Saturday morning with a new edition of the LRB, a pot of coffee and no dog-walking duties: pure comfort.
My work for the week is complete, my folders organised for a couple of hours’ work on Monday, so that I am ready for teaching on Tuesday. I can forget work for two days. Amanda is meeting a friend to walk Tia, so I have settled in my office chair, logged in to the Naxos muxic library with my Isle of Wight Library card, and have enjoyed an hour and a half of reading.
As often happens, although nothing leapt out at me from the cover of the current edition of the review, every article I’ve read so far has been engaging. The opener is a review of Bob Woodward’s recent book on the chaos of Trump’s presidency, Fear: Trump in the Whitehouse. It is difficult to know what there is to be said about Trump’s reign of confusion and hatred that has not already become cliché. Even Woodward’s book has been so widely reviewed, trumpeted and quoted in the month since its publication that I feel I have already read it. David Runciman, in reviewing it, picks on the idea of office politics; the bickering of the mundanely selfish, and observes the extent to which the current American administration has demeaned the role of government in the United States.
Sure…all workplaces contain their share of plots and vendettas, backstabbers and arse-lickers, people on the way up and all the ones they’ve trampled on to get there. But actual politics is about more than that: the power it brings extends well beyond the immediate working environment…
Except, he concludes, in the reign of the great orange pastiche, it doesn’t. Trump does not understand the forces he is supposed to participate in and does not care. His only tools of government are extemporised pronouncement, self-acclamation and hiring-and-firing. He has reduced government to something less, but we are all, Runciman included, struggling to find the correct image to explain the mess.
I had a strong sense that Trump reminded me of someone I had seen regularly on TV, but it wasn’t TV’s Donald Trump. Then I got it. The working environment this White House brings to mind is a reality show that displays a deeper level of truth by being entirely unreal. Woodward’s book reads more than anything like a mockumentary, and the person Trump most resembles is David Brent from The Office. He has the grating inadequacy, the knee-jerk nastiness, the comical self-delusion. But he also has something of the pathos.
The letters pages of the LRB are a slow-burn enthusiasm. I used to skip them, feeling that any pleasure they offered was of the voyeuristic, petty sort experienced by venturing below the line on online news websites. However, they are curated by the editors and are, as a result, always relevant to a regular reader of the publication.
That is not to say that a taste for pettiness goes long unrewarded. This issue, there is a further development – a reply to a reply – in the delightful feud between Rhodri Lewis, author of Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, and Michael Dobson, who wrote an eviscerating review of that book in the LRB of September 13th. The editors of the paper are wise; they let these academic spats blossom for just long enough for both sides to get a few digs in and then draw a veil over them, so I suspect Dobson’s current letter will be the final say. He has used it well. Taste the vinegar:
Lewis closes by observing that ‘on two or perhaps three occasions I have been seated in close proximity to Dobson at the theatre,’ and he is generous enough to speculate that my apparent obliviousness of his presence may have been feigned out of politeness. I am sorry to have to report that my obliviousness was merely genuine. However, now that I have read Lewis’s letter and his book and seen his image on a dust jacket, it will be possible for me to ignore him in future every bit as politely as he could wish.
Or, to put it another way: “That’s you, that is.”
Pleasurable as this is, there are several serious letters in this issue that extend the topics of recent articles without descending into vitriol, erudite as that vitriol is. In particular, I was interested in the letter from Steve Balogh about the article Neanderthals, Denisovans and Modern Humans, by Steven Mithen from 13th September, which reviewed Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the new science of the human past, by David Reich. The original review had made an impact on me because of the force with which it made the case that racial distinctions between humans are scientifically meaningless, and the stress that modern genetic researchers are laying on this argument. Biology has a dark history of -sometimes deliberate; sometimes incidental- racist interpretation. Now, even well-intentioned work such as Reich’s is laid open to examination in moral and social, as well as scientific lights:
Earlier this year, Buzzfeed published an open letter signed by 67 scientists and scholars in the social sciences, law and humanities about Reich’s treatment of race…The signatories recognise ‘the existence of geographically based genetic variations in our species’, but argue that ‘such variation is not consistent with biological definitions of race.’ Their position is not that human populations ‘have no biological attributes in common’, but that ‘the meaning and significance of the groups is produced through social interventions.’
The article left me with a view of a much more varied and sunny history of human and proto-human interraction, in which the boundaries of species definition are less sharp than we might imagine: an analogue to the answers we all wish racial absolutists would learn about racial definitions. However, this, according to Balogh, might be a misinterpretation. I quote his letter in full:
Steven Mithen steps carefully around the issue of the fecundity of the offspring produced by couplings between ancestral hominin species (LRB, 13 September). The initial sequencing of Neanderthal DNA was of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed only from mother to daughter. It proved to be entirely distinct from that of Homo sapiens: there is today no one on earth whose mitochondria comes from a female Neanderthal ancestor. This means that interbreeding produced fertile offspring only through mating between Neanderthal males and Sapiens females. Subsequent analysis of autosomal DNA showed that the Neanderthal Y chromosome went extinct as well. This means that of the hybrids, only the females were fertile.
