Rod Dreher

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Trump the ‘Clown Genius’

Now, here is some interesting thinking by Scott Adams, who has a theory about why Donald Trump will win the GOP nomination, and the presidency. For Adams, it’s all about Trump’s skill as a persuader, and how Trump uses his weaknesses to perform jiu-jitsu on his opponents. Excerpts:

And what did you think of Trump’s famous “Rosie O’Donnell” quip at the first debate when asked about his comments on women? The interviewer’s questions were intended to paint Trump forever as a sexist pig. But Trump quickly and cleverly set the “anchor” as Rosie O’Donnell, a name he could be sure was not popular with his core Republican crowd. And then he casually admitted, without hesitation, that he was sure he had said other bad things about other people as well.

Now do you see how the anchor works? If the idea of “Trump insults women” had been allowed to pair in your mind with the nice women you know and love, you would hate Trump. That jerk is insulting my sister, my mother, and my wife! But Trump never let that happen. At the first moment (and you have to admit he thinks fast) he inserted the Rosie O’Donnell anchor and owned the conversation from that point on. Now he’s not the sexist who sometimes insults women; he’s the straight-talker who won’t hesitate to insult someone who has it coming (in his view).

But it gets better. You probably cringed when Trump kept saying his appearance gave FOX its biggest audience rating. That seemed totally off point for a politician, right? But see what happened.

Apparently FOX chief Roger Ailes called Trump and made peace. And by that I mean Trump owns FOX for the rest of the campaign because his willingness to appear on their network will determine their financial fate. BAM, Trump owns FOX and paid no money for it. See how this works? That’s what a strong brand gives you.

It’s not that Adams supports Trump; it’s that he sees Trump as a supreme salesman, which is to say, as a master manipulator of psychology. More:

If you’re keeping score, in the past month Trump has bitch-slapped the entire Republican Party, redefined our expectations of politics, focused the national discussion on immigration, proposed the only new idea for handling ISIS, and taken functional control of FOX News. And I don’t think he put much effort into it. Imagine what he could do if he gave up golf.

You’ll want to read the whole thing, if only because this is fun to talk about.

Contrast this with George F. Will’s scathing column bashing Trump as a “counterfeit Republican.” Excerpt:

In every town large enough to have two traffic lights there is a bar at the back of which sits the local Donald Trump, nursing his fifth beer and innumerable delusions. Because the actual Donald Trump is wealthy, he can turn himself into an unprecedentedly and incorrigibly vulgar presidential candidate. It is his right to use his riches as he pleases. His squalid performance and its coarsening of civic life are costs of freedom that an open society must be prepared to pay.

When, however, Trump decided that his next acquisition would be not another casino but the Republican presidential nomination, he tactically and quickly underwent many conversions of convenience (concerning abortion, health care, funding Democrats, etc.). His makeover demonstrates that he is a counterfeit Republican and no conservative.

He is an affront to anyone devoted to the project William F. Buckley began six decades ago with the founding in 1955 of National Review — making conservatism intellectually respectable and politically palatable. Buckley’s legacy is being betrayed by invertebrate conservatives now saying that although Trump “goes too far,” he has “tapped into something,” and therefore …

Therefore what? This stance — if a semi-grovel can be dignified as a stance — is a recipe for deserved disaster. Recall Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond “tapped into” things.

Hmm. Maybe a lot fewer right-of-center voters care about either the reputation of the Republican Party or the Buckley legacy than we thought. I mean, I’m not a Republican but I think Will is mostly right. Yet I wonder to what extent that’s because I simply cannot imagine a Trump presidency — and therefore, that the problem is not Trump as it is my limited imagination. After all, they said America would never elect a B-movie actor as president, didn’t they? Conservatives like Will (and me) who sniff at Trump remind me of conservatives in Louisiana who sniffed at the grotesqueries of Huey P. Long — who, genius populist that he was, rode their sneers all the way to the governor’s mansion.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe Trump is bound to blow himself sky-high. I hope he does. But could it be that we are in such an advanced state of decadence that Trump may, well, trump all of us critics? Politico has a collection of the Trumpiest Trump comments ever. Note this one, from 1990:

“There are two publics as far as I’m concerned. The real public and then there’s the New York society horseshit. The real public has always liked Donald Trump. The real public feels that Donald Trump is going through Trump-bashing. When I go out now, forget about it. I’m mobbed. It’s bedlam.”

UPDATE: Some good comments on this thread. Here’s one from Tag Murphy:

I got a taste of Trump’s methods back in 1989 when I was working as a banker for Chase Manhattan in Tokyo. I had helped arrange financing for 18 of America West’s airplanes in the Japanese market. I got a call at home early one morning from Mike Conway, America West’s president, saying he wanted my help in putting together a financing package for a bid America West planned to make for what was then known as the Eastern shuttle. (The shuttle between La Guardia and Boston/Washington). I got to work but within a day the word came down from New York that we were not to do anything on behalf of America West’s bid. Mike Conway told me a few months later (after I had left Chase) that he had run into Trump (Trump ended up buying the shuttle and renamed it the “Trump Shuttle”) and Trump had crowed to him something to the effect that “you had Chase backing you on your bid, didn’t you? Well, I took care of them.” Apparently, Trump had threatened to pull all his real estate business with Chase (a lot of business) if Chase supported America West’s bid. This kind of thing happens all the time in finance, but what puzzled me then was that Trump would actually go out of his way to brag about it to Mike Conway. Maybe I shouldn’t have been puzzled — as Adams’s article suggests (thanks for linking that; I wouldn’t have seen it otherwise) Trump resorts to a mix of intimidation and braggadocio almost by instinct and he is a genius at it. While it’s hard not to enjoy watching pompous asses like Will rub their hands and wipe their brows at what “movement conservatism” has brought into being (not to mention seeing the curtain ripped from Fox “News”), anyone who thinks that Trump’s rise is just a rip-roaring good spectacle deserves what is coming to all of us.

This one from Richard, which includes a quote from reader J_A1979:

J_A wrote: “Maybe no one else says anything useful to the people in two-light towns. Maybe Trump doesn’t either, but the last thing beer drinkers in two-light town need is capital gains tax cuts, union busting, reductions in overtime and minimum salary, wars in the Middle East, and to repeal Obamacare and replace it with *cricket sounds*.”

J_A, yours is the most trenchant comment in this thread so far this evening – not that the others are bad, but I think you nailed it. I think Trump could well be goofing everyone. I’m not sure – other than maintaining his brand and his fortune – that he has anything remotely resembling a principle. He’s a marketer, and he’s giving customers what he sees that they want.

And not only is no one else doing that, for most of the Republican bus (I’ll be polite), they’re serving up talking points that had coffee stains on them when they were handed to Mitt Romney four years ago.

Commentary’s Peter Wehner wrote a serious denunciation of Trump as a “populist”, not a “conservative” that really outdid George Will. But the conservative movement has been sowing these seeds for years, selling bread and circuses to the masses through talk radio, and serving up war for the crony capitalists in the defense and security industries, and protection for the corporations that invest in China (and how is that working out for ya?).

It’s hard not to look at this election right now and not see strange echoes of Europe in the 20’s. Maybe I’m wrong, but this could turn out to be our 21st Century.


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Psalms At Midnight

I have fallen into the habit of visiting my father at bedtime, helping him to bed, and praying with him. Often these prayers include the reading of a Psalm. He loves this, and I love it too. We always recite Psalm 23, both of us from memory, but sometimes I read other ones from the Psalter. Tonight as I was reading a particular Psalm to him, and came across mention of Moses, it suddenly occurred to me how utterly strange it is that there I am, standing at the bedside of a dying old man in the rural South, reading aloud a poem written, according to tradition, by a Hebrew king, that mentions a Hebrew prophet who led his people out of ancient Egypt. And these words from so long ago, and so far away, bring comfort and light to a frail Anglo-Saxon Christian man preparing for eternity, and who has known of Moses and David all his life.

