Ferguson, and national moments

The following was first published for We Find, You Read, a new email newsletter to which you should subscribe.

America is fond of declaring Moments, with a capital M. There is The Libertarian Moment, currently embodied by Kentucky senator Rand Paul. The financial crisis — and, later, French economist Thomas Piketty — helped usher in The Keynesian Moment. Jason Collins and Michael Sam facilitated The Gay Moment.

These Moments are not confined to happy events. Following the Newtown massacre, we rushed to proclaim A National Moment on gun control: needless to say, the opportunity came and went. The National Football League was said to have a Moment regarding concussions. And today we find ourselves, once again, heralding what Reverend Al Sharpton has deemed a “defining moment for this country” in Ferguson, Missouri.

Moments pass. Or worse, they become “conversations,” the universal American signifier (favored by network anchors and Washington pundits alike) for a deluge of words that quickly drown all meaning. Millions of people yelling at once does not a conversation make.

Neither does one person speaking to millions. Last night — after watching live as her colleagues Jake Tapper, Don Lemon, and Marc Lamont Hill struggled to breathe following the police’s indiscriminate use of tear gas — CNN anchor Rosemary Church wondered aloud why the Ferguson police had failed to deploy water cannons for crowd control. Any conversation in which perspectives such as hers play a principal role is not one worth having.

Indeed, our “national conversation on race” is less useful than silence, never more obviously so than when its loudest interlocutors alternate between caricature and farce. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps the keenest observer of racial issues in America, memorably wrote in 2010:

The very nomenclature–“conversation on race”–betrays the unseriousness of the thing by communicating the sense that race can be boxed from the broader American narrative, that you can somehow talk about Thomas Jefferson without Sally Hemmings; that you can discuss Andrew Jackson without discussing his betrayal of the black artillerymen who fought at the Battle of New Orleans; that you can discuss the suffrage without Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells or Frederick Douglass; that you can discuss temperance without understanding the support of the Klan; that you can discuss the path to statehood in Florida without discussing Fort Gadsen; that you can talk Texas without understanding cotton, and so on.

Transforming a Moment into a movement is the Holy Grail, and it is not easy. Defining an organizing objective is the first concern, and limiting scope must follow closely behind. (Today, Zuccotti Park is just a park.) If we are to confront, at long last, the dual menaces of police militarization and systemic racial discrimination, we must be sufficiently determined to delve into more fundamental questions.

These inquiries should prod the American conception of masculinity itself, one whose chief metric often appears to be the extent of lethal weaponry one can amass. It should similarly encompass racial disparities in both policing methodologies and judicial decisions. And it should make note of the disparate language so often used when a crowd is white (“protest”) and when it is not (“riot”).

Fashioning a movement, lastly, will create uncomfortable bedfellows. But there is much the left can agree on with the likes of Rand Paul, who observed (correctly): “There is a systemic problem with today’s law enforcement.” One is not obligated to wish for a return to the gold-backed dollar in order to Stand with Rand against police brutality. The Ferguson Moment will soon vanish, but let us make something of its passing.

“Telegenically dead Palestinians”

We try to target the rocketeers, we do, and all civilian casualties are unintended by us but actually intended by Hamas. They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can, because somebody said they use, I mean it’s gruesome, they use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead, the better.

- Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu

No one fears propaganda quite like a propagandist.

When Benjamin Netanyahu speaks of “telegenically dead Palestinians,” he is attempting to negate, via sardonic aside, the collective effect of hundreds of images of bloody, lifeless bodies — often very tiny ones — being mourned by men and women in the throes of unspeakable agony. These images, vivid in their specificity, he considers propaganda. Netanyahu fears “telegenically dead Palestinians” precisely because Israel’s dwindling foundation of international support hinges on their invisibility and, therefore, on his ability to foster a telegenic humiliation of the Palestinian people.

That for years he has managed to accomplish this, and to do so with remarkable dexterity, is a testament both to Netanyahu’s media savvy and his interlocutors’ credulity. He is helped along, too, by a decidedly non-telegenic  bête noire in Hamas — one whose nonchalance towards the civilian Palestinian death toll rivals Israel’s.

