“Twice As Good” Is a Racist Concept

Ta-Nehisi CoatesI just read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, The Cosby Show. In it, he discussed a long reported piece he wrote back in 2008 when he followed Bill Cosby around the nation on one of his hectoring tours to tell the African American community that their problems were all their own fault. This is what Coates refers to as “respectability politics”; I wrote about it in another article recently, The Failure of Respectability Politics. But I was struck by a phrase he used in today’s article, “Twice as good.”

The idea of the phrase is that African Americans — or any oppressed group — have to be twice as good as white majority. And if they are, then the white majority will accept them, “Kumbaya” will be sung, and all will be good in the land of the free. The major problem with this is that it is a fantasy. It treats racism, and power politics more generally, as though it were rational. But it isn’t. The colonists didn’t start slavery based on skin color because they saw that dark skinned people behaved badly. And so the idea that hundreds of years of white privilege will be wiped away by African Americans being “twice as good” is just outrageous.

Consider one of my favorite examples: the guy who cut you off. Suppose you hate Latinos. If you are driving and a white guy cuts you off, he’s just a jerk. But if it is a Latino, well, isn’t that entirely typical of Latinos — they just don’t know how to behave! Now if a Latino stops to allow you to merge into traffic, well, that’s the exception. In general, Latinos are the last people do that! Racism is a system of confirmation biases. It simply exists and whatever data is available will be used to justify it.

So unless the African American community can be perfect — which is impossible — there will always be blacks for whites to point at and say, “Isn’t that typical of blacks!” And it doesn’t matter in the least how untypical of blacks “that” might be. And it certainly doesn’t matter how many “twice as good” blacks are there as a counter example.

Part of the problem is that successful and “morally pure” blacks become, at best, a kind of subset. Whites can think, “Blacks are terrible, but there are those special blacks that break the mold.” And all that means is that any given African American is presumed guilty until he is shown to be one of those “good” blacks. So the whole idea behind “twice as good” is racist — it is built upon the same toxic idea as white privilege is.

The fundamental issue is why African Americans have to be twice as good. In White Like Me, Tim Wise spends a lot of time talking about how many chances he has received in life. Is there any definition of fairness that includes countless do-overs for a white man and zero for a black man? Telling a young African American to be “twice as good” is not necessarily a bad idea. He does live in a racist society and he will be held to a far higher standard. But to tell the African American community the same thing is madness. It isn’t the solution to racism; it is just more of it.

It Was Probably Best for Dems to Filibuster Pipeline

Keystone XL PipelineI was very disappointed last night when I saw the headline, Senate Defeats Bill on Keystone XL Pipeline in Narrow Vote. For one thing, that headline is misleading. What actually happened was that supporters didn’t get 60 votes to override a filibuster. And I don’t like the filibuster being de rigueur — used on every conceivable piece of legislation. The Democrats could have used the occasion to show that they are better than the Republicans.

Now I understand: it would be pointless. The Democrats could go back to using the filibuster sparingly, and the moment the Republicans were back in the minority, they would use it on all bills short of the naming of post offices. What’s more, you can bet that the Very Serious Pundits would give the Democrats no credit for the act of restraint. I can well imagine a Republican White House and Senate in 2017 destroying the filibuster as the pundits looked on and said, “Well, what do you expect after Harry Reid used the nuclear option?!”

But that’s just an indication of the terrible state of the media today and the crazy state of the Republicans. What I would prefer to see is the Democrats setting a better tone when it doesn’t cost them anything. As it is, Obama spent four years trying to set a better tone when it very much cost the Democrats something. I’m not sure that is the case today.

It might have been a bad move, however. There are two ways that the media could have covered the vote. They could have covered it in the correct way, “In an Effort to Normalize Senate Procedure, Democrats Decline to Filibuster Republican Bill.” That would be great. But it is more likely that it would have been covered in a totally disingenuous way, “Republicans Pass Bill as Democrats Yield to Election Landslide.”

