New Nation column: Why Do Political Reporters Refuse to Show Us the Money?
So I was in the bar during Eric Clapton’s 70th birthday show at the Garden during the warm-up act Sunday night and I thought of a new list. It has to do with aging. It’s inspired by my own life, that of some of my friends and that of some of the people I read, see perform and about whom I think. It’s not meant to be complete by any means. In fact, it could hardly be more casual. But I think it works. To be considered you have to have reached your creative peak during my lifetime, or near it, and also have turned 70 (or died before you had a chance to, but still left a considerable body of work over a period of decades).
Category 1: Artists and writers whose talents never deserted them, no matter what age they might be, and whose final works bear comparison to their earliest (and vice-versa):
Robert Caro (though Volume 4 has significant problems and Volume 2 is just wrong)
Gabriel García Márquez
Category 2: Artists whose talents came and went over time, but who exhibited second and third winds when people were ready to give up on them and who get points for growth, experimentation and artistic bravery:
Philip Roth (But for his final “short” novels, he would have been in Category 1.)
Miles Davis (Though I’m thinking I’m perhaps being a bit too indulgent about the later work.)
Norman Mailer (As with Miles…)
Ray Davies/The Kinks
Saul Bellow (Also, next to no experimentation, just inconsistent greatness…)
Category 3: These are people who had moments—sometimes more than a decade—of genius and then followed them with decades of living on the capital of their respective youths.
The Beatles as solo artists
The Allman Brothers Band (Though I think the playing was best at the time of their dissolution, it was certainly not clear of their creativity, which peaked in the beginning.)
The Grateful Dead (Creatively, I’d say they went downhill after Keith and Donna, but then again, everybody loves the period that he or she discovered the band.)
The Rolling Stones (Okay, it was a really long period of genius, but it’s been an even longer period of only okay-ness.)
Category 4: These are people who, like physicists, peaked at the beginning of their careers and never again came close to the levels of creativity demonstrated as late or post-adolescents:
Category 5: To be determined/too early to tell:
Eric Rohmer, Comedies and Proverbs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
In a weird coincidence, I saw Éric Rohmer’s fourth “Comedy and Proverb,” 1984’s Full Moon in Paris at the Film Society of Lincoln Center the same day I began to listen to the audio version of John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy. Not so weird a coincidence, you say. Well, how about this? Both the film and the novel begin with the same proverb, “The one who has two wives loses his soul, the one who has two houses loses his mind.” The proverb was invented by Rohmer himself—what a guy. It’s been a great year for Rohmer lovers at FSLC. We got A Tale of Winter and A Tale of Summer (my favorite) and now the just marvelous Full Moon. It’s a gorgeous film powered by the luminosity of its star, who sadly died of a drug overdose and never had the career her talent and charisma warranted. FSLC had a mini-Rohmer festival to accompany the rerelease of the film, and while they are almost all great, The Aviator’s Wife was the one I enjoyed second best of those I was able to see. (I am renting the DVDs of Boyfriends and Girlfriends and the perennial Pauline at the Beach from Netflix since I couldn’t make those showings. Sadly The Green Ray does not appear to be available at all. “Comedies and Proverbs” is only one of Rohmer’s great series and guess what? I’d put it at number three. So if you don’t know his work, get going.
Speaking of le Carré, lifter of Rohmerian proverbs, Philip Roth called 1986’s A Perfect Spy “the best English novel since the war.” That’s crazy. David Denby agrees. So perhaps I’m wrong. I think it’s excellent. But I don’t think it’s even close to being le Carré’s best book, and I don’t think le Carré’s best work matches that of Graham Greene’s best work, even though I love and admire the work of both authors. But if you want to take Philip’s advice read it right away. (It is self-contained, unlike the brilliant Smiley trilogy which I much prefer). The audio version is also wonderfully read and is available from Penguin Audio
Steve Winwood at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester
And speaking of Eric Clapton, one of the disappointments of a pretty good (but incredibly expensive) Clapton concert was the fact that he forewent the honors of the vocals on “Can’t Find My Way Home.” (The others were: acoustic versions of “Nobody Loves You,” and “Layla.”) The fact that he played both of those horribly sappy hits he’s written and left out “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” and “Why Does Love Got to be So Sad,” entirely, Stevie Winwood, playing two sold out nights at the Capitol in Port Chester, stuck much closer to what you expected from him. He sang “Can’t Find My Way Home” as he did a bunch of other Traffic songs, a Spencer Davis Group song or two, and maybe three solo hits, including “Higher Love.” Of the Traffic songs, I regretted not hearing “John Barleycorn” but otherwise could not argue with the choices, which included “Glad” “Low Spark” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” The band was pretty tight and Stevie’s voice is down an octave or so, but as ethereal as ever. He’s also a much better guitarist than most people have any idea, as he demonstrated when he toured with Clapton a few years ago, in one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. This show was pretty decent and nobody went home angry, but he waited quite a while to come on and that was annoying, since you know, you’ve got to get home from Port Chester.
