Debt, Obligation, and Forgiveness: A First-Year Composition Syllabus

Awhile ago a kind stranger on Twitter asked whether I planned on posting the syllabus for my first-year comp class. (I had been tweet-bragging about getting the damn thing finished, as one does, and geeking out about the writers I planned to teach, as I do.) I’ve been wanting to write more about teaching anyway, because it’s something that takes up a lot of my intellectual and emotional energy. So I’ll probably be doing that this semester, and I thought I’d start by honoring that stranger’s request.

A few preliminaries. I’m an instructor at University of Michigan. I’ve been here a year. Before that I taught at North Carolina Central University, the nation’s oldest public HBCU, for two and a half years, and before that I taught my way through grad school. I teach bread-and-butter first-year writing courses. University of Michigan allows instructors of these courses considerable leeway in choosing themes for their individual classes; as long as you assign certain amounts of reading and writing, and honor certain program-wide goals and regulations, you can do, say, a whole course on literary structure (which I’ve done), a whole course on orality and the epic (which I did last spring and will do again), etc.

Early this summer I was reading a lot about money and debt, and at the same time I was reading a fair amount of political journalism about student debt—an issue that will surely dog my students’ footsteps from here on out. I found that a syllabus was sort of throwing itself together in my mind. Once I broadened the idea of “debt” to include metaphysical obligations, or obligations to oneself—which the early chapters of David Graeber’s Debt helped me to do—I found that I had a pretext for teaching all sorts of pieces of writing that had, for a long time, hung together in my mind in that spiritual folder marked “Teach This Sometime.” And because the problems of obligation and debt tend to pose themselves sharply, again and again, in every generation, it wouldn’t be hard to mix contemporary with classic writings, as I prefer to do. (I want my students to join me in Borges’s library. And I want them to know that the acquisitions department never closes.)

I don’t give links here, or in my syllabus, for most of the essays. I went through a copyshop and ordered a reader, because it was important to me that the writers of these essays get some royalties. Also, this isn’t the full syllabus; the details of assignments are left out (for being boring), though some of that may come up in future posts.

First Week:
Freddie DeBoer, “Boy, I Wonder Why College is So Expensive.” During this week I also direct students to the Occupy Student Debt Fact Sheet and have them write a short essay adjudicating OSD’s use of its own sources.

The idea here is to raise the issue of student debt as something other than a metaphysical fact of life. DeBoer points out several possible causes, including the ridiculously ostentatious gym buildings with which schools attract the children of the wealthy. OSD makes a fairly standard left-wing analysis of the causes, but I want students to get in a habit of checking the references: do the links OSD uses say what OSD insists they say? 

Second Week:
Reading: Matt Taibbi, “Ripping Off Young America”; Tressie McMillan Cottom, “The University and the Company Man”; Maureen Tkacik, “The Unconstitutional Forty-Year War on Students”

This comes with a fairly standard summarize-the-disputants’ cases assignment: I want students to get in the habit of fairly and accurately restating sophisticated arguments long before the first paper is due. I think all three writers, particularly Tkacik and McMillan Cottom, are brilliant expository prose stylists, and I plan some classroom activities that focus on breaking down some of their moves.

Also, I just love all these pieces. Tressie’s one of my best friends, so I don’t pretend to neutrality here. But then, I don’t pretend to neutrality anywhere.

Third and Fourth Week:
They have a paper coming up here—a causal argument about the recent student debt boom. These weeks’ activities have to do with basic research practice, evaluating sources, getting a varied info-diet, reffing between competing claims. Then peer review and conferences, and the first unit is done. 

Fifth and Sixth Week:
Mary Midgley, “Duties Concerning Islands”; Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”

If the first unit tries to show that it’s not so obvious what we mean when we say we “owe” X dollars to the bank, the second unit opens up what we mean when we say “You owe it to yourself to … [stop drinking; see Guardians of the Galaxy; accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior; take a lover; floss more]. Why does Rilke’s great poem end “You must change your life”? Why would the experience of the sublime pry open a person’s conscience like that? And then, once we’re done owing things to ourselves, what about our debts to animals, society, God, strangers? There’s also a mini-paper this week about duties to ourselves, followed by an exchange-and-response assignment: students read each others’ mini-papers, isolate a single argument, and address themselves to it in some way, agreeing, disagreeing, ramifying.

Seventh through Ninth Weeks:
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

I haven’t read Solomon since 2006, but I was certainly amazed by it at the time. And it’s a novel that raises questions of debt and obligation continuously—once you start looking, they’re everywhere. What is the Seven Days but a cold, straightforward attempt at ethical accounting, at rebalancing the books? What is Milkman Dead’s major problem, if it’s not his failure to fully appreciate and respect the fact that he is a derived being, the product of others’ sacrifices and love, to which he so often responds coldly? And there’s Pilate’s speech to him about what he owes Hagar’s memory and … it just goes on and on. The students’ second major paper deals with all this.  

Tenth Week:
Samuel Johnson, “Idler 22″; Chris Serres and Glenn Howatt, “In Jail for Being In Debt”

This last section of the course has to do more specifically with the state and its relationship to debt—as a punisher of debtors, as a guarantor of the legal and social systems that make debts enforceable, and last of all as a debtor itself.

