We at the Hannah Arendt Center are always happy to celebrate the work of our fellows. This week, we recognize Aliza Becker, one of her Associate Fellows, and her creation of the American Jewish Peace Archive: An Oral History of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Activists (AJPA). Continue reading
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
The artist, Hannah Arendt wrote, was the last person who could resist the dominant role of laborer and produce works that transfigured the everyday into the extraordinary. To do so, she saw, required the artist to exist outside of society as a conscious pariah, in solitude, where the artist could acquire his or her unique and original thoughts about the world. Bill Deresiewicz has an essay in The Atlantic on the transformation of artists into creative entrepreneurs. “Creative entrepreneurship, to start with what is most apparent, is far more interactive, at least in terms of how we understand the word today, than the model of the artist-as-genius, turning his back on the world, and even than the model of the artist as professional, operating within a relatively small and stable set of relationships. The operative concept today is the network, along with the verb that goes with it, networking…. What we see in the new paradigm–in both the artist’s external relationships and her internal creative capacity–is what we see throughout the culture: the displacement of depth by breadth. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? No doubt some of both, in a ratio that’s yet to be revealed.” But Deresiewicz clearly has his worries: “It’s hard to believe that the new arrangement will not favor work that’s safer: more familiar, formulaic, user-friendly, eager to please–more like entertainment, less like art. Artists will inevitably spend a lot more time looking over their shoulder, trying to figure out what the customer wants rather than what they themselves are seeking to say. The nature of aesthetic judgment will itself be reconfigured. ‘No more gatekeepers,’ goes the slogan of the Internet apostles. Everyone’s opinion, as expressed in Amazon reviews and suchlike, carries equal weight–the democratization of taste. Judgment rested with the patron, in the age of the artisan. In the age of the professional, it rested with the critic, a professionalized aesthete or intellectual. In the age of the genius, which was also the age of avant-gardes, of tremendous experimental energy across the arts, it largely rested with artists themselves. ‘Every great and original writer,’ Wordsworth said, ‘must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.’ But now we have come to the age of the customer, who perforce is always right.”
The common world, that world of appearance we share amidst are meaningful differences, is ever more fragile. In her book The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt worries that we lose faith in anything true or great that could unite plural individuals in a common world. She sees that the loss of a concern with immortality and with acts, deeds, and works that deserve to be remembered would deprive us of a shared world. All politics, Arendt writes, demands transcendence in the sense that we step beyond our solipsistic experiences and enter a world we share with others. Pursuing this Arendtian theme, Michael W. Clune in the LA Review of Books explores the effort of some contemporary art to cultivate the experience of “mere appearance,” appearances so fleeting that they resist any shared commonality. Such art celebrates the radically individual transcendental experience against the transcendence of a common world: “Here is the fact: Something is wrong with the world. There is a fundamental flaw in society. Relations between people seem to have something wrong with them. Something … off. Sometimes, when I want to share something with you, I realize that my experience has an unsharable dimension. I realize that we encounter each other only by peering across the thick boundary of our social personas. I don’t know how to fix this problem, but I don’t like it. I can only meet other people on the terrain of a common world that seems too heavy, too alien, too uncomfortable, too cold. Sometimes I protest by looking away, by watching the part of my experience that none of you can touch.” For Clune, the effort of contemporary artists to dwell in mere appearance is, but is not only, a “turn away from the world.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses the importance of popular art that’s cheap to produce: “One reason why I still enjoy books, including comic books, is that there’s still more room for a transgressive diversity. If Greg Pak wants to create an Amadeus Cho, he doesn’t have to worry about whether America is ready for a Korean-American protagonist. Or rather, he doesn’t have to put millions of dollars behind it. I don’t know what that means to a young, Asian-American comic books fan. But when I was eight, the fact that Storm could exist–as she was, and in a way that I knew the rest of society did not accept–meant something. Outside of hip-hop, it was in comics that I most often found the aesthetics and wisdom of my world reflected. Monica Rambeau was my first Captain Marvel. James Rhodes was the first Iron Man I knew…one reason I’m always cautious about the assumption that everything is improved by turning it into a movie is that the range of possibility necessarily shrinks. I’d frankly be shocked if we ever see a Storm, in all her fullness and glory, in a film.”
