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
2021

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
2020

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.

News: States During the Coronavirus

I haven’t mentioned that the past few months have been all about obsessively reading the news. Having a highly contagious global pandemic break out, one so severe that China closed internal borders and quarantined millions of people during its early peak, is A BIG DEAL – it’s a worldwide concern that everyone sensible wants to know something about.

Once it reached my country (& my coast!), and the voluntary precautions kicked in, my news-reading increased further. And once the MANDATORY precautions took effect, I could devote time I used to spend commuting, enjoying the outdoors, or running errands ENTIRELY to news reading.

Which isn’t entirely healthy: no one really wants to see a global death count on the front page of their device the moment their alarms go off. But that appears to be what it takes to get some people to take this seriously. (Though I suspect the people who aren’t taking it seriously DO NOT READ, which would explain many things.)

With infection counts and deaths rising, and routine business activities temporarily halted, the economy has been upended, and states – which rely on business running for revenue – have been struggling. And then things got weird, because a bunch of senators starting talking about having US States go bankrupt. Which… is not a thing US States DO. Also, I couldn’t see the point. I was missing something.

This article in the Atlantic explains what I was missing:

The gist: States would give up their sovereignty over their finances if they declared bankruptcy, and hand control over to the current federal legislators, who are majority Republican in the Senate; the wealthy blue states could come under the control of senators from the least wealthy red states, and have their larger budgets/populations forced to match red state priorities.

Ohhhhhhhhhh! NOW it makes sense! It is not at all democratic, and that is the way red state senators (many of whom are funded by business interests beyond their own borders, and remain in power through gerrymandering and voter suppression) prefer things. Which is terrible, but never surprising.

This is a good, clear read.

Waking up to… advice about not injecting disinfectants?

My alarm went off; I picked up my phone, and… failed to understand what it was trying to tell me. What it was trying to tell me didn’t have to be said.

Lyson warned me not to inject disinfectants into my body.

We must be clear that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route).
– a spokesperson for Reckitt Benckiser, the United Kingdom-based owner of Lysol (NBC news link)

Well, right. But… why would I need to be TOLD this?

And then I read the Guardian article (above), and received a terrible reminder that someone who doesn’t know what disinfectant does to living things routinely proposes BAD, BAD, ignorant actions (such as drinking poison) in news conferences where mass fatalities are played down and conspiracy theories are celebrated, and that these unfortunate spectacles should never, ever, ever be carried live on television.