My own ephemeral Milwaukee

I grew up — thirty-five years ago — in the neighborhood in Milwaukee recently beset by what the press calls “riots” or “clashes”.

The neighborhood was majority-white at the time, though I would say it was “somewhat integrated”, very integrated by Milwaukee standards: Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the US (Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit have traded this dubious crown over the decades since the Great Migration began). I had white friends, black friends. Immigrant Vietnamese friends. Jewish friends and Jehovah’s Witness friends. Friends with professional parents and friends whose parents were in the working class trades. I did not appreciate at the time that this was abnormal and was only becoming more so.

We were Jewish and aspirationally bourgeois, though the kind of aspirational bourgeois that when we won $100 of groceries in a raffle, it was a big deal and a big relief. There was (is?) an Orthodox temple and small yeshiva nearby: we attended neither, but I saw my confessional compatriots walking to shul every Friday.

I walked to school; I walked to my friends’ houses, I walked down to the Blue Boy and got frozen custard on a cone with a chocolate shell. On a few occasions a mean kid followed me home. He was a black boy named Romeik. But he was the kind of mean kid that, some other weeks, we were friends. Sometimes I feared him and sometimes I took a swing at him and sometimes I played with him, and out of all the complex feelings I had for him that he was Black didn’t enter into it. And I didn’t know how strange that was.

But can I trust my memory? Do I have this right? I can’t be sure. So much has happened since, to distort what I think I recall. And I understood so little at that age. My school was integrated, but how much, really? I don’t know what the experiences of my Black fellow students or my Black neighbors were really like. How much did it matter to them that I was white? 

I had a ten-year-old’s crush on a girl named Roberta who thought the way I said the word “archaeology” was hilarious. Her hair was twisted in braids with those elastic bands with large clear plastic balls on the ends, each with an air bubble in the center. 

It was 1980.

One summer, a few years earlier, the neighborhood was transformed: Dutch Elm disease killed all the stately elm trees that lined 53rd Street and turned it into a shrouded arbor even on a bright day. The city trucks came and cut them all down, and that day I looked out after all the noise was finished and there were just a dozen stumps, broad as dinner tables to my child’s eyes. After that, my dad planted bushes on the blasted strip of lawn, and they made a wall between our yard and the sidewalk, and I remember finding that strange. We kids were always in and out of each other’s yards.

It’s all different now. The houses are just the same but the white working class has gone, mostly ceased to exist — and the white professionals have all fled. I see on Google Maps that 53rd Street School is bigger; the original part is now dwarfed by new wings. I have no idea what it’s like to attend it today. The little corner market isn’t there anymore, where my mother would stop just to run in and buy bread. Same with the small deli that sold the sugar cookies with a smiley face in frosting on them. The Blue Boy is gone.

What I experienced as a child, while I was growing up, was, to the City of Milwaukee, only an ephemeral imbrication between two regimes of racial segregation. The area was segregated and all white before, segregated and almost all Black afterward. There was a short time, between, on the cusp of this tide, when it was neither. That’s the time I remember. 

Then we left, too.

And now a man is dead, shot by the police, and the park I used to walk to is bitter with tear gas.

Sheets’ Lot

The Yard Man was here giving us an estimate for clearing the backyard. He bills hourly, but he spoke not in hours but in days.

I need to take some pictures of the backyard so it is apparent how completely overgrown it is. I would compare it to Sheets’ Lot, but none of you know what Sheets’ Lot was, except my cousins from Indiana.

Sheets was a doctor – Doctor Sheets. He owned the empty lot next to the property owned by my grandmother: a couple of acres of rural pastoral in Rush County Indiana. Sheets’ Lot was the couple acres next door. Pastoral is a wasting asset if you aren’t willing, George W Bush-like, to devote a considerable part of your energy and mental space to that most intensive human pursuits, Clearing Brush. Doctor Sheets did not do this, and Sheets’ Lot became overgrown. Then impenetrable. Then scary. And finally, it became a potential tort.

Sheets’ Lot could hurt you. At least, that’s what, as kids, we were told. Avoid Sheets’ Lot. There are snakes and hornets. Rusty nails to step on. Whiplike branches encrusted with thorns, ready to put out whatever part of you came near.

Sheets’ Lot was a terror of my young childhood that enlivened my summer visits to Grandmother’s House. If we saw a bee, it came from Sheets’ Lot. If anyone fell itchy with poison ivy, they strayed too near Sheets’ Lot. Sheets’ Lot threw off curses the way your s’mores fire threw sparks. It was our Mordor.

We would gaze at its dark loomings, from the safety of the white-painted iron lawn furniture that surrounded the six-foot-deep, brick-lined, formerly illuminated, former fish pond that was now a great pool of algiferous drowning bait, the obvious child-killing danger among us, but which nobody thought about that way because it was on the lawful side of the border with Sheets’ Lot and it had always been there while we played around it.

