On Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit

I finally saw Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s film on the Algiers Motel killings, and I have to say I came out of the theater quite shaken by it–it’s visually exhausting, thanks to the frenetic, riotous movement of Bigelow’s camera throughout. And a viewer familiar with the Algiers Motel killings can only watch the unfolding drama with an awful sense of dread, knowing as one does in advance the fate of the dead, and the rough order in which they will die. This puts an extra dramatic burden, at least for me, on the necessity of bringing those victims to life, of making them more than just the soon-to-be-dead-of-the-Algiers, which is a burden that the film doesn’t meet. So even though it’s emotionally grueling, given the brutality it depicts, there’s also something unfeeling about it.

I would also just say, for starters, that whenever you put “Detroit” in the title of a thing (see also: Detroiters) it’s a good sign that the thing in question is not going to be about Detroit in any serious way, but just some generic urban placeholder for something else: “race relations,” “urban crisis,” “gentrification hijinks,” etc. This is not new or unique to Bigelow’s film–elsewhere, I’ve written more about the way in which Detroit serves as a metonym for various other national fantasies or fears. This can, of course, be true of any city but the effect is intensified in Detroit, the film, which uses an introductory Jacob Lawrence montage to introduce the  rebellion as an explosion of dashed black hopes and reactionary white backlash in the wake of the Great Migration. But because it lacks much political perspective, and because of the narrative restrictions of depicting an hours-long ordeal in a single room, the specificity of Detroit, its landscape, its economy, never really appears. (The gold standard here, for me, is Blue Collar.)

The film’s feeling of placelessness, along with its almost non-existent characterization, really made me appreciate John Hersey’s narrative decisions and granular focus on the participants’ backstories in The Algiers Motel Incident. (I wrote more about these here, in Guernica) The film’s focus on a singularly talented victim, the Dramatics singer Larry Reed, really makes the movie into the sort of “tragedy” Hersey said he wanted to avoid: a routinized spectacle of black suffering, which predictably elicits what Richard Wright called the “consolation of tears” in its audience. Everyone in the movie feels like a caricature–the innocent victims, the monstrous cops. The only exception–and this is a telling misstep by the writers–is one of the white characters, the brave white maybe-prostitute, Juli, who talks back to the police.

This, to me, misses a big part of what makes the Algiers Motel story so compelling and scary to me: the normality of the participants, which is what Hersey emphasizes. The victims for him were just regular kids, or at least they were trying to be, in a city and country determined not to allow them. And the cops weren’t uniquely awful people, like the villain in the film–what’s worse is that they were rather typical white Detroiters who “did what came naturally to them” in the motel, as one reviewer of the book put it.

And some specific points:

  1. What was the point, really, of the Mel Dismukes character, played by John Boyega? His character really does not make any sense: he’s treated as an innocent peacemaker who is also improbably a fly on the wall, witnessing all of the police torture. Why would the police let a black security guard just hang out while they beat and murder people, unless he’s complicit with them?
  2. A perhaps historically pedantic point of information: one of the film’s sympathetic policemen is a homicide detective who, early in the film, says that he is going to recommend murder charges for the character based on the real-life Detroit cop David Senak. Senak was
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    1967: Death in the Algiers Motel and Beyond, 2017, Rita Dickerson, acrylic on canvas.

    a vice squad officer implicated in the Motel killings who also shot a looter in the back in the early days of the uprising. Narratively, this episode establishes the Senak character’s violent streak, but it also suggests that the forthcoming charges motivate his wild behavior later–he’s got nothing to lose anymore. Yet it wasn’t actually illegal at the time for cops to fire on fleeing suspects who refused an order to stop, even those suspected only of looting.  Murder charges would never have been forthcoming–and Senak’s motivations must have been deeper, or more complicated, than the film allows.

  3. I was suspicious of some of the Twitter critiques of the film’s lack of black female characters, for the reason Bigelow herself offered: there were no black women present in the Motel itself. But after seeing the film, I would say that the character of Pollard’s mother should have been more prominent–not to check off a box, but because her advocacy for her son was such a prominent part of the Algiers Motel case (which Hersey, again, emphasizes) and featuring her would have given the movie some of the political and emotional heft it just doesn’t have.

