Category Archives: Weekend Reading

Weekend Reading on Student Protests

A short reading list this weekend:

Weekend Reading

As long as they’re being hunted down by the PC police, cultural conservatives can pretend that they’re the victims of modern culture. Think about it: An entire society wants to marginalize them for talking about black-on-black crime or genetic definitions of gender. Of course, no one is going to arrest them under PC law, try them in PC court or lock them in PC jail. But they feel excluded and socially coerced to behave in particular ways, so they fight back wherever they can against compulsory thoughtfulness.

What “South Park” libertarians don’t seem to realize is that they’ve crafted a whole politics around their bruised feelings, which is exactly what they accuse the PC police of doing wrong. More than police brutality or wealth inequality or state surveillance, they don’t like being told that they’re wrong or should behave differently.

We have read about torture, and Guantánamo, and torture again, glowing with outrage at every turn. Even if it did not secure accountability for these outrages, the defense of civil liberties at least strengthened the norms prohibiting inhumane conduct in war—especially unacceptable forms of detention and interrogation. The value of civil libertarianism was at its greatest when those norms seemed momentarily fragile, and the country appeared to be slipping over to the “dark side,” as revelations from Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and elsewhere began to mount.

But we should not pretend that you can never have too much of a good thing. Oppositional to the state in the short term, civil libertarianism can function to grant the state legitimacy in the long term by helping scrub wars of their outrageous excesses—as if those excesses were the main problem.

Under civil libertarianism (now augmented by a much newer human rights internationalism), how the state fights its enemies is made to matter much more than why it does so and with what consequences. The question of whether a war is right or wrong to begin with is often left to the side so long as the way the war is fought is arguably in conformity with national law and international standards.

Weekend Reading

You get one less hour of reading this weekend.

The entire courtroom is a spectacle of state power. Black body after black body. Latino immigrant in need of a translator after Latino immigrant in need of a translator. A sprinkle of white men in business suits… In the courtroom: [the judge] is god. “Law and order” is the de jure theology and white supremacy the de facto religion. For true democracy to flourish we must become atheists of The State. “If it brings me to my knees,” singer Frank Ocean declares, “it’s a bad religion.” This exceptional country brought Michael Brown to his knees, before bringing his lifeless body to lie in a pool of his own blood. Ferguson is no anomaly. Every 28 hours in America a black person is killed by police, a security guard, or vigilante.

Only partially accessible and visible, the San Francisco police memorial offers a model of remembrance that conveys police grief as part and parcel of a carceral logic: dangerously paranoid, bunkered off from public access, and perpetuating policing itself. The power of the police is here separated, territorialized, defensive, and defended. The architectural formation presents a forbidden shrine—a separation Bryan and I seemed to have pierced without invitation. Police grief here is falsely rendered as something socio-communal—as if the dead were one of us—and yet that space for remembering is not “ours” at all.

Weekend Reading


While the gentrified Midtown is hailed as “the next Bushwick” and rents continue to rise, the rest of the city remains a shell of its former self, choked by poverty and suffering from a lack of services. Most visibly, for the past three years many in Detroit have had their access to water restricted as result of being unable to pay water bills, prompting United Nations rapporteurs to investigate human rights violations. Meanwhile, commercial accounts like those the city has with Chrysler, General Motors, and professional sports arenas are able to stay in operation despite overdue debts in the thousands of dollars. This is the Gilded Age calculus of the new Detroit: the burdened public carrying the privilege of a private few.

Most metaphors for data’s power draw on the idea of visual surveillance by regarding data harvesting as an all-seeing gaze sweeping across the citizenry. We imagine ocular devices (or even real human eyes) perched atop giant watchtowers, as in the “panopticon,” Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century idea for an efficient prison, revived in 1975 by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish… However, in the case of our new information politics, the metaphor of visuality may not be as plausible as it first appears. The surveillance mechanism of the panopticon relies upon total visibility —you see the tower and assume the guards can see you. But the mechanisms assembled on behalf of new-fangled national security and consumer analytics seem to presuppose the opposite. They function through invisibility. The watchtower garishly announced itself; we need to see the security cameras for them to be effective. By contrast, the algorithm is invisible as it constructs its composites; it ever runs silently in the background like all that circuitry, voltage, and machine code that quietly lets you into your computer without ever announcing itself.

