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New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

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Sunday, January 22, 2023

Ideology, Identity, Careerism

 I have just been listening to a remarkable interview between Coleman Hughes, my favorite young public intellectual, and documentary filmmaker Meg Smaker about her documentary, Jihad Rehab, in which she interviews several Saudi men who were held at Guantanamo for years before being released into Saudi custody, where they underwent some re-education.  The film was originally accepted by the Sundance festival, but the festival apologized for screening it in response to  protests that a white woman had no right to make such a film, and Smaker found it impossible to get it shown anywhere for a long time after that.  I haven't seen the film yet, although I hope to, but late in the interview this leads Coleman into an interesting comment about his classes at Columbia five or ten years ago.  I shall explain in due course how that comment fits in with thoughts I've been having for a long time about the destruction of the humanities in universities and how exactly it came about.

I believe that the number of genuinely talented historians and literary critics is quite small, and much too small to staff the enormous university system that grew up in the United States in the postwar period.  Our genuine intellectuals, I have found, are scattered at random throughout the population, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.  Many of the smartest people, in addition, do not choose to become academics.  Many who do become academics lack individual self-confidence and very easily go with the flow, and some of them suffer from impostor syndrome.  That is why the majority of academics who write one book never write another one.  And in the last forty years the whole cultural tradition allied to university life has been dying, with fewer people taking the time to read serious books and publishers catering more and more to mass tastes.

Now in the 1960s and 1970s, more women and nonwhites began going to graduate school, getting their degrees, and going on the job market. By the 1970s, by the way, the job market was extremely tight for everyone, regardless of demography, since the majority of faculty hired in the great university expansion of the 1960s-70s were still relatively young.  In short, lots of us had trouble either finding a job or having the kind of impact we hoped to have.  We responded in various different ways.

My text this morning is the introduction to a collection of essays, Gender and the Politics of History, by the historian Joan Wallach Scott, who was born in 1941 and received her doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin in 1969.  The introduction of this 1988 book explains that her intellectual focus had shifted when she participated in Pembroke Center seminars at Brown University, focusing on poststructuralist theory.  That theory--which the novelist David Lodge explored in several of his books--held that language is the only reality--a congenial thought for an academic--and that language always deploys, or contests, power relationships within society.  Those relationships in turn stem from differences in gender, race, class, and sexual behavior.  To make it clear how all this influenced Scott I shall use her own words.

"Gender, in these essays, means knowledge about sexual difference.  I use knowledge, following Michel Foucault, to mean the understanding produced by cultures and societies of human relationships, in this case of those between men and women. Such knowledge is not absolute or true, but always relative. It is produced in complex ways within large epistemic frames that themselves have an (at least quasi-autonomous history. Its uses and meanings become contested politically and are the means by which relationships of power-of domination and subordination-are constructed. Knowledge refers not only to ideas but to institutions and structures, everyday practices as well as specialized rituals, all of which constitute social relationships. Knowledge is a way of ordering the world; as such it is not prior to social organization, it is inseparable from social organization. . . ."

"History figures in this approach not exclusively as the record of changes in the social organization of the sexes but also crucially as a participant in the production of knowledge about sexual difference.  I assume that history's representations of the past help construct gender or the present. Analyzing how that happens requires attention to the assumptions, practices, and rhetoric of the discipline, to things either so taken for granted or so outside customary practice that they are not usually a focus for historians' attention. These include the notions that history can faithfully document lived reality, that archives are repositories of facts, and that categories like man and woman are transparent. They extend as well to examinations of the rhetorical practices of historians, the construction of historical texts, and the politics-that is, the power relationships-constituted by the discipline.  In these essays history is as much the object of analytic attention as it is a method of analysis. Taken in both ways together, it provides a means for understanding and contributing to the process by which gender knowledge is produced.

"If the themes of gender and history unite this book, so does a preoccupation with theory. Although historians are not trained (in the United States at least) to be reflective or rigorous about their theory, I found it imperative to pursue theoretical questions in order to do feminist history. This resulted, I think, from my sense of frustration at the relatively limited impact women's history was having on historical studies generally and my consequent need to understand why that was the case. My motive was and is one I share with other feminists and it is avowedly political: to point out and change inequalities between women and men. It is a motive, moreover, that feminists share with those concerned to change the representation of other groups left out of history because of race, ethnicity, and class as well as gender."

