Dear Mitch McConnell

     Dear Mitch McConnell,

     Have you ever read ‘A Man for All Seasons’, the play by Robert Bolt?

Sir Thomas More
Portrait of Sir Thomas More, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527.  Part of the Frick Collection.

It’s about Sir Thomas More, the 16th century English statesman and philosopher, specifically about his struggles with his own conscience in his capacity as advisor to and Lord High Chancellor for Henry VIII.

     I ask because there is a moment in that play which I wish you had read, because I believe it might have been a warning to you this week.

     It is a discussion between More and his son-in-law, Roper, about whether to arrest a man named Richard Rich.  Roper would like him arrested, and More replies that Rich has committed no crime, saying that he (More) would let the Devil himself go free if he had not committed a crime.

     Roper: So now you’d give the Devil the benefit of law!

     More: Yes, what would you do?  Cut a great road through the law to go after the Devil?

     Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

     More: Oh?  And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, all the laws being flat?  This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?  Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

     This week, Mr. McConnell, you destroyed the Senate’s filibuster rule for Supreme Court appointments.  As I understand it, you are now preparing to do the same for all legislation.

     I know that the filibuster, like any tool, can be used for ill: it can be used for blind obstructionism and grandstanding (well you know this, Mr. McConnell, for you have used it this way).  The filibuster, when abused, allows for the tyranny of the minority, and tyranny of any kind is harmful.

     But not all tyrannies are equally harmful, and the tyranny of the minority is less fearsome than the tyranny of the majority; the filibuster protects against the tyranny of the majority. It encourages compromise and discourages polarization. It blunts extremism and forces cooperation.  In these ways, it is good for the country.

“Breaking the rules to change the rules is un-American. I just hope the majority leader thinks about his legacy, the future of his party, and, most importantly, the future of our country before he acts.”

– Minority-leader Mitch McConnell in 2013, about Harry Reid eliminating the filibuster.

     Perhaps you don’t believe that, Mr. McConnell; perhaps you believe that the more power accrued to your side, the better.  That would not be such an evil thought, Mr. McConnell: if you believe truly that you are right, then why shouldn’t you wish that your side be able to pass laws unobstructed by a troublesome minority?  If that is the case, then, please, Mr. McConnell, listen to Sir Thomas More.

     Because you’ll be in the minority again, Mr. McConnell.  One day, whether in two, four, eight, or sixteen years, the great wheel will turn again, and your party, your principles, your values, will hold fewer seats.  You will be no more or less right than you are today, but you will be less powerful.

     And where will you hide then, Mr. McConnell, the filibuster having been cut down?  As you slowly destroy the rules and customs which protect the minority, do you ever trouble yourself to remember that people treat others as they themselves have been treated?

     You are teaching a whole generation how to treat a political minority, Mr. McConnell. You are teaching them to cut down every rule, disregard every protection, disdain every view but their own, in order to achieve what they want.

     Today, you have the majority and you have used it to deprive the minority of their voice.  But in life only one thing is certain: this too shall pass.   That majority was given to you by the people and people are fickle.  It will be you in the minority one day, Mr. McConnell, and do you really think that you will be able to stand up in the wind that blows then, when the people blow against you?

     I don’t think you will.

“For He Makes His Sun Rise on the Evil and on the Good, and Sends Rain on the Just and on the Unjust”

     I’ve become a little obsessed with something Vladimir Putin once said.

     Putin has, of course, been much in the news lately here in the United States as various interested parties try to figure out exactly how involved he has been with our President.  And so I finally got around to reading a book I’ve been wanting to read since it came out: Masha Gessen’s ‘The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin‘.

My edition has two afterwords.  The second, a postscript written in 2014, concerns the autocrat’s violent anti-gay ideology.  Gessen is herself gay, and it was the persecution of homosexuals which finally drove her from her country, and so in a book with many emotionally difficult portions, it is one of the most upsetting.

     And, in it, Gessen quotes, among other things, Putin’s State of the Federation address to Parliament in 2013, in which he said,

     “Today many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures.  Society is now required not only to recognize everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil, strange as it seems, concepts that are opposite in meaning.” (p. 312)

putin 2013 address.jpg
Putin entering the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow to give that State of the Federation address in 2013, from the Financial Times

     It is always fascinating to watch someone invoke the fight against evil in order to achieve evil.  It begs the question: do they know that they are about to commit an evil act?  If not (surely not), then why don’t they know?  If someone else committed that act, would they know it was evil?  Are they hypocrites interested only in the accumulation of their own power, or are they true believers?

