Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

  • The Insufferable Spider-Man

    Analyzing the contenders for the worst story of all time

    Marvel/The Atlantic

    While anxiously awaiting the retconning/re-marriage of Peter Parker, I came across this io9 list of the four worst Spider-Man stories of all time. The contenders are The Clone Saga, The Gathering Of Five, Sins Past and One More Day. I'm not sure if these are in order of awfulness or not, but I agree with the listing—these are all pretty bad. The contest is a little unfair: You can go back and read through earlier issues of The Amazing Spider-Man and find some forgettable stories. But when the "event" era hit Marvel—huge crossover, multi-issue epics—awfulness mixed with hype. Nothing, then, was forgettable. And then there's the Internet generation—many of us remember The Clone Saga in a way that we don't remember, say, the earlier escapades of the Jackal and Gwen Stacy (always a bad idea), so the awfulness of the 90s and the aughts resonates in a way that awfulness of the 60s, 70s and early 80s doesn't.

    And I'm not sure that's totally fair to Marvel. When "big" works it works. Greg Pak's rendition of the Banner family, told across a number of years, is awesome. (Nerd diversion: There's a really gripping scene in Incredible Hulks #619 where Jarella, Glen Talbot and Hirom Oldstrong come back from the dead to fight for the Hulks. OK, back to business.) I'm really enjoying Jonathan Hickman's sprawling Time Runs Out storyline, even if I don't fully understand all of it. And Kraven's Last Hunt, if slightly more contained, is one of my favorite Marvel stories of all time. When you go big, everyone remembers—for good and bad reasons.

    So which of io9's four do I dub truly most baleful?  My disdain for One More Day is fairly well known, and I feel like, at this point, it's a little too easy to hate on. I'm going to go with The Clone Saga for the great sin of resurrecting Norman Osborne. Since that resurrection, and since his departure from the Spider-books, he's proved to be an interesting villain. (See Matt Fraction's take on him in The Invincible Ironman.) But he's been made interesting by basically being made into a new character. Osborne has been resurrected in name only, and what's been lost is the force of presence he exerted off-panel for nearly 25 years:

    And then the final out was resurrecting Norman Osborn, the single worst move ever made by Spider-Man writers. He had attained a reputation and fearsome aura in death far greater than in life, haunting Peter so much. To explain he'd spent 24 years of stories "recovering in Europe" was ridiculous, as was making him the true mastermind of all this then turning him into a poor man's Lex Luthor. 20 years later and it's still the storyline that all Spider-Man fans grit their teeth at.

    I don't think all resurrections are bad. But in a genre where death is malleable, I think it's easy to miss how well certain characters work while dead, how they exert a gravity on the main story. Perhaps more than any major superhero, save arguably Superman, Spider-Man is a character largely defined by death—the death of his parents, of Gwen Stacy, of his Uncle Ben. During the formative years of his life, it seemed like everything he touched turned to ash. This included the father of his best friend. It was powerful stuff while it lasted. I just wish it lasted a little longer.

  • The Myth of Police Reform

    The real problem is the belief that all our social problems can be solved with force.

    Julie Jacobson/AP

    There is a tendency, when examining police shootings, to focus on tactics at the expense of strategy. One interrogates the actions of the officer in the moment trying to discern their mind-state. We ask ourselves, "Were they justified in shooting?" But, in this time of heightened concern around the policing, a more essential question might be, "Were we justified in sending them?" At some point, Americans decided that the best answer to every social ill lay in the power of the criminal-justice system. Vexing social problems—homelessness, drug use, the inability to support one's children, mental illness—are presently solved by sending in men and women who specialize in inspiring fear and ensuring compliance. Fear and compliance have their place, but it can't be every place.

    When Walter Scott fled from the North Charleston police, he was not merely fleeing Michael Thomas Slager, he was attempting to flee incarceration. He was doing this because we have decided that the criminal-justice system is the best tool for dealing with men who can't, or won't, support their children at a level that we deem satisfactory. Peel back the layers of most of the recent police shootings that have captured attention and you will find a broad societal problem that we have looked at, thrown our hands up, and said to the criminal-justice system, "You deal with this."

    Last week I was in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was informed of the killing of Tony Robinson by a police officer. Robinson was high on mushrooms. The police were summoned after he chased a car. The police killed him. A month earlier, I'd been thinking a lot about Anthony Hill, who was mentally ill. One day last month, Hill stripped off his clothes and started jumping off of his balcony. The police were called. They killed him. I can't see the image of Tamir Rice aimlessly kicking snow outside the Cleveland projects and think of how little we invest in occupying the minds of children. A bored Tamir Rice decided to occupy his time with a airsoft gun. He was killed.

    There is of course another way. Was Walter Scott's malfunctioning third-brake light really worth a police encounter? Should the state repeatedly incarcerate him for not paying child support? Do we really want people trained to fight crime dealing with someone who's ceased taking medication? Does the presence of a gun really improve the chance of peacefully resolving a drug episode? In this sense, the police—and the idea of police reform—are a symptom of something larger. The idea that all social problems can, and should, be resolved by sheer power is not limited to the police. In Atlanta, a problem that began with the poor state of public schools has now ending by feeding more people into the maw of the carceral state.

    There are many problems with expecting people trained in crime-fighting to be social workers. In the black community, there is a problem of legitimacy. In his 1953 book The Quest For Community, conservative Robert Nisbet distinguishes between "power" and "authority." Authority, claims Nisbet, is a matter of relationships, allegiances, and association and is "based ultimately upon the consent of those under it." Power, on the other hand, is "external" and "based upon force." Power exists where allegiances have decayed or never existed at all. "Power arises," writes Nesbit, "only when authority breaks down."

    African Americans, for most of our history, have lived under the power of the criminal-justice system, not its authority. The dominant feature in the relationship between African Americans and their country is plunder, and plunder has made police authority an impossibility, and police power a necessity. The skepticism of Officer Darren Wilson's account in the shooting of Michael Brown, for instance, emerges out of lack of police authority—which is to say it comes from a belief that the police are as likely to lie as any other citizen. When African American parents give their children "The Talk," they do not urge them to make no sudden movements in the presence of police out of a profound respect for the democratic ideal, but out of the knowledge that police can, and will, kill them.

    But for most Americans, the police—and the criminal-justice system—are figures of authority. The badge does not merely represent rule via lethal force, but rule through consent and legitimacy rooted in nobility. This is why whenever a liberal politician offers even the mildest criticism of the police, they must add that "the majority of officers are good, noble people." Taken at face value this is not much of a defense—like a restaurant claiming that on most nights, there really are no rats in the dining room. But interpreted less literally the line is not meant to defend police officers, but to communicate the message that the speaker is not questioning police authority, which is to say the authority of our justice system, which is to say—in a democracy—the authority of the people themselves.

    Thus it was not surprising, last week, to see that the mayor of North Charleston ordered the use of body cameras for all officers. Body cameras are the least divisive and least invasive step toward reforming the practices of the men and women we permit to kill in our names. Body cameras are helpful in police work, but they are also helpful in avoiding a deeper conversation over what it means to keep whole swaths of America under the power of the justice system, as opposed to the authority of other branches of civil society.

    Police officers fight crime. Police officers are neither case-workers, nor teachers, nor mental-health professionals, nor drug counselors. One of the great hallmarks of the past forty years of American domestic policy is a broad disinterest in that difference. The problem of restoring police authority is not really a problem of police authority, but a problem of democratic authority. It is what happens when you decide to solve all your problems with a hammer. To ask, at this late date, why the police seem to have lost their minds is to ask why our hammers are so bad at installing air-conditioners. More it is to ignore the state of the house all around us. A reform that begins with the officer on the beat is not reform at all. It's avoidance. It's a continuance of the American preference for considering the actions of bad individuals, as opposed to the function and intention of systems.

  • A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things

    Feelings of greatness come and go, so savor them.

    Scott Akerman/Flickr

    I have been studying the French language, with some consistency, for three years. This field of study has been, all at once, the hardest and most rewarding of my life. I would put it above the study of writing simply because I started writing as a 6-year-old boy under my mother's tutelage. I always "felt" I could write. I did not always "feel" I could effectively study a foreign language.

    But here I am, right now, in a Montreal hotel. I spoke French at the border. I spoke French when I checked in. I spoke French when I went to get lunch. I don't really believe in fluency. If there is a such thing, I don't have it. I mishear words. I confuse tenses. I can't really use the subjunctive. Yet.

    Something has happened to me and the something is this—I have gotten better. I don't know when I first felt it. I didn't feel it this summer at Middlebury, despite the difference in my entrance and exit scores. I didn't feel it when I first arrived in Paris in January. I felt, as I always feel, like I was stumbling around in the dark. I still feel like that. But I also feel like I am getting better at stumbling.

    I am emphasizing how I "feel" because, when studying, it is as important as any objective reality. Hopelessness feeds the fatigue that leads the student to quit. It is not the study of language that is hard, so much as the "feeling" that your present level is who you are and who you will always be. I remember returning from France at the end of the summer of 2013, and being convinced that I had some kind of brain injury which prevented me from hearing French vowel sounds. But the real enemy was not any injury so much as the "feeling" of despair. That is why I ignore all the research about children and their language advantage. I don't want to hear it. I just don't care. As Carolyn Forché would say—"I'm going to have it."

    To "have it," I must manage my emotional health. Part of that long-term management—beyond French—is giving myself an opportunity to get better at difficult things. There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so.