But I don’t think this is why the Democrats decided to filibuster. It is primarily just because this is now the way that business is done in the Senate. (This is also why I think the filibuster is not long for this world.) But I suspect that Obama did not want to be in the position of vetoing the bill at this time. Of course, I have to wonder why this is. Even if he wants to eventually approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, vetoing it at this time wouldn’t hurt his ability to do that.

Of course, I think the pipeline is and always has been a really bad idea. It isn’t even an American thing. It is just a way for Canada to get its tar sands to market more quickly. It is going to employ very few Americans. The reason that conservatives want it is because it will make some already rich people even richer. But Robert Bryce reported in The Daily Beast today, Why the Keystone XL Pipeline May Not Be Built. The cost estimates of the pipeline have gone way up and now that gas prices are way down, it makes much less — and possibly no — economic sense. So we likely won’t see the pipeline not because it is a bad idea for the environment and the American worker, but because it isn’t going to do what it was always intended to do: enrich the rich.

So the Democrats lost the chance to send a message. But is it really a message if the media doesn’t cover it? I would have liked receiving the message. But it wouldn’t have been worth it if the mainstream media had covered it as a win for Republicans rather than a noble statement by Democrats. And knowing the media, they probably would have reported it as reflecting Republican power rather than Democratic reasonableness.

Infantilized America Good for Power Elite

Stupid AmericanJon Gruber referred to the “stupidity of the American voter” and people went crazy. And why did they go crazy? Because they are stupid. I’m not being flip. It is one thing for people who live in extreme poverty to freak out about everything. But the United States is a rich country. Yet we respond to threats in the most immature way imaginable.

On Monday, Gallup released a poll that found, Ebola Ranks Among Americans’ Top Three Healthcare Concerns. The asked, “What would you say is the most urgent health problem facing this country at the present time?” And 17% of Americans said, “Ebola!”

Perhaps we should be happy that it wasn’t the number one “most urgent health problem.” It was below (Barely!) healthcare cost and healthcare availability. But the comparison to last year is interesting. Last year fewer people were concerned about availability. I figure this is the Fox News effect where people are certain that Obamacare has made healthcare less available. But fewer people are concerned about healthcare costs, so that’s progress: the American people actually have an opinion based upon fact!

And what about last year? How concerned were Americans that Ebola was the “most urgent health problem” in America? Well, it didn’t show up on the list. And why would it? No one had told them that death could be imported at any time from the “dark continent.” Let me add something new that I hope will show up on the list next year: hippopotamuses. They are responsible for about 3,000 human deaths per year. I don’t know why Fox News is not asking the obvious question, “Are people flying in from Africa being checked for hippos?!”

What’s more, the 18th leading cause of death is: falling out of bed. But most likely, you are going to die of cancer (1 in 7 chance) or heart disease (1 in 6 chance). Americans are quite concerned about cancer: 10% consider it the most urgent problem. But only 2% consider heart disease most urgent. I wonder why that is? Oh, that’s right: Americans are stupid.

I understand that fear of particular kinds of death are more frightening than others. For example, I have a great fear of burning to death, even though the chances of that happening are really slim. But Ebola isn’t really like that. I think the national freak out about Ebola is based on two things. One is pure racism: it comes from the “dark continent” and what little Americans know about it is a vague notion based upon watching Zulu in high school.

The more important aspect of The Great Ebola Freak Out of 2014 is that a Democrat is in the White House. If Romney were president, the handful of cases and the one death would have been reported in a more neutral way. But since not only was a Democrat in the White House but a Democrat who many on the right still believe is an usurper born on the “dark continent,” the coverage was more along the lines of America’s purity being contaminated.

Most rich economies have reasonably mature people. But I think the high level of inequality in the United States causes us to be stunted. I think those in power can easily manipulate the populace to infantilize them. The last thing they want is a mature electorate looking out at our largely dysfunctional political system and doing something about it. Much better to drive people to the polls because they are terrified about Ebola. Few things work better to keep the power elite in control.

