Category: Politics

A Bit More on the Police

I should have made clear in my previous post that the idea of hiring military vets as police officers does not mean an endorsement of the “militarization” of the police in terms of tactics used by and equipment supplied to our domestic police forces.  It was shocking to me to see the Kenosha police roll up in an armored vehicle.  Such battlefield armaments should never be deployed on American streets.

And my post should also have been understood as a push-back against the “few bad apples” defense of the police.  What is needed is a wide-scale change of police culture.  The way the police think of themselves, the forms their relations among themselves take, and especially the way they think of and relate to the communities they serve, needs a drastic overhaul.

Two stories that have come out in the past two days put an exclamation point on this need for a total culture change.  In fact, the need for that total change is so compelling that I am inclined to think we need to tear the current police systems in our cities down to the ground and start from scratch in rebuilding them.

The first story points to the evidence that within the Los Angeles County police force there are active gangs that, as with non-police gangs, use violence as a way to create membership—and keep members from defecting.  Here’s the link: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/09/l-a-county-sheriffs-department-has-a-gang-problem.html

I will confess to typical (?) liberal naiveté at this point.  Just as with the Trump administration, the level of evil—and its straight-forward baldness—never fails to surprise me.  By now, you would think I would have learned.

The second story is about police-union-issued “get out of jail” free cards.  A bit of an exaggeration on my part.  The cards just help you if you get pulled over by a cop for traffic violations or fairly similar matters.  The card tells the cop to let you off because you have a relative in the police force.  But—you saw this coming—somehow the cards don’t get distributed as widely to non-white cops as to white ones.  The link:

Is the culture in the military any better than the toxic culture of our police departments? Maybe I am being naïve in that respect as well.  But Heather Cox Richardson, in her newsletter for today, speaks to this issue.  The full text quotes Tammy Duckworth at some length.  Here’s the key passage from Richardson:

“Since at least 2018, Democrats, especially Democratic women, have advanced a vision of military service that departs from the Republican emphasis on heroic individualism. Instead, they emphasize teamwork, camaraderie, and community, and the recognition that that teamwork means every single soldier, not just a few visible heroes, matters.”

My own (admittedly distanced) contact with the military (through my interactions with both veterans and active service members who are students or colleagues) does give me the generally positive vision of military culture that I articulated in my last post.  But maybe I am just toeing a line the Democrats have been pushing in order to enhance their patriotic bona fides, not a vision that comes anywhere close to the truth of the matter. 

It is certainly weird that the Trump administration has led Democrats to think more highly of the CIA and the FBI, to the extent that both those agencies (like the military) have displayed at least some push-back against Trump—a push-back that appears motivated by a recognition of how much damage he is doing to this country.  Their patriotism (country above Trump) stands in stark contrast to the whole Republican party, who have become Trump’s enablers. 

Still, I don’t want to go very far down that road.  The military is wildly over-funded, while the CIA is almost a completely unmitigated disaster.  The National security state, in toto, is one of those features of the American political landscape that needs to be dismantled, radically re-thought, and completely re-designed.  Our inability to do such work with any of our dysfunctional systems—from health care to the Electoral College, not to mention the police and prevalent discriminatory practices in housing and education—is why it is so hard to summon any optimism about the future of our society.  Our politics currently renders it impossible even to discuss these needed reforms, no less actually begin to undertake them. 

America’s Inept Police: A Counter-Intuitive Proposal

I have mostly avoided political posts in this dark summer.  I do, however, want to weigh in on our policing problem with a perspective I think many will find outrageous, but that I think needs articulation.  I have found my thoughts on this topic somewhat anticipated by Fred Kaplan, in this article on Slate.  https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/09/police-military-tactics-lessons-protests.html

Kaplan draws a stark contrast between the Military and our domestic police forces in terms of fire control. Not only would our trained soldiers be much more unlikely to indulge in the kind of “violence panic” that leads to shooting someone in the back seven times, but the soldier who acted so foolishly would face the contempt of his or her peers as well as being subject to official investigation and (possibly) sanctions. (The notion of “violence panic” comes from sociologist Randall Collins’s very insightful book, Violence: A Micro-Sociological Approach [Princeton UP, 2008]).  Kaplan rightly cautions against over-praising the military, but he is certainly right, I believe, to suggest that something is radically amiss in our training of police officers.  What, even after we factor in racial prejudice, could account for their being so trigger-happy?  It goes against the most elementary principles of any trained military force.

My first reaction is to say we should only allow ex-military to serve as police officers.  Before reacting in horror, my readers should consider a few basic facts about the military.  For starters, it is among the most fully integrated, most fully diverse institutions in American society.  The chances that a veteran would have had long-lasting and substantial interactions with a wide range of different people are much higher than in almost any other walk of life.  The military has also generally succeeded in creating a strong ethos of cooperation with and care for one’s fellow soldiers.  Perhaps only a few exceptional sports teams can compare.

