This Week In Death Threats

Not everybody loves Current Affairs. This week, an unpleasant Tweet from a man with strong political views.

Any good magazine can expect to receive its share of terrifying homicidal abuse from the public. As they saying goes: if they’re not threatening to kill you, you’re probably not a very good journalist. So Current Affairs was a bit chagrined not to have provoked any readers into truly impassioned fury and mania.

Fortunately, we have finally received our first ominous warning from an Internet lunatic, courtesy of Twitter. And so we begin a new feature, This Week in Death Threats.

Let’s have a gander at the week’s entrant, shall we?

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As you can see, Current Affairs was minding its business, pleasantly showing off some innovative new ideas for automotive decals, when user @BlessedTex stepped in to spoil the whole vibe with his AR-15. What a parade-raining Grumpy Gus!

Now, before we get to know our ill-humored interlocutor a little better, please feel free to place bets as to what the gentleman’s politics are, and which presidential candidate he prefers.

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Well, I never! Blessed Tex self-describes thusly: Jesus is Lord! | Constitutionalist Conservative | Zionist | Pro -Life -2A -Military -Police | #IslamisEvil#PPMurdersBabies#DumpTrump#TCOT#PJNET#CruzCrew

For those of you who chose “Pro-life hashtag-loving right-wing Zionist” and “Ted Cruz,” congratulations! For those of you who expected his page would be littered with Stars of David, Bible passages, and photographs of colorful orchids, double-congrats.

Some of you may of course be thinking to yourselves: “Now, Current Affairs, hang on just a gosh-danged minute here, that’s hardly a death threat. How very alarmist you are being!”

Oh, very well. If we are parsing cautiously, Blessed Tex technically said he would rather take an AR-15 to the Affairsmobile® than festoon his own motorcar with our advertisements. But try explaining that to the poor quivering Current Affairs social media interns, who spent the whole day casting anxious looks at the windows here in CAHQ.

In fact, Blessed Tex might not dislike Current Affairs at all. This may be more about a particular fetish Blessed Tex has for shooting innocent windows, regardless of which magazine’s private vehicle fleet they may belong to. Thus we may be mistaken in our conjecture regarding the source of the man’s animosity. (We may, so to speak, be mere oblivious Navins puzzling over bullet-ridden cans.) Yet since Blessed Tex did not attempt to follow up with a caveat-tweet, explaining that his statement would only apply if members of the Current Affairs staff were not in the vehicle at the time, and since an AR-15 is quite a big and frightening gun, we feel justified in putting this Tweet in our stack of threats.

Current Affairs continues to be proud of the valuable work we do in pissing off Ted Cruz supporters on Twitter. To support this work, as well as our purchase of bulletproof glazing, you may want to consider donating to our magazine. As we expand, who knows how many window-hating, sweater-wearing riflemen we may attract the ire of?

Current Affairs is strongly opposed to receiving death threats. Our showcasing of ominous remarks should not be taken as encouragement to send further ominous remarks. We would love nothing more than never to have another edition of This Week in Death Threats, and all potentially violent antagonism toward our magazine shall be dealt with very seriously indeed and reported to the relevant authorities. 

Examining the Conservative Defense of Police Shootings

Is most police behavior fine, dandy, and racism-free? And what does it mean if it is?

As horror over police shootings has grown nationwide over the past year, some sympathy for the goals of Black Lives Matter protesters has come from the right as well as the left. Jeb Bush gave the issue minor lip service in August, and Mr. Rod Dreher of The American Conservative has voiced outrage over the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland. In fact, it is understandable why the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police might worry conservatives: their ostensible principles of limited government and individual rights are somewhat undermined by a state of affairs in which the government can shoot a person to death for no reason at all.

But according to Mr. David French of the National Review, the true conservative position on this is that the problems cited by black citizens are not problems at all. Police are doing their jobs well overall, and a mountain is being made out of a molehill. Thus a clear-eyed examination of the facts “should defuse national tensions,” but unfortunately a “false narrative” is fueling a misguided social movement.

First, it is important to understand what this position assumes: that the majority of blacks who do not have confidence in the police cannot hold their beliefs because of their own experiences. Instead they are being, as French puts it, “taught to hate and fear law enforcement, fed on a steady diet of lies about their own country.” The 3 out of 5 black people who report that they have personally been treated unfairly by police must not understand that they were, in fact, treated fairly. Anyone who wishes to argue that there is no widespread race problem in policing must necessarily discount everything said by most black people about the behavior they have witnessed firsthand.

