The Contemporary Condition

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Quiet American

Steven Johnston
is author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

American Sniper has racked up $500 million in global receipts, including over $100 million overseas. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor, and it won for best sound editing. American Sniper has also generated impassioned debate to match its half a billion dollar sales. An article from The Guardian is titled, “The real American sniper was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?The New Republic published a piece that stated, “The Real ‘American Sniper’ Had No Remorse About the Iraqis He Killed.” Salon disclosed what it called “7 heinous lies ‘American Sniper’ is telling America.” These responses appear mild by comparison to many other reviews found on the Internet. The film is not without its admirers, of course. A.O. Scott in The New York Times praises much about the film (it is almost a great movie), though he also expresses serious reservations—which he doesn’t care to develop or emphasize. Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post argues that the divergent reactions the film has engendered testify to its quality as a film.

What made American Sniper the highest grossing film of 2014 as well as the highest grossing war movie ever made, surpassing Steven Spielberg’s romantic war porn epic Saving Private Ryan? Many Americans love to affix yellow ribbons to their cars and hang flags from their houses; the same faux sacrificial gesture leads them to buy movie tickets to support their troops. But Eastwood did something American audiences desperately wanted in a contemporary war film of a violent unstable world they do not understand and cannot abide. He enacted an America that takes for granted its essential, unquestioned goodness. This is not to deny that Eastwood folds a bit of moral nuance into the film, especially through Chris Kyle’s cinematic double (Bradley Cooper). Eastwood’s departures from Kyle’s memoir, a fairly basic Hollywood whitewashing, were necessary to make the idea of a movie based on Kyle’s service palatable. No one wants to watch a war movie about a racist psychopath. Yet Eastwood’s introduction of minimal moral complexity serves a much greater political master, American thoughtlessness, which is one key to the maintenance of America’s national self-conception, its way of life, and self-assigned role in the world.

The film opens with Kyle on the roof of a building in an Iraqi city providing protection for American troops on the streets below. In a post-apocalyptic landscape, what appear to be a mother and son emerge from a building in the path of slowly advancing American forces. She looks suspicious to Kyle and he is right. She is concealing a grenade which she hands to her son who then makes a move toward Kyle’s comrades. He has no hope of success whether or not Kyle is watching. Nevertheless, Kyle drops him. The mother picks up the grenade and Kyle drops her, too. These kills impress Kyle’s bodyguard, but not Kyle. He wants no plaudits for what he’s just done. This is his duty, his profession. He’s supposed to be good at it. Circumstances alone dictate how his skills will be deployed. Kyle’s modesty, moreover, enables American audiences to take undue pride in what he does. Throughout the film, Kyle merely tolerates the praise that he generates and the reputation he earns. His nickname, the Legend, does not seem to please him very much. Again, the more he seems unimpressed, the more an American audience will insist that he is a true American hero. He saves American lives. No criticism can trump that brute fact. Of course, German snipers protected their own soldiers during World War II in the foreign cities the Wehrmacht invaded and conquered and they don’t tend to be subjects of admiration, as far as I know.

Yet American Sniper has touched a (raw) nerve in American audiences. We are effectively forced to see Iraq through Chris Kyle’s apparent God’s-eye view. Without warning we find ourselves thrown onto a rooftop looking through his sniper scope. The spatially superior position mimics and reinforces the moral superiority we (Americans) feel. The scope also induces a sense of claustrophobia. This is unlike Apocalypse Now, which folds dissonance into the operatic assault that launches the film when the eye of the helicopters joined to Wagner’s “Die Walküre” is punctuated by another view of the villagers as the attack is about to commence. Coppola disconcerts: are we appalled by a thrilling attack or thrilled by an appalling attack?  In American Sniper the world seen through the rifle scope is reduced to a simple matter of life or death, where violence must be employed for good (for life, for American life). A split second before Kyle registers his first kill shot, Eastwood pauses to offer Chris’s backstory. The interruption feels interminable. We know we’re being manipulated. American troops are in mortal danger. We want the war to continue. We want him to pull the trigger—now. We feel the urgent necessity of violence. Eastwood has seized hold of us at a visceral level, no matter what we think of the war.

Since Kyle is credited with 160 kills, we know what’s coming next. But Eastwood makes us experience it right along with Kyle—often as Kyle. We see what he sees. We hear what he hears. We breathe when he breathes. We’re calm if he’s calm. We’re tense if he’s tense. We decide as he decides. We kill as he kills. Eastwood draws us in cinematically, forcing us to identify with Kyle. He also forces us to react. We anticipate Kyle’s kill shots. In his baptism of fire, having killed the son, we can’t believe he hasn’t shot the mother already. What is he waiting for? Shoot! She actually manages to throw the grenade in the direction of American troops. That was (too) close. He’d better do better next time, we say to ourselves. To make sure of it, as he watches over American troops, we watch over him. The film is called American Sniper, after all. It refers to Kyle, but only to Kyle?

