Category: Society

Freedom From “Fear Porn”: In Defense of Cosmopolitan Elites, Polyglot Cultures, and Global Integration

Much has already been written about Donald Trump’s speech to the Polish people earlier today. This speech, written (presumably) by White House fear-mongers Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, adopts a dark and legitimately creepy Saruman-like vibe similar to Trump’s inaugural address. James Fallows commented on the shift in tone of this speech from famous (and infamous) addresses of previous presidents to foreign nations that optimistically emphasized shared ideals about the rule of law and the importance of inclusive legal concepts of fairness and justice, freedom of expression and religious toleration, as our final bulwark against the depredations of war and intolerance. By contrast, both Fallows and Bloomberg journalist Marc Champion noticed the insistent focus in the Trump speech on dark, exclusive and ominously tribal themes (and memes) of threat and danger, of European ethnic and Catholic-Christian religious identity imperiled by Islamic fanatics and cosmopolitan elites,  of the mystical communion of faith, family, tradition, and nation – the precepts of Judeo-Christian western civilization – renewed upon the mantle of a crusade against its foes.

Even the wacky libertarians at Mises Wire have today indirectly voiced their concerns about this blunt-force and mythologized vision of national unity. As Mises Wire editor Ryan McMaken emphasizes, however we may bemoan the painful divisions within our nation, the United States has never in any true sense been “one nation” united by a common religion, language, and culture. McMaken points to obvious fault-lines in national life that have organized and given shape to cultural conflict – between pre-Columbian inhabitants of north America and European settlers; between annexed Hispanic populations and European ranchers, farmers, and miners; between free-labor states and slave states; between industrial and agrarian populations; between polyglot immigrants and English-speaking natives; between established Protestant sects and insurgent religions (before Islam, there were rising populations of Catholics, Jews, and Mormons); between migrant African-Americans and settled European urban working-class enclaves.

Of course, the nation’s ability to absorb these cultural conflicts – which is the renewable source of our energy, strength, and resilience – could not be more opposed to the small-minded, tendentious, and self-enraptured vision of the Trump speech today in Warsaw. The Trump vision (which is of course really the vision of his “Steves”) owes far more to an infatuation with an idea of “Western Civilization” – based on primitive, medieval concepts of control, fidelity, allegiance and honor, and made relevant through transposition into the familiar (but empty) tropes of  “family, faith, and freedom,” and of  “small-town, traditional values.” Of course, anyone who has traveled through small-town and rural America will quickly disabuse themselves of the idea that escaping from decadent metropolitan fleshpots deposits us in a bucolic scene of chastity and virtue. Rural America sits on a decrepit tax base with fragile prospects for economic growth and greatly enfeebled institutions insufficient to support its aging, immobile populations and unable to provide the basis for the sort of flourishing of generations any culture requires.

Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon have latched on to the “clash of civilizations” meme as if the Christian West has in the most recent millennium never stopped being at war with neutered cosmopolitan elites and ululating Islamic hordes, In his fantastic book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, a controversial (in a good way) history of the exponential decline of violence over time, another Steve – Harvard polymath Steven Pinker – gives us a framework for thinking about the unhinged ignorance of Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon – and puts the lie to this idea that there is some kind of organic continuity between Catholic Europe in the the Middle Ages and Western Civilization in the 21st century.

Pinker’s book actually offers any number of angles for thinking about our current cultural conflicts, including a concise (although now somewhat dated) assessment of the more authentically and persistently “medieval” aspects of Islamic culture that allow unabashedly cruel and violent habits to persist, without reducing these practices to some essential “evil” within Islam itself. Pinker also invokes and dismisses the Samuel Huntington “clash of civilizations” argument that fuels the crusading militancy of the White House Steves.

But I would like to close by simply allowing Steven Pinker to pose some questions about the comparative iniquities and evils of city life and rural life captured by the demographic and political arc of “western civilization” in the past thousand years. For our purposes, the value of these questions is the extent to which they free our minds from what we might loosely call the “fear porn” so liberally peddled by the paleo wing of the Republican Party.

Do you think that city living, with its anonymity, crowding, immigrants, and jumble of cultures and classes, is a breeding ground for violence? What about the wrenching social changes brought on by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution? Is it your conviction that small-town life, centered on church, tradition, and fear of God, is our best bulwark against murder and mayhem? Well think again. As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer.


Thinking Hard About Racism in the United States

Harriet Tubman Series, Panel #4 (Jacob Lawrence, 1940)

Casual Racism

Bill Maher’s comedic use of the term “house nigger” inspired another round of hand-wringing about casual racism. In the aftermath, Ice Cube showed up on Real Time and offered a clear-eyed perspective on the situation. This is what Ice Cube said to Bill Maher. “It’s a word that has been used against us; it’s like a knife, man. And you can use it as a weapon, or you can use it as a tool. It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people, and we’re not gonna let that happen again…. That’s our word now. And you can’t have it back.” Which is fair enough. But without defending the casual and gratuitous use of incendiary racial language, I’m also thinking online brush fires that ignite when someone uses racially (in)sensitive language don’t really help us to think properly about racism. Indeed, these brush fires can become smoke screens that misdirect our attention from racism’s enduring (and decidedly non-casual) psychological and institutional foundations. Racism is not really about language, and is certainly not caused by language (we should not confuse casual with causal).

Autonomous Individuality

The underlying emotional and psychological dynamics that do cause, institutionalize, and perpetuate racism are incredibly complicated (see, for example, Joel Kovel’s fascinating and disturbing White Racism: A Psychohistory, with its echoes of Norman O. Brown, first published in 1971). Owning up to and eradicating the racially disparate and unjust outcomes in our society requires honesty and introspection that is very difficult to summon. We are simply not used to thinking about the deeper psychological and broader social sources of inequity and injustice. Instead, we default to rote images of the individual as autonomous agent, actor, and author of her life’s drama (a foundation concept in natural law moral philosophy). We default to conflated behavioral-linguistic perspectives on social change. That our words constitute (cause / determine) reality. While heuristically satisfying, this default approach to understanding and addressing our most pervasive and deeply rooted social problems, almost by definition, will fail because the concept of autonomous individuality itself is deeply flawed.

Brownian Motion

We are not our own islands (as Melville would have it, isolatoes). We live in a Brownian world, energized and propelled by random, colliding interactions at every level of our existence – environmental, biological, social, and personal. This Brownian perspective applies no less to the specific behaviors and speech acts of individual humans than it does to the collisions of various populations. As Walt Whitman wrote, “I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” We all constantly iterate and endlessly revise ourselves. We are all rough drafts. Works in progress. We say and do stuff that we later regret, and while it’s entirely appropriate to call bullshit when someone with a public profile messes up, the important result is not the punishment inflicted, but the lesson learned. The arc of one’s life, the direction, matters far more than specific speech acts, which from a Brownian perspective, actually do mostly constitute “noise” and not “signal”. At the same time, a Brownian perspective on how order and structure emerges from randomness, flux, chaos, and messiness can tell us a lot about how emotional responses to racial difference become reflexes that cement racist instincts into rigid social and political habits and institutions.

Grasping Complexity

We intuitively grasp this truth, that we are, in a sense, both less and greater than the sum our parts as individuals. Which is why so many people who probably actually are racist by even the loosest personal definition of the term (they spew racial epithets, eye with suspicion those who possess different skin color, instinctively assume other races receive preferential treatment that harms them) will still vehemently deny they are racist. While these people may generally accept the “autonomous individual” premises of Western traditions, they resist the implication that “racism” defines their own individuality in some essential way (even while they might be happy to assume others, from other group identities, are “essentially” flawed or marred or defective). They appreciate their own complexity, even as they may deny this complexity to others.

