My Best Books and Articles
Is it possible to change America? America has so many huge problems built into its society, culture, laws and institutions that it will be very expensive and difficult to change them. Yet we must if are to remain a leading nation in a difficult and dangerous world.
A recent article in The New Yorker titled How Do We Change America?
by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is hands down the best article I have read about the recent protests. The article says that the murder of George Floyd is of grave concern and that policing in America must change. However, it also says that there are major parts of American society and culture that must also change before America can become a decent and livable country. She says it is more than just the police. She says that if these underlying changes are not made, American cannot take its place as a prosperous, just, and decent country in the modern world. We really have no choice except to somehow remake American as a humane, progressive, modern state rather than an unjust police state that, not that long ago, was a slave state. And it is a sad fact that America still has the mentality of that founding slave state. This must be changed says Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.
Taylor says that the current protests are much more like the 1992 Los Angeles riots than the riots and demonstrations of the 1960s. And she says that the way the Democratic Party, including Joe Biden, responded to these 1992 riots is largely responsible for our current protests. This was surprising to me. I had always thought the Republicans were the main villains and the Democrats were the good guys. Not so, says Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. So a large part of this article is the story of how American got to be the way it is today. Below is a selection from the article beginning with the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion.
From the article:
Democrats responded to the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion by pushing the country further down the road of punishment and retribution in its criminal-justice system. Joe Biden, the current Democratic Presidential front-runner, emerged from the fire last time brandishing a new “crime bill” that pledged to put a hundred thousand more police on the street, called for mandatory prison sentences for certain crimes, increased funding for policing and prisons, and expanded the use of the death penalty. The Democrats’ new emphasis on law and order was coupled with a relentless assault on the right to welfare assistance. By 1996, Clinton had followed through on his pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” Biden supported the legislation, arguing that “the culture of welfare must be replaced with the culture of work. The culture of dependence must be replaced with the culture of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. And the culture of permanence must no longer be a way of life.”
The 1994 crime bill was a pillar in the phenomenon of mass incarceration and public tolerance for aggressive policing and punishment directed at African-American neighborhoods. It helped to build the world that young black people are rebelling against today. But the unyielding assaults on welfare and food stamps have also marked this latest revolt. These cuts are a large part of the reason that the coronavirus pandemic has landed so hard in the U.S., particularly in black America. These are the reasons that we do not have a viable safety net in this country, including food stamps and cash payments during hard times. The weakness of the U.S. social-welfare state has deep roots, but it was irreversibly torn when Democrats were at the helm.
The current climate can hardly be reduced to the political lessons of the past, but the legacy of the nineties dominates the political thinking of elected officials today. When Republicans insist on tying work requirements to food stamps in the midst of a pandemic, with unemployment at more than thirteen per cent, they are conjuring the punitive spirit of the policies shaped by Clinton, Biden, and other leading Democrats throughout the nineteen-nineties. So, though Biden desperately wants us to believe that he is a harbinger of change, his long record of public service says otherwise. He has claimed that Barack Obama’s selection of him as his running mate was a kind of absolution for Biden’s dealings in the Democrats’ race-baiting politics of the nineteen-nineties. But, from the excesses of the criminal-justice system and the absence of a welfare state to the inequality rooted in an unbridled, rapacious market economy, Biden has shaped much of the world that this generation has inherited and is revolting against.
More important, the ideas honed in the nineteen-eighties and nineties continue to beat at the center of Biden’s political agenda. His campaign advisers include Larry Summers, who, as Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, was an enthusiastic supporter of deregulation, and, as Obama’s chief economic adviser during the recession, endorsed the Wall Street bailout while allowing millions of Americans to default on their mortgages. They also include Rahm Emanuel, whose tenure as the mayor of Chicago ended in disgrace, when it was revealed that his administration covered up the police murder of the seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot sixteen times by a white police officer. But Emanuel’s damage to Chicago ran much deeper than his defense of a particularly racist and abusive police force. He also carried out the largest single closure of public schools in U.S. history—nearly fifty in one fell swoop, in 2013. After two terms, he left the city in the same broken condition he found it, with forty-five per cent of young black men in Chicago both out of school and unemployed.
This points to the importance of expanding our national discussion about what ails the country, beyond the racism and brutality of the police.
Below are some pictures to help us remember that we are still in the middle of climate change and the human destruction of all those ecological niches that keep us alive. Let’s not forgot in the middle of the most important protests in the second half of the 20th century, a life of death pandemic, and the most serious depression of the last 100 years that the beautiful, natural world is still out there, at risk, endangered and needing all the help it can get.
Much of America doesn’t need changing. But much American has to be changed if it is to survive as a decent and just nation. But is it possible to change America?