underground

On the most recent episode of the very good American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, the inflammatory audio tapes of Detective Mark Fuhrman are heard. Johnnie Cochran, played with devious excellence by Courtney B. Vance, says the tapes show “what black people have always known”. At one point, one of the white members of the “Dream Team” says he knows how Cochran feels, and Cochran explodes. There is simply no way a white person can truly understand what it means to be black in America.

Underground is a new series on WGN America. All I knew of WGN prior to this is that they were an early “superstation” that showed Major League Baseball games for the Chicago teams. Underground is one of their first original series, and without decent reviews, I doubt I would have found it. It tells a story of the Underground Railroad, with the primary setting being a Georgia plantation where some of the slaves are planning an escape. It’s a tricky show, trying to be true to the history of slavery in America while still giving the audience something they will want to see week after week. So there is a lot of melodrama. But the extensive cast (hello, Adina Porter!) does wonders with the material, and we care about the characters.

While the focus is on the escape plans (we’ve seen three episodes so far, with the fourth airing tonight), we also get a clear picture of why escape is necessary. The plantation owner and his friends are suitably inhuman, and the slaves live in constant fear that some perceived mistake will be severely punished.

There is always a chance that this will be presented in a way that encourages the audience to enjoy the misery ... giving lashes to the slaves is barbaric, but it is also a part of a show that in part has entertainment on its mind. So far, Underground avoids this. I once taught the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and one student actually wrote that the slaves in the book were happy. There are no happy slaves in Underground.

A few years ago, I posted excerpts from the will of my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, who died in Virginia in 1757. If I remember correctly, I was finding my way through Ancestry.com files ... my sister had an account. I knew my mom’s family came from Kentucky ... my grandmother was born there. I never really thought about the implications of those Kentucky roots. But then I found that will. Here, I’ll repost the excerpts:

To Thomas Cralle Lamkin, son of Mary Jones, widow and relict of Charles Jones, late of Northumberland County five negoes vixt: Little Ben, Isaac, Peggs Bess, Blacka Top and Aggy. If he should die before he arrives to age or day of marriage, his mother Mary Jones to enjoy two of the said slaves that may be left at his death, she to have her choice during her natural life, then to revert to my children the remaining part

To son William Matthews Cralle nine negroes vizt: Chnce, Cate, and their daughter Bess, Frank, Alice, Stephen, Cate, Dominy, and Edmond.

Mulatto man Will, may be free at my decease.

To son Rodham Kenner Cralle three negroes vizt: Harry, George, and Nanny and my watch.

To daugher Mary Foushee my silver tankard, and negro wench Rose Anna

Rest of my estate both real and personal to be equally divided between five children Kenner, John, Rodham, William, and Mary, except Ben and Matthews whom I give to my son Kenner, son John to have Rachel, Old Ben to make choice of his master among my children.

I think it’s the matter-of-fact tone that is most disturbing. Mary Jones will “enjoy” her slaves. Old Ben isn’t given his freedom, but he gets “to make choice of his master”.

What was really most disturbing to me was that this was in my family’s past. I had certainly never owned up to any of this, beyond a general despair over slavery, and the role of whites in the “institution”. What this will showed me was that, beyond the general despair, I had, through my family, a specific responsibility. I can’t change the past, and I don’t take the blame for what my ancestors did centuries ago. But I also understand that it is too easy for white Americans to dismiss any thoughts of this evil stain on our history ... “oh, that was then, we didn’t do that”. Well, yes we did. Just ask my great-great-great-great-great grandfather.

After last week’s episode of Underground, I said to my wife, “that’s my family”. I don’t know if my great-great-great-great-great grandfather had a plantation. I don’t know how he treated his slaves. But I know he had them, in numbers ... that will specifically lists 23 slaves. That’s 23 too many.

I find myself falling into a trap I have set for myself all of my life, making everything about Me. That shouldn’t be what’s happening here. My feelings about my family’s past are not equal to the suffering of the slaves my family owned. Underground can’t only be a “good show”. It also gives context, a context that includes the past of my own family.


where do we go from here

[T]he Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

-- Martin Luther King


doug henwood, my turn: hillary clinton targets the presidency

I’ll start with the cover. There’s no way not to start with the cover ... Henwood even added “An Author’s Note About This Book’s Cover” to the book’s forward. (The turnaround time for My Turn was extremely fast. Henwood states at one point that he was finishing the writing in October, and it was released in December.) In his author’s note, he says “As this book was entering production, we circulated the cover to get people talking about it. We never imagined how successful that strategy would be.” His discussion of the subsequent criticism touches on the larger issues he addresses in the book as a whole, and is deserving of some examination here.