Either way, one function of the opening scene is to disclose the tactics to which the enemy resorts. It’s matched by a later scene of the Butcher, a resistance leader fighting American occupation, disciplining with a power drill Iraqis who collaborate with the invaders. What kind of upside down world has America entered? What kind of people does these things to their own? Kyle refers to Iraqis as savages and speaks of the evil he sees. Kyle tolerates no criticism of America, of the occupation, of his commitment to his calling and saving American lives, including from his wife. He even blames one fellow soldier’s death on a letter he wrote home that was dubious of the American war.  Kyle’s narcissistic callousness is so profound that he routinely talks to his wife while in combat, a sadistic habit that on more than one occasion leaves her wondering whether she’s listening to his death, especially when he’s unable to respond to her pleas to know what’s happening and if he’s alright. He is an unthinking patriot. His shallowness poses no problem, however, because he is right. America is the greatest country in the world. What we do is justified because we decided to do it, anywhere in the world. Do you actually need to think to reach these self-evident positions? Indeed, thought might get in the way and complicate things. Chris Kyle is one degree separated from Forrest Gump.

Kyle served four tours in Iraq out of a burning hatred for a world that does not recognize, let alone appreciate, American exceptionalism. While the bombings of American embassies in eastern Africa in the 1ate 1990s may have triggered Kyle’s enlistment, the September 11 attacks on the United States extracted a more visceral reaction from him. Having just learned the news, while his wife is in tears, he stares at the television screen—not unmoved but enraged, no doubt thinking that someone has to answer for these attacks on America. He will make sure of it. Kyle is the right man for the job. He has been hunting and killing living creatures since he was a young boy with his father unmoved by the taking of life. His father divides the world into three: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. He insists that his son be a sheepdog, a protector, but he has raised a wolf, a predator. Does the military make him a serial killer? Or does the killer in him find a home in the military? A moment of undecidability in the film.

What does seem certain is that the likes of Chris Kyle make it possible for the United States to fight imperial wars, which means that the putative warrior class to which he aspires does not serve American democracy but routinely endangers and compromises it. Not only do they unthinkingly serve their imperial overlords; they also reflexively support them at the ballot box to keep them in office and in position to wage their wars. The true democratic heroes of this era were those young people like Ehren Watada, who refused to serve in Iraq and risked court martial and jail as a result. As William James once remarked, it doesn’t take much to rush into battle and kill when you are joined by tens of thousands of others hell-bent on doing exactly the same thing. Refusing to join the military herd and participate in its depredations, on the other hand, is a genuine act of civic courage, perhaps one that a democracy should value above all others.

Not Eastwood, though. The American military has been assigned a task, perhaps an impossible one, and it will execute it to the best of its ability. If it finds itself in distant urban wastelands, don’t ask how it is that cities have been emptied in the wake of America’s liberation. It doesn’t matter. Eastwood focuses the narrative on narrowly defined missions—clear Iraqi cities of murderous fanatics house by house and kill them; locate the Butcher, an al-Qaeda in Iraq leader of those fanatics, and kill him; hunt Mustafa, Kyle’s rival superhero sniper hunting American soldiers, and kill him, too—the war is reduced (and distorted) to simple, immediate terms: us or them. In this context, Kyle represents American military power and efficiency on full display. Thanks to several tense battle scenes, America can let itself believe it is winning a war it should not have waged in the first place and “concluded” disastrously. And even though American forces suffer some horrific casualties, they succeed in their assignments and, in Kyle’s last, most daring and dangerous mission, escape in the nick of time. It has all the characteristics of a classic western with a reluctant hero.

Like John McCain in Vietnam, however, Chris Kyle in Iraq is no hero. He can’t be. The illegality and illegitimacy of the Iraq aggression won’t allow it. But Eastwood’s film is structured to allow American audiences to reach that conclusion anyway at a visceral level. One veteran who runs into Kyle in Texas thanks him for saving his life and makes a point of telling Kyle’s son that his father is a hero. Once again, Kyle is uncomfortable with any such praise. This only means the audience has to do the work of accepting it for him, which Eastwood arranges. On his last tour he is once again faced with the prospect of shooting a young boy, this one perhaps only 6 or 7 years old. That he does not have to impose the penalty of death to which all Iraqi males have been tentatively sentenced on another child provides him with a deep sense of relief. The war has taken its toll on him and he is no longer capable of fighting it. Nor is he comfortable with what he has had to do to win it, his bluster to the contrary notwithstanding. We have to do terrible things to protect our country and those who defend it, but we suffer moral loss in having to do them. American goodness shines through even heinous actions. American Sniper thus approaches a limited grandeur and simultaneously sabotages it. Perhaps most important of all, accordingly, whatever damage war does to the people who fight it, they soon recover, as Chris Kyle did. Having shown signs of PTSD, they soon disappear as he spends time with other vets who revel in his mere presence. They heal each other. Thus, neither the country nor its mercenaries have to live very long with the consequences of their morally problematic actions. Any sense of moral loss is temporary, which is not how moral loss works. The film plays with moral complexity but ultimately privileges comforting resolutions, that is, thoughtlessness.

