My Dungeon Shook and My Chains Fell Off

A democratic society requires mature, public conversation about issues of importance. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has convoked "A Year of Books" to offer such an opportunity. This commentary is part of a series of commentaries on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg. My commentary on Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness will have multiple entries for this truly remarkable book. This is the fourth of those entries.

Having described something of the argument constructed by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow in previous blog entries, here we will take a look at her stirring final chapter, "The Fire This Time." Alluding to James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, a 1963 book consisting of a pair of essays. In this chapter, Alexander argues that only a major social movement to end mass incarceration with "an ethic of genuine care" for all persons will end the succession of racial caste systems in the U.S. (18-19). In this concluding chapter, she aims to offer "conversation starters" that challenge "conventional wisdom or traditional strategies" (229).

Rethinking Denial-- Or, Where Are Civil Rights Advocates When You Need Them?
Alexander argues that "collective denial" of the racial caste system is "a major stumbling block to public understanding of the role of race in our society." This denial is not just in well meaning persons who are white, but also in in the the "awkward silence" of the civil rights community toward recognizing mass incarceration as the new caste system (223). By preferring to tell "stories or racial injustice that will evoke sympathy among whites," like Rosa Parks and "innocent doctors and lawyers stopped and searched on freeways," the civil rights community thereby reinforces the system that  creates mass incarceration. The only way way to end the new caste system is to "embrace those who are most oppressed by it." Alexander proposes telling their stories so as to dismantle the New Jim Crow (227-229).

Tinkering Is For Mechanics, No Racial-Justice Advocates
A handful of reforms, argues Alexander, will not be enough. "We run the risk of winning isolated battles but losing the larger war," writes Alexander (236). The interests upholding the current system, like the Corrections Corporation of America, are too great. The financial incentives for law enforcement are too compelling. Alexander develops a lengthy list of areas needing reform and concludes that it cannot be reformed in a piecemeal fashion. She then argues that movement building and reform work go hand-in-hand. Alexander writes:
[Brown v. Board of Education] did not end Jim Crow; a mass movement had to emerge first-- one that aimed to create a new public consensus opposed to the evils of Jim Crow. . . . But standing alone, Brown accomplished for African Americans little more than Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. A civil war had to be waged to end slavery; a mass movement was necessary to bring a formal end to Jim Crow. (235)
One cannot expect that any less effort is necessary to end the new racial caste system.

Let's Talk About Race-- Resisting the Temptation of Colorblind Advocacy
Next, Alexander calls us to a new conversation about race: "we need to talk about race openly and honestly." This will be difficult, because, as she acknowledges, "Race makes people uncomfortable" (238). A colorblind argument "based purely on costs, crime rates, and the wisdom of drug treatment" will not accomplish the necessary changes (239). Real change requires facing the issues of race.

Against Colorblindness
In fact, colorblindness, argues Alexander, contributes to our blindness to the new racial caste system:
Our blindness also prevents us from seeing the racial and structural divisions that persist in society: the segregated, unequal schools, the segregated jobless ghettos, and the segregated public discourse-- a public conversation that excludes the current pariah caste. . . . We have become blind, not so much to race, but to the existence of racial caste in America. (241).
It is "blindness and indifference to racial groups" that is more powerful in this caste system than racial hostility. The people who uphold racial caste systems often are good, decent people, but, citing Martin Luther King, Jr., "They were victims of a spiritual and intellectual blindness. They knew not what they did" (241).

As I noted in a previous post, Jesus discovered that it is easier to give sight to the blind (Mt 20:29-34, Mk 8:22-25, Mk 10:46-52, Lk 18:35-43, Jn 9) than to open the eyes of those who think that they can see (Mt 23:26, Jn 9:40). Jesus would ask his own disciples: "Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?" (Mk 8:18).

To end the new racial caste, we need to see in color.

The Racial Bribe—Let's Give It Back
Boldly, Alexander then argues that affirmative action "has functioned more like a racial bribe than a tool of racial justice" (244). Comparing the year 1968 to the present, Alexander observes the existence of higher child poverty rates today and how unemployment rates in black communities rival those in developing countries (246). African American success stories, she argues, help to hide the new racial caste system (247-248).

Obama—the Promise and the Peril
In the previous section, Alexander notes how civil rights activists sometimes give "a more charitable spin" when the an offense is perpetrated by people of color with power, such as minority police officers, or they may be concerned about undermining a person in leadership like a black police chief. While President Barack Obama's election provides an enormous opportunity for the black community, Alexander notes that "This dynamic poses particular risks for racial justice advocacy during an Obama presidency" (251). In fact, she argues that the selection of individuals such as Joe Biden, Eric Holder, and Rahm Emanuel to serve in the administration as well as Obama's statements on the campaign trail and policy decisions once in office signal the continuance of mass incarceration and its incumbent racial caste system. It creates the perilous situation where "the very people who are most oppressed by the current caste system-- African Americans-- may be the least likely to want to challenge it" (253).

All of Us or None
Finally, Alexander concludes her argument trying to bring about the widest definition of "us," not simply black but also white and all others included. It requires an honest conversation about race to bring all together. Without the widest possible "us," racial caste will be perpetuated in some new form. Alexander writes:
But if the movement that emerges to end mass incarceration does not meaningfully address the racial divisions and resentments that gave rise to mass incarceration, and if it fails to cultivate an ethic of genuine care, compassion and concern for every human being – of every class, race, and nationality – within our nation’s borders, including poor whites, who are often pitted against poor people of color, the collapse of mass incarceration will not mean the death of racial caste in America. Inevitably a new system of racialized social control will emerge. . . . No task is more urgent for racial justice today than ensuring that America’s current racial caste system is its last. (258)
The dominant narrative must be reversed: "We must flip the script" (258). All of this is the work of movement building. Alexander concludes warning us "who hope to be their allies" that what we may hear when the incarcerated finally have voice to speak may well be rage. Speaking to that anger, Alexander quotes the conclusion of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time (260-261).

This final chapter, "meant to be the beginning of a conversation, not an end" (229), lays out a challenging vision for those of us who hope to build a more just world. This is a significant work that deserves a lot of conversation and reflection. I write on the last day of May, the same day that the Washington Post reports that almost 400 people have been killed nationwide in police shootings. I can only offer my strongest recommendation to read this book. It will offer, quite likely a new way of seeing, and it urges, then, a new way of acting. May we have the vision to see and the courage to act.


Additional commentaries on The New Jim Crow:

Known by Heart, or Bound in a Birdcage?

A democratic society requires mature, public conversation about issues of importance. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has convoked "A Year of Books" to offer such an opportunity. This commentary is part of a series of commentaries on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg. My commentary on Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness will have multiple entries for this truly remarkable book. This is the third of those entries.