The government and corporate sectors’ algorithms work with data that is constantly being harvested and analyzed without our awareness — not only because the harvesting is sometimes in secret but also because we tend to not recognize the massive variety of mechanisms at play for turning our action, experience, and thought into data that categorizes, compartmentalizes, and calculates who we are.

Weekend Reading

Indigenous Weekend Reading is better than Columbus Weekend Reading:

Were the issue actually crime, statistics would tell you that crime continues its longitudinal trend downward nationally. Were the issue criminality, science would tell you that civil unrest stems from very different social processes than those which produce criminals. Were the issue safety, public policy would protect black taxpayers from being indiscriminately murdered by the police.

But the issue is race. There, the scientific threshold bows to the superiority of racial logic. Suddenly, crime waves exist in a vacuum and have arbitrary beginning and end points. The poor become at once both fragile and super predators. Blackness assumes the essential, biological, and irrefutable character of criminality. Donald Trump can run for president of the United States despite once allegedly saying, “Laziness is a trait in blacks.” Not only is history kind to those who espouse racist ideologies, but the present ain’t too bad either.

The truth is that “liking” something on Facebook is the absolute lowest common denominator of participation in the community, and any additional button meant to showcase a feeling of remorse would have no more impact than the tools already at our disposal. Does clicking “Sorry About That” at the news of a gun-related massacre actually indicate anything other than the consumption of the headline?

Likes, dislikes, regards, condolences – whatever new and supposedly groundbreaking interactive buttons Facebook chooses to unveil still fail to convey interaction in any meaningful way. If we are to assume that this problem is a wound, then the addition of new buttons is not even a band-aid that might cover it up. It is a team of strangers wandering in off the street  to stare at the wound while shrugging their shoulders.

Weekend Reading

Weekend Reading coming at you in its new, even more infrequent manner. Surprise readings:

The video is not “about” colonialism (or about Africa); it’s about the desire for “classic Hollywood iconography,” for the glamour of that period…. Because Swift’s video is “based on classic Hollywood romances,” it cannot be about colonialism. Because it uses “classic Hollywood iconography,” there can be “no political agenda in the video.” Because it’s a tragic love story, it is absolved of nostalgia for white supremacy.

But if the word “classic” is a load-bearing piece of rhetoric, the argument here is a load of crap. Another “classic” Hollywood film is 1915’s Birth of a Nation—an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan—and the film’s success played a direct and decisive role in reviving the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that occasionally dabbled in politics. For decades, as black people struggled against Jim Crow repression and law-by-lynching, Hollywood films like Gone With the Wind (1939) produced very effective and powerful propaganda for a white supremacist vision of American society; Hollywood in the 1930s was, in everything but name, a public relations office for Jim Crow. But, and here is the point, Hollywood sold white supremacy by foregrounding white romance. Gone With the Wind is not about slavery, ostensibly; it’s about white people in love who just happen to own slaves. And it’s no coincidence that Birth of the Nation literally ends with voter suppression and white people getting married. The romance—the marriage between North and South—is there to make white supremacy look good, to make you forget little things like the fact that Black Lives Matter.

Like Gone With the Wind, Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” is not explicitly nostalgic for white supremacy. But it’s nostalgic for a time when you could be nostalgic for white supremacy, when having a wedding at a former slave plantation raised no eyebrows.

Academics of color experience an enervating visibility, but it’s not simply that we’re part of a very small minority. We are also a desired minority, at least for appearance’s sake. University life demands that academics of color commodify themselves as symbols of diversity—in fact, as diversity itself, since diversity, in this context, is located entirely in the realm of the symbolic. There’s a wound in the rupture between the diversity manifested in the body of the professor of color and the realities affecting that person’s community or communities. I, for example, am a black professor in the era of mass incarceration of black people through the War on Drugs; I am a Somali American professor in the era of surveillance and drone strikes perpetuated through the War on Terror.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander taps into that wound: “Highly visible examples of black success are critical to the maintenance of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness.” It’s not that we’re too few, nor is it that we suffer survivor guilt for having escaped the fate of so many in our communities. It’s that our visibility is consumed in a way that legitimizes the structures of exclusion.

Weekend Reading

Giving education away for free is easy, especially if you’ve been doing it for 150-plus years: you just accept students and then start teaching them. But charging tuition is expensive because it requires a huge bureaucracy, all of which Cooper needed to build from scratch. And so, in order to be able to charge tuition, Cooper Union had to borrow evenmore money, partly just to build up that bureaucracy. In August 2014, it borrowed another $50 million. The debts were piling up, while the revenues were still nowhere to be seen.

