Book: The Cruelty is the Point by Adam Serwer

The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump’s America
by Adam Serwer
published by One World (Penguin Random House), New York

American political discourse has been disturbing and authoritarian in recent years, and the seriousness of it has made it tempting to look away and focus on small, manageable things in our personal lives. To help process the past US Administration’s role in all of this, I found it useful to read Adam Serwer’s excellent new book, based on essays he previously published in the Atlantic as events were unfolding, with new commentary introducing them. Named after an insightful essay which reflected on the hateful rhetoric that was embraced by the authoritarian Trump and his followers, this book provides insights and context for the horrors that have been unfolding around us.

I went through a pad of page flags while reading, which was unexpected, but Serwer’s insights are thoughtful and useful enough to revisit. He also cited other books, articles, and authors who can provide additional details and depth on our history, our power structures, and the tension-to-conflict between our stated principles and national behavior. (My to-read list feels infinite already, but some of these are quite promising.)

When Serwer interviews people who mistakenly believe that illegal immigrants receive amazing services and benefits which other Americans do not (much as I read elsewhere of the same demographic groups believing that black people received free cell phones under Obama, or that all black people are given free college tuition because of some big government intervention that I wish actually existed), their hysteria over immigration makes slightly more sense, even while knowing it is based on lies, and even while recognizing their position is a cowardly attack on the vulnerable rather than an authentic challenge the powerful.

Serwer astutely identifies the right-wing’s objections to “political correctness” as a strong objection that previously oppressed groups have standing in society to challenge their abuse. He cuts apart the idea of false, historical “civility” in which white men in power simply set aside the rights of others so that the powerful could remain comfortable, an indulgence that costs the rest of us dearly. I love this sentence:

In Ivy League debate rooms and the Senate cloakroom, white men could discuss the most divisive issues of the day with all the politeness befitting what was for them a low-stakes conflict. Outside, the people whose rights were actually at stake were fighting and dying to have those rights recognized.

I appreciate Serwer’s insights on US police abuses of (and more specifically for) power, how the brief history of policing within the U.S. has been problematic in a range of disturbing ways since the outset of public police departments in the 1800s, and how domestic police cultures have long held authoritarian leanings. His writing helped remind and clarify for me that publicly funded police represent the interests of the entrenched powerful, and those entrenched powerful (and those who look like them) benefit from a historically exploitative status quo that allowed them to come to power. This loyalty to power makes much more sense from observable routine events of police violence than an idea that the police exist primarily to support actual laws or the public at large.

Adam Serwer’s journalism and analyses make a great book, and this collection provides clear insights on the challenges and outright dangers we face in the U.S. Published this year, its essays take us right up to the current moment, and will remain highly relevant for the foreseeable future. I recommend it highly.

Book: Whitelash: Unmasking White Grievance at the Ballot Box by Terry Smith

Whitelash: Unmasking White Grievance at the Ballot Box
by Terry Smith, J.D.
published by Cambridge University Press

This is a very thoughtful book that I began zealously recommending to others as soon as I was a few chapters in. Written by a law professor, this text analyzes the actions of the Trump Administration and motivations of its supporters, and asks: is the overt racism displayed by the administration and its primarily white supporters legal, and can it be addressed within existing legal frameworks?

Aside from me: For anyone who wasn’t in the US or following news in late 2016, the election of a failed businessman over an experienced and successful female secretary of state is best understood as a reaction by conservative white voters against the party and policies of the twice-elected African American president. While the US has a mythology of cultural openness and racial inclusion, this mythology is usually limited to justifying structures of white dominance with minor multi-cultural visibility. It appears from interviews and studies (included many cited in the footnotes of Smith’s book) that a black president made many whites feel that their unearned dominance was ending, and so they chose a leader with animus against a range of non-white ethnic groups with hopes to re-entrench whiteness as the center of political power and as the only true American identity.

Mr. Smith’s definition of a white backlash, condensed to Whitelash, is very clear:

Whitelash is the reaction of many white Americans when they believe that strides toward racial equality have run amuck, to the point of threatening their own material well-being, even as they remain far better-off economically than people of color…. This fear manifests itself through individual and collective efforts to retain the benefits of a structure of racial inequality, efforts that erroneously cast equality for people of color as discrimination against whites. Thus, the default position—the social baseline—from which too many whites define the normalcy of race relations is racial inequality.

from Whitelash Chapter 1, Electing Trump and Breaching Norms

With an extensive background in civil rights law and discrimination cases, Mr. Smith finds that in most circumstances, the stated intentions of the administration, which displayed clear animus against specific groups, would be legally actionable. From housing rights to employment to labor law and beyond, an announced intention to “ban Muslims” would put DT on the wrong side of the law. The racial animus that animates his followers is harder to legally address, but Smith ultimately proposes common sense solutions to cancel out the local manipulations of racists, which currently roll up to have adverse national impacts for all of us.