Some people found the cover gross or disgusting ... more importantly, “Tweets and think-pieces about the cover quickly became a subgenre of a larger argument that tries to portray tough criticism of Hillary as sexist – inevitably so, given its incorporation into a dominant patriarchal discourse, regardless of the author’s intent.” That larger argument, which wants to discredit any criticism of Hillary Clinton, is what Henwood is up against when he writes this book. The criticism must be made, but it is attacked just as if he were coming from a right-wing perspective. He writes:

[I]f you’re looking for a more peaceful, more egalitarian society you’d have to overlook a lot about Hillary’s history to develop any enthusiasm for her. The side of feminism I’ve studied and admired for decades has been about moving towards that ideal, and not merely placing women into high places while leaving the overall hierarchy of power largely unchanged. It’s distressing to see feminism pressed into service to promote the career of a thoroughly orthodox politician – and the charge of sexism used to deflect critiques of her.

The seven chapters tell Clinton’s story “From Park Ridge to Little Rock” onwards “Toward November 2016”, with stops at “First Lady”, “Senator”, her first try at the presidency, “Diplomat”, and philanthropy. Almost a third of the book consists of footnotes. He mentions that the original article on which the book is based, which ran 6000 words, elicited a 9000-word refutation from just one person. Thus assuming that his book will be closely scrutinized, “I’ve provided plenty of footnotes ... to work with.”

If I had to pick a central point to Henwood’s argument, it is that concrete actions are worth far more than symbolic gestures. He returns again and again to Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, which Hillary strongly supported:

Later, as senator, she supported George W. Bush’s proposal to expand the work requirement for recipients of the surviving welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) – one of the few Democrats to do so. Advocates for the poor were shocked ...

A 2014 analysis ... found the following about ... [TANF]: fewer families were drawing benefits despite increased need; the value of those benefits have eroded to the point where beneficiaries can’t meet their basic needs; it does far less to reduce poverty than its predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which welfare reform abolished; and almost all of the early employment gains for single mothers have been reversed.

The symbolic importance of a woman president can’t be denied. But if that woman’s actions (not her symbolic presence) result in declines for women, the symbol is unimportant.

This matters because so much of the pro-Hillary stance is that as a woman, she is inherently feminist, and her actions are inherently good for women. This is only true on the symbolic level.

There are other objections to Hillary Clinton that Henwood analyzes in detail. On more than one occasion, he quotes her statement from an October Democratic debate: “I represented Wall Street, as a senator from New York.” She seems unashamed of that representation, and it can be assumed that if she becomes president, she will remain loyal to the rich institutions that have donated so much to her campaign. She is also quite hawkish. Henwood notes of her review of a book by Henry Kissinger,

[S]he praised his “breadth and acuity” and described him as “a friend,” on whose “counsel” she relied while Secretary of State. Her appreciation of her predecessor seems apt. There’s something reminiscent of Kissinger about Hillary – the ruthlessness, the admiration of toughness and force, the penchant for deception and secrecy, the view of diplomacy as war continued by other means.

(Keep in mind, she’s talking about a war criminal, here.)

Daniel Davies does a better job than I can of demonstrating why My Turn is an important book:

My main impression on reading the book is that this is something that all Hillary supporters ought to be buying – it sets out all of the credible criticisms, without mixing them with a load of right wing dreck. One of the strongest points Doug makes is that a detailed look at her history and actions is much more relevant than any amount of wonky analysis of her policies, because the history tells you that you can’t expect the policy promises to turn out. ...

Hillary’s time on the board of Wal-Mart ... gets pretty detailed scrutiny, as do various accounts of how things went so terribly wrong with healthcare reform under the Bill administration. And there is chapter and verse (backed up with a somewhat hair-raising selection of quotes at the back) on support for wars of all sizes and the elimination of welfare payments.

So these are the arguments that supporters need to know about; they’re largely credible criticisms of Hillary as being a selfish, arrogant politician with consistently poor judgement on important questions. These are the points which supporters need to deal with. But I get the strong feeling that most of them are not going to realise that they need to buy this book.