    I don't know what comes after this. I have said this before, and will say it again: Studying French is like setting in a canoe from California to China. You arrive on the coast of Hawaii and think, "Wow that was really far." And then you realize that China is still so very far away. "Feelings" come and go. Likely, someone will say something—in the next hour or so—which I do not understand and I will feel a little hopeless again. But right now, I feel high. And one must savor those moments of feeling high, because they are not the norm. The lows are the norm. The Struggle is the norm. May it ever be thus.

  • The Gangsters of Ferguson

    Darren Wilson was innocent. If only the city's cops offered their own citizens the same due process he received.

    Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

    Yesterday the Justice Department released the results of a long and thorough investigation into the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. The investigation concluded that there was not enough evidence to prove a violation of federal law by Officer Wilson. The investigation concluded much more. The investigation concluded that physical evidence and witness statements corroborated Wilson's claim that Michael Brown reached into the car and struck the officer. It concluded that claims that Wilson reached out and grabbed Brown first "were inconsistent with physical and forensic evidence."  

    The investigation concluded that there was no evidence to contradict Wilson's claim that Brown reached for his gun. The investigation concluded that Wilson did not shoot Brown in the back. That he did not shoot Brown as he was running away. That Brown did stop and turn toward Wilson. That in those next moments "several witnesses stated that Brown appeared to pose a physical threat to Wilson." That claims that Brown had his hands up "in an unambiguous sign of surrender" are not supported by the "physical and forensic evidence," and are sometimes, "materially inconsistent with that witness’s own prior statements with no explanation, credible for otherwise, as to why those accounts changed over time."

    Unlike the local investigators, the Justice Department did not merely toss all evidence before a grand jury and say, "you figure it out." The federal investigators did the work themselves and came to the conclusion that Officer Wilson had not committed "prosecutable violations under the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute, 18 U.S.C. § 242."

    Our system, ideally, neither catches every single offender, nor lightly imposes the prosecution, jailing, and fining of its citizens. A high burden of proof should attend any attempt to strip away one's liberties. The Justice Department investigation reflects a department attempting to live up to those ideals and giving Officer Wilson the due process that he, and anyone else falling under our legal system, deserves.

    One cannot say the same for Officer Wilson's employers.

    The Justice Department conducted two investigations—one looking into the shooting of Michael Brown, and another into the Ferguson Police Department. The first report made clear that there was no prosecutable case against one individual officer. The second report made clear that there was a damning case to be made against the system in which that officer operated:

    Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. Ferguson’s own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans. The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities...

    Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue...

    The "focus on revenue" was almost wholly a focus on black people as revenue. Black people in Ferguson were twice as likely to be searched during a stop, twice as likely to receive a citation when stopped, and twice as likely to be arrested during the stop, and yet were 26 percent less likely to be found with contraband. Black people were more likely to see a single incident turn into multiple citations. The disparity in outcomes remained "even after regression analysis is used to control for non-race-based variables."

    One should understand that the Justice Department did not simply find indirect evidence of unintentionally racist practices which harm black people, but "discriminatory intent”—that is to say willful racism aimed to generate cash. Justice in Ferguson is not a matter of "racism without racists," but racism with racists so secure, so proud, so brazen that they used their government emails to flaunt it.

    The emails including "jokes" depicting President Obama as a chimp, mocking how black people talk ("I be so glad that dis be my last child support payment!"), depicting blacks as criminals, welfare recipients, unemployed, lazy, and having "no frigging clue who their Daddies are.” This humor—given the imprimatur of government email—resulted in neither reprimand, nor protest, nor even a polite request to refrain from reoffending. "Instead," according to the report, "the emails were usually forwarded along to others."

    One should resist the urge to clutch pearls and carp about the "mean people" of Ferguson. Bigoted jokes are never really jokes at all, so much as a tool by which one sanctifies plunder. If black people in Ferguson are the 47 percent—a class of takers, of immoral reprobates, driving up crime while driving down quality of life—then why should they not be "the sources of revenue?" In this way a racist "joke" transfigures raw pillage into legal taxation. The "joke" is in fact an entire worldview that reveals that the agents of plunder, the police, are in fact not plundering anyone at all. They are just making sure the reprobates pay their fair share.

    That is precisely what Ferguson's officials told federal investigators:

    Several Ferguson officials told us during our investigation that it is a lack of “personal responsibility” among African-American members of the Ferguson community that causes African Americans to experience disproportionate harm under Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement. Our investigation suggests that this explanation is at odd with the facts.

    On the contrary the investigation "revealed African Americans making extraordinary efforts to pay off expensive tickets for minor, often unfairly charged, violations, despite systemic obstacles to resolving those tickets." And while the investigation found no lack of "personal responsibility" among black residents of Ferguson, it did find that the very same people making the charge were often busy expunging fines for their friends:

    • In August 2013, an FPD patrol supervisor wrote an email entitled “Oops” to the Prosecuting Attorney regarding a ticket his relative received in another municipality for traveling 59 miles per hour in a 40 miles-per-hour zone, noting “[h]aving it dismissed would be a blessing.” The Prosecuting Attorney responded that the prosecutor of that other municipality promised to nolle pros the ticket. The supervisor responded with appreciation, noting that the dismissal “[c]ouldn’t have come at a better time.”
    • Also in August 2013, Ferguson’s Mayor emailed the Prosecuting Attorney about a parking ticket received by an employee of a non-profit day camp for which the Mayor sometimes volunteers. The Mayor wrote that the person “shouldn’t have left his car unattended there, but it was an honest mistake” and stated, “I would hate for him to have to pay for this, can you help?” The Prosecuting Attorney forwarded the email to the Court Clerk, instructing her to “NP [nolle prosequi, or not prosecute] this parking ticket.”
    • In November 2011, a court clerk received a request from a friend to “fix a parking ticket” received by the friend’s coworker’s wife. After the ticket was faxed to the clerk, she replied: “It’s gone baby!”
    • In March 2014, a friend of the Court Clerk’s relative emailed the Court Clerk with a scanned copy of a ticket asking if there was anything she could do to help. She responded: “Your ticket of $200 has magically disappeared!” Later, in June 2014, the same person emailed the Court Clerk regarding two tickets and asked: “Can you work your magic again? It would be deeply appreciated.” The Clerk later informed him one ticket had been dismissed and she was waiting to hear back about the second ticket.

    It must noted that the rhetoric "personal responsibility" enjoys not just currency among the white officials of Ferguson, but among many black people ("black-on-black crime!") who believe that white supremacy is a force with which one can negotiate. But white supremacyas evidenced in Fergusonis not ultimately interested in how responsible you are, nor how respectable you look. White supremacy is neither a misunderstanding nor a failure of manners. White supremacy is the machinery of Galactus which allows for the potential devouring of everything you own. White supremacy is the technology, patented in this enlightened era, to ensure that what is yours inevitably becomes mine.

    This technology has proven highly effective throughout American history. In 1860 it meant the transformation of black bodies into more wealth than all the productive capacity of this country combined. In the 1930s it meant the erection of our modern middle class. In Ferguson, it meant funding nearly a quarter of the municipal budget:

    The City has not yet made public the actual revenue collected that year, although budget documents forecasted lower revenue than 10 was budgeted. Nonetheless, for fiscal year 2015, the City’s budget anticipates fine and fee revenues to account for $3.09 million of a projected $13.26 million in general fund revenues...

    In a February 2011 report requested by the City Council at a Financial Planning Session and drafted by Ferguson’s Finance Director with contributions from Chief Jackson, the Finance Director reported on “efforts to increase efficiencies and maximize collection” by the municipal court. The report included an extensive comparison of Ferguson’s fines to those of surrounding municipalities and noted with approval that Ferguson’s fines are “at or near the top of the list....” While the report stated that this recommendation was because of a “large volume of non-compliance,” the recommendation was in fact emphasized as one of several ways that the code enforcement system had been honed to produce more revenue.

    The men and women behind this policy did not approach their effort to "produce more revenue" somberly, but lustily. As the fruits of plunder increased, Ferguson officials congratulated and backslapped each other:

    In one March 2012 email, the Captain of the Patrol Division reported directly to the City Manager that court collections in February 2012 reached $235,000, and that this was the first month collections ever exceeded $200,000. The Captain noted that “[t]he [court clerk] girls have been swamped all day with a line of people paying off fines today. Since 9:30 this morning there hasn’t been less than 5 people waiting in line and for the last three hours 10 to 15 people at all times.” The City Manager enthusiastically reported the Captain’s email to the City Council and congratulated both police department and court staff on their “great work.”

    It is a wonder they did not hand out bonuses. Perhaps they did. The bonus of being white in Ferguson meant nigh-immunity from plunder. The bane of being black in Ferguson meant nigh-inevitable subjugation under plunder. Plunder is neither abstract nor theoretical. Plunder injures, maims, and destroys. Indeed the very same people who were calling on protestors to remain nonviolent were, every hour, partner to brutality committed under the color of law:

    We spoke with one African-American man who, in August 2014, had an argument in his apartment to which FPD officers responded, and was immediately pulled out of the apartment by force. After telling the officer, “you don’t have a reason to lock me up,” he claims the officer responded: “N*****, I can find something to lock you up on.” When the man responded, “good luck with that,” the officer slammed his face into the wall, and after the man fell to the floor, the officer said, “don’t pass out motherf****r because I’m not carrying you to my car.”

    The residents of Ferguson do not have a police problem. They have a gang problem. That the gang operates under legal sanction makes no difference. It is a gang nonetheless, and there is no other word to describe an armed band of collection agents.

    John Locke knew:

    The injury and the crime is equal, whether committed by the wearer of a crown, or some petty villain. The title of the offender, and the number of his followers, make no difference in the offence, unless it be to aggravate it. The only difference is, great robbers punish little ones, to keep them in their obedience; but the great ones are rewarded with laurels and triumphs, because they are too big for the weak hands of justice in this world, and have the power in their own possession, which should punish offenders. What is my remedy against a robber, that so broke into my house?

