30.6.08

Changing Your Mind

Just a quick note on George Packer's New Yorker piece, Obama's Iraq Problem. In it, Packer asserts that, "Obama’s rhetoric on [Iraq] now seems outdated and out of touch, and the nominee-apparent may have a political problem concerning the very issue that did so much to bring him this far." Packer wrote that in reference to the security improvements in Iraq over the past 18 or so months -- improvements that seemed impossible when Obama launched his campaign against a backdrop of unending Iraqi violence and promised a speedy withdrawal.

Though I'd disagree that the gains in Iraq are as significant as Packer implies, he's right that Obama needs to be nimble should McCain come up with a good line or two about Obama wanting to pull out and imperil the fragile Iraqi security. Whether the military/political analysis of Iraq is correct or not is irrelevant. This discussion is in the vein of the John Kerry flip-flop debacle; can Obama (should Obama) revise his withdrawal plan of one brigade per month if Iraq continues to stabilize?

As Packer notes, "The politics of the issue is tricky, because acknowledging changed ideas in response to changed facts is considered a failing by the political class.... One can imagine him speaking more honestly on Iraq. If pressed on his timetable for withdrawal, he could say, 'That was always a goal, not a blueprint. When circumstances change, I don’t close my eyes—I adapt.'"

I would hope, and expect, that this is the tact Obama takes. It was certainly the one John Kerry should have adopted and his inability to make such a simple, and critical, intellectual leap lost him the election.

During the Depression, John Maynard Keynes appeared before parliament and presented a set of economic views that conflicted with those he'd stated previously and had failed to affect the course of the Depression. An MP called Keynes out on his "flip-flop" (to speak anachronistically). Keynes responded, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

I have far more faith in Obama's ability to repay any service from McCain's court with a scorching volley than I ever had in John Kerry. But even if Obama can deal with this issue, should McCain make it one (he will), Obama supporters should be prepared for the candidate who we expect to lead us out of Iraq to temper our expectations for that withdrawal. We have made Obama an icon but we shouldn't be surprised when he reminds us that he is also a very, very savvy politician.

23.6.08

Barack Obama and the Theory of the Unitary Executive

In January of 2007, Chalmers Johnson wrote a citizen's "National Intelligence Estimate" on the United States for Harper's Magazine. In it, Johnson detailed the American embrace of "military Keynesianism" - an economic model in which "sustained military ambition [is required] in order to avoid [economic] recession or collapse." Johnson further explained military Keynesianism alongside the theory of the unitary executive, which the Bush administration has long embraced and championed via Dick Cheney: "The theory of the unitary executive," wrote Johnson, "holds, in effect, that the president has the authority to ignore the separataion of powers written into the Constitution, creating a feedback loop in which permanent war and the unitary presidency are mutually reinforcing."

It was Dwight Eisenhower who foresaw the perils of the "military-industrial complex" first and presided over a portion of its birth. And no longer, as Eisenhower noted, do we participate in a military philosophy whose ethos was, "American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well."

I'm not sure if military Keynesianism reached its quintessence in the Reagan 80's or the Bush 00's or has yet to show its full might a la the still burgeoning Clone War-esq works of Blackwater's Cofer Black and Erik Prince. But if the self-perpetuating cylce of military Keynesianism is to be broken, or slowed, one place it might start is with a move away from the theory of the unitary executive. My eggs are in Barack Obama's basket on this one, but there's something troubling about the fervor around him alongside expanded executive powers. I have played a small part in that play, but it's one that I should step back and think about.
There was some concern this weekend over Obama's support of the FISA Bill which allowed retroactive amnesty for telecomm companies for participating in George Bush's demand to illegally spy on American citizens. What troubled many, as Greg Sargent wrote on Talking Points Memo, is that "[Obama's] candidacy has long seemed to embody a conviction that Democrats can win arguments with Republicans about national security -- that if Dems stick to a set of core principles, and forcefully argue for them without blinking, they can and will persuade people that, simply put, they are right and Republicans are wrong." Obama's support of the FISA Bill seemed not in keeping with that tradition.