It is a tremendous mystery. And a tremendous grace.

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Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates

tnc cover

A reader of this blog named Joanna generously gave me a Kindle version of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me. Well, if somebody was nice enough to give me the book, I figured I should read it (note to readers: this is generally not a good way to get me to read a book). I did so this yesterday. I spent most of today writing about it, hit “publish,” and lost a good third of it. There was nothing to do but start over. Anyway, thank you, Joanna.

As you know, I was once a regular reader of Coates, and an admirer, but I lost interest when his blog turned extremely bleak. My overall judgement is reminiscent of Christopher Caldwell’s review: it is a bad book about a worthy subject. And it is a deeply religious book — a description that its author, a convinced atheist, might find puzzling. And it is a psychologically revealing work, one that ultimately says far more about the mindset of its author than the world he describes.

The other day, in a blog post called “Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Holy Writ,” I described Between the World and Me (henceforth, BTWAM) that way not because of its content, but because of the way so many critics, in particular white ones, are treating it. Now that I have read the book, I stand by that description. BTWAM is deeply sincere, and has passages of true beauty. At its best, the book conveys the feeling of growing up as a black boy in the inner city, with its constant fear of violence. But there are some serious problems with the book and its radical claims, which are at the very least contestable. Yet BTWAM is a book that is crack to liberal whites. The Times‘s A.O. Scott called it “essential, like water or air,” which I thought was silly fawning, but now that I’ve actually read the book, I find that remark quite revealing. BTWAM tells the reader that every bad thing that happens to black people in America is the fault of whites, that even when blacks victimize blacks, this has its roots in white racism. It tells the reader that whites cannot be redeemed, nor can the world itself, and the best thing any of us can do is to face life knowing that it’s all a sham. If one is a white liberal reading this, one can derive both a masochistic thrill from the anti-white animus, but also feel comforted that the only thing TNC really expects you to do is to share his despair, because nothing you or any of us do in the world matters at all.

If you regret missing the famous “radical chic” party at Lenny and Felicia’s back in the 1960s, read BTWAM and its rave reviews. That’s surely what the atmosphere was like.

So, BTWAM has about it a religious sense in that a certain kind of person, especially white person, will see it as a sacred text, one that to criticize is blasphemous. But it really is a religious text, in that it offers an explanation, from an atheist materialist point of view, of why there is injustice and suffering in the world, and what the proper philosophical response to it should be. I call it “religious,” not philosophical, because there is no actual philosophical case made for TNC’s response, only emotionally charged assertions, and a near-obsession with the black Body as a materialist sacrament. TNC offers a totalizing racial ideology that is airless and devoid of any hope. More on this shortly.

You get a sense of his method early on, when he says, “But race is the child of racism, not the father.” This is a claim, and an interesting one, but TNC is not interested in supporting it with argument. He just asserts things. Some defenders of the book say this is fine, because TNC is not writing a standard book; rather, he frames it as a letter to his teenage son Samori. But this is a dodge. If I sent one of my sons a book-length (though a short book!) letter purporting to diagnose the ills of the world and to offer them advice on how to live in it, surely I would be expected to back up my controversial claims with some kind of argument. Yes? If it were a private letter, that would be a weakness that its recipient might wish to overlook, in a there goes Dad again way. But TNC is putting this letter before the public, and charging money to read it. It appears, then, that he’s not actually interested in making an argument, but rather evoking a mood, and conjuring a stance of a strangely passive militance.

TNC claims — agains, doesn’t really argue, but claims — that racism was invented by “new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” It follows from his premises that race is a construct invented by white people. What can this possibly mean? That the phenomenon of race — of blackness, whiteness, Asian-ness, and so forth — does not exist? That racial difference of any sort is a delusion brought into the world by white people?

His point is that whiteness is an identity that subsumes racial and national identities in America. And here we see the heart of BTWAM’s claim, one that sounds sociological, but is actually metaphysical, even sacramental:

As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.

In other words, the blood of the slaves washed all white people free of our sins. Our very existence today is only possible because of the terror white people of much earlier generations inflicted of slaves stolen from Africa, and their descendants. It is a massive claim, a radical claim, one that, if true, justifies seeing every aspect of the white world as criminal. One imagines Ta-Nehisi Coates walking up to the door of the rickety trailer in a mobile home park outside of Ferriday, Louisiana, knocking on it, and telling the bedraggled white single mother who lives there with her three children, surviving on food stamps and what she can scrounge together, that she acquired this palace and her easy-peasy life on the scarred backs of the slaves.

TNC says that what he calls “the Dream” — the American Dream — is forever closed off to blacks “because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.” Really? What about Ben Carson, a black neurosurgeon who is now running for president? What about Clarence Thomas, son of a farm worker and a maid, raised by his grandfather, in whose home the boy first saw indoor plumbing? He’s now a US Supreme Court justice. What about the black president of the United States? Yes, those are spectacular examples, but what about all the black people who have made it into the middle class since the Civil Rights movement? The black poverty rate in the 1960 was 60 percent; it’s less than half that now. This does not mean that racism and discrimination has been vanquished, obviously, but it means that the American Dream is slowly but steadily becoming available to blacks.

Prince Georges County, in suburban Maryland, between Baltimore and DC, is a black middle class enclave. TNC recognizes this, but he considers it radically compromised by police brutality — a brutality that he acknowledges is perpetrated by black law enforcement against blacks. But he has an answer for that too: whenever blacks treat other blacks violently, it’s because white people made them do it. This is TNC’s global explanation for any problem affecting the black community: it’s the white man’s fault. I kept thinking as I read, “Surely there’s more to it than this,” but no, there’s really not. It is stunning to read an intellectual proclaim something so simplistic and reductive. Yet this is dogma. In Coates’s racial-materialist system, white iniquity plays the same role that Original Sin does in Christian cosmology.

The black body is Coates’s sacrament. “How do I live free in this black body?” he writes. “It is a profound question because America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.”

This requires unpacking. For Coates, an atheist, the “black body” is a “holy vessel,” one that is in constant danger of profanation and destruction. He discloses why the body is the sacrament of his race-conscious atheism: “The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible — and that is precisely why they are so precious.”

Ironically, I could not help hearing in Coates’s frequent invocations of the sanctity of the black body the same rhetoric that Southern whites of earlier generations used to justify oppressing blacks: that black men, with their supposed ungovernable sexual savagery, posed a clear and ever-present danger to the holy vessel of Southern white womanhood, and must be suppressed. Toward the end of the book, I would not have been surprised had Coates encouraged his son resist the white conspiracy to “sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids.” I’m joking, but only slightly. By the end of BTWAM, I was half-convinced that the book was an inadvertent disclosure of its author’s neuroticism about his physical existence as it was a philosophical meditation about the phenomenology of the body. After I finished the book, it seemed to me that TNC holds on to his concept of the black body in the same way Gollum held on to the Ring.

If the black body is TNC’s sacrament, the American nation is its Satanic analogue, conjured in an unending witch’s Sabbath. “The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden.”

Coates explicitly rejects the Civil Rights vision of America, and sees the blacks of the 1950s and 1960s  — as portrayed in documentary films of the era — as patsys:

The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life — love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the fire-hoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets. They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists that bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent? I speak not of the morality of nonviolence, but of the sense that blacks are in especial need of this morality.

