A Selection of Stuff You’d Rather Not Read About

Four articles that made an impression this week, from least to most depressing, that didn’t even mention Jerusalem, Puerto Rico, healthcare or starving polar bears.

One hundred and eighty-seven people are facing felony charges for participating in a demonstration in Washington D.C. that turned violent. The demonstration was on the day Trump was inaugurated. A trial is now underway. The depressing aspect of this story is that none of the six defendants are accused of doing anything aside from being there:

What jurors haven’t heard, and prosecutors don’t intend to offer, is evidence that any of the six individuals currently on trial … actually engaged in any property damage or violence. Under the government’s theory of the case, in which anyone arrested in the group is part of a conspiracy and is responsible for any actions taken by others, the lack of individualized wrongdoing doesn’t matter.

Maybe the jury will have the sense to acquit everyone and convince the government to stop these prosecutions.

Elsewhere in Washington, Republicans from the House and Senate are trying to reconcile the terrible tax bills they’ve recently passed. Could any of them read this article from The New York Times and say they were proud of their efforts so far?

… for the first time since the United States adopted an income tax, a higher rate would be applied to employee wages and salaries than to income earned by proprietors, partnerships and closely held corporations….

“We’ve never had a tax system where wage earners were substantially penalized” relative to other types of income earners, said … a former Treasury Department official….

Indeed, economists and tax experts across the political spectrum warn that the proposed system would invite tax avoidance. The more the tax code distinguishes among types of earnings, personal characteristics or economic activities, the greater the incentive to label income artificially, restructure or switch categories in a hunt for lower rates….

“The more you look at any of the major rules, the more ambiguities, glitches, clearly unintended consequences and tax planning opportunities you see,” said Michael L. Schler, a lawyer in the tax department of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. He has written a 50-page summary of the more glaring problems …

From Georgia Southern University, a professor named Jared Yates Sexton, who grew up in the South, writes about the fascism that runs in his family.

Eventually I left for college and found my own people who didn’t express such fascist and ignorant beliefs. I visited for the occasional holiday, kept in decent enough touch, but I felt confident knowing that people like my family would never be in charge of the country they understood so poorly….

They hoard weapons, supplies, and daydream about the day the government will fall and they’ll be free to remake the country as they see fit.

I cannot say they are fascists, but I can definitely say they hold fascist ideas. This is why they hardly blink when Donald Trump quickly erodes the normal order of the government, why they’re not concerned when he undermines the Freedom of the Press or cozies up to authoritarian leaders. They love it when he tells policemen to be rough on suspects. They want someone who plays nuclear chicken with a despot while the lives of hundreds of million innocent people lie in the balance.

Finally, speaking of nuclear chicken, Jeffrey Lewis, a “scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies”, shares some really scary thoughts in The Washington Post. He imagines how a confrontation between North and South Korea might escalate, helped along by a morning tweet from the president, into nuclear war.

And so, facing what he believed was a massive American military invasion, Kim gave the order. The thread of history winds along on twists of fate, like Archduke Ferdinand’s driver missing a turn…

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency would later say this was a sign that the system had worked well, downing about a third of the missiles — although experts would argue that the low intercept rate resulted from problems that the Los Angeles Times had reported in 2017…. It seemed more likely, the experts said, that five of the missiles had simply broken up as they reentered the earth’s atmosphere.

The remaining seven nuclear warheads landed in the United States. These missiles were no more accurate than the others — but with 200-kiloton warheads, 10 times the power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, close was enough to count in most cases.

I told you so.

It’s Been With Us For Years, But Gotten Worse

The historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) is known outside academic circles for having written a particular book and a particular essay. The book was Anti-intellectualism in American Life from 1963. The essay was “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” from 1964. I read the essay a few days ago in a collection of Hofstadter’s work. Anyone who wants to understand how we got to this point in American history will benefit from reading Richard Hofstadter.

He explains, for example, the basis for “economic individualism”, the idea that it’s not only more efficient but more ethical that everyone should sink or swim on their own. Thus, poor or working-class conservatives are often against anyone receiving help from the government, even though they could use that help themselves:

On many occasions they approach economic issues as matters of faith and morals rather than matters of fact. For example, people often oppose certain economic policies not because they have been or would be economically hurt by such policies, or even because they have carefully calculated views about their economical efficacy, but because they disapprove on moral grounds of the assumptions on which they think the policies rest….Deficit spending might work to their advantage; but the moral  and psychological effect, which is what they can really understand and feel, is quite otherwise: when society adopts a policy of deficit spending, thrifty [conservatives] feel that their way of life has been officially and insultingly repudiated [“Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited – 1965”].

