Monday, April 30, 2018

Bill Cosby, Guilt, and the Risk of Moral Panic

Bill Cosby being led in for arraignment

Bill Cosby’s conviction for drugging and raping a Temple University staff member culminates a half-century struggle that never should’ve happened. But it does something more: it represents a rare situation during the current realignment over sexual mores and our definition of rape, in which an accusation follows through to a conviction. Historically, most accused rapists don’t face trial, and fewer face prison. Though our awareness of rape is evolving, our definition of culpability, sadly, isn’t.

We’re clearly witnessing a long-overdue shakeout of American sexual values. We’ve historically been willing to disregard accusations of rape and other sexual violence from famous people, from David Bowie to Bill Clinton, while using rape accusations to poor, black, and other outsider groups who make themselves inconveniently visible. Perhaps we can redress some of the historical injustices of our society. But hopefully, if Cosby’s trial teaches us anything, it’s that justice moves very, very slowly.

My concern with today’s realignment, is that frequently, mass-media justice moves hastily. Consider the Aziz Ansari story. A woman lobbed a 3000-word, gorily detailed accusation against him, pundits from the Internet commentariat argued about what the accusation meant, and then… nothing. The story burned out as quickly as it arose. We still don’t know if Ansari committed an offense, or poorly communicated his desire to get laid. It starts to smell like a moral panic.

The term “moral panic” has great weight in social sciences, but lacks any agreed-upon definition. For our purposes, let’s define a moral panic as a situation where the response to a perceived offense significantly outweighs any real or perceived harm caused by that offense, and where that response gives responders an in-group feeling of being unified in righteousness. Thus a moral panic doesn’t just refute a specious harm; it also creates a perceived group identity.

Matt Lauer
Thus we can identify many moral panics throughout history. Some have a literal moral tinge: the Salem witch trials of 1692 flared up suddenly, cost 19 lives, and ended as abruptly as they began. The only people executed at Salem were those who doggedly persisted in their innocence. In living memory, the Satanic ritual abuse allegations of the 1980s and 1990s didn’t actually kill anyone, but cost many their livelihoods. Again, only the innocent suffered.

It’s easy to point fingers at these situations. We have clearly measurable incidents of state-based injustice, where people who were measurably not guilty suffered official punishment, even execution. What about, say, Justine Sacco’s tweets? Experts continue to debate whether Sacco’s notorious tweet was actually racist, or a South Park-like satire written in a character voice. What matters is, public outrage carried the debate, and Sacco couldn’t work, shop, or show her face for five years.

This model partly applies, here. Partly. When public censure clings to the guilty, that isn’t moral panic. Louis CK and Matt Lauer have admitted the transgressions they’re accused of, and while they might earn redemption eventually, that time hasn’t come yet. Same applies for Kevin Spacey’s mumbling non-denial. But Garrison Keillor still insists he isn’t guilty of his accusations, and his distributor has aggressively purged all references from their records, even renaming his former show.

Please be assured: in calling this situation a potential moral panic, I’m not calling the accusations wrong, or the accusers liars. True justice requires taking all accusations seriously. But that doesn’t mean all accusations are true, either; to give one over-the-top example, we now know that Emmett Till, the most famous lynching victim in history, was falsely accused. During America’s lynching era, rape was the most common accusation used to justify racially motivated political violence.

Harvey Weinstein
That’s why we need transparent justice. Emmett Till was tried in absentia by the accuser’s kinfolk, and assassinated without being informed of his crimes. Bill Cosby was tried in a courthouse, face-to-face with his accusers, and convicted by a jury of citizens. That’s why I have no problem accepting Cosby’s guilt. Though history shows that race and public outrage can pervert the course of justice, we have a trial record. We can demonstrate our process.

We cannot demonstrate any such process with, say, Garrison Keillor. At this writing, Keillor’s former employer, Minnesota Public Radio, still hasn’t revealed the accusations that got Keillor ostracized. I admit, it’s hyperbolic to compare publicly scolding a celebrity with a racist lynching. But on one level they’re comparable: the process is invisible. MPR panicked, morally. Without slow deliberation, we’ll never know if the course of justice ran straight this time. That’s the risk we face.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The America that CNN and Washington DC Forgot

Sarah Kendzior, The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches From the Forgotten America

Why, in the midst of Barack Obama’s celebrated middle class resurgence, did so many working-class Americans get trapped in jobs with no future? If the 2010s saw such a storied economic resurgence, why are people with graduate degrees accepting service industry jobs? Has anyone else noticed that the Internet Revolution has made it harder, not easier, to break into meritocratic jobs like entertainment and finance? Somebody needed to write about it.

Sarah Kendzior has a doctorate in anthropology, and a cold familiarity with authoritarian states. She made her initial career translating news from Central Asia into language English-speaking audiences could understand. She never intended to become a journalist but, living in St. Louis, one of America’s most chronically impoverished cities, she began seeing chilling similarities between the post-Soviet “Stans” and the Midwest. So she wrote about it.

With a scholar’s eye and an urban mother’s sensibilities, Kendzior quickly established a reputation for explaining America to itself. Writing mainly in Al Jazeera English, she gained a cult following online for saying, with journalistic precision, what many Americans believed intuitively, that the recovery hadn’t benefited everyone. Dwindling jobs, stagnant schools, racial intolerance, a tone-deaf media… Kendzior calls out all of them.

First published between 2012 and 2014, Kendzior’s essays expressed what many people, regardless of political party, felt during the middle Obama years: left out, broke, and voiceless. As she describes it, though, her publisher wanted more mainstream acceptance, and she found herself without a venue. So she compiled thirty-six essays into a book and published it herself. It became a surprise bestseller during and after the 2016 election.

Sarah Kendzior
As millions of Americans with only a high school diploma or less abandoned the last vestiges of hope for economic mobility in the 2010s, college graduates realized that their degrees weren’t worth much either—”a promise the economy does not keep,” in Kendzior’s words. Unpaid internships and adjunct teaching positions became the norm. In other words, people worked without pay, or mostly so, in hopes of getting a paying job eventually, someday.

This doesn’t just influence jobs, though. It’s almost impossible to get into policy-making jobs, journalism, and other fields without an unpaid internship. This means the people making our laws, and the other people reporting on those other people and supposedly holding them to account, could only get into their fields because their parents could support them while they worked for free. Poor people’s children can’t get into those fields.

Meanwhile, the people who dominate our discourse paint others with a broad brush. They describe working mothers in language that might have made sense in 1975, but reveals our politicians and pundits don’t understand how much child care costs. They use terms like “the Muslim world” to create the impression of monolithic forces out there, somewhere, looming. They use words like “paranoid” to condemn anyone who questions their consensus.

