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A Dreadful Deceit

January 26, 2014 Leave a comment

dreadfuldeceit

In early December, I learned about Jacqueline Jones’ new book A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America from Robert Paul Wolff, who made brief but excited mention of it in a blog post.

I have this moment finished reading the Introduction. It is stunningly brilliant, managing to say with power and precision in nine pages what I tried in my feeble way to suggest in my one book-length effort to address the subject. I look forward with great excitement to reading the book, and I strongly recommend it to all of you.

On finishing two days ago, Wolff added that it’s “a brilliant book that anyone interested in questions of race and class in capitalist America should read.”

Jones is a professor at UT Austin and former recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Bancroft Prize for American History. The publisher’s webpage for the book has this description.

From a preeminent social historian, the stories of six African-Americans whose struggles reveal the strange evolution of the concept of race in America from the seventeenth century to the twentieth.

In 1656, a Maryland planter tortured and killed an enslaved man named Antonio, an Angolan who refused to work in the fields. Three hundred years later, Simon P. Owens battled soul-deadening technologies as well as the fiction of “race” that divided him from his co-workers in a Detroit auto-assembly plant. Separated by time and space, Antonio and Owens nevertheless shared a distinct kind of political vulnerability; they lacked rights and opportunities in societies that accorded marked privileges to people labeled “white.”

An American creation myth posits that these two black men were the victims of “racial” discrimination, a primal prejudice that the United States has haltingly but gradually repudiated over the course of many generations. In A Dreadful Deceit, award-winning historian Jacqueline Jones traces the lives of Antonio, Owens, and four other African Americans to illustrate the strange history of “race” in America. In truth, Jones shows, race does not exist, and the very factors that we think of as determining it— a person’s heritage or skin color—are mere pretexts for the brutalization of powerless people by the powerful. Jones shows that for decades, southern planters did not even bother to justify slavery by invoking the concept of race; only in the late eighteenth century did whites begin to rationalize the exploitation and marginalization of blacks through notions of “racial” difference. Indeed, race amounted to a political strategy calculated to defend overt forms of discrimination, as revealed in the stories of Boston King, a fugitive in Revolutionary South Carolina; Elleanor Eldridge, a savvy but ill-starred businesswoman in antebellum Providence, Rhode Island; Richard W. White, a Union veteran and Republican politician in post-Civil War Savannah; and William Holtzclaw, founder of an industrial school for blacks in Mississippi, where many whites opposed black schooling of any kind. These stories expose the fluid, contingent, and contradictory idea of race, and the disastrous effects it has had, both in the past and in our own supposedly post-racial society.

Expansive, visionary, and provocative, A Dreadful Deceit explodes the pernicious fiction that has shaped four centuries of American history.

Just a week ago, the WSJ made A Dreadful Deceit the subject of its daily book review. Thomas Chatterton Williams called the book

a moving and painstakingly researched, at times almost novelistic, group portrait of five black men and one woman from different eras that, taken together, lays bare the ideology buttressing the notion of race and the “peculiar institution” it justified.

I’m adding it to my list.

Categories: Books, History

Tenth of December

January 26, 2014 Leave a comment

10th-December

I’ve been starting and stopping a series of books for the last couple of weeks, unable to settle on which one to read. One is Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, which I wrote about in a post last March. This is the book about which Gary Wills concluded, in his review in the New York Review of Books, “Every page is full of information and argument, and savoring one’s way through the book is an education. It is a privilege to live in an age that could produce such a masterpiece of the historical literature.”

Another is George Saunders’ short story collection Tenth of December. When it came out a year ago, Gregory Cowles gave it a strong review in the Sunday NYT. I didn’t pay much attention, but I did when it was selected in December as one of the NYT’s ten best, with this short blurb:

Saunders’s wickedly entertaining stories veer from the deadpan to the flat-out demented: Prisoners are force-fed mood-altering drugs; ordinary saps cling to delusions of grandeur; third-world women, held aloft on surgical wire, become the latest in bourgeois lawn ornaments. Beneath the comedy, though, Saunders writes with profound empathy, and this impressive collection advances his abiding interest in questions of class, power and justice.

Still, I’m just not much of a short story reader.

A week ago, I gave it a try, reading the opening pages of the first story via Amazon, after which I downloaded the book. (The Kindle version is only $9.) And now the current issue of the NY Review has arrived with a review (behind the paywall) by Wyatt Mason that I have barely looked at, so as not to spoil the reading. I did read this bit, which I’m lifting without context:

The potential fluffiness of the sentiment is in part what makes Saunders remarkable as a story writer: he is a dedicated ironist, but one who manages to smuggle what some might dismiss were it emanating from a pulpit or Oprah into narratives that are embraced, not ridiculed, for their frankness of feeling—particularly their frankness surrounding death.

