Books I read in 2016
Devil in the Grove, Gilbert King
W.E.B. DuBois, who had left the [NAACP] organization in 1934, was nevertheless around the office enough to observe [Thurgood] Marshall’s “unbuttoned office manners to be outlandishly bad.” It was a charge the lawyer could not deny. Victories were celebrated, often on Friday afternoons, when Marshall would pull a bottle of whiskey from his desk drawer and proceed to hold court. Imitating judges, opposing counsel, or dim Uncle Tom witnesses, he’d punctuate his tales from the civil rights battlefront with one of his famous deadpan grins or bawdy punch lines. He relished racial humor, like the story about the slave who stole a turkey from his master, then ate the whole bird—and just as the master was about to deliver a whipping, the slave pleaded, “You shouldn’t beat me, massuh. You got less turkey, but you sure got more nigger.”
“He could tell some pretty off-color jokes which would be, if they were told by someone else, embarrassing,” recalled Mildred Roxborough, who began a long career with the NAACP as a secretary in the early 1950s. “But you would find yourself responding to them because of the way in which he told them.”
In an office where the work was hard, usually depressing, and often tragic, Marshall was inclined to using sophomoric or gallows humor to alleviate tension. One associate recalled an occasion when Marshall, tin the course of doing research, came across a story in a nineteenth-century newspaper about a black man who’d been doing railroad construction in the Midwest and had fallen into a ditch. The absurdity of the headline gripped Marshall, who kept reading it aloud from his desk, over and over, as if it summed up the black man’s condition then, and now: “Nigger in a Pit…Nigger in a Pit…Nigger in a Pit…”
The Judge and the Historian, Carlo Ginzburg
For me, and for many others, the notions of ‘proof’ and ‘truth’ are, rather, integral parts of the historian’s profession. This does not mean, of course, that nonexistent phenomena or falsified documents are of little historical importance—Bloch and Lefebvre taught us the opposite long ago. Still, any analysis of representations cannot overlook the principle of reality. The nonexistence of the bands of brigands renders more significant (because more profound and revealing) the fear that spread among the French peasants in the summer of 1789. A historian has the right to detect a problem where a judge might find an ‘absence of grounds for proceedings’. This is a major divergence which, however, presupposes an element that links, rather than divides, historians and judges: the use of proof. The professions of both historians and judges rest upon the possibility of proving, according to given rules, that x did y, where x may equally well indicate the protagonist (perhaps nameless) of a historic event or the subject of a penal proceeding; and y an action of any sort.
Obtaining proof, however, is not always possible; and even when it is, the result will always be measurable in terms of probability (perhaps 99.9 per cent), not absolute certainty. Here, a further divergence arises: one of the many that mark—beyond the initial similarities mentioned above—the profound distinction between historians and judges. Let me try to explain it as we move forward. At that point, the implications—and the limitations—will emerge in that intriguing analogy suggested by Luigi Ferrajoli: ‘A trial is, so to speak, the only case of “historiographic experimentation”—in a trial the sources are forced to interact de vivo, not only because they are heard directly, but also because they are forced to confront one another, subjected to cross-examination and prompted to produce, as in a psychodrama, the adjudicated event.
Philadelphia Freedom: Memoir of a Civil Rights Lawyer, David Kairys
I noticed how easy it was to see the value judgments in every line and phrase of an opinion [Greer v. Spock (1976)] that announced my defeat, compared to how uncritically a winning opinion can seem obvious and valueless. Something hit me clearly that day that had been brewing for some time. Legal opinions are written in a style that emphasizes objectivity and requires results. But there is broad, though usually hidden, discretion, choices made based on values nowhere specified or required in the law.
What struck me that I hadn’t heard or thought of before was the regularity of value judgments in legal decision making. It wasn’t unusual to find criticism of particular decisions or judges for applying values. That was considered wrong, a deviation from what is normal and right. But maybe values were always involved, although all legal decisions have a theme that emphatically rejects values or discretion: the law made me do it. It reminded me of something I’d heard comedian Flip Wilson say. He had a routine delivered in a woman’s dress called “The devil made me buy this dress.” She excused her misdeeds with “the devil made me do it.” No other explanation or justification was offered or necessary.”
Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg
Bold shook Duffy’s hand. “Do you think we’re gonna win?”
Duffy smiled and nodded. “Yeah. But it’ll take a fight. We got strong people in each department. If we had more like Jess, we’d win it hands down. I trust Jess. She’s proved she’s for the union 100 percent.”