But perhaps it is true that millions of black people are simply being tricked into believing that they have had bad experiences with police. Mr. French believes that the statistics, properly examined, reveal that this must be the case. As he explains, the evidence will show that while policing may have its occasional deadly mishaps and whoops-a-daisies, on the whole it is not worthy of serious complaint:

The conservative response is clear: While no one believes the police are perfect, on the whole they tend to use force appropriately to protect their own lives and the lives of others. 

Now, first, the limits of French’s contention should be carefully noted. It is easy to let a sentence like the above go by without observing the tiny sleight-of-hand buried within. Here, we should notice something quite important: the proposition French will attempt to defend is not, in fact, inconsistent with the case made by Black Lives Matter. French says conservatives believe police “tend” to use force appropriately. But this verb should raise an enormous skeptical eyebrow. For police could indeed tend to use force appropriately, while nevertheless using force inappropriately at very high rates. If I say “I tend to follow the law,” I might still disregard the law about 30% of the time. What if I say of someone “Oh, don’t worry, he tends not to murder people”? Should you be concerned about being murdered by this person?

This is terribly important. It goes beyond the simple choice of particular verbs; it is something to watch out for whenever a statistical argument is being made, and it matters especially where we are assessing the taking of life. For if I say “95% of police use of force is justified,” that sounds like an excellent record. But even if we know that number to be accurate, it is nevertheless not nearly as definitive as it appears to be. For what about the remaining 5%? Five percent is one-in-twenty. If the five percent was murder, the fact that 95% of police activities were not murder wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference. It would be as if a serial killer defended himself by saying “Well, it’s a bit unfair for you to point out all the murders I have committed, without paying any attention whatsoever to the many I haven’t committed. 95% of the women I meet, I don’t try to kill, and only a minuscule fraction of my day is devoted to murdering. When you look at my life’s activities on the whole, I really do tend not to murder people much at all.” (Incidentally, this is what Planned Parenthood’s “our activities are only 3% abortion” sounds like to conservative ears, which is why it’s a silly defense to make.)

But Mr. French strongly believes that by showing that most police shootings are not cold-blooded murders of unarmed black men, he has proven something. As he says, the police are “generally responsible,” and

[t]he kinds of shootings that launched the Black Lives Matter movement — white police officers killing unarmed black men — represent “less than 4 percent of fatal police shootings.”

Mr. French says that the Washington Post has been trying to “hype the racial injustice of this statistic” by pointing out that unarmed black men are much more likely to get shot than members of other demographic groups. This is where he gives us the thrust of his defense: to the extent that racial disparities exist, they exist because black people commit more crimes than white people do. He argues that black people only get shot so much because they commit so many crimes. If they committed fewer crimes, then perhaps they’d get shot less.

But this assumes something utterly unwarranted, namely that the people who have been killed were criminals. In support of this, French cites evidence that 564 out of the 965 people killed by police in 2015 were “armed with a gun.” But the entire meaning of the Second Amendment is that having a gun is no crime. One can stroll down the street with one’s AR-15 if one so pleases, and that is simply the beauty of freedom. Thanks to the Constitution, saying the victim was “armed with a gun” is no different to saying the victim was “wearing a hat.” Perfectly lawful, the relevant question is whether the police had good reason to believe the person was posing a threat.

Of course, this also leaves us with several hundred killings of unarmed people. But here, again, Mr. French tells us that crime rates resolve the question. It’s a bizarre way to defend killing, though. It assumes that if someone has committed a crime, it is acceptable to put them to death without trial. In fact, it is worth asking: what if the unarmed black men being killed are often criminals? (in the non-technical sense, since legally they are innocent until proven guilty) They can be killed, even if they pose no threat? The “conservative case” made by Mr. French does away with every single requirement of due process.

In fact, we know many of those who are killed are criminals. Eric Garner, who was choked to death in New York, was a criminal: he had sold loose cigarettes without paying his taxes. Statistically, blacks probably do this more often than whites do (partially because selling cigarettes on the street is something done mostly by poorer people, and black people are disproportionately poorer than white people), thus more black people will be choked to death. Have we justified anything by proving this?

The same is true with Walter Scott, the South Carolina man shot in the back as he ran from police. He was committing a crime as he was shot: he fled arrest! But if flight warranted death, Affluenza-boy could simply have had a bullet put in him the moment he was pulled from a Mexican apartment block.

So of course a lot of the victims are going to have committed crimes. When police shot a 19-year-old man and a 55-year-old mother in Chicago last weekend, they were aiming to shoot a criminal: the teenager had been having a violent tantrum, and that was the entire reason the police were called. So, too, Lacquan McDonald, who had slashed a police car’s tires and allegedly committed burglary. And Tamir Rice shouldn’t have been waving an AirSoft gun in the direction of people! The entire point here is that these shootings are disproportionate to whatever has gone on and whatever crime might have been committed.