But Netanyahu increasingly resembles the boy who cried wolf. His monotonic recitations of impending doom at the hands of the blockaded and helpless Palestinians (or, in convenient moments, Iran) evoke Joe Biden’s damning encapsulation of Rudy Giuliani, a kindred opportunist in gleeful exploitation of tragedy for political gain: “…A noun, and a verb, and 9/11. I mean, there’s nothing else. There’s nothing else.” (Netanyahu’s adherence to the Giuliani playbook is in fact doubly insidious: while he liberally trades on the memory of the Shoah to lend gravitas to his hawkish policies, he has abandoned actual Holocaust survivors badly in need of food, healthcare, and other basic necessities.)

Netanyahu’s problem — and, by extension, Israel’s — is that the impact of his militaristic drumbeating is undermined by his obvious lack of interest in regional peace: acquiescing to American pressure shortly after Barack Obama’s first inauguration, Netanyahu — the same man who had once exulted in scuttling the Oslo peace process and boasted that “America is a thing you can move very easily” — cannily declared himself, for the very first time, in favor of a two-state solution. Determining which statement represents the truth is, as always with Bibi, a matter of finding whichever quote was spoken the furthest distance away from a visible television camera. Just as telling are his insistence on settlement-building and his plans for a long-term occupation of the West Bank.

Most Americans, however, are not following along closely enough to parse out fact from fiction. It is no accident that, in his frequent appearances on American television and in person, Netanyahu is fond of appropriating American imagery to vivify Israel’s existential threat of the moment for a receptive audience. In 2011, he described the 1967 borders as “indefensible,” explaining: “Israel was all of 9 miles wide — half the width of the Washington Beltway.” Four days later, he used the same line in front of a joint session of Congress.

Two weeks ago, Netanyahu told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “I mean, imagine what Israel is going through. Imagine that 75% of the U.S. population is under rocket fire, and they have to be in bomb shelters within 60 to 90 seconds. So, I’m not just talking about New York. New York, Washington, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Miami, you name it. That’s impossible, you can’t live like that.” (Nearly two million Gazans do live like that, and far worse.)

Netanyahu’s communicative style here is in keeping with a 116-page booklet called “The Israel Project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary,” authored by Republican strategist Frank Luntz. The document was written for “visionary leaders who are on the front lines of fighting the media war for Israel,” and it contains blunt strategic advice on how to promote Israel’s point of view to the foreign public, especially Americans:

  • “Don’t talk about religion. Americans who see the bible as their sourcebook on foreign affairs are already supporters of Israel. Religious fundamentalists are Israel’s ‘Amen Choir’ and they make up approximately one-fourth of the American public and Israel’s strongest friends in the world…The primary reason for this is that their religion tells them to do so.” (p. 12)
  • “Personalize the problem for the American audience…’Imagine Washington, DC under missile attack from nearby Baltimore.'” (p. 42)
  • “Israel is so rich and so strong that [leftists] fail to see why it is necessary for armored tanks to shoot at unarmed kids or why Israel needs to level homes or attack villages or, most importantly, why a Palestinian state is a threat to Israel’s existence.” (p. 96)

Similarly, Israeli officials seem to be heeding the report’s admonition to communicate empathy from the start: “Indeed, the sequence of your conversation is critical and you must start with empathy for BOTH sides first” (p. 4). On July 29th, Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, responded thusly to CNN host Jake Tapper’s  question about the death of Palestinian children:

You know, we had a special press conference in Tel Aviv last night.

And the chief of staff of the Israeli military, the most highest Israeli official in uniform, he said it in openly, and he said it in Hebrew to the Israeli public. It wasn’t something for foreign consumption. He said, every innocent victim in Gaza pains us.

And I think he was saying something very genuine, something very real that Israelis feel. We don’t want to see innocent civilians caught up in the crossfire between us and Hamas.