     Vladimir Putin and I agree that evil exists, but we have very different notions of what it is, what it looks like, and who is doing it.  In fact, we probably believe that the other is a pretty near approximation of an evil actor.

     Putin believes (I am persuaded by Gessen on this) that evil is personified by liberal, democratizing, Westernizing forces which corrode the conservative, traditional power structures of his country.

     I believe that the evil person is one who seeks to accrete power, wealth, or to experience joy or relief, at the expense of the natural rights of other people: at the expense of their safety, health, freedom, or life.  I believe evil is that which requires that the rights of the other be sacrificed to achieve the goals of the self.

     So how can Vladimir Putin and I use the same word and mean such different things?  If ‘evil’ means ‘someone I disagree with very, very much’, or ‘someone who does something I find personally repugnant’, does it really have meaning worth preserving?  Is ‘evil’ just another level on our personal scale of badness, or is it another thing altogether, a distinct category of human behavior?  If it is the latter, shouldn’t we make sure that our use of that word is spare?  Shouldn’t we make sure not to dull its edge by overuse?

     Obviously, I cannot stop Putin from saying or doing whatever he pleases (apparently, no one can).  But I can object strongly to his use of that word, ‘evil’, which is incorrect and dangerous.

Pew Homosexuality 2014
Results of a 2013 Pew study asking the question “Should society accept homosexuality?’, broken down by nation, from pewglobal.org

     Whether you believe that homosexuality is right or wrong (and I would like to be clear and emphatic here: I believe that homosexuality is exactly as right, as normal, as healthy, and as natural as heterosexuality), surely we can agree that one person’s homosexuality does not deprive any heterosexual person of their natural rights, and, therefore, is not evil and should not be so called.  Tolerance of homosexuality, then, is not a commitment to neutrality in the battle between good and evil – that is a preposterous idea.

     We may disagree about what is right and what is wrong, but we should not disagree about evil.  There are many things which are considered ‘wrong’ by some portion of the population but which we all ought to have the right and freedom to do: take the Lord’s name in vain, get a divorce, tell a lie, have a child out of wedlock, smoke marijuana, marry someone of the same gender, cheat on our spouse, work on the Sabbath.  You may think one or more of these things is wrong, but, if I do them, I do not violate your natural rights, and so my right to do them should be respected.  We can agree to disagree.

I don’t believe that we can afford to agree to disagree about evil – there are lives at stake.  And so I don’t believe that we should be using the word ‘evil’ when we mean ‘wrong’; I don’t believe we should use the word ‘evil’ except when we mean it.  Because we’re going to want to have that word at our disposal, potent and not diluted, when we need it (to, say, describe a man who is having opposition journalists killed).

     And we are going to need it.

 

Featured image from abc.com, anti-Putin protests in the UK sparked by the Russian crackdown on gay rights in 2014.

Peaceful, Evil Man

To Tony Judt, With Humility and Apologies

     There are minds so strong and lovely that one quails at the idea of disagreeing with them.  The error must be yours, you think, because their thinking is so sure and clean and reliable.

     When I find a discrepancy between my thinking and that of a greater mind, I usually retire, but every once and awhile, an admired intellect will assert something that I feel strongly is incorrect, and I find myself unable to give way.

     That happened to me this week.  I have been reading, with enormous pleasure, ‘When the Facts Change‘ by Tony Judt, the lucid, moderate, incisive historian of post-World War Europe. Judt is the sort of author is who is so reasonable and articulate that he is dangerously persuasive, and I find myself, usually, in total agreement with him.

     So I was caught up short when I read something in this book with which I disagree pretty categorically:

“It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity.  War – total war – has been the crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era.  The first primitive concentration camps were set up by the British during the Boer War of 1899-1902.  Without World War I there would have been no Armenian genocide and it is highly unlikely that either Communism or Fascism would have seized hold of modern states.  Without World War II there would have been no Holocaust.  Absent the forcible involvement of Cambodia in the Vietnam War, we would never have heard of Pol Pot.” (p. 274)

     These data are cherry-picked.  