Then I got too old for extended summer visits to Grandma’s House. I went off to college. I forgot all about Sheets’ Lot and the seam of contrast it represented, between the pastoral Us and the feral It.

The next time I was down at the house, my uncle, who had since inherited the house, had bought the lot from Sheets and cleared it with his back and his hands. It was now tidily returned to the pastoral: no hornets, snakes, nails, poison ivy, or thorns. The disused fish pond had been drained and bricked up. Neither ever claimed a victim.

Now I have my own Sheets’ Lot, and it’s not a metaphor but a huge pain in the ass that I’m paying a dude a bunch of money to cut down.

Suffer not the list-makers

Maybe this is worth stating again. The “FBI terrorist watch list” and the “no-fly list” are ad-hoc aggregations of prejudice and random error with no rules and no oversight. They are not fit for any public policy purpose. (They are not even fit for their declared purposes.)

The line “terrorists should not be allowed to buy guns” implies that the FBI terror watch list is actually a “list of terrorists.” Other than people actually convicted of terrorism, the government maintains no such thing, and indeed cannot. Barring precrime, such a thing cannot exist. If this is your line on the gun debate, you’re plumping for a racist farrago and a huge expansion of ideological surveillance and racial profiling.

And if this, what else will these lists be used for? The Republican nominee is a guy who wants to put big red Xs on the doors of every Muslim. And the Democratic nominee is not far behind in her willingness to pander to the “radical Islam” discourse.

After all, what’s being argued-for here is the expansion of the use of a watch list from one domain into another. So you can’t say it won’t happen, when that’s what you’re already advocating.

And as for the mental-health list: I think many people reading this have taken an antidepressant (or a mood stabilizer, or an antipsychotic, for its labelled purpose or as an antidepressant adjuvant) at one time or another, or gotten a fancy number-coded Diagnosis from a psychiatrist, or even been hospitalized. You know you’re liable to go on the list yourself, right? (Or your loved-ones will.)

It’s not sufficient to say you’ve not been violent, as there is no known useful definition of the “mentally ill person likely to commit violence.” The mentally ill are all capable of violence, as all people are; the greatest majority will never commit a violent act against another person, as most people won’t. (The mentally ill are, after all, just people.) Nobody knows who is going to be dangerous, and there’s no way to construct a list that won’t be used to profile /you/ six ways from Sunday.

Not to mention how utterly politicized the business of mental-health diagnosis is. Can you think of a minority that was wrongly subjected en-masse to mental-illness diagnosis in the recent past? Can you think of one that still is? I bet you can.

This is very dangerous, and it’s surprising to see avowed liberals loudly asking to see themselves and their friends put on these watch lists. You don’t want this. You really don’t.

Jacobs or Moses, the false either-or of urbanism

100th anniversary of the birth of Jane Jacobs, the saint of the new urbanism. I’m something of a dissenter. Of the two great urban-planning ideologies of the 20th century, big-block modernism and Jacobsian urbanism, the clear winner, as everyone knows, was Jacobs. Don’t destroy the organic community that already exists. Fair enough – the sociological classic ‘everything in its path’ by Kai Erikson made that imperative. Urban Renewal in the style of the war on poverty did nothing but sweep away the poor (usually Black) neighborhoods in favor of the brobdingnagian apartment block or the twisting highway interchange.

But – in practice, Jacobsian neighborhood redevelopment has been the neutron bomb to modernism’s hydrogen bomb. It has left the buildings standing, but done nothing to save the organic community; one way or another, the people that are there, have to go. Capitalism just won’t stand for them: all those nice buildings, when we could be getting higher rents? That’s the sin of letting capital lie idle. All those nice cities, when speculators could be making billions, if only the people would all disappear, melt away before the waterfall of techbraws and yuppies.

At least Le Corbusier made provision for the working class. Those fantastic floating slabs of cake, sitting in the green parks of the future – they were for the working class to have somewhere decent to live. In practice, capitalism wasn’t interested in that, either. Unite d’Habitation ended up the model for a cheap way to do social housing, and so we got Pruitt-Igoe – literally the textbook example of why modernist delirium was a disaster. Not so much because everyone has to live in a hobbit town or be miserable, but because nobody with money was willing to pay taxes for the upkeep. (If you get a chance to see the Pruitt-Igoe Myth, I recommend it.. Robert Moses was the Lex Luthor of this ideal; he was a monster, and we rightly discarded his idiom, but we didn’t do anything about what drove him, the lure of money from property redevelopment and, above all, the automobile.

So pick your nightmare. Just don’t imagine that this particular ideological sideshow of big vs little, urban vs suburban, actually settled anything or that the Revolution of Jane Jacobs did more than bolt a new facade over the same old rapacity.

May God Save the Honorable Legislature of the State of Tennessee

If you’ve read anything I’ve written about Local Issues, you probably thought, “just going by the health insurance situation alone, Tennessee is a state in crisis. Any responsible government would be meeting night and day to figure a way to fix it.”