While the above approaches are tailored to a more skeptical audience, the Israel Defense Forces’ Twitter account, by contrast, is a tour de force of wartime propaganda.twitter On August 2nd, for example, the IDF tweeted the following text accompanied by a video: “WATCH: More Hamas tunnels successfully destroyed in Gaza.” The tweet just prior linked to the IDF’s blog and declared: “Israel accepts ceasefires, Hamas rejects them.” (That tweet — which was posted at 9:39 AM EST on August 2nd — was directly contradicted by Haaretz, which had reported just minutes earlier that “Israel will no longer seek a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip via negotiations with Hamas, senior Israeli officials said.“)

Given this meticulous attention to words and their varying effects on foreign ears, it is unsurprising that Netanyahu is just as carefully attuned to media coverage of the Palestinians. It especially explains his description of “telegenically dead Palestinians,” a phrase as notable for its dismissal of authenticity as it is for its derision.

The problem for defenders of Israel’s actions in Gaza, however, is that the Palestinian death toll, now surpassing 1,500, is all too real. The vast majority of these appear to be civilians: some estimates place the percentage at 80% or above, and even Israeli deputy foreign minister Tzachi Hanegbi acknowledged that he was only able to confirm that 47% of Palestinian deaths were combatants. (This is not to say that Hamas eschews propaganda; however, its efforts in this arena are so ham-handed as to be nearly comical.)

The civilian casualties have shaken even some of Israel’s allies. United States Secretary of State John Kerry, unaware that he was being captured on microphone, fumed to an aide about the extent of Israeli military actions in Gaza: “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” he said twice. In recent days, both New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait (“Israel Is Making It Hard To Be Pro-Israel“) and Vox founder Ezra Klein (“Why I have become more pessimistic about Israel“) have penned pieces airing their discomfort with Israel’s bombardment as well.

The cumulative effect of on-the-ground reporting and photography streaming out of Gaza is beginning to create a rare dynamic for Israel: in this conflict, at least, young Americans no longer see Israel as David, but as Goliath. Based on the threads of evidence from recent polling by Gallup and Pew, young adults are starting to look at Israel and feel, if not always say, “Enough.”

This empathy for the Palestinians’ plight was precisely Netanyahu’s target when he described dead Palestinians as telegenic (a rhetorical device whose horrendous history ought to especially shame Netanyahu). But even according to Frank Luntz’s handbook, this technique does not play well: “The Israel-against-the-world, woe-are-we approach comes across as divisive” (p. 17).

This leaves Israel, and its advocates, precious little material to work with, and the result is a predictable regurgitation of “What would you do if…” questions. But this intellectual conceit is wearing thin, especially since the immediate riposte is so obvious: Stop occupying the West Bank and bombarding Gaza. (Another tactic, attempted by former presidential speechwriter David Frum, is to deny reality altogether.)

In truth, there is no effective Israeli response to the video of a weeping Chris Gunness (above), the spokesman in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), just as there is no appropriate reply to the images of dead children. The authenticity is bracing, and it leaves little room for caricature or dismissal. The question is just how long it will take Israel to stop playing the cartoon villain.

Introducing SCOTUS Map

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Victoria Kwan and I have been working on a few projects for the past few months. One of our more recent efforts is SCOTUS Map. (SCOTUS stands for “Supreme Court of the United States.”)

This map, based entirely on Victoria’s research (and my rudimentary knowledge of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript), displays where the current and retired Supreme Court justices are speaking throughout the summer and into the fall.

The map includes details on each event itself, the venue, registration information, and (eventually) post-event recaps. The right-hand sidebar lists all events, both past and future, in chronological order. SCOTUS Map will be continually updated as new events are announced, and we plan on creating new iterations of it for each successive Court term (and recess).

The map is permanently available at http://scotus.victoriakwan.com/pages/scotusmap. (Visiting http://scotus.jaypinho.com/pages/scotusmap will take you to the exact same page as well.) Please note that it is best viewed on a desktop computer, as tablets and especially mobile phones tend to squeeze the dimensions a bit.

