Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Public Selves

Monday, August 21st, 2017

A young man has decided not to attend Boston University this fall after being outed as a Charlottesville marcher. He’s received death threats which he considers “a liability to [his] brand” and his “academic success.” He’s troubled that the threats come from people he’s “never met…never had a conversation with.”

Conversations with people you disagree with are, of course, to be encouraged (though you might struggle to find common ground with someone for whom “Sieg heil!” is an appropriate public utterance). But the suggestion that people who’ve never met this young man don’t know him bears further examination. It’s a little Trumpian. One of Trump’s responses to Khizr Khan was that Khan had “never met [him].” During the campaign, he frequently complained that people who criticized him didn’t know him, as if his public self weren’t amply on display.

It’s often said by those who know Trump that he’s more reasonable in private; he’s kind to his family; genial to his friends; promotes talented women in his businesses. Only the last has real public implications, and it exists in the context of a long public record of misogyny. Some of Trump’s supporters seem genuinely confused by the differences between his public self and his private one. When during the campaign Chris Christie declared that Trump had dropped the birther stuff a long time ago, he may have been lying; or he may have been thrown by a disconnect between his friend’s private statements and his public ones.

This blurring of the line between public and private has always been a hazard of those with access to wealth and power. It’s too easy to assume that your friends and acquaintances, not to mention your Dad, could never be forces for evil in the world. It’s too easy to forget that the qualities that make someone a good dinner companion or golf partner don’t necessarily translate into goodness in the public sphere.

But the complaint that “they’ve never met me” seems to reject the idea of a public self altogether. We’re not to be judged by our public actions or rhetoric but by who we are inside or in our living rooms. Trump may be right that there were some “very fine people” in the march at Charlottesville—generous to their friends, devoted to their families, supportive of churches and charities. But their public selves were horrendous. And, at the moment, their public selves were what mattered.

On some level, our would-be student understands this. He’s worried about his “brand.” Here, too, he echoes Trump, whose career can best be understood as the development and marketing of a brand. But a brand is not a self. It elides the responsibility of a public self, which is profoundly still a self, perhaps even the most important self. And that might go a long way to explaining the trouble we’re in.

Letter to Delta

Tuesday, June 13th, 2017

Below is my letter to the CEO of Delta Air Lines regarding the Julius Caesar controversy:

June 12, 2017

Edward H. Bastian

Delta Air Lines, Inc.
P.O. Box 20706
Atlanta, Georgia 30320-6001

Dear Mr. Bastian,

I recently flew back from Rome on Delta and remembered again how much I enjoy your airline’s calm, efficient service. I will have difficulty flying Delta again, however, unless it reinstates its sponsorship of New York’s Public Theater.

I understand you’re in a difficult position. People like me won’t fly Delta because you withdrew support. Others won’t if you continue your support. But the stakes here are much higher than which set of customers you lose.

Support of the arts entails grave responsibility. When you bow to loud voices and withdraw funding from an arts organization, you give those voices a power to silence that goes beyond one production of Julius Caesar. You send a message to arts organizations around the country that if they take on controversial material they risk losing funding. You’re not required to fund the arts, but if you do, you need to think carefully about the consequences of your decisions. Here you’re allowing one very vocal group to dictate how the arts are allowed to speak.

I applaud your past support of the Public Theater, one of New York’s most important arts institutions. I understand that the current controversy has tested that support, but it seems to me that it requires a response not just more courageous, but more nuanced: a ringing endorsement of freedom of expression tempered with an understanding of art’s complexity. As many others have pointed out, Julius Caesar is a play in which assassination and political faction plunge a nation into chaos. Of the assassins, the one with the most “noble” motives ends up physically and morally destroyed. Forcing us to engage with that kind of complexity is one of the most important things that art does. Those railing against the Public’s production seek to reduce that complexity, which should worry us whatever side of the political spectrum it’s coming from.

As I say, it’s a difficult position for an airline to be in, but I believe you should come down firmly on the side of complexity.


David Foley


I Like Hillary

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

“I like Hillary,” I said to some friends over lunch last Christmas Eve.

“What do you like about her?” one asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

I did know, more or less, but my reasons weren’t going to stand up long in the conversation we were having. We were having a conversation in which a dear friend had just suggested that Hillary, once elected, would turn Social Security over to Wall Street. My reasons for liking Hillary weren’t going to stand up to that, and they’re not going to stand up to all the what-abouts I can hear ringing in my ears as I type: what about Libya? Goldman Sachs? The Clinton Foundation? Welfare reform? I have only an impression to offer in return. Having followed Clinton’s career for 25 years, I’ve formed the impression that she’s smart, tough, hard-working, deeply informed, compassionate, and funny. She has some less attractive qualities, but who doesn’t?

