THE NEW JIM CROW, by Michelle Alexander

I’ve just read the best book on racism in the U.S. in decades. It is The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. Alexander is a former attorney. She has a gift for amassing crucial detail, weaving into a brisk narrative, but not cutting corners. She used to be a litigator. From her book, I’ve deduced that one of her techniques in court must have been to let the evidence speak for itself when it is overwhelming.

I hope I don’t mangle her thesis too much as I paraphrase it. It is foregrounded by a sketch of American history, which includes (of course) slavery, followed briefly by Reconstruction, followed immediately by the era of Redeemers, white folks who wanted to “redeem” society. We all know about the KKK and white terrorism and Jim Crow, as well as de facto Jim Crow in the North, which affected housing and schools, etc. Two keys to Jim Crow were disenfranchisement and using the law to retain de facto slavery. That is, on a massive scale, white folks would have Black men, especially, arrested on any pretext, sent to prison, but then “hired” out as workers, with no pay. Alexander documents this beautifully.

Fast-forward to 1980 and the Rise of Reagan. She documents how Reagan and his regime invented a war on drugs out of whole cloth. They deployed a massive PR program, even, to scare (white) people and link the “war” to Nixon’s “law and order” schtick. In the PR program, drugs were linked almost exclusively to Black people. Enforcement was federalized and militarized. Do you remember a time when most cities and towns didn’t have a SWAT team? Me, too. Now everybody has a SWAT team, and through various means such teams and other local law-enforcement are linked to the FEDs. The same thing has happened with the “war on terror,” of course. Reagan’s Feds leaned heavily on state and local officials to join “the war on drugs”–or else.

Results: About half of all Black men in the U.S. are either in prison or declared felons or both. That’s right. About half. And guess what? Black folks are no more likely to use or sell drugs than White folks. Alexander has the data. A vast percentage of the people in prison are in there for possessing drugs–and not for sale. And often just weed. Add the extreme sentencing-guidelines, including the 3-strikes law, and the picture gets worse. Alexander also demonstrates, again with data, that the U.S. imprisons more ethnic minorities than either Russia or China.

Basically, Jim Crow went underground–or hid in plain sight: at least as White folks are concerned. White folks have been conditioned to associate drug-use with Black and Brown folks, to be indifferent to Draconian drug-laws and drug-sentences, and to be indifferent to the erosion of the 4th and 8th amendments. Alexander demonstrates that illegal search and seizure is a thing of the past–especially for Black and Brown folks. Police routinely stop people and ask if they may search them. Few people have the confidence or wherewithal to say, as they should, “No.” Of course, add in the Patriot Act, and the 4th amendment is moot.

Alexander further argues that the election of Barack Obama is more of an irony than a milestone, and that Black “exceptionalism” has always been a tool of White bigotry and indifference. “See–he made something of himself, and we voted for him! How can you say racism persists?”

Of course, none of this is news to most Black folks. They live under these conditions. Of course, a majority of White folks will resist the arguments because they need the myth of a nation that has gotten better and better, that has made Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a hero with his own Washington monument (in white, ironically).

Interestingly, Alexander argues that indifference, not bigotry, is the main issue. If the police harassed White folks and broke into their homes under the weakest of pretenses proportionally to the way they do with Black and Brown folks, all these issues would converge into an emergency. I’ve never been stopped for driving while White. I’ve never–never–met an adult Black man who hasn’t been stopped for driving while Black.

If you react fiercely against these arguments, that’s fine. In fact, this means there is no argument, in the sense that Alexander or I or anyone else is unlikely to change your minds. So it goes.

If you respond skeptically, all the better. That is, in fact, where Alexander began. She was skeptical of the pattern that seemed to be emerging as she studied the problem.

If you’re comfortable with the prison population jumping from 300,000 (1970) to over 2 million (today); if you’re comfortable with prisons being filled mostly with Black and Brown folk; if you’re comfortable with half of Black men being felons and thus disenfranchised, excluded from housing and employment programs, and essentially doomed; if you think the U.S. has made “a lot of progress” in race; if you think we live in a color-blind society–well, you’re among a large majority.

