Hannah Beachler, production designer on Black Panther, has been urging people to stop using black-and-white imagery from the civil rights movement “so people stop thinking it was 1000 years ago”; she’s been posting examples of color photography from the time. Along the way she tweeted a link to this remarkable interview with Martin Luther King Jr. from 1967, eleven months before he was assassinated. Carve out half an hour to watch this; it really kicks into gear at almost exactly the halfway mark. It’s bracing, compelling, and not only a little depressing: so much of what he says still can be said today — and is.
If you’ve been lost for a real sense of context on the Portland protests, Gregory McKelvey has you covered.
Robert P. Jones, adapting from a forthcoming book, writes that white Christianity in America continues to have some unaddressed reckoning to do with its role in racism and slavery, and some uncomfortable but lingering effects of that role.
In my day job, I am the CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts research on issues at the intersection of religion, culture, and politics. I’m a social scientist by training and have always been fascinated by the ways in which beliefs, institutional belonging, and culture impact opinions and behaviors in public space. I strive to conduct research and write as an impartial observer. In our work at PRRI, we’ve found that white Christian groups—including evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics—consistently hold views that are at odds with African American Protestants’ views. The attitudes of nonreligious white Americans, conversely, tend to be more aligned with African Americans’. For white Americans, the data suggest that Christian identity limits their ability to see structural injustice, and even influences them to see themselves, rather than African Americans, as a persecuted group.
Jill Lepore’s examination for The New Yorker of the “invention of the police” has been sitting in my Pocket account, and so on my Kobo, for weeks, waiting. I finally got to it tonight, in part because Jack Bogdanski linked to William Finnegan’s New York-centric examination of the outsized role of police unions in protecting the police from reform. The two pieces are worth reading together, if you haven’t gotten to either of them yet.
Richard Kreitner and Rick Perlstein for The New York Review of Books present a short history of the “outside agitator” in American politics and social change (via Alex Wittenberg). Carve out some time to sit down and read this one.
The man in charge of the Pentagon, a former Raytheon executive, then said, “And we get back to a…”—he paused, then offered an even more pregnant formulation—“the right normal.” This was the lens through which the institutions of the American security state began thinking about protests that had assembled to protect and preserve black lives: by constructing an entire model of military engagement, with the outside agitator trope as its foundation. Evidence suggests they still are thinking that way. At the end of June, with any violence in demonstrations associated with the George Floyd protests at least three weeks in the past, Barr formed a task force to monitor “anti-government extremists” engaging in “indefensible acts of violence designed to undermine public order,” possibly even “fortified by foreign entities seeking to sow chaos and disorder in our country.”
Jennifer A. Richeson for The Atlantic explains how Americans’ views of racial progress are dramatically skewed, and even when studies bring them to believe things in the past were (somewhat) worse than they’d thought, they can’t seem to bring themselves to believe things are bad now.
For the past several years, I, along with my Yale colleague Michael W. Kraus and our students, have been examining perceptions of racial economic inequality—its extent and persistence, decade by decade. In a 2019 study, using a dozen specific moments between 1963 and 2016, we compared perceptions of racial wealth inequality over time with actual data on racial wealth inequality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the respondents in our study significantly overestimated the wealth of Black families relative to that of white families. In 1963, the median Black family had about 5 percent as much wealth as the median white family. Respondents said close to 50 percent. For 2016, the respondents estimated Black wealth to be 90 percent that of whites. The correct answer for that year was about 10 percent.
I mean holy fucking hell, Victorian android-makers. What the shit was wrong with you.
My biggest surprise in reading Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock is that the 17th and 18th centuries apparently somewhat were awash with automata. It’s vaguely like reading a history from a parallel world. I’ve read any number of books on various topics that cover some portion or another of the same period, some of which I’d have expected to make at least a passing reference to such a fact, but other than now and then encountering reference to Wolfgang von Kempelen’s Mechnical Turk I’ve simply never heard of this.
In the interview, Cotton said the role of slavery can’t be overlooked.
“We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country. As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction,” he said.
Instead of portraying America as “an irredeemably corrupt, rotten and racist country,” the nation should be viewed “as an imperfect and flawed land, but the greatest and noblest country in the history of mankind,” Cotton said.
Notice that he doesn’t say, “We need to study how the Founding Fathers said it was a necessary evil.” He says, “As the Founding Fathers said…” — a grammatical construction one uses when one is citing a source to support one’s own view.
