Dorothea Lange and the power of bearing witness

Dear Rebecca:

I’m guessing you’ve seen this photo before. It was taken by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression, and has come to represent much about that era:

 

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I saw this picture over the weekend at the Nelson-Atkins art museum in Kansas City, Mo. (It’s a terrific institution, by the way.) It was part of a broader exhibit highlighting the Depression-era work of Lange and other photographers, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott and Peter Sekaer.

It was stunning. It was, in fact, difficult emotional work. One of these photos is a powerful document. Dozens of them tell a story, immerse you, make it difficult to leave these lives in the past.

A couple of quick observations.

• Here’s another Lange photo from the era. My only thought: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

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Oh, how we hate poor people in this country.

• These pictures were taken all within the lifetimes of my grandparents. It’s both forever ago and just that close. The conditions that millions of Americans were living in — in makeshift shacks, built from mud or items rummaged from the trash, or simply not having enough to eat an being required to flee across the country in hopes they’d find some way to make a living — are those we associate, in modern America, with “third world countries or with pre-modern ways of living in our own. Truth is: What we think of us civilization — of a largely middle-class society, anyway — is both recent and fragile.

• This may be a weird response, but these photographs made me angrier yet about McCarthyism.

Let me explain.

If you were a person surviving the 1930s, bearing witness to what was going on around you — but not privy, at this point, to the destruction of Russian life under Stalin — it seems really easy me to see why a black person or a poor person in that era might’ve embraced, for a time, Communism. It makes all the sense in the world! To be judged for such conclusions by Cold Warriors — to lose or risk losing one’s livelihood in the 1950s because one got tired of all the poverty and oppression in the 1930s — is just … ugly.

• Finally, I’m reminded of the importance of bearing witness. To see what’s going on around you is difficult, sometimes. To document it — honestly and unflinchingly — is to increase the potential for a healthy response. God bless the people who do such work.

The “Dignity and Despair” exhibition runs through Nov. 26. Anybody in the Kansas City area between now and then would do well to see it for themselves.

Yours, Joel

Rod Dreher and the problem of doing racial reconciliation in church

Dear Rebecca:

A painful truth about the Church is that it is one of the most segregated institutions in American life. A second painful truth is that Rod Dreher’s writing these days tends to get my goat.

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The most segregated hour in American life?

And so it is today with his post on doing racial reconciliation in the church. He’s concerned that white people are going to feel too defensive.

Talking across racial lines about issues of race and racial conflict will never, ever be easy, but if the church isn’t a place we can do this productively, where is? To do it productively requires humility on all sides. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If you want people to change, you have to show them mercy and grace. A white Evangelical friend of mine dropped out of a racial reconciliation group in his city — a group he joined because he’s serious about it — because it turned into a weekly ritual denunciation of Whiteness™.

And then:

If that’s what the encounter in church between blacks and whites comes down to, then there will never, ever be racial reconciliation. If facing the legacy of racism in the church in a healing way can only be done by whites hating themselves for being white, then all you will get is bitterness and defensiveness.

Here’s what’s crazy-making about this:

• Yes, it’s true that “all have sinned etc etc,” but when it comes to matters of race in America, it’s inescapably true that white people have sinned — or, more passively, reaped the rewards of that sin — much, much, much more than black people. “All have sinned” feels like a way to spread responsibility for sin when, as a matter of historical fact, the sinning is pretty localized. To white people.

(Note to critics: I do not deny black people can be prejudiced. But. There is no comparing the suffering of white people at the hands of blacks to the suffering of black people at the hands of whites. There will always be exceptions, but this is the rule.)

• In fact, Dreher offers no guidance to doing racial reconciliation in the church except this: Don’t make white people feel bad. But I’m not sure how racial reconciliation is done in the church if white people don’t feel bad. If white people can’t recognize the sins they’ve committed or how they’ve probably benefitted from the racial sins of others — even if it’s something as simple as having somebody, classwise, to feel superior to even if you’re at the bottom of the heap — if they can’t repent of this, how are our African-American brothers and sisters supposed to take us seriously?