     First of all, it is certainly coherent to lay the victory (though not the rise) of Communism in Russia at the feet of World War I, but to suggest that, for example, the millions of deaths in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) were a result most proximately of World War I is ridiculous – the People’s Republic wasn’t even established until 1949!

1966 Struggle Session
A ‘struggle session’ in Harbin in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, featuring public humiliation.  From scmp.com

     Or: perhaps the first British concentration camps in Africa were built because of the Boer War, but what about the detention camps they used for massive deportations of Kikuyu in Kenya in the 1950’s?  Describing the “Mau Mau Uprising” as ‘total war’ seems like an enormous stretch, even when one considers how reluctant the British have been to be honest about it.

Mau Mau
British soldiers looking for Mau Mau fighters in Kenya in 1954.  From guardian.com

     Or: what about the Japanese annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and the truly blood-curdling actions taken by the occupying forces there?  

Rape of Nanking
A Japanese soldier poses with decapitated heads in Nanking in 1937.  From ‘The Rape of Nanking’ by Iris Chang

     Or: if we must restrict ourselves to the treatment of African-Americans in modernity, what about the Jim Crow era in the United States, which was nothing if not atrocious?

Lynching
From atlantablackstar.com

     There are more.  The truth is, there is no limiting circumstance on human evil.  To suggest that there is, is to indulge in optimism completely without cause.

     Judt’s assertion offends me because it implies that, in the absence of war, people can be trusted not to lash out at each other genocidally, and this is clearly not the case.  The arc of human history does not bear this out; the history of the twentieth century does not bear this out; neither the history of my nation or his bears this out.

     Humans require no special context to commit evil.  They do not require war to commit genocide.  They do not need to be in extremis to commit atrocities.  They do it in all places at all times whether or not they have war as an excuse.

     This capacity to annihilate one another is not a limited or circumscribed capacity – it is a human capacity.  If we keep looking for reasons why we could never have done the same terrible things as other people, if we keep looking for special circumstances which explain why cruelty and murder and evil are not universal, then we aren’t going to see the next evil coming.

     We have to take responsibility, not for the evil we have or have not done, but the evil we are capable of doing.  To say that only people in certain circumstances might commit atrocities is logic preliminary to explaining why we cannot commit them.

     But every nation, people, or creed will have the opportunity to strike cruelly at another people, and, if they are convinced beforehand that they are not capable of it, then they will think less critically about what they do.  It is only by acknowledging that we may all do terrible things unless we are careful that we will see the need to take care.

     And we must take care.

 

Featured Image from law.georgetown.edu/library

To Cease to be Divided

     Do you ever wonder whether everything you believe is wrong?

     I mean, not ‘everything’, obviously – I’m sure we all believe many, many true things. But do you ever wonder whether your deeply held beliefs, the pillars of your world-view, the informational basis around which you organize yourself as a moral or ethical member of society, as a citizen, might be wrong?

     I worry about this all the time.  I’m someone who, a generation ago, would have identified as a moderate conservative with liberal social values, which position today makes me pretty solidly liberal.  I live in the Northeast, surrounded by other liberals, and the constant lament these days, the endless question, is:

     How can conservatives believe the things that they believe?  Don’t they see that their views are incoherent?  That their new President lies?  How can they so casually disregard science, fact, data, consistency?

     I am sure that conservatives wonder the same things about liberals; I read conservative news, so I know for a fact that they do.  When two opposing sides disagree about the nature of reality, when each is sure that they are correct, when they will state opposite “facts” with equal confidence and each side rejects the “facts” of the other, my question is this:

     How can you be sure you’re on the right side?  How do you know that it’s the other side that is deafened by their echo chamber, and not yours?

     As far as I can tell, I am the only person in the country right now worrying about this. Everyone else seems very sure that they are on the right side, and they become more sure every day.  Thus, the two sides grow further apart.

     I’m not sure I’m right.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m wrong.  I’m sure I hold some number of beliefs which are completely ass-backwards – I just don’t know which ones.

     How can you tell if your mind is open?  How would you measure such a thing?  I read people who disagree with me, and sometimes they persuade me: does this happen enough?  Too much?  If it doesn’t happen often, is that because I’m closed-minded, or because I’m already mostly right?

