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The Nation October 9 2017

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The Nation.
Dispatches from
the Frontlines
of Resistance
No More Piecemeal Rights
A new
Nation series
October 2.
In her column “How to Win the
Culture War” [Aug. 28/Sept. 4],
Laila Lalami included an unnecessary adjective in the sentence
beginning “If Democrats give up
on women’s reproductive rights…”
(emphasis added), and thus inadvertently allowed right-wing
“Democrats” to set the terms of the
discussion. These Democrats have
always preferred that other people’s
rights be treated piecemeal; it’s a
delaying tactic.
Women’s rights necessarily include the right to make their own
medical decisions; this is too obvious
for debate. Either you are for women’s rights, or you’re against them.
If you’re against them, you have
no business in government in the
21st century.
I will tell that to Ben Ray Luján
or Bernie Sanders or any other damn
fool who thinks we should still be
patient, humble, and deferential and
beg for a little bit here and a little
bit there, please, if it wouldn’t be too
much trouble. Those days are gone,
boys. You don’t tell the people what’s
important; we tell you. Or your successors, if you haven’t the wit to listen.
Katharine W. Rylaarsdam
When Small Is Actually Big
“The Next Big Thing Will Be a Lot
of… Small Things” by David Bollier
[Aug. 28/Sept. 4] was the first article I have ever read that completely
articulated my sense of frustration
with the Democratic Party.
After the 2016 election, Barack
Obama was quoted as having said, “I
could have been elected a third time.”
I don’t think so. I certainly would
not have voted for him a third time.
I was completely disappointed by his
inability to rein in the big banks. Remember when he allowed Wall Street
bankers to reward themselves with
generous bonuses after they crashed
the world economy?
Although I hold little hope, I’ll be
sending copies of this article to my
senators and congressman in an effort
to get them on board with the vision.
Mary Kay Wiens
monmouth, ore.
When I began to read this refreshingly optimistic article, I had high
hopes for a winning alternative to
the economic status quo that David
Bollier so justifiably rejects. A radically new system is sorely needed!
But I was disappointed. I would love
to live in a world where everything
that affected me was localized and
transparent, where my needs were
met by the work of my own hands
and by bartering with my neighbors,
where my money was backed by
individuals I personally knew. And I,
too, am uncomfortable with having
most of my well-being controlled by
self-interested and powerful absentee
forces. Does that make me a “libertarian”? Hopefully not.
That said, I don’t wish to turn
over my greenbacks secured by the
cumulative real wealth of our sovereign nation in exchange for unsecured
local banknotes—that would be so, so
1890s. But neither do I wish to bail out
“investors” who currently hold $1,400
trillion in bank-issued derivatives and
“commercial paper.” If Bollier and
company want to launch a broad-based
radical movement for economic redefinition, I would suggest starting with
“repeal and replace” for the Internal
Revenue Code and then moving on to
adopt a sound monetary policy.
David Bollier might suspect that I
have a plan in mind. He would be correct, and I’d be willing to share it.
James M. Peterson
richfield, minn.
The Nation.
since 1865
Bernie’s Brilliant Bill
ingle-payer health care is not a new idea, not even here
in the United States, the only wealthy Western nation
without universal coverage. In 1944, President Franklin
Roosevelt proposed a Second Bill of Rights that included
“the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and
enjoy good health.” Roosevelt, of course, spoke at
a heady moment, when Democrats were signing up sor publicly acknowledges needs significant fixes.
as co-sponsors for sweeping national health-care Make no mistake, the latest Republican attempt
legislation. After Roosevelt’s death, Harry Truman to repeal and replace Obamacare—this time with
embraced the cause and agitated for it more aggres- the Graham-Cassidy bill—is in many ways stusively than any president since, only to be blocked pider and crueler than its predecessors. There
by a Red Scare that presaged McCarthyism, as is no Congressional Budget Office score yet for
well as a vicious campaign funded by the American this hasty, last-ditch effort, but replacing most of
Medical Association.
the Affordable Care Act with inadequate block
President Lyndon Johnson used his 1964 land- grants to states, along with other cuts, will easily
slide election to enact Medicare and
leave upwards of 32 million people unMedicaid, but the Democratic presidents
insured. Seemingly as a middle finger,
who came after him have pulled their
the bill disproportionately targets the
punches on health care—mostly promotblue states that expanded their Meding schemes to better organize the inicaid rolls. To this moral obscenity,
tersection of private and public care that
Democrats have been unified in saying
mirrored those once advanced by a dying
no. But what are they saying yes to?
breed of moderate Republicans.
Enter Senator Bernie Sanders. BuildAnd here Democrats have paid a
ing from a presidential campaign that
political price, not for compromising
rocked the Democratic Party establishon any eventual legislation, but for failment by putting unabashedly progresing from the outset to put forward a clear and sive proposals front and center, Sanders has used
simple vision of health care as a fundamental his newfound stature to assemble an unlikely coaliright. In 1993, Bill and Hillary Clinton produced tion of Democrats to back a “Medicare for All” bill.
a byzantine and dispiriting plan that blended new
The basic premise isn’t novel: Medicare for All
regulations, subsidies, mandates, and free-market has been introduced in the House of Representatives
competition in a stew they called “managed care.” by Congressman John Conyers for over a decade,
“We have no pride of authorship” over any aspect as well as promoted by groups like Physicians for
of the bill, they both conceded during the rollout. a National Health Care Program and the National
Lacking a moral center, the proposal died quickly Nurses United. Four years ago, when Sanders prounder a withering attack from the right and the posed a similar measure, he found exactly zero
insurance industry. Barack Obama, of course, was co-sponsors. Today he has 16, including prospecconsiderably more successful in this regard. But tive 2020 presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren,
he began the negotiations by preemptively taking Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker. So what changed?
single-payer off the table, despite having repeatGalvanized by the economic and social moveedly stated that such systems make the most sense. ments that found expression in Sanders’s camWith Obama’s punt, there went any room to nego- paign, Democrats are undeniably more willing
tiate even for a public option.
to embrace big ideas, even and especially in the
Now Democrats find themselves yet again age of Trump. As Hillary Clinton observes in her
defending a law that even its eponymous spon- memoir What Happened, “the conclusion I reach
4 DC by the Numbers: Leak
not into the abyss; 5
ICE-Nein; 8 Comix Nation:
Tom Tomorrow; 10
Trump delays response
to Mexican earthquake.
Sad!; 11 Snapshot:
Rohingya refugees
3 Bernie’s Brilliant Bill
4 Harvard’s Shame
John Nichols
9 The Score
Mike Konczal
6 Subject to Debate
Hillary Clinton Tells All
Katha Pollitt
10 Beneath the Radar
Winning Isn’t
Gary Younge
11 Deadline Poet
No Wall?
Calvin Trillin
12 The Future of BLM
Dani McClain
Activists in the Black Lives
Matter movement turn their
attention to the electoral
18 Trump and the
Triumph of Fear in
American Politics
Sasha Abramsky
Who let the presidential
candidate get away
with demonizing entire
Books &
the Arts
25 The Culture Veil
Joan W. Scott
30 Pilgrim Bell (poem)
Kaveh Akbar
31 Blaming the People
Jan-Werner Müller
34 In Free-Speech
Gara LaMarche
36 Films: Ex Libris: The
New York Public Library
Stuart Klawans
October 9, 2017
The digital version of this issue is available to all subscribers September 21
Cover illustration by Nurul Hana
October 9, 2017
The Nation.
Years that
Chelsea Manning
served of her
35-year sentence
Days that she
spent in prison
without trial
Number of
leaked by
Deaths in Iraq
from 2004 to
2009, according to those
Manning’s age
when she
released the
document trove
to WikiLeaks
—Gunar Olsen
has always
been the
thing that
any person
in society
can do.”
Chelsea Manning,
speaking in
September at one
of her first public
appearances since
being released from
military prison
from this is that Democrats should redouble our efforts
to develop bold, creative ideas that offer broad-based
benefits for the whole country.” On health care in
particular, according to a recent Pew survey, a major- Kowtowing to power is an old Cambridge tradition.
ity of Americans now believe that the federal governarvard is arguably the most elite of
ment should be responsible for making sure everyone
America’s elite universities, so how it
has coverage, and a majority of Democrats think that
positions itself in relation to official
single-payer is the best way to achieve that goal. All
power reveals much of what we need to
of this forms the context for the sudden popularity of
know about the balance between supMedicare for All, but there is also a quieter genius to
Sanders’s particular bill that helped bring about this posedly liberal academia and the illiberal officials who
would narrow the national debate. This is why stories
The Medicare for All Act of 2017 is unambiguous about how Harvard maintains that balance have for
about its goal: It would eliminate all private insurance decades generated headlines not just in the education
and replace it with a vastly expanded government pro- sections of great newspapers but on their front pages.
gram. Doctors, hospitals, and drug companies would When Cambridge tips too hard toward Washington,
make less, but everyone would have access to com- when it bends to political or media pressure, that’s newsprehensive health services—including dental, vision, worthy—and unsettling.
Harvard made a lot of unsettling news in midsubstance-abuse treament, and reproductive care—
September. The most jarring reports came
without any out-of-pocket costs. That is its
after CIA director Mike Pompeo used the
principle, and it is unwavering about it.
Casting out
bully pulpit afforded him as a docile member
The bill’s pragmatism lies in how it gets
of Donald Trump’s administration to attack
there. Medicare expansion would spool out
whistle-blower Chelsea Manning’s selection
over several years, first by enrolling chilat the
as a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School’s
dren under 18 and dropping the eligibility
CIA’s behest
Institute of Politics. Within hours of Pomage to 55, a step that even non-backers like
dishonors the
peo’s pronouncement, Harvard distanced
Senator Tim Kaine support. By its fourth
itself from Manning—an all-too glaring inyear, incremental expansions would finally
dication of the influence that the Trump
create a true Medicare for All program.
During that transition, many people who are uncov- administration and its allies have even over the most
ered would be able to buy into the system through respected institutions of higher learning and over the
provisions championed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, intellectual discourse that is supposed to flourish beyond
who supports the bill, and Senator Debbie Stabenow, the boundaries of inside-the-Beltway politics.
Pompeo announced on September 14 that he would
who doesn’t—yet.
Canvassing his fellow senators, including those who not appear at Harvard for a speaking engagement in prohave taken a wait-and-see approach, was key to Sand- test over Manning’s appointment. Attacking the former
ers’s ability to build a surprisingly broad base of sup- US Army intelligence analyst—who provided WikiLeaks
port, as was the backing of dozens of outside groups, with nearly 750,000 military and diplomatic documents
from to the Working Families Party to that she said revealed details of the “death, destruction
the United Mine Workers. That Sanders was one of and mayhem” in Iraq—as “a traitor to the United States
the most vocal defenders of Obamacare—even as he of America,” the CIA director told Harvard officials: “Ms.
consistently criticized it as insufficient—helped build Manning betrayed her country and was found guilty of
17 serious crimes for leaking classified information to
credibility, too.
Of course, Medicare for All is still a long way from Wikileaks. Wikileaks is an enemy of the United States.”
The next morning, the Institute of Politics revoked
becoming reality. Republican control of Congress and
the White House is the most obvious impediment, and Manning’s fellowship and apologized for offering it to her.
Manning tweeted that Harvard had decided to “chill
that’s before we see the insurance industry, the hospital
industry, and Big Pharma devoting every ounce of their marginalized voices under @cia pressure.” That’s a harsh
awesome power and influence to destroy it. And yes, assessment. But another set of headlines lent credence
there are still holdouts in the Democratic Party who carp to concerns that the university was kowtowing to the
about the costs, or insist that we have to focus on protect- right: The same week that saw Manning, a trans activist,
ing Obamacare first before going for single-payer—as if dismissed by the Kennedy School also brought word that
Harvard administrators had reversed the history departyou can’t do both at the same time.
But thanks to a deft mix of politics and policy from ment’s recommendation to admit Michelle Jones, a PhD
Senator Sanders, that faction shrank dramatically in the applicant who’d been released from prison after serving
past year. And that, in addition to its promise to not 20 years for killing her young son. Jones went to college
only improve the health but save the lives of millions of and began doing academic research while still incarcerAmericans, may be one of Medicare for All’s most en- ated, emerging as a paragon of the “model prisoner.”
during legacies—the beginning of the end of the Demo- Yet she was rejected by Harvard officials who, The New
cratic Party’s unthinking and self-sabotaging belief in York Times reported, were concerned about “a backlash
[from] conservative news outlets.” Jones is now in a PhD
the idea that principle and pragmatism can’t coexist.
Harvard’s Shame
October 9, 2017
program at New York University.
Manning offered another harsh assessment of
Harvard when she wrote that the revocation of her
fellowship illustrated “what a military/police/intel
state looks like—the @cia determines what is and
is not taught at @harvard.” But the facts were just
as harsh: The CIA director raised an objection to
Harvard’s invitation to a sharp critic of the agency,
and within hours that invitation was rescinded.
It is true that Manning was sent to prison for
her actions, and it is true that she’s a controversial
figure. But President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence in January—cutting decades off
her 35-year sentence. The 29-year-old analyst
turned activist walked free in May. Upon her
release, Sarah Harrison, the acting director of the
Courage Foundation and a former WikiLeaks
editor, said: “Chelsea deserves her freedom, and
the world’s respect, for her courageous, inspiring actions in 2010. Chelsea’s releases through
WikiLeaks helped bring an end to the US war on
Iraq, galvanized Arab Spring protesters and inspired subsequent truthtellers.” Daniel Ellsberg,
of Pentagon Papers fame, has spoken of Manning
as a “hero” and suggested that she was the victim
of “an unprecedented campaign to crack down
on public servants who reveal information that
Congress and American citizens have a need to
know.” Manning has been honored as a whistleblower by the German section of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms
and by the Federation of German Scientists, and
she has been awarded the Sean MacBride Peace
Prize by the International Peace Bureau and the
Sam Adams Award by the Sam Adams Associates
for Integrity in Intelligence.
In other words, Manning’s selection for a
Kennedy School fellowship made perfect sense
if the university intended to foster a serious dialogue about war and peace, intelligence gathering, and the public’s right to know. Yet there was
no serious dialogue about maintaining Manning’s
fellowship after Pompeo objected and former
CIA deputy director Michael Morell resigned
his Kennedy School fellowship in protest. There
was barely enough time for Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney—the daughter of the former vice president who famously obtained five
deferments to avoid military service during the
Vietnam War—to label Manning a “spy/traitor”
and call for cutting federal funds for Harvard to
protest its association with someone who actually
served in the Iraq War.
Cheney made noise. But Pompeo, as a key
player in the Trump administration, shook Harvard officials with a letter that growled: “Ms.
Manning swore an oath to the United States
Constitution, promised to protect her fellow
soldiers, and signed a commitment to abide by
the law. She did none of that and yet Harvard has
placed her in a position of honor.”
The Nation.
Recognition by the Kennedy School is viewed
as an honor. But this honor has often gone to
controversial figures. The Institute of Politics
that disinvited Manning welcomed as its first
“honorary associate” in 1966 the sitting defense secretary, Robert McNamara. That visit
sparked campus protests against McNamara’s
management of the Vietnam War. Harvard officials apologized to the defense secretary for the
student outburst, but McNamara would eventually acknowledge that he and his Pentagon team
“were wrong, terribly wrong” about the war that
the students had protested. McNamara would
also admit to filmmaker Errol Morris that when
he and Army Air Forces Gen. Curtis LeMay plotted the firebombing of Tokyo during World War
II, they “were behaving as war criminals.” Yet
McNamara returned frequently to Harvard in
his later “apology tour” years, even as the Times
editorialized with regard to his role in Vietnam
that “Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting
moral condemnation of his countrymen. Surely
he must in every quiet and prosperous moment
hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys
in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon
by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from
them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology
and stale tears, three decades late.”
This year, while Manning has been deemed
unacceptable, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer—whose blundering prevarications on behalf of the Trump administration made
him a national laughingstock—is being welcomed
as an Institute of Politics fellow. So, too, is Corey
Lewandowski, whom Boston Globe columnist Joan
Vennochi accurately identified as “the Donald
Trump acolyte known for bullying the press and
selling influence on behalf of the president.”