    What are the tools in Ferguson to address the robber that so regularly breaks into my house? One necessary tool is suspicion and skepticism—the denial of the sort of the credit one generally grants officers of the state. When Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown there was little reason to credit his account, and several reasons to disbelieve it. The reason is not related to whether Michael Brown was "an angel" or not. The reasons are contained in a report rendered by the highest offices of the American government. Crediting the accounts of Ferguson's officers is a good way to enroll yourself in your own plunder and destruction.

    Government, if its name means anything, must rise above those suspicions and that skepticism and seek out justice. And if it seeks to improve its name it must do much moreit must seek out the roots of the skepticism. The lack of faith among black people in Ferguson's governance, or in America's governance, is not something that should be bragged about. One cannot feel good about living under gangsters, and that is the reality of Ferguson right now.

    The innocence of Darren Wilson does not change this fundamental fact. Indeed the focus on the deeds of alleged individual perpetrators, on perceived bad actors, obscures the broad systemic corruption which is really at the root. Darren Wilson is not the first gang member to be publicly accused of a crime he did not commit. But Darren Wilson was given the kind of due process that those of us who are often presumed to be gang members rarely enjoy. I do not favor lowering the standard of justice offered Officer Wilson. I favor raising the standard of justice offered to the rest of us.

  • King David

    David Carr believed that, through the constant and forceful application of principle, a young knucklehead could bring the heavens to their knees.

    Stephen Chernin/AP

    Things have been hard since I got let go from TIME. Me and Kenyatta have been scrambling to hold everything together. Relationship is goodwe've been in this situation before, so we're not as panicked as before. Samori is doing wellfor all he knows I just have more time to spend with him, which he loves. But man I've been carrying around stress, like a ton of bricks. I don't have to lecture you on that, you know all about it. But one thing that has gone absolutely right since I got layed-offthis Bill Cosby piece in the Atlantic. It's running in the May issue and will top off at 7,000 words or so. I missed the cover, but that's OK. This piece has been a dream. Here is the bonusthe book drops in May, and so does the piece. The Atlantic is gonna do an interview with me on their site about both the book and the article. I just wanted to drop you a note and tell you thanks again, man. When I got rejected on this from XXXXX, I was so down. That connection you managed between me and James Bennet meant all the world.

    —"A Note of Thanks (Again)," sent to David Carr on February 28, 2008

    David Carr, incomparable, irrepressible, and now legendary, is my friend and my brother. I talked to him about everything—relationships, money problems, taxes, religion, drugs, alcohol, travel, writing, food, death. On Thursday night it was announced that David collapsed and died in the newsroom of The New York Times. On Sunday night, it was announced that I received the George Polk Award for Commentary for my article "The Case for Reparations." This award has my name on it, but it is the property of David Carr.

    Let me tell you exactly what I mean.

    "The Case for Reparations" is an argument by reported narrative, a genre of journalism I first began studying and practicing as an intern at the Washington City Paper almost 20 years ago. My tutor in that practice was David Carr, then the City Paper’s editor in chief. Before taking up my studies, I’d enjoyed a successful career as knucklehead, which is to say that before I practiced the trade of narrative argument, I practiced the art of fucking up. My résumé was impressive. On two separate occasions, in two consecutive years, I was kicked out of the same high school. When I was 14 years old, I was arrested for threatening a teacher. Two years later, I was suspended for the same thing. I was not a thug, to the extent such people even exist. I was the kind of kid who sat in the library reading all day, and then failed my literature classes. I was the kind of kid who minored in literature and then failed my literature class and my humanities classes. Adults often think children take a kind of rebellious pride in these sorts of antics. If so it is the pride of fuck-ups and knuckleheads, the shadow of a deep and abiding fear that your life is going nowhere.

    But there was this thing called the Washington City Paper which made arguments every week: big, profane, arrogant arguments. And to this it married a kind of immediacy communicated through reporting, direct quotations, and vividly rendered scenes. And it did at this at incredible length—in 1996, the minimum City Paper cover story was 5,000 words. I read a lot of these words when I was supposed to be doing other things—like studying literature or working a job. I was obsessed with the words in that paper. The words were not organized like any readings I’d ever seen. Maybe I could learn to use words in that same fashion. It wasn't like I was doing anything else. It wasn't like I had ever been good at anything else.

    In the February of 1996, I sent David Carr two poorly conceived college-newspaper articles and a chapbook of black-nationalist poetry—and David Carr hired me. I can’t even tell you what he saw. I know that I immediately felt unworthy—a feeling that never quite faded—because I was a knucklehead and a fuck-up. But what I didn't then know about David Carr was that he'd written and edited the knucklehead chronicles, and published annual editions wholly devoted to the craft of fucking-up. I think that David—recovering crack addict, recovering alcoholic, ex-cocaine dealer, lymphoma survivor, beautiful writer, gorgeous human—knew something about how a life of fucking up burrows itself into the bones of knuckleheads, and it changes there, transmutes into an abiding shame, a gnawing fear which likely dogs the reformed knucklehead right into the grave. Perhaps that fear could be turned into something beautiful. Perhaps a young journalist could pull power from that fear, could write from it, the way Bob Hayes ran with it, because the fear was not of anything earthly but of demons born from profound shame and fantastic imagination.

    Carr was a master at activating the journalistic imagination. He was constantly imploring his writers—many of us under 25—to do something different, to tell stories differently, to break the form. He would have stories from Esquire or The New Yorker photocopied. He would distribute these photocopies to his writers, like the blueprints of imperial-army weaponry, and charge us, his rag-tag militia, with the task of reverse engineering. Then he would assemble us around a long table in the conference room, and quiz us on what, precisely, we’d gleaned from the future-tech of our enemies, and what of it we might use to turn the tide in the great war.

    Carr loved the technology of storytelling and those who wielded it. He was the only person I could sit with and hash over the technical wizardry of This American Life. If you mentioned a great narrative writer in their element—say Gary Smith profiling Pat Summitt—his eyes would perk up like he’d just seen Carl Lewis mid-sprint and he would say, “Oh, he can go.” He once saw an article on how one might incorporate the tools of poetry into nonfiction. He tore out the article and left it on my desk with a note saying something like, “Still waiting to see some of this in your writing.” Another time he left a copy of The New Yorker on my desk—knowing my interest in hip-hop—with instructions for me to read a deeply reported feature on Tupac’s death. He would bring in writers from Vanity Fair and enlist them to break down our own stories and explain where we were going wrong and how we could make it right. David wanted us always moving faster, always getting stronger, always reaching higher.

    Virtually the entire staff at Washington City Paper was liberal. That included David, but he was deeply skeptical of lefty activism concealed as journalism. David had no interest in objectivity, but he always believed that the truest arguments were reported and best bounded by narrative. Narrative was the elegant Trojan horse out of which the most daring and radical ideas could explode and storm a great city. An 800-word column demanding or rejecting reparations is easily repelled. Clyde Ross isn’t.

    David made us feel like the writers at the big publications—at GQ, at The Atlantic Monthly, at Esquire—were no better than us. He pushed to go harder, to try match their pace, and he did this by activating fear and shame. David was a brutal and exacting boss. We didn't have fact-checkers at City Paper. There was a basic rule for errors. The first error you "introduced into the paper" earned you a talking-to. The second one earned you a lengthier talking-to and probation. The third one earned you unemployment. You did not need to “introduce” an error into the paper to earn “a talking to.” Once I flubbed two names in a music review. David chased me into an elevator and yelled at me until we got to the bottom. Another time, being 20 years old and wholly unaware of ethics, I promised a subject that a story would be “good for him.” David called me into his office and yelled for five straight minutes.

    He yelled more than any other boss I’ve ever had. I was not exactly unfamiliar with his tactics. David once told a story about yelling at me over some error in my copy and noticing my face glaze over with a look of recognition. And he said he thought at that moment, “This is not the first time this kid has been in for the treatment.” It was not. My own parents ruled by fear, shame, and expectation. Even his rationales were familiar to me. He would say he was so hard on us because people already have low expectations for the alternative press. “They already think we make shit up,” he’d say, and that meant that we had a higher bar, which is to say, it meant that we had to be twice as good.

    That went for reporting and for writing. A friend and fellow writer recalled David editing his copy and finding some clichéd phrase and writing in the margins, “I’m shocked to discover you think this is acceptable language to use at Washington City Paper.” I once got a tip that the people who did evictions were hiring homeless people to do the lifting and carrying. The homeless making people homeless was a perfect Washington City Paper story. “Find them,” David told me. I did not even know where to begin. Do you simply go find some homeless people and say, “Do you do evictions?” Evidently, yes, because that’s what I did, and this is the story I brought back.

    What I remember about chasing that story is the fear—the fear of offending, of asking impolite questions, of intruding. But you could not work for City Paper without learning how to walk the streets of D.C., approach people you did not previously know and barrage them with intimate questions. This is an essential skill for any journalist—but it also one of the hardest things to do. But David had no tolerance of our fears, save fear of him. And if we could learn to be as deeply intolerant of our fears as he was, then a thousand glories lay on the other side.

    This was represented in David himself, a man who was as effusive in praise as he was damning in condemnation. I still remember stumbling upon him in another editor’s office having just turned in a draft of that eviction story, and David looking up and saying, “We were just here talking about your incredible fucking story.” No one had ever said anything like that to me. I remember my mother calling the office one day to talk to me. And David, in his brusque, brutal way, grabbed the phone from me and said, "I just want you to know that your son is here working his ass off." No one had ever said anything like that to my parents about me. I was a fuck-up. I was a knucklehead. I was going to end up on the corner. I was going to end up in jail. I was going to end up dead.