And I suppose I should post a picture of the cover. The artist is Sarah Sole:

my turn

[Obligatory disclaimer: I’ve known Doug for 20+ years.]


throwback thursday, recent edition

Mass Shooting Tracker is a website that calls itself “the world's only crowdsourced mass shooting tracker”. They have an ongoing page with Mass Shootings in 2015. Yesterday alone there were four shootings in the USA. The one that got the most attention was the live-on-television shooting of two Virginia journalists. Three people died, and one was wounded. There was also a shooting in Minnesota that left four wounded, a shooting in Florida that left two dead and two wounded, and a shooting in Chicago that killed one and wounded three. These brought the total number of shootings in 2015 to 248.

You can go to the website and see lists for 2013 and 2014 as well, if you want to look back in honor of Throwback Thursday.


catching up on books

Here are two books I’ve read recently that have nothing in common.

From Jeff Guinn, there’s Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, from 2013. The classic book on Manson is Helter Skelter, I suppose. It’s been forever since I read it. My memory is that I preferred Ed Sanders’ book, The Family. I probably thought I knew all that I needed to know about Manson, but Guinn proves me wrong. His book is detailed and heavily researched. You learn about his childhood, you learn about his various stays in penal institutions, and most importantly, you find that he drew quite a bit from Dale Carnegie and from Scientology. With the former, Manson learned techniques for influencing people (he wasn’t as interested in making friends). From the latter, he learned about how cults worked (he didn’t care about the religious angle). He then set out to find people who could give him something. Guinn notes that Charlie couldn’t have found a better place to begin his big project than San Francisco in 1967. Guinn doesn’t blame hippies or alternate lifestyles ... he just points out that people were pretty tolerant of oddball behavior (and Manson had a lot of that). He begins building his family there, but the story soon moves to Los Angeles, where Manson hopes to launch a music career. Again, I thought I knew the basics of the relationship between Manson and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, but Guinn breaks it down, clarifies things. By the time the murders take place, you can believe The Family would kill for Manson (fear was a big part of their actions).

In a timely sidenote, Karina Longworth’s excellent podcast, You Must Remember This, has been focusing on “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” for several weeks. It’s a great pairing with Guinn’s book.

The second book is Molly Knight’s tome on the recent history of the Los Angeles Dodgers, The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse, which came out a few weeks ago. It was a bit odd for this lifelong Giants fan to read an entire book about the Dodgers, but as I said on Twitter, I liked the ending (the Giants win the World Series, again, while the Dodgers don’t win the World Series, again). Knight doesn’t break new ground with this book, but she doesn’t have to, because she does such a solid, thorough job. She brings a lot to the table: a Dodger fan who, as she says, “grew up in the Top Deck at Dodger Stadium”; an efficient and clear writer; a worthy journalist; an honored stat head. She’s got all the angles covered, and the book benefits from her approach. We get to know Clayton Kershaw, take a peek inside Yasiel Puig, and most importantly, learn what a shitload of money can (and can’t) do for a major league baseball franchise. I got a greater appreciation for Don Mattingly, who maneuvers precariously between rich, antsy owners and temperamental superstars. (Knight doesn’t shy away from the whole story ... more than once, she notes that Mattingly is not known as a great strategist.)

Does Knight make me want to root for the Dodgers? Give me a break. If the Dodgers played a World Series against a team managed by Satan, I’d be cheering on the devil. Perhaps that’s a sign of how good Knight’s book is. Even a hardcore Giants fan will like it.


get it anyway, anyhow

So while we congratulate ourselves on not having political prisoners like China or Cuba, we do have what we might call prisoners of politics. Again, Obama described the incarceration crisis as “containing and controlling problems that the rest of us are not facing up to and willing to do something about.” Politicians have not been willing to face up to and do something about the underlying problems and all too willing to seek means of “containing” them—i.e., warehousing the people left behind. The political decisions made in the age of neoliberalism and globalization, concurrent with the War on Drugs, have resulted in a surplus population that cannot be absorbed by the sort of economy advocated by Washington and a severe criminalization of the one economy that does work in communities left behind.

-- Matthew Pulver, “Why America’s prison problem is so much worse than Barack Obama wants to let on

 

“Some folks are born into a good life. Other folks get it anyway, anyhow.”