We invite you to take a look. If there are any events involving Supreme Court justices that we haven’t yet added, please let us know by tweeting at @SCOTUSMap or by sending us an email.

Finally, keep checking back here, as we have other projects in the works that we think you’ll enjoy (especially if you happen to be a legal nerd).

Thank you!

Jay

Squaring The Circle

“Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.”

This boilerplate disclaimer, inserted amidst various other notices on the copyright page of Dave Eggers’ latest novel, is superfluous: nothing in The Circle resembles reality in any way whatsoever.

This book administers a cudgel to the English language, among other ignominies, and, as with all such tragedies, the reader is left with only two options: remain a complicit bystander or stand firm against literary massacre.

I choose the latter. Some books are so terrible that only a review warning away potential readers has the power to absolve oneself of the guilt and self-loathing that accompany the book’s completion.

The Circle is a disaster. It is, on its face, a cautionary tale of the consequences of over-sharing and voluntary self-surveillance in the digital era, but its concerns are so explicitly belabored, its storytelling so juvenile, its characters so obviously proxies for authorial obsession, that the fictional universe is inevitably compromised in favor of absurdist dystopia.

Here, numbers — and everything else — have no meaning. Eggers tosses them around like grains of sand, wholly detached from any sort of significance. (Case in point: employees of the Circle — a thinly-disguised hybrid edition of Facebook, Google, and Twitter — actually count the grains of sand in the Sahara. It takes three weeks.) In one excruciatingly long paragraph, Eggers channels an Excel spreadsheet by quoting 40 separate numbers in mind-numbing fashion:

The total number of stats she was tracking was only 41. There was her aggregate customer service score, which was at 97. There was her last score, which was 99. There was the average of her pod, which was at 96. There was the number of queries handled that day thus far, 221, and the number of queries handled by that time yesterday, 219, and the number handled by her on average, 220, and by the pod’s other members: 198.

If there were even an inkling of a rationale for this numerical inundation, The Circle could have been at least minimally readable. But even the most disinterested reader cannot match Dave Eggers’ apathy for his own figures. In an unsurprising oversight, Eggers describes Mae’s “six weeks she’d been transparent” on page 309, then “the three weeks Mae had been transparent” on the subsequent page.

The raison d’être of the Circle — to vacuum up every conceivable data point on its users in order to better serve advertising and personalized content — is clearly borrowed from contemporary social networks. But this is where the similarities end. Eggers’ heroine, Mae Holland, achieves the Herculean task of appearing more inanimate than the Circle’s villainous algorithms, whose alleged ascendance ostensibly prompted Eggers’ hellscape.

Mae is a human being in only the most technical sense: she has eyes, ears, and a mouth, but virtually everything else suggests a quasi-robotic response to all human interaction coupled with a stunning lack of self-awareness. Mae is essentially a drone, only more predictable and less vulnerable to human emotion.

As the Circle demands ever more of her devotion — in one of the book’s rare highlights, she slowly accumulates workstation computer screens, beginning with two and expanding eventually to nine — Mae rarely betrays any semblance of human resistance, choosing instead to drown her peers’ disapproval in a pool of self-loathing.

If that metaphor sounds overwrought, you’ll have a very difficult time completing The Circle. Which brings me to the eponymous company’s “completion,” the Eggers-ian concept of absolute omniscience that, unfortunately for him, is already comically outdated thanks to Edward Snowden. While Eggers struggles valiantly to elucidate the grave danger of the creeping news feed — a phantom menace that, much like creeping sharia law, dissolves upon closer scrutiny — the nation has moved on to PRISM and XKEYSCORE: apparent mundanities belying great danger, a precise inversion of Eggers.

That is not to say The Circle isn’t terrifying, although certainly not for the reasons intended by its author. I finished the book fearing less for a grim future of autonomous digital overlords and more for the disappearance of the subjunctive tense: “For a moment, the couple watched as Mae maneuvered her way to their barge…as if this was their living room and she their night’s entertainment.”

Elsewhere: “Mercer took a deep breath, and Mae knew he was about to give a speech. If there was a podium before him, he’d be stepping up to it, removing his papers from his sportcoat pocket.”