Odds and Ends
Finally I want to recommend a few CD’s: Joe Alterman, the young (handsome) pianist, and I are not related, so you might believe me when I say I’m proud to pretend that we are when I listen to his terrific new CD, George Sunset. Read all about it here. Readers might also remember me raving about the soundtrack to the off-Broadway production of Fortress of Solitude, based on the brilliant Jonathan Lethem novel. That’s on CD now and boiled down. There’s a great little soul album inside it, even if you’ve not seen the show. (Though if you’ve read the novel, it will work for you in a different way I imagine.) I can’t imagine anyone not really loving Van Morrison’s Duets album, which is much cleverer, and more fun than most old farts’ duets albums. And Boz Scaggs is having a third creative wind, first with Memphis, and now with the equally excellent, A Fool to Care. Finally, Nellie McKay’s new CD of sixties pop is cute and clever, but also hit and miss. It’ called My Weekly Reader and you can maybe see her on tour if you check here. I unfortunately missed her show at 54 Below but the Times review is on her page and it sure sounds like fun.
Read Next: Eric Alterman on Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s tributes to jazz icons and the Broadway hit Hand To God
Bernie Sanders will be debating Hillary Clinton as they compete for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Indeed, it looks like the two announced contenders—and prospective yet unannounced candidates such as former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island senator Lincoln Chafee—could debate six times.
The Democratic National Committee announced Tuesday that it will sanction six debates between candidates seeking the nomination. DNC Chair Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz says the debates will begin this fall, as part of an effort to “give Democratic voters multiple opportunities to size up the candidates for the nomination side-by-side.” They will have plenty to debate, as there are big differences between the announced candidates on issues of war and peace, the Patriot Act, trade policy, and a whole lot more. And if Chafee, O’Malley, and Webb get in (along, potentially, with others), more distinctions on issues ranging from immigration to climate change to diplomacy will be highlighted.
There are a lot of debate specifics to be worked out—including dates and locations. But the DNC announcement is a welcome acknowledgement, coming just days after Sanders joined Clinton in the running, that the race for the party’s 2016 nomination will be competitive. The former secretary of state maintains a daunting lead in most polls, and her clear front-runner status had stirred speculation about whether she would debate. Tuesday’s announcement, in combination with recent statements from Wasserman Schultz and signals from the Clinton camp, have laid the speculation to rest.
Score a point for Democratic democracy—and points also to the party’s webmasters for highlighting the competition at the top of its site with pictures of the two announced candidates and a message that “Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are officially in the presidential race.” When additional candidates enter the competition, it’s vital for the DNC to respect them all—understanding the primary campaigns can take unexpected turns and that (as Clinton well knows) front-runner status is not always permanent.
As for the debates, there is still a lot to be sorted out, including dates and locations.
The DNC plan is to schedule broadcast debates—with, the committee says, digital platforms and local media collaboration—in the early-primary and -caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. That leaves openings for two more major debates, according to the plan announced Tuesday.
Of course, there could be even more. When politics gets interesting, debates proliferate. And that’s a good thing.
Debates are essential to the political process. Voters need to see more from candidates than 30-second commercials. That is why The Nation, as part of its “45” project to open up the 2016 political process, has made advocacy for open debates—in the primary season and the fall—a central focus. More than a year ago, the magazine editorialized about how “We’ll keep an eye on the debate about debates in the primary season—and not just on (Republican National Committee chairman) Reince Priebus’s crude attempt to turn GOP debates into little more than joint press conferences. We’ll also keep an eye on the need for Democrats to hold primary debates—even if Clinton maintains what is currently the most commanding poll lead in history for an open Democratic nomination.”
In that spirit, here’s one big gripe about the Democratic plan.
