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.
Danielle Allen argues that "the real issue" in the campus protests around the country is not free speech. It is, rather, "how to think about social equality." For Allen, we are coming up against old and petrified cultural and aesthetic ideals that were imagined in a time of racial inequality. What is needed is a "re-orientation of our cultural life toward the embrace" of the ideal of equality. She writes: "To achieve social equality, however, against a backdrop of centuries of racial social subordination demands not only the vision of prophets who can imagine that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood. It calls, too, for cultural transformation, for a revolution, even, in our ordinary habits of interaction. The fight over cultural transformation is being waged on the grounds of how to deal with offensiveness. We all have a beautiful, wonderful democratic right to be offensive. Yet offensiveness is not, in fact, innocuous. So how can we thread this needle? The issue is not, of course, about single, specific insults, of which we all have tales, and which we all have to learn to take in stride. I, too, was called 'n-' on campus in the lovely, deep late-night dark of Princeton in the spring of 1993. The point, rather, is that, in the case of race, such insults represent a rising to the surface of what psychologists call 'implicit bias,' a general attribution in this country of lesser value to the lives of dark-skinned people than to those with lighter skin. Psychologists have found that not only non-blacks but also blacks harbor implicit bias against blacks. And implicit bias does its dirty work in any number of contexts: hiring decisions; policing intuitions; school discipline; teacher-student mentoring; elections; and so on.... How do you transform communities and environments that were developed to resonate with the aesthetic tastes and ways of life of one demographic group when they are meant to be homes equally welcoming to all? How do you adjust social habits that have flowed out of long traditions of hierarchy to perform nobly at the table of brotherhood? The seriousness of these questions is real, and it is reasonable and necessary for the institutions of civil society to address them. I think that in all of this controversy we have missed the biggest story of all: Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler starved himself for a week in pursuit of social equality. His action accurately measures the significance of the goal." Allen is right that the issues are grave and important, and she is correct insofar as in nearly all of the recent cases of campus protest, speech has been met with speech. When students have demanded too much--for example, the firing of House Masters at Yale or that the President of Amherst College issue a statement expressing the College's intolerance for posters on campus advocating free speech and saying that the free speech posters were "racially insensitive to the students of color on our college campus"--administrators have thankfully refused to go along. It is a right of free speech to make demands, however silly or offensive. That is why Allen is right to suggest that in most instances the accusations of a violation of free speech are overblown. And she is also right that the yelling over free speech actually obscures the difficult discussions about race and equality that need to be had on college campuses and beyond. That is why the ninth annual Hannah Arendt Center fall conference will ask: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus." Save the Date: Oct. 20-21, 2016.--RB
Randall Kennedy considers the recent incident at Harvard Law School where pieces of black tape were put over the faces of the portraits of black law professors. While many at Harvard are outraged, Kennedy--whose own portrait was defaced--says he feels neither alarmed nor hurt. He takes it for granted that racism exists at Harvard, at colleges, and around the country. Like Danielle Allen above, Kennedy understands that there is implicit bias at work in our society--indeed in every society and in every social group. But Kennedy suggests that we not confuse a "pervasive bigotry abetted by an unwillingness to redress subtle vestiges of historical racial injustice" with something less pervasive. He writes: "Assuming that it was a racist gesture, there is a need to calibrate carefully its significance. On a campus containing thousands of students, faculty members and staff, one should not be surprised or unglued by an instance or even a number of instances of racism. The question is whether those episodes are characteristic or outliers. Substantial numbers of onlookers believe that this episode is by no means isolated, that it offers a revealing glimpse into the soul of Harvard Law School." Kennedy points out that shortly after the black tape appeared, it was removed and replaced by "hundreds of brightly colored stickers expressing respect and appreciation, and rejecting bigotry." In this respect, he advises that we attend not only to our failures but also to our successes, especially