As soon as I picked this theme I knew one thing: we’re gonna read Samuel Johnson on debtor’s prisons. Reading Samuel Johnson is an end in itself. The Serres and Howatt, which is a news article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, deals with the increasing use of jail time as a punishment for folks who don’t follow court-ordered debt-repayment schedules: i.e., the fucking return of fucking debtor’s prisons. Not to put too fine a point on it. 

Eleventh Week:
David Graeber, “To Have it To Owe”

This is a short statement of some of the main historical arguments in Graeber’s Debt, a fascinating book. His thesis, oversimplified, is that “debt,” in a loose, informal sense, is a fundamental part of human community and life—we come into the world already incapable of repaying Mom for nine months of misery and danger—but that precise methods of reckoning and enforcing debt turn it into a political weapon that impoverishes and enslaves human beings. Whether he’s right or wrong, Graeber’s ideas form a meeting place for all the different senses of debt the course has talked about. As his arguments are also likely to be new to students, I have them do a few short writing assignments where they identify a single claim of Graeber’s and describe its effect on them. I’m hoping that in this way I can help them get used to seriously considering uncomfortably unusual ideas. 

Twelfth Week:
Some boring but important stuff about national debts, and their political origins. Also, more training in basic research methods. 

Thirteenth Week:
Marilynne Robinson, “Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist”

Now that we’re talking about national debts, here’s my favorite living writer taking a blowtorch to the ideological foundations of austerity. I’ll walk them through this one slowly. 

Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at not badgering students when they don’t respond happily to work I like. I’ll be calling on those resources a lot this semester. 

Fourteenth Week:
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations”

As long as we’re talking about the senses in which a nation can be “indebted”… We finish with an essay that has been on many peoples’ minds this summer, and which, in the last few weeks, only seems more relevant. (Not to sound all Ken Burns, as white people apparently tend to do in Coates’s presence.) 

Since Coates’s essay provokes, from many readers, responses like “Slavery was a long time ago” [true, but redlining was last week] and “Everybody suffers” [true, but not everybody immiserates an entire people group for hundreds of years], I’m giving students an exploratory essay assignment here. I tell them, in effect, to take a claim from Coates and nudge it around a little. (Obviously, I give a little more instruction than that.) Don’t try to take a global position on his whole argument. It’s too big. I certainly don’t know what-all to do with it, and I’ve been more or less pro-reparations for years. 

I made the syllabus weeks ago, and I don’t mean to be more self-promotional than even a personal blog can sustain. But I have to say that the fact that I admire Coates to the point of inflicting this profoundly emotionally difficult piece on the thirty-six young souls entrusted to my care—well, that obviously made this even more of a day-brightener. 

On Coates, Cultural Capital, and Remotism

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a new piece up at the Atlantic. Like most things Coates writes, it is beautifully written and urgently recommendable. Nominally, it’s about the time Coates spent this summer in a French-immersion program, but, being a Coates piece, it’s “about” many other things: what it’s like to be an autodidact; why narrow nationalism is sometimes a bridge, not a bar, to a generous and open-minded humanism; why brilliant people often hate school. It gives us a qualified defense of cosmopolitanism (the qualifications being just as necessary as the defense); a succinct explanation of barriers to class mobility among black people; a reminder, if any were needed, that oppressed minority groups are punished both for fitting into the surrounding culture and for not fitting into it; and a blessedly unexpected paean to the virtues of memorization. If we lived in a sane world, it would also end all argument as to whether accusations of “acting white” constitute the main barrier to black cultural achievement.

And yet, like a good French dish, this piece left one really foul taste in my mouth, and that taste came from Coates’s use of the metaphor “capital.” For example, he writes:

For most of American history, it has been national policy to plunder the capital accumulated by black people—social or otherwise. It began with the prohibition against reading, proceeded to separate and wholly unequal schools, and continues to this very day in our tacit acceptance of segregation. When building capital, it helps to know the right people. One aim of American policy, historically, has been to insure that the “right people” are rarely black. Segregation then ensures that these rare exceptions are spread thin, and that the rest of us have no access to other “right people.”

I certainly don’t disagree with Coates’s overall point in this paragraph; it’s an empirical point, and he’s empirically right. And I think I understand why “social capital” and “cultural capital” are helpful metaphors when making this point: knowing how to learn does tend to make you richer and happier. If people are kept from knowing how to learn, they are materially impoverished as a result. And so what might look to even well-meaning white people like a series of sins of omissionwe didn’t get around to making sure the black schools are as good as the white schools; we didn’t happen to build a library in this neighborhood; we just sort of committed white flight in a fit of absentmindednesscan be framed as a sin of commission. We didn’t fail, we plundered. We stole. We took away from some people something that everybody should have. And then we called the people we’d taken it away from “deficient.”

Metaphors of “cultural capital” and “social capital” are great and useful because they help make all that visible.

But the metaphor always jars me, and it especially jarred here, in an essay that contains passages like this:

At Middlebury, I spent as much time as I could with the master’s students, hovering right at the edge of overbearing. On average, I understood 30 percent of what was being said. This was, of course, the point. I wanted to be reminded of who I was. I wanted to be young again, to feel that old thrill of not knowing. … And I was ignorant. I felt as if someone had carried me off at night, taken me out to sea, and set me adrift in a life-raft. And the night was beautiful because it held all the things I would never know, and in that I saw my doom—the time when I could learn no more. Morning, noon, and evening, I sat on the terrace listening to the young master’s students talk. They would recount their days, share their jokes, or pass on their complaints. They came from everywhere—San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, Boulder, Hackensack, Philadelphia, Kiev. And they loved all the things I so wanted to love, but had not made time to love—Baudelaire, Balzac, Rimbaud. I would listen and feel the night folding around me, and the ice-water of youth surging through me.