According to the DNC’s statement, “While a six sanctioned debate schedule is consistent with the precedent set by the DNC during the 2004 and 2008 cycles, this year the DNC will further manage the process by implementing an exclusivity requirement. Any candidate or debate sponsor wishing to participate in DNC debates, must agree to participate exclusively in the DNC-sanctioned process. Any violation would result in forfeiture of the ability to participate in the remainder of the debate process.”
Wasserman Schultz and the Democrats should leave that sort of “control freakery” to Priebus and the Republicans. If several candidates decide to debate, particularly in a state that might not otherwise host a session, that’s to the good. If civil-rights or labor groups want to schedule forums and invite candidates, the contenders should not be able to use the excuse that they do not want to violate party rules.
The American political process features too few debates. And the ones that do take place are too controlled. The Democratic National Committee ought not be in the business of restricting options for additional debates. It should be encouraging more of them.
Read Next: John Nichols on the differences between Sanders and Clinton
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
In July 1966, James Baldwin published “A Report from Occupied Territory,” a despairing essay in The Nation contemplating race relations in Harlem and other American cities. Describing the deep sense of alienation and despair in the black community, Baldwin wrote, “The children, having seen the spectacular defeat of their fathers—having seen what happens to any bad nigger and, still more, what happens to the good ones—cannot listen to their fathers and certainly will not listen to the society which is responsible for their orphaned condition.” Fifty years later, it’s heartbreaking and infuriating to read those words and realize how little has changed.
The riots that erupted in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, who sustained fatal injuries in police custody last month, were as predictable as they were painful to watch. Across the country, Gray is the latest in a long line of black men killed, inexplicably, in brushes with the law; Baltimore is the latest city, but likely not the last, where blacks’ legitimate frustration has reached a boiling point and spilled into the streets. And yet the unrest in Baltimore and other cities is about more than a single death or even the single issue of police brutality. It’s about the structural racism, inequality and poverty that have pervaded our cities and plagued our society for too long.
Indeed, the profound divisions now on display mirror the findings of the Kerner Commission, which President Lyndon B. Johnson established to study the root causes of the 1967 race riots. “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” the commission famously warned. “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans,” it reported, adding that the media had “not communicated to the majority of their audience—which is white—a sense of the degradation, misery and hopelessness of life in the ghetto.” That criticism of the media resonates today, as sensational coverage of the destruction and looting too often has disregarded the systemic devastation of the communities in which they are taking place.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
The Pulitzer was only the first of many awards Brooks would earn throughout her long career. In 1967 she published in The Nation a brief prose eulogy for Langston Hughes: “Mightily did he use the street. He found its multiple heart, its tastes, its smells, alarms, formulas, flowers, garbage and convulsions. He brought them all to his table-top. He crushed them to a writing-paste. The pen that was himself went in…” The dazzlingly named Rolfe Humphries, who wrote this review of Brooks’s second volume in 1949, the year before she won the Pulitzer, was a poet and educator who mentored Theodore Roethke. In 1939, he smuggled into Poetry magazine an acrostic poem in which the first letters of each line spelled out, “Nicholas Murray Butler is a horse’s ass,” referring to the president of Columbia University. He found himself briefly banned him from Poetry magazine.
Where the subject is the Negro people, or the Negro person, Miss Brooks has gone considerably beyond some of the quaint and for-tourists-only self-consciousness that at times made one a little uncomfortable in reading her first book. Her weakness lies in streaks, as it were, of awkwardness, naïveté, when she seems to be carried away by the big word or the spectacular rhyme; when her ear, of a sudden, goes all to pieces…. Her strength consists of boldness, invention, a daring to experiment, a naturalness that does not scorn literature but absorbs it, exploits it, and through this absorption and exploitation comes out with the remark made in an entirely original way, not offhand so much as forthright. Miss Brooks, by now, must realize that the greatest danger to her progress lies in the risk of her being taken up; she needs to be both very inquisitve about, and very remorseless to, her weaker side.
To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.
For a movement that so often disdains identity politics, conservatives sure love to deploy them. In 2008, Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination was a risible, tone-deaf attempt to capture women voters disappointed by Hillary Clinton’s primary loss. After Barack Obama became president, the GOP attempted to shed its overwhelmingly white image by putting the clownish Michael Brown in charge of the party. And now, Carly Fiorina is counting on conservatives’ desire to counter excitement over Clinton’s renewed ascendency with a lady candidate of their own.