How to Raise Middle Class Wages

Lawrence MishelIt is a positive thing that the beltway crowd is starting to talk about wages. After all, the paper we released at the launch of our Raising America’s Pay initiative was titled “Raising America’s Pay: Why It’s Our Central Economic Policy Challenge.” Wages are central for the simple reason that the vast middle class, as well as low-income households, rely primarily on their wage income to support their spending. And policies can restore wage growth. Let us start with Federal Reserve policy assuring a strong jobs recovery that gets unemployment down to where real wages grow at least as fast as productivity growth (which means nominal wage growth at least 3.5 to 4.0 percent). Large scale infrastructure spending would be wise as well. Yes, President Obama should allow millions of undocumented workers to work legally, thereby eliminating their vulnerability to exploitation and consequently raising their wages, which would then lift up other workers’ wages as well. Low wage workers (the bottom fifth) earn less than they did in 1968 despite a doubling of productivity and far more education simply because we have failed to adequately increase the minimum wage. We can end wage theft, raise overtime eligibility for six million workers, and end the misclassification of employees into independent contractors. We can use federal legislation to restore collective bargaining for those who want it and we can oppose the actions in the states that have weakened collective bargaining, initiatives that are expected to continue this year. And why do we need new global trade agreements that will serve to put more downward pressure on wages? (I don’t see any effort of the “winners compensating the losers” from trade.) Most of all, economic policy should take creating good jobs and lifting wages as its central concern. This is not what happened in the four decades of “flexible, innovative, American-style capitalism” that the Washington Post looks so kindly toward.

—Lawrence Mishel
Washington Post “Wage Freeze” Brain Freeze
[See article for lots of links. -FM]

Charlie Kaufman

Charlie KaufmanThe great screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is 56 years old today. But is he really “great”?! I’m open to the argument that he isn’t. Maybe he is just good and basically every other screenwriter in Hollywood is a hack. Or maybe it is that he is almost the only screenwriter who is allowed to write anything interesting. Regardless, his work is remarkable.

I don’t want to put this too broadly. There are great screenwriters. Three off the top of my head: Woody Allen, Paul Schrader, and Tony Gilroy. But Kaufman’s work is distinctly expansive of the format in ways that simply aren’t the case with Quentin Tarantino or Robert Towne or Paddy Chayefsky. He has a novelist’s view of the screenplay, but the novelist is more Kafka than Hemingway.

It is hard to appreciate Kaufman in small video clips, but I’m going to try. Let’s start with Being John Malkovich. Here is the introduction to the 7½ floor. It strikes me as quite a lot like Eugène Ionesco, although the film later panders a tad to external reality:

There is much good to say about Human Nature, even if it doesn’t fully work. But I can’t find any clips of it. So we will move on to Adaptation. It is a marvel of meta-art — a vicious attack and loving embrace of genre writing. But it still has this affecting scene in the middle of a totally ridiculous sequence:

Let’s skip by Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which I like quite a lot, because I think it had Kaufman’s soul ripped out of it. So we move to one of my very favorite films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It really is the cinematic equivalent of Crime and Punishment. And it is the best directing that Kaufman has ever received, which is interesting given that I don’t think much of Michel Gondry as a director. “Meet me in Montauk…”

Then there is Synecdoche, New York — a film so deep it gets lost inside itself. I think of it as “Charlie Kaufman does MC Escher!” It was the first time he directed, and he does have a distinctive style. But it seems very much like a director who has waited fifty years to direct. The density of the film is overpowering. It isn’t at all surprising that the film was a commercial failure. But it is an amazing film. And visually, it reminds me of the photo realist Scott Prior, who I believe was greatly influenced by Edward Hopper. Check out this scene with its world within a world:

And then nothing. Well, apparently he wrote and directed a television pilot, How and Why. But it isn’t going to be picked up. There’s a shock. And maybe this is it. Kaufman is honest enough to admit that his career has largely been a matter of luck. And it is likely the Hollywood was only interested in him because he was “weird” and surprisingly “cool” for a time. But after Synecdoche, New York, it is hard for them to escape the conclusion that he is an artist and that is not a safe conduit to the commodities and profits that they wish to create.

Happy birthday Charlie Kaufman!