The scandal of “campus free speech” bills

The organized anti-academic right has claimed its first major legislative victory, with North Carolina’s bill, HB 527, naturally called the ACT TO RESTORE AND PRESERVE FREE SPEECH ON THE CAMPUSES OF THE CONSTITUENT INSTITUTIONS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA. The bill is based on the Goldwater Institute’s model bill, versions of which have been proposed in Michigan and Wisconsin, among other places. I wrote about the Michigan bill here. The fallout of the Charles Murray affair and Ann Coulter dustup has continued much longer than I expected.

One other common thread: Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, champion of the North Carolina bill, and Michigan Sen. Patrick Colbeck, sponsor of Michigan’s harsher measure, are thought to be running for governor in their respective states, and are grandstanding on this non-issue to burnish their right-wing bona-fides. These laws are thus fruit of the same unvarnished courage that powers Ann Coulter.

The North Carolina bill is a watered down version of the Goldwater bill, which calls for expulsions or suspensions of students who “infringe” upon the free speech rights of others.  The Carolina bill includes that artfully vague wording, barring conduct that “substantially disrupts the functioning of the constituent institution” or “substantially interferes with the protected free expression rights of others.” What “substantially,” “disrupts,” or “interferes” means will be left up to campus administrators and the kangaroo free speech courts these laws set up to regulate students’ speech rights.

The good news, sort of, is that the Carolina bill only calls for unstated “disciplinary measures,” rather than specific punishments. The bad news is that it will be left up to the whims of individual campus administrators to set these policies. Dependence upon the political courage of university administrators is never a happy place to be.

A moment of silence for Scaramucci’s Twitter bio

Anthony Scaramucci’s Twitter bio once read, with heroic simplicity, “American entrepreneur.” His title is now the rather pedestrian “Assistant to the President, Director of Communications.” On the one hand, this is a step up–in the aftermath of his famous New Yorker meltdown, he is reaching for a bit of gravitas, emphasizing his importance in the bureaucracy. And he now has an actual job. But there is also something a little tragic in this development. The Way of the Entrepreneur is a calling, not a job. Given Scaramucci’s simultaneous rise to the director’s office and decline into the bureaucracy, one might therefore wonder if the Mooch is, in fact, still on the loose. scaramuccitwitter.jpg

As we saw in KFTAOA #4: The Entrepreneur, the figure of the entrepreneur is a peculiar combination of leader and functionary. Its literal, French-derived meaning is “one who undertakes something,” and it originally referred to a function within the hierarchy of a firm–the “carrying out of new combinations” for the capitalist whom he serves, wrote Joseph Schumpeter. It has more recently taken on the mythic aura of “innovation,” though, and is now routinely used with the implied adjective “visionary” just before or the added title “and Thought Leader” just after. This was clearly Scaramucci’s meaning. Like many of the self-described #entrepreneurs and #ThoughtLeaders and #agile #doers and so forth that follow unfortunates like me on Twitter, Scaramucci is famous for following hundreds of thousands of people on Twitter, always trawling for new followers and clients. Thirstily hustling your personal brand at all times is a better look on Twitter than it is when you are the “Assistant to the President,” though.

As I wrote in the earlier post: in an age of austerity, when most people’s sense of control over their lives is contracting—due to indebtedness, precarious employment, or lack of employment altogether—space emerges for a demagogic hero who stands for agency, material success, and moral determination all at once. This is obviously part of Trump’s appeal, and the actual moral barrenness of his business heroism is one reason why it should not be emulated (Better Skills!) by those claiming to oppose him. It’s also the barely beating heart of the Mooch brand: the success swagger, the hairspray, the refusal to apologize for describing a colleague’s interest in auto-fellatio in a national magazine, etc.

At the same time, it’s been pointed out that Scaramucci is made in the image of his boss, which makes him something of a classic entrepreneur, as his subservient new Twitter banner picture makes clear. He carries out combinations for the Boss. But his imitation of the alpha hand gestures and signature tics of the President are also an attempt to inhabit the role that Trump plays of the visionary entrepreneur of more recent mythology. Who knows—and really, who cares–how long Scaramucci’s current job will last. As long as he is a Visionary American Entrepreneur at (what passes for his) heart, the Mooch will always be on the loose. And yet: for this reason, the Mooch has never been on the loose.

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Not Tragedy, but Atrocity: Grappling with the legacy of the Algiers Hotel murders, half a century later

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the murders of Carl Cooper, Fred Temple, and Auburey Pollard at the Algiers Motel in Detroit. I wrote an essay for Guernica on the legacy of John Hersey’s book The Algiers Motel Incident, the experience of teaching it in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice verdicts, and the uncanny experience of finding one of the killers, retired and happy, on Facebook.