What further troubles me about Obama's support of the bill - regardless of aspects of political gamesmanship which I won't address - is how it jives with the theory of the unitary executive, and how Barack will deal with the fresh Bush legacy of expanded presidential powers. Obama will have a lot of work to do repairing the economy, foreign policy, and mending two military disasters when he is elected president. There must be, in such a case, a temptation to use exceptional powers to make excpetional changes. I trust Barack Obama not to use the sweeping powers of George Bush - to shove aside the constitution and remake the country/world - because I believe he knows that the means are the ends in this game: It's not how you want the world to look, it's how you get it there.

But his supporters, myself included, expect monumental changes that will be difficult and time-consuming to achieve. Will Barack feel pressure to use his executive power - power swollen by Bush and friends - to make change quickly? Or will he be able to temper his people's expectations, encourage patience and deliberation, and perform the near contradictory tasks of simultaneously resizing the role of the executive and tackling the wounded economy and working on withdrawal from Iraq. What makes this even more complicated is the charismatic authority with which we have endowed Obama.

The sociologist Max Weber wrote of charismatic authority that it is, "a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader." (Wikipedia)

Obama is not endowed with supernatural powers or those of divine origin, but he's certainly been bestowed with the distinction of a man, "set apart from ordinary men," with, "at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities," by many of his supporters. This can be a dangerous role to put someone in, regardless of how much Obama denies it is he who is special and insists that he is simply the "the excuse" for people's hopes and dreams.

One of the great sins of the Bush Administration, and the American people, was when Bush advised us all "to go shopping" after 9/11 and leave the work to him, and we obliged, at least at first. If Obama is elected and America is to avoid collapse and/or international irrelevance, it will not be because of the work of Barack Obama, but of all Americans under his leadership. We cannot expect to continue shopping while he does the heavy lifting. I worry that the quality of the support around him may suggest we are too enamored of the potential abilities of our charismatic leader, and still not looking to take on the burden ourselves. The organizing and grassroots work is encouraging, I just hope it lasts beyond the general election.

I've heard that the following lines, from The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, were "given" to Milan Kundera because he was writing from under the spectre of communism. Still, I think there may be precautionary value in them now.

"A year or two after emigrating, [Sabina] happened to be in Paris on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of her country. A protest march had been scheduled, and she felt driven to take part. Fists raised high, the young Frenchmen shouted out slogans condemning Soviet Imperialism. She liked the slogans, but to her surprise she found herself unable to shout along with them. She lasted no more than a few minutes in the parade.

When she told her French friends about it, they were amazed. “You mean you don’t want to fight the occupation of your country?” She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison. But she knew she would never be able to make them understand."

18.6.08

"Anything Is A Venue" - The Market Hotel

"manifesto: to make your getting together with each other something different, someway more. not just music but all about the music; making you dance, making you stay out later. going for the magic of being right there in what's happening, with no hype, nothing elitist, everyone invited. plus giving back and being involved in making creativity happen."

- Todd Patrick at http://www.toddpnyc.com/ DIY enthusiast and booker of shows at The Market Hotel and elsewhere

The Market Hotel is marked by a white, metal door and the hipsters that walk through it, that is all. I made my first trip there last night. It is located at 1142 Myrtle Avenue, it is a few blocks past the limits of the Sumner Houses, in Bushwick. The music was solid. But the music is trivial in The Market Hotel's setting. The Market Hotel is the flag of an imperialist, hipster culture. A flag in the tradition of the many that long ago marked the take over of Williamsburg. Now the nation-building moves to Bushwick.

