As a white person in the U.S., I am conditioned from birth to see whiteness as safety — white neighborhoods, white people, white authority figures. My lived experience, my conversations with people of color, and my study of history have shown me over and over that this is a wild and cruel perversion of the truth. But the cultural conditioning is strong. Unless I fight it every day, white superiority seeps into my brain in slow, almost undetectable ways.
– Rev. Meg Riley, “Up to Our Necks“
Last week’s “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” had the hottest first week in Weekly Sift history, with over 62,000 hits so far. It has slowed down a little, but is still getting thousands a day. Already it’s the third most popular Sift post ever.
This week’s featured article is “The Ferguson Test“. Rather than focus on breaking news (something a one-man weekly blog can’t hope to do well) this post asks you to take a step back and examine your own reactions to Ferguson. How is race influencing the way you perceive the facts?
This week everybody was talking about the Ferguson protests
Very short version, for people who have been cut off from civilization all week: A young black man was shot by police under suspicious circumstances in a mostly-black suburb of St. Louis. The police stonewalled (but the family has released its own autopsy), the community protested (mostly peacefully, but with violent incidents), and the local police responded with military weapons and tactics until Governor Jay Nixon put the state police in charge, which temporarily calmed things down. Over the weekend, things heated up again and now the National Guard has been called in.
To get a handle on this, the continuously updated Vox card stack “Everything you need to know about the Ferguson, MO protests for Michael Brown” is a good place to start. The NYT has a day-by-day timeline. But maybe nobody does a better job of pulling it all together than John Oliver.
Here’s the thing the [Ferguson] mayor doesn’t understand. As a general rule, no one should ever be allowed to say, “There is no history of racial tension here.” Because that sentence has never been true anywhere on Earth.
And he responds to Governor Nixon’s scolding of the community (with the “profoundly patronizing” tone of “a pissed-off vice principal trying to restore order at an assembly”) by turning it around.
That should go both ways. I know the police love their ridiculous unnecessary military equipment. So here’s another patronizing test: Let’s take it all away from them. And if they can make it through a whole month without killing a single unarmed black man, then (and only then) can they get their fucking toys back.
Articles about Ferguson have explored several inter-related issues.
The specifics of the Brown shooting. See the above-mentioned Vox card stack. And an editorial in The St. Louis American gives some important political and economic background. In an era where downtowns are gentrifying, the poor are increasingly ending up in the first ring of suburbs, in places like Ferguson. But as whites flee to the more distant suburbs or return to the city, the white-dominated political power structure is often the last thing to go.
Racism in policing and the justice system. Ezra Klein’s article puts this together well.
The militarization of police in American cities. Due to a program that distributes unneeded military equipment to local police forces, towns as small as Franklin, Indiana now have the kind of mine-resistant personnel carriers that even the Army didn’t have in the early days of the Iraq occupation. And John Oliver’s rant (above) makes fun of Keene, New Hampshire’s suggestion that such a vehicle might be needed if terrorists strike the annual fall Pumpkin Festival (which I’ve been to and survived without incident).
The problem? Clothes make the man. If you see the public out the window of an armored vehicle, they don’t look the way they might if you were walking among them. And they don’t look at you the same, either. Worse, military veterans trained in this kind of hostile crowd control tell us that the Ferguson police are doing it wrong.
Andrew Exum tweeted:
Ferguson is useful in that it separates those who actually worry about the power of the state from those who just hate Obama and want to wave a Gadsden Flag around with their friends.
Michael Bell is a white retired Air Force officer whose article: “What I Did After Police Killed My Son” raises a more general question of police accountability.
In 129 years since police and fire commissions were created in the state of Wisconsin, we could not find a single ruling by a police department, an inquest or a police commission that a shooting was unjustified. … The problem over many decades, in other words, was a near-total lack of accountability for wrongdoing; and if police on duty believe they can get away with almost anything, they will act accordingly.
and Robin Williams
who apparently committed suicide last Monday. There were three types of articles about him:
- news articles about his suicide, most of which have been blessedly short on details. Like most of the public, I often compulsively seek out details and then wish I didn’t know them. A late-breaking detail was that he was suffering some early Parkinson’s symptoms.
- tributes to his career, which had amazing breadth. I saw him live only once, at a benefit in Boston that he did for John Kerry’s Senate campaign. (I think in 1990.) I can’t remember a single word he said, but it was brilliant.
- discussions of depression, which have ranged from clueless to extremely interesting. I got the most insight out of David Wong’s “Robin Williams and Why Funny People Kill Themselves“.
