5 articles Articles posted in culture

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.

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.. http://www.pruitt-igoe.com/). 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.

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.

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 anyone 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.

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 Use of Lupita Nyong’o as Hollywood Success Story

I like Lupita Nyong’o. Everyone does, right? She’s great.

This is not about her.

It’s about what you might call the white liberal construction of Lupita Nyong’o.

In this construction, Lupita Nyong’o was an attractive nobody who was from “Africa” in some dim sense — probably from some village. That’s what they have in Africa, right? Villages? And also somehow from Mexico a little, too. They have slums there, probably. Whatever — she might as well have been from the poor part of the Moon.

Then she somehow got “discovered”. That’s what happens to beautiful women from faraway villages and/or slums who get famous, right? They get “discovered”? “Plucked from Obscurity”, as the Daily Beast put it.

So she’s from some kind of remote, romantic favela — one has the mental image of her standing alone, barefoot, in a dirty Mexican street, or in a baked dusty Saharan hardpan, when suddenly the disembodied camera-lens of white approval lands on her. And the rest is history.

The real story is more prosaic and more rich. Lupita Nyong’o’s background is one of enviable privilege. Her father is a political scientist with a University of Chicago PhD, one of the most important people in the Orange Democratic Movement — the ruling party of Kenya — and a high minister in the current Kenyan government; at a rough estimate he earns thirty thousand times as much money as the average Kenyan. Having him as a dad would be like being John Kerry’s kid. Lupita grew up in Mexico, New York, and Nairobi, and speaks four languages. She went to Hampshire College and Yale Drama and did PA work in Hollywood. Her life trajectory is full of the kind of experience that money very definitely can buy.

She’s obviously brilliant and beautiful and a great actress with a huge career ahead of her, and that’s all to her credit. She wasn’t “plucked from obscurity”, she went to a really famous, elite drama school and then went to Hollywood and worked her way up. That she comes from money and influence and has a gold-plated acting education separates her not at all from the rest of the Hollywood nomenklatura.

What’s interesting to me is that apparently white liberals simply can’t relate to her unless she had a ‘slumdog’ upbringing, with her life a redemptive story that flatters contemporary whiteness. We’re not racist anymore! We’re not classist anymore! You can be anyone from anywhere — talent, beauty, and moxie are all you need.

But remember, the slumdog kids got tossed back where they came from. The camera loved them and audiences did too, but they were still disposable. Alterity always is. White Hollywood has always seen non-white Others as essentially interchangeable. 

Lupita Nyong’o’s staying power in Hollywood isn’t guaranteed by her tremendous talent, or her beauty or moxie. In Hollywood, being a talented, beautiful actor with moxie who is also a dark-skinned outsider gets you stuffed back in the bag when they no longer need you around to flatter themselves that they once gave you a job or an award. Lupita will be able to continue because she’s not really an outsider — or, she is one only partly. The money, the privileged upbringing, the elite education — that’s the kind of currency it’s still essentially impossible to get along without.

But the prominent role of privilege in her story is a secret that white liberals keep from themselves. We need to; it helps us feel good about ourselves for feeling good about her. To us, Lupita was from nowhere and nothing, and used her past as a nobody to inform her blazing performance as Patsey the slave, the brutal honesty of which surely makes redneck racists feel abashed, and makes white liberals feel proud. We enjoy the daring of our approval of Lupita, and the bravery of our disapproval of chattel slavery.

White Hollywood is now ready to face that past, the past of slavery and vile racism, and put it behind us. White Hollywood feels good about facing that past, as past. It wants you to watch the Oscars, and feel good about it, too, as a white liberal in flyover country. Hurrah for us, the white liberals! …What? Of course it’s all in the past — look at Lupita! She came from Black-nowhere and we let her be a star.

Obama’s president and Lupita has an Oscar — things are great.

Fruitvale Station? Never heard of it.

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