    And then I wasn’t.

    David Carr convinced me that, through the constant and forceful application of principle, a young hopper, a fuck-up, a knucklehead, could bring the heavens, the vast heavens, to their knees. The principle was violent and incessant curiosity represented in the craft of narrative argument. That was the principle and craft I employed in writing "The Case for Reparations." That is part of the reason why the George Polk Award, the one with my name on it, belongs to David. But that is not the most significant reason.

    It has been said, repeatedly, that David was a tireless advocate of writers of color, of writers who were women, and of young writers of all tribes. This is highly unusual. Journalism eats its young. Editors tell young writers that they aren’t good enough to cover their declared interest. Editors introduce errors into the copy of young writers and force them to take the fall. Editors pin young writers under other editors whom they know to be bad at their job. Editors order young writers to cover beats and then shop their jobs behind their backs. Editors decide to fire young writers, and lacking the moral courage to do the deed themselves, send in their underlings. Editors reject pitches from young writers by telling them that they like the idea, but don’t think their byline is famous enough. Editors allow older black editors to tell young black writers that they are not writing black enough. Some of these editors end up working in public relations. Some of them become voting-rights activists. Some of them are hired by universities to have their tenured years subsidized by aspiring young writers.

    All of that happened to me. And I know that I am not alone, that I am just the tip of what happens to young writers out there. And I know that even I, who am no longer a young writer, do not always wear my best face for young writers. And among the many things I am taking from David’s death is to be better with young writers, and young people in general. Because every single time some editor shoved me down, David picked me back up. It was David who I called at his home out in Montclair, in 2007, with a story to pitch to this magazine. And I asked him who he knew. And he knew James Bennet. And this is my life. It was David I called after an editor-in-chief called me into his office to tell me I did not have “the fire” to cover housing policy and development, and instead ordered me to write a weekly column on “black men.” It was David who told me that the editor did not know what he was talking about, and it was David who confronted the editor directly.

    "The Case for Reparations" is, before it is anything, a reported story about housing policy and development. It is the story that David was urging me to write 19 years ago. The award belongs to him because I would not be a journalist were it not for him. The award belongs to him because I would not be at The Atlantic if not for him. The award belongs to him because he urged me on for nearly my entire adult life—faster, stronger, higher—and his memory will urge me on for the rest of my natural life.

    David, I keep thinking I am going to call you. I keep thinking I am going to wake up. David, I heard a song yesterday and I wanted to call you:

    Well, I’ve been dragged all over the place,

    I’ve taken hits time just don’t erase

    And baby I can see you’ve been fucked with too,

    But that don’t mean your loving days are through.

    I miss you terribly. I do not want to say goodbye. Tony says you were our champion. How can we go on, David? How can all of it just go on? Who will be our champion, now?

  • No Escape From History

    Ross Douthat accuses Obama of singling out the crusades, but they are part of the president's own Christian heritage.

    Statue of Godfrey of Bouillon in Brussels (Er&Red/Wikimedia)

    My old colleague Ross Douthat has offered a response to Barack Obama's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. It does not damn Ross with faint praise to say he has, at least, avoided the drunk festival of ideas—American racism was actually pioneered by Gozer the Gozerian, Jim Crow was "a thousand years ago"—presently circulating. But if Ross's argument enjoys the virtue of sobriety, it is still injured by the vice of being wrong.

    Ross is disturbed to see the president drawing an "implied equivalence" between the barbarism of ISIS and the "the incredibly complicated multi-century story of medieval Christendom's conflict with Islam." This will not do. The present conflict in the Middle East is also an "incredibly complicated multi-century story." And yet that fact does not (and should not) prevent Ross from drawing conclusions about the morality of burning a man to death in the name of God. The president's comments are no different: "During the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ." This is a manifestly true statement—just as true as: "During the Middle East conflict, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Allah." The first Crusade was anointed with a pogrom against the Jews of the Rhineland. The Spanish Inquisition included the executions of thousands, and led to the expulsion of Jewish communities from the country. I do not believe one needs a degree in medieval studies to deplore pogroms and ethnic cleansing, any more than one needs a degree in Middle Eastern studies to deplore the taking or beheading of hostages.

    Beneath Ross’s claim of “incredible” complication is a plea for context and nuance on behalf of the murderers of Jews—one he does not make on behalf of ISIS. Either way, Ross does not think Obama should be in the business of self-criticism at all because it fails as a matter of policy. "Self-criticism doesn’t necessarily serve the cause of foreign policy outreach quite as well as Obama once seemed to believe it would," writes Ross. Maybe. Maybe not. The implicit logic here holds that an American president should only speak forthrightly when some mean, tangible, and immediate benefit is obvious. Whatever one thinks of that claim, it is at war with the rest of Ross's column. He cites Dwight D. Eisenhower's parting speech on the military-industrial complex as an example to Obama, but by Ross's lights that speech was a failure since it effected no real change in the pace of military build-up.

    But Ross believes it makes a great example for Obama because it features Eisenhower criticizing his own party. Unlike Ike, Obama is a partisan attacking "crimes he doesn’t feel particularly implicated in ... and the sins of groups he disagrees with anyway (Republican Cold Warriors, the religious right, white conservative Southerners)." Ross thinks Obama would be better served by criticizing groups to which he is sympathetic. In fact Obama has spent much of his presidency criticizing the most loyal sector of his party, and often doing it in church. I have, with some vehemence, argued that much of this criticism is bunk. But Ross is condemning Obama for failing to do something which has, in fact, been one of the most remarkable and consistent features of his presidential rhetoric.

    More importantly, Jim Crow and slavery were not merely the sins of Southerners and the religious right, but the sins of America, itself. Enslavement was not merely a boon for the South, but for the country as a whole. (During the Civil War, New York City was a hotbed of secessionist sympathy mostly because of its economic ties to the South.) And there is simply no way to understand segregation in this country without understanding the housing policies of Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt and the G.I. Bill signed by Democratic president Harry Truman. Barack Obama is a Christian and the president of the United States and thus the inheritor of the full legacy of that grand office. He is neither, as Ross tries to position him, an outsider to American sin nor Christian sin. It’s his heritage too, and Obama is wise enough to know that he can’t simply charge off the bad parts of that heritage to intransigent Southern bigots.

    It has been enlightening to watch this entire spectacle play out over the past week. There are now intelligent people going on television to tell us that the president should not use the word "crusade" to describe ... The Crusades. The problem is history. Or rather the problem is that there is no version of history that can award the West a stable moral high-ground. Some of the most prominent Christian leaders in this country used their authority to burnish the credentials of South Africa's racist regime—not in the 1960s, in the 1980s. At this very moment, there are reports that Uganda's attempt to make sex between men a capital offense is tied to the very sponsors of the Prayer Breakfast where Obama spoke. In such a world, a certainty about which "side" is always good and which "side" is forever evil doesn't really exist. And in an uncertain world, Obama is making a wise appeal for vigilance—vigilance against the death cult of ISIS, and vigilance against the allure of death cults period—even those inaugurated in the name of one's preferred God.

  • The Foolish, Historically Illiterate, Incredible Response to Obama's Prayer Breakfast Speech

    Using religion to brutalize other people is not a Muslim invention, nor is it foreign to the American experience.


    People who wonder why the president does not talk more about race would do well to examine the recent blow-up over his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. Inveighing against the barbarism of ISIS, the president pointed out that it would be foolish to blame Islam, at large, for its atrocities. To make this point he noted that using religion to brutalize other people is neither a Muslim invention nor, in America, a foreign one:

    Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

    The "all too often" could just as well be "almost always." There were a fair number of pretexts given for slavery and Jim Crow, but Christianity provided the moral justification. On the cusp of plunging his country into a war that would cost some 750,000 lives, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens paused to offer some explanation. His justification was not secular. The Confederacy was to be:

    [T]he first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society ... With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so.

    It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made "one star to differ from another star in glory." The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws.

    Stephens went on to argue that the "Christianization of the barbarous tribes of Africa" could only be accomplished through enslavement. And enslavement was not made possible through Robert's Rules of Order, but through a 250-year reign of mass torture, industrialized murder, and normalized rape—tactics which ISIS would find familiar. Its moral justification was not "because I said so," it was "Providence," "the curse against Canaan," "the Creator," "and Christianization." In just five years, 750,000 Americans died because of this peculiar mission of "Christianization." Many more died before, and many more died after. In his "Segregation Now" speech, George Wallace invokes God 27 times and calls the federal government opposing him "a system that is the very opposite of Christ."

    Now, Christianity did not "cause" slavery, anymore than Christianity "caused" the civil-rights movement. The interest in power is almost always accompanied by the need to sanctify that power. That is what the Muslim terrorists in ISIS are seeking to do today, and that is what Christian enslavers and Christian terrorists did for the lion's share of American history.

    That this relatively mild, and correct, point cannot be made without the comments being dubbed, "the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” by a former Virginia governor gives you some sense of the limited tolerance for any honest conversation around racism in our politics. And it gives you something much more. My colleague Jim Fallows recently wrote about the need to, at once, infantilize and deify our military. Perhaps related to that is the need to infantilize and deify our history. Pointing out that Americans have done, on their own soil, in the name of their own God, something similar to what ISIS is doing now does not make ISIS any less barbaric, or any more correct. That is unless you view the entire discussion as a kind of religious one-upmanship, in which the goal is to prove that Christianity is "the awesomest."

