Richard Ford On ‘Secular Redemption’

In his review of Richard Ford’Let Me Be Frank With You: A Frank Bascombe Book (Ecco, 2014) Michael Dirda quotes Ford as saying:

For me what we are charged to do as human beings is to make our lives and the lives of others liveable, as important, as charged as we possibly can. And so what I’d call secular redemption aims to make us, through the agency of affection, intimacy, closeness, complicity, feel like our time spent on earth is not wasted.

The end of a year–another one that rapidly accelerated, nay, hurtled, to its closing–is as good time as any to think about how the creation of value is supposed to make our brief span of existence ‘meaningful’ and thus not ‘wasted.’ (I suspect the sin of ‘wasting time’ was invented after timepieces were, but that reflection is for another, er, time.) The first part of what Ford supposes human beings are ‘charged’ with is familiar: ‘make our lives and the lives of others as liveable[sic], as important, as charged as we possibly can.’ (These values  raise familiar puzzles about their grounding and meaning.) The second part is more interesting.

Here, Ford invokes first, the agencies of ‘affection, intimacy, closeness’ and closes with ‘complicity.’ The first three are explicitly related to the ethics of love that are sometimes derived from the world’s great religious traditions. They suggest that our time on this planet is best spent loving and being loved; from those acts will follow all else. (If we are loved, we will be safe; if we feel safe, we will be not fearful or anxious; we will trust more and be more trustworthy; thus we will be less prone to hatred and distraction, ours, and that of others. And so on.) ‘Complicity’ has a slightly different flavor: we must collaborate. With others like us. On our life’s ‘projects’ and on theirs. Now, ‘complicit’ is usually used to indicate membership in a criminal conspiracy of some sort. What does its use here indicate?

I would venture that very often our life’s projects are ‘illegal’ in some sense or the other. They are not sanctioned; not approved; not permissible–custom, order, procedure, convention, norm, historical precedence must be violated. But we press on; we feel we can do no other. To do so we require collaborators; and the best place to find them is among those for whom we feel and experience and express the ‘affection, intimacy, closeness’ (and presumably trust) that Ford speaks of.

So the notion of secular redemption does two things here: it invokes a unavoidably groundless ethic of love (asking us perhaps to look at our most instinctual reactions of caring and wanting care), and then, in a more existential sense, as it commits us to projects uniquely and particularly of our own making, it also bids us ensure that we remember we cannot accomplish them alone. The only human essence here is one of love; all else remains to be determined. We make ourselves but with others.

Note: I have no idea what Richard Ford thinks ‘secular redemption’ means.

Oscar López Rivera and the Cabanillas

My essay on the Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera “Oscar López Rivera and the Cabanillas” is out in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Please read and share. Oscar’s case–and the miscarriage of justice at the heart of it–deserves to be known and talked about far more widely than it is now.  I owe many thanks to Fernando Cabanillas and Jan Susler of the People’s Law Office for their help in writing this essay.

The Legal Protection Of Armed And Deadly Assault By The Police

There are, supposedly, many legal protections to guard a citizen’s interaction with law-enforcement agencies and their officers: you may not be detained without cause (‘Am I under arrest?’ ‘Am I?’ ‘If I’m not, may I go?’); you and your personal spaces and possessions may not be searched without cause (‘Do you have a warrant?’); you may not be coerced into making confessions or incriminatory statements (‘I’m not talking.’); you have the right to an attorney (‘I want to see a lawyer’); heck, you even have the right not to be assaulted or shot dead during the course of an interaction with a police officer.

So say the books. Courts sing a slightly different tune. There, all manner of exceptions may be found: law enforcement officers may detain, search, and question you in ways deviating from the prescribed code and conduct of behavior if they were ‘acting in good faith’; they may suspend their reading of your rights if they were acting under similar motivations and had reason to suspect some law-enforcement imperative could be compromised otherwise; and of course, in the course of performing their duties and protecting their own lives, they may use deadly force in interactions with citizens in many different ways.

The Fourth Amendment’s protections of US citizens are effectively eviscerated by the legal standards used to evaluate police behavior in seizure, search, and armed response scenarios:

The Fourth Amendment inquiry focuses not on what the most prudent course of action may have been or whether there were other alternatives available, but whether the seizure (in this case, the shooting) was objectively reasonable to someone standing in the officer’s shoes—and it was.

Excerpt from Smith v. Freland
“Under Graham, we must avoid substituting our personal notions of proper police procedure for the instantaneous decision of the officer at the scene. We must never allow the theoretical, sanitized world of our imagination to replace the dangerous and complex world that policemen face every day. What constitutes ‘reasonable’ action may seem quite different to someone facing a possible assailant than to someone analyzing the question at leisure.”
—excerpted from Smith v. Freland, 954 F2d 343, 347 (6th Cir. 1992)

And so, it must come to pass. Police officers can shoot and kill a twelve-year old boy playing with a toy gun in a children’s playground, two seconds after their arrival, because in their judgement of what constituted ‘reasonable action,’ it was reasonable to shoot and kill such a boy. Such a standard has been in place with us ever since the Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Connor ruling that “cops can shoot you dead as long as their sense of self-preservation is “reasonable” in the face of your perceived dangerousness.”

