The Secret Mission is the title of my weekly Substack Newsletter. This is the 3rd issue. If you like the newsletter, feel free to sign up to receive it by email. I publish it every Monday at 7:00 pm ET. It is free!
If we accept the premise of the New York Times Magazine 1619 Project (which I do), that slavery and anti-black racism are at the center of the American historical experience, we must also accept the complexity of the enduring legacies of racism in America.
There are many ways to think about complexity (see below my essay, “Toward a New Cosmology: The Grand Pivot from Natural Law to Complexity Science”). The “simplest” way to think about complexity in relation to racism in America is that racism must be a “complicated” problem, because if it were not, we would have addressed its legacy and repaired its harms long ago.
While this view is superficially true, it is also helpful to be clear that “complicated” and “complex” are related to each other, but not the same thing. Perhaps a more useful way to think about complexity is that complex systems almost by definition are rife with contradiction. We can best understand a complex system—of which racism in America is certainly a good example—by visualizing and thinking about how two (or more) apparently contradictory and unreconcilable dynamics or causal chains can appear simultaneously to exist and to intersect with each other. Below, I’ll try to provide examples of this “contradictory complexity.”
From this “complexity” perspective, the theme of this issue of The Secret Mission is that our moment of racial reckoning requires two things from us. First, we must be very serious and clear about our long-term goals as a nation when it comes to matters of racism, fairness, equity, and repair. There must be no equivocation about these goals and the institutional means through which we propose to achieve them.
Second, I also propose that—no matter what these goals might be, and no matter what means we do choose to achieve them—success will require that our perspectives on racism embrace the complexity of our historical experience, even when it is uncomforable to do so. Which means we will need to abandon simple causal models rooted in simple or reflexive moral equations and judgments and turn instead to more elastic and flexible correlation and directional models that can accommodate and live with—in order to resolve—the contradictions on which this history has been built.
A Style Guide Note
I’m fully aware of the recent decision by hundreds of news organizations to capitalize “Black” when referencing African Americans or others of African descent. As a rule, “white,” when referencing those of European descent, remains uncapitalized. The argument for capitalizing “Black” is that the terms Asian American, Latin American, and Native American are typically capitalized, so capitalization of “Black” is simply a comparable form of respect for origins and identity of black Americans.
In my newsletter, I’ve decided to hew to lower-case spelling for references to “black” and “white” Americans, while continuing to capitalize African American. My rationale is that the deployment of color to denote race poses its own essentializing challenges, particularly for those who believe (as I do) that race is a social construct. It also seems odd to me that we are (apparently) expected to use color to denote “white” and “black” and “brown” people but would be properly scorned or even punished or fired from our jobs for referring to “yellow” or “red” people. The debate is dumb and sidelines focus on the real issues at stake in conversations about inequality, racism, and repair.
I’m not telling anyone else what to do, but in my own writing vastly prefer to use “continent-of-origin” designations (such as African American or European American), which can as easily be based on one’s own self-assigned identity as a designation based on color.
- “Black Lives Matter:” What Does This Mean? (Random Bites)
- Cain in the United States (Art)
- Stephanie Kelton, The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy (2020) (Review)
- Toward a New Cosmology: The Grand Pivot from Natural Law to Complexity Science (Essay)
- Calvin’s Ghost (#9): Jasper (Fiction)
“Black Lives Matter:” What Does This Mean?
In early June, a widely respected investigative reporter for The Intercept named Lee Fang was eviscerated on Twitter by a fellow Intercept journalist named Akela Lacy for quoting an African American source who connected the idea of Black Lives Matter to the impacts upon the African American community of black-on-black violence. Lacy accused Fang, who is Asian-American, of being “racist” and of “using free speech to couch anti-blackness,” presumably because of the tendency in non-black communities to associate violence in African American communities with pathologizing stereotypes (about inherently violent tendencies or moral or emotional insufficiency) of blacks. There is a rich literature on this challenge (start with this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and this).
Needless to say, the progressive Left broke its back trying to manage the ensuing shit storm. But as this recent Washington Post article on surging violence in Washington DC indicates, Fang was absolutely correct and within his rights to reference this portion of the story. In recent years, black Americans have been roughly 25 times more likely to be killed by other black Americans than by police (data compiled from the Washington Post Police Shootings Database and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report). If you look at the numbers for young black males the ratio is significantly higher.
I’m aware the UCR data itself is deeply flawed, but not to a degree that matters for the purposes of the point I am making. I’m also aware that cross-racial violence differentials diminish when one adjusts for poverty and for other structural impairments associated with inequality, particularly for black and whites. These adjustments matter. But even here, the differences do not disappear. The differences matter, and they are embedded in the historical circumstances of black Americans during and since slavery that correlate with the policing states required to maintain systems of oppression, and with the psychological harms that ensue, for all parties involved.