The legislature has indeed been active, but keep in mind this is a one-party state; the Democrats no longer exist even nominally in many TN counties.

Some of the bills that have gotten press recently:

A bill to declare God our “Creator and Savior” in the text of the State Constitution. Status: withdrawn in committee.

A bill to declare the Holy Bible (version or translation not specified) the State Book of Tennessee. Status: Passed, but vetoed. The veto may be overridden, so the State will have the privilege of spending money on doomed litigation to defend a paradigmatically unconstitutional bill.

A bill to declare the Barrett .50 anti-materiel sniper rifle the “state rifle” of Tennessee. Status: Passed. We are now the first state with a state rifle (as opposed to a mere “state firearm”, because they deliberately left semantic room to declare a state pistol, machine gun, zip gun, whatever). We could have gone for Davy Crockett’s gun or Alvin York’s, but Barrett is a fairly big company here and so we are represented by a modern weapon used to take out engine blocks from a mile away, or reduce a person to a kind of vapor from the shoulders up if a round hits them in the head. Appropriate.

A bill that requires the state to sue the Federal government over the resettlement of Syrian refugees in TN without the TN legislature’s explicit consent. Dealing with refugees is a Federally delegated power, and this question seems unsurprisingly already to have been resolved in the Feds’ favor by the lower appellate courts, but the TN ledge is still fightin’ mad about an issue almost everyone else has already forgotten. Status: passed. More doomed work for the state’s lawyers.

Our version of the North Carolina “bathroom bill” that would, apparently, require teachers (perhaps the ones carrying guns, as authorized by the legislature in previous sessions) to inspect the genitals of suspect children who are using the toilet. Status: died in House committee, resurrected in Senate committee, died again. Will probably be back next session.

A bill to allow social workers, therapists, and other mental health professionals to refuse to treat patients whose “lifestyles they disapprove of” without legal consequence. Status: they’re still talking about this one.

A bill indicating the state officially disapproves of the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. Passed. That’ll stick it to ’em.

A bill that would have exempted police body-cam and dash-cam footage from all public record laws, making it inaccessible to scrutiny. Status: died in committee; will be back.

After the kerfluffle about whether fantasy sports betting is “gambling” in New York (you heard about this if you watch John Oliver), the TN ledge noticed we have a provision in our state constitution outlawing gambling too. So they rushed to pass a law declaring fantasy sports betting definitely not gambling, no how no way, not ever, so there would be no interruption in your stochastic rotisserie league fun. Status: passed.

A bill that would have altered the state Constitution to make it forever impossible for the state of Tennessee to levy an income tax, which is already politically impossible, but you can never have too many firewalls against a sane fiscal system, I guess, or too much grandstanding about taxes. Meanwhile, TN’s VAT-style sales tax, levied even on food, is the most regressive in the United States. Status: died in committee because pointless; it’s like making it unconstitutional for the Earth to start turning the other way on its axis.

A very strange bill that would have prevented the use of “road or highway” designated fees, funds, or taxes for anything to do with bicycles, without specific act of the state Legislature: in other words, the Dept. of Transportation and local governments would not be able to use “road money” for anything bike-related, like bike trails or lanes, because “road money is for cars.” Status: Failed. (If you caught that this was really about “Agenda 21”, well done. You’re up on your right-wing conspiracy theories.)

A genuinely terrible bill that would allow previously unincorporated county land that had been historically annexed by Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis, or Knoxville, to de-accession itself from those cities by majority vote of residents, thus relieving themselves of the tax burden of paying for city services and leaving huge holes in the already swiss-cheese structure of property tax collection, a structure that grossly underfunds city activities, especially the schools. Status: didn’t make it out of committee even though it was popular – the big cities still have some clout.

A not-entirely-unrelated bill that would make it illegal (??) for courts to issue consent decrees about public education funding in the state. Status: I think someone told the sponsor that this makes literally no sense.

Driving “slower than prevailing traffic” in the leftmost lane of state highways of three lanes or more is now a misdemeanor. I know, pretty annoying, right? Status: now law.

Oh, Beth Harwell, likely Gubernatorial nominee, set up some commissions to study some issues. Health care, for example. This the commission will surely do, and write a report. I’ve already forgotten this commission exists.

There’s also a commission on sexual harassment, because it turned out the leader of the One True Party, Rep. Jeremy Durham, was a terrible serial sexual harasser. I’ve already forgotten this commission exists, just like the press has quickly forgotten Rep Durham’s disgrace.

Because of the provocative outrages of student-organized Sex Week at the University of TN, in which students spoke openly, in public, about abortion and sexual consent, without even being prior-restrained by the university administration, as they clearly should have been; and because of a nonbinding suggestion by the University’s Office of Diversity that students might want to use language inclusive of transgender people, the pearl-clutching ledge decided to punish the University’s loucheness by completely defunding the Office of Diversity, the money instead to be used to print “in God we trust” stickers to be affixed to cop cars (I am not making this up). Of course, this kind of line-item meddling in the University’s budget explicitly violates the terms of the University’s accreditation, but no matter. Who needs the University of Tennessee to be accredited? Status: died, but came back from the dead and looks set to pass – there were protests in town and on campus today.