     Whenever I find myself very sure that my side is right, I think back (bear with me) to O.J. Simpson’s murder trial.  I was just a kid when O.J. went to trial, but I remember quite clearly that all the adults in my affluent and mostly-white world were sure that O.J. was guilty.

     More than that, these adults were dismayed by what they saw as the shameless race-baiting of O.J.’s lawyers, which they considered manipulative and transparently false.  O.J. was one of the most famous men in the country: of course the police weren’t being racist with him.  Of course they hadn’t planted that glove, that accusation was elaborate, absurd.  The police might have been racist in Montgomery in the 1950’s, but this was the 1990’s, L.A.: they didn’t frame black men anymore.

     And I remember that they all seemed disturbed that black Americans had fallen for the cynical ploy of lawyers.  It seemed credulous and paranoid to the adults around me, for whom the police were an accommodating if obstructionist presence.  It seemed as if race mattered more to them (black people) than truth, as if they were willing to overlook facts in order to stay loyal to their side.

bialik-oj-11
From fivethirtyeight.com: At the time of the trial, nearly the same percentage of black Americans thought O.J. was innocent as white Americans thought he was guilty.

     None of these white adults would have identified themselves as racist; they would have been hurt and offended by the accusation.  But it never seemed to occur to them that, perhaps, every black person in America wasn’t paranoid, that when they said that it was plausible to them that the L.A.P.D. would try to frame the most famous black man in America, it was because they were having very different experiences with police than white people.  That the world, that even their own country, was much bigger than their experience.

     But no one around me seemed to figure that out then – it wasn’t until decades later, when dash cam footage showed police shooting and killing many unarmed black men, that we understood how the police looked to other Americans.

     I think about this whenever I hear liberals lament the blindness of conservatives, because I hear them say the same things about those conservatives that we said about black Americans: that they care more about their team than about ‘reality’.  The implication is that we are superior or smarter, that we see more clearly, that ‘we’ know what reality is.  I’m not sure that’s true.  That wasn’t the case back then – maybe it’s not the case now.  Because, sometimes, the problem isn’t whether you see clearly or not; it’s that you only believe what you see yourself, but the world is much, much bigger than what any one side can see.

     So I wonder: what am I missing now?  What don’t I know?  What can’t I see?  What are my prejudices?  How can I tell the difference between when you are wrong and when I am wrong?  I am sure we are both wrong much of the time, but how can I tell which is which?  I’m frantic to know this, to see into the darkness of my own ignorance and error.  I just need a light I can trust.

Featured Image:

Reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdict, taken from atlantablackstar.com

Where All Are Guilty

     I’m not sure what we’re all doing here, exactly.

     I think it’s fair to say that when the Allies liberated the German concentration camps in 1945, most of the world was shocked by what they saw there.  They had not known that mankind was willing to commit an enormity of that measure.

     And so we learned then what we were really capable of.  Maybe we should have known before – the record of man committing evil against man is as old as history itself – but, for whatever reason, we did not even seem to suspect before then.  Certainly, we knew after.

     We saw that we were monsters, that we would tear each other apart for the sheer joy of it, that we would grind out the lives of the young and the vulnerable by the million to sate our own blood-thirsty needs.

     The Germans were not the first people to commit genocide, and they weren’t the last. But they were a fully modern, secular nation, and that proved to us that no creed or technology of thought yet devised places a people out of the reach of those terrible impulses.  It seems we carry our capacity for annihilation with us, that we are born with it, like our capacity for love or language.

     Those camps were our own darkest heart brought to light, and when we looked them full in the face, we faced a choice: we could abandon ourselves to the despair of the wicked, embrace the nihilism that such evil implied, or we could repudiate it.

     However, since human evil is a fact, since it has touched every age and every nation, in order to deny it in ourselves, we must believe that we can change.  And, in order to change, we must be able to learn.  If we cannot learn, history will bend again and again towards those camps, towards the ovens and mass graves, and we will be monsters still.

     But what would it mean to learn away evil?  Presumably, it would not merely mean that we refrained from rounding Jews into camps and exterminating them, or rounding anyone into camps and exterminating them.  It would mean understanding the grave errors in thinking which led us there.