    Obama seemed to be going for something more—faith leavened by “some doubt.” If you are truly appalled by the brutality of ISIS, then a wise and essential step is understanding the lure of brutality, and recalling how easily your own society can be, and how often it has been, pulled over the brink.

  • The Broad, Inclusive Canvas of Comics

    Hollywood adaptations don't come close to the transgressive diversity of the genre.

    PeteParker/Marvel Wiki

    I took a five-hour train ride this weekend and spent most of that time on a Matt Fraction binge. Fraction writes comics—big, beautiful awesome comics—including Uncanny X-Men, Hawkeye, The Immortal Ironfist, and many more of his own creation. I mostly confined myself to Fraction's run on The Invincible Ironman, specifically the Dark Reign arc wherein our hero, Tony Stark, attempts to erase whole swaths of his brain. Stark knows too much—specifically, he has in his brain a database of secret information on virtually every superhero on the planet. His enemies, with the help of the American government, are determined to extract that info, along with the secrets that power Iron Man's armor. And so Stark spends several issues trying to wipe his brain, the way one might format a disk.

    The best part about all of this isn't watching Stark alternate running from enemies with deleting his mind, though that's pretty cool. It isn't the diminishing renditions of Iron Man armor he conceives, finishing with the old original model that looks like it was assembled from oil barrels and kitchen appliances. No, the best part of this adventure is Pepper Potts, Stark's assistant, his sometimes-love interest, and the eventual head of Stark Enterprises. Better people than me can expand on Potts' traditional role in the Iron Man comics, but in Fraction's rendition she has great texture and range. There's a scene where she has to rescue two other high-powered agents—Maria Hill and Black Widow—and for several panes the three discuss what it means that Hill and Widow are being rescued by Stark's "secretary."

    There's more, but really you should just read the book. After finishing, I started thinking about the last casting news in the world of Marvel—Alexandra Shipp as Storm—and the fact that Hollywood can't bring itself around to cast someone who looks like the Kenyan woman Storm actually is. This isn't a matter of fanboy accuracy, but white supremacy. In another world, where Lupita Nyong'o's dark is unexceptional, where her speech on beauty isn't needed, this discussion wouldn't be necessary. In this world, the one where we can accept Nina Simone's music but not her face, it matters.

    One reason why I still enjoy books, including comic books, is that there's still more room for a transgressive diversity. If Greg Pak wants to create an Amadeus Cho, he doesn't have to worry about whether America is ready for a Korean-American protagonist. Or rather, he doesn't have to put millions of dollars behind it. I don't know what that means to a young, Asian-American comic books fan. But when I was eight, the fact that Storm could exist—as she was, and in a way that I knew the rest of society did not accept—meant something. Outside of hip-hop, it was in comics that I most often found the aesthetics and wisdom of my world reflected. Monica Rambeau was my first Captain Marvel. James Rhodes was the first Iron Man I knew.

    I don't think we should go overboard. Fraction's work with Potts aside, comics have their own issues—like, really big, awful gender issues. But one reason I'm always cautious about the assumption that everything is improved by turning it into a movie is that the range of possibility necessarily shrinks. I'd frankly be shocked if we ever see a Storm, in all her fullness and glory, in a film.

  • Andrew Sullivan and the Importance of Self-Criticism

    Blogging allowed writers to say anything about anything at any time—and offered the temptation to project unrelenting certainty. But The Daily Dish showed the medium's higher potential.

    Geoff Livingston/Flickr

    I don't really have much big-picture analysis in the wake of Andrew Sullivan's departure from blogging. My reaction is strictly personal. I've spent the majority of my career as a print journalist. In 2008, when I first started blogging, I had two models in mind—Matthew Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan, and I only knew about Matt because of Andrew. I started reading Andrew during the run-up to the Iraq War and thus bore witness to one of the most amazing real-time about-faces in recent memory. But it was a sincere about-face and it taught me something about writing, and particularly writing on the Internet, which guides me even today—namely, that error is an essential part of any real intellectual pursuit.

    Back when I started blogging, there was an annoying premium on "public smartness" and "being right" among pundits, journalists, and writers. Likely, there is still one today. The need to be publicly smart and constantly right originates both in the writer's ego and in the expectation of incurious readers. The writer gets the psychic reward of praise—"Such and such is really smart" or "Such and such was 'right' on Libya." And the incurious reader gets to believe that there is some order in the world, that there is a stable of learned (mostly) men who will decipher the words of God for them. The incurious readers is not so much looking for writers, as prophets.

    And Andrew has never been a prophet, so much as a joyous heretic. Andrew taught me that you do not have to pretend to be smarter than you are. And when you have made the error of pretending to be smarter, or when you simply have been wrong, you can say so and you can say it straight—without self-apology, without self-justifying garnish, without "if I have offended." And there is a large body of deeply curious readers who accept this, who want this, who do not so much expect you to be right, as they expect you to be honest. When I read Andrew, I generally thought he was dedicated to the work of being honest. I did not think he was always honest. I don't think anyone can be. But I thought he held "honesty" as a standard—something can't be said of the large number of charlatans in this business.

    Honesty demands not just that you accept your errors, but that your errors are integral to developing a rigorous sense of study. I have found this to be true in, well, just about everything in life. But it was from Andrew that I learned to apply it in this particular form of writing. I am indebted to him. And I will miss him—no matter how much I think he's wrong, no matter the future of blogging.

  • Spider-Man in Love

    After an eight-year separation, Marvel seems to be hinting at a reunion for Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson—who embody what a healthy, mature marriage looks like.


    A few weeks ago Marvel Comics began teasing out covers for its latest intra-title event, Secret War, which is set to kick off this summer. Among the covers attracting the most attention is one drawn by Adam Kubert that hints at the possible restoration of the marriage between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. The union, which lasted 20 years in real time, was written out of the Spider-Man books in 2007 during the "One More Day" arc, prompting great outcry from Spider-fans and near-universal panning from critics.

    The possibility of restoration has been met with the exact opposite reaction. With some disappointment, I count myself among those rooting for a renewal. I like to think of myself as rather unsentimental. The one thing I know about the world is that it ends in cold death, and thus badly. But the upshot of that is not cynicism, but a deep belief that what happens in between the brightness of birth and the darkness of death really does matter.

    I was 11 years old when Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson were married. It's worth noting that the initial marriage was attended with much outrage. I did not know this and I would not have cared. Even then, barely pubescent, I was a romantic. I mean this as something beyond chocolates and roses: I mean that I was deeply interested in the nature and depths of love. I was born in 1975, when a great many things were in question. I was the sixth of seven children born to one man and four different women, and the fact of sex—sex outside of marriage—was all around me. There were no stories featuring the stork. I was the product of a woman who looked at a man, and thought not of happily ever after but that he would make a great father. Good call.

    My mother and father never gave me "The Talk." "The Talk" was my entire childhood. From the time I remember them talking, I remembering them, my mother especially, talking about sex. It makes me laugh now but I recall her telling me, when my time came, not to just "jump up and down on a woman." I might have been ten when she first said that. My family was all kinds of inappropriate—hood hippies—and yet we were correct. I say this because I knew, from a very early age, that there was love in my house, imperfect love, love that was built, decided upon, as opposed to magicked into existence.

    That was how Peter loved Mary Jane. They were not destined to be. She was not his Lois Lane. His Lois Lane—Gwen Stacy—was murdered for the crime of getting too close to him, and the guilt of this always weighed on him. Whatever. While the world was fooled, Mary Jane Watson knew Peter Parker was Spider-Man. And she didn't wait around for him to figure it all out. She was, very clearly, sexual. She dated whomever she wanted. She dated dudes who were richer than Parker. She dated dudes who were better looking than Parker. She dated Parker's best friends. She actually spurned Parker's first proposal—and then his second too, before reconsidering. Mary Jane Watson was the kind of girl you did not bring home to mother—unless you had a mother like mine.

    I have never quite understood the dictum that "you can't turn a hoe into a housewife." Perhaps that is because, if pressed, I would always take the former over the latter. Perhaps it is because I don't desire to turn anyone into anything. But more likely it's because I wasn't really raised that way. Nothing else explained my tangled family. Women obviously had sex. Women obviously enjoyed sex. Prince made my mother feel the exact same way that Lisa Lisa made me feel. Michael Jackson (pre-nose job) did the same for my sister.

    I liked to believe that Peter Parker, ultimately, wasn't raised that way either. He did not ultimately end up with the blonde whom he was made for. And if he ended up with a beautiful woman, he did not end up with an ornamental one. His marriage was a rejection of the macho ideal of romance—which reigns even among nerds—and it mirrored and confirmed my own budding sense of what love was at a very young age.

    I wouldn't argue that the Parker-Watson marriage was always well-written and well-drawn. The "super-model" angle felt unnecessary, as did some of the porno-lite art. (It's good to see Kubert, here, depicting Watson the way women actually tend to look.) I won't defend the '90s, which were not a good period for the writing in the Spider-Man books.  But in a genre aimed at young males, it is very hard for me to come up with a more mature, and I would say healthy, vision of what a marriage should look like. Mary Jane Watson was not looking to be saved. If anything, she wanted Peter Parker to stop saving people. She did not need Peter Parker. She was not fashioned especially to be his wife. She was a human and seemed as though she would have been with Peter Parker, or without him.

    I never read One More Day. I generally hated the notion that you couldn't have a grown-up superhero, and I did not hate it just because I was grown-up: I would have hated it when I was 12. The fact of it was I idolized grown-ups. One More Day felt like an erasure of what had been one of its more unintentionally bold endeavors—the attempt to allow a superhero to grow up, to be more than Peter Pan, to confront the tragic world as it was, to imagine life beyond what should have been.