“Ah,” French might say, “but you have conceded my case. There’s no racism here! If, say, police murder 1% of all those suspected of committing crimes, and 70% of those who commit crimes are black, then there will of course be racial disparities in the underlying numbers.”

But the argument is pitiful: “It might be true that police murder quite a few unarmed black men, but this is acceptable because these unarmed black men were thought to have engaged in crimes. And they were murdered because of that, rather than their race.” We can call this the “Hey, I may be a murderer, but I’m no racist” defense. All it suggests is that police brutality as a whole is deeper than simply being racism. A Marxist might say something similar.

There’s something worth appreciating about the theory that the violence is more widespread than race alone would tell us. Being accused of a crime is a highly relevant factor: when police beat (white) homeless man Kelly Thomas to death, they apparently thought he had been vandalizing cars. When police intentionally had (white) Jared Lemay mauled by a dog, he had been violating his probation. It may indeed be that where violence is concerned, police simply dish it out mercilessly to whoever they are after, and they happen to be after black men more.

But it’s also true that the statistics don’t disprove the existence of a racist criminal justice system. After all, one can only prove that a person has committed a crime (and thus measure the race of criminals) if the person is convicted of a crime. But if black people are more likely to be arrested for committing the same crime as a white person, and then more likely to be convicted, then we are not factoring unconvicted white criminals into our crime rate analysis. Pointing out that black people are convicted more than white people in addition to being shot more is completely consistent with a theory that every part of the criminal justice system is shot through with racism. Mr. French apparently hasn’t had a look at The New Jim Crow, and doesn’t realize that reformers’ entire argument is that black people are being convicted of crimes in outrageous numbers, while ordinary criminals such as congresspeople get neither shot nor convicted!

That’s not to dispute that homicides by and against black people are higher than those by and against white people. Black people know this better than anyone and are constantly attempting to draw attention to it, not that the National Review cares much about these things when they’re not trying to score a point against protesters. But instead of seeing this as a social problem in need of repair, Mr. French sees it as warrant for the police to kill the alleged perpetrators before they even go to trial.

The “conservative case” against Black Lives Matter, then, is founded on multiple ignorant premises. The first is that somehow, by showing that most police behavior is acceptable, we have proven that shootings are not occurring at unacceptable rates. This is a hideous irrational non sequitur that in a just world would result in the revocation of Mr. French’s bar license. The second is that it’s acceptable to murder unarmed black people so long as the rate of killing increases in direct proportion with the number of crimes they commit. The third is that the people being killed are criminals, which they aren’t, since dead men don’t go to trial. The fourth is that once someone is a criminal, any level of force whatsoever is acceptable to be used against them. The fifth is that the Second Amendment doesn’t exist. The sixth is that racism doesn’t affect the number of criminal convictions. And the seventh is that black people are totally delusional about their own first-person memories.

The conservative case on Black Lives Matter ought to be that if small government means anything, it means not being shot in the head by the government, without so much as an arraignment. But for David French, as for many others, the definition of “conservatism” often simply amounts to a defense of the use of violence by the powerful, with all the highfalutin rights-talk being mostly a sham. If Mr. French’s argument is the conservative case, black people should be fearful indeed of conservative justice.

Of Course Money Is Speech

Protesting that “money isn’t speech” misses the point of what money is.

Earlier this year, when protesters disrupted the Supreme Court on the anniversary of the Citizens United opinion, they trumpeted a familiar slogan: “money isn’t speech.” In the four years since the ruling, this phrase has been the linchpin of the liberal critique of American campaign-finance jurisprudence, the idiom of the movement to get “money out of politics.”

Yet there are profound limitations to a politics that attempts to distinguish between money and speech. While attempts to curtail corporate expenditures in elections are important, the Citizens United court inadvertently recognized a profound truth about the way wealth structures society. Money is speech, which is precisely why its distribution matters so much.

The Citizens United case, which struck down prohibitions on corporate (and union) campaign spending, was never so much a change in First Amendment case law as its logical endpoint. American courts have long conceptualized free speech as a wholly negative liberty, their sole concern the degree to which the government can explicitly intervene in the activities of citizens.