Now having spent more than four decades navigating this new intellectual world--as described in A Life in History--I have to hand it to Professor Scott for summarizing the ideology behind the postmodernist revolution so succinctly.  It makes perfect sense to me, too, that the author of these words had already reached the summit of the academy as a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Lay readers, however, may need a little help finding their way through these paragraphs.  Let me try to translate them into English, as we used to say in the Army.

Scott is saying that language cannot be understood as providing objective descriptions of reality, because there is no reality outside of power relationships based upon gender, race, or class.  (Had she written this introduction a few years later I'm sure she would have thrown in sexual orientation as well.)  Theory, I would suggest--and I'm not enough of an intellectual historian of the last half century to prove this, but I think someone could--is a shorthand for "critical theory," which goes back to Karl Marx and which got a big boost in the twentieth century from the Frankfurt School in general and Herbert Marcuse in particular.  And critical theory, I am now convinced, is really an intellectual game based on the assumption that every tenet of Enlightenment thought really means the opposite of what it says.  Suppose we assume that the ideology of the equality of all persons, as enshrined in the US Constitution, really just hides the supremacy of straight white males?  Suppose we  assume (as Marcuse did) that free speech merely reserves the public square for hegemonic bourgeois ideas?  Turning to critical race theory, suppose that we assume (as Derek Bell did) that the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 had nothing to do with attempts to better the lot of black Americans?  The same "critical" spirit leads Scott, above, to question " that history can faithfully document lived reality, that archives are repositories of facts, and that categories like man and woman are transparent." 

Now these ideas already dominated literature and history departments in universities by the time Scott wrote those words.  Now they also dominate university administrations (a point to which I shall return) and have been adopted by the arts mainstream media and a whole industry of diversity trainers.  Many people have been canceled for disputing them in public.  I would like to suggest three different reasons why they have spread so widely.

First of all--they are related to genuine facts.  Western society--and every other society that I know of--gave most political and economic power to men, racism and tribalism characterize every society that we know of, and western society defined homosexuality as evil for many centuries.  An impartial observer must also note, however, that the ideas that have allowed western society to put aside legal sexism and racism and adopt a tolerant attitude towards homosexuality all came from the West.  Slavery existed in every part of the world, but was first abolished in Europe (though not, of course, in European colonies), and then in the European-settled new nations of the Americas in the 19th century. The Europeans forced West Africa to give it up (although it persisted in Mauretania at least until the late 20th century.) The idea of citizenship as a category transcending race and gender is a western idea. Western-dominated institutions now advocate for women's and gay rights in the global south.  It has always seemed ironic to me, by the way, that many of the female academics whose ranks have grown so quickly over the last few decades--proof, one might think, that the academy no longer discriminates against them--have made their careers attacking sexism in their own societies.  In Scott's case, only five years ago she published a new book, Sex and Secularism, arguing that western secular ideologies had done more to deprive women of their rights than traditional belief systems such as Islam.   Reviewer Laura Kipnis, who has had her own brush with cancellation by feminists, was not persuaded. 

The second reason is emotional.  This framework had an irresistible appeal for many (though never all) young academics who were not straight white males.  Scott expresses this perfectly when she says that she turned to theory from "from my sense of frustration at the relatively limited impact women's history was having on historical studies generally and my consequent need to understand why that was the case. My motive was and is one I share with other feminists and it is avowedly political: to point out and change inequalities between women and men. It is a motive, moreover, that feminists share with those concerned to change the representation of other groups left out of history because of race, ethnicity, and class as well as gender."  Now there were all sorts of possible reasons why women's history wasn't having the impact she had hoped for--but how satisfying it was to believe that the culprit was the hegemony of straight white males, which left no room for the beliefs and feelings of those they oppressed.  For anyone other than straight white males, adopting this paradigm turned any racist, sexist or homophobic slight they had experienced either from other people or from the broader culture into another key to understanding the whole of western history.  This was indeed "centering" their experience--another common boast of those who do this kind of history.  My contemporary Camille Paglia tried to point out that one could not try to find evidence for this paradigm in classic texts without obviously distorting their meaning thirty years ago in her classic essay, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders"--but she remained an outsider in academia. And in the last decade universities have gone a step further, arguing that any perceived slight causes irreparable harm to oppressed persons and must therefore be punished, not infrequently with the loss of one's job. In fact, I would argue, the whole purpose of education is to take you outside yourself and expose you to people, ideas, and experiences that you have never had before.  That's certainly what happened to me in college and graduate school, and I was and remain a straight white male.