Would it occur to American audiences that Kyle’s beloved country had laid waste to a sovereign nation for no good reason, that it put him in a position to murder mothers and sons and treat it as self-defense? Would it occur to an American audience that Kyle’s first victims were right to do whatever they could to resist and inflict damage on the foreign army that occupies but cannot conquer their country? Would it occur to an American audience that while Chris Kyle may be protecting his fellow soldiers he is also an active participant in a sequence of war crimes against the Iraqi people for which he will pay a price but not those who sent him there? Would it occur to an American audience, accordingly, that they are on the wrong side and “rooting” for the villains, that Mustafa is the real anti-hero of American Sniper? What do the numbers say?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Naomi Klein: In The Eye of the Anthropocene

William E. Connolly
Author, The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, Democratic Activism.

“The truth is that this is the hardest book I have ever written.” (Klein, p26)

Naomi Klein, in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014), knows that climate change is an eerie thing. To engage it deeply is to rethink a set of engrained categories organized around subjects and objects, culture and nature, capitalism and communism, and the trajectory of time itself. So we often try not to think about it. On the other hand, discernible changes in arctic glacier flows, inedible fish, rising global temperatures, depleted coral reefs, floods in low lying islands and cities, ocean acidification, rapid species extinctions, and extreme weather events draw us back to the issue. So many people go back and forth.  To and fro.
 That was the yo yo logic Naomi Klein followed, too, until a few years ago.  Near the end of the book she reviews struggles she went through to conceive and bear a child.  After various medical strategies failed she talked with some naturalists. She then retreated from the rigors of air travel for a while, spent more time in western Canada away from a hectic Toronto life, hiked a lot, and altered her diet. A pregnancy followed that was carried to term, though she does not guarantee the life regime changes were the cause. Nonetheless, now she folds the outer ecology of life more intimately into its inner quality. She also thinks about the future facing her two year old son.   
Klein does not, at least on a charitable reading, tether attachment to the future to a universal, reproductive logic. Rather, this is the way her own attachments crystallized to make climate change THE topic to pursue. Numerous singles and couples build rich lives without children. We are nonetheless variously tethered to the future through the things we build, the houses we repair, the students we teach, the writing we undertake, the communities we support, the labor unions we sustain, the churches we attend, and the movements that vitalize us.  The dilemma is that the extractive system in which we participate is now based upon a future that is self-destructing. It rings increasingly hollow to many who carry out its role imperatives. The danger is that many respond to this bind with aggressive denial, insistent withdrawal, or even the back and forth logic that plagued Klein until recently. Klein’s project is to intensify our ties to a possible future at odds with the one the extractive culture is building. 
Advanced capitalism generates innumerable pressures, ambitions, compensatory  consumption desires, and temptations to delay, resist or deny pursuit of such critical attachments.  Cynicism, withdrawal, opportunism and aggressive denial are merely four of its temptations.  But Klein’s wager is that, once we connect the future trajectory actually underway to the climate induced shocks we increasingly face, the disparate social movements now in play may expand to transform our condition. You encounter a new event--a severe flood, a storm that floods the city, a fracking corporation rumbling into your neighborhood, an oil pipeline projected for your area, water bubbling up from storm pipes onto streets, a devastating hurricane that breaks through flimsy bulwarks built for another era. Now you become ready to rethink and connect. 
This is a critique of the way late capitalism assaults human ecology, and more besides. For, as she says, Soviet communism also spawned a huge extraction and emission machine before it collapsed, generating more per capita CO2 emissions than several capitalist states. And Mao Zedong insisted that "man must conquer nature". Moreover, some capitalist states---e.g., Germany, with its recent drive to renewable energy—secrete far lower CO2 emissions than others—e.g., the United States and China. Yes, the trajectory of climate change is entangled today above all with neoliberal capitalism. But it is also tied to compensatory modes of consumption not entirely reducible to that source, to specific religious traditions, and to a powerful drive since at least the time of Francis Bacon to treat nature as a deposit of resources for human mastery and exploitation. It is important neither to give short shrift to the primacy of neoliberal capitalism nor to ignore other forces with some degree of autonomy that contribute to this drive. 
In chapter One Klein argues that climate deniers are right about one thing: If the climate science is accepted and we respond adequately, radical changes must be made in the neoliberal organization of life. That truth, indeed, is a key source of denialism among many neoliberals, Fox talking heads, and corporate chiefs.  The deniers say that the changes proposed would subject the free market to extensive regulation, that taxes for the rich would soar, that the basic structure of consumption would change. They are correct on all counts. The thing they are wrong about is the repeated assertion that an impersonal organization of capitalist markets ensures impersonal rationality---each new meltdown disproves that assumption.  Klein could do a bit more to show how changes in the infrastructure and ethos of consumption are closely linked. For when you move from the state and corporate mandated infrastructure of hi-tech medical care, private health insurance, massive road construction for auto and truck travel, and a fossil fuel energy grid you can also move toward an infrastructure that is more ecological, inclusive and egalitarian.  Such changes, in turn, make it more possible for people to alter the ethos of consumption in which they participate, so that a positive spiral between ethos and infrastructure is set into motion.   