     The most serious error is this: that it is useful or correct to think about groups: national, religious, socieconomic, racial groups, as moral units, to fear or condemn them as though they were individuals.  Treating groups as individuals, as though they possessed the characteristics of individuals (‘values’, ‘intelligence’, ‘trustworthiness’, ‘criminality’), is rarely useful and often evil, and the events of the last century (not just the Holocaust, but also the American Civil Rights movement, the advances of women’s rights in much of the world, the slow death of European colonialism, the enormous genocides in China and the USSR) should have convinced absolutely every thinking person of that.

Brexit 'Breaking Point'
UKIP Pro-Brexit, Anti-Immigration ‘Leave’ Ad

     But my own countrymen have just elected a man to the office of the President of the United States in a large part because of his propensity for exactly this kind of thinking: his willingness to treat Mexicans as a group, “blacks” as a group, Muslims as a group, to act upon them as though they were individuals, to register or ban them.  We are still making this same mistake.  We aren’t learning.

 

     This lesson is so important, so necessary to the functioning of a moral society, that, if we have failed to grasp it after everything we’ve seen, then all our manners and petty ethics and customs are so much farse: play-acting at true civilization, and I don’t understand why we bother.  If the dark evil still beats within us which causes us to drive the other out into the cold because he is the other, to strike him down or deny him, then why are we bothering to honor our speeding tickets or queue at supermarkets or refrain from parking in the handicap spots?  If we still haven’t learned that children are children wherever they come from, if we are still willing to let them die because we can’t look past their category designation, then we are doomed and I don’t understand why I pay my taxes or say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.  These are the trifling rituals of civilization – we have failed to grasp the fundamentals.

     I will pay my taxes; I will say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, because I wish to participate in a civil and good society.  But these gestures do not make a society civil or good – they are just niceties propping up a rotten structure unless we can learn and move forward, can understand our mistakes and become better.  And we aren’t better yet.

 

Header Image:

Selection of Hungarian Jews at the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Poland, May 1944.— Yad Vashem Photo Archives, taken from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Website, http://www.ushmm.org

Dear Secretary Clinton

     Dear Secretary Clinton,

     I owe you an apology.

     When you first ran for President, in 2008, I didn’t think that you were the best candidate to be the first female President of the United States of America.  As a woman myself, I felt that the fact that you had first achieved national prominence as First Lady was compromising; I wanted our first female President to be uncontaminated by her husband’s status.

     I also had a notion that the Clintons were beset by scandals, and that they must certainly be to blame for that, at least in part.  I suppose I hoped that the first female President would be covered in glory and uncomplicated, and I believed that the nation would allow such a person to exist.

     I was wrong – I was naive.

     I didn’t anticipate how the first serious woman candidate for President would be treated.  I didn’t anticipate the intensity of the hostility to her, the demeaning and vile things that would be said about her, the contempt with which she and her accomplishments would be treated.  I believed the world was better than it has proven to be .

     I’ve been shocked and hurt by the things that have been said about and to you, by the incoherence people have been willing to entertain in order to vilify you.  I was shocked, but, somehow, I don’t think you were.  I believe you knew exactly what awaited you, what you were in for, and you ran anyway.

     I am not so naive to think you were unmotivated by personal ambition – that would be absurd.  No one reaches for the presidency without ambition.

     But I also believe that you sought the presidency for our sake, for the sake of all the women of this country, who have never seen one of ourselves hold that office and who, before you, have never had a reasonable hope of doing so.

     There is going to be a great deal written and said about the ways in which you were the wrong candidate.  It is going to be asked whether you were destined to lose, whether your inherent political and electoral weaknesses allowed Trump to win.  And so I just wanted to say to say to you, as one woman to another:

     I’m glad it was you.

     I think it had to be you: there aren’t many people strong enough to be bear hate and then smile – there aren’t many people brave enough to let the wave break on their back.  You did that for us, and the fact that you didn’t win doesn’t mean that you didn’t do it well.

     I’m sorry for how you were treated.  I’m glad that you ran – thank you for running.

     It was an honor to vote for you.

     J.S. Burton

“Welcome Tae Yer Gory Bed, or Tae Victorie”

     I wish that I could have seen the battle at Bannockburn.

     It wasn’t, by modern standards, a very big battle, but it was a long one, lasting two full days.  It was a failed attempt by the English army, under Edward II, to relieve Stirling Castle from siege by Scottish independence forces led by Robert the Bruce during the First War of Scottish Independence.