A close friend wrote to me in June that Lee Fang probably got a raw deal, but continued on to say that “police-on-black crime seems infinitely worse on the level of morals and actual harm, maybe we should just focus on that.” Morals are not that interesting to me. But the “actual harm” is. Which leads me to believe that most people are insufficiently aware of these data differentials, and that they don’t appreciate the degree to which police violence and community violence are to a great extent intertwined with each other. Indeed, the dual and contradictory realities of systematic and persistent police brutality and black-on-black violence illustrate in the most powerful way possible the complexity of racial dynamics in the United States.
When she went off on Lee Fang, Akela Lacy’s premise seems to have been that we have to choose. Either police violence is the problem or black violence is the problem. You can’t have it both ways, and anyone who suggests otherwise is “anti-black” and “racist.” But this perspective implies a widely held causation model that does not work well in the real world.
We speak often about “systemic” or “structural” racism. In fact, at the systemic level, simple causation models (what used to be called “single-factor” causation models) are pretty much never operative. Systems instead operate via networks of correlation by which various dynamics within a system coexist and reinforce each other and in some sense come to depend on each other. Such is the case with police violence and black-on-black violence in African-American communities (for another fascinating example of the complexity of police-community relations in predominantly black locales, see the fantastic 12 O’Clock Boys, the 2013 documentary about dirt bike riders in Baltimore).
Again, I get that fighting through the haze of prejudice and bias associated with the very loaded issue of community violence is an ongong and maddening challenge. Anyone who has seen how news organizations like Breitbart or Fox News or most local news channels have used “black crime reporting” to fire up their base of right-wing racist cretins will understand the challenge. But that is partly my point. To lump Lee Fang (implicitly or not) with Breitbart or Fox News is also an illustration of the distorting lens of a simple causation model to address complex issues, when used by anyone.
African Americans themselves are obviously not a monolithic, consistent voice, and the nation surely needs to listen to the conversation in that community for the deepest insights into the dimensions of violence that afflicts its members. But the idea that the conversation cannot extend beyond the boundaries of the black community is self-defeating and unsustainable.
Which is one reason I was also struck by the photo in the a recent, quite fascinating, New York Times story about what it means when “Moms” start protesting against state violence, as has recently been the case in Portland. The photo portrays a line of beefy (I’ve been told mostly suburban) white Portland “Moms” wearing gas masks, arms chained together, standing in front of a sign that reads, “I understand that I will never understand, however, I stand. #blacklivesmatter.”
Part of me appreciates the juxtaposition of assertive, protective Moms with language that is strikingly submissive and passive. I’ve seen this phrase elsewhere, often in unexpected locations, such as the Paradise Lodge parking at Mt. Rainier National Park. The physical assertiveness of the Moms protecting protestors in Portland obviously cancels out the concern that this phrase merely is a form of virtue signaling, requiring no sacrifice (except perhaps one’s self-respect). But the concern remains at the level of communication.
To say “I understand that I will never understand” is language that definitionally dooms the very efforts to build robust, sustainable, reparative institutions and communities in this country that the protest movements themselves are seeking. The phrase points to very real problems with the whole, highly forced, concept of being an “ally.” To be clear, the alternative is not to say, “I understand that I will always understand.” The alternative is rather that slogans of this sort simply throw everyone into the cheap seats, where nothing meaningful can happen. The action is on the court. It’s all about the scoreboard.
Trump has recently intiated a “surge” of federal law enforcement into cities he falsely claims are in the grips of violent protests targeting federal facilities. But everyone who voices support for Black Lives Matter knows the true “surge” we need must fully embrace the meaning of this slogan by designing and pouring resources into solutions that comprehend and address all of its dimensions and meanings.
Cain in the United States (David Alfaro Siqueiros, 1947)
David Alfaro Siqueiros was a Mexican muralist, a contemporary of Diego Rivera. Here is a description of his 1947 painting Cain in the United States
Cain in the United States depicts the vicious lynching of a black man at the hands of a mob of white men and women. It signals an explicit critique of American racial politics. The white bodies with beak-like mouths and gnashing teeth lose their humanity, becoming bestial in their extreme rage. The title refers to the biblical story of fratricide, in which Cain murders his younger brother, Abel, and is subsequently cursed by God, forced to wander the Earth as his punishment. Siqueiros saw racist violence against African Americans as an ugly mark on all of humanity.
