It's easy to say you would have acted better than a slave master if you had lived in the antebellum South; or escaped poverty if you grew up in an inner city in more modern times. But it's much more interesting to assume that you wouldn't have, and then ask "Why?"
We had a lot of fun with this on Twitter last night:
The President's speech got me thinking. My kids are no smarter than similar kids their age from the inner city. My kids have it much easier than their counterparts from West Philadelphia. The world is not fair to those kids mainly because they had the misfortune of being born two miles away into a more difficult part of the world and with a skin color that makes realizing the opportunities that the President spoke about that much harder. This is a fact. In 2011.
I am not a poor black kid.
I am a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background. So life was easier for me. But that doesn't mean that the prospects are impossible for those kids from the inner city. It doesn't mean that there are no opportunities for them. Or that the 1% control the world and the rest of us have to fight over the scraps left behind. I don't believe that. I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. Still. In 2011. Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia.
It takes brains. It takes hard work. It takes a little luck. And a little help from others. It takes the ability and the know-how to use the resources that are available. Like technology. As a person who sells and has worked with technology all my life I also know this.
If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn't care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city. Even the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options. With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you're severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.
When I read this piece I was immediately called back, as I so often am, to my days at Howard and the courses I took looking at slavery. Whenever we discussed the back-breaking conditions, the labor, the sale of family members, etc., there was always someone who asserted, roughly, "I couldn't been no slave. They'd a had to kill me!" I occasionally see a similar response here where someone will assert, with less ego, "Why didn't the slaves rebel?" More commonly you get people presiding from on high insisting that if they had lived in the antebellum South, they would have freed all of their slaves.
What all these responses have in common is a benevolent, and surely unintentional, self-aggrandizement. These are not bad people (much as I am sure Mr. Marks isn't a bad person), but they are people speaking from a gut feeling, a kind of revulsion at a situation that offends our modern morals. In the case of the observer of slavery, it is the chaining and marketing of human flesh. In the case of Mr. Marks, it's the astonishingly high levels of black poverty.
It is comforting to believe that we, through our sheer will, could transcend these bindings -- to believe that if we were slaves, our indomitable courage would have made us Frederick Douglass, or if we were slave masters, our keen morality would have made us Bobby Carter. We flatter ourselves, not out of malice, but out of instinct.
Still, we are, in the main, ordinary people living in plush times. We are smart enough to get by, responsible enough to raise a couple of kids, thrifty to sock away for a vacation, and industrious enough to keep the lights on. We like our cars. We love a good cheeseburger. We'd die without air-conditioning. In the great mass of humanity that's ever lived, we are distinguished only by our creature comforts, and we are, on the whole, mediocre.
That mediocrity is oft-exemplified by the claim that though we are unremarkable in this easy world, something about enslavement, degradation and poverty would make us exemplary. We can barely throw a left hook--but surely we would have beaten Mike Tyson.
It's all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it's much more interesting to assume that you wouldn't have and then ask, "Why?"
Some weeks ago I met a student who was specializing in economy and theater. She said that what she loved about both fields was that she had to presume a kind of rationality in studying her actors. She had to surrender herself--her sense of what she would like to think she would do--and think more of what she might actually do given all the perils of the character's environs. It would not be enough to consider slavery, for instance, when claiming "If I was a slave I'd rebel." One would have to consider, for instance, family left behind to bear the wrath of those one would seek to rebel against. In other words, one would have to assume that for the vast majority of slaves rebellion made no sense. And then instead of declaration ("I would do..."), one would be forced into a question ("Why wouldn't I?").
This basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this--You are not extraordinary. It's all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it's much more interesting to assume that you wouldn't have and then ask, "Why?"
This is not an impossible task. But often we find that we have something invested in not asking "Why?" The fact that we -- and I mean all of us, black and white -- are, in our bones, no better than slave masters is chilling. The upshot of all my black nationalist study was terrifying -- give us the guns and boats and we would do the same thing. There is nothing particularly noble about black skin. And to our present business it is equally chilling to understand that the obstacles facing poor black kids can't be surmounted by an advice column.
Let us not be hypothetical here. I am somewhat acquainted with a poor black kid from West Philly, and have been privileged to grapple with some of the details of his life. When he was six he came home from school and found his entire life out on the sidewalk. Eviction. He says he saw some of his stuff and immediately reversed direction out of utter humiliation. He spent the next couple of weeks living on a truck with his father, his aunt and brother. Everyday they'd search the trash for scrap to take to the yard for money. His father abused everyone in the family. He last saw his father alive when he was 9. At 17, convinced he would die if he stayed in Philly,he dropped out of high school and lied his way into a war.