If you carry a cell-phone, use the internet, or walk down the street, you abandon your expectation of privacy. Even in your home, your life is increasingly transparent. There is no place to hide from the bright light of the public. But in Europe, unlike in the United States, there is an effort to think about the right to have your private failures publicly forgotten. Heather Roff explores how this might work. “Last year, The European Court of Justice ruled in Google vs. Costeja that European citizens have the right, under certain circumstances, to request search engines like Google, to remove links that contain personal information about them. The Court held that in instances where data is ‘inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive’ individuals may request the information to be erased and delinked from the search engines. This ‘right to be forgotten’ is a right that is intended to support and complement an individual’s privacy rights. It is not absolute, but must be balanced ‘against other fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression and of the media’ (paragraph 85 of the ruling). In the case of Costeja, he asked that a 1998 article in a Spanish newspaper be delinked from his name, for in that article, information pertaining to an auction of his foreclosed home appeared. Mr. Costeja subsequently paid the debt, and so on these grounds, the Court ruled that the link to his information was no longer relevant. The case did not state that information regarding Mr. Costeja has to be erased, or that the newspaper article eliminated, merely that the search engine result did not need to make this particular information ‘ubiquitous.’ The idea is that in an age of instantaneous and ubiquitous information about private details, individuals have a right to try to balance their personal privacy against other rights, such as freedom of speech.” Privacy, and why it matters, will be the theme of the Hannah Arendt Center’s 8th annual conference this October 15-16th. Save the Date.
Slavoj Zizek considers the possibilities of solidarity in the shadow of neoliberalism and colonialism: “It was relatively easy to identify with the Charlie Hebdo journalists, but it would have been much more difficult to announce: ‘We are all from Baga!’ (For those who don’t know: Baga is a small town in the north-east of Nigeria where Boko Haram executed two thousand people.) The name ‘Boko Haram’ can be roughly translated as ‘Western education is forbidden,’ specifically the education of women. How to account for the weird fact of a massive sociopolitical movement whose main aim is the hierarchic regulation of the relationship between the sexes? Why do Muslims who were undoubtedly exposed to exploitation, domination and other destructive and humiliating aspects of colonialism, target in their response the best part (for us, at least) of the Western legacy, our egalitarianism and personal freedoms, including the freedom to mock all authorities? One answer is that their target is well chosen: the liberal West is so unbearable because it not only practises exploitation and violent domination, but presents this brutal reality in the guise of its opposite: freedom, equality and democracy.”
Lucy Kellaway explores the excruciating and unbounded silence of unanswered emails. “Silence is not just a response to job searches, but to pitches, invitations, proposed meetings, memos, general requests–or to anything sent by email. From this non-communication everyone loses, though some more than others. For the purveyors of silence, not replying may be neither polite nor efficient, but is vital for survival. Every day I fail to reply to dozens of messages as with so much dross coming in, silence is the only way of staying sane. But such sanity on one side breeds insanity on the other. The jobseeker is demented by the silence–the certainty of rejection, he told me, would have been kind by comparison. On any given day I am anywhere between mildly and debilitatingly anxious about why assorted people have failed to reply to my messages. Was the silence that greeted a slightly cheeky email due to disgust at its fresh tone? When I sent an email containing the outline of a column idea in it, was the resulting silence dismay? Or disagreement? Or something else entirely? What is so distracting about silence on email is that it is impossible to fathom. When you are speaking to someone, you can see whether they are struck dumb from amazement, disapproval or boredom. But emails give no clues. Has the person even seen your message? Are they deliberately ignoring you? Are they disgusted? Busy? Out of battery? Or could it be that–as often happens to me–they have read the message on their mobile without reading glasses to hand, and by the time they have got their glasses the moment has passed.” Kellaway has some excellent insights into how and when to nag or follow up on email. But no techniques will eradicate the nausea of email overload or the anxiety of unanswered emails.
