Being an Ally (Or: A Decent Human Being)

Ta-Nehisi Coates weighs in on Bill Cosby, and his own previous failures to confront the rape accusations.  It’s a reckoning, and a lesson in how to face — and own — our shortcomings.


The alternative: this perfect Onion piece.


Issues of privilege — white privilege, male privilege, the privileges of fame and celebrity — are uncomfortable to grapple with.  Understanding that the world is not, and never has been, a meritocracy can be uncomfortable.  Recognizing the deep imperfections of our heroes can be uncomfortable.  It’s easier to believe that things are the way they are for a good reason.


The truth is that there are lots of reasons why things are the way they are.  Some of those reasons are good.  Many of them are not.  This isn’t just about Bill Cosby, or laughing at the Onion.  It’s about understanding our own responsibility in building something better.

To Be A Teacher

There’s a fascinating article in The New Yorker which discusses the notion — the contemporary American religion, perhaps — of performance improvement.  The subject is introduced via a discussion of athletics, where performance (as RBIs or race times or free throw percentages, or whatever the contest may be about) is fairly easily to quantify and compare.


For that alone, the article is interesting enough.  Towards the end, though, there is a turn towards educations and, particularly, teaching: can these techniques be applied to teachers?  Why does teacher education overlook these things?  It’s an odd and underdeveloped discussion which leaves out key pieces of information and betrays a misunderstanding of both teaching-as-profession and “education reform” that may be endemic.


Contrary to the article’s assertion, most teachers do engage in continuing education throughout their careers; a teaching credential is not granted for life nearly anywhere, and renewal is contingent upon ongoing professional development (which can often take up the majority of a teacher’s summer “vacation”).  Improving teaching in America would be a much easier issue to tackle if it were simply a matter of insufficient education, but as those who study the matter seriously will be the first to admit, the problem is not that American teachers lack units of coursework: it’s that teaching somebody how to be a good teacher turns out to be really freakin’ hard.


It is, of course, possible to improve both teachers’ performance and teacher education, but it is a matter of quality and content, which makes for a much more complicated tale than the presence-or-absence story of NBA player Kermit Washington which opens the article.  Most American teachers do run off-season drills, and every teacher I’ve ever known has collaborated — informally, certainly, but they’ve all shared ideas, materials, tips, and tricks.


More egregiously, the article does not even mention that the favored technique of education reformers — fire “bad” teachers and replace them with new talent — directly contradicts the notion of skill-building over time.  First-year teachers are, generally speaking, not great; however talented they may be, they simply do not have the practice and developed skills to truly excel.  It takes years to get comfortable in front of a classroom, to integrate instruction and discipline, to balance content delivery and classroom management — anyone who thinks teaching is easy has almost certainly never tried (I have held many jobs of many types, and would without doubt call classroom teaching the most difficult by a mile).  Not surprisingly, therefore, one of the most relevant markers for a teacher’s classroom success is their experience; it turns out the reformist boogeyman of the tenured but burned-out lifer, cruising on autopilot and damaging students while collecting paychecks, is just that: a boogeyman.  There are some who do exist, but they are a tiny minority, more likely to be restored by a sabbatical or a year off than a first-year teacher is to have any greater impact on his or her students.


The mythology behind programs like Teach for America is that fresh new talent — where “talent” is synonymous with “pedigreed via the Ivy League or other elite schools” — is, itself, a cure for what ails American education.  Engaging young Harvard grads in urban education is not, in itself, a bad goal, and as an organization founded within a Princeton senior thesis project the self-serving benefit is obvious.  But there is nothing about a prestigious degree that magically confers the ability to teach.  There is nothing about youth and enthusiasm that magically confers the ability to teach.  There is nothing about replacing older, browner, more experienced teachers with younger, more privileged, barely-trained teachers that improves the quality of classroom learning whatsoever; in fact, if one considers it rationally, there’s very little about the idea that makes sense at all, unless one believes that an elite college brand is an adequate substitute for actual and significant professional education and experience.