Well, blacks were “in especial need of this morality” because as King grasped, it was the strategy that helped them triumph over an oppressor who had overwhelming power. Plus, it was based on the Christian faith that nearly all black Americans of the time espoused, a faith that taught them that to suffer, even to die, for righteousness’ sake is a holy act of witness. And the protesters hoped to reach the Christianity that most white Americans of the era shared with them, to strike a resonant chord within their hearts, and to inspire change. Coates, an atheist, cannot grasp this mindset, and I guess that’s understandable. But the true power of the Civil Rights movement eludes them. Because the black body is his sacrament, the idea that black men and women would put their bodies on the line for the sake of black freedom strikes him as, at best, incomprehensible.

And none of those sacrifices were worth it, in his view, or could ever be worth it:

Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance — no matter how improved — as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this.


My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.

This is an explicit rejection of Martin Luther King’s famous line, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” There is no justice in TNC’s view, only chaos and death (= the box, a coffin). He rejects the Christian vision of sacrificial love that drove the Civil Rights movement, embracing instead the ancient principle of lex talionis — eye for an eye:

This was not boasting — it was a declaration of equality rooted not in better angels or the intangible spirit but in the sanctity of the black body.

Again, how would this read if one justified violence against black men believed to have sexually defiled the “sanctity of the white female body”? This really was a thing; I know the names of some white men in my parish, all dead now, who lynched a black man here on the belief that he raped a white woman — a woman who later confessed to having had consensual sex with the lynched man. These white men did what they did because they believed it necessary to defend the sanctified body of white women against demonic defilement by black males. If you accept TNC’s principle of racialized, corporeal sanctity, by what standards do you condemn whites in the past who justified violence against black men as defense of the sanctity of the white female body? The Nazis too held the Aryan body to be a sacred vessel, and their propaganda emphasized that no male Jew can be allowed to violate its sanctity. I don’t think that’s what TNC is advocating precisely — he emphatically does not sexualize the sanctity of the body, except insofar as he valorizes sexual autonomy — but the racialization of the body, which in TNC is a metaphysical principle and an ideology — is far closer to toxic paganisms of the recent past than he seems to grasp.

In Christian terms, imagine a world condemned to live with the effects of the Fall: broken and irreparable, with no way at all of achieving justice and harmony, ever. That is exactly how grim TNC’s world is. Because history cannot be undone, and Coates’s atheism prevents him from believing in spiritual redemption, and for whatever reason, he does not endorse armed resistance, there is no path left for blacks (and sympathetic white Americans) except to endure despair with as much courage as we can muster. He concludes:

The changes have awarded me a rapture that comes only when you can no longer be lied to, when you have rejected the Dream.

This is the freedom of the nihilist, which to me is indistinguishable from spiritual and mental slavery. Is it really freedom to believe that you have seen to the bottom of everything, and you know it is all a lie? Or is this the only comfort available to an atheist who cannot bring himself to believe in a dream of a better world?

To be honest, TNC is not exactly a nihilist; he believes in blackness, and he believes in his family (his passionate love for his son is a beautiful aspect of the book, though his calling Samori “the God I never had” jolted me, as someone who has seen in the lives of several friends the destructive effects of father’s hero-worshiping their sons (and, for that matter, seeing in my own life the destructive effect of my hero-worshiping my own father).

He believes that whiteness is a fiction, a historical and ideological category that subsumes all the diversity of European tribes into a color category. And yet, he describes Howard University, the historically black college in DC, as his “Mecca,” and thrills in the diversity he sees among the dark-skinned people there:

They were Panamanian. They were Bajan. And some of them were from places I had never heard of. But all of them were hot and incredible, exotic even, though we hailed from the same tribe.

Wait, it’s almost as if TNC is subsuming difference into the category of blackness. So, which is it? Is race a real thing, or not? Is race a real thing for blacks, but not for whites?

It’s not clear. At one point, he appears to criticize an earlier, Afrocentric version of himself (“… and ‘the black race’ was a thing I supposed existed from time immemorial, a thing that was real and mattered.”) In another passage, he raises the body to a level of worship that if you heard it come from the mouth of a neo-pagan Aryan, would chill you to the bone: “…the physical beauty of the black body was all our beauty, historical and cultural, incarnate.”

Later in the book, TNC talks about how he came to see “the invention of racecraft” as answering a “need for escape” — his own. So “racecraft” is a useful illusion? Maybe, but:

And still and all I knew that we we were something, that we were a tribe — on one hand, invented, and on the other, no less real.

So this is the Absolute Paradox at the heart of TNC’s cobbled-together faith. Blackness is a phantom, but also real. Whatever.

It is also interesting that he refers to Howard in explicitly religious terms (“the Mecca”). He’s not talking about the institution, but the function of the community he found there:

The Mecca is a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body.

Which strikes me as creepy. I could be misreading this, but it sounds like TNC — an atheist! — believes that the Howard community serves as a pseudo-church, as the means through which divine grace  black racial consciousness is realized within the lives of its people — that is, the means by which their souls minds are formed and their bodies consecrated to … what, exactly? Themselves? The existence and reproduction of the race and its people?

This is what I mean when I say Between The World And Me is a religious book. And in TNC’s cosmos, the line between good and evil is drawn between white and black. All moral failures by blacks are ultimately the fault of whites. The savage violence of the mean streets of West Baltimore? Whites made those street thugs do it. Black men who abandon their children?

I felt then that these men — these ‘fathers’ — were the greatest of cowards. But I also felt that the galaxy was playing with loaded dice, which ensured an excess of cowards in our ranks.

They are cowards, but how, says TNC, can they be expected to help it, given that the universe is stacked against them? The United States, in his view, is not a New Jerusalem, but an infernal facsimile:

‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination an exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons.

About the black cop who gunned down an innocent young black man: “The killer was the direct expression of all his country’s beliefs.” America wanted that young man to die, because that is America’s purpose: killing blacks. He really believes this.

You might think that I’m overstating the case when I tell you that TNC has written a song of innocence absolving black Americans from any fault for their condition, and blaming it all on whites. He has taken a partial truth — that while none of us are guilty of the sins of others, we are unavoidably involved in them — and exalted it to a cosmological principle. The killing by an undercover cop of Prince Jones, a young black man he had only slightly known at Howard, comes across as one of the acts that embodies and justifies TNC’s hatred of America. (Never mind that Jones died at the hands of a black cop, who worked for a black-led police department; it’s all the fault of the white man). This passage about 9/11 is where TNC lost me forever:

I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could — with no justification — shatter my body.

They were not human to me. He ought to be deeply ashamed of this opinion, but he doesn’t say this in self-reproach. When I read this, I thought of one of the FDNY funerals I attended, the one for Vernon Cherry, who served in my local firehouse in Brooklyn, and was one of 12 black first responders to die at the Twin Towers. I went to his funeral, and the funeral of two other firefighters from our neighborhood. I sobbed along with the families of these brave men, and along with their friends, and neighbors like me, who did not know each other, and did not know Vernon Cherry and his colleagues, but who were profoundly moved by their courage and their sacrifices. I stood outside a Catholic church in Brooklyn Heights and watched the widow and young children of one of the firefighters leave the funeral, and walk sadly down the block, to get into their minivan and drive off to the rest of their life, without a husband and a father.

These are the people who are not human to Ta-Nehisi Coates, because they wore uniforms, or loved the men who died in their uniforms when the Twin Towers collapsed on them. Was Vernon Cherry not human? Were the black men, the white men, the Hispanic men, who gave their lives trying to save strangers that day not human, because Ta-Nehisi Coates has a big problem with authority?