Ian Crouch lauds new Larry Wilmore’s Comedy Central fake news show, The Nightly Report, as he chronicles its growing pains: “The show has included the kinds of voices that don’t normally get much of a fair airing on Comedy Central, or in the wider Jon Stewart produced or inspired universe of political comedy. Last Wednesday, the conservative radio host David Webb could be seen defending the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The night before, an anti-vaccine activist named Zoey O’Toole argued that immunization should be more about individual choice than public safety. This week, the Baptist pastor Michel Faulkner talked about his opposition to gay marriage. None of these arguments were particularly persuasive or, to the average Comedy Central viewer, likely even plausible, but they were at least freely expressed, as part of the show’s nightly unscripted discussion between Wilmore and a changing four-person panel made up of journalists, politicians, activists, and comedians. One of the trademarks of Comedy Central’s political comedy has been its insularity. The sets of Stewart and Colbert were safe spaces for liberals to mock the powerful and fatuous, and laugh together through their shared outrage. The chanting and hooting from the studio audience was polite liberalism tapping into its id. On ‘Colbert,’ the anti-vaxxer would have been discredited by the eager support of the idiotic Colbert character; on ‘The Daily Show,’ she would have been openly ridiculed. Here, Wilmore and the other guests on the panel mostly tried to reason with her, which is more generous, and perhaps even more useful, than simple excoriation or humiliation. But can the search for consensus or good will be funny? ‘I’m not interested in doing a show where I give my opinion and people react to my opinion,’ Wilmore said a few weeks ago, during a press appearance. ‘Our show is more about the discovery of things. I want people who will teach me something.’ So far, however, there has been little evidence of discovery.”
The Hannah Arendt Center announces three post-doctoral fellowships for the 2015-2016 academic year.
To learn more about the fellowships, including how to apply, click here.
Application Deadline: Thursday, March 5, 2015
Courage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Eyal Press
The Courage To Refuse
Monday, February 9, 2015
Kline Faculty Dining Room, 6:00 pm
“Wollstonecraft and the Right to Political Community
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 6:00 – 7:00 pm
The film is based on the newly discovered diaries of Heinrich Himmler. Watch a trailer here.
Monday, February 23, 2015
Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 6:00 – 9:00 pm
“Natality and its Vicissitudes”
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:00 pm
Putting Courage at the Centre: Gandhi on Civility, Society and Self-Knowledge
Monday, March 30, 2015
Manor House Cafe, 6:00 pm
Property and Freedom: Are Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty in South Africa?
A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and The University of The Western Cape
Monday, April 6, 2015
Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am – 7:00 pm
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference, “Privacy: Why Does It Matter?,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We’ll see you there!
This week on the Blog, Ian Storey discusses how a problem of language and appearance in our society fails to account for untold millions of people who are suffering in the Quote of the Week. J. William Fulbright provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. And we appreciate a particular passage that Arendt underlined in Machiavelli’s history of Florence in our Library feature.
We commonly assume that political acts and claims are shaped by some form of reasoning. How then do we respond to political stands in which arguments are piled atop arguments in contradictory ways, and where the force of the various arguments is less important than victory? We see in political discourse a definite willingness to embrace any argument that helps one win, whether or not it makes sense.
One example of our cynical embrace of bad arguments is the recent controversy over the East Side Gallery in Berlin. The Gallery is comprised of a series of murals that, over the course of the past two decades, an international cast of artists has painted and re-painted on an approximately one-mile stretch of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, the East Side Gallery occupies the longest existing remnant of the Wall, and it has become a significant landmark not only for those visitors who seek to experience something of the city’s Cold War past, but also for those long-time residents who regard it as an embodiment of the city’s contemporary feel and texture.
The tumult of the past few weeks erupted over the plans of a developer, Maik Uwe Hinkel, to construct luxury apartments and an office complex in the former border zone—now a modest green space—that lies between the East Side Gallery and the Spree River. According to the agreements reached by Hinkel and the local government, these new buildings would entail the creation of an access road and pedestrian bridge to allow passage to pedestrians, bicyclists, and emergency vehicles. The road and bridge, in turn, would require the removal of two stretches of the East Side Gallery and their replacement in the adjacent green space. Local planners had first approved the construction and the alteration to the East Side Gallery back in 2005, and since that time Hinkel’s plans had aroused little concerted opposition.
When workers lifted out one concrete slab from the Gallery on Friday, March 2nd, however, hundreds of demonstrators flocked to the site to prevent any further removals. A group of activists hastily organized a larger demonstration that same weekend, one that ultimately drew a raucous crowd of more than six thousand people. In the face of these surprising protests, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit declared that all further work on the site would be postponed until at least March 18th, when a meeting of the major players would decide its fate. Since then, the developer and the relevant local officials have all declared their eagerness to find a solution that preserves the East Side Gallery in its current state. Even the slab removed earlier this month seems destined to return to its former location.