Teaching is much more complicated than playing basketball, but here’s an analogy that might have been appropriate to the article.  American education is not universally terrible or universally mediocre so much as it is extraordinarily mixed: the best American students, teachers, and schools are among the very best in the world, and our worst — which is essentially a proxy for “poorest” — are, frankly, shameful.  It’s as if the NBA included both the 90s-era Chicago Bulls, as well as competitors made up of seasoned pros who practiced in a Wal-Mart parking lot.  And didn’t have basketballs.  They’ve been taught to play basketball and their skills aren’t bad, but they’re used to dodging cars and dribbling and shooting anything vaguely round and rebounding.  When those teams play against the Bulls, in a standard NBA game, they play hard but get crushed — and instead of trying to get them a real place to practice or play, or buying them basketballs, the NBA commissioners and team owners decide that it would be better to fire all the players and replace them with people whose only exposure to basketball has been watching a lot of it.  They’ve never played a full game before in their life, but a lot of them did graduate from Harvard or Yale.


It’s a ridiculous scenario, of course, and it would be ridiculous to include it in a story about performance improvement because it so clearly has nothing to do with improvement in any sense.  But that’s basically what education “reform” is trying to do.  We expect people dribbling footballs to be able to outscore Michael Jordan, and persist in the delusion that changing the players is enough to get them into the same game.

The Data Agenda

When it comes to education reform, the reliance on “data” is purported to be a values-neutral statement: data has no ideology, this line of thinking goes, so its use cannot be manipulated.


Two important articles — one very long, the other less so — illuminate the lie at work in this proposition.  First, the Atlantic looks at Philadelphia’s textbook allocations.  Textbooks — logistics — are an easy and appropriate place to use data; how many books does a district have?  A school?  Are the books sufficient for the number of students? Have new books been ordered? — etc.  These are straightforward uses of data to help a large organization run more efficiently and effectively.


But that’s not where data is being deployed.  Textbook-less students and, especially, teachers instead face data as a measure of their achievement and worth.  The New Yorker’s lengthy examination of the cheating scandal in Atlanta tells the story of a teacher devoted enough to his low-income students that he did kids’ laundry for them — but who was brought down by bureaucratic pressure to conform to data-driven expectations.  Simply put: it is a tragedy, and a fucking waste, and it is not by accident.



Why is data so misused in education — absent where it is most desperately needed, and omnipresent where it is actively and pervasively harming both students and teachers?  Well, maybe it is because — as the first sentence of this article states — America hates teachers.  It’s not a polemical statement by a teacher: it’s a historical assessment by an education historian.  And to know the history of the American relationship to our teachers should make all of us suspect any kind of “reform” that puts teachers at its center.


And hey, maybe if we tracked the data on whether or not they had the textbooks they needed, that’d solve the damn problem.


In which four AmeriCorps alumni attempt to make plans.
Hello beautiful people,

I know that there was a preliminary push for an Ameri-Hangout on Friday, but I was hoping to get the ball rolling with concrete plans!
Who all is available on Friday? Would we want to do dinner? Just drinks? No drinks (I’m kidding, that’s not really an option)?
Tentatively an 8 pm meet up in the East Bay? I do love Missouri Lounge for cheap drinks, but I am open to any and all suggestions. Let’s talk!
Hope to see all of your smiling faces on Friday :DDDDDD
Thanks Nic!  I’m super swamped with work and school but am really really going to try to make it because it’d be awesome to get together. 8pm at ML suits me!

Alright, we got two for Missouri lounge at 8 pm…Isa, James?!
Isa (me):

To confirm, we are talking about THIS friday, yes?

COrect! Friday, 8/22/14, at 8 pm!
The Jimbo hath spoken and will be @ MLs @ 8 for quaffing and hoopla

Prepare your butts…bitches
LOVE. IT. Haha, see all of you beautiful people on Friday!!! (Spouses and dogs welcome.)
Isa (me):
I’m in socal through Tuesday, cold kickin it with the twin-expectors. And the soon-to-be grandma of two. (Aka my bro, sis-in-law, & mom.)
There’s some good bars in la if y’all feel like a road trip… ;)

Schedules pending, we could also schedule fun and games for next Friday as well, but yeah we were talking about this Friday.