The gap such rulings and interpretations have opened have resulted in a chasm, a gaping maw into which we feed, without ceasing, the bodies of innocent citizens–mostly black and brown men–year and year. The feverish fears of policemen are the only regulators of their trigger fingers.

A policeman feels unsafe; he fires. His safety has been addressed; what about ours?

Political Protests And Their Alleged Associated Criminality

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, New York, 2012, pp. 40-41), Michelle Alexander writes:

The rhetoric of “law and order” was first mobilized in the late 1950s Southern governors and law enforcement officials attempted to generate and mobilize white opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. In the years following Brown v. Board of Education, civil rights activists used direct-action tactics in an effort to force reluctant Southern states to desegregate public facilities. Southern governors and law enforcement officials often characterized these tactics as criminal and argued that the rise of the Civil Rights Movement was indicative of a breakdown of law and order. Support of civil rights legislation was derided by Southern conservatives as merely “rewarding lawbreakers.”

For more than a decade–from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s–conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime. Civil rights protests were frequently depicted as criminal rather than political in nature, and federal courts were accused of excessive lenience. thereby contributing to the spread of crime. In the words of then vice-president Richard Nixon, the increasing crime rate “can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and  when to disobey them.” Some segregationists went further, insisting that segregation causes crime, citing lower crime rates in Southern states as evidence that segregation was necessary.

Sounds familiar, right?

When you want to make a ‘same as it ever was’ point, you are offered a choice: point to the present and then to the past, or point to the past and then to the present. As an added rhetorical flourish, you could mutter dark imprecations about history repeating itself, the first time as  tragedy and the second as farce.

In a post here a few days ago, I had made note of how the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration had reported that the Black Lives Matter movement and its concomitant Ferguson Effect had resulted in an increase in lawlessness and crime rates. (The New York Times had dutifully convened one of its Room for Debate segments to conduct a serious investigation of this ‘report.’)

These ideological tactics–responding to political protests with accusations of criminality–are exceedingly transparent; their pedigree and historical provenance is well-established. Their deployment by reactionary law-enforcement agencies should not be surprising; they possess  an established record of success in these political climes. What should be is the credulity of those who should know better–like for instance, esteemed members of our national media, who, apparently devoid of any historical consciousness whatsoever, faithfully parrot these claims without making note of their deployment in the past. 

As the recent Mall of America protests in Minneapolis show, Black Lives Matter shows no sign of flagging in its efforts; we should expect accusations like the ones above to continue apace.

Adam Phillips On “The Leavisite Position” On Reading

In the course of his Paris Review interview on the Art of Non-Fiction (No. 7, conducted  by Paul Holdengräber) Adam Phillips says:

If you happen to like reading, it can have a very powerful effect on you, an evocative effect….It’s not as though when I read I’m gathering information, or indeed can remember much of what I read. I know the books that grip me, as everybody does, but their effect is indiscernible….The Leavisite position…is that reading certain sentences makes you more alive and a morally better person, and that those two things go together. It seems to me that that isn’t necessarily so, but what is clear is that there are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. There’s something about these books that we want to go on thinking about, that matters to us. They’re not just fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about. [link added]

As I noted in these pages a while ago, we often do not remember what we read. An acknowledgment of this fact can provoke considerable anxiety as one ages: time is speeding by; I must savor each moment; and yet, I am spending them in a pursuit which leaves no tangible trace. Then, as I noted, we should pay attention to the fact that:

The act of reading is pleasurable in itself; it is not a means to an end, it is an end of its own. While reading, we are…transported. The encounter with the book is refuge, journey and scholarship all at once….While reading, for that period of time, we enter into dialogues and conversations with several selves–the author and ourselves, at the bare minimum–in several registers. The end of the reading of a book is not, and should not, be occasion for ‘outcomes assessment’; it might be more appropriate to mark it with farewells to a companion that is able to–for the hours that we let it–remove us from a world ‘full of care.’

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. If we are to be continually instructed to stay in the proverbial here-and-now, then how should we best do so? Reading a book sounds like a very good answer.

The ‘unconscious evocative effects’ Phillips speaks of are crucial. We–or at least the conscious components of ourselves–might not remember the details of the books we read, but the experience changes us nonetheless. We spent our days differently; there were distractions we ignored or only partially paid attention to; we altered somehow–to use an overworked phrase–our neural pathways.  We have, even without our knowing it, changed our orientation to the world’s offerings. That melancholia we feel, that sudden upswing in our mood, that unaccountable response to a movie, poem, a child’s pranks, an adult’s intransigence; an archaeology on them might yet reveal to a more omniscient species the bookish well-springs of their provenance.

There are no free lunches in this universe; but nothing goes to waste either. Read on.