This is not to deny that a certain percentage of white soldiers in the military are involved with white nationalist groups.  Or that the majority of members of our right-wing militias are ex-military.  In fact, the generally exemplary fire control of those militias should be noted.  For all their gun-waving, there have been remarkably few actual shooting incidents.  It is no surprise that the Kenosha shooting was done by an untrained 17-year old, not a military vet.  The police, too, have been infiltrated by the white nationalists, so a careful vetting of potential candidates is needed.  But I still think we’d be better off with veterans than with the quite evidently badly trained police we currently have.  And the vetting is required in either case.

Furthermore, the military has an exemplary (again, not perfect, but still pretty good) record of fealty to civilian control.  Certainly a far better record than police unions, who are openly contemptuous of civilian politicians and review boards even when they don’t outright defy them.  The recent rampages of police forces in our cities dramatically show how fully the police currently operate as an unchecked force beholden only to itself.

The simplest way to put this: the military does not, generally, think of itself as an embattled group of men/women at odds with the society they are supposed to serve.  Rather, soldiers generally experience their service as an alignment with that society.  But the police now seem to exist (at least in our largest cities) in a state of permanent aggrievement.  Their response has been to double down on their defiance of anyone outside their own ranks who tries to direct the terms of their service.

Finally, on a somewhat unrelated point, I never see anyone tie our police violence problem to the lack of gun control.  But surely the police are (at least in part) so trigger happy because they have to assume that everyone they encounter is a potential gun holder.  Back when our politics was sane in the 1990s, police departments were (again, not always, but in a fair number of cases) advocates for gun control measures.  They also participated in buy-back programs designed to get guns off the street.  But now that partisanship has overwhelmed sanity, police departments line up for policies that make their jobs more dangerous.

It is worth noting as well that being a police officer is not especially dangerous compared to other occupations.  Here’s a link to the stats on that fact, with the police coming in as the 13th most dangerous job (in terms of fatalities).  https://www.businessinsider.com/the-most-dangerous-jobs-in-america-2018-7#10-first-line-supervisors-of-landscaping-lawn-service-and-grounds-keeping-workers-25

It is also astounding how many people our police forces kill.  I wish this number would get cited in news stories about the police. On average, about 80 people a month are killed by the police.  As of August 30th, 2020, 661 people have died at the hands of the police this year.  Here’s the stats for the last three and a half years: https://www.statista.com/statistics/585159/people-shot-to-death-by-us-police-by-month/

The failure to make these numbers known just goes hand-in-hand with the bad job our journalists do on just about every story—never asking the probing question, and never digging even slightly below the surface of any story to give readers/listeners the facts necessary to even begin to understand it.

What I have to say here does not override, but exists in a complementary relation, to other proposals about police reform.  The relation of the police to civilian control and to the communities they serve requires a drastic overhaul, while some of the duties currently handled by the police need to be taken out of their hands.  But so long as we are going to have armed police officers on our streets, we need a drastic improvement of the training we give those officers in the handling and use of those weapons.

Ben Lerner’s Novels

I recently read both 10:04 and The Topeka School, Ben Lerner’s second and third novels.  I read his first one, Leaving the Atocha Station, last fall.

Leaving the Atocha Station is a quick, light read, but its neurotic, inept, hipster narrator is so fey, so self-involved, and so irresponsible that he is hard to keep in the reader’s good graces.  The plot is as aimless as the narrator, but the book is blessedly brief, often witty, and always well written.  Geoff Dyer does this thing rather better—and Paris Trance seems the obvious forerunner, maybe even the direct model, for Lerner’s novel.

10:04 is a big step forward, although we still get the bumbling, self-absorbed narrator whose charm Lerner seems to overestimate drastically.  There is also the rather annoying fancy footwork between fact and fiction—so that novel (in Paul Auster fashion) is “about” writing this novel we are reading.  Too cute by half in my opinion.  But there is a lot more to chew on here, especially the narrator’s (Lerner’s?) reflections on various art works (most particularly, Donald Judd’s sculptures) and about the insane New York art market more generally.  The format allows for these mini-essays embedded in the story—and they enliven the book instead of detracting from it (mostly because “the story” is mostly negligible).

It turns out that Lerner just doesn’t do human relationships very well.  His characters interact to some extent, but he never really succeeds in getting the reader to “feel” the emotional struggles that he announces exist between his various characters. In that sense, the novels are rather diagrammatic, not “realized” in the ways you would expect from the “thick” portraits of character and of its unfolding that we traditionally receive from realistic fiction.  (Rachel Cusk’s trilogy—Outlines, Transit, and Kudos—is similarly “thin,” a series of monologues that give us vignettes but no revelatory action or character development over time.)

