“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ~ Edmund Burke
In the 2007 film, “What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire,” the narrator brings up a phenomenon of environmental books that I’ve noticed, too. They all have about ten chapters of diagnosis, chronicling what’s wrong—species extinction, rainforest decimation, mountaintop removal, toxic chemicals in mother’s milk, melting polar sea ice, on and on. Then, in the 11th chapter, there’s a prescription of what we can do to reverse it, fix everything and restore our right relationship with the living earth. “It’s not too late” is always the message. That it comes at the end of about 200 pages of gloom and doom reflects a lack of sophistication about the human psyche. If you’ve even gotten that far, you’re not going to be convinced by a single chapter of platitudes about the indomitable human spirit. No, the preceding ten chapters will have convinced you that there is no hope. We are screwed.
I am left with a similar feeling after reading Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow. I have to admire her for using all 261 pages for the diagnosis, not claiming to have answers or a prescription. Instead, she chooses to ask powerful questions, to spark debate and exploration. This is a huge book, not only for its dense narrative and 33 pages of footnotes. It is nothing short of a reassessment of American history: full of revelations, truth telling, and looking beneath the surface of cause and effect. I wish it could be required reading of every U.S. citizen. From the first pages, I saw just how duped, blind and irresponsibly ignorant I have been about the reality of the so-called War on Drugs.
I had suspected that things were not as they seem, but this book provides detail after detail, right down to the many Supreme Court decisions that have essentially cemented the politically motivated legislation put in place in the 80s and 90s. The involvement of our third, so-called impartial branch has sealed off any obvious avenues of escape. It’s shocking, really. And depressing. This is a frighteningly complex Gordian knot.
Things must change. The lives of at least two generations of my fellow Americans have been destroyed in the name of law and order, if not with my active participation then with my complicity. Since writing helps me to make sense of things, my first response is to write a series of reflections on themes in the book.
In the early pages, Alexander lays out patterns, the ebb and flow of racism, of hierarchy, control and exploitation based on skin color and economic station. The intentionality of it is shameful, as is the utter lack of compassion. The lies and blame and condemnation of people is hard to stomach. I brought it up with a colleague who I know to be a clear thinker and politically liberal. She surprised me with her interpretation of the uprising in Baltimore last April.
She said she’s angry towards the rioters for their lawless looting, for destroying their neighborhoods. She believes that the heist of the pharmaceuticals from several drug stores was planned and executed with intent and precision. Even if it was, I do not believe that whoever did it represents the majority of the folks who were out on the streets protesting that week. I was thankful to have just read the section of Alexander’s book with the history of our country’s periodic campaigns to divide whites and people of color by labeling the latter as criminals, lazy, welfare cheats, etc. I realized that my friend’s attitude was the inevitable product of tactics employed in this country since the 18th century.
I respectfully did my best to poke holes in her interpretation, ending with a plea for her to read Alexander’s book. I was left feeling strongly that we all need this history lesson, to peel back all the lies we have been fed and get down to essence. To what is factual, what is true. The situation on the ground. The reality. Now.
We are brainwashed and poisoned by Nixon and his campaign ads, by Reagan and the War on Drugs and “welfare queens” and “crack babies,” by George Bush Sr. and the Willie Horton ad, by liberal Free Trade and bi-partisan Get Tough on Crime policies, by “Three strikes and you’re out.”
America needs a collective cleanse before an honest, healthy dialogue can take place. Which is why my argument with my colleague was so interesting. It didn’t make me angry because I instantly recognized her position as having been carefully engineered over many decades. In modern times, this cultivation of public perception has been going on at least since the 1960s pushback against the Civil Rights movement. Its DNA goes way back to the earliest days of the American Colonies, to the response to Bacon’s Rebellion. And deeper into history, to the righteousness of the Story of Progress that pits people against each other and allows one group to dominate and control others.
This intractable problem is fed by all the conscious and unconscious energy we put into believing and maintaining it. In the myth of the Gordian knot, Alexander the Great simply slices the knot in half with is sword to become king of Asia. In another version of the story, Alexander pulls the knot off its fastening pin, which allows him to untie it easily. Either way, his actions wrought changes that rippled throughout the ancient world.
One of the most liberating shifts from reading this book is to recognize that I am also infected. My racism is nothing so obvious as being frightened of Willie Horton. It has largely been hidden, politically correct, unchallenged by living in segregated neighborhoods. There’s something exhilarating about having the ground pulled away by Michelle Alexander’s history lessons. It leaves me free to question why things are this way and how else could they be. I hope my curiosity will take me to places and conversations I haven’t yet experienced.