Hofstadter borrowed the term “pseudo-conservative” from the German thinker Theodore Adorno. He explained why in an earlier essay written in response to McCarthyism:

There is a dynamic of dissent in America today…The new dissent is based upon a relentless demand for conformity… Its exponents, although they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions. They have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism in the classical sense of the word…Their political reactions express rather a profound … hatred of our society and its ways – a hatred which one would hesitate to impute to them if one did not have suggestive evidence from clinical techniques and from their own modes of expression [From “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt”, 1954].

Remind you of anyone you know? I mean, who in public life expresses more contempt for America in the 21st century than the next President and his fans, the vocal minority that wants to make this country “great” (i.e. “white”) again? Maybe the Democrats should have revived those popular bumper stickers from the 1960s, the ones aimed at Volkswagen-driving hippies and protesters.  

download-4

Finally, here’s what Hofstadter said about the Republicans’ first pseudo-conservative Presidential nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater:

Unquestionably, Goldwater’s ideas do retain some shreds and scraps of genuine conservatism, but the main course of his career puts him closer to the right-wing ideologues who were essential to his success, who shaped his tactics, who responded to his line of argument… How are we to explain the character of a “conservative” whose whole political life has been spent urging a sharp break with the past, whose great moment as a party leader was marked by a repudiation of our traditional political ways, whose followers were so notable for their destructive and divisive energies, and whose public reputation was marked not with standpattism or excessive caution but with wayward impulse and recklessness? [“Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics”, 1964].

Again, remind you of anyone you know?

Fortunately, Lyndon Johnson beat Goldwater by 26 million votes (rather than 3 million) and by 61% to 27% (rather than 48% to 46%). Goldwater only won six states in the 1964 election: the five former slave states of the Deep South and his home state of Arizona. That gave him 52 electoral votes compared to Johnson’s 486. 

electoralcollege1964-svg

In addition to being a pseudo-conservative, Goldwater had no particular qualifications to be President. Before being elected to the Senate, he managed the family department store. In the Senate, he played no significant role. In Hofstadter’s words, “his main business there was simply to vote No”. He was still an “outsider” even after 12 years in Washington.

Goldwater’s extreme positions and lackluster qualifications contributed to his historic defeat. Fifty-two years later, due to a variety of circumstances, another pseudo-conservative, this time with no government experience at all, won narrow victories in enough states to win the White House. Given their appeal to the same sorts of voters, and given the fact that our next President is obviously suffering from a personality disorder (whereas Goldwater was relatively normal in that regard), it’s fair to say our democracy is showing signs of wear and tear that are beyond serious.

Addendum:

The journalist James Fallows recently reported the following conversation with a U.S. Senator:

Q:  How many of your colleagues know that there is something wrong with T***p?
A:  All of them, obviously.
Q:  Which Republican will be the first to say so?
A:  Ummmm….

At Least the Cop Wasn’t Thinking At the Time

A high school student in South Carolina disrupted a class by talking on her phone. The teacher and a school administrator demanded that she leave the room. She refused. A police officer assigned to the school was summoned. He told her again to get out of her chair and leave the room. She was now sitting quietly and no longer using her phone. She said she had done nothing wrong and wanted to stay.

He reacted by flipping her and her chair upside down and dragging her across the floor. The white police officer, who is also one of the school’s assistant football coaches, did not break the black girl’s neck.

From the New York Times article, which includes a link to the video:

Witnesses to Monday’s incident said that in an Algebra 1 class, the girl, a sophomore, was on her phone, and the teacher told her to put it away. The teacher summoned an administrator, who brought in the deputy. The adults repeatedly asked the student to get up and leave the class, but she refused.

When the altercation occurred, students stood up, confused about what was happening, but the deputy told them, “Sit down, or you all will be next,” said one student, Charles Scarborough, 16. Adding to the surprise and confusion, several students said the girl was usually quiet and not a troublemaker.

The deputy also detained a second student, Niya Kenny, 18, who told a local television station that her only offense was objecting to his treatment of the other girl.

“I was crying, like literally screaming, crying like a baby,” Ms. Kenny told WLTX. “I’d never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl.”

As she protested, she said, “he said, ‘Since you’ve got so much to say, you’re coming, too.’ ”

I can almost understand the cop’s reaction. He got frustrated and gave in to his worst impulses. He didn’t de-escalate the situation. He treated the girl as if she were a dangerous criminal. He treated her worse than he’d treat a dog. But I presume he wasn’t using all his mental faculties at the time. His lizard brain, his adrenaline and his racism took over.

What I can’t understand at all is that people read the article and watched the video and then composed a comment to the Times suggesting that the girl was responsible in any way whatsoever for what happened to her. She disrupted the class. She refused to get out of her chair. She wasn’t respectful of authority. Maybe she provoked the cop’s reaction. We should wait for all the facts before passing judgment.

What total bullshit. Let’s face it. Many of our fellow citizens here in the United States would make good Nazis and there doesn’t seem to be much the rest of us can do about it. (All right, I do understand it.)