Life Outcomes

If the goal, then, is to reduce the impact of racism, we need to focus less on specific behaviors of individuals and more on life outcomes of groups. How does racism influence these life outcomes – family stability, emotional health, higher education, professional success, stable income, community status? What would a world in which racism less directly affected life outcomes look like? What is the best way to remove barriers and create openings for populations most directly and persistently harmed by racism? How would these methods account for the more complex and messy roots of racism? One approach would be to adopt explicitly public health and “population health” lenses to help us think more deeply and creatively about what it would mean to stall vicious cycles that perpetuate racism and its effects and set in motion virtuous cycles that would loosen the grip of concepts and constructs of race on society.

Population Health

A population health perspective can more fully and cleanly account for and absorb both the external “motional” patterns of groups (as they slide, glide, and collide in relation to each other), along with the internal “emotional” patterns of individuals within groups, that benefit from and are harmed by racism. “Population health” refers to a shift in focus from individual health outcomes and personal health determinants (e.g., diet, exercise, genetics) to the social determinants of health. The population health perspective defines health not merely as the absence of disease or infirmity for an individual, but as the measurable, collective capacities of people to “adapt to, respond to, or control life’s challenges and changes.” A major challenge for population health advocates is to reduce inequities and gaps in the health of populations produced by environmental, economic, and cultural circumstances. Population-based health care would recognize gun violence, stop-and-frisk policing, incarceration, homelessness, dental insurance, and childcare all to be examples of social determinants of health. The data-driven Healthy People 2020 initiative of the Department of Health and Human Services nicely illustrates the conceptual framework for thinking about population health and public health.

Emotional Stress

A vast body of data illustrates the negative impacts of racism on physical and emotional health. Most profoundly (among the many ways we can document racial inequity), racism embeds and embodies disproportionate amounts of emotional stress within minority communities. By almost every measure, minorities, simply by virtue of their skin color, face obstacles in any particular moment of their day that will produce extra quantities of tension and pressure (measured by cortisol response). The negative impact of these moments is accretive and amounts to asking racial minorities to carry a backpack that becomes incrementally heavier each day during their journey through life. The cascading, flooding impact of this pervasive stress on life outcomes within minority communities is pernicious and extreme, with costs that extend well beyond these communities. And while we might also say that the history of the races in the United States has made all of us crazy, clearly our institutions and policies have perfected the art of burden-shifting so that the costs of this craziness are still borne by those among us whose ancestors were the initial victims of racial injustice.

Toward a (Partial, Halting, Tentative) Vision of Racial Equity

Because it rests on solid research and technical foundations, the population health approach offers robust tools for accelerating progress toward racial equity based on public health and social cost notions of the harms inflicted by racism. And because it steers clear of some of the more hot-button and easily exploited and abused impacts of individual behaviors and speech acts, the population health approach creates opportunities for building and sustaining broad foundations of public and political support for the goals of racial equity and racial justice. Finally, in helping us to escape from the heuristic trap of the autonomous individual, the population health approach frees us to consider the complex, shifting, and fractal nature of the interdependencies that characterize our relationship to ourselves and to the worlds we inhabit.

Casual Racism and Gratuitous Harm

As for Bill Maher’s linguistic gaffe, it seems fair to say that people should not use racial terms of abuse, simply because this language is gratuitously harmful. There are not circumstances one can easily imagine that justify the distress caused by the use of racial epithets (although ironically, controversial speech in the service of comedy may, sometimes, be one of those justifications). Language ownership and control may be contentious issues, but dignity and respect and memory are not.

Thinking About Sewers and Freedom: Google’s Self-Serving (But Cool) Assault on Shitty Internet Ads

The Sewer (Serusier, 1892)

In 2018, the Google Chrome browser will block “low quality” ads (pop-up ads, self-launching videos, countdown ads, and sticky ads that won’t go away) and only display more “user-friendly” and “tasteful” ads approved by the Coalition for Better Ads industry group (check out the member list and the ad format stack rank – they are interesting!).

With the global market for digital advertising already approaching $225 billion, and expected to grow annually at double digits until 2020, analysts believe Google, which already controls more than 50 percent of this market, is willing to risk anti-trust challenges because the company both understands the existing advertising model is unsustainable and is strategically positioned to be able to plan for the future, and use its influence to shape that future.

I don’t know how digital ad market revenue splits between the shitty ads and the tasteful ads, but would agree the model is incredibly toxic and absolutely unsustainable. Here’s the thing, and it can’t be repeated too frequently. Media businesses rely on deplorable advertising methods and depressing click-bait content to support business models that would otherwise fail. As consumers of digital information, we have become dependent on this free access to content, but are finally realizing that this kind of access is a deal with the devil. We are learning that  nothing is free – not media content, not speech, not freedom. “Free” as in “no cost” or “no effort” or “no loss” is a misnomer. In fact, “freedom” may be the most misused, misunderstood, most cynically exploited words in our lexicon.

The problem is not even that we only get what we pay for. We get less than we pay for, because every transaction has a cost. So when we pay nothing for our journalism and our media and our online speech, we get journalism and media and speech that is worth less than nothing. We get Donald Trump and his merry band of trolls.

I can imagine a middle way for digital advertising – great ads can enhance a publication, not detract from it. Ads that cost a lot to produce and purchase will probably make good publications and products even better and more successful. Conversely, media platforms that depend on volume advertising and raw eyeballs will suffer in a Better Ads marketplace, but good riddance to them. These are the platforms – the Breitbart’s and Fox News’s of the world – that Trump(et) “freedom” as the permission for readers to spew from the deepest, darkest, most batshit-crazed recesses of their minds. So screw them. And screw the ad-serving businesses that cater to them.

We should pay for our “content” (terrible word). Paywalls are good. And successful media models also exist that do not require paywalls. The old-school alternative weekly newspaper – The Stranger in Seattle being the best example – keeps print publication costs down and journalism quality high with weekly publication schedules and distribution strategies; fosters healthy (not grotesque) “community” with its emphasis on arts, culture, entertainment, and local reporting; generates revenue from robust classified ad sections; and publishes high-quality advertisements with significant local resonance. And this model translates well to a digital format!

Another good national publishing model is the leverage-the-shit-out-of-my-other-successful-businesses-to-subsidize-high-quality-media model. Thinking of you, Bloomberg News/Views, which publishes generally great, smart stuff because it can subsidize news operations from the Bloomberg terminals/data cash flow firehose. Jeff Bezos has also been able to relieve the Washington Post of significant financial pressure that would otherwise require draconian cuts and a painful, depressing dependence on ads and clicks. Instead, the Post has built one of the most irritating, daunting paywalls in all of media. And good on them for that!

Finally, the Wikimedia FoundationThe Intercept, and Pro Publica all do great jobs by building trust, loyalty, and respect – giving those who depend on them a stake in their survival. They exist and thrive, without advertising, because they can depend on their readers to support them financially, one $5 or $50 or $500 donation at a time.