The implications are clear: relations between the two populations must have been difficult.
Nevertheless, the developments in DNA archeology are rapid and fascinating. It is an area of study with which I want to keep up. We are a long way from truly understanding what it is to be human, and this new technology has a lot to teach us and a potential for misuse of which we need to beware.
It’s all about race, and its underlying impulse, hierarchicalism. All the mess of Trump’s misrule, and the broader darkness of capitalist inequality, come back to the separation of humanity into groups enjoying legitimacy and dominance and others excluded from that illusory social fortress. Two very different articles highlight this. The first is an account by Thomas Laqueur of a tour of Montgomery, Alabama, focussed upon the new Legacy Museum, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative. The second is a short, coldly angry article by Francis FitzGibbon about the destructive effect of austerity-led misrule over the U.K. justice system, of which, more later.
The Legacy Museum catalogues the scale of the horror of slavery, both when it was the basis of the U.S. economy in a legal framework, and in its reinvention as an extralegal economic structure, skirting the boundaries of slavery’s abolition. I recommend clicking on the link in the previous paragraph. On its home page, there is this:
The Story: Slavery Evolved. To justify the brutal, dehumanizing institution of slavery in America, its advocates created a myth of racial difference. Stereotypes and false characterizations of black people were created to defend their permanent enslavement as “most necessary to the well-being of the negro” – an act of kindness that reinforced white supremacy. The formal abolition of slavery did nothing to overcome the harmful ideas created to defend it, and so slavery did not end: it evolved.
Lynchings served as the enforcement arm of a parallel state in the U.S., and, in a way, they still do, although that parallel state now has one of its most enthusiastic denizens in charge of the greater nation. The sheer scale of the terror is dizzying: 150 deaths in a particular incident (more people than died on Kristellnacht), three a week through the 1890s and one a week or more for decade after decade, and well into the civil rights era. But it is the deliberateness of this sustained failure to concede the wrongness of one racial identity’s power over another that repeatedly shocked me throughout Laqeur’s article:
Lynching – charivari at its most violent, a murderous popular enforcement of majority community values – has nowhere else in the world been employed for as long or as often as in the United States. There are incidences of it in some Central American countries with weak governments; it is now on the rise in India. But it is indigenous here. Before the Civil War whites were the primary victims, especially but not exclusively in the relatively lawless west. After it, close to 75 per cent of lynchings were in the deep South; more than 90 per cent of the victims were black…But the story of African Americans constitutes a special case. No other post-slave society turned to terror lynching to maintain white racial dominance.
And they were horrible murders, as well: the atavistic desire to make the outsider suffer and to revel in his, or her, suffering.
In a 1909 article called ‘Lynching, Our National Crime’, Ida B. Wells identified another, unassimilable strangeness: ‘No other nation, civilised or savage, burns its criminals,’ she writes. ‘Only under that Stars and Stripes is the human holocaust possible.’ Europe had not seen public burnings since the Spanish Inquisition and the burning of heretics after the Reformation. Racial terror was more than instrumental: the hundreds of carnivalesque burnings and hangings were ritually constitutive of the white South, a holocaust in its Old Testament sense. Lynchings were sometimes responses to primitive fears of the sort we usually connect to the early modern European witchcraft trials and medieval pogroms: Charlotte Harris was lynched in Rockingham County, Virginia ‘after a white man’s barn burned down’; three people were lynched because the white family for whom they were working claimed to have been poisoned; seven black people were lynched near Screamer, Alabama for drinking from a white person’s well.
There was always a pretext for the random murder of black people, then as now; often spurious sexual accusations, but, among the many other lies, rejection of a business offer or trying to vote seem to pierce the crazed patina of pseudo-moral outrage of the murderers, just as traffic stops by modern, poorly-trained and heavily armed police forces make us see through the lying generalisations about black American criminality. We should not believe, however, that these pretences were (or are) anything other than rationales for power, because the murderers didn’t (and don’t). They knew (and know) what they were (and are) doing.
The so-called Wilmington Insurrection was, in fact, a coup; whites, furious at the victory of a mixed-race coalition in a local election, started a rampage. At least thirty blacks – the EJI puts the number at sixty – were murdered. ‘North Carolina is a white man’s state and white men will rule it,’ the local paper announced. ‘No other party will ever dare to attempt to establish negro rule here.’