As stories mount up, Kendzior guides us to realize these problems don’t exist in isolation. Tragedies like Trayvon Martin’s death aren’t separate from, say, the disappearance of scholarship behind a paywall; dying American malls go hand-in-hand with America’s overwhelmingly male policy establishment. Cynical proclamations from American newspapers get echoed in international leaders’ war speeches. We’ve created a system that keeps most of us quiet, confused, and left out.

Kendzior’s essays about these interconnected problems feel too massive to comprehend.  Indeed, she doesn’t include several ongoing issues: no mention of President Obama’s massively expanded drone warfare, only one mention of the Iraq war. Even with her scientific scrutiny, it’s easy to believe she’s just scratched the surface. Defenders of the status quo will certainly bring their most common complaint against her, that she names problems without presenting a solution.

But works like this are never about presenting the solution. They allow citizens suffering under the problem to understand that their pain, their dislocation, has been heard. We know we don’t suffer alone, because Kendzior acknowledges us, even shows us others suffering likewise. As she writes in “In Defense of Complaining,” simply naming the problem gives people power to organize and resist the forces keeping us down.

This collection, first privately published in 2015, has been republished for a mass audience, with a new introduction and epilogue, which put the essays into a Trump-era context. These problems, as Kendzior acknowledges, haven’t gotten better. They fueled the outrage that brought us 2016’s two biggest outliers, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. We must fix these problems soon, or the rule of law, already fraying, may snap altogether.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Waffle House and the Death of the Hero Cop

Travis Reinking being arrested peacefully

The Waffle House shooter is in custody. Travis Reinking barely made it a mile from the restaurant where he killed four Black and Hispanic customers, and wounded three others, before he huddled down. A combination of good police work and community engagement make Reinking easy to spot, and he was taken alive, with minimal conflict. This was an excellent example of how police conduct a manhunt for a known dangerous fugitive.

But it didn’t produce any heroes.

News reports surrounding the capture notably don’t mention any individual police officers by name, or interview anybody who participated in Reinking’s capture. No individual has claimed credit for the intelligence, pursuit, or actual physical capture. This story has produced only one acclaimed “hero,” James Shaw, Jr., the customer who wrestled the rifle from Reinking’s hands. The subsequent police investigation is a triumph of organization, unity, training, and skill.

This provides a problem for the narrative. Who, actually, brought down Reinking? The Antioch, Tennessee, PD can claim collective responsibility, but who can President Trump pin a medal on? The Commissioner of Police? The squadroom captain? This wasn’t a triumph for the officers in command, or the hierarchy. Without an individual to display for cameras, the police department lacks the ability to monetize this capture for future negotiations.

Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, the only
fictional hero cop I actually respect
David Graeber, of the London School of Economics, writes that hero cop harratives, a standard of American genre literature, usually begin with the police officer turning in his badge, getting grilled by Internal Affairs, or otherwise demonstrating his disregard for rules. We actively admire police who spit on the rules. Dirty Harry, John McClain, Murtaugh and Riggs… before a cop becomes a hero, he must first circumvent the bureaucracy.

That didn’t happen here. Nobody went off the ranch pursuing the killer, bringing justice down like God’s hammer. The Waffle House manhunt showcases efficiency, organization, preparedness, and skill. All the action took place in a matter of minutes; heroes and villains emerged from the narrative seamlessly. Everything after the original confrontation became a mopping-up operation.

Which, let me emphasize, it should be.

Because when one lone nut goes haywire, the results are often ugly. Movies made a hero of Dirty Harry Callahan, and critics consistently overlook the fact that white, clean-shaven Harry, a picture of postwar American manhood, delivered his iconic “Do ya feel lucky, punk,” speech while holding his gun on an afro’d Black man. This wasn’t a soliloquy, it was an enactment of white America’s fears during the racial realignment of the Vietnam era.

Somebody could criticize me now, saying: Hey, Murtaugh is black! John McClain’s foes are consistently white, and he brought down one of those foes by making an alliance with Samuel L. Jackson! Don’t make this into a racial thing when it doesn’t deserve to be one!

True, it isn’t necessarily racial. There are other explanations regarding what happens in these circumstances. Yet when individual discretion overrules procedure, individual prejudice intrudes. At this writing, we’re barely a month out from the Stephon Clark shooting, when police unloaded twenty bullets into a Black man whom they accosted in his own yard, claiming they mistook his cell phone for a gun. How many police would’ve mistaken a white man’s phone?

Or how about Eric Casebolt, who in 2015 famously wrestled a fourteen-year-old girl to the ground at a pool party in McKinney, Texas. When I voiced complaints about this action at the time, friends responded: “But he had a right to defend his life!” I respond, where on a teenager’s bikini did Casebolt see a lethal threat? Or did he react to black skin? Don’t lie to me in your answer, I know when you’re bullshitting.

A still from the cell phone video that ended Eric Casebolt's law enforcement career

Police have procedures established to prevent rogue actions. They do this because hard experience teaches that order means nothing without rule of law. And while, yes, you’ll find examples of police organizationally pursuing injustice, those examples remain horrifying because we no longer expect them like we did in Bull Connor’s day. Even if individual and systemic racism survive, organizations exist to prevent its sudden reappearance.

The notable quality about Travis Reinking’s arrest isn’t that police arrested him, but that they did so justly. No heroes, no guns a-blazing, no yippie-ki-yay mother… You know the rest. It shows a group, authorized by the community, valuing justice over heroism. If we could reward people for treasuring justice, and finally lay the hero cop myth to rest, maybe organized arrests and trials will become the norm. Hopefully we’ll see that day soon.

Monday, April 23, 2018

A Clarification About Hypnosis and “Get Out”

Director Jordan Peele on the set of Get Out, with actress Betty Gabriel

I think I said something I regret. Last week, writing about Jordan Peele’s breakout horror film Get Out, I talked about how ordinary people hypnotize themselves to get along with American society, because remaining awake enough to resist the consensus is difficult and costly. I used Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) as my example. Yet, as observant readers would probably notice, Get Out isn’t supposed to be about everybody.

Nobody has said anything to me. Given my low readership, I doubt anybody has even noticed. (This blog hasn’t exactly been the self-supporting resource I’d anticipated.) Yet to remain honest with myself, I feel obliged to clarify what I did and didn’t mean: I, a working-class white man, cannot claim particular affinity with Chris Washington, his experiences, or the Black American experience. We all hypnotize ourselves. But that doesn’t make it a universal experience.

I derive the concept of “consensus hypnosis” primarily from psychologist Charles Tart, whose book Waking Up popularized the concept. When I first encountered Tart and his theories, I didn’t realize he was a popularly derided parapsychologist whose theories about human consciousness are unbounded by such trivia as facts or evidence. I simply surmised, based on experience, that his idea, that we blind ourselves to our surroundings, made sense.