Many know well the oration delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The vision cast on August 28, 1963 did not reach its fulfillment in King's lifetime. In fact, Michelle Alexander contends that the dream was cut short in the years shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


At the heart of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow is an argument:
This book argues that mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow and that all those who care about social justice should fully commit themselves to dismantling this new racial caste system. Mass incarceration-- not attacks on affirmative actions or lax civil rights enforcement-- is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. (p. 11)
Alexander builds her argument around "an evolution" of racial caste systems: from a system of slavery based on exploitation, to one of Jim Crow based on subordination, to one of mass incarceration based on marginalization (p. 219). Alexander describes the birth and death of slavery (pp. 22-30), the birth and death of Jim Crow (pp. 30-40), and the birth of mass incarceration (pp. 40-58). Her claim is that: "We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it" (p. 2). She elaborates the basic structure of her sweeping claims quickly. Most readers will agree immediately with her about both slavery and Jim Crow, but some readers may wonder about the merits of her more contemporary claim.

The racial caste system is more than the sum of its parts. Alexander refers to it as a "birdcage," drawing upon Marilyn Frye’s birdcage analogy of oppression,  to demonstrate why the New Jim Crow is often invisible, yet always immobilizing (pp. 184-185). Frye describes it:
Cages. Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon. ["Oppression", in Politics Of Reality – Essays In Feminist Theory (1983)]
In this analogy, the various manifestations of oppressions are the wires of the birdcage; invisible in a single wire, multiple systemically related barriers make it a structure of confinement. Alexander details the individual wires as including the War on Drugs, with its myriad of enticements for law enforcement (federal grants, seized property), diminished constitutional protections against detention, trial and conviction procedures, incarceration, and, with what has been dubbed "the period of invisible punishment," the sanctions imposed upon all who have felony convictions, even after they have served their sentence (pp. 185-187).

For years, I have been troubled by the statistics, but I never pieced it together. While the sale and use of drugs occurs at "remarkably similar rates" across races, the consequence of incarceration happens most heavily upon those who are black (p. 7). I have heard troubling stories from people of color of their interactions with law enforcement, pulled over in a traffic stop for dubious reasons and humiliated. I had heard that, because of incarceration, more black men received their "formation" in prison than in the university. Alexander documents how in Illinois in 2001, there were more black men incarcerated for drug charges than black men in undergraduate studies in the state universities (p. 190). Alexander argues convincingly that we have created, since the end of the Jim Crow era, a new, colorblind racial caste system via the War on Drugs.

Alexander also makes the case that this is our problem-- all of us. She cites a senator who read into the Congressional Record part of a New York Times editorial by Adam Walinsky:
Thus, if we can blame crime on crack, our politicians are off the hook. Forgotten are the failed schools, the malign welfare programs, the desolate neighborhoods, the wasted years. Only crack is to blame. One is tempted to think that if crack did not exist, someone somewhere would have received a Federal grant to develop it. (p. 53)
Once I read Alexander's description of the birdcage, once she explained the contours of the racial caste system, racial indifference is no longer an option.

As a student, I remember having to memorize poetry, soliloquies, and orations from Kipling, Shakespeare, and Lincoln, among others. The task was not only a work of the mind. In fact, when we can recall some prose or poetry or a song we say that we "know it by heart." It is a much richer and more fitting description. It is not only a mental exercise; the prose or poetry engages our entire selves. The New Jim Crow was uncomfortable to me because it required me to engage more than just my mind. King's speech, known by heart by so many, also casts a vision, much more whole, more life-giving, than the birdcage of mass incarceration. Which vision do we dare to allow to guide us? Do we dare to see things as they are? Do we dare to see things as they could be, as they ought to be? Do we dare, in that dissonance, to act?

Additional commentaries on The New Jim Crow:

The New Jim Crow: Valjean and Today's Ex-Con

A democratic society requires mature, public conversation about issues of importance. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has convoked "A Year of Books" to offer such an opportunity. This commentary is part of a series of commentaries on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg. My commentary on Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness will have multiple entries for this truly remarkable book. This is the second of those entries.

Few things on stage have moved me more than when I first saw "Les Misérables." It was the summer of 1990 in Houston, Texas. Days before, I had devoured the novel by Victor Hugo. At various points during the stage show, I wept, perhaps none more than the final words of the musical: "To love another person is to see the face of God."

The intertwined story of Inspector Javert, Fantine, Cosette, Marius Pontmercy, Gavroche, and, of course, Bishop Myriel, who, with an act of charity and mercy, shook the foundations of the man at the center of the story, Jean Valjean.

Valjean, an ex-convict, punished by an unforgiving system, cannot find regular work or housing. Valjean steals the bishop's silver. When the police drag Valjean back to the bishop, the police tell the bishop that Valjean claimed to have been given the silver as a gift by the bishop. The bishop tells the police that, indeed, he had given Valjean the silver, but he added that Valjean forgot the best of it: two silver candlesticks. After the police depart, the bishop explains to Valjean that he must use the silver "to become an honest man" and that he has "bought his soul for God." Thus begins a journey that sees Valjean create a new identity as a factory owner and mayor, become the father to an adopted daughter, Cosette, and go to the barricade to save young Marius, Cosette's beloved, from French authorities.

My soul soared with this story of mercy triumphing over vengeance, love conquering hate, even amid a frustrated struggle for justice amid gross inequality. The novel is one of the finest written, and the musical compresses its most beautiful elements for the stage.

Les Misérables begins with a melody that will be repeated throughout the show, "Look down":
Chorus:
Look down, look down
Don't look 'em in the eye
Look down, look down,
You're here until you die  
Javert:
Now bring me prisoner 24601
Your time is up
And your parole's begun
You know what that means. 
Valjean: 
Yes, it means I'm free. 
Javert:
No!
Follow to the letter your itinerary
This badge of shame you'll show until you die
It warns you're a dangerous man 
Reading Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, a new Jean Valjean confronted me in her writing: "Once labeled a felon, the badge of inferiority remains with you for the rest of your life, relegating you to a permanent second-class status" (142). And then it dawned on me that if we plucked "Les Misérables" from 19th-Century France and placed Valjean into modern day Ferguson or Baltimore, or any other American city, we would see more dramatically its radical politics as well as the religious and romantic themes. The story likely would repel many who applauded the original until their hands were sore. Valjean most assuredly would be an African American felon, Cosette, ever as always the child of dead prostitute. Javert would be the faultless police official. And, sadly, I bet it would not win as many Tony Awards.

Alexander has written an extraordinary book that should discomfort any reader. She asks us to see anew a familiar landscape, to see with new eyes what has been in front of us all along. In several instances, she asks us to "imagine" (pp. 69, 91, 97, 161) ourselves in situations that may be quite removed from our own. Her task is not an easy one.

As Jesus discovered, it is easier to give sight to the blind (Mt 20:29-34, Mk 8:22-25, Mk 10:46-52, Lk 18:35-43, Jn 9) than to open the eyes of those who think that they can see (Mt 23:26, Jn 9:40). Jesus would ask his own disciples: "Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?" (Mk 8:18).