  • I Might Be Charlie

    All nations like to begin the story with the chapter that most advantages them.

    At Sunday's protest (Ta-Nehisi Coates)

    I came to Paris, last week, with a fairly well-defined mission. Halfway through the week, events overtook me. On Thursday, I was determined to ignore the terrorist attack and plug away on my own projects. But by Saturday, I was in a room with some Paris friends discussing the fallout, and on Sunday I was at a brunch with those same Parisians and then off to la manifestation. Since then I've done almost nothing but talk to the people who call this city—and its banlieues—home. I have so much to tell you, but it's raw and unseasoned. I need some time to marinate and then cook.

    Immediately after the attack, as is the case with any grand political event, a great number of American commenters leaped in to offer their opinion in various outlets. Some of these commenters were being knowledgeable. Some of them were just being smart on the Internet. I have always used this forum as a tool for my own public education, but something about last week left me feeling like I shouldn't be talking. Perhaps it was because the people who were saying Je suis Charlie and the ones who, in more hushed tones, were saying Je ne suis pas Charlie were not my people, and this was neither my country nor my home. Perhaps it was that these people were my neighbors in mourning and thus I felt a little care should be taken.

    I am here for a little while longer. My hope is that by the time I leave I will have graduated from "Internet smart" to the ranks of the "sort of knowledgeable." I'm talking to everyone I can. I'm reading as much as I can. I'm endangering previously agreed-upon deadlines. History is happening around me and I am not equipped to understand. I am mostly unequipped because I only have the barest understanding of the emotional aspects of patriotism. I have spent the past week asking people what, precisely, they believe themselves to be defending. The answers have been fascinating. Just yesterday someone told me that this was really about "the dream of Europe" itself. I have more of an idea of what that means today than I did last week. It can't be forgotten that the deadliest conflict in world history was fought here, and it was fought well within living memory, and this came on the heels of centuries of bloodletting—much of it, allegedly (and that word deserves emphasis), over religion.

    I've tried to go back to the history. I'm thinking of Tony Judt and "national forgetting" a lot. I'm thinking of Antony Beevor.  I'm thinking of C.V. Wedgwood. I'm taking long walks through the city listening (via Audible) to Alistair Horne's A Savage War Of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. I have always started from the premise that one should be skeptical of comparing the problems of home with the problems of a country that one does not know. And yet here is Horne describing the attitudes of the pied noir (colonizer of Algeria, often—but not exclusively—French) toward the native Algerians:

    Equally a host of preconceived inherited notions about the Algerian were accepted uncritically, without examining either their veracity or causation: he was incorrigibly idle and incompetent; he only understood force; he was an innate criminal, and an instinctive rapist. Sexually based prejudices and fears ran deep, akin to those elsewhere of white city-dwellers surrounded by preponderant and ever-growing Negro populations: “They can see our women, we can’t see theirs”; the Arab had a plurality of wives, and therefore was possibly more virile (an intolerable thought to the “Mediterranean-and-a-half”); and with the demographic explosion spawned by his potency, he was threatening to swamp the European by sheer weight of numbers.

    The pied noir would habitually tutoyer any Muslim—a form of speech reserved for intimates, domestics or animals—and was outraged were it ever suggested that this might be a manifestation of racism. Commenting on this, Pierre Nora (admittedly a Frenchman often unduly harsh in his criticism of the pieds noirs), adds an illustration of a judge asking in court:

    “Are there any other witnesses?”

    “Yes, five; two men and three Arabs.”

    Or again: “It was an Arab, but dressed like a person.…”

    Horne quotes the French writer Jules Roy, who is told that the native Algerians "don't live like we do" and that "their happiness was elsewhere, rather, if you please, like the happiness of cattle." This racism, like all racism, was not a bout of madness, but an actual tool which made Roy's lifestyle possible:

    I was glad to believe it. And from that moment on their condition could not disturb me. Who suffers seeing oxen sleep on straw or eating grass?

    The Jewish peoples of Algeria also predated the pied noir, tracing their roots back to the Spanish expulsions of the 16th century and even further. Horne says that Algerian Jews "tended to find themselves being caught between two fires: between the European and the Muslim world." The French effectively turned Algerian Jews into a kind of buffer class, granting them citizenship under the Crémieux Decree in 1870, and denying it to Berbers and Arabs. This award was tenuous—70 years later it was rescinded by Pétain. "Jewish teachers and children alike were summarily flung out of European schools," writes Horne. "The whole community was menaced with deportation to Nazi camps."

    And yet...

    ...during all this time (so several Algerian Jews averred to the author), there was barely a breath of anti-Semitism from any Muslim quarter. By the 1950s the Algerian Jews were tugged in several directions; the least privileged tended still to identify themselves with the Muslims rather than the pieds noirs, and many were members of the Communist Party, while the wealthiest had developed distinctly Parisian orientations. Perhaps typical of the latter was Marcel Belaiche, who had inherited a large property fortune from his father; politically, however, he leaned strongly towards the liberal camps of both Chevallier and Ferhat Abbas, and away from the Borgeauds and Schiaffinos. After 1954 a significant proportion of the Jewish intellectual and professional classes was to side with the F.L.N.

    I don't yet know how all of this connects to the events we are seeing today. But I proceed from the working theory that all nations like to begin the story with the chapter that most advantages them and the job of the writer is to resist this instinct. And I proceed from the working theory that the story of black people in America, is an excellent launchpad for a larger investigation into the limits of democracy and compassion throughout the West. It is not the sole launchpad, and the investigation must, ultimately, go beyond the simple of drawing of parallels.

    But it is a startthe only start I have. I don't have much time here. And this is a very new space for me. I have studied black people all of my life. I have only studied the Francophone world for three years. I am, as always, very afraid.

    More soon.

  • Why the NYPD Turned Its Back on the City

    Does believing the police are constantly under fire serve a productive function for society?

    John Minchillo/AP

    On Sunday, a relatively large group of New York police officers, sworn to protect and serve the public, turned their back on the public's elected executive, Mayor Bill de Blasio:

    The show of disrespect came outside the funeral home where Officer Wenjian Liu was remembered as an incarnation of the American dream: a man who had immigrated at age 12 and devoted himself to helping others in his adopted country. The gesture, among officers watching the mayor's speech on a screen, added to tensions between the mayor and rank-and-file police even as he sought to quiet them.

    This particular protest came after Commissioner William Bratton asked them not to stage a repeat of Officer Rafael Ramos's funeral. This request included the telling caveat, "I issue no mandates, and I make no threats of discipline, but I remind you that when you don the uniform of this department, you are bound by the tradition, honor and decency that go with it."

    It's not clear that Bratton could (or should) do much of anything to stop his officers from protesting. But whatever Bratton's sense of honor and decency, it clearly isn't shared by the officers working under him, and it's unlikely that his appeal swayed anyone.

    Those who are demoralized by these protests would do well to read James Fallows's cover story on the American military this month. The same cloak of puffed grandeur and bombast that surrounds our army can be detected in our police. Jim is describing a society that has taken its hands off the wheel. Give us safety now (real or imagined), goes the agreement, and we won't ask about what comes later. Until some critical mass of Americans decides that police cannot, all at once, wield the lethal power of gods and the meager responsibilities of mortals, change is unlikely.

    And it always was. If the public appetite for police reform can be soured by the mad acts of a man living on the edge of society, then the appetite was probably never really there to begin with. And the police, or at least their representatives, know this. In this piece, by Wesley Lowery, there are several amazing moments where police complain about things Barack Obama and Eric Holder have not actually said. There simply is no level of critique they would find tolerable. Why take criticism when you don't actually have to? Better to remind the public that you are the only thing standing between them and the barbarians at the gate:

    “We might be reaching a tipping point with the mind-set of officers, who are beginning to wonder if the risks they take to keep communities safe are even worth it anymore,” Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke said. “In New York and other places, we’re seeing a natural recoil from law enforcement officers who don’t feel like certain people who need to have their backs.”

    Here's Radley Balko quantifying those "risks" police officers face:

    Policing has been getting safer for 20 years. In terms of raw number of deaths, 2013 was the safest year for cops since World War II. If we look at the rate of deaths, 2013 was the safest year for police in well over a century .... You’re more likely to be murdered simply by living in about half of the largest cities in America than you are while working as a police officer.

    Nearly half of those deaths are from automobile accidents. Balko is somewhat frustrated that despite the empirical facts around policing, nothing seems to penetrate the narrative of police living under constant threat. Why? Is it that most people are just basically ignorant of the information? Is it that most people just believe, uncritically, what police officers tell them?

    Or is there something more? Forgive me. I have not yet fully worked this all out. But Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes the prisoners headed to the Soviet Gulag as waves flowing underground. These waves "provided sewage disposal for the life flowering on the surface." I understand this to mean that the gulag was not just mindless evil—was not just incomprehensible insanity—but served some sort of productive and knowable purpose.

    Could it be that believing our police to be constantly under fire is not mysterious—that it serves some productive function, that society actually derives something from its peace officers engaged in forever war? And can we say that the function of the war here at home is not simply a response to violent crime (which has plunged) but to some other need? And knowing that identity is not simply defined by what we are, but what we are not, can it be that our police help give us identity, by branding one class of people as miscreants, outsiders, and thugs, and thus establishing some other class as upstanding, as citizens, as Americans? Does the feeling of being besieged serve some actual purpose?

    I am not sure this is all correct. But if the direction is right, then it becomes possible to understand the NYPD's protest (and the toothless admonitions of the commissioner) not as mindless petulance, but as something systemic, as a natural outgrowth of our needs.