Even if Tart himself comes tainted with career baggage, that doesn’t mean his ideas are invalid. An increasing body of research in psychology, and related disciplines, reveals that everybody, regardless of race or economic status or other indicators, goes through life partly blind. We lack a characteristic psychologist call “mindfulness,” a term borrowed from Buddhism. For audiences interested in learning more, I recommend John Kabat-Zinn and Dan Ariely.


Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams in Get Out, before the real horror starts

This consensus hypnosis experience isn’t what Chris faces in Get Out. As an African American travelling into a white community, he remains conscious of race and loaded expectations. In an early scene, a policeman demands Chris’ ID following a routine fender bender, even though he wasn’t driving. Chris’ girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) gets outraged by this racial profiling. Chris soothes Rose’s anger while complying with the police.

Chris understands he’s black, with the attendant baggage. He’s just accepted he must perform certain Stupid Human Tricks to persevere. He literally accepts the cultural expectations of black men in America. That contrasts him to the movie’s other two prominent black characters: Andre King (Lakeith Stanfield), who disparages white suburbia before his symbolic lynching; and Rod Williams (Lil Rey Howrey), who warns Chris to stay away from White Country.

Thus Chris hypnotizes himself, not to reality, but to meta-reality. Injustice feeds upon injustice, and compliance with authority is concession, especially when authority misuses its power to restrain and shackle free citizens. Yet the opening scenes demonstrate that, by complying, Chris has been richly rewarded. He has a lucrative career, a beautiful girlfriend, and hasn’t gotten priced out of a Brooklyn so gentrified, even Patti Smith tells newbs to look elsewhere.

I daren’t reveal too much. However, it spills nothing to say that each act of compliance makes the next, bigger act more likely. Surrounded by honkies at Rose’s parents’ house, probably in the Hamptons, Chris accepts one incident of casual intolerance after another with equanimity. Rose encourages Chris to rebel against flippant racism, which gets harder and harder to explain away, yet Chris remains unwilling to rock the boat.

This storyline provides Chris multiple opportunities to break his conditioning, multiple incentives to resist, yet he doesn’t. Compliance has paid handsomely in prestige, and the sunk costs of getting along have become insuperable. Suburbia has to perform substantial outrages before Chris finally balks, by which time it’s too late. He’s bought into the system so deeply, escaping may cost more than he can afford to pay.

Daniel Kaluuya in the iconic moment from Get Out

As a white American, I can’t pretend I’ve ever had that experience. I’ve always enjoyed the protection of a society which equates “white” and “normal.” (Substitute the word “white” with “male,” “heterosexual,” “educated,” and the statement remains unchanged.) Yet I cannot help wondering: how have I complied with the system in ways that measurably harm me? A few answers spring to mind, but more, surely, remain hidden.

I regret presenting my meditation on Get Out as though somehow, the movie were about me. Thinking that, even accidentally, puts me on the story’s wrong side. Yet I cannot know, until they ambush me, what similar compromises I’ve made with the system. This movie emphatically isn’t about me. Yet, with slight changes of luck, it’s about where I could wind up.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Role of Hypnosis in “Get Out”

Chris gets hypnotized in Get Out

Even if you haven't seen Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning horror film Get Out, you’ve seen publicity stills of its most iconic moment. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), eyes wide and slightly red, sits in a leather chair, staring not-quite-straight into the camera, while tears dribble loosely from his eyes. He isn’t quite crying, but he’s clearly lost control of his reactions. He looks paralyzed, unable to look away, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. This isn’t coincidence.

In this moment, Chris is hypnotized. His white girlfriend’s psychotherapist mother Missy (Catherine Keener) has used deception, and Chris’s eagerness to please, to trick him into therapeutic hypnosis. She’d offered to do this earlier in the afternoon, claiming it would finally help him break his longstanding nicotine habit. He’d demurred, and his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) supported his decision, claiming “Some people don’t want others getting inside their heads, Mom.” So Missy resorted to deceit.

On some levels, this misrepresents both psychotherapy and hypnosis. Despite common fears, your therapist can’t “get inside your head”; your therapist only knows what you’re willing to share, and simply reads signs you present. And it’s impossible to hypnotize a resistant subject, much less make them do anything they wouldn’t otherwise do. But in this case, scientific accuracy isn’t the point. Chris and Missy’s relationship represents common fears about psychology, fears that don’t lack foundation.

Without spoilers, this hypnosis experience represents a common struggle among minorities, the poor, and probably women too: the experience of finding your lived experience separated from the messages we receive daily. We see ourselves working extraordinary hours in grueling conditions, yet getting nowhere. Then powerful people in politics and finance tell us our continued poverty reflects our own poor character. People we respect say we’ve achieved equality, yet we look around and see we haven’t.

We ask ourselves: do we trust our experiences, or the words powerful people speak? People who go along to get along clearly have more peaceful work lives, families, and other relevant experiences. If we make waves or resist, like union picketers or civil rights protesters, we know we face struggle, arrest, blacklisting. The undeniable appeal of “fitting in” makes many people deny their experience. Maybe my poverty really is my fault. Maybe the system works.

Alex get hypnotized (sort of) in A Clockwork Orange

Research psychologists understand this experience. Prisoners under torture can be made to see things that don’t really exist, because disbelieving their own senses is easier than facing the continued pain. Star Trek fans will know this as the “There Are Four Lights” scenario. We voluntarily relinquish the evidence of our senses because getting along peacefully, escaping the torture of outsidership and isolation, is a reward we want. We just want friends, family, and human contact.

From the beginning, Chris shows this willingness. A working artist, he’s achieved enough standing to resist gentrification and hold onto his converted Brooklyn loft, tastefully decorated with the accoutrements of middle-class life: posh leather furniture, flat-screen TV, pedigreed dog. Turning his artist’s eye toward commercial ends has been lucrative for him. He isn’t exactly assimilated, but he’s accepted his role in society, and been richly rewarded for it—a common Key and Peele theme, too.

This contrasts Chris with the other Black man he sees in Rose’s parents’ posh surroundings, Andre King (Lakeith Stanfield). In the movie’s prelude, Andre gets lost in a nameless Eastern suburb, walking streets designed to actively discourage pedestrians. Like many Black men in white suburbs, he finds himself tailed by faceless strangers. Andre, who has verbally mocked suburbia to this moment, gets dragged from the streets. Not for Andre the romance of surface-deep white acceptance.

Chris thus arguably makes himself vulnerable to Missy’s hypnosis, because he’s willingly hypnotized himself already. He’s denied the evidence of his senses that a shifting economy, and the preference for white people since around the year 2000 to move into cities (the reversal of historic White Flight) has shattered communities and their support networks. Chris has already chosen to participate in the evolved economy, chasing the rewards of inclusion. Missy doesn’t need to do much.

