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.

Odds & Ends

With ideology masquerading as pragmatism, profit is now the sole yardstick against which all our institutions must be measured, a policy that comes not from experience but from assumptions – false assumptions – about human nature, with greed and self-interest taken to be its only reliable attributes.

- Alan Bennett, in the London Review of Books

Relatedly, Diane Ravitch takes down the notion that teacher protections are what impede access to quality education.  Historical ignorance is a dangerous thing, indeed.


But sometimes there’s hope: using technology to point us towards our overuse of technology, for example, or using it more pointedly to teach those unwilling to be taught.  I have more thoughts on the latter, to come in the next few weeks.

The World Around Us

Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.




People do what they need to do to survive. But when survival is an aspiration, society has failed.


-Sarah Kendzior