There is a global refugee crisis–today, it is on Europe’s shores; two months ago, it was on Malaysia’s; one year ago, it was on the southern border of the United States. This is a crisis of no specific moment: it is persistent, because the violence whence it came is persistent. The refugees that violence creates occupy a worldly purgatory. In camps, the ramshackle residence that becomes their home is impermanent by definition, and their new society is governed at once by the formal legal codes of domestic and international humanitarian governance, and an informal assortment of evolutionary bodies. Even when these refugees are resettled–given permanent visas, permanent homes–the societies that host them place them at their margins.

[W]hat Hudson is doing [by using a Chinese pseudonym] isn’t anything that white male writers haven’t already been doing since the first recorded instance of our culture embracing any kind of excellence that did not include them: scramble to come up with ways to keep the playing field uneven, to keep the odds stacked in their favor. The scandal of Hudson performing the laziest act of yellowface (co-opting a Chinese name) to get his poem published and accepted into the Best American Poetry anthology is lurid fodder for our cultural conversation because of its explicitness, but it should not be strange or unbelievable. White people have always slipped in and out of the experiences of people of color and been praised extravagantly for it. After all, 50 years ago, when black voices were fighting to be heard, when their stories of trauma and abuse were struggling for legitimacy, it took John Howard Griffin, a white man who dyed his skin black and wrote about his experiences as a “black” man in his book, Black Like Me, for white Americans to believe that yes, black people were telling the truth about their lived experiences in the Jim Crow South. He was hailed a singular hero. Studs Terkel once said, “Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered. He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century and lifts the hearts of the rest of us.” It may seem totally nuts now, but as far as who gets credit for simply being affected by black pain, it doesn’t seem very removed from our current world where we heap lavish praise on someone like Jon Stewart for announcing on the Daily Show that he was too heartbroken to make jokes after the Charleston church shooting, as if all throughout this country’s present and past, black people and people of color have not been so heartbroken and so violated that we were left humorless, or worse, dead. To praise Stewart as excessively as he was praised is to say to black people: Your pain is unexceptional and does not matter until a white man feels it too.

Weekend Reading

Semester starts tomorrow, so get some links while you can:

If stopped by the police, I thought to myself, I would set my phone to record audio and put it on the passenger seat. I would send a tweet that I was being stopped and had every intention of complying with the police officer. I would turn on Periscope and livestream the stop, crowdsourcing witnesses. I would text my family and tell them that I was not feeling angry or suicidal, that I was looking forward to seeing them soon. There would not be time to do all of these things, but maybe if I prepared in advance I could pull off one or two of them. What all of these plans had in common were that none of them were meant to secure my safety, but rather to ensure that my death looked suspicious enough to question.

I was figuring out how to enter evidence into the inquiry of my own death.


Most of us will not be killed by police officers. White supremacy will not kill us so directly, so flagrantly. Instead it dogs our steps, wages niggling wars on our peace itself. Its power is in the daily theft of our joy, our dignity, our sanity. It is in the way we always have to weigh and calculate, how we can never assume good intentions and honest mistakes. Because it is always there, in swirling eddies around our ankles, waiting to drag us under.

White Americans saw the storm and its aftermath as a case of bad luck and unprecedented incompetence that spread its pain across the Gulf Coast regardless of race. This is the narrative you see in Landrieu’s words and, to some extent, Obama’s as well. To black Americans, however, this wasn’t an equal opportunity disaster. To them, it was confirmation of America’s indifference to black life. “We have an amazing tolerance for black pain,” said Rev. Jesse Jackson in an interview after the storm. Rev. Al Sharpton, also echoed the mood among many black Americans: “I feel that, if it was in another area, with another economic strata and racial makeup, that President Bush would have run out of Crawford a lot quicker and FEMA would have found its way in a lot sooner.” Even more blunt was rapper Kanye West, who famously told a live national television audience that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”


When we look at the first 15 years of the 21st century, the most defining moment in black America’s relationship to its country isn’t Election Day 2008; it’s Hurricane Katrina. The events of the storm and its aftermath sparked a profound shift among black Americans toward racial pessimism that persists to today, even with Barack Obama in the White House. Black collective memory of Hurricane Katrina, as much as anything else, informs the present movement against police violence, “Black Lives Matter.”