I also asked why we are so content to call police killings like this “American tragedies.”

As many critics remarked at the time, with some of the typical American grandiosity about such things, the Algiers was a “peculiarly American tragedy.” Bigelow herself has described it this way, as did Hersey. What is meant by this phrase, besides that a racist murder was committed and then covered up, and that such a thing had happened before and would definitely happen again, is never quite clear. There is always something evasive, even self-righteous, about calling a police murder a “tragedy,” as we often do. After all, what makes a tragedy tragic (at least according to Aristotle) is not just that it is terrible—it’s that it’s terrible and it happens for no reason. But if it happens over and over again, then there is probably a reason. If the reason is unjust, that means it’s no longer a tragedy, but something more like an atrocity. Many of Hersey’s critics disliked his painstaking, non-narrative reconstruction of the affair because it lacked grandeur—there was no drama here, no satisfying catharsis, no story, no clear answers, and thus none of the tearful consolation a good tragedy gives us. There is only an approximation of what Mrs. Pollard calls a “hurt feeling.”

Read the rest here.

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Keywords for the Age of Austerity 30: Thought Leader

In his recent New Republic piece David Sessions reads the category of the “thought leader” as the organic intellectual of the one percent: a figure who gives an emerging class its sense of its purpose in society. This purpose, Sessions argues convincingly, is

to mirror, systematize, and popularize the delusions of the superrich: that they have earned their fortunes on merit, that social protections need to be further eviscerated to make everyone more flexible for ‘the future,’ and that local attachments and alternative ways of living should be replaced by an aspirational consumerism. The thought leader aggregates these fundamental convictions into a great humanitarian mission. Every problem, he prophesies, can be solved with technology and rich people’s money, if we will only get our traditions, communities, and democratic norms out of the way.

In his account of Daniel Drezner’s new book, The Ideas Industry, Sessions writes that Drezner understands the thought leader as a new kind of intellectual who has come to prominence in the wake of the “public intellectual”–a more skeptical, quieter sort of intellectual more likely to be institutionally housed in a university than a corporation.

There is certainly something new about our “thought leader,” something related to the sense of of selfhood modeled by many of the terms on this blog. Like the entrepreneur and the innovator, the “thought leader” models a certain kind of entrepreneurial self: restless, flexible, visionary, self-made, and never not at work. The major difference is that while anyone, theoretically, can innovate, not just any Tom, Dick, Harry, or Sheryl can be a thought leader. The thought leader is singular and exceptional. The concept, therefore, makes explicit the heroic, if not authoritarian impulses that the “entrepreneur” ideal sometimes conceals with its fuzzy odes to collaboration.

As Sessions suggests, thought leadership is also an example of contemporary capitalist thinkers’ anxious need to justify themselves. Thought leadership does not simply enrich the firm or the leader himself; it also makes the world a better place, often at the same time.

As with the “innovator” and the “entrepreneur,” the metaphorical model for the thought leader is often the modernist artist—visionary, solitary, scorned by convention, “disruptive” of the norm, always making it new.  The thought leader is a “strategic visionary,” says another of the legions of writers explaining how to thought-lead. “It’s like painting a picture.”

As Sessions suggests, the image of the “thought leader” as authoritarian, creative, and do-gooding is exemplified by the TED Talk genius cult that promotes the power of ideas—and those who have them—to overcome any obstacle. The many parodies of TED Talks document some of the primary features of thought leadership. For example, in the Onion Talk “Loudness Equals Power”–in which an entrepreneur promotes surgically-amplified vocal cords–mocks the class, race and gender dynamics of thought leadership. In this talk, a white man tells us that his invention is a simple fix to overturn entrenched social hierarchies, like gender inequality: “the biggest voice in the room,” he shouts, “will belong not to the man with the biggest voice or most lubricated vocal cords, but the one rich enough to afford the largest amplifiers!”