     By the year of Bannockburn, 1314, Edward II was losing the hold his father, Edward I, had consolidated on Scotland.  Robert the Bruce had claimed the Scottish throne in 1306, and was retaking Scottish strongholds one by one.

     Robert the Bruce is one of history’s warrior-giants.  He was physically enormous, a multi-lingual and well-educated nobleman, and he absolutely scared the pants off the English.  He would have scared the pants off you, too: he embodied that unusual and frightening combination of physical size, martial competence, and charismatic leadership.  He is described, at one point in the Battle of Bannockburn, as splitting Henry de Bohun’s helmeted head at full charge with one blow of his axe.

     Estimates put the English force at Bannockburn at approximately 15,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry; the Scots fielded somewhere less than 10,000, a small percentage of which would have been mounted.

     These nearly-30,000 men hurled themselves at each other for two days, charging and recharging, until approximately two-thirds of the English infantry were dead.  Even if Scottish casualties were light, something like 15,000 men probably died at Bannockburn.

     And I wish that I had seen it.  I do not believe that it was cinematic or noble or good, and I certainly do not wish to have participated in it – I am no reenactor, and I do not hanker after olden and blood-soaked days.  One of the great privileges of living in our age is that one has a much lower chance of dying in battle.

     But battles, armed clashes between large groups of people, are part of the human experience.  They must have been terrible and awesome to see: thousands and tens of thousands of men bent on nothing but their own survival and the destruction of the other.

     There really isn’t anything else like battle in the human experience, and it has happened in every culture in every time in recorded human history.  War is one of man’s unique characteristics – our ability to abstract and organize violence is one of the things which sets us apart from other animals (with the possible exception of chimps).

     War isn’t a universal masculine experience, but it is a defining one.  Men everywhere and through all times have done battle with other men, and have measured their strength by their ability to do so.  They marched and ran and rode in lines – they hacked each other to pieces with swords, rained arrows on each other, ran each other down with horses, and blew each other apart with guns.

     William James wrote, in ‘The Moral Equivalent of War‘, “We inherit the warlike type; and for most of the capabilities of heroism that the human race is full of we have to thank this cruel history.”  I think that may be an over-simplification, and I know James would agree with me (for it is one of the main thrusts of the essay) that war is a blight, the reduction of which is an unalloyed good for mankind.  

     Nevertheless, the ability to steel one’s nerve, to run or ride headlong into an advancing or overwhelming enemy, to die not for necessity but for a rule or for a principle, is an astonishing and human ability.  It’s part of who we are, a capability which informs the collective human psyche, which defines at one stroke the best and worst limits of ourselves, and it is strange to think that I will never see something which has been so fundamental to the self-conception of so many.

     And I wish I could have.

Title is from the song ‘Scots Wha Hae’, the lyrics written by Robert Burns as a speech given by Robert the Bruce before Bannockburn.

Image is of the statue of Robert the Bruce at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn, taken from the BBC.

The Founding Father Problem

     Since you’ve insisted, I will admit it to you: I really dislike Thomas Jefferson.  In fact, I dislike him personally and profoundly, almost violently – I try not to dwell on my feelings in public, lest I become agitated and make a spectacle of myself, but the truth is, if I think about him for too long at a stretch, I will end ranting and cursing, even to myself.

     There are many good reasons to dislike Thomas Jefferson: you might loathe the American farmer.  You might have sided strongly with Alexander Hamilton.  You might date the decline in American culture to the introduction of the dumbwaiter to the continent.  You might be a banker.

     I hate him because he was an accomplished hypocrite, and I believe that his moral janus-face helped lodge something poisonous at the heart of the American story.

     I’m not talking about slavery.  Well, I am, but I’m not.  Slavery was disgusting – obviously, the decision of the founding fathers to allow the practice to continue in their new nation was despicable.

     But the problem with Jefferson, in particular, is subtler: more than any other founding father (with the possible exception of George Washington), we identify with Jefferson our particularly American virtues.  He was, after all, the author of our most exalted sentence:

     We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

     It’s magnificent – it fills Americans with patriotic feeling.  It expresses the quality about which we are most proud.  For this reason, we have always cherished Thomas Jefferson, as though he embodied in his person, and not merely in his words, our best self.