And again: “He smiled sympathetically at Mae, but with a raised eyebrow, as if there was something about Mae that was perplexing him, something he couldn’t put his finger on.”

It’s almost as if Eggers was not familiar with the English language. In this, at least, he has his creations for company. Remember that ubiquitous movie scene where the bad guy explains his diabolical plan to the horrified hostages before carrying it out? The Circle is a 491-page version of this, right down to the expositional format and preachy condescension.

In one scene, a Circler — novelistic parlance for an employee of the Circle — explains an on-campus sculpture (designed by a literary Ai Weiwei knockoff) to Mae:

I mean, how can the Circle find a way to make the connection between us and our users stronger? To me it’s incredible that this artist, so far away and from such a different world, expressed what was on the minds of all of us here at the Circle? How to do better, do more, reach further, you know? How do we throw our hands through the screen to get closer to the world and everyone in it?

This doesn’t sound like anyone I know, and I work in online advertising. (The dead giveaway: social networks with customer service departments.) The walking dead in Eggers’ universe are categorically immune to warnings of a totalitarian eradication of privacy — their idealistic naiveté thus constituting, to borrow John Oliver’s phrase, “a straw man so large you could burn it in the desert and hold an annoying festival around it.” (Not to mention the fact that Ai, his celebrity-infused dilettantism notwithstanding, became famous for protesting surveillance, not celebrating it.)

Indeed, events of the past week undermined Eggers’ preening concern. Facebook released a study revealing that they had conducted a one-week experiment over two years ago in which approximately 700,000 users were exposed to varying levels of positive and negative posts.

Upon the study’s release, the Internet hordes went wild with speculation and fury. “Facebook and the Ethics of User Manipulation” was one of the kinder headlines. A general consensus coalesced around the idea that involuntary subjection to such an experiment was highly unethical — despite the fact that Facebook’s News Feed is, and has for years been, algorithmically curated based upon criteria that are necessarily highly subjective. Everything on one’s Facebook feed is, to an extent, the result of an experiment.

In short, on many issues we are still closer to much ado about nothing than the other way around. Yet Eggers still inhabits a 1984 world, and his star, Mae Holland, meets an end as self-nullifying as Winston Smith’s: acquiescence to her masters via the betrayal of a lover.

But even in the wake of Snowden’s devastating disclosures, Aldous Huxley’s prophesies ring truer than George Orwell’s. As a social network, the Circle may dull our senses, but it is unlikely to kill us. In fact, Eggers is at his best when conjuring a near-future world in which a frenetic, almost-constant exchange of digital messages — zings, he calls them — drives their senders and receivers into paroxysms of emotional insecurity and self-regret.

This is a society I recognize (as a participant), from the quiet desperation of Like-seeking to the more overt emergence of Internet celebrity as a legitimate vocation. And so I find it truly bizarre that the debate on the vanishing art of the negative book review — recently inflamed by Buzzfeed books editor Isaac Fitzgerald’s categorical disavowal of them — was presaged by Dave Eggers all the way back in the year 2000:

Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.

This is precisely the brand of overly-sensitive claptrap Eggers now decries in his novel, many years later: honesty as a casualty of a status-obsessed generation. So do not listen to 2000 Dave Eggers. Go forth, be a critic. Social networks will not destroy you, nor will punishing book reviews.

The same cannot be said of The Circle.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and “The Case for Reparations”

From the White House on down, the myth holds that fatherhood is the great antidote to all that ails black people. But Billy Brooks Jr. had a father. Trayvon Martin had a father. Jordan Davis had a father. Adhering to middle-class norms has never shielded black people from plunder. Adhering to middle-class norms is what made Ethel Weatherspoon a lucrative target for rapacious speculators. Contract sellers did not target the very poor. They targeted black people who had worked hard enough to save a down payment and dreamed of the emblem of American citizenship—homeownership. It was not a tangle of pathology that put a target on Clyde Ross’s back. It was not a culture of poverty that singled out Mattie Lewis for “the thrill of the chase and the kill.” Some black people always will be twice as good. But they generally find white predation to be thrice as fast.