Yes, most people now get most of their news via social media, which has not simply torqued even the idea of print publishing for many people, but also mashed-potatoed online versions of print publications. These alternative reality communication platforms have undermined dependence on (and trust in) established news organizations (and generally accepted editorial standards), and substituted a kind of faux-news (as distinguished from fake news) legitimacy to emotionally salient (but otherwise unvetted) information sourcing from people we know (or, in the case of celebrities, people we would like to imagine we know). With the degradation of respect for and deference to categories of “experts”, who at least in theory possess some universal warrant and status based on widely acknowledged technical criteria, social media has reframed and reduced our sense of what we can trust to what circulates within weakly defined communities of “friends.”

Among the minority of Bernie Sanders supporters who voted for Donald Trump, justification for a Trump presidency was that we needed to surface deeply rooted political and cultural dysfunction in the United States, and that a Clinton presidency would only delay the inevitable day of reckoning. The virtue of this perspective is that it can accommodate an optimistic sense of the resilient capacities of American institutions and American citizens to respond creatively to challenge. And there is some evidence that the Trump presidency may ultimately serve this goal of a sustainable and enduring regeneration of our journalism and media institutions.

Trump’s election has uncovered and forced us to confront rot and sewage that contaminates both our institutions and our souls. But people like not being shitty. And digital media models are starting to emerge that will succeed because they (directly and intentionally) satisfy this basic human need. To simply not be shitty.

The Dindu: Towards a White Nationalist Taxonomy of the Saved and the Damned

red-spotHere’s another Breitbart search for ripping open our nation’s damaged, fucked-up heart of darkness. In these inverted times.

Meet the Dindu, white nationalist term of art for an African-American who refuses to take responsibility for his actions with the refrain, I dindu nuffin. Breitbart threads riff off permutations and illustrations of Dindu behavior for dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of comments, generally in response to the posting of provocative videos calculated by the organization’s editors to inflate, twist, and bend reality to the specifically dark emotional needs of the site’s denizens. Dindu Nuffin is actually one of the more mild and restrained language conventions, typically the starting point for unrestrained invective that will pretty much knock your socks off.

The term Dindu probably originated as a meme on the 4chan”/pol/” boardgaining popularity within the white nationalist / neoNazi / Gamergate subculture in the 2014 and 2015, in response to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Andrew Anglin’s white supremacist, neoNazi Daily Stormer website often invokes the Dindu meme, which is apparently considered an epically witty and clever bit of wordplay / imagery. This Daily Stormer post entitled Black Lives Matter: The Rise of the Dindu, includes a variety of racist memes, telling you most of what you need to know.

Casual and freewheeling use of the Dindu label is now firmly embedded within the network of alt-right, neoNazi, don’t-get-out-of-the-basement-enough websites and message boards associated with Gamergate and Pizzagate, including the chan websites and Voat. These fringe (visually and otherwise) sites are the refuge of the young, the alienated, and the angry, mostly of the white and male, Adam Baldwin / Milo Yiannopoulos variety.

That Breitbart Media (catering to older conspiracy-minded Americans in flyover country) also incites and encourages use of the term only demonstrates the extent to which a (pseudo-Christian) white nationalism is indeed Breitbart’s beating, pulsing, spewing, tabloid heart (not marginal, as Steve Bannon claims), and to that degree also the centerpiece of a smash-and-grab Whitefellas movement politics:

  • Fashioned in the past quarter century by denizens of talk radio, cable news, and digital media, beginning with Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly;
  • Enabled by super-wealthy / politically savvy paleo-conservatives such as Charles Koch, Second Amendment freaks spurred on by the gun industry, and Federalist Society legal reactionaries such as Antonin Scalia; and
  • Culminating with the lugubrious takeover, in the past decade, of pretty much all of our county, state, and national political institutions.

In this sense, Trump’s rise is epiphenomenal, of course, consequence and not cause, hence Steve Bannon’s unbridled contempt for media and intellectual elites who desperately avoided the exfoliation that would have allowed them to see this revolution coming. And Bannon is not wrong to savage the non-tabloid media, for his Euro-Christian / nationalist / racial / culture /identity movement has been a long-time itching and a long-time hatching, and indeed has never really stopped breeding through the generations.

In the children’s scary story, The Red Spot, a spider lays its eggs in the cheek of a young girl named Ruth while she sleeps. Ruth’s mother reassures her that the red spot on her cheek is only a minor irritation and that it will go away if she leaves it alone, so long as she doesn’t scratch it. The red spot becomes a red boil, hot on Ruth’s cheek. And Ruth’s mother said, “that sometimes happens, it’s coming to a head.” A few more days passed, and by now the boil was unsightly and painful. “We’ll have the doctor look at it,” said Ruth’s mother said. The doctor could not see Ruth until the next day. And that night, while Ruth soaked in the bath, the boil burst. and a swarm of tiny spiders poured from the eggs their mother had laid in Ruth’s cheek.

Clearly, we are Ruth. And we are also Ruth’s mother. And so now out seeps the poison, which will not be stayed, which frenzied, unhinged baby spiders propagate where they may. The unleashed cultural energy of the angry, emotionally damaged conservative movement now extends well beyond insular online communities where these people can breach moral boundaries with impunity. The rising Trump tide has liberated this movement to take their show on the road, via provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos, but also on crowd-sourced platforms such as Urban Dictionary that are the cultural property of everyone. In the spirit of shattering norms just for the hell of it, Dindu made its first appearance in the Urban Dictionary in November 2014, with subsequent definitions appearing during the spring and summer of 2016, as Trump’s ascent liberated the animal spirits of formerly caged and sequestered white nationalists, and of generally angry white folks. The definitions below.

  • An innocent African-American, a description used by the family members of criminal African-Americans who din do nuffin. (Those dindus are acting up in Detroit again.) (Mike Brown and Trayvon Marin are the epitome of dindus.)  (November 18, 2014. Up/Down Vote Ratio: 4,420/436).
  • African tribe of intense warrior tendencies, promiscuity, irresponsibility, and low IQ. Over thousands of years, this tribe crossed the continent village by village slaying all the men, raping all the women (and children), and destroying the homes. By the modern era, all peaceful, noble, and inventive tribes of Africa had been eliminated by the Dindus. (“Isn’t there somewhere in the world, a functional black society?” “No, the Dindu blood runs deep.”) (May 24, 2016. Up/Down Vote Ratio: 730/99).
  • A “du-er” of “nuffin”, meaning a ghetto-dweller, who claims he “dindu — didn’t do — anything wrong” (within sight of a security camera or, at any rate, anyplace within the last five minutes). Also known as a thief, a robber, a home invader, a rioter, a looter, a rapist, or a murderer by people with a sense of reality, the dindu is , nevertheless, relatively innocent by rap-culture standards. The dindu runs when “scared”, which defeats his purpose of not being noticed by the police, but never mind. Liberals embrace the dindu (in spirit) during afternoon BLM rallies but hightail it back to white surburbia after sundown. Nobody likes dindus. (If you don’t want to be a “dindu”, don’t steal stuff, hurt people, or otherwise act like a damned fool.)  (August 9, 2016. Up/Down Vote Ratio: 323/23).
  • A replacement, more “acceptable” term for a young black man. Primarily men brutalized and killed by police officers, whether they were armed and threatening or not. Originates from the mothers and family of the young black men who exclaim that their son “didn’t do nothin’ wrong,” often in an American dialect that makes it sound like “dindu nuthin.” It’s nothing short of blatant racism…and while its use is defended on the grounds that it’s targeted at criminals who wrongfully claim innocence, it’s still overwhelmingly used in regards to black men, whether or not their claim to innocence is legitimate. Similar to the way “Allahu Akbar” is used to mock middle easterners whether they’re Islamic extremists or not. (“I know, I know, poor boy dindu nuffin, right?”  “Yes, he stole a cigarillo. I didn’t realize theft was punishable by death in America, my bad.”) (August 7, 2016. Up/Down Vote Ratio: 53/407).