A bill to prevent the University of TN from raising tuition without the ledge’s approval, even as the state continues to cut their budget. It would cripple the university and create what they call a condition of “financial exigency,” allowing the revocation of tenure. Status: failed. Narrowly.

A bill allowing open-carry of firearms without a permit or training. Died in committee. Will be back until it finally passes.

A bill allowing permit-holders to concealed-carry on public college and university campuses. Status: now law. So you don’t have to take that lefty bias from your profs anymore. Just wave that pocket-pistol around a little and see if your grade doesn’t improve.

A bill mandating mothers who give birth to “drug-addicted babies” be charged with felony fetal assault. Status: sunsetted in committee. Will be back.

Other bills killed: decriminalizing pot, allowing the direct election of the US President, making it a crime to leave a gun out where a child under 13 might find and handle it, and raising the gas tax a few cents to pay for the repair of our utterly destroyed roads.

Oh, we did get a “ban the box” bill, so that’s good.

There was also a secret bill. Gov. Haslam got a bill through authorizing $30 million be spent on…something. We still have open records laws; how this is justified… but anyway, we’re getting a $30 million Thing that nobody knows what it is. I hope it’s nice.

This is all from “the most conservative state legislature in the country” – though not the most conservative Republican governor, so it’s not the worst legislative program in the fifty states. Gov. Haslam sometimes leans a little on the ultra-ultra-right-wing supernuts, because he’s worried they’ll distract from his overall agenda of privatizing services and giving the contracts to his friends. (His current multi-year policy centerpiece is the privatization of all State jobs in physical plant, maintenance, cleaning, driving, etc. – including all such jobs in the University system.)

You’ll note that despite the Republicans having a super-majority in both houses, and the Governorship, they don’t actually get all of this high-profile bullshit through. So much of it is obviously unconstitutional, illegal, unimplementable, or so nonsensical that nobody knows what the bills even mean. I am cheered only by the legislature’s relative incompetence. Of course, most of this stuff isn’t designed to pass, it’s designed to get press, as red meat for the base. And this state is all base.

Oh, how is our budget? Robust. No problems there. We have a multi-hundred-million-dollar surplus. They could actually do something with the money. It was suggested at first the state buy a new fish hatchery, but in the end they just banked it. Clearly the state has no other pressing needs. (Except for the secret Thing.)

(Please note that this sad situation is never going to change. The One Party is going to get to redistrict in 2020, just as they did in 2010, creating the supermajority, so the next opportunity to elect a state government with an opposition party that the Republicans will even have to consult on legislation will be 2032 at the earliest.)

Cooking with the Pols

Following on the dream I once had in which George W Bush was not a politician but had a funny Tex-Mex cooking show, I realized that, for whatever reason, it’s easy to slot politicians into food shows. Especially if they’re politicians I don’t like.

Food shows which I am convinced would really work, and not just ironically:

George W Bush gets a Tex-Mex show where everything he makes is about hot sauce and high-flame grilling.

Hillary Clinton runs a Michelin three-diamond restaurant in France, but not as chef – as owner. I see her firing lots of cooks and busting on sellers in the Saxe-Breteuil market.

Obama is a ruthless food critic. He can drop one review from high above and destroy an incipient new genre of restaurant. (“These new Appalachian-style ramen bars are misconceived from the ground up…”)

Bernie Sanders is the co-host, with Michael Pollan, of The New Sustainable Frugal Gourmet. He and Pollan spend as much time in the fields worrying about conditions for farmers and chickens as they do cooking a moroccan-inflected lentil bolognese.

Trump, with Gary Null, does late-night infomercials about virility-enhancing dietary supplements and the Quantum Diamond Food Wand (‘made with real diamond chips’).

John Kerry is the Brahmin Pepperpot: Exploring New England Cuisines, next on PBS.

Cruz is harder, but I think I see him in a new Victory Garden, raving about aphids on his prizewinning vegetable marrows.

John Kasich is a competitive eater with records in Hot Dogs, Blueberry Pie, and Hoagies.

Sarah Palin is just a one-for-one trade with Rachel Ray. Don’t forget the garbage bowl.

“Fried Force One: Bill Clinton and Diamond Joe Biden Tour America’s Burger Griddles, BBQ Pits, Crab Shacks, and Titty Bars.” On late, after the watershed.

Enter the Donald

It’s an understandable reaction. You take something that is supposed to be the epitome of the people’s deliberation – our republic, representative democracy – and you take that deliberative moment away from the people, you allow the republic to be captured by monied powers, and the process of choosing representatives becomes manifestly fake. So people treat it like it’s fake, without seriousness, without deliberation. They know it’s a lie.

So, sure, if a candidate also treats it unseriously, like he too is in on the joke, like it’s just a reality show, the political version of the Kardashians or Ice Road Truckers — why wouldn’t he be popular?