If you think these conditions are scandalous, alarming, and wrong, please read the book. Or if you don’t want to or can’t afford to buy the book just yet, google Michelle Alexander on Youtube, and catch a summary of her argument.


Facts Are Good: Walker Meets With Luntz, and 1 Billion Is a Lot of Money

Running errands in an ancient Volvo yesterday, I heard two facts from a radio interview between Norman Goldman and a member (Democratic) of the Wisconsin legislature (whose name, alas, I have forgotten).

Fact one: In the midst of the budget-crisis, Scott Walker met with GOPer dis-information specialist Frank Luntz. The meeting was unearthed by a Wisconsin newspaper and reported widely elsewhere, including at Mother Jones by Andrew Kroll, who noted:

On the right, Luntz is the man behind the message. He described last year’s much-needed financial reform bill as “a permanent bailout fund.” (Which it wasn’t.) He urged GOPers to paint President Obama’s health care reform bill as a “Washington takeover.” (Wrong again.) He also coined the phrase “death tax” to replace estate tax. In their fights against Democrats, Republicans have eagerly latched onto each of these Luntz-isms and more. And he likely offered Scott Walker, whose public support had begun to erode at the time of their meeting, some tips on how he, too, could rework his message.

“Disinformation specialist” is not unfair or unkind to Luntz, who revels in his ability to deploy language precisely in ways to which Orwell objected.

What does the fact of the meeting mean? Opinions vary, but I think it adds to sense that Walker and other Republican governors are following a strategy set out by Rove, Luntz, and others. One purpose of the strategy seems to be to wreck unions and thus deprive President Obama’s campaign of money; another purpose seems to degrade public education further. Another purpose borders on insane: to refuse federal money for important projects–just to make some kind of point, which eludes me. Approximately 70% of Wisconsin’s population lives within easy access to a railway that federal funds would have turned into a high-speed corridor. So refusing the money is at least a two-fer: reject a project that will put people to work; reject a project that will be good for the economy in the long run.

Fact two, provided by the Democratic legislator, who displayed a kind of bemused, sanguine attitude we’ve come to expect from the Midwest: there are @ 1 billion dollars of outstanding, uncollected taxes “out there” in Wisconsin. They remain uncollected because the revenue department has lost so many employees. Pragmatically, the legislator suggested increasing the staff and collected the money. The overall budget-gap is, I gather, about 2.5 billion, so 1 billion of outstanding tax-revenue is, as highly technical economists would say, quite a chunk of change. But let’s be cautious and assume the Democratic politician may be over-stating. Let’s only “give him” half a billion of un-recovered tax-revenue: still a large percentage, large enough to make one wonder (or not), again, why Walker is spending so much time and political capital on breaking a union–and on “reworking his message.” Love that euphemism: reworking. It means keeping the same message, which isn’t effective, and restating it in such a misleading way that it might well work. Go, Luntz! Damn Eric Blair, full speed ahead!

Agreed-Upon Facts

In the world of America’s National Football League, a former coach, Jim Mora (Sr.), is renowned for a press-conference at which he is asked whether his team will advance to the playoffs. “Playoffs? Playoffs? Playoffs!” he shouts, repeatedly and sarcastically–to indicate that his team first has to show it win A game and play with skill. Playoffs? Out of the question.

In our pseudocracy, one might be forgiven for reacting the same way to the idea of agreed-upon facts that may underlie or precede a debate. Facts? FACTS? Facts! You must be joking.

On the radio the other day, a spokesperson for a politics/media not-for-profit organization said he believed it’s now virtually impossible to have a real debate with “the other side” because “the other side” won’t agree to any facts and because it isn’t interested in genuine policy-debate, or even in principle-debate.

To my mind, it doesn’t matter which “side” this fellow represents. He’s right.