Eddie Izzard, in Dress To Kill, talked about the British Empire's world domination by way of the flag: "Just sail around the world and stick a flag in. 'I claim India for Britain!' And they're going, 'You can't claim us, we live here! There's five hundred million of us!' - 'Do you have a flag?' - 'We don't need a bloody flag, this is our country, you bastard!' - 'No flag, no country! You can't have one! That's the rules, that... I've just made up.'"
The same rules appear to be in play with the Brooklyn hipster music set, although, as befits them, they're not aware they're playing by them. The Market Hotel claims the space around it in the name of elitism, The Land of Hipsterdom. I could sense my proximity to The Market Hotel last night when, what turned out to be two blocks away from the venue, I saw the first white people I'd seen in 15 blocks after walking by the Sumner Houses. Standing in the main room with a friend who was equally startled by the self-assured crowd, I told her, "If someone runs up here right now from the neighborhood and beats the shit out of all of us, we will have deserved it."

The cops shut down The Market Hotel for selling alcohol illegally in February, but only briefly. They've been back up and running since. It's striking though, that they were allowed to reopen at all and that they seem to have reached an understanding with a police force that is well aware of the deal at 1142 Myrtle, as its goings-on are published all over the internet. Last night a few locals shouted at me and some kids as we walked into the venue. I didn't hear what they said, but it wasn't "enjoy the show."

Imagine a group of kids my age, 21 - 23 years old or so, from the Sumner Houses who decided to rent a place like The Market Hotel and put on shows there, sell liqour illegally. They would be shut down as soon as found out, arrested, evicted, and that venue would never play a show again. Why? Because the police perceive them as a potential threat; a hot space full of illicit booze and loud music and project kids; there's a chance something will go down at some point. But a bunch of hipsters? Yeah, they don't have a liquor license, but let it slide, they're chumps. No one's starting beef at a Harry And The Potters show.

So the wimpiness of the hipster works to his advantage. He's allowed to stake out his territory in a rough section of Bushwick because he is not rough. All well and good, go ahead and partake in the imperial tradition of your forefathers, claiming land that is not yours by way of the cunning use of flags. The cops even have your back, they'd rather see you and your friends in Bushwick than their usual fare of stand-offish kids in long white tees.

But all this makes Todd P sound like Don Rumsfeld - "they'll shower us with flowers in the streets of Baghdad!" - when he writes in his "manifesto" from the Todd P website: "...no hype, nothing elitist, everyone invited. plus giving back and being involved in making creativity happen."

Of course, the whole enterprise is driven by hype, hence the roll-call of links on Todd P's site of every single place that has written something about me since forever. A list which now includes the requisite "MTV did a thing" link. This can be forgiven, though. Hype, what is hype? Todd P has his own ideas. What is unforgivable is the astounding ignorance of saying, "nothing elitist, everyone invited. plus giving back..."

Elitist? You are the definition of elitist. Who else besides elitists can move to Bushwick, open the place, get the publicity, and get away with the illegality? And, I mean, maybe I didn't stay late enough, but I didn't see anyone from the Sumner Houses at The Market Hotel last night. I don't know that they would be turned away if they wanted to come, probably not, but then again who from Bushwick wants to listen to the So So Glos? You're not disinviting the locals, but you're sure giving them a lot of good reasons not to want to come.

I would be happy to see the day when a place like The Market Hotel could open in Bushwick and compliment the neighborhood instead of confronting it. But what exists there now is very confrontational and not at all complimentary. All the privileges that these hipsters have are the foundation of The Market Hotel. Those privileges are not afforded to the natives of that neighborhood. Hence there is a confrontation between the locals who feel slighted, invaded by a foreign force that is given special treatment they have never enjoyed. The hipster crowd might not be able to, or want to, acknowledge this tension, but it is there.

I don't know how to make a place like The Market Hotel that would satisfy the need for a venue that is syncopated with the neighborhood, so my solution would be to not make the venue at all; stay in Williamsburg. Yes, you need a cheap place, a good spot, someplace to get booked, but at what cost? And when you clearly haven't considered the ramifications of what you're doing? That is such an old, tired, rich, white aristocratic role to play. And to wear this egalitarian mask while it's played is shameful.

To Todd P and The Market Hotel: Shut down. Live in your apartment and see your shows on Bedford. You've taken over enough territory.

To the people of Bushwick: Police your neighborhood.