And the third reason was careerist.  Since "Contests about knowledge are now understood to be political, not only because they are contests, but because they are explicitly about the interests of groups (rather than the opinions of individuals) in the substance and form of knowledge"--as Scott wrote in another essay just a few years later--academia and society could move forward only by listening more to women, nonwhites and gays and less to straight white men--all of whom were speaking, whether they knew it or not, for their group.  For the university and society, every female, nonwhite or gay hire represented a step forward, while any straight white male was a relic of an obsolete, oppressive ideology.  And of course, within this climate, straight white males--vulnerable by definition--usually decided to profess the new ideology themselves, or at the very least, to keep their dissent to themselves.

The most disastrous result of the woke careerist impulse has been the cancerous growth of diversity bureaucracies throughout higher education.  Diversity bureaucrats either abandoned scholarship early in their careers, or were never scholars in the first place.  They are committed to the idea that universities have traditionally been racist, sexist and homophobic institutions, and that undoing all the harm they have done is their most important task.  These bureaucrats now question course content and classroom interactions.  Professors can no longer claim any intellectual authority based upon their training or scholarly achievements if just one student argues that they have been traumatized by something the professor said or by a text or piece of artwork that the professor showed them.  If a member of a "marginalized group" complains, the professor is guilty.

And that brings me to what Coleman Hughes said during the interview with Meg Smaker, whose film is trying to emerge from cancellation.  She pointed out that while some Muslims and some white ideologues had complained about her making it, many Muslims liked it very much.   Hughes said the whole story reminded him of his undergraduate experience at Columbia, from which he graduated only a few years ago.  Professors, he claimed, routinely assigned too much reading every week, and often began class by asking every student to talk briefly about it.  If you were a "person of color" (the term he used), he said, and had not done the reading, you didn't have to admit that; you could simply say (in  many cases at least)  that since the author was white, the ideas did not seem to speak to you and you found it impossible to engage with them.  That is, by the way, exactly what a young black music student says to a distinguished female conductor in the movie Tar when she tries to get  him into a discussion of J. S. Bach (and he threw in Bach's "misogyny" for good measure.) That, sadly, is where higher education is today.

Through all these decades, some scholars from every demographic have stuck to the older principles of objectivity and universalism that created the western tradition.  They have done so--like many of those who have resisted totalitarianism at much greater cost--because it was in their nature and it was literally all they could do.  Like Orwell, they instinctively understand that freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four.  Yet there have not been enough of them to define orthodoxy in our educational system.

Education cannot function if students are encouraged to deny teachers' intellectual authority.  In universities they have no obligation to agree with their teachers, but if they can't take what they have to say seriously at all, they are in the wrong place.  No one forced them to go to that particular college.  Tragically, within just two generations, our institutions of higher learning have lost all self-confidence--not least, now, because they feel they must pander to students to keep them coming and stay alive. This whole process has gone so far that I don't see how it can be fixed, and I don't want readers to think that I have the answer.  I hope merely that this essay will help them understand what is happening both in universities an in society at large today.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

The Investigative Weapon

 The coming onslaught of House investigations of the Biden administration is merely the next chapter in a long, sad decline of American politics.  Congress's power to investigate the Executive Branch remains in m opinion a cornerstone of our liberties, but it is also subject to grave abuses, especially in times of extreme partisanship.  Meanwhile, over the last fifty years or so, our criminal justice system has also become a political weapon thanks in part to the now-defunct independent counsel law.