Alexander herself admits to not having seen it for quite some time:
Quite belatedly, I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow. (p. 4)
To be honest about what we see is difficult, and what we do not see, especially in matters of race. I grew up in a small western Kansas town that was predominantly white. As I grew older, I chose to live in diverse places: amid Arab and Jew in Jerusalem, amid mixed communities in Phoenix and South Bend of blacks, whites, and latinos. I lived in South America for more than five years, four of them in a neighborhood of immigrants. I have seen that other countries do not see race precisely as we Americans do. We have a unique history that has shaped our perceptions. I'd like to think that my formation and education have moved me to a more enlightened view of race. In fact, I had hoped that the U.S. had moved gradually to a better understanding of race, but neither I nor the nation have moved as far as I might have hoped. We remain stymied. Alexander's book names the issues well, and calls us to action

Additional commentaries on The New Jim Crow:

The New Jim Crow: A First Look

A democratic society requires mature, public conversation about issues of importance. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has convoked "A Year of Books" to offer such an opportunity. This commentary is part of a series of commentaries on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg. My commentary on Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness will have multiple entries for this truly remarkable book. This is the first of those entries.

The New Jim Crow walks us through some of Zuckerberg's previous readings. An important element throughout Alexander's argument is the data about declining violence that inspired Steven Pinker's work (for example, p. 41). Sudhir Venkatesh's mentor, William Julius Williams appears a couple of times (p. 34, p. 50). Venkatesh himself is cited in an endnote regarding Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes (p. 196). George Orwell and doublespeak make an appearance, too (p. 131).

While not explicitly cited, Moisés Naím's The End of Power might deepen questions about who has the power to change things? Thomas Kuhn's Structures of a Scientific Revolution may clarify questions about what changes in concept are at work in moving from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. Kuhn's format may structure thought about what changes in paradigm are needed to move from racial indifference to a genuine care and compassion for those who are different. Michael Chwe's Rational Ritual would suggest, via game theory, the common knowledge about race necessary for collective action to take place. While Zuckerberg may not have planned a progression from book to book, the books can be brought into dialog with one another.

Here is what Zuckerberg had to say about selecting the book:

For my part, and African-American pastor had recommended it to me the day before. I noted the title and had it to my "to do" list. Having read it, I would assert that The New Jim Crow is the most socially important book that I have read this year, and I most highly recommend it.

The initial chapter of The New Jim Crow invite us into a new way of seeing and the final chapter, "The Fire This Time" invite us into a new way of action. Having said that, I know the temptation to launch immediately into the final chapter, but I would strongly urge that the reader take all of the chapters in the order presented. For Alexander's argument to have its full force, one must look at the evidence she presents prior to evaluating her conclusions.

Additional commentaries on The New Jim Crow:

Free-Market Advocate Takes Revenge on Orwell

A democratic society requires mature, public conversation about issues of importance. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has convoked "A Year of Books" to offer such an opportunity. This commentary is part of a series of commentaries on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg.

As an 8th grade student, back in 1983, in the run up to the year of the book's title, I read for the first time George Orwell's 1984. That reading began a series of readings in dystopian and utopian visions, including Aldous Huxley's Brave New World as well as a then unsuccessful foray into Thomas More's Utopia. Those darker visions, especially Orwell's, were vivid and haunting. Later, as a freshman in college, I believe, I read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," and I found a new mission in attempting to be a clear writer and thinker.

Over time, my political vision has been driven more by hopeful visions of what we may become than by Orwell's haunted vision of governance at its worst. When Mark Zuckerberg selected Orwell's Revenge: The 1984 Palimpsest by Peter Huber, I learned that I would revisit Orwell. This out of print book, published in 1994, is not easily obtained. Fortunately, on Zuckerberg's Facebook page I found a link to a .pdf version to read.

Peter Huber (courtesy of Manhattan Institute)
The author, Peter Huber, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has a jaw-dropping academic and professional pedigree. He has a law degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from MIT. He clerked for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and on the U.S. Supreme Court for Sandra Day O'Connor. The Manhattan Institute, a prominent conservative think-tank, promotes "developing ideas that foster economic choice and individual responsibility" (from the front page of their website).

A palimpsest, as Merriam-Webster tells us, is "writing material (as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased," from the Greek palimpsēstos meaning "scraped again." Using a then modern 486 computer, Huber digitized the text of 1984 and other writings by and about Orwell:
My crime began with the physical destruction of a book—1984 itself. I tore off the cover and cut the 314 pages from the spine. I then fed them into my optical scanner, 30 or so at a time, and transferred them by wire into my computer. 1984 lives there to this day, 590,463 bytes of ASCII text. For good measure, I scanned in the rest of Orwell's books, essays, letters, and BBC broadcasts too. To locate biographical details of Orwell's life, I scanned in Michael Shelden's excellent Orwell: The Authorized Biography. Altogether, these writings now reside in 9,546,486 bytes, which is to say a hundred million slivers of magnetized ferric dust glued to the surface of a spinning platter called a hard drive. (p. 9)
George Orwell
Huber then, cutting and pasting, creates a work within in a work, not unlike Orwell's original 1984. Huber creates a new novel that picks up where 1984 concludes and adds a dialog and reflection on Orwell's thought as illustrated in 1984 and his other writings. Huber heaps abundant praise on Orwell:
No one who has actually read Orwell can go a week without remembering him in one context or another. At any moment, some scene or neologism, which comes from this one short book, is liable to drop into your mind. Big Brother. The Thought Police. Newspeak. Doublethink. Reality Control. These were all created by Orwell in 1984. 1984 is not so much a book, it is a world. Even people who affect to disagree with Orwell quote him unconsciously. Through 1984, Orwell did what very few other writers ever have done: he added not only phrases but his own name to the English language. There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one's mind and alter one's whole attitude to life. 1984 is one of them. Whether you approve of him or not, Orwell is there, like the Washington Monument. (p. 4) 
And yet Huber offers a stark judgement on Orwell:
And the only trouble with that is that Orwell was wrong. Not wrong in the details—Orwell was in fact remarkably right about the little things in 1984. But he was wrong in his fundamental logic, wrong in his grand vision, wrong in his whole chain of reasoning. Wrong not because he lacked conviction, or industry, or moral integrity—Orwell brought more of those talents to his craft than any other person of his own time, or ours. Wrong, nonetheless, because Orwell built the essential struts and columns, the entire support structure of his magnificent edifice, on a gadget that he did not understand. The gargoyles in 1984 are magnificent. But the architecture beneath is rotten. (pp. 4-5)
Huber concludes that Orwell was wrong "about the telescreen—completely, irredeemably, outrageously wrong" (p. 145). The telescreen, according to Huber, is the undoing of Orwell's argument.