We invoke the words of Jefferson and Lincoln because they say something about our legacy and our traditions. We do this because we recognize our links to the past—at least when they flatter us. But black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it. The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter. Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge—that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.

Both of these powerful passages are taken from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ stunningly ambitious new essay, “The Case for Reparations.” The guy is probably best described as our national conscience on race: here, he advocates forcefully for an acknowledgment of centuries of institutionalized, systemic racism in the form of cold, hard cash.

The essay builds slowly: in the first half, I wondered where he was going at times as he dutifully recounted horror stories from the distant past. But as his chronology eventually began to catch up to the present, the contours of his argument became visible and the point is crystallized: American national crimes against African Americans are not past sins for which we owe penance, but an ongoing travesty that continues — in various sinister forms — through today.

To be clear: the essay is a masterpiece. Ta-Nehisi Coates is nothing if not an elegant thinker (a phrase I’ve admittedly stolen from Victoria), and his piece is at once a painful read and a uniquely invigorating one: it confronts the reader with the centuries-long litany of black suffering and then, as if by miracle, presents the (at least partial) solution: reparations.

Which is where “stunningly ambitious” comes in. The only point in the essay at which Coates briefly contemplates an appropriate figure for reparations is here:

Scholars have long discussed methods by which America might make reparations to those on whose labor and exclusion the country was built. In the 1970s, the Yale Law professor Boris Bittker argued in The Case for Black Reparations that a rough price tag for reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income. That number—$34 billion in 1973, when Bittker wrote his book—could be added to a reparations program each year for a decade or two. Today Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor, argues for something broader: a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.

$34 billion in 1973 dollars is equivalent to $181.56 billion today. If this total were paid out yearly for one decade, the 10-year result would be a $1.82 trillion payout. This is equal to:

These numbers would, of course, be doubled if $181.56 billion were paid out annually over two decades, and not just one.

Suffice it to say, this is not an easy case to make. But if anyone can do it, it’s Coates. (To be clear, he didn’t actually make the case for any specific number, but the above example is the only figure he discussed at all in relation to the American experience. He also discusses West Germany’s reparations to the state of Israel following World War II, which amounted to the relatively minuscule total of $7 billion in current U.S. dollars.)

Although it’s difficult to explain, I find his argument compelling and challenging on the one hand, and almost too easy somehow on the other. I realize that makes basically no sense. But here goes anyway:

There is a certain beauty to the simplicity of his proposal: African American wealth would be doubled in just ten years (in reality, the effect would likely be far greater as some of the initial payments are invested in businesses, financial markets, and so on), significantly shrinking the disparity between white and black Americans. That part makes sense — to me, anyway — and is, while highly debatable, certainly an idea worth discussing. As Freddie deBoer put it (somewhat bluntly), it’s about “using the power of the federal government to redress historical injustice and contemporary inequality by giving black people money.”

On the other hand, there is something truly irreversible about such an enormous sum of money being transferred directly to such a large group of people. Leaving aside the obvious practical questions that would arise as to funding, how to disburse money to mixed-race people and households as well as recent immigrants, and so on, two immediate fears spring to mind:

  • What if it doesn’t work?
  • Couldn’t such a high-profile payment plan backfire if it is substituted for all other efforts at combating African American poverty and social discrimination? Couldn’t it be seen as a panacea?

I’ll address these in reverse order. The latter point is actually an example of a type of reasoning I find absolutely appalling whenever I encounter it in someone else’s writing, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t similarly self-flagellate for bringing it up myself.

And so, to answer my own fear, I must admit that it’s patently ludicrous to base one’s objection to a proposal on the predicted reaction of other people who will also oppose — or, at the very least, remain apathetic to — the proposal as well. If a decade-long payment plan to African Americans results in everyone else collectively turning their backs on the collective plight of their countrymen of color, well, whose fault is that really? What’s more, in even that worst-case scenario, African American wealth would double in ten years, an unalloyed good and certainly preferable to the status quo.

Good, then: we’ve dispatched with that. But the first bullet point concerns me even more. I am truly frightened by the prospect of what would happen if, after ten years — or even five, or three, or one — of scheduled payments to black Americans, little or no discernible socioeconomic impact manifests itself. This could be absolutely catastrophic for the future of African Americans in this country, in a way that dwarfs even their current situation.

Keep in mind that any such effort to substantively welcome black Americans into the national economic sphere inhabited by their white peers would meet vicious, sustained opposition right from the start. (Coates is well aware of this, as is Charles Ogletree, a fact which one can easily deduce from his own different proposal.) Just look at the struggle that the Affordable Care Act — watered-down, battered, and compromised down to a fragment of its idealized version — underwent to get passed, and there wasn’t even an explicit racial component to its redistributive effect.

A very large portion of the country, therefore, would be literally licking its chops and hoping against hope for the policy’s failure — or, in the case of officials in positions of power, actively using their authority to thwart it (as Republican governors are doing now, with regard to Obamacare). Even the slightest indication of anything other than an unequivocally resounding success would produce enormous pressure on politicians to abandon the plan. And if such an end were to come for the program, it would decisively alter the course of African American history for the worse. It’s hard to imagine being able to try anything like it again for at least another half-century or longer.

To answer my own criticism again, even this could be responded to thusly: “So what? Black Americans are already in a desperate position socioeconomically: what could possibly be wrong with giving something else a shot after years of failed policy?” Which is an entirely fair point.

But I can’t help but wonder if there’s a better way of accomplishing the same thing. By “better,” I mean that in the strictly objective sense of resulting in a higher level of income and/or wealth for African Americans after ten years than they would achieve under this hypothetical ten-year program.

So perhaps that’s the whole question: I’m onboard to spend massive amounts of money to improve the socioeconomic standing of African Americans. (I haven’t even addressed my admittedly underdeveloped thoughts on whether such efforts should be explicitly linked to slavery by invoking the term “reparations,” but — like Freddie deBoer — I’m not nearly as interested in debating that side of the coin.) But is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ idea the best way to go about it?

The self-negating FCC

It’s easy to forget that the Republican Party is still capable of the occasional surprise. Its members have grown so accustomed to anti-governmental rhetoric that I’ve lost the raw sense of disbelief that accompanied some of their more absurdist speeches four or five years ago.

And then are moments like today. The Federal Communications Commission voted today to open its proposed net neutrality rules for a four-month period of public comment starting now. The chairman of the Commission, Tom Wheeler (himself a former telecom lobbyist), is pushing for an ersatz version of “net neutrality” in which there are no slow lanes, only fast ones. (If that doesn’t sound logical to you, it’s probably because you’re not an Internet service provider.)

This is bad enough. But there was a nugget in the New York Times article on the day’s events that especially caught my eye:

The two Republican members, who voted against the plan, said that it exceeded the agency’s legal authority, that there had been no evidence of actual harm or deviation from net neutrality principles and that elected members of Congress should decide the issue, not regulatory appointees.

Ajit Pai, the senior Republican on the commission, said all the members shared “some important common ground: namely, a bipartisan consensus in favor of a free and open Internet.”

But, he added, “a dispute this fundamental is not for us, five unelected individuals, to decide. Instead, it should be resolved by the people’s elected representatives, those who choose the direction of government, and those whom the American people can hold accountable for that choice.”

The fifth commissioner, Michael O’Rielly, was the most forceful in his dissent. “The premise for imposing net neutrality rules is fundamentally flawed and rests on a faulty foundation of make-believe statutory authority,” he said.

(Emphases mine.)

Is it just me, or is it patently insane for two of the FCC’s duly-appointed five commissioners — whose self-described mission is to “[regulate] interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories” — to actively lobby against their own employer’s stated purpose?

