Thursday, January 29, 2015

What we talk about when we talk about Selma

I went through three stages of reaction to the debate surrounding LBJ’s portrayal in the otherwise-awesome Selma. First, before I’d even seen the movie, it seemed strange to be centering the discussion about the first civil rights-era movie made by black people on a minor white character. If there are inaccuracies, I figured, that’s because the movie is fictional and aiming at some larger truth, and it seemed petty to get so upset about the one white character in a film made by an industry overwhelmingly dominated by white people. Not to mention, the larger story of civil rights in America really is about the resistance of powerful white people to the emancipation of black people, so it’s hardly unreasonable to portray a President hesitantly embracing the movement.

Then I saw the movie. During the Johnson scenes, I couldn’t help but think about the criticisms I’d read and, not being a Johnson scholar (or any kind of scholar, for that matter), I fixated on the moments that seemed to ring false. I wasn’t trying to, it just happened. The rest of the movie was great, but during the Johnson scenes I cringed. Afterward, as I thought about it, all manner of alternate approaches suggested themselves - Johnson’s hardly the only white foil in the movie, so it seemed gratuitous to me to take liberties with the historical record when the critiques of white society that any civil-rights movie has to make can easily rest on the truly loathsome figures of Gov. Wallace and Sheriff Clark.

In the last day or two, though, I’ve started to reconsider. I’ve read and listened to a number of black critics discuss Johnson’s portrayal as rather moderate in their eyes. The white critics I’ve read have seen Johnson in the movie the same way I did - as pretty alarmingly racist. And that difference has been what’s caused me to rethink.

If black people hear Johnson as a moderate, and white people hear him as a flaming racist, well, that says something pretty interesting about what we’re bringing to the film as individuals. It strikes me that for white people, this is a movie with relatively few figures to identify with - certainly there are the solidarity marchers who come to Selma, and martyrs like James Reeb who die there. But they’re not really individual characters in the movie; they’re more like a concept, a mass of people standing in for a mass of people.

There are only a handful of white characters in the movie with enough screen time to subconsciously identify with. And they’re all awful, but Johnson is the least awful, and unlike all the rest, he’s not vilified today. So naturally, modern white people identify with him (at least on some level; I’ve never been a ridiculously tall Texan President, but I think you know what I mean). And when he then goes on to, in the movie, endorse really despicable acts like the FBI’s surveillance of King’s private life and their manipulation of his marriage; and when we learn, after the movie if we didn’t already know it, that LBJ (apparently) never actually did that, it feels a bit like a betrayal. Like an unnecessary savaging of an otherwise-ok white person who I had been identifying with subconsciously for a few hours.

All of which is to say, it’s about time. American culture has been inaccurately and gratuitously misportraying non-white people for as long as there has been American culture. The sensation of, “There’s only one person in this movie I can relate to, and they kinda made him a jackass” is not a new sensation for black people, or asian people, or hispanic people, but it is for white people. So this is something we’ve just got to get used to.

But there’s something else. This is a movie by a black woman, about one of the most important black figures of the 20th century. This is not a movie made by committee, or screen-tested to appeal to every demographic. This is a piece of art, made by a specific person with a specific vision. Like all art, liberties are taken in service of a larger truth, but more specifically, this is the world seen through a lens in which LBJ’s portrayal really is pretty accurate. Maybe there’s no tape of him endorsing Hoover’s ugly spying on King, and maybe he was marginally more sympathetic to civil rights for black people than it felt like the movie portrayed. But the movie is about King, and about the struggle for equality, and in the context of that struggle it is no inaccuracy at all to say that the white power structure was reticent to extend equal rights to black people.

This is what happens when you let people who aren’t white men make movies: they tell stories from their point of view, and the whole point is that their view is different from mine. Why watch, otherwise?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


I walked to work today, about 7 miles. It took an hour and a half, roughly twice as long as it would take on the train or bike, but far more pleasureable (at least than the former). And I love trains, but being outside and seeing random beautiful things like a light snow dusting Oz Park or the sun catching some buildings (all things you can see on the train too, it should be said) are really nice rewards.

I think just being outside is really what I love. Running around, walking, biking, strolling, listening to podcasts or music, whatever it is, it just feels good and breaks me out of my own head. I spend far too much time there.