Early in the book Klein fastens our attention on the small island of Nauru in the South Pacific. It was a beautiful little gem before, first, guano hunters dug out its center, second, ocean acidification decimated sea life in the area, third, rising sea levels began to reduce its size from the outside, and, finally, it was deployed by Australia as an outpost for concentration camps to imprison boat refugees from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Pakistan seeking to escape war-torn areas.
Nauru has been destroyed from inside out and outside in. It is simultaneously a sad reality and a powerful metaphor: “the lesson Nauru has to teach us is not only about the dangers of fossil fuel emissions.  It is about the mentality that allows so many of us, and our ancestors, to believe that we could relate to the earth with such violence in the first place—to dig and drill out the substances we desired while thinking little of the trash left behind...This carelessness is at the core of an economic model some political scientists call extractivism… Extractivism is a nonreciprocal dominance based relationship with the earth, one purely of the taking.  It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continue. “ (p.169) Here, as at other junctures, Klein folds care for the future into detailed engagement with a specific situation. The power of this text, to my ear, thus exceeds that of her earlier work on capitalism, useful as that was. As she analyzes each situation we feel visceral dispositions within us begin to ripple.   

Klein offers excellent reasons why big, high-tech climate fixes are dangerous, even as she reports how (and why) large corporations, politicians, and moderate think-tanks favor such fixes. She also reviews how, in the 1980s and '90s, several leading environmental groups lost their way by becoming closely tied to the “market solutions” the corporate world was prepared to fund and entertain. Though she does not note it even a critic of neoliberal avoidism such as Paul Krugman is too closely linked to market solutions than to more radical changes in production and consumption priorities. This part of the book is effective stuff, if familiar to some degree in other books, such as Clive Hamilton’s Earthmasters
 The most compelling chapter to me is chapter 9. It is entitled “Blockadia: The New Climate Warriors”. Here Klein engages locals on the ground at numerous sites who pierce through old market schemes and advertising strategies as they mount protest movements. “Blockadia” is in fact a floating collection of movements popping up whenever open pit mines, fracking, or tar sands pipelines are in the works. These movements expose and contest the latest stage of extractive capitalism. As we roll through such movements in Greece, Nigeria, New Brunswick, Ithaca, Manchester, New South Wales, Inner Mongolia, Oregon, Alberta, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota, as we encounter urban and suburban protesters, indigenous activists, and academics exposing and contesting false promises, health hazards, refinery explosions, aquifer damage, river pollution and soaring C02 emissions, the sense of a burgeoning cross-territorial constellation begins to crystallize. Klein helps us to discern how a series of disparate movements could begin to merge into a larger constellation, how each provides ammunition, tactical insight, publicity, and moral support to the others.
  She also shows how academic research, exposing accidents, effects and dangers that states and extractive companies cover up, have become more active in some of the very areas now under attack. Research into toxic effects by geologists and others at Cornell provides a case in point. It was probably spurred by a fracking campaign close to home in central New York State. Here is Klein: “The various toxic threats these communities are up against seem to be awakening impulses that are universal, even primal—whether it is the fierce drive to protect children from harm, or a deep connection to the land that had previously been suppressed... Social media in particular has allowed geographically isolated communities to tell their stories to the world, and for those stories, in turn, to become part of a transnational narrative about resistance to a common ecological crisis.” (p.303) 
Klein could have talked about the “blowback”-- those ugly practices of "pacification" traditionally farmed out to colonies by imperial states and then brought back to control urban minorities at home. Here, blowback takes the form of destructive extractive practices previously hidden in places that elites, liberals, and innocent citizens could ignore. Blowback now means that the "center" and the "periphery" are merging as extractive industries move into previously protected territory.  

I hope it is clear how impressed I am with this study. That is not to say that the book is entirely sufficient to the huge task it sets itself. I will list a few things that might extend Klein's work, in the spirit of augmentation. 
First, to understand why the United States is an outlier among the older capitalist states, it is important to grasp how neoliberalism in this country has been bolstered by angry energy emanating from the right edge of evangelicalism.  The "tea party" is not a new thing, despite media suggestions. The “evangelical/capitalist resonance machine”, as I call it, has been active for at least four decades. Its two entangled constituencies—neoliberals and evangelicals—intensify the worst in each other. This constellation is thus not well understood by those who think the explanation of economic life must invoke economic factors alone. In this machine neoliberals demand market deregulation in pursuit of power, privilege and ideological hegemony. 
The right edge of the evangelical movement, on the other hand, is insulted by the very assertion that human economic activity could change something in (nonhuman) nature that God has created such as climate. And several of its leaders now invest the providential hand of God in the operation of capitalist markets. The two constituents together thus intensify opposition to exactly the things egalitarians and ecologists care about most. As I have written in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, evangelism and neoliberalism resonate together… [they] are bound by similar orientations to the future. One party discounts its responsibilities to the future of the earth to vindicate extreme economic entitlement now, while the other does so to prepare for the day of judgment against nonbelievers. These electrical charges resonate back and forth, generating a political machine much more potent than the aggregation of its parts. (48-9). What’s more, their combined strength in southern and western states gives  climate denialism impressive power in Congress. To overcome this reactionary resonance machine a pluralist assemblage of workers, professionals, farmers, minorities, nontheists and church/temple/mosque devotees of several types is needed. 
Second, Klein is correct in saying that an accumulation of role changes by individuals and groups cannot resolve the climate crisis.  Rapid changes in state supported renewable energy, the infrastructure of consumption, and the structure of taxation, etc. are needed, as she shows.  But the truth of this point may encourage her to underplay another. As people adopt new practices--buying used clothes and furniture from volunteer organizations, dropping the use of lawn pesticides, bringing new speakers to their church, trading bikes, buses or zip cars for cars, using trains whenever possible, supporting local pressure to reform garbage and waste collection, installing solar panels if they can afford to do so, writing and publicizing eco-centered blogs, joining community gardens in the city, teaching new courses, supporting eco-concerns in their labor unions, and so on endlessly--the cumulative result does not only improve things modestly. It connects participants as constituencies, and it works on the subterranean dispositions and inclinations of the experimenters themselves.  It prepares us to heed new climate events and to support larger pressures to restructure the economy.    