Since this impression is essentially apolitical—it doesn’t take a stand on this or that issue—it may be unimportant, or worse, a distraction. Who cares if she’s funny if she invades Syria? And yet arguments about Hillary keep falling into the realm of impression. “The lesser of two evils is still evil,” began a typical comment on a recent New York Times op-ed. “Hillary Clinton has proven herself to be totally corrupt” appeared today in response to a David Brooks column. The idea that Hillary is not just wrong, but evil and corrupt, a power-hungry robot destroying everything in her path, has become a cherished truism of both the left and right. Elements of this portrait fly in the face of fact. Critics describe her as “entitled,” waiting for her “coronation,” but her worst enemy will tell you she works like a dog. How is that entitlement? Unless you mean that coming within an ace of winning the 2008 primary entitled her to serious consideration in 2016.

It worries me to hear this smart, capable woman described in terms usually reserved for comic book villainesses or the wives of Scottish thanes. She’s ambitious. Presidential candidates usually are. It’s hard not to catch a whiff of misogyny in the ways she gets caricatured. Would an ambitious man be reduced to hunger for power, all other attributes falling away?

Here’s why this matters: I’ve begun more and more to believe that you can’t do anything about a problem if you can’t describe it accurately. This may seem obvious, but after eight years of Obama, I’m not so sure. Within a few months of his election, I began to feel that I was living in a different country from the one his critics occupied. In the country I lived in, there was an opposition party devoted to obstructing not just the president but any reality-based analysis of the problems that threatened us, whether gun violence or climate change. In the country I lived in, a rabid right-wing commentariat was branding the president a tyrannical Kenyan Maoist bent on destroying America. In the country I lived in, the president’s more progressive ideas—the public option, the jobs bill—were widely understood not to have a snowball’s chance in hell, given opposition that ranged from the craven to the virulent. His critics on the left, however, appeared to be living in a country led by a “corporate hack” who never intended to fulfill his promises because he was secretly on the side of the war-mongers and the investment bankers. At the Glenn Greenwaldian extremes of this argument, he was no different from or even worse than the Republicans.

I’m not saying that there aren’t principled reasons to oppose Clinton or Obama on the issues, but much of what I was hearing, and have been hearing in the last months, falls into the category of magical thinking. Sanders will do what Obama was supposed to do: transform a rigged system through the magical power of his convictions. Again, it’s a problem of naming the problem. If Obama is a corrupt tool of a rigged system, then electing a Sanders or a Trump might do an end run around the system. Shake it up, as supporters of both men said. But if the system has been hijacked by a party increasingly dedicated to know-nothingism and intransigence, then those end runs will keep running into stubborn blocks. And Obama’s accomplishments, which have required not so much end runs as steady determination, start to look pretty good.

When we describe complex problems in storybook terms—villains and saviors, evil queens and Manchurian candidates—we lose our ability to deal with them, and we play into the hands of the other guy, whose great gift is reducing complex problems to fantasy novel tropes. These are problems, he assured us last Thursday, that he “alone” would solve “fast,” (though we might note that this is the language of the villain in a fantasy novel. Frodo accomplishes nothing fast or alone.)

I’d like to think that his speech on Thursday shook everyone out of their complacency. The bellowing strongman claiming to be the people’s “voice” has never come so close to the center of American politics. Surely everyone now could see the stakes involved.

But I worry.

Thursday afternoon I was visiting my parents, who live in a building where the demographic skews old. In the elevator, a woman I didn’t know asked me if I’d been following the convention. I said I’d caught the end of Ted Cruz’s speech.

“Unbelievable,” she said. “Dump—I call him Dump—how could anyone take him seriously?”

“It’s pretty amazing,” I agreed.

“But the other one,” she said. “She’s such a liar.”

“Oh, I think she gets a bad rap.”

We were now standing in the lobby. She shook her head. “You don’t know what to do.”

“Not me,” I said. “I’m voting for the smart woman.”