Sounds like a pretty rad excuse to miss out on fun and frivolity.
Isa – we can skype you and Garner, Nic, and myself will drink your portion so you can vicariously be drinking with us while we are at the MLS (I keep thinking of soccer for some reason).  Otherwise, through the family in the car and bring em up, I’m sure your grandma is up for a little partying, especially with studs like Nic and myself.
But I concur with Nic: both of these Fridays we gotta let ‘er rip!  Before I end this communique let me leave you with a song:

no sleep ’till brooklyn – beastie boys w/ lyrics
Isa (me):
i appreciate your commitment to a full amerireunion!  next friday sounds like a plizzan.  if y’all can make it happen.

in the meantime, quaff and hoopl (the verb form of hoopla?) away.
Isa, you shall be missed but we will make dick jokes in remembrance of you, before you’re physically here – then we will make more dick jokes together.

Isa (me):
Awww.  You are the sweetest!  I hope somebody says something like that at my funeral someday.  Right before they make a dick joke.
Let us hope you outlive us all, and you can make dick jokes at our funerals some day.
Or maybe we record a loop reel of dick jokes so that we say it at each other’s funeral and then when our ashes shot into space, the record plays on loop so that if any alien lifeform finds our ashes their first encounter with the human species will be via our recorded dick jokes.

Oh you guys.

Come Healing

I wrote this two weeks ago.  I sat on it for a bit but have decided to go ahead and put it into the world now.

behold the gates of mercy/an arbitrary space

and none of us deserving of the cruelty or the grace…

(sincerely, l. cohen.)

Like so many others I am surprised by the weight of my reaction to Robin Williams’s suicide; he seemed a fixture in the universe, a font of comedic energy that could never quite be tapped, a potent reminder of the power of laughter and storytelling to touch millions of lives.  His death is tragic self-destruction and now conversations are being struck up — again, another time — about how to approach mental illness, how to reach out to friends with depression, how to handle one’s own sadness.  Some essays are insightful.  Some prescriptions are quite useful.  What I am chiming in with, based on my own lifetime struggle with depression which reached its nadir in suicidal ideation nearly one year ago, is simply blunt.

Just show the fuck up.

This seems like an obvious cliche, too simplistic to be of any use, but the truth is that most of us are busy.  Relentlessly, dumbly, riotously, numbingly busy, and more often than not with shit that we don’t even care about.  We’re busy for the sake of busy-ness, because it seems better than solitude; or we’re busy for the self-importance, for the performance of being in demand; or we’re busy because everyone else is busy and if we’re not busy then are we just wasting our lives?  We’re busy out of the sheer multi-dimensional terror of modernity, and while the complaints of busy-ness have existed since the dawn of urbanity technology only enables us to add more obligations to our schedule — we cannot now do something so seemingly straightforward as, say, watch a sitcom without tweeting our reactions to it, or composing tweets in our head while watching, or texting friends about it or checking IMDB to see what that one actor’s name is and where we’ve seen him before, and that’s only if we’re not working on a whole ‘nother project on a different screen; perhaps it’s fun-work or personal-work or work-work (the office is never off, not anymore) but it’s a diversion from our diversion nonetheless.

We can barely even show up and be fully present to a twenty-two minute television show anymore.  We’re not expected to do so, and we’re even encouraged not to (#bottomofyourTVscreen).  How the fuck are we maintaining relationships?  How can we ever show up and be fully present to another full human being in need if our busy-ness is so all-consuming that an episode of “New Girl” feels like a commitment?

The answer is that we can’t.  The answer is that we must make choices about what is truly important, and give our attention to that.  Having a safe, warm, dry home is important; having a large or spotless or Pinterest-ready home is not.  Having some real, close friends with whom you can discuss life is important; having Twitter followers is not.

Laughter — laughter is important.

Distraction is not.

We are creatures of finite psychological resources.  Let’s not waste them on commutes and Kardashians but lavish them on one another; not merely on our spouses or significant others (because society approves of monogamous sexual/romantic relationships between adults but is skeptical about the merit of grown-up friendships, even as the rise of the bromance and the success of the likes of “Friends” makes it all too clear that we seek community, not merely partnership), but on everyone we encounter — with strangers perhaps a smile or a door held open, a high-five and a chat with an acquaintance and hugs and penetrating conversation with our friends — we don’t need to hear everyone’s life story to be kind to them, and contrary to the beliefs of both cynics and saviors kindness is not a martyrdom.