Like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, Chris would rather join society than retain his unique experiences. Unlike Alex, Chris has no specific moment he made that decision; it’s been a long string of paychecks, rent payments, and coffee dates. Moment by moment, he’s hypnotized himself, for the reward of acceptance—a reward powerful people could withdraw at any moment. We the audience, rich and poor, white and Black, must ask: have we hypnotized ourselves too?

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Mythical Cowboy Rides Again

1001 Recordings To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part 11
Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger

A strange, off-kilter recording barnstormed country music’s airwaves in 1975: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” a nearly thirty-year-old song that, somehow, nobody had ever heard of. Roy Acuff and Hank Williams, among others, had recorded the song, without having a hit. Yet somehow, amid the countrypolitan excesses and slick Chet Atkins-produced fluff of the 1970s, a strange, nasally voice that seemingly couldn’t find the beat, turned this forgotten gem into a certifiable phenomenon.

Despite being a lucrative, if largely unknown, songwriter, Willie Nelson based his eighteenth studio album around two songs written by other people: “The Tale of the Red-Headed Stranger,” a factory-written story song from the 1950s, and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” He constructed a story linking these songs together, and recorded the resulting album in just two days. Nobody, Nelson least of all, expected the album to become a hit.

An itinerant cowboy preacher returns home one wind-battered evening to find his wife with another man. Battered by rage, the preacher slays them both, then leaves his life behind. Wandering the horse-and-buggy Wild West, his name and old life forgotten, he struggles with his belief that God has turned His back. Before long, he faces the imminent possibility that he’ll never love anything again, and lose his soul.

The wandering cowboy, the vengeful apostate preacher, the doomed lover adrift in an almost entirely male world: Nelson managed to capture almost every important country music boilerplate while also creating a piece of classic Jungian mythology. The struggles of faith and identity, while wandering in a wilderness hellscape, transcend country music. Nelson calls his failed hero “The Preacher,” but he could be Orpheus or Sir Lancelot. Maybe once, he was.

Willie Nelson, around the time he
released Red Headed Stranger
Nelson had been on country music’s scene for fifteen years without making a name outside Nashville’s Music Row headquarters. He’d written classic songs for Patsy Cline (“Crazy”) and Faron Young (“Hello Walls”), but apart from his sinecure at Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters, he had no status as a musician. With his polyester slacks and demure manner, Rolling Stone writer Chet Flippo supposedly mistook him for an insurance salesman.

For decades, audiences failed to embrace Nelson’s idiosyncratic voice. Then as now, he often sang ahead of or behind the rhythm, reminding us the literal origins of the term “offbeat.” His jangly nylon-string guitar often overwhelmed his demo recordings. Nelson prepared himself for an unglamorous career in country music’s equivalent to Tin Pan Alley, writing songs that others would make famous, his own voice consigned to demos only studios heard.

Struggling for an anchor on what he suspected might be an anchor, he found the answer in a song. Nelson reports that he’d long sung “The Tale of the Red-Headed Stranger” to his children as a lullaby. His then-wife, Connie Koepke, suggested he turn that into an album. Creating a series of linking songs, and a few instrumentals, Nelson turned one song into a Louis L’Amour-like epic of American rootlessness.

Columbia Records let Nelson bring his live band into the studio, an unusual move in Nashville then and now. For all its homespun ideals, many fans don’t realize how tightly controlled and orchestrated much country music actually is. Despite a handful of famous singer-songwriters like Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson, country musicians overwhelmingly don’t write their own songs; even fewer play their own instruments.

In contrast to this, Nelson composed this album half-spontaneously, improvising lyrics into a tape recorder while accompanying himself on guitar. The album is approximately half original, half organized around already common Nashville songs. Despite his lackadaisical sound, Nelson also proved himself an accomplished organizer, rehearsing his live band thoroughly before recording began. According to accounts published later, this album took less than two days of studio time.

Nelson also benefited from fortunate timing. Released just as the “outlaw country” movement began, Nelson had a personal champion in Waylon Jennings. When studio executives balked at Nelson’s stripped-down sound and lack of orchestration, Jennings aggressively pitched this album to radio stations, critics, and fans. Apparently, country fans agreed. The album went to number one and was certified gold the next year, remarkably speedy for country back then.

Too bad other musicians didn’t heed Nelson’s call. While the then-dominant “countrypolitan” sound continued its heavily orchestrated direction, and outlaw country became electrified and pop-friendly, even Willie himself couldn’t maintain that austerity; his 1980s recordings were themselves slickly produced. But for one brief moment in 1975, amids slick disco and dancing queens, Willie produced something authentic, something bigger than himself.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Lost King of New Orleans' Floodwater Wizards

Bryan Camp, The City of Lost Fortunes: a Crescent City Novel

Jude Dubuisson used to be New Orleans’ foremost finder of lost treasures; after Katrina, he maintains a streetside booth, performing magic tricks to entertain tourists. Like his beloved city, he’s a hollowed-out vestige of his multiracial, French-Caribbean heritage. Until, that is, his former partner returns, bearing a message: Jude owes New Orleans’ own native-born Fortune god a debt. And Fortune is calling in its marker.

I confess, I needed time to acclimate to Bryan Camp’s debut novel. I got distracted by Camp’s fannish nods, some direct and others oblique, to other writers, from Charlaine Harris and Jim Butcher to William Gibson and even Graham Greene. But as I moved into Camp’s rhythm, I began realizing he wasn’t so much name-dropping as acknowledging the fan-base already drawn to books like these. He’s crafted a damned decent debut.

Dragged into his old haunts, Jude finds himself playing games with forces older than humankind. Literal games: some kind of tarot/poker hybrid primarily. Except the entire novel unfolds inside one hotly contested hand, as players literally bet their souls. It’s a killer hand, too, as the Fortune god gets his throat slit. Jude competes with a vampire, an angel, and an Egyptian god to assume the divine mantle; vast multitudes ride on one turn of the cards.

Jude resembles similar genre characters, like Harry Dresden and Sookie Stackhouse, in multiple ways. He has vast powers which could shake Earth’s foundations, but which he cannot fully control… yet. He inherited this power from a parent (or ancestor) whose secrets could tragically intrude upon his current life. And though not a detective himself, he must investigate a crime too profound for the police, before apocalyptic ramifications start rolling down.

Bryan Camp
So, Jude must discover who murdered the Crescent City’s most beloved god, having wagered his own soul. But even as he stalks the mysterious killer, the killer stalks him; without meaning to, Jude leaves a trail of bodies behind himself. He quickly realizes that his beloved city, his burg of jazz funerals and voodoo enchantment, hangs in the balance. And his trusted magical gifts… have gone missing.