…In my long voyage through this sea of language, that was my first sighting of land. I now knew how much I didn’t know. The feeling of discovery and understanding that came from this was incredible. It was the first moment when I thought I might survive the sea.

From a certain perspective, what Coates describes here is the process of acquiring cultural capital. Does that sound right to you? It’s … not wrong. Because Coates has gone through this experience, he will write and read more things; what he writes will be interesting in ways that he has not previously been interesting; the impact on his bottom line can only be good. Capital acquired! But I can’t be alone in feeling like that is an ugly, reductive way of describing what sounds a lot more like falling in love.

And that’s the problem with the “capital” metaphor. When you use the term “social capital,” you are using a metaphor that suggests human social relationships are best compared to money, or to stuff that helps you make money. When you use the term “cultural capital,” you are using a metaphor that suggests that learning a language, knowing how to use a library, falling in love with Balzacthese things are all best compared to money. Now Balzac, of all people, would have been last to deny that money plays a role in these things as in all things. But the metaphor of “capital” takes one aspect, one end result, and makes it the whole phenomenon. And human beings live by our metaphors. When we get in the habit of talking about our relationships with our neighbors as “social capital,” or our relationship with our minds as “cultural capital,” we start to treat people and learning more like tools. Think of the metaphor of the “selfish gene,” which Dawkins defenders will always tell you they know is a metaphor: well, tell it to Jeffrey Skilling. And I have to think that English professors’ deference to the metaphor of “cultural capital” is one reason why so much contemporary academic literary criticism doesn’t so much deny aesthetic experience as simply ignore it. It’s another version of what G.K. Chestertonanother great writer who often leaves bad, in fact far, far worse tastes, in my mouthbeautifully described as “remotism”:

There is one great evil in modern life for which nobody has found even approximately a tolerable description: I can only invent a word and call it “remotism.” It is the tendency to think first of things which, as a matter of fact, lie far away from the actual centre of human experience. … We may take, for the sake of argument, the case of what is called falling in love. The sincere realist, the man who believes in a certain finality in physical science, says, “You may, if you like, describe this thing as a divine and sacred and incredible vision; that is your sentimental theory about it. But what it is, is an animal and sexual instinct designed for certain natural purposes.” The man on the other side, the idealist, replies, with quite equal confidence, that this is the very reverse of the truth. I put it as it has always struck me; he replies, “Not at all. You may, if you like, describe this thing as an animal and sexual instinct, designed for certain natural purposes; that is your philosophical or zoölogical theory about it. What it is, beyond all doubt of any kind, is a divine and sacred and incredible vision.” The fact that it is an animal necessity only comes to the naturalistic philosopher after looking abroad, studying its origins and results, constructing an explanation of its existence, more or less natural and conclusive. The fact that it is a spiritual triumph comes to the first errand boy who happens to feel it. 

We describe things by their consequences, and we forget the thing. So the wealth and health that come to people who can namedrop Balzac gets mistaken for … knowing Balzac. And Balzac gets reduced to a tool. I’m not calling for a ban on the useful metaphor of “cultural capital,” but I wish people who use it would more often acknowledge that these are very serious limitations.

And the bad taste comes back at the end of Coates’s essay, where he uses another phrase you hear a lot when you hang out in English departments:

I came to Middlebury in the spirit of the autodidactic, of auto-liberation, of writing, of Douglass and Malcolm X. I came in ignorance, and found I was more ignorant than I knew. Even there, I was much more comfortable in the library, thumbing through random histories in French, than I was in the classroom. It was not enough. It will not be enough. Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.

Ah, yes. The master’s tools, master’s house, etc. I can’t do justice to the process by which Audre Lorde’s original quotation “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”the original context was that Lorde was understandably sick of being almost the only woman of color invited to speak at academic feminist panelsgot a) shorn of its negative (now it’s usually misquoted, to be about how sometimes you can so use the master’s tools) and b) turned into a shorthand way to defend the strategic value of reading canonical texts by dead white men. But that is usually how I hear it used: “God, you’re reading Moby-Dick? Why?” “Well, sometimes you’ve got to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.” And, though I think that’s certainly good strategyyes, you can learn a lot about white peoples’ particular crazinesses by reading our classic books, or about sexism by reading Saul Bellowit always makes me sad. I think: Seriously, that’s all you got from all those books? You plodded all the way through Melville, and all you got from it was some insight into the Racist Hivemind? You never, in all those pages, thought, “Huh, that’s a beautiful sentence,” or “Bellow may be problematic, but he’s an interesting guy”? I hate the instrumentalism of this metaphor when it’s used in this way (I have no problem with the point Audre Lorde was originally making); I hate the idea of canonical texts as “tools.” Certainly the construct of a canon, itself, is a tool, but the books making it up aren’t tools. Moby-Dick isn’t an instrument, any more than my love for my wife is just a way for my genes to get out there and express themselves again.