It is, I have found, the most effective antidepressant around, but proper administration requires both its giving and its receipt.

Technology is not useless in this; for friends far from home email can be a wonderdrug and even moderate Facebooking has its place (see above re: laughter), but a voice on the phone or a handwritten card or letter has even more impact.  The older the media, the greater the effect: in the depths of my own misery “Ugly Betty” carried me, the Suarezes and the Meades and Marc and Amanda and Wilhelmina offering a kind of emotional surrogacy when I could summon nothing besides self-loathing, but once they empowered me enough to leave the house and visit the library I found vastly more potent solace in paper and ink and the tactile, psychological intimacy of a novel (“BUtterfield 8,” and holy shit) — not the abstraction and argument of essay or article but the pure power of story.  Printed, bound passport to imaginative space, to something beyond myself.

Everyone is different.  That’s what worked for me.

The other thing that worked for me was having friends.  I only reached out because I had to — not “had to” in the sense of “being so moved by my sadness” but “had to” in the sense of “I was supposed to complete a large data entry project for the small law firm where I used to work but I couldn’t get out of bed for my depression, which only prompted a further cycle of reprobate and shame because what the fuck was wrong with me that I couldn’t get out of bed to do this damn work when I needed the money and I was going to let everyone down and I was so fucking worthless, could I ever be anything more than worthless (no) and I should just hide under this blanket and maybe I would never have to wake up and, god, that would be so easy, could I make that happen somehow? — and then the day came when I had to turn it in and I had no work product and I had fucked up royally and screwed over people I respect and care about, and whose work has real value to the community, and I couldn’t bring myself to lie to them and I had to say something and so the only thing left was the truth, which meant admitting that I didn’t finish the job because I was too busy wanting to be dead.”

I sent an email to one of the associates on the team I was working for — a friend.  It was the first time I came clean to anyone about what I felt.  I was succinct but honest.  And after I sent that email I took a shower (which at that time was an achievement for me) and in the shower I cried, which is a thing I’ve never been able to do very easily — once a year, maybe twice; my grandmother died at the end of April and I haven’t cried for her yet.  It’s August, and I loved her very much.  As a teenager, I took pride in my stoicism.  Now I am less confident of its value.

That single email built within me, over a month, into a blog post.  I couldn’t bear to talk face-to-face and one-on-one, to intimately confess to all those I loved how bad things had gotten, so I put it in writing and let it into the world, all at once.  It was, frankly, terrifying, and the next few days were surreal: many people called it brave, which I had not expected and still do not fully understand, because here I was admitting a weakness and weakness is cowardice and cowardice is not brave.  Intellectually I understand their point (I think), but on a deeper level I have absorbed the culture in which we all swim, and that culture does not make room for anyone’s vulnerability or impenetrable malaise.  The cure always lies in doing: if we are sad, we should just be busy.

But that post was like a lamp in darkness, and friends swarmed to it.  We are habituated to our busy lives and habits, any habits, are hard to break — but what I found is that, once cracked open, those habits can be re-formed into newer, better ones.  Showing up and being present does not mean holding a friend’s hand day in and day out, forever.  It means being there when they need you, which in a crisis might be more acute and involved (and they were) and in the long-term just means reminding them that you’re there and you’re thinking of them and you care (and they are, and they do).  Emails, cards, phone calls, coffee dates — these don’t need an invitation.  An in-joke on a Facebook wall.  An unexpected text: “I saw this and thought of you…”

A loving touch can be a light one.

It’s not hard.  And it’s reciprocal, because for a depressed person, one of the most joyful (re)discoveries is of one’s capacity to share love and affection, to reflect it back to those who love us and maybe even to offer it freely to some who may not, which includes — starts with? ends with? — ourselves.  It may take a while to reach your depressed friend; the effort may drain you, and self-care and boundaries matter.  There might be some negotiating around what you can offer, and it might be uncomfortable, for you or for your friend (or spouse, or family member, or other loved one).

But is it important to you?

Then do it.