You will forgive me if I've written in these pages of my father with a kind of awe. It is not merely the fact of being my father, but having acquainted myself with his childhood conditions, I shudder to think of what might have become of me.
The answers are out there. But they will not improve your self-esteem.
Americans don’t realize how fast the country is moving toward becoming a better version of itself.
I have seen the future, and it is in the United States.
After a several-year immersion in parts of the country that make the news mainly after a natural disaster or a shooting, or for follow-up stories on how the Donald Trump voters of 2016 now feel about Trump, I have a journalistic impulse similar to the one that dominated my years of living in China. That is the desire to tell people how much more is going on, in places they had barely thought about or even heard of, than they might have imagined.
In the case of China, that impulse matched the mood of the times. In the years before and after the world financial crisis of 2008, everyone knew that China was on the way up; reporters like me were just filling in the details. In the case of the modern United States, I am well aware that this message runs so counter to prevailing emotions and ideas as to seem preposterous. Everyone knows how genuinely troubled the United States is at the level of national politics and governance. It is natural to assume that these disorders must reflect a deeper rot across the country. And indeed, you can’t travel extensively through today’s America, as my wife, Deb, and I have been doing in recent years, without being exposed to signs of rot, from opioid addiction to calcifying class barriers.
A new study finds that Trump voters weren’t losing income or jobs. Instead, they were concerned about their place in the world.
For the past 18 months, many political scientists have been seized by one question: Less-educated whites were President Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters. But why, exactly?
Was their vote some sort of cri de coeur about a changing economy that had left them behind? Or was the motivating sentiment something more complex and, frankly, something harder for policy makers to address?
After analyzing in-depth survey data from 2012 and 2016, the University of Pennsylvania political scientist Diana C. Mutz argues that it’s the latter. In a new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, she added her conclusion to the growing body of evidence that the 2016 election was not about economic hardship.
The president’s pick to be secretary of veterans affairs stands accused of misconduct, but with a proper vetting process he would never have been in this position anyway.
For the third time in four months, Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson is at the center of a surprising report.
The first time came in January, when Jackson, the White House physician, announced that President Trump was in excellent physical and mental health, offering an endorsement so effusive that some were led to question Jackson’s judgment.
The second came in March, when President Trump fired Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and announced that he would nominate Jackson to succeed him. Though Jackson is a flag officer in the Navy, he had never run anything nearly as large and complicated as the federal government’s second-largest bureaucracy.
The third came Monday night, with a series of vague reports about “allegations” against Jackson that threatened to slow down or derail his nomination. Senators were tight-lipped about what they might mean, including an elegantly tautological comment from Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, who said the allegations were troubling “only if true.” Since then, a few new details have emerged. CBS News and The New York Timesreport the allegations include a hostile work environment in the White House medical office, drinking on the job, and overprescribing medications.
What if the problem isn’t the president—it’s the presidency?
I. A Broken Office
Donald Trump often appears to be a president in rebellion against his office. A president, we have come to expect, hastens to the scene of a natural disaster to comfort the afflicted. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, President Trump arrived tardily and behaved unseriously, tossing rolls of paper towels at storm-battered residents as if he were trying to drain three-point shots.
We have come to expect that when the national fabric rends, the president will administer needle and thread, or at least reach for the sewing box of unity. After white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, shouting “Jews will not replace us,” President Trump’s instinct was to emphasize that there were good people among the neo-Nazis.
The burger, shake, and fries—“enduring icons of American cuisine”— are used to symbolize abundance, accessibility, and dominance while ignoring the dark side of those values.
The series Riverdale owes its ratings success to a number of factors, not least of which is its appeal to a relentless and sometimes revisionist nostalgia. The characters are lifted from the classic Archie comics, for one, which are synonymous with the wholesome, mid-century aesthetic they retained from the late ’50s through the 21st century. But the show’s nostalgia for a supposedly simpler time is most evident in the food the characters eat.
Betty, Veronica, and the rest of the gang often gather at their local diner, Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe, where they favor the greasy, calorie-laden stuff of American folklore: burgers, fries, and milkshakes. So integral is the food to the iconography of the show that the cast shared a milkshake on a Jimmy Fallon segment in reference to their characters’ heroic consumption of thick malts. In a Netflix promotional video, the show’s breakout star, Cole Sprouse, stared into a camera doing nothing but sloppily eating a hamburger.