• What Dreher’s formulation does, then, is put the work — emotional and otherwise — of racial reconciliation on the people to whom we need to be reconciled. There might be something Godly about that, but it’s also a bit superhuman, and it’s not fair for white people to expect that.

How to do racial reconciliation in the church, then? I don’t know. But I’d suggest:

• Listening.

• Being willing to accept one’s own responsibility for sin.

• To disregard the deep human need to offset one’s own sin by pointing out the sins of others.

• To pray a lot.

• And listen some more.

We’re going to have to practice humility. We are, on occasion, going to feel bad.

And no. I’ve not done nearly enough of this kind of work as I should.

Sadly, Joel

Going low and crying wolf: How Harry Reid helped give us Donald Trump

Dear Rebecca:

You write: “Eventually, we’ll be left only with politicians willing to always do the worst. This isn’t leadership; it’s a fear-based strategy to get and keep power, which really only becomes about keeping others out of power.”

I’ve got a story to tell, one that’s out there on the public record, but one that hasn’t been much remarked upon.

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He lied. Did American democracy die?

It takes place during the Obama-Romney campaign of 2012. During the campaign, Mitt Romney was proving reluctant — as Donald Trump was, after him — to release some pertinent personal financial information. So Sen. Harry Reid, then the leader of Democrats in the Senate, decided to make a big deal about it.

Saying he had “no problem with somebody being really, really wealthy,” Reid sat up in his chair a bit before stirring the pot further. A month or so ago, he said, a person who had invested with Bain Capital called his office.

“Harry, he didn’t pay any taxes for 10 years,” Reid recounted the person as saying.

“He didn’t pay taxes for 10 years! Now, do I know that that’s true? Well, I’m not certain,” said Reid. “But obviously he can’t release those tax returns. How would it look?

I wrote at the time that “Reid’s allegations look and smell a lot like bullcrap.”

Why? Because there’s absolutely no reason to believe that Reid is telling the truth. He’s offered no witnesses and no proof of his claims, only a “somebody told me” statement that wouldn’t get within a million miles of passing muster in a court of law. And when challenged to present his evidence, his response is that Romney can prove Reid’s allegations wrong—by releasing his tax forms.

Politically clever? Yes. Distasteful? It absolutely should be.

It turned out I was right. Reid later admitted lying, but said he had no regrets: “Romney didn’t win, did he?”

Fast forward to the fall of 2016. Trump versus Clinton. Her emails have been hacked; Trump has asked the Russians to release them to the media. It’s all very suspicious. And Harry Reid, serving out his final days in the Senate, makes his move. He writes an angry letter to James Comey.

In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government — a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States, which Trump praises at every opportunity. The public has a right to know this information. I wrote to you months ago calling for this information to be released to the public. There is no danger to American interests from releasing it. And yet, you continue to resist calls to inform the public of this critical information.

Here’s the thing: Reid was right! He was telling the truth! We found out later that Republicans had warned President Obama they’d accuse him of politicizing intelligence if he went public with this — and Obama, probably figuring Clinton would win anyway, decided to keep his mouth shut. Reid’s letter to Comey, when made public, represented one of the best possible chances to get this issue fixed firmly in the minds of the American voters.

Only … Reid’s accusation was treated like so much bullshit. Here’s the Washington Post:

Reid is saying that he has been told the FBI has evidence of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And he’s not just saying this information came from mysterious and unnamed national security officials; he’s saying Comey himself has left him with this impression.

But there is no public evidence to support Reid’s claim of actual “coordination” between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And were that to be the case, it would be a scandal of epic proportions.

Asked what evidence exists of such a connection, Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson cited classified briefings.

“There have been classified briefings on this topic,” Jentleson said. “That is all I can say.”

Asked whether the letter means Comey has shared such information directly with Reid, Jentleson said, “Refer you to the language in the letter.”

This is the political equivalent of Reid lighting a match, dropping it on a dry ground and walking away.