It’s insulting to be told you have to be responsible and serious, because this is the moment where you have power over your own future, but really you don’t, really it’s a swindle, a ripoff, and an obvious one — it’s even more insulting that they think you’ll believe the con. So if the candidate can perform your anger, can even appear to bear your anger into the heart of the swindle itself — that’s even better.

It’s the most cynical act in the world, but the conditions for that cynicism have been a generation in the making. We’ve all had to eat shit for a long time. The Donald sows what we have already reaped.

How Three Years in the Obamacare Hole Finally Broke Me

Each year I’ve been on Obamacare – this would be my third year – the Exchange policies have gotten worse and more expensive. Now I’m at the breaking point.

I don’t have insurance with work, so I have to go to the Exchange. (There is no such thing any longer as a private individual policy not negotiated through the Exchange during annual open enrollment, which ends tomorrow.) Exchange policies have high sticker prices: hundreds of dollars a month. The way it’s supposed to work is, up to about four times the household income poverty line, you get a generous subsidy from the government to offset the premium. Except I don’t. I’m in The Hole. I don’t get a subsidy at all.

The way the law was written, below 133% of poverty, instead of buying from the Exchange, everyone is supposed to go into Medicaid, the state health insurance option which works like health care does in every rational country. I’m below 133% of poverty – in fact I’m below 100% of poverty – so rather than buying a policy at all, I’m supposed to just get Medicaid and everything is free (well, hah, not really, but it’s coverage, of a sort, which I would not have to pay to have).

Medicaid is 50 individual state programs, not one federal program – the feds assist with block grants, but these are not enough by themselves, so the state has to kick in a lot of money. Tennessee has not put in enough. Tennessee has an insane tax structure – no income tax, only sales tax; it doesn’t bring in enough during good years, and the tax base plummets in bad years. The last time TN actually tried to make a go of Medicaid on the basis of its tax revenue, it blew up the budget. TN, like most states, is forbidden by the state constitution from running any deficit, so the Medicaid program was closed. It has remained closed to new enrollees without dependent children (you can’t exclude people with dependent children by federal law) since 2002. Thirteen years.

The new Federal money from the Obamacare “medicaid expansion” would have opened this up (at least partly, though I’m still not clear that it would have been enough money to cover every eligible adult up to 133% of the federal poverty line). I could have gotten in medicaid. But after the Supreme Court ruled that a state could withdraw from the Medicaid part of the Obamacare mandate, most states with Republican leadership did just that. Tennessee’s Medicaid is still closed.

So that puts me back in the Exchange, but because the Exchange subsidies were written under the assumption that everyone with incomes too low for Exchange policies would now be covered by expanded Medicaid, there is no provision for subsidies for people with incomes that low. So none are available. To get an Obamacare policy, I have to pay full sticker price.

If you know what a COBRA policy is, that means I have to buy what is essentially a COBRA policy. They’re not actually called COBRA and they don’t work under COBRA portability rules, but they cost like COBRA, because COBRA is “your insurance from your job, only now you also have to pay the part of the premium your employer was paying.”

The last two years I’ve been able to find policies I could actually pay for, even if they were pretty bad policies. They had high deductibles and high premiums, but not such high premiums that I couldn’t pay them, and the deductibles were low enough not to bankrupt me if I needed surgery, as, it turned out, I did. (That gall bladder isn’t going to be troubling me anymore.) They also covered my psychiatric drugs at affordable copays.

Well, Blue Cross, which administeres the large majority of Exchange policies in TN, about six months ago announced they were going broke on them. The thing about Exchange policies is that if you can pay you can have a policy – the insurance company not allowed to exclude or underwrite you just because you’re terribly ill and therefore expensive. They take everyone. The idea that having so many new people, most healthy, using Exchange policies would offset the cost of not being able to exclude and underwrite policies for the ill, has not turned out to be true. Not at all. So Blue Cross said they had to raise the prices by at least 50% on most policies or they would drop them all and leave the state, which would destroy the TN Exchange. (This is happening all over the country). The state regulator said they could. They didn’t have much choice – if they’d said no, a lot of adults with minors would have been thrown on Medicaid and the state absolutely cannot afford it.

So the premiums this year have just exploded. The absolute cheapest Bronze plan I’m eligible for is about $250 a month. This is literally the cheapest plan available to me. It covers effectively nothing – no coverage kicks in until I satisfy the deductible, which is $6,500: that just happens to be the Federal Obamacare upper limit on out-of-pocket expenses for a single nonsmoking adult. It doesn’t even pay for prescriptions until the $6500 is passed. After that it pays, but unless I get cancer or get hit by an uninsured motorist, I’m not using that.

I get to pay $250/month for a catastrophic plan that otherwise pays for nothing. The whole point of catastrophic plans is they’re supposed to be cheap – but this is not cheap. This one costs three thousand dollars a year just to have, and, if I get sick, another sixty-five hundred before I see a plugged nickel from Blue Cross.