Weekend Reading

The move to more flexible scheduling has come alongside a shift from full-time to part-time work. One industry analyst reported that the retail sector went from being about 70 to 80 percent full-time jobs several decades ago to approximately 70 percent part-time jobs today. Retail employees comprise 11 percent of the US workforce, but 18 percent of those who are involuntarily part-time.

While erratic scheduling makes it difficult for someone not working a forty-hour week to find and hold a second job, relying on part-time work benefits employers — who can more easily vary hours and schedules, avoid overtime pay, and offer fewer benefits. Many companies have store policies that provide benefits only to full-time workers, and the Affordable Care Act applies only to workers employed thirty or more hours per week.

The thinking behind the idea that trigger warnings are a form of censorship is fundamentally illogical: those who offer warnings, at our professional discretion, about potentially triggering material are doing so precisely because we’re about to teach it! If we used trigger warnings to say, effectively, “don’t read this, it’s scary,” then there’d be no need to warn in the first place; we’d just leave the material off the syllabus.


[T]rigger warnings are, in practice, just one of a set of tools that professors use with varying degrees of formality to negotiate the give-and-take of classroom interactions. If you take away the media hysteria surrounding trigger warnings, you’re left with a mode of conversational priming that we all use: “You might want to sit down for this”; “I’m not sure how to say this, but…” It’s hardly anti-intellectual or emotionally damaging to anticipate that other people may react to traumatic material with negative emotions, particularly if they suffer from PTSD; it’s human to engage others with empathy. It’s also human to have emotional responses to life and literature, responses that may come before, but in no way preclude, a dispassionate analysis of a text or situation.

Weekend Reading

No doubt many liberals have grown increasingly sensitive to the uses and abuses of language. This might be a consequence of previously marginalized groups demanding respect, or it might have something to do with technological change, as the atomized Internet age gives way to the non-stop commentary of the social-media age. And it may be the case that this focus on language will prove, in the long run, unhelpful to the progressive movement. But it is hard to see how, as Powers argues, “the left is killing free speech” merely by paying too much attention to it. Last month, speaking about criminal-justice reform, President Obama issued twin exhortations. “We should not be tolerating rape in prison,” he said. “And we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture.” To someone like Powers, this might have sounded faintly oppressive: the President telling citizens what jokes not to tell. Yet our discourse is shaped by innumerable taboos. (Just think of all the things one shouldn’t say about members of the military.) Certainly, some new taboos are emerging, even as some older ones fade away, but no one with Internet access will find it easy to claim that, in general, our speech is more inhibited than it used to be. Taboos discourage some speech, but the system of taboos is also maintained through speech. If you say the unsayable, you might well be shamed—and that shaming can have consequences—but you will not be arrested. Mostly, what inhibits speech is the fear of being spoken about.

Earlier this year, Powers took part in a debate over the proposition that “liberals are stifling intellectual diversity on campus.” One of the people on the other side was Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism. He cited the case of Robert J. Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, who was invited to deliver the commencement address at Haverford College last year, but declined in the face of protests; students had demanded that he apologize for the actions of U.C.B. police officers who arrested seven students during a 2011 demonstration. Powers considers Birgeneau the victim of a “campaign of intolerance,” but Johnston sees him as a perpetrator. “Birgeneau, an administrator who presided over the beating and arrest of student protesters, is portrayed as a free-speech martyr,” he said. “The students who just wanted to talk to him about that are portrayed as his oppressors.” Johnston conceded that “stifling” was worrisome, but insisted that the true culprits were administrators—liberal, perhaps, in political outlook, but motivated merely by “opposition to disruptiveness and clamor.” These days, just about everyone claims to be on the side of free speech.

All the good stuff we grow — tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce — has gotten continually more bland. This has been measured. They have become diluted of nutrients, as well. As we selected crops for agronomic traits like yield, shelf life and disease resistant, we never selected for flavor. And we lost flavor as a result. It’s reverse evolutionary pressure.

Simultaneously, while those flavors were being lost at the farm level, we started producing them in factories and adding them to all sorts of things. We created flavors that were out of context. For tens of thousands of years, the only place we could get the taste of orange was from an orange. Then we created orange flavoring and suddenly we had orange pops, ice cream, candy. These flavored foods deliver deliciousness and calories, but they don’t deliver a diversity of nutrients.