Yet the apparent success of the protest threatens to overshadow the problematic aspects of the demonstrators’ arguments. On the one hand, many of the organizers and protesters regarded their opposition as a small but significant rejoinder to the insistent tide of commercial development in post-Wall Berlin. To adopt the terms of Sharon Zukin’s recent book Naked City, they saw the East Side Gallery as an embodiment of the city’s distinctive authenticity and rootedness, which they argued should be protected from the homogenizing onslaught of upscale growth and gentrification. To wit, one of the coalitions that spearheaded the protest calls itself “Sink the Media Spree” (Mediaspree Versenken), a name that invokes developers’ recent efforts to transform the area along the river into a headquarters for high-tech communications and media. Its webpage declares that this portion of Berlin should preserve “the neighborhood” as it currently exists and not fall victim to “profit mania” (Kiez statt Profitwahn).
But the East Side Gallery cannot be cast so readily as an incarnation of local authenticity, especially the kind that stands opposed to commerce. First of all, many government actors and city residents were far more eager to see the Wall dismantled in the months and years after November 1989 than to see it preserved, and they condoned if not actively contributed to its wholesale removal. As a result, the survival of the East Side Gallery represents the exception, not the rule, in the city’s engagement with the Wall as a material structure. Second, artists from around the world initially established the East Side Gallery as a celebration of artistic and political liberty, but their murals received support from the local and national governments because they helped to draw tourists to Berlin and added to the city’s cachet as a cultural destination. In the light of this state patronage, I find it rather curious to hear activists pitching the East Side Gallery against the forces of capital and development.
On the other hand, many demonstrators contended that the alteration of the East Side Gallery would amount to an intolerable attack on the city’s historical inheritance. One variation of this position is that the removal of the two sections constitutes a dilution if not erasure of Germany’s traumatic past. According to this argument, the East Side Gallery should be left intact so that residents and visitors can confront the traces of the country’s division. Another, more strident variation insists that the construction plans display a callous disregard for those who suffered under the East German regime and, more specifically, lost their lives while attempting to escape it. In the words of one activist in Der Tagesspiegel: “the most important point is not whether the Wall will be opened. We are against the combination of removing the Wall and building hotels and apartments in death strips.”
Again, the East Side Gallery’s connection with Germany’s fraught past is not nearly as straightforward as the activists and demonstrators have suggested. As Brian Ladd details in his book The Ghosts of Berlin, the murals of the East Side Gallery were not painted until the early 1990s, after the Wall had fallen and East Germany had ceased to exist. In fact, this portion of the Wall could not have been painted before 1989, because it stood in East Berlin, and anyone who attempted to leave a mark on it, or even lingered near it, would have been apprehended by East German police officers or border soldiers. Of course, amateur and professional artists did draw and paint some striking imagery on the Berlin Wall during the Cold War, but they created it on the Wall’s “outer” surface while standing in West Berlin, where they had much less to fear from East German border personnel. The muralists who launched and maintained the East Side Gallery certainly meant to evoke and further this tradition of “Wall art,” but in the process they abstracted it from a prior historical era and relocated it in another part of the city.
I note these objections not because I support the proposed construction or the alteration of the East Side Gallery. In particular, I am not at all convinced that the partial removal of the Wall is really necessary, whether or not Hinkel and the city go ahead with the area’s development. But I am troubled by the protesters’ reluctance to take the ironies and complexities of the current circumstances more fully into account. They are too eager to cast the developer and local officials as the villains in this story, particularly when the city and the federal government have in fact created a substantial memorial landscape related to the Wall. And they are too quick to position themselves on the moral high ground. Given the Wall’s disappearance from virtually every other part of the city, their demands for preserving the East Side Gallery seem more than a little belated.
Did the Arab Spring come from nowhere, or was it preceded by modes of social and political action that might have eluded our common conceptual frames? How do ordinary people in the Middle East manage and even alter the conditions of everyday life despite the recalcitrance of authoritarian governments? These questions formed the starting point for Asef Bayat’s lecture “Non-Movements and the Power of the Ordinary,” which he gave in Olin Hall on Thursday evening, February 7th. Bayat is the Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches in the sociology and Middle East Studies departments. Throughout his illustrious career, his research has focused on social movements, religiosity, and urban space in Iran, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern states.
Contrary to common public perception, Bayat insisted that these countries’ subaltern populations do not resign themselves to adverse economic and political circumstances. Indeed, the region has well established traditions of activism among leftists, unionists, women, Islamists, and post-Islamists, among many other constituencies. But it has often proven difficult to create and sustain organized social movements when Middle Eastern states have been so reluctant to tolerate opposition. How then might citizens foster meaningful political change?