  • Blue Lives Matter

    Talking about "police reform" obscures the task. Today's policies are, at the very least, the product of democratic will.

    Carlo Allegri/Reuters

    The reactions to the murders of two New York police officers this weekend have been mostly uniform in their outrage. There was the predictable gamesmanship exhibited in some quarters, but all agree that the killing of Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos merits particular censure. This is understandable. The killing of police officers is not only the destruction of life but an attack on democracy itself. We do not live in a military dictatorship, and police officers are not the representatives of an autarch, nor the enforcers of law handed down by decree. The police are representatives of a state that derives its powers from the people. Thus the strong reaction we have seen to Saturday's murders is wholly expected and entirely appropriate.

    For activists and protesters radicalized by the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, this weekend's killing may seem to pose a great obstacle. In fact, it merely points to the monumental task in front of them. The response to Garner's death, particularly, seemed to offer some hope. But the very fact that this opening originated in the most extreme case—the on-camera choking of a man for a minor offense—points to the shaky ground on which such hope took root. It was only a matter of time before some criminal shot a police officer in New York. If that's all it takes to turn Americans away from police reform, the efforts were likely doomed from the start.

    The idea of "police reform" obscures the task. Whatever one thinks of the past half-century of criminal-justice policy, it was not imposed on Americans by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are, at the very least, byproducts of democratic will. Likely they are much more. It is often said that it is difficult to indict and convict police officers who abuse their power. It is comforting to think of these acquittals and non-indictments as contrary to American values. But it is just as likely that they reflect American values. The three most trusted institutions in America are the military, small business, and the police.

    To challenge the police is to challenge the American people, and the problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that we are majoritarian pigs. When the police are brutalized by people, we are outraged because we are brutalized. By the same turn, when the police brutalize people, we are forgiving because ultimately we are really just forgiving ourselves. Power, decoupled from responsibility, is what we seek. The manifestation of this desire is broad. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani responded to the killing of Michael Brown by labeling it a "significant exception" and wondering why weren't talking about "black on black crime." Giuliani was not out on a limb. The charge of insufficient outrage over "black on black crime" has been endorsed, at varying points, by everyone from the NAACP to Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson to Giuliani's archenemy Al Sharpton.

    Implicit in this notion is that outrage over killings by the police should not be any greater than killings by ordinary criminals. But when it comes to outrage over killings of the police, the standard is different. Ismaaiyl Brinsley began his rampage by shooting his girlfriend—an act of both black-on-black crime and domestic violence. On Saturday, Officers Liu and Ramos were almost certainly joined in death by some tragic number of black people who were shot down by their neighbors in the street. The killings of Officers Liu and Ramos prompt national comment. The killings of black civilians do not. When it is convenient to award qualitative value to murder, we do so. When it isn't, we do not. We are outraged by violence done to police, because it is violence done to all of us as a society. In the same measure, we look away from violence done by the police, because the police are not the true agents of the violence. We are.

    We are the ones who designed the criminogenic ghettos. We are the ones who barred black people from leaving those ghettos. We are the ones who treat black men without criminal records as though they are white men with criminal records. We are the ones who send black girls to juvenile detention homes for fighting in school. We are the masters of the American gulag, a penal system "so vast," writes sociologist Bruce Western, "as to draw entire demographic groups into the web." And we are the ones who send in police to make sure it all goes according to plan.

    When defenders of the police say that cops do the work ordinary citizens are afraid of, they are correct. The criminal-justice system has been the most consistent tool for making American will manifest in black communities. The tool for exercising that will is not the proliferation of ice cream socials.  I suspect, we would like to know as little about criminal justice system as possible. I suspect we would rather the film of Eric Garner's killing not exist. Then we might comfort ourselves with the kind of vague unknowables that dogged the killing of Michael Brown. ("Did he have his hands up? Was he surrendering? Was he charging?") Garner, choked to death and repeating "I can't breathe," trapped us. But now, through a merciless act of lethal violence, an escape route has been revealed. This overstates things. To the extent that this weekend's murders obscure the legacy of Eric Garner, it will not be due to the failure of protests, nor even chance. The citizen who needs to look away generally finds a reason.

    I wonder if there is some price attached to this looking away.  When the elected mayor of my city arrived at the hospital, the police officers who presumably serve at the public's leisure turned away in a display that should chill the blood of any interested citizen. The police are not the only embodiment of democratic society. And one does not have to work hard to imagine a future when the agents of our will, the agents whom we created, are in fact our masters. On that day one can expect that the tactics intended for the ghettos will enjoy wider usage.

  • The New Republic: An Appreciation

    It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that black lives didn't matter much at all to the magazine.

    The Atlantic

    "Here's at you!"
    —Philip Sheridan

    Last week, Franklin Foer resigned his editorship of The New Republic. A deep, if not broad, mourning immediately commenced as a number of influential writers lamented what occurred to them as the passing of a great American institution. The mourners have something of a case. TNR had a hand in the careers of an outsized number of prominent narrative and opinion journalists. I have never quite been able to judge the effect of literature or journalism on policy, but I know that in my field, if you had dreams of having a career, you had to contend with TNR. My first editor at The Atlantic came from TNR, as did the editor of the entire magazine. More than any other writer, TNR alum Andrew Sullivan taught me how to think publicly. More than any other opinion writer, Hendrik Hertzberg taught me how to write with "thickness," as I once heard him say. A semester in my nonfiction class is never quite complete without this piece by Michael Kinsley. TNR's legacy is so significant that I could never have avoided being drawn into the magazine's orbit. Even if I had wanted to.

    Earlier this year, Foer edited an anthology of TNR writings titled Insurrections of the Mind, commemorating the magazine's 100-year history. "This book hasn't been compiled in the name of definitiveness," Foer wrote. "It was put together in the spirit of the magazine that it anthologizes: it is an argument about what matters." There is only one essay in Insurrections that takes race as its subject. The volume includes only one black writer and only two writers of color. This is not an oversight. Nor does it mean that Foer is a bad human. On the contrary, if one were to attempt to capture the "spirit" of TNR, it would be impossible to avoid the conclusion that black lives don't matter much at all.

    That explains why the family rows at TNR's virtual funeral look like the "Whites Only" section of a Jim Crow-era movie-house. For most of its modern history, TNR has been an entirely white publication, which published stories confirming white people's worst instincts. During the culture wars of the '80s and '90s, TNR regarded black people with an attitude ranging from removed disregard to blatant bigotry. When people discuss TNR's racism, Andrew Sullivan's publication of excerpts from Charles Murray's book The Bell Curve (and a series of dissents) gets the most attention. But this fuels the lie that one infamous issue stands apart. In fact, the Bell Curve episode is remarkable for how well it fits with the rest of TNR's history.

    The personal attitude of TNR's longtime owner, the bigoted Martin Peretz, should be mentioned here. Peretz's dossier of racist hits (mostly at the expense of blacks and Arabs) is shameful, and one does not have to look hard to find evidence of it in Peretz's writing or in the sensibility of the magazine during his ownership. In 1984, long before Sullivan was tapped to helm TNR, Charles Murray was dubbing affirmative action a form of "new racism" that targeted white people.

    Two years later, Washington Post writer Richard Cohen was roundly rebuked for advocating that D.C. jewelry stores discriminate against young black men—but not by TNR. The magazine took the opportunity to convene a panel to "reflect briefly" on whether it was moral for merchants to bar black men from their stores. ("Expecting a jewelry store owner to risk his life in the service of color-blind justice is expecting too much," the magazine concluded.)

    TNR made a habit of "reflecting briefly" on matters that were life and death to black people but were mostly abstract thought experiments to the magazine's editors. Before, during, and after Sullivan's tenure, the magazine seemed to believe that the kind of racism that mattered most was best evidenced in the evils of Afrocentrism, the excesses of multiculturalism, and the machinations of Jesse Jackson. It's true that TNR's staff roundly objected to excerpting The Bell Curve, but I was never quite sure why. Sullivan was simply exposing the dark premise that lay beneath much of the magazine's coverage of America's ancient dilemma.

    What else to make of the article that made Stephen Glass's career possible, "Taxi Cabs and the Meaning of Work"? The piece asserted that black people in D.C. were distinctly lacking in the work ethic best evidenced by immigrant cab drivers. A surrealist comedy, Glass's piece revels in the alleged exploits of a mythical Asian-American avenger—Kae Bang—who wreaks havoc on black criminals who'd rather rob taxi drivers than work. The article concludes with Glass, in the cab, while its driver is robbed by a black man. It was all lies.

    What else to make of TNR sending Ruth Shalit to evaluate affirmative action at The Washington Post in 1995? "She cast Post writer Kevin Merida as some kind of poster boy for affirmative action when in fact he had risen in the business for reasons far more legitimate than her own," David Carr wrote in 1999. Shalit's piece wasn't all lies. But it wasn't all true either. Shortly after the article was published, she was revealed to be a serial plagiarist.

    TNR might have been helped by having more—or merely any—black people on its staff. I spent the weekend calling around and talking to people who worked in the offices over the years. From what I can tell, in that period, TNR had a total of two black people on staff as writers or editors. When I asked former employees whether they ever looked around and wondered why the newsroom was so white, the answers ranged from "not really" to "not often enough." This is understandable. Prioritizing diversity would have been asking TNR to not be TNR. One person recalled a meeting at the magazine's offices when the idea of excerpting The Bell Curve was first pitched. Charles Murray came to this meeting to present his findings. The meeting was very contentious. I asked if there were any black people in the room this meeting. The person could not recall.