But the end of Coates’s essay is such a strange place for this meme to appear, too, because he so obviously does not think of learning as a tool, the Master’s or otherwise. He certainly doesn’t seem to feel that way about French, which he writes about with something more like the loving exasperation of a pet owner: “French is a language that obeys its rules when it feels like it. There is no unwavering rule to tell you which nouns are masculine, or which verbs require a preposition. Memory is the only way through.” If, somehow, the knowledge of French helped Coates dismantle the Master’s housewhich, seriously, I still don’t get, because isn’t the problem the Master, and his asshole rules, and not the house? Are houses just bad now? Is this a subtle argument for geodesic domes?but even if it did, he wouldn’t throw it away, as you throw away a tool that has outlived its usefulness. He wants it around for its own sake. Because knowledge, for him, is an end in itself.

That’s what it is for me. And that’s what people are for me. And that’s why I love Coates’s writing. But it’s also why I wish we had more language that, unlike the metaphors of “social capital” and “cultural capital,” insisted that people and knowledge are more than their functions.

HYDRA is Scared: One More Note On Ferguson, Especially For Non-Lefties

In April, like millions of others, I went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I saw it with, among others, my father, whose politics I can safely call far-right, and my brother-in-law, who is somewhere between the two of us. (As for me, I represent Truth and Common Sense. Duh.)

As we were walking out, my dad made a shrewd observation: Here is a film with heavy political content that had been very carefully structured to appeal to three guys of very different political persuasion.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, Winter Soldier goes a lot further than most action movies in critiquing the national-security state. It even critiques earlier Marvel Comics films by revealing SHIELD, the superpowered CIA of the Marvel universe, as the stooges of a fascist group known as HYDRA. The near-omniscient spy technology that helped the Avengers to hunt down Loki in their film, with nary a raised eyebrow, was, here not just a potential ethical problem but unambiguously the work of evil people. The film even took that archetypal hero of so many proto-fascist Hollywood action films (many of them produced by cynical or clueless liberals)—the Grizzled Realist Who Does What Has To Be Done, Rights Be Damned—and made him the single most evil person in the film. And yet the film threads its political needle very carefully—dad, Tom, and I all loved it. One nasty remark from Cap about the Pink Bureaucracy State or gun control would have spoiled it for me. (Guns are meaningless as a guarantee of popular sovereignty when the other side has drones and chemical weapons and nukes!—but I digress.) Equally, one remark from Black Widow about how Bush Started All This (he really didn’t) would probably have spoiled it for dad and Tom.

You can call this Hollywood calculation, and it is. But it’s also a reflection of the fact that there really is a large popular consensus against a government that can do anything to anybody unless they’re a TBTF bank. But the other feeling that the movie reinforced for me (I’ve had it for some time) is the sense that the battle is largely over. As one character points out to another, we have willingly, massively participated in making our information available to anyone who wants it. We have also allowed governments to spend money developing technologies that deliver death from a supposedly safe distance, because we like the feeling of running the world, but not the feeling of losing yet another daughter or son in an imperial war. And everybody hates it, but it’s not going away. They’ve won.


I no longer think that way, and that’s entirely because of the bravery of the people of Ferguson, MO. Please do not talk to me about looting. There was one incident of looting, which, by the way, is something that happens every time a college team wins a championship. Looting is opportunistic. It follows crowds. Blaming looting on protests is like blaming epidemics on sociality. The one incident of looting here is a separate phenomenon from that of rightly angry and rightly scared people using their first amendment rights to protest the murder of a child.

(As my Burkean conservative friend said to me this morning, “Black folks are being a hell of a lot more peaceful about this than my people would be.”)

But it’s not their bravery that convinced me. It’s the response.

The people of Ferguson have shown considerable restraint, when you consider the indignity they’ve suffered. (This is true of black Americans as a group, by the way. The fact that so few of them truly believe in, let alone practice, a philosophy of “Kill Whitey” is something of a miracle. If I believed that race was a meaningful biological category, I would wonder who’s the super-race here.) The cops of Ferguson, on the other hand, have acted like they’re putting down a full-scale insurrection. They shot tear gas into a person’s house. They waved guns at unarmed, retreating children. They told people to go home and then blocked the exits and then made with the rubber bullets. They threw a pregnant woman on the ground.

Their cowardly and predatory behavior certainly suggests that militarized police feel insecure about their hold on power. That insecurity is a hopeful sign in the long run, but it also increases the likelihood that they’ll shoot a lot of people in the short run, so that alone doesn’t leave me feeling sanguine. No, what makes me feel hopeful is the fact that so much of their craziness is directed at people with cell phones. It’s directed at reporters. It’s directed at national media. It’s directed at folks who take pictures.

They are still afraid of being seen.

They’re so scared of being seen that they literally imposed a no-fly zone to keep news helicopters out.

They’re so scared of being seen that they went after a local Fox News reporter. Fox News. That’s an organization that normally will pay you a handsome fee for defending police brutality against black people! They’re turning against their own natural allies.

Last night they arrested Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, along with another reporter from the Huffington Post, and then, after leaving them both in a holding cell for a little while, simply let them go, along with all other media personnel: “Chief thought he was doing you a favor.” No arresting documents. No paper trail. They did the same thing to alderman Antonio French. They’re not pretending any of this is legal; it’s catch-and-release policing, like happened after the WTO protests in Seattle and Miami early this century. (And like happens to black people under stop-and-frisk constantly, but I’m talking here about the suppression of media specifically.)