There’s more here, including how a police officer using more of his brain could have handled the situation.

Terrorists Like Us

From President Obama’s statement regarding the terrorist attack in Charleston:

This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked.  And we know that hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals.

The President could have used the active voice instead of the passive. He could have said “This is not the first time that racist white men have attacked black churches”. That would have been more descriptive.

But it would have sounded unnecessarily inflammatory. Unnecessary, because who else would murder nine black people while declaring that “You rape our women and you are taking over our country”. Inflammatory, because calling attention to the killer’s color would upset people who say or want to believe that white racism isn’t a problem anymore.

Britt Bennett’s brief article in the New York Times does an excellent job of explaining how and why white terrorism isn’t called that:

This is the privilege of whiteness: While a terrorist may be white, his violence is never based in his whiteness. A white terrorist has unique, complicated motives that we will never comprehend. He can be a disturbed loner or a monster. He is either mentally ill or pure evil…. Either way, he is never indicative of anything larger about whiteness, nor is he ever a garden-variety racist. He represents nothing but himself. A white terrorist is anything that frames him as an anomaly and separates him from the long, storied history of white terrorism.

I’m always struck by this hesitance not only to name white terrorism but to name whiteness itself during acts of racial violence. In a recent New York Times article on the history of lynching, the victims are repeatedly described as black. Not once, however, are the violent actors described as they are: white. Instead, the white lynch mobs are simply described as “a group of men” or “a mob”…. [Obama’s] passive language echoes this strange vagueness, a reluctance to even name white terrorism, as if black churches have been attacked by some disembodied force, not real people motivated by a racist ideology whose roots stretch past the founding of this country.

In America’s contemporary imagination, terrorism is foreign and brown. Those terrorists do not have complex motivations. We do not urge one another to reserve judgment until we search through their Facebook histories or interview their friends. We do not trot out psychologists to analyze their mental states. We know immediately why they kill. But a white terrorist is an enigma. A white terrorist has no history, no context, no origin. He is forever unknowable.

Like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said this week: 

While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.

But the thing is, in this case, we do know. 

Bookmarking Our National Transgressions

Going through old bookmarks, I found Eric Foner’s review of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist. Professor Foner is a leading historian of the 19th century. From the review:

Where Baptist breaks new ground is in his emphasis on the centrality of the interstate trade in slaves to the regional and national economies and his treatment of the role of extreme violence in the workings of the slave system….

The cotton kingdom that arose in the Deep South was incredibly brutal….Violence, Baptist contends, explains the remarkable increase of labor productivity on cotton plantations. Without any technological innovations in cotton picking, output per hand rose dramatically between 1800 and 1860. Some economic historians have attributed this to incentives like money payments for good work and the opportunity to rise to skilled positions. Baptist rejects this explanation.

Planters called their method of labor control the “pushing system.” Each slave was assigned a daily picking quota, which increased steadily over time. Baptist, who feels that historians too often employ circumlocutions that obscure the horrors of slavery, prefers to call it “the ‘whipping-machine’ system.” In fact, the word we should really use, he insists, is “torture.” To make slaves work harder and harder, planters utilized not only incessant beating but forms of discipline familiar in our own time — sexual humiliation, bodily mutilation, even waterboarding. In the cotton kingdom, “white people inflicted torture far more often than in almost any human society that ever existed.” When Abraham Lincoln reminded Americans in his Second Inaugural Address of the 250 years of “blood drawn with the lash” that preceded the Civil War, he was making a similar point: Violence did not begin in the United States with the firing on Fort Sumter.

Foner concludes:

It is hardly a secret that slavery is deeply embedded in our nation’s history. But many Americans still see it as essentially a footnote, an exception to a dominant narrative of the expansion of liberty on this continent. If the various elements of “The Half Has Never Been Told” are not entirely pulled together, its underlying argument is persuasive: Slavery was essential to American development and, indeed, to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.

Reading this review again reminded me of another book review. It was easy to find, although it was published eight years ago. Janet Maslin wrote the review. The book was Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II. Maslin says it’s a corrective for those who think slavery ended with the Civil War:

[The author] is not simply referring to the virtual bondage of black sharecroppers unable to extricate themselves economically from farming. He describes free men and women forced into industrial servitude, bound by chains, faced with subhuman living conditions and subject to physical torture. That plight was horrific. But until 1951, it was not outside the law.

All it took was anything remotely resembling a crime. Bastardy, gambling, changing employers without permission, false pretense, “selling cotton after sunset”: these were all grounds for arrest in rural Alabama by 1890. And as Mr. Blackmon explains in describing incident after incident, an arrest could mean a steep fine. If the accused could not pay this debt, he or she might be imprisoned.

