“America Loves Pregnant Women”: On GONE GIRL, the Justice System, and Likable Characters

My wife and I went to see Gone Girl. (ICYMI: Mystery film about a woman who disappears. It sorta looks like her husband did it; then it doesn’t. Based on a well-regarded bestseller, which I haven’t read, by the screenplay’s author, Gillian Flynn. Every kind of spoiler ahead.)

It was OK. The plot is fairly ingenious, though Flynn and Fincher’s film shares with the works of Christopher Nolan and (sometimes) Stephen Moffatt, among other auteurs of our plot-twist-obsessed age, a certain carelessness as to how seamless the gnarled fabric will appear once it’s stretched out complete. My wife and I both appreciated the liberal helping of cynicism that the film applies to our country’s justice system, which deserves it; but I found some of the dialogue unbelievable, in a nobody-speaks-in-Twitter-ready-aphorisms sort of way. And holy shit, is this film ever misanthropic. As we left the theatre, I thought of my favorite David Fincher movie and remarked to my wife, “Zodiac had a richer and more complicated view of human nature and that was literally a movie about the Zodiac Killer.

What continues to nag at me, however, is how concerned this mass-audience popcorn crime film is with American literary politics. Three major characters are writers. The missing woman, Amy Elliott Dunne, lent her name and (more or less) her likeness to a popular series of kids’ books by her father; in adulthood she has come to resent his continuing “plagiarism” of her life. Her husband Nick, meanwhile, writes for men’s magazines, and, in the film, one token of his decline, and of the souring of their marriage’s initial promise, is his abandonment of the novel that he’s meant to be working on. We hardly see anyone in this movie read, or get any sense at all of how books have formed Amy and Nick as people, but we know that Nick aspires to the prestige of “writing a novel,” and that Amy loses a chunk of her faith in him when he gives up on it. But most of all, Amy herself is a writer. As the film reveals, she has stage-managed her own disappearance and the public’s reaction to it with the masterful, manipulative cynicism of a Michael Bay or a Dan Brown; she has constructed a potboiling real-life melodrama, on the Scott and Laci Peterson model, that succeeds in ensnaring the entire country. She has written an airport bestseller with real people in it. And in the course of this metaphorical “writing” she does plenty of actual writing: the “clues,” supposedly part of an annual scavenger-hunt that she does every anniversary, that point the police toward her husband, and an entire forged diary, among other things. Amy supposedly hates her husband, but she hates her audience more. The film’s voice-over contains many little asides on the manipulability of the American public, and Amy meditates obsessively on the “likability” that allows her so to manipulate. This subject, in turn, gets picked up on by her husband and his defense attorney, who coaches Nick on how to grieve for the camera. (The film is nowhere truer than in its insistence that unlikability on the stand and in interviews will send an innocent person to jail.) At one point, we learn that Amy has gone to great trouble faking a surprise pregnancy, all because: why? Because “America loves a pregnant woman.”

So here we have two Manhattanite media professionals, one of them the daughter of a publishing fixture, talking on and on about… likability. The word jumped out at me, because “likability,” and literary characters’ having it or not having it, was the grounds on which we play-acted one of the louder recent revivals of that ongoing Punch and Judy show, Low Art vs. High Art. (Nick and Amy are just the types of people you can imagine forwarding Slate thinkpieces on this very subject to each other, with snarky asides added.) It’s a fake debate for hundreds of reasons: because it’s conducted at a level of vague abstraction so high as to amount to mystification; because, like so many American fights, it’s a Goliath-vs.-David campaign in which wealthy and powerful Goliath has gotten hit on the head a few times and started thinking he’s little, powerless David; because it’s premised on the false assumption that knowing recognized classics of literature confers half as much social capital, in most everyday encounters, than being up-to-date with reality shows and “edgy cable dramas”; because the important distinction is between good books and shitty ones, not between genres; because genres, anyway, aren’t the same as bookstore categories like “literary fiction”; because everyone ultimately knows this, and then promptly forgets that fact so that we can have another round of thinkpieces;  because it’s all about the fucking pageviews anyway; etc. It’s a fake debate, and so was the debate over “likable” characters in novels, which, you’ll remember, began when a famous author of romantic comedies attacked other, less famous writers, most of them female, for having the audacity to create characters that this particular writer didn’t like. She beat this drum hard for several years, to the point where other female writers, including some of her targets, began to push back mildly, in interviews, against the idea that every literary character should be likable. Whereupon this same writer—and this shit is so juvenile and trivial and insincere on all sides that it’s depressing even writing about it, but bear with me a moment—this same writer then complained that said female writers, who resisted the demand that every character be likable, were using “unlikability” as a mean-spirited coded way of attacking other women writers. (The idea! What woman writer would want to do that, besides the famous woman writer of romantic comedies who started this shit in the first place?)