the successes of the campus activists who have elevated the dissatisfactions of African American students to the top of the higher-education agenda. And amidst these successes, Kennedy offers us caution. "Successes, however, can generate or exacerbate destructive tendencies. I worry about two in particular. One involves exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear. The other involves minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved. I have asked dissidents to tell me with as much particularity as possible the circumstances that led them to say that they feel burdened, alienated, disrespected, oppressed. They complain of a paucity of black professors, courses in which racial issues, though pertinent, are marginalized, teachers whose interactions with black students display far less engagement than interactions with nonblack students, white classmates who implicitly or even expressly question the intellectual capacity of black peers ('You know, don't you, that they are here only because of affirmative action') and campus police officers who subject black students to a more intensive level of surveillance than white students. Students are also taking to task schools that allegedly disregard the sensibilities of minorities by memorializing figures who perpetrated cruel wrongs, including the Royall family, who sponsored what became Harvard Law School with funds drawn from the labor and sale of enslaved blacks; John C. Calhoun, the statesman for whom a residential college at Yale is named despite his having propounded the idea that slavery was a positive good; and Woodrow Wilson, the former president who is lionized at Princeton despite having reinforced racial segregation throughout the federal government. While some of these complaints have a ring of validity, several are dubious. A decision by a professor to focus on a seemingly dry, technical issue rather than a more accessible, volatile subject involving race might well reflect a justifiable pedagogical strategy. Opposition to racial affirmative action can stem from a wide range of sources other than prejudice. Racism and its kindred pathologies are already big foes; there is no sustained payoff in exaggerating their presence, thus making them more formidable than they actually are."
Jacqueline Rose in the London Review of Books has a long, moving, and deeply provocative reading of the roles of race, sex, and disability in the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius. Rose offers compelling portraits of Pistorius and his murdered girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, as well as of the black female South African Judge, Thokozile Matilda Masipa. Struggling to untangle the racial and sexual demons that terrorize South Africa, Rose concludes: "If there is a lesson I take from all this, it is that we should not disavow our hatreds in a futile effort to make ourselves--to make the world--clean." Her essay is a brave effort at making good on that promise to not disavow our hatreds. In one of many literary reflections on the trial, she writes: "I happened to be in Cape Town a week after the killing of Reeva Steenkamp. At the time I was reading A Bantu in My Bathroom, a book of essays by Eusebius McKaiser, a South African political and social theorist and radio talkshow host. He is known for being provocative and likes to challenge South Africans to confront their darkest thoughts. (His collection is subtitled 'Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics'.) In 2012, 18 years after the end of apartheid, he was looking for a room to rent and lighted on an advertisement from a woman willing to share her house but only, the ad stipulated, with a white person. On the phone, McKaiser got her almost to the point of sealing the deal before announcing that he wasn't white (she hung up when he suggested her choice might be racist). When he related the incident to the audience of his weekly radio programme, Politics and Morality on Talk Radio 702, two responses predominated. Either the listeners sided with the owner of the house (her property, her preference, no different from 'only non-smokers need apply'), or they made a more subtle but disquieting distinction: if the room was in a cottage in her backyard, the choice would be racist, but she clearly had the right to share her house, or not, with whomever she pleased. 'Reasonable' as the second preference might seem, McKaiser concedes in his essay, it is still 'morally odious', still 'the product of our racist past'. 'This viewpoint,' he elaborates, 'is an acknowledgment (indeed, an expression) of a deep racial angst. Why else would you be fine with Sipho [the name McKaiser gives the fictional black tenant] sleeping in the flat outside but heaven forbid that you should wake up in the morning and the first thing you see on your way to the bathroom is the heart attack-inducing spectacle of Sipho smiling at you, a horror that just might elicit a scream of apartheid proportions: "Help! There is a Bantu in my bathroom!"' 