The rape pretext, like all the others, can be linked to slavery: a metonym for the white fear of blacks in revolt. In her 1911 memoirs, Rebecca Latimer Felton, a leading Southern advocate of women’s rights but an inveterate racist, made the link blindingly obvious: ‘Southern fathers and husbands’, she wrote, remembered the fear of slave insurrections during the Civil War, and were ‘desperate as to remedies’. ‘It is the secret of lynching instead of a legal remedy. It was “born in the blood and bred in the bone”, and a resultant of domestic slavery in the Southern states.’
The other aspect of this terror-dominance is the misuse of formal legal structures to embed inequality. While the U.S. has seen a steady decline in overall crime over several generations, the imprisonment of black men has become its own holocaust. Neither is this a new phenomenon.
The museum shows how the Black Codes passed by Southern states after the end of the Civil War to restrict the occupations, movements and wages of former slaves led to the rise of incarceration of blacks for petty crimes, partly as a result of their inability to pay fines for small infractions. It also documents the advent of black convict leasing, when prisoners were hired out to provide labour to private companies. It is not hard to see the present in that past, and some of the continuities are almost parodic. The notorious 19th-century Louisiana State Penitentiary is known as Angola after the sugar plantation on the same site which was worked by slaves before the Civil War; after the war it remained a sugar plantation but was worked instead by black convict labour. Those not needed on the plantation were hired out elsewhere. But unlike expensive privately owned slaves whose lives mattered, leased convicts were disposable. In bad years the death rate among leased prisoners was roughly equivalent to that in the labour camp part of Auschwitz.
The final article I read this morning, and the one that made me put down the LRB and decide to spend another morning blogging, was a Short Cuts piece by Francis FitzGibbon on the deliberate, catastrophic dismantling of public justice funding in the U.K. When I stopped working (as a teacher) in the criminal justice system, in 2013, the prison system was at something of a high point. Much was wrong with it still, of course, and the creeping privatisation bode ill for the future. However, the generation of prison officers whose attitudes had been formed in the anarchy and violence of the 1980s (known within the service as ‘the dinosaurs’) had, by and large, been removed, or been sidelined, to be replaced by educated, professionalised officers of commitment and understanding. Suicide, self-harm, violence towards officers and other prisoners, and even reoffending across all types of crime were as low as they had ever been. While Disney had made an expression of interest in the next round of privatisations, and G4s and Serco were defying their incompetence to hoover up more and more of the funds available to prisons, the New Labour government, for all its varied and manifest failings, had managed to keep a lid on the U.S. style marketisation of prisons in this country, albeit a shaky one.
Today, five years later, we are in a state that is probably as bad as the worst period of the eighties, although, with the collapse of principled journalism, you would hardly know it. Prison unrest and assaults against staff; suicide rates that indicate it is becoming a tolerated norm for prisons to suffer regular self-slayings; staffing levels that make the delivery of even basic safety, let alone meaningful activity serving towards rehabilitation a wistful memory: the horror mounts up, virtually ignored by society at large.
Unusually, though, in this political and social disaster, there is a clear culprit. I have been amazed by the continuing power of a particular Tory Minister: Chris Grayling. He is a base, incompetent ideologue, with his eyes firmly set upon the dismantlement of a working U.K. FitzGibbon, focussing upon the effects his criminal uselessness have had upon the courts system, more than on prisons, has this to say about his tenure as ‘Justice Minister’.
Criminal justice has long been a sandpit for policy-makers, with the political imperative being always to appear ‘tough on crime’. It would be unfair to blame one man for the present state of affairs, but for casual ineptitude no cabinet minister comes close to Chris Grayling, lord chancellor and justice secretary between 2012 and 2015…Prison budgets have been cut by about 30 per cent. Grayling stopped prisoners receiving books. He cut the numbers of prison officers. He hived a large part of the probation service off to private companies, several of which have performed poorly and have had to be saved from going bust by the taxpayer. His legacy is the violence and anarchy that reigns in many prisons today.
I have long loathed Grayling. I find it hard to believe that he was not taking bribes or, at least, working in partnership with organisations in whose interests it is to asset-strip the justice system, on the promise of later favours. Otherwise, why, for fuck’s sake? Why?
Trump, interspecies rape amongst early proto-humans, lynchings, political corruption: all these horrors make it sound as though I have had an uncomfortable and angry morning. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a time when the BBC bases most of its news on the press releases of American corporate lobbying companies and The Guardian is lost in a trap of protecting its writers’ London property interests against all political good sense, reading the London Review of Books gives me a slight reassurance that, on many issues, I am on track, at least in general terms. I am outside the LRB’s social and economic class: the subscription is barely within my means now that my hours at work have been cut, but the recognition that I am not alone in my preoccupations is an important pleasure for me.