Smith’s analyses are methodical and well supported with citations to source materials. As a legal professional, it is what I would expect in my profession and in legal education more than in the popular, general-audience press. The writing is clear, and the explanations of the law are superb, and there are great citations!! (The Apple ebook version has each footnote linked in a way that makes it easy to read them and jump back to where you left off reading. I also appreciate the many colors of highlighting in the Books app, which I utilized extensively. I’m sure other eBook software has similarly beneficial features, but this is the first time I really utilized them, and it made a great impression.)

Thanks to Smith’s thorough research, the book goes beyond law and features many amazing quotes and references to other worthwhile books that delve into some of the topics covered. For example, while so many of us can’t understand how voters could sabotage material improvements for all of us, or even vote against policies that would benefit them directly, content Smith cites suggest that people’s idea of themselves as conservatives wins out emotionally over their own specific material situation.

“ In 2004, Emory University political psychologist Drew Westen conducted neuroimaging of the brains of partisan men presented with evidence that both Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry and Republican incumbent George W. Bush had made contradictory statements. Democrats were more critical of Bush’s statements, and Republicans were more critical of Kerry’s. The neuroimaging revealed that the portion of the brain associated with reasoning—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—played no role in eliciting the partisans’ responses to the candidates’ statements. Instead, the emotion circuits of the brain lit up when the subjects responded.”

(emphasis mine)

This helps me understand why people would vote against getting life-saving healthcare, for example – their political self-image has no room for such things, and their emotional fears of not being first in line, or of anything good happening for people who look different from themselves, kills such support outright. (You can see this in discussions of the national healthcare program: people whose lives were saved by “Obamacare” have spoken out to say they had opposed the idea on principle, while others said they opposed “Obamacare” but supported the “ACA,” – even though they are the same thing. One label offended their political identity.)

It can be painful to relive some of the terrible, racist actions, statements, and policies that were made during the time period covered, but it is also useful to see these actions against non-white and non-Republican groups as part of a long term pattern and strategy (with source citations!), rather than in the outrage-of-the-day coverage that we had at the time.

In summary: this is the best book I’ve read on the topic of political racism and its impacts in the United States. With a wealth of citations, clear writing, book recommendations on related topics, and a thoughtful and logical approach to analyzing the pretexts under which racism operates, I feel enriched by having read it. I feel even more confident in my support for necessary democratic reforms than I previously did. I highly recommend it.

Words: Handmaid

There is some extremist judge being considered for the U.S. Supreme Court (again), and she’s in a spin-off religious sect that once bestowed the title of handmaid upon her. (AP)

This evoked the famous Margaret Atwood novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (, and so there were some awkward news flurries about how HER faith group was NOT the inspiration for THAT story.

There was even a grumpy denial from the U.S. Senate Majority “Leader” ( in which he said, among other things, that the term was being used pejoratively, “because one liberal author put it in the title of an anti-religious novel in the 1980s…”

I’m in a religion, and I did not think the Handmaid’s Tale was anti-religious in any way… because I don’t naturally associate the oppression of women, including treating women as property, forcing women to conceive children with men not of their choosing, or restricting other basic human rights with religious values. You’d have to be part of a religion with a similarly oppressive belief system to see that horrifically dystopian novel as an insult to your— oh. OH.

News: UN has concerns on US Human Rights

As they should.

It’s good when international bodies – and people from around the globe – ‘see something and say something.’

U.N. human rights office calls on U.S. police to limit use of force

The United Nations human rights office on Friday called on U.S. security forces to limit their use of force against peaceful protesters and journalists, as clashes between federal agents and demonstrators continue in Portland, Ore. “Peaceful demonstrations that have been taking place in cities in the U.S.

News: AOC Speaks Eloquently on Casual Misogyny

I was sincerely moved by the speech representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made in the legislature today on men behaving with casual hatred toward women, and then rushing to hide behind their own wives and daughters.

As with so many of AOC’s speeches, it is really thoughtful. When she tells you she’s had to throw men out of bars for behaving with this sort of hatred displayed by another elected official, the pattern she is observing is clear.

We women already KNOW about this – we’ve lived it. But we’ve been told to suffer in silence for the comfort of men. So I appreciate casual misogyny being addressed in this simultaneously high-minded and down-to-earth fashion.

Perspective | AOC’s speech about Ted Yoho’s ‘apology’ was a comeback for the ages

If you click on only one thing today, let it be Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Thursday morning speech, delivered from the House floor and directed to a fellow member of Congress, but really to us all. “You can be a powerful man and accost women,” said the New York Democrat.

Film: John Lewis: Good Trouble

I just watched the great documentary about civil rights icon John Lewis, and half of my ticket goes to my local movie theater, The Roxie.

It is remarkable to know how much work and self-sacrifice effective mass movements require, and how deeply impressive it is that heroes and heroines dedicate so much of their lives so directly to making things better for all of us.

John Lewis: Good Trouble | John Lewis: Good Trouble – Virtual Cinema

Using interviews and rare archival footage, JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE chronicles Lewis’ 60-plus years of social activism and legislative action on civil rights, voting rights, gun control, health-care reform and immigration.