Had TNC confessed to having had this feeling, but later repenting of it, that would have been one thing. As far as I can tell from reading his book, he believes his malicious feeling justifies itself. This is an evil belief. It really is. It reminds me of the morning in 1985, my freshman semester in college, in which a quiet Puerto Rican Marxist intellectual with thick glasses and a gentle demeanor told me that the Palestinian terrorists who earlier that day had murdered cruise ship passenger Leon Klinghoffer, and dumped him and his wheelchair into the ocean, were justified. “If he was rich enough to take the cruise, maybe he deserved to die,” said this radical.

TNC doesn’t say that the firefighters and cops who died on 9/11 deserved it, but this is just a small difference of degree.

TNC discovers the secret doctrine that accounts for America’s evil: the “plunder of our bodies” is the “missing thing” that “explained everything.” Once he fixes his mind on the concept that America is built entirely on the “plunder” of the black body, and that white society is a machine dedicated to the continuation of that plunder, he has taken the red pill that makes everything clear to him. All of history — American history, anyway — becomes the history of plunder, of the Wicked (= Whites) stealing from the Innocent (= blacks). All the sins and failings of blacks are offloaded onto the white scapegoat, and onto institutions of order, like the Fire Department of New York. Earlier in the book, TNC explains how he had come to admire the hate Malcolm X had of whites, because it was just. Eye for an eye, remember? All of which puts this passage from the book (which, recall, is a letter to his son), into a certain perspective:

You were almost five years old. The theater was crowded, and when we came out we rode a set of escalators down to the ground floor. As we came off, you were moving at the dawdling speed of a small child. A white woman pushed you and said, “Come on!” Many things now happened at once. There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body. And more: There was my sense that this woman was pulling rank. I knew, for instance, that she would not have pushed a black child out on my part of Flatbush, because she would be afraid there and would sense, if not know, that there would be a penalty for such an action. But I was not out on my part of Flatbush. And I was not in West Baltimore. And I was far from the Mecca. I forgot all of that. I was only aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son. I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history. She shrunk back, shocked. A white man standing nearby spoke up in her defense. I experienced this as his attempt to rescue the damsel from the beast. He had made no such attempt on behalf of my son. And he was now supported by other white people in the assembling crowd. The man came closer. He grew louder. I pushed him away. He said, “I could have you arrested!” I did not care. I told him this, and the desire to do much more was hot in my throat.

TNC says that the only thing that stopped him from getting violent was knowing that his little boy was watching him. He says he tells this story out of shame that his actions that day put his child in danger of watching the NYPD “cuff, club, tase, and break” his father.

This is such a revealing anecdote. Living in New York means having to deal with crotchety, pushy old people. We lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn for five years. This was a fact of daily life. It is not at all shocking that a pushy old lady on the Upper West Side overstepped her bounds with a child. The woman was wrong to do so, but Ta-Nehisi Coates made her bear the weight of 400 years of white supremacy, or at least the anger of a grown man who had been raised in the ghetto. No wonder she shrunk back, shocked. And if I saw a young man speaking with hot anger to an old lady in a public place, I would likely step forward to defend her too. But TNC interprets that as a white man exercising racial solidarity, and choosing the old woman over his son. Maybe the white man did not see what the old lady had done to TNC’s son. TNC does not tell us. TNC concedes that he reacted with rage, and that he shoved the white man back. In what world is this an acceptable response to a minor incident? For TNC, the penny-ante rudeness of an old woman in the lobby of a Manhattan movie theater is the showdown at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He connects that grumpy woman’s action to Jim Crow and slavery.

More darkly, TNC openly fantasizes about how the old woman’s pushiness would have been kept in check had she been in a black neighborhood, because of fear. Well. For one thing, does TNC imagine that white children in New York are immune from the rudeness of crotchety old folks? Does he think that the worldview Eddie Murphy parodied in this 1984 short film on SNL is real? And what would he have seen done to the old white lady had she laid her hands on his son in Flatbush, knowing as we do that he has a tendency to see those he associates with the white world and its institutions as inhuman?

There is no evidence of injustice against black people that TNC does not take as a sign of black innocence and white guilt. He writes about being in Chicago, watching a sheriff’s deputy evict a black family from their home. We don’t learn whether or not this eviction was just. Coates uncritically folds it in to the unjust history of redlining and racist housing policies, and calls even more evidence of white “plunder.” This actual black man, and actual black family, were not human to him either, only actors playing a role in TNC’s cosmic drama.

Nobody can seriously deny that police brutality against black men exists, and is a problem in our society. But what about the fact that the overwhelming majority of black men who die violently do so at the hands of other black men? TNC’s got you covered:

To yell ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.

Is there room in his vision for any moral agency, at all, for black people? Or are they doomed to be pawns of whites, forever? Whites, too, are not human, but actors in TNC’s abstract play:

I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, and entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

He later says that white people “think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity”? Really? Does he know any white people? Can he see them as human beings? Take this ridiculous paragraph above to the white trailer park in Ferriday, and see how many Buck Rogerses, Princes Aragorn, and Luke Skywalkers you can find. This radical-chic cant doesn’t even rise to the level of stupid.

This, in which he mentions the little children of white gentrifiers in Harlem, does. These kids

commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs. … No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much.

When even a white kid on a tricycle is a sign of racial terror and injustice, you know you are pretty close to losing your mind.

(Oh, and just so you know, Ta-Nehisi Coates blames white racism and its plunder of the black man for global warming. I’m serious.)

The conclusion of TNC’s book is genuinely moving. In it, he interviews Dr. Mable Jones, a black radiologist who rose out of Southern poverty and discrimination to become a medical professional, and to raise her children in the mid-Atlantic region, in wealth. And yet, her son Prince died at the hands of a black undercover cop, even though Prince was guilty of nothing. It really is a tragedy. Coates seems to interpret the meaning of this tragedy like this: See? No matter how far a black person goes, there is no escaping injustice. Progress is an illusion. Elect a black president, and you still get Trayvon. 

But is this the most reasonable way to interpret these facts? Dr. Jones should not have had to suffer the loss of her son. Prince Jones should still be alive. But the death of Prince Jones does not negate the amazing achievements of Mable Jones, which were made possible by her own hard work and tenacity, and the changes that happened in America chiefly because of the love and sacrifice of the Civil Rights workers. The world is fundamentally unjust; this is not just the black condition, but the human condition. Only a child or an ideologue would see the persistence of injustice in the world and say that there can never be progress, or goodness, or that evidence of progress and goodness are illusions. Then again, TNC is committed to the idea that redemption is impossible, that America, and white people, are hopelessly compromised by evil, and that nothing black people do to improve their own lives, or the lives of their communities, matters, because perfect justice is unattainable.

Far, far more black mothers in this country mourn sons who died at the hands of black men who were not police officers, but stone-cold criminals. What about those mothers?

“I didn’t yet realize that the boot on your neck is just as likely to make you delusional as it is to ennoble,” TNC writes. Yes, and Between The World And Me is testimony to the fact that he has not yet realized it … and that of all the boots on his own neck, the biggest one fits his foot.

For all that, BTWAM by no means a worthless book. TNC is at his best talking about the constant fear attending him as a child growing up in the West Baltimore ghetto. Any one of us who had been forced to grow up like that would have been traumatized by it, especially if we, like TNC, were intelligent and sensitive. He writes:

To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law did not protect us.

The Baltimore of his youth is a terrifying place, anarchic and violent and filled with disordered male power. It is interesting to consider the role slavery and Jim Crow played in creating the culture of black male violence that rules the West Baltimore streets. This is what I mean by saying that we are not all guilty, but we are all implicated. But TNC absolves all the thugs, even those who threatened them. It is, of course, the white man’s fault.