The modern political use of the investigative power, I would argue, began in the late 1930s, when the House of Representatives created the Un-American Activities Committee.  Originally the suggestion of a leftwing Congressman Samuel Dickstein of New York, who wanted to investigate Fascist groups, the Committee immediately fell under conservative domination, with Martin Dies, a Texas Democrat, as chairman, and targeted various New Deal enterprises on the grounds that they harbored subversive left wingers.  After the Republicans took over the Congress in 1946 that committee--which included freshman Congressman Richard Nixon of California--raised allegations of Communist spying inside the government, including the former State Department official Alger Hiss, who was eventually convicted of perjury based on his testimony before the committee. In that case the committee was doing its constitutional job.  The executive branch knew of serious allegations against Hiss, Harry Dexter White,  and others, and had done nothing about them, and we now know from the Venona intercepts of Soviet cable traffic that Soviet spying within the government was a serious problem.  But the committee also targeted Communists and fellow-travelers in every walk of life, and cost a great many people their livelihoods simply for holding unpopular opinions.  

Beginning in February 1950 Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin built on the committee's work with a series of fantastic and utterly unsupported accusations of Communists in government.  McCarthy, generations of scholars have now concluded, never found a single such person himself: every one that he had attacked was either innocent or had already been identified by someone else.  Yet he contributed to the discrediting of the New Deal enterprise and the Truman administration that brought Eisenhower and a narrowly Republican Congress into power in 1953.  McCarthy had enough clout within his party to become the chairman of the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee of the Government Operations Committee, and he surprised everyone by going after the Eisenhower Administration as hard as he had the Truman administration.  That led to his fight with the Army, the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, and his 1954 downfall.  That episode, thankfully, largely discredited that kind of Congressional inquisition for a long time.

The abuses of the Nixon Administration in the 1972 campaign--including the break-in and bugging at the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building--led to a truly bipartisan Senate Committee investigation, led by Sam Ervin of North Carolina, that riveted the nation for several months and did a great deal to lead to Nixon's near-impeachment and forced resignation.  The role of special prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski in bringing the Nixon people to justice also led to the passage of an independent counsel law, which could be triggered by almost any accusation against a public official.  And because trial lawyers are trained to build cases--not to render reasonably impartial judgments in advance of an indictment--that law certainly did lead to a number of highly questionable criminal cases brought on relatively narrow grounds.  When in 1987 independent counsel Lawrence Walsh was appointed to investigate the Iran-Contra scandal, the Reagan and Bush I's political and legal strategies--culminating in Bush's lame-duck pardon of most of the men Walsh had convicted--managed to protect the guilty.  

Unfortunately, by the time the Clinton administration took power, Republicans regarded both Watergate and the Iran-Contra investigation as partisan efforts which they now wanted to emulate.  When the Whitewater investigation was going nowhere in 1994, Senators Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth met with one of the federal judges charged with appointing an independent counsel and evidently persuaded him to replace the incumbent, who was willing to drop the proceedings, with the zealous Ken Starr.  Starr, of course, turned the investigation into an inquiry into the President's personal life, leading to his impeachment for lying about a sexual encounter during his second term.  Some Republicans apparently regarded this as "payback for Watergate," but several Republican Senators joined the Democrats in acquitting Clinton.  The Bush II administration controlled both houses of Congress for most of its life, and the Democrats launched a very professional investigation of the torture of captives after 2007 which was not completed for quite a few years later.   The Republicans under Obama regained control of the House in 2010 and of the Senate in 2014, and Congress launched six different investigations of the deaths of several US diplomats in Benghazi in 2012--the last of them clearly aimed at the presidential candidacy of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  The Congressional Republicans did not launch full-scale investigations of her use of a private email server while in office, but the federal bureaucracy pursued them vigorously in an attempt to show impartiality, with FBI Director James Comey eventually clearing her on narrow grounds. 

Given Donald Trump's background and behavior in office, Democrats in Congress inevitably began several investigations of him when they regained control of the House in 2018.  These included not only two separate impeachment inquiries--both of which led to trials, but not to convictions, in the Senate--but also attempts to secure his tax returns, which were finally successful just a few weeks ago.  They continued after Trump left office with the January 6 House Committee, which built a well-documented case against Trump for participating in various illegal efforts to remain in office. The Justice Department is now investigating those now, as well as Trump's possession of classified material after he left office.  