When he announced this year’s fellows, Institute of Politics interim director Bill Delahunt
claimed that the “diverse group of policymakers,
journalists, political advisers and activists provides a robust platform for dynamic interaction
with our students and the larger Harvard community.” But now, the fellow who risked and
then endured imprisonment in order to let the
American people know what was being done in
their name in Iraq—the fellow who has emerged
as an outspoken dissenter from the Washington
consensus regarding military policy, intelligence
gathering, and official secrecy—has been rejected. That didn’t happen because of new revelations regarding Chelsea Manning. It happened
because of the objections raised most loudly and
prominently by Pompeo, a secretive and conflicted Trump administration appointee whose
attacks on Manning confirm his determination to
silence open and honest debate about intelligence
gathering. When Harvard took its marching
orders from Mike Pompeo, the university was
wrong, terribly wrong.
Cold as ICE
n September 13,
Phoenix New Times
revealed that two
Motel 6 locations in predominantly Latino areas of the city
had been sharing their guest
lists with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, leading to at
(!/0ƫĂĀƫ..!/0/ƫ!03!!*ƫ!ruary and August of this year.
Across the country, ICE agents
have been arresting undocumented immigrants in locations
where they’re most vulnerable:
i E.%'ƫ
2%!.ƫ(+.!/ƫ!.** !6,
who fled his abusive family in
Mexico as a minor, was arrested
by ICE at a children’s shelter
on the day he turned 18.
i Immigration agents arrested Diego Ismael Puma
Macancela, a 19-year-old
Ecuadoran immigrant, at his
cousin’s house on the day of
his senior prom and the day
after they arrested his mother.
i Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, a
father of four, was pulled over
and arrested by ICE after dropping off his youngest daughter
at school in Los Angeles. His
wife and another daughter
were in the car with him.
i ICE agents have repeatedly
arrested undocumented immigrants at courthouses, even
when they were there to seek
protection from domestic abuse.
i ICE agents ate breakfast at
Sava’s Restaurant in Ann Arbor,
Michigan, and then proceeded
to arrest the kitchen staff.
i Sara Beltrán Hernández, an undocumented immigrant from El
Salvador and mother of two, was
removed by ICE agents from a
hospital where she was undergoing treatment for a brain tumor.
—Jake Bittle
October 9, 2017
The Nation.
enjamin Rachlin’s new
book, Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True
Story of Trial and Redemption,
discusses the case of Willie J.
Grimes, wrongfully imprisoned
for 24 years, and documents his
long, exasperating struggle for
freedom. But Grimes’s story is
far from unique. Here are a few
statistics on unjust incarceration in the United States:
i Post-conviction DNA testing leads to exoneration after a
person has spent an average of
14 years behind bars. The convictions of 71 percent of these innocent men and women involved
eyewitness misidentification; 41
percent of these cases involved
cross-racial misidentification.
i Innocent people in the US have
collectively served more than
18,000 years in prison since 1989.
i 47 percent of known exonerees
are black, and black people are
seven times more likely to be
wrongfully convicted of murder
than their white counterparts.
i One study estimates that at
least 4.1 percent of inmates on
death row would be exonerated if
they remained there indefinitely.
i 18 states do not compensate
exonerees for the years they’ve
spent behind bars: Alaska,
Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware,
Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas,
Kentucky, Nevada, New Mexico,
North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina,
South Dakota, and Wyoming.
i 74 of the 166 people who
were exonerated last year
pleaded guilty to crimes
they did not commit.
—Glyn Peterson
Katha Pollitt
Hillary Clinton Tells All
We need to reckon with the story told in What Happened.
illary Clinton can’t catch a break.
“Flawed” is attached to her name
like a Homeric epithet. Never
mind that she won almost 3 million more votes than Donald
Trump: She lost in three swing states by 80,000,
proof that she’s a horrible person who ran the worst
campaign ever. But what could you expect? She’s a
bitch and a cunt (men), or can’t-put-my-finger-onit-but-just-not-likable (women). She’s got a shrill
voice and thinks she’s oh-so-special. She voted for
the war in Iraq—true, so did John Kerry and Joe
Biden and that momentary darling of
the left, John Edwards, but her vote
was just… different. She supported the
1994 crime bill, which Bernie Sanders
voted for, but that was different too.
She gave those speeches to Goldman
Sachs. She’s too feminist, or not feminist enough, too liberal, too conservative, too tame, too outspoken, too
known a quantity—but also, who is she
really? And she’s too privileged—not
at all like Kerry, who married into millions, or, for
that matter, FDR. She was too hawkish for the left
but too female to be commander in chief for the
right—and why did she want to be president anyway, a question asked of no man ever but which she
faced a thousand times. Whatevs! Lock her up—if
not in prison, in a retirement home. Because have
I mentioned that she is old? Just Google “creepy
grandma grin.”
Now Grandma has written a book about the
campaign, and how dare she? Nobody wants to
hear from her—except maybe the 65,844,954 people who voted for her, the young women (yes,
young women) who waited in line all night to attend
her book launch in New York’s Union Square,
the readers who have made What Happened a No.
1 best seller, or the millions who watched her
interview with Rachel Maddow. After all, Hillary
writing a book about world-historical events on
which she has a unique perspective is nothing like
Bernie Sanders publishing a book one week after
Election Day, or Barack and Michelle Obama
getting a reported $65 million advance for their
memoirs, or any of the many other political figures
who have told their side of the story while people
still remember their names. Some actual headlines:
“Hillary, I love you. But please go away”; “Hillary,
time to exit the stage”; “Hillary Clinton Is Not
Sorry”; “no twinge of remorse.”
Actually, the book is one long twinge. I lost track
of the number of times Hillary blames herself. “I
felt that I had let everyone down. Because I had.”
“How did I let that happen?” she asks of the media’s
obsession with her e-mails. “I should have seen that
coming,” she says of the storm of criticism for those
lucrative speeches to bankers. “That’s on me.” “I
blamed myself. My worst fears about my limitations
as a candidate had come true…. I had been unable
to connect with the deep anger so many Americans
felt or shake the perception that I was the candidate of the status quo.” She spends
a whole chapter on her unsuccessful
attempt to repair the damage she did
by saying, “We’re going to put a lot
of coal miners and coal companies
out of business”—the unfortunately
blithe introduction to an empathetic
discussion of what the country owed
the miners and their communities. It
became an endlessly repeated out-ofcontext sound bite and branded her as
the Cruella De Vil of the white working class.
Obviously, she should don sackcloth and ashes
and crawl into the forest to die. But no, she dares
to say that others had a part in the way the election
went: Bernie Sanders, the media, James Comey,
Russia, fake news. CNN’s Dylan Byers is bothered
by that, tweeting: “The
Hillary Clinton ‘I-takefull-responsibility- Hillary has
but-here-are-all-thewritten a book
tour continues to be about worldintrinsically problem- historical events
atic.” I don’t see why.
All major events have on which she
multiple causes. The has a unique
left focuses on her rather mild jabs at Sanders, perspective. And
but her other critiques why not?
are far more serious—
and dead-on, too. The
media was at its worst: There was endless coverage
of the e-mail non-scandal (Chris Cillizza alone
wrote at least 50 columns!) and almost none of her
actual positions. While both candidates received
largely negative coverage, a curiously neglected
Harvard study shows that Trump’s platform got
more attention than his scandals, while for Hillary it
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Contrary to
the claims of
her critics,
book is one
long twinge
of remorse.
October 9, 2017
The Nation.
was the reverse. Comey’s interventions—especially his letter to Congress, just 11 days before the election, stating that
he was reopening his investigation into whether she had
mishandled classified documents—were disastrous. Without that announcement, Nate Silver strongly suggests,
Clinton would have won. (I just hope I live long enough to
learn why Comey kept quiet about the FBI’s investigation
of Trump’s Russia ties.) The steady drip of hacked e-mails
from the Democratic National Committee and the campaign itself, the dissemination of false stories on Facebook
through Russian bots and trolls—what Obama called “this
dust cloud of nonsense”—it adds up. An RT video called
“How 100% of the Clintons’ 2015 ‘charity’ went to…
themselves” was viewed 10 million times.
So what happened? As she acknowledges, Hillary—the
policy wonk, Girl Scout, and “lifelong fan of school supplies”—never quite grasped what she was up against until it
was too late. She is constantly being surprised: that Trump is
a grotesque and ignorant bully, that people are as angry and
irrational and sexist as they are, that the media isn’t more
interested in her carefully considered, achievable policies
on every social problem under the sun, that truth doesn’t
matter. She took too much pride in refusing to promise
everyone “a pony,” whether it was Bernie’s proposal for
single-payer health insurance and free public college (not
ponies in my view) or Trump’s promise to resurrect coal
mines and factories. That let Bernie and Trump, from different angles, put her in the position of being Mean Mom
to their Fun Dad. Mean Mom, of course, is the one who
makes sure that the vegetables are eaten, the homework gets
done, and the bills are paid on time, while Fun Dad makes
the kids feel they have power and life is exciting. In the end,
Mom got more votes, but Dad—both dads—got more love.
We’ll be paying for that for a long, long time.
October 9, 2017
The Nation.
Accidental Advocates
and improper processes. The subsequent crimes
showed, in retrospect, how wrong the Obama
administration was in not seeking prosecutions.
Wells Fargo also demonstrated the need for
an independent Consumer Financial Protection
Bureau, which was set up under Dodd-Frank.
Local newspapers and prosecutors discovered that Wells Fargo was abusing clients by
opening fake accounts in their names, but
there was little they could do about it: City
prosecutors are under-resourced and lack
the regulatory authority necessary to challenge a national bank. The CFPB, however,
was designed to take on just such malfeasance. Wells Fargo is the poster child for how
broken the regulatory structure is without
a dedicated consumer cop on the beat.
Which brings us to the Equifax scandal.
Equifax, one of the three main consumer-credit
data companies, is paid to spy on and compile all of your personal financial records. The
company holds sensitive data on almost every
aspect of our lives, yet
hackers were able to get
past their weak protection
Equifax’s calamitous blunder, more
systems. This is because
than any white paper, demonstrates
you aren’t a customer of
Equifax; you are the comthe need for strong new regulations.
pany’s product. As a result,
Equifax has no incentive to
whether the Dodd-Frank financial-reform act
provide you with good services. In the wake of
went far enough to ensure that a bank couldn’t
the hack, Equifax offered a credit-monitoring
suddenly collapse the economy. The incident
tool, but to use it consumers needed to sign a
led to fresh demands for higher capital requiremandatory non-arbitration agreement that said
ments, and derivatives regulators used their
they wouldn’t sue the company. (Equifax has
new powers to impose a $100 million fine on
since dropped this requirement after an outcry.)
JPMorgan for manipulating the credit markets.
These kinds of non-arbitration agreements
Or take criminal charges. As Jesse Eisinger
replace courts with a private judicial system of
discusses in his new book, The Chickenshit Club,
company lawyers, and they have since metasthe Obama administration decided not to agtasized across the entire economy. The CFPB
gressively pursue criminal charges against the
recently finalized a rule that would outlaw these
banks for wrongdoing in the financial crisis. Yet
mandatory agreements by financial companies
criminal conduct would go on to be rampant:
starting next year. Among other things, the rule
The banks knowingly manipulated key financial
would prevent Equifax from forcing people into
markets such as the LIBOR interest-rate and
arbitration after it goes into effect. Yet under an
the foreign-exchange markets. HSBC laundered
obscure congressional procedure, Republicans
money for Mexican drug cartels. Abuses in the
have the ability to repeal this rule with only 50
foreclosure chain resulted in people losing their
votes in the Senate. Though they might still do
homes through the banks’ fraudulent paperwork it, they’re having a harder time now, since they
would be on the hook for any further abuses.
As reported by David Sirota, Equifax was
one of the lead companies lobbying against
the CFPB rule. But Equifax’s calamitous blunder, more than any white paper, demonstrates
the need for strong new regulations to protect
our personal data. If the rule survives, we can
thank the companies whose own horrible gaffes
demonstrated the need for it in the first place.
Thanks, Equifax,
for Proving We Need
Tough Finance Reform
Yes, the data hack means
your identity is now for sale.
143 million people at risk
$ en
on 30 titie
m th ea s w
ar e c o
ke bl h rt
t ac
he financial sector is one of the
biggest enemies of reform and
accountability. Yet by consistently screwing up, it has also
become the most influential
advocate for outside regulation. Consciously
through malice, or unconsciously through its
size and complexity, it has time and again
demonstrated the importance of the existing
rules and the need for additional oversight.
Take JPMorgan’s “London Whale” scandal
of 2012. At the time, the company bragged of
its “fortress balance sheet” and opposed many
of the rules being put in place on the arcane
financial instruments known as derivatives. The
general idea was that the housing crash and
subsequent panic was a one-off event, and the
banks would be just fine monitoring themselves.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a JPMorgan
derivatives trader in London lost $2 billion. That
instantly killed any efforts to roll back regulations in Congress; instead, the worry became
credit-card numbers
But Equifax’s wrongdoing
went further than just
gross negligence.
Equifax waited 6 weeks
to disclose the breach.
3 executives sold stock
before the announcement.
A software fix available 2 months
earlier was not installed.
People were required to
sign away their
right to sue
before Equifax
would provide
any help.
Sources: Bloomberg, CNN
2017 Infographic: Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz
October 9, 2017
The Nation.
Gary Younge
Winning Isn’t Everything
On Shaky
t took President Trump
a week to send condolences to Mexico after
the country suffered its worst
earthquake in a century. Nearly
100 people died and over
15,000 homes were destroyed
in the 8.1-magnitude quake.
Trump’s reason for the delay?
Bad phone reception. “Spoke
to President of Mexico to give
condolences on terrible earthquake,” Trump tweeted. “Unable
to reach for 3 days b/c of his
cell phone reception at site.”
Ever since Trump’s election, relations between the United States
and Mexico have been strained.
In September, survey results released by Pew showed that the
US was viewed unfavorably by
nearly two-thirds of Mexicans,
the highest unfavorability rating
in 15 years and more than double
the figure from two years ago.
After a second devastating
earthquake on September 19
killed dozens of people in the
state of Morelos and destroyed
several buildings in Mexico’s
capital, Trump immediately
sent his condolences, tweeting: “God bless the people of
Mexico City. We are with you
and will be there for you.”
But a polite tweet following
a second disaster is unlikely to
make amends. After Hurricane
Harvey flooded Houston in late
August, the Mexican government
immediately offered food, power
generators, medical personnel,
and other forms of aid—help that
the Trump administration never
officially accepted. Here’s Trump’s
chance to return the favor.
—Miguel Salazar
n November 20, 2016, the Grenfell
Action Group, a tenants’ organization for a tower block of low-cost
housing in one of London’s wealthiest areas, issued a statement regarding the company that managed the property,
the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, titled “KCTMO—Playing
With Fire!” The tenants wrote: “[We] firmly
believe that only a catastrophic event will expose
the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord,
the KCTMO…. It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar
high density residential property is
the most likely reason that those who
wield power at the KCTMO will be
found out and brought to justice!”
These proved to be prophetic
words. Seven months later, in the
early hours of June 14, the 24-story
Grenfell Tower was consumed by
flames, leaving an estimated 80 dead
and 70 injured. In this building disproportionately inhabited by immigrants, people
of color, and the poor, some people leaped to
their deaths; others were burned alive.
Ordinarily, following a tragedy such as this,
the political implications would have been buried
even before the victims’ bodies had been recovered. In the version of requiem so often recited
by the political and media classes after a mass
shooting in America, sentimentality is privileged
over the critical faculties: “Now is not the time
for politics. Let us mourn instead.”
But this was no ordinary moment. The fire
took place less than a week after the British parliamentary elections. The Labour Party, led by
the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn, had run a campaign
arguing for the redistribution of wealth (including more social housing) and against austerity,
thereby challenging a consensus that had dominated British politics for a generation. As a result,
with these arguments still reverberating, the tragedy was immediately understood as the product
not of bad luck, but of bad policy.
With the black smoke still billowing from its
upper stories more than 24 hours later, Grenfell
Tower stood as an enormous sepulchre to the inhuman ramifications of inequality and neoliberalism. People started drawing a distinction between
the living standards of the emergency-service personnel, who risked their lives to save the tower’s
residents and have seen a significant decline in
wages following a seven-year public-sector pay cap,
and the ballooning wealth of those who live in the
nearby Kensington and Chelsea neighborhoods.
Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May
visited the first responders at Grenfell but failed
to meet with residents when she was initially
scheduled to do so—and when she finally did
manage to meet them, she was booed. Corbyn, on
the other hand, was embraced. None of this could
bring back those who had perished,
but thanks to the broader arguments
made during the weeks before, the
incident was framed as an avoidable outrage made possible by greed
and neglect.
Corbyn’s liberal detractors are
quick to point out that Labour did not
win the election. On this point they
are, of course, correct. Nobody won
it: The Conservatives emerged as the
largest party but lost their majority and, at the time
of the Grenfell fire, were still cobbling together
a shaky coalition with
Northern Ireland’s
Democratic UnionThe Grenfell
ist Party—the UK
equivalent of an only Tower tragedy
recently demilitarized was immediately
Tea Party. (Indeed,
the main reason Cor- understood as
byn’s supporters were the product
so buoyed by the result
was that his critics in not of bad
the party had predicted luck, but of
a humiliating defeat;
when Labour actually bad policy.
gained seats, the bar
had been set so low they couldn’t help but jump
for joy over it.)
But the fact that Labour lost doesn’t mean
nothing was gained as a result of Corbyn’s campaign. There is more to politics than elections,
and more to elections than just winning. This
doesn’t mean elections aren’t important: The
world would be a better place if the Conservatives weren’t in power, and even with their fragile
coalition, they can do a lot of damage. But the
The Labour Party may have lost the election, but it gained powerfully in influence.
October 9, 2017
terrain on which British politics is now being fought
is radically different thanks to Corbyn’s leadership and
the policies he set out. There is a different idea of the
progressive things that are possible and the regressive
measures that are no longer tolerable. A clear left alternative has been not only presented but found popular.
This has had two main consequences.
First, the Conservative government, fearing an assault from its left, has had to make important concessions regarding key pillars of its policies. Within a week
of the vote, the Tories all but conceded that austerity
had run its course. Recently, they declared an end to the
1 percent pay cap for public-sector workers. They have
also signaled that they may back down on education
cuts. Of course, none of these promises should be taken
at face value; to ensure that the Tories deliver, pressure
will have to be maintained.
Trail of Tears
Rohingya Muslims enter Bangladesh after
fleeing the massacres in Myanmar. More than
400,000 people have crossed the border
since the killing began.
The Nation.
Which brings us to the second point: that the return of
these alternatives to the public square, along with the electoral proof that they’re popular, has emboldened many to
keep fighting. Prison officers and firefighters have already
rejected the government’s enhanced post-pay-cap offer.
Meanwhile, the Tories lost a parliamentary vote to maintain the freeze on health workers’ pay and to impose a rise
in tuition fees. A poll shows that more than half of the
public thinks the pay cap is unjustified, and more of them
credit Corbyn for the change in policy than May.
Labour didn’t win the election, but it did win the argument. And while winning both would have been preferable, Labour’s ability to shift the frame of the debate will
make a concrete difference in the lives of many and lay
the foundations for more progressive interventions in the
future. Corbyn’s Labour Party still lacks power, but it has
gained powerfully in influence.
The terrain
on which British
politics is now
being fought
is radically
different thanks
to Corbyn’s
leadership and
the policies
he set out.
Calvin NO WALL?
Trillin From what has transpired in deals made this fall,
It’s possible that we’ll have no wall at all.
Deadline Trump’s backers are worried. They’d hate to resign
Themselves to not having a Maginot Line.
The Nation.
iCan the movement
win in the Trump era?
October 9, 2017
The Nation.
n june 1, the right-wing blogger and avowed white supremacist jason kessler and other alt-right
activists met for dinner on the patio of Miller’s Downtown, a popular burger joint in Charlottesville,
Virginia. The dinner was two weeks after white nationalists had gathered in the city’s Lee Park, wielding
torches as a kind of dress rehearsal for the mid-August “Unite the Right” rally that left counterprotester
Heather Heyer dead and dozens more injured. According to local reports, members of the white-led
group Showing Up for Racial Justice surrounded Kessler’s party that night at Miller’s, recording the
gathering on their phones and shouting, “Nazi, go home!” At a nearby table sat University of Virginia
professor Jalane Schmidt, who at the time was trying to establish a Black Lives Matter chapter in Charlottesville. As
black passersby stopped and showed interest in the confrontation, participants in the SURJ action directed them to
Schmidt’s table. She considers that night to be her group’s first real meeting. Schmidt knew that many BLM chapters were founded in response to police shootings. “It begins in a crisis,” she told me. “In our case, it was the crisis of
the alt-right organizing in our town.”
Despite reports to the contrary, the national constellation of racial-justice organizations loosely referred to
as the Black Lives Matter movement is alive and well.
It would be easy to think otherwise: BLM appears less
frequently in the news than it did between 2013 and last
year, when the movement responded forcefully in the
streets and online to a string of black deaths at the hands
of police. Now, when BLM is mentioned at all, it’s often
because a member of the Trump administration is issuing
a dog whistle to the president’s supporters, as was the case
last month when Trump’s personal attorney forwarded
an e-mail to conservative journalists characterizing BLM
as “totally infiltrated by terrorist groups.” But even in
more sympathetic portrayals, BLM is said to have lost
or squandered the power it began building in July 2013
following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. According to a recent
BuzzFeed article, BLM is beset by debilitating internal
rifts over direction and funding, preventing the movement from doing much at all to accomplish its aims.
But conversations with just over a dozen people in
the movement suggest otherwise. BLM organizers are
still in the streets in places like Charlottesville and Boston, where white supremacists mobilized this summer.
From St. Louis, Missouri, to Lansing, Michigan, they’re
engaging with electoral politics in new ways. And they’re
taking the time to reflect on and develop new strategies
for moving forward given the changed political terrain.
rump’s election, like his campaign, brought
a new fervor to efforts to crush black organizing
and roll back the gains made during the Obama
administration. Since last year, so-called “Blue
Lives Matter” bills, which increase the penalties
for offenses against police officers and in some cases
designate them as hate crimes, have proliferated in state
legislatures. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in
late August that President Trump would sign an executive order again allowing local police departments to
procure military gear like bayonets and grenade launchers. As president, Barack Obama had banned the transfer
of such equipment after protesters and police clashed
in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of Michael Brown’s
shooting. State legislatures are also considering laws
that make nonviolent public protest costly and, in some
cases, deadly: Lawmakers have tried to pass legislation
that limits civil liability for motorists who hit protesters
with their vehicles, as well as other legislation that puts
protesters on the hook financially for any police presence
their demonstrations require. “We haven’t seen comparable policies and practices since the McCarthy era,”
said Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter
“If we’re
Global Network, when I asked her whether the Trump
not creating era demands a new approach to black organizing. “So,
yes, our tactics do have to change.”
our own
The tactics may be evolving, but the organizers I spoke
independent with reminded me that in a “leader-full” movement such
as this one—that is, one that prizes collaborative and depolitical
centralized leadership—no one individual or group is in a
force to
position to decide for everyone else what tactics to prioritize over others. Still, it was clear from my conversations
that activists in leadership positions within BLM-affiliated
a potent
groups were expressing much more interest in electoral
politics than I’d heard in the past. “In the early stages
to our very of the movement, people were talking mostly about the
system and a system of criminalization,”
existence, criminal-justice
said Jessica Byrd, who runs Three Point Strategies, a conwe’ll be
sulting firm that she refers to as “the electoral political firm
of the movement.” These days, black organizers are turngone.”
— Alicia Garza, ing their attention to the electoral system as yet another
Black Lives Matter social structure that places black people at a disadvantage.
Global Network This means a new level of engagement in electoral politics as well as the interrogation of a system that diminishes
black voters’ power through the antiquated Electoral College, voter-suppression measures, and laws that disenfranchise people with felony convictions. “As much as we need
to change the people, we need to change the process,”
said Angela Waters Austin of Black Lives Matter Lansing,
whose chapter is coordinating a statewide get-out-the-vote
and political-education campaign called Election 20XX.
“What are the policies that continue to make a Donald
Trump possible? If he did not get a majority of the popular
vote, then why is he the president?”
As the 2016 presidential campaign unfolded, BLM activists gained a reputation for using disruption as a way to
push the movement’s key issues. At the Netroots Nation
conference that took place during the primaries, black
Dani McClain
activists famously interrupted the candidates’ forum with
is a contributchants and heckles. At one point, Tia Oso of the Black
ing writer with
Alliance for Just Immigration (the organization headed
The Nation and
by Opal Tometi, one of BLM’s three founders), took the
a fellow at the
stage. Soon after, Democratic candidate and former MaryNation Institute.
land governor Martin O’Malley stumbled with a tone-deaf
proclamation that “Black lives matter. White lives matter.
All lives matter.” Once Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders
had the floor, “he talked over the protesters, got defensive
about his racial-justice bona fides, and stuck to his [stump
speech],” Joe Dinkin wrote on The After
trying and failing to disrupt a New Hampshire campaign
appearance by Hillary Clinton, a BLM Boston member
asked her a halting, long-winded question that did the
favor of making her response—“I don’t believe you change
hearts. I believe you change laws”—come off as refreshingly sensible.
At the time, some progressives criticized these moves,
blaming BLM for undermining Democratic candidates
when the obvious threat, in their eyes, came from the
Republicans. But to many black organizers, these disruptions were a principled way to hold candidates who
claimed to represent their interests accountable. When
I asked her whether she wished that Black Lives Matter had endorsed Hillary Clinton in the general election,
Garza pivoted away from Clinton entirely and talked
about how the Democratic candidates had bungled their
BLM moment at Netroots. “When he was pressed, I
wish that Bernie had said, ‘Of course black lives matter,
and here’s what that means for me,’” she offered. Had
Sanders discussed how “we function under a gendered
and racialized economy” and done more to build relationships in communities of color, his run for president
would have received more support, she added. The
problem, in other words, is with candidates who alienate
black voters, not with BLM’s refusal to play nice.
As the midterm elections draw near, organizers are laying the groundwork for two new initiatives—the Electoral
Justice Project and the Black Futures Lab—that they say
will address this alienation and transform the ways that
black communities participate in the 2018 elections and
beyond. And for Byrd and Garza, each of whom is behind
one of these efforts, it is not the ascendance of Donald
Trump that demands a new kind of black political power.
The Nation.
October 9, 2017
(After all, despite the pressure that BLM
activists put on Democratic candidates
during the campaign season, 94 percent of black women voters backed Hillary Clinton, as did 82 percent of black
men. Black turnout “did come down,”
Kayla Reed, a movement organizer in
St. Louis, acknowledged. “But Democrats are not investing in areas where
they have a base.”) Instead, organizers
told me, to understand the movement’s
new energy around elections, you have to
understand Tishaura Jones’s failed campaign for mayor of St. Louis.
In March, Jones—then treasurer of
this largely Democratic city—narrowly
lost the party’s mayoral primary, 30 to
32 percent. Just six weeks earlier, she’d
been polling at 8 percent in a field of
seven Democrats. The winner was the
only white candidate in the pack with a
sizable following. That Jones came from
Battleground state:
behind to lose by just 888 votes suggested that she’d been
The white-supremacist underestimated by the mainstream media and more estab“Unite the Right” rally in
lished politicians. But the young black St. Louis residents
Charlottesville left one
who’d been energized by the protests in nearby Ferguson
counterprotester dead
weren’t surprised by her near-win: They had been workand dozens injured.
ing hard for Jones behind the scenes, sensing support for
her in black communities citywide and finding ways to
build on it.
Members of the St. Louis Action Council, which was
“You need
formed in the wake of the Ferguson protests, had started
teaching themselves the ins and outs of voter organizing
to know
what you’re a year earlier, when they’d gotten involved in the race
for St. Louis circuit attorney, the city’s top prosecutor
getting into
job. They asked the candidates their positions on issues
once you
like cash bail, juvenile detention, and marijuana decrimicall yourself nalization, and decided to endorse State Representative
Kim Gardner. Today, they claim some credit for getting
chapter. The Gardner into office, thereby helping to elect the city’s
right’s going first black circuit attorney. “From Kim’s campaign to
Tishaura’s campaign, we grew,” said Reed, who directs
to come
the St. Louis Action Council. “People trusted us more.”
after you.
In advance of the Democratic mayoral primary, Reed’s
You’re going group partnered with other local community organizations to hold a January debate, during which they quizzed
to need
the candidates on issues like economic development and
displacement, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the rela— Patrisse Khantionship between the police and black communities. AcCullors, Black
Lives Matter Global
cording to Reed, some of the questions were an effort to
determine how the candidates’ goals aligned with “A Vision for Black Lives,” the detailed policy statement that the
Movement for Black Lives released in August of last year.
(Reed also leads the Movement for Black Lives’ electoral
organizing committee. The Black Lives Matter Global
Network is one of more than 50 allied organizations that
comprise M4BL.) For the young black organizers, Jones
stood out: Her platform included a plan to place social
workers inside police departments, and she rejected calls
to hire additional officers. To Reed and others, Jones was
embracing a “divest framework” that echoed “A Vision
October 9, 2017
for Black Lives,” which calls for pulling resources out of
“exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police,
surveillance and exploitative corporations” and investing
those same resources in “the education, health and safety
of black people.”
The debate that Reed’s group co-hosted drew a crowd
of 1,500, and 33 percent of those who participated in an
exit poll indicated that they supported Jones, Reed said.
So the St. Louis Action Council paid little heed to the
8 percent that Jones had polled just days earlier. “What
we knew was that polls often do not speak to what’s actually happening in communities that are not [made up of]
regular voters,” Reed told me. By this point, she added,
she could feel the energy around Jones’s campaign in the
communities where she works. But she knew that the
campaign was doomed unless one of the other leading
black candidates agreed to drop out of the race.
Once the St. Louis Action Council endorsed Jones, it
threw its weight behind her for the next month, canvassing, getting out the vote, and partnering with the national
civil-rights organization Color of Change to tell 20,000
St. Louis residents via text messaging that Jones was its
endorsed candidate. In the end, it wasn’t enough. None
of the other black candidates—all of whom were men,
organizers point out—yielded to Jones, so the black vote
was split and a white alderwoman named Lyda Krewson
became the next mayor in a city in which black people
comprise a slim plurality (49 percent), and in a region
rocked by police shootings that have pushed questions of
systemic racism to the fore.
ones’s loss was a wake-up call to the movement’s leading organizers, and it made many of
them prioritize bringing the power they’d built
over the past four years into the electoral realm.
“We should play out each one of those races not
as a local race, but as a national race,” Garza told me.
“Nationally, we didn’t mobilize for Tishaura. Tishaura
should’ve been our Bernie. Stacey Abrams [a progressive
black woman vying to become Georgia’s next governor]
should be our Bernie.” That means offering hands-on, onthe-ground support, she said. “All of us should have been
sending caravans of people to St. Louis to knock on doors
if they wanted that.” Jones and Abrams aren’t the only
candidates that Garza thinks the movement can support.
Chokwe Lumumba, the black progressive who was elected
mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, in June, is another; so are
Pamela Price, running for district attorney in Oakland’s
Alameda County, and Andrew Gillum, running for governor in Florida.
Identifying exciting candidates like these and deploying
national resources to campaigns where they’re needed is
just one part of an electoral game plan, Byrd told me. In
November, she and Reed will launch the Movement for
Black Lives Electoral Justice Project, an effort to educate
and mobilize black voters that will kick off with town-hall
gatherings in cities throughout the South and in what
Reed calls “migration cities”: Midwestern cities with sizable populations of black Americans who moved north
during the Great Migration. Voter education will be essential to these efforts. “We don’t understand what the
The Nation.
“Tishaura should’ve
been our Bernie”:
Backed by a local
racial-justice group,
Jones finished second
in the St. Louis
mayoral primary.
BLM groups
often “begin
in a crisis.
Our crisis
was the
in our
— Jalane Schmidt,
organizer and
University of Virginia
A new level of
BLM leaders like
Alicia Garza are
more invested in
electoral politics than
ever before.
[ Justice Department] is doing, or what this executive order
signed by Trump actually means,” Reed said. “We want to
find a space to spark a continued conversation with a hope
of getting more people to these midterm elections.”