So, today, President Obama did what presidents do: spoke of getting the economy going–“making stuff and selling stuff.” All well and good, but I think regularly we need a primer and what the government can (literally, is able to do) to stimulate the economy and what it can’t do. Clearly, it can, and did, save GM’s bacon. It can also forcefully encourage car sales, the purpose of which was to clear out a massive world-wide inventory (I know a car-dealer or two who agreed that there was simply too much inventory out there). But otherwise, what’s cyclical and structural and what isn’t? Most economists must agree on a few consensus-points in this regard.

Then there’s the Republicans’ stated claim that the health-care reform program “kills” jobs. There seem not be data that support the claim, and there do seem to be data that do support the counter-claim, tentative as it might be, that the reform may create hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs–in addition to achieving some of its main purposes: getting 30+ million into some kind of insurance program, modestly regulating insurance-companies, and so on. But the GOPers’ proposal, of course, is not data-dependent. It may not be data-cognizant.

Data? Data! You must be joking. It’s hard for me to joke about this, however, because I have some familiarity with the Aristotelian tradition of rhetoric–in which some consensus or common understanding of a situation, its facts, is essential to deliberative debate, meaning debate about what to do about something in the future, as opposed to forensic debate, which concerns an interpretation of something in the past.

What do do? Well, when in doubt, create a TV show. “Agreed Upon Facts.” Before two or more people may debate or discuss, they have to agree upon some facts. No agreement, no discussion. “Next!”

Imagine a New Place to Talk and Listen

Whether TV has a useful place in American political and social discourse is doubtful. The big three networks still draw viewers to nightly news and Sunday shows, but these formats are moldy at best, and the Sunday shows especially are full of talking-points, interruptions, and annoying hosts. Cable shows are mostly a shout-fest, and if people aren’t interrupting people, commercials are. I mean, how many of us would rather watch a dog vomit than watch any of these shows? Don’t answer that. I can cut Rachel Maddow some slack; she’s courteous and knowledgeable, and she lets guests talk. At the same time, she seizes on issues of dubious value sometimes and bores in.

So, indulging in some magical, counter-reality thinking, let’s a imagine a different televised space. Let’s start by clearing the set, as it were.

Literally clear it by getting rid of the fake desk and fake backdrops. Figuratively clear it by eliminating all commercials, weird sounds that punctuate parts of shows, and distracting “visuals.” Get rid of interruptions. They are against the rules. Feel free to get rid of anything else you find annoying about these shows.

Now let’s start to put things back. A moderator–not a “host.”  The show focuses on the discussion, not on the personality. Two or three guests representing different viewpoints but not necessarily diametrically opposed. That’s right. We’re adding subtlety, maybe ambiguity. The moderator’s main job is to set and keep the terms and topics of discussion, improvising cautiously, as needed. He or she also stops interruptions and points out glaring cheap-shots and fallacies. Guests may of course ask each other fair questions, with the moderator’s permission. The show should run a full 60 minutes. I’d include one more addition: an expert on the topic, and preferably an expert who’s not a think-tank hack or on the fringe of the issue. Yes, I’m afraid we’re talking mostly about academics, although of course you could include specialists in business, construction, the non-profit sector, or whatever.

The main role of the expert would be to correct patently bad information or to introduce obviously helpful new information. No gas-bags or blow-hards. Minimal assistance.

I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I’ll guess. “Boring.” “PBS.” I grant you the point.

However, I also grant myself a counter-point. If such a format is deemed “boring” in contrast to shows about “real” (phony) house-wives, tattoo-artists, bikers, bounty-hunters, and addicted celebrities, etc., then we’re sunk anyway. Turn in your citizenship–you might as well. If we’re saying we require the ridiculous compressed segments, the noises, and the visuals, and the interruptions, we’re admitting we can’t concentrate as adults should. Think of it: every night, people hear Bill O’Reilly say, “Talking Points believes . . .”, and they think it’s okay, as if Talking Points were a legitimate entity, as if O’Reilly were plausible. And, sure, pick your favorite example from the alleged “other side,” if you want to.