Now there are many reasons to like a character, and many ways to be interested that have nothing to do with liking. Do I “like” Hamlet? Do I “like” Isabel Archer? Does it even come up? I find Isabel’s disappointments almost too crushing to bear, and I’m pretty sure, if I met her at a party, that I’d find her insufferable. I find enormous significance in Hamlet’s careen through life, and I know that my reaction to meeting him in the flesh would be the same as King Claudius’s: Lighten the fuck up, willya? Liking is a valid way to respond to a fictional character, but it’s obviously not the only way. Claiming that a fictional character should be likable is like claiming food should be tangy or that color should be peagreen.

I’m afraid, when I hear “likability” rhetoric, that what at least some readers are really demanding is a very particular kind of story: in fact, the kind of story Amy constructs. It follows a well-used sensational archetype—mysterious disappearance, smug husband, thorough comeuppance. The good person survives (or at least gets remembered prettily) and the bad person is punished. The bad person is just as important as the “likable” one. The other side of the demand for lead characters who are “likable” is always that someone else, usually the antagonist, be “unlikable,” preferably demonic. Because sometimes likability isn’t about characters at all; it’s about our desire to have flattering vessels in which to pour our empathy and identification, to give those qualities an appealing shape. “Likable characters” are those who, when we identify with them, allow us to like ourselves better. They’re like Superman, back before comes went all grim-n-gritty. “Unlikable characters,” meanwhile, are those who reinforce, via their persecution of the likable main character, our sense of secret superiority to those around us.

To a large degree, Gone Girl turns out to be about the American justice system and its for-profit media arm (televised trials, endless clueless punditry, Nancy Grace), and these institutions’ skill in purveying and then critiquing the effectiveness of self-righteously sentimental, manipulative, one-dimensional commercial fictions. To this extent, and only to this extent, it is a critique of such fictions.

This was fascinating not only because of its implied relationship to the livelihoods and social worlds of its writer-characters, but because of the role Gone Girl, the book, itself seemed to play in the whole high-vs.-low conversation. It was one of those books, like Lev Grossman’s Magician novels or the Harry Potter books, that showed how “literary” a “genre” book could be. (Who didn’t already know this? Nobody, but we’re constantly discovering it anyway, like the Gnostic Gospels.) Gone Girl was, like, deep, man, but also involving and racy, a page-turner, qualities supposedly lacking in the daily diets of “serious” readers. (The most intimidatingly well-read critics in America are, almost to a person, fans of hardboiled fiction, and the only trait that our best-regarded experimental writers have in common is an obsession with fucking that would scandalize a thirteen-year-old boy, but sure, whatever.) It was a smart, improving book that wouldn’t strain your poor brain muscles. It was, in fact, the Cool Literary Novel. It was a serious book you could belch and watch Adam Sandler movies with.

Again, I haven’t read Gone Girl and can’t assess whether any of this is true. It may be a marvelous novel, or it could be the ugly curio of our era’s internet-enabled misanthropy that Mary Gaitskill describes reading in her excellent review of the book. (Speaking of “literary fiction” writers who could teach you a few things about sex and violence!) So far as the movie is concerned, though, I didn’t buy it. Because as much as it invites us to question our need for “likable” protagonists (real or imagined) plagued by “unlikable” villains, and as much as it invites our contempt for those easily-manipulated rubes who form the audience for this story, it ultimately was such a story. The real hero of Gone Girl is a stubborn, smart, incorruptible, honest cop, who is the first to see through Nick’s good-guy facade and the last to stop trying to show up Amy’s psychotic manipulations. She has no inner life, except being righter than everybody else. In this way, a film that is otherwise so usefully scathing about our justice system yields to our most damaging fantasy about it: the idea that there are, in every town, smart, honest cops who care above all about getting the right person. Such people exist, just as women who make false rape allegations also exist (Amy’s use of such allegations have caused some to call the film, and the novel, misogynist). Both would appear to be very rare. Most cops are overworked and underfunded and will go with the perp they can convict. Because they’re not monsters, they often convince themselves they’re right after the fact, and many of them come to believe they possess a “sixth sense” that allows them to know a bad guy when they see him. (This is also a myth, meaning it’s empirically wrong, and it ruins lives.) But that’s not the same as a Desire for Truth at All Costs; it’s garden-variety confirmation bias. Our love affair with the dogged, pursuing cop is a sentimental melodrama with real consequences. I wish that this film, in every other way so withering, had taken its misanthropy a little further, and made its hero a little less likable.

New book review: Matt Taibbi’s THE DIVIDE

This piece appeared about a month ago in the Christian Courier, a small but determined Canadian Reformed newspaper. (I fall in with the oddest crowds; life’s more fun that way.) I reprint it here with their kind permission. If for some reason you have Protestant leanings and/or like my work, consider subscribing. They are really cool people. 

What Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Justice in the Age of the Wealth Gap offers US readers is obvious: it lets us know, with relentless clarity, that our government has all the moral legitimacy of a bridge troll. It informs us that our Justice Department has a stated policy (google “Holder memo”) against prosecuting even obviously criminal activity when it is committed by giant employers (google “HSNBC cartel money laundering”). It tells of black people rounded up en masse and charged after the fact with offenses like standing in their own doorway. It tells of the effort required to fight these charges, effort that essentially precludes having a day job. It tells of welfare bureaucrats preemptively searching the homes of applicants, even rifling through immigrant women’s underwear to see if they own anything attractive enough to suggest unlisted male sources of support. (It’s all constitutional, by the way: 1971’s Wyman v. James found that the Fourth Amendment basically doesn’t apply to folks on public assistance.) It shows not merely that the US justice system is harder on the caught-red-handed poor than on the rich—who needs a book to see that? It shows us that our justice system willfully ignores the crimes of too-big-to-fail (or -prosecute) banks and actively aggresses against the poor:

If you’re the wrong kind of person and you get caught up in the criminal justice system, or stuck in the welfare bureaucracy, or mired in debt, you can’t get out without navigating a maze so complex and dispiriting and irrational that it can’t possibly even be mapped. … On the other side of the coin, the secret to conquering the financial bureaucracy isn’t savvy in a business sense, or the ability to spot a good entrepreneurial idea. Instead, it’s pure bureaucratic force, the ability to throw a hundred lawyers at every problem … In other words, you need to be a bureaucracy in order to survive a bureaucracy.

I hate violence and I distrust all talk of “revolution.” But by the end of this book I not only wanted to occupy Wall Street, I wanted to destroy it with my bare hands.

What The Divide offers to readers outside the US is less obvious, but just as substantial. In journalistic terms, it’s an extremely impressive piece of reportage. In literary terms, it testifies to Taibbi’s increasing mastery over the arts of clear and simple organization and polemical prose style. Some readers got turned off his excellent previous book, Griftopia, wherein he does things like calling Alan Greenspan the largest bodily-opening-of-interest-to-proctologists in the universe (he may not have said it like that), or likening Goldman Sachs to a “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” (I was about to call this a mixed metaphor, but it turns out vampire squids are a real thing. Who knew? Matt Taibbi, apparently.) In all of these cases, Taibbi provided more than enough history, context, and new reportage to justify such intemperate characterizations, but he forfeited that contingent of readers who equate passionate anger with journalistic unreliability. (Apparently some people live in a world where no fact, soberly analyzed, leads to rage. That’s cool. I live on Earth.) Those readers will get further with The Divide, which lets us construct more of the epithets for ourselves.

What the book also offers non-US readers is, I’m afraid, a vision of their possible future. In a mostly positive review of the book, the writer Maureen Tkacik—herself an essential chronicler of our political woes—takes Taibbi to task for failing to talk about neoliberalism, the ideology behind the conditions he decries. While I think The Divide is fine the way it is, I agree with Tkacik that our increasing global belief in the power of self-interest—uncut with any of Adam Smith’s passionate concern for human sympathy—is at or near the heart of all this. So is the neoliberals’ fanciful assertion that markets, if left alone by government (whatever that could possibly mean, given that governments make markets possible in the first place), will reach equilibrium at full employment. Everybody just manage your interests well, and we’ll all have jobs! In one virtuoso passage, Taibbi describes the “vast system of increasingly unmanageable bureaucracies, spanning both the public and the private sectors,” that have made it “literally a crime” to be poor:

[I]t attacks people without money, particularly nonwhite people, with a weirdly venomous kind of hatred, treating them like they’re already guilty of something, which of course they are—namely, being that which we’re all afraid of becoming.

But if the smart management of one’s own interests is our social contract, then need really does become something larger than a mere inconvenience—it’s a flouting of that very contract. You must not have been seeing to your own interests well, or you wouldn’t have lived in the kind of neighborhood where cops pick people up just, you know, because. And we’ll throw charges at you till something sticks, or till you miss a court date and thus acquire an outstanding warrant, or till you get so tired of being chewed-up in bureaucracy that you plead out. But your real crime was always need.

The more countries succumb to neoliberalism’s attenuated view of human nature and social order, which pretends to be science (read Yves Smith’s ECONned for more on that) while ignoring much of the evidence provided by, you know, actual history—it’s no accident that economic history has been marginalized within econ departments—the more transgressive simple human need becomes. This refusal simply to be the dependent creatures we are, and to acknowledge the legitimacy of the dependents around us: this is the truly militant atheism of our time. And it makes Richard Dawkins look downright huggable by comparison.

The Bible calls all this “grinding the faces of the poor.” But what kind of loser reads that?