Garza is launching her own electoral organizing
project, called Black Futures Lab, this year as well. The
$3 million initiative involves creating an institute where
participants will learn how to craft and advocate for
policy change, as well as recruiting and training candidates and campaign staff. “If we’re not making decisions
about policy and about representation, if we are not creating our own independent, progressive political force to
counter what is a potent backlash to our very existence,
we’ll be gone,” Garza said, citing the imprisonment
and exile that black-liberation organizers have faced
throughout history. “Our ability to operate aboveground
will be severely compromised.”
For BLM activists, the key to success is keeping these
electoral efforts independent. “We’re not going to build
a black-voter mobilization project because one candidate
deserves it or the Democratic Party needs it,” Byrd said
of the Electoral Justice Project. “Black people deserve it.”
None of this means that organizers will be stepping
away from the tactics they used earlier in the movement.
Last summer, after five Dallas police officers were shot
dead after a protest and conservative commentators
laid the blame at the feet of Black Lives Matter, BLM
groups didn’t go quiet in an attempt to tamp down accusations that their actions led to the ambush. Instead,
activists from Black Youth Project 100, Million Hoodies NYC, the #LetUsBreathe Collective, and elsewhere
doubled down on direct action in the following weeks.
They showed up at the police-union headquarters in
lower Manhattan, at the Oakland Police Department,
and in Chicago’s Homan Square, the location of a warehouse where police detained and interrogated thousands
of people who had no proper legal representation. “For
us, it was about telling a certain narrative,” said Charlene
Carruthers of Black Youth Project 100. “Our movement
has a clear vision that doesn’t center itself around individual police officers. Our groups were being blamed,
without critical questioning of what we’d been doing for
the past several years.” (The Chicago group’s activities
The Nation.
should allay any doubts that black organizers can walk and chew gum at the
same time: Earlier in 2016, BYP100 participated in the successful citywide
campaign to oust State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.)
There have been fewer street protests calling for police accountability in
2017—partly because, in the wake of Trump’s ascent to power, there have
been protests about so much else. The anti-Trump resistance has no doubt
borrowed from the massive antiwar marches of the early 2000s and the Tea
Party protests in the first years of the Obama presidency, but BLM also provided a crucial blueprint, according to several of the organizers I interviewed.
BLM normalized confrontation and direct action, and recognized the underlying issues at stake. “Black Lives Matter begins this moment talking about
state violence, about militarization, fascism, authoritarianism,” said Dream
Hampton, an informal adviser to some movement organizers. “We had all
this analysis and framing that was absolutely correct.” And the fact that those
“Black Lives Matter” T-shirts, yard signs, and chants continue to be seen
and heard everywhere is further proof of the movement’s enduring impact.
“‘Black Lives Matter is only rivaled by ‘Make America Great Again,’” Hampton observed. “Don’t act like the phrase itself isn’t worth its weight in gold.”
n charlottesville, the phrase itself didn’t move jalane schmidt
much at first. “A hashtag does not a movement make,” she remembers
thinking. But once the “Vision for Black Lives” policy platform came
out, she was impressed. Schmidt had felt frustrated as she followed the
debates among local organizations regarding the city’s Confederate
monuments over the past year and a half, with conservative preachers and
a quiet, careful chapter of the NAACP serving as the official voice of black
Charlottesville. The city was becoming a focal point of white-supremacist
organizing, but the church leadership and legacy civil-rights organizations
had suggested ignoring their meetings and torch rallies. So Schmidt decided that it was time to start a BLM
chapter. “We saw a need to have another vehicle for black
mobilization in town, given the situation that we had,”
she said. At 48, Schmidt is older than the typical BLM
activist; but as a queer black woman, she appreciated the
role that other queer black women had played as the
movement’s founders. Black Lives Matter was also the
organization that was most consistent and outspoken in
its claims to be unapologetically black. Schmidt thought
she’d found a good fit.
At that first unexpected chapter meeting in Miller’s
Downtown, held “right under the noses of the white supremacists,” Schmidt collected the names and contact information of local people interested in getting involved.
“As much
As she and other core members learned about more altas
we need
right and neo-Nazi rallies planned in their community,
to change
they reached out to national BLM organizers for guidance and support. David Vaughn Straughn, another core
the people,
member of the Charlottesville group, remembered his
we need to
frustration as he tried e-mail address after e-mail address
listed on the BLM website—for organizers in New York,
Chicago, Boston, Denver, and Washington DC, and on
and on—and received no response. Eventually he made
— Angela Waters
contact, and the fledgling chapter got on a call with PaAustin, Black Lives
trisse Khan-Cullors, a BLM Global Network co-founder,
Matter Lansing
and Nikita Mitchell, BLM’s organizing director. But the
conversations around strategy never clicked. “Organizing
in a small Southern town is different from organizing in
a big city,” Schmidt said. “In a big city, you can use these
big, disruptive tactics and then fade back into the woodwork of 3 million people. Here, the people we might piss
off—we’re going to have to work with them next week.”
October 9, 2017
There was also the question of whether their group
would be allowed to carry a BLM banner during the
“Unite the Right” counterprotests. Though the BLM
Global Network doesn’t require local groups to clear their
decisions about actions or tactics with the national group,
it does require new groups wishing to organize under the
Black Lives Matter mantle to go through a series of conversations and trainings before officially using the phrase
in their name. According to Schmidt, she asked KhanCullors: “There are going to be all these white people
there wearing ‘Black Lives Matter’ T-shirts, but we’re not
allowed to [call ourselves a BLM chapter or march under
a BLM banner]?” The national group at first said no, then
reversed itself a few days before the events that would garner national attention for the eruption of violence and the
displays of white-supremacist hatred. The Charlottesville
group is still not an official chapter, but the BLM Global
Network amplified its call to action on the national organization’s social-media channels just before the weekend
of August 12. “Had that amplification been given sooner,
I think we would have had more individuals coming down
and helping us defend our city,” Straughn said. “I just wish
I had more of a personal connection with somebody who
could’ve got the ball rolling a little bit quicker.”
Khan-Cullors is open about her regrets. “It’s really unfortunate that we took too long” to respond to the black
activists in Charlottesville, she told me. “It’s always hard
to tell what needs a rapid response.” In my conversation
with her, what at first might sound like bureaucratic pettiness came across instead as an expression of the difficulties that any national organization faces as it goes through
the pains of rapid growth. The BLM Global Network has
reason to tread carefully when it comes to authorizing
new groups: It is now the target of two lawsuits brought
by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who claim
that BLM has created an unsafe environment for law enforcement. Groups calling themselves BLM chapters, but
lacking the training that Khan-Cullors and Mitchell offer, have engaged in actions—such as inflammatory chants
picked up and broadcast by the media—that provide fuel
for such legal claims. “You need to know what you’re getting yourself into once you start calling yourself a BLM
chapter,” Khan-Cullors said of the responsibility she
bears. “You’re going to get a lot of publicity. The right’s
going to come after you. You’re going to need security.”
A highly visible four-year-old movement and the national organization that emerged from it are bound to
stumble when it comes to providing resources, training,
and support to places across the country faced with crisis.
Nowadays, that feels like everywhere, and black organizers are meeting the challenge with a spirit of experimentation. Rather than creating chaos, they’re looking for a way
out of it. “We are reflective of the needs of hundreds of
thousands of people in this country who have been feeling
that the government cannot and will not do its job,” said
Shanelle Matthews, the communications director for the
BLM Global Network. Electoral organizing, street protests, disrupting Democratic events, and crafting new and
visionary policies are all ways to begin to meet the challenge, Matthews added. “However nimble we need to be
to approach that, that’s what we’re going to do.”
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October 9, 2017
The Nation.
He demonized entire races and religions and celebrated
torture during the presidential campaign—and still won.
Torture had, by that point in the campaign, become Trump’s leitmotif—and he did far more than
applaud the waterboarding sanctioned by George
W. Bush’s administration, as if that weren’t bad
enough. Time and again, Trump urged his crowds
of supporters on by dangling before them the prospect of violence for violence’s sake. Time and again,
he flaunted his contempt for international norms
by embracing torture—the word, for so long taboo,
as much as the deed—as an official policy of state.
And yet he never defined exactly what kind of
state-sponsored torture he was advocating, or exactly what actions he sought to make the courts, the
military, and the general public complicit in.
More than half a millennium ago, as the Spanish
Inquisition gathered steam,
the fanatical grand inquisitor, Tomás de Torquemada,
wrapped himself in the
mantle of faith and declared
that he would torture to
save souls and destroy heretics. The Inquisition began
by liberally employing tormento del agua (a technique
the US military and intelli-
n late march 2016, a series of
powerful bomb blasts killed nearly
three dozen people at the international
airport in Brussels, Belgium, as well as
in a train carriage pulling out of one of
the central city’s busy stations.
Within hours of the atrocity, then–
presidential candidate Donald Trump
had taken to the airwaves and to Twitter. He didn’t make statements expressing moral and
emotional solidarity with the victims and their families. Nor did he talk about the extraordinarily complex political and intelligence challenges confronting
multicultural Western societies in the face of the ISIS
attacks. Instead, he used his
platform to proselytize for
torture. Salah Abdeslam,
the recently captured suspect in the previous year’s
Paris attacks, would, said
the presidential hopeful,
have talked “a lot faster with
the torture,” and in doing so
might have spilled the beans
on his confreres in Belgium
before they could launch
their own attacks.
October 9, 2017
gence agencies rebirthed after 2001 with the label “waterboarding”). When this method failed to extract the
desired response, Torquemada’s team moved on to more
drastic methods, such as the strappado, in which the victims had their hands bound behind their backs and then
were hung by them from a rope; and the infamous rack,
on which the victims were stretched slowly, dislocating
joints and destroying muscles, ligaments, and bones. The
list of the Inquisition’s torture techniques is long, and its
legacy wafts through the centuries—a potent reminder
of the horrors that a handful of fanatics can unleash on a
civilization. More than five centuries later, Torquemada’s
name still evokes cruelty and extremism.
In the 18th century, Enlightenment philosophers like
Cesare Beccaria and Voltaire sought to discredit torture
as a legitimate tool of the state. It was, they argued, a relic
of barbarism, both unjust and ineffective. In the democratic age that was then dawning by fits and starts, torture
would have no official place. It could not be a formal part
of the legal system, nor could it be publicly defended by
those claiming their right to govern from the people and,
as their reason for governing, to serve the people.
This didn’t mean that torture disappeared; far from it.
But the Enlightenment critique did lead to a public rejection of the practice. When it did continue, it was either
in dictatorships or, in democracies, hidden deep in the
shadows, used in extreme situations but never publicly
acknowledged. The legal and linguistic wiggle room that
democracies created to insulate themselves from charges
of torture speaks to the grave moral opprobrium that was
directed toward the practice.
Which is why Donald Trump and his supporters’
extraordinary embrace not just of acts of torture but
of the word itself was a watershed moment. Here was
a man vying for the highest office in the United States,
as a candidate of one of the two major political parties,
who wanted to turn into a moral good, to romanticize,
acts of savage violence that for hundreds of years had
been regarded as beyond the democratic pale. In speech
after speech, Trump’s rhetoric normalized the extraordinary, making torture simply one more part of the state’s
standard tool kit, as run-of-the-mill as fingerprinting or
booking. This truly was the banality of evil described by
the philosopher Hannah Arendt.
In front of his adoring crowds, Trump played the
Beyond the pale:
This etching depicts a
priest supervising his
scribe while prisoners
are tortured during the
Spanish Inquisition.
Trump has
bigotry and
given the
of a major
party to
tough guy well. They wanted theater, and he provided it.
They wanted cathartic violence, and he offered it up to
them in spades. He was like the Mafia figure in cinema
who intimidates and thrills his audiences by talking about
his enemies “sleeping with the fishes.” But for all the bravado, the reality-TV star turned presidential candidate
never actually got down and dirty and explained to his audiences—especially those people in the military—exactly
what he would be asking them to do when, as president
and commander in chief, he authorized “the torture” and
a “hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
Would he make them dismember ISIS recruits limb
from limb? Would he order them to impale suspects
slowly on spikes? Would he have them, as the Nazi Gestapo did with their victims, hang terrorism suspects
from meat hooks? Would he have enemy fighters disemboweled, as partisans did during the brutal Russian
civil war that followed the 1917 revolution? Would he
order psychiatrists to break the minds of dissidents and
terrorists, as Soviet medics did under Stalin? Would he
order soldiers to throw young men and women out of
helicopters and airplanes into the ocean, as Argentina’s
military dictators did in the 1970s and ’80s?
Or would he ask them to force confessions out of
suspects, like the rogue police unit on Chicago’s South
Side that I wrote about in the 1990s, by tying them to
scalding-hot radiators, by mock-executing them, or
by using the Vietnam War–era “telephone” torture, in
which electrodes are clipped to the victims’ genitals and
a windup device, like a field telephone, is then cranked to
deliver devastating electric shocks?
hese are not the kinds of questions that
one normally asks a leading presidential hopeful. But then again, no serious candidate for the
American presidency—or for the leadership of
any other functioning modern democracy—
had ever fetishized torture the way Donald Trump did.
No modern presidential candidate had declared entire
races and religions to be the enemy. And no leading candidate had sung the song of fear as perfectly as did Trump
to his angry, vengeful, and deeply fearful throngs.
As the real-estate mogul’s campaign gathered steam,
one saw in Trumpism the interweaving of a host of
fears—of immigrants, of Muslims, of domestic crime
and criminals, of changing cultural mores, of refugees, of
disease—and a host of deeply authoritarian impulses. In
such a milieu, it became acceptable to bash refugees fleeing appalling conflicts, and even to argue—as did several
GOP hopefuls during the party’s presidential primary—
that only Syria’s Christian refugees should be admitted
into the country.
Less than two months after the November 2015 terrorist atrocity in Paris, Trump released a half-minute
television commercial. “The politicians can pretend it’s
something else,” a narrator intoned, “but Donald Trump
calls it radical Islamic terrorism. That’s why he’s calling for a temporary shutdown of Muslims entering the
United States until we can figure out what’s going on.”
After another few seconds devoted to the candidate’s
plan to build a wall to seal off the United States from
October 9, 2017
from New York to seduce young white Maine women,
and calling for drug dealers to be guillotined—told the
crowd that asylum seekers were the carriers of all sorts of
diseases, including something he referred to as the “ziki
fly.” This was presumably a reference to the Zika virus,
carried by mosquitoes and at that moment striking fear
not throughout the Middle East but in Latin America,
the Caribbean, and the southernmost reaches of the
United States.
Travel-ban protest:
Members of the
Yemeni community
and others wave US
and Yemeni flags at
Brooklyn’s Borough
Hall, February 2.
Sasha Abramsky
is a frequent contributor to The
Nation. This
article is adapted
from Jumping at
Shadows: The
Triumph of Fear
and the End of
the American
Dream, published
in September by
Nation Books,
an imprint of
the Hachette
Book Group.
Mexico, the footage cut back to Trump. His anti-immigrant solutions, he shouted out to an enthusiastic crowd,
would “make America great again!”
Throughout the primary season and the general-election campaign, Trump ginned up his crowds by calling for
the mass execution of terrorism suspects, by advocating
collective punishment and “the torture,” and by mocking
Muslims for their dietary rituals and religious beliefs.
These words aren’t just empty slogans. They come
with consequences, and they legitimize bigotries and
hatreds long harbored by many but, for the most part,
kept under wraps by the broader society. They give the
imprimatur of a major political party to criminal violence.
In the five days following Trump’s December 7, 2015,
announcement that he would seek to ban all Muslims
from entering the country, hate crimes against Muslims
surged. When researchers at California State University, San Bernardino, analyzed crime data from the period, they found a shocking 87.5 percent increase in such
crimes against Muslims in that five-day period compared
with the same week in 2014. Taken as a whole, in the 20
states that the researchers looked at, anti-Muslim crimes
increased by 78 percent in 2015 over the previous year.
A demagogue such as Trump connects best with a
scared audience, with people so addled by fear that they
cease to think rationally. Trump’s appeal, as he mowed
down his Republican primary opponents and contested
the general election, wasn’t based on how he hewed to
facts but on how he played to emotions. That many of
his statements were spun out of thin air was far less important to his cheering crowds than that he seemed to
connect with their anxieties about a world run amok.