Bayat argued that many Middle Easterners, rather than overtly confronting authoritarian governments, have resorted to what he calls “social non-movements.” Such non-movements are defined not by formal lobbying and protest, but rather by fleeting moments of mundane but nevertheless contentious action. Such action constitutes a “quiet encroachment of the ordinary” to the extent that it slowly alters everyday conditions in a manner that authoritarian state forces must respond to but cannot easily prevent. At the same time, social non-movements are propelled not by bureaucratic organizations that governments can readily identify and target, but rather by constituencies of dispersed individuals and groups who mobilize around common experiences and grievances.
In an effort to lend empirical weight to these general claims, Bayat offered a series of illustrative case studies. One concerned the actions of the poor. In Egypt and many other countries of the Middle East, large numbers of rural residents have sought to escape grinding material scarcity by moving to larger cities and building their own homes from scavenged materials. The formation of these squatter settlements is rarely if ever coordinated by any formal collective organization, but it nevertheless results in a dramatic reshaping of the urban landscape. Although government forces may initially destroy homes built in this fashion, the persistent construction and reconstruction eventually compels them to alter urban planning protocols, provide water, electricity and other utilities, and incorporate these makeshift districts into the “official city.”
Another case study turned on pious women’s myriad efforts to carve out more satisfying places for themselves in Iranian public life. The Islamic Republic has long sought to regulate female bodily coverage in the street as one means of assuring the nation’s moral and spiritual integrity, but hundreds of thousands of women have opted to defy government dictates by wearing “bad hijab” (i.e., headscarves and chadors that leave a few centimeters of hair visible). These women’s subtle but consistent sartorial challenges, which circumvent but do not entirely disregard the state’s norms of bodily coverage, have gradually shifted the requirements that government actors can effectively enforce on a day-to-day basis.
Moreover, large numbers of women wear hijab while hiking, jogging, driving cars, and engaging in other activities that are not conventionally regarded as gender-appropriate, or they choose to live alone and unmarried rather than in the homes of their parents and spouses. Once again, these varied practices have not been centrally orchestrated or institutionalized, but they have nevertheless altered the terms of women’s participation in everyday life.
Bayat acknowledged that social non-movements like these can and do coalesce into more organized and concerted activism, and he recognized that both movements and non-movements constitute important means for subaltern groups to claim de facto citizenship. But he also insisted that these two modes of action cannot be readily equated. Whereas social movements pursue a politics of overt protest, non-movements engage in a quieter, less obtrusive politics of everyday presence and practice. They are also driven less by specific and explicit ideological commitments than by inchoate desires for more expansive and appealing life chances. Nevertheless, they also provide a nutritive context within which more articulate claims for rights and resources might be formulated.
Bayat’s lecture offered a suggestive framework through which to conceive practices and processes that often do not meet our established expectations of politics. Much of the ensuing discussion then attempted to probe and delimit the contours of his argument. What, for example, are the conditions in which a social non-movement might pivot into more cohesive and institutionalized forms of collective protest? How can a social non-movement be distinguished from a dissenting subculture or counter-public, more conventional forms of deviant or illegal behavior, or the glacial drift of wider social change? And to what degree does the notion of a social non-movement presume the existence of an authoritarian state, whether in the Middle East or in other parts of the world? Could we also identify non-movements, for instance, in the liberal democracies of North America and Western Europe?
Here Bayat contended that non-movements were closely tied to authoritarian states that retain a degree of “softness.” That is to say, these states aspire to exert thorough if not complete control over the social field, but they ultimately lack the capacity to make such control a living reality. As a result, they necessarily leave “opaque spaces” that subaltern groups can turn to their own advantage. Bayat’s remarks obviously referred to the many Middle Eastern governments that have recently teetered or toppled as a result of the Arab Spring. Yet he also suggested that the gradual undoing of Prohibition in the 1930s U.S. might also illustrate the concept of a social non-movement and its long-term incremental effects.
In his reading, the ban on alcohol was undermined less by concerted lobbying and protest than by millions of Americans’ spontaneous, mundane but eventually consequential disregard for existing legislation.
To my mind, this apparent discrepancy was not a flaw in Bayat’s analysis as much as an invitation for further inquiry. Like the lecture as a whole, it demonstrated the rewards but also the challenges of breaking out of our intellectual ruts to wrestle with complexity in new ways.
Readers who would like to delve further into Bayat’s argument should consult his book Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2010).
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.