It’s one thing for, say, a Treasury Secretary or Federal Reserve chairman to make a judgment call on anti-inflation measures or quantitative easing or liquidity injection. It would be quite another thing entirely for Janet Yellen to abruptly decide that returning to the gold standard is the correct approach, and then proceed to actively sabotage the work of her own central bank. That is what’s happening here with the FCC, and it should be a scandal.

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Donald Rumsfeld: the known unknown

I finally had the opportunity to watch Errol Morris’ latest film, The Unknown Known, last night. In the tradition of Morris’ earlier work on Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, The Unknown Known features a Donald Rumsfeld who speaks directly into the camera, confronting his interviewer and the audience head-on. This he does with the characteristic self-assuredness long associated, for better or (mostly) for worse, with virtually the entire George W. Bush administration.

The film’s title is borrowed from one of Rumsfeld’s most famous statements, initially spoken at a Department of Defense briefing on February 12, 2002:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

The title of Errol Morris’ film, then, refers to the omitted fourth category: unknown knowns. Although he chose, in his public briefing, to leave out any references to this final combination, Rumsfeld indeed ruminated on it later on. In an internal memo, or “snowflake,” to his staff in early 2004, Rumsfeld wrote:

There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

At Morris’ request, Rumsfeld reads this memo aloud in The Unknown Known, the audio of which was repeated several times throughout the film. Each time I heard it, it grated on me: wasn’t it all backwards? An unknown known isn’t something you think you know that you actually don’t, but vice versa: something you don’t know that you know. Stranger still, Rumsfeld describes it correctly in the film itself, without acknowledging his opposite characterization in the 2004 memo.

Towards the end of the film, after repeatedly teasing the audience with this uncorrected interpretation, Morris finally raises the discrepancy with Rumsfeld. The former defense secretary, after asking Morris to display the text of the memo onscreen, subsequently reads it aloud, slowly, as if listening to the words for the very first time. (Earlier on, he’d told an incredulous Morris that he had yet to read the infamous “torture memos,” citing his lack of legal training as justification.)

Upon completing his recitation of his own memo from a decade before, Rumsfeld pauses for a moment, then says:

Yeah, I think that memo is backwards. I think it is closer to what I said here, than that.

This was, in its own way, the crux of the film. Although Morris neglected to prod Rumsfeld in the aggressive manner of an investigative reporter, “his questions” — to borrow David Denby’s line — “lead the Secretary to nail himself.” Donald Rumsfeld, steward of one of the most disastrous foreign policy eras in American history, swats away a fundamental philosophical error — one with enormous, fatal, and long-lasting implications for the United States, the Middle East, and beyond — with a metaphorical wave of his hand.

It is this very nonchalance that most strikingly contrasts Rumsfeld with McNamara. Where, in The Fog of War, McNamara revealed self-doubt and even regret for his role in the outcome of the Vietnam War, Rumsfeld’s performance is gripping for his utter detachment from the events that followed the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq.

It is as if the entire output of his tenure as Defense Secretary were simply an academic experiment he’d conducted in order to satisfy his own intellectual curiosity. (In one portion of the film, Rumsfeld demonstrates his obsession with the minutiae of semantics when he quotes a memo in which he asked his staff for the definition of the word “several.”) The tragic aftermath of his decisions, it necessarily follows, is just as theoretical, a reality thoroughly abstracted from the parallel one in Rumsfeld’s head. When Morris asks him if the United States would have been better off avoiding the Iraq invasion altogether, Rumsfeld replies: “Well, I guess time will tell.”

The statement bears a superficial resemblance to George W. Bush’s repeated assurances that he is comfortable waiting for history to judge his two terms in office. But beware the misleading comparison: it is nothing of the sort. Bush’s trademark is his unwavering belief in himself and his decisions (his memoir is called Decision Points): when he emphasizes his patience in the face of criticism, it is with the self-satisfaction of a man who knows himself to be right and the rest of the world wrong.

Rumsfeld, by contrast, appears not to care one way or another. Right or wrong, he is too concerned by theory and process to let a little thing like consequences trouble his conscience. That those consequences are now, and have long been, the embodiment of a “known known,” leaves one to wonder just what Donald Rumsfeld knows about anything at all.