If I want one that actually covers anything below the federal max out-of-pocket legal limit, well, those start in the mid-three-hundreds. Out of the question.

I might – might – be able to pay for the cheapest plan, even though then I have to find a way to pay for every doctor’s visit or prescription drug at retail out-of-pocket rates — fortunately all the drugs I take are generics and are relatively inexpensive (on the order of $150/year per drug, which in the US counts as cheap).

But why? Why should I do this? I go bankrupt if I get sick whether I have this plan or not.

And the other plans are just not going to happen. No way.

Obamacare has a penalty if you don’t have insurance – $695, or 2.5% of your yearly income up to the national average bronze-level annual premium, whichever is greater – but they have kindly waived it in the cases of people like me. If the premium is more than 8.5% of your annual income, you can waive the requirement to have insurance; similarly, if you live in a state that did not expand Medicaid and you fall in the Hole. I qualify on both counts. No penalty for me.

But that still leaves me uninsured.

Well, I’m going to find out what that’s like nowadays, because I don’t have any alternative.

Sundays with Skokie

Jewish Sunday school was traumatic. For a lot of reasons, many personal. I was forced to go by my father after an upbringing of religious indifference, I had no friends there, the kids were cruel, and the teachers rather dim. I’ve had a grudge against it, in my memory, ever since.

Because I intellectualize everything, one way I express that grudge (to myself) is to pick at the ideological commitments of that Sunday school curriculum. To say the Holocaust was an important part of it does not express it. It’s not that we dwelled on the piles of bodies, though at points we did – but as a political problem, it was omnipresent. Other than the weeks we spent memorizing ancient Hebrew prayers – this was a confirmation class, so it was assumed that if you’d wanted to learn Hebrew you’d have already done so pre- bar/bat-mitzvah – it was all Jewish history, and all that was through the lens of the Shoah. Pre-Holocaust history was the crescendo leading up to the Holocaust; everything else was in one way or another about Israel, as the resolution.

I don’t believe in anything about that narrative, but these days I interrogate my Sunday school less to expose that narrative’s historical deficiencies than to marvel at what a fractal the thing was. Every little piece of the curriculum reflected the whole of that sweep in miniature.

The organizing slogan was “never again”, but given that it’s happened about nineteen times “again” and nothing about this narrative changes, indeed nothing at all changes, I’m curious about why such an obviously universal slogan, a slogan that dovetails so beautifully with Vonnegut’s plainspoken “no more massacres”, ends up being uttered in such a particularized and sightless way. Liberal American Judaism seems fully capable of intoning “never again” without the slightest irony from atop a pile of massacred bodies. As long as – I may as well say it – they’re not Jews.

Somehow it never became explicit, or explicit in the right way, that “never again” didn’t mean just to us. That, in fact, it wouldn’t be us next time. It would be someone else, and it would be the duty imposed on us by passing through the Holocaust to stand up with them.

There was of course that tendency in Holocaust studies, partly owing to Blanchot but being a terrible misunderstanding of him, which said that the Holocaust was a radical historical singular, absolutely unique. Which implies – unrepeatable. Because of its industrial character, because of the special, irreducible nature of Jew-hatred, because, ultimately, of the fearful body count – the Holocaust was not like other holocausts and should not be compared. There will only ever be the one.

Insisting on the absolute historical uniqueness of the Holocaust does make it easier to condone what Israel does in Jewry’s name today. After all, that’s not a Holocaust – it can’t be, we know that to be impossible. I don’t like claims that certain historical nightmares are unique beyond comparison for just this reason. It puts them beyond use as a lesson. There is that shudder at the word “use”, as if six million tortured ghosts were put to work turning the capstan of historiography, but I still don’t see how you can deny the fungibility of the Holocaust without, paradoxically, ensuring its repeatability.

One day they showed us a video of the TV movie “Skokie” (1981), a dramatization of the 1979 Nazi march through the heavily Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie, IL. Skokie had refused permission for the march; the ACLU sued on the Nazis’ behalf and won.

The movie is a fascinating piece of liberal propaganda and I think I’ve been haunted by it since, because, like all good propaganda, it makes clear what the proper resolution is; but it does not fail to present – at least its own version – of the essential conflict. I think at the time I swallowed whole the proper resolution – something like, “American rights ask us to bear difficult things, but, in the end, yay free speech!” But something about the film has always made me uneasy.

These days, I can put the movie in more theoretical terms: the ostensible lesson is to insist on the universality and reciprocity of abstract rights, because thereby we are all saved, equally. I think the movie betrays this claim, though – and I think it betrays this claim because the claim is betrayed by its nature; there is something essential about the ideal of abstract reciprocal rights that is paradoxical, in a bad way.