Anyway, it is deeply affecting for the reader — this reader — to read how it felt for TNC as a child to experience the sanitized, suburbanized vision of America on television, versus the ugly reality in which he lived. Here’s the thing: I grew up in the country in south Louisiana, in a small brick house, which was normal for middle-class people of my time and place. The world of Leave It To Beaver and The Brady Bunch was alien to me too — not, obviously, as alien as it would be to a black kid in the Baltimore ghetto, but a world that I experienced as ideal. I so badly wanted to live in a suburban world like that, of safety, and plenty, and perfect order. Mind you, I did have safety, and never wanted for food or clothing (though we were very far from well-off), and though no order is perfect, I had stability. I literally cannot imagine growing up as TNC did. It is a tribute to his gifts as a writer that he made this reader feel the desperation in it.

We had nothing like that here in the countryside, in terms of the daily terror from thug life. Still, it was very easy to drive around our parish and find white kids and black kids both, growing up in poverty and disorder. As I write this, I’m thinking about three poor white families I knew growing up, and how alien TNC’s view of white people would be to them. Thank God they never knew the crack, rape, and guns that permeated TNC’s life. I’m not at all claiming an equivalence with what he experienced (though you could find that in the ghettos of Baton Rouge and New Orleans). The point simply is that the reality of life for white Americans is not what TNC fantasizes it is. If the only whites he knew growing up were on TV, he has a wildly distorted view of the white experience.

He writes:

Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.

I think about the poor white children I knew growing up, and how if you said to one of them today that their childhoods were about being “unworried,” and about “pie and pot roast” and “white fences and green lawns,” they would laugh at you — if you were lucky.

The point is simply this: that the world on the other side of TNC’s ideology and him is a lot more complex, morally and otherwise, than he can account for. To send your child out into the world telling him that everything is hopeless, that any success he has in the world is illegitimate, or otherwise tainted, and that it is all the fault of the Other, for whose vast machinery of cosmic evil you, child, are nothing but fuel — to do so is to poison his mind.

I know, I know, I’m just a middle-class white Southern guy; TNC has said that he doesn’t care what people like me think of his views. That’s fine, I guess. What I want to say, though, is that TNC is absolutely correct in his general view that we white Americans do not understand the black experience as well as we should, and lack sufficient empathy for the black struggle. I say that because I’ve spent a good part of the last two years engaged in an extraordinary experience, one that changed my heart, and is changing my heart.

On September 8, the actor Wendell Pierce, who played the Bunk on The Wire, and Antoine on Treme, will publish a memoir titled The Wind in the Reeds. It’s a moving story of an American family — Wendell’s — that rose out of south Louisiana slavery, then rural poverty and Jim Crow oppression, and survived Hurricane Katrina. It is a story of faith — faith in God, in the promise of America, and in humanity. It is also a story of family, of struggle, of art and culture, and the power of education and the tenacity of hope — and how the legacy of the family, going all the way back to slavery, gave its living members the strength to endure the worst the world could throw at them.

It was my privilege to work with Wendell on this book. It shouldn’t have happened. We are around the same age, but come from such different backgrounds. He’s a liberal black man from the big city; I’m a conservative white man from the hills. In an upcoming story in TAC, I tell the tale about how I got involved in doing this book, so I won’t give the details now. It is enough to know that I was able to do this project because Wendell Pierce generously believed in my ability to help him tell his story, and that the content of my character mattered more than the color of my skin.

This is not a ghostwritten book, as many celebrity books are. It really and truly is Wendell’s book; I was a stenographer whose work amounted to organizing the results of many, many hours of interviews, and shaping it into a narrative. One thing I was able to do, though, was spend a morning with Wendell’s uncle, Lloyd Edwards, who lives down south, near Bayou Lafourche. He is the same age as my own father, and they both grew up poor, in rural south Louisiana. Lloyd was black; my dad was white — and even though they were so much alike, in terms of poverty, the color of their skin made a big difference in the lives they had.

Again, without getting into too much detail (it’ll all be explained in the TAC story), entering into this black family’s story as Wendell’s shadow shook me up. Many of the things I learned were not exactly new to me, but when you hear these stories from the mouth of black men who were witnesses, it affects you differently. At one point, after hearing story after story, I said to Uncle Lloyd, “I don’t know why you aren’t angry all the time.”

And then I thought: Oh. 

This is why I cannot entirely dismiss TNC’s book. The racism that Wendell’s mother, uncles, aunts, and father suffered was severe, and the threat to their lives real. In the 1930s and 1940s in Assumption Parish, where Wendell’s mother was raised, many of the leading white citizens in the parish were Klansmen. The law could not be counted on to protect black people. It was another America, though one within living memory of our oldest citizens. None of the members of Wendell’s family were under any illusions about their condition. But they were Catholics who believed strongly in God, even as the Church of their day often sanctioned racism. And they believed in hard work, family solidarity, and the transformative power of education. If you, as a white person, read the book, you may be astonished by the obstacles thrown in the way of these people, only because they were black. And the pointless cruelty, e.g., the City of New Orleans, in the 1940s, forcing blacks off the slip of lakefront land granted to them for their own blacks-only beach, and pushing them further down the shore, where the only place they could swim was among raw sewage.

And yet, and yet! Wendell’s story is one of tenacious hope. There’s a part about how his father, Amos, was refused the medals he earned fighting in the South Pacific in World War II, because his paperwork hadn’t yet arrived at discharge, and the white WAC officer processing him through refused to believe a black man could have been so heroic in battle. Wendell’s father kept that to himself, and raised his sons to be patriots all the same. One of Wendell’s brothers graduated from West Point. When Wendell found out a few years ago what had been denied his father, he worked with a New Orleans journalist and Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office to get those medals for his father. Here is a story about the World War II Museum ceremony in which Amos Pierce received his medals. 

Getting to know Wendell’s family’s story made me feel shame over what America, and people who look like me, and maybe even people in my family tree, did to black Americans. But more than that, it made me feel the power of faith and hope. The other day, when I posted something on this blog very discouraging about the future of America, and doubtful about my own sense of commitment to this country, I thought of Army Corporal Amos Pierce, who had been treated so unjustly by the country he had risked his life for, but who never once let his love for his country — for the country that did not love him back — flag, and how he raised his kids to believe that one day, America would make good on her promises.

Thinking about Mr. Amos made me ashamed of my easy despair, and repent of it. One of the most amazing things about the Pierce and Edwards family’s story, at least to me, is that for all the pain and suffering they endured because of discrimination, it never stole their joy. These poor country black people of the earlier generations had next to nothing, and the Klan at their backs … but they had everything, if you follow me.

Anyway, the story is Wendell’s to tell, and I hope you will buy the book, because he is an extraordinary man, and this is a story filled with tears, but also triumph. Wendell is an incredibly accomplished actor, and this book is in many ways his tribute to the love and sacrifices of the generations of strong black men and women who came before him, to make his success possible. I think TNC’s book set me off so much because I read it in part through the experience of Wendell and his family. Me, I came away from the Wendell project with a lot more understanding of why things are the way they are within black America, and also a deeper appreciation of the only reliable way they will get better. Though TNC’s belief that all white achievement and material success is based on the “plunder” of black people still strikes me as extremely simplistic and unjust, it really is true that whites today cannot turn away from the fate of black Americans. It may not be my fault or your fault that the black kid in the ghetto can’t read, but — and this is something I learned from reading Dante — we are implicated in his fate, and he in ours, because we are all human beings with histories together.

What this means for me, I’m not yet sure. I have a book project in mind after the Benedict Option, one that will tell a story about racial injustice — a lynching — and the way our roots, white and black, become tangled in time. Love cannot raise the dead, but maybe it can reconcile the living. I would not have had the courage to take on this future project if it had not been for the faith Wendell had in me, and in the world his family showed to me by the greatness of their character. I love those people, and hope that the small part I played in helping tell their story does them honor. I think about Wendell’s late mother almost every day. This afternoon, I told a shop clerk the story about Mr. Amos and his medals, and reduced her literally to tears, thinking about that old man’s faithfulness and courage. I lived with these good people in my mind for almost two years, and they will never leave me. It was a privilege. Nothing but a privilege, and a grace, for which I will always owe Wendell. If the book I’m thinking about ever comes to fruition, it will be dedicated to him, in thanksgiving for the gifts he gave me in his family and their stories.