But this idea of free speech has always suffered from a contradiction, namely that the exercise of speech is always shaped by the economic situation of the speaker. As the Court put it in its landmark 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo:

Virtually every means of communicating ideas in today’s mass society requires the expenditure of money. The distribution of the humblest handbill or leaflet entails printing, paper, and circulation costs. Speeches and rallies generally necessitate hiring a hall and publicizing the event. The electorate’s increasing dependence on television, radio, and other mass media for news and information has made these expensive modes of communication indispensable instruments of effective political speech.

The Buckley opinion arose from a challenge to post-Watergate provisions in the Federal Election Campaign Act. Congress attempted to place strict limits on both individual contributions and candidate expenditures, but the Court rejected the latter, laying the foundation for Citizens United. Each verdict reasons that to see the First Amendment as solely protecting speaking is an absurdity. In the Court’s view, since one’s ability to speak is so tied to one’s wallet, the argument that money isn’t speech collapses.

And they’re right. But that should lead us to a truly sweeping and critical verdict: when there are class differences and maldistributed wealth, democracy and free speech can never truly exist. The possession of money determines one’s positive ability to act. To invert an aphorism from Anatole France, rich and poor alike have the equal right to hire high-priced lobbyists and purchase Superbowl ads.

In this way, money not only buys political power, it is political power. Its possession confers godlike capability, and its deprivation creates servitude. With money one can manipulate public taste, ruin one’s enemies, and build, destroy, and conquer.

It’s the reason the film industry can secure massive, budget-depleting tax refunds and Walmart can single-handedly block attempts at wage regulation; where the flight of capital is a sufficient threat to people’s lives, direct corruption of the political process is unnecessary. Without it, one cannot eat, create, or even choose one’s everyday movements.

All of this is rather obvious. Yet as economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis note, while the observation that capital confers power “may evoke the same degree of astonishment as the observation that dogs bark,” this truism is utterly unaccounted for by liberal political philosophy’s negative-liberty framework. Adding campaign expenditure restrictions, as American liberals propose, does little to alter this fundamentally naive assumption. Capitalism’s predation of democracy won’t let up because of a well-placed restriction on campaign giving.

If money shapes the contours of our life choices, and is the prime determinant of our possible acts, then one person possessing more money than another is no different from his having more votes. And if rights are only meaningful to the extent they can be exercised, granting an equal right to free speech would demand a massive redistribution of wealth.

Naturally, the Citizens United decision, though the inevitable progeny of a long line of cases, is an affront to democracy. It helped entrench corporate power, and the resulting tidal wave of new election spending shouldn’t be trivialized. Yet this is far more a product of economics than law. The excessive influence of the wealthy on government did not begin with Citizens United, but with the founding of the country. It is a function of an inegalitarian economic system, not anticorruption statutes.

The theory behind progressive opposition to Citizens United thus clouds our understanding of freedom. In September, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested Citizens United was one the Court’s worst mistakes, saying that “the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.”

But just two weeks later, Ginsburg signed onto the Court’s judgment in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, which limited the reach of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In that case, the Court ruled that employers do not need to compensate employees for the time they spend standing in line for a mandatory security screening.

The Court held that because the workers had been hired to pack boxes rather than stand in line, they didn’t need to be paid for the parts of their job that did not involve packing boxes. All four liberal justices concurred. (So did the Obama administration, which had filed a brief in support of the temp agency.)

For Ginsburg, there is no contradiction in opposing Citizens Unitedand supporting Integrity Staffing Solutions, even if both ultimately reduce ordinary people’s agency. Jesse Busk, the temp worker who sued over the denial of wages, reported that he wished to be paid the $6.25 for his screening because “the job was exhausting — we would sometimes walk twenty miles a night — and I was eager to go home and get some sleep.”

But when Ginsburg speaks of “what our democracy is supposed to be,” she thinks only of an individual’s relationship with the state; economic democracy is a foreign concept, and Jesse Busk’s twelve-hour shift has no relevance. An employer’s power over an employee may decimate the usefulness of the rights Ginsburg values, but apparently because money isn’t speech, one has no right to it.

Liberal election reform efforts have taken many shapes, from matching funds schemes to proposals to distribute $50 vouchers to voters, each attempting to overlay a fair political process onto an unequal economy. Many of these policies would make a substantive difference in the level to which government power is purchasable, even if nearly all of them are likely to be declared unconstitutional by a conservative-majority Supreme Court.

But all progressive plans suffer from the same core weakness: they address only a tiny fraction of the ways in which wealth is politically important. When US Steel unilaterally laid off 545 workers last week, none had any input into this decision; when 95 percent of the “post-recession” economic gains went to the top 1 percent, the political power of the non-wealthy was stamped out even more.