11.6.08

What Is The What?

I don't think I've ever revealed my name anywhere on this blog. It's Alex Alsup, anyway. I'm not sure why I never mentioned that - I suppose some combination of trepidation of putting it out there publicly and appreciating the cloak of anonymity that most bloggers wear.

But there's no point. I mean, we all have blogs because we want a book deal, or so I'm told. And Viking Press can't make my check out to "The Skillman." Furthermore, as Benjamin Kunkel of n+1 posited at a panel at The Kitchen last night (the discussion was on the state of the internet) if I'm going to write "Anderson Cooper, you fucking moron," shouldn't Cooper have the chance to call me something by name as well? In my case, yes, Cooper should have that chance, though I'm sure he won't make use of it. But I disagree with Kunkel that the incongruity between the anonymous commenter and the identified commented-upon is a uniformally bad equation.

There are at least two species of anonymous internet commenters; the people who do the good democratic work at places like Wikipedia and rarely drop a name beside it, and those who pepper the NY Times, Gawker, TPM, and so on, message boards with mostly vitriolic comments and zero accountability. To these categories I would add a third species with a tiny population; the anonymous commenter as superhero.

New York Magazine published an article on May 25 titled "The What You Are Afraid Of" about an anonymous commenter, named, The What, who terrorizes the "yuppie scum" clientele of the Brooklyn-centered orgy-site of real estate news, and gentrification's standard-bearer, Brownstoner.com.

The What posts things like, "BUT WHEN U FREGAN YUPPIE ARE HANGING OUT IN FRONT OF THE BARS SMOKIN UR F!@#KIN CIGS> NOT CARING ABOUT THE PEOPLE THAT HAVE TO WAKE UP AT 7 AM TO GO TO WORK. KEEP THE NOISE DOWN CAUSE WHEN GET WATER THROWN ON YOU THEN YOU HAVE A REASON TO BE LOUD." Read the article to understand the full scope of his wrath.

The What is a rare case, no doubt, and I know of no other online entity like him that, depending on your feelings towards Brownstoner, comes as close to anonymous superhero (yes) or supervillain (no) status. The unfocused, random anger of postings on most blogs and websites does not amount to supervillainy, at most it is petty crime - minor vandalism. But anonymity is not in all cases an unfair power wielded by the online commenter, it is just a generally abused power.

Back a little bit before the internet a guy named Thomas Paine released a pamphlet (an old thing kind of like a blog post, but you could hold it) called "Common Sense" and signed it, "An Englishman." In the hands of a patriot, anonymity is a powerful, and sometimes necessary, tool. Of course, one man's patriot is another man's radical revolutionary. But anonymity is fragile, even amongst the mind-boggling Googleish algorithms of the internet. So how is it preserved, and what happens, and what does it look like, when it is betrayed?

My roommate and I discussed the NY Mag article and both settled on a feeling that writing about The What, even without revealing his "true" identity, served to destroy The What.

Comic book historian Gerard Jones wrote in the LA Times a while back, "Superman insisted that his work as a hero must end if the truth were exposed. Why? Why not just be superhuman in public?" The pragmatic response is usually something about how knowing, say, Batman's identity as Bruce Wayne, would make it possible for the bad guys to "get at" the people he cared about. But it has to be more than that.

I asked my rommate why some superheroes needed anonymity. We discussed it for a while and seemed to circle around a lot of the standard ideas about superhero anonymity. But when we changed tactics and took on the concept of The What's anonymity, my rommate nailed it: If The What is identified as, say, Mike Smith, "then we attribute all of Mike Smith's traits and characteristics to 'The What' and Mike Smith can't possibly live up to the abstract... character that is 'The What.'" Or, as my roommate went on to say, "nobody wants to think about Spiderman doing his laundry."

But The What was not, in fact, identified - NY Mag never figured his name, or, if they did, they didn't publish it. So why do my roommate and I still feel his power was diminished by the article? For insight I'd turn to The Simpsons. In the episode "Bart's Inner Child" a self-help "guru" comes to Springfield and convinces the citizens that they can cure whatever ails them by living like Bart Simpson who says - "I do what I feel like."