Help Kickstart a Film About the San Antonio Four

Monday, July 1st, 2013

SanAnt4Many of you have read my posts about the Jesse Friedman case. The San Antonio Four are four Latina lesbians who were similarly targeted with false allegations of sexual abuse, in a case driven by misogyny and homophobia. Three of them are still in prison fighting for release, while the fourth, out on parole, is a registered sex offender. Deborah Esquenazi is making a documentary about their case. The film’s Kickstarter campaign has one more day to raise $15,000. They’re about $850 away from that total. If they don’t make their total by tomorrow evening, they don’t get any of the money. Please consider making a pledge.

Powerful Delusions

Friday, June 28th, 2013

Shortly after Capturing the Friedmans came out, I was on a bus and overheard two people behind me discussing the film. “They were creeps!” they said, referring to Jesse and his father. “They were so guilty!”

I was stunned because I thought the film, though deliberately ambiguous, portrayed a clear miscarriage of justice. But I realized that the miscarriage of justice was probably clearer to someone who had studied other such cases and recognized the patterns. My fear is that, by the same token, my recent posting might be unpersuasive to people who don’t know the history and theory of the day care cases. And it occurs to me that I might be able to explain the problems with the Jesse Friedman case in a way that doesn’t require special knowledge. So:

When I began to research the Bernard Baran case, I quickly realized that there were only two possible theories of the case: either Bernard Baran had committed crimes of horrific depravity against vulnerable children or he had spent half his life in prison for something that never happened. (You might argue that a third theory is possible, one that splits the difference. Sure. You just have to make sure it’s a real theory and not a cop-out. If you find yourself saying, “Well, something must have happened,” you don’t have a theory. You have an evasion.)

All theories, of course, are provisional. A theory is good only as long as it continues to adequately explain the known facts. In this light, though, a heavy burden is on the prosecutors in the Jesse Friedman case. They have to explain:

…how it was possible for so many students to be repeatedly abused in a classroom without anyone noticing anything amiss

…why other students in the classroom claim never to have witnessed the abuse, which was supposed to have happened in “plain view”

…why some of the accusers now say that nothing happened, but describe instead intense pressure from investigators to say it did

…how it is possible to know whether any of the accusations were true if some of them were clearly fantastic (anal sex leapfrog?)

…how this case is different from other cases which, operating on the same assumptions and pursuing the same methods, have since been discredited

The theory that most adequately explains all of the above is the theory advanced by Jesse’s supporters: that Jesse and his father were victims of the same kind of hysteria-driven witch hunt that played out in the McMartin case, the Amirault case, the Kelly Michaels case, the Wenatchee case, the Little Rascals case, the…. well, you get the idea. Regarding the largest explanatory burden placed on Jesse’s defenders—why would the kids make these accusations if none of it was true?—they can simply state, “It happened all the time,” and adduce as evidence McMartin, Amirault, Michaels, Wenatchee, etc. (Another part of the explanatory burden is the guilty pleas. For those, I refer you to Jesse’s account.)

As I suggested in my post, the news accounts of the report, instead of providing solid refutation of the defense’s theory, offer random bits of information of the kind that all criminal cases throw up. So we get an uncle who now claims that Arnold Friedman confessed to him years ago; Jesse’s own trial psychiatrist calling him a “psychopathic deviant”; two sexually related infractions on Jesse’s prison record. The problem with these random bits of information is that they don’t do anything to address the difficulties I’ve outlined above. They don’t make the prosecution’s theory of the case any likelier. Indeed, they seem like diversionary flares sent up to distract people from the weaknesses of that theory.

It’s characteristic of such random bits of information that they can be hard to pin down. Who is this uncle? When did he make this revelation? Why did he wait so long to make it? Is he lying? Crazy? Misremembering? If he’s remembering accurately, what did Arnold actually say? Why? What was his state of mind? (Free answer: not good.)

The day care cases were built on just such random bits of information, information that sounded shocking, but was difficult to place in any concrete way. The Bernard Baran case began when a mother claimed that, while giving her four-year-old son a bath, she saw blood coming from his penis. The boy, she claimed, said Bernie had touched it. Quite disturbing, but on the other hand, huh? The child had not been in the day care center for several days. What could Bernie have done on Monday to make a child’s penis bleed on Thursday? For that matter, what would you actually do to a child’s penis to make it bleed? (It doesn’t help that this mother was not, um, the most trustworthy person in the world.)

Of course it’s shocking to think that Great Neck children might have been sexually abused in their after-school computer class, but how did it happen in real world terms? You’ve got to be able to at least imagine a where, when, and how. The problem with the day care cases was that the efforts made to pin any of this down produced only wilder and woolier accusations, until you ended up with anal sex leapfrog. (See page 10 of my Baran piece if you want to know how crazy things got in that case.)