News: Happy Loving Day!

Yes, inter-racial marriage used to be illegal in many parts of the USA. Until 1967. Which is SUPER RECENTLY.

Hooray for Loving v. Virginia!

Loving Day

Loving Day is an annual celebration held on June 12, the anniversary of the 1967 United States Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia which struck down all anti-miscegenation laws remaining in sixteen U.S. states. In the United States, anti-miscegenation laws were U.S.

From the Wikipedia Article, above:

My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right. The majority believed that what the judge said, that it was God’s plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation’s fears and prejudices have given way, and today’s young people realize that if someone loves someone they have a right to marry.

Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the “wrong kind of person” for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.

-Mildred Loving, June 2007, on the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia

News: Black Lives Matter (to more people, finally!), and Current Events Remain Current

I feel like I watch three genres of video now:
(1) videos of peaceful demonstrators out in public somewhere in the world (I like these!)
(2) police violently attacking peaceful demonstrators (these upset me), and
(3) police violently attacking journalists (these anger me).

(There is a subgenre of (2) that involves police violently attacking passersby and people standing on their own property while watching (1) or (2), but I haven’t made a habit of watching that content yet.)

There are THOUSANDS of films in these genres now, and so I’m only going to share a few links to solid compilations of those last two. The novel and interesting thing about the compilations I like best are (a) they are from overseas, from the UK Guardian, and (b) they are from a mainstream news organization! The US domestic press used to refer to peaceful protesters as “violent,” even while showing their own videos of people peacefully sitting on the ground being beaten by police, because it fit their narrative that the authorities are always inherently good. Now that everyone has phone cameras and can see with their own eyes, that approach is only working with people who want to believe that protesters are bad and deserve violence.

Category 2, from June 6, 2020:

Protests about police brutality are met with wave of police brutality across US

The nationwide anti-police brutality protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the US have been marked by widespread incidents of police violence, including punching, kicking, gassing, pepper-spraying and driving vehicles at often peaceful protesters in states across the country. The actions have left thousands of protesters in jail and injured many others, leaving some with life-threatening injuries.

The Guardian’s compilation a 260+ link compilation of police brutality videos within Twitter, which started on May 30, 2020. (The links are not all in chronological order, because: Twitter). It feels like calling this “criminal justice news” is ironic, considering the overt police riots (click the image of the tweet below):



One more, out of many I could have posted, for Category 3, from June 6, 2020:

Teargassed, beaten up, arrested: what freedom of the press looks like in the US right now

Caught in the middle of a scrum covering protests in Minneapolis on Saturday, photojournalist Ed Ou could feel his hands and face were wet. For a long time, he didn’t know if it was teargas, pepper spray, or blood – in the end, it turned out to be a combination of all three.

I’ve read notes from people who watch television, saying that the TV stations TRIED the “protestors bad, police good” line at first, but when no one was falling for it, actually started reporting the news. I don’t know if their own journalists had to be attacked for them to ‘get it,’ or if the scales suddenly fell from their eyes. But: what a remarkable turn of events.

News: more than I can process easily

I want to write briefly about the remarkable time we are living in.

I’ve been trying to process even more murders of black Americans by police on the news, events which have become all too common throughout my life. The era of cell phone videos changed this, but only to the point that we could bear witness to the horror more directly, and observe that the stories the police used to justify the killings never withstood scrutiny, even to the (surprised!) eyes of people who previously willed the news away with hazy implications of guilt, as if hazy implications justify spontaneous, extrajudicial executions.

As with US school shootings, it seemed that no amount of loss could make anything change. Each time, there would be hope that THIS would be the event that bent the arc of history toward justice. Each time, it seemed THIS would be the day when people stood up and said that we are NOT A COUNTRY that allows this to happen, and it would end. But each time wasn’t that time.

But now, unexpectedly, there seems to be… a sort of reckoning.

I’m afraid to get my hopes up that it will be that time. It could be! But I’m afraid to hope.

This reckoning arose not only over the original event, namely the recorded murder of a man named George Floyd who was suffocated by police kneeling on his neck, but grew dramatically over the outlandish assaults by police against people peacefully protesting against police brutality.

The police have been shooting journalists with rubber bullets. The police have been been arresting news crews on the air. The police have been tear gassing members of the clergy.

Individually they may have been thinking: police are never punished for brutality, even if the brutality is recorded, so this won’t matter. Collectively, they were surely also thinking this, because they were all choosing to behave the same way, and this is how structural racism works.

Yet…. this is playing out differently.

The automatic deference is gone.

Diplomatic complaints are being lodged over attacks on credentialed press from other nations.

Police officers are being fired for misconduct (which had previously just been deemed regular conduct).

British youth with ADORABLE British accents are having mass solidarity demonstrations, and hearing them chant, “Black Lives Matter!” so Britishly delighted me on every level, even before looking at the other solidarity demonstrations around the world.

I don’t know where this is going, but I know I want to bend it toward justice. I want us ALL to bend it toward justice.