The Post then mentioned Reid’s false allegation against Romney. And it included this old quote from Reid:

Is there a line he wouldn’t cross when it comes to political warfare?

“I don’t know what that line would be,” [Reid] said.

It was, in retrospect, a missed opportunity.

In 2012, when Reid made his first, pretty clearly bogus charges, there were no end of defenders. Why? Because, I was told, Romney hadn’t released his tax returns so who was to say Reid was wrong? And in any case, the other guys fight dirty so why shouldn’t we? We’re tired of always being the weak ones, right?

The problem being: When Reid’s credibility mattered most, when he could’ve used some “trust me” to help steer the nation on a different course, he’d spent it all on a crappy lie he probably didn’t even need to make in order for Obama to win.

Going low, politically, has its short-term rewards. It can be justified on that basis. But who wishes Americans had paid more attention to Harry Reid last fall? A lot of the same people who lauded his earlier lie.

Hey: Politics ain’t beanbag. It’s never going to be as clean as I like it. But there are costs to wallowing in the dirt, and they’re not just moral prissyness. They matter. We’re all living with how they matter now.

Yours, Joel

Douglas Koziol and the virtues of reading all the way to the damn end

Dear Rebecca:

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A conservative friend — I think we’re friends — linked angrily today to this piece at The Millions. It wasn’t hard to see why. Check it out.

So what can you do when a customer wants a book that you not only find objectionable but also believe actually dangerous in the lessons it portends amidst such a politically precarious time? If it helps, swap Elegy for any book that you find particularly insidious, whether it’s Atlas Shrugged, The Communist Manifesto, or The Bible. The question remains: without stooping to the level of crazed book-burning, does the bookseller’s role ever evolve past the capitalist exchange of money for paper and pulp? And are there meaningful ways to resist the continued sales of disastrous books?

This was offered as proof of the censorious nature of “progressivism.” And the piece’s commenters agreed:

It’s called freedom. It may be dangerous to you, or you may dislike it, or disagree with it, but none of those three personal views gives you the right to stop anyone else from reading it.

The moment you decide your role is to act as a gatekeeper shutting out the unworthy books, rather than a guide opening the door to new ones, you’re part of the problem. You’re no better than any other small-minded librarian/bookseller impeding access to books of which they do not approve.

What a load of elitist arrogant BS. And the author probably thinks they are being open minded. Keep doing you liberals.

One small problem: While the quoted paragraph above does indeed express the problem the writer, Douglas Koziol, was wrestling with, it doesn’t at all reflect his conclusions, or the fullness of his throught process and actions in getting there.

Like:

All of this is to say that I’ve yet to find a way to tactfully handle the subject. Even now, I fear that I’m slipping into a haughty and unproductive tone—that of an ideologically perfect soul who can’t seem to break through to the rubes. And that’s the last thing a bookseller or writer should be.

And:

I can hide the stacks of Hillbilly Elegy in the back (if my boss is reading this, I’m just kidding). But I suspect that the most fundamental thing I can do is also perhaps the most trite: I can try to start conversations. Independent bookstores have continued to thrive in the face of the Amazon-ization of everything precisely because of their human component, and what is more human than honest-to-god conversation? But in order for this to be effective, it would require equal parts listening. Listening to what made the person gravitate towards the book in the first place, listening while withholding judgment, listening as if I don’t know all the answers.

What a powerful conclusion! Overcoming a censorious instinct to embrace humility, embrace listening and embrace understanding! We should want much more of this in our society than we’re getting right now. We should be praising Koziol for his honesty and his conclusion.

But instead, most of Koziol’s readers are acting like folks who, having heard the setup of a “knock knock” joke without hearing the punchline, have decided to condemn the evils of doorbells. Too bad. Reading to the end could’ve saved a lot of heartache.

Still reading?
Joel

The straight line connecting tribalization, demonization, and Trump’s Russia scandal

Dear Rebecca:

I’ve been thinking about this awful tweet from the awful Dennis Prager.

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Which led me to this tweet this morning quoting a Fox News personality:

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And I’m a bit discouraged.