Everyone does what they feel, the town goes to shit, and Bart goes to Lisa and asks, "Lis, everyone in town is acting like me. So why does it suck?" Lisa responds, "It's simple, Bart: you've defined yourself as a rebel, and in the absence of a repressive milieu your societal nature's been co-opted." The What can trace, should he care to, or if he believes it to be as true as my roommate and I do, his downfall to the same phenomenon.

Go on Brownstoner now and anonymous comment-zing-bombing the gentrifiers is rampant. Is this success for The What? An army of anonymous posters who make Brownstoner an inhospitable horror zone? Or does it turn him into a brand-name, his tagline to every post - "Someday this war's gonna end" - a commercial jingle? Or, another possibility, does The What feel his celebrity stolen away, is he tempted to grab the limelight back, make himself known and declare, as Ghostface Killah said in "Apollo Kids," "Punk fa**ot ni**as stealin' my light!" Which would, of course, be superhero suicide. But he'd get the credit.

All internet superheroes are destined for destruction. The superhero will be found out, as that is what the internet guarantees, and, even if not identified, the mongrel hordes will invade his milieu and his potency will dissipate. But that does not mean the superhero should not try. Probably all charismatic leaders are doomed from the start, internet or not. But there is space for the anonymous superhero commenter. It's just ill-defined and requires an attention span longer than most are willing to devote.

I mean, like Thomas Paine, I was really into democracy, but then it became all about the people.

6.6.08

Snitches Get Stitches

A little over a year ago, Cam'ron showed up for an episode of 360 with Anderson Cooper. Cooper took it upon himself to figure out why and how rappers have gotten entire communities to live by the slogan "stop snitching."

"Tonight, we're talking about a crisis," said Cooper, "We're going in- depth on two simple words: stop snitching. Now, the slogan was once used by criminals. And it meant, don't tell on others if you're caught committing a crime. But now the term stop snitching has come to mean something much more dangerous: Don't cooperate with the police, no matter who you are. You may not have heard it, but your kids have probably. The stop snitching message is being promoted by rappers, marketed by major corporations. And, because of what they are doing and how it's being distributed, murders are going unsolved, and people are dying."

Let's back things up a little further than Cooper would like to, though.
"The Slogan Was Once Used By Criminals"

As with much of hip-hop culture, stop snitching did not originate on the streets of the South Bronx. Cooper sort of acknowledges as much with the above quote, but he conveniently ignores a hugely significant portion of the term's history. When hip-hop adopted its gangster lean in the early 1980's, a lot of its swagger, codes, and language was borrowed from the history of the Italian mafia in the United States. Scarface, The Godfather, the real-life Gambino's (on whom the Rza has written extensively), Goodfellas - this was hip-hop's gangster source material.

Cooper and people of his ilk - white people who don't have the time to do their research when discussing hip-hop and find it easier to assume that rappers are just black savages who cooked this shit up on their own - have made up this lie that stop snitching began with rap music. It didn't.

In 1929 Salvatore "Lucky" Luciano, the father of modern organized crime, "was forced into a limo at gun point by three men, beaten and stabbed, and dumped on a beach on New York Bay. Luciano survived the ordeal, but was forever marked with the now famous scar and droopy eye. After his abduction, Luciano found out through Meyer Lansky that it had been ordered by Masseria's enemy Salvatore Maranzano. Luciano eventually did what Maranzano wanted, and killed Masseria. This plot would end the famous Castellammarese War." (Wikipedia)

The police came to Luciano to try to help in the investigation, Luciano refused and vowed to take care of it himself. For all of the mob's history, crimes were never discussed with the police (unless they were on your payroll). My grandfather, who grew up an Italian in the Bronx and was far from organized crime, still tells me that no one in his neighborhood would ever go to the police if they had trouble. Cooper's claim that it is something new that the term applies to all people and not just criminals is false; the stop snitching concept has always applied to entire neighborhoods and has never been exclusively the domain of a criminal who's been arrested.