One can believe, as I do, that Trump has been guilty of serious financial and political abuses and should certainly have been convicted in his impeachment trials, yet also regret that the Democratic Party is now relying on the legal process--or, as one might put it, on the deep state--to remove him as a political threat in the next election, rather than on a demonstrated ability to meet the needs of the American people.  And now, the new House Republican majority, led by its most extreme elements, is going to launch a series of investigations of its own--into the supposed political weaponization of the FBI and CIA, into the financial dealings and tax returns of the President and his son Hunter, into the handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, into the enforcement of border control, and much more.   As I write they are undoubtedly adding Joe Biden's possession of classified material while out of office to their list.   They also want to assert a Congressional power to withhold salaries from executive branch workers whom they do not like.  They do not know, perhaps, that Congressional Republicans tried that tactic during the Second World War, only to have the Supreme Court invalidate their legislative riders denying salaries to certain dealers in U.S. vs. Lovett on the grounds that they constituted an unconstitutional Bill of Attainder.

These investigations are the next phase of the Republican dau tranh campaign to discredit the whole enterprise of government, which I described at length here more than ten years ago and have had several occasions to refer to again since then.   The media has effectively collaborated with that campaign at least since the Clinton years, partly to show impartiality but mostly, I think, .because scandals sell clicks.  Yes, it is easy to argue that the Democratic and Justice Department investigations have dealt with real abuses while the Republicans are focused entirely on political points, but both parties' reliance on these tactics, I think, reflects the real tragedy of 21st century politics: the failure of both parties to build a lasting majority among our people by showing that they can really meet their needs and provide any alternative to the oligarchical rule of financial and corporate power.

Friday, January 06, 2023

Yellowstone

 I was one of the many bicoastals who took a long time to try out Breaking Bad.  My son bugged me for two years to give it a try and finally gave me DVDs of the first two seasons, and I was hooked at once.  Something similar, apparently, has happened with the streamed series Yellowstone, starring Kevin Costner, and it was only during the last month that I gave it a try. For a week or two it replaced the World Cup as the primary focus of my day, and I am now in the middle of season 5, which just finished and will apparently be the last.  There are a number of things I want to say about it, and they will include some spoilers, although I'm not going to narrate any key events of the plot.  

Set mostly in the present with some flashbacks, Yellowstone might have been described in Hollywood pitch meetings as Bonanza meets The Godfather.  It is set on a large ranch in a Montana Valley, just miles away from Wyoming and the National Park of the same name.  John Dutton (Costner) is the family patriarch, lives strictly according to his own codes like Vito Corleone, and lives only to pass on his ranch and his way of life to his family.  His wife died many years ago, and if you take a guess as to how she died (as I did) you will probably turn out to be right.  Like Vito Corleone, he has three sons and a daughter.  The daughter, Beth, is the most striking character on the show.  She is calculatedly over the top and you are likely to love her or hate her; I generally found her entertaining.  She shares Connie Corleone's volatility, but that's about all  The sons, however, are a pretty good match for Sonny, Michael, and especially Fredo.  I won't provide a full scorecard, but Kacey {sic], the youngest son, is a decorated war veteran who originally wanted his own life but is drawn back into his father's orbit.  Like Michael Corleone, he is married to an outsider--in his case, an Indian--who happens also to be a teacher.  The Tom Hagen figure is Rip, the ranch foreman, whom the Dutton's appear to have adopted at a young age.

Like the Corleones, the family is fighting a war for the ranch on several fronts.  They feud with other leading families in the state.  The highly political local Indian chief dreams of using casino money to buy up the entire valley and restoring the Indians' ancient way of life.  Kacey's wife Monica also teaches a very woke version of US history at a local college.  All the Indian characters appear to be played by genuine Indians, and I do wonder what real contemporary plains Indians think of it.   But the most dangerous foes are a California businessman and a venture capital firm that want to turn the valley into a rich person's playground, complete with an airport, a luxury resort, and a new ski area.  Alliances among the various factions continually shift, conflict often becomes violent--factions sometimes enlist local private militias as trigger men--and the body count can get pretty high pretty fast.  All the factions also compete for the support of local law enforcement and the state government.  Meanwhile, in the background, rich people from both coasts are buying up land, forcing up property values and taxes, and threatening established ways of life.