Fiorina, a failed CEO who has never held any sort of elective office and rarely even voted before her entrance into politics, is clearly not going to be the Republican nominee for president. She probably knows that—my guess is that she’s running for vice president, and, failing that, a Fox News gig. It’s a clever move for a political opportunist, because there’s a vacancy on the right for a female anti-feminist. With so-called women’s issues poised to play an unprecedented role in the upcoming election, Republicans need someone who can troll Hillary Clinton without seeming sexist. Michele Bachmann and Palin aren’t in politics anymore, and anyway, they’ve turned themselves into national jokes. Fiorina is stepping into the breach.
Indeed, Fiorina is explicitly pitching herself as a distaff human shield. “”If Hillary Clinton were to face a female nominee, there are a whole set of things that she won’t be able to talk about,” she told reporters a few weeks ago. “She won’t be able to talk about being the first woman president. She won’t be able to talk about a war on women without being challenged. She won’t be able to play the gender card.” (As Amanda Marcotte pointed out at Slate, she’s essentially promising to stop the playing of said card by playing it first.)
Because women are not, as a gender, deeply stupid, this probably won’t work, just as it didn’t work during Fiorina’s failed campaign against Senator Barbara Boxer in 2010. (A campaign in which she was caught on an open mic snarking about Boxer’s hair). Fiorina, after all, is as bad as any of the male candidates on issues of unique concern to women. She’s implacably anti-abortion: “Liberals believe that flies are worth protecting, but the life of an unborn child is not,” she told the Iowa Freedom Summit earlier this year. She opposes raising the federal minimum wage—an issue of especial salience to women, who make up the majority of minimum-wage workers—and is against equal pay laws.
The question, then, isn’t whether Fiorina will appeal to women, but whether Republicans are blinkered enough to think that she will. If there is a Fiorina boomlet, it will suggest that the GOP has learned very little in the last eight years about why women reject it, and is thus at a disadvantage going in to 2016. A couple of weeks ago, John Fund wrote a National Review piece headlined, “Fiorina Has Hillary Defenders Worried.” It’s hard to believe that Republicans actually believe this, but then again, they did put Palin on a presidential ticket, so fingers crossed.
Read Next: Michelle Goldberg on the Clinton scandal rabbit hole
Queen Arsem-O’Malley focuses on grassroots labor organizing, youth-led social movements, anti-carceral feminism, and critiques of mainstream media.
“Towards a Black Muslim Ontology of Resistance,” by Muna Mire. The New Inquiry, April 2015.
“Black Muslim existence as black resistance is as old as America itself.” In a time when black resistance is at the forefront of public conversation, former Nation intern Muna Mire highlights and discusses the role of Black Muslim struggle throughout the history of the country.
Cole Delbyck focuses on LGBT politics, East Asia, and representational issues in film and television.
“Rent-a-Foreigner in China,” by David Borenstein. The New York Times, April 28, 2015.
I’m clearly in the wrong line of work. This fascinating entry in the Times’ Op-Doc series follows a Chinese housing developer who hires foreigners (whites are the most profitable) to make her properties seem attractive and “international” to potential buyers. Borenstein beautifully captures the expanse of China’s towering—and often empty—high rises, while exposing the disturbing racial hierarchies at play.
Khadija Elgarguri focuses on MENA issues including women’s rights, the relationship between foreign policy and cultural change, and women’s roles in protest movements in the region.
“Argan oil: the cost of the beauty industry’s latest wonder ingredient,” by Josephine Moulds. The Guardian, April 28, 2015.
Argan trees are grown “almost exclusively” in indigenous areas of Morocco, where the women who produce the oil have suddenly found themselves at the mercy of global companies (like L’Oréal) that have “cottoned on to this apparently magical resource.” Although women’s co-operatives, created by global entities to source the oil, provide indigenous Moroccan women with a source of income, there is still “plenty of scope for exploitation.” Fortunately, NGOs are beginning to step in to “professionalize” the women and help ensure the process is mutually beneficial, at least on some level.
Benjamin Hattem focuses on Israel/Palestine and the broader Middle East, as well as economic inequality, homelessness, and the prison system.
“Phantom Troops, Taliban Fighting, and Wasted Money—It’s Springtime in Afghanistan,” by Gary Owen. Vice News, April 29, 2015.
This exposé details the US reconstruction program’s inability to stabilize Afghanistan’s economy, monitor the Afghan military, or track its own huge expenditures. It’s detailed and damning, and it suggests that the US is beginning to back away from even trying to rebuild the country.