Compare this to Geoffrey Canada's words, President and CEO of Harlem's Children Zone, who was also interviewed by Cooper: "When I was growing up, kids used to talk about snitching. It never extended, as a cultural norm, outside of the gangsters. It was not for regular citizens. It is now a cultural norm that is being preached in poor communities."

This may have been true of Canada's community, but the idea that "stop snitching" never existed in American communities before hip-hop adopted the phrase is just wrong.

"Murders Are Going Unsolved, And People Are Dying"

Cooper got one right. There are people dying. The people who come forward with evidence.

"The strategy sounds almost illogical: Detectives in New Jersey are being urged to build criminal cases with as few witnesses as possible. Or with none at all."

The above is the lede from an NY Times article published November19, 2007 titled "Keeping Witnesses Off Stand to Keep Them Safe". Said Detective Sgt. Ronald Hampton of the State Police of the new strategy: "“If you push someone and they agree to testify, now they’re your responsibility. You’ve got to keep them from disappearing or getting hurt. Can we protect them? Maybe. But God forbid that two years later you have to tell someone their husband or father got killed. I don’t want to have to live with that.”

Governor Jon Corzine acknowledged when he instituted the policy that the police are unable to protect people from retaliatory violence if they were to come forward and testify. If that's the scenario, what's the incentive to come forward? Furthermore, take this statistic from a November 23, 2007 article in the NY Times, "City Homicides Still Dropping, to Under 500": "But within the city's official crime statistics is a figure that may be even more striking: so far, with roughly half the killings analyzed, only 35 were found to be committed by strangers, a microscopic statistic in a city of more than 8.2 million."

"Stop snitching," therefore, is very much a community based phenomena; it is prominent because such a high portion of murders, at least in New York City, take place between people who know one another and will likely be sorted out in the traditional Mafioso sense; within the family.

I am not defending this vigilante justice, I am reinforcing the point that this "hip-hop based" (which is an inaccurate term, of course, most of these murders are, contrary to popular belief, NOT committed by rappers, rappers simply report on the language of their communities) incarnation of "stop snitching" is distinctly unnoriginal and exactly in keeping with the Italian Mafia sense of the term. Unlike Cooper's view, it did not grow in a vacuum.

"If I Knew The Serial Killer Was Living Next Door To Me?"

Finally, Cooper confronts Cam'ron with his best Tim-Russert-asks-a-ridiculous-hypothetical-question impersonation:

"If there's a serial killer living next door to you, though, and you know that person is, you know, killing people, would you be a snitch if you called police and told them?"

Cam'ron's response: "No, I wouldn't call and tell anybody on him, but I would probably move. But I'm not going to call and be like, you know, the serial killer is in 4-E."

"If you think Cam'ron is kidding, he's not. Maintaining street cred sells records," responds Cooper.

Right, Cooper, you fucking moron, Cam'ron's just gonna move away. No! This is the whole idea, you really think Cam'ron's going to find out he lives next door to a serial killer and call U-Haul? Well, he might, but only if that's what he's going to use it to transport the serial killer's bullet-riddled body to the East River.

A serial killer next door would be dealt with in-house, but Cam'ron's not about to say that on national television to a reporter who's the whitest thing since powdered wigs.

3.6.08

Talk of the Neighborhood

"Is it safe?"

The question follows whenever I mention that I live in Bed-Stuy to people from a certain socio-economic group (read; affluent, white) whether they are my contemporaries or adults. Even those who are familiar with some of Brooklyn, usually the portion southwest of Flatbush Ave, will utter the words. It's a simple question, but I've always had trouble with it - always felt a little shiver when I hear it.

The word "safe" is used much too lightly in this question. I'm quite sure "Safe" is really a stand-in for a slew of other questions that the person is too politically nervous to ask so they toss this cover-all term at you that is in fact a bottomless pit into which you can throw any interpretation you like. A favorite response of mine to the question is, "Oh yes, most of the stores carry condoms."