The Topeka School is both more and less interesting than the reviews had led me to believe. Less interesting insofar as it is not a novel that has much to say about contemporary American society; more interesting in that its ideas (as expressed by a number of intellectual characters who narrate different sections of the novel) are consistently thought-provoking.

The reviews had claimed that Lerner (from Kansas) was, in this novel, giving us an insight into middle America in general and the Trump phenomenon in particular.  In fact, the novel only addresses that complex territory obliquely.  Instead, we get a fairly intricate plot, dotted with interesting characters—a much more diverse tapestry of human types than offered by the first two novels.  Once again, however, the characters are mostly static, interesting because of their idiosyncratic views about a whole range of topics.  There is almost nothing in the novel—despite its framework of intense familial, friendship, and romantic relationships—that immerses the reader in the nitty-gritty of that intensity.

I guess the old saw about showing, not telling, is apposite here.  The analysis of what lies behind how people speak to and act toward others is so forefronted that we are very rarely given the concrete actions themselves or the raw feelings that interactions generate.  (There are some exceptions, like an intense interaction among parents in a New York City playground, but that is an isolated incident with no connection to anything else in the novel, and ends completely inconclusively with no aftereffects.)  That analysis predominates “fits” in the sense that the novel is preoccupied with psychoanalysis; the main character’s parents and his parents’ best friends are all psychoanalysts.

Lerner and Cusk are tremendous talents.  Neither writes a word that is not eminently readable.  But they are “cold” writers even as they write in the “warm” mode of the realist novel.  Both of them are self-consciously re-crafting the novel as a genre, but eschewing at the same time the irrealism of 1960s “experimental fiction.”  Their “meta-fictional” touches are light (heavier in Lerner than in Cusk) and it is not clear to me just what work those touches are meant to be doing.  Postmodernism as parlor tricks, I am tempted to conclude.  Meta-fiction is cute, but trivial, just another trick that can be pulled out of the bag.

Both writers are so intelligent, such interesting observers of contemporary life, that it’s the ideas they offer in novel form, rather than plot or character, that keeps me reading.  Cusk’s insights are almost all relationship-based, and almost exclusively focused on the romantic relations between men and women (with some side glances to parent-child and friendship relations).  That focus does begin to look like a limitation after three novels.  No one in her world has any money worries, or has anything that looks like a serious or troubled relationship to their work.  All the action takes place on airplanes or in comfortable restaurants, coffee shops, or hotels. The not-so-discreet (given her characters’ propensity to spill their souls) life of the bourgeoisie.  Her novels have no urgent news to offer; they begin to seem fairly frivolous by the end.

Lerner engages a wider range of concerns, but barely wanders outside the realm of bohemia.  Even his Topeka novel deals with an intelligentsia that has landed in Topeka because of the famous clinic there.  They live in Topeka, but are not really of that place. The novel features three of four native-born Topekans at the most. Which is why it was so odd that the reviewers thought they were getting some kind of insight into middle America.

The novel does offer one rich insight into America’s current mess.  I was a high school debater—and the novel’s main character is as well.  Apparently (I have no way of knowing if this is actually true, but the novel reports it as being the case), basic debate technique was altered dramatically sometime in the 1990s.  The new technique is called “the spread.”  The idea is to (rapid-fire) present as many possible arguments for your side in your opening speech—so many that your opponents cannot possibly respond to (refute) them in their rebuttal round.  Then in your closing summary, you can claim victory by referring to all the arguments your opponent did not contest.

“The spread” is a perfect description of Trump’s Twitter feed.  He floods the public sphere with so much stuff—and his opponents are driven to distraction thinking they must respond to every one of his tweets.  To leave even one of those tweets uncontested looks like conceding that point to him, while responding to every one of them drives the opponent crazy.  Futility either way.  The spread cannot be beaten precisely because it so fiendishly beats the opponent down.  It is impossible to ever raise one’s head above water as this flood of assertion, misinformation, outright lies, and outrageous proposals comes pouring down. Because there is no filter, no way to decide what is newsworthy or not, there is no way to keep Trump from flooding the channels of information/communication.  And we are all drowning in that flood.

I will write another post where I take up some ideas found in 10:24.

Hannah Arendt’s Peformative Politics

I had an odd experience yesterday.  Via email I received the copy-edited version of an essay that I have absolutely no memory of having ever written.  Admittedly, I wrote it (apparently) over four years ago–but I don’t remember being asked to contribute to the volume in which it will appear (some day!).

In any case, it is an overview of Hannah Arendt’s understanding of “the political”–specifically, in relation to her prioritizing the way in which politics enables action, as contrasted to anything substantive we might want politics to accomplish.

The essay is, I think, a pretty clear explication of some key Arendtian themes/ideas–so I have posted it in the “Public Essays” section of this blog.  Just click on “Public Essays” on the “about” page and you will find it readily enough.