If you love the west, as I do, the show is absolutely spectacular to watch.  The scenery is gorgeous, and nearly every episode features scenes of herds of animals that must have been extremely difficult to film.  The supporting cast includes the Dutton ranch's cowboys, whose culture the show explores in detail.  Here the casting was a little erratic.  Some of the cowboys seem very realistic (Rip certainly does), some are stereotypical, and some are obviously urban-born actors who do not have a clue.  The cowboys in at least one respect resemble a Mafia family, complete with a brutal initiation ceremony.  In one moving episode, one of them is sent to work for some months in Texas, and one character remarks that it is only in flat, relatively arid, desperately hot Texas that the cowboy way of life will survive, while the mountain states, like Colorado, become playgrounds of the rich.

Some people may find the show trite; others will find it, like The Godfather, truly Shakespearean. I was never very taken with Kevin Costner when he was Hollywood superstar 30 years ago, but age has given him a lot more gravitas and his character is well-written.  The series has also spawned two prequels set in the 1890s and 1920s, respectively, and one of them stars Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford.  The plot is becoming more powerful for me as it nears the end, because John Dutton has emerged as the symbol of all the millions of Americans, from factory workers to small farmers to serious scholars, whose way of life has been destroyed by the trends of the last 30 years. I just read a long New York Review of Books piece on American politics that continually bewailed the solidly Republican mountain states but never asked how they got that way--or why they evolved over the last half century from pretty evenly divided territory to solidly Republican.  We all know what has happened to Michigan and Wisconsin factory workers--although the Democrats still assume that those people owe them so loyalty--but much of our rural population, which was also a bastion of the New Deal, has disappeared without a trace and is now completely off their radar.  In that respect, Yellowstone is not merely absorbing drama with great scenery, but food for thought.  

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Guest contribution

 In lieu of a post this holiday week, here is link to a fascinating interview with the author of a remarkable book about the evolution of patent law and medicine in the United States and its consequences. You can listen or download.  The interviewer, Terrence McNally, is a college classmate and friend of mine.  I learned a great deal!

Friday, December 16, 2022

Criminal Justice

One of the most interesting people I met at the conference I participated in last spring in Dallas was Rafael Mangual, a lawyer who is now a fellow of  the Manhattan Institute specializing in criminal justice issues.  He has recently published his book, Criminal [In]Justice: What the Push for Decarceration and Depolicing Gets Wrong and Who it Hurts Most.  I have heard interviews he gave about the book to both Coleman Hughes and Glenn Loury and a debate he had with Lara Bazelon that is available on Bari Weiss's podcast.  That debate is particularly notable insofar as it matches two very impressive people who are living in different universes on the issue that they care about the most.  Both of them expressed appreciation for the opportunity to discuss that issue in a calm and reasonable manner, and we desperately need more people like them on both sides.

That issue, fundamentally, is this:  does the United States incarcerate too many people--many of whom have done nothing very serious--and does it need not only to stop incarcerating so many, but also to adopt alternative methods of dealing with crime?  The "yes" answer is now mainstream among liberals and in the mainstream media, illustrated this very week by an op-ed in the New York TimesBut in his concise and well-argued book, Mangual argues that the correct answers are no and no, while making a number of very important points about the problem of crime in the US.  The current push to send fewer people to jail, to abolish cash bail, to cut back on police and policing,  and to ignore many offenses, he argues, has already led to significant increases in violent crime that inflict great harm on minority populations.  I am going to summarize his argument here, adding a few observations of my own.