Everything happened in slow motion. When I heard Duffy say she I turned in horror, my jaw dropped. Frankie slapped her forehead with her palm and shook her head. The guys looked from Duffy to me and back again. I stormed out of the VFW post and headed for my motorcycle.
“Jess, wait!” I heard Duffy shouting. He caught up to me and grabbed my arm.
I yanked it away. “Thanks a lot, Duffy.” Seeing tears in his eyes made it worse.
“I’m so sorry, Jess. It just jumped out. I didn’t mean it.”
I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what you meant to do. I’m out of this job now.”
He shook his head. “We’ll work it out, Jess. You could stay. I’ll talk to the guys.”
I laughed bitterly. “You don’t get it, do you? Which bathroom you think I’m going to use on Monday, Duffy?”
Duffy put his hand on my arm. I glared at him. “Jess, I’d never do anything to hurt you. You know that.”
I pushed his hand off my arm. “Well, you did.” I turned and walked away.
Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel Delany
….desire is never “outside all social constraint.” Desire may be outside one set of constraints or another; but social constraints are what engender desire; and, one way or another, even at its most apparently catastrophic, they contour desire’s expression.
Mishima: A Biography, John Nathan
In 1946 and 1947 eight hundred thousand repatriated troops from His Majesty’s Imperial Army poured into Tokyo alone. These unhappy men were received coldly: the city couldn’t bear to be reminded of the war. Many were maimed and became beggars on the streets in tattered military uniforms. Those of able body found they were discriminated against when they sought employment and had to join the gangs which ran the black market. On every Tokyo street corner hoods with belly bands and American pennies in their ears “peddled” food and clothing (shoes were not manufactured domestically until 1948; an American pair cost $60 in a store, $5 on the street), toilet paper (the government ration was twelve sheets a week per family), and whiskey. It was a time not only of domestic hardship and social mayhem but profound humiliation. The Japanese diet was so low in sugar that a whiff of the tinfoil wrapping from a stick of chewing gum was enough to cause dizziness: a few sticks of gum tossed into the street from a jeep were sufficient to create a small riot. In many neighborhoods GIs, including blacks (who struck fear into the hearts of most Japanese), were “shacked up” with local girls won over by stockings and lipstick, known as “onlys” and recognizable in the streets by their cosmetic attempts to look as “western”—heavy rouge and lipstick, blowzy clothes—as possible. Speakers at train stations blared American boogie-woogie.
In every respect it was a nightmarish time, and the writing of the period is dark and sorely wounded. But however grim the reality appeared and was, the young writers of the Postwar School shared with the critic Ara the unshakable conviction that life was precious and to be affirmed.
For Yukio Mishima, the surrender was no reprieve but a sentence to life. In August 1944 he had written “The murderer,” meaning the artist, “had less use for recovery than for any illness. He disdained passion directed toward recovery.” These lines expressed many things for him, but in essence they meant that for the young artist, death was more beautiful and more precious than life. It was not that he wanted to die in any conventional sense: when he was finally confronted with death as a reality in 1944 he ran from it as fast as his legs would carry him. But he was captive to a romantic longing for death as an esthetic ideal which originated in his erotic nature, his very sexual identity. And changes in external reality could neither release him from his longing nor alter its nature: the emperor had announced Japan’s surrender, but death remained his “life’s aim.”
Before Night Falls, Reinaldo Arenas
I think that the sexual revolution in Cuba actually came about as a result of the existing sexual repression. Perhaps as a protest against the regime, homosexuality began to flourish with ever-increasing defiance. Moreover, since the dictatorship was considered evil, anything it proscribed was seen in a positive light by the nonconformists, who in the sixties were already in the majority. I honestly believe that the concentration camps for homosexuals, and the police officers disguised as willing young men to entrap and arrest homosexuals, actually resulted in the promotion of homosexual activities.
In Cuba gays were not confined to a specific area of a club or beach. Everybody mingled and there was no division that would place the homosexual on the defensive. This has been lost in more advanced societies, where the homosexual has had to become a sort of sexual recluse and separate himself from the supposedly nonhomosexual society, which undoubtedly also excludes him. Since such divisions did not exist in Cuba, the interesting aspect of homosexuality there was that you did not have to be a homosexual to have a relationship with a man; a man could have intercourse with another man as an ordinary act. In the same way, a real gay who liked another gay could easily go out and live with him. But the gay who liked real macho men could also find one who wanted to live or be friends with him, without in any way interfering with the heterosexual life of that man. It was not the norm for one queer to go to bed with another queer; “she” would look for a man to fuck “her” who would feel as much pleasure as the homosexual being fucked.