By attempting to forge a superficially fair political sphere while leaving the inegalitarian core of capitalism untouched, liberals are therefore ensuring that the most pernicious antidemocratic forces in American life are untouched.

If Citizens United eroded American democracy, the central proposition of the ruling was correct. And as soon as money is recognized as speech, the incompatibility of political equality and capitalism is revealed. There can never be such a thing as free speech until economic resources are distributed equally.

A political process that limits corporate influence is to be striven for. But a politics in which capital doesn’t dominate requires an economy without a class system.

The Return of Shark Tank Capitalism

Shark Tank would like to think it’s vicious. It’s nothing of the kind.

The world’s smallest shark is the dwarf lanternshark, topping out at about 8 inches or so and generally fitting comfortably in the palm. Its belly, as the name implies, gives off a small amount of light, and its bites, it can be surmised, are not especially painful.

Shark Tank has now returned to television for a seventh season, which means ABC will once again work very hard to pass dwarf lanternsharks off as hammerheads and Great Whites. For while the show insists that it is showing the brutal, cutthroat side of the market economy, ultimately it makes being torn to shreds in capitalism’s ravenous maw look like being lazily gummed in a kiddie-pool of hand-sized glow-fish.

Shark Tank is set up as an entrepreneurship competition. Contestants come in with either existing businesses or ideas for businesses, and try to convince a set of extremely wealthy people to fund them. The drama of the program comes from the fact that the wealthy people are snide and belligerent, and make a big extravagant fuss out of the process of turning down contestants’ ideas.

It’s a good healthy hour of schadenfreude, watching middle-class people who have staked everything on their half-baked concepts get taunted and heckled by the rich. Sometimes it’s too painful to even sit through. In a Season 5 episode, a Texas couple pitches their idea for the “elephant chat,” a small stuffed elephant that they believe will help troubled couples. The idea, they say, is that when one partner is discontented, he or she will show the other the elephant, and they will realize they need to talk. As the five investors ridicule the deluded Texas newlyweds, in the couple’s defensive panic we suddenly realize that their own marriage is being held together by the elephant. They have borrowed tens of thousands of dollars from friends to fund their business, and blown it all on creating plastic molds for the elephant’s packaging. It’s a bleak and tragic moment, as it becomes clear just how much the relationship has been staked on the success of this useless product.

But the real secret of Shark Tank is actually that it’s much softer than it seems. Yes, contestants come on and cry as their silly products are made fun of. But a careful effort is made to ensure that most of what we see is a game of lively entrepreneurship rather than financial and personal devastation. When the show does follow-up reports on products from previous episodes, it only ever profiles those that have succeeded. The owners show their gleaming new production facilities, and talk about how Shark Tank changed their life.

When Shark Tank came on the air, Tom Shales of the Washington Post called it “sadistic” and said it “personalizes the desperation and pain experienced by victims of a broken-down economy.” But Shales is wrong; Shark Tank is insidious precisely because for the most part it does not convey this desperation and pain. Certainly, it will show a man who has mortgaged his house and spent his children’s college fund to finance some doomed tchotchke, and the audience will writhe in discomfort as he confesses to the sharks he has no backup plan. But the drama is soon defused; someone cracks a joke, the desperate are whisked away, and some bouncy ladies in matching outfits will sashay in to show off a catchy jingle for their signature mango chutney.

Shark Tank would have you think it’s a brutal depiction of the dog-eat-dog realities of the capitalist economy. Would that it were! In fact, it’s a feel-good show about the excitement of the boardroom. It romanticizes the rough-and-tumble of doing business, and the losers’ misfortune never really sinks in. The bites of these dwarf lanternsharks never really hurt; elsewhere lies the real carnage, the broken dreams, unemployment, and financial ruin on which the ferocious market economy must perpetually gorge itself.

The Limits of “Black Lives Matter” as Slogan & Movement

The “Where Do We Go From Here” moment has arrived. Is there a way the movement can bring real pressure, or is it destined for a dead end?

As a slogan/hashtag/rallying cry, Black Lives Matter has been extraordinarily successful in unifying people and putting a lot of focus on the crimes of the police. Even though the pace of murders by police does not appear to have slowed, it’s at least encouraging that names are finally being named, and there are some prosecutions occurring that would not have occurred in the absence of the movement. The “Black Lives Matter” phrase itself has a lot of rhetorical force, and its spread has generally been tremendous. But it seems as if the movement is spinning its wheels a bit, uncertain of how to proceed in order to reach its goals, which also remain undefined. It has turned to somewhat bizarre tactics, like regularly protesting Bernie Sanders rallies. And it has produced a powerful public rememberance and grieving process for victims of police, but so far we don’t know how to actually reduce the number of victims. I don’t want to trivialize the movement’s gains or tell it how to run itself, but I want to observe a couple of core weaknesses that limit the likelihood of its success.

