Something happened on February 3rd that has never happened before, and in contrast to the event that provided the circumstance for its happening, it is almost a footnote in our discussion of what we really witnessed that day.
Superbowl XLVII was held in New Orleans last week. It was an awesome game filled with unique shows of strength, human agility and competition, and momentum swings. I have always loved sports for this reason, they can showcase the apex of physical discipline, potential, and unity. They are an active metaphor -- literally, of action.
Football may be the most apt war metaphor we have. A team is a conquering nation set upon invading the other teams turf. No individual effort of strength or force can bring victory. A win is a team win, brought upon only through clear unity. But last Monday these representations became even more pronounced. Just after halftime Jacoby Jones, a speedy receiver who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens and is a product of New Orleans, took a kickoff 108 yards for a score. The guy was flying, clearly the fastest man on the field that day. Don’t tell me that in part he was not driven by the energy of performing back on his hometown. The man represented the city in this game. It was a triumph for New Orleans. There was a cheer beyond the Stadium. Frankly, most in the stadium were outsiders, only visiting the city for the event, unaware of the fact that Jones was a native. Just after Jones scored the power in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome went out. Oh yeah, the Superdome has been renamed the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, because that changes things... Anyway, according to Entergy, the energy company supplying the power to the stadium, the outage was the product of a glitch from outside of the Superdome. Does anyone else find this oddly poetic?
I know, who wants on the festive day of the Super Bowl, with all its earning potential, both inside and outside of the city, all of its ability to showcase the most celebratory elements of the crescent city, who wants to return to the conversation of race, gentrification, education, and power, and their relationship to one another? But we are not over it. New Orleans is not over it. Yes, thousands of people descend upon this city for the Super Bowl to spend millions of dollars in the most extravagant of ways. The restaurants stock up on expensive meats. Champagne and Courvoisier VSOP are flowing. The private escort sector brings in outside recruits and stocks up on Bolivian marching powder (I mean, come on, do we really think that’s not happening?). Thousands of locals pay their rent and grocery bills through this commerce contract. But is this not an opportunity to re-examine what happened?
Katrina was a stark reminder of the inequality within our county. It awoke the common shout of the forgotten. This lens is not only applicable to the gulf region. It was an opportunity to zoom out and see where else this glitch is taking place. But that of course takes action. An action of self-inventory on the part of the power institutions in this county, as well as individuals. And for the most part these institutions have proven themselves anything but ‘powerful‘ at least in terms of Arendt’s vision of the word. They are money-strong and possess the weight of force, but these alone can lead only to a politic of totalitarianism. “True power,” again, “is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”
Have we done that? Have we, as a nation, conducted the self-inventory necessitated by Katrina?
For thirty four minutes the power in the Superdome was out. The images of the players stretching on the field were an odd, ironic, peculiar, haunting flashback to the Fall of 2005, when the turf of the Superdome became the staging ground of a mismanaged relief effort, and another reality TV show for so many around the county watching it on television.
I do not mean to say that people were not moved to action by Katrina. On the contrary, the country united in the wake of the storm and at the shocking disclosures of our government's impotence. But, possibly we have let a great part of the story go, cataloguing it under ‘what happened” We have disbanded. Labeled what happened in New Orleans as “there” and thus divorced from the “here.” We have allowed ourselves to become disempowered. I’m just saying, just asking, have we moved beyond our active, democratic right (and even mandate) to diagnose the source of a power outage?
It was a great game though. After 34 minutes of sedation the momentum shifted. The San Francisco 49ers almost pulled off a historic comeback, before the Ravens defense finally held its ground on a last down goal-line stance. It was a pretty game. A show of individual strength, a collision of forces, an art brought to being in the action of power.
For 34 minutes the fans at the Superdome, as well as the hundreds of millions of people watching across the globe, waited for power to come back. Advertisers, of course, lapped up the extra T.V. time. In between the commercials images of players from both teams laying or sitting and stretching on the turf of the Superdome were broadcast out to the world.
Let’s talk about power...Hannah Arendt writes, “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”
In addition, Arendt makes a clear distinction between power, force and strength. Power is the only of the three that in order to exist requires a union of people, “and vanishes the moment they disperse.” It is only in the “public realm” that power meets its “action potential,” and what “first undermines and then kills political communities is loss of power and final impotence.” Cease to actualize, and the power is out. In this sense democracy is the products of power, and legitimate, firm standing, only in this active action of its members, and not on the collection of force or display of strength.
In many ways New Orleans has moved beyond Katrina. The rebuilding, re-conceptualizing of the city is well, well on the way. Much of this movement has come from grass-root structures, as well as political institutions, though the latter are often mired in a economics based debate over what New Orleans ‘should‘ look like. And yet the discussion of what happened here and what still happens is often brushed aside too quickly. In 2005, a glitch from outside of the city, outside of the congregation space, had completely disempowered it.
This past weekend I took the time to watch Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary film The House I Live In, which calls passionately and insistently for the U.S. to end its decades-long War on Drugs. Jarecki’s previous documentary work includes The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) and Why We Fight (2006), and he is known for activist filmmaking that combines sharp social commentary with fluid storytelling. There is much to admire in Jarecki’s take on the effort to stamp out illicit drugs, and given the massive racial and class disparities that have emerged in prosecution and sentencing, he is right to cast the War as a litmus test of our national commitment to equitable democratic citizenship. But there is also something about the manner in which he makes his case, and the very sweep of his vision, that gives me momentary pause.