Lynn Ungar points out that the Ferguson and Williams stories have something in common: They both offer us the choice of whether to try to understand people in distress or stand in judgment over them. Both stories have an element of “if you haven’t been there, you don’t know.”
I have a personal interest in depression. Both of my parents had age-related depression in their later years, and (from the early warning signs) I suspect I will too. Among other things, the brain is an organ that processes neurotransmitters, like a big kidney that also happens to think. Like many people’s kidneys, it may do its job less and less well as it ages.
The biggest thing people don’t get about depression is that when you’re depressed, your brain is broken. (I think the TV show Homeland has done a brilliant job of showing how a person struggles to think when she knows her brain is broken. Carrie suffers from mania, which is a different malfunction, but many of the same principles apply.) Paying attention to your stream of emotions is like listening to a radio mystery during an electrical storm; bursts of static wipe out key details, other programs bleed in, and you struggle to hang on to the story you tuned in for.
In spite of mirror neurons and empathy and all that, you can never really know what’s going on in another person’s brain, even if both of you are icons of mental health. When malfunctions start to cloud the picture, we’re all just guessing. So I find it impossible to stand in judgment of Robin Williams, either to condemn him or grant him absolution. I have no idea what it was like to be in his head.
In any other week, the death of Lauren Bacall would have been the top entertainment-news story. She was not just a great actress in her own right, but because she came of age as the old Hollywood system was ending and lived to be 89, her death marks the passing of a generation.
and Hillary Clinton
In an interview with The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, Clinton began the process of distancing herself from President Obama, apparently in preparation for a 2016 presidential run. The most-quoted parts of that interview criticize Obama’s handling of Syria:
The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled
and his cautious approach to intervention in general:
Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.
As James Fallows points out, most of her interview stayed in harmony with Obama’s policies; but she should have known that the headlines would be about the differences.
If the former interpretation is right, Clinton is rustier at dealing with the press than we assumed. Rustier in taking care with what she says, rustier in taking several days before countering a (presumably) undesired interpretation. I hope she’s just rusty. Because if she intended this, my heart sinks. … Yeah, we should have “done something” in Syria to prevent the rise of ISIS. But the U.S. did a hell of a lot of somethings in Iraq over the past decade, with a lot more leverage that it could possibly have had in Syria. And the result of the somethings in Iraq was … ?
Fahred Zakaria critiques “The Fantasy of Middle Eastern Moderates“.
Asserting that the moderates in Syria could win is not tough foreign policy talk, it is a naive fantasy with dangerous consequences.
I’ve been resisting writing about 2016, because I think it’s a too-easy way to fill space with speculation that sounds a lot more important than it is. But these days a serious presidential campaign is a nationwide, multi-million-dollar enterprise that can’t be thrown together at the last minute. So we’re approaching the first big decision point: Who’s going to run? Clinton is the obvious front-runner, so the question is: If she runs, will any Democrat mount a serious challenge? And should liberals be hoping someone does, or not?
Up until this week, I’ve been focused on the importance of the Democrats hanging on to the White House, so I’ve been OK with Hillary going mostly unchallenged. If you’re focused on winning in November, you want the primaries to be like preseason football: Your team gets to run through its plays in a game-like situation, but faces no consequential threat. And you don’t want what the Republicans are shaping up to have: a big mudfest that someone wins by pandering to the party’s least attractive elements, and saying a lot of things that will come back to haunt him/her in the fall.
But the Goldberg interview reminded me of what I’ve long disliked about both the Clintons: Everything seems so calculated. I’m not sure whether there’s a real worldview in there, or just a political strategy. Bill’s two terms were a mixed bag. By preventing a Bush re-election, he gave us Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court rather than another Clarence Thomas. But after eight years spent constantly trying to find the center, the question, “What is the Democratic Party about?” seemed hopelessly muddled.
Here’s what I fear Hillary is thinking: If liberal votes can be taken for granted, then the best message for convincing swing voters is probably: “I’m tougher than Obama.” Tougher on Muslims, tougher on controlling the border, tougher on violence on our city streets. But if that message wins, where can she go with it?
And what if America is moving left, like Thomas Ricks.
and you also might be interested in …
Rick Perry got indicted for abuse of power, but I’m having a hard time getting excited about it. Steve Kornacki is skeptical and Jonathan Chait thinks it’s “unbelievably ridiculous”. They’re not Perry’s usual defenders.
Google just got a little creepier. Here’s a map of a smartphone user’s wanderings.
Kentucky’s proposed “Ark Encounter” theme park wants to get state subsidies while only hiring fundamentalist Christians.
and let’s close with something America should envy
Copenhagen’s “Cycle Snake”, a beautiful new elevated bikeway.