William F. Buckley was a classic American huckster, complete with phony mannerisms and ivy attached to his league, but by golly, he had something close to the right format with FIRING LINE (except lose the name). And before he deployed a rhetorical fallacy, he at least let people make a point. And he never cut to commercial. So a tip of the cap to Gore Vidal’s late bete noir.

Well, I mentioned this imagined space sprang from magical thinking. We won’t get such a space–unless of course we demand it, and if we can stop disagreeing for a moment and concentrate on venue and format. If we were to build it, perhaps not enough people would come to justify the ratings. Except I’d get rid of the ratings, too. (Has anyone taken a serious look at the methodology of TV ratings, by the way.) Let’s say a really low number of us tuned in. A quarter million. Fine. We’ll start there. We’ll let the FCC insist that all three main networks and cable ones carry the show or multiple shows like it. –Because we want the FCC looking out for adults who can concentrate and follow an argument: what a concept.

Imagine a new televised, discursive space.

“Towards” As A Specialized Academic Word

One pleasure of being a not-young (but obviously still euphemistic) academic is that one has published enough to be able to indulge in brief fantasies about articles or books one would like to write but never will. So although I’m working on a book with Wild Bill and on other projects, I occasionally conjure pretend-articles.

So yesterday, for about ten seconds, I imaged an article title “Towards An Ethics of Public Service” and indulged in a quixotic fantasy about citizens crafting the rules affecting lobbying, conflicts of interest, and so on–as opposed to our current system, whereby public officials allegedly police themselves; and we’ve seen how well that works, from city councils up to Congress and the Pentagon, and at the upper level, “service” seems chiefly to be a graduate program in lobbying. “My M.A. thesis at the Pentagon was on bribery!”

Then, however, I got interested in the word “Towards” in academic publications. In everyday life, it’s a perfectly serviceable preposition. “The septic tank is over towards that boulder.” “We were driving toward Santa Fe when the thunderstorm hit.” Dimly, I seem to remember that Fowler and other usage experts even have advice about “toward” v. “towards,” but I’m too lazy to reach toward the shelf and pull Fowler off it.

Lassitude aside, my main point is that . . . where else but in academia would “towards” be an acceptable title for something accomplished? When I was helping my father build houses for a living, I don’t recall his ever declaring the job was over, pointing at an unfinished structure, and telling the owner, “Well, there it is, ‘Towards A Completed Home’!”

To be fair to academics (why?), they are all engaged in provisional work in the sense that in humanistic, social scientific, and scientific research, one is foolish to imagine one is providing final correct answers. Social scientists and scientists are probably better than humanists at remembering this; often untethered to evidence, often working by means of muddle method, humanists can indulge in hubris and declare that THIS is the way to read Dickens. At any rate, Darwin knew he was just starting a conversation with Origin of Species, whereas his panicked society reacted as if he had provided a final answer. He had more or less provided (or amplified) a new paradigm, which was understandably shocking, but he was still speculating.

Creationists use this state of incompleteness against “evolutionists” all the time. “It’s just a theory,” they cry. “And scientists change their minds all the time!” To which scientists respond, or so I imagine, “Well, of course we change our minds–especially when data changes. It’s the scientific method.”

Probably, however, fewer academic products (articles, books) should have “Towards” in the title, partly because it sounds stuffy, and partly because it may betray false modesty. In most cases, the author has in fact reached a conclusion (we hope) and is not merely moving towards one. So in the title and piece, say what your conclusions/theses are, and the readers can provide the broader context of ever-evolving knowledge.

When politicians aren’t using “towards” in the demotic way (“As the limo was heading towards C Street, I took a wad of cash from the lobbyist”), they seem to use it either a) quasi-militarily or b) as an excuse.

Example of a: “As this campaign heads toward New Hampshire, it’s picking up momentum!”

Example of b: “We’re very hopeful about the progress towards stopping the flow of oil in the Gulf.” “Tlansration”: “Oil gushes into the Gulf.”