'Not one listener,' McKaiser writes, 'grappled with how it is that 18 years after our democratic journey ... racialism's reach and endurance inside their homes and hearts dare not be spoken about.' Not one avoided the cliché--indeed they all rehearsed it to perfection--that your private life is private and it is up to you what you do in your own home (a cliché whose potentially lethal consequences were of course long ago dismantled by feminism). In failing to do so, they 'betrayed dark secrets about themselves and our country'. In another essay McKaiser refers to the Coloureds of Cape Town--he himself is a Coloured--as 'the dirty little secret' of the city: 'Cape Town, you see, treats Coloured people like dirt.' 'The dirty secrets of both Jozi [Johannesburg] and Cape Town are a stain on both cities' images, like mud on a kid's new white pants.' It soon became clear that a strange, racially charged and legally confused distinction would be at the heart of the trial. If Pistorius didn't fire the shots through the toilet door in the knowledge that Steenkamp was inside, then he believed he was shooting at an intruder, in which case the charge of premeditated murder wouldn't hold up. There was no doubt that the second possibility was seen--or rather would be presented by Barry Roux for the defence--as the lesser offence, and not just because the legal category of 'putative private defence' (defending oneself against a presumed attacker, even if the presumption was wrong) could present the shooting as a legitimate response to fear. What was largely unspoken was that in the second case we can be more or less certain that the person killed in the bathroom would be--could only be--imagined as black. 'As the judge will not have failed to register,' the journalist John Carlin writes in Chase Your Shadow: The Trials of Oscar Pistorius, 'if his story were true--and even if it were not--the faceless intruder of his imagination had to have had a black face, because the fact was that for white people crime mostly did have a black face.'"
Luc Sante describes his method of finding material for his upcoming book on a Paris we don't often think about: "I wanted to tell the story of what Louis Chevalier calls the 'working and dangerous classes.' Those are my people--my forebears on both sides all the way back, Belgian in my case but with many cultural points of similarity--and it also happens to be the aspect of Parisian life that American readers know the least about. It's easy enough to define the borders there, since they were vigorously enforced by the larger culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as indeed they still are. Ambiguity arises only in a few specific areas: the worlds of literature and art, for example. Many writers and artists portrayed the poor sympathetically, and even fought on their behalf, but they themselves were not of that class. Gay life is perhaps even more subject to ambiguity, since it so often involves crossing classes.... My method is the magpie's: I look for shiny things. That is, I look for concrete material details of daily life, and I look for vigorous prose, which is the only kind I can read for very long. That effectively bars a great deal of scholarly work, but I didn't feel its loss. It's not hard to find vigorously written, colorfully detailed accounts of life in the Paris of the past, in all kinds of places. There is not just the eloquence of the people you list, but also that of reactionaries like Maxime du Camp and the Goncourt brothers, and even of a police commissioner like Adolphe Gronfier. There is such an abundance of engaging writing about the city, much of it untranslated, that my research felt like a spree."
Since Brown v. Board of Education, the rejection of "separate but equal" is one tenet of American law. Fareed Zakaria writes that many of the demands made by student protestors over the last few weeks run counter to that basic tenet. "Over the past four decades, whenever universities have faced complaints about exclusion or racism--often real--the solution proposed and usually accepted has been to create more programs, associations and courses for minority students. This is understandable, because these groups have been historically ignored, slighted and demeaned. But is this solution working, or is it making things worse? A 2004 empirical study led by Harvard University psychologist James Sidanius (who is African American) concluded that 'there was no indication that the experiences in these ethnically oriented ... organizations increased the students' sense of common identity with members of other groups or their sense of belonging to the wider university community. Furthermore ... the evidence suggested that membership in ethnically oriented student organizations actually increased the perception that ethnic groups are locked into zero-sum competition with one another and the feeling of victimization by virtue of one's ethnicity.' The academic programs that have been created and expanded also reinforce feelings of separateness. Again, there was a need for greater attention to many of the areas of study, and some extraordinary scholarship has been produced in these fields. But the cumulative effect is one that distinguished scholar Tony Judt wrote about in an essay for the New York Review of Books in 2010. 