The “bestial rage” of this painting forces us to reconsider assumptions about any essential difference between humans and other living creatures. Indeed, as British political philosopher John Gray has written—in his critique of ideas that the human species in any way “progresses”—the cavernous gap between our mythic sense of ourselves as imprints of a divine image and our brutal treatment of our own species, other species, and the planet generally, strips us of the dignity inherent in most other forms of life. Here Gray quotes Arthur Koestler from Darkness at Noon.
There must have been laughter amidst the apes when the Neanderthaler first appeared on earth. The highly civilized apes swung gracefully from bough to bough, the Neanderthaler was uncouth and bound to the earth. The apes, saturated and peaceful, lived in sophisticated playfulness, or caught fleas in philosophic contemplation; the Neanderthaler trampled gloomily through the world, banging around with clubs. The apes looked down on him amusedly from their tree tops and threw nuts at him. Sometimes horror seized them; they ate fruits and tender plants with delicate refinement; the Neanderthaler devoured raw meat, he slaughtered animals and his fellows. He cut down trees which had always stood, moved rocks from their time-hallowed place, transgressed against every law and tradition of the jungle. He was uncouth, cruel, without animal dignity—from the point of view of the highly cultivated apes, a barbaric relapse of history. The last surviving chimpanzees still turn up their noses at the sight of a human being.
Stephanie Kelton, The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy (2020)
In The Deficit Myth, Bernie Sanders economic adviser Stephanie Kelton has written the prison break primer on modern monetary theory, the formerly (but now no longer) obscure alternative to established economic policy frameworks that chews up and spits out pretty much every assumption you ever made about how the economy works and how it can and should affect us.
To be clear, Kelton (with her 96,000 Twitter followers), is not yet Paul Krugman (with his 4.6 million followers). But in The Deficit Myth, Kelton’s fresh voice and contrarian ideas meet our terrifying historical moment head-on, where Krugman’s establishment liberalism can only prevaricate. MMT may turn out to be patent medicine quackery, but it’s earned a hearing precisely because the deficit myths it desconstructs have so effectively eviscerated Krugman’s own progressive economic ideas.
Here is the argument in a nutshell. Since the 1980s, the “deficits” bogeyman has driven and constrained economic policymaking for Democratic and Republican politicians alike. The foundation assumption of this bogeyman is that all governments, including national governments, must budget just like households. Governments, like families, must “live within their means.” Budgetary deficits and a growing national debt are evidence of overspending that will burden future generations.
Here are some other assumptions attached to the deficit myth. Deficits make us poorer in all ways. Nondiscretionary spending—such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—deforms responsible budgeting by baking in deficits that can only grow over time. Government borrowing to finance these deficits—via the sale of interest-bearing Treasury bonds—crowds out private investment. Let’s call this perspective the foundation of the neoliberal “moral economy.” In the last 40 years, its zero-sum premises have pitted different groups in society against each other and fueled enormously destructive class and culture wars.
In The Deficit Myth, Kelton tells us that this fear of deficits is radically misplaced. The difference between the United States federal government and a family household—and the difference between the federal government and municipal and state governments—is that the United States federal government is a “monetary sovereign.” The federal government does not actually get the money it spends from taxing its citizens (or by borrowing from its citizens). Instead, the federal government—literally from thin air—creates and issues the currency its spends. For the reason, the national debt poses no financial burden whatsoever. Fiscal deficits actually increase national wealth and collective savings. And as long as the federal govenment commits to making the payments, it can always afford to support entitlement programs. What matters is our economy’s long-run capacity to produce the real goods and services people will need.
Modern monetary theory’s foundation insight is the impact of monetary sovereignty, which confers god-like capacities to shape and create a nation’s economic future. Not all nations possess monetary sovereignty, including, interestingly, all of the nations of the European Union. But the United States is a monetary sovereign, which gives us freedom and flexibility to spend any way we want, subject to the constraint of inflation.
The philosophical and political implications of modern monetary theory are obviously vast and astounding, but perhaps the most poignant and potentially transformative of these implications concerns racial division and racial inequality. Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” trope—in some ways the first meme of our modern era—has long endured as a symbol of zero-sum thinking. The image of the welfare queen has cemented racial stereotypes—of the criminal, grifting, shiftless tendencies of black people—in myths that have in subsequent decades driven political rhetoric and policy debates about distribution, equity, and transformation. What Kelton tells us in The Deficit Myth is that the United States—as a monetary sovereign—has the capacity, right now, to walk away from these constraining, deforming myths. and remake ourselves into the nation of promise and opportunity for all citizens that we have always told ourselves we were and should be.