Is Evidence Rhetoric’s Best Friend?

The evidence suggests that evidence ought to be rhetoric’s best friend. Long ago and far away, I read an article about the prosecutor in Patty Hearst’s trial–this was shortly before the trial got under way. The writer for the SF Chronicle suggested that the prosecutor was not a flashy court-room presence but won cases by amassing and presenting solid evidence. The writer contrasted the prosecutor to one of the flashiest court-room presences of the era, F. Lee Bailey, whom Chronicle columnist Herb Caen dubbed Flea Bailey. Bailey and Hearst lost, as you know.

But fast forward to the mid-1990s, and Flea is there again for yet another trial of the century (there were so many), and the evidence in the O.J. Simpson trial seemingly doesn’t prevail. One reason it doesn’t is that the police handle some of it in ways that are, at least, perplexing; that Johnny Cochran focuses like a laser on the only audience that matters, the jury; that the prosecution is baited into having O.J. try on the gloves; that Mark Fuhrman is a nightmare witness for the prosecution; that the prosecution gratuitously fixates on a single time-line; and so on. At any rate, audience (the jury) seemed to trump evidence in that trial, although the point is obviously debatable.

2010: How does evidence figure into an immediate controversy, immigration from Mexico and new laws in Arizona? For help in answering the question, provisionally, let’s turn to some paragraphs from a column by Eugene Robinson (May 4, 2010), Washington Post, about illegal immigration and border-control (I added bolding):

Anyone who thinks such extremism [exemplified, he argues, by the Arizona laws] could be quelled if the federal government would just “secure the border” really ought to visit Arizona and take a look. Or at least consult a map. Or even just read up on what is happening at the border — which, according to Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, “has never been more secure.”

Border crossings by undocumented immigrants have declined sharply over the past decade. With more Border Patrol agents on duty than ever before, apprehensions of would-be immigrants along the 2,000-mile border have dropped from a peak of 1.8 million in fiscal 2000 to 556,000 in fiscal 2009. Some of the decrease might be the result of tougher border enforcement, but the weakness of the U.S. economy also could be a factor.
* * *
Sen. John McCain, who should know better, said recently that failure to secure the border “has led to violence — the worst I have ever seen.” Gov. Jan Brewer said she signed the state’s outrageous new law because of “border-related violence and crime due to illegal immigration.” But law enforcement officials in border communities say this simply is not true.

Roy Bermudez, assistant police chief of the border city of Nogales, told the Arizona Republic that “we have not, thank God, witnessed any spillover violence from Mexico.” The newspaper reported — citing figures from FBI crime reports and local police agencies — that crime rates along the border have been “essentially flat for the past decade.” Violent crime is down statewide, as it is nationally.
* * *
It should be pointed out there wouldn’t be any drug-related violence along either side of the border if Americans would curb their insatiable demand for illegal drugs. It also bears noting that the Mexican drug cartels procure their assault weapons on the U.S. side of the border, where just about anyone with a pulse can buy a gun.

[The mayor of Phoenix suggests] that the only solution is comprehensive reform that provides a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already settled here, a legal way for temporary workers to come and go, and increased quotas for Mexicans who want to immigrate permanently. [end of paragraphs from Robinson]

So, by focusing on numbers and authorities (local law enforcement), Robinson highlights evidence: numbers of illegal immigrants much lower than before; cross-border violence apparently not a problem so far; guns in Mexico’s “drug-wars” spring from U.S.; mayor of Phoenix favors a multi-faceted approach (as opposed simply to building a wall).

Such evidence and appeals to local authorities should be rhetoric’s best friend in this debate, but they won’t be. Anything like what the mayor suggests will get slapped with the label “amnesty,” which will trigger a Pavlovian response from a larger political sector. Even a reference to guns coming from the U.S. will trigger another response from another (if overlapping) sector focused on the Second Amendment. Enter wedges; exit evidence; no entry of legislation permitted, except that of the sort just passed in Arizona–which won’t solve any problems.