Nadia Kanji focuses on foreign policy, political art & alternative economic structures.
“Who Killed Pakistan’s Sabeen Mahmud?” by Jahanzeb Hussain. Ricochet. April 26, 2015.
In this article, Hussain delves into the murder of activist Sabeen Mahmud, who was killed on April 24 in Pakistan for speaking about the rights of Balochistan. As natural resources continue to be extracted from Balochistan for the benefit of the state, Hussain describes this as “land theft” and “a new form of imperial subjugation.” “It has now come to the point where supporters of Balochistan in the country’s major cities are being shot for expressing solidarity with the Baloch, or for merely organizing an event to discuss the issue,” he says.
James F. Kelly focuses on labor, economic inequality, world politics and intellectual history.
“What to Say When the Police Tell You to Stop Filming Them,” by Robinson Meyer. The Atlantic, April 28, 2015.
Whether you’re a journalist, activist or bystander, it’s important to know your rights when filming the police. Any ambiguity is often the result of intimidation.
Ava Kofman focuses on technology, popular science and media culture.
“Empathy Isn’t Everything,” by Alex-Quan. Rookie, April 20, 2015.
Whatever empathy’s universal value, it often gets emitted in discrete amounts, apportioned out along the lines of those already with privileges, with power. It’s repeatedly called for in heated conversations, even when the subjects of those conversations are still denied basic human rights. “I want to know that you will give me the due respect despite your inability to understand,” writes Alex-Quan.
Abigail Savitch-Lew focuses on urban policy, labor and race.
“Policing the Police,” by Simone Weichselbaum. The Marshall Project, April 23, 2015.
The Marshall Project provides a history of the Justice Department’s efforts to reform police departments over the past twenty years, and questions why the department has failed so frequently to produce any meaningful reform. Is it because conducting a meaningful investigation and monitoring process is politically unpopular, expensive to constituents, and the Justice Department is just not invested in it (especially under Republican presidencies)? Is it because the Justice Department has been unwilling to terminate funding to those departments who fail to comply—and is there any chance that the next president will make funding contingent on reform?
Hilary Weaver focuses on reproductive rights, feminism and related political, health and education issues.
“The Last Days of Ladies’ Home Journal,” by Allison Pohle. The Hairpin, April 28, 2015.
Former Nation intern Allison Pohle shares an insightful narrative into the history and legacy of Ladies’ Home Journal, one of the seven sisters, or original women-driven magazines. Unknown to many, LHJ no longer prints as a monthly magazine and is available in select locations and quantities. Pohle highlights the importance and necessity of a magazine like LHJ, the original backbone for stories written by and for women—one that is still needed by its audience.
I fanatically loved HBO’s Baltimore-based television drama, The Wire. It’s difficult to even imagine my pop-cultural brain without the presence of Omar Little, Stringer Bell, Bunk, and “McNutty.” When I started doing my sports radio show eight years ago, I scheduled interviews with as many of the actors as I could for no other reason than I wanted to breathe their air. Talking to Michael K. Williams about the method of Omar’s “long game” while he aggressively chewed on a sandwich will forever remain a career highlight. In every interview, I would always ask the same question: I wanted the cast to tell me whether working on this program was just another acting gig or if they all knew that they were doing something utterly unique in television history. When I asked this of Seth Gilliam, who played Officer Ellis Carver, he said, “It felt to us more like we were a movement, on a mission, in an army to bring awareness.” What really stoked me back then was the bracingly original political message that ran through The Wire compared to a typical Hollywood production. Most assembly-line entertainment is a variation on the shopworn theme of lone heroes confronting obstacles and then overcoming them. The connective thread of every Wire season, as described by show co-creator David Simon was that when individuals, no matter how heroic, fight to change entrenched power structures and bureaucracies—whether in the form of City Hall politics, police, or organized crime—the individual is going to lose.
That’s why I always shoved it to the back of my mind when my friends in Baltimore—I live about 45 minutes from the city—almost uniformly would tell me they either did not like or would not watch the show. People were hostile toward The Wire for a multiplicity of reasons. Some felt it was like gangster rap for a more sophisticated audience, glorifying black-on-black hyper-masculine street violence while selling itself as somehow more literate and ennobling to consume. My friend Mark once pissed me off fiercely when he told me that my favorite show was “NWA for people who read The New Yorker.”