First, if we analyze what it means to protest that “Black Lives Matter,” I think it ironically concedes too much power to white people. Black lives obviously matter to people with black lives, and obviously do not matter much to the police. The demand here is that the police recognize the fact that black people are correct in insisting that their lives matter, and for the police to begin to behave as if this is so.

The difference between multiple meanings of “matter” makes this a bit confusing, since “matter” can refer to both personal dignity and empirical social significance. Dignity is self-created and cannot be taken or given. Significance measures my worth according to the opinions of others. “I matter” and “I matter” can have two different connotations, one true and one false, even given the same set of facts. I do not matter (because I am insignificant and powerless in my society) but I matter (because I nevertheless have dignity.) The Black Lives Matter slogan attempts to imply both the dignity meaning (Black people have dignity no matter what) and the significance meaning (Black people ought to be treated as having significance), one being descriptive and one being aspirational.

Yet in both these respects, the Black Lives Matter slogan itself becomes a demand for recognition from white people. Dignity should be measured personally and not by the opinions of others. And significance should not be asked for, but built, since asking for an increase in significance reaffirms and legitimizes the power of those who  claim the right to determine social significance. But a Black Lives Matter protest requests these things. “I matter, and I demand you acknowledge that I matter, which you currently do not do.” That kind if demand requires the demander to have strong interest in the opinion of the demandee. The Black Lives Matter slogan isn’t being directed at black people, who already know that fact. It’s a demand that someone else affirm the dignity and worth of black people. It seems to be begging the state/white people/the police.

A protest demanding recognition of dignity is somewhat odd. If I am, say, abused and demeaned by someone, who treats me as if I have no worth, is the best way to assert my worth to stand outside of his house with a sign saying “I have worth”? Most would probably admit that this implies the abuser is the one with the power to determine my worth, when my worth exists independent of what my abuser thinks. Of course, it will be replied that “Black Lives Matter” intends precisely to insist that worth exists independent of the opinions of power; it is saying that “black lives matter whether you like it or not.” But if that is the case, who are the signs and hashtags directed at convincing?

(By the way, I feel the same about the wearing of Sunday clothing and the holding of “I Am A Man” signs during the first civil rights movement. The natty suits were supposed to persuade white people that black people were clean, dignified Americans. I don’t want to say the tactic shouldn’t have been used, since the struggle was an urgent one and effectiveness was important. But there was something to Malcolm X’s critique of the civil rights struggle, that it was asking instead of taking.)

Instead of a humble request for white people to admit black dignity, then, it might be better to orient a movement around exactly what its real demands are. In the case of Black Lives Matter, I take that to be more along the lines of “End Racist Police Violence.” That doesn’t demand any kind of recognition, because recognition is (1) merely symbolic and (2) not even a desirable symbolic concession. Ending racist police violence is very specific. Success cannot be faked. With Black Lives Matter, those in power can say “I hereby declare that black lives now matter.” Have you therefore won? If we all sing a song together about how much we believe one another matters, will we have changed the situation that first brought this all about? Absolutely not.

Among liberal and left-wing activists, there’s sometimes a suspicion of creating demands. This tendency seems to have solidified during the “demandless” Occupy movement, but it has its roots in the 1960’s, like the “Demand the Impossible” graffiti of the French May ’68 student movement. The suspicion comes from the same impulse Malcolm X had: if you demand something, you’re acknowledging that someone else is the one who has the power to give it to you. You are, to use a fashionable meaningless academic verb, “reifying” their power.

As I’ve indicated, there’s something valuable in this impulse. Practically speaking, however, it can be suicide, especially when you’re not actually building something instead. If you want to reject the ability of the “power structure” to decide whether you win, then you have to be building some alternative form of power, or else you will simply be resigning yourself to being crushed. This was the civil rights movement’s response to Malcolm: Okay then, how are you going to build black political power? And it was Malcolm’s weakness that he didn’t have a good answer. His own political organizations foundered; rhetoric about self-defense will only carry you so far. That’s not completely fair, since if Malcolm had lived, he might have managed to create something meaningful. And in fact, the Black Panthers can be seen to have embodied what Malcolm advocated: a self-defense organization that provides aid to communities (medical and childcare), keeps people safe by resisting the police, and terrifies the establishment. But the Black Panthers were destroyed, in large part due to government infiltration and suppression, though also partly because of inherent weaknesses in their philosophy, poor organization, and self-defeating acts. You have to be very good at what you’re doing in order to shun the entire process of making demands.