    I always knew I could never work at TNR. In the latter portion of the magazine's heyday, in the mid-'90s, I was at Howard University with aspirations toward writing. Howard has a way of inculcating its students with a sense of mission. If you are going into writing, you understand that you are not a free agent, but the bearer of heritage walking in the steps of Hurston, Morrison, Baldwin, Wright, and Ellison. None of these writers appear in Insurrections of the Mind. Howard University taught me to be unsurprised by this. It also taught me that writing was war, and I knew, even then, that TNR represented much of what I was at war with. I knew that TNR's much celebrated "heterodoxy" was built on a strain of erudite neo-Dixiecratism. When The Bell Curve excerpt was published, one of my professors handed out the issue to every interested student. This was not a compliment. This was knowing your enemy.

    TNR did not come to racism out of evil. Very few people ever do. Many of the white people working for the magazine were very young and very smart. This is always a dangerous combination. It must have been that much more dangerous given that their boss was a racist. (Though I am told he had many black friends and protégés.) Peretz was not always a regular presence in the office. This allowed TNR's saner staff to regard him as the crazy uncle who says racist shit at Thanksgiving. But Peretz was not a crazy uncle—he was the wealthy benefactor of an influential magazine that published ideas that damaged black people.

    A writer for TNR told me how, in the mid-'90s, Peretz would come down to the office from Cambridge and lobby young writers to write what turned out to be the fictional "Taxi Cabs and the Meaning of Work." The writer told me that the young interns and fact-checkers would squirm in their seats. But no one took a stand. And perhaps it is too much to expect writers in their mid 20s, with editors in their late 20s, to say to Peretz, "Please stop shopping this racist bullshit." But the task was made infinitely easier by a monochrome staff that could view Peretz's racism as an abstraction, and not something that directly injured their families.

    Things got better after Peretz was dislodged. The retrograde politics were gone, but the "Whites Only" sign remained. I've been told that Foer was greatly pained by Peretz's racism. I believe this. White people are often sincerely and greatly pained by racism, but rarely are they pained enough. That is not true because they are white, but because they are human. I know this, too well. Still, as of last week there were still no black writers on TNR's staff, and only one on its masthead. Magazines, in general, have an awful record on diversity. But if TNR's influence and importance was as outsized as its advocates claim, then the import of its racist legacy is outsized in the same measure. One cannot sincerely partake in heritage à la carte.

    In this sense it is unfortunate to see anonymous staffers accusing TNR's owner Chris Hughes of trying to create "another BuzzFeed." If that is truly Hughes's ambition, then—in at least one important way—he will have created a publication significantly more moral than anything any recent TNR editor ever has. No publication has more aggressively dealt with diversity than BuzzFeed. And not unrelated to this diversity has been a stellar range of storytelling and analysis, that could rival—if not best—the journalism in the latest iteration of TNR.

    No one who works in magazines is happy to hear about writers and editors losing their jobs—even when those people have the enviable luxury of walking out on principle. And when I think of TNR's history, when I flip through Insurrections, when I examine the magazine's archives, I am not so much angry as I am sad. There really was so much fine writing in its pages. But all my life I have had to take lessons from people who, in some profound way, cannot see me. TNR billed itself as the magazine for iconoclasts. But its iconoclasm ended exactly where everyone else's does—at 110th Street. Worse, TNR encouraged incuriosity about what lay beyond the barrier. It told its readers that my world was welfare cheats, affirmative-action babies, and Jesse Jackson. And that white people—or any people—would be urged to such ignorance by their Harvard-bred intellectual leadership is deeply sad. The in-flight magazine of Air Force One should have been better. Perhaps it still can be.

  • Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid

    Violence works. Nonviolence does too.

    Noah Berger/AP

    In a recent dispatch from Ferguson, Missouri, Jelani Cobb noted that President Obama's responses to "unpunished racial injustices" constitute "a genre unto themselves." Monday night, when Barack Obama stood before the nation to interpret the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, he offered a particularly tame specimen. The elements of "the genre" were all on display—an unmitigated optimism, an urge for calm, a fantastic faith in American institutions, an even-handedness exercised to a fault. But if all the limbs of the construct were accounted for, the soul of the thing was not.

    There was none of the spontaneous annoyance at the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, and little of the sheer pain exhibited in the line, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." The deft hand Obama employed in explaining to Americans why the acquittal of George Zimmerman so rankled had gone arthritic. This was a perfunctory execution of "the genre," offered with all the energy of a man ticking items off a to-do list.

    Barack Obama is an earnest moderate. His instincts seem to lead him to the middle ground. For instance, he genuinely believes that there is more overlap between liberals and conservatives than generally admitted. On Monday he nodded toward the "deep distrust" that divides black and brown people from the police, and then pointed out that this was tragic because these are the communities most in need of "good policing." Whatever one makes of this pat framing, it is not a cynical centrism—he believes in the old wisdom of traditional America. This is his strength. This is his weakness. But Obama's moderation is as sincere and real as his blackness, and the latter almost certainly has granted him more knowledge of his country than he generally chooses to share.

    In the case of Michael Brown, this is more disappointing than enraging. The genre of Obama race speeches has always been bounded by the job he was hired to do. Specifically, Barack Obama is the president of the United States of America. More specifically, Barack Obama is the president of a congenitally racist country, erected upon the plunder of life, liberty, labor, and land. This plunder has not been exclusive to black people. But black people, the community to which both Michael Brown and Barack Obama belong, have the distinct fortune of having survived in significant numbers. For a creedal country like America, this poses a problem—in nearly every major American city one can find a population of people whose very existence, whose very history, whose very traditions, are an assault upon this country's nationalist instincts. Black people are the chastener of their own country. Their experience says to America, "You wear the mask."

    In 2008, Barack Obama's task was to capture the presidency of a country which historically has despised the community from which he hails. This was no mean feat. But more importantly, it was not unprecedented. And just as Léon Blum's prime ministership did not lead to a post-anti-Semitic France, Barack Obama's presidency should never have been expected to lead to a post-racist America. As it happens, there is nothing about a congenitally racist country that necessarily prevents an individual leader hailing from the pariah class. The office does not care where the leader originates, so long as the leader ultimately speaks for the state. On Monday night, watching Obama both be black and speak for the state was torturous. One got the sense of a man fatigued by people demanding he say something both eminently profound and only partially true. This must be tiring.

    Black people know what cannot be said. What clearly cannot be said is that the events of Ferguson do not begin with Michael Brown lying dead in the street, but with policies set forth by government at every level. What clearly cannot be said is that the people of Ferguson are regularly plundered, as their grandparents were plundered, and generally regarded as a slush-fund for the government that has pledged to protect them. What clearly cannot be said is the idea of superhuman black men who "bulk up" to run through bullets is not an invention of Darren Wilson, but a staple of American racism.

    What clearly cannot be said is that American society's affection for nonviolence is notional. What cannot be said is that American society's admiration for Martin Luther King Jr. increases with distance, that the movement he led was bugged, smeared, harassed, and attacked by the same country that now celebrates him. King had the courage to condemn not merely the violence of blacks, nor the violence of the Klan, but the violence of the American state itself.

    What clearly cannot be said is that violence and nonviolence are tools, and that violence—like nonviolence—sometimes works. "Property damage and looting impede social progress," Jonathan Chait wrote Tuesday. He delivered this sentence with unearned authority. Taken together, property damage and looting have been the most effective tools of social progress for white people in America. They describe everything from enslavement to Jim Crow laws to lynching to red-lining.

    "Property damage and looting"—perhaps more than nonviolence—has also been a significant tool in black "social progress." In 1851, when Shadrach Minkins was snatched off the streets of Boston under the authority of the Fugitive Slave Law, abolitionists "stormed the courtroom" and "overpowered the federal guards" to set Minkins free. That same year, when slaveholders came to Christiana, Pennsylvania, to reclaim their property under the same law, they were not greeted with prayer and hymnals but with gunfire.

    "Property damage and looting" is a fairly accurate description of the emancipation of black people in 1865, who only five years earlier constituted some $4 billion in property. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 is inseparable from the threat of riots. The housing bill of 1968—the most proactive civil-rights legislation on the books—is a direct response to the riots that swept American cities after King was killed. Violence, lingering on the outside, often backed nonviolence during the civil-rights movement. "We could go into meetings and say, 'Well, either deal with us or you will have Malcolm X coming into here,'" said SNCC organizer Gloria Richardson. "They would get just hysterical. The police chief would say, 'Oh no!'"

    What cannot be said is that America does not really believe in nonviolence—Barack Obama has said as much—so much as it believes in order. What cannot be said is that there are very convincing reasons for black people in Ferguson to be nonviolent. But those reasons emanate from an intelligent fear of the law, not a benevolent respect for the law.

    The fact is that when the president came to the podium on Monday night there actually was very little he could say. His mildest admonitions of racism had only earned him trouble. If the American public cannot stomach the idea that arresting a Harvard professor for breaking into his own home is "stupid," then there is virtually nothing worthwhile that Barack Obama can say about Michael Brown.

    And that is because the death of all of our Michael Browns at the hands of people who are supposed to protect them originates in a force more powerful than any president: American society itself. This is the world our collective American ancestors wanted. This is the world our collective grandparents made. And this is the country that we, the people, now preserve in our fantastic dream. What can never be said is that the Fergusons of America can be changed—but, right now, we lack the will to do it.

    Perhaps one day we won't, and maybe that is reason to hope. Hope is what Barack Obama promised to bring, but he was promising something he could never bring. Hope is not the naiveté that would change the face on a racist system and then wash its hands of its heritage. Hope is not feel-goodism built on the belief in unicorns. Martin Luther King had hope, but it was rooted in years of study and struggle, not in looking the other way. Hope is not magical. Hope is earned.


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