The question is imbued with deep biases, privilege, and ignorance. A professor of mine once told me this story about a conversation he had with a Morocco-born French teacher at my college:

"We were eating lunch and he asked me, 'Do you have any idea how fortunate we are?' And I said, 'Sure of course.' I thought he meant we were privileged to have nice jobs at a nice college in a good town. But he said, 'No, no, I mean, this morning, I woke up, I took a leisurely walk down the road to the campus. I did not worry about my daughter being kidnapped as she did the same thing on her way to school. I did not worry about my wife being murdered or arrested as she drove to work. I did not worry about a suicide bomber driving a motorbike packed with explosives into a building next to me. Not once since I have been here have I worried about any of these things. I would be considered outlandish, foolish, for doing so.' And it's true. But there are far more people who have concerns about basic survival than there are people who don't."

It is not more noble to live in, say, East New York than it is to live on the Upper East Side. Putting yourself in a position where you are more likely to absorb bodily or material harm is not a feather in your cap. But it is degenerate to demand safety from someplace that isn't up to your standards, for selfish reasons.

If you want complete safety, throw down for the two-million dollar mortgage and go to Greenwich. Asking for cheap, Brooklyn real estate and safety means someone rips down a church in Bed-Stuy, puts in a hideous all-glass condo and prices all the locals out of the neighborhood. Or, as the Hasidic Jew asked my roommate the other night, "How much do I charge to have good people, like you, live in my building? Not blacks off the street."

Presto-change-o your kids can walk down the gaudy, gentrified block in peace. What makes someone think they deserve that? Because they can pay for it is, of course, the Republican's response. And that's fine for this world, but the gates of hell don't take Visa.

For rich, white, adults, I have no sympathy. Deal with the world. No one is safer than you or ever has been. Infants need protection and surveillance and care. And for the kids, I'm quite certain that growing up in a biosphere of affluence like Princeton can be damaging in an insidious, very different way from growing up in a place on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum.

As Martin Luther King wrote in "Letter from Birmingham Jail":

"I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice..."

Crown Heights Affairs

In a taxi a few nights ago, the estimable headline news service which scrolls along those little TV screens informed me, "Crown Heights Braces for Racial Violence." Bracing, bracing, still bracing...

Racial violence of ticker tape proportions is not coming, good thing, but Crown Heights did make its way into the news with the story of a Hasidic youth Macing a 20-year old black college student and then beating him with a nightstick. Some retaliatory acts were taken by black youths who threw rocks at Hasidic homes as well as a bus load of Hasidic school children. Community leaders - those most vague and indefinable of authority figures - came together, showed solidarity, and things calmed down. At least until July when the weather is hotter and everyone gets their Do The Right Thing game-faces on.

I've wanted to tackle the black-Jewish-Brooklyn dynamic for a while, especially in the wake of my roommate's thoughtful and very solid writing on his own encounter with an instance of Hasidic racism. However every time I start I decide, inescapably, that I am wholly unequipped to tackle this debate without coming off ignorant and bigotted in some unintentional way, until I have a much firmer grasp of the context and history.

Until that day, I want to bring James Baldwin in for his opinion. In his 1967 essay "Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They're Anti-White" Baldwin writes, "the root of anti-Semitism among Negroes is, ironically, the relationship of colored peoples--all over the globe--to the Christian world."

Baldwin argues that it is Christendom which has instigated hate between Jews and blacks because Jews have been able to take part in the Christian world and act like white Christian men because they are white. While blacks, victimized in history as Jews have been, are not allowed that privilege: "[The Jew] is singled out by Negroes not because he acts differently from other white men, but because he doesn't."

Below are some excerpts from the essay. The full essay here.