Show the fuck up.

Pride Goes Before…

Generally speaking, I don’t recommend staying up late at night by oneself to watch a television show about a serial killer.  Unless that show is “The Fall.”


“The Fall” is a BBC show with one five-episode season under its belt — barely a blip, by American television standards — and a second due in 2015.  The first series aired last year and is available on Netflix; I’d had it recommended to me often (in large part because of its leading actress) but didn’t feel up for an intense thriller until recently.  And hot damn if it wasn’t worth it.


“The Fall” is unlike any other serial killer show in that it is unabashedly, whole-heartedly feminist — a difficult theme to pull off when the premise is about the brutal murder of women.  When lesser shows, like “SVU”, attempt to make feminist hay out of violence against women, the result is often preachy, predictable, and cliched.  Not so “The Fall.”


This is largely due to the show’s central character, Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (portrayed by none other than Ms. Agent Scully herself, Gillian Anderson).  Gibson transcends all the common narrative stereotypes about women: she’s sexual but not manipulative, she’s compassionate but efficient, she’s feminine but self-assured and painstakingly honest; she’s not only “powerful”, but also fully empowered.  She is not a woman with much self-doubt, but her forthrightness is not presented as villainy or bitchiness — rather, it is integral to her moral compass.  Moreover, and perhaps more radical still, Gibson is not the only woman on the case.  Archie Panjabi plays the Belfast medical examiner (the show is set in Northern Ireland; Gibson is English, reviewing the case on behalf of the Metropolitan Police), and the rapport between the two characters and the two actresses is, if you’ll pardon the pun, arresting.  There are also a handful of female junior officers, including one who impresses Gibson with her honesty and dedication and becomes her assistant.  That this officer is also gay is incidental (although some — such as the reviewer of the New York Times — have difficulty understanding as much: the critic attributed the character’s devotion to her job and admiration for Gibson to “being in love,” which is a grotesque condescension).


The killer himself also makes feminist arguments.  The show is not a conventional whodunit — we know from the outset who is committing the crimes — and we see the murderer in his daily life, where he is not a monster but a husband, father, and professional bereavement counselor.  He is young and handsome; he is not what comes to mind most readily when one imagines a sexual predator.  In fact, the entire character seemed an object lesson in counterpoint to the #NotAllMen campaign of earlier this year — more often than not, it is impossible for women to discern which men are dangerous until it is far too late.  Paranoia in sexual politics is safer than trust.


The idea that the killer seems, by all accounts, to be a stable and desirable man is played out in a subplot involving his fifteen-year-old babysitter.  She has a transparent crush on him, and in her emergent sexuality — which the killer has encouraged by inviting her to listen to music at his house (with his children present) and giving her beer — she invites him to have sex with her.  That he declines is less a matter of moral scruple and more owing to his psychological necessity to maintain his worlds as entirely separate: he is either devoted family man or a strangler of young successful women, but the two identities must remain separate for him.  (Indeed, it is their inevitable overlap which causes him to panic and fall directly into Gibson’s setup — which the New York Times reviewer also misinterpreted, stating that his call to the police was a sign that he remained “one step ahead” when two whole episodes showcased Gibson’s strategizing to draw him out.  Either this and other critics were doing something else while they watched the show, or they projected their gendered assumptions onto the story, secure in the knowledge that it would play out as these things always do.  Except: not at all.)


That the killer rejects his babysitter for amoral reasons is transparent in the scene where he visits her house to tell her that he cannot see her again.  Instead of taking adult responsibility, or acknowledging that he led on an adolescent girl, he turns it on her; she “drives him crazy,” she leaves him unable to think straight, she is too young and too nubile for him to even tolerate.  In this formulation, the fault lies not in the killer — not in his own predation or lack of self-control — but in the body of a teenager, in its pathological femaleness.  It is an argument that is so fucking common it is no wonder that many male reviewers saw it as a demonstration of the killer’s “depth” — i.e., his relatability — rather than his psychopathy.