“Rehearse death,” Epicurus tells us, and Saunders’s fiction has been preoccupied with such rehearsals.

Mason includes a quote of Saunders from a year-old NYT Magazine profile. Here’s a larger excerpt:

Junot Díaz described the Saunders’s effect to me this way: “There’s no one who has a better eye for the absurd and dehumanizing parameters of our current culture of capital. But then the other side is how the cool rigor of his fiction is counterbalanced by this enormous compassion. Just how capacious his moral vision is sometimes gets lost, because few people cut as hard or deep as Saunders does.”

And “Tenth of December” is more moving and emotionally accessible than anything that has come before. “I want to be more expansive,” Saunders said. “If there are 10 readers out there, let’s assume I’m never going to reach two of them. They’ll never be interested. And let’s say I’ve already got three of them, maybe four. If there’s something in my work that’s making numbers five, six and seven turn off to it, I’d like to figure out what that is. I can’t change who I am and what I do, but maybe there’s a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to. I’d like to make a basket big enough that it included them.”

It appears I’m in for some good reading, if I don’t get distracted by the other books I’ve been dipping into.

Categories: Books

Wild and Crazy WSJ

January 26, 2014 Leave a comment
A Jewish shop, the morning after Kristallnacht

A Jewish shop, the morning after Kristallnacht

[From Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority]

When I first saw Tom Perkins’ letter to the WSJ yesterday, I was sufficiently stunned that I intended to write a post about it immediately. But I didn’t get to it, and now, 36 hours later, Perkins’ letter is an internet sensation. If you haven’t read it yet, follow the link above and do so. In it, famed Silicon Valley investor Perkins calls

attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the “rich.”

I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel*, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht** was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?

Wow! Absolute madness. The wonder isn’t that he wrote it, but that the WSJ published it. Perhaps his connection with Rupert Murdoch is relevant, as a long-time News Corp board member (until 2011). Perkins has had a storied career, going back to his role in the early days of Hewlett-Packard half a century ago. But he would seem to be losing it.

Along these lines, Atrios captured the essence of Perkins’ argument in the following tweet:

Those Google buses? It might be worth re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s piece in the London Review of Books a year ago. Her ending:

Sometimes the Google Bus just seems like one face of Janus-headed capitalism; it contains the people too valuable even to use public transport or drive themselves. In the same spaces wander homeless people undeserving of private space, or the minimum comfort and security; right by the Google bus stop on Cesar Chavez Street immigrant men from Latin America stand waiting for employers in the building trade to scoop them up, or to be arrested and deported by the government. Both sides of the divide are bleak, and the middle way is hard to find.

See also the discussion of the buses in a New Yorker blog post a few days ago by Lauren Smiley, recounting a possible resolution of the buses’ illegal use of public bus stops.

After years of complaints of the lumbering shuttles hogging San Francisco’s cramped streets—occasionally blocking public buses from making stops, double parking, or encroaching on bike lanes—the board of directors of the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency voted unanimously on Tuesday to begin regulating them. The eighteen-month-long pilot program, slated to begin in July, will require that the shuttle buses be registered and that they make stops only at two hundred designated public bus stops. Companies will pay a dollar each time one of their buses uses a stop, which would add up to a hundred thousand dollars a year for each of the big companies, the agency estimates.

City leaders say that state law requires them to charge only enough to recover the fees required to administer the program. Yet the amount wasn’t enough for the dozens of detractors who lined up to speak at the agency’s meeting on Tuesday, at City Hall. Speakers called the buses “conquistador transportation,” and derided the transit agency for allowing “tech barons” to get away with paying such a low fee to use the city infrastructure—a dollar less than the current commuter fare on public buses—when their shuttles had been idling at the bus stops illegally for years.

[snip]

Then, there’s the issue of fairness. “If you and I park in front of a bus stop, and you’re there long enough, you’re going to get a ticket that’s more than a dollar,” David Campos, a city supervisor, told a group of merchants in his district last week.

Having tech companies pay a modest fee for the use of public bus stops to which they have no right is not the second coming of Kristallnacht.

*Perkins’ ex-wife.

**The 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht was this past November. On November 9, 1938, dozens of Jews were killed, thousands arrested, synagogues and businesses were destroyed. It was a major shift in the Holocaust gears.

Categories: History, Journalism, Politics