The movie rightly places the Holocaust at the center of the drama. The confrontation is intra-Jewish: on the one hand, Skokie’s Holocaust survivors (who would have still been relatively young and numerous, only 34 years after the event; my next door neighbor growing up was a survivor, so my first association with the term is “that guy next door who mows his lawn and has a number on his arm”, not “those old people, nearly all dead, with their stories of the distant past.”) are opposed to the march, indeed opposed to permitting the existence of out-and-out Nazis, because they experienced the rise of Hitler themselves. Their opponents are liberal Jewish town pols and Jewish ACLU lawyers, who patiently explain that the rights that protect the Nazis also protect the Jews; a universal right must be extended to everyone, no matter how odious, or it is not in fact a right in the first place; pace Niemoller, if we now permit the silencing of the Nazis, can we expect any will stand up for us, if the time ever comes?

That’s an appealing story, one that, as Americans, we’ve imbibed all our lives, almost with the tap water. Yet the fact that I can summarize the survivors’ case in a handful of words (they saw Hitler), while the liberal case requires more than sixty, should tell you something: there is a certain ideological contortion going on.

To begin with, the equivalence, between the Jews and the Nazis, as two embattled minorities, is really an extraordinary one. We must tolerate the Nazis, who want nothing more in this life than to kill us, because one day we might need the protection of that very right that they now avail themselves of: in other words, as these Nazis now are, so might we one day be. Actually, that’s not an equivalence only: it’s an affective identification. The correct attitude toward these Nazis is not to fear them, it is to pity them – while one should fear that which the Nazis also fear, the vast, trackless, potent expanse of – simultaneously deracinated and goyishe – America.

In America, it turns out, a safe Nazi is a safe Jew. The survivors do not understand this. They are chained to the past. They see only Nazis, who killed them once, and whom they want to kill. They represent the particularity of the horror of the Jewish experience. The liberal Jews and the ACLU lawyers represent the universal reply. “Skokie” hopes you will chose the universal over the particular, however difficult that may feel.

Yet there is something unsatisfying about the terms of this universal/particular pairing. In fact, I think it’s backwards.

For “a safe Nazi is a safe Jew” to have the appeal “Skokie” says it does, it must be the case that these Nazis are not dangerous, or the survivors would simply be right. Even though as Nazis their whole existence is predicated on killing Jews. These Nazis are neutralized; America’s Nazis are domesticated. It is all right to allow the majesty of Constitutional right to drape these Nazis, to displace the necessary violence of self-protection, because there aren’t really any Nazis at all: there is only this pitiable lot, while the vast, terrifying expanse of America within which the Jew is still an alien, is on our side. It will never permit actual Nazis, only these shambling reminders. In America, the Jew has somehow won – as long as this America persists, the Jews are in charge of their own destiny.

In other words, the liberal Jews rely on one of the necessary but unstated paradoxes of liberal democracy: we can be confident that liberal democracy will not permit the rise of a movement that will abolish the protections of abstract civil rights, even though how to prevent this is impossible to specify from within the principles of liberalism. Liberal democracy is evenhandedly protective of the rights of all within it, yet there will come a time when it will have to act against a specific political tendency within itself and destroy it, to save itself. This is the vital moment of illiberalism within liberal democracy. Every political persuasion is treated with all the unjudging serenity of mere political procedure – every tendency is permitted everything any other is permitted, no matter what it actually is. There is no legal or constitutional principle that specifies when liberalism must step outside the framework of equal protection and put its foot down. “Straying into violence or criminality” isn’t it. It is quite possible, after all, for an undemocratic movement to attain power while obeying all liberal democratic rules regarding violence and criminality, as long as enough people approve of it. It is then in a position to abolish the whole thing. Yet this does not happen.

Except – it manifestly does happen. Of course it does. The unspecifiable moment when liberalism translates itself from a procedure to an ethos and suppresses internal, existential threats to itself, which is to say, to its universal extension of rights and protections to all citizens, never arrives. Liberal democracies are subverted and abolished, as Germany was, and even when this does not happen wholesale, they permit within themselves every imaginable mode of particularized exploitation, degradation, and oppression. It’s how liberal democratic America has been at the same time constitutively white supremacist America.

The provision of liberal abstract rights in fact guarantees nothing. And this is obvious. All you have to have is the memory of a Holocaust survivor. All you have to do is drive from Skokie to the Chicago south side.

Realizing this, what is the real content of what the liberal Jews and the ACLU lawyers say to the survivors? It’s not “we have rights.” It can only be this: “It can’t happen here.” The one slogan that every Jew is taught from birth not to trust. If it does not rest upon liberal abstract rights, it can only be mere historical triumphalism, easily reversed: Here, we won. America likes us. We can get in all the clubs and schools now. We’re in no danger.

I’m less interested in how foolish this claim is on its face, than in how a movie like “Skokie” makes it possible for the American children of Holocaust survivors to hear it and believe it. Because once you scrape off the ideological trappings, it’s completely threadbare. It’s completely particular. Here, now, we Jews are okay. Others are not okay, but we are okay. Just keep playing along.