So, we have two books here, both written by black American men, about the black American experience. Neither one, I hasten to say, offers absolution to white America. Yet one is a counsel of anger and total despair; the other is a story of hope and redemption. One is about a world that is so imbued with evil that it can never change or be changed, only endured; the other is about a world that is filled with good and evil both, and can never be perfected, only made more perfect through faith, hope, love, and sacrifice. The angry book — a grimoire that casts a spell of hopelessness over the reader — has gone to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, riding the crest of a wave of great reviews and hallowing praise. We will see what happens to the hopeful book when it’s released on September 8. I hope reviewers and journalists who decide what to feature recognize that when it comes to memoirs and reflections on race in America, misery and despair are no measures of authenticity.

UPDATE: Because one commenter (whose remarks I didn’t publish, because they were nasty and inaccurate) raised the idea that I’m criticizing Coates’s book because I’m “self-promoting,” let me assure you that I don’t stand to make a penny off the sales of Wendell’s book. I was paid a standard fee for my work. I won’t get rich if the book becomes a bestseller — but the book should become a bestseller, because the story of Wendell’s family is extraordinary.

I should also say, because it occurred to me after posting this, that had I been raised under Coates’s circumstances, and without religious faith, it’s likely that I would have ended up with his point of view on things. Again, I think about how my anger at the injustices in the Roman Catholic Church destroyed my ability to believe as a Catholic Christian. It is entirely possible that were I black, and had I grown up with so much fear, and no Christian faith to teach me how to deal with it, my anger would easily have destroyed my faith in America — and my ability to analyze conditions with any kind of balance.

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Jeb Bush ‘Deal’ Breaker

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Did you see that Jeb Bush today called overthrowing Saddam Hussein a “pretty good deal” for America? That prompted Daniel Larison to tweet:

Larison added:

Toppling Hussein wasn’t a “good deal” for Americans, and it certainly wasn’t for Iraqis. The Iraq war was an appalling, unnecessary disaster for all concerned, and anyone that doesn’t understand that should never be allowed near the presidency.

Yes. Good grief, yes. This is crackpot stuff from Bush. Any Republican candidate who runs in 2016 on a platform of defending the Iraq War will have his head handed to him, and deserves to.

I remarked flippantly the other day on Jeb!’s foreign policy speech, saying that nobody wants to hear a member of the Bush family lecture Democrats on how they’ve screwed up Iraq. Well, now I’ve read the entire speech, and it is substantively terrible. Excerpt:

Only Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds can decide if they will live together and share power and resources in a way that will serve their interests, assuring the survival of their country. But these partners have to know that while the United States is there in measure, we are also there in earnest and for the long haul. They will come through for their country, but they’ve got to be certain that we have their back.

Is this 2005? We know that the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds don’t want to live together in the same country. What has the last decade taught us, anyway? Why on earth do we think that American diplomatic pressure can make this happen?

More Jeb!:

Our ultimate goal in Syria is to defeat ISIS and to achieve long-term political stability in that country. Defeating ISIS requires defeating Assad, but we have to make sure that his regime is not replaced by something as bad or worse. The last thing we need in Syria is a repeat of Libya, with its plan-less aftermath, where the end of a dictatorship was only the beginning of more terrorist violence, including the death of 4 Americans in Benghazi. Syria will need a stable government, and a transition free of more sectarian blood-letting will depend on the credible moderate forces we help unite and build up today.

Er … right, so we can make a plan, find the “credible moderates,” empower them, and sort everything out. Just like in Iraq. Again: is this 2005?

It gets worse, if you can imagine it. Anyway, it’s hard to top Larison’s summary judgment on the speech. Excerpt:

The early excerpts from Bush’s speech didn’t fully convey how horrible his foreign policy vision for the region is. It is good that he has made his views known now so that there will be no illusion about the kind of foreign policy he would conduct if he were elected president.

The Middle East, especially Syria, Iraq, and ISIS, is an incredibly difficult problem. It is unreasonable to expect any American president to come up with the solution. But it is absolutely vital that the next American president not repeat the mistakes of the past. A Jeb Bush presidency would mean more war, more state-building, and more of the same old illusions that got us in such trouble there in the first place. If you liked the last Bush’s foreign policy, you’ll love this model.

UPDATE: Jeb! says he’ll not close the door on torture, even though the Catholic Church, of which he is a communicant, calls torture an “intrinsic evil.” So there’s that.

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Sexual Revolution Sans la Terreur

Is this the Mark of the Beast With Two Backs? (tanuha2001 /
Is this the Mark of the Beast With Two Backs? (tanuha2001 /

Damon Linker is not surprised that religious trads like me are appalled by the Tinder dating story. He’s after something else:

I’m more interested in the reaction to this development among older mainstream liberals: those who have always favored the sexual revolution but whose own lives have remained relatively conventional, including exclusive dating, marriage, and childrearing, possibly a divorce and remarriage, with the ideal of lifelong companionship still active in their minds and imaginations.

I suspect many of these liberals — Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers (like myself) — will find this vision of dating as a series of technologically facilitated one-off hook-ups with near-strangers to be pretty appalling. I know I do. There’s just one problem: In order for this reaction to amount to more than an old fogey’s sub-rational expression of disgust at the behavior of the young, it has to make reference to precisely the kind of elaborate account of morality — including binding standards of human flourishing and degradation — that liberals have worked to jettison, in the name of sexual liberation, for the past half-century.

What the article describes is largely our doing. This is the world we made, furnishing it with our mores, our freedom from judgment and consequences, our wondrous technological toys. Just because we arrived too late to “enjoy” it as fully as those who’ve graduated from college during the last decade doesn’t make us any less responsible for it. And nothing demonstrates our complicity more than our incapacity to react with anything sterner than a furrowed brow or more compelling than, “As long as no one gets hurt…”

Read the whole thing. About his own kids:

I want them to experience the rarer and more precious goods that follow from the disciplining of their baser instincts (like the animal desire to copulate with a different sexual partner every night of the week) in order to reach an end that’s pursued for its own sake rather than for the instantaneous rewards it brings.

That’s good. Linker wonders aloud if that is possible without some higher ideal binding individual desire. Without that, we get hook-up culture, with no way to condemn it beyond saying it is distasteful.

This is the real problem with the Tinder-driven hook-up culture in the Vanity Fair article: the merging of sexual desire, self-worship, and technology. Sam M. and others in the previous thread pointed out that studies show Millennials are, on average, having less sex than you would think, given the premises of the Vanity Fair piece, by Nancy Jo Sales. So much for the Tinderpocalypse, right? Jesse Singal of New York magazine looked into the story:

I emailed Sales about Twenge’s work: “The conclusions of the study seemed somewhat suspect to me,” she said. “And contradictory. For example: It finds that, while millennials have more open and accepting attitudes about sex, they also have fewer sex partners. This didn’t make sense to me. Nor did it make sense that people who are waiting longer to marry (or not marrying at all, so far) — that is, millennials — would also have fewer sex partners than past generations, who married earlier.”

That’s social scientist Jean Twenge, quoted by Sales in her story. Sales’s self-defense here makes intuitive sense, but she seems not to have thought about the famous non-judgmentalism of the Millennials. They may see nothing wrong with hook-up culture in theory, but may want nothing to do with it themselves (or be bad at participating in it).