I was asked the other night what draws me to these cases. I think it’s the toxic interplay of irrationality and injustice. I’ve always been fascinated by human irrationality. When I was in high school, I wrote a report on theories that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. It changed how I viewed the world. It had never occurred to me before that people believe in spite of evidence and logic, that they marshal evidence and logic at the service of belief, the belief itself being overpowering, world-shaping, self-justifying, whether it’s the belief that the Earl of Oxford wrote Hamlet or that a monster has been loose in the local day care center. Perhaps for this reason, the district attorney’s “impartial analysis” was no more likely to find Jesse innocent than a council of Mormons would be likely, after impartial analysis, to acknowledge the golden plates as one of Joseph Smith’s more charming flights of fancy.

Such beliefs can be harmless but they can also be immensely destructive, and this is why I’ve never been happy with the epistemological shrug (can we ever really know what’s true?). It might not matter whether Shakespeare wrote his plays, but it matters that Bernard Baran spent 21 years in prison, that Jesse Friedman is still a registered sex offender, and that three of four women in Texas are still imprisoned nearly twenty years after becoming targets of the same kind of self-justifying delusions.

The district attorney’s report revealed once again how depressingly difficult it is to break through the walls of those delusions. What makes it difficult is that these delusions are ultimately about power; they reinforce and protect power, and to give them up is to yield power. The power of delusion is that it can shape not just facts but people to its will, which is how a gay day care worker can become a sex fiend and a suburban teenager a “psychopathic deviant.” Another reason that the DA’s office was unlikely to clear Jesse Friedman is that it would have deprived them of their power to tell him who he is.

Jesse Friedman

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

I first met Jesse Friedman in February 2002, a little over a year before Capturing the Friedmans came out. He’d just got out of prison, and friends from Boston asked me to look him up because he was living in New York and didn’t know anyone. My friends thought I’d be a good person for Jesse to know because I’d been working with them on a project I was developing: a screenplay about Bernard (“Bee”) Baran. Like Jesse, Bee had been ensnared in one of the sex panic cases of the 1980s. Convicted of raping five children at a daycare center, he had, at the time, been in prison for 17 years, though his conviction would be overturned four years later. (I’ve written about Bee here.)

Jesse’s case was a different story. I first heard about it from Debbie Nathan when I interviewed her for the Baran project. Debbie’s incisive investigative articles for the Village Voice were what first got me interested in the day care scandals, yet she told me she’d initially been leery when Jesse reached out to her. Not only had he and his father both confessed, but Jesse repeated his confession on Geraldo. Moreover, Arnold Friedman actually was a pedophile. The case began when police recovered child pornography from their suburban home.

But the patterns were the same. No sign of any problem until an investigation was sparked. Children making accusations only after repeated, often coercive questioning. Increasingly improbable scenarios of abuse. And, among the investigators, the moral fervor of priests performing an exorcism.

Oh, and one more thing: an absolute refusal on the part of prosecutors to admit that mistakes were made, no matter how many years had passed or how high an accumulation of evidence they had to ignore.

Hence, presumably, the report from the Nassau County District Attorney’s office which on Monday upheld, after conducting an “impartial analysis” of a three-year investigation, “the integrity of Jesse Friedman’s guilty plea, and his adjudication as a sex offender.”

I haven’t read the report, but what’s appeared in news accounts seems to reflect a problematic combination of outraged authority and insufficient curiosity. The outraged authority can be heard in the claim that Jesse “remained quiet” about his innocence until the movie came out. He didn’t. (See above.) Indeed the report directs a certain amount of animus at the film, as if it were the film and not an excoriating court decision that made the re-investigation unavoidable. There is also outraged authority in the random bits of character assassination that at least the news reports are supplying in lieu of solid refutation: an uncle’s belated revelation, a psychiatrist’s report, Jesse’s prison infractions.

The insufficient curiosity, though, is more troubling. The report claims that the Friedman case is “in no way similar” to other notorious sex abuse cases of the 80s. That’s not true. The similarities are striking. You can argue that, despite those similarities, Jesse was guilty, but to claim that the case is “in no way similar” is to confess that you haven’t studied those cases with any understanding. To substantiate the supposed lack of similarity, the report asserts that, unlike in the McMartin preschool case, the children in Great Neck were older and their accusations emerged quickly. But the other half of the sex panics of the 80s and 90s consisted of adults recovering memories of lurid, often satanic abuse, so there’s no age limit on the manipulation of memory. As for the swiftness with which the accusations emerged, Bernard Baran went from first accusation to conviction in four months; the initial accusation was followed by a second within hours.