I find it to be a great reminder that I may have no idea what I’m going to do today, or I may be upset by some trivial bullshit, but none of that matters because the world is bigger than I could ever be, and it’s always interesting to just watch it. Life is better than any one person’s best or worst day.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Infamous S-Curve

If you’ve lived or driven in Chicago, you’ve probably spent some time cruising down one of the country’s most beautiful roadways: Lake Shore Drive. If you’ve only done that driving in the last thirty years, however, you were fortunate enough to avoid one of the most notoriously dumb civil-engineering debacles of the American 20th Century: the S-Curve.
To get a sense of how dumb this structure was, consider the nature of LSD, as we call it: a beautifully scenic lakefront expressway that runs most of the length of the city, often with relatively little traffic. These days, the speed limit is 45 miles per hour (40 during the winter), and the Illinois Department of Transportation estimates that 78-95% of drivers exceed it. It’s pretty hard not to; the Drive feels designed for moving at speed, and the buildings and parks and lakefront whipping by reward it.

So you’re going 50, 60, even 70 miles an hour (as nearly 10% of drivers do in one section) and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, you hit a curve. But not just any curve. Look up above.

Immediately you have to turn 90 degrees, and then as soon as you’re done not-crashing and not-flying-off-the-side-of-the-highway, you have to do it again. Over a river, next to a lake, immediately before or after a drawbridge (depending on direction), all the while careering through a pair of turns with NASCAR-style raised outside edges.

Amazingly, the good citizens of Chicago almost never crashed their cars on this monstrosity.

Oh wait, they did, all the time. My uncle Jeff remembers crashing at night in the middle of an empty and deserted S-curve and having to walk back to Hyde Park, 8 miles south (some parts of this story might be apocryphal). Other friends and relatives who lived in the city at the time have their own stories of accidents, near-misses and impossibly slow traffic caused by people who didn’t want their own memorable stories to tell.

The S-Curve is gone now, demolished in 1985, but the legend lives on: poor public works planning isn’t an abstraction but an obstacle for the residents of a place to overcome, or suffer under. The lessons of the S-curve are with us in Chicago every time we pay a dumbly-privatized parking meter, drive on the dumbly-privatized Skyway, or attend a basketball game at the unnecessary and outrageously expensive Catholic-school basketball stadium our tax dollars are inexplicably paying for. Public policy matters.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Everything looks different from the outside

A depressed person can be depressed for reasons that don't make any sense to outside observers. A society can decide that stonewashed jeans and permed hair look really cool, for reasons that fail any rational test of logic. And an economist can look at a set of facts about a place and draw conclusions from them that are simultaneously correct and absurd.

Near the end of his discussion of the history of economic growth since the year 1700, in his so-far-excellent book Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty makes an observation based on data that made my jaw drop. In North America, apparently, "there is no nostalgia for the [post-World War II] period," because North America never saw levels of growth comparable to the miraculous expansions in postwar Europe, the so-called Trente Glorieuses. The graph at the top of the page illustrates the argument, and indeed, economic growth in North America post-World War II was dramatically lower than in Western Europe.

And yet. Anyone who's lived in the US at some point in the last twenty years and has watched our political debates unfurl would never for a second believe that we have "no nostalgia" for the most overly-hagiographized decades of the 20th century. The 1950s are an iconically great time in America's self-image, at least for straight white men, and an entire political party exists in order to return us to that era.

Piketty goes on to hedge this statement slightly, treating the malaise of the 1970s and the conservative renaissance in the 1980s as evidence that any expansion in the decades prior didn't go far enough towards increasing overall prosperity. But he doesn't back away from the central premise of that paragraph, and it's instructive to think about the broader significance of his...I don't want to call it an error, exactly, since I'm not interested in throwing down an econ debate against one of the most impressive economists writing in the 21st century. So let's say that it's interesting to discuss his mischaracterization of our national lack of nostalgia.

To begin with, it obviously demonstrates the limitations of statistical and economic analysis in understanding a society of complex human beings. He's not wrong about the numbers, but he is wrong about our collective societal memory of that era, and the latter really isn't reducible to any mathematical statement. As human beings existing in the physical world, our horizons are governed by math but our behavior is not predicted by it.

It's also worth thinking about what Piketty's mischaracterization tells us about our own powers of assessment. Americans, myself included, love to make judgements about other societies with relatively little information. A handful of terrorist attacks by a tiny number of individuals cause us to condemn broader aspects of "the Muslim world," whatever that is. We think we know something about Europe because they have strong social-welfare laws and charming old-world accents. Even at home, high crime rates in inner cities lead white people to condemn the societal dysfunctions of Black America.

In this case, a person with deep ties to the United States - Piketty was an assistant professor at MIT for a few years - and an overwhelming volume of econometric data, nevertheless drew a conclusion about what Americans think that is wildly different from what I think we commonly believe (or at least, what I think we commonly believe about what we commonly believe). It should give us pause before we rush off to condemn another society about which we know almost nothing beyond a single data point.