Homosexual militancy has gained considerable rights for free-world gays. But what has been lost is the wonderful feeling of meeting heterosexual or bisexual men who would get pleasure from possessing another man and who would not, in turn, have to be possessed.
The ideal in any sexual relationship is finding one’s opposite; and therefore the homosexual world is now something sinister and desolate; we almost never get what we most desire.
* mostly just G and T
I Pity the Poor Immigrant, Zachary Lazar
She was a cocktail waitress. Businessmen, scotch and gin, some stale pastries in a glass case, no music in the background. One night, after Meyer had left Israel, the journalist Uri Dan came in with a group from the embassies, and he half stood and pointed at each of them with his cigarette, relaying their orders, not seeing her. Of course, he could not have known who she was. Of course, she was nobody. She bent at the knees, serving, back straight, focused on the glasses, the table. The inventedness of Israel as a country seemed completely transparent at such moments, everything too new to be convincing, but she realized that this was a refugee’s thinking. The real problem was that she had never gotten used to the newness, had never taken her position in the country seriously enough.
Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, Max Blumenthal
According to a March 2011 Ynet-Gesher poll of 504 Israeli adults, 48 percent of Israelis supported settler violence in retaliation to Palestinian or Israeli government actions, with only 33 percent stating their belief that settler violence was “never justified.” While a vast majority of Orthodox and religious nationalist respondents expressed strong support for settler attacks, 36 percent of secular Israelis did as well—a remarkably high number for a population that lives primarily inside the Green Line.
…Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of Hebron, has cheered on the murder of anyone, Jew or non-Jew, who appeared to interfere with the redemptive cause of Greater Israel. At the funeral for Baruch Goldstein, Lior extolled the mass killer as “a righteous man” who was “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust.” Thanks in part to Lior’s efforts, a shrine to Goldstein stands inside the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, where Lior presides over the yeshiva. At the same time, Lior pronounced Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a moser (a Jew who snitches to the goyim) and a rodef (a traitor worthy of elimination), helping establish the religious justification for Yigal Amir, one of Lior’s admirers, to assassinate him.
Lior’s penchant for overheated, fascistic tirades has not diminished with age. He has warned Jewish women not to allow in vitro fertilization with the sperm of non-Jews, claiming that “gentile sperm leads to barbaric offspring,” described Arabs as “evil camel riders” and said captive Palestinian militants could be used as subjects for live human experiments. The short, gray-bearded rabbi has even held forth on the evils of “boogie woogie,” declaring that rock and roll “expresses people’s animalistic and lower urges.” He added, “Something that belongs to the rhythms of kushim [Negroes] does not belong in our world.”
VIETNAM WAR & THE SIXTIES
Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground The Red Army Faction, & Revolutionary Violence in the 60s & 70s, Jeremy Varon
Marcuse’s notion of the “Great Refusal” offers additional perspective on Weatherman’s transgressions. Convinced that “administered societies” quickly neutralized or assimilated all forms of local resistance, Marcuse counseled the rejection of “the whole.” Yet neither Marcuse nor the New Left had any fixed sense of when one was being authentically radical, rejecting the system in its totality, truly subverting the mainstream. The escalation in militancy over the course of the 1960s was, in part, an experiment with new and more provocative forms of refusal. The Weathermen appeared intent on being the opposite of everything they felt the dominant culture valued. Years later, Roth described Weatherman’s core message at Flint: “We spit on all your values, on all your sensibilities.” Stern conveyed the intensity and narcissistic quality of the group’s “refusal” in the threat made at Flint that “there would be no peace in America as long as one Weatherman was left standing.”
From a deconstructive perspective, Weatherman’s “refusal” seems a rather crude strategy of reversal. In opposing chaos to order, destruction to the status quo, the Weathermen simply inverted the hierarchies within a binary structure, leaving the structure intact. In a Marcusean vocabulary, the Weathermen practiced a nondialectical form of negation that naïvely equated transgression with transcendence. Marcuse defined negation, most broadly, as the refusal to accept the rationality and necessity of the given. But according to Marcuse, truly dialectic negation also had to contain a moment of affirmation—a vision, however prefigurative and itself negated by prevailing “reality,” of liberated utopian possibilities. Marcuse developed this view mostly with respect to aesthetics, but his aesthetic theory provides useful analogies for politics. To Marcuse, emancipator art must express, through its commitment to form, a beauty that testifies against and transcends the contradictions, ugliness, or even the obscenity of the established order. He therefore praised certain works of “high” bourgeois art and some of the creativity of the counterculture, such as Bob Dylan’s more soulful songs, for pointing toward a transcendent realm. (As if in agreement, the folksinger Phil Ochs penned the line, “In such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty.”)[…] Beyond a critique of art, Marcuse offers a model of failed resistance as the repetition or mirroring of the very tendencies the resistance seeks to oppose. Flint, as Weatherman’s own grisly theater, conformed to this model, insofar as it failed within the terms of Marcuse’s analysis to truly shock and gloried in a destructiveness the Weathermen presumably sought to overcome.