To begin with, Mangual suggests, in effect, that we should stop thinking in terms of a national crime problem.  We are not one nation with respect to crime, especially violent crime.  Most of our communities are extremely safe, but some neighborhoods are extraordinarily dangerous.  We all know that crime is much more common in inner cities, but I did not realize how concentrated crime is even within those areas.  Thus, Chicago in 2019 saw 492 homicides, nearly 60 percent of the total within the state of Illinois.  But in addition,  53 percent of those 492 homicides took place in just 10 Chicago neighborhoods that included just 15.6 percent of the city's population, while there were only 11 homicides--2 percent of the city total--in 28 other neighborhoods with 25.4 percent of the city's population.  13 of those 28 safe neighborhoods had large nonwhite majorities.  The situation in New York city and other cities is very similar.  Mangual did not attempt to calculate what total percentage of Americans that live in safe neighborhoods, or to provide that data broken down by race, but I got the impression that the majority of every race in America probably lives in pretty safe areas.

That brings me to a related point about race and incarceration.  Incarceration rates are indeed highest among black Americans, with Hispanics second, whites third, and Asians almost certainly at the bottom.  (They are not included in  many tables because their sample is so small.)  But what exactly does this mean?  A handy table that I found shows that 6.7 percent of black men over 18 are incarcerated, about 3 percent of Hispanic men over 18, and about 1 percent of white men over 18.  One could write, based on those figures, that black men are seven times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, which would strike many of us as a very alarming statistic and some of us as clear proof of "systemic racism."  But one could also write that while 99 percent of white men over 18 are not in jail, 93.3 percent of black men (and 97 percent of Hispanic men) are not in jail either, and that, to me at least, gives a significantly different idea of the scale of the problem and its impact on various communities.  You may be thinking that it might be more useful to know what percentage of this various groups are or have ever been incarcerated, and I agree.  I have found a 1997 paper showing that 4.4 percent of white men, 16 percent of Hispanic men, and 28.5 percent of black men--which I agree is an alarmingly high figure--would go to prison at some time or another in their lives, but incarceration rates have fallen significantly in the last 25 years, along with crime rates, and I don't know what the figures are now.  We can surely say that the vast majority of men of all races appear to be law-abiding citizens, and although female incarceration rates have been rising they are still much, much lower than male. 

The United States does however have a much higher incarceration rate than any other advanced industrial democracy. It has now become conventional wisdom in some sectors of America that this is because so many people--largely minority men--go to prison in the United States for relatively minor drug offenses or other non-violent crimes.  (Interestingly enough, Mangual never mentions The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which made this argument most bluntly.  When I looked at that book myself I found that it was rather short on systematic data.)  Mangual makes a truly overwhelming case that that is not true.  As of December 31, 2018, 88 percent of US inmates were in state prisons, and more than 60 percent of them were there for either violent crimes (55.5 percent) or weapons offenses (4.6 percent.)  Only 14.1 percent of them were convicted of drug crimes and most of those were convicted of trafficking, not simple possession. Mangual also points out that many of those officially imprisoned for low-level drug offenses were actually arrested for something much worse, and plea-bargained their case down to a simple possession charge.  (I would have appreciated a breakdown of the other 26 percent but Mangual didn't give it.)  Nor is that all.  The median number of prior arrests for most state prisoners was about 8, and the median number of prior convictions was about 4.  Not only does a person usually have to do something pretty serious to wind up in prison in the United States, it seems that they usually have to establish a record as an habitual offender.     He also presents data to the effect that most inmates--even rapists and murderers--are paroled well before their sentences are over.  It occurs to me that I frequently read news stories about prisoners who have been trying to get their parole for decades, but these--however alarming they  may be as individual cases--are evidently the exception, not the rule.  And sadly, a relatively recent study of prisoners released in 2008, 81.9 percent of them subsequently returned to prison for at least one subsequent offense, and half of them committed violent offenses. The simple reason that Americans find themselves in prison so much more frequently than residents of European nations is that they commit, on the average, far more crimes.