     But, of course, he didn’t.  Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves.  It’s all well and good to crow about universal human rights, but when you go home and rape the humans you own, you should have no claim on the affections of any nation which prizes those rights.

     We ought to have repudiated Jefferson when we repudiated slavery, but we didn’t: we tried to keep the man while ignoring the slave owner, and I don’t think we can do that.

     Slavery, the keeping of people in bondage, is an unpardonable crime – why do we pardon it for the sake of our founders?  Jefferson gives us no reason to forgive him – he did not even manumit his slaves after his death, like Washington, despite recognizing that the institution was morally repugnant.

     He also cannot take refuge in his age – many of Jefferson’s contemporaries realized that slavery was evil and acted accordingly, including Benjamin Franklin and the aforementioned Alexander Hamilton.  And even if his peers had not seen their way to moral clarity on the issue of slavery, I don’t believe we would be unreasonable in nurturing higher hopes for Jefferson than for other men: he was, after all, the author of our guiding moral statement.

     And Jefferson did realize that slavery was an immoral institution.  He even took steps to limit its spread in the new world; he just stopped short of implementing measures which would have personally diminished him, and that is evil.  A man who looked at black Americans and failed to see the crimes being committed against them would be morally, fatally, blind; a man who saw, but would not act for love of profit, should be damned by history.

     If we are to grapple properly with slavery, we need to stop excusing the men who committed it.  We don’t allow other nations to excuse their own crimes against humanity, or the men who commit them.  Jefferson wasn’t merely a slave owner – he was a head of state, a powerful man who’s interventions helped perpetuate the institution.

     We would not forgive the Germans if they exalted a Nazi statesman because he was the author of some beautiful words, enshrined his image on their currency, named towns and roads and hospitals after him.  The ownership of a race, the complete refusal to admit its humanity, is not less evil than its extermination.  We should not pretend that Jefferson is anything less than a monster.

     It shouldn’t shock anyone that a nation which persists in revering Thomas Jefferson would, in 2016, essentially allow police to shoot black men without reason or repercussion.  If we were, as a nation, serious about valuing black lives, we would not celebrate men who traded in them.

It Definitely Follows

Review of ‘It Follows

I finally, after many weeks of reading reviews and absorbing buzz, went to see ‘It Follows’.

Horror fans, of which I am one, tend to maintain a carefully calibrated set of expectations.  Horror movies can be characterized according to several sub-genres, all of which observe certain tropes and obey certain rules.  Movies rarely transcend their sub-genre, and part of enjoying horror movies is appreciating the limitations and traditions of these categories.

But it’s nice to see something a little different once and a while.  ‘It Follows’ is unusual in a couple of ways: the premise is unfamiliar and completely unexplained: the creepiness is simply allowed to exist – it is never demystified or justified.  There is no reveal: it’s an alien!  It’s a demon!  It’s a girl who was drowned!  It’s a cyborg!  It simply is, and must be contended with.

But perhaps the most novel thing about ‘It Follows’, the genre convention which is most surprising in its abandonment, is this: the teenage characters in it do relatively few stupid things.

Stupid actions done by teenagers are the sine qua non of horror plots.  Split up the group, go explore the weird noise alone, break into the boarded-up asylum, don’t check under the bed, in the closet, or behind the door: without this basic toolkit, pretty much no horror movie could advance its plot.

And that’s fine, but it gets a little old: you watch a blonde in a crop top walk into another obvious trap, and you think, “Haven’t these people ever seen a horror movie?  Can’t she hear the ominous music?”

But what’s cool about ‘It Follows’ is that, with one or two exceptions, most of the kids in the movie act exactly the way you would act if you or someone you knew had contracted a sexually-transmitted zombie.

The central problem, besides the zombie, obviously, is this: how, exactly, could you come to be sure that something was following you?  If it could take any form, and could only walk after you, that thing would kill you long before you even knew you were being chased.  And how would you ever convince anyone else, your friends and family, who couldn’t even see it?

It Follows’ deals with this efficiently and well, getting the first part, convincing the main character, Jay (played by Maika Monroe), of her danger, out of the way with plenty of time leftover to watch that creepy thing walk after her.