When accountability culture came for Tom Cotton and The New York Times for an op-ed full-throatedly calling for military intervention against Black Lives Matter demonstrators, I wonder if those who came to their defense understood that you can’t actually “cancel” a sitting United States senator, who after all then simply can turn around and use the privilege of his political power to try to ban a history project about the true beginnings of the violence that was American slavery. It’s weird, though, for one person both to call openly for political state violence against Black people in the here-and-now and yet also call for hiding the historical roots of such violence from public view in our schools.
Three very good pieces on the self-interested backlash to accountability culture. Adam Gurri for Liberal Currents untangles the distinctions between censorship, social sanctioning, and the openness of media (via MeFi); Osita Nwanevu for The New Republic unwinds the ways in which the critics of progressive identity politics are, in fact, the real illiberals (via Mark Isero); and Emily Pothast for OneZero undoes the ignorance of the power dynamics at the hidden heart of this debate.
The primary focus of the current “free speech” debate are not threats of this sort at all, but the threat of social sanction. I do not think we can make a principled case for a generalized freedom from social sanction. Freedom of association necessarily means freedom of disassociation, and the combination with freedom of speech means that people are able to argue for casting out particular members of an association. To come together to express shared values or pursue a goal can only work if one is able to cast out those whose participation is at odds with those values or that goal. But this is not a brief for unbridled freedom of association; any American should be familiar with what the right to refuse service, for example, has historically meant in practice. Yet the typical limitations on freedom of association, used to soften the hard edges of disassociation, are rarely raised in the context of the “free speech” debate.
Two notes here. In discussing association, Gurri talks about the power imbalances in employment, observing, “To my knowledge, Zaid Jilani is the only one who has brought up at-will employment in the context of the “cancel culture” debate.” For the record, Helen Lewis and Jill Filipovic also have discussed this. Less importantly, I’m here for Gurri’s Serenity shoutout.
Ultimately, it’s the realities of our collective past that make the notion that progressives are dragging the country toward illiberalism especially ridiculous. Over the course of two and a half centuries in this country, millions of human beings held as property toiled for the comfort and profit of already wealthy people who tortured and raped them. Just over 150 years ago, the last generation of slaves was released into systems of subjugation from which its descendants have not recovered. August will mark just 100 years since women were granted the right to vote; Black Americans, nominally awarded that right during Reconstruction, couldn’t take full advantage of it until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The litany of other inequities and crimes our country has perpetrated and continues to perpetrate against Native Americans, immigrants, religious and sexual minorities, political dissidents, and the poor is endless. All told, liberal society in the U.S. is, at best, just over half a century old: If it were a person, it would be too young to qualify for Medicare.
Bonus note: in deconstructing a David Brooks column in which he acknowledges that many Black Americans perhaps are not, in fact, making it here and so not, in fact, feeling at home here, Nwanevu offers this amazing line: “It isn’t happening because the ladder of American meritocracy is, in fact, a busted drainpipe.”
At best, discussions of “cancel culture” which are not grounded in an analysis of power structures are disingenuous distractions. At worst, they are a silencing cudgel wielded by those who are actually doing the very thing they accuse others of doing. It’s worth mentioning that JK Rowling, one of the signatories of the Harper’s letter, recently threatened a transgender activist with legal action over a tweet. How can someone advocate “open debate” while also aiming to silence dissent? How, indeed. As Jessica Valenti writes, “cancel culture is how the powerful play victim.” The Harper’s letter is expertly crafted to make its signatories appear to be the victims in the fights they themselves have picked.
I’m certainly willing to buy that the Biden campaign’s clarification of Biden saying that Trump is the first racist to be elected president in fact is what Biden meant to say, but even setting aside the merits of that clarification, I’m already finding Biden’s inability to say what he means to be saying just fucking exhausting. Lurking beneath this, though, also is my lingering doubt that Biden even truly understands that the only difference between Trump and the Republican Party of my whole god damned lifetime primarily is that Trump got elected while finally just saying the quiet part out loud instead of using the party playbook of codewords and dog whistles.
Joel Anderson admonishes the (let’s face it: Republican) political opportunists wrapping themselves in John Lewis’ legacy.
I thought of Smitherman, whose role in maintaining white supremacy made Lewis’ work necessary in the first place, as an avalanche of tributes to Lewis came in late Friday night and Saturday morning following his death at 80. Who would be the Smitherman, I wondered—the disingenuous antagonist who kept Lewis fighting until his dying breath? Who would attempt to redraw the battle lines to feign allyship with an American hero? Who would shamelessly celebrate the life of Lewis only to work assiduously to thwart his life’s work?