"The root of anti-Semitism among Negroes is, ironically, the relationship of colored peoples--all over the globe--to the Christian world. This is a fact which may be difficult to grasp, not only for the ghetto's most blasted and embittered inhabitants, but also for many Jews, to say nothing of many Christians. But it is a fact, and it will not ameliorated--in fact, it can only be aggravated--by the adoption, on the part of colored people now, of the most devastating of the Christian vices.
Of course, it is true, and I am not so naive as not to know it, that many Jews despise Negroes, even as their Aryan brothers do. (There are also Jews who despise Jews, even as their Aryan brothers do.) It is true that many Jews use, shamelessly, the slaughter of the 6,000,000 by the Third Reich as proof that they cannot be bigots--or in the hope of not being held responsible for their bigotry.

It is galling to be told by a Jew whom you know to be exploiting you that he cannot possibly be doing what you know he is doing because he is a Jew. It is bitter to watch the Jewish storekeeper locking up his store for the night, and going home. Going, with your money in his pocket, to a clean neighborhood, miles from you, which you will not be allowed to enter. Nor can it help the relationship between most Negroes and most Jews when part of this money is donated to civil rights. In the light of what is now known as the white backlash, this money can be looked on as conscience money merely, as money given to keep the Negro happy in his place, and out of white neighborhoods.

One does not wish, in short, to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro's suffering. It isn't, and one knows that it isn't from the very tone in which he assures you that it is. "
....

"The Jew's suffering is recognized as part of the moral history of the world and the Jew is recognized as a contributor so the world's history: this is not true for the blacks. Jewish history, whether or not one can say it is honored, is certainly known: the black history has been blasted, maligned and despised. The Jew is a white man, and when white men rise up against oppression, they are heroes: when black men rise, they have reverted to their native savagery. The uprising in the Warsaw ghetto was not described as a riot, nor were the participants maligned as hoodlums: the boys and girls in Watts and Harlem are thoroughly aware of this, and it certainly contributes to their attitude toward the Jews.

But, of course, my comparison of Watts and Harlem with the Warsaw ghetto will be immediately dismissed as outrageous. There are many reasons for this, and one of them is that while America loves white heroes, armed to the teeth, it cannot abide bad niggers. But the bottom reason is that it contradicts the American dream to suggest that any gratuitous, unregenerate horror can happen here. We make our mistakes, we like to think, but we are getting better all the time."
....

"What is really at question is the American way of life. What is really at question is whether Americans already have an identity or are still sufficiently flexible to achieve one. This is a painfully complicated question, for what now appears to be the American identity is really a bewildering and sometimes demoralizing blend of nostalgia and opportunism. For example, the Irish who march on St. Patrick's Day, do not, after all, have any desire to go back to Ireland. They do not intend to go back to live there, though they may dream of going back there to die. Their lives, in the meanwhile, are here, but they cling, at the same time, to those credentials forged in the Old World, credentials which cannot be duplicated here, credentials which the American Negro does not have. These credentials are the abandoned history of Europe--the abandoned and romanticized history of Europe. The Russian Jews here have no desire to return to Russia either, and they have not departed in great clouds for Israel. But they have the authority of knowing it is there. The Americans are no longer Europeans, but they are still living, at least as they imagine, on that capital."
....

"All racist positions baffle and appall me. None of us are that different from one another, neither that much better nor that much worse. Furthermore, when one takes a position one must attempt to see where that position inexorably leads. One must ask oneself, if one decides that black or white or Jewish people are, by definition, to be despised, is one willing to murder a black or white or Jewish baby: for that is where the position leads. And if one blames the Jew for having become a white American, one may perfectly well, if one is black, be speaking out of nothing more than envy.


If one blames the Jew for not having been ennobled by oppression, one is not indicting the single figure of the Jew but the entire human race, and one is also making a quite breathtaking claim for oneself. I know that my own oppression did not ennoble me, not even when I thought of myself as a practicing Christian. I also know that if today I refuse to hate Jews, or anybody else, it is because I know how it feels to be hated. I learned this from Christians, and I ceased to practice what the Christians practiced.

The crisis taking place in the world, and in the minds and hearts of black men everywhere, is not produced by the star of David, but by the old, rugged Roman cross on which Christendom's most celebrated Jew was murdered. And not by Jews."