The genius of Orwell's Revenge is in its form. Rather than write a direct rebuttal of Orwell, Huber crafts a reply in Orwell's form and in Orwell's own words. Where Orwell is wary of capitalism and prefers socialism, Huber argues that the free market encourages creativity. Where Orwell sees the telescreen as the instrument of oppression, Huber argues that the device is the very author of liberation. Where Orwell coined the term "doublethink," Huber transforms it into his argument that unregulated free-enterprise will flourish, subverting the very technologies intended to constrain it.

The argument Huber advances in Orwell's Revenge employs some of what Moisés Naím would describe as the three revolutions: the More Revolution (wealth), the Mobility Revolution (movement), and the Mentality Revolution (new mindsets). Reading Huber's version of O'Brien as the interrogator of the prisoner (pp. 117-128), in spite of its unexpected conclusion, felt a bit like Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor. The prisoner reveals that the two-way nature of the telescreen, created by the government, has been used to promote freedom and the market.

I am less unabashedly optimistic about the place of technology than Huber. I remember in 1997 sitting on a small boat on Lake Titicaca in Peru, watching a woman spinning yarn from wool in a century's old custom of the Aymara while her son played with a plastic jeep on the floor of the boat. Electricity had only recently arrived to many places, and I marveled at the time about how different their lives would be. The arrival of electricity (and television) meant that the locals were watching dubbed versions of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." The television brought new understandings of time and space and of what had value, of what was desirable. I had already seen in Chile how some streets, with the typical fast food restaurants, looked identical to streets in the U.S. I lamented a growing sense of sameness. Teens worldwide listen to many of the same songs. Corporations may know more of my purchasing preferences than I myself know. Google and Facebook know a tremendous amount about my life and my friends. And Edward Snowden gives ample warning of just how far the government's reach can go.

At the same time, I have heard of how technology has been employed in unexpected, almost subversive, ways. In India, children in the big city can transfer money to their parents in a remote village via cell phone. Twitter was a valuable organizational tool in the Arab Spring. While it could not save Walter Scott's life, a cellphone's video camera insured that his story would be told.

Given a choice between Orwell and Huber, I choose Orwell as more truthful. I am not as persuaded by Huber's faith that technology leads to freedom as much as I am chastened and vigilant from Orwell's perception of the threat of it being used coercively by the powerful.

The Pilgrim's Journey: Memoirs of Archbishop Rembert Weakland

The period following the Second Vatican Council, with all of the challenges in implementing the vision of the council, had many important figures. Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B., abbot primate of the Benedictine Confederation and then Archbishop of Milwaukee, was one of the more significant and, occasionally, controversial figures of that period.

Personally, I heard Archbishop Weakland speak twice at the University of Notre Dame. He had chaired the writing of Economic Justice for All, the pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic Bishops on the economy. Weakland's participation at the interfaith conference in Bangkok, Thailand where Thomas Merton died also intrigued me. I had read his writings as they appeared in secular and religious press. I recalled his participation in the Common Ground Initiative of Joseph Cardinal Bernadin. It was with great sadness that I learned of the sexual relationship and payout, revealed in 2002, that ended his public ministry.

Archbishop Weakland recounts his life in A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop, published in 2009. Naturally, his story weaves the various dimensions of his service to the Church as well as his struggles within it. He writes of his childhood in rural Pennsylvania and formation as a Benedictine monk. He recounts how he developed his love for music and his education at the Julliard. He shares his affection for his formators and professors during his early years with the Benedictines. He tells of his rich, warm relationship with Bl. Pope Paul VI and the conflicted relationship with St. John Paul II. Archbishop Weakland laments that the promise of the Second Vatican Council was subverted by centralization and uniformity. He writes, "The price of orthodoxy one could see was a Church that lived in fear" (p. 300). Archbishop Weakland also recounts his efforts to respond to allegations of sexual abuse by the clergy of his archdiocese. Archbishop Weakland writes honestly of his loneliness, the scandal that ended his ministry, and his human development.

Given that Weakland wrote his book in 2009, prior to the pontificate of Pope Francis, it bears mentioning that Archbishop Weakland and Pope Francis share at least four areas of interest with respect to the leadership of the Church.
  1. The role and spirit of synods. Both Archbishop Weakland and Pope Francis experienced synods as rather boring, where many did not openly speak their hearts and minds. Pope Francis, as he opened the Extraordinary Synod on the Family called for all "to speak clearly" and "to listen with humility." 
  2. The desire for a revitalized episcopal conference. Archbishop Weakland laments the diminished authority of national episcopal conferences, like the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. Himself formerly the president of the Argentine Episcopal Conference, Pope Francis has called for a more robust view of episcopal conferences (Evangelii Gaudium, #32).
  3. Renewal of church structures. Archbishop Weakland writes at length about church structure and best practices in the Roman Curia as well as the archdiocesan curia. Pope Francis wrote of the pastoral conversion of ecclesial structures in Evangelii Gaudium (#25-32), and we have seen the emerging fruit of reflections from the international Council of Cardinals in financial transparency for the Vatican, the creation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and the pending restructuring of the Vatican offices.
  4. Primacy of mercy. Both Archbishop Weakland and Pope Francis find inspiration in St. John XXIII words from the opening of the Second Vatican Council, his call that Church "use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up arms of severity." Weakland refers to the phrase twice in his book (p. 104 and p. 300), and Pope Francis uses it in paragraph four of Misericordiae Vultus, the Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.
Even though Archbishop Weakland has been in retirement since 2002, his book is an important testament to the Church's effort to read the signs of the times. Like all of us, amid human failings, he has been an instrument of God, attempting to do his part to build up the Kingdom.

The language of pilgrim pervades the book. The major sections of the memoir begin with a portion of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. He concludes the work with a lovely phrase:
Like all the other tales of human pilgrimage it must end with a fervent prayer for God's gracious love and mercy on such a flawed but grateful pilgrim. (p. 423)

Engaging China through Relationship

Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg.

The eighth selection in Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" is Henry M. Paulson, Jr.'s Dealing with China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower. While I anticipated a greater dissonance between Paulson's worldview (that of an investment banker and former U.S. Treasury Secretary) and my own (a former priest and missionary), I found this book exceptionally readable and engaging. Occasionally, I found myself looking for a footnote or endnote, some citation to support Paulson's claims, but I think that the lack of endnotes and bibliography actually focused the narrative on the story of Paulson's relationship with the Chinese and, thereby, made it more accessible, even though the book clocks in at just over 400 pages. In fact, I think that the absence of endnotes and abundance of names makes the book precisely about relationship and the stories of the people included.