To put it mildly, this is not the behavior of a system secure in its grip on power. This is the behavior of a system that thinks there’s something to fear from widespread outcry. When HYDRA lets you tweet whatever you want, when they let you post the videos of cops yelling “Go ahead, you fucking animals!” because they know it doesn’t matter: that’s when we’re really done. But that’s clearly not where we are.

Honestly, this surprised me. I really thought that public opinion was a spent force, politically speaking. I thought that, between the omniscience of computers and the militarization of the police (combined with the cop-ification of everybody else: school bureaucrats, welfare caseworkers, CPS, ordinary citizens), we really were done as a democracy. I figured I’d be doing moral triage the rest of my life: weighing the necessity of protesting injustice against the (to me) equally real moral necessity of not dying for nothing, not defaulting on my obligations toward the people closest to me and toward my work, etc. And so on, till civilization collapsed or Jesus returned. If the opportunity to do so in a meaningful way came along, I’d try to whip up the bravery to go Bonhoeffer. Certainly, I’d never hide my opposition to the police state. But for the most part I’d quietly do the best I could, supporting the victims where it fell into my ambit to do so, weighing risk against risk, and wondering to what extent I was morally identical to the people who famously “did nothing” while Hitler rose to power.

But not anymore. Because HYDRA is scared. HYDRA is scared of your cameras. HYDRA is scared of your social media postings. HYDRA is scared of children with phones. HYDRA is scared of its own allies, when they point a microphone the wrong way. HYDRA is scared of a brave, unarmed city alderman with a twitter account.

Local TV, aldermen, kids, social media: these could almost be synecdoches for “nonthreatening do-gooders.” And yet they’ve got HYDRA acting like a scared animal. Because public opinion actually still means something. Bad publicity is still a meaningful threat.

The Mekons have a line that goes: “Turning journalists into heroes takes some doing.” Well, the Ferguson police have managed to do the trick.

All the millions of people, of varying political stripes, who watched Winter Soldier and thought, Damn, that’s a good point: all of you should should be encouraged by the Ferguson police’s display of raw cowardice. And everyone who uses the phrase “police state” pejoratively should know who to side with here.

A Note to People Who Say, Of Ferguson, “That’s What They Get”


This photo comes from the Twitter account of Liz Peinado, a teacher in Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed black teenager named Mike Brown was gunned down by police this past Saturday. Police claim that Brown attacked the officer. Other things that the police have claimed during my lifetime include roleplaying games lead to satanic ritual murder and If you flash your brights at them, they’ll shoot you. Police say a lot of things.

Eyewitnesses tell a different story:

About 20 minutes before the shooting, Johnson said he saw Brown walking down the street and decided to catch up with him. The two walked and talked. That’s when Johnson says they saw the police car rolling up to them.

The officer demanded that the two “get the f—k on the sidewalk,” Johnson says. “His exact words were get the f—k on the sidewalk.”

After telling the officer that they were almost at their destination, Johnson’s house, the two continued walking. But as they did, Johnson says the officer slammed his brakes and threw his truck in reverse, nearly hitting them.

Now, in line with the officer’s driver’s side door, they could see the officer’s face. They heard him say something to the effect of, “what’d you say?” At the same time, Johnson says the officer attempted to thrust his door open but the door slammed into Brown and bounced closed. Johnson says the officer, with his left hand, grabbed Brown by the neck….“They’re not wrestling so much as his arm went from his throat to now clenched on his shirt,” Johnson explained of the scene between Brown and the officer. “It’s like tug of war. He’s trying to pull him in. He’s pulling away, that’s when I heard, ‘I’m gonna shoot you.’”

At that moment, Johnson says he fixed his gaze on the officer to see if he was pulling a stun gun or a real gun. That’s when he saw the muzzle of the officer’s gun….“The whole time [the officer] was holding my friend until the gun went off,” Johnson noted.

Whereupon the officer shot Mike Brown in the back. At least once from the car. This is a functional definition of cowardice.

I have read that they left the body uncovered in the street for something in the neighborhood of four hours.

The next day, there was a vigil, and afterward, some looting. Now, I hate looting. I feel shitty for the person whose Kwik-Stop got smashed to pieces. But that person is alive. Mike Brown is not. If evenhandedness in moral judgments (as between powerful and less powerful, one’s enemies and one’s allies, etc.) is important, so is a sense of proportion.

The following day, Fergusonians gathered again. This time, the police took full advantage of the expensive militarization process that Radley Balko and others have written about. They fired rubber bullets and tear gas. They pointed cocked, loaded weapons at unarmed people merely standing around. They told people to return to their homes, and then blocked the way. They fired tear gas into peoples’ yards.

The last few weeks, as I read about Israel’s incursions into Gaza neighborhoods—how people were ordered to leave their homes or be bombed, followed by the blocking or shelling of every possible escape route—I often thought of Marilynne Robinson’s comment on the violent inconsistencies of English poor laws: “People who can neither stay where they are nor go elsewhere are in trouble.” I thought of it again Monday night.


I would say I am at least averagely racist. I grew up in this country, and I have all the stereotypes lying around in my brain, waiting for some emotionally charged incident to activate them. I grew up fairly isolated (by self and circumstance), so I learned some of the stereotypes a bit later in life than most people seem to—I didn’t learn that I’m supposed to feel sexually outcompeted by black men until I heard about the meme from historians critical of it. (“People thought that?” Then, five seconds later: “Oh, shit, what if it’s true?”) But by now the ideas are all more or less in there somewhere.