On his journey, Jude travels with Regal Sloan, whose resemblance to William Gibson’s sidekick character Molly Millions deserves comment. She’s loyal but contemptuous, moral but brutal, and most problematic for post-Katrina New Orleans, she’s white. Jude gives flashes that he might love Regal, but certainly doesn’t trust her. Mostly he needs her, because she’s plucky when he’s discouraged. If only her motivations weren’t so murky.

Behind Camp’s urban-fantasy flourishes, Hurricane Katrina lingers, like Old Hamlet’s ghost. Everyone except Jude has fallen into their “new normal” routines, but Jude, whose magical abilities tie innately to New Orleans itself, can’t ignore the flood damage. His self-flagellation after the levees broke has stained everything in his life. This resembles other post-Katrina novels, like Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge or Erica Spindler’s Watch Me Die, filtered through Camp’s lens.

You’ve perhaps noticed how many prior novelists I’ve already name-checked. As I said above, this probably isn’t accidental. Throughout his first half, Camp is half author, half fanboy, like a reader at your favorite sci-fi convention. Then, around page 200, the novel takes a sudden, unexpected veer into new territory. Well, not really new, it’s actually quite Jungian, but new to Jude. Camp really kicks readers in the pants.

This sudden zigzag, coupled with Camp’s careful attention to detail, gives this novel a literary quality often missing from genre fiction. Camp charts a personal course between conventional beach reading and high-minded belles-lettres. This probably reflects his background: both an MFA scholar and a Clarion West graduate, his learning as a writer is unusually flexible. More writers, literary and genre, should aspire to such complexity.

One could pair this novel with Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and unpack deeper truths about now natural disasters create modern mythic journeys. I might do so later. Jude Dubuisson is a complex character with deeper qualities: not wholly mortal, he’s nevertheless as mortal as his city. But it’s also a rollicking genre adventure, if you prefer such fun escapades.

So that’s the experience. Camp starts off nerding out on genre stereotypes, and stuffy purists might want to quit. But as he progresses, and we settle into his groove, there’s so much more going on. Veteran genre readers might wish his early chapters didn’t rely on tropes arranged like Legos. But if we muster grit enough to persevere, Camp provides a deeper journey. If we stick with him.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Über, the Killer Car, and the Dying Pedestrian

When a self-driving car killed a pedestrian last month, the predictable outcry divided into two camps. On the one hand, reflexive distrust of innovation led to retreads of decades-old science fiction wheezers. It’s the rise of the machines, hashtag #Apocalypse! Cooler heads, though no less reactionary, began debating the innate relationship between humans and their creations. I suggest both positions are wrong, because they miss the underlying problem.

And that problem is cars.

The car which killed Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona, ran on software created by the  technology service Über and Tesla, the electric car company founded by tech innovator Elon Musk. Please note, neither company is a charity. Both run for-profit businesses which seek to sell customers something. As with most business deals, the physical item they want to sell us usually matters less than a philosophical premise under that item. We must pause and ask what that is.

Über uses a smartphone app to summon cars to our location and provide us rides, for a price. Tesla manufactures cars that supposedly consume less fuel and spew fewer atmospheric toxins. Both companies offer us access to enclosed, climate-controlled capsules which speed us from one location to another in maximum comfort in a timely manner. With a car (or access to a car), I can be in Kansas City in four hours, Denver in six.

In other words, cars offer us individual mastery over gaps in space and time.

So what’s wrong with that, I hear curious interlocutors already asking. If I need to make it to work through inclement weather, or go shopping while carrying an antsy baby, or just take my family on a well-deserved road trip, shouldn’t I have that autonomy? Well, perhaps. But after a century, we’ve witnessed the long-term effects cars impose on society. And many of those effects are less than salutary.

Elon Musk (stock photo)
Elon Musk’s technological vision has come under criticism for one important issue: it separates people into compartments. I don’t mean for old-fashioned Bull Connor-type violent discrimination, but the literal separation of people into tiny four-person cabs. Even when he talks about mass transit, like his proposed Hyperloop, he mainly wants to put cars in close proximity to one another and move them around quickly. His model organizes human society around cars.

Anybody who has lived in American suburbs since World War II knows it’s impossible to get anywhere without a car. Children may walk to school (though they often can’t because of distance), or to the corner store for candy and comic books. But generally, adults won’t walk or bike anywhere if the commute takes longer than twenty minutes. That means if they live over a mile from work, the grocery store, or social activities, into the car they go.

Urban designer Jeff Speck notes that, when people walk, they also talk. They meet new people, discuss ideas, even organize. Speck says he met his wife on a Washington, DC, sidewalk. Imagine all the new businesses, innovative technologies, and happy families that never happened because adults don’t walk anywhere. That’s the world fostered by Über and Tesla inventing ever-better ways to avoid walking, and thus avoid meeting new people.

I posit this isn’t accidental. Back in 2015, Elon Musk called several of his own employees “fucking soft” for working fewer than 90 hours per week and not coming in on Saturdays. Musk wants his highly skilled professional programmers ensconced in his climate-controlled, beige-colored technological sweatshop for as long as possible. Well-rounded people with families, community commitments, and commutes on foot or bicycle will never accept such conditions.

The individual mastery over space and time which I previously said cars offer is, is illusory. My dependence on my pickup truck, and my city’s reliance of feeder roads, means I drive to work at the same time every day, by the same route. I don’t see anything new, or meet new people, or have new experiences. I don’t take road trips, because I can’t afford the time or fuel. My car has arguably rendered me less autonomous than a poor villager in a developing nation.

But recently, an awkward circumstance left me carless in Lawrence, Kansas, a city I’ve previously called “my second home.” Walking back to my truck, approximately a six-mile journey, I saw things—businesses, houses, even an urban forest—I’d never seen before. I simply had freedom to look.

So there’s my problem with Über’s self-driving car. Not that it killed a pedestrian; but that it reveals we’re already dead.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Ghost in the Shell: the Iron Fist of Cyborg Law

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Expires, Part 25: Mamoru Oshii (director), Ghost in the Shell
1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 89: Masamune Shirow, Ghost in the Shell

Section Nine is the most advanced mobile police strike unit in post-humanist Japan, and its commanding officer, Major Motoko Kusanagi, takes no prisoners. From feral cyborgs to a government hacker turned rogue, she never fails to retrieve her target, even when failure risks her titanium-reinforced cybernetic skin. But a strange new threat, the Puppet Master, looms. With neither a body to kill nor a system to hack, Kusanagi might’ve met the prey she can’t capture.