Perhaps the most chilling insight into the re-investigation comes from a Times article that appeared ten days ago. Someone speaking anonymously from inside the investigation claims that “the most compelling evidence was the level of specificity and detail in the children’s accounts, which was beyond what a child could have come up with on his own.” Maybe you have to have spent as much time in the thickets of the day care cases as I have to feel the special horror of that claim. It was a claim made repeatedly back in the day. The children could not possibly have come up with such graphic details unless they’d actually experienced them. And, repeatedly, when transcripts of the children’s interviews were available, it was revealed that the details were supplied by the adults interviewing them. The statement suggests an investigation frozen in time, unable to give up (or insufficiently curious about the problems with) the discredited thinking of 1988.

There are other signs that the investigators did not consider the history of the daycare cases to be part of their investigative bailiwick. The report includes a list of “symptoms” that the children were said to be experiencing as a result of the abuse. You don’t have to have read up too much on the sex panic cases to know that exactly such vague, generic lists were used to diagnose abuse, whether of a child at a day care center or of an adult seeking help with emotional difficulties. If those lists are symptoms of anything, they’re symptoms of a sex panic.

In one way, the report is not surprising. The day care center cases were about belief, and it’s hard to penetrate a belief system. The fact that these particular belief systems are shored up by considerations both political (people’s careers are at stake) and personal (who wants to acknowledge that they ruined someone’s life?) only makes them more resistant to outside analysis.

And yet that resistance brings with it a moral calcification, which, in the report, finds expression in some high-handed verbal overkill. At one point, the authors declare that Jesse was “a maker of his own destiny.” Jesse may have made some bad decisions, but he made them in horrifically difficult circumstances. When he pleaded guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence, he was being charged with 243 counts of child sexual abuse and facing a lifetime in prison. It takes a certain kind of moral obtuseness to call that making your own destiny.

But the day care cases were always notable for missing the human context, for failing to recognize that everything is tied to human circumstance. Yes, it always needs to be asserted, sexual abuse happens, but it happens within a recognizable human context. In the day care cases, sexual abuse was assumed to happen outside that context: in a busy day care center with parents coming in and out, in a computer class to which students happily returned week after week. It happened in defiance of temporal, physical, and psychological constraints. And where justice has been achieved in the day care cases, it has required a return to human understanding, a painstaking investigation of how things happen in human terms.

I suspect that when Kathleen Rice, the district attorney, congratulates herself on the “impartial analysis” of her report, she’s actually describing a failure of human understanding.

Against Liberty

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

“Liberty” is a word that can send you crawling for cover these days. It comes armed and angry. Here’s a radio host in Minnesota addressing the victims of gun violence: “I’m sorry that you suffered a tragedy, but you know what? Deal with it, and don’t force me to lose my liberty, which is a greater tragedy than your loss.”

It’s the “my” in that sentence that gives the word its particular curdling quality.

We should love liberty—the word, I mean. Growing up I spent a lot of time hanging out at the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, and everyone understood, because we were from Massachusetts, that the name referred to the famous Boston Liberty Tree around which American patriots rallied before the Revolution, just as we understood that Patriots Day commemorated Paul Revere’s Ride and the Battle of Lexington and Concord. We were used to thinking of our state as the birthplace of American liberty.

Few who use the word liberty these days would associate it with Massachusetts. Liberty is not about same-sex marriage or universal health care. Indeed liberty seems mostly opposed to both, unless you catch a particular brand of libertarian who would reject the second but accept the first on the grounds that the state should stay out of marriage altogether.

Liberty, in its current usage, has a troubled relationship with the word freedom. It entirely lops off the second half of FDR’s four freedoms—freedom from want and freedom from fear—and is fitfully suspicious of the first two—freedom of speech and freedom of worship. (If you don’t believe me, try building a mosque in liberty’s neighborhood.) But then, you know, that’s FDR, from whose tyrannical legacy the liberty-lovers have long sought to be liberated.