'Undergraduates today can select from a swathe of identity studies: "gender studies," "women's studies," "Asian-Pacific-American studies," and dozens of others,' he noted. 'The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves--thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine. All too frequently, such programs are job-creation schemes for their incumbents, and outside interest is actively discouraged. Blacks study blacks, gays study gays, and so forth.'" None of this changes or challenges the moving testimony of students, largely African American students, of how demeaning and de-humanizing the reality of racism is in their lives. It is natural and even sensible for students who feel marginalized and dismissed to seek safe spaces. As colleges and universities announce new programs to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on, among other things, new Deans of Diversity and new cultural and social centers for particular student groups, one hopes that research along the lines that Zakaria mentions will at least be considered.--RB
One refrain heard over and again during the student protests of the past few weeks is that those who don't live as black on American campuses can't understand the feelings of those who do. This is a truism, and yet the very essence of a liberal education is to seek, to explore, and to understand the experiences of those who are different from oneself. Thus it is helpful that Jim Sleeper seeks to articulate four separate 'Black Afflictions' that are the root of the experience of being black on American campuses. He lists: "The pressure of others' outsize hopes", "The pressure of white fear", "White classmates' myopia", and "A Wall of Malevolence". Here is a sample: "A four-walled vise presses in upon every black student at Yale, even as doors in those walls open and close unpredictably and the walls themselves sometimes seem to withdraw--all this invisible to most of us, its pressures unseen and unfelt. 1. The pressure of others' outsize hopes. Last year a black Yale undergraduate I know was working late one night in the office of a history professor for whom he was a research assistant. A custodian entered the room to empty the waste baskets. Black, too, but graying and near retirement, the older man broke into a broad smile. 'This makes me glad,' he said, as much from the heart as from the mouth. 'This makes me glad,' he repeated. 'Thank you,' the student replied, cordially but cryptically, his accent signaling his upbringing in formerly British East Africa. A distancing look flickered across the countenance of the custodian, a descendant of Southern sharecroppers and slaves whose grandparents had come to New Haven during World War II to work in gun factories now long since closed. But as quickly as the older man's doubt surfaced, he displaced it with a reaffirming smile and nod. Neither man needed to say anything more. Both understood that although the younger had grown up in a majority black society--and in an elite bubble within it, at that--they both now bore burdens of white American incomprehension, coldness, fear and, occasionally, of the kind of over-solicitude that is almost an insult. This African-American janitor expected this East African student to mitigate those burdens a bit by setting a different example, and the hope is credible precisely because the vast differences in these men's backgrounds and prospects are invisible to most whites and, for that matter, to most non-black people 'of color.' 'It only added to the weight of things,' the student told me, recalling the encounter a year later. 'If I remain here, I'm obligated to meet not only my parents' expectations but also those of black people in a white country I didn't grow up in.' He does plan to stay, not only because, on balance, that broadens his prospects against narrower ones back home, but also because he would take 'some pride and satisfaction' in lessening the weight of racism for others. But contemplating the challenge while making occasional campus forays to meet it 'saddens me,' he said three times during our conversation--saddens him in ways few of the rest of us comprehend. Sometimes it takes an outsider's shock to alert us Americans to what we usually ignore. A student from Tehran, where laborers and service workers don't differ noticeably in physiognomy from the rest of the population, told me how strange he found it, on arriving at Yale, to see an overwhelmingly black workforce serving an overwhelmingly non-black population. At least 70 percent of Yale's custodial and cafeteria workers are black. Fewer than 5 percent of the faculty are. Like the student from East Africa who finds himself carrying the hopes of a janitor with decades of white racism on his back, other black Yalies find that most black elders in their lives in New Haven are service workers. Thirty-five percent of the city's 130,000 residents are African-American; 31.8 percent are non-Hispanic white. Yale, including its medical affiliates, is black workers' biggest employer."