Writer-artist Masamune Shirow first serialized his Ghost in the Shell manga (uncolored Japanese comic book) in the late 1980s and early 1990s; its English-language translation appeared in 1995. Shirow’s melancholy existential themes develop so gradually that, given the often improvisational nature of Japanese manga, one suspects even Shirow didn’t anticipate their depth. Yet the comic, and its 1995 feature-length anime (animated film) adaptation, have now influenced a generation of Japanese and Western post-humanist science fiction.

Routine human augmentation has changed the nature of crime, and also crime-fighting. Shirow depicts a world where criminal and victim are often separated by entire continents. The Internet, uncharted territory back then, provided cover for everyone from petty swindlers to contract killers. If anything, Shirow’s predictions appear, thirty years on, too modest. But the scariest monsters trafficked in altered human memories—the forerunners of “fake news.” Technology threatened to usurp our individual and shared identities.

Into this mix, Japan has thrust Section Nine. The story identifies Section Nine as a national police division, with arrest privileges, but it doesn’t take long to realize that, like James Bond or Judge Dredd, Section Nine is its own law. The government dispatches Major Kusanagi’s team to crucify criminals too dangerous to bring in alive. One scene, present in the manga but not the anime, shows the Japanese Prime Minister disclaiming Section Nine altogether.

Major Kusanagi rules Section Nine with an iron fist. Literally so: in the manga, she frequently punches underlings and even superiors to assert her authority. Yet the state permits her excesses because she wins. It’s easy for Westerners to forget that Japan retains rigid gender stratification; a female action hero is downright revolutionary, but every morning she has to prove her chops afresh. She succeeds because human augmentation renders black-and-white morals obsolete. Only winning matters.

Major Motoko Kusanagi, in the 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell

Yet Kusanagi struggles with identity herself. A mix of human tissue and digital technology so complex, it’s impossible to separate one from another, Kusanagi spends long off-hours ruminating on human nature. If she quits Section Nine, who owns her body? What happens when her augmentations become obsolete? Can she die, and if so, does she have a soul? The movie strongly implies she might never have been human, her pre-cybernetic memories a mere factory preset.

The Puppet Master upsets whatever conclusions Kusanagi previously reached. If he can reprogram human memories, then what identity does anyone have? Equally important to her job, how can she pursue criminals if witnesses’ memories, their experiences, their very identities are fabricated? But as Kusanagi chases this master criminal from place to place, she comes to suspect the unimaginable: he might not have a body. What does that make him? And what does that make her?

Mamoru Oshii’s anime adaptation strips Shirow’s subplots, focusing narrowly on the Puppet Master. Most English-speaking audiences will probably first encounter this story through Oshii’s movie. But audiences interested in these themes will find Shirow’s original manga intriguing for themes Oshii triaged out. What limitations does human physiology place on technology? Would robots ever really find sufficient motivation to rebel against humans? (Spoiler: no.) What happens when logical digital programming clashes with the rabid human id?

Shirow’s original manga clearly sets his story in Japan. Oshii’s adaptation obscures the nationality, though his streetscapes, unusually detailed for hand-drawn, pre-CGI animation, strongly suggest Hong Kong, and Jackie Chan’s best action extravaganzas. Both stories strongly suggest that digital culture, and digital crime, have rendered physical boundaries obsolete, although national identities still carry weight; Kusanagi alternately observes and transgresses Japanese gender roles, while clues suggest the Puppet Master is American. Just one more contested identity.

Oshii’s anime has inspired several spinoff media, including one direct sequel which used several of Shirow’s ancillary themes, two TV series, and one American remake which bombed on arrival. None of this spinoff material has recaptured the original magic, and is probably of interest only to sci-fi nerds and Japanophiles. But the original book and movie have massive crossover appeal. Shirow’s themes (if not his technology) remain uncannily prescient. We’re witnessing his story play out now.

Monday, April 9, 2018

We Need To Talk About Race In Church

F. Willis Johnson, Holding Up Your Corner: Talking About Race In Your Community
Will Willimon, Who Lynched Willie Earle?: Preaching to Confront Racism

As a preacher in Ferguson, Missouri, Reverend F. Willis Johnson served on the front lines when the Michael Brown case exploded. He marched with local clergy and community members when the case stalled. And when things turned violent, Reverend Johnson interposed his black body between panicked protesters and police armed like a counterinsurgency corps. Yet he realized, eventually, such camera-friendly direct action wasn’t enough.

Johnson’s first book draws its title from the biblical story of the paralytic who, unable to approach Jesus directly, had four other men lower him through the roof so Christ could heal him. Christ healed this man through his faith, Johnson says, but also the faith of his four friends, who needed to each take their corner of his mat. Likewise, if we call ourselves Christ followers, we must assume responsibility for getting society’s least powerful through the door.

To achieve his goals, Reverend Johnson expounds his Empathic Models of Transformation, or EMT—the abbreviation is deliberate. EMT requires Christians to Acknowledge, Affirm, and Act. This means those who have standing in American society, the wealthy, white, male, and heterosexual among us, must reject our encultured White Savior complex and genuinely listen to the oppressed, where they are, regardless of our discomfort.

Despite promising to talk about race in his title, Johnson’s EMT becomes more inclusive. He’s concerned with society’s “othering” process, where our power structures categorize people into insiders and others. This includes people we’ve “othered” for their sexuality, gender identity, and more. Once we understand how power structures, often invisible, lift up some while marginalizing others, Christians can mobilize the Gospel into acts of radical resistance, just like the Apostles did.

This slim volume is part of a congregational study challenging Christians to explore the countercultural impulses of their faith. Johnson demonstrates how Scripture boldly opposed power structures of its day, and how modern Christians, inspired by that message, stand firm in defense of the powerless and oppressed. He invites congregations to join difficult conversations about painful topics, but he reminds us we don’t fight alone. We follow the One who brought Good News to the poor.

Reverend F. Willis Johnson (left) and retired Bishop Will Willimon
Bishop Will Willimon didn’t discover the Willie Earle lynching until he was in college, though it happened in his South Carolina hometown. From that point, the spectre of racial violence hung over his thinking, as he proceeded through seminary, ascended the ecclesiastical ladder, and eventually became a Duke University professor. Now he commences from Earle to question how white pastors can counsel white parishes on contemporary American racism.

Early in his book, Willimon unpacks the history. After a crowd of whites was unanimously acquitted for lynching Willie Earle, Reverend Hawley Lynne of Pickens, South Carolina, preached a fiery sermon to his white Methodist congregation. Whether it changed much, Willimon doesn’t address; what matters is that a Christian leader used the church to challenge the powerful in their high places, in the Wesleyan tradition.

Willimon relates this to today’s environment. Though most denominations condemn overt racism, white Christians remain reluctant to address systemic inequity that prevents poor non-whites improving their station in America. But Christianity’s root demand that believers address injustice. The white Protestant illusion that Christianity only preaches getting to heaven when you die makes little sense to African-Americans and other people genuinely oppressed.