The show doesn’t make the same mistake.  Gibson calls the killer out for exactly what he is: a misogynist, an artless woman-hater, a man with no control over himself.  That he cares about his young daughter, or that he helps a client leave an abusive husband, does not erase the fact that he strangles women for fun, and what the show manages to pull off (fairly remarkably) is to portray the killer as a rounded human being without offering any sympathy.  Sure, he had a shitty childhood, but a reason is not an excuse, and the story makes no excuses for misogyny: whether it is the strangulation of women or the suggestion that they should not have sexual agency, Gibson is unafraid to address the bullshit of the men around her directly, without stridency or scolding but simply with truth.  She is a steel fist in a silk glove.

Moreover, just as we see other women working with Gibson to bring justice, we’re also shown how other men are — unwittingly — complicit in the killer’s advantages.  The show opens with him burglarizing a woman’s home; he steals nothing of value but arranges her underwear and a dildo on her bed, which is sufficiently freakish that when she arrives home and discovers the outlay, she calls the police.  While the female officer (Gibson’s future assistant) is concerned but curtly professional, her male partner trivializes the woman’s concerns: “Could your cat have done it?” he asks, a diagnosis of hysteria sufficient for the woman to decide she has overreacted and will stay in her home, rather than with her sister — a decision which, of course, leads to fatal consequences.


The male police officer certainly did not intend for this young woman to die.  He was merely making a joke; he thought it was nothing.  His inability to trust a woman’s perception of her own situation was a very real causative factor in her death, but then, men’s inability to trust women’s perceptions of themselves in general is a very real factor in everyday life.
“What will you tell your daughters, to keep them safe?” Gibson asks Panjabi’s medical examiner, as they revisit one of the crime scenes.  Gibson stands in front of a display of high-heeled shoes, but she’s already made it more than clear that she’s not interested in judgment.  The question is less of a question than an expression of futility; for these two women who have seen so much violence, so much of it specifically directed at women, there is no easy answer.  Women are often blamed if they wear heels or tight clothes, as the babysitter was, but women in burqas are not any safer.  The entire question is a trap, a setup that never serves women but only those who turn them into victims.


It is not a perfect show, but it’s worth watching.


For more: here, here, and especially here.

Entering Prejudice

The desolate truth was that the Colonel was extremely stupid, and it came to me, as we sat there, glumly ordering lunch, that for extremely stupid people anti-Semitism was a form of intellectuality, the sole form of intellectuality of which they were capable. It represented, in a rudimentary way, the ability to make categories, to generalize. Hence a thing I had noted before but never understood: the fact that anti-Semitic statements were generally delivered in an atmosphere of profundity. Furrowed brows attended these speculative distinctions between a kike and a Jew, these little empirical laws that you can’t know one without knowing them all. To arrive, indeed, at the idea of a Jew was, for these grouping minds, an exercise in Platonic thought, a discovery of essence, and to be able to add the great corollary, “Some of my best friends are Jews,” was to find the philosopher’s cleft between essence and existence. From this, it would seem, followed the querulous obstinacy with which the anti-Semite clung to his concept; to be deprived of this intellectual tool by missionaries of tolerance would be, for persons like the Colonel, the equivalent of Western man’s losing the syllogism: a lapse into animal darkness. In the club car, we had just witnessed an example: the Colonel with his anti-Semitic observation had come to the mute young man like the paraclete, bearing the gift of tongues.

…in the bar, it grew plainer and plainer that the Colonel did not regard himself as an anti-Semite but merely as a heavy thinker. The idea that I considered him anti-Semitic sincerely outraged his feelings. “Prejudice” was the last trait he could have imputed to himself. He looked on me, almost respectfully, as a “Jew lover,” a kind of being he had heard of but never actually encountered, like a centaur or a Siamese twin, and the interest of relating this prodigy to the natural state of mankind overrode any personal distaste. There I sat, the exception which was “proving” or testing the rule, and he kept pressing me for details of my history that might explain my deviation in terms of the norm. On my side, of course, I had become fiercely resolved that he would learn nothing from me that would make it possible for him to dismiss my anti-anti-Semitism as the product of special circumstances: I was stubbornly sitting on the fact of my Jewish grandmother like a hen on a golden egg. I was bent on making himsee himself as a monster, a deviation, a heretic from Church and State. Unfortunately, the Colonel, owing perhaps to his military training, had not the glimmering of an idea of what democracy meant; to him, it was simply a slogan that was sometimes useful in war. The notion of an ordained inequality was to him “scientific.”