Third, while Klein digs into the details of how corporate practices impinge upon climate, she avoids exploration of the partially self-organizing processes of climate, ocean currents, species evolution, cross-species disease transmission, wetlands, and glacier flows themselves.  It is indispensable to join her work to studies doing exactly that, as for example Fred Pearce starts to do in With Speed and Violence. Then we will understand how melting glaciers become self-amplifying as the enlarged amount of open water absorbs more heat rather than reflecting it; we will grasp how the West Antarctic Shelf responds to human induced triggers with its own amplifiers that greatly exceed the effect of these triggers. We will deepen our insights into how triggers, amplifiers, and tipping points work and how they intersect with capitalist extraction, pollution and emissions.  “[The] dampening of destructive elements” in self-organizing systems, I have written, “requires self-reflective intervention by the human uses of that system. You can call the latter a self-conscious regulation of the system needed when its self-organization creates dangerous or exploitive results” (The Fragility of Things, 83). 
We may also begin to work more actively on those nature/culture and subject/object dualities that helped to blind so many scholars to the Anthropocene until so late in the twentieth century.  If sociocentrism is the attempt to explain political economy through categories that give too much autonomy to social forces such as profit, or relations of production, or markets , or state practices, or preference schedules, or some combination of these, critical studies today must mix accounts of planetary, nonhuman systems with active self-organizing powers of their own into accounts of capitalism. And vice versa. To the extent climate change involves planetary forces with partial self-organizing capacities, sociocentrism in the human sciences and cultural internalism in the humanities must be revised significantly. That is one of the reasons I am drawn to the theme of the Anthropocene—the 200 year period when industrial emissions have helped to reshape climate. Supported by many geologists and climatologists, it explains both how climate, ocean currents, and glaciers periodically went through rather rapid changes before modern economies were founded and how today emission and pollution triggers emanating from neoliberal capitalism galvanize natural amplifiers that exceed the force of those triggers.  
Finally, the bracing account of diverse anti-extraction movements that Klein provides may encourage us to project a cross-country beacon that could draw them together. In the near future it is both urgently needed and perhaps possible to organize a cross-country general strike to place pressure on states, corporations, unions, churches, banks, universities, and localities from the inside and outside simultaneously, pressing all of them to take rapid action to reorganize the economies of extraction, production, consumption, and finance.  I have explored such a need and possibility in a couple of posts in The Contemporary Condition. (my Latour piece and the Obama Swarming piece). The idea may also grow organically out of the accumulated movements Klein supports. Such an action would speak to the planetary condition and urgency of today. 
Each of these points, I believe, is consonant with the spirit of Klein’s endeavor; none detracts from its analytical power or inspirational force. Indeed, This Changes Everything is an exemplary study, informing and illuminating us as it jostles the molecular habits that help to define us. Perhaps, then, it is appropriate to allow Klein the last word: "When I started this journey, most of the resistance movements standing in the way of the fossil fuel frenzy either did not exist or were a fraction of their current size. All were significantly more isolated from one another that they are today...Most of us had never heard of fracking... All of this has changed so rapidly as I have been writing that I have had to race to keep up… In these existing and nascent movements we now have clear glimpses of the kind of dedication and imagination demanded of everyone who is alive and breathing during climate change's 'decade zero'." (pp. 451-452)

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Other War’s Casualties: Drug War’s Innocent Victims

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.

The “War on Drugs” is doing as well as the war on terror. Just as the latter inflicts massive damage on innocent civilians, creates fertile ground for enemy recruiters, and even provides the arms that are then turned again US soldiers, the former takes its own innocent victims. It exacerbates the consequences of dangerous drugs by turning a chronic disease into a crime. The Sentencing Project reports: “Sentencing policies brought about by the "war on drugs" resulted in a dramatic growth in incarceration for drug offenses. At the Federal level, prisoners incarcerated on a drug charge comprise half of the prison population, while the number of drug offenders in state prisons has increased thirteen-fold since 1980. Most of these people are not high-level actors in the drug trade, and most have no prior criminal record for a violent offense.” 