Directly addressing congregational ministers, Willimon expresses his opinion that Christian leaders must address structural injustices. If Christians are a people of mission, we cannot extend that mission only to people like ourselves, those who already share our values or whose experiences resemble our own. A congregation that doesn’t reach outward doesn’t represent the Christ-like model, and from the parable of the sheep and goats, we know how that ends.

Though Willimon intends this book for preachers, and others conducting organized ministry, it offers plenty of insight for serious-minded Christians engaged with today’s world. What does Christianity mean, Willimon asks, when we see someone bleeding by the road? More important, when it’s us bleeding? Willimon doesn’t answer these questions directly. Rather, he challenges Christians to go inward seeking answers. Because only when we know Christ can we change.

These books have some commonalities. Both authors are United Methodist clergy: Johnson, a pulpit minister and church planter, Willimon a retired bishop. Both teach in seminaries, so they have the “teaching and preaching” halves of ministry covered. And both books run under 100 pages, plus back matter. But they aren’t identical in theme or approach, and have different intended audiences. I recommend reading both books together.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Why Are TV Men So Incompetent in the Kitchen?

You’ve seen the Clorox Disinfecting Wipes commercial, as I did again the other day. An attractive thirtysomething woman in exercise sweats drops her tote on the counter, announces “I’m home,” and turns into the kitchen to find… her husband changing the baby’s diaper on the inlaid wood countertop! Whatta maroon, amirite? Garsh, all women have probably been through something like that! Whew, it’s like having to raise two kids at the same dang time.

(Clorox has another ad which reuses the exact same shots of the woman, but when the camera turns to her husband, he’s scaling a fresh-caught flounder on the counter, bits of blood and flesh scattering wildly. You decide which is worse on your food prep surfaces: human poop or animal blood.)

When this ad ran during my evening headlines this week, my mind flashed to an essay a friend shared several months ago, an op-ed from a British tabloid website, entitled “Male incompetence is a subtle form of misogyny.” Author Miranda Larbi makes a persuasive case that men who plead incompetence in household affairs are engaged in a passive-aggressive form of male dominance. When male incompetence resembles Larbi’s description, I agree with her argument.

But I’ve also noticed the prevalence of male incompetence as a cultural trope. It’s especially noticeable in fifteen- and thirty-second commercials, where the entire arc turns around one exchange. But once we’re aware of it, we find it more subtly integrated into most mass media, especially television, where the highly competent man suddenly becoming all thumbs when confronted with domestic responsibilities, is played for everything from pathos to cheap laughs.

The issue, whether for opponents like Miranda Larbi or profiteers like the AKQA media agency (responsible for the Clorox ads), seems substantially confined to the kitchen. The cultural current just expects men to demonstrate complete fumbling incompetence wherever food is prepared. Notice that the man’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t take responsibility for household chores; he cheerfully raises babies and prepares dinner. He just does so in ways that bring bathroom or garage functions into proximity with food preparation.

Again, the advertising environment seems a place where this thrives. The very short medium creates a sort of morality play in which men, often believing themselves highly competent, go full Dunning-Kruger on domesticity. Cascade, the dishwashing detergent company, has run entire campaigns around this theme:

This isn’t even my favorite ad from this campaign. My favorite, starring Mad Men veteran Sadie Alexandru, features a man enthusiastically scraping food residue off freshly washed dishes, while his wife makes a face combining disgust with “I want a divorce.” Sadly, this one appears no longer available on YouTube.

Critics will respond by pointing out that TV commercials aren’t reality, and aren’t instruction manuals for daily responsibilities. I agree. These are examples of low comedy played for broad laughs in an environment where the fifteen-second limit basically forbids deeper examination of themes. Commercials will always fall back on broad stereotypes taken from the larger culture.

But that means these stereotypes already exist. A full panoply of male boilerplates, from skilled professionals to manful outdoorsy types to ridiculous hipsters, is expected to turn stupid and borderline dangerous when entering the kitchen. Doofus behavior has become the default position for men in the food-preparation domain. Dudes like me are just waiting for women to bail us out.

Even the opposite of this position reduced men to one stereotyped position. Actor Tim Daly plays the husband of the Secretary of State on TV’s Madam Secretary. His character is a former CIA operative who, by the fourth season, is promoted to head of the CIA’s clandestine affairs division. Yet, interviewed on NPR, Daly reported that most of his fan mail, especially from men, has focused on his competence in the kitchen. His defining character trait, singular, is his ability to cook.

The pervasive expectation that men will be incompetent around food preparation encourages both sexes to conform to their preconceived notions. There might even be something anti-patriarchy to giving women a domain exclusively their own. Women face no glass ceiling in the kitchen, no male privilege, no lopsided competition where their confidence gets deemed “bossy.” Women can be women in the kitchen.

Yet expecting women to perennially rescue men from our own incompetence doesn’t just marginalize women. It permits, even encourages, men to not think beyond themselves. When male incompetence is so pervasive that advertisers play it for low comedy, that proves both women and men need to break our chains.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The King's Rebellious Archbishop

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 24
Peter Glenville, director, Becket

King Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole) thinks being king is amusing. When not fighting useless wars to bolster his popularity, Henry engages in vulgar debauchery at London’s taverns and whorehouses. He merely tolerates his sons, despises his wife, and picks fights with the church. And he has elevated the Saxon Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) to aristocracy, apparently to provoke his French-speaking Norman court. When the Archbishop of Canterbury suddenly dies, Henry spots an opportunity.

Closely adapted from a play by French dramatist Jean Anouilh, this movie resembles widescreen Technicolor epics of its generation, movies often helmed by outsized personalities like David Lean and Richard Attenborough. But it has a different moral fiber, a conflict driven by two characters’ very different expectations. Henry, born to rule, has become an ethical black hole. Becket, a commoner, has authority thrust upon him, and finds himself transformed. The contrast will resonate for centuries.

Like wealthy people throughout history, Henry is fascinated by commoners. He admires their Saxon language, their earthy values, their disregard for courtly duties. But like most class tourists, he mistakes poor Britons’ tools of survival for moral laxity. He thinks he can become Saxon by getting drunk, having irresponsible sex, and generally behaving like a boorish lout. At the beginning, Becket is Henry’s enabler. By encouraging Henry’s flamboyant lifestyle, Becket gains the trappings of nobility.

Eventually Henry needs somebody pliant in positions of actual authority. He thinks he can control Becket, so he invests Becket with nobility and makes him Lord Chancellor. To Henry’s shock, Becket takes his authority seriously, even siding against Henry in a brief dispute. Petulant at this apparent betrayal, Henry creates new, meaningless responsibilities for Becket, and leaves his former friend running the household while he chases military adventures. Everyone expects Becket to fail, including Becket.