A brutality case in New Jersey illustrates how the failures of law-enforcement agencies to police themselves can be thought of as failures of courage.
Last May, a 16-year-old without a driver’s license was steering his parents’ sedan down a street in Carteret, New Jersey, when a police car pulled behind him with its lights flashing. The young man, who wasn’t wearing his seat belt, either tried to flee or panicked and hit the gas pedal instead of the brakes. He crashed the vehicle into a guy-wire beside a utility pole, triggering its airbags.
Officer Joseph Reiman, a former Marine, quickly exited his car and approached the crash. When backup arrived moments later with a dash-cam running, Reiman was recorded pummeling the teen with punches about his head and face.
A man interviewed by a local newspaper offered this version of what happened. “The way he was punching him was excessive,” he said. “I thought he was going to beat him to death.”
A CNN interview this weekend provided a case study in the mendacious ways this White House defends itself.
Kellyanne Conway has become a media legend for her snowblower method of dissimulation: scoop up everything and hurl it into the air, with no concern for where the stuff lands. So it was perhaps not surprising that when Dana Bash asked Conway an unwelcome question on CNN this weekend, Bash got buried under particulate matter.
The exchange, which has gotten a lot of play in the past 24 hours, is a case study of the Trump White House’s methods in action.
First, some background. Conway’s husband George is a highly distinguished and successful lawyer. He also operates a Twitter account on which he often posts cutting remarks about the Trump presidency. George Conway’s comments do not deal with policy, but with more fundamental issues of character and integrity. For example, on the morning of Sunday April 22—just minutes before Kellyanne Conway’s appearance on CNN—George Conway retweeted the following:
“Alexa, play Jeopardy!” my son will bark. And she follows his command.
When I was a kid, in the early 1980s, I programmed a little in a language called BASIC. Recalling that long-ago era, I see myself, bowl cut and braces, tapping at the keyboard of some ancient computer:
10 PRINT “[Whatever]”
20 GOTO 10
And when I hit “return,” up jumps a digital column of whatever I’d entered between the quotation marks to fill the screen:
And so on. Later in my life, there were more advanced computing experiences—my parents eventually got me a TI-99/4A with Extended BASIC—but 20 GOTO 10 lingers. Those early days at the computer enabled me, for the first time, to issue commands. I was—suddenly, shockingly—a person to be obeyed. My commands didn’t carry any grand force, as do commands in, say, a military context, but issuing them did make me happy. The Nobel laureate Elias Canetti described the dynamic well some 60 years ago in Crowds and Power:
Ahead of Avengers: Infinity War, the extended cinematic universe has been sweeping away its status quo—and questioning the very nature of superheroism.
In 1986, the famed comic-book creator Frank Miller wrote a seven-part story for Daredevil called “Born Again,” a dark tale of betrayal and redemption that helped usher in the gritty modern age of the medium. Though Miller’s recent turn toward more extreme politics in his work has alienated many fans, his influence in the mid-’80s was crucial to the evolution of mainstream comics. Near the end of “Born Again,” Daredevil, the costumed protector of Hell’s Kitchen, fights a villain named Nuke, whose powers are cataclysmic enough that more epic heroes have to get involved: the Avengers, represented by their best-known members, Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor.
The artist David Mazzucchelli draws those three heroes in mythic fashion, with Captain America cradling an injured child in his arms, Thor silhouetted against the storm he has summoned, and Iron Man standing like an immovable sentry, collectively commanding Daredevil to back off. They’re powerful, but entirely inhuman—gods among men who are worlds removed from a street-level hero like Daredevil.With this scene,their grandeur had transmuted from something that was previously soapy and colorful to something remote and frightening. It was a clear sign of a necessary shift in comic-book storytelling, one that no longer easily assumed might made right.
As the culture war between gay rights and religious liberty rages, conservatives are livid that the president renominated Chai Feldblum at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Social conservatives love them some Donald Trump. The reason is hardly a mystery. Despite the swirling tales of porn stars and Playboy bunnies, Russian hookers and general degeneracy, this president has delivered on some key issues for traditional-values voters, especially when it comes to appointments. (“Gorsuch!” has become an all-purpose rejoinder to any awkward questions about Trump’s fitness for office.) Ordinarily harsh moralizers—including Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, and Jerry Falwell Jr.—are among the most reliable Trump apologists. And while a majority of Americans remain ambivalent about 45, his religious followers grow ever more enamored. A new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute has Trump’s favorables among white evangelicals at an all-time high of 75 percent.