Efforts to stamp out the supply side—as in programs to eradicate the crop abroad or target big pushers and organized crime here have been equally unavailing. Increases in the market price of heroin only bring more entrepreneurs into the market. Decriminalization would probably reduce the criminality and violence associated with the drug trade today, as Milton Friedman among others argued. Nonetheless, unregulated markets will not resolve the issue. Today food and petrochemical giants gain by promoting dangerous and addictive substances and then profit even more by marketing “cures.” Nor do markets measure the high costs of chronic diseases not only to the individual but also to families and colleagues.   

The contradictions and moral inconsistencies in the drug war are manifest. Dr. Steven Kassels, Medical Director of Community Substance Abuse Centers and author of the medical-legal mystery thriller Addiction on Trial: Tragedy in Downeast Maine, points out that heroin addiction is analogous in many fundamental ways to type 2 diabetes or to smoking. Diabetes has a genetic component, but is exacerbated by poor habits, including food and exercise choices.  In addition “alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, and heroin all create their effects through the same common pathway…The same medication, called naltrexone, is used to curb the craving effects of both alcohol and heroin.” Will power alone, whatever that is, is often equally unavailing against all of these addictions. A physician in Kassels’ novel asks his audience to close their eyes and contemplate only their own breathing for sixty seconds. If they are not able to purge all thoughts—and most are not—“you know the struggles of addiction. It is not mind over matter.”

Though heroin’s fatal victims are unacceptably high—more than are killed in auto accidents in many states—smoking and diabetes take even more. Nonetheless we do not generally characterize smokers like Dick Cheney as “nicotine addicts.” And though we tax their habits we do not jail them. Those fortunate enough to have health insurance are offered programs to help them withdraw from their addictions and alter their lifestyles.

We pay for these moral and medical inconsistencies not only with lives but also with our pocketbooks. Incarcerating one patient costs more than $50,000 a year as compared to $5,000 for outpatient treatment. As Kassels puts in in an op ed in the Bangor Daily News: “Expanded access and funding for treatment makes fiscal sense, regardless of whether we believe addiction is a disease or a weakness of moral character…. putting more “addicts” in jail may make us feel good in the short term but does not solve the problem.”

Part of the power of Kassel’s novel lies in the way he gets at the question of just why social policy persists in these morally questionable and fiscally costly contradictions. The criminality of a drug is determined in part by who is—or is purported to be—the prime user of the drug. In coastal Maine as in many rural and suburban communities, heroin is perceived as an “inner city” drug, with all the racial and economic baggage that term carries. Thus in Kassel’s novel, the character accused of murder in the Maine coastal village bears the twin stigma of being “from away” and, falsely, having introduced heroin into this purportedly pristine community. 

In this context, I worry that for some citizens, putting addicts in jail may do more than make them feel good in the short term. It may serve deeply entrenched identity needs. Economic arguments, though important and persuasive to some, may not always prevail. For others, jailing the heroin abuser as a uniquely evil moral reprobate is part of affirming a strongly held coastal Maine collective and individual identity, that of a hard working, sober, self-sufficient community of citizens and workers. Treating outsiders and drugs associated rightly or wrongly with them as uniquely dangerous threats to the community may help repress inner doubts about the sacrifices one made to sustain that identity, its staying power in a world of rapid global change, or deviant desires one may himself have harbored. 

This sort of harsh moralism sustains and in turn is sustained by Americans’ sense that they are a special people. As Brown University political theorist James Morone puts it in Hellfire Nation, early Puritans came to a new world to escape the persecution of the Old World, to build a church and society in direct contact with God. Yet paradoxically in a land where all save the Native Americans were from far away and where no one was persecuted, it became hard to build and sustain a coherent identity. Persecution in England also had left the Puritans all the more determined to establish a direct relationship with and dependence on their God and to regard all that differed from that mindset as not merely different but evil. “The Puritans groped back to the tried and true—they found terrible new enemies to define them. The saints constructed their us against a vivid series of immoral them: heretics, Indians, witches. Each enemy clarified the Puritan identity."

This existential dimension of drug politics is well illustrated in the different treatment of powder and crack cocaine, where powder, the favorite of the stock broker set, historically has been treated far more lightly than crack, culturally associated with violent inner city minorities. Drug regulation reflects less the power of the drug and more the political power and prestige of those who are doing the regulation. 

Overcoming this resistance is difficult, but probably has to include narratives and policies that address the anxieties and self- hatred of the moralizers. Kassels’ emphasis on how drug use cuts across all strata of society and his vivid portrait of the havoc it inflicts even on the lives of the respected and affluent deeply committed to overcoming their illness is an especially useful point in countering the demonization of citizens with dependency problems. I would add that drug policies cannot be easily dissociated from broader economic issues. A generous universal safety net, with Medicare for all, pension protection, shortening working hours, and employment guarantees might lessen anxieties, allow moralizers to be easier on themselves, and open up new possibilities of personal ad community life. Perhaps our politics would be marred by less resentment of all Medicaid recipients, especially those tarred with the triple stigmas of outsider, poverty, and “addiction.” 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Sea of Blue