A paradox of this leadership model is its celebration of innovation in all things combined with its extreme formal conventionality—what could be less innovative than a lecture, what less original than thought leadership itself? And so one of the most ruthlessly mocked features of TED Talks is the autoerotic self-seriousness and repetitiveness of the genre. One of my favorite TED parodies comes from a CBC program, This is That, which presents This is That (i.e., TIT) Talks). Unlike many others, this parody makes fun of the familiar form of the TED Talk, rather than the bombastic content. The TIT Talker simply narrates the formal conventions of a TED Talk as he reenacts them. As he enters the darkened, bare stage, he recites, “walk on stage, walk on stage, walk on stage.” He then takes a position in the spotlight by announcing, “you know I’m a Thought Leader, because I’m wearing a blazer, I have glasses, and I’ve just done this with my hands,” as he folds his hands earnestly yet strongly in front of him. Despite the genre’s ritual performances of humility, and the ostensible centrality of the thoughts on display, what the TED model of Thought Leadership also (if not only) offers is an entrepreneurship of the self, in which the performer sells an ideal version of himself to an audience that bestows prestige or funding.

Thought leadership is not as new as it thinks, however. Like “innovation,” it is an old concept that thinks it is utterly new. And also like “innovation,” its origins are religious.

Most histories of the term credit it (mistakenly) to Joel Kurtzman, a prolific business-press editor and writer who began using it in 1995 to preface interviews with movers and shakers in Strategy + Business magazine. And Kurtzman, to give him credit, certainly popularized the concept in its current form. The idea here is that business success is a “mental game,” that “C.E.O.’s and their top leadership teams must not only outexecute their rivals, they must also outthink them.” If the “marketplace” is a just and efficient sorter of good ideas and products and bad ones, then commercial success is a logical consequence of creativity and intellect. “A thought leader,” writes another business author in a typical definition, “is someone who looks at the future and sets a course for it that others will follow. Thought leaders look at existing best practices then come up with better practices. They foment change, often causing great disruption.”

Best practices can always be even better practices, you see. Never sleep, never stop change-fomenting.

The Nineteenth-Century Thought Leader

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“Thought leadership” is much older than Joel Kurtzmann, however, and goes back at least to the late nineteenth century, when it connoted moral authority above all. In 1899, the Rev. J.O.M. Hewitt wrote: “the thought leader of the race must be a a man of self-control, of mature and reasonable speech.” The phrase’s first appearance in the OED comes from Lyman Abbot’s flattering biography of Henry Ward Beecher, the Brooklyn clergyman who became embroiled in a notorious 1875 adultery trial. Abbot, a Beecher ally and fellow pastor, wrote to exonerate his friend. Despite the well-publicized sex scandal, Abbot argued, Beecher “retains his position as the most eminent preachers and one of the great thought leaders in America.”

Thought leader, in other words, was the virtuous complement to “innovation,” at a time when this word was often still a pejorative term for heresy. An innovator was a false prophet, but a thought leader was a moral visionary.

Both terms are now virtues, and there is still something of the prophetic in the Thomas Friedmans and Ben Horowitzes of our era. It’s a little overwrought for modern tastes, perhaps, but if Forbes.com ever started a poetry section one could imagine finding this 1901 ode from The American Illustrated Methodist Magazine there:

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Back to the Future of Secular Thought Leadership

Its earliest meaning was religious, but thought-leadership’s secular meaning also predates the contemporary, post-1990s vogue. In the middle of the twentieth century, it was most often a public relations term. In 1961, the house journal of the U.S. Savings and Loan League advised bank managers to establish themselves as the main source of financial information in their community—and thus become “what is known in public relations circles as a ‘thought leader.’”

It was also used in ways that seem quite contemporary, though–to describe the best and brightest experts in business and political affairs, the Thomas Friedmans of the Cold War. In August 1963, a New York Times ad for Atlas, a subscription service collating translated news reports from around the world, appealed to aspiring movers and shakers: “If you’re ready to join the foreign affairs experts, the thought leaders, the people who want their ideas first-hand, start your introductory subscription now. The Statist, a quaintly named British newsmagazine, advertised “top-level review of current world affairs, industry and commerce, finance investment” all authored by Europe’s “thought leaders.”

And so while the term has definitely taken off in the age of austerity to describe a particular kind of ruling-class intelligentsia,  thought leadership is perhaps less a radical break in the tradition of the American public intellectual than the heir to some of its oldest exemplars: the adulterous moralist, the Cold War foreign policy expert, the American thinker who thinks he charts the course, as the poet wrote, for “the sons of every clime.”

 

Innovation in Action 3: Industry City, Brooklyn

For a concept that describes a business practice, innovation’s vernacular can be often remarkably detached from the market—that is, from the buying and selling of things and services, and the employment (or rather exploitation) of people. Brooklyn’s Industry City redevelopment is a case in point.