This is not an apology, and it is certainly not a veiled request for someone to assuage my guilt. Please do not reassure me; I have no guilt. Because I have no control. The thoughts are just there. If and when they come, I reject them, I argue with them, I mock them, and I try to teach others to do so. That is the part I have control over. That is how all the traditional Christian virtues are supposed to work, by the way: you consciously cultivate habits that make certain forms of behavior, over time, more possible for yourself, and others less so. These habits aren’t operating in a vacuum; they’re operating in a context of greed, lust, sloth, egomania, and the other deadlies. So half your work is correcting against those. And you work at correcting against racism too.

All that racism exists in black people as well. By this I don’t mean that black people have racist thoughts about white people, though this seems true. I have seen “white” used as a synonym for bland, boring, oblivious, effete, overly cerebral, patronizing, smooth, and unctuous enough times to be suspicious, and I am so sick of the stereotype of the Spocklike, soulless white man who thinks too much that I could scream. (Think of Amiri Baraka’s famous comment on the “Hamlet burden, which was white bullshit, to be always weighing and measuring and analyzing”: this is not only an insult to all white people, it’s an insult to black people who enjoy math or metaphysics. Or, closer to our own time, think of the assumptions people make about hipsters, that they are incapable of emotion or genuine enthusiasm, that if you cut them they bleed ironic PBR. This is not to deny the real, empirical problems with hipsters and gentrification.)

But whatever anti-white racism black people harbor, I have worked with enough brilliant black students who absolutely can’t believe anyone thinks they’re smart that I’ve noticed a much larger, sadder problem: They believe our stereotypes about them. They have to remind themselves, some of the time, that they’re human. Once you know to look for this, you see it everywhere. It is heartbreaking, and it’s not something white people have to do qua white people, though we often have to do it for other reasons (we’re nerds, we’re disabled, we’re GLBTQ, we’re working class, we were epileptic in the ’50s, we have Southern accents, we suffer mental illness, we attended a single day of middle school, etc.).

As for that fear of black criminality that so many of us tote around: Guess what? I have it too. Several years ago my then-girlfriend, now-wife and I were robbed at gunpoint in Milwaukee by teenagers of color. One of them snatched her purse, and I ran after him, because my degree is not in common sense. His buddy pointed a gun at me and said, “Bitch, give me your wallet.”

A little bit of me is a Christian, and prays for that kid. Most of me is pagan and wants to kick his ass. Only a little, because he was just a kid. But enough for him to say, “Oh, right, that was a person I did that to.”

In the weeks and months after my mugging, for the first time in my life, I felt that little urge that I had previously noticed in other white people, and found laughable: to cross the street whenever you see a group of young men of color headed your way. It was suddenly there, like an evil Jiminy Crickett. I argued with it till it went away.

I say all this to say, I understand, on a bone-deep level, the thing inside us white people that makes us want to turn away from Ferguson. I understand the thing inside that says Don’t worry about what the police are doing. Don’t worry that they’ve imposed a no-fly zone. It’s just a bunch of thugs

So now look again at that photo. Look at the guy on the right. Look at his eyes. (Remember that, moments later, he was teargassed.)

This is not “just a” anything. This is the face of a person who knows all too well that the police officers ordering him to drop the phone are fully capable of shooting him, for nothing. This is a human who is facing possible death, for no other reason than that he is black and standing somewhere. He’s known it all his life, and he just got reminded of it on Saturday.

White fear of black criminality is created and fed by media, by redlining, by social structure, but it builds on a basic human fear we all have: that someone will reduce us to meat and that we’ll stay that way and that they’ll laugh about it and then we’ll be forgotten, and that was it. When that mugger pointed the gun at me, I heard utter contempt in his voice; he was enjoying his power to make smelly garbage out of all the love my parents have ever invested in me, out of every good thing I’ve ever done or intended. You can hear these things.

I heard them again in the cell phone videos shot last night of white cops calling Ferguson residents “Fucking animals.”

The kid on the right in that photo is afraid someone will make him meat when meat is not what he is. He is a person. And we’ve bent all our technological ingenuity on empowering the people who want to make him meat.

That is the truth of what our society is. It isn’t the truth of what we are, or what we have to be. But it’s what we’re choosing to be right now.

And he knew that truth, I’m willing to bet, when he left the house that night.

And yet, he still left the house that night.

Look at his face again: he is not a person who has yet learned to use the precious male resources of emotional detachment and bravado and “honor” to carry him over the fear of death. He feels every iota of his fear.

And yet, he still left the house that night.

This is a functional definition of courage. This is nobility of soul. This is who should be getting parades.

It takes only seconds to find many examples of white people dismissing what’s happening in Ferguson as an acceptable response to “rioting” or “thuggery.” Any logical content in these reactions can be dismissed in five words: the day after the big game. If you think that, the day after a giant sports loss (or worse, win) gives rise to vandalism and looting by predominantly white crowds, it’s OK to use tear gas and rubber bullets to chase all the white people in Ann Arbor or Columbus back to their homes, just because, well, then you get to make this argument, I guess. You’re welcome to it. You need all the comfort you can have in your lonely, scared universe.

