What I’m reading lately: New York, The Atlantic, The Three-Body Problem

I finally got around to reading the June 8–21, 2020, issue of New York magazine, and found it to be unusually chock-full of pieces that seemed timely and thoughtful. Which might seem odd on its face, given that these pieces were probably written back in late May and now it’s mid-August; but perhaps that’s just a sign that their writers observe the arc of events in progress before those arcs reach people like me. That’s “newsgathering.” Good for New York’s journalists.

Jonathan Chait writes on Trump’s direct-marketing of political violence:

[Trump speaking to a Breitbart News interviewer, March 2019:] “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump. I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point and then it would be very bad, very bad.”

There are two remarkable things about this statement. One is Trump’s casual conflation of the state security forces (police, military) with extremely unofficial political activists (“Bikers for Trump”). In his mind, they all blur together as a kind of private militia. The second is his view of violence as an extension of politics.

[…] Events have gotten “to a certain point,” as Trump put it, compelling him to bring in the tough people. The unanswered question is, What points might lie beyond?

Zak Cheney-Rice reports on how “This Can’t Be Contained,” a photo essay with dispatches from Atlanta, Washington, New York, Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis.

A riot is not a tactic to gain widespread sympathy but an expression of how inadequate other efforts have been. The same standard is routinely applied to more peaceful protests, though, and is used to make appeals for order, which then becomes the prerequisite for resolving dissenters’ grievances. First order, then reform — as though the structure of order weren’t the very thing that protesters demand reforming.

[…] [M]ore often than not, grievances like these are addressed piecemeal, if at all, because the choice as originally presented was a lie: Order was never required as a building block for good-faith negotiations; it was a pretense for rerouting chaos back into the lives and communities of the dissenters, where it could be contained.

The dispatches include sound bites from people touched by the protests — including a photojournalist on what it was like to be shot at (“They’re not aiming. They’re just shooting. It felt like a zombie apocalypse.”), store owners, Democratic and Republican operatives in Washington, and one precocious kindergartener:

So you know what the protests are about?

Well, about shooting people, of course.

Cheney-Rice also interviews (the now-, but not then-, late) John Lewis following Lewis’s stage-4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

In the August 3–16 issue, Cheney-Rice writes the frontispiece on how “Trump’s Authoritarian Theater Was Just for Show, Until It Wasn’t”. Mosi Secret spends 47 minutes with Lezley McSpadden, recording her son’s death in appropriately brutal terms.

Her family’s story is now American history: On August 9, 2014, Brown and a friend were walking in the middle of Canfield Drive, a short, two-lane street. Wilson, a white police officer, ordered the young men to use the sidewalk. The interaction grew heated when they refused. Wilson, who later claimed that Brown approached his car and punched him in the face, pulled out his weapon and fired. He said Brown took on the look of a demon and fled. The officer later testified that Brown turned around and reached under his waistband as if to remove a weapon. Some witnesses claimed that Brown had his hands up. Wilson shot Brown, who was in fact unarmed, in the head. In the aftermath, cops investigating the shooting left Brown’s body on the hot asphalt for more than four hours as McSpadden and Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., moved through a furious and growing crowd of onlookers, unable to push past police to get close to their son. Television cameras and phones filmed as Brown’s body lay there under a sheet.

To cool off, read Molly Fischer’s interview with Sarah Schulman. Schulman is the author of Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (2016).

Of course, this being New York, these two issues also confirm my existing opinion that Space Force is disappointingly awful; pique my interest in Da 5 Bloods; close-read Seinfeld’s treatment of race; review works by Taylor Swift, Haim, Flo Milli, Lady Gaga, Zadie Smith, Hannah Gadsby, Josephine Decker; photo-spread a pair of quirky apartments you can’t afford in Bushwick and Clinton Hill; and review Manhattan restaurants as if anybody still cares.

This month’s Atlantic has incisive essays too, starting with Jennifer A. Richeson on “The Mythology of Racial Progress”:

When we think about the nation’s racial history, we often envision a linear path, one that, admittedly, begins in a shameful period but moves unerringly in a single direction — toward equality. [T]he narrative of racial progress starts with slavery, ascends to the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, speeds past segregation and Jim Crow to the victories of the civil-rights movement, and then drops us off in 2008 for Barack Obama’s election. […] The mythology of racial progress distorts our perceptions of reality; perhaps more significantly, it absolves us of responsibility for changing that reality. Progress is seen as natural and inevitable — inescapable, like the laws of physics. Backsliding is unlikely. Vigilance is unnecessary.

Speaking of backsliding, did you know that the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour? That’s $14,500 per year.

Mychal Denzel Smith writes on how “Police Reform is Not Enough”:

When asked “What would you have us do with the police?,” I make a point of saying, unequivocally, “Abolish them,” because that is what I mean. I seek a world without police. When I explain that achieving such a world would require us to enact a number of redistributive policies and educational programs aimed at providing for everyone’s basic needs and reducing violence, both interpersonal and state-sanctioned, I’m asked why I don’t lead with that rather than the potentially alienating “Abolish the police.” And my answer is that I believe in stating, in clear language, what you want, because otherwise you are beholden to the current state of consciousness and accepted wisdom.

I want a world in which the police do not exist, and there is no clearer way to say that.

Speaking of how a policeless world would deal with harms, see this quite shareable Twitter thread from Dave McKenna:

Ibram X. Kendi, in “The End of Denial,” analogizes his own stage-4 cancer diagnosis and his own urgent grapple with “two choices: denial and death, or recognition and life.”

The abolition of slavery seemed as impossible in the 1850s as equality seems today. But just as the abolitionists of the 1850s demanded the immediate eradication of slavery, immediate equality must be the demand today. Abolish police violence. Abolish mass incarceration. Abolish the racial wealth gap and the gap in school funding. Abolish barriers to citizenship. Abolish voter suppression. Abolish health disparities. Not in 20 years. Not in 10 years. Now.

What can ordinary Americans do? If we’re not marching in the streets, and we’re too hyper to sit and wait (see Richeson, above) for November — what do we do? Well, I’ve been donating money to Congress and State Senate campaigns through ActBlue; and I just signed up to be a poll worker, about which you can find more here. (I admit I signed up only because Westchester County sent out postcards begging for volunteers. Your local government might not send you a postcard, but I bet they have some kind of process!)

P.S.— I also read Ken Liu’s translation of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem and found it engaging, outlandishly imaginative, and entertaining. The translator writes that “in some cases, I tried to adjust the [Chinese] narrative techniques to ones that American readers are more familiar with,” which really makes me wonder what he’s referring to. Having gotten about 100 pages into its sequel, The Dark Forest, translated by Joel Martinsen, I now suspect that one of those American narrative techniques was chapter breaks! The tone of the sequel is more wooden, too, as foreshadowed by its prologue in which an ant crawls over a tombstone for six pages; but some of that must be chalked up to plot. In Three-Body, things are always happening now. At the beginning of Dark Forest, the individual members of a human “Space Force” are coming to terms with their responsibility to lay the groundwork for a space journey that starts in 100 years and a war that won’t arrive for 400. They, also, must find a balance between patience and vigor.

Posted 2020-08-15