This broad picture of crime and punishment in the United States is the most important thing  I drew from this relatively short book, but Mangual makes many other important arguments about individual points as well.  He questions the recent movement against cash bail--most notably in the state of New York--on the documented grounds that it has allowed further crimes by repeat offenders while they are awaiting trial.  Taking on the popular argument that incarceration breaks up too many families, he cites studies showing that children are better off with a criminal parent in prison than in the home.  Regarding police shootings, he makes several simple points.  The 1000 police killings (which are evidently a subset of about 3000 police shootings) every year compare to 10 million police arrests every year, which are in turn a fraction of total police contacts with the general population.  A detailed study showed that only 3 percent of all those contacts even included a threat of force by the police. Of the approximately 1000 police shootings documented every year (with extraordinary consistency) by the Washington Post, more than 93 percent took the life of an armed suspect.  While cases like George Floyd, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Philandro Castile are  horrifying, they are anything but typical.  As John McWhorter and others have also pointed out, there are white victims of police shootings who were just as innocent as any of those, too.  And while the minority of victims of police shootings who are black [sic] does represent a larger proportion of the black population than the white victims do of the white one, the reason is simple.  These shootings usually take place during attempted arrests, and these are more common for black people because police spend much more of their time--as they should--in high crime neighborhoods that tend to be black.  And that leads me back to the point that I began with.

It is critical to keep in mind that while "high crime neighborhoods tend to be black," as I just wrote, that does not mean that black neighborhoods tend to be high-crime neighborhoods.  I already presented the data on Chicago--one of the most violent cities in the country--showing that most of its black and Hispanic neighborhoods seem to be quite safe.  Unfortunately two very different groups of Americans seem to want to miss this point.  We have bigots who still want to associate all black people with criminals, but we also have many successful, law-abiding black citizens, led by academics and journalists, who insist that all black people--not just a relatively small but extremely violent minority--are suffering from the injustices of the criminal justice system.  

I have avoided perhaps the biggest question of all--why does the United States have so  much more violent crime than other advanced nations?  Mangual doesn't really try to answer that question either, but he makes one important argument: that there is no correlation between poverty rates and crime.  Crime did fall substantially in the United States from about 1995 to 2020, when homicide, in particular, began to rise again.  Mangual makes clear that he believes that it fell because of the much-maligned 1994 federal crime bill--which, he points out, was supported at the time by the vast majority of the Congressional black caucus whose constituents were being devastated by the crack epidemic and the violence that accompanied it--and anticrime measures in various states.  Now, the 20-year drop has produced calls that we are too hard on crime and pressure to reduce policing and incarceration, leading to the election of "progressive prosecutors" in cities including San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Boston.  . That, he believes, has already led to a reversal of the positive trend--and to the recall of one of those prosecutors in San Francisco, I might add.  

Mangual includes a long discussion of stop, question and frisk procedures--his term for them--that turns in part on his own memories of his youth, when he and his friends, while not dangerous criminals, behaved in ways to suggest to passersby that they might be.  Meanwhile, he returns again and again to his basic point.  He regards incapacitation, not deterrence or retribution, as the main reason to put people in jail--that is, taking their capacity to commit crimes against the public away.  And this is necessary above all, he thinks, to protect the innocent citizens of high-crime neighborhoods.  He does ot address the increasingly common activist claims that "noncarceral" conflict resolution or compensatory justice might replace incarceration, even in cases of violent crime.

I do believe that we could do a lot to make prisons more humane.  Jimmy Hoffa after his own term in federal prison became an advocate for prison reform, and I saw him on television arguing with typical force that prisoners should be segregated by offense, by race, and by size to reduce their abuse by one another.  I also know that there are numbers of completely innocent people in prison and that we would  benefit if we could make it impossible to convict an accused person based on the identification of an eyewitness that did not know that person--a form of evidence that has proven worse than useless again and again.  The exoneration of the Central Park Five showed how easily police can sometimes induce a false confession.  Such evidence convicted Yutico Briley, a client of Lara Bazelon's, whose release she eventually secured.  On the other hand, Ms. Bazelon in an interview with Glenn Loury frankly reported not only that Yutico was a drug dealer, but also that his father, who had also been imprisoned, had said at the time of his arrest and conviction that some prison time might do him some good in the long run.  That suggests to me that in this case, and probably others as well, both Bazelon and Mangual are right.  On the one hand, Utico Briley went to prison with a very long sentence for an armed robbery he didn't commit; on the other hand, had he not, he very likely would have wound up in prison for something else that he did do.  On the whole, I put down Mangual's book convinced that we truly do have a serious, if highly localized, crime problem, and that as long as we do we will have to segregate violent criminals from our society to keep the rest of us safe.