Steven Johnston
is author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

Rafael Ramos’s December 27 funeral in Queens drew an estimated twenty to thirty thousand police officers—not only from the United States but also from abroad. Commissioner William J. Bratton referred to it as a sea of blue, and print and broadcast media across America followed suit. The image was no doubt meant to be awe-inspiring to the public at large, calming and reassuring to Ramos’s family. The image also signaled something else: a police show of force, an excessive, narcissistic show of force. Mourning rituals have a politics all their own. The police gathered in huge numbers to display solidarity—for Ramos and his family, for each other, for the very idea of police. They gathered to let the world know that the police own New York City and that they are different, that blue lives matter most because what they do is different from what anybody else does. That’s why Ramos was not just murdered but assassinated. He was assassinated because he was blue. This, according to Bratton, makes him a hero.
Bratton’s eulogy not only paid tribute to Ramos, then, it was also an exercise in institutional self-assertion. Bratton does not conceive of the police as a subordinate element of society, as an instrument of democracy that executes necessary assignments related to the coordination and cooperation of society, while the mainsprings of democratic life unfold elsewhere. He thinks of the police as the “foundation” of society. The police are “the blue thread” that holds things together in the face of anarchical forces that might otherwise tear them apart. The police are the condition of possibility of everything. That’s why there were twenty to thirty thousand cops in Queens. They wanted the rest of us, mere civilians, to know their place in the order of things.

Bratton, not surprisingly, holds politics in contempt. Early on in his eulogy, he told a short story about his first police funeral. It took place in Boston in 1970. Patrolman Walter Schroeder had been killed responding to a bank robbery. Bratton reminded his audience that America suffered from a great deal of tumult in 1970. He cited civil rights protests, anti-war activism, and anti-government and anti-police demonstrations. He cited “divisive politics” and a “polarized …city…and country.” “Maybe that sounds familiar,” Bratton remarked, as if to suggest that the conduct of democratic politics, especially an oppositional politics, leads invariably to violence. Bratton didn’t come right out and say it, of course, but he didn’t need to say it. He let his list of happenings cited do the work for him. Schroeder was “ambushed by a violent group of anti-war extremists.” Besides, he’d been more explicit a few days earlier—and received criticism for it. At the funeral he needed to be more circumspect. But make no mistake: politics killed Rafael Ramos and those who were—and remain—on the streets protesting the police are responsible. While Bratton ostensibly laments that people in America can’t see each other, he’s one of the reasons. His fear and loathing of democratic politics (and the citizens who enact it) as something illicit, something dangerous, something to be monitored, contained, cordoned off, administered, and sanitized contributes to the blindness.

Politics by the police themselves fall into a different category. At Ramos’s funeral, a sizeable number of attendees turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio when he spoke. It was a blatant display of contempt for the democratic figure who is also their boss. Civilian control of those who wear government uniforms and carry guns is a fundamental principle of democracy. It applies not just to the military but also to the police, who apparently like to think that they don’t have to answer to anyone. Ironically, in the aftermath of this protest, when its propriety was questioned, the grievance surfaced that police suffer from a lack of respect. This may or may not be true, but it misses a larger and more important point. What the police don’t seem to appreciate is that while they are a significant aspect of a democratic society, they are not an inherently valuable part of that society. They are a necessary evil, to borrow a well-known American expression about government. In other words, if we could do without the police we would gladly dispense with them. This is not true of other major institutions in American life, however, including one that police traditionally disparage: colleges and universities. Colleges and universities embody and enact (many of) the fundamental values of a democratic society. They are an end in and of themselves. The contributions they make are priceless and irreplaceable and we cannot—and would not want to—do without them.
What’s more, the police often present themselves as antagonistic to and destructive of the basic norms of democracy. This includes New York’s finest, who in recent years have racked up credit for herding, surveilling, and assaulting democratic citizens exercising their rights at the Republican National Convention in 2004, and attacking, dispersing, and destroying Occupy Wall Street encampments in 2011 (the latter formed part of a national campaign). In addition, they routinely erupt at even the slightest criticism, to say nothing of serious critique. Think of the venom top police officials unleashed at Bruce Springsteen in the wake of “American Skin (41 Shots).” If the police feel disrespected, perhaps that’s what they have earned, given how they represent and do the dirty work of society’s powerful interests or how they (mis)treat American citizens of color.
Last summer, Eric Garner was murdered by New York City police on Staten Island. He was black. These facts are connected. No charges were filed against those responsible, including the principal assailant, Daniel Pantaleo. In America, we have learned it’s nearly impossible to indict police for murdering American citizens, even when they do it repeatedly. In the last few years New York police have had several opportunities to prove to a skeptical public that they are not an institution with an intrinsically problematic relationship to democracy, that they take seriously the claim that their job is to serve and protect, that they understand that the foundation of America’s democracy is freedom—and thus politics. They could have refused to move against their fellow citizens in Zuccotti Park. Instead, they might have engaged in democratic civil disobedience to defend the rights of the people themselves, supposedly the ultimate objects of their concern. They might also have attended Eric Garner’s funeral. Where was the sea of blue for Mr. Garner? His execution represents a criminal failure of policing—not just in New York City but America (which holds true for Michael Brown and so many others). Why were the police not there en masse to take responsibility for their failure and to mourn his loss, because he, too, was one of their own?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Social Equality and the Afterlife of White Supremacy