It was the same playbook used by a slew of Tea Party figures in the years leading up to Trump’s eruption
onto the national political stage. In mid-February 2016,
Maine Governor Paul LePage, a self-made businessman
who’d won election as part of the Tea Party sweep of
2010, addressed a town-hall meeting in which he urged
stringent restrictions on the admission of Syrian refugees into Maine. LePage—whose political résumé was
full of such controversial acts as ordering officials to
destroy a mural on the Department of Labor building
showing striking trade unionists in a positive light, talking about African-American drug dealers coming north
here are, in modern america, friction
zones, spaces both physical and psychological,
where our dreams coexist with our nightmares,
where opportunity and despair intermingle,
where innocence and depredation collide. In
these zones—along the US-Mexican border, where fears
of invasion and terrorism loom like grotesque caricatures;
in our terrors about children being abducted, raped, or
killed; in neighborhoods that serve as buffers between
decayed and desperate ghettos and wealthy suburbs; in
the anxiety we feel at airport security lines, as the convenience of interconnected travel clashes with our fear of
terrorists—in all of these places, different rules apply.
Out of these nightmares, demagogues like LePage and
Trump can rise: would-be leaders who promise quick and
violent fixes to deep and intractable problems. In the friction zones, anything goes—up to and including torture.
It is on the border, for example, that undocumented
migrants caught by the Border Patrol frequently have
their faces pushed into cactus spikes. It is in our suburbs
that parents who allow their children to play outside, or
single moms who leave their kids unattended while they
head off to job interviews, can find their lives uprooted
by hostile personnel from Child Protective Services.
It is in poor neighborhoods that men—and it’s usually
men, although, as the Sandra Bland case shows, poor
women aren’t immune from this treatment—can be
yanked from cars and savagely beaten or killed by the
police on nothing more than a hunch or a whim. It is in
these friction zones that our sense of decency is most aggressively undermined and our willingness to embrace
unsavory policies and law-enforcement practices is most
viscerally displayed.
In an age of anxiety, it is too easy to assume that
everyone has fallen into the fear trap, that the choice
isn’t whether to fear but simply what to fear. This was
Trump’s demagogic gamble—and, in the short term, it
paid off for him hugely. It is also too easy to assume that
the most debased style of political rhetoric will always
work; that political speech that sows discord will drown
out that which seeks unity; that race- and religion-baiting will beat the language of universalism.
Yet even in a season of rage, there are people everywhere who insist on bucking the trend—people who
understand that the language of fear and hatred is often
simply a manifestation, in mutated form, of deeply unfair power relationships. Theirs are the stories that we
must nurture: Their more optimistic understanding of
community is the one that offers a way forward in an
age too often paralyzed by anxiety and rendered brutal
by our epidemic of fear.
A national-affairs correspondent for The Nation, coveted MSNBC political analyst, and author of
the award-winning What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America,
Joan will be sharing exclusive insights from her coast-to-coast reporting on a range of issues,
from the disastrous state of the Republican Party, to the unraveling of Trump’s presidency, to
why first-time female candidates could be the key to taking back statehouses nationwide.
We’ll also be joined by Katrina vanden Heuvel, Dave Zirin, Dorian T. Warren,
Calvin Trillin, Victor Navasky, and others. (See our site for the full list.)
Holland America | MS Westerdam
Ports of call in Mexico: Cabo San Lucas | Mazatlán | Puerto Vallarta
A full list of speakers can be found on our website:
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Books & the Arts.
Two women protesting against anti-veil policies outside the French Embassy in London.
The real crisis of European multiculturalism
n the fast train from Brussels to
Paris a few years ago, I met a
young woman from the Philippines who was taking a weekend
holiday from her job in Belgium
to visit France for the first time. As the
train entered the outskirts of Paris, she
turned to me and said in surprise, “I
didn’t realize the French were a black
Joan W. Scott is the author of The Politics
of the Veil. Her new book is Sex and
people.” It was my turn to be surprised,
until I looked out the window and saw
that we were in the banlieues, the segregated neighborhoods consisting largely
of West and North African “immigrants” that ring the city. I put “immigrants” in scare quotes because many of
these people are long-term residents of
France; indeed, many of them are citizens. The word is nonetheless regularly
used in France to distinguish them from
the Français de souche—the legitimate
(white) members of the nation.
“Immigrant” has become a kind of
epithet these days, and not only in France.
Everywhere in Europe, and also in the
United States, immigrants are blamed
for all manner of problems: crime, unemployment, disease, the deterioration of
public services, the exhaustion of public
funds, threats to liberal culture and mores.
Right-wing populist politicians in nearly
every country of the Western Hemisphere
appeal to voters with plans to cleanse the
national body of these impure invaders,
to expel them, to build walls to keep them
out. References to a “crisis” of immigration
have become a convenient way to talk about
many other things as well: race, ethnicity,
religion, gender, and, especially, the human
costs wrought by global capitalism and the
growing inequalities it has engendered within
and across the nations of the world.
These references to an “immigrant crisis” antedate the arrival of waves of refugees
fleeing war and violence in Africa and the
Middle East; the recent refugees have only
heightened the discourse. Three new books
attempt to see beyond the contours of the
current crisis and to tap into a deeper set of
economic, political, and cultural anxieties.
Rita Chin’s The Crisis of Multiculturalism in
Europe offers a comparative history of the
ways in which politicians in several Western
European nations have dealt with growing
numbers of non-Western immigrants from
the 1950s to the present. Sara R. Farris’s In
the Name of Women’s Rights examines the
unlikely convergence in recent years among
right-wing nationalist political parties,
neoliberals, and certain feminists around
the question of “emancipation” and nonWestern—particularly Muslim—women in
France, Italy, and the Netherlands. Rafia
Zakaria’s Veil shifts the balance away from
white secular Europe toward the experience
of Muslim women, mapping the stereotypical representations of the veil in Western
culture and then reflecting, in an intensely
personal way, on the many meanings that
the veil can have for the people who wear it.
Despite their differences, these three
books illuminate how Western liberal democracies, since the 1950s, have struggled
to develop strategies to manage diversity in
societies once considered homogeneous—
secular, white, and Christian. Although some
of the nations of the West were long used
to assimilating other Europeans, the arrival
of former colonial subjects was a different
matter. Viewed through the racist lens that
had justified imperial conquest, these brown,
mostly Muslim people were seen not only as
different but as inferior. Their difference was
also seen as a threat to European national
identity. It was one thing to tolerate their
presence as a temporary solution to shortages of labor; it was quite another to consider
them and their families as permanent residents with the equal rights of fellow citizens.
n her well-researched volume, Rita
Chin, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, provides detailed
information about the different policies
developed in the countries she studied:
France, Germany, Britain, Switzerland, and
The Nation.
The Crisis of Multiculturalism
in Europe
A History
By Rita Chin
Princeton University Press. 384 pp. $35
In the Name of Women’s Rights
The Rise of Femonationalism
By Sara R. Farris
Duke University Press. 272 pp. $25.95
By Rafia Zakaria
Bloomsbury. 136 pp. $14.95
the Netherlands. By comparing them, she
highlights not only their different policies
but also their overarching similarities: Cultural racism is the underlying stance taken
in the face of increasingly diverse ethnic and
religious populations.
Chin calls this diversity “multiculturalism,” a term that—despite a whole chapter
devoted to its various definitions—remains
confusing in her various usages. It is Chin’s
word for describing an objective reality and
for invoking the policies that developed in
response to this reality. It is also an epithet
employed by European politicians in the
1990s to distinguish their policies from
the reviled American ones, which viewed
multiculturalism as a positive respect for
ethnic and racial differences. By using the
same word to denote the nature of diverse
populations and the discourses about them,
Chin’s study loses a certain analytic acuity.
Still, it offers a rich historical account of the
continuities and changes in immigration
policy in the countries she studied.
Chin’s account begins with labor recruitment. She notes that guest-worker
programs took off after World War II and
flourished in the expanding economies of
the 1960s. When European laborers were
scarce, men were recruited from the former
colonies: “The twin concerns of empire
and labor…drove the emergence of multicultural societies.” For these newcomers to
Europe, programs were set up by their hosts
that encouraged expressions of religious
and cultural difference as a way of maintaining the workers’ attachments to their
countries of origin and in the expectation
that when the jobs were done, they would
return home. For example, religious leaders
were imported from these workers’ home
countries. The policies had little to do with
multiculturalism, in the sense of positively
recognizing the plural nature of European
nations. In fact, it was quite the opposite:
October 9, 2017
They sought to ensure the disposable and
replaceable nature of the migrant labor
force as a “reserve industrial army.”
When guest workers were no longer
needed during the economic downturn of
the 1970s, Western European leaders moved
to close their nations’ borders and end the
recruitment of foreign labor. But they were
faced with a dilemma they couldn’t easily
resolve: These workers had been bringing
their families in the preceding decades with
an eye to settling on European soil, and
they had been living in Europe in communities that had been encouraged through
various state-sponsored programs to express
their religious and cultural differences. Now
Western European countries had to come
to terms with their own labor and cultural
policies, having inadvertently brought the
empire home. “The nearly twenty-five year
scramble to procure foreign workers,” Chin
writes, “had resulted in the permanent settlement of transient labor that was increasingly nonwhite, non-Christian and nonEuropean.… Communities of different ethnicities, cultures, and religions increasingly
lived side by side with the British, French,
Dutch and Germans, spawning multicultural societies throughout Western Europe.”
An aspect of this story that Chin doesn’t
emphasize enough is the vast economic
problem posed by the presence of these
now unemployed or underemployed surplus laborers and their families, who found
themselves doubly disadvantaged by their
cultural difference. But she does describe
in detail the various strategies that national
leaders developed to deal with the presence
of these guests who had now overstayed
their welcome. The strategies included
policies that promoted views of ethnic and
racial groups as separate, balkanized identities and euphemisms about improving
“race relations” that denied the structures
of discrimination that poisoned them.
These strategies also included calls for
assimilation and integration that placed
the burden of religious and cultural accommodation on the migrants themselves. For
the most part, Western European countries
did not want to acknowledge “how radically
their societies had changed,” and many
politicians sought to depoliticize a situation
that would soon explode, despite their best
efforts, into furious debates about race, immigration, and national identity in the late
1980s and 1990s.
For many countries in Western Europe,
1989 seems to have been a turning point:
the moment when a series of developments
focused new attention on immigrants, espe-
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cially Muslims. In France, the celebration
of the bicentennial of the French Revolution coincided with an important electoral
victory for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National
Front (attributed to the success of his antiimmigrant campaigns) and the first of the
affaires du foulard (the attempt to prohibit
girls wearing Muslim head scarves from
attending public schools). The Berlin Wall
also came down in the fall of that year,
opening up discussions on the meaning of
democracy (free markets and sexual liberation included), as well as a flood of cheap
immigrant labor from Eastern and Central Europe. These new immigrant workers
were considered a problem, but nowhere
near as much as Muslims, especially after the
Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against
the novelist Salman Rushdie, creating an
international cause célèbre and hardening
many liberal Europeans’ views on the subject of Islam.
Chin points out that the fatwa was particularly decisive for many Europeans who
were already worrying about the growing
number of Muslim immigrants and citizens
within their countries. “For many Western Europeans,” she writes, “this was the
moment when Muslim immigrants with
diverse national origins merged into a single, distinctive category. This was also the
moment when Islam was first identified
as unbending, an intolerant religion that
explained Muslim immigrants’ failure to
properly integrate…. [T]his was the pivotal
juncture when Islam itself came to be seen
as a central threat to ‘liberal values’…across
all the major Western European powers.”
As many celebrated the victory of liberal
democracy over communism, commentators also began to point to the “failure” of
multiculturalism and its policies of recognition and appreciation of diversity. But what
they meant by “failure” was not that the
policies failed to create more welcoming
societies, but rather that Muslim culture
simply wasn’t compatible with the national
traditions of European countries. Throughout Europe, “their” culture was defined as
antagonistic to “ours.” In what some critical
scholars came to call “the new racism,” culture became a byword—and not only among
the European right. As Chin notes, it had
“supplanted biology as the key marker of
incommensurable difference.”
Chin cites comments by Margaret
Thatcher in 1978 as an example of what she
characterizes as this new wave of “cultural
nationalism.” Reacting to a report that projected the arrival of millions of people from
Pakistan in the United Kingdom by the end
The Nation.
of the century, Thatcher observed: “Now,
that is an awful lot and I think it means that
people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with
a different culture. The British character has
done so much for democracy, for law and
done so much throughout the world that if
there is any fear that it might be swamped,
people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.”
his increasingly politicized fear of
European culture being “swamped”
soon became a “clash of civilizations,”
a term coined by the Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis in 1990 and then
popularized in a 1993 article by the political scientist Samuel Huntington. The term
deliberately evoked the religious wars of the
medieval period in order to rally the forces
of contemporary Western Christian secularism in a crusade against the Muslim enemy.
To disarm this foe, the states of Western
Europe enacted laws and regulations that
ranged from criminalizing certain individual
displays of religious affiliation to limiting
the height of the minarets on mosques. In
their attempts at containment (euphemistically referred to as “integration”), these
European nations tightened the eligibility
requirements for entry and naturalization,
as well as proposed tests of cultural literacy
and linguistic mastery for migrants from
Muslim and other non-Western countries.
In effect, as the sociologist Sara Farris points
out, immigrants were expected to possess
knowledge of their new country “before the
actual contact with [it] begins.”
Farris’s In the Name of Women’s Rights is
more theoretical in its approach, offering
a supplement to Chin’s historical narrative
that focuses on the specific question of nonWestern women migrants, most of whom
are Muslim. Whereas Chin offers one chapter on women and gender, Ferris devotes her
entire book to that subject.
Beginning in the 1970s and ’80s, Farris argues, non-Western immigrant women
“became the object of political scrutiny
and stereotyping. Typical orientalist gendered dichotomies began to be applied to
them: if migrant males were usually depicted as brutes and uncivilized, women were
portrayed as passive and submissive.” By
contrast, Western European women were
deemed autonomous and empowered by,
among other things, laws that now permitted divorce and abortion and addressed
discrimination in education and the professions, as well as cultural practices defined as
“sexual democracy” or “sexual liberation.”
October 9, 2017
Many of these new feminists and nationalists turned their attention to the veils
worn by Muslim women, arguing that they
were the very symbol of the immigrants’
purported backwardness, the sign of an
intolerable gender inequality alien to the
West. The push to rescue Muslim women,
Farris argues, was the result of what she
terms the “ideological convergence” of
calls for gender equality with xenophobic
anti-immigrant campaigns—the “femonationalism” mentioned in the subtitle of
her book. Femonationalism, she explains,
“describes, on the one hand, the attempts
of Western European right-wing parties
and neoliberals to advance xenophobic
and racist politics through the touting
of gender equality while, on the other
hand, it captures the involvement of various
well-known and quite visible feminists and
femocrats in the current framing of Islam
as a quintessentially misogynistic religion
and culture.”
Farris argues that the political anxiety
about Muslims in general took the form of
advocacy for the emancipation of Muslim
women in particular because of “a specifically economic logic”: Whereas Muslim
and other non-Western migrant men were
viewed as a “reserve army of labor”—that
is, a supplemental labor force to be employed only when needed—their female
counterparts, working in the domesticservice and care industries, were seen as a
part of the “regular army of labor,” constituting an indispensable, irreplaceable labor
force that could not otherwise be found.
This labor force was needed, Farris notes,
to secure the social reproduction of the
population itself.
The importance of this migrant female
labor force to the social and economic wellbeing of Western nations was evident in the
state policies of the countries that Farris
studied: France, Italy, and the Netherlands.
These countries provided a variety of subsidies to families for domestic service and
elder and child care, sometimes in the form
of cash payments, sometimes as tax credits.
In this way, they at once commodified and
privatized social services, for which Muslim
and non-Western migrant women provided
“the lion’s share of supply.” This work was
defined by government agencies as necessary and vital; it was also considered a permanent feature of the job markets of these
countries, a way of helping Muslim women
to integrate socially and culturally.