My Baltimore friends who had seen the show also believed, given the police violence in their town, that The Wire’s view of Baltimore’s finest was almost comically kind. The one policeman who accidentally shoots someone (a fellow officer) not only isn’t prosecuted but gets reintroduced later in the series as a big-hearted public school teacher. And then other people just said to me that living in Baltimore was a struggle and the idea of anyone making commerce out of their pain was simply not their idea of entertainment.
I would casually dismiss these concerns, thinking people were being overly sensitive, overly critical, or just not “seeing” the brilliance in front of them. I also politically defended the show as one of the few spaces on television that, through its brilliant multiracial cast, looked at issues of crime, corruption, and urban blight in a systemic manner. The fact that it actually cared about the hopes, dreams, and lives of street criminals and not just cops felt more than radical. It felt revolutionary.
The events of the last two weeks, however, have changed my view of The Wire in a very fundamental way. I have spent most of my time listening to people in Baltimore speak about how this uprising came to be and why the anger runs so deep. I’ve been primarily speaking to black Baltimoreans in grassroots organizations who have, in a state of MSM invisibility, been building movements for years to fight poverty, end street violence, and challenge police brutality. This is humbling to admit, but this experience has made me reassess my favorite show, as if a very dim light bulb was being switched on above my head. I am now seeing what the The Wire was missing, despite its much lauded, painstaking verisimilitude: the voices of people organizing together for change. Everyone on The Wire seeks individual solutions for social problems: the lone cop, the lone criminal, the lone teacher, the lone newspaper reporter. Yes, it is certainly true that when entrenched bureaucracies battle individuals, individuals lose. But when bureaucracies battle social movements, the results can be quite different.
It is also impossible for me to separate David Simon’s view of people as either passive sheep or lone-wolf heroes from his comments about the events last week in Baltimore. Not his comments to “end the fucking drug war,” which are surely welcome, but his other public perspective.
With the fires in Baltimore just hours old, Simon wrote, “But now—in this moment—the anger and the selfishness and the brutality of those claiming the right to violence in Freddie Gray’s name needs to cease … This, now, in the streets, is an affront to that man’s memory and a dimunition of the absolute moral lesson that underlies his unnecessary death. If you can’t seek redress and demand reform without a brick in your hand, you risk losing this moment for all of us in Baltimore. Turn around. Go home. Please.”
It’s always cringe-worthy when a wealthy middle-aged white guy lectures young black people about who they are and what they should do. In other words, if you had said two weeks ago—in the battle of prominent Baltimore Caucasians—that Orioles Manager Buck Showalter would represent himself better than David Simon, I think many would have been surprised. But his comments also revealed far more than was intended. The idea that David Simon, praised as someone with an ear to these Charm City streets like no one since H.L. Mencken, could look at what was happening in the Baltimore of 2015 and not see the social movements and organization beneath the anger, makes me wonder how much he truly “saw” when producing the show. That David Simon could tell people with bricks in their hand to “go home,” and have no direct words of condemnation for the violence displayed by the police made me remember my friend Dashon—from Baltimore—who told me he would never watch The Wire because he believed it to be “copaganda,” since it was created not only by Simon but by longtime Baltimore police officer Ed Burns.
Now, I cannot help but recall all my favorite Wire moments through a lens that has me wondering if the show was both too soft on the police and incredibly dismissive of people’s ability to organize for real change. In the season that took place in the public schools, where were the student organizers, the urban debaters, and teacher activists I’ve met this past month? In the season about unions, where were the black trade unionists like the UNITE/HERE marchers who were—in utterly unpublicized fashion—at the heart of last Saturday’s march? In the season about the drug war and “Hamsterdam,” where were the people actually fighting for legalization? In the stories about the police, where were the people who died at their hands? It all reveals the audacity—and frankly the luxury—of David Simon’s pessimism. Perhaps this pessimism, alongside the adrenalizing violence, created, as Jamilah Lemieux put it in Ebony, a show steeped in the voyeurism of “Black pain and death” for a liberal white audience that “cried for Stringer Bell and a burned out CVS, but not Freddie Gray.”