Peter O'Toole (left) and Richard Burton, as Henry II and Thomas Becket

Peter Glenville directed this adaptation, having previously directed the play’s Broadway debut. To his credit, Glenville doesn’t merely film a stage play; though his long, eye-level takes create a theatrical look, his camera work is remarkably subtle, jumping between viewpoints without self-conscious showmanship. Keeping with contemporary film technology, Glenville’s production is somewhat set-bound. However, the sets are elaborate; the stone walls look hand-mortared, the furniture rough, like it was hewn from oak with an axe.

Today’s audience, accustomed to HD imagery often shot through grey filters, may find Glenville’s saturated Technicolor pictures jarring. This technology creates screen images both more and less real than today’s directors favor. Glenville uses Technicolor’s vibrancy to his advantage. Henry flounces around England in military jerkins and tight pantaloons, ornamented with gold and jewels, to highlight his colorful but stern personality. Becket favors bright primary colors as a commoner, graduating to more somber tones later.

This happens especially when Henry presses his advantage. Having picked fights with several bishops by levying taxes on church property, he has few ecclesiastical allies. A vacancy in Canterbury, the primate church of England, leaves the state church rudderless. Before Rome appoints a successor, Henry races in and (possibly illegally) installs Becket as Archbishop, thinking the suddenly popular bureaucrat will favor state interests. Again, Becket surprises everyone by taking his responsibilities, and England’s faith, seriously.

Then as now, the relationship between Church and State is deeply problematic. Henry wants an Archbishop to sanctify his debauchery and glory-seeking; Becket wants a King that will fight for the virtues he pretends to have. Thrust into power over England’s immortal soul, Becket rediscovers the desperation and hunger his fellow Saxons never forgot. Secure in his cathedral, Becket feels no compunction against naming his former friend’s increasingly visible sins. The two are never reconciled.

Admittedly, this movie is somewhat squishy on history: the actual Becket was Norman, not Saxon, and though he died unpopular, Henry II was never as debauched as this depiction. These and other casual inaccuracies come directly from Anouilh’s play, which took dramatic license to convey its message. Like Shakespeare, Anouilh sees reality as less important than truth. This story takes Henry and Becket on one shared journey, from which they learn two very different lessons.

At nearly two-and-a-half hours, this movie is comparable to The Bridge on the River Kwai, and shorter than The Ten Commandments or O’Toole’s other legendary star vehicle, Lawrence of Arabia. Yet despite a running time that wouldn’t discomfort most cinema managers today, this film certainly fits the description of “epic.” It invites viewers to join its characters on a journey that leaves them, us, and their entire world transformed. We cannot finish this movie unchanged.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Debating the Past in America's Largest Slave Port

Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, Denmark Vesey's Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy

Historians and preservationists sometimes call Charleston, South Carolina, “the Cradle of the Confederacy.” As colonial America’s foremost southern port, the majority of Africans imported for the slave trade entered through Charleston. South Carolina’s resolution to secede from the Union passed in Charleston, making this city the beginning of the Civil War. And Fort Sumter sits on an island in the harbor just off Charleston’s shores.

Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts, a spouse team specializing in 19th Century American history, tackle here an unusually specialized subject: how one city has struggled, since 1865, to remember its past. Focusing on Charleston, a remarkably well-preserved city which has maintained much of its antebellum charm, allows the authors to focus very narrowly. But one needn’t read very long to realize, this book is still about the present.

Both before the war and after, Charleston was a majority-Black city. The Citadel, which remains one of America’s leading military colleges, was originally founded in Charleston to provide a reliable cadet corps in case of slave uprisings, like Denmark Vesey’s thwarted 1822 rebellion. Charleston held its last public slave auction just weeks before Union forces overran the city, so confident did city fathers remain in their city’s durable forced-labor economy.

When Union forces first occupied Charleston, Black residents celebrated; our authors describe parades, street festivals, and Union soldiers greeted as liberators. Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, was first celebrated to mark the occasion when liberated slaves decorated the graves at a former POW camp outside the city. For twelve years, Charleston served as liberated Black America’s unofficial capital and cultural touchstone.

Then Reconstruction ended, and Union forces went home.

Kytle and Roberts describe an intricate, years-long PR campaign to manage how Charlestonians remembered the war and the slave era. While former slaves remembered brutality, isolation, and fear, they mostly weren’t literate, leaving oral histories behind. Literate whites, controlling the newspapers and other printing, cultivated an image of paternalistic slaveholders and jolly slaves. Most relevant to today, they also nurtured the myth that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery.

Ethan J. Kytle (left) and Blain Roberts
The city landscape became the most active battlefield for city memory. What city leaders chose to memorialize became part of Charleston’s identity. “Philanthropic” organizations, including white churches, erected multiple memorials to prominent slaveholders, including former Vice President and pro-slavery firebrand John C. Calhoun. Sites associated with Black history, like Denmark Vesey’s house, got demolished. In essence, the history worth saving became the history worth having.

Remarkably, this isn’t only about racial politics. Women took point in funding and building the Calhoun memorial, including replacing it when the first memorial looked comical. Our authors make a throwaway comment that really grabbed my attention: women took this lead because Southern society considered women innately apolitical. Thus an explicitly political statement became somehow innocent by being feminized. Neo-Confederates used gender politics to disguise their ugly racial politics.

Again, Kytle and Roberts consider this a throwaway statement, in the midst of a larger discussion of public appearances. But for me, it became the emblem of how intricately micromanaged the effort remains to normalize racism, excuse slavery, and make the Confederacy somehow heroic. At a time when women couldn’t vote or own property, their very presence served to exonerate racist patriarchy from its most violent outburst in American history.

This isn’t a history of a place, a city. It’s a history of history, of the ways residents have struggled for how to remember their past. As George Orwell observed seventy years ago, forces who control the past control the present: we define our current identity by the stories we tell about what we’ve done and who we’ve celebrated in days gone by. Though certain events clearly happened, how we define those events, and the people behind them, defines us.

Our authors describe this 150-year battle in plain English, fortified with maps, black-and-white photos, and other visual aids for non-specialist audiences. They have a panoply of sources, which treat liberated slaves’ oral history as seriously as literate whites’ massive documentation. Where we don’t have hard-and-fast facts on historical events, such as freed slaves’ elaborate but unprinted dance celebrations, they offer informed speculation backed with sources.

Kytle and Roberts write about one violently contested American city. But like the best literature, this book is also undeniably about us. History, for them, isn’t an inert list of facts, but a debate which the living still engage. And they invite us to see that debate, often concealed, made plain. What they reveal says everything about us.