And it’s really creepy.  Because the creature walks everywhere, you must adjust your horror-movie expectations again: you are no longer looking into shadows waiting for something to spring out at you – rather, you spend the movie scanning crowds, like a secret service agent, looking for someone, anyone at all, walking in a straight line.  The thing follows Jay to public places, schools, beaches, and it comes day and night.  And because she’s not safe anywhere, you’re not safe anywhere.  You can’t relax and wait for the normal cues to alert you that trouble is coming – trouble is always coming, slowly, but inexorably, in any guise it chooses.

All of which makes ‘It Follows’ the best horror movie I’ve seen in a while, certainly the scariest.  I saw it days ago, and I won’t lie: I’m glad Spouse wasn’t away at all this week.  I’m not a kid anymore  – it’s an unusual horror movie that leaves me uneasy in my mind.  This was one.

Freddie Gray

A friend of mine, a woman a little younger than I am and also white, is reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.  This week, in the wake of the indictment of six Baltimore cops for murder or manslaughter in the death Freddie Gray, she asked me, “What should we do?”

She meant ‘we’, ‘white people’, and, I think, when she said, ‘What should we do?’, she didn’t just mean, ‘How can we help?’ – she also intended the harder, subtler question, ‘What am I supposed to do with my anger about this? How do I understand and cope with how desperate this makes me feel, especially in light of my own complicity?’

During the winter, I go to the gym most days after work.  The TVs over the treadmills are usually set to CNN, and this is pretty much the only the network television I watch.  During the past few months, I have run while, each week, it seems, CNN covers another murder of a black man by the police.  Lately, as we all know, there have been videos of these deaths, and I watch while these men are killed over and over and over, and all I can think, ‘We should all have known that this was happening.’

There are a number of systems failing in these videos, many policies indicted in the facts of these deaths: the expansion of police powers, the war on drugs, entrenched, multi-generational poverty.  There are more evils at work here than simple racism.

But simple racism is there: there are fewer consequences for killing blacks than there are for killing whites, and police across the country have been exploiting that difference for a long time.  Black lives matter, but they matter less than white lives.  This is an empirical truth and a moral catastrophe.

This problem has not gotten worse recently: the police did not just start killing black men this year.  The national media did not finally develop a racial conscience; white people are not more aware, more sensitive, than we were in 2005.  So what changed – why are we talking about this now?

Because now there’s video.

Everyone has a camera now, smartphones which feel like an extension of their arms, and their own personal social media platforms.  The situation is exactly the same, but now there’s proof.

I feel crushed by this fact: black Americans have, for decades, insisted that they were the victims of police brutality.  Most white people didn’t believe them, and even those of us who did, who believed that, yes, stop-and-frisk was racist, that blacks were systematically harassed by police, we didn’t imagine, didn’t really understand, that they were being routinely murdered by the police.

At least, I hope we didn’t.  Because the other possibility is that we did, and we just didn’t care.

But they were – they were being killed by the police, and we might have done something about it much sooner if only we had believed what we were told.  Unfortunately, and indisputably, the word of the black community is insufficient: they must have video corroboration, even in cases of their own deaths.

Truly, we had no good excuse for not believing the charges of racial violence made against the police.  In the entire history of black-white relations in America, every single time a system could victimize or disadvantage blacks, it has.  After slavery, after Jim Crow, after civil rights, when the black community said, ‘We’re scared of the police,’ where on earth did white people find the gall to disregard them?

It’s well past time to accept this: black Americans and white Americans occupy different countries.  Our experience does not delimit theirs, and the fact of the difference in their experience is not grounds for us to dismiss it.  It’s time for the white community to treat the testimony of black Americans as equal to their own.

If we had, perhaps we would not still live in a country where racist drug laws provide a thin cover behind which cops arbitrarily torture and execute an unknown number of black men.  If we had had a little moral imagination, we might have stopped this a long time ago – instead, we needed to wait for it to come out on video before we would even start talking about it.

So what should we do?

Here’s what we can do, for a start: the next time a black person tells us, ‘I can’t ever get a cab’, ‘They won’t lease us apartments’, ‘They treat me like I’m only there to shoplift’, ‘I was going the speed limit’, ‘I wasn’t resisting arrest’, ‘They kill us for no reason’, we can believe them.

Image taken from the New York Times