The Inheritance of Plunder

Sometimes facts that we’ve known for a long while can become remixed to have new meaning — an “aha” moment, such as it is, and I had one earlier today while watching the film “The Corporation”*.  The history of corporate personhood in the US finds its roots in an 1886 Supreme Court ruling, in a case entitled Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (or, more commonly, Santa Clara).  Corporate personhood was read into the fourteenth amendment to the Bill of Rights, one of the Reconstruction amendments meant to ensure liberty and full citizenship for newly freed slaves.  By 1886 Reconstruction had devolved into early Jim Crow oppression, a reversion not entirely to slavery but to a two-classed system in which violence against black people was not only allowed but encouraged by the state.


The Supreme Court had previously recognized the applicability of the fourteenth amendment to the population for which it was intended — in 1874, when women sued for the right to vote under the due process clause, the court ruled that the amendment was meant for black males and denied half the population their suffrage.  A dozen years later, the purpose of the amendment was subverted for political gain.


It was not a Southerner who most propelled this radical reinterpretation, but a New York senator and lawyer named Roscoe Conkling.  The North was more industrialized and had more chartered corporations than the South, after all; the Southern economy had been tied to slavery, their greatest source of wealth the bondage of the dark-skinned.  And while there were Northern abolitionists for whom black liberation was a sincere moral issue, who dared to imagine something approaching equality, there were many more Northerners whose discomfort with slavery was economic: that Northern capital had to remunerate its labor somehow, and that this created an unfair system — not between blacks and whites but between North and South, with the latter holding an exploitative advantage.  But then, slavery held little attraction in a region where a different organization of labor proved more efficient for generating profits.  The rise of the corporation and the fall of slavery (which was itself the last throes of feudalism) were not independent, and that legal protections of African-Americans were abandoned in favor of protecting corporate interests can be no surprise to any serious student of American history.


In “The Corporation,” the CEO of the world’s largest carpet manufacturer speaks of his come-to-Jesus moment, his recognition of the fundamental unsustainability of capitalism, the realization that he was participating in an economy of plunder.  Plunder is a word rare in contemporary usage, except if one reads Ta-Nehisi Coates — his interrogation of the plunder of black labor and black bodies reached its apogee in his recent and stunning piece on reparations.  The role of the fourteenth amendment, set forth to secure a vulnerable class and then subverted to give legal cover to the exploitive class, only reinforces his argument: what the United States has offered black people has been the worst kind of lies, promises of security transmuted into profits for a ruling class from which they have been excluded.  It is not the work of individuals, of bad actors.  Oppression and exploitation is the architecture of our national policy, and efforts to the contrary are manipulated back to the status quo.


Before watching the film I read a long review of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” which examined one of Piketty’s most prominent conclusions — that historically, capital returns outpace overall economic growth (which is a proxy for wage-earning labor) — with a critical eye.  Piketty finds that, excepting “the short twentieth century” (roughly, from the interwar period to the 1970s), historical trends favor the growth of capital at the expense of waged labor, which the reviewer finds at best incomplete: why, he wonders, should this be the case, and what might cause an exception?  (He rejects as insufficient Piketty’s diagnosis of world war.)


But it’s not hard to see a reason.  The “short twentieth century” saw some of the most muscular regulation and intervention by democracies in history, spurred by the recognition of our newfound capacity for annihilation and the need to avoid total self-destruction.  Outside of such aggressive public-mindedness, power only perpetuates itself; whether the laws of the aristocracy perpetuating feudal interests or corporate “persons” seeking advantage in lowered taxes and governance, the principle is identical.  Wealth and power, two sides of the same coin, are self-perpetuating and self-justifying — the nobility is ordained by God, darker races are biologically inferior, captains of industry are preternaturally gifted.  What is won is always earned, never plundered, though an honest reckoning only offers evidence of the opposite.


Plunder is the inheritance of power.  But it is only by our intellectual and moral cowardice that it must also be its legacy.



*Recommended viewing.  Long, and a rocky start, but ultimately a compelling ethical examination.