Since they did not compete with native
women workers, and as a result of what
Farris notes were the “neoliberal reforms in
October 9, 2017
welfare regimes in the direction of the socalled commodification of care [and]…the
feminization and racialization of specific
labor markets,” migrant women workers
were critical to the economy, and so they
became defined not as a liability but as
victims to be saved. Nationalists turned
to the language of secular feminism in
order to criticize the way in which these
women were oppressed by their cultural
and religious norms—as embodied by their
veils. Likewise, many European feminists
insisted that it was precisely “care” work
that would “save” Muslim women by providing them with wage-earning labor that
was inherently emancipatory.
There is an irony in this, as Farris observes. The European feminists’ insistence
that migrant women’s autonomy would be
furthered by the work of domestic service defined as liberating the very household drudgery that these feminists had long
sought to escape. There is both a racist and
a sexist element to this, Farris says, because
“they reinforce the conditions for the reproduction at the societal level of Muslim and
non-Western migrant women’s segregation,
traditional gender roles, and the gender injustice they claim to be combating.”
eil, the highly personal meditation by
Rafia Zakaria, a journalist and philosopher of Pakistani origin, provides a
voice from the other side of the story
recounted by Chin and Farris—
a voice that is rarely listened to by the politicians and feminists who associate unveiling
with the liberation of Muslim women.
In a series of chapters that reflect on
her own personal experience (wearing a
full-face veil at her traditional Muslim wedding in Karachi; watching her grandmother
drape a veil around her face when men
got too close to her in the market; observing women at the Finsbury Park Mosque
in London), Zakaria explores the many
meanings of the veil as it is worn and observed. Each chapter has a different theme,
among them submission, purity, rebellion,
feminism, and subversion. Zakaria’s style
is associative, not linear; no single line of
argument is developed. The aim is to appeal
to personal experience as a way of establishing authority for her assertions, and also as a
way of evoking sympathy in the reader (who
is presumed to be Western).
Veils, Zakaria argues, offer a range of
subjective and objective meanings that depend on the “particularities of person and
politics and context.” Indeed, one of the
many meanings of this piece of cloth is
The Nation.
that it can be a form of empowerment for
the women who choose to wear it. “Independent of context, it does not have much
meaning,” but in specific settings (within
and outside the Muslim community), the
veil can have many positive ones: as a sign of
submission to one’s faith, or an individual’s
purity, or her desire for collective, communal identification. It can also, Zakaria
argues, give a certain sense of pleasurable
power: that of seeing without being seen. Its
wearing can sometimes signal rebellion—
a challenge to the Western European “aesthetics of the public sphere”—and even a
certain strain of feminism, allowing women
to express their individual autonomy.
Zakaria’s approach also differs from Farris’s and Chin’s in its scope. Chin has a
chapter on how veiled women became, in
the 1990s, evidence of Islam’s cultural incompatibility with the West, and Farris,
expanding on this, examines how, for European nationalists and feminists, the veil
became a symbol of how Islam denies Western liberalism’s ideal of sexual democracy.
Zakaria’s explanation is at once narrower
and more directed to the present. She is
less interested in the deep historical roots of
the immigrant question; instead, she frames
her argument within the context of the socalled War on Terror that began in the early
2000s. This draws her readers’ attention to
the present political implications of the veil.
“The fully veiled Muslim woman,” Zakaria
explains, “once imagined as singularly exotic
and repressed, an emblem of the harem of
old, ripe with forbidden sexual possibility,
did not fit into [the] rhetoric of the War on
Terror. That War could no longer be based
simply on the demonization of the Muslim
man; it required an extension of suspicion to
the Muslim woman, particularly the Muslim
woman who was not willing to do away with
the veil.”
If Chin offers us history and Farris sociological theory, Zakaria’s more personal,
philosophical approach is intended to contest the singular meaning that the veil has
acquired in much of the West. By exploring
the subjective experiences of the veil, we
begin to see how both wearing it and not
wearing it have profound psychic resonances for those who make these choices,
as well as for those who regard it with hostility or even just curiosity. In one notable
example, Zakaria writes of the desire of
white women in the days of empire to unveil “other” colonized women, a desire that
established their superiority as representatives of a higher civilization. Or, referring
to the work of the Iranian-American artist
Shirin Neshat, Zakaria notes the startling
message conveyed in a photograph of a fully
veiled woman pointing a gun at the viewer:
“A veil is revealed then to be not just fabric
but a partition and a boundary…. To put the
veil back on, to retreat into feminine space,
is a wish for reclamation.”
These psychic resonances of the veil—
“desire,” “wish”—deserve more attention
in analyses of Islamophobia in general
and of the place of veiled women within
it in particular. But the representation of
Muslim women as sexually repressed is key
to understanding these resonances, and it
is underexamined by all of these authors,
including Zakaria. In the course of the 21st
century, sexual liberation (the individual’s
ability to sleep with whomever she chooses)
has come to be equated with gender equality and with freedom more generally, eclipsing all of the other measures of equality
that might be used. A certain form of sexual
desire (that experienced by the autonomous
individual of liberal political theory) is
presented as universal and natural, not as
a culturally produced artifact of the West.
This view of things elicits a visceral repugnance to the alleged perversions of Islam:
“We” project our experience of thwarted
desire onto “them.”
As a result, the stark contrast between
Islam and the West on the question of sexual
liberation confirms the West’s sense of its
own superiority in the matter of gender
equality, even as it conceals the vast discrepancies in wealth and status. In this way,
the binary that many liberals, feminists, and
nationalists invoke—sexual freedom versus
sexual repression—translates discrimination
(based on economics, race, class, or religion) into a moral virtue that quarantines
the bad influences these immigrants bring
with them. It is not the poverty or exclusion
they experience in our societies that defines
“those people” as unacceptable, but rather
their retrograde beliefs and behaviors, especially around issues of sex. At the same time,
the belief that “our” system of gender relations is universal and natural while “theirs”
is perverse soothes the anxieties and uncertainties that haunt the relations between the
sexes on “our” side.
In France, as I have suggested elsewhere, the veiled woman is perceived as
deeply disquieting because her veil suggests
that sexuality presents a problem for social
relationships that must be addressed by declaring sex off-limits in public space. This is
a challenge for a republican political system
that, on the one hand, promises equality
for all and, on the other, has historically
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excluded or subordinated women because
of the difference of their sex—a difference
that has to be openly displayed as justification for their different treatment. If gender
equality is defined only as sexual emancipation, then all of the other inequalities faced
by women in France—political, social, and
economic—are made to disappear, and existing gender norms are held firmly in
place. The fantasy of freedom is sustained
by comparing uncovered French women
with those Muslim women covered by the
veil. Although political cultures vary in the
countries of Western Europe, something
similar operates in all of them.
here is clearly a crisis of immigration
in Europe. It is evident in the deadlock between an increasing insistence
by politicians on the homogeneity of
cultural nationalism, on the one hand,
and the presence of diverse populations
within national borders, on the other. It has
only intensified in the wake of the arrival
of hundreds of thousands of refugees from
the war-torn and economically devastated
countries of the Global South. We are at
a turning point (one of the meanings, after
all, of the word “crisis”): Will those “black
people” that we glimpsed from the train,
and who are sequestered in the banlieues,
Pilgrim Bell
My savior has powers and he needs.
To be convinced to use them for good.
Up until now he has been.
A no-call no-show. The menace.
Of ecstasy like a hornets nest buzzing.
Under ice. Like scabs of rust.
On a plane wing. I am younger than.
I pretend to be. Almost everyone.
Is younger than I pretend to be. I am a threat.
And full of grief even.
In my joy. Like a cat who kills.
A mouse at play and tries.
To lick it back to life. The cat lives.
Somewhere between wonder.
And shame. I live in a great mosque.
Built on top of a flagpole. Up here.
Whatever happens happens.
Loudly. All day I hammer the distance.
Between the earth and me.
Into faith. Blue light pulls in through.
The long crack in my wall. Braids.
Into a net. The difference between.
A real voice and the other kind.
Is the way its air vibrates.
Through you. The violence.
In your middle ear.
October 9, 2017
ever be accepted as fully French? Will the
day come when I would react not in surprise
but in affirmation to that young woman
(“Yes, some French are black”)? And what
of Western feminism? Is there a path away
from the binaries of “West/East” and “sexually liberated/sexually repressed” that might
yield a more genuinely inclusive vision of
what emancipation and gender equality
could mean?
A glimmer of what might be possible
on this last question came from a collective
of women in France—Muslim and nonMuslim, religious and secular—that was
formed during the debates over the headscarf law in 2003–4. These women declared
that they were opposed to all forms of
domination, whether patriarchal, capitalist, or state-imposed: no forced wearing of
the veil, no forced removal of the veil. By
focusing on domination as the common denominator, the women found a way out of all
those other politically and culturally divisive
binaries—not by denying their power, but
rather by offering a way to place them in
their proper context.
On the subject of refugees and the masses of migrants pouring into European cities
from Africa and the Middle East, these
authors offer different perspectives. Chin
suggests that, on the ground, there is more
genuine integration than the politicians
would care to admit, and that this provides
hope for the future of multiculturalism.
Zakaria offers her book as an “object lesson”
(the name of the series to which it belongs)
on the multifaceted nature of cultural signs,
as a way of trying to influence, and so
change, stereotypical representations of the
veil. Both seek to bring ideas more fully into
compliance with reality, as if the two were
distinct realms, even as they recognize their
interdependence. For Farris, too, material interests and rhetorical expression are
inextricably entwined; she emphasizes how
the structures and ideologies of discrimination are at once productive of and deeply
rooted in economic interests. Her reading of “femonationalism” as a symptom of
neoliberal capitalism gives little hope that a
quick or effective solution is possible for the
crises at hand.
So we are left without certain answers,
and that’s as it should be: The goal of these
books is not prediction but critique. And
in that regard, they are useful and important, providing needed insight and detail to
deepen our understanding of how we got
here—a necessary step for thinking about
whether and how we might be able to move
to a better place.
October 9, 2017
The Nation.
Is democracy really the problem?
ow many bizarre electoral outcomes
does it take to shake our faith in democracy? Apparently, one is enough.
Even before the presidential election
last November, New York magazine’s
Andrew Sullivan was fretting about socalled “hyperdemocracies,” in which people
have an unquenchable thirst for equality
and refuse to accept limits on the popular
will. This summer, writing in the Los Angeles
Times, James Kirchik concluded from the
Brexit vote and the recent snap election in
the United Kingdom that “our duly elected
Jan-Werner Müller teaches politics at Princeton
University. His book What Is Populism? came
out last year.
Against Democracy
By Jason Brennan
Princeton University Press. 304 pp. $29.95
representatives” should have the courage
to ignore “the uninformed opinion of the
Social scientists as well as political philosophers have been ready to second that
opinion: Ever since Philip Converse’s pioneering studies in the 1950s, American
political scientists have amassed a wealth of
evidence confirming just how little voters
know—and just how incoherent or plain
illogical their political choices can be. This
empirical work has run in tandem with that
of political theorists less worried about vot-
ers’ ignorance than about their intolerance.
John Rawls, still the most influential liberal
philosopher in the United States today, argued that for a liberal polity to be stable,
“unreasonable” citizens would have to be
“contained” just like “war and disease.”
One might think that the obvious answer to voter ignorance is education, and
the answer to the more specific quandary
of voter unreasonableness is perhaps some
sort of civic reeducation. But the political
philosopher Jason Brennan is having none
of this argument. In his book Against Democracy, Brennan points to evidence that
the generally rising education levels in the
United States have not made citizens more
knowledgeable about politics. Like many
social scientists, he thinks there’s a simple
explanation for why Americans remain so
clueless: Ignorance is a rational choice. Since
one’s individual vote has an infinitesimally
small chance of actually deciding the outcome of an election, it simply isn’t worth
the time and effort to bone up on policy
basics—or even read the Constitution. As
Brennan argues in another of his writings
on the subject, democracy’s “essential flaw”
is that it spreads power out widely, thereby
removing any incentive for individual voters
to use their own, more diffuse power wisely.
Of course, some voters seem happy
to participate in the process nevertheless;
they still display a passionate interest in
political, and even constitutional, matters.
But most of them, according to Brennan,
treat politics like a spectator sport or, even
worse, a brutal contact sport. The completely ignorant are what he calls “hobbits”;
by contrast, those who root for one team
and hate the other are “hooligans.” For
hooligans, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: They understand enough to be
deeply convinced that their team is on the
side of the angels and that the other side are
devils (witness how 40 percent of Trump
supporters in Florida thought that Hillary
Clinton had literally emerged from hell ).
But they are incapable of rationally weighing policy options or even comprehending
their own basic interests. For the hooligans,
it’s all about identity.
In Brennan’s peculiar typology, there is
a third species of voter, which he calls “vulcans.” Vulcans coolly examine the evidence
and then form their political judgments accordingly. Needless to say, they’re a minuscule minority, and, less obviously, they
cannot be upheld as anything resembling
role models: After all, most people simply
don’t have the leisure to become vulcans—as
Oscar Wilde once said of socialism, it takes
too many evenings. More worryingly still,
hobbits are so ignorant and ill-informed that
they can’t recognize the superior reasoning
of the vulcans and take their cues from them.
For these low-information voters, Brennan
asserts, certified experts are more or less on
the same level as the far-right radio host and
conspiracy theorist Alex Jones when it comes
to professional reputation and credibility.
rennan’s answer to this “essential
flaw” of democracy is as drastic as
it is seemingly logical: Restrict the
franchise on the grounds of some
basic test of knowledge. Following the
philosopher David Estlund, Brennan dubs
this “epistocracy”—rule by the knowledgeable—which has a long and disturbingly
distinguished history in Western political
thought: Plato advocated it, as did, in much
attenuated form, a 19th-century liberal like
John Stuart Mill, who wanted university
graduates to have additional votes. (He got
his wish: In the UK, “university constituencies”—which allowed Oxbridge alumni to
cast two ballots—were only abolished in
1950, by a Labour government.)
Although Republicans remain busy in
the United States restricting the franchise
on the basis of essentially fraudulent claims
about “voter fraud,” neither the Republican
nor the Democratic party openly advocates
for the exclusion of voters on the grounds of
incompetence—a notion that is still taboo in
contemporary democracies. Even so, excluding children and the mentally incapacitated
from casting a ballot is a largely uncontroversial practice across these same democracies; and in many American states, felons are
disenfranchised for the rest of their lives.
Of course, Brennan is well aware that
restricting the franchise on the basis of tests
was long deployed in the United States for
the purpose of racial discrimination. But he
wants us to ignore its past uses and marshals
a range of abstract arguments as to why
epistocracy deserves serious consideration.
For one thing, he claims, democratic citizenship is not like fandom for a sports club.
Even if one’s personal vote is unlikely to
make a difference, letting lots of ignorant
people cast a ballot for their favorite “team”
has dramatic consequences: their choices
empower lawmakers to pass legislation
which ultimately authorizes police officers
to coerce anyone who is not willing to comply with the “team’s” ideals. Here “fandom”
is sure to result in violence. Brennan also
insists that the varying degrees of ignorance
and prejudice displayed by different citizens
don’t somehow end up neutralizing each
The Nation.
other. Ignoramuses, he says, don’t vote
randomly; instead, they will empower those
who support irrational economic policies or
seek to trample our civil liberties. And if all
that weren’t bad enough, mass-democratic
politics turns people into “civic enemies” of
one another, in Brennan’s view. Rejecting
the pious notion that political participation
tends to “educate, enlighten, and ennoble,”
Brennan argues that more political involvement is likely to turn hobbits into hooligans.
One need only think about the polarization
in the United States today to see his point
that “politics gives us genuine grounds to
hate each other.” Or so it might seem.
An obvious rejoinder to Brennan’s call for
disenfranchisement is that any meaningful
concept of democracy is predicated not just
on an ideal of freedom, but on a notion of
political equality. Epistocrats have to reckon
with the fact that they are advocating for a
basic inequality in our fundamental rights.
Brennan thinks this isn’t really a problem:
What are sometimes called the “expressive” functions of democracy, he argues, are
massively overrated. If people want to express themselves, they should write a poem
instead of heading to the ballot box; and
if the state wants to communicate to its
citizens that it cares about them, it should
ensure decent policy outcomes—as opposed
to formal political equality combined with
enormous social injustice, as is the case in
most democracies today. Epistocracy, in
other words, would be paternalistic—but,
so Brennan claims, even the worst-off today
would benefit from seeing it instituted.