I am not saying that art should conform to a utopian political vision of struggle like some dreck from the Stalinist culture mills. But I am asking a question that I wasn’t before: Why were those fighting for a better Baltimore invisible to David Simon? I don’t mean those fighting on behalf of Baltimore—the (often white) teachers, the social workers, and the good-natured cops who are at the heart of The Wire—but those fighting for their own liberation? Why was The Wire big on failed saviors and short on those trying to save themselves? And if these forces were invisible to David Simon, shouldn’t we dial down the praise of the show as this “Great American Novel of television” (Variety!) and instead see it for what it is: just a cop show? There’s no shame in that. I’ll even call it the greatest cop show ever, a cop show with insanely brilliant dialogue, indelible performances, and more three-dimensional roles for black actors than 99 percent of what comes out of Hollywood. But all the same—still just a cop show.
After reading stories like this, I think I’m done with cop shows for now. There’s a line from the Bible that says, “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.” In the wake of the Baltimore uprising, The Wire’s pessimism seems childish to me, and I’m going to put it away for a while. I could see myself revisiting it in the future, maybe amidst a more dreary political moment. But that moment isn’t now. Baltimore in 2015 shows that we can do more than just chronicle the indignities imposed by entrenched urban power structures—we can challenge them. David Simon should listen to the folks who are engaged in that collective project. As Cutty said, “The game done changed.”
Read Next: Dave Zirin on Makayla Gilliam-Price and Baltimore’s debt to a remarkable family
“We need to get back not only to low tuition, but to no tuition,” said Roger Hickey, sporting an “I am a student debt voter” T-shirt outside Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office last Thursday. Hickey works for Campaign for America’s Future, and on April 30, he helped deliver a petition with over 240,000 signatures to Warren’s office. The petition, which gathered its signatures all in one month, demanded that the US government cancel all student debt, public and private.
There are currently 40 million student loan borrowers with $1.3 trillion in debt, which “pales in comparison to what we spent on the Iraq war,” said John Hlinko, founder of Left Action. “So what about a similar war on debt?” While there has been a huge increase in military spending, Pell grants, or money given to low-income students that does not need to be repaid, have been cut from the current budget. Many are starting to feel like the right to accessible education is under attack.
The petition given to Warren was sponsored by a coalition of organizations including Campaign for America’s Future, Democracy for America, Working Families, Daily Kos, and The Nation, among others. Senator Warren has spoken out frequently about reforming student loans, and she recently tried to introduce a budget amendment that would have decreased the interest rate on loans to 3.9 percent, but Senate Republicans blocked it. She also recently joined a liberal push to make college at least debt-free.
Natalia Abrams, the executive director of StudentDebtCrisis.org, graduated shortly before the UC system increased tuition by 32 percent in one semester in 2009. Many of her friends had to drop out of college. “I started Occupy Colleges, literally a Facebook page and a Twitter page from my bedroom”, she said. “But I just had to do something. It felt like that was the economic injustice for students.”
Abrams believes that this is also part of a larger movement against austerity and state disinvestment—states have been spending less per student than they have at any time in history. This means that students have to make up that difference. She feels the country needs debt-free college and debt cancellation simultaneously “to be able to get out of this mess.”
Student debt has also worsened inequality in the United States by burdening working- and middle-class students and keeping them at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. Other countries, however, despite lower federal budgets, don’t seem to be facing this issue with the same severity. Mexico, a poorer country than the United States, currently has certain universities that are free with a high-quality education. Similarly, in Quebec tuition fees are below $2800 per year. In 2012, when the government tried to raise tuition, there was a massive student strike which forced the government to scrap their proposal.
Student debt is bankrupting students before they even enter the workforce. Hlinko said he believes investing in education is beneficial for the future. “This is the best investment we can make, an investment in our people,” he said.
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The hushed murmur of ambling museumgoers at the Guggenheim on Manhattan’s Upper East Side was rudely interrupted on Friday with chants and a round red banner bursting across the lobby: “Meet Workers’ Demands Now!”
As guards scrambled to snatch the sign up, the flash mob sat down and pinned it to the floor, declaring, “We are here, in solidarity with all workers. Happy May Day!”
The “indefinite occupation” of the art museum—which dissipated after some tug-of-war with security personnel and then moved into a protest with other groups outside—was the latest salvo in a series of escalating protests led by the Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF). Representing the writers, artists, and scholars of the Gulf Labor Coalition, they’re pressing the demands of migrant workers contracted to work at a forthcoming Guggenheim site in Abu Dhabi.
The protesters are challenging the corporate link between the Guggenheim effect (complete with Gehry architecture) and United Arab Emirates’ global branding campaign via a tourist idyll known as Saadiyat Island. This oasis of soft power, which also features controversial branches of the Louvre and New York University alongside other luxury attractions, is fueled by masses of impoverished migrant labor trafficked into the region from South Asia.