I think it’s fair to criticize me for confirmation bias — that is, being too quick to believe the VF piece because it confirms what my criticism of contemporary sexual mores. As I said, it also confirmed to me the details of a college professor friend’s detailed observations to me about the sexual culture on his campus. Maybe the real story here is not so much the rate of sex that Millennials are having, but the fact that our non-judgmental sexual culture makes it difficult to achieve what Linker wants for his children (and I for mine).

It is also worth considering the role that the ubiquitousness and easy availability of pornography may play in decreasing sexual activity. Common sense would indicate that engaging in heavy porn use would stimulate more sexual activity. But what if the opposite is true? What if it satiates and numbs people, and causes them to substitute fantasy and masturbation for actual human contact?

By the way, here’s an interesting story about technology and sexual assault on campus, by NPR’s Tovia Smith. Check out this excerpt:

Even more questionable to some experts is the bevy of mobile apps that promise to help curb assault. One that just hit the market, called We-Consent, records students agreeing to sexual activity. A breathy female voice with a British accent asks the user to “say the name of the person with whom you would like to have sexual relations.” Then the app announces to the other person, that so-and-so “would like to have sexual relations with you” and asks for consent. If all goes well, the app ends with the sultry female voice announcing, “Have Fun!”

“It’s a very powerful tool,” says developer Michael Lissack, a former Wall Street banker turned social scientist. He’s selling the app on his website, We-Consent, for $5 a year and is also trying to get schools to buy it in bulk, for all their students. Lissack says Apple has refused to sell it in its App Store, calling it “icky.” But Lissack insists his app is exactly the kind of tool that’s needed to change behavior.

The Guardian, further:

With We-Consent, both participants are encouraged to record video memos, naming themselves, the date, time and place they’ve given sexual consent, logging it for seven years in the event that one of them finds themselves accused of non-consensual behaviour afterwards. Immediately, most people over, say, 25 might find themselves questioning the app’s obvious flaws: first off, who would ever actually whip out their mobile to log the crucial moment before that crucial moment? What can filmed mutual agreement possibly mean when one or both parties have the right to change their un-filmed minds at any given point? Why is the basic human responsibility to understand the premise of yes or no being outsourced to an app?

If you listen to the NPR story, you can hear the We-Consent app’s voice. It’s totally creepy.

A friend who teaches at a college campus says the administration there is trying to figure out how to deal with the sexual assault problem there — date rape, mostly — but it’s tying itself into knots trying to determine an effective way of fighting it without using the language of morality. The students, my friend says, think of sexual morality entirely in terms of consent, which blinds them to the deeper, richer dimensions of sex and, dare we say it, love.

It was C.S. Lewis, I think, who quipped that it is possible to go to hell even if you are totally chaste — the idea being that if your chastity comes from having a cold, unfeeling heart. Similarly, if we only look to metrics of quantity to judge the merit of contemporary sexual morals, we may miss something more crucial at the heart of the phenomenon. If people come to think of sex as about nothing more than matter meeting matter, they will dehumanize sex even if they live in perfect chastity.

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No Justice, No T&A

Paulie Walnuts, Enemy of the People (Eugene Parciasepe /
Paulie Walnuts, Enemy of the People (Eugene Parciasepe /

A va-va-va-voomy proletarian takes to the pages of The New York Times to expose, so to speak, workplace iniquity:

In my 23 years of stripping, I’ve worked at 17 clubs in four states. Now, I’m in Cathedral City, in California’s arid Coachella Valley. Just far enough from Los Angeles and Las Vegas to make it indispensable, the club caters to young Marines from a nearby base and their granddads — Reaganites who come to chase away loneliness and ancient regrets, eager to grope a person who’s not their primary caregiver and eyeball our half-clothed bodies. Dancing has helped many of us through our adult lives — paying for school, families, fledgling careers as creatives — but it is also exploitative.

More from the Rosa Luxemburg of the Bada Bing!:

Across the board, I’ve observed management simply finding workarounds, new ways to steal tips by coming up with new names for the same fees. The instability creates divisiveness among our trade (no one, after all, wants to risk everything and lose their job) which makes further organizing painfully difficult.

Strip clubs have provided me and many other dancers with steady income for our entire adult lives. I’m thankful to have enjoyed decades as a paid entertainer. But we deserve the same protections and respect given to any employee in any other work force. We are night laborers who have found a way to offer fantasy, entertainment, intrigue and human contact in an impersonal culture. We want to see a safe and sexy dance floor in every strip club in America. And we deserve to keep our tips.

It’s almost like men who pay money to see naked ladies dance, as well as those who operate naked-lady dance emporia, are not upright people. Where would we be without the social justice platform of the Times? Twerk on, you op-ed goddess, you!

UPDATE: For the record, I believe people should pay their lap dancers fairly, and if you cheat a stripper, shame on you. If they can prove you broke the law, then you should go to jail, pay a fine, or whatever. The point of this post is to highlight the absurdity of the expectation that a business that is inherently risky, vulgar, and degrading will be run according to standard models of business ethics. Y’all think I’m trying to say it’s okay to stiff a stripper, but you’re entirely missing the point.

This kind of argument (in the op-ed) arises from an expectation that the author of the op-ed article (who is also a college instructor) has, and that it appears is shared by The New York Times. It comes, I think, from this bizarre view that sex can be hot, passionate, transgressive … but also entirely safe and without risk whatsoever. Camille Paglia, writing about sex crime last fall in Time, said:

There is a ritualistic symbolism at work in sex crime that most women do not grasp and therefore cannot arm themselves against. It is well-established that the visual faculties play a bigger role in male sexuality, which accounts for the greater male interest in pornography. The sexual stalker, who is often an alienated loser consumed with his own failures, is motivated by an atavistic hunting reflex. He is called a predator precisely because he turns his victims into prey.

Sex crime springs from fantasy, hallucination, delusion, and obsession. A random young woman becomes the scapegoat for a regressive rage against female sexual power: “You made me do this.” Academic clichés about the “commodification” of women under capitalism make little sense here: It is women’s superior biological status as magical life-creator that is profaned and annihilated by the barbarism of sex crime.

Misled by the naive optimism and “You go, girl!” boosterism of their upbringing, young women do not see the animal eyes glowing at them in the dark. They assume that bared flesh and sexy clothes are just a fashion statement containing no messages that might be misread and twisted by a psychotic. They do not understand the fragility of civilization and the constant nearness of savage nature.

Of course very few male patrons of strip clubs are going to turn out to be stalkers. That’s not the point. The point is that markets where women take their clothes off for men’s viewing pleasure, in exchange for money, are going to be places that draw those less likely to care much for things like respect for the humanity of others, in particular the humanity of those women they objectify, and who are willing to be objectified in exchange for a fee. It’s like complaining that people get sh*tfaced drunk and start fistfights in sports bars. It ought not to happen, but it’s in the nature of the phenomenon of men gathering in a room to drink intoxicants — and therefore an ineradicable, if undesirable, part of the business.

This piece, by the way, is on the front page of the Times‘s website, which is one of the most highly trafficked news sites in the world. Many of you complain that I focus too much on sex and sexuality in my commentary, but the real issue for you is that I don’t come to the “correct” conclusions.

UPDATE.2: Just for the record, as I write this, the lead op-ed in that coveted slot on the NYT site is a remembrance by a writer of the time she was asked to play Mary Magdalene in a church play as a 12-year-old, and drew on her knowledge of The Exorcist to infuse the character with lustfulness. Excerpt:

I couldn’t go to Mom for advice on whoredom, demonic possession and penitence. Fortunately, I’d watched “The Exorcist” six times, so I knew a thing or two about possession. Because Regan, the bedeviled child in the film, was 12, I identified with her foul-mouthed adolescent rage and sexual frustration. Locked in my bedroom, practicing the throes of demonic possession, I imagined stern priests hovering over me, obsessed with my vile, pubescent body. Puberty was like a demon rocking through your body, changing it from the inside out. Nothing could stop it: not even two repressed priests armed with ancient poems and holy water. As I dressed for the play, slipping into Mom’s castoff cocktail dress, I wondered if L.­F. would be impressed.