Otherwise, you don’t get to.

But it’s the emotional response that I’m interested in. Because, as I say, I don’t share it, but I get it. I’m afraid of being turned to meat, and I live in a society that has taught me to feel, in defiance of statistics, that black people are especially likely to do so. So here is a suggestion for that part of you, the part that thinks, Well, isn’t that sort of what they get?: think of a time when someone you love was subject to violent street crime by a person of color. (Violent street crime is statistically rarer than most other crimes, e.g., white women are far likelier to be murdered by their white husbands than by a Scaarrrry Black Man: but nevermind that. Most of us still have had some brush with it.) Then think of the next well-intentioned liberal who said to you, of street crime, that it’s an Inevitability, a Cry for Help, a Sign of Agency in Desperate People, etc. You got mad, didn’t you? Whatever the person meant, what you heard was an extension of what that mugger’s tone was saying to me: “You could be meat, and it wouldn’t bother me.” “You could be meat, and it’s probably your fault.” “You could be meat, and you probably should be.”

Now imagine someone hearing that all the time. Not from muggers, but from the police, from pop culture, from senators, from the folks white people actively turn to when this is done to them.

Ask yourself: Do you really want them to hear it from you?

Muriel Spark’s Novels, Ranked

22. Reality and Dreams (1996)
I read this two weeks ago and I cannot recall a thing. A film director gets injured and…does things? Whatever, it’s still probably more enjoyable than the last few Booker winners.

21. Symposium (1990)
An unusually likable rich person is targeted for murder by an apparently nice young woman. Never, never trust apparently nice young women in Spark novels. You will get poleaxed in the brain. The best part of this book is the Marxist nuns; I would have read a whole book about them.

20. The Hothouse by the East River (1972)
This is Spark’s A Fable, her Runaway Soul, her George Romero’s Land of the Dead, the endlessly delayed magnum opus that, on arrival, seems to have overripened into almost nothing. I wasn’t gripped, and neither, it seems, were most American readers of this New York-set novel, in which Spark hoped to “do” Gotham as she’d “done” the Holy Land in Mandelbaum Gate: a print version isn’t even available at the moment (though you can finally get an ebook). However, it does have a character whose shadow won’t cast straight, which is among the most perfect metaphors imaginable for what it’s like to live with someone who’s vaguely, undiagnosibly … off a little bit.

18-19. Aiding and Abetting (2000) and The Finishing School (2004)
Her two last novels, published when she was 82 (!) and 86 (!). In the first, a May-December couple pursues the fugitive aristocrat-murderer Lord Lucan (who was a real guy), while Spark succumbs to too-big-to-edit syndrome. Every several pages she absent-mindedly recaps the entire plot thus far, as if she were writing a monthly superhero comic (“It’s a good thing your planet’s yellow sun gave me the strength to survive that explosion”), or, as is more likely, as if she were succumbing to age. Still, it also shows that her knack for creating situations that perfectly externalize what would seem to be stubbornly internal states never left her. I’m referring to the character Beate/Hildegarde, a fraudulent stigmatic who did, in fact, despite her fraud, miraculously cure a few people. The inextricability of brutal honesty from self-humbugging in religious life was rarely better dramatized. I could, on the other hand, have done without the faintly racist cannibalism subplot.
Finishing School leaves a less distinct impression, but it’s got some hilarious satire of Bright Young Literary Things, some pointed and helpful remarks on those of us whose self-critical instincts hamper our art, and, that rarity in Spark, a forgiving ending. (Even the dithering main character finally publishes his damn book. There’s hope for us all.)

16-17. The Takeover (1976) and Territorial Rights (1979)
Her Italian period, and her nasty/macabre period as well. The characters in these books are dank, even by her standards. Still, Territorial Rights shows Spark handling a fairly populated plot with aplomb; and as for The Takeover, I can’t really not like a story in which a guy pretends to be the leader of a Diana-worshipping cult so he won’t have to pay his rent.

15. Not to Disturb (1970)
As a love triangle reaches its bloody end, the servants, who already know how this story ends, get ready for the book deals and TV chat-shows. Also, there’s a madman in the attic. It’s very funny for an anti-novel, not that funny for a Spark novel.

14. The Public Image (1968)
A cleverly-plotted study of a movie star. It was the first thing I’d ever read that actually gave me some sense of what it would be like to be world-famous, the psychological habits you’d pick up from necessity: the sick watchfulness and involuntary calculation. And yes, John Lydon himself confirms that it was the inspiration for this.

12-13. Robinson (1958) and The Bachelors (1960)
Spark was pretty much kicking ass right out of the gate; these are “the worst” of her early novels, and yet they would have represented a quite respectable peak for anyone else. Robinson does Robinson Crusoe but adds a lady, and also blackmail; The Bachelors gives us yet another memorably creepy would-be cult leader (a medium, in this case) and a sympathetic portrait of epilepsy.

11. The Mandelbaum Gate (1965)
A young Catholic convert visits the Holy Land and goes underground, all for the sake of a pilgrimage. This is Muriel Spark Goes Self-Consciously Big, with results that nearly won her the Booker Prize but, in the long run, has tended to turn off some of her more ardent fans, who find the book talky and self-serious. I can see where those who hold such a view are coming from, and the prose in the early chapters is leaden with explanation and background, but the back half of the book really takes off. I fell for this book, and I missed the characters after it was done: not always a feeling one associates with reading Spark.