The Deficit Myth is a weirdly remarkable book. On the one hand, Kelton is clearly cribbing undergraduate course lecture notes. On the other hand, she has written an incredibly well-written, polished—almost illuminated—manuscript. And what the academic ecclesia and punditry have so far missed about the book’s significance eerily resembles the circumstances blinding the Catholic Church intellectual establishment at the tail end of the 15th century. At that time, Church orthodoxies and legalisms hardened even as institutional corruption deepened, leaving the Church entirely unable to comprehend the looming Pauline flash of insight (justification by faith alone / we now see through a glass darkly, but then face to face) that inspired Luther, launched the Protestant Reformation, and nearly brought the Church to its knees.
In the introduction to her book, Kelton (already famously) compares the implications of modern monetary theory to the cosmological impact of Copernican heliocentrism, which reversed assumptions about physics, logic, motion, orbit, and influence foundational for Catholic Church “natural laws” that placed humans at the center of God’s creation. Kelton asks us to consider her book about MMT as an opportunity for a conversion moment comparable to the Copernican moment in the history of science.
What Kelton does not (to my knowledge) tell us is that in 1517–the same year Martin Luther drafted his 95 Theses on Catholic Church indulgences–Copernicus also drafted a famous Treatise on Money that anticipated Gresham’s Law about bad money crowding out good and that introduced a “quantity theory of money” based on the relationship between a stock of money, its velocity, its price level, and economic output. All themes central to MMT.
You can probably imagine the fertile possibilities of a reported story that takes these connections between the scientific, technological, spiritual, and social revolutions about to unfurl in the early 16th century and the comparable unfurling we may well be in the midst of witnessing 500 years later.
Toward a New Cosmology: The Grand Pivot from Natural Law to Complexity Science
I have argued that the axis of conflict in the coming decades will be a civilizational battle between two irreconcilable, non-liberal (i.e., non-Enlightenment) regimes and worldviews – backward-looking, creator-centered natural law and forward-looking creation-centered complexity science. In prior posts, I have specifically focused on Princeton professor Robby George’s views on natural law because his ideas distill nearly everything about the foundational beliefs of western civilization that complexity science calls into question, and that require root-and-branch reassessment.
Complexity is a term that encompasses systems, species, and forms of existence and behavior consisting of thousands or millions or bazillions of entities and interactions that have no obvious external and defining logic or set of instructions. Consider the “swarm intelligence” of fish and birds. Or the complex division of labor and “hive mind” of ants and bees. Or the flow of traffic, the movements of markets, the spread of memes, the dynamics of contagion. All functioning without fixed systems of “command-and-control.” Without any obvious “prime mover” or “uncaused cause.” Without a God. With no universal “natural law.” Creation, in other words, without a creator.
Unlike the Abrahamic faiths and Thomist natural law, creation-centric complexity science assumes a fantastic disorder, within time and space, that is random and stochastic, but also self-sufficient and self-sustaining. For this reason, complexity science – of the sort studied at the Santa Fe Institute – gives us a lens on western civilization and western history that can expose and explode what one might call the non-liberal pieties of the Abrahamic faiths and the more conservative versions of natural law moral philosophy.
9 / Jasper
Tobias and Martha delivered Lawrence to Boy Scout camp in New Mexico for a month that summer after Eli’s junior year. When Lawrence returned early, his aluminum pack frame mysteriously bent obliquely (like your retarded leg, he spat, after Eli queried the circumstances), and half his gear missing, they shuttled him off to an August photography camp at Marquand Park, desperate to find something, anything, that would stick, cementing both his character and his self-esteem.
Remarkably, the photography did stick. Tobias had purchased Lawrence a used Rolleiflex SL35 with an 80 mm Zeiss telephoto lens to use at photography camp. It was a sweet rig, Eli had to admit. That summer and into the fall, Lawrence visited afternoons and weekends at the Hodge Road mansion of a reclusive boy named Jasper, whose parents had fitted out a basement darkroom for their son. From the perspective of Lawrence’s family, these visits to a “dark room” did not necessarily illuminate Lawrence; he remained surly and obstreperous at home. But for the first time, an activity held his interest and, indeed, he did seem to be learning quite a bit about darkroom chemistry and making photographic prints.
- Animals – Why Migration is Essential for Survival – for Animals and for Humans
- Cities – Why Urban Density is Good for Health – Even During a Pandemic
- Climate – A Climate Plan in Texas Focuses on Minorities. Not Everyone Likes It.
- Economics – How Economics Went from Medieval to Modern
- Inequality – Why Nursery Schools Are a Secret Weapon in the Fight Against Inequality