Let me preface: I’m not quite a “pox on both your houses guy.” All things being equal, I find liberalism superior to conservatism, and I don’t make apologies for it. But I do think political tribalism blinds us to the ways that we’re very similar to our rivals, and that awareness of those similarities is a hedge against hubris.

Among Democrats and liberals, I often hear a refrain that goes something like this: “Republicans don’t play by the rules. They’ll do anything to win, and when it comes down to it, they’ll stick with each other. Not like our side, which is weak and too willing to play by the rules. We have to be as tough as they are.”

Having spent time in the out Internet provinces of both conservatism and Trumpism, I can tell you this: Rank-and-file Republicans and conservatives say precisely the same thing about the other side. A lot. (I know what some of my liberal friends are going to say: “They’re wrong!” But they’re not, entirely.)

Best I can tell, both sides believe it. Best I can tell, neither side really examines why the other side thinks that. Everybody has their reasons, I assure you, and it’ll probably be worth examining that in another post.

But one result of our ongoing demonization is this: It removes any moral or ethical barriers we might otherwise observe. The only object is to win — or avoid losing — by any means necessary. The other guys are going to do it. We should too! All of which makes the race to the bottom a self-fulfilling prophecy. Meeting with the Russians? In a way, that’s not a transgression of the norms, but a fulfillment of what the norms have become.

How to disrupt that race? No idea. Ugh.

Respectfully, Joel

What if Donald Trump Was a Good Guy?

Hey Rebecca:

I’ve been wondering lately: What would the world be like if Donald Trump was a good guy and not a man of such transparently ill character whose corruption and classlessness infects all around him?

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A pause: I don’t like attributing character flaws to people with whom I disagree. Usually, they’re good — or good enough — people with different opinions! But with Trump, the crappiness of his character is key to the critique of him. It’s unavoidable.

Let’s apply the question to this week’s big scandal — the newly reported meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer he thought might provide Russian government dirt on Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.

If the people around Donald Trump had been both smart and patriotic, we wouldn’t be waking up this week to news that his son met with a Russian lawyer to dig up “dirt” in Hillary Clinton. We would’ve found out last summer — and it might’ve provided the boost he needed to win the presidency.

News of Trump Jr.’s meeting broke this week, adding to the appearance of a White House under siege and a legal noose tightening around the president’s inner circle. All of this — this part of the scandal, anyway — could’ve been avoided if the Trump campaign had just done two things:

• Called the FBI.

• Held a big press conference announcing why they’d called the FBI.

This approach would’ve had two advantages. It would’ve been the right thing to do. And it would’ve helped Trump look like a real American leader — someone selfless enough to sacrifice a possible advantage if taking that advantage meant doing dirty business with the country’s rivals.

There was precedent for this: Back in 2000, Al Gore’s campaign received a tape showing George W. Bush’s debate preparations — and promptly sent it along to federal investigators.

”I looked at it, and I said, ‘I shouldn’t have this and shouldn’t be looking at this,”’ said former Rep. Tom Downey, the Gore adviser who received the tape. ”I knew that it was serious stuff.”

Gore, of course, ended up narrowly losing the presidency. Trump narrowly won.

But imagine what our politics might look like right now if the Trump campaign called the FBI then held the press conference. Imagine the campaign bounce he might’ve received if he’d made a statement like, say, this:

“The Russians tried to give us damaging info on our opponent but even though that might have given us an advantage, it wouldn’t be the right thing to do for our country. We are all Americans.”

Trump still could’ve railed against “Crooked Hillary.” He still could’ve charged that her email setup as Secretary of State had made America less secure. But he could’ve put questions of collusion with Russia largely to rest, and — for once — maybe even made himself look a little more like a statesman instead of a two-bit schemer. “More in sadness than in anger” would’ve been a good look for a politician attempting to appeal to moderates.

That would’ve taken some imagination, though. That would’ve taken some moral fitness — or the smarts to try to appear fit once in awhile.

Instead, the Trump campaign played to character, choosing to pursue the dumb, obvious, “let’s screw our enemies” power move. And when that didn’t work, he went public asking the Russians to release any info they had on his opponent.