In the case of Black Lives Matter, though, a “no demands” defense of their current direction does not really work. As I pointed out, they’ve already indicated their willingness to make demands. The whole movement is built on a demand, a demand for black lives to matter. So it might as well make its demands concrete, and insisting on meaningful differences in the real world.

Thinking of things that can be asked for is not difficult. Halve the prison population within five years. Drastic changes to the sentencing structure to reduce future sentences for all crimes. Decriminalize all drugs, massive new funding for diversion and treatment programs.The end of law enforcement officers’ qualified immunity from lawsuits. A nationwide ban on criminal record questions on job applications. The extensive redistribution of wealth by race, so that white households no longer have an average net worth 13 times that of black households. Nationwide debt forgiveness for poor people. A basic income. Guaranteed parity of school funding. Citizen oversight committees for every local police force, with the power to fire officers.

“If BLM is about black people, it needs to expand beyond policing, and if it’s about policing, it needs to expand beyond black people.”

In fact, just end the police. Break up police forces into their component functions, so that they are no longer an enormous violent Leviathan. Give the investigative functions to courts, have a traffic agency handle traffic offenses, let trained professionals deal with the mentally ill so that the police don’t end up putting bullets in them. The cops with the badges and the guns should be a tiny group, used only in true violent emergencies. Stop having cops show up where medics or social workers are what’s necessary.

Demand some of these. None of them. Any of them. But if the movement reorients itself around pushes for some actual goals, it will at least have the chance of accomplishing something, and won’t lose steam. Demanding that a long-shot socialist Democrat start tweeting the slogan might be achievable, and might also even be helpful. (I understand why the left should demand that the left-wing candidate have a good race platform, though excessive disproportionate, hostile attention to Bernie seems like it will do nobody any good.) But even assuming the maximum level of possible impact for that tactic, it is still many steps removed from any actual underlying improvement in the society.

If the movement is focused on policing, it also needs to move beyond Black Lives Matter to include a wider swath of victims. I understand why BLM has reacted with visceral hostility to anyone who replies that “All Lives Matter.” After all, during a protest about the fact that black people are being discounted, it must be infuriating to see white people immediately expand the group under discussion to include themselves. Nevertheless, it does need expanding, perhaps to “all oppressed lives.” Otherwise, where are Native American lives? Disabled people’s lives? What about police victimization of the homeless, like the death of Kelly Thomas? The police have many targets, and while black people might suffer disproportionately, it is important to find a way to incorporate the death of Robert Saylor, the man with Down’s syndrome whom police attacked and killed in a movie theater. (I explained this point more here.)

It’s also acceptable to say that Black Lives Matter is not a policing protest, but a protest about the lives of black people. I think at the moment it tries to be both. But if it’s specifically about black people, then there are other issues than policing it needs to address. The wealth gap is an important one of these. So is the continuation of job and housing discrimination. So is unequal access to healthcare and groceries.

So, if BLM is about black people, it needs to expand beyond policing, and if it’s about policing, it needs to expand beyond black people. Of course, my own preference is for it to be both of these things and more, to integrate itself into a broad left-wing movement that pushes for the elimination racist violence by the state and the radical rearrangement of the economy to eliminate the hideous excesses of the rich and make sure that people of nonwhite races are not disproportionately consigned to struggle and debt.

Let me emphasize again that I do not want to chastize or instruct Black Lives Matter. I only want to make a prediction, which is that simply mobilizing a large number of people under the banner, rallying them regularly in American cities and chanting the slogan, will not produce useful outcomes. It will be tempting to believe that the movement is winning, because more people are paying attention and Hillary is meeting with them and Bernie has put up a good web page. But paying attention towards what? Meeting towards what? If a plan is formulated, if a vision of the ideal world is articulated, then we might begin to take small steps in its direction. Otherwise, it will be difficult to sustain momentum indefinitely. How many deaths will be stomached before the chant for dignity morphs into a demand to finally end the police?

TV’s Only Accurate Law Show

From getting stiffed on the public defender fee to negotiating with the D.A. in the bathroom to wading through mountains of discovery, Better Call Saul is the only law show that tells it like it is.

“You’re the worst lawyer ever!” shouts Jimmy McGill’s client, just outside the emergency room, moaning in pain. Just moments ago Jimmy suggested that, instead of killing Jimmy’s two clients, drug kingpin Tuco settle for merely breaking one leg a piece, a deal to which Tuco vigorously assented. “Hey, i just talked you down from a death sentence,” Jimmy replies. “I’m the best lawyer ever!”