Alabama was among the Southern states that profitably leased convicts to private businesses. As the book illustrates, arrest rates and the labor needs of local businesses could conveniently be made to dovetail. For the coal, lumber, turpentine, brick, steel and other interests described here, a steady stream of workers amounted to a cheap source of fuel.

It’s hard not to think of contemporary practices that mimic the “pushing system” or the cruel exploitation of prison labor. Today, we read about corporations like Amazon that set ever-increasing production quotas. If you don’t meet your quota, you’re fired. If you do meet your quota, you’re quota goes up. Then there’s the way towns and cities like Ferguson rely on fines for their funding. If you can’t pay your fine or miss your court date, you’re hit with a bigger fine or thrown in jail. And, of course, we now have a huge prison-industrial complex that’s devoted to mass incarceration as a way to lower the unemployment rate while increasing corporate income.

After writing the above, I looked at another bookmark. It was to a New York Times interview with someone who isn’t quoted very often in newspapers like the Times or on television: Noam Chomsky. I’d forgotten that he cites both The Half Has Never Been Told and Slavery By Another Name. His subject is “the roots of American racism”:

There is … a common variant of what has sometimes been called “intentional ignorance” of what it is inconvenient to know: “Yes, bad things happened in the past, but let us put all of that behind us and march on to a glorious future, all sharing equally in the rights and opportunities of citizenry.” The appalling statistics of today’s circumstances of African-American life can be confronted by other bitter residues of a shameful past, laments about black cultural inferiority, or worse, forgetting how our wealth and privilege was created in no small part by the centuries of torture and degradation of which we are the beneficiaries and they remain the victims….

Jefferson, to his credit, at least recognized that the slavery in which he participated was “the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” And the Jefferson Memorial in Washington displays his words that “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Words that should stand in our consciousness alongside of John Quincy Adams’s reflections on the parallel founding crime over centuries, the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty…among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgment.”

The entire interview is here.

Sherman and Sheridan on War

General William Tecumseh Sherman is now famous for two things: “marching through Georgia” and his statement that “war is hell”. Sherman led 95,000 men into Georgia in the spring of 1864. A year later, having fought their way to the Atlantic Ocean and then north through South Carolina, Sherman and his troops were in North Carolina when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Later that month (after the assassination of President Lincoln), Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered to Sherman and the Civil War was finally over.

From Wikipedia: “Sherman’s bold move of operating deep within enemy territory and without supply lines is considered to be revolutionary in the annals of war….British military historian B. H. Liddell Hart famously declared that Sherman was ‘the first modern general'”.

Sherman’s goal was to end the war by destroying the South’s ability and desire to keep fighting, not by targeting the civilian population directly but by destroying as much crucial infrastructure as possible. From what I’ve read, he didn’t order the wholesale destruction of food supplies. Nevertheless, having his army “live off the land” had the same practical effect. Sherman understood the severity of his actions. This is from a letter he wrote to his wife In March 1864:

It is enough to make the whole world start at the awful amount of death and destruction…Daily for the last two months has the work progressed and I see no signs of a remission till one or both or all the armies are destroyed…I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash – and it may be well that we become so hardened [320].

In September, after ordering the evacuation of Atlanta, he responded to complaints:

My orders are not designed to meet the humanities of the case, but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions, yea hundreds of millions, of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest. We must have peace not in in Atlanta but in all America. You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war on our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out….You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride [339].

One of Sherman’s comrades, General Philip Sheridan, who led his own “scorched earth” campaign through the Shenandoah Valley, explained his actions this way:

The stores of meat and grain that the valley provided, and the men it furnished for Lee’s depleted regiments, were the strongest auxiliaries he possessed in the whole insurgent action….I do not hold war to mean simply that lines of men shall engage each other in battle, and material interests be ignored. This is but a duel, in which one combatant seeks the other’s life; war means much more, and is far worse than this.

Those who rest at home in peace and plenty see but little of the horrors attending such a duel, and even grow indifferent to them as the struggle goes on, contenting themselves with encouraging all who are able-bodied to enlist in the cause, to fill up the shattered ranks as death thins them. It is another matter, however, when deprivation and suffering are brought to their own doors. Then the case appears much graver, for the loss of property weighs heavily with the most of mankind – heavier, often, than the sacrifices made on the field of battle. Death is popularly considered the maximum of punishment in war, but it is not; reduction to poverty brings prayers for peace more surely and more quickly than does the destruction of human life [327].

A century later, the Geneva Conventions were modified to include the following prohibition:

It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.

For any other motive, including ending a war.

A brief note: Grant and Sherman thought highly of General Johnston, one of their Southern adversaries. After the war, the three were close friends, and Johnston was a pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral. (The page references above are to The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H. W. Brands.)

There is a great collection of quotes from Sherman here, including these extremely prescient remarks he is said to have made in Louisiana before the war:

You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing!

You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors. You are bound to fail.