The trouble with Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, from the beginning, has been his inability to get out of his own way. His determination to avenge slights and be in “control” — but only in the most rudimentary fashion — led him to fire James Comey, to attack the “Morning Joe” crew, to slam veterans like John McCain and to pick fights with Rosie O’Donnell, to get his pound of flesh but to almost always get it in a fashion that leaves his presidency as collateral damage.

Given the choice between blunt-force trauma and the smart, silent shiv — or merely doing the right thing and being nice people — Trump and his minions choose blunt force every time. I’m not sure they’re aware that different possibilities exist.

If Trump had tried to be a bigger, better man, he might right now have a bigger, better presidency. All he and his campaign had to do was the right thing. They didn’t. Of course they didn’t.

With disgust, Joel

The ‘Bechdel test’ doesn’t limit movies. It asks them to stop being so limited.

Dear Rebecca:

I’m shocked, shocked that a National Review writer has decided to take issue with the “Bechdel test.” The test, as I’m sure you know, is a very simple way to check if your movies have even a moment in them that isn’t dude oriented.

Here’s Wikipedia:

The Bechdel test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.

And here’s NRO’s Kyle Smith:

In the past few years, the Bechdel Test has begun popping up casually in reviews like a feminist Good Housekeeping Seal of approval. Take this appreciation last month of the 1992 film A League of Their Own, published by Katie Baker on the site The Ringer: “It is, in my possibly blinded by love but also correct opinion, one of the best sports movies there is. And it is an honest ode to women and sisters and friendships, with a story that breezes through the Bechdel test by the end of the opening scene.”

Hey, and you know what? Tom Selleck’s Matthew Quigley appears almost immediately in Quigley Down Under. Hurrah, this film breezes through the Cowboy Test by the end of the opening scene!

Neither of these two tests gives you any hint as to the worth of a film, and furthermore neither of them tells you anything about a film’s general feminist wokeness. It doesn’t even tell you whether the film is entirely about a woman.

A couple of observations:

•You know why the “Cowboy Test” is ridiculous? Because there have been a million fricking movies about cowboys. We actually have no need of further cowboy movies — though, admittedly, I’d watch one if a good one came along — because just about every permutation of the genre has been exhausted. The Bechdel test was invented, meanwhile, because such female-centric moments were relatively rare.

•Smith is right that the Bechdel test doesn’t tell you about the worth of a film or its feminist bona fides. Nobody makes those claims for it! (Check the video above for confirmation of this.) Instead, the underlying question is this: Does this movie contain a single moment that’s not all about the guys in it? It is the very minimum a movie can do, in other words, to put a female perspective onscreen.

• Which means that the Bechdel test doesn’t do much to constrain movie art: The art itself is pretty constrained — the movie business has increasingly been designed to appeal to and arouse the passions of teenage boys. To the degree female characters are designed to appeal to this demographic, it’s not often with their agency apart from men in mind. The Bechdel test was created because movies are so dude-oriented that getting such a moment was unexpected, to be noted.

Smith says the Bechdel test is irrelevant because women don’t make the kinds of movies that reap big box office. “Have a wander through the sci-fi and fantasy section of your local bookstore: How many of these books’ authors are female? Yet these are where the big movie ideas come from. If a woman wants the next Lord of the Rings–style franchise to pass the Bechdel Test, then a woman should come up with a story with as much earning potential as J. R. R. Tolkien’s.”

Which is … stupid. Tell the makers and viewers of Wonder Woman that they don’t like sci-fi adventure. For the love of god, tell my nerdy-ass wife — but give me a head start out of the room.

Hollywood discovers that there’s an audience for women-centric movies every couple of years, then promptly forgets it. Using that amnesia to justify the ongoing omission of women and women’s perspectives from our films isn’t just dumb — it’s clearly leaving a lot of money on the table. Conservatives, you’d think, might embrace the Bechdel test for this reason if for nothing else: It just might help them make a ton of cash from an underserved audience.

Sincerely, Joel