American Empire and/or American Oligarchy

In a recent post titled “Are We An Oligarchy?”, I asked, “Are we an oligarchy?”  I probably should have asked, “Should my post titles be less obvious?”
My answer was “Yes” to the oligarchy question. I’m still waiting for elite  political scientists who specialize in oligarchic studies to weigh in definitively on the subject.
In this post, I ask, “Are we [is the U.S.] and empire?”  Two imagined answers from the peanut gallery come to mind: 1) Duh. Of course we’re an empire, you moron.  2) Duh. Of course we’re not an empire, you moron. We’re just a republic with a large military, and we help spread freedom around the globe; that’s all.
Fleeing the peanut gallery and taking a brief lexical detour, let’s note that “empire” springs from the Latin “imperium,” which derives from “imperare,” which can be translated as “to command.”  “Empire” seems to have entered printed English language in the early 14th century, according tot he OED online.  According to the more pedestrian but still useful dictionary. com, here are some definitions of “empire”:
1. a group of nations or peoples ruled over by an emperor, empress, or other powerful sovereign or government: usually a territory of greater extent than a kingdom, as the former British Empire, french Empire, Russian Empire, Byzantine Empire, or Roman Empire.

a government under an emperor or empress.

(often initial capital letter) the historical period during which a nation is under such a government: a history of the second French empire.

supreme power in governing; imperial power; sovereignty: Austria’s failure of empire in central Europe.
Perhaps you see the definitional problem I see. Strictly speaking, to be an empire, a nation has to rule over another nation (or similarly significant large cultural entity).  So there’s that.  Then there’s this:
Depending upon the definition of military “base,” the U.S. has somewhere between 700 and 1,000 military bases around the globe, although a good portion of these should, perhaps, be called mere “installations.”  A variety of sources seem to like 700+ as a ballpark figure (there’s a pun in there with base and ball that we’ll ignore).  To get some idea of the scope of our military presence, just look at the list of major military bases on via this link:  list of bases.
Of course, to have a base in a place is not necessarily to rule over that place.  At the same time, to operate a base is to have some significant leverage over the place occupied, and in many cases military presence or occupation = political control = a kind of rule = empire.  The U.S. has in fact occupied Germany, Japan, and Viet Nam; the Philippines; and Puerto Rico (a short list). It now occupies Iraq and Afghanistan.
No doubt you recall the mischief in Central America, whereby the U.S. toppled a regime to help out the United Fruit Company.  Christopher Hitchens certainly recalls the U.S. role in “regime-change” in Chile.  (He has wanted to get Kissinger in court.) And we all know the extent to which “regime-change” is part of our political dialogue.
I’m not one to change a definition simply because it doesn’t suit my argument, but we might at least consider how the U.S. may have redefined “empire” or “imperial presence”  by deploying so many bases without  literally ruling.  Also, there is the globalization of our industrial, financial, and commercial presences–not to mention all that spying we do.    When I taught in Sweden in 1994, several Swedish academics noted the sheer volume of American entertainment “product” on Swedish cable TV.  Swedes, they tended not to lament but rather merely to observe, and they observed that the effect of so much product on a nation of about 8 million might be enormous with regard to behavior, language, and commerce.  Is this a form of imperialism even though it’s not a form of ruling?  This is not a rhetorical question.
Oh, one more thing, before the post reaches its frayed conclusion: extreme political and personal opposites Gore Vidal and Pat Buchanan agree that the U.S. moved from republic to empire long ago.
I think I’ve batted around “empire” lexically, culturally, rhetorically, and politically quite enough.  As I wait for experts in Oligarchic Studies to weigh in on my earlier question, I shall maintain a double-watch and look for signs of experts in Imperial Studies in the virtual harbor.
But in my amateurish, innocuous opinion, yes, the U.S. is governed by an oligarchy, and yes, the U.S. is, most definitely, and empire.  Ignore my opinion (I often do); what say you?