At first blush this seems like another glib response thought up late one night in the writers’ room; but Jimmy isn’t wrong. In fact, for a public defender, a plea deal like that is a serious triumph. Yet every defense lawyer in the world knows this feeling. You negotiate your ass off to make the client slightly less screwed, but the client still ends up getting screwed. The system takes another chunk out of someone’s life, and you’re left grasping the most hollow of victories.

The broken-leg incident is a perfect encapsulation of why Better Call Saul is currently  the best law show on television, perhaps the best ever. At the very least it’s the most realistic. It gets what none of the others do, that law is grubby, full of banality, bureaucracy, and compromise. In a vicious system your ‘victories’ often feel like failures. Being a lawyer doesn’t mean giving thunderous closing arguments in defense of the Constitution, but standing in a courthouse men’s room begging a prosecutor to consider offering probation as he takes a massive shit.

Every episode of Better Call Saul is meticulously faithful to the realities of legal practice. Jimmy operates a one-man legal practice out of the back of a nail salon, and depends on court-appointed public defense cases to pay his bills. BCS recognizes the implications of Jimmy’s status; he can’t do legal research, because the cost of access to case databases far exceeds the budget of a nail-salon shyster. So every time he wants to look up a precedent, Jimmy must beg a friend at a major law firm. He must sound as professional as other lawyers, so he pretends to have a secretary and to meet people outside of his office for their convenience.


“Law is full of people like Jimmy McGill, getting through on false confidence and bluster, constantly having to hustle. It doesn’t consist of giving grandiloquent declarations before the Supreme Court, but spending night after night poring over boxes of documents.”


Little details like these will be highly familiar to lawyers, who are often just as exasperated watching courtroom dramas as doctors are watching House. The everyday legal world is not full of people like Denny Crane, William Shatner’s powerhouse senior partner from Boston Legal. It’s full of people like Jimmy McGill, getting through on false confidence and bluster, constantly having to hustle. It doesn’t consist of giving grandiloquent declarations before the Supreme Court, but spending night after night poring over boxes of documents.

The attention to detail in BCS really is extraordinary. In the show’s first courtroom scene, in which Jimmy gives a doomed argument in defense of some teenagers who have committed an unspeakable act, a television is wheeled before the jury to present video evidence. It takes a small eternity for the bailiff to bring out the television cart, which drags its wire across the carpet. The judge is half asleep and the jury barely paying attention. The moment neatly captures the tedium of courtroom life, the suffocating greyness and plodding tempo in which America’s courtrooms steadily roll out their injustices and absurdities.

The “fake it till you make it” aspect of legal practice is also well-captured. Jimmy’s legal skill is mostly of his brashness. Seeking to represent senior citizens, Jimmy buys a cream-coloured Matlock suit in which to charm old ladies. The gambit works, just as it does in real life. Traditional lawyering is much less about the law than it is about appearance, networking, and bluster.

There are plenty of other reasons to praise Better Call Saul. It’s a spinoff of Breaking Bad but is nothing like it; at least in its first season, it isn’t bloody and dark but rather funny, unassuming, and tender. In the years before he became BB’s flashy sleazeball Saul Goodman, struggling attorney Jimmy McGill is a deeply human and complicated person, likable and difficult. The show takes its time moving things forward, preferring to linger on small things and portray them to perfection.

One could expound endlessly on Better Call Saul’s virtues as a piece of television, and many have already. But the freshness of its take on law is the real diamond in the ruff. It might not even be noticeable until one sets Better Call Saul next to Law & Order. But when one does look at them side by side, it becomes instantly clear what a cheap cop-out Dick Wolfism really is. The excuse given for offering unrealistic melodramas is that they are more watchable. Nobody wants to see a public defender negotiating with the court clerk over his fee, a prosecutor forgetting which defendant he is offering a plea bargain to, or a two-bit lawyer scribbling a motion on toilet paper.

Better Call Saul proves that this is nonsense. It’s not that these things are inherently unwatchable, it’s that making grandiose cartoons takes much less effort. Better Call Saul’s realism allows better character building and  an actual opportunity to critique the legal system as it is, from the way plea deals are struck to the methods big law firms use to drown small time clients and lawyers in fees and paper work. Skillful writing, directing, and acting can make the commonplace engrossing. They can shine a spotlight into the dingiest corners, where most of our lives are lived. True art is about showing us what we are rather than reassuring us that we’re what we’d like to think we are. In depicting law in all its dreariness and grime, Better Call Saul puts itself in the class of television that goes beyond mere entertainment and achieves genuine artistic power.