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Yoga amidst the warehouses. Brooklyn, a city of contrasts

The site in Sunset Park was largely abandoned by its industrial tenants during the post-war deindustrialization of Brooklyn’s waterfront, according to the history provided by the current main landlord, the real-estate developer Jamestown L.P. Jamestown now promotes the site as a hub for the “creative and innovation economy fields.” The Industry City website offers this unhelpful elaboration:

A microcosm of NYC with one distinction: we’re creating an innovation ecosystem that embraces the disruption created by advancing technologies.

Andrew Kimball, manager of the Industry City project, defines these as a combination of the arts and manufacturing: “the physical, digital, and engineered products, being driven by this creative class who wants to make things again.” The class-bound language of the “innovation economy” replaces the working class with the “creative class” and switches “workers” for “makers,” even describing the latter as a novel sort of class: “This new class of innovators and makers,” Kimball told Fast Company, “want to work in cool, old buildings with good bones and character.” One of the effects of this switch, of course, is the apolitical nature of a “creative” or “maker” class—these are groupings of individuals, and thus there is no solidarity among “makers,” like there is among “workers.”

 Elizabeth Yeampierre, a Sunset Park anti-gentrification organizer, asked the crowd at a rally against the gentrification of the neighborhood: “What did Columbus say? We made ‘fine servants.’ I think Industry City thinks that we make fine servants too — to their economy, and to the people that they’re bringing into Sunset Park.”  The appeal of the “maker” designation, of course, derives from its individualism and its distance from “workers” or “servants” or anyone else in thrall to someone else. The maker is in charge. And yet the “maker” ideal derives from a certain sepia-toned emotional attachment to manual and artisan labor. The “character” Kimball sees in the old buildings in Industry City, of course, comes from the men and women who once toiled there. The history that was once posted on Innovation City’s website (I found it reproduced on the website of one of its tenants) emphasized these ghosts of the waterfront workforce. Historic black-and-white photos of a bustling industrial waterfront framed this example of the bubbly, introduction-to-cultural-studies-Mad-Libs meaninglessness of so much innovation discourse.

The complex continues to emphasize its rich industrial heritage through an authentic aesthetic expression that is at once historical, referential and progressive.

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“Industry City,” American Field: https://americanfield.us/blogs/in-the-field/77543619-industry-city

This chain of adjectives suggests that the development is itself an art project—a form of “authentic aesthetic expression”—rather than a real-estate venture. Industry City’s website no longer features this history, and while it still advertises for tenants, the site now emphasizes the retail, dining, and entertainment venues available to shoppers and visitors. As the Brooklyn news site City Limits observed two years ago, this is likely the planned future of the complex —as opposed to its long-stated purpose, to revitalize Brooklyn’s manufacturing waterfront.

“Innovation” is well suited to these cross-purposes. It is abstract enough to refer equally to tailoring, sculpture, or real-estate speculation. A planned hotel in the Innovation City complex, journalist Neil deMause noted in City Limits, would require zoning changes in the manufacturing district. “And so Jamestown is pursuing what it calls a ‘special innovation zoning district’ through the city Uniform Land Use Review Process,” he writes, along with $115 million in city money for infrastructure improvements. As deMause writes, the escalating real estate values that might result from such changes would eventually price our light manufacturing, which may be the point.

In any case: it’s hard to argue that appropriating public resources for private speculative investment under the guise of job creation isn’t some kind of “innovation.”

The Poverty of Entrepreneurship: The Silicon Valley Theory of History

My essay on Ben Horowitz, his father David, the Haitian Revolution (or some version of it),  and the impoverished historical imagination of the entrepreneurship cult is out from The New Inquiry.

WHY didn’t the Gauls overthrow the Romans? Why was Nat Turner’s revolt defeated so quickly? Why was the Haitian Revolution the only victorious slave rebellion in the Western hemisphere? And how can the answers to these questions help you, an aspiring entrepreneur, build an amazing business?

Ben Horowitz, co-founder of the powerful venture capital firm AndreessenHorowitz, has an answer to these questions: “culture.” He made this case at “Culture and Revolution,” a talk delivered at the Startup Grind conference in Redwood City, California on February 21, 2017 In its grand sweep and recognizable informal style, the lecture is a creature of the TED-talk-derived genius cult, in which wealthy audiences receive open-collared men pacing on bare stages as oracular sages telling hard and universal truths. Improbably, Horowitz organizes his theory of company “culture” around a reading of C.L.R. James’s classic Marxist history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins.

You can read it here.