For me, at least, the significance of the appropriation of Urban Dictionary, which through the years has certainly harbored the colloquialisms and vernacular and street dialects of (mostly) young people across a diverse spectrum of backgrounds and interests, has been its seizure for the explicit purpose of trolling (Bannon has called his followers hobbits, but clearly they are trolls). The ratio of up/down votes for the four Dindu definitions is far more extreme than the ratios one normally encounters with Urban Dictionary, and also a far larger “electorate” than one will normally find with a term that has only four definitions. Which is at this point a pretty classic sign of herd-based trolling (for counter-examples, see the numbers for hipster, which is one of the most voted-upon words in the dictionary, and also the numbers for two other alt-right favorites, libtard and cuckservative).

I’ve seen this shit before, but am certainly no less stunned than everyone else – the elated and the gob-smacked alike – to find us where we now stand. When Richard Sherman did his howl on national television after shutting down the 49ers Michael Crabtree to capture the NFC title for the Seahawks in 2014, Fox News online comment threads went postal about Richard Sherman’s impertinence and audacity. Sherman was then a new experience for the NFL and its fans, but the racial spuming of the Fox News cohort – with all of the gutter tropes that one might expect – was nonetheless pretty astounding. This is what I wrote at the time.

Had the Seahawks not prevailed against the Broncos, the trolls would have come hunting for Richard Sherman. No physical mugging, perhaps, but certainly a hungry, persistent claim upon his spirit and soul, retribution for not following the unspoken rules of the race game, for not being sufficiently grateful, sufficiently humble, sufficiently ignorant, sufficiently safe.

In the aftermath, we must wonder why, more than 150 years since the American Civil War, we continue to labor under illusions and misconceptions and prejudices and fears that illustrate the degree to which socially constructed racial categories still rub raw our psychic wounds.

And, too, we must wonder about the unmediated or disintermediated structure of our discourse, the degree to which open online publishing and illusions of digital anonymity tap deeply into the fear centers of our brain, a persistent amygdalic hijack inflamed by coded words and images, a pervasive and journalistically devastating reduction of thought, conversation, ideas, and truth — the constituents of our social coherence — to a mere slurry of tokens, memes, verbal discharge that resembles sewage more than it does considered speech.

What I now realize, of course, is that we should not wonder that we cannot eradicate these destructive and self-defeating “speech” practices. Nor should we wonder about the corrosive impact of the Internet on community standards and norms that allow any civilization and culture, baseline, to subsist. Much has been written about the toxic terminology of the alt-right – shibboleths that both confer status and safety upon the movements true believers, sympathizers, and fellow travelers (see here and here). But truly, there is something deeper going on here than even the free speech debate.

In his recently published (and really excellent) cover story for The Atlantic, David Frum (who’s had more intellectual and political lives than Wile E. Coyote) imagines the playbook Donald Trump (via the sinister counsel and dark arts of his advisers) might use to systematically, selectively, subliminally and (somewhat) sadistically destroy liberal democracy in the United States. Now others – myself included – may also at times long to destroy liberal democracy, but certainly not by using the means employed by the Trump / white nationalist / blow-shit-up axis, nor on behalf of the medieval vision toward which he is leading us. And one of Frum’s great insights in this essay is that this new autocracy will exploit and abuse the soft power of digital and social media to manipulate, intimidate, distract, and cow the American people. The new fascism will not physically terrorize the population, but will not lack for other novel ways to mess with our heads and screw with our destinies. The goal being to accrete power by sowing confusion and doubt about whether reality and truth, certainly with reference to the public sphere and our national life together, even exist. To substitute nagging fear and anxiety, alongside periodic moments of emotional catharsis, for connections to each other based on shared conceptions of science and data and intellectual inquiry, the meaning of words, the possibility of education and enlightenment, the vitality of communities that honor diversity (the spaces in-between each of us) rather than seeking to obliterate those spaces.

Which brings us back to Breitbart and the curious concept of the Dindu, which reveals the maniacal instinct of the silo-hardened alt-right to sprint straight toward their most primitive, hidebound beliefs about huge swaths of the population, grouping within a Biblically simple, pre-Linnaean  taxonomy of the saved and damned those who look like them and those who do not. Will the fever pass? Who the hell knows?

But I did take comfort from a useful Politico essay Rutgers University historian David Greenberg about the “perils of calling Trump a liar.” Which is not a good title. But the article itself probes some really interesting ideas in the history of concepts of journalistic objectivity. Specifically, Greenberg reminds us of Archibald MacLeish’s dictum that objectivity in journalism is not the same thing as being neutral, balanced, or even-handed. “It is current-day fancy to consider a journalist objective if he hands out slaps and compliments with evenhanded impartiality on both sides of the question,” MacLeish said. “Such an idea is, of course, infantile. Objectivity consists in keeping your eye on the object [and] describing the object as it is.”

Words to live by. In these inverted times.

Eight Thoughts on Guns and Freedom

Waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists. – Sarah Palin (NRA annual meeting, 2014)

The presidential election of 2016, probably the biggest “Fuck You” election in our history. Donald Trump going upside our head, with impunity, over and over again (weirdly like Biff in Back to the Future). Talk about the return of the repressed….

Guns give us a pretty clear and simple way to think about this gross (orange) hairball we’ve just coughed up. In the United States, guns are collocative with a host of other right-wing cultural tropes that have found their way into our political idiom (white supremacy, states rights, limited government, homophobia, biblical fundamentalism, military zeal, homespun rural values and toxic nostalgia, among others).

Did we assume (because the data / numbers / facts told (and tell) us so) that gun owners were / are simply an atavistic remnant of a fading age of Caucasian male celerity, in which the gun, like many an appendage from our earliest species origins, survived only as a useless, slightly maligned encumbrance? Did we assume atavistic meant harmless?

Recent major national studies of gun ownership (the NORC General Social Survey and a detailed survey conducted by Harvard and Northeastern University public health researchers) confirm long-term trends toward a bifurcation of gun ownership that closely tracks the polarization of the political parties in the United States. Because guns are so expressive of deeper national political and cultural currents, the way we think about them greatly matters for the future of political discourse, political opportunity, and public policy in the United States.

1. Demographics

21st-century demographics don’t favor gun owners, who remain predominantly older white males in rural parts of the South and Midwest. In the next 50 years, the nation (if it survives in its present form) will become more urban and less white. The Trump election and the emergence of an explicitly white nationalist political minority does not change this reality. More young people will grow up in an environment where there is no functional need to own a gun and where the idea of owning a gun seems alien. For these reasons, trend lines do not objectively favor gun owners.

Of course, guns are prevalent with young minorities who live in cities, but gun possession among this population is largely associated with gangs and drugs. In other words, gun possession within this urban youth population is an immensely destructive accouterments of youth, not an article of religious faith. Revamping our drug and incarceration policies to keep kids in school and out of jail, and to remove the market incentives for illegal drug trafficking, would likely make a big dent in the percentage of young minorities living in cities who possess firearms.

2. Protection

Notably, the percentage of Americans who say they own a gun for protection has risen precipitously at the same time that crime has fallen dramatically (even with the recent surge of violence in predominantly black urban silos). For this reason, it is difficult to make the argument that the perceived need for “protection” is based in reality, on actual probabilities of meaningful threat. Instead, we must wonder whether the urge to own a gun for personal security rests more on a different, less concrete understanding of what constitutes a threat, and how best to handle that threat, whether it is imagined or real.

Guns give people the fantasy of control, not the reality of control, so to understand the firearms ownership obsession, we need to appreciate what fantasies are at work. For example, there is a significant fear among whites of black youths. But of course we also know that most violence involving young black males is geographically specific, committed against other black males, who more than likely know each other personally. This reality removes any reasonable argument for stand-your-ground laws, concealed-weapons-laws, open-carry-laws, give-everyone-assault-rifles-laws, and let’s-allow-guns-in-schools-parks-churches-and-bars laws.

3. Politics

People in the United States generally don’t question the need for our state governments to license both cars and their drivers. It is self-evident to just about everyone that cars in poor condition, or in the possession of the wrong people, become weapons that menace our safety.

The logic for gun-control laws is virtually identical to the logic for licensing cars and drivers. And so it should not surprise us that one of the biggest obstacles to reasonable gun-control laws, particularly in less densely populated states, is the outsized influence within their governing bodies of white, male, and rural representatives. It is precisely among these populations where one would expect the logic for regulating ownership and use of both firearms and motor vehicles to be almost equally suspect.

The intimidating rhetoric and organizational virtuosity of the National Rifle Association reinforces the rural-white-male bias within state legislatures. The effect has been to give interests favoring extreme gun rights disproportionate power to open the floodgates to gun ownership and to block laws that would enact even the mildest background check or gun safety provisions. Of course the other major source of influence in this debate, when one looks further under the skirts of the NRA, is the firearms industry.

4. Constitution

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Okay. Super.

Citizens of other nations generally feel no need to own guns and their rate of gun violence is far lower than it is in the United States. We shouldn’t underestimate how weird and creepy our national obsession with firearms appears to people in other countries around the world. Second Amendment zealots fully appreciate how far they have removed themselves from the global mainstream when it comes to opinions about gun ownership. They just don’t care.

Appealing to an abstract “Constitutional” or “God-given” right to own guns in response to the condemnation of pretty much everyone else in the world really is not useful. Most legal scholars would agree our nearly 230-year-old Constitution, which is one of the oldest in existence, and which has never had a fixed meaning but has always been in instrument of political conflict, is long-past due for an overhaul. The U.S. Constitution was drafted for a nation entirely different from the country in which we now live. As for our right to own guns being God-given, well, let’s wait to see if God ever speaks on this topic (or on any other).

5. Definitions

What is a well regulated militia? What does it mean to say this militia is necessary to the security of a free state? What is the origin and nature of this right of the people to keep and bear arms? What are the scope and limits of infringement?

For that matter, what is the definition of arms? And do we need to continually (but randomly) adjust the definition of the constitutional right to keep and bear arms to whatever lethal production value presents itself to us? In the 21st century, we each can manufacture (untraceable) weapons using 3D printers. Pretty much anyone can buy an assault rifle that on its own would have obliterated the entire Continental Army. We can now weaponize drones. How do we know which of these capacities for extreme lethality falls under the protection of the Second Amendment? How do we decide?

How do we balance this vague and uncertain (because entirely decontextualized) right to keep and bear arms against other rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution? What is the relationship between guns and freedom, anyway?

6. Ontological Fundamentalism

Constitutional fetishists – and certainly Second Amendment gun fetishists – are like other fundamentalists (Biblical and Koranic and Talmudic and otherwise) in the predilection for assigning mystical, unassailable powers to historically arbitrary objects (or people or events). We can deduce evidence for the arbitrary (and so essentially false and manufactured) and misplaced (because essentially dead) reverence for history in the tendency of ontological fundamentalists to assign more literal (and legal) significance to the sacred texts as they become more distant in time. In this sense, the Second Amendment, particularly to the degree it collapses the entire meaning of the Constitution and of the American political experiment into itself, is little more than a scam and a ruse and a blight upon the nation.

7. Human Nature

Guns don’t kill people, people do.

When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.

Guns are only tools.

For decades, gun rights advocates have parroted these slogans without really feeling any need to justify their claims logically or support them with evidence. Indeed, logic and evidence both clearly indicate that the abstract concept of a “person” is woefully inadequate for capturing the range of psychological circumstances and conditions to which every one of us is subject on a daily basis. At any given moment, even the most rational or disciplined or experienced among us is capable of acting irresponsibly or dangerously — out of rage or despair or incompetence or inattention or indifference.

We are imperfect beings. Put a perfect tool of destruction and mayhem in our hands, and you can well predict the havoc we are capable of unleashing.

8. Freedom

Gun rights advocates in the United States sequester their odd claims under the sheltering canopy of faith and freedom. Gun ownership has become a bizarre, frenzied religion. A cargo cult that worships the smooth barrel of a gun, a false idol, with its prosthetic, prophetic promise that we can blast our way into Heaven. The language of the Second Amendment has itself become fundamentalist literalism, obsessively parsed for divine meanings and prophecies, the authority that justifies itself. To paraphrase Sarah Palin, violence is how we baptize our enemies and confirm our freedom.

However, neither gun ownership nor the Second Amendment can confer, exalt, or secure freedom. Enhanced destructive capabilities do not make us free. Nor can we subsist on parchment freedoms inscribed in the Constitution. Indeed, to make a piece of technology or a piece of sheepskin the enabling condition for our freedom is to trivialize beyond recognition the meaning of freedom, and its importance to our nation.

Freedom is a spiritual condition of awareness, an intellectual endowment of foresight and reflection, a physical gift of health and wholeness, and a social capacity for conversation and communion. We are free when we can trust the spaces and the silences that separate us from our brothers and sisters, an interim that lets us fully see ourselves, and know ourselves, through the reflection in their eyes and in the rise and fall of their breasts.

The gun destroys the interim. The gun takes away our freedom.

Appendix: Public Data on Gun Ownership

In this (now foreshortened) era of open government and data transparency, the demographics of gun ownership in the United States remain opaque. Which poses a conundrum for gun rights zealots. On the one hand, the National Rifle Association has pushed hard to limit collection and disclosure of gun purchase and ownership data. The NRA also has successfully curbed research for public health studies regarding the use and abuse of guns.

At the same time, the NRA, along with various hunting, target-shooting, concealed-carry, and open-carry advocates, have recently made a big deal of the claim that gun owners are no longer simply older white guys with beer bellies and a pickup truck. One of the most aggressive claims is that women are flocking to gun ranges, arming themselves, and fully embracing the idea that guns = protection and guns = empowerment.

But gun people cannot have it both ways – stifling data collection and data disclosure concerning firearms use, while at the same time grandstanding about demographic trends in gun ownership based purely on anecdote and speculation. Happily, new data sources provide at least glimmerings of insight into the state of the gun market. So let’s test some of the gun ownership demographic claims of our firearms friends.

  • Shrinking percentages of Americans own guns. The percentage of Americans who live in a household with a gun has fallen to approximately 22 percent, its lowest level in nearly four decades. (this data to some degree contradicts Gallup and Pew surveys indicating that gun ownership rates have remained relatively constant over time, tracking at about 42 percent, with a high of 52 percent in 1993).
  • Partisan identification matters. The percentage of Republicans who live in a household with a gun has remained steady at about 55 percent since 1980. In this same period, Democrats who say they live in a household with a gun has fallen from 55 percent to 22 percent.
  • Gun ownership patterns track population movement and partisan shifts. Gun ownership remains stable in the American South and in rural parts of the nation, both of which have become solidly Republican in the past four decades. At the same time, urban dwellers more consistently identify as Democrats, are a larger percentage of the population, and percentages of urban dwellers who own guns have dropped in line with percentages for Democrats.
  • Guns sales have surged. In the most recent decade, annual gun purchases (as measured by background checks) have more than doubled, at least partly fueled by the fear of more legal restrictions on gun ownership (and possibly also fueled by fears of a black America, with the election to the presidency of Barack Obama).

Gun rights spokesmen will reliably tell you that no one in their right mind would be truthful about their gun inventory, since honesty invites government scrutiny, surveillance, and seizure. The logical difficulties with this assertion — which emerge from the troubling effort to prove a negative, over and over again — tells us far more about the mind of the gun rights purist than the validity of national opinion survey results. But the assertion itself does point us toward the following set of paradoxes.

  • More lax gun ownership laws. Fewer gun owners. Even as gun ownership laws in state after state have loosened to allow concealed-carry and open-carry privileges to pretty much anyone legally allowed to own a gun, and even as the limitations on gun ownership have generally slipped away, fewer Americans choose to own guns.
  • Less crime. More guns owned for protection. By and large, gun ownership remains a hinterlands phenomenon and a regional phenomenon. Moreover, in the urban areas in which lower percentages of the population own guns, violent crime has continued to drop (although there is no consensus on causation). At the same time, more Americans, and more women, do say they own guns for protection (although largely in the statistically less-dangerous regions of the country).
  • More guns owned for protection. More gun suicide. Each year, guns cause the deaths of about 30,000 Americans. About 20,000 of these gun deaths are suicides. An increasingly high percentage of suicides in the United States are committed by older, white men in rural areas.
  • Less gun control. More paranoia. Legislators have opened the flood-gates for concealed-carry and open-carry permits. Secondary and online markets for guns operate with impunity. We may be experiencing a historically glorious moment of legislative and judicial dispensation and validation for American gun owners. Yet delusion and paranoia within the gun-rights community has never been more intense.

Black Lives Actually Don’t Matter: Crime and Punishment in the United States

Nowhere in the United States has rioting on the scale of the 1992 South Central Los Angeles riots accompanied reaction to the recent (but seemingly unending) police killings of black Americans. This non-barking dog matters to how we assign meaning to these events, as the recent response has occurred in direct reaction to substantially higher levels of police violence than the whupping visited upon Rodney King in 1991 (also notable as the occasion for one of the first citizen videos to record such violence in real-time).

Police unions and politicians of the Rudolph Giuliani and Donald Trump ilk have demonized the Black Lives Matter movement. In reality, this movement has provided a coherent way for African-Americans (and others) to think about, communicate about, organize, and act upon national policing problems. Without Black Lives Matter, we simply do not have the conversation which is occurring right now. Frustrating and daunting and dispiriting as this conversation may be, the option to emote and erupt and shout and holler through the framework of Black Lives Matter has almost certainly precluded the more spontaneous, reactive, and brutal response to the jury verdict acquitting the Los Angeles police officers of applying excessive force against Rodney King.

But our horror at the transpiration of events in recent days does continue unabated. This horror almost literally a form of evaporation disclosing our unending national torment as a racially divided and racially opposed people. And while the weirdness of social media continues (mostly unhelpfully) to distort and weaken our responses within echo chambers of despair and anguish, the Internet does offer us one significant compensatory alternative to cacophonous online shouting.


(Mark Twain aside) when mistrust and anger and political implacability consume our rhetoric, statistics and data may offer our only hope for transcending the moment and constructively imagining a path forward that can reasonably interpolate a future between our dreams and our realities. Here are some brief statistical observations about crime and punishment in the United States that can perhaps form a basis for a conversation going forward.


  • In 2014, Black Americans were 5 times more likely to die from homicide than whites. In single victim-single offender homicides, whites killed other whites 82.4 percent of the time. Blacks killed blacks 90.0 percent of the time. Blacks killed whites 14.8 percent of the time. Whites killed blacks 7.6 percent of the time.
  • Blacks (especially black males) are proportionately far more likely to die from homicide than law enforcement officers are likely to die in the line of duty. In other words, being an African-American is significantly more dangerous than being a law enforcement officer.
  • Between 2002 and 2011, the murder rate for African-American males in their early 20s was nearly 9 times higher than for white males of the same age (peaking at 100 homicides per 100,000 black males).
  • Between 2002 and 2009, the murder rate for African-American males in their early 20s significantly exceeded the combat death rate for active duty U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Making it reasonable to say that African-Americans have been living in a war zone.
  • In the first 11 months of 2015, police killed twice as many whites as blacks in the line of duty. But viewed as a proportion of the national population, police killed blacks at a rate 3 times higher than police killed whites.


  • In 2014 the United States imprisoned over 2.2 million people, a rate of 698 people per 100,000, ranking 2nd in the world (after Seychelles, with a total population of 95,000, and an incarcerated population of 735), and a rate at least twice as high as every nation in the world with a population exceeding 15 million people (with the exception of Thailand and the Russian Federation).
  • In 2011, African-American males were imprisoned at a rate of 2,724 per 100,000, a rate 6 times higher than for white males, 4 times higher than every nation in the world, and nearly 100 times higher than India (with 33 imprisoned per 100,000).

These are facts. They are not the only facts, but they are certainly facts that matter enormously. If one accepts this data, even in its broadest outlines, then the conversation quickly turns to questions about interpretation and meaning, and to investigations about what is to be done and how it is to be done. These are larger questions about environmental conditions for remediation and reparation. But those are also specific and clear questions of politics and policy. They are manageable.

So there is a lot we can do with this data, and probably the most immediately salient and useful argument one could make on the basis of this data, considered in its entirety, is that one cannot separate police violence against blacks from black-on-black violence. The political divisions on this point, and the strident claims that one must choose, are obfuscations.

Both kinds of violence are aspects or dimensions of the same difficult environment, in which chaos, mistrust, anger, and despair create on the streets of our nation the fog of war. This is the sense in which black lives clearly do not matter. The situation is a betrayal of everything we imagine ourselves and claim to be as a nation. It is a tragedy of epic proportions, and truly, only such awareness alongside a determination to redress these horrifying inequities can redeem us and secure us as a nation.


From Working Class to White Trash: Hillbillies on Our Minds

Even before Donald Trump seized his spurious, self-canceling political moment, poor white trash were in the news and on our minds. From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, the collapse of the industrial belt (and of labor unions) (which international trade agreements exploited and accelerated) agitated the political left, inspiring books such as Ben Hamper’s Rivethead (1991) alongside Michael Moore’s fantastic documentary about automobile workers in Flint, Michigan, Roger and Me (1989). This momentary profluence of creativity on behalf of the American worker reflected fresh memories of a thriving, upwardly mobile, industrial working class. Bearing artistic witness to their trials at the tail end of the Reagan-Bush era implicitly also instructed us that hope remained alive for these beaten-down cities and for these hard-working Americans.

Indeed, the disappearing auto workers who symbolized for Michael Moore and Ben Hamper the political betrayal of the American middle class, were not poor white trash. For one thing, they were a racially diverse bunch, and while racism was a constant challenge in the union movement, the reality is that millions of Southern whites and blacks had migrated north for jobs that promised much more – in the way of income, dignity, and skills – than the economies and factories and mines and fields they left behind in the South. So long as there was opportunity, the unionized northern factory work did more to unite striving Americans than it did to divide them. And yet the risk of slipping backwards, both economically and culturally, into a status of economic immiseration and primitive self-loathing, remained sequestered, but not denied, a furtive howling.

White Trash Porn

In the quarter-century that has passed since 1991 (which was, in almost too many ways to count, an entirely momentous year), globalization and an unleashed, generally quite punitive capitalism, have continued to advance, with technology and automation working alongside outsourcing and relentless assaults on the legitimacy of public institutions, to pretty much create a closed circle of economic and cultural decline in the United States, which we now associate with rising inequality and a kind of defeatist, verging on nihilist, despair. Hope has abandoned us as a nation, truly. At least this is the narrative to which many of us subscribe, across the political spectrum. And while perception always lags reality, and one cannot discount, actually, the enormous strides we’ve in many ways taken as a nation during the Obama years, undeniably many of those who harbored dreams and optimism anchored to the industrial foundations of the 20th-century American economy have indeed slipped back into a seemingly permanent white underclass, swallowed and battered by unemployment, collapsing families, rampant drug abuse, and pervasive violence.

Let’s fast-forward to 2016, in which the confluence of a drama-filled, fraught, entirely bizarre presidential campaign and the quite recent, somewhat suspect interest of the political right in the pathologies of the hillbilly have led to a new literary-liturgical moment for the poor whites of the nation, most fully captured by the best-selling memoir of J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. In a New Yorker essay about the significance of this book, Joshua Rothman does a good job connecting some of the disparate dots of this new kind of racial crisis, which for many Americans aligns smoothly with low-rent digital media celebrities, reality television, Darwin Awards, and a cynical cash-is-trash commercial mentality. Let’s call it white trash porn.

The media lens obscures the suffering, however, which is probably further elided by the relief liberal elites experience that they can expunge their guilt about the possibility that black Americans might somehow be more predisposed to feckless and hapless behavior and states of mind than their white counterparts. Clearly, in modern America, there is room enough for all of us to descend into those howling swamps denuded of feck and hap. Which in theory creates an opening for considerations of the primacy of economic class over race as a driver of social and political mayhem, but which instead has mostly just left us with miasmic decrepitude of Donald Trump.

Writers at The National Review have taken a personal interest in this phenomenon of a white underclass, theirs a specific upwelling of an emerging national fascination with the painkiller-heroin epidemic sweeping the nether regions of the land. The geographic alignment of Oxycontin / heroin wilding and rural economic collapse in coal country, for example, has attracted much journalistic attention in recent years, most notably in some fine (and controversial) reporting and commentary from Kevin Williamson of The National Review.

I don’t agree with Williamson’s rhetorically cute and catty demand that Americans “forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap” regarding the virtues of the impoverished communities of the Rust Belt. This is not a trivial point. Springsteen’s working class artistic moment is representative of that elegiac period of reflection about the raw and honest yearning of this class of workers, and their communities, in the 1970s and 1980s, long prior to the catastrophic collapse of these communities in the past 25 years. Williamson relies on these kinds of superficial and misleading tropes to add filigrees of cranky-hip awareness to his analysis, but the cumulative effect is to spotlight the most unhelpful aspects of an otherwise useful portrait of a population in pain. Ultimately, we are left with the typically disparaging, punitive take-out-the-trash refrain of free-market conservatives: “The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.”

To be clear, The National Review journalists – heirs to a man of William F. Buckley – are terrified and pissed about the ascendance, within their political party, of Donald Trump, who has gaped a hole in their righteous carapace through which the howling alt-right has hurled themselves like a pack of scurrying, deranged monkeys. So yes, strange bedfellows, when you have super-conservative establishment intellectuals essentially in agreement on their political preferences with comfortably-liberal establishment intellectuals. No William Buckley – Gore Vidal (crypto-Nazi / queer) thrust-and-parry here. Not even a Jane Curtin – Dan Ackroyd (Jane, you ignorant slut) moment.

Economics and Culture

One challenge we face in discussing the Caucasian “deplorables” base of support for Donald Trump (again, fusillades of irony, that Hillary Clinton and the most conservative establishment Republicans should here fall into a loving embrace in their scorn for this underclass), is that our options for understanding and interpreting this phenomenon appear limited, indeed, not particularly different from the bipolar and mutually exclusive perspectives fossilized into ideology for “explaining” the existence of a black (or brown or red) underclass. Is the problem economic or cultural? Has the system failed the broken poor or have they failed themselves. Are they pitiful or contemptible?

This is the rhetorical tail-chasing that Joshua Rothman spotlights in his New Yorker essay on Hillbilly Elegy. Which is essentially that, in our national “conversations” about how to solve national “problems”, assertion has replaced explanation, and so the nature of our discourse concerning the fate of the fallen among us reduces to self-affirmations that have everything to do with political posturing and puffering and nothing to do with problem-solving. As Rothman observes, with the sagacious calm of the boy identifying the obvious nakedness of the emperor, of course the problem of the underclass is both economic and cultural. But Rothman (and Hillbilly Elegy author Vance) at that point basically throw up their hands to say, in effect, we need to acknowledge this reality,  this fact of an American underclass, and the failure of the economics-culture debate to remedy this fact, but having done so, we have no fucking idea what we do next. 

But there is a path forward. And it’s kind of staring us right in the face. Before venturing down this path, let’s clear out a bit of underbrush about the idea of the underclass.

First, the racial issue in the United States does not fully go away with this new focus on economic class (or with a more stratified, less racialized focus on cultural collapse). At the end of the day, white hillbillies can lift themselves up by their bootstraps and, with requisite accomplishments, avail themselves of opportunities to rise up into the middle class (using the language of the minority cast/caste of  the Hamilton musical), with none the wiser about their white trash, hillbilly origins. The same cannot be said for black Americans, who remain, no matter their achievements and the fidelity with which they play by the rules, stigmatized by skin color.

More generally, the concept of an underclass, controversial though it may be, is probably valid if we can use it descriptively and avoid attaching too much pejoration to the term. But the term is justifiably loaded, particularly when we automatically attach to it the adjective “permanent”. We can get a sense of its slippery nature by recalling the anxiety, within pretty much all varieties of Marxism, of the fragile line between the conscious proletariat and unconscious lumpen, which required explanations focused on false consciousness and hegemony, but which fundamentally resolve into psychological images of malformation, incompletion, and lack of wholeness. The lumpen were a gigantic clay golem, a return of the repressed that haunted the dreams of all modern agents and prophets of progress.

And here, ultimately, is the problem with economic and cultural frameworks for realizing solutions to the problems of marginalized underclasses. Beyond the distorting ideological lenses these frameworks unfairly end up supporting (the use and abuse of these frameworks for pretty crass and unreflective and self-serving political aims), they are, almost by definition, incapable, by themselves, of lifting up these torn-down communities, not because they are unimportant or irrelevant, but because they are insufficient.

The School Bus

Consider an analogy. An old school bus, carrying school kids back from a baseball game in a western state, must cross a mountain pass on a storm-drenched night. Weather conditions have deteriorated through the evening. The bus driver is inexperienced, the kids are loud and rambunctious (being kids, and having won the game). The coach has fought off the flu to be at the game, but is now sleeping at the back of the bus. The bus itself is not in great repair, a casualty of a failed school district bond issue and resulting budget cuts. Though no one realizes it at the time, the bus is riding on tires with insufficient tread and a stressed front axle. The bus claims the top of the pass and begins its descent toward the valley where the children live. But the rain is insistent and visibility is uncertain. A car speeding the other way, driven by a teen with a revoked license who is paying too much attention to his girlfriend sitting next to him, veers into the lane of the bus. The bus driver, who had previously  been focused on his rear-view mirror and efforts to quiet the kids, swerves to avoid the car and the bus skids across the road on its bald tires. The bus driver tries to reclaim control of the bus, but the u-bolt on the front axle slips and the axle collapses on to the road, spinning the bus through the embankment and down the slope of the mountain, with tragic consequences, broken families, traumatized communities, litigation,  and general mayhem ensuing from which the region does not recover for many years.

The transport of school kids on buses is a stochastic matter. Safety is not guaranteed, but there are specific things one can do to identify potential points of failure and to minimize risk that a chain of specific and seemingly unrelated failures can propagate and bloom with unforeseen but catastrophic effects. Train and certify bus drivers. Service and maintain buses. Anticipate and prepare for weather contingencies. Make sure teachers and coaches receive flu shots each year as a condition of employment. Support team leadership ideals that can help to limit monkeyshines. Make sure parents are held accountable for the driving infractions of their kids. These are the things communities must do to anticipate and manage risk. And while each may pose its own set of annoyances, frustrations, and costs, the benefits of the safety and harm avoidance they deliver to a community far outweighs any burden they place on the community.

In the case of the ill-fated school bus, risks had already multiplied well beyond any reasonable threshold of tolerance even before the bus left that afternoon for the baseball game. It didn’t matter that the gas tank was full, the  bus had  been washed and vacuumed, the sun was out, the roads were dry, the traffic was minimal, the kids were calm, the coach was mentally tough, the bus driver had covered this route many times in his car, and the teenage driver was scheduled to work that night at the local Dairy Queen. Because while the illusion of risk was low as the bus made its way toward the town across the mountain for the baseball game, the reality of risk was very high. And by the time the skies had darkened, the rain intensified, the coach had taken aspirin to combat his splitting headache, the kids had begun to wrestle like bear cubs at the rear of the bus, and the unlicensed teenage driver in the approaching car was leaning over to kiss his girlfriend, circumstances were positioned to overpower agency. In other words, when the car veered into the lane of the bus, the options available to the bus driver had become vanishingly small. And when the bus slid across the road and dropped its axle, his options had disappeared altogether.

To focus on economic and cultural causes for the various industrial, financial, behavioral and relational implosions that we associate with an “underclass” is not so different from how we might assign, somewhat randomly, causation to specific events or circumstances or decisions as the school bus swerves,  bends, breaks, and collapses into the ravine below. We have the horny teenage driver. The worn tires and axle. The sleeping baseball coach. The rowdy kids. The distracted bus driver. The rain. The dark. The mountain road. We might without straining too hard group each of these causes within a generic “economic” or “cultural” bucket. But focusing on any of these causes specifically does nothing to prevent the bus crash because by the time they all converge, the bus is already doomed.

Hegel: The owl of Minerva flies at dusk. We cannot know ourselves, and appreciate our fate, until we see all that has transpired in its fullness. And by definition, at that point, it is too late to change that which has been revealed to us.

And this is the essential problem with the economics-culture debate. The terms of the debate itself only claim our attention once we have attained or are observing a close-to-irremediable brokenness. I suppose this failing is at least in part a response to the contingency of our lives and circumstances – that as a community commences to collapse, and even often after it has fully collapsed, some individuals within it do manage to function and perhaps even thrive. And of course, within fully functioning, shit-together communities, some individuals also manage to find ways to destroy their own lives, and perhaps the lives of those around them. Randomness prevails, and the uncertainty of its drift makes it all too easy for us either to doubt our vision, the generality of what we see, or to trust all too clearly our vision, by screening out the variances and discrepancies that would other challenge our truth.

I can see two more specific reasons for this philosophical and political dysfunction, both also related to our difficulty accepting and accounting for the randomness that pervades our lives.

First, we are not good at assessing risk.  Because managing risk imposes costs, we tend to understate risk in order to avoid costs, especially risks that impose costs on us to help others in need or who might in the future be in need. And because most risks remain fairly minor (until they’re not), we can experience annoyance or anger at bearing certain costs that we can rationalize to ourselves are unnecessary.

Second, because as a nation, our lens tends to be on the life outcomes of individuals – our focus on the trees and not the forest (the forest being a socialist, alien concept) – we overstate the agency of individuals, and minimize the problem of the school bus in the rain descending from the mountain to the plain, that moment when circumstances overpower agency. It is at that point, that causation essentially no longer matters, because as Rothman and Vance emphasize, at that point everything becomes causation (over-determination). And those overwhelmed by causation are like the schoolchildren and the bus driver and the coach and the driver of the other car and his girlfriend and the family members and friends waiting in their hometown for the safe return of their children. They are simply drowning in a shit storm of unmanageable scope.

Treasure the Child

This essay has already outstayed its welcome, and I still have not arrived at the punch line, which in truth probably requires its own separate essay. But I can outline the argument here. Which is that the only way to move beyond the sterile, unlovely debate about whether economics or culture explains our destinies, is to subvert this debate by diving beneath it and rendering it dependent on concepts that are shared more existentially and so conceivably less polarizing. So below, a few propositions.

First, political dysfunction organizes itself around the chaos of a belief that we have to solve everything, that everything is at stake. In the United States, with its endless political campaigns and unconscionably expensive media advertising orgies, both seeping into and poisoning the process of legislating itself, competition for attention requires this collective hyperventilation. Which of course means no one can compromise or cooperate, because they’re too busy bending over and gasping and having fat white man heart attacks of the Bill Swerski variety while pointing the finger of blame at their opponents.

Second, we cannot solve everything. What would happen if we could agree on that reality, and concede, however grimly, that we must instead together choose the most important thing that was at stake? And if we could agree on that one important thing around which to organize our efforts, and filter out the other stuff, would it not be conceivable that we could also identify a few problem-solving policies attached to our goals for that important thing, that were minimally acceptable to most members of both parties. No one needing to love each other. The sausage still getting made. But we find one reason, for a moment in time, to rise above partisanship. What would that one most important thing be?

It would probably be children. Without being sentimental, a policy focus on children, the younger the better, actually gives us the best possible chance, over time and cost-effectively, at managing, probably to the point of eliminating, the problems and challenges of the economic and cultural “underclass”.

There is much one can say about this focus on children. For now, the most relevant point to make in the context of this essay, is that we need to pay more attention, far more attention, to the developmental path of young children, to the secret and hidden lives of young children, the resilience and the vulnerability of young children, and the importance in their earliest years, of supporting environments and behaviors that minimize the corrosive, lifelong impact on the brain of the young child of environmental stress. The good news is we already have the tools and the knowledge to take these steps forward. And because this intervention can occur at a point in time when causation is sufficiently discrete and specific to have meaning, the cost of intervention is far lower than the money we now spend to manage the adult consequences – be they economic or cultural – of social collapse. Consider this our effort, as a nation, to act so that those children on the school bus can live.