Picking up the book, I did not consider myself knowledgeable about China, or investment banking, for that matter. I was eager to learn more. Although Chinese culture is deep and ancient, Paulson gives a nontechnical understanding of China's geography and political and economic history for the last 50 years. Paulson's personal involvement with historic episodes was also engaging. As the September 11 attacks unfolded, he was on a corporate jet bound for Asia. He recounts his first visit to China after the SARS epidemic. He was secretary of the Treasury Department during the economic crisis of 2008, administered TARP and other steps to salvage the U.S. economy, and recounts how the Chinese related to us during and after these pivotal events. Paulson's high-level dialog with the Chinese also set the stage for advancements, like the climate change agreement signed in 2014. In other words, Paulson tells the story as an insider in the relationship with China, and it is a great story. Paulson's commitment to working with China and his understanding of the country and its leadership is evident.

Dealing with China promotes Paulson's view of active engagement with China. The United States has important choices to make about our relationship with China. Paulson fairly criticizes politicians and other political actors who grossly over simplify the issues and promote a blind fear toward China. He argues that engaging China is best for our interests as well as China's self-interest. Rather than meeting in fear and misunderstanding, we can (and should, argues Paulson) build better economic engagement between the U.S. and China, which has the happy outcome of reducing risk for violent conflict between our nations. I found his argument compelling.

Paulson also offers numerous stories, from his time at Goldman Sachs, about working with Chinese SOEs (State-Owned Enterprise) corporation in their IPO (Initial Public Offering). China's desire to successfully navigate these steps allowed for revisions of corporate structure (often with great pain and displacement to the poor), implementation of sound accounting practices, and greater transparency.

Paulson's description of China and its economy give evidence to the "More Revolution," described by Moisés Naím in The End of Power, Zuckerberg's inaugural selection in his "A Year of Books." China's economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. This is not to diminish the enormous poverty that still engulfs other hundreds of millions of people. In fact, despite having more billionaires than any country save the U.S., China's per capita gross domestic product, Paulson tells us, ranks 80th in the world, just ahead of war-torn Iraq, highlighting as well its growing economic inequality (pp. 269-270). Rising income means rising expectations for education, quality of life, and access to consumer goods. Paulson and Naím would likely concur that this will demand greater freedom for the Chinese as well.

Many of Paulson's colleagues suffered during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Gifted persons in business and governance were sent to state farms to labor in harsh conditions. Those same persons now in positions of power, says Paulson, know the inevitability of reform and progress toward freedom. Since the events in Tiananmen Square of 1989, captured in the icon of a brave man standing in front of and stopping a row of tanks, many in the U.S. have paid little attention to the day-to-day challenges of political and religious dissidents in China. Paulson contends that even their situation is improved by U.S. engagement with China. Paulson recounts his hand in seek Yang Jianli's release (pp. 220-222), and he tells of the irony that Jiangli thanked him for the very things that his persecutors had thanked Paulson (p. 252).

With China's enormous population and explosive growth in its cities, China has 171 cities with more than a million residents. Issues of urban sustainability are essential for the quality of life in China. Paulson, a committed conservationist, and the Paulson Institute, founded by Paulson at the University of Chicago after his service in the Bush Administration, have worked closely with Chinese leaders to measure urban sustainability. Paulson writes, "To achieve the modernization it seeks, China needs a new urbanization model that is economically sound, socially just, and ecologically sustainable" (p. 270).  This work may prove important for the United States as our population grows.

Paulson's book offered some surprises as well.
  • Paulson surprised me with his commitment to conservation and environmental protection (see especially pp. 116-131).
  • Paulson surprised me, having visited the country more than 100 times, having offered many cultural observations about working with the Chinese, and having written this lengthy book, by not being able to speak Chinese.
  • Paulson surprised me with his concern for the importance that he places upon listening to the Chinese, or, as a businessman, to whomever is his client. To make the "sale," he had to listen deeply to what his counterpart really wanted.
  • Paulson surprised me with just three references to Christianity in China, given the difficulties that the underground Catholic Church faces (pp. 353, 355, 368). Likewise, he did not refer in great depth to China's growing military. He maintained a laser-like concern on the economy. He is remarkably convinced that our concerns about religious freedom and China's military will be resolved by trade that opens China to the market.
  • Paulson surprised me with his commendable work in Tsinghua University to form better business leadership.
Of a timely nature, as the Senate procedurally blocked President Obama on the Trans Pacific Partnership, Paulson avidly cheers for the TPP's approval (p. 396).

Dealing with China is an important book about an even more important issue. Our relationship with China, for better or worse, is vital for what will happen in the coming years as we are referring to the world's most populous country (China) and the world's #1 and #2 largest economies. While ranking in economic power is not the most important factor, Paulson makes a compelling case for why we should not be afraid of China and how it is in our (and their) interest to find ways to work together. It is better that we work out our differences in trade than in a military arena. While Paulson does not paint vivid portraits of Chinese culture, he does show convincingly that we can meet and work with each other in business.

Rational Ritual and Social Change

Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg. 

I'd love to hear about Mark Zuckerberg's process in selecting the works for his series. It feels like the syllabus of a class, mixed between academic and popular writing. I'd love to know from whom he received the various recommendations. As, I suppose he has not read them at the time of making the announcement, it would be difficult to imagine how he sees them building on one another, but I would love to hear him articulate how they interact in his heart and mind.

Zuckerberg's seventh selection, Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge by Michael Suk-Young Chwe, popularizes serious academic work in game theory. Steven Pinker (Zuckerberg's second book) cites Chwe (pronounced like "chess" without the "ss") several times in his endnotes. After the selection of his work by Zuckerberg, Chwe authored a reaction and summary of his work and its implications found here in the Washington Post.

Michael Chwe (photo: Reed Hutchinson, UCLA)
Chwe, a professor of political science at UCLA, earned his bachelor's at Caltech before earning a Ph.D. in economics at Northwestern University. He taught economics at the University of Chicago and political science at New York University before assuming his post at UCLA.

Chwe, a Korean American, seems eminently likable with his generous offer of signed bookplates, his delight in Jane Austin, and his affection for the classic film "On the Waterfront." Analysis of Super Bowl advertising becomes the baseline for understanding critical concepts of game theory as applied to common knowledge. His research also shows great interest in social movements, and, unlike Pinker, he seems more respectful of the contributions of religion and religious ritual.

I have a specific experience of ritual as a lifelong Catholic and my sixteen years leading liturgy as a priest, as well as reflecting theologically upon those liturgies. A game theorist, Chwe uses different categories but sees powerful dynamics in ritual as it builds "common knowledge" and helps solve "coordination problems." He observes that:
A public ritual is not just about the transmission of meaning from a central source to each member of an audience; it is also about letting audience members know what other audience members know. (p. 4)
Chwe constructs a more complex theory about the interaction of the words, songs, and seating arrangements (pp. 25-30). It paralleled in interesting ways my formation in liturgy. From Greek, "liturgy" etymologically means "the work of the people." When it is seen as "the work of the priest," it is sadly reduced. Liturgy helps us in difficult times, like at death, with ritualized words in the funeral. Those ritualized words give us a language when words otherwise fail us or elude us. Liturgies, like the Eucharist, are also subversive, inviting us, for example, into deeper solidarity, especially with the most needy, and more peaceable, non-violent ways of living. While seeing ritual through distinct lenses and with different language, I believe that Chwe's analysis is open to observe a similar dynamic.