As other critics have pointed out, Brennan is long on identifying the flaws of the
actually existing democracies today and
short on the institutional details of even
an ideal epistocracy. Who would create the
test to establish who gets to vote and who
doesn’t? Who would be truly competent
to judge other people’s competency—and,
for that matter, what are the measures of
competence? How would the transition to
epistocracy be engineered and justified?
Should people actually have to vote to disenfranchise themselves? And if the resulting policies were still judged insufficiently
rational, would the franchise have to be
ever more restricted? After all, even if the
ignorant weren’t able to vote anymore, they
could still use their rights of free speech and
free assembly to advocate for what the 44th
president of the United States famously
called “stupid shit.” Would the end point
then be what social scientists have referred
to as “bureaucratic authoritarianism”—
which is to say, rule by the few, purportedly
October 9, 2017
in the name of the collective well-being?
Reading Brennan in Beijing, one would
think, must provide a boost to the leaders of
the self-declared People’s Republic.
Apart from practical questions, there is
also the issue of whether one of the most
basic conditions of democracy—the universal franchise—is quite so easily waved away.
Can disenfranchisement really be done in
a “clean” way that doesn’t jeopardize equal
treatment and status in other spheres? In
effect, epistocracy would amount to a kind
of political quarantine: We, the knowledgebearers, need to protect the country from
“them.” It is hard to see how the people in
the latter category would not be effectively
stigmatized, even if the disenfranchisement
were somehow accomplished benignly.
Symbolic politics is never merely symbolic;
perceptions have consequences. To treat
disenfranchisement as if it were primarily
a question of “self-esteem,” or hurting citizens’ feelings, is frivolous at best.
Brennan himself seems uneasy about
this possibility and hence feels compelled
to suggest a way for everyone to affirm epistocracy and thereby smuggle some notion
of equality back into his system. He writes
that “it’s not difficult to imagine an epistocratic society in which everyone regards
one another as having equal status. Perhaps
they endorse epistocracy because they think
it tends to produce more equitable results,
and for that reason think their commitment
to epistocracy expresses a commitment to
equality.” But voluntary consent to epistocracy would presumably undermine the very
rationale for wanting such an elitist scheme
in the first place: If citizens were sufficiently
sophisticated to understand the reasons for
their own exclusion from electoral politics
and were willing to consent to such an indignity, they would likely also understand
the basic pros and cons of candidates and
policies, which would qualify them as voters
in the first place.
So epistocracy doesn’t seem to square
with democracy’s intrinsic value in affirming equality and giving everyone a chance
to advance his or her interests, as idealized
as that notion might be. But Brennan’s advocacy is also based on a curiously unrealistic way of understanding how democracies
fail on an instrumental level. In his view,
modern democracies are broken because
they don’t achieve rational ends. But the
democratic process isn’t really about individual voters making rational or irrational
choices—a perspective that can only ever
yield variations on H.L. Mencken’s quip
that “democracy is a pathetic belief in the
October 9, 2017
collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”
Nor is democracy about rationality versus
irrationality; only technocrats think that
way about politics. Rather, it is a system
that allows leaders to gain power on the
basis of their claims to represent different
ideas, interests, and identities. Obviously,
the latter are ultimately individual, but
they end up being combined into larger
political forces. These are not objectively
given; they are formed in a dynamic, openended process of struggle over who and
what gets to be represented, how, and by
whom. Democratic representation is therefore neither about finding the one right
policy answer nor about the mechanical
reproduction of already existing interests
and identities. New blocs of interests and
forms of identification are themselves an
outcome of politics.
To treat democracy only in terms of the
individual voter and his or her competence
is like having microeconomics without any
macro. Such an approach fails to see that
the quality of democracy depends crucially
on the space between individual voters
and the policy decisions that bind them
together. Different institutions—from the
courts to the media to the rules of election
campaigns—make an enormous difference
here. As the American political scientist
E.E. Schattschneider put it, “the problem
is not how 180 million Aristotles can run a
democracy, but how can we organize a community of 180 million ordinary people so
that it remains sensitive to our needs. This
is a problem of leadership, organization,
alternatives, and systems of responsibility
and confidence.”
he terms “leadership” and “responsibility”—as horribly elitist as they
may sound to some—should remind
us that ignorance and misinformation are not just facts of life; they
are often also the result of fully conscious
decisions by political elites who would
like to protect and extend their interests.
Americans are polarized and often treat
their fellow citizens as “civic enemies”
not because democracy has an inherently
“gladiatorial” nature and brings out the
worst in us; nor is it because the country is
naturally divided into red states and blue
states. Polarization is a project that confers great political and economic benefits;
unreasonableness can be big business. Gerrymandering, doing away with the Fairness
Doctrine in the media, and inviting Alex
Jones on prime-time TV are not choices
dictated by democracy as such.
The Nation.
Instead of blaming the people for their
irrationality, we might ask instead about
the “leadership” of a figure like David Cameron, who called a referendum on Britain’s
membership in the European Union purely
to pacify critics in his own party. Rather
than citing endless statistics about how
shockingly little Americans know about
politics, we might also wonder
about the “responsibility” of a
figure like Senate majority
leader Mitch McConnell,
who can reshape the entire political game by
deciding that his own
and his party’s interests
would be best served
by maintaining a state
of perpetual conflict,
and never cooperation,
with the Democrats.
True, what pundits have
described as a recent, supposedly unstoppable “wave” of populism
might confirm the kinds of worries about
democracy that Brennan and plenty of
journalists articulate. But it’s important to
remember that a figure like Nigel Farage,
the former leader of the populist UK Independence Party, did not bring about Brexit
all by himself; he needed the backing of
very established figures from the Conservative Party like Michael Gove. It was Gove,
after all, who, in the face of warnings about
Brexit by many experts, announced that
“the people of this country have had enough
of experts.” The irony was that Gove himself clearly spoke with the authority of an
expert: He has always been seen as one of
the Tories’ most prominent “intellectuals.” It took nothing less than an expert to
convince people that claims of expertise are
Trump’s victory, in turn, is not best understood as a “revolt of the masses” driven
primarily by an undereducated, racist white
working class. Rather, it was a triumph
of hyperpartisanship: Trump needed the
blessing of not-exactly-grassroots populist
figures like New Jersey Governor Chris
Christie, former New York City mayor
Rudy Giuliani, and former House speaker
Newt Gingrich. When the latter told a
CNN anchor last summer that he didn’t
trust statistics on crime but believed instead
in what people felt, he did the same trick
that Gove had performed in the UK: Whatever else one thinks about Gingrich, he is
considered an intellectual of sorts among
American conservatives. So, as in Britain,
it took an established expert to devalue the
importance of expertise.
Once Trump had the blessing of Republican heavyweights, he became, above
all else, the candidate of a very established
party—and 90 percent of self-identified
Republicans gave him their vote. Moreover, many of them explicitly registered
their doubts about the candidate’s competence—but in a Mitch McConnell–esque world in which one
side refuses to recognize
the other side’s legitimacy, it was inconceivable for these voters to
cast a ballot for Hillary
Clinton. The issue is
not so much that, as
Brennan puts it, hating is fun, and more
that once the deed of
demonization has been
done, it is difficult to undo
in citizens’ minds.
Democratic politics can be an unsightly spectacle. Even idealists will sometimes be tempted to agree that the best
argument against it is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. But it isn’t an
accident that democracy is also the system
that provides the most room for freedom,
however imperfectly, and does the best job
of protecting basic rights. As the economist
Amartya Sen famously demonstrated, democracy is the regime that avoids famines;
and as the political philosopher Thomas
Christiano has emphasized, democratic institutions still offer the best means for the
most vulnerable members of the population
to secure and advance their interests.
Above all, when things really go wrong,
democracy is the system that allows people
to throw the bastards out—and contrary to
Brennan’s suggestion, “knowing whether
the bastards are doing a bad job” doesn’t
require “a tremendous amount of social
scientific knowledge.” As the political scientist Martin Gilens has observed, many
voters have a good enough sense of how
specific politicians have performed and, in
fact, are able to pay attention to the cues
that elected officials—as well as pundits and
rival candidates—offer them. Of course,
this doesn’t mean that the problems identified by Brennan are entirely fictitious; but
many of them have more to do with the
conduct of particular elites than they do
with an ignorant or uneducated demos.
Giving already powerful people even more
power by restricting the influence of the
most vulnerable seems an odd way of adQ
dressing them.
October 9, 2017
The Nation.
minorities in a world in which bureaucrats and
prosecutors would be making the decisions
about what passes); but as it does, so it also
reveals a considerable deficiency in how free
speech is viewed today. It would be hard to
grasp from this volume that free speech has
been a vital tool for progressive social change,
including all movements for equality. After
reading this book, one is struck by how little
the lines of argument have changed—as well
as by the fear that Abrams, despite an honorable and accomplished career, may be part of
the problem.
Capitol Hill, 2016.
The use and abuse of the First Amendment
loyd Abrams has been perhaps the most
prominent individual defender of the
First Amendment in the United States,
both in the courts and in numerous
books and articles, particularly since he
represented The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case in 1971. That’s a very long
run. Abrams is still at it in his short new book,
The Soul of the First Amendment. It’s an effort,
at a time when he believes the First Amendment is under assault from various quarters,
to distill the leading arguments from his
career, and it covers tensions between free
speech and attempts to regulate money in
politics—Abrams represented then–Senate
minority leader Mitch McConnell in the
Citizens United case, which opened the floodgates of dark-money spending in elections—
and hate speech, and to protect privacy and
national security.
Each of these debates is important to have,
and Abrams’s chapters on them, taken toGara LaMarche is president of the Democracy
The Soul of the First Amendment
Why Freedom of Speech Matters
By Floyd Abrams
Yale University Press. 176 pp. $26
gether, form a larger argument about free
speech: a kind of First Amendment fundamentalism that only cursorily acknowledges the
countervailing concerns—indeed, at times,
real harms—of racial intimidation or digital
attacks on privacy and reputation, and that is
now under strain from a number of progressive activists appalled at the ACLU’s defense
of the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. But Abrams’s way of engaging the
subject leaves one feeling that it’s past time to
shake up First Amendment discourse. The Soul
of the First Amendment makes all the standard
absolutist arguments that any possible gain
from regulation of speech is outweighed by
its harms (arguments I happen to agree with,
despite my concern about the real wounds that
speech can sometimes inflict, as I have yet to
encounter a regulatory scheme that wouldn’t
backfire against political, racial, and religious
brams is a big believer in the American
approach to free-speech rights. He
also sees threats to their exceptional
nature from many quarters. It is perhaps for this reason, in an odd echo
of the Trump administration, that Abrams
saves his greatest fire for two targets: Europe
and the left. Among the things he notes
that have bothered him and provoked his
new book: His young son was turned away
from a British cruise-ship screening of All
the President’s Men some years ago because of
the movie’s profanity; Belgium and England
penalize anti-Islamic leaflets and posters; and
in Finland and Germany, legal actions were
taken by politicians and royalty to protect the
privacy of their relationships and families. To
his credit, Abrams concedes that “one could
hardly argue that Canada, whose approach to
[free speech] is in many ways similar to that
of democratic Europe, suffers under a yoke
of repression as a result.” Nevertheless, he
spends many pages of a short book focusing
on what he sees as insufficient protection for
free speech in other Western democracies.
Most of Abrams’s arguments with European free-speech practice and with the left’s
greater concern about the effects of hate
speech on communities of color and women
rely on little evidence and few empirical studies; they are primarily anecdotal in nature. I
understand that principle lies at the core of
the debates, and it should. But it’s worth asking, and studying, what the relationship is, if
any, between the way a society regulates some
aspects of speech—slander and libel; racist
and sexist utterances and writings; privacy;
spending on election campaigns—and how
robust its political debate actually is. These
are questions not just of principle, but of
social science and empirical analysis. I see no
signs that political discourse in, say, France
and the Netherlands is more crabbed and
tame, as Abrams might have us believe, just
because it is in some ways at least slightly
more fettered than in the United States.
Some argue that free speech serves as a
October 9, 2017
valve to let off toxins that would otherwise
find their way into violence. But America, with
its wide-open approach to hate speech, has a
steady flow of racist and homophobic violence,
not to mention sexual assault in a society where
the most virulent forms of misogynist pornography are a click away on the Internet. Others
think that curbing virulent forms of speech
fosters tolerance and community, yet some
Islamic communities in Europe, where you can
be penalized for denigrating race and religion,
nevertheless often seethe with resentment in
ways rarely seen in America—though Trump is
doing his best to catch up on that score. So it’s
hard to draw a connection between the prevalence of hate speech and violence and whether
a society restricts or tolerates it.
As Abrams does not tire of pointing out,
from rejecting limits on speech offensive to
minorities to allowing virtually untrammeled
spending in elections, the United States is
out of step with virtually all of our fellow
democracies—a “weirdo” outlier, as Duke
law professor Stuart Benjamin put it on a
recent panel at Yale. But there are also signs
of considerable slippage for First Amendment
rights as traditionally construed in the United
States, where a recent Pew Research Center
poll registered 40 percent approval among
millennials for the proposition that “government should be able to prevent people” from
making offensive statements about minorities.
Abrams and his generation of First
Amendment scholars and advocates have had
a significant effect on law and attitudes regarding free speech, often quite positive. But
at the same time, since they have dominated
contemporary First Amendment discourse
for decades, they have entrenched the notion that it has gotten in the way of race and
gender equality and fair elections, and made
way for the diminishing zone of privacy. This
accounts for why the First Amendment has
enjoyed, over time, support from the right as
well as the left. Indeed, the right is increasingly coming to “own” the free-speech territory once held by progressives, since the left
keeps falling for the bait that bigots like Milo
Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter set out in daring it to block their campus appearances and
confer on them the status of victims. But it’s
also because so many free-speech advocates
have failed for years to make an affirmative
case for the First Amendment, not just as a set
of ground rules but as an essential element of
advancing social justice.
Free speech to the early ACLU activists
nearly 100 years ago—a diverse assortment of
lawyers, professors, and labor, religious, and
cultural leaders—was a vital tool for standing in solidarity with social movements and
The Nation.
advancing a progressive society. Indeed, the
ACLU’s first annual report decried “an array of
city ordinances and police regulations restricting free speech and assemblage” and declared
that “behind this machinery stand the property
interests of the country, so completely in control of our political life as to establish what is
in effect a class government—a government by
and for business.” It could be a tool for the right
as well, and long before (in one of many harbingers of its current stance) the ACLU stood up
for the rights of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie,
Illinois, in the 1970s, the organization found
itself defending the German-American Bund.
But given its founding by a group of activists
involved in antiwar and left activism—including Crystal Eastman and Roger Baldwin—the
ACLU was primarily allied with left-wing
causes, and most of its early clients were people
like textile workers, coal miners, anti-fascist
organizers, and birth-control pamphleteers.
t’s this spirit of unapologetic First Amendment defense—entwined with movements for equality and social justice—that
is missing today, in particular among many
free-speech lawyers. Without it, there
could be no Movement for Black Lives, no
Dreamers, no Fight for $15, no Occupy Wall
Street, no vibrant resistance movement to
the right’s near-hegemonic takeover of the
federal government and more than 30 states
and its efforts to reestablish a “class government”—and yet you would hardly know it
from the way that it’s often written about.
Infused with the spirit of a quote Abrams
uses from the late Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins that “the one word most expressive of democracy is ‘no,’” Abrams’s book is
a good example of this obstinacy. While he
acknowledges that there is “no doubt that a
price is paid, sometimes a serious one,” for
adherence to the First Amendment, what
that price is, and who is paying it, is largely
missing from these pages. If you’re a woman
or person of color feeling threatened by a
climate in which racist and sexist speech has
been made mainstream by the president of
the United States—and with pervasive and
frightening ripples through the rest of society,
seen in Charlottesville and coming soon to a
city near you—just toughen up and be thankful for the founding fathers. If you think the
Koch brothers and their many counterparts
around the country are undermining the spirit
of democracy, roll up your sleeves and go to
Washington (or Albany or Sacramento) like
Mr. Smith. For a more thoughtful weighing
by free-speech advocates of the competing
interests at stake, and of the real-world impact
of free-speech guarantees, you’d be better off
spending some time with Timothy Garton
Ash’s Free Speech or David Cole’s Engines of
Liberty, both published last year.