Things That Can’t Be Described Head-On: On the Odd But Real Hotness of Robinson’s LILA

One of the many things I do when I’m not posting on this blog is c0-managing the Marilynne Robinson Appreciation Society tumblr. This morning, while I waited out a household-plumbing emergency, I posted a link to Michelle Orange’s review of Lila for Bookforum. I had some reactions to her comments on Robinson’s handling of sex that were too big to fit there (no double-entendre entended), so I put them here. Orange writes:

Desire. A bold word, perhaps, in Gilead, a world of worry, reverie, and exquisitely fraught interactions. … “Somebody,” I said, midway through Lila, turning, wide-eyed, to the man with whom I had spent an otherwise chaste week in a primly Christian maritime village, reading Robinson’s novels in quick succession, “needs to fuck somebody.” Instead, Ames and Lila ‘comfort’ each other, in two sentences that form Lila and its predecessors’ almost impossibly discreet reckoning with sexuality …

This struck me a) because that sounds like a rough vacation, even with the good reading material; but also b) because Lila is actually one of the hotter novels I’ve read recently—certainly far more so than most of the novels I’ve read that had as their explicit purpose being hot. When it comes to literature (other media are a different matter), I’m not necessarily put off by the label “pornography,” if a book is smart and well written—after all, that label has been applied to the works of Apuleius, Boccaccio, and Nabokov in their time. But such books rarely strike me as having, deep down, much of anything to do with sex at all. Certainly the canonical works of literary pornography—I’m thinking here of de Sade, Apollinaire, Battaille, and other French people they make you read in grad school—are concerned largely with rape, enslavement, kidnapping, savage beatings, abuse of children and animals, or, in the case of Sade, mass murder: acts that are nonconsensual and thus—if we take the commonsense position that sex is the ultimate collaborative act between and among persons—are not about sex at all. (Notice I say “between persons.” This is not a conservative website.) They’re about cruelty, about proving your importance by exploiting the vulnerabilities of another being; no wonder if they take aim at the place where we’re all most sensitive. Of course loveless, self-aggrandizing power would aim ultimately at the effacement of the very borders between its body and mine; that kind of power can’t tolerate otherness. Sex, on the other hand, absolutely requires it.

Then there’s D.H. Lawrence, a supposedly erotic writer whose sex scenes are actually sermons about the Life Force. Or there’s Kathy Acker, whose pornographic passages are, like all the other parts of her books, really about her theories about writing and plagiarism and whatnot, which I happen to find a rather turgid subject.

In fact, the more I think about it, the harder it is for me to name a book explicitly concerned with sex that makes me want to go have any. I love the novels of Samuel R. Delany, for example, and a book like Phallos, or the sex scenes in the Neveryon sequence, are fascinating to me for their erudite essayistic meditations on sex, power, civilization, etc., but being intellectually engaged is, again, not the same thing as being turned on. (It’s a necessary condition, in my case, but not a sufficient one.) Here it may just be that Delany largely describes male-on-male couplings and I happen to be heterosexual. Either way, scratch him off the list. I’d seriously worry about myself if I got turned on reading Nabokov. Alasdair Grey is another excellent writer who plays with the tropes of pornography, but he’s anti-pornographic, at least to me, in his effects. A novel like 1982, Janine is moving precisely because it shows us a guy reading the kind of misogynist power-tripping porn described above, and then takes us through his entire sad life to show us how he became such an asshole. It’s about politics, about feminism, about personal history, about bullying and what it covers up for, but it’s not about sex.

Just once, leafing through a Dodie Bellamy novel, I ran across a description of women’s genitalia that was so lovingly accurate in its similes as to be worthy of its subject. It was hot. And that’s honestly about it for avowedly sexy books that actually managed to be, for me, sexy. But Lila, with its infinitely gentle, discreet references: that was just as hot.

Tentative suggestion: Sex would appear to be one of those subjects where evoking the thing and describing the thing are not merely distinct, but, at least a lot of the time, opposed.

And this brings me back to Michelle Orange’s review:

The murky status of Lila’s soul marks her with God’s grace, a sign most evident in her face, which she covers habitually. Ames marvels at the human face, especially Lila’s, “the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.” Lila finds horror in that same idea: “[A face] can be something you want to hide, because it pretty well shows where you’ve been and what you can expect. And anybody at all can see it, but you can’t. It just floats there in front of you. It might as well be your soul, for all you can do to protect it. 

Our faces: the more we inhabit them, the less we feel we know them. If you describe my face to me, I’ll only picture a bunch of pieces that don’t add up. Having read the entire Iowa trilogy, I can’t recall one description of Lila’s face, and yet I know exactly what she looks like. Sex is not the only subject that needs to be approached sidelong.

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”

BuzQ8c0CMAAmYVN

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?