Perhaps FDR was trying, as Obama still tries, to put the “our” in freedom, to remind us that we cannot separate the terms in the phrase “a free society.” The reach of that “our” is what liberty seeks to limit. For this reason, liberty, even in its American Revolutionary sense, is not in and of itself a good. The two brothers who attacked Boston on Patriots Day may have had more claim to the word liberty than the people they harmed. Incoherently, pointlessly, savagely, they were striking a blow for the liberation of Chechnya from Russia’s hegemonic power or Muslims from Westerners, as we did with Britain, as the South strove to do for the North, as latter-day patriots seek to do with the tyrannical power of the federal government. Liberty, in this sense, has no obvious inherent value. It might be a good, it might not.

What matters is what happens after liberty. What matters is freedom. Who believes that the South would have been a freer place if it had managed to secure its independence from the North? Who believes that America would be a freer place if our Minnesota radio host got his way? Freedom is a project and a difficult one. It requires many hands. Perhaps the Tsarnaev brothers inadvertently left us with an image of liberty and freedom: the isolated blow for liberty followed by the many-handed multitude working together to protect and secure their freedom.


Sunday, December 16th, 2012

OK, so it’s late. And I’ve been spent way too much time today following the news from Connecticut. And I’ve scrolled down the Facebook feed and read one too many comments along the lines of “guns don’t kill people, people do” or “why must we exploit this tragedy by talking about guns?” And it was probably a mistake to read in the Times the latest from Ross Douthat, with whom I’ve taken issue before.

But really.

Douthat has taken upon himself to understand the tragedy for us. Turns out it’s a matter of evil and suffering. Which are mysteries. He cites The Brothers Karamazov (a novel which, you’ll be glad to learn, is “famous”). He thinks that Ivan Karamazov might actually have a point when he accepts “that the Christian story of free will leading to suffering and then eventually redemption might be true, but rejects its Author anyway, on the grounds that the price of our freedom is too high.” (The price of freedom, in this case, seems to be 20 dead children.) He reminds us, at this festive season, that behind the Christmas story lie “[t]he rage of Herod” and “the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.” And these great and awful mysteries, he’s willing to allow, test our faith.

The last time I took issue with Douthat, I noted the “circularity” of his mind-set, the way “a certain type of mind veers helplessly towards systems—self-enclosed, self-perpetuating systems.” And the system is on full display here. He seems quite pleased that he has come to this understanding for us, that he has been able to construct from the horror his tone poem on the mystery of evil.

And I’m willing to believe the thing is mysterious. It’s occurred to me more than once today that we should understand these tragedies better by now. The pattern is familiar. We should have some way of analyzing it, of being able to name the pathologies that produce these acts if not to prevent them from happening. But, no matter how many times they happen, something about them remains opaque.

So, yes, there are mysteries here, but cosmic they’re not.

Because there are facts. The rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people in the U.S. (9.0) makes us twelfth in the world, ahead of South Africa but behind Montenegro. Our murder rate (4.2) is comfortably small compared to Brazil (21.0) or, God forbid, Honduras (91.6). But it’s several times the rate of other developed democracies: France (1.1), Italy (0.9), Japan (0.3). We’re also behind Morocco (1.4), Lebanon (2.2), and Afghanistan (2.4).

The most obvious reason for this is the unrestricted availability of guns. There are more than 200 million privately owned guns in America, and many of them are capable of such rapid, repeated deadly force as most of us, short of an alien invasion, will never need. So that’s part of it. And maybe, too, we should consider the political climate of the past several years in which the collectivist impulse was consistently construed as something the other guy was trying to take from you. Along with your guns.

But whatever. All those things can be discussed. Indeed they need to be discussed. And to shrug Friday’s tragedy off as part of God’s unfathomable ways is, to quote myself again, “another example of what [religion] can sometimes do to your moral sense.”


Thursday, August 16th, 2012

In just a few weeks, I’ll be facing a cohort of new students who will be tasked to learn “writing the essay” from me. Here’s an early lesson for them: Tell me, future students, what’s wrong with the following statement: “And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” If you guessed that this Paul Ryan quote, which appears in two of yesterday’s opinion articles in the Times, is a meaningless and therefore useless binary, then you’ve got a step up on most of your fellow students. You also appear to have a step up on many of your fellow Americans—and, disturbingly, on one of our candidates for Vice President.

One of the problems with binaries is that words have a tendency not to stay put. (“They shuffle, they change,” says Virginia Woolf.) What do you mean by individualism? The Marlboro Man? Lady Gaga? Charles Lindbergh? Mussolini? Each a fair prototype of a different kind of individualism. By collectivism do you have in mind the Politburo? Or Chinese re-education camps? Or the public garden on Avenue B? Or the evangelical church on Avenue A? Or maybe, since individualism is often yoked to the pioneer spirit, the wagon train? Mormons? Here’s the good news: you don’t have to choose. You can (and probably should) mean all these things. But the fact that you don’t have to choose means you have to complicate your thinking.