I also see this book through the experience of community organizing. Chwe's description of game theory to consider people's participation in a political action (p. 12, pp. 61-66) tracks well the organizer's concern about how many people will attend a given action. Efforts like one-on-ones (individual meetings to build public relationships), the regular format of meetings, the tension in public meetings, and the process of evaluation build and leverage common knowledge.

Chwe's reflections of "On the Waterfront" bring together both of my personal interests then. While Marlon Brando won the Oscar for Best Actor, I love the character of Fr. Barry, portrayed by Karl Malden, a labor priest. The character was based upon the real life Fr. John M. Corridan. Chwe observes how the film illustrates his theory of coordination problems and common knowledge (pp. 33-36). In my eyes, Fr. Barry was a great priest and a community organizer.

I also can see how Mark Zuckerberg might be interested in examining Facebook and its capacity to generate common knowledge and solve coordination problems. How much common knowledge does a "like," a "share," or a comment generate? Chwe examines social movements through the lens of game theory.

Chwe offers compelling reasons to believe that ritual, broadly seen, indeed generates common knowledge and leads to action that might occasion the insurrection of justice. Ritual is not just a text to be read, but it helps create history. It also offers a deep narrative for a community: "You cannot argue with a song" (italics in the original, p. 29).

We live in a world that is increasingly divided, separate television news sources in the U.S. for the Left and the Right. Fox News and MSNBC, borrowing a phrase from a different context, are examples of "the electronic equivalents of gated communities" (p. 92). Nonetheless, ritual can transform us. Mahatma Gandhi marched to the sea and made salt. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement marched from Selma to Montgomery. Game theory provides a lens to see how ritual can generate common knowledge and coordinated action that changes our world.

So, I will conclude with Chwe's own observation:

Why I Admire Mark Zuckerberg's "Year of Books"

As soon as I learned in January that Mark Zuckerberg commited to a "Year of Books," I decided to accompany him. Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, seems a very smart, creative person who also aims to make a difference in the world (for instance, launching http://www.fwd.us/ to advocate for immigration reform). Zuckerberg described his project as:
My challenge for 2015 is to read a new book every other week -- with an emphasis on learning about different cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.
Given who he is and those simple words, I was onboard.

My undergraduate studies were in the Program of Liberal Studies (P.L.S.) at the University of Notre Dame. While many had suspicions what P.L.S. might signify-- including the more tame Probably Law School or Pretty Late Sleepers-- it was a dynamic laboratory for learning. Launched in 1950, based on similar programs at the University of Chicago and Columbia, P.L.S.'s heart is the Great Books seminar, a sequence of six semesters of chronologically reading major texts from the Western tradition, along with a few works from the Eastern traditions. In the seminars, professors do not lecture. Everyone, professor and students alike, learn from the Great Books and from one another. As well, students take tutorials that offer deeper ventures into poetry, literature, theology, philosophy, science, political theory, the fine arts, and intellectual and cultural history. Frankly, I believe that P.L.S. is a tremendous opportunity to develop a broad intellectual background along with abilities to read texts critically, to formulate cogent arguments, and to communicate clearly.

So, I love reading lists. Critical, deep reading requires that one, first, read the book. Second, it requires thinking about the book, wrestling with its themes. Third, it requires doing that wrestling with others, engaging them. Reading with others, reading in community, is a critical and valuable component of reading.

Naturally, Zuckerberg's list will include few books that are regarded as classics. So far, only Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was among my readings in P.L.S. The list also has numerous works that are not my normal fare. I have two principal questions about these readings:
  1. How might the effort to read these works change me?
  2. How can I engage in a genuine dialog with others about these works?
To the first question, let me begin by noting that I have enjoyed Zuckerberg's selections so far. Committing myself to read Zuckerberg's selections has brought me to see the world more deeply through eyes very different from my own. I hope that his choices will allow me to probe more deeply in significant questions of our time. I hope that I will grow in knowledge, but I hope for more than that. I hope that these works, in some little way, help me to be a better human being. Perhaps they may give me more patience and understanding for views that are not my own. Perhaps they will give me insight into my heart's desire.

A book can change us in a way that is similar to travel. We can go somewhere to say that we have seen it, purchasing the tchotchke in the gift shop and taking the obligatory selfie. Or we can experience a place, let it into us, allow it to change us. The difference is not as extreme as it might seem. Everything we read changes us, for better or worse.

Second, in a world where so much communication is limited to sound bites on television with looping of cellphone footage, a "share" on Facebook, or a 140-character Tweet, the long form of a book invites sustained dialog, a dialog that we so very need in the United States. Though I am reading these works alone, I will share some reflections about each work in the hopes that I, too, may engage in a dialog around the selected works. I sincerely hope that others will share how these books have struck them, touched them. Together, these books may give us a different way of looking at the world. We may encounter a different way of reading newspapers, watching the news, and of seeing what's happening in our world. Seeing things afresh, perhaps, we will discover new, richer ways of acting to produce a more just, humane world.

So, I invite you to peruse my reflections on the books in Zuckerberg's list. Please, join in. Feel free to leave comments on each posting about a book. Share links to other interesting commentaries on these books. Let's see if we can inspire some conversation around important and worthy topics.

Catmull: Creativity, Courage, and Candor in Corporate Culture

Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg.

At first glance, my reaction to Mark Zuckerberg's fifth selection was "meh." Following books addressing social and political issues, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull, looked like yet another CEO writing a book on management and leadership, extolling his or her virtues and how that translates to success, with the invitation to other managers to imitate the method.

Pixar's undeniable market success demonstrates that Catmull is a talented, creative executive. All 14 of Pixar's animated films have been commercial successes. Seven of the films have won the Academy Award for Best Animated Film, along with another eight Oscars in other categories. Co-founder of Pixar, and, after Pixar's acquisition by Disney, head of Disney's animation division, Catmull has had the opportunity to shape a corporate culture that promotes quality work by placing a priority on people and candor and fearlessness amid their projects. He shares a lot of valuable insight and distilled wisdom, but I found three features that particularly drew me.

First, Catmull writes that he places an emphasis on hiring the best people. As he puts it, "people are more important than ideas" (p. 75). As CEO, Catmull has the humility to know that he cannot see everything. He writes at length about Toyota's assembly line that assigns to every employee the responsibility for finding and fixing problems in the assembly line. In effect, any worker could pull the cord to stop production, if there is a problem (49-51). When someone is new in a management post, he writes:
. . . we compare ourselves against our made-up model. But the job is never what we think it is. The trick is to forget our models about what we "should" be. A better measure of our success is to look at the people on our team and see how they are working together. Can they rally to solve key problems? (127)
Time and time again, Catmull is looking at the calibre of the persons on the team and how they interact.