Dispatches, Michael Herr
We talked while we ate. Mayhew told me about his father, who “got greased in Korea,” and about his mother, who worked in a department store in Kansas City. Then he started to tell about Day Tripper, who got his name because he was afraid of the night–not the dark, but the night–and who didn’t mind who knew it. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do during daylight, but if there was any way at all to fix it he liked to be deep in his bunker by nightfall. He was always volunteering for the more dangerous daylight patrols, just to make sure he got in by dusk. (This was before daylight patrols, in fact almost all patrols around Khe Sanh, were discontinued.) There were a lot of white guys, especially junior officers trying to be cool, who were always coming on to Day Tripper about his hometown, calling it Dodge City or Motown and laughing. (“Why they think somethin’s special about Detroit?” he said. “Ain’t nothin’ special, ain’t nothin’ so funny, neither.”) He was a big bad spade gone wrong somehow, and no matter how mean he tried to look something constantly gentle showed. He told me he knew guys from Detroit who were taking mortars back, breaking them down so that each one could get a piece into his duffel and then reassembling them when they got together back on the block. “You see that four-oh-deuce?” he said. “Now that’ll take out a police station for you. I don’t need all that hassle. But maybe nex’ year I gonna need it.”
Republican Gomorrah, Max Blumenthal
Charles Colson joined the chorus of Alito defenders with an unusual revision of civil rights history. Colson, who once burned a cross on the lawn of a black law partner in what he later described as a “prank,” and who exploited resentment of forced school desegregation to win ethnic white votes for Richard Nixon, declared in a January 2006 radio commentary that Martin Luther King was “a great conservative. Were he alive today, I believe he would be in the vanguard of the pro-life movement and would be supporting Judge Alito.” Colson’s logic, remarkable as it was, was actually part of a premeditated Christian Right effort to link Alito to the legacy of King. This campaign culminated when Tony Perkins convened Justice Sunday III at a black church in inner-city Philadelphia.
The event featured a strange cast, beginning with Bishop Wellington Boone, an African American church leader and spokesman for the evangelical men’s group known as the Promise Keepers. Perkins had recruited Boone to lend his rally a bold splash of color; however, the bishop had lost any credibility he might have enjoyed in the black community years before when he wrote, in his book Breaking Through, “We need to boldly affirm Uncle Tom. The black community needs to stop criticizing Uncle Tom. Uncle Tom is a role model.” In the same tract, Boone declared, “I believe that slavery, and the understanding of it when you see it God’s way, was redemptive.”
Open City, Teju Cole
But do you think you could live in Mecca or Medina? What happens to individual liberty in those places? If you moved to the central cities of Islamic faith, what would become of your cigarettes and your Chimay?
Mecca and Medina are special cases. Yes, I could live in the Holy Land. I would see it as a paysage moralisé. There’s a spiritual energy in the topography, through which one can endure the physical limitations. I am drinking this now—he gestured to the bottle of beer—and I know that this is a choice I have made, and the consequence of this choice is that the wine of paradise will not be available to me. I am sure you know what Paul de Man says about insight and blindness. His theory has to do with an insight that can actually obscure other things, that can be a blindness. And the reverse, also, how what seems blind can open up possibilities. When I think about the insight that is a form of blindness, I think of rationality, of rationalism, which is blind to God and to the things that God can offer human beings. This is the failure of the Enlightenment.
Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett
I walked streets hunting for her, half the streets in the United States, Gay Street and Mount Royal Avenue in Baltimore, Colfax Avenue in Denver, Aetna Road and St. Clair Avenue in Cleveland, McKinney Avenue in Dallas, Lemartine and Cornell and Amory Streets in Boston, Berry Boulevard in Louisville, Lexington Avenue in New York, until I came to Victoria Street in Jacksonville, where I heard her voice again, though I still could not see her.