Drew Gilpin Faust pens an elegy to historian John Hope Franklin: "Franklin detailed the way the antebellum South rewrote the history of the American Revolution to justify its increasing commitment to slavery, how the popular history represented by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation worked to justify the early-twentieth-century revival of the Klan, how in a volume commissioned for a prominent series on southern history, respected historian E. Merton Coulter's racist assumptions produced a distorted view of Reconstruction that made an implicit argument against the extension of civil rights in the years immediately following World War II. But Franklin did not simply critique and revise; he did not just overturn existing interpretations by bringing a different lens to bear, or even by just grounding the narrative of the past in what were quite revolutionary assumptions of common human capacity and dignity. Franklin, the scholar, unearthed reams of new facts--facts no one had bothered to look for previously, facts buried in archives, newspapers, government records, facts no historian had searched for until history decided black lives mattered. Franklin's approach to the doing of history is perhaps most faithfully and explicitly chronicled in the introduction to his biography of the nineteenth-century African-American historian George Washington Williams. A pioneer in charting the black experience, Williams, who died in 1891, had been all but forgotten until Franklin began 'stalking' him. Franklin recounts the story of how over three decades he traveled to countless offices, libraries, and archives on three continents. He pursued clues and leads with imagination and unquenchable curiosity until he was able to piece together a full portrait of the man and his work. Franklin rescued Williams from oblivion to install him in his rightful place as a pathbreaking black intellectual, a precursor to Franklin himself in creating a true history of the nation's past and the place of African-Americans within it."
Ian Bogost suggests that Black Friday is in keeping with the meaning of Christmas: "Christmas gift exchange owes a debt to the social imbalance of potlatch-like excess rather than reciprocal exchange. Gift-giving symbolizes the ultimate gift of the Christian God. As John 3:16 puts it, 'God loved the world so much, that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life.' Theologically speaking, both God's and Jesus's sacrifices set an unreachable bar: a gift so peerless that no worldly version could ever best it. It is an excessive gift, a surplus of divine love. Black Friday's gift-giving is not nearly as magnanimous, but there are gifts being exchanged nevertheless, and not only from parent to child or spouse to spouse. When Amazon or Walmart or Best Buy or Target or any other retailer offers sales, discounts, special hours, and all the rest, it's easy to see them just as brusque trappings of consumerism run amok. That's not entirely wrong, but it doesn't tell the whole story, either: Sales and discounts are also gifts. And as gifts, they also participate in the social practice of reciprocity and one-upsmanship. Instead of offering greater or more valuable offerings, Black Friday deals issue their own version of the gift's challenge: They allow companies to say, 'Look what we are willing to give away, even though we normally operate by currency exchange... Sacrilegious though the suggestion might be, perhaps Black Friday ought to be thought of as the real start of Advent, rather than as a counterpoint to it. As a ritual, it is actually closer to the excessive origin of God's sacrifice than is unwrapping the latest toys and electronics a month hence. Sure, we could do without the retail bedlam and trampling, without the shadow of consumption and corporate rule by proxy, and all the other very real defects of Black Friday. But there's also something fundamentally fitting about it for the season."
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, December 4, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:30 pm
Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, will be a participant at the interdisciplinary symposium: Images of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies. The symposium is presented by the Goethe-Institut in New York, NY December 4-6, 2015.
The symposium will combine lectures, panel discussion, artist talks, and presentations to explore the topic in its various political, economic, and aethetic dimensions and open new ways to think about surveillance in the 21st century. At the heart of Images of Surveillance is the recognition that surveillance as object of study is far too complex to be grasped from any single point of view and thus requires us to combine multiple perspectives into a fuller picture of what surveillance might be. Such an approach rejects both disciplinary boundaries and post-modern indeterminacy in favor of a concerted effort to create overlaps and conceptual chains across a wide variety of practices and discourses.
To learn more about the symposium, schedule, and participants visit goethe.de/ny/sensitivedata.
Friday, December 4 through Sunday, December 6, 2015
Goethe Institut, 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003
On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus". We'll see you there!
Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
This holiday week on the Blog, Martin Wagner discusses how Arendt reconstructs from Kafka's work a writer inspired by a world "in which the actions of man depend on nothing but himself and his spontaneity" in the Quote of the Week. Also, American journalist Theodore H. White discusses what it means to go against the thinking of your friends in this week's Thoughts on Thinking.
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.