You, future student, will try to slip this responsibility. When faced with complicating the individualism/collectivism binary you will say, “It’s both.” Or you will say, “You need to strike a balance.” And I will try to force you to describe what that balance might look like or, in the words of one of my colleagues, “what makes striking that balance hard.”

One of the things that can make Obama seem at times ill-suited to his job is that his mind seems instinctively to work that way. He’s interested in complexity. For this he gets accused of being professorial by those who, let’s say, prefer to keep it simple. In particular, he often gets himself in trouble when he tries to describe what the individual/collective balance might look like. In 2008 Joe the Plumber became fleetingly famous objecting to something Obama said about “spreading the wealth around,” though this was not an unreasonable way of addressing the fact that, for the last few decades, the upper percentiles of earners have been claiming a larger and larger share of the nation’s wealth. This year the “I built that” signs at Romney rallies are responding to Obama’s grammatically maladroit but factually correct assertion that no small business owner creates that business entirely on his or her own, without help from the collective. (The fact that Obama gave one of his more eloquent descriptions of the individual/collective dynamic while Paul Ryan sat in the audience looking bitch-slapped is adding some dramatic backstory to the race.)

Now, future student, you will bring your essay into conference with me, feeling very proud of it. And I’ll start raising objections: “You’ve said that this binary is meaningless and useless. But doesn’t that depend on what you mean by meaning and use?” Because of course Ryan’s statement is not actually meaningless. It may not have much meaning for policy prescription, but it has meaning as narrative. The very way it’s phrased, the sense of an epic battle fought for the highest of stakes, reveals its essentially narrative intent.

We’re all cynical handicappers of the horse race these days, and we think we know that word “narrative.” We know the importance of seizing the narrative, creating it, running it. But narratives are important for more than that. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously said. Stories create meaning, and that mysterious phrase—to create meaning—is the opposite of cynicism. It even hints at the basis of an ethical system, the task of creating meaning.

This is the reason, I think, that Ryan is often described as, and indeed appears to be, sincere, honorable, likeable, smart. It sets him apart from the Gingriches and the Bachmanns whose narratives ride (and often jump) the shark of opportunism. They don’t create meaning; they trash it. Ryan is, or appears to be, a true believer, and most of our narratives are in some way about belief.

I have a close relative who’s something of a star of the Pentecostal preaching circuit, and if you want to study the relationship between narrative and belief, you could do worse than bone up on Pentecostalism. I believe my relative to be a good man, with a good heart, but he’s also a dangerous man, at least to the extent that any man becomes dangerous at the moment his narrative stops being adequate to the world he encounters.

There’s been a great deal of cynicism and opportunism in the opposition to Obama, of the Mitch McConnell “our goal is to make him a one-term president” stripe. There’s been a lot of what may or may not be racism, but is certainly terror of the difference and change that a black man in the White House represents. But a large part of the problem is that we’re a nation of true believers. If the true believers at times seem to live in a zone that’s not so much information-free as information-impermeable, that has to do with the power of narrative, its oilskin toughness. In 2010, many of those true believers ended up in Congress, where they’ve spent two years failing to recognize that the world they’re encountering renders their narratives inadequate, with disastrous results.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Paul Ryan’s narrative. There are already signs that it’s being reshaped to meet either the reality of the world he’s encountering or the reality of a national campaign. But he actually doesn’t interest me all that much. I’m more interested in you, future student, and maybe I’m more interested in you as future citizen. If you take nothing else away from your four years at college, learn to recognize the moment when your narratives are no longer adequate to the world.


Sunday, September 25th, 2011

Ross Douthat has a fascinating piece in the Sunday Times about the Troy Davis case.  Douthat, as you probably know, is the Times (most) conservative columnist and, according to Wikipedia, a convert first to Pentecostalism and then to Catholicism, making this morning’s column, for me, another example of the damage religious conversion can sometimes do to your moral sense.

This may misrepresent the column.  Douthat’s argument is not religious but civic.  To the extent that faith is invoked at all it’s as a call to waverers not to lose faith in the death penalty over this unfortunate affair.  If you’ve been following the case, you know that what made the affair unfortunate was the very high probability that the State of Georgia just put an innocent man to death.  On the plus side, according to Douthat, the case, which exhausted 20 years of appeals, “can focus the public’s attention on issues that many Americans prefer to ignore: the overzealousness of cops and prosecutors, the limits of the appeals process and the ugly conditions faced by many of the more than two million Americans currently behind bars.”