The limits of Abrams’s book are largely a matter of tone, not policy. But where
campaign-finance reform is concerned, the
problem is one of substance. In his discussion
of it, he points to the fact that Donald Trump
was outspent by Hillary Clinton, but no fair
assessment of the power of money in politics
should look only at the presidential election.
In fact, the most striking disparity, as a new
paper by Rob Stein and Felicia Wong points
out, is at the state level, where, thanks to years
of investments by the Koch network and others, the right’s control of state offices is at its
greatest point since 1928. (Progressives were
focused elsewhere and are playing catch-up
only now.)
Citing Bernie Sanders, Abrams concedes
that money matters enormously in political
campaigns, and that the vast income disparity
in the nation inevitably favors the wealthy. But
his response expects progressives to counter
what the 1920s ACLU rightly called “class
government” on a wildly skewed playing field:
“Without limiting First Amendment rights,
Congress and state legislatures may adopt
the widest range of legislation to deal with
income inequality ranging from higher taxes
on the wealthy to higher minimum wages for
the least prosperous. Problems of low voter
turnout might be dealt with by legislative
measures aimed at making it easier to vote….”
That sounds nice, but it ignores the fact that
money isn’t thrown around only in elections,
but in lobbying too. According to Stein and
Wong, since 2005, over 75 percent of all the
money for federal lobbying has been spent
on behalf of conservative causes. There’s a
reason why the right spends so much money
on state elections and lobbying: Its priority
is to preserve its skewed advantage through
gerrymandering and voter-suppression laws.
When local governments, usually much more
blue than states as a whole, dare to pass a
minimum-wage, tax, or environmental law,
state legislatures often move to override them.
Justifying unregulated campaign and lobbying spending as free speech undermines the
capacity of the majority of people to control
their own government and has contributed
mightily to the revulsion with a “rigged” system that Donald Trump was able to exploit
in his campaign. Abrams does a good job of
channeling the brain of the First Amendment.
But its soul—the passionate, messy business
of using its guarantees to forge a more just
world—is what is missing from these pages.
It’s up to those in the coming generation to
breathe new life into it.
The Milstein Reading Room, New York Public Library.
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library and Rat Film
October 9, 2017
The Nation.
f you think of great libraries as archives
of the human condition, maintained to
preserve everything we’ve thought and
done, then you’d figure Frederick Wiseman would eventually make a film about
the New York Public Library. He, too, carries the totalizing virus.
Over the course of a 50-year career, Wiseman has sought to capture the living essence of
an entire world’s worth of institutions—from
madhouses and wards for the terminally ill
to great theater companies, universities, and
ballet schools; from welfare offices, zoos, and
meatpacking plants to nuclear-weapons training facilities, art museums, state legislatures,
and Central Park. At his most optimistic, he
turns his attention to towns or neighborhoods
where he sees multiple forces interacting for
the common good: in Belfast, Maine, or the
Jackson Heights section of Queens, New
York. At his most scathing—in Public Housing, for example—the institutions he studies
seem almost deliberately constructed to make
people fall apart.
Look at libraries differently, though—as
providers of services to the urban masses—
and it will seem just as inevitable that Wiseman would get around to them. He, too,
is an agent of social change. The title of
“muckraker” is, of course, too simple for
him, despite the scandal of his first films:
Titicut Follies (1967), which the State of Massachusetts tried to ban from public view, and
High School (1968), which, in the words of one
reviewer, showed the systematic conversion
of “warm, breathing teenagers” into “fortyyear-old mental eunuchs.”
Still, just as an activist streak runs through
the branches of the New York Public Library,
so too does it animate all but Wiseman’s most
contemplative works. He is, famously, an observational filmmaker, who refuses to conduct
interviews, add explanatory texts or voiceovers to the image, layer extraneous music onto
his scenes, or even provide a caption to tell you
who’s talking. You get nothing except what you
would have seen and heard if you’d been present with him when the action was happening.
And yet, through his choice of what material
to show and how to sequence it, he often constructs implicit arguments that address not so
much the arrogance of power as its mindless,
grinding indifference. These implied polemics are all the more persuasive for seeming to
emerge from the evidence before you.
In his 42nd film, Ex Libris: The New York
Public Library, which receives its theatrical
premiere in September at Film Forum in New
York, Wiseman looks at his subject from both
his Olympian and activist perspectives, and
with attention to both major aspects of the
NYPL’s mission: a center for scholarship and
a resource for the city’s poor, ill-schooled, and
homeless. Following an organizing scheme
he’s used before, Wiseman bounces back and
forth in his scenes between the marble palace
on Fifth Avenue and a scattering of humble
branch libraries in the Bronx and Harlem;
public events and back-of-the-house labor;
executives planning the system’s future and
ordinary people using what the NYPL offers.
Pay attention to context and do a little Internet research, and you can find out that the
uncaptioned decision makers overheard in
their deliberations are NYPL president Tony
Marx, chief library officer Mary Lee Kennedy (who has moved on since the film was
shot), chief operating officer Iris Weinshall,
and vice president for government and community affairs George Mihaltses. I identify
them here to make the point that Wiseman
had access to serious people talking about
critical issues. He also had access to many
anonymous members of the rank and file to
whom these leaders are responsible, including toddlers singing “Old MacDonald” at
story time, kids doing homework and building robots after school, a researcher combing
through Timothy Leary’s correspondence
in the manuscript room, career-seekers at a
jobs fair, and an elderly woman in Chinatown
learning to use a computer.
Negotiating between these two groups, and
sparking the movie to emotional life, are the
heroes of Ex Libris: librarians. Some of them
come before you as marvels of patience and
dry humor. A reference librarian on the phone
desk calmly informs a caller that unicorns are
actually imaginary; an after-school-program
librarian in the Bronx advises a kid, “If you’re
holding onto the robot to make it stop moving,
then that means you need to change something on the computer.” Others are bearers of
infectious enthusiasm. They boast to visiting
students that in the picture collection, you can
look up subjects such as “dogs in action”; they
proudly show off an Albrecht Dürer print of a
rhinoceros, while explaining that in the early
16th century, this treasured item was a kind of
newspaper. Most crucially for the tone of Ex
Libris, the librarians offer care and warmth,
whether they’re doling out picture books to the
schoolkids who squirm around them or distributing Wi-Fi boxes, with a sincere “Congratulations,” to a line of West Harlem residents who
have qualified for the free rental.
I pause to note that Wiseman could have
put other librarians on the screen had he
wanted to—the ones, for example, who have
kept me waiting 40 minutes for a book that
turned out to have gone missing, and then
tossed back the call slip as if they were flipping the bird. But they wouldn’t have suited
the theme he has in mind for Ex Libris.
ore a collage artist than an investigative reporter, more a phenomenologist than a historian, Wiseman
has given a much different treatment of the NYPL than you would
find, say, in Scott Sherman’s book Patience
October 9, 2017
and Fortitude (written in part for The Nation,
and published in 2015 just before Ex Libris
went into production). Wiseman is interested in librarians as wonderful people—as
comfortable making an impromptu translation from Middle English (while denying
that they’re good at it) as they are teaching
a blind person to read Braille, or directing a
woman to copies of steamship manifests so
she can trace her family’s arrival in America.
He has edited Ex Libris to suggest two broad
questions about these multitalented public
servants: How does the NYPL keep the
librarians working? And what is the broader
meaning of what they do?
The answer to the first question comes
in the scenes of library president Marx and
his executive crew and can be summed up in
one word: money. Ex Libris is in some ways
an essay on fund-raising, or (to be more
precise) the interplay between public allocations and private philanthropy. The first
time you see Marx, he’s giving a talk on this
subject to library supporters, using the example of the NYPL’s digital-access initiative
to illustrate how donations pouring in from
one source can uncork funds from the other.
The last time you see him—some three
hours later in the film’s running time—he’s
in his conference room, planning how to
keep the money flowing toward the NYPL
in the city government’s next budget. The
challenge, he says, is to match the language
of solicitations to the NYPL’s goals. The big,
simple message for donors must somehow
reflect the priorities the library has set for
meeting the public’s needs.
You hear a lot in the conference room
about those needs in their immediate and
practical form. The agenda includes providing a reasonable degree of daytime shelter
for people who live on the streets (“The
library is a place where we don’t keep our
distance from the homeless,” Marx tells
his colleagues), making up for deferred
maintenance in the branches, and balancing the money spent on books that the
general public wants today with the cost of
books that will be useful in the future. But
the larger meaning of the institution’s role
emerges elsewhere: in scenes of the library’s
public programs of interviews, lectures, and
discussions. Here again Wiseman had a wide
choice of moments to include. He selected
those that suggest the most radical agenda.
Ex Libris begins with a long excerpt from
a book talk with the scientist and secularist
Richard Dawkins. (All excerpts from the public programs are long. Wiseman, as usual, is
in no hurry in this film; he believes ideas need
time to develop.) Calling for nonreligious
The Nation.
people to make themselves heard, Dawkins
insists that some ideas are simply not true—
the theories of young-earth believers, for
example—and must be labeled as such. As
for the supposed absence of awe and wonder
from atheists’ lives, he says that nothing
could be more moving than to contemplate
the reality of a living cell, in all its stupefying
And so, by borrowing Dawkins’s words,
Wiseman suggests the terms that will describe the NYPL through the rest of the
movie. The institution is thrilling in its complexity and resolute in its service to the truth.
The complexity of the library’s operations is,
of course, seen everywhere in Ex Libris. But
when it comes to the issue of propagating
the truth, Wiseman has decided to focus on
one fact among all the others that the library
addresses: the continuing legacy of slavery.
By the time Ex Libris is over, you’ve heard
about opposition to the slave trade by 17thcentury Muslim clerics in Africa and the defense of slavery by writers in the antebellum
South. You’ve listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates
talk about his family’s reverence for Malcolm
X, and have sat in on a discussion held in a tiny
branch library between Khalil Gibran Muhammad (at the time director of the NYPL’s
Schomburg Center, and a current member of
The Nation’s editorial board) and people outraged over McGraw-Hill’s whitewashing of
slavery in recent textbooks. When you see a
performing-arts workshop on sign-language
interpretation for the deaf, the text being
used for illustration is the Declaration of
Independence. When you peek into a meeting of the board of trustees, Kwame Anthony
Appiah is giving a presentation about the
works of Phillis Wheatley.
For Wiseman, this is where the scholarly
and social missions of the library intersect:
in speaking the truth about slavery and its
aftermath, while providing services in many
neighborhoods where people still bear the
marks of slavery’s more obvious burdens.
He gives a very fine-grained picture of the
library in this dual role, neither ignoring the
day-to-day operations of the NYPL system
nor neglecting the beauty and delight of its
collections and magnificent main building.
There is so much beauty and delight in Ex
Libris, in fact, and so much vivid personality
in all the people, that a lackadaisical viewer
could be excused for summing up the film
as a loving tribute. So it is, I suppose. But
even at age 87, there is nothing lackadaisical
about Wiseman. The sly old wizard constructs a top hat right before your eyes—and
then, while you’re admiring its sheen, pulls
out a 500-year-old rabbit.
heo Anthony was born in 1989, about
60 years after Frederick Wiseman
came into the world, and until recently had made only a few short
documentaries. You wouldn’t want
to curse him with high expectations for his
first feature-length documentary, especially
when he’s given it the sure-to-please title
Rat Film. But the deliberately strange essay
he’s composed—on what you might call the
natural history of racism—is so inventive
and, appropriately, so biting that he’ll have
to get used to being praised.
Unlike Wiseman, Anthony revels in voiceovers, soundtrack music, informative text
overlays, and on-camera interviews, especially
when they come at you from unexpected
angles. Before you can get your bearings in
Rat Film, a voice has recited a series of mockacademic titles (“Presentation of a Video
Game,” “Explanation of an Experiment”);
the exhaust-pipe flames of a drag racer have
erupted in slow motion; a string quartet has
played something inappropriately meditative;
and the head of a snake has briefly ventured
across a corner of the screen. Meanwhile, the
ostensible subject of this documentary—rats
in Baltimore—has not yet come into focus.
Fuzzy video, shot in an alley at night, looks
down at a rat trapped in a garbage can. The
average Norway rat, the mock-academic voice
informs you, can jump 32 inches, whereas the
regulation height of a Baltimore garbage can
is 34. (Is this true? I don’t know.) At last the
picture sharpens, and you see the rat clearly,
its eyes shining furiously in the dark.
Having unbalanced you, Anthony proceeds
to go backward in time and simultaneously outward into Baltimore’s neighborhoods.
Backward: to a history of city ordinances,
housing covenants, and bank-loan policies
that confined African Americans to wretched
slums; to the declaration, during World War II,
of a war on rats, conducted with poison in these
same slums; and to the writings of a prominent
Johns Hopkins scientist who didn’t draw much
of a distinction between the rats and the slum
dwellers. Outward: to the backyards and alleyways today where some Baltimore residents
hunt rats for sport (with tools including blowguns and a rod-and-reel), and where a chatty,
philosophical pest-control officer makes his
rounds. Baltimore has never had a rat problem,
he declares; it has always been a people problem. He likes rats—they put food on his table.
Rat Film is a movie for people who feel
that the world we’ve made is so unbelievably
outrageous that it can best be conveyed in a
scramble. Viewers who demand a point-bypoint exposition will not be happy. The rest of
us can hang on for the ride.
October 9, 2017
The Nation.
Puzzle No. 3442
28 Family with an open-door policy berates her terribly (5,5)
29 Make a sucking sound, not softly: That’s an insult (4)
1 Yo, Louganis is smuggling alien in (9)
2 Picture stolen in post office (5)
4 Worsen unmanageable joint control (9)
5 Guy’s partner to perform lines (4)
6 Freedom from pests keeping oxygen out of nose (7)
7 Heard in Sanskrit: “a sizable pan” (9)
8 For example, Nobel Prize ultimately supports Southern
link (5)
9 Zip code (6)
15 City vehicle with roof containing uranium (9)
17 Rose, upset both before and after, left—she’s not a good
sport (4,5)
18 Finks, standing on the street with you and me, turned
around to find Beyoncé or Justin Bieber (9)
20 One sound I hope for: a call from you (7)
1 Stare in hole and see, at last (4)
21 Arab, if mistreated in a nation from 1967 to 1970 (6)
3 Unexpected visitor with a stated objective: Get smoked
salmon off the premises? (10)
22 Lure short-term employee at start of training (5)
10 Agitated, exploding: “No to e-mail!” (9)
23 Fictional military man getting up to dance before ball
game’s fourth quarter (2,3)
11 Bell curve initially leads that fellow to error (5)
25 That guy with hair product is a philosopher (5)
12 Sip of tea, tea that is like this grid location (3,4)
13 Ask one Las Vegas resident? (6)
14 Sane Vermont inhabitant? Not in a million years (5)
16 Losing control? Christ, yes! (9)
19 It could be rough being someone who imitates a stockmarket index? (9)
21 Oil company adopts general replacement for an expletive (5)
22 Shoot bum or tramp in the head, like this grid location (3,5)
24 Hide fumbling Tarheel (7)
ACROSS 1 2 defs. 9 RE(F + US)AL
10 M + O IS TEN 11 [l]-OVER-L + Y
12 pun 14 NEGLI (anag.) + GENT
16 [s]ENTRY 17 ORANG[e] 18 I + DENT
+ I + CAL 20 DU(CT + TA)PE
22 SU(P)ERB (rebus anag.) 25 RAM +
PAGE 26 “rapper” 27 letter bank
DOWN 1 F OR L OR N 2 hidden
3 INSUL(T)IN + G 4 GAL + A (rev.)
5 H + UMANITIES (anag.) 6 A + LICE
26 Film contest follows standard procedure (5)
7 anag. 8 anag. 13 HEM(IS)P + HERE
27 Fix thirst with jug—what the diagram will be after
switching 12 and 22 across (4,5)
17 alternate letters 19 LAB + O.R. + E.R.
15 anag. 16 [l]ENT + OUR AGE
21 TWA + IN 23 final letters 24 “use”
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