Let me touch on the film’s strong suits first. Above all else, Jarecki sheds powerful light on the intimate impacts of the drug trade and the law enforcement crackdown against it. He does so in no small part by giving a prominent role to Nannie Jeter, the African-American woman that Jarecki’s family employed as a housekeeper in his youth. (Nannie is Jeter’s given name, not a reference to her role in the family’s life.) Jarecki regards Jeter as a second mother, and he often played with her children as a boy. We learn, however, that their paths in the world diverged sharply from his own, and several of them eventually became entangled in drug use, drug-related HIV/AIDS, and incarceration. Jarecki unflinchingly relates how his family’s privilege had adverse if unintended consequences for Jeter’s, and while some viewers might fault him for inserting himself into the film, his approach ultimately lends moral heft to his pointed political argument. Jarecki maintains that we are all implicated in the circumstances that led to the War on Drugs, and he refuses to remove himself from the film’s critical scrutiny.
In addition, The House I Live In includes revealing commentary from the many varied participants in the American drug crackdown: dealers and cops, defendants and judges, prisoners and wardens, activists and lawmakers, parents and children. The film features articulate reflections from people who have dealt drugs in the past and are now in correctional custody. Significantly, not one of these individuals denies responsibility for their actions—“I messed up” is a common refrain—but all seek to situate their decisions and actions within larger structures of constraint and disadvantage. At the same time, Jarecki includes remarkably candid insights from law enforcement personnel. Although a few of them make disturbing admissions about the perverse incentives that encourage profiling and drug-bust profiteering, the film does not demonize police officers and corrections officials. It instead allows them to express both the pride and the ambivalence they feel toward their work.
Lastly, Jarecki musters a wide array of legal and other experts, including prominent academics like Michelle Alexander and Charles Ogletree, to lend his film critical perspective and authority. To be sure, almost all of these commentators are sympathetic to Jarecki’s viewpoint, but it is nevertheless refreshing to hear intellectuals speak as intellectuals in any kind of feature-length American film. What is more, these figures do not merely touch on what are, at least for me, the most familiar and even well-worn points about recent drug-related criminal justice: the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in the 1970s and 1980s, the precipitous increase in rates of incarceration, and the dramatic expansion that ensued in both the state-run and private prison industries. For these commentators also relate the War on Drugs to the years of Jim Crow in the South; the Great Migration of African Americans to the Northeast and Midwest; the redlining and other practices that contributed to the formation of racially segregated ghettos; and the far-reaching impacts of deindustrialization. This attention to the longue durée of U.S. history is one of the film’s strongest attributes.
At the same time, Jarecki’s commitment to accessible and engaging narrative sometimes gets him into trouble. Although he and his collaborators are quick to criticize the reductive sound-bites that have defined mainstream public discourse from Nixon to George W. Bush, the film is occasionally too content to rely on its own slick editing and glib turns of phrase. There are also moments when sobriety yields too much ground to showmanship. Of all his interlocutors, Jarecki grants the most prominent role not to any person directly impacted by the War on Drugs, but to David Simon, the former journalist who went on to create the HBO hit “The Wire.” To his credit, Simon is a generally subdued and thoughtful commentator, but should the maker of a television series, however relevant and critically acclaimed, really receive this kind of precedence?
Jarecki’s priorities as a filmmaker also entail some unfortunate substantive trade-offs. At one key point in the film, he relies on interview footage with several experts to contend that the criminalization of opium, cocaine, and marijuana in the early twentieth century was not ultimately driven by benign public health and safety concerns; it was rather motivated by racially charged anxieties over the arrival of immigrant groups and the challenges they posed to white workers on local and regional labor markets. I am willing to grant that racist and nativist resentments may have played some role in the crackdowns against the users and distributors of these substances.
I can only imagine, however, that this claim—at least in its bald formulation in the film—is much more contentious in scholarly and other circles than Jarecki is prepared to admit here.In any case, such a line of argument cannot explain the more recent public response to methamphetamine, a drug that is more closely associated with (poor) whites than any minority or immigrant group.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film, however, concerns the dubious parallels that Jarecki proposes between the War on Drugs and other cases of group exclusion and violence. Drawing once more on footage from multiple interviewees, he suggests that American law enforcement since the late 1960s has followed a sequence of collective identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration, and annihilation that can also be observed (most notably) in the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. The film is quick to add that the “chain of destruction” evident in the contemporary U.S. is not equivalent to the one that unfolded in Central and Eastern Europe during World War II. But that does not prevent David Simon from casting the War on Drugs as “a Holocaust in slow motion” against America’s poor and minority populations. Such hyperbolic language strikes me not just as deeply misguided, but entirely unnecessary. Viewers do not need such problematic analogies in order to grasp the film’s claims and stakes.
Despite these warts and missteps, The House I Live In is well worth watching. The film makes a daring claim on viewers’ conscience, and it calls on all of us to undertake the challenging work of thinking through our convictions as citizens in fundamental ways. We need more, not less, of this kind of provocation.