In this way, the reliance on the polite fiction – among the privileged – of universal liberal rights, becomes a striking defense of the status quo. It is the alchemical transmutation of mere Jewish self-regard into a political philosophy of complacency. We – we Jews, triumphant in America – let the Nazis march; from this we know that the promise of American universalism is untrammeled. That is the proof. (Don’t get off the Dan Ryan on the South Side.)

If the liberals are particularity in disguise, it’s the survivors, who’d been portrayed as (understandably) tribal, clenched to history, who make the properly universal claim: Nazis are everywhere dangerous; Nazis must everywhere be fought and destroyed. The Danny Kaye character in “Skokie” – Kaye uses his trademark evocation of manic hysteria to excellent effect – was the only sane one. The survivors are not interested in even-handed proceduralism; they know what Naziism is, and they know there is no way to make peace with it.

“Skokie” is topsy-turvy. “Skokie” is liberal propaganda. Yet “Skokie” cannot abolish the universal claim hiding in the smokescreen of liberal proceduralism. I could never get past that fear that it left me with – that, in pointing at the pathetic false Nazis, its gesture of genuine terror past them and towards the immense fields of American possibility, was dead right all along. America is terrifying.

The universal lesson of the specificity of the Holocaust is always clear: what has happened to us, is what can happen. As the philosophers say, actuality is the best proof of possibility. Nothing prevents it from happening here. Because it already has, and still is.

The assault on the American research university: a report from the front

The horrible, terrible, no good, very bad local story of the moment is that the University of Tennessee is about to get clobbered by the State Legislature, because the U’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion had a web page on how to keep your generic holiday party from turning into a ‘christmas party in disguise’. The page was of course nonbinding advice, not biding policy.

Earlier this year the same Office of Diversity and Inclusion offered a web page detailing various ways to use inclusive language in student writing, including replacing gendered pronouns with ‘she/he’, epicene ‘they’ or neo-pronouns like ‘xe’, as well as advice on being inclusive of racial and religious minorities, gays, and – particularly repellant to Christianist bigots – trans people.

The two ‘incidents’ have caused an explosion of rage on the Tennessee far right – that it mandates respect for ‘deviancy’, that it strikes against free expression of Xmas, etc. The Republicans are demanding the Office of Diversity at the flagship Knoxville campus be defunded ($250k) and everyone who works there be fired. They also want all “diversity funding” (a few million, systemwide) be terminated and banned legislatively so it can never be reinstated; this includes money for faculty retention and student recruitment. They want that money redirected to a right-wing “Free Speech” center to make sure all far-right Christianists on campus enjoy a safe space. And, for good measure, they want the Chancellor’s head. If this isn’t done, they are threatening to crush the University of Tennessee system.

Now, I don’t think much of Jimmy Cheek, but he is in the right, and the whole nasty mess is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and vile to everyone not a right-wing white American fundamentalist.

The faculty Senate met in emergency session and voted support for Cheek – nobody cares about them. And the student body have gone out in support of Cheek and the Office of Diversity. Nobody cares what they say either. Especially not after those Atlantic Magazine hit pieces on fragile, neurotic women and minority students.

Cheek, after an initial, though quiet, defense of diversity, is now – much more in character for him – lining up subordinates to toss under the campus bus, including the vice chancellor in whose portfolio is the Diversity Office. Bad enough – but it’s not going to work this time. I think he’s going to lose his job, and the U of TN will get ‘new leadership.’ Want to bet it will be a political sinecure for a right-wing ideologue or donor, and that person won’t have anything resembling ability, experience, or the traditional doctorate?

At the same time, the Governor¹ ostensibly has ‘drive to 55‘ campaign – get 55% of TN citizens a post-secondary degree by 2525. This is meant to dovetail with the University’s long-term capital campaign and faculty recruitment effort, to get the Univ. of TN into the top 25 of American research schools.

Yeah, right. Almost every year the University’s funding is cut and every year the legislature attacks scholarship and minority recruitment and even the physical plant from every angle it can think of.² If you can leave the University of TN, you do. If you can get a scholarship out of state, you do. And it becomes more and more a backwater, unable to fulfill any of its missions.

Meanwhile, the school is now so expensive, many students can’t afford to eat.

It’s a joke, and stomach-turning, and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it. Just a microcosm of US politics at this moment in time.

¹ Bill Haslam, America’s Richest Public Servant™, whose agenda in office is to give away state assets away to his rich pals, with all the other, boring stuff delegated to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the right-wing state-legislative equivalent of the Tasmanian Devil.

² One of Haslam’s proposed giveaways is to fire all the physical plant, grounds, cleaning, and maintenance personnel from the entire Tennessee state government and replace them with private subcontractors. Thousands of people would lose their state government jobs and benefits – this includes the workers in the University system. There’s a provision to allow the UT system to opt out of the privatization, which Cheek was thought to favor – if they get someone new, the University privatization will surely happen, just as Bill and Ron want it to.

%d bloggers like this: