the video that
many might not want
people to see, but if
you want to learn more
watch the shocking
presentation at
Dr. McClain calls out
both the medical industry and certain agencies.
One viewer commented:
“Why did I not know this
before? Rand is telling it
like it is...we need more
doctors like this!”
You can watch his
presentation at
My French
he Académie Française,
the state-anointed
guardian of the purity
of the French language, issued
a warning on October 26 about
a “mortal danger” to the Gallic
tongue: gender-neutral pronouns.
The academy’s lifelong members,
known as the “Immortals,” are
notoriously conservative with
respect to neologisms and borrowed words, and have rejected
such imports as “deadline,” “digital,” and “fashionista.” In 1998,
when then–Prime Minister Lionel
Jospin sought to institutionalize the use of feminine titles for
women ministers in his government, the nearly 400-year-old
academy raged that the move
would tarnish the language and
accused Jospin of keeping a
“harem” in his cabinet. (Only eight
women have ever been elected
to the Académie Française,
with the first joining in 1980.)
Many writers are seeking to
reform a male-centric system
of gendered nouns (a group
of 50 female directors and one
male director, for instance, is
rendered using the masculine
les directeurs), and they’ve had
some success. Gender-neutral
nouns have appeared in some
textbooks, and a recent study
showed that three-quarters of
the French support a more inclusive language. Still, as long as
the Académie Française has the
final say, the French language
will—officially, at least—continue
to preserve what the institution
calls “le patrimoine”: a masculine
noun meaning “heritage” and
deriving from the Latin word for
“inheritance from one’s father.”
—Jake Bittle
Katha Pollitt
A New Day for Justice
Sisterhood is finally showing some power! So why do I feel anxious?
t’s been over three weeks since Harvey
Weinstein was publicly outed as a sexual
harasser and violent bully, a rapist of
numerous women and at least one potted
plant, and the hits just keep on coming:
Director James Toback, chef John Besh, former
New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, bestselling author and ubiquitous talking head Mark
Halperin, Amazon Studios head Roy Price, and
Artforum co-publisher Knight Landesman have
all been exposed by multiple women as creeps
and predators of many years’ standing. (And don’t
forget the prequels: Roger Ailes, Bill
O’Reilly, and Bill Cosby.) Even as I
was writing this column, former Nation publisher and Nation Institute
head Hamilton Fish, the New Republic’s publisher, has been placed on
leave following sexual-harassment allegations. Who’s next?
For the moment, it really does feel
like something is changing in the culture, and not just in the United States.
Six and a half years ago, in France, a poll found that
57 percent of French people believed that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then-head of the International
Monetary Fund, was the victim of a plot after he
was charged with sexually assaulting a hotel housekeeper in Manhattan; today, catcalling may soon be
subject to a fine. In the United Kingdom, women
MPs are protesting “sex pests”—international trade
minister Mark Garnier has admitted to calling his
secretary “sugar tits” and asking her to buy him
sex toys, but he says it was all a joke, ha ha ha—and
women presenters at the BBC are banding together
to expose harassers at that venerable institution.
We’re winning! In numbers, there is strength.
Sisterhood is finally showing some power. So why
do I feel anxious? Partly, it’s the sheer weight of so
many awful revelations of so much terrible behavior
over so long a time. Halperin was at ABC for 19
years; Landesman’s tenure lasted for more than 35.
Partly, it’s the grossness and ease with which they
got away with it, and the way people in a position
to do something about it turned away. Marty Peretz, Wieseltier’s boss at the New Republic for over
three decades, is still in denial: “I could see how
he sometimes overpowered me and overpowered
other people on the staff. But that was because of
his cerebral capacity.” Oh, so that’s what they’re
calling it now.
But it’s also because I wonder whether this moment can last. The men who’ve been toppled lately
have all been accused by multiple women—82 and
counting in the case of Weinstein; a possible 300plus for Toback. But what about men with only
one victim—or only one willing to come forward?
Are we more likely to believe her than we were
before? Or are we still following our own version
of sharia, where a woman’s testimony is worth only
half a man’s? I worry, too, that the whole thing will
explode in women’s faces: All it would take is one
false charge, one innocent compliment or awkward
remark blown up into an international incident. That was why I didn’t
publicize the “Shitty Media Men” list
going around on e-mail: Anonymous
charges with no attempt at verification just seem like a recipe for disaster.
It’s not as if we haven’t had large
numbers of women claiming abuse before. Think of the military, where rape
and harassment seem to be endemic
and are repeatedly exposed, only to
fade back into the woodwork: Thank you for your
service, sir! This is America, after all, where Donald
Trump was accused of crimes from harassment to
rape by 16 women, boasted of bursting into the
dressing rooms of young beauty contestants, uttered and tweeted vile sexist insults at a wide range
of women, and almost
63 million people—
including a majority of It’s hard to believe
all men, a slender maa country that
jority of white women,
and 80 percent of white elected Trump
evangelical Protes- will take a notants—voted for him
anyway. (Then again, tolerance attitude
White House press sec- toward the miniretary Sarah Huckabee
Sanders claims that all Trumps all
of Trump’s accusers— around us.
yes, all of them—are
lying.) It’s just hard to
believe that a country that elected Trump is going
to take a permanent no-tolerance attitude toward
the mini-Trumps all around us. Matt Taibbi, who
boasted about molesting teenagers and constantly
harassing staffers in The eXile, the memoir he coauthored with Mark Ames about his years as a
would-be gonzo journalist in Moscow, has gone
November 20/27, 2017
The Nation.
November 20/27, 2017
The men who’ve
been toppled were
all accused by
multiple women.
What about the
men with only
one victim—or
only one willing
to come forward?
The Nation.
on to an illustrious career at Rolling Stone, and now claims
that he and Ames made the whole thing up as “satire.” Silly
people, what made you think that a book labeled as nonfiction by its publisher was true?
What troubles me the most, though, is what this episode
says about who has been shaping our politics and culture.
As Rebecca Traister argues brilliantly, Halperin, the coauthor of best-selling books about the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, did much to craft the popular image of
Hillary Clinton as a screechy bitch. (He also made poor
Elizabeth Edwards, betrayed by her husband and dying
of cancer while raising two small children, sound like… a
screechy bitch.) Wieseltier, like his bestie Maureen Dowd,
who frequently channeled him in her columns, was another
Hillary-hater. Wieseltier’s book-review section was notoriously short on women reviewers and reviews of books by
women. At Amazon, Price canceled Good Girls Revolt, a
well-received miniseries about the women who broke the
gender barrier at Newsweek back in the late 1960s, when
only men could be reporters, and reportedly passed on a
TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies.
What you read and what you see, on TV or in the movies or
on the walls of a museum; how much your words or art are
worth; how the world sees female candidates—men decide
these things, the same way they decide how much control
you’ll have over your childbearing, or how safe you’ll be
coming home late, or whether your rape claim will be taken
seriously by the police, who are, after all, mostly men.
For all their bravery, the victims who speak out can’t
fix the institutions and whole industries that harbored
these wrongdoers by themselves. We can all fight for clear
sexual-harassment policies and protocols, functioning HR
departments, and sanctions on the bullying behaviors that
can hide harassment. Men casting about for some way to
make themselves useful now that they know how much
women put up with every day—please, be our guests. Q
The Nation has launched OppArt, a series of daily
artistic dispatches from the front lines of the resistance.
To see more, visit
The Nation.
Kai Wright
Than Fiction
Safety in Numbers
In the service industry, workers can’t just shame one boss at a time.
une Barret left Jamaica and migrated
to the United States, looking for
safety. It was 2001, and her increasingly open identity as a queer woman
was making life untenable back
home. When it came up at work and she became
a target for harassment, she decided it was time
to go. Barret followed her twin sister to Miami.
She got off a bus in Florida and went directly
to her first job interview. She started working
right away, in the home of an aging woman,
caring for her as an off-the-books employee
of the family. Barret’s been a care worker ever
since, and she’s proud of the career.
It feels like she’s paying something
forward. “When I give care, I think
about me. I think about me being 54
years old and going down,” Barret
says, by way of explaining how she
deals with difficult clients. “I think
about: What if something should
happen and someone should come
in and give care to me?”
So it’s rewarding labor—but it
has rarely provided Barret the safety she sought
in the United States. Rather, it has placed her in
one of the lowest-paid, most predatory parts of
our economy. Barret has been routinely verbally
abused, had her wages stolen, worked around
the clock for days at a time without a break. And
she has endured the sexual assault that is endemic to low-wage service work—jobs that easily
form one of the largest sectors of the American
workforce and that are, not coincidentally, overwhelmingly staffed by women.
“At one point, there was no work,” Barret
destroyed in 1972, under the orders
recalls as she begins telling me a story familiar
of top CIA scientist Sidney Gottlieb.
to millions of women who have done jobs like
The CIA continued similar rehers. She had long avoided turning to agensearch through later programs
cies, because they take all the money and prolike Project Star Gate. A cache of
vide no support. But she was desperate. “They
hundreds of thousands of docusaid, ‘OK, we have work’…. So I went to that
ments released by the agency earwork. And the very first night, the gentleman
lier this year reveals that the CIA
started touching me inappropriately, invited me
sought to develop psychic and
supernatural abilities for military
to bed.” Barret says she fought him off. “I’m
purposes, including psychostrong. So thank God he didn’t rape me or whatkinesis and remote viewing. Both
ever. But the touching and the inappropriate
feature prominently in the first
stuff—[it was] just vile.”
two seasons of Stranger Things.
Barret needed the assignment, so she kept
—Miguel Salazar quiet. “I know agencies: You can’t whine. You
might be taken off that case, and they’ll throw
you aside. Because they are getting so much
money, they don’t want to upset their clients.”
We have belatedly begun a national conversation about sexual assault in the workplace.
Women have outed powerful men as not merely
boors but calculating predators. We’ve acknowledged this as a bipartisan problem, one that
stretches from the White House to Hollywood.
And legions of women have bravely spoken up
to reveal just how unexceptional Donald Trump
and Harvey Weinstein are in all of our communities. Our collective dirty secret is being aired:
On the left and right alike, we have allowed boys
to be boys for far too long.
And so maybe we are headed for
a reckoning. It should be clear by
now that sexual harassment isn’t
about sex; it’s about power. But it’s
also about more than one individual
attacking another. So many women
have experienced so much harassment on the job because it’s one of
the many tools used to keep men in
charge of economic life. It is literally
written into the code of our economy.
There are few places where that code is more
visible—and more
confining—than in
the service sector.
“I know agencies:
June Barret was left
vulnerable to her cli- You can’t whine…
ent’s groping and they’ll throw you
grabbing by design.
When the federal aside. Because
government began they are getting
creating job protections during the New so much money,
Deal era, Congress they don’t want to
explicitly excluded
jobs associated with upset clients.”
women and black
people: domestic and farm work. Generations
later, as Barret walked to her job in a strange
man’s home, she and her peers still had few
rights. She was exempted from the minimum
wage, overtime pay, and workplace-safety rules.
Everything about the economic arrangement
suggested to the man who employed her that she
was his property, to do with as he pleased.
This is true throughout the service sector.
Consider the restaurant industry, where the
he second season of Netflix’s spooky sci-fi thriller
Stranger Things dropped
in late October, just in time for
Halloween binge-watching. The
show, a fictional account of a
group of kids who stumble upon
a clandestine, government-run
laboratory in Indiana, is loosely
based on a series of covert
projects conducted by the CIA
and other US agencies in the
decades following World War II.
One of the most prominent
among these is MK-ULTRA, a
psychological-warfare program
run by the CIA in the 1950s and
’60s that sought to develop mindcontrol techniques through the
use of LSD and other drugs administered to unwitting patients.
What is known about MK-ULTRA
is largely limited to accounts from
the former participants. One of
these patients, Farrell Kirk, was
referred to as a “living medical
mixing bowl” in a 1983 news segment on WJLA-TV; the report
described a suicide attempt in
which Kirk tried to chew off his
own arm. Many of the documents
pertaining to MK-ULTRA were
November 20/27, 2017
November 20/27, 2017
The Nation.
economics of harassment are crystal clear. Fifty-two
percent of female restaurant workers report weekly
sexual harassment on the job, according to the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United. The
ROC United survey found that restaurant workers
who depend on tips and live in states that exempt
tipped workers from standard minimum-wage rules are
far more likely to report sexual harassment. Women
workers in those states are also three times as likely
to report being asked by management to make their
outfits sexier.
Food servers and care workers are among the largest
and fastest-growing segments of our workforce. There
are as many people in food service alone (roughly 12
million) as there are in all forms of manufacturing.
Women are greatly overrepresented in these jobs,
and it isn’t just happenstance that they are among the
lowest-paid and least respected parts of our workforce.
Women in the service sector have responded to
their plight by leading the battle to remake the 21stcentury labor economy. June Barret didn’t just endure
the harassment she faced at work; she joined an exploding movement for domestic workers’ rights. She
and her co-workers have won the enactment of a bill
guaranteeing those rights in eight states and counting.
Likewise, the Fight for $15 was sparked and has been
fueled by women who walked out of fast-food jobs.
Teachers’ unions—led and powered by women—have
held the line against the attack on public workers in
states around the country.
So the resistance didn’t begin with Trump’s presidency. But hopefully, the reckoning we must have with
our history of devaluing women and their work will be
hastened by it.
S N A P S H O T / A LV I N B A E Z
Power to the People?
Cars drive past a toppled utility pole in Puerto
Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The FBI
is investigating the now-canceled $300 million
contract between Whitefish Energy and Puerto
Rico to rebuild the island’s electrical grid.
June Barret
didn’t just
endure the
she joined the
for domestic
workers’ rights.
The Nation.
he democratic party lost just about everything in 2016,
but so far it has offered only evasive regrets and mild apologies.
Instead of acknowledging gross failure and astounding errors, the
party’s leaders and campaign professionals wallowed in self-pity
and righteous indignation. The true villains, they insisted, were
the wily Russians and the odious Donald Trump, who together
intruded on the sanctity of American democracy and tampered
with the election results. Official investigations are now under way.
While the country awaits the verdict, a new and quite provocative critique
has emerged from a group of left-leaning activists: They blame the Democratic Party itself for its epic defeat. Their 34-page “Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis” reads more like a cold-eyed indictment than a postmortem
report. It’s an unemotional dissection of why the Democrats failed so miserably, and it warns that the party must change profoundly or else remain a loser.
Reading the particulars of this critique, I had the impression that maybe
the party got what it deserved in 2016. I do not mean that Trump deserved
to win. Indeed, “Autopsy” mentions Trump’s campaign largely in passing,
and the Russians only once. But this analysis does suggest that Trump became president mainly because the
Democratic campaign was inept, misguided, smug, and
out of touch with the country.
Much of the report’s specifics were already known in “The
bits and pieces. But the evidence takes on a sharper edge mainstream
and stronger punch as it is laid out in “Autopsy.” The task
force that drafted the critique was led by journalist and Democratic
media critic Norman Solomon, a Democratic convention story line
delegate in 2008 and 2016; Karen Bernal, the Progressive of victims
Caucus chair of the California State Democratic Party;
Pia Gallegos, a longtime civil-rights lawyer and activist without
in New Mexico; and Sam McCann, a New York–based victimizers
communications specialist focused on issues of interna- lacks both
tional justice. The writers are not promoting any candidate for 2020, though they are obviously kindred spirits plausibility
with Bernie Sanders and his aggressive reform agenda. and
They do, however, want to provoke a showdown within
the Democratic Party: the Clinton-Obama establish— from “Autopsy: The
ment versus the hurt and disappointed party base. The
Democratic Party
establishment has the money and the governing control;
in Crisis”
the rank-and-file agitators have the fire of their brave
This “Autopsy,” in other words, is a text for rebellion
and a rough suggestion of what a born-again Democratic
Party might look like. This is the heart of its indictment:
“The mainstream Democratic story line of victims without victimizers lacks both plausibility and passion. The
idea that the Democrats can somehow convince Wall
Street to work on behalf of Main Street through
mild chiding, rather than acting as Main Street’s
champion against the wealthy, no longer resonates. We live in a time of unrest and justified
cynicism toward those in power; Democrats will
not win if they continue to bring a wonk knife to
a populist gun fight.”
The authors are clearly seeking a straightforward repudiation of the governing strategy on economic issues by the last two Democratic presidents.
Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama attempted
to challenge corporate and financial interests, and
neither did nearly enough to address the lost jobs
and wages that led to deteriorating affluence and fed
popular cynicism and distrust. Obama, for example, gratuitously appointed General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to the White House Jobs Council—an odd choice,
given that Immelt’s company was a notorious pioneer in
offshoring American jobs to foreign nations. Immelt subsequently admitted that he was motivated by GE’s bottom line: American wages were too high, he explained, so
he intended to lower them. He succeeded.
In this context, blue-collar workers were not mistaken when they blamed the Democrats. During the campaign, Hillary Clinton was virtually silent on the party’s
complicity. The Democratic nominee couldn’t very well
quarrel with the party’s embrace of Republican dogma
on free trade and financial deregulation, since it would
have meant quarreling with her husband. On the central
domestic issue of our time, she had nothing convincing
to say. Clinton belatedly announced her opposition to
the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal championed by
President Obama, but at that point it was already dead.
The party platform paid the usual respect to liberal
economic causes, but who could believe her? Clinton
lacked authenticity.
A revealing example cited in “Autopsy” of the Democratic Party’s self-congratulatory mentality (and its cluelessness) is the fund-raising mailer it sent to donors in
the summer of 2017—eight months after its spectacular
wipeout. The mailer was “designed to look like collection letters to its supporters,” the critique notes. “The
DNC team scrawled ‘FINAL NOTICE’ across the
envelopes and put ‘Finance Department’ as the return
address. The message it conveyed, intentionally or not,
was: you owe us.” The upstart critics observe: “That, not
coincidentally, is a message the party leadership has been
sending to core constituencies through its policies and
campaign spending priorities.”
he condescending approach of party wise
guys may seem a trivial matter in the era of
high-tech modern elections, but politics is still
personal. The failure to sustain the attachments
of shared experience and kindred loyalties can
be fatal. Representative Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, the
Democratic House speaker during the Reagan era,
A DNC fund-raising
appeal was designed
to look like a collection
letter—just one
example of how the
party is out of touch
with the 99 percent.
used to tell this story about himself: In his
first run for Congress, a family friend and
neighbor, Mrs. O’Brien, told O’Neill that
she would vote for him even though he
had failed to ask for her vote. O’Neill was
astonished. He hadn’t thought it necessary,
since they were such close friends. “Tom,
let me tell you something,” Mrs. O’Brien
said. “People like to be asked.”
That kernel of political wisdom is what
the Democratic Party has forgotten. All
politics is local, as O’Neill taught. But the
party moved uptown, so to speak, and lost touch with the
old neighborhood. The party of working people failed to
rally the stalwart regulars it could usually count on, and
those folks failed to turn out in the usual numbers.
In essence, this is the core accusation leveled in “Autopsy”: that the Democratic Party neglected its most loyal
voters. It not only forgot to ask for their votes; it ignored
the general distress of working people (white, black, and
brown). Furthermore, the party didn’t have much to offer
those folks in the form of concrete proposals to improve
their lives. That’s a controversial claim, but the authors of
“Autopsy” offer damning evidence to support it.
In midsummer 2016, working-class enthusiasm for
Trump was the hot political story, but Senator Chuck
Schumer, the soon-to-be Democratic leader in the upper
chamber, assured party colleagues that they needn’t worry. “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western
Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans
in the suburbs of Philadelphia,” Schumer predicted. “And
you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”
At the time, Schumer sounded as though he was just
blowing smoke to motivate donors. But in hindsight,
this may actually have been the party’s strategy: Bet on
middle-class suburbanites offended by the vile Trump to
vote Democratic or stay home, which would offset the
loss of working-class voters attracted to him. If this was,
in fact, the strategy, the party bet wrong on every point.
What’s more, this approach may have encouraged
Democratic operatives to shortchange black and Latino
voters—two faithful groups that had powerful reasons to
vote against Trump. The turnout for both was depressed
compared to previous presidential elections.
According to the authors of “Autopsy,” the Democrats
withheld funding for grassroots canvassing and failed
to challenge outrageous
Republican schemes to suppress the minority vote. Albert
Morales, then the Democratic National Committee’s
director of engagement for
Latino voters, originally proposed a $3 million budget to
increase turnout in Arizona,
Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, Nevada, and Texas. He
ended up with $300,000. “It
was just pitiful,” Morales said.
“Autopsy” warns that
November 20/27, 2017
The Nation.
Nancy Pelosi insists
that Democrats are
just the way it is.”
“For every
we lose…
we will
pick up two
—Senator Chuck
Schumer, one of the
many Democrats who
fatally misjudged the
“what ought to deeply worry Democrats
moving forward…is the massive swing of
white working-class voters from Obama in
2012 to Trump in 2016 and the depressed
turnout of black and Latino voters for Clinton relative to 2012 Obama.… To put it in
marketing terms: the Democratic Party is
failing, on a systemic level, to inspire, bring
out, and get a sufficient majority of the votes
of the working class.”
“As a result of these failures,” the report
continues, “Democrats saw dips in voter
turnout and voter support among people of color—dips
that were disastrously concentrated in swing states. In
short, these missteps likely cost the party the presidential
nce again, PEOPLE LIKE TO BE ASKED. there is
one more bloc of potential voters that the
Democratic Party failed to ask—young people—
and its failure here is ominous for the future.
This new generation is far to the left of the current party, not to mention stone-age Republicans. Bernie
Sanders was their man in 2016, and he will continue to
be an influential leader in reshaping politics and the
governing of the nation.
Many young people are even to the left of Bernie. A
YouGov poll in January 2016 found that 43 percent of
people under the age of 30 had a favorable opinion of socialism, versus just 26 percent unfavorable. A recent poll
of 18-to-29-year-olds by Harvard University found that a
majority of the respondents did not “support capitalism.”
This was too much for Representative Nancy Pelosi, the
House minority leader. At a postelection town hall, she
bolted out of her seat to declare: “I have to say, we’re capitalists—that’s just the way it is.” Maybe it’s time for the
Democrats to start a conversation with these young lefties.
The Clinton partisans who remain in charge of the
party machinery will no doubt reject the conclusions of
“Autopsy.” The report suggests that the Clinton-Obama
crowd tilted the action away from the party’s core voter
blocs—labor, people of color, and young people—in order
to court suburban voters and maintain the party’s alliances
with high finance and multinational corporations. This
might also explain why the DNC decided not to undertake
its own postelection review.
Suspicions are already circulatBernie Sanders
ing: As Politico reported, “Party
regularly polls as
America’s most
officials involved in fundpopular politician.
raising say donors repeatedly
turn them away with a ‘try
again next year,’ especially
since it became clear there
won’t be an official party autopsy from 2016.”
That donor-centric strategy was highly valuable when
it came to raising money for
Clinton’s campaign. It turned
out to be not so good for winQ
ning her the election.
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November 20/27, 2017
The Nation.
eptember went out hot in east tennessee. caleb didn’t
mind; he parked his lawn chair in a shallow pool of shade,
clipped a small fan to its arm, lit a cigarette, and settled back to
wait. It would be more than 12 hours before the free medical
clinic opened its doors. Caleb had read about the clinic online,
and that it was best to get there early. Hundreds of people were
expected to show up.
Caleb had driven up from Georgia to get a cracked tooth
pulled. He’s a lean, hard-looking man with a scar running vertically down
from his lower lip, the result of a getting bitten by a dog. His teeth are yellowed, many of them dark brown at the gum line. A few years ago, Caleb
paid more than $2,000 to have three teeth extracted by a professional, a price
that he considered ridiculous. He works odd jobs but wanted me to know that
he isn’t poor: He earns enough to own his house and car. “But there’s nothing
in the back pocket,” he explained.
Since then he’s resorted to pulling
teeth on his own, with a pair of
hog-ring pliers that he modified
for the job. One time he messed up
and crushed an aching tooth, leaving a jagged stump embedded in his
jaw; he went after that with a chisel
and a hammer. He saved a neighbor $300 recently, he claimed, by
pulling a tooth for him. “You know
what that cost him? Two and a half
shots of Wild Turkey 101.”
On the ground beside Caleb sat
Michael Sumers, a fellow Georgian with a long neck and wide,
darting eyes. Sumers, who never saw a dentist as a child,
hoped to get his remaining 14 teeth pulled. He’s only 46
years old. His mouth has hurt him almost constantly for
the last five years, but he hasn’t been able to afford any
help. Sumers lives on his disability check, and after paying $700 a month in rent, he doesn’t have much left. “I
Caleb has
can’t eat steak without my teeth breaking,” he admitted.
Chicken is what broke one of Jessica Taylor’s teeth. resorted
Another two were broken by her ex-husband’s fist, when to pulling
he hit her in the mouth during a fight. I found Taylor
sitting on the ground, her back to a tree, a pizza box be- teeth on his
side her. “Now I’m here,” she said, explaining why she’d own, with a
come to the clinic, “and he’s in hell.”
pair of hogOver on the far side of the lot, a group of women sat
around a small barbecue grill, smoking cigarettes and ring pliers
flipping burgers: Beverly, April, Darlene, and Donna, a adapted for
woman with a thin face and gray hair scraped back into a
ponytail. All of them hoped to get their teeth worked on the purpose.
the following morning when the clinic opened. Beverly
smiled, showing me how her two front teeth overlapped.
Her parents divorced when she was little, Beverly told
me, “and forgot which one was supposed to take care of
it.” April, her sister, read about the clinic on Facebook
and had been the first to pull into the parking lot that
morning. At 9 am, when the clinic staff arrived to set up
rows of dental chairs, April was there in a pink T-shirt,
waiting on the sidewalk.
of the countless ways in which poverty eats
at the body, one of the most visible, and painful, is in
our mouths. Teeth betray age, but also wealth, if they’re
Zoë Carpenter
is The Nation’s
associate editor in
Washington, DC.
pearly and straight, or the emptiness of our pockets,
if they’re missing, broken, rotted out. The American
health-care system treats routine dental care as a luxury
available only to those with the means to pay for it, making it vastly more difficult for millions of Americans to
take care of their teeth. And the consequences can be
far more profound than just negative effects on one’s
appearance. In fact, they can be deadly.
Wealthy Americans spend billions of dollars per year,
collectively, to improve their smiles. Meanwhile, about
a third of all people living in the United States struggle
to pay for even basic dental care. The most common
chronic illness in school-age children is tooth decay.
Nearly a quarter of low-income children have decaying
teeth, well above the national
average; black and Hispanic
children also experience higher
rates of untreated decay. Neither Medicaid nor Medicare is
required to cover dental procedures for adults, so coverage
varies by state, and both the
very poor and the elderly are
often left to pay out of pocket.
(Tennessee provides no dental
Relief is near as
coverage to anyone over 21.)
Donna Lowrance of
LaFayette, Georgia,
In those states where Medicaid
gets four teeth
does cover dental care, benefits
are limited. Even middle-class
Americans can’t always afford
necessary care, as private insurance often will not cover
expensive procedures. Dental coverage improved modestly during the Obama administration, through an
expansion of Medicaid and the state Children’s Health
Insurance Program under the Affordable Care Act, but
access remains patchy and wholly inadequate.
The situation is made more difficult by the dearth
of dentists in low-income communities. Less than half
of the country’s dentists will treat Medicaid patients. As
one dentist tells journalist Mary Otto in her 2017 book
Teeth, while his colleagues “once exclusively focused
upon fillings and extractions,” they “are nowadays considered providers of beauty.” Offering cosmetic procedures in wealthy cities and suburbs is far more lucrative
than treating people in rural areas and poor neighborhoods—whitening alone is an $11-billion-a-year industry. The result is a geographic imbalance, with dentists
clustered around the money. Nearly 55 million people
live in areas officially considered to have a shortage of
dental-care providers. At the pediatric dental clinic at
the University of Illinois at Chicago, there’s a two-year
waiting list for children who need dental surgery that
requires anesthesia.
All of this explains why Caleb and a few hundred
other people slept in a parking lot overnight—in their
cars, in tents, or out on the ground—and then gathered
in the early-morning dark, waiting for the pop-up clinic
to open its doors. Held at a sports arena outside Chattanooga, the clinic is one of dozens operated each year by
the nonprofit organization Remote Area Medical.
Appalachia is RAM’s home territory, but the group
now runs weekend clinics in medically underserved
areas across the United States, from California and Texas to Florida and New York, providing basic medical,
dental, and vision care—as well as veterinary services,
occasionally—fully free of charge. Dozens of doctors and
dentists from across the country volunteer their services.
The group’s founder, Stan Brock, was there to open
the doors at 6 am. Brock is a tan, trim man of 81 with
a clipped English accent; he is also a former wildlifetelevision star. (A quick search turns up photos of Brock
holding a lion cub, a snake fatter than his arm, and a
harpy eagle named Jezebel.)
The idea for RAM came about after Brock found
himself badly injured in a horseback-riding accident in a
part of Guyana that was weeks away—on foot—from the
nearest doctor. Initially, his intent was to fly doctors and
medical supplies into remote regions of the world’s poorest countries. Brock got his pilot’s license and a small
plane, and started flying medical missions into Haiti,
Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, and Brazil. He founded
RAM in 1985; a few years later, the mayor of Sneedville
in northern Tennessee read about the group’s work in a
newspaper. The local hospital had closed and the only
dentist had left town, so the mayor asked Brock for help.
Brock put a dental chair in the back of a pickup truck and
drove to Sneedville, where more than 50 people lined up
to have their teeth worked on. Ninety percent of RAM’s
operations are now in the United States.
Little else has changed about the nature of Brock’s
work in the two and a half decades since the Sneedville
clinic, despite swings of the political pendulum and the
passage of numerous health-care reform packages. When
I asked Brock about common ailments among the thousands of people who attend RAM clinics each year, he
said, “I can tell you that without any hesitation—it’s the
same everywhere we go. They’re all there to see the dentist. They’re all there to see the eye doctor. They’re not
there to see the medical doctor.” The health-care system
treats the eyes and teeth as being distinct from the rest
of the body—no matter that an infection that starts in
the mouth can move quickly into the bloodstream and
then throughout the body. Unlike
many other acute physical problems,
a cracked tooth or the gradual blurring of vision cannot be fixed in an
emergency room. Nevertheless, more
than 2 million people show up in the
nation’s emergency rooms with dental
pain each year, though hospitals can
usually do little besides prescribe antibiotics and painkillers.
y the time the sky lightened, nearly 200 people had
been ushered into the arena.
Outside, the line still wrapped
around the building. A woman
at the back clutched a ticket numbered
631. Her teeth had been hurting her
for a year and a half, but there was no
guarantee she’d be seen. Inside, vol-
The Nation.
The intent
was to fly
doctors into
the world’s
Brock got
a call from
Clarity of vision
comes to RAM
patients through
eye tests and free
glasses. Vision
care is not included
in many healthinsurance policies.
November 20/27, 2017
unteers checked the patients
in at rows of folding tables.
Dental patients were sent to
wait in the bleachers, which
filled up quickly.
One by one, the people
in the bleachers were summoned to a chair overseen
by Dr. Joseph Gambacorta, a
dean at the School of Dental
Medicine at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Gambacorta peered into
their mouths to determine
whether they needed fillings,
a cleaning, or—as was most
often the case—extractions.
Thirty-six-year-old Jennifer
Beard from Dayton, Tennessee, sat uneasily in the
chair, her mouth open. She’d
already lost all but eight of her teeth. “What do I need
to do? I haven’t been to the dentist in a long time,” she
admitted in an apologetic tone. “My mom and dad died,
and I lost my job.” It took Gambacorta about 10 seconds
to assess the damage: “I hate to tell you this, but you
need them all out.”
Preventing tooth decay doesn’t necessarily require
a lot of money: Toothbrushes and floss don’t cost very
much, Gambacorta pointed out. But it does require constant attention, and neglect is serious. One dental student who has volunteered at several RAM clinics told
me about a man who arrived with a mouthful of rotting
teeth; asked how often he brushed them, he replied,
“Well, doc, I don’t.” Diet and habits like smoking also
hasten decay. But all these risk factors are amplified by
limited access to professional care. When routine care
is unaffordable and decay goes untreated, minor problems can become critical. What starts out as a toothache can become an infection in the jawbone, which
can then spread to the bloodstream. In one now-famous
case initially reported by Mary Otto, a
12-year-old Maryland boy named Deamonte Driver died from an abscessed
tooth that would have cost $80 to pull.
Driver’s family had lost their Medicaid coverage, and his mother was preoccupied with trying to find a dentist
for his brother, who had six rotted
teeth. Driver died when the bacteria
from his tooth spread to his brain—
and after more than $200,000 in surgeries and six weeks in the hospital.
“Six, eight, 10, 15, 16, and two,”
Gambacorta said briskly to an assistant
with a clipboard, naming the teeth that
had to be extracted from the head of a
fidgety 30-year-old who’d last seen a
dentist nearly a decade ago, when he
was in Navy boot camp. Gambacorta
took a second look. “Are you sure you
don’t want the bottom ones out, too?” he asked. “Put 18,
19, 31, and 32 on the list, too.”
While some patients’ teeth were so decayed that
Gambacorta had no choice but to recommend their removal, he hesitates to turn people into “dental cripples”
unnecessarily. “Everyone’s eager to get them all out, but
they don’t know what that means for after,” he told me.
People assume that having dentures is easier than dealing with their rotted teeth, particularly if they’ve been in
pain. But dentures come with their own complications,
including the fact that people who use them tend to eat
softer, less nutritious foods.
On the main floor of the arena, behind a wall of
green curtains, stood four parallel rows of dental
chairs—50 in all. I found April, still wearing her pink
shirt, waiting in chair 22, her gums already numbed.
Caleb was in chair 13; he was quiet and nervous, with
little of the nonchalance he’d projected the previous afternoon while describing his pliers. Later on, I found
him smoking a cigarette in the parking lot, a new gap
where his top left tooth had been. “It’s embarrassing,”
he said of the gap. Still, he was grateful. He was getting free eyeglasses, too; he hadn’t realized how badly
he needed them.
Donna grinned at me from chair 25 as a third-year
dental student prepared to pull four of her teeth. The
first three came out easily, in a matter of minutes. But
the fourth was stuck. It took the oral surgeon who was
overseeing things a few swings of his right elbow, as if he
were flapping a wing, to yank it free. Donna whimpered
in pain, but a few minutes later, her mouth stuffed with
gauze, she gave me a thumbs-up. The incessant ache
she’d lived with for so long had already started to fade.
ver the course of two days, more than
800 people received care from RAM. Sheila
Barrow, a pretty woman of 55 with dimples and
long blond hair, said it was the fourth RAM clinic
she’d attended. This time, she was there to have
one tooth filled and another pulled. Barrow has health
The dental gap is
only partly mitigated
by RAM’s pop-up
clinics, which serve
hundreds of poor
Tennessee residents.
“RAM will
be holding
events until
instead of
being where
we should
be, which is
in the Third
—Stan Brock,
founder of Remote
Area Medical
insurance through Tennessee’s Medicaid program, but no
dental or vision coverage. She worked for UPS, but after
four knee surgeries, she’s now dependent on disability
benefits. “They’ve been a lifesaver,” she said of the free
clinics. “I don’t know what I’d do without them.”
And yet it was clear that free clinics like RAM’s barely
paper over the yawning dental-care gap. On Saturday
afternoon, I found Michael Sumers in the parking lot,
waiting for a ride home. All of his top teeth were gone.
He’d gotten four pulled, not the 14 he was hoping for—
there wasn’t enough time. Up in the bleachers, Gambacorta and another volunteer had discussed how to triage
patients as it became clear that the need was greater than
the number of dentists. Treating everyone in line meant
that some people would have to choose between getting
a tooth pulled or another one filled.
It should be unnecessary to say that a system that
requires people to spend the night in a parking lot to see
a dentist, or to pull their own teeth with pliers, or that
leaves an infected tooth to kill a child, is grotesquely
broken. Yet there is no urgency for reform in Washington, particularly with the party in power more inclined
toward cutting health benefits. Part of the fault belongs
with dentists’ associations, which have fought proposals for a national health-care system as well as smallerscale reforms, like giving hygienists more autonomy to
provide preventive care in public schools. The fault also
rests with the policy-makers who have ignored dental
care entirely when debating overhauls to the healthinsurance system. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and
Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings have repeatedly introduced legislation to expand dental coverage through Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care
Act, and the Department of Veterans Affairs; the latest
version, introduced in 2015, never received a committee
vote in either chamber.
Unless something changes in Washington, Brock
predicted, “Remote Area Medical will be holding these
events from now until kingdom come—instead of being
where we should be, which is the Third World.”
The Nation.
The Nation.
t noon on tuesday, september 12, 71 delegates gathered in the chamber
of the State House of Representatives in Phoenix,
Arizona. A sign near the entrance featured an
official logo that bore a gold-plated inscription:
Article V: History in the Making.
Nominated by 19 Republican state legislatures,
the men and women in Phoenix—all of whom,
the Arizona Republic said, “appeared white”—
assembled to organize a convention of the states,
a never-before-tried method for amending the US
November 20/27, 2017
“Some are saying about us, ‘They are no Hamilton. They are no Jefferson,’” said Kelly Townsend,
the Arizona state representative who served as chair
of the Phoenix convention, speaking to a reporter.
“No, we are not. But we are the stewards now. They
found the courage to stand up, and now it’s our turn.”
The US Constitution is the most difficult to alter
of any in the world. Article V lays out two ways to
propose amendments: with the support of two-thirds
of both houses of Congress, or by a convention of
states called by Congress upon the request of twothirds of the states. Whichever way it’s put forward,
an amendment then has to be approved by threequarters of the states—either by special conventions
The Nation.
Caption Caption
TK quissitae et, nus
auteculparum restem
fugia vendioRoriberior
si omnis eos et litae
debis num ende
corpos amet eum TK
or by both houses of the state legislatures (save for Nebraska, which has a single chamber). The first method
for proposing an amendment—the one that begins with
Congress—has been employed all 27 times the Constitution has been changed. In the nearly two and a half
centuries since the Constitution was ratified, the second
method—a convention of states—has never been used.
As its name suggests, the purpose of the Balanced
Budget Amendment Planning Convention in Phoenix
was to set the ground rules for a future convention that
would consider only that single amendment. Pitched as
a reasonable constraint on the profligate spending habits of Congress, and predicated on long-debunked arguments equating the fiscal responsibilities of a nation with
those of a household, the balanced-budget amendment
has been a decades-long obsession of the conservative
movement. Its passage would result in the almost immediate contraction of the federal government, whose
expenditures could no longer exceed revenues in any
given year. Powerless to borrow its way out of a recession, the government would have to cut spending at the
very moment it was most needed. The result would be
Much of the movement’s momentum comes from the
American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporatefinanced behemoth that pushes conservative legislation
through state legislatures. ALEC’s preferred mode of
politicking—writing model bills and finding compliant
lawmakers to introduce them—makes it well suited to
coordinate action in dozens of state capitals. Meanwhile,
the State Policy Network, a collection of 64 think tanks
in 49 states—funded by the Koch, Coors, DeVos, and
Walton families—produces op-eds and other promotional materials that tout the need for such a convention.
Twenty-seven states have passed resolutions calling
for a convention to propose the measure, according to
the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, which
helped organize the Phoenix meeting. That tally includes several resolutions passed many decades ago, and
some of those states could rescind them as the movement approaches the two-thirds threshold. But supporters are unfazed. A motion passed in Phoenix suggests
that the movement’s backers hope to hold a convention
of states before the end of 2018. That’s unlikely, but not
impossible: There are seven states where such a resolution has yet to pass but where both houses of the Legislature are controlled by Republicans—just enough to hit
the magic 34.
Though it has the most states signed on thus far, the
movement for a balanced-budget amendment isn’t the
only one eyeing an Article V convention. The Convention of States (COS) Project advocates for one that
wouldn’t be limited to the balanced-budget amendment,
but would be free to consider other small-government
reforms. Advised by former South Carolina senator Jim
DeMint, until recently president of the archconservative
Heritage Foundation, the COS Project emerged out of
Citizens for Self-Governance, a group started in 2015 by
Tea Party impresario Mark Meckler to create “the largest
grassroots army in the history of the United States.” Last
January, Meckler explained the Article V movement to a
conservative paper: “The hordes have broken through
the gates of Washington, DC, and now, at this very moment, is the time we should tear the structure down.”
motley coalition, ranging from the
nonpartisan watchdog group Common
Cause to the far-right John Birch Society,
has now emerged to prevent an Article V
convention. In January, Richard Kogan of
the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
published a study on the potential negative effects of
a balanced-budget amendment. An otherwise valuable
contribution to the debate, the report was spoiled by a
sidebar warning that a convention “could open up the
“The hordes
have broken
through the
gates of
DC, and now
we should
tear the
— Mark Meckler,
president of Citizens
for Self-Governance
Richard Kreitner,
a contributing
writer to
The Nation,
is working
on a history
of American
Constitution to radical and harmful changes.” Apparently,
in order to criticize a particularly egregious proposal for
amending the Constitution, one must also swear off one
of the few democratic provisions already in it.
The arguments against a convention of states are often ahistorical, relying on mistakenly glorified notions
of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. An editorial in
The Washington Post last April was typical, suggesting
that, while the original convention “turned out pretty
well,” a new one might meet with “far more doleful results.” The editors were particularly worried that the
Constitution’s requirement of support from threequarters of the states to ratify any amendment might itself be tossed aside in a convention. It wasn’t altogether
implausible, the paper observed: “The 1787 constitutional convention ditched preexisting ratification rules; who
is to say a 2018 convention could not?”
The editorial was referring to a provision in the Articles of Confederation that required the states to unanimously approve any amendments—a stipulation that was
ignored by the 1787 convention. But if the Constitution
that emerged from those proceedings “has worked pretty
well for a pretty long time,” as the Post argued, why assume that updating it wouldn’t turn out just as well? In
his report, Kogan noted that the Philadelphia convention “went far beyond its mandate.” It did so, of course,
to come up with the very document that is now apparently too sacred to revisit.
This contradiction—praise for actions of the framers, followed by warnings against trying to replicate
their efforts—can be found throughout the arguments
against a new convention. Just think, the Post urged its
readers, of how much could go wrong: “Sparsely populated states could impose their will on the majority of
Americans who live in densely populated ones.” Of
course, that’s exactly what happened in 1787, and we’re
still living with the consequences. It’s why Wyoming
(population: 586,000) enjoys the same representation
as California (population 39,250,000) in the Senate and
has a disproportionate influence in the Electoral College. It’s difficult to imagine a new convention producing a political system more skewed toward rural states
than the one we have now.
An op-ed in the Post in 2014 offered a more general
November 20/27, 2017
The Nation.
One can readily imagine a convention leading to
extensive “log-rolling,” where delegates backed
certain changes to the Constitution in return for
others’ support for their own preferred changes.
A sprawling package of alterations could emerge,
designed to build support for the overall package by including the favored fixes of single-issue
“There was
sacred about
the origin
of this
Yet the delegates in Philadelphia in 1787 also backed
changes pushed by others in exchange for support
for their own favored measures. They too agreed to a
“sprawling package of alterations.” With a few reservations, American schoolchildren are still taught to
revere it.
even years ago, liberals scoffed at the
Tea Party for its worshipful invocations of
the founders. These days, protesting in 18thcentury costume has become one of our few
bipartisan practices. Outside the Capitol in
— Algie Simons, a Phoenix, an anti-convention demonstrator dressed as
founder of the Socialist Alexander Hamilton told a reporter that his character had
Party, writing in 1911 been “instrumental in writing the Constitution, and we
are trying to maintain that Constitution and not have it
changed.” That, of course, would be the same Alexander
Hamilton who worked longer than anyone to repeal the
Articles of Confederation and replace them with a constitution more pleasing to the rich. “The republic is sick,”
Hamilton wrote in 1781, “and wants powerful remedies.”
The left wasn’t always this historically naive. As the
writer Daniel Lazare described in his 1996 book The
Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy, constitutional change was at the center of the
original Progressive agenda. Populists called for a system
of national referendums, while Socialists pushed amendments for a graduated income tax, women’s suffrage, and
the abolition of the presidential veto. The Progressive
Party’s Robert La Follette ran for president in 1924 on
a platform demanding congressional power to override
Oklahoma State
Supreme Court decisions as well as the election of fedSenator Julie Daniels
eral judges. The 17th Amendment, which instituted the
talks with another
popular election of senators, passed in Congress after
delegate at the recent
members were spooked by the growing movement to adplanning convention
in Phoenix.
dress the issue via a convention of states. Between 1911
and 1929, there were 18 proposals in Congress to amend
Article V to lower the bar for new amendments.
Meanwhile, intellectuals challenged the infallibility
of the founders. “There was nothing particularly sacred
about the origin of this government which should render any attempt to change it sacrilegious,” the journalist
Algie Simons, a founder of the Socialist Party, wrote in
1911, two years after New Republic co-founder Herbert
Croly, in The Promise of American Life, decried the country’s “insidious tradition of conformity—the tradition
that a patriotic American citizen must not in his political thinking go beyond the formulas consecrated in the
sacred American writings.”
Compare that with a 2016 report—ominously titled
“The Dangerous Path”—in which Common Cause professed to “sound the alarm” about the Article V move-
November 20/27, 2017
ment. It quoted, approvingly, former Supreme Court
justice Antonin Scalia, who once said that a new convention would be “a horrible idea.” His reasoning: “This is
not a good century to write a Constitution”—as if we can
afford to wait for a better one.
Something is seriously wrong when progressives
align themselves with the most hidebound originalists while conservatives embrace the doctrine of a living Constitution. The institutional left’s opposition to
thoroughgoing reform has created a vacuum that’s being
gleefully filled by the right. During her fall book tour,
Hillary Clinton told Vox that an Article V convention
would be “disastrous for our country,” because it might
lead to “pull-em-up-by-the-roots change.” That, however, is just what this nation needs and what the restive
voters of both parties so obviously seek. Rather than ridicule the efforts to adapt the Constitution for the present
day, small-D democrats ought—with eyes wide open—
to join them.
roposed amendments to the u.s.
Constitution seldom go anywhere,”
read the headline of a recent study by
the Pew Research Center. Only 20 of
the more than 700 proposals introduced
in Congress since 1999 have come up for a full vote in
either chamber. Unsurprisingly, entrenched interests
with a vested stake in the status quo have blocked any
initiative that threatens them. A convention of states,
therefore, is the best remaining option for sorely needed
constitutional reforms.
One part of the “package of alterations” so feared by
The Washington Post could be an amendment to suppress
the influence of money in politics. Just a few years ago,
only progressives were trying to push an amendment to
overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
Now a handful of conservatives have become interested in the cause. Richard W. Painter, the former White
House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush, has argued
that the corporate funding of elections increases wasteful
spending and interest-driven government regulations.
John Pudner, who worked on Virginia Representative
Dave Brat’s insurgent primary campaign against former
House majority leader Eric Cantor, leads a group called
Take Back Our Republic, which goes after “those who
seek to buy political favor.” Polls consistently show bipartisan support for campaign-finance reform.
Perhaps the most prominent opponent of Citizens
United has been the Harvard law professor Lawrence
Lessig, who ran a long-shot campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Given the impossibility of getting a “representational integrity”
amendment passed in Congress, as well as the apparently
successful conspiracy to keep the judicial branch in Republican hands for the foreseeable future, Lessig’s only
hope rests with a convention of states.
In a recent phone call, Lessig observed that the movement behind the Phoenix convention is strictly partisan
and therefore likely to fail. Article V is clear: Any amendment would have to be ratified by special conventions or
by both chambers of the legislature in 38 states. A truly
A protester speaks
during a rally in
Phoenix against a
new constitutional
“What I do
fear is a
country that
has become
convinced it
is no longer
enough to
to its
“crazy” amendment, as Lessig put it, would draw opposition from at least 13 states, guaranteeing its defeat. No
amendment has ever made it into the Constitution without popular support.
The left’s scare tactics about Article V, Lessig said,
only help feed the very fund-raising machine that is the
cause of our problems. He has received e-mails from the
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee soliciting money to fight the pro-convention menace, and
Emily’s List sent one out in late September. “I don’t fear
a so-called runaway convention,” Lessig said, addressing
the idea that delegates might go after gay marriage or
reproductive rights. “What I do fear is a country that
has become convinced it is no longer mature enough to
consider amendments to its constitution, that believes it
is too sacred for ordinary people to touch. I just reject
that. Basically, it’s saying there’s nothing we can do but
go ahead with a constitution that, as currently interpreted, is subverting representative democracy.”
nother piece of such a package could
be the abolition of the antidemocratic
Electoral College. Designed to bolster the
power of slaveholders, the Electoral College
now acts as political life support for their
ideological descendants. Though states that benefit from
it may protest, it’s possible that, as the popular-vote margins of defeated candidates over victorious ones grow
— Lawrence Lessig,
Harvard law professor larger, more people will recognize the Electoral College
for what it is: a threat to the government’s legitimacy.
Throughout American history, there have been hundreds
of attempts to abolish the Electoral College. All began
in Congress, and all failed. It’s time to try another way.
The convention might also come to an agreement on
term limits for Supreme Court justices. Lost amid last
year’s imbroglio over replacing Scalia was the absurd nature of the position itself: Why should a president be able
to appoint justices who shape the life of the nation many
years after that politician has left office? The rights, liberties, and general welfare of the American people could
remain subject to the whims of Chief Justice John RobCitizens United foe:
erts, a former lawyer in the Reagan administration, until
Lawrence Lessig
the middle of this century.
says we shouldn’t
A few constitutional scholars have suggested nonfear a “runaway
renewable 18-year terms on the Supreme Court, which
would see a new justice nominated every other year.
The idea has won favor on the left and the right. In
a small but significant way, term limits could restore
a modicum of sanity to the Supreme Court selection process. No longer
would concerned citizens have to consult the tea leaves to see how long this
or that octogenarian might hold out. Every president would get to nominate two justices per term. (If a justice did die in office, her seat could be
filled by a lower-court judge or a retired justice.) As constitutional scholar
Erwin Chemerinsky has said, “Eighteen years is long enough to allow a
justice to master the job, but not so long as to risk a Court that reflects
political choices from decades earlier.” According to one poll, two-thirds
of Democrats and over three-quarters of Republicans support term limits
for Supreme Court justices. The question would at least provoke lively
and profitable discussion in a convention of states, and perhaps even gain
widespread support.
Other issues now pressed by the left—the right to health care, education,
housing, the vote, even a basic income—could also be raised in a convention of states. Delegates might be encouraged to think more daringly about
ways to make the government itself more responsive and
transparent, such as through federal ballot initiatives,
referendums, or the popular recall of elected officials.
There’s no reason that bold progressive ideas can’t be “The
introduced and advocated with just as much tenacity
question is
and organizational panache as the Kochs bring to the
balanced-budget crusade. The left shouldn’t be afraid of whether we
a “runaway convention.” It should welcome one.
will get a
In his chapter on an Article V convention in Repubconversation
lic, Lost: The Corruption of Equality and the Steps to End It
(2015), Lessig suggests a grand bargain: “The key is a about
simple compromise. We get to consider our proposals if constitutional
you get to consider yours.”
week after the phoenix planning convention adjourned, I spoke on the phone
with Sanford Levinson, a legal scholar
who, for more than a decade, has been
a prominent liberal supporter of a new
constitutional convention. A North Carolina native and
a professor at the University of Texas School of Law,
Levinson argues that we should put “our undemocratic
Constitution,” as he termed it in the title of a 2006 book,
up to a vote. If a majority voted against it in a national
referendum, there would be a new convention to reconsider the whole structure.
Rather than have the delegates appointed by state
legislatures or chosen in special elections, Levinson
would like to see a lottery select a few hundred Americans to participate in the convention. “If you plucked
out the most obscure American and said, ‘You’re going
to have a chance to wrestle with the most fundamental issues and to decide how your children and grandchildren would live,’ they would rise to the occasion,”
Levinson argued at a 2011 Harvard Law School conference. “The fact is, we are not talking about rocket
science. We’re talking about making fundamental
value judgments that require some information, but
delegates could get that information during the convention.” He would also delay for a decade the implementation of any reforms, to allow the participants to
debate changes on the merits and not through the lens
of short-term partisan advantage.
“The most basic, fundamental question,” Levinson
told me, “is whether we will get a serious conversation
about constitutional reform only after a genuine catas-
November 20/27, 2017
The Nation.
only after
a genuine
— Sanford Levinson,
University of Texas
law professor
Colonial chic: An
activist dressed as
George Washington
protests a convention
of states.
trophe.” He noted that countries tend to approve new
constitutions only when they emerge from some calamity, as in Germany and Japan after World War II, or as a
way to avoid one, as in South Africa in the 1990s.
Far from exacerbating the country’s divisions, Levinson said, a new constitutional convention would be a
productive way to address our debilitating political tensions. “We are a very divided country,” he observed, “but
one of the reasons we’re divided is the complete frustration, across party lines, that nothing really matters because, whoever is elected, there’s any number of reasons
your agenda will not get through.”
As bad as things look, Levinson hopes the awful state
of US politics has pushed Americans to the verge of a
breakthrough. “My belief is that it’s in a time of potential catastrophe that you might actually generate some
clarity of mind,” he said. “That’s what led to the 1787
convention—the belief that they had an imbecilic system,
which if they didn’t change would bring warfare, dissolution, and economic collapse. They understood the need
to act to prevent things from getting even worse.”
hough there has never been an article V convention of states, the preliminary planning meeting in Phoenix was
not without precedent. The event’s official
website, hosted by the Arizona Legislature,
trumpeted the fact that the delegates were doing something that “has not happened in over 156 years.” “This
is indeed historic,” an assemblyman from West Jordan,
Utah, told the Arizona Republic on opening day. “This is
the first time since 1861 that we’ve been here.”
Both were referring to the Washington Peace Conference, when 131 delegates from 21 states gathered at
Willard’s Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue a month before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration to find a way out
of the secession crisis. Left unexplained by the convention’s website and the gentleman from Utah was how the
invocation of a failed attempt to prevent the Civil War
was supposed to make anyone feel better about the proceedings in Phoenix. But the evident implication—that
an Article V convention is our best remaining chance to
prevent a breakdown in the US constitutional order—
might not be far off base.
Article V’s provision for a convention of states is the
Constitution’s safety valve, a last resort when the ordinary functions of politics are obstructed and the pent-up
pressures grow too great. Its purpose was to prevent the
kind of constitutional coup d’état to which the framers
themselves resorted when the existing system proved
unresponsive during a crisis. As the delegates in Philadelphia knew, it was precisely the growing sense that the
Articles of Confederation could not be amended that
sealed their demise.
In the late 19th century, the New England poet and
journalist James Russell Lowell warned against thinking of the Constitution as “a machine that would go of
itself.” Without regular maintenance, it would sputter,
stall, break down. Today, our government is a malfunctioning mess, and it will not fix itself. If we don’t open
the safety valve soon, the machine will explode.
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(continued from page 2)
Facing Up to Facebook
Something will have to be
done about Facebook, and it
had better happen soon [“Antitrust Facebook,” Oct. 30].
Mark Zuckerberg and company are having fun, just like the
guys at Apple did many years
ago. But there’s a universe of
difference. Zuckerberg and
the rest of the crew are what
I call “Harvard detached,” as
could only happen in this day
and age. They would play with
a nuclear bomb if it were fun,
they are so totally disconnected
from what they have created.
Walter Pewen
Toxic Present, Toxic Past
I must respond to, and expand
on, “Mass Exposure” by Rene
Ebersole in The Nation’s special issue on food [Oct. 30].
Monsanto, Dow Chemical,
and whoever else made and
sold Agent Orange to the US
military during the Vietnam
War are guilty of producing
a chemical to kill weeds and
foliage despite knowing that it
causes cancers in humans.
I should know: 50 years ago,
I was in combat in Vietnam with
the US Marines. I now have
non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as do
other men who served with me
and others I see going for treatment at the cancer center.
Government just looks the
other way when big chemical
companies make a profit to kill
people—even more so with what
we’ve got in the White House
today. Then, as now, profits are
more important than the lives of
people, period. For shame.
Stuart Novotny
austintown, ohio
Nuclear Insanity
Incompetent leaders engage in delusional thinking
[“Dropping the Bomb,” Oct.
30]. There is no longer such a
thing as “nuclear supremacy,”
a phrase Donald Trump has
used. It existed only when
the United States alone had
the bomb. While the US
arsenal may deter a lesser
nuclear power, and a limited
nuclear strike would not be
civilization-ending, a large
nuclear strike by the United
States, even with no retaliation
from Russia or China, would
be suicidal for this country,
making any expansion of the
arsenal moot. There can be
no nuclear supremacy, only
nuclear suicide, and people
who believe that a nuclear
war is winnable are idiots. We
can only hope that Europe,
which would be caught in the
middle of a nuclear battle, will
bring some sanity to the chestthumping by some countries.
Michael Robertson
Backyard Sustainability
“The Future of Food: A
Forum” [Oct. 30] was a good
overview of the alternatives to
agribusiness domination of the
food production and supply
system, but it’s missing perhaps
the most important perspective: that of the consumer.
From backyard composting
to micro-plot or “keyhole”
gardening to food preservation
and storage, there are multiple
strategies that individuals and
families can employ to move in
the direction of sustainability
and at least mitigate the effects of a highly probable crash
in a huge but fragile system
whose bottom line is profit.
Most of us are only one or two
generations removed from
these practices, which can be
implemented immediately,
incrementally, economically,
and independently. A step back
in this regard could result in a
huge step forward toward food
security and sustainability/
survivability in these most unAlan Watts
certain times.
Books & the Arts.
Michel Foucault (center) with Jean Genet (right) at a Paris demonstration in the wake of the killing of Mohamed Diab by police in 1972.
What led the French theorist of madness and sexuality to politics?
t his death in 1984, Michel Foucault left a letter stating that he
wanted no posthumous publication of his work. He should have
known better: The hunger for
further clarification and elaboration of
the master’s positions would prove irresistible. So too has been the flow
of posthumous publications, the most
eagerly awaited of which have been the
dozen or so book-length compilations
Bruce Robbins’s most recent books are The
Beneficiary, due out this month, and the
collection Cosmopolitanisms, co-edited with
Paulo Lemos Horta.
of his annual lectures at the Collège de
France, which began to appear in English translation in 2003.
The shape of Foucault’s intellectual
trajectory was already controversial during his lifetime. Readers asked, for example, whether his late turn to the ethics
of self-care was a betrayal of his earlier
Nietzschean prophecy that the concept
of “man” was destined to disappear. How
could he distinguish between right and
wrong in human actions without a commitment to the self and the human? Had
Foucault finally renounced Nietzsche,
and if so, was that a good or bad thing?
The lectures, diverging as they often
Foucault: The Birth of Power
By Stuart Elden
Polity. 240 pp. $26.95
Foucault’s Last Decade
By Stuart Elden
Polity. 272 pp. $26.95
do from the books that made Foucault
famous, only added to the controversy.
They are—along with various manifestos, unpublished drafts, interviews, and
other miscellaneous writings—now also
the subject of two fascinating new books
by Stuart Elden: Foucault: The Birth of
Power and Foucault’s Last Decade. In the
former, Elden tries to soothe some of the
long-standing tensions between Foucault
and Marx, in part by displaying hidden
continuities between Foucault’s early work
on madness and knowledge and his later
work on power. In the latter, Elden deals
with the 10 years after Foucault finished
the manuscript of Discipline and
Punish and began (on the same
day!) The History of Sexuality. He shows how much
of Foucault’s interest in
sexuality was actually
an interest in governmentality, or technologies of rule. When
Foucault talked about
subjectivity, Elden argues, he was also talking about the formation
of subjects in the political
sense, or how human beings
become subjected to power.
Elden doesn’t claim that his answers are
definitive. He notes that more than half of
the 110 boxes of Foucault’s papers, classified
by France as a national treasure and held
at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France,
remain closed to researchers, thus leaving
all interpretations provisional. But one collateral payoff of his close look at Foucault’s
career is what he reveals of Foucault’s own
confusions and uncertainties about his project and what he was really trying to do.
Reading Elden, one gets to watch one of
the last century’s most celebrated thinkers in
the unfamiliar role of a stumbling dissertation writer, hesitantly trying out different
answers to that dreaded question: “What is
your basic idea?”
hanks to Foucault, generations of students have been instructed that power
is not what or where you might expect
it to be. It should not be imagined sitting grandly at the top of a pyramid
where the sovereign alone has the final say.
The French Revolution having come and
gone, it was finally time, Foucault declared,
to cut off the king’s head in political theory.
Power should no longer be imagined as residing only within institutions like the state
and its police force. Power does not need to
send tanks rumbling down the main arteries
of the capital; rather, it flushes quietly and
continuously through society’s capillaries,
where it tends to pass unnoticed. Power
can also be gentle and relatable. It doesn’t
always tell you no; often it encourages you
to pursue your desires. It doesn’t always
shut you up; often it encourages you to talk,
November 20/27, 2017
The Nation.
especially about yourself.
In all these ways, power is more effective and more insidious. The opening of
Discipline and Punish, a set piece by which
many thousands of undergraduates have
been initiated into the mysteries of higher
education, contrasts the gory and excruciating public torture and execution of a would-be assassin in
1757 with a simple timetable of the activities at
a reformatory in 1838.
In the prerevolutionary
world, power is explicit, crude, and violent;
in the postrevolutionary world, it expresses
itself through mere
scheduling. Coercion,
Foucault tells us, can be
painless, nonpunitive, and
apparently humane. All that
microscopic scrutiny of your habits and activities can look as though it were
motivated by nothing but a desire for your
In retrospect, Foucault’s revised theory
of power seems to have emerged out of
the protests of May 1968. Foucault missed
those upheavals; he was teaching in Tunisia.
But they galvanized him, directing much of
his energy in the 1970s toward activism and,
through activism, toward theorizing the
nature of modern power. Foucault’s early
work, sometimes described as “archaeological,” focused on how what was known
and said was constrained by invisible discursive structures. Foucault’s idols, in this
phase, were literature, art, and madness,
all of which could be credited with exposing the arbitrariness of existing knowledge,
or at least standing outside its ordering
categories. This early work was certainly
subversive—if questioning the foundations
of knowledge isn’t subversive, then what
is?—but it was not self-evidently political in
the sense of fighting for or against anything.
Elden doesn’t dispute this narrative,
but he does argue that Foucault’s writings
became political earlier than is generally
thought and stayed political to the end. A
major object of his first book is to link up
Foucault’s developing concept of power
with his activism in the early ’70s, especially
on psychiatry and the prison. The cover of
Foucault: The Birth of Power is a photograph
of Foucault speaking into a bullhorn at a
post-1968 demonstration (the bullhorn is so
close to the inclining head of the aged JeanPaul Sartre that you tremble for his auditory
well-being). This activism happened while
Foucault was still in his archaeological period. In the second book as well, Elden
shows that Foucault didn’t need to use the
word “power” in order to address it.
Interestingly, it appears that when Foucault did start focusing on power, the more
strenuous forms of activism dropped out of
his own timetable. Of course, he maintained
the habits of petition-signing and namelending—duties expected of all French intellectuals as the price of membership. But he
directed most of his energy toward writing.
A compulsive, meticulous scholar, Foucault
was known to spend 12 hours a day sitting
in the Bibliothèque Nationale. You can see
why he developed a theory of the “specific”
intellectual, whose political engagement is
restricted to and shaped by his workplace.
orn in 1926 in Poitiers, Foucault was
the son and the grandson of highly
successful provincial doctors. Given
the medical thinking on homosexuality at the time, it is not surprising that
despite his academic brilliance, his youth
was not a happy one. Nor is it surprising
that he revolted against his mother’s Catholicism and the bullying of his medical patriarchs. But Foucault’s ability to do well in
school got him out: At the École Normale
Supérieure in Paris, he professed himself
lucky in the mentors he found, including
the existentialist Jean Hyppolite, the physician and philosopher of science Georges
Canguilhem, and the Marxist philosopher
Louis Althusser.
While representing the French government abroad at several cultural centers—his
animosity toward the state was clearly not
unlimited—Foucault came upon the subject
of his dissertation: He began to fashion out of
his influences a unique and compellingly revisionist view of mental illness and how it had
been defined by and against the Enlightenment. His 1960 thesis, published in English
as Madness and Civilization, was celebrated by
many but largely ignored by the French left.
How the line between sanity and insanity was
drawn had not (yet) become a leftist issue.
This neglect wounded Foucault deeply.
As he broadened his scope to other so-called
abnormalities, he sometimes went out of his
way to provoke his Marxist contemporaries.
And yet, as Elden shows, there were many
positive references to class and modes of
production in the lectures—often more
than in his books. Those who have found
Foucault too anti-economistic, too literary,
or too enamored of the powers of discourse,
Elden argues, are missing Foucault’s own
interest in the materiality of the world.
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commentary on the American scene and books chronicling his adventures as a “happy eater”
have earned him renown as “a classic American humorist.” On the cruise, he’ll share insights
taken from his 50 years in journalism and talk about how satire can work in the age of Trump,
when truth truly seems stranger—and more disturbing—than fiction. He’ll also crack jokes.
We’ll also be joined by Victor Navasky, John Nichols, Stephen F. Cohen, Joan Walsh, Dorian T. Warren,
Ai-jen Poo, George Goehl, and award-winning entertainers William Bolcom and Joan Morris.
December 1-8, 2017
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A full list of speakers can be found on our website:
That interest becomes particularly clear
in Elden’s elucidation of the term dispositif,
which rose to prominence in Foucault’s later
work along with his innovative notion of
power. Commonly translated as “apparatus,”
“mechanism,” “organization,” or “infrastructure,” a dispositif is not just a collection of
hidden rules governing what can be said or
known; it’s a collection of “relations of power,
practices, and actions.” In other words, it’s
material, even materialist. Foucault’s vocabulary here, though, seems studiously neutral,
as if he is suggesting that, embodied in infrastructures, power too might be neutral—not
the enemy of those striving against injustice,
but (as Marxists might say) something that
had to be taken over and repurposed.
For Elden, it was not just the latent
materialism in Foucault’s early work that
reveals its political implications: His interest in the mores around madness and
sexuality was itself about power. When
Foucault swings his attention from madness
to sexuality, it’s not because the norms surrounding the body are more material than
those of the mind. Foucault was interested
in sexuality and the body less for their own
sake than for their place in the larger history
of subjectivity, which is itself part of power’s
still larger and more important history.
When Elden proposes that power is
already present as a theme in “The Order
of Discourse,” even if “the language is still
largely absent,” he reveals a neglected continuity within Foucault’s thought. He is also
making a delicate dig at Foucault’s embrace
of the idea that history is fundamentally discontinuous: If period X has different names
for certain concepts, the argument goes,
isn’t it really dealing with different things?
No, Elden replies, in effect Foucault was
at work developing his idea of power even
before he had the word for it.
Elden’s argument is refreshing, but one
wonders why he is so intent on giving Foucault the gift of consistency. There is an obvious irony in seeing Foucault treated here as
an “Author” in the most reverential sense, as
if the author of “What Is an Author?” had not
taught us to be skeptical about scholarship’s
habit of using an author’s name to impose
consistency on a body of writing that often
responded to different situations and therefore exploded off in different directions.
n discontinuity, as on so much else,
Foucault’s most powerful inspiration came from Nietzsche. Whether or not Foucault always saw “the
will to know” as inextricable from
Nietzsche’s “will to power” (Elden says the
November 20/27, 2017
The Nation.
answer is yes, always), Nietzsche taught him
to be wary of viewing any advances of knowledge in a progressive and linear fashion, an
error that Nietzsche saw as characteristic
of modernity. And like Nietzsche, Foucault
also harbored an enormous tenderness for
those natural, instinctive, not-yet-classified
ways of being that exist outside a normalizing modernity.
But Foucault and Nietzsche differ in
their reading of who the deviants are: For
Nietzsche, they are the strong (the infamous
“blond beasts”), whereas for Foucault, they
are the weak. And it is here that one begins
to see a more significant political difference
as well. For Nietzsche, slave morality was
logical; it was a move in a class war. Though
it involved a major sacrifice (of sensual pleasure and immediacy), it was also a winning
move: The weak won out over the strong,
bending the old aristocratic barbarians to
an egalitarian morality that was alien to their
nature. For Foucault, the ruling class did not
invent the dispositif of sexuality in an act of
class war against the working class; rather,
he believed, they invented it for themselves.
Foucault’s narrative is perplexing for a
variety of reasons. Why would, for example,
the ruling class want to do such a thing?
And if the new regime of sexuality served no
one’s interests, why has it prevailed? Like his
somewhat ghostly understanding of power
as something that exists even if no one possesses or enjoys it, Foucault’s vision of morality—in particular, sexual mores—seems
to entail a war without a victor.
Foucault’s more ecstatic followers have
embraced his defiance of the logic of subject
and object as a brilliant and unquestionable
philosophical doctrine. In their reading of
Foucault, no one is coercing or defeating
or profiting; concepts like profit and victory
are too crude. But these questions matter a
lot right now because, in 1978–79, Foucault
had the uncanny foresight to dedicate some
of his Collège de France lectures to the
subjects of neoliberalism and what he called
“biopolitics.” At the time, “neoliberalism”
had not yet become today’s clear favorite in
the contest to name the dominant ideology,
as it has in the past four or five decades. And
biopolitics, or politics working at the level
of bodily life, had not yet become a fashionable slogan for those on the left who did not
see the point of politics in the old-fashioned
sense—that is, politics at the level of the state.
But, looking back from the vantage of 2017,
one intriguing and, in any case, inescapable
issue for Foucault’s followers is whether he
should be considered a prescient critic of
neoliberalism or an early adopter of its mili-
tant anti-statism. Did he help, from the left,
the rise of the right’s dominant ideology?
Or were his lectures—collected in the 2008
volume The Birth of Biopolitics—a source of
prophetic and practically useful insight into
the specific nature of power in our time?
On the subject of neoliberalism, many of
Foucault’s followers downplay the agency
of corporations. For them, neoliberalism
isn’t a set of powerful interests in pursuit
of higher profits, but instead a vague and
somewhat mysterious “rationality” or “governmentality” without any particular origin.
No one would dispute that this rationality
now pervades a great many institutions, but
what gets missed by this train of thought
is how neoliberalism is also nothing if not
a strategy to increase capitalists’ share of
the world’s resources by dismantling the
regulatory agencies of the government. It
is, therefore, a part of a more elaborate class
war between ruling and financial elites and
those who are disempowered.
Thanks to Elden’s scholarship, we can
distinguish between Foucault and many of
his followers. An earlier version of one of
the chapters of Foucault: The Birth of Power
was published as “A More Marxist Foucault?” and in that chapter, Elden shows
how Foucault, more the careful historian
than the philosopher, filled his lectures with
an acute consciousness of class interests and
subordinated voices—voices “silenced in the
book that follows.” Discipline and Punish may
have featured a “curious absence” of “those
subjected to power,” but his lectures did
not. And yet the question remains: Why did
his books diverge so significantly from the
lecture courses and activist dossiers that he
wrote around the same time? Elden doesn’t
offer any answers, but it’s better to now have
an understanding of the more Marxist Foucault, however inconsistent that makes him.
n the United States, Foucault’s readers
have tended to assume that if he talked
about neoliberalism, he was against it.
That is at best a half-truth. Foucault
showed some enthusiasm for the neoliberal economist Gary Becker, who wanted
to take morality out of society’s treatment
of crime. The fact that Becker’s motive was
to cut government budgets (imprisonment
is expensive for the taxpayer) was secondary in Foucault’s reading, though he would
no doubt have had something to say about
the irony that decades of neoliberal antistatism, after his death, would result in intensified state coercion and a vast expansion
of the prison population. Foucault’s target
during much of his activist years was the
moral norms that made psychiatric patients,
gays, and others into so-called “abnormals,”
and this would possibly have remained his
primary focus even if he had lived to decide,
with the feminist social philosopher Nancy
Fraser, that the recognition of marginalized identities had become the basis for a
“progressive” or Clintonian neoliberalism.
On the other hand, Elden shows us a
Foucault who, luckily for us, does not flee
from inconsistency. Unlike Nietzsche, he
didn’t always deplore the moral norms of
democracy. If politics, as Foucault insists in
one of his characteristic reversals, is merely
war pursued by other means, it seems inconceivable that the side of the powerless (call it
the left) has never won a victory or that the
democratic reforms and improvements of
the past two centuries are all scenes of defeat.
Modernity cannot be all power, all the time.
One advantage to pairing Foucault’s life
with his ideas is that, in Elden’s biography,
we are given ample evidence that Foucault
was not wedded to this belief. As Elden
observes, Foucault rejoiced in 1981 when
the new Socialist government abolished the
death penalty in France, which many commentators attributed to his and his friends’
work throughout the 1970s. He was also
open to working for François Mitterrand’s
government and was disappointed when he
was passed over.
The turn to ethics in Foucault’s final years,
which Elden discusses in both books, is one
more example of the productivity that Foucault derived from his inconsistencies. Here,
too, he backs off from the premise that moral
norms are nothing but weapons that power
turns against the powerless. In one sense,
Foucault is consistent in his earlier repudiation of knowledge: It’s better to care for the
self, he says now, than to seek to know it. In
another sense, he contradicts his earlier repudiation of humanism: The self and its freedom are no longer mere ideological illusions,
and Foucault comes close to recognizing that,
as a producer of knowledge, he himself has
been exercising power. The moral is: The apparatus of knowledge—to which he so richly
contributed—is only as good or as bad as the
uses to which it is put.
Elden doesn’t quite say so, but for the
late Foucault, the turn to ethics also became something of a proto-politics. It’s
as though he were proposing his “care of
the self” as the one sure way not to tyrannize over others. Not to tyrannize—call it
democracy—suddenly becomes the operative premise. Here is Foucault, the radical
democrat, struggling to break free of his
own brilliance.
The Nation.
Eva Moskowitz at a pro-charter-school rally in Albany in 2015.
Reforming our educational system requires more than just opportunity
he worst fate for a conservative is to
be dependent on the state. The worst
fate for a liberal is to be without
opportunity. These two competing
ideologies have informed a century
of tinkering within American education.
Conservatives have had occasional success
chipping away at government spending, as
President Trump seems poised to do. But
it’s liberals like Success Academy founder
and chief executive Eva Moskowitz who
have managed a more inspired achievement: They’ve redefined the goals of educational policy. Once oriented toward
Megan Erickson teaches at a New York City public
school. She is the author of Class War and is on the
editorial board of Jacobin magazine.
The Education of Eva Moskowitz
A Memoir
By Eva Moskowitz
HarperCollins. 400 pp. $27.99
equalizing resources, most school reformers these days worry about equalizing test
scores and securing future opportunities
for students. “If the day ever comes when
I think something is okay simply because
district schools do it, I hope my board fires
me,” Moskowitz quotes herself saying in
her memoir, The Education of Eva Moskowitz. “To achieve excellence, one must
fight such compromise with every fiber of
one’s being.”
“Excellence” is subjective, but the
test scores from Success’s students are
November 20/27, 2017
November 20/27, 2017
The Nation.
not. In August, the network of 46 charter schools announced that its students—
predominantly children of color from lowincome families—had outpaced some of
New York State’s highest-performing (and
wealthiest) districts on math and reading
tests. Of course, those numbers come with
a caveat: Success serves fewer students
who are still learning English and students
with disabilities than do traditional public
schools, and it serves very few students
with severe disabilities. Moskowitz urges
those who would “try to explain away our
results” to consider Bronx 2, a school in the
network whose demographics are similar
to nearby PS 55. Yet this is a misleading
suggestion, because an overall comparison
shows that Success still serves fewer students from both groups and therefore can
maintain higher scores.
But facts don’t get in the way of the sense
of righteousness that animates Moskowitz’s story. Our protagonist describes herself
as a “redhead with the voracious appetite
for data,” someone who has struggled all
her life against complacent bureaucracy—
represented mainly by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the largest teachers’
union in New York City, which, she argues,
has prioritized adults’ needs over poor kids’
by advocating job protections for teachers.
In a book full of uphill battles, courtroom hearings, and repeated references to
her own fiery personality, Moskowitz offers
just one perfunctory scene of a young Eva
in her imaginary classroom, reprimanding
the neighborhood kids for their lack of
effort. One of her first dates with her highschool sweetheart, Eric Grannis—who, like
Moskowitz, attended the city’s prestigious
Stuyvesant High—is characteristically unromantic: The highlight comes when he
gets her to ask herself, “If I trusted private
industry to make food, why not schools?”
(Reader, she married him.)
Moskowitz can be sentimental, but she
A Guide to the Louisa County Free Negro &
Slave Records, 1770–1865
The first box is for all the good white men. The ones who freed their
slaves on Christmas. It’s always Christmas in the first box. The day
Delpha shall go out. The day Viney shall go out. These good white
men only desire the guardian care of those under age. After that, they shall
go out, just as Winney shall go out at the age of twenty-one entirely free
from me or mine or any other person whatsoever. Delpha, Viney, & Winney
shall go out on Christmas Day. The first box slides open to show their
certificates. The good white men of this county believing that all men
are by nature equally free have left many of these. One certificate is for
Viney. One for Winney. One for Delpha. But these good white men
can only free the slaves they truly own. One man observes the above
mentioned negroes are disputed in their titles to me, namely Delpha, Viney,
& Winney. He doesn’t say more about the dispute. He doesn’t say what
happens on Christmas Day. This good white man has said all three
should go out precisely on Christmas Day, but now it is different. It is
very different now, even though Christmas has come. The good white
man writes I only free as to my right & title given under my hand. The box
slides open to show certificate after certificate. It’s Christmas. It’s only
the first box.
reserves such moods for pro-charter-school
business titans like Michael Bloomberg,
who, in her description, descended “like
Plato’s philosopher king” from “fathomless
wealth and privilege to become ‘Mayor
Mike’ and govern over the shadowy affairs of municipal government.” Even here,
though, one suspects there may be more
mercenary reasons for her admiration:
Back in 2002, Bloomberg made the case
for mayoral control over the city’s schools
at widely covered hearings that Moskowitz
initiated in her early role as a member of
New York’s City Council. The council
lacked the authority to change the law,
but it was the first of many shrewd publicrelations events that she arranged with the
intent of informing the public about the
flaws of the education system, and it captured Moskowitz at her best: orchestrating
a one-woman performance of “accountability” that would ultimately destroy local
control over education—a decades-old victory that had been won by the workingclass black families of New York’s Ocean
Hill–Brownsville neighborhood.
n 2005, after six years on the City Council, Moskowitz set her sights on the
office of Manhattan borough president.
She hoped it would serve as the “perfect
test case for whether it was possible to
stand up to the teachers’ union and live to
tell the tale.” Moskowitz lost that race, but
she wound up with two job offers, one from
the New York chancellor of schools, Joel
Klein, and the other from hedge-fund managers John Petry and Joel Greenblatt, who
asked her to oversee what would become the
first Success Academy, in Harlem.
Though she respected Klein, Moskowitz
took the job with Petry and Greenblatt. She
was drawn to their wider ambitions and access to money: Petry and Greenblatt spent
their downtime holding fund-raising parties
for Success Academy at the swank W hotel.
At the same time that he was recruiting
Moskowitz, Petry was also in the midst of
founding Democrats for Education Reform
(DFER), a charter-school advocacy group
that would go on to successfully push President Obama to appoint Arne Duncan as the
US secretary of education.
Their longer-term vision was even bolder: They wanted to figure out how to set up
a school that cost no more to run than district schools but achieved far better results,
and then replicate that model throughout
the country. Cracking that nut, Petry and
Greenblatt were convinced, could revolutionize American education.
November 20/27, 2017
The first decade of the new millennium
proved to be a heady time for anyone with
a few million dollars to spare and a burning
desire to transform public schools. While
most Americans were satisfied with the
education that their children were receiving, years of behind-the-scenes advocacy
had created a bipartisan consensus among
policy-makers that the system was broken
and in need of fixing. Extensive research
pointed to the deleterious effects of rising child poverty and class segregation on
academic achievement. But a new generation of meritocratic elites searched for
other causes—ones linked to opportunity,
not economic or social inequality, and that
might be remedied by innovative solutions
honed in the marketplace.
Charter schools, which receive government funding but operate outside the school
system and can be publicly or privately
owned, were promoted as one of those
solutions. It’s a stretch to equate charter
schools with tech start-ups, but they borrow
from the start-ups’ vocabulary of boldness,
efficiency, and passion, and they rely on a
similar set of policies: relaxing regulations
and injecting competition and consumer
choice into the system in order to break the
“monopoly” of the public sector and lift the
quality of services for all.
As with most start-ups, fund-raising and
networking with business leaders have been
key to the survival and growth of charter
schools—in particular, Moskowitz’s Success Academy network. One of the first
items on her agenda after taking the job
was to meet with Don Fisher, founder of
the Gap, who’d called to congratulate her
when she challenged the UFT during contract hearings as a City Council member,
and who offered her $1 million on the spot.
(In that first school year, Moskowitz made
Years later, when Success Academy board
members expressed concern that she was
running her employees into the ground,
Moskowitz met with Mickey Drexler, of
the Gap and J. Crew, and Chuck Strauch,
a South Carolina businessman, who helped
her “adopt private sector best practices and
deal with scaling issues.” In 2011, as Success
Academy added schools in Brooklyn, hedgefund billionaire Dan Loeb donated $3 million to the cause. Along the way, the network
also received donations from the Walton
Family and Broad foundations, generosity
that Moskowitz chalks up to being lucky
(the title of her book’s penultimate chapter).
But luck has very little to do with Success Academy’s growth. From the begin-
The Nation.
ning, it was intended as a new, privatesector-inspired model for the American
public school. “The underlying drive is to
build something that can spread, can be
recreated in different cities,” Petry told
The New York Times; “otherwise it’s not as
meaningful to us.”
As Moskowitz describes it, this model
requires “trusting” families to be “critical
educational consumers.” And, of course, they
are, when they can be—and the more time
and money a parent has, the more critical
he or she can afford to be. The question
is: What does it mean for parents and their
children to be “consumers” of education,
selecting from an array of options subsidized
by billionaire benefactors? Some Success
families would find out the hard way.
nlike in district schools, students at
Success Academy are required to
keep logs of the hours that their parents have read to them at home. Poor
parents, Moskowitz insists, “can support their kids in school, if it is demanded
of them.” And if the demands don’t work,
shame will. She recalls getting one parent to cooperate by inviting the woman’s
mother, who “seemed...more responsible,”
to a meeting about her son’s progress. Forget the paternalism of this scene for a second—Moskowitz’s belief that achievement
is more about morals than material circumstances hinders her ability to serve families
who, regardless of their intentions, simply
can’t meet these requirements. Take, for
example, the more than 7 million American
workers who hold down multiple jobs to
make ends meet. When these parents are
forced to disenroll their children because
they can’t meet the school’s demands for
reading time at home, is it really a choice?
And when students with special needs
leave because they weren’t given appropriate accommodations by the school, or were
suspended for minor infractions—as 13
Success families recently alleged in a federal
civil-rights lawsuit—is that a choice? (Moskowitz had also publicly released one child’s
school records using the alias “John Doe,”
an action that she inexplicably repeats here.
If you’re wondering how many times the
New York City Department of Education
has released a child’s record to the public,
the answer is zero.)
Public-school suspensions are “a useful
disciplinary tool” or “really just the equivalent of what at home is called a timeout,” as
Moskowitz argues in a chapter called “Extra
Credit.” In fact, numerous studies have
shown that while suspensions are effective at
removing a child from school and relieving
frustration among teachers and administrators, they do not improve school safety—
and they alienate students. At the state level,
children have a constitutionally guaranteed
right to a free education. Repeated suspensions, or suspensions lasting 45 days—as
yet another Success Academy student with
special needs received this past spring—are
a violation of that right. They’re also discriminatory: Black kids are far more likely to
be suspended than white kids, which is why
Martin Luther King Jr. opposed measures
giving teachers the right to remove disruptive students from their classrooms.
Sadly, Moskowitz’s reflections on Success
Academy’s draconian behavior policies are
limited to an ad hominem attack on New
York Times reporter Kate Taylor. Instead of
engaging with the critical ethical questions
raised by Taylor’s reporting—which suggests that there’s a network-wide pattern of
shaming and punishing children for underachieving—Moskowitz depicts the Times reporter as a clueless private-school-educated
suburbanite who just doesn’t get how urgently poor kids need a world-class education. It’s not that students are systematically
being singled out, Moskowitz writes; it’s
that “Success isn’t ideal for every child. If we
think a child would do better in a different
school, whether it’s a specialized program or
just a school with a different approach, we’ll
tell a parent that, as we should.”
District schools run by the New York
City Department of Education do not have
the option of sending children with behavioral issues or special needs elsewhere—nor
should they, since the United States has
consistently affirmed by law that it is the
responsibility of public schools to educate
all students in the least restrictive environment possible. Because the students at
Success Academy are chosen by lottery, and
thus their selection appears to be egalitarian, the network advances the idea that
district schools could achieve the same
high test scores if they’d only adopt practices borrowed from private enterprise. But
even charter schools with a lottery system
“choose” students indirectly by limiting
the services they provide or by instituting demanding requirements for parental
involvement. This is an important part of
Success Academy’s seeming success, since
social and economic disadvantages have
more bearing on student performance than
do in-school factors. To use the word much
loved by the business community, Success’s
results simply aren’t “scalable.”
More importantly, the hard truth of
The Nation.
“school choice” is that it leaves families
with a multitude of options but few rights.
Vouchers make private schools more accessible to poor students, and charters make
independently run schools accessible to
students whose parents have the resources
and knowledge required to enroll them.
But the only “choice” on offer here is
freedom from government oversight and
the elimination of democratic control of
schools. In fact, while charter schools don’t
show better academic outcomes, on average, than traditional public schools, they
do have an increased risk of segregation.
(In the United States, parental “choice”
was mainly invoked by Catholics enrolling
their children in parochial schools until the
Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education
decision, when “freedom of choice” programs left segregation intact in the South
and resegregated schools in the North.)
Barack Obama, Arne Duncan, and now
Donald Trump have all said it: Education
“is the civil-rights issue of our time.” But
the civil-rights movement was not just a
fight over space at a lunch counter, and it
certainly wasn’t a struggle for more educational opportunity. Civil-rights activists
fought for educational equality as part of
a general struggle for social and economic
equality. They also believed that educational equality wasn’t possible while other
forms of inequality were still rampant. So
while Moskowitz’s staff “thought [she] was
nuts” for protesting the NAACP when it
joined the United Federation of Teachers in
a lawsuit that challenged the controversial
practice of “co-location”—allowing charter
schools like Success to take over space in
the facilities of district schools, as happened
in Harlem—it’s not surprising that the two
organizations would wind up opposing her.
And it wasn’t because the NAACP lent
its credibility to the UFT, as Moskowitz
charges, but because the needs of teachers
and students are not intrinsically at odds
with each other—in fact, they are usually
For reformers like Moskowitz, children
from low-income families only need the
“opportunity” to attend schools like hers.
The extent to which this worldview has
To end this brother,
you climbed the moon to a far country,
and never came back.
By that I mean when the police
broke their way into a room,
billowing with suspicion, your body
was a continent of maggots.
By that I mean, when the telephone
brewed with some voice, Mama’s
hand went down, fallen skyscraper,
and never came up again, be ni o.
By that I mean, your death birthed
another death.
By that I mean, the neighbours
pleaded with me to unpack
my two bags of grief.
By that I mean, they watched
me dissolve inside their teary eyes.
November 20/27, 2017
become the conventional wisdom among
policy-makers is evinced by the fact that
Moskowitz, a proud lifelong Democrat,
made President Trump’s short list for education secretary. But working parents don’t
need someone to save their children from
public schools; they need higher wages.
They also need job protections—the same
protections that Moskowitz has spent her
career trying to end for teachers. And they
need well-funded public schools, which
charter programs help to defund.
Meritocratic education reformers believe that leaders have a right to lead because they are the most talented among
us, and that schools—not workplaces—are
the appropriate focus of reform efforts,
because schools are the natural instrument
with which to select a gifted and committed
minority from the largest possible pool of
future productive adults. They insist that
we are all equally entitled to toil and sweat
in the pursuit of excellence—and so we do,
dutifully checking off standards and filling in the bubbles on Scantron tests from
preschool on up. For these reformers, the
real enemy isn’t poverty but mediocrity.
That’s why it’s wrong, in Moskowitz’s view,
for educators to “use poor children’s circumstances as an excuse for failing to teach
But it’s also wrong to peddle the myth
that opportunity is out there for the taking,
if only students, teachers, and schools are
willing to work harder for it. To say that
hundreds of children who are educated in
district schools “won’t have a fair chance
in life because of the inadequate education
they are receiving” is to imply that charterschool students will. But the students who
graduate from Success Academy face the
same economic reality we all do: an economy dominated by low-wage jobs with few
protections and devised to benefit many of
the same businesses that have donated to
and advised Success.
The Education of Eva Moskowitz tells one
story about education and inequality: that
poor children are suffering in bureaucratic
and inadequate public schools and need both
demanding educators to toughen them up
and wealthy philanthropists to fund those
efforts. But there’s another, more compelling story in which corporations and the
wealthy contribute to public schools not
through the beneficence of their donations,
but by paying their fair share in taxes. Because it is businesses that are indebted to
schools, not the other way around. That’s
not a story you’ll hear from Moskowitz, but
it’s the one worth telling.
November 20/27, 2017
The Nation.
Véro Tshanda Beya in Félicité.
What made the New York Film Festival count for more than a tally of masterpieces?
got everything I wanted from the 55th
New York Film Festival on the night
I watched Félicité by Alain Gomis, a
writer-director who knows how to make
a movie percolate.
First he gets a simmer going in his title
character (Véro Tshanda Beya) as she sits,
lost in thought, in a bar one night in Kinshasa. Her face in close-up is as silent and magnificent as the sculpted head of a god, but
not nearly so impassive. Every time Gomis
cuts back to her from the bursts of gossip,
boasting, and argument that flicker around
the room, you see sparks in her eyes—from
sorrow, maybe, or anger. Then the bar’s
owner turns up the heat, demanding to
know why there’s no music. Félicité stays
put, but a half-dozen men seated around her
respond to the complaint by grumbling their
way into the cul-de-sac that serves as a bandstand, where they wake up their instruments
and start fomenting a groove. Patrons nod
and shimmy in their chairs; the temperature rises. Then Félicité promenades to the
microphone, throws back that monumental
head, and sings. Sweating and shouting
break out; people are on their feet. One of
them struts forward to plaster banknotes on
Félicité’s forehead.
At that, she finally smiles. The movie’s
popping at full boil, and you’re caffeinated,
ready for whatever may come.
Like a good many of the selections in
each year’s NYFF, Félicité tells the story of a
working person struggling against adversity and injustice in a locale far from the polite bustle of the festival’s Lincoln Center
home. In this case, you’re projected into
the jammed and ramshackle streets where
Félicité—a single woman, no longer in
her first youth—must chase after cash for
surgery for her injured son. (The healthcare system in the Democratic Republic of
the Congo apparently practices the same
pay-as-you-go method to which many Re-
publicans want the United States to revert:
Until Félicité comes up with the money,
her son can just lie in the hospital, bleeding from a compound fracture.) But unlike
the average social-problem picture, Félicité
isn’t about exemplary figures making their
way through representative incidents. It’s
about an irreducible individual—two of
them, actually: the stubborn, often standoffish Félicité and Tabu (Papi Mpaka), the
large, hard-drinking, but thoroughly kind
rogue who loves her.
That makes Félicité one of the experiences I craved most from this edition of
the NYFF: something like a Dardenne
brothers movie, but with a driving beat,
a goofy love story, and the interpolation
of some mysterious, blue-tinted images of
orchestral performances and forest settings
to remind me that Félicité’s mental world
isn’t all slums and soggy francs.
Put differently, Félicité is an outgoing,
exploratory movie, brimming with curiosity and feeling—qualities you might expect
from an international festival that promises
revelations. I can’t say that all the selections
in this year’s main slate met that description. But plenty did, whether their primary
impulse was to document, satirize, spin out
baroque narrative conundrums, or tell a
plain story straight from the heart.
The main slate’s only pure documentary,
an audience favorite, was the lovely and loving Faces Places (Visages Villages), a collaboration between Agnès Varda, 88 years old at
the time of production, and the 33-year-old
photographer and installation artist JR.
Shot in a spirit of spontaneity on a series
of road trips, then playfully assembled by
association of ideas, the picture delivers
just what its title implies: images of the
faces of laboring people, collected in towns
and rural areas throughout France. These
come with stories about the subjects as
well as teasing portraits of the filmmakers,
whose art-world Mutt-and-Jeff act (tall and
skinny male hipster, short and round old
lioness) would come off as cute if it weren’t
for the intimations of mortality hovering
around Varda. You encounter isolation and
loss in the film, as well as pleasure and
workplace solidarity. But the overriding
impression—perfect in a film dedicated to
photography—is of the potential for the
human personality to abide. Look at JR’s
photomural of an elderly woman living
in a semi-derelict coal-mining town, after
he’s pasted her image onto the row house
she refuses to abandon. You see the face of
someone strong enough to have been made
from bricks.
November 20/27, 2017
The Nation.
s often happens, documentary tendencies ran through some of the
festival’s best fictions, notably The
Florida Project by Sean Baker (whose
previous film was the astonishing
Tangerine) and The Rider by Chloé Zhao:
the first an excursion into the candycolored stucco dilapidation of the residence motels and junk shops clustered a
few streets away from Disney World, the
second a trip into the ranches and rodeo
arenas of South Dakota’s High Plains.
The mood of The Florida Project varies
from wide-eyed delight to jittery shrewdness to weary responsibility, depending
on which character we’re following. The
principals are an untamed 6-year-old motel
inmate (the superb Brooklynn Prince),
who is always up for mischief and adventure; the girl’s scuffling single mother (Bria
Vinaite), whose elaborate tattoos and hair
of a color not seen in nature advertise the
fun-loving, dirty-minded defiance of one
of the undeserving poor; and the motel’s
put-upon manager (Willem Dafoe, living
his role without a moment’s self-regard),
whose kindness somehow keeps overcoming his disgust. I wish Baker had thought
of an ending for The Florida Project; having
brought his characters to the point where
they have no solutions, he finds none of
his own, other than to force the naturally
occurring ironies of his setting into a final
grand statement. But that’s a two-minute
lapse, after nearly two hours of grit, outrage, and beauty.
As for The Rider, its naturally occurring
mood is one of elegiac grandeur. Brady
Jandreau leads the nonprofessional cast as
a young rodeo cowboy who can no longer
compete because of the crack he’s put in his
skull. Taking himself down a painful notch,
he patches together a still-dangerous living
by training other men’s horses. The film’s
pace is measured; the dialogue, terse; the
story, minimal. But everything Zhao puts
on the screen feels alive and true, especially
the scenes of Jandreau handling horses.
Impossible to script or fully plan, these
long moments are like gusts of South
Dakota weather made as permanent as
I suppose there’s also a documentary element, or at least an autobiographical one,
in Lady Bird, the second feature written and
directed by Greta Gerwig, and the first she’s
done solo. The central character (played by
the unfailingly persuasive Saoirse Ronan)
mirrors Gerwig’s past by attending a Catholic high school in Sacramento, coming of
age around the time of the second Iraq War,
and having a theatrical streak, which in her
case is rarely channeled into formal performance. The creative energy goes more often
into fighting with her sternly sympathetic
mother (Laurie Metcalf), agitating to go
east for college, and getting into unfortunate
misunderstandings with boys. These are
normal incidents for a standard coming-ofage picture, but Gerwig and Ronan redeem
them by making their heroine as finely tuned
as an antenna, always quivering with signals
about the new selves she might momentarily try on.
A similar depth of personal feeling,
though perhaps less self-amused, runs
through The Meyerowitz Stories (New and
Selected), by one of Gerwig’s frequent collaborators, Noah Baumbach. The movie
crackles with an emotional energy, and
cackles with a rueful laughter, that have
been missing from his recent films, but
which return in full force now that Baumbach has again taken up his theme of children being twisted into odd shapes by
a parent’s monstrous self-regard. Dustin
Hoffman holds forth as the bumbling, embittered old sculptor who has done the
twisting; Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and
Elizabeth Marvel are the grown children,
still seething and suffocating hilariously.
Under Baumbach’s direction, their comic
timing is faultless—though none can beat
Emma Thompson in the role of the sculptor’s current wife, who seems to have kept
herself preserved in alcohol since 1974.
nd now, let’s get to the festival’s bigticket items. “Filmmaking magic”
would be weak praise for the art
that Todd Haynes brings to Wonderstruck, his adaptation of the illustrated novel by Brian Selznick. So why,
at the end, did I feel the enchantment had
melted into air, leaving nothing behind?
I wanted to love this movie about young
people lost and found in Manhattan in two
different eras; I wanted to explore it, just
like the more modern of its children pores
over a mysterious book he’s found. But,
it turns out, there’s nothing to discover:
The film’s system of motifs and correspondences is so airtight—as sometimes
happens with Haynes—that, despite the
best efforts of Julianne Moore (a wonder in
herself), I ultimately felt all the satisfaction
of having watched somebody else solve a
crossword puzzle.
Now, with Arnaud Desplechin, it’s more
like having a feverishly brilliant desperado
(usually played by Mathieu Amalric) thrust
a half-finished crossword into your hands
November 20/27, 2017
The Nation.
while raving that you must complete it since it takes aim at well-meaning people
for him, immediately, while he cooks you of good conscience and a little money, like
a wine-soaked dinner, mutters something the NYFF audience. Claes Bang stars as
about James Joyce, and sings the theme the chief curator at a contemporary-art
from Marnie, which he hopes won’t distract museum in Stockholm, where he starts out
you. Ismael’s Ghosts, shown in New York sleek and smooth but becomes progresin a cut that was 20 minutes longer than sively ruffled due to the bungled marketat the Cannes premiere, casts Amalric as ing of a social-sculpture installation, his
an unhinged writerdirector trying to
make a film, or get
out of making one,
about a brother who
died or vanished (or
did he?), while at the
same time struggling
with the memory of
a wife who died or
vanished (also doubtful). Everything in
the movie (Desplechin’s, I mean, not
Amalric’s) springs at
you with the force of
discovery. There isn’t
a predictable turn of
events, a dull choice
of image, or a settled Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird.
opinion anywhere in the film, which needs own ill-advised venture into street philanthe extra 20 minutes to make room for thropy, and the provocations of an Ameriwhatever is currently on Desplechin’s mind: can journalist (Elisabeth Moss) who seems
astrophysics, Lacanian psychology, Renais- gosh-darn innocent at first, but might be
sance perspective, the diplomatic corps. an imp dispatched by the forces of chaos.
With Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marion Östlund’s craft is immaculate, his range
Cotillard as Amalric’s Vertigo twins.
ambitious, his shifts of tone breathtakIn Zama, Lucrecia Martel creates a ing. It’s also clear that he knows museums
mood that is equally feverish—as is only from the inside and can be killingly funny
natural, since the setting is cholera-infested about them. My only reservation is that
18th-century South America—but also The Square is a pre-Trump project released
more stately, given that the title character in the midst of the Trump era, when it’s
(Daniel Giménez Cacho) serves as a mag- become convenient for establishment conistrate in a godforsaken colonial outpost servatives (and justifiably inflamed leftists)
where the proud Spaniards insist on wear- to blame our situation on the bad faith of
ing wigs in the 100-degree heat. Based on fancy-pants liberals. Sure, there’s bad faith,
a novel by Antonio di Benedetto, Zama be- but whatever the curator’s faults, I can
comes increasingly elliptical and fantastic think of worse sinners.
as the magistrate maneuvers to be posted to
or that reason, perhaps, I felt that
Spain, only to slip further and further away
the NYFF films that best captured
from his goal: out of the governor’s office
my mood were neither the scathing
and away from the flirtations and bribes of
satires nor this year’s social-problem
polite society, into a native village, and then
epics, Mudbound and BPM. (Both were
out to the jungle on a futile expedition. I
might call the film a delirium, but Martel rapturously received, by the way—but talk
is too precise for that, and too harshly sa- about exemplary characters living through
tirical. You might rather think of this work representative incidents…) Maybe our
as a landscape film, whose softly colored, present crisis doesn’t always demand the
picturesque surface is disturbed here and most radical or outspoken artistic response;
maybe a more relenting cinema can provide
there by grubby fools.
The satire in Ruben Östlund’s Cannes room to think, and imagine. The pictures
winner, The Square, is more up-to-the- that have especially stayed with me (though
minute and maybe also more discomfiting, I don’t claim they were the festival’s best) are
Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone
and The Day After, and Aki Kaurismäki’s The
Other Side of Hope.
As sly and quizzical as ever, Hong has
made a pair of films starring Kim Minhee as a sharp-witted young woman embroiled with a more powerful, married
older man. In On the Beach, the affair is
in the past and the
man is a filmmaker
(echoing Kim’s actual relationship
with Hong, which
fodder in Korea);
in The Day After,
the man is a book
publisher and the
affair will perhaps
happen in the future, if the bum
gets his way. Both
films honor a woman’s wrath, exasperation, incredulity,
and contempt at
male entitlement,
while acknowledging that men are sometimes fueled in their
misbehavior by a stupid wistfulness (and,
of course, strong drink). Screening at the
festival in the midst of l’affaire Weinstein,
these humane, clear-eyed, heartbroken
comedies seemed more than a delight:
They came as a relief, and a welcome act
of conscience.
But they offered no solution. That remained for Kaurismäki to do in The Other
Side of Hope, his fable of a war refugee from
Syria finding help and comfort among people in Helsinki who don’t much care what
the authorities think. With a generosity
worth emulating, Kaurismäki gives his refugee (Sherwan Haji) key lighting worthy of a
1940s movie star, live performances of the
best Finnish rockabilly (played by musicians
who look like Frank Zappa forgot them in
a parking lot sometime in the ’80s), and a
conspiracy of newfound friends who are
unfailingly loyal, despite running the city’s
worst harborside restaurant.
It’s all very silly, in the face of the Syrian horrors and European brutalities that
Kaurismäki takes pains to acknowledge. To
these, he can counterpose only kindness,
community, humor, and art. These forces
are hardly enough to end an international crisis. But I believe they can save a
life, sometimes—and when found on the
screen, they make a film festival count for
more than a tally of masterpieces.
November 20/27, 2017
The Nation.
Puzzle No. 3448
29 Earth, between one pole and the other, is associated with
nine Across entries (7)
1 Doctor set up coil to produce healing applications (9)
2 One who protects consumers from decay with a 21 raised
3 Eventually become strangely nude inside of spa (3,2)
4 Soaring poem adopted by God’s band in the ’60s (3,5)
5 Fool takes loss at times in certain housing (6)
6 To begin with, Chaplin and MGM mascot playing a part
in African Queen (9)
7 Some Kenyans, initially, might avoid smoking after
intercourse (5)
8 Was in charge, for example, when ascending an overhang
14 What your eyes sometimes do: take it easy when restricted
by incomplete rule (5,4)
16 Is fellow brought in by sorcerer to be a bad boss? (9)
17 Rev. Spooner’s trade: automobiles for chocolate (5,4)
18 Park fan’s van lacks leads, like Bill Clinton (8)
1 Flawless piano (upright) rings loudly (7)
21 By chance, nurse hoisted a firearm (6)
5 Claimed organization makes a kind of point (7)
22 Females work on portent (5)
9 Pushed the original high-school-equivalency certificate?
23 Santa’s reindeer, for instance, upset company on a holiday
10 Communicated with Obama or Bush, and used no
introduction (9)
25 Religion is escape (5)
11 Hide flip-flops around rear of house to make sharp buzz (9)
12 Most important boundary in gym (5)
13 Type of feline finally made bloody (8)
15 Turkey infiltrates US spies, returning with nuclear power
19 Pronounced Cap’n Crunch, say, to be like some killers (6)
20 Dot warns unreliable narrator (2,6)
22 Ahead of the French, Horton heard one sound (5)
24 One periodical in a really vacuous make-believe (9)
26 Sways and vomits tea all over the place (9)
27 Climbing plant for want of which modgnik a was lost? (5)
28 Without artifice in Mexico City, you invested in pro-choice
group (7)
ACROSS 1 anag. 5 M(AG)ICAL (claim anag.)
10 RAT + I + O 11 F([e]IGHT + C)LUB
12 G(R AND F)ATHER 13 & 16D & 22
BEE + RHO + USE 14 anag. 17 hidden
19 C + REEP (rev.) 20 GO + SSAME + R (a
mess anag.) 23 BE + N(GALT)IGER
26 2 defs. 27 CO + BRA 28 rev. hidden
29 2 defs.
DOWN 2 hidden 3 B(ROAD + J)UMP
6 GAT + OR 7 C(EL + E.B.)RATE
8 [l]LIB + RETTO (rev.) 9 2 defs.
18 SCO[tch] + URGES 20 GON(DO)LA
(along anag.) 21 anag. (&lit.) 23 BAN + TU
24 GAB LE (rev.) 25 “Rome”
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