10. The Driver’s Seat (1970)
Also from Spark’s anti-novel period, and one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. The heroine goes willingly to her own murder, from sheer nihilist perversity (or desire for control?). It’s like Evelyn Waugh got mindraped by Thomas Ligotti. Nothing so disturbing can be counted a literary failure. But yikes.

9. The Abbess of Crewe (1974)
A power-obsessed Mother Superior bugs her entire convent. It’s nuns doing Watergate. IT’S NUNS DOING WATERGATE. This book is so fucking funny. Take my word.

8. The Only Problem (1984)
Like the hero of this novel, I have read a lot of commentaries on the Book of Job, and its presentation of what this book calls “the only problem”: innocent suffering. This is worth all those commentaries put together.

7. The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)
A novel about a corporate efficiency consultant who wastes everyone’s time, does no work, and is probably Satan. So, a realist work, then.

6. Memento Mori (1958)
This is a novel about a crank caller who tells old people “Remember you must die.” But he’s not the bad guy. Do you really need me to sell you on this any further?

5. Loitering With Intent (1981)
Spark wrote a score-settling autobiography in the early ’90s, but if you really want to know what things were like for an edgy, intelligent young woman in austerity Britain, cadging a living as a secretary to demented old sexists while cobbling together her first novel, read this hilarious caper. Actually, you should read it whether or not what you want to know that.

4. The Comforters (1957)
As Maud Newton has pointed out, Spark’s debut novel is a postmodern metafiction before those things had been invented. One character is a writer who knows she’s also a character in the book we’re reading. Another is a cipher with no interior life: literally, when she goes into a dark room, she disappears entirely. There’s an old lady who runs a smuggling racket and a would-be Satanist, and those are the boring characters. It really chaps my ass that this was Spark’s first novel.

3. A Far Cry from Kensington (1988)
Spark’s most epigrammatic and quotable book, not because 1-2 are less well-written, but because their prose is more subordinated to story. Not that Kensington‘s style isn’t equally appropriate to its narrative: that of a wise and sensible older woman casting a retrospective eye on her youthful life. You could tweet the entire thing. Better, you could memorize the entire thing, and then base your life on it. It’s like wisdom literature for smartasses. Look at these sentences:

If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. [N.b.: True! This is the only reason my wife was able to finish grad school in five years.]

It is my advice to any woman getting married to start, not as you mean to go on, but worse, tougher, than you mean to go on. Then you can relax and it comes as a pleasant surprise. [True! Goes double for teachers.]

It’s easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, only half. … I offer this advice without fee; it is included in the price of this book. [True! Also, eat the least early in the day, when your willpower is least depleted, so that you're covered if you go a little nuts in the evening. That "BREAKFAST IS A MUST" horseshit is useless for those of us who work sedentary jobs.]

My advice to any woman who earns the reputation of being capable, is not to demonstrate her ability too much. You give advice; you say, do this, do that, I think I’ve got you a job, don’t worry, leave it to me. All that, and in the end you feel spooky, empty, haunted. And if you then want to wriggle out of so much responsibility, the people around you are outraged. You have stepped out of your role. It makes them furious. [So, so true. My wife's grad school advisor, on similar grounds, told her to wear her clothes inside-out every few months, just to keep people from thinking she's too competent. She has failed to do so to her detriment.]

When you have to refuse any request that admits of no argument, you should never give reasons or set out your objections; to do so leads to counter-reasons and counter-objections. [Has gotten me out of so many stupid obligations I cannot even count them all.]

When you are looking for a job the best thing to do is to tell everyone, high and humble, and keep reminding them please to look out for you. This advice is not guaranteed to find you a job, but it is remarkable how suitable jobs can be found through the most unlikely people. [This so works. Tell the janitor; tell your mailwoman; tell the cousin you run into at a funeral; tell the homeless guy for whom you buy a sandwich. Trust me.]

And please, New York City publishers, heed these words, if no others: A large part of an editor’s job is rejection. Perhaps nine-tenths. In those days at least, it was not only rejection of manuscripts but of those ideas that seemed to come walking into my office every day in the shape of pensive men and women talking with judicious facial expressions about such mutilated concepts as optimist/pessimist, fascist/communist, extrovert/introvert, highbrow/middlebrow/lowbrow; and this claptrap they applied to art, literature and life to the effect that all joy, wit and the pleasures of curiosity were quite squeezed out. 

2. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
Most people think this is Spark’s masterpiece, and it’s not like they’re really wrong. You can never go wrong with a book that created an archetype, as this does, and that letter … (readers of the book know what I’m talking about, and everybody else needs to get on the stick).

1. The Girls of Slender Means (1963)
Every college town has one: the rental house that, year after year, attracts an oddly fascinating mixture of cool and awful women, giving the place an atmosphere permanently saturated in unfledged possibility, hormones, and late-adolescent cruelty. Take that house, then add to it a piece of not-yet-exploded WWII ordnance, and you have this: the pinnacle of Spark’s career, and one of the greatest, most poignant comic novels in English.

New piece on Muriel Spark

The Christian Courier has posted my little overview of Scottish comic novelist Muriel Spark’s ouevre.

I honestly think this is a really good little essay. And I hate everything.

Stateside interview

Talking to Stateside on Michigan Public Radio, about the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, Volume Six