Though the Guggenheim has promised to provide some labor protections, Gulf Labor is pushing core labor demands on behalf of workers who have been or will be contracted for the development in partnership with Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company: “uniform and enforceable human rights protections,” a living wage, compensation for workers indebted by predatory recruitment fees and relocation costs, and, ultimately, a transparent accountability process for employers and labor representation for workers.
“They’re not able to speak for themselves, so we’re amplifying what they want here today,” said New York University professor and Gulf Labor activist Andrew Ross, referring to workers the group interviewed. “They want a living wage above all; they don’t have one. And they want recruitment debt settlement, which is a huge burden on their lives.” The right to organize was perhaps their most ambitious demand, given the structural marginality of the migrant labor force. Until migrant workers are able to organize on their own, Gulf Labor has for months been intensifying pressure on the Guggenheim as the construction contracting process continues.
In response to protests as well as petitions and private outreach by advocates, the Guggenheim Foundation issued a statement, contending, in part: “The complex global issues surrounding migrant employment cannot be solved by a single project, but we are working fully within our sphere of influence to advocate for progress.”
The coalition counters that the Guggenheim—which expressed dismay on Friday and temporarily shut down the museum—has repeatedly failed to respond adequately to demands for concessions that it could offer immediately, such as a fund for indebted workers and a wage increase.
Gulf Labor’s business proposition should fall well within the Guggenheim’s sphere of influence: as a global institution with enough cultural capital to launch a glamorous Persian Gulf island outpost, the Guggenheim shouldn’t have extraordinary difficulty paying a fair wage to the people building its development. (Not to mention, such measures would bring the development into compliance with basic international labor standards.)
Research investigations by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Gulf Labor have revealed that workers at Saadiyat Island are locked into a coercive guestworker system, known as kafala. The system, used for various mega-developments in the Gulf region, gives sponsoring employers near-complete control over their work and movement, leading to debt bondage and tremendously exploitative jobs with virtually no labor protections.
In follow-up investigations, HRW researchers did note improvements in payment procedures and housing conditions—namely in the form of a “model” labor camp featuring various amenities. Still, they reported, recruitment abuses continued and many workers lived off-site, isolated in crowded, unsanitary quarters.
Gulf Labor’s own research delegation visited migrant workers in 2014 and “found multiple violations of the labor codes,” including “nonpayment of recruitment fees, employer retention of passports, mandatory overtime shifts, withheld pay,” and substandard housing.
Another scathing HRW report published in February revealed that, despite nominal contracting and labor reforms, workers are still extremely vulnerable to exploitation, with deeply inadequate mechanisms for employer accountability or recourse for abused workers; meanwhile, labor actions have been fiercely suppressed.
Five years on, Saadiyat Island remains tainted by a systemic lack of state and corporate accountability, while NYU, the Louvre, and the Guggenheim have failed to ensure compliance with the standards that they’ve publicly touted as a resolution to their labor public-relations crisis.
With Gulf workers still braving forced labor, extortion, and exile, the protest on Friday was a small gesture of solidarity to help bring those grievances to the Guggenheim’s home turf. The guerrilla aesthetics—a storm of thousands of pro-worker leaflets, a chorus of “Which Side Are You On?”—were designed not just to disrupt the museum’s pristine white interior, but to evoke historical moments when the artistic and political vanguards were intertwined, and the art world wasn’t just a playground for elite cultural tourists but an open landscape for insurgent ideas.
The project of resolving this moral dissonance also drives Gulf Labor’s human rights research: Its investigators were troubled not just by the workers’ rough living conditions but the degree to which workers were isolated, walled off from the enclave of worldly extravagance they were helping to construct. Rather than alienate their labor, the researchers argued, “we must insist that migrant workers be recognized as full participants of the broader society they live and work in.”
The same desire to collapse the divide between the art world and the masses drove May Day’s occupation. “The Guggenheim is not some corporate target that we’re demonizing. It’s part of our community,” Ross said, as protesters were shunted off. “We’re artists and writers. This is our space. If Guggenheim wants to be part of our community, there are certain ground rules of fair conduct and fair labor that they should be abiding by.”
So, briefly, labor’s voice resonated through the museum’s cavernous lobby, and workers indirectly reclaimed a little of their fair share of the world they helped build—the Guggenheim effect’s unexpected echo.
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