In other words, if I’m understanding him properly, the execution of an innocent man can help us focus on the conditions that make it possible for us to execute innocent men.

Here’s where I hear the bat-squeak tone of a certain kind of religious mindset.  There’s a pleasing circularity to Douthat’s vision.  Davis’s execution will help us to reform abuses so that fewer Troy Davises will have to die and we can have faith in the fairness and justice of executions.  It’s the way a certain type of mind veers helplessly towards systems—self-enclosed, self-perpetuating systems from which a great deal of mess has been excluded.

In one sense the column startled me.  I’d been clumsily dividing the death penalty issue between opponents who pointed out the danger of executing innocent people and proponents who thought that innocent people were never executed.  For the latter, the fact that Davis exhausted all his appeals and was executed is sufficient proof that he was guilty.  The system worked.  (If Davis had been exonerated, the system would also have worked, despite the 20 years in prison.)  And yet I should have understood that there must be people like Douthat who believe both that Davis was essentially murdered and that the death penalty is necessary and valid.  It’s not an untenable position—we have many other systems in which we’re willing to countenance the deaths of innocents in the name of a larger good:  war, poverty, highways.  But the problems with the position lie in the mess that Douthat is excluding.

I should say that I don’t actually believe that opponents of the death penalty “prefer to ignore” the abuses of the justice and prison system.  My guess is that they’re only too well aware of them, and that they’re as troubled by the wrongfully imprisoned as they are by the wrongfully condemned-to-die and work as assiduously to free them.  Douthat’s most tangled paragraph opines that “a society that supposedly values liberty as much or more than life itself hasn’t necessarily become more civilized if it preserves its convicts’ lives while consistently violating their rights and dignity.”  (Recently I had a dinner conversation about this troublesome word “liberty” which we hear more and more from the right and which seems to be used like a little silver hammer to knock people between the eyes and stop them thinking.)

The problem is not just that Douthat is offering us a binary choice—protect life or protect rights and dignity—a choice which he is not extending to the actual prisoner, who might weigh those options differently.  The problem is that the more reformable aspects of the criminal justice system are the ones that revolve around making prisons safer and more humane places.  The less reformable aspects of the criminal justice system—the mess that Douthat is excluding—are the ones that led to Davis’s execution.

We can, of course, work to reform the ways that the criminal justice system seems to reward corruption and careerism—the way prosecutors are encouraged to construe their jobs as getting convictions not seeing that justice is done.  It will be a long uphill climb, but at least I can see it as a possibility.  I’m sure that these elements came into the Troy Davis case.  But something else operated as well.

I suppose it’s possible that, in the Davis case, corrupt officers, determined to get a conviction in the murder of a fellow officer, coerced false statements from scared witnesses in the full knowledge that they were railroading an innocent man.  But that seems like a level of conscious maleficence to which the average human being doesn’t often rise.  It seems more likely that, having had the killer named to them, they went to find witnesses who could confirm to them what they already knew.  The assumption was that these recalcitrant witnesses needed to be badgered and threatened into spilling what they knew, and the danger that the officers might, with their badgering and threats, actually produce false statements receded from awareness.  It’s the same dynamic that made the day care cases of the eighties and nineties such colossal disasters.

I was struck by the way that Officer McPhail’s widow insisted on Davis’s guilt.  There seemed to be plenty of room for doubt.  The case, from an objective point of view, had been shot full of holes, and the evidence now seemed to point to another man.  You can dismiss the prosecution’s resistance as corruption and careerism if you like, but why wasn’t his widow more interested in making sure that, if a man were going to pay for killing her husband, it was the right man?

It’s the same reaction that you heard when the West Memphis Three were freed last month.  There was the fervent belief that three child-killers had just been set free and a resentment, as in the Davis case, at interference from “outsiders” who didn’t understand.  The question is what were those outsiders outside of?  And what didn’t they understand?

Here’s what you will never reform:  the way that not just individuals but groups form narratives and how quickly those narratives become impermeable to outside information.  The outsiders stand outside the narrative, and the proven difficulty—in the Davis case, in the West Memphis Three case, in the day care cases—of getting those inside the narrative to step outside it should give Douthat pause.  We’re no longer talking about reforming a system.  We’re talking about basic human irrationality, and a great many Troy Davises would have to die before we reform that.