Melvin L. Rogers
Associate Professor, Departments of Political Science and African American Studies
University of California, Los Angeles

“A society once expressly organized around white supremacist principles does not cease to be a white supremacist society simply by formally rejecting those principles.”
Kimberlé Crenshaw

The United States has witnessed an eruption of youth-led protests and demonstrations to police brutality against Black Americans. A simple formulation expresses their commitment: “Black Lives Matter.” But how precisely should we understand this utterance? What does it mean to convey? And what, if anything, does it tell us about the country in which it is uttered?

At a basic level, the formulation means precisely what it says, Black lives matter as much as all other lives. And yet the need to say these words tells us something important. The United States is structured so as to make clear that Black lives do not matter in the same way that other lives do. These three simple words highlight a fundamental distinction at the core of American life: the lives of Black Americans are devalued in relation to their white counterparts. White supremacy continues to distort America’s professed commitment to social equality. The racially fueled contexts in which Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and countless others have been killed throws into sharp relief, yet again, the way in which the past continues to haunt the present. We are not merely dealing with police officers that can kill with impunity, but with law enforcement agencies whose practices are framed by habits that treat whites as worthy of being served and protected, while Blacks are exempt from that same treatment.

I must immediately beg forgiveness.  I hear the critics say: “White supremacy, you say, but surely this is a misdescription?  Slavery has long since ended. Laws and statutes banished Jim Crow. Rights have been formally extended. We now have Black Americans in prominent positions of authority and power. The language of white supremacy appears to be inappropriate. The United States has changed.”

The problem with the criticism above is that it treats those practices—slavery, Jim Crow, and formal exclusion—as equal to white supremacy. With slavery ended, Jim Crow abolished, and rights extended, we can safely say white supremacy is no longer. But this confuses the matter. It treats specific instances of white supremacy as tantamount to its meaning.

And yet we have seen, since the founding of this country, that white supremacy refuses to be confined to any specific practice. It mutates, adapts, and evolves to frustrate efforts to see Black Americans as equals, finding a new life after the death of each of its recognizable forms. Consider the history. In the wake of Black Americans’ participation in the American Revolution, this nation witnessed a slow denial of their standing and contribution to the polity. As Alexander Keyssar documents in his magisterial book, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, Northern states such as New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania slowly began to rescind rights previously extended to Blacks, effectively joining their Southern counterparts in constructing a subclass of persons. Although the Civil War amendments sought to recognize the equal status of Blacks, that recognition was effectively denied by the ascendancy of debt peonage, economic exploitation, lynching, and Jim Crow. The Civil Rights movement killed Jim Crow, but the policing and subordination of Blacks was reconstituted through the rise of the carceral state [PDF], the underdeveloped welfare state, and unfunded public education system

To be sure, throughout each of these periods we have witnessed a positive, even if uneven, rearrangement of our political institutions, but those advances have been contained and constrained by a persistent and stable social inequality in which care and concern for Black Americans has been insufficiently extended. In paying exclusive attention to political equality as an indicator of racial advancements, we have ignored the social differential status of Blacks and the way in which that differential status highlights the afterlife of white supremacy. The recent police shootings of unarmed Black men that go unpunished are merely the visible display of a culture in which Back life is devalued and overexposed to violence. 

Although social equality is related to political equality, they are distinct. The latter is related to constitutional and legal rights and procedures that structure the basic institutions of society. Political equality thus gives all equal access to participate in the affairs of the state by granting specific rights, such as, the right to vote, contest elections, and speak out against the government. Political equality is essentially a defense against the abuses of others. Each historical extension of rights to Black Americans resulted because they were defenseless against their white counterparts. In this context, political equality assumes that there are persons from whom Black Americans need to be protected. Notice it leaves in place the danger; it takes that danger as a settled fact of being Black in America.

Despite their significance, political rights pale in comparison to the deeper acknowledgement that social equality represents— the sense that one is deserving of respect and concern. Respect is a way of paying proper attention to someone and is fundamentally relational. It acknowledges that one is worthy of recognition. Concern expresses one’s own anxieties about something, as in, “the appearance of the roof on the house concerns me.” But it also denotes something of significance for which one is responsible, as in, “homelessness is the concern of the city.”  

Herein lies the important difference between political equality and social equality. Whereas political equality protects us from being harmed by others, social equality is always about paying attention to, feeling for, and directing care toward persons. This is precisely what the “Black Lives Matter” mantra seeks to capture. And yet it is the extension of social equality that white supremacy prevents precisely because its logic refuses to equalize the fundamental worth of Black and white life. As we have seen in the recent death of Michael Brown, to take one example, the consequence of this differential worth can be fatal.  White supremacy has remained steady throughout all of the presumed advances, it explains not only the differential functioning of law enforcement in the United States, but the inequalities in education, health care, and economic opportunities that place Black Americans beyond the reach of respect and concern.