On the way to the church, Dad sighed and studied his script. Mom rolled her eyes, and neither of them commented on my slut garb. As I tottered around backstage in three-inch pumps, disciples from the Last Supper flirted with me. A mustachioed man winked and said, “come give your uncle some sugar.” Though flattered, I felt a sick twist in my gut. I tried to catch Dad’s eye, but he was hunched in a corner, muttering his lines.

Do you not think this is a completely weird thing to feature prominently on the front page of The New York Times? Even a little bit weird?

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Hillary’s E-Mails: Once a Clinton…

I said earlier today that nobody wants to hear a member of the Bush family criticizing a Democrat’s policy on Iraq. Well, who on earth looks forward to hearing a member of the Clinton family issuing progressively modified explanations for why they broke the rules (and maybe the law) to serve themselves, and then lied about it? That’s what we’re getting with Hillary over the e-mail scandal:

Try as she might to focus on the policies she wants to enact if elected president, Hillary Rodham Clinton just can’t dig out of her inbox.

Clinton’s email problems are getting worse. She agreed to turn over her private server to the Justice Department this week on the same day Congress got word that at least two emails that traversed the device while she was secretary of state contained information that warranted one of the government’s highest levels of classification.

The developments suggest the investigation into the security of Clinton’s email setup could run deep into 2016, as she is trying to win the Democratic nomination for president and, potentially, the general election.

More, from Politico:

The announcement on Tuesday that Clinton would hand over her private email server marked a reversal. Clinton for months had refused to do so, despite frequent Republican demands. The decision came after the FBI opened a probe into the security of Clinton’s private email setup, sparked by a review from the intelligence community inspector general that found four classified messages among a sample of 40 of Clinton’s 35,000 emails.

That IG on Tuesday confirmed that two of the 40 emails it examined contained “top secret” information, according to a letter the office sent to Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, and some Clinton critics have suggested that the candidate handed over her server when she did to distract from this finding.
Clinton had told reporters at the U.N. in March that “there is no classified material” in her emails, and [Clinton spokesman] Palmieri’s note on Wednesday clarified that “no information in her emails was marked classified at the time she sent or received them.”

This kind of thing reminds people of what they disliked about the Clintons: you never know what the truth is with these people. Christopher Hitchens captured it best in the title of his 1999 anti-Clinton book: No One Left To Lie To.

Honestly, if 2016 becomes a Clinton-Bush contest, I’m drinking the hemlock.

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Jeb Bush & Sins of the Brother

Jeb Bush blames Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for losing Iraq:

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor seeking the Republican presidential nomination, issued a blistering attack on Tuesday on the Obama administration’s handling of Iraq and terrorism issues, asserting that Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, had “stood by” as secretary of state as the situation in Iraq deteriorated.

He said President Obama and Mrs. Clinton had orchestrated an early withdrawal of American troops, setting the stage for the chaos sweeping the region now and the rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

“That premature withdrawal was the fatal error, creating the void that ISIS moved in to fill,” Mr. Bush declared in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library here on Tuesday night.

“Where was the secretary of state, Secretary of State Clinton, in all of this? Like the president himself, she had opposed the surge, then joined in claiming credit for its success, then stood by as that hard-won victory by American and allied forces was thrown away.”


I don’t know about you, but whatever the mistakes the Obama administration, including Secretary of State Clinton, made in dealing with Iraq, I absolutely positively do not want to hear a member of the Bush family criticizing them. Is that irrational? Yeah, maybe it is. But as soon as I heard Jeb Bush speaking, I felt a jolt of anger … and then I realized that no matter how intelligent and persuasive he may be, there is no way George W. Bush’s brother will be able to shake off the Iraq albatross. It was one of the greatest strategic mistakes in US history. It’s not exactly news that the Dubya administration, and Iraq, is a liability for Jeb Bush’s campaign, but it was all theoretical for me until I heard his attack on Obama and Hillary for losing Iraq. It’s infuriating, and made me know in my gut that I don’t want any of these people running US foreign policy again.

Maybe that’s just me, but I have to wonder if the Republican Party really wants to take a chance on having its presidential nominee so vulnerable to Hillary Clinton on this point. Note well that any GOP nominee would make the same argument that Jeb Bush is making here. But coming out of the mouth of a Bush, it’s different. It’s audacious in a way that brings to mind the definition of chutzpah: the man who kills his parents then throws himself on the mercy of the court, claiming he’s an orphan. It’s not fair to Jeb, but that doesn’t make it go away.

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American Race, Through Foreign Eyes

A commenter on the Ta-Nehisi Coates thread, a Turkish Muslim living in the US, posted remarks strongly critical of the way many Americans regard race relations, saying that in his view, too many blacks complain for no reason, and that whites are “suicidal” for trying to appease minorities. I looked up the commenter’s email address online, and found that he does indeed post on Muslim forums, as a believing Muslim. I assume he is genuinely a Turk. Had that comment been made by, say, a white guy living in a suburb, I wouldn’t have paid much attention to it. It made me wonder, though, how readers of this blog who are not native-born Americans, but who live in this country, see the way the United States thinks and talks about race.

So I want to make this an open thread. If you are a foreigner living in the US, or a naturalized American who grew up in another country, I would appreciate it if you would share your views of how we Americans deal with race. I’m not really interested in your opinion of white people, black people, Hispanic people, Asian people, and so forth; I’m interested in your take on the way we Americans think and talk about race — and what we don’t talk about when we talk about race.

Let me be clear: I don’t care which “side” you take, but I do care about why you take it. Please be as explicit and as candid as you can. If you post on this thread, please state your country of origin, and your race or ethnic heritage. If you are a regular poster and want to adopt a pseudonym for this thread, that’s fine.

I am sure that I will have some people trying to troll this thread. I will do my best to weed them out. If I don’t publish your comment and you think I’ve failed to do so unfairly, please drop me a note and make your case, and I’ll reconsider. I urge you to be thoughtful, not needlessly provocative. People who just want to lash out at others, save your trouble, because I’m not going to post your stuff. I am genuinely interested in how people from other countries see us in this respect, and what we Americans can learn from you.

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The GOP’s Trumpenstein Monster

Reader St. Louisan writes:

Part of me hopes the Donald Trump bubble continues into next year, because it will serve the “conservative movement” right. For decades now, they–Fox, the talk radio guys, politicians and journals–have been stoking the rage of their base. They’ve convinced their base that the media isn’t merely biased, but actively engaged in conspiracy against them, that Washington’s incompetence is exceeded only by it’s nefariousness, that politics is a sleazy and dishonorable thing and only outsiders can bring sound policy or honest intentions, that “the establishment” is corrupt and even the Republican Party’s leadership is willing to sell them out for cocktail party invitations.

I suspect a large portion of conservative thought leaders (including Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes) expected the Trump show to collapse before it became too serious an embarrassment for the eventual nominee, and hoped the first debate would begin that collapse. But they’ve systematically trained their viewers, listeners, and readers to discount experience, revere “outsiders” and business success, equate long experience in government with selling out, and regard any establishment–even the establishment of their own movement–with distrust. The degree to which more serious conservative journalists have tolerated and played along with this over the years has been scandalous. If Trump ends up splitting the Republican vote (or hanging around long enough to force the nominee to make nice with him) and costs the GOP this election, it will serve the conservative movement right.

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