Serendipity In The Library Stacks

I like libraries. Always have. My most favored writing space these days is a library, that of the CUNY Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan. I arrive by subway at the 34th Street station, exit at 35th Street, enter the B. Altman Building through the lobby, buy myself a coffee, and then head upstairs to the second floor. If my favored by-the-window spot is not available I seek out others and get to work. The ceilings are high; the light is good; and scholars around me remind me I should not spend too much time dilly-dallying on social media.

But the real reason to like working in a library is that I’m surrounded by books. CUNY folks are used to griping, endlessly, about the relatively small size of our collections, but be that as it may, there are still many, many stacks of tomes here. And it’s not just the books that are immediately relevant to my writing projects that make a library a favored zone of work; it’s all of them, arranged according to a scheme whose workings I do not fully understand (and don’t want to.)

For between these stacks are passageways that must be traversed to move around within the library–those much-needed short walks to pick up a printout, a sharpened pencil for underlining and note-making, a trip to the restroom or water fountain for relief and refreshment, a short nap in the big armchairs by the windows. And as I walk among these stacks, among rows and columns of books, I encounter the serendipity of the stacks.

Here may be found entire domains of scholarship and literary and cultural accomplishment that I have not encountered and would never have had I not ventured into Stackland (and sometimes also into Returned For Reshelving Island.) Nineteenth century woman poets; obscure, marginalized ‘moments’ in art history; avant-garde novelists; dazzlingly incomprehensible mathematical monographs; presidential speeches; philosophers who never make it to graduate reading lists; Brazilian musicology; the list goes on. And on. (This exceedingly short list does no justice whatsoever to the richness of the offerings on display.)

I move quickly and briskly between the stacks, purposefully striding on toward my eventual destination. But the corners of my eyes are drawn towards the titles whizzing by. They pull me back toward them; they slow my steps. They bid me pick them up and inspect the spine, the cover, the table of contents. I am intrigued; I am awed by the labor of love so clearly visible. I am humbled; I am overwhelmed. I will never be able to produce scholarship this acute, this sustained. I am reminded, relentlessly, of how little I know. And how the vast edifice of human knowledge is built up by these constituents, arrayed here in their marvelous variety.

These walks are little expeditions of a kind; sorties and forays into uncharted territory. Who knows what I may find on the next one? I will never read all the books I glimpse here, but they do serve as reminders to keep reading. And writing.

The Incompatibiity Of Democracy And The Modern Nation-State

A few days ago, I posted the following status on my Facebook page:

Sometimes, over the course of a semester’s worth of reading and discussing material with one’s students, you can feel a sort of collective convergence on some substantive theses. This semester, my Political Philosophy class and I were in agreement on this one: democracy is incompatible with the modern nation-state.

I was asked for clarification. Here it is–very briefly.

The modern nation-state requires, for its adequate functioning and for the enforcement and policing of its sovereignty, structures that work to undermine democratic principles. Most prominently, the nation-state employs hierarchical bureaucracies–civil services, administrative agencies, ministries of ‘external affairs’ etc–to implement its legislative policies; it sustains standing armies and paramilitary forces like the police, which maintain territorial integrity and can be used to quell internal disturbance if needed; it colludes with corporations in a political economy to create and sustain the value required for its economic viability. The first factor results in a machinery that very quickly acquires a life of its own; elected leaders are plugged into this beast as replaceable components. The second and third factors combine to generate variants of the military-industrial complex.

The version of democracy most often found in the modern nation-state is electoral democracy: ‘representatives of the people’ are elected by popular franchise. This species of democracy notoriously generates political parties whose platforms artificially impose homogeneity of political viewpoint on a heterogeneous membership and the career politician dedicated primarily to re-election. The people turn out every few years to dutifully vote, and then retreat to their overworked schedules to take care of their daily imperatives.

The nation-state is a vast political beast that requires management. Elites and ‘specialists’ step in; oligarchies and plutocracies are formed. Once in power, the vast machinery of the state, the force of its police and armies, the economic might of the military-industrial complex, and various corporate structures act to conserve their power. Wealth and power accumulates at the political summit; political and economic inequality increase. This situation is further entrenched by ideological dominance enforced by either state or corporate media (and educational systems dedicated to producing workers for the industrial complex.)

There is centralized power; there are vast distances–of all kinds–separating the rulers from the ruled; there are enemies–real and imaginary–beyond national boundaries; there is competition–between nations–for valuable natural resources that must be guarded jealously; monies must be raised to keep the machinery of the nation-state running. One democratic imperative after another is sacrificed in order to accommodate the nation-state’s needs. Democracy–rule by citizens–all too easily drops out of this picture.

None of this critique is new. It is not particularly sophisticated either. The functioning of the nation-state is fairly transparent and does not require excessively close attention for its further details to be revealed. The environments most favorable to participatory and deliberative democracy are not to be found here. Perhaps elsewhere, in smaller, less hierarchical, more decentralized, less economically unequal spaces. But not here.