Second, Catmull praises candor as a virtue within Pixar's corporate culture. While everyone praises honesty, for reasons of fear and self-preservation, one may hold back form giving the whole truth. Catmull writes of how Pixar foments a creative process where people share ideas, criticisms, and opinions freely.
The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad, of offending someone or being intimidated, of retaliating or being retaliated against-- they all have a way of reasserting themselves, even once you think that they've been vanquished And when they do, you must squarely address them. (87)
"Braintrust" meetings, where directors and producers hash out the stories that are told in Pixar animations, are a critical place where this happens (86-87).
There are many good reasons to be careful about what you say, right? You want to be polite, you want to respect or defer to others, and you don't want to embarrass yourself or come off as having all the answers. Before you speak up, no matter how self-assured you are, you will check yourself: Is this a good idea or a stupid one? How many times am I allowed to say something stupid before others begin to doubt me? Can I tell the director that his protagonist is unlikable or that his second act is incomprehensible? It's not that you want to be dishonest or withhold from others. At this stage, you aren't even thinking about candor. You're thinking about not looking like an idiot. (89) 
Catmull explains that "early on, all our movies suck." The only way forward is if the team can help the director see the weaknesses of the story. The Braintrust does not prescribe a fix to the problem; they simply diagnose, to help the director see (90). These observations are written up in "notes."
A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn't clear, what makes no sense. A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem. A good note doesn't make demands; it doesn't even have to include a proposed fix. But if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe an answer. Most of all, though, a good note is specific. (103) 
Rigorous honesty is difficult, but it is not cruel. It is problematic if there is greater honesty around the water cooler than in the spaces where work is hashed out. Catmull's solution: find people who will be candid, and keep them close.

Third, Catmull extols courage, in the form of fearlessness with respect to failure, as a necessary element within Pixar. Rather than being driven by a fear of failure, failure can be seen as a tool for learning and exploration (109). A critical question in an institution is: "What happens when an error is discovered?" Is there an inward turn among the personnel? Does the question turn to: "Whose fault is this?" Catmull summarizes: "In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, . . . their work will be derivative, not innovative" (111). A different understanding of failure can generate a different response. Experimentation is necessary to reach the highest quality outcome. "The silver lining of a major meltdown is that it give managers a chance to send clear signal to employees about the company's values, which inform the role each individual should expect to play," writes Catmull (164-165). It is, then, amid setbacks, that an organization's genuine commitments are revealed and innovative responses are born.

Creativity, Inc. is not just another management book nor an homage to Steve Jobs; it is the lively tale of the founding and development of a tremendously creative corporate culture based on candor and courage. Catmull shares practical steps in how these characteristics were fostered at Pixar and Disney Animation. Any reader will find some worthy take-aways from this book.

A Poetic Argument for Vaccination

Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg. 

For Mark Zuckerberg's fourth pick, he chose Eula Biss's On Immunity: An Inoculation. Zuckerberg, venturing into the vaccination debate, made the selection alongside an outbreak of measles at Disney.

The mother of a newborn son, Biss discovers the vulnerability of her child. Wanting to protect him, she examined the questions surrounding vaccinations. Biss met with scientists, physicians, and specialists in public health, as well as consulting with her father, a physician. Additionally, Biss seemingly reviewed a considerable body of medical and scientific literature. She also renders intelligible the origin and history of vaccinations. However, as a writing instructor at Northwestern University, Biss is a poet writing in prose. One might say that her argument for vaccination is a poetic argument rather than a linear argument.

Ruminating on words and their origin, Biss contemplates the metaphors of public health. For instance, she reminds us that a "germ" is an organism that causes disease, but also the word's root is "seed" (p. 29).

Reading On Immunity, we encounter Achilles and Narcissus from Greek mythology. We find citations from philosophers Karl Marx and Immanuel Kant, from poets John Keats and Ranier Maria Rilke.

Between these literary and philosophical citations, Biss makes the case for immunization as well as raising more difficult issues of socio-economic status with conclusions like: "Wealthier countries have the luxury of entertaining fears the rest of the world cannot afford" (p. 92). What will it take to help us see the truth of these statements as well as other issues that vex us? I am not entirely certain. I am reminded of the T.S. Eliot line from "Burnt Norton" of the Four Quartets: "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." Biss poetically tells a story, wrapped in mythology, that points towards significant truths. Perhaps her medium permits us to bear more reality.

An able, stylish writer, Biss pens a book worth the read.

Hustling: A Rogue Sociologist Meets the Gang

Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg. 


For Zuckerberg's third pick, he selected Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. Venkatesh, an Indian American, arrived at the University of Chicago to begin graduate work in sociology. Eager to work with Professor William Julius Wilson, a leading sociologist of race and poverty then at Chicago, Venkatesh took up the invitation to collaborate with a new research project in order to design better public policy (pp. 4-5). Venkatesh discovered, rather abruptly, that the survey questionnaires and interviews he was asked to take were not going to elicit the information and honesty that Venkatesh sought for his questions about race, poverty, and the underground economy.

As a regular visitor to Chicago, I remember the Robert Taylor Homes, 28 high-rise buildings, 16 stories each, stretching for two miles along the Dan Ryan Expressway. In all, the Robert Taylor Homes provided 4,415 units of public housing administered by the Chicago Housing Authority. While I have no idea how many times I drove past those homes, I never dared to stop. I only got close once while trying to find my way to Comiskey for a baseball game between the Texas Rangers and the Chicago White Sox.

Boldly, Venkatesh went in with clipboard and survey to interview some families he selected at random based on the low income level of the tract according to U.S. Census data. On his way into a building, he saw the empty cavity of the elevator shaft, smelled urine on the concrete floor, and made his way up the stairwell. Along the way, he was confronted and detained by members of the Black Kings, a gang that controlled the building. J.T., the leader of that group of the gang, eventually met Venkatesh, and, after Venkatesh spent the night with junior gang members in the cold stairwell, J.T. spoke words that changed the shape of Venkatesh's research:
"You shouldn't go around asking them silly-ass questions," he said. "With people like us, you should hang out, get to know what they do, how they do it. No one is going to answer questions like that. You need to understand how young people live on the streets." (p. 21)
Thus begins a new phase of Venkatesh's education. J.T. even offered Venkatesh a day to be the "leader" of the gang, hence the book's title.

Through this window into life in the Robert Taylor Homes, Venkatesh explores a variety of themes. One theme for Venkatesh is simply how one does research. Venkatesh came to understand the difficulties of doing meaningful research. He could not transcribe the dialogues immediately as they happened. They were recreated after the fact and, so, are not a verbatim of the encounter. Venkatesh had to grapple with ethical decisions about illegal activity that he knew was lurking around the edges of things he saw regularly in his research.  Venkatesh saw the tradeoffs in who he used as sources. He sought to tell a deeper story than the "thin stories" journalists publish, as "they typically rely on the police for information, and this reliance makes the tenants turn their backs" (p. 242). Venkatesh came to a deeper understanding of the challenges in telling the story of people with "objectivity." It is difficult, if not impossible, to be neutral, to be an outsider, to the stories of those whom he encountered.

Second, Venkatesh discovered that his relationships with those of the Robert Taylor Homes were born of "hustling" (p.188), an individual's use of power to accomplish goals. While protected by J.T., J.T. benefited from and used some contents of Venkatesh's research. Building president Ms. Bailey also used the research to her benefit, but she also challenged Venkatesh, "Of course, you're learning! But you also are hustling" (p. 188). Venkatesh came to see that he was not there entirely for altruistic reasons. He was there to do research, to gather data, to publish, to advance his academic career. Honesty about these matters shapes the understanding of how Venkatesh would do his research and, apparently, continues to influence the subsequent work that he has done in New York. The closer Venkatesh came to those he intended to research, the more complex his conclusions necessarily had to become.

Third, Venkatesh acquired a deeper analysis of power as it was exercised in the urban environment of what was then the Robert Taylor Homes. Police and ambulances rarely entered the area. In all, little presence of local government was encountered, according to Venkatesh. He began to see the dynamics of the gang's power over the building as well as the exercise of power within the gang. Following J.T., he saw how J.T. personally exercised power. The day that J.T. allowed Venkatesh to lead the gang, Venkatesh had to determine a violent consequence in a dispute between two gang members. J.T. explained that "they [the gang members] need to fear you" (p. 130). Venkatesh challenged a fear-based leadership style. In time, he sees the complexity of J.T.'s leadership as well as the complexity of Ms. Bailey's leadership. Also, Venkatesh throws into the mix the power of a leader of a youth recreational center and the power of the police. The reader also encounters powerful descriptions of the challenges facing women in the Robert Taylor Homes. Venkatesh saw something of his own power amidst his research:
With other tenants I played the role of objective social scientist, however inaccurate (and perhaps impossible) this academic conceit may be. I didn't necessarily feel that I was misrepresenting my intentions. I always told people, for instance, that I was writing up my findings into a dissertation. But it was obvious that there was a clear power dynamic and that they held the short end of the stick. I had the choice of ending my time in the projects; they did not. Long after I was finished studying poverty, they would most likely continue living as poor Americans. (p. 246)
Understanding the dynamic of power and how it shapes people's interactions is a critical element of understanding the lives of others.

Gang Leader for a Day does not offer simple recommendations for better public policy regarding race and poverty, but it does bring the reader into the more complex hues of life in a particular place that endured decades of poverty. As we continue to wrestle with issues of race and poverty across the United States, we are best served, not by those "terrible simplifiers" (to borrow the phrase from Moisés Naím) but by those who help us to see the joys and sorrows, the hopes and fears, of lives very different than our own.

From Whence Come Our "Better Angels"

Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg. 

The second title in Zuckerberg's list is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker. Pinker, a regular guest on the "Colbert Report" with appearances in 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2013, is a Canadian-born professor at Harvard University. Pinker's work examines research and theories from many fields. He is described as an experimental psychologist, a cognitive scientist, and a linguist.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, with its index, comes in at just over 800 pages. To carry interest over such an expanse, Pinker excels as a witty, engaging author. Pinker describes six trends in declining violence, five inner demons, and four "better angels," a term taken from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address. Rather than undertake a detailed description of the book's argument, Wikipedia has a pretty good summary of the book here.

The central thesis that gives birth to the book is that, despite our sense that the violence around us is escalating, human society has known a general, steady decline of violence over the centuries. Pinker's data sets are fascinating and, it seems, undeniable that, by percentage, fewer lose our lives to violence than the generations previous to us. While it seems counter to our experience, we live amid a long term trend away from violence. Next, he aims to describe why that decline has happened, via the "inner demons" and "better angels." His rich, detailed argument draws from great stories, political philosophy, sociology, history, medicine, and psychology. I frequently referred to his endnotes to see the array of source material that he drew upon.

Abounding in wit, I laughed regularly alongside Pinker's text. I particularly enjoyed his description of how the correct use of the knife at table, and the development of table manners, topics from Norbert Elias's classic, The Civilizing Process (1939), contribute to the reduction of violence (pp. 59-128). These 800 pages actually were quite enjoyable to read.

While I find thought-provoking the array of sources at his disposal and share his gratitude for the decline in violence from which we benefit, I do not share his conclusions for the cause of the decline. Ross Douthat, a blogger from for the New York Times, briefly describes the principal arguments against the case for Pinker's "better angels", and I concur with Douthat's criticisms.

I'd like to draw a bit more attention to Pinker's self-described "irreverent" voice (p. 696), especially in his treatment of faith. Pinker draws together many strands for the decline of violence. He sees capitalism and globalization as one source of a reduction in violence. He quips:
Cultural and intellectual elites have always felt superior to businesspeople, and it doesn't occur to them to credit mere merchants with something as noble as peace. (p. 684)
Pinker forgives democracy's toleration of slavery as "the 1.0 release of a complex new technology," praising its "upgradability" (p. 161). Pinker will absolve the Enlightenment of responsibility for the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and Napoleon, as the revolutionaries drew their inspiration from "intellectual lightweights," not those streams of thinking he prefers (p. 184). At the same time, Pinker, a cultural and intellectual elite, refuses to credit religion with any role in the reduction of violence. Pinker ascribes "the seeds of a movement" away from war to satirists and Immanuel Kant, without acknowledging St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas (p. 167). Pinker describes the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. without acknowledging that his primary role was as pastor (pp. 479-481). While he acknowledges repeatedly the contributions of many people to the streams of thought that he applauds, more than a few of whom were in fact deeply religious people, including some clergy, Pinker creates a straw man argument against religion.

Faith is a much more complex matter than Pinker acknowledges. Yes, ISIS and Al Qaeda use violence in the name of faith. Yes, the Crusades and the Inquisition were horrible events perpetrated in the name of faith. And, yet, that only tells some of the story. Today, many of the most committed people to removing violence from society are people of faith. If you visit Ferguson, MO, or Baltimore, MD, or any of this country's poorest neighborhoods, you won't find Enlightenment philosophers, but you will find, amid all the poverty, churches. Even when everyone else leaves a neighborhood, the churches will remain so long as there are people. Look at so many places around the globe where violence is directed against people of faith, and still they witness to peace and nonviolence: Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Franz Jägerstätter, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Oscar Romero, to name but a few.

The lone "angel" excluded from Pinker's notion of "our better angels" is faith. Pinker belittles his thesis with his treatment of people of faith. While it may not fit his contrivance, people of faith have worked and have given their lives for a more peaceable world.