What Do You Get When You Remix the Confederacy for 2015?

Hint: It’s not just biscuits and magnolias. By Patricia J. Williams

It was flying from the back of a souped-up pickup truck: the largest Confederate flag that I have ever seen, big as a bedspread. Across the center of the Battle Flag was emblazoned the image of a gigantic black assault rifle; across the bottom was written a challenge: Come and take me. I watched the truck proceed down the freeway like a perverse Mardi Gras float; it emerged from the peripheral field on my left side, whipped past, then continued down the highway and away, through the mountain pass beyond and into the V-shaped cleft of the horizon.

This happened in August, a busy month for racial conversation: the March on Washington, Hurricane Katrina, Michael Brown’s death. This also happened within days of Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s apparent attempt to Willie Horton–ize #BlackLivesMatter in time for the next election by labeling it a “hate group.” It was just days after Megyn Kelly’s assertion that black communities are “anti-cop. It’s sort of—people have called it the ‘thug mentality’…. That it’s cool to sort of hate the cops…and be somebody who doesn’t necessarily prize being there for your family, and so on.”

That fiercely flapping flag I saw was a mash-up: a remix, a derivative conjoining of different elements to make a new whole. I read those elements as misplaced belligerence about the “War of Northern Aggression” (we were, after all, in the North, a mere hour’s drive from the Canadian border) and a scary degree of allegiance to dark, murderous machinery.

At home later that evening, I chanced upon a YouTube video: an ad for The video advertises, in the words of James Joiner in The Daily Beast, taking “some of the guilt out of flying your colors by giving you good ol’ boys and girls the chance to shoot down that pesky racism argument right out of the gate—by supporting a black-owned business. It’s like having a ‘best friend who’s black,’ only better,” because you can order online and needn’t come into contact with anyone outside your “racially pure bloodline.”

The site is parodic—but truth be told, it’s hard to tell sometimes. After all, George Zimmerman is selling his paintings of the Confederate flag to support a “Muslim-free” gun store in Florida. And there are a few African-Americans who seem genuinely content to be standard-bearers for the antebellum South: Byron Thomas, a black undergraduate at the University of South Carolina, is rumored to have been offered membership in the Ku Klux Klan after waging a brave fight to display the Confederate flag in his dorm.

I have nothing against Southern heritage. If it’s down-home, Southern Gothic nostalgia you want to celebrate, then by all means, mash up a flag to that: perhaps one with buttered biscuits, toddler tiaras, and cottonmouth snakes all nestled against a field of magnolia blossoms.

Seriously: It’s not the Southern romance but the Confederacy with which I have a problem. But the Confederacy, as bears reminding, lost the Civil War. The American flag—the one to which we make a pledge of allegiance—is the flag of the United States. That’s a dispositive legal distinction, not a whimsical or emotional one. The Confederate flag stands for the Confederate Constitution, which was virtually identical to the US Constitution but for one really important sentence: “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”

The mash-up of that message with an assault rifle is why I drove quite slowly behind the enormous pickup truck, letting the distance grow between it and me. I slowed my car intentionally to let the truck race on, backward into the future.

Recently, I heard Ashraf Ghani, the president of Afghanistan, hold forth in a nuanced discussion about borders, national identity, pluralistic pedagogy, so-called philosophical untranslatables, and the linguist Roman Jakobson’s concept of marked and unmarked terms. It was so impressive and sophisticated that I confess my brain wandered sideways to a parallel universe in which any given American politician brought such insight to the crisis at our own borders. We need more than Donald Trump as American interlocutor in these crucial global debates. It was this sad thought that weighed on me as I drove slowly in the wake of that enormous Confederate death threat, cowering at what ex post facto bill of attainder might await around the bend.

Black lives matter. Confederate lives matter. Mexican lives matter. Syrian lives matter. Iraqi and Turkish lives matter. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist lives matter. Police lives matter. Swedish lives matter. Cecil the lion’s life matters.

But power matters too.  The structures of civil society matter. And when we conflate the ideal of all lives mattering in a way that suppresses knowledge of the decidedly different ways our bodies are received as we cross from neighborhood to neighborhood, nation to nation, one social setting to another…well, some of us are apt to drown, capsized in the seas of untranslatability. When we ignore the ethical responsibilities of power and its exercise by labeling dissent as “hatred of us,” we avoid the hard question lurking just beneath the surface: who defines “us”?

The reality of our resource-stretched, ecologically-degraded, desperately diasporic and war-torn globe is that populations are increasingly arranged as a matter of public policy and government force along polarities of raw survival: Life or death. Legal or illegal. Refugee or economic migrant. Rich or poor. Northern or Southern. We struggle for ground and bread and fresh water. We draw down the gates, pull up the drawbridges. We pray and pack in for a place on the freedom train—which grinds to a halt when “they” climb aboard. We take each lost life and stack it as a win or a loss.

All lives do not matter when we must sort the dead by sides.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

On Imperfection and Its Comforts…

Review:  Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist
Patricia J. Williams

Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, a new online-first feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues.

The forum on Bad Feminist will appear in print in the spring 2016 issue of Signs.

Bad Feminist is the musing of a strong but lonely intelligence. Roxane Gay grew up as the daughter of conservative Haitian parents, almost always the only black kid in her school, always reading, always yearning to be popular, always wishing she were … not a bad girl precisely, but just a little less good. If the question is why this book and why now, I think the appeal lies in Gay’s casually colloquial yet highly intellectual takedowns of everything from competitive Scrabble tournaments to Lena Dunham’s Girls. Moreover, since debates about gender, race, and feminism are so often ponderously vexed—all but deadlocked before they leave the gate—Gay’s tone is refreshing. Her writing is funny, smart, accepting, kind. She is unafraid to admit her own inconsistencies, like her ability to “take pleasure in something so terrible” (199) as the terribly written Fifty Shades of Grey.

Gay does not set out to write a “revolutionary” book about contemporary feminism—she explicitly rejects the hyperbole of greeting every singular act of empowerment as such. Indeed, there is nothing new about most of her topics: rape, equal pay, the segregated cultural landscape of television and film. These are fields of inequality that have consumed us for at least a century. But while she analyzes situations that are all too sadly familiar to readers of any generation, her lens is very particular to her own.

I grew up in the generation of women breaking free from the Barbie-doll world of Mad Men. The feminist movement of my time was explicitly if diversely political—from Bella Abzug to Angela Davis to Mary Tyler Moore, and there was at least some common aim at accepting our bodies, ourselves. There was as well at least some common aim of escaping confinement—whether corsets and girdles or marital expectations and limitations in employment. In retrospect, it seems cloaked in a kind of lost optimism, an inevitability of the coming of a world of multifaceted “choice.”

In contrast, Bad Feminist speaks to the experiences of young women who have grown up with much meaner messages playing in the background: Real Housewives of New Jersey, Basketball Wives, Victoria’s Secret models’ diets, Fox News and Flavor Flav. Young women, if they are weaned on television or social media, are growing up inside the kinds of men’s brains who imagine women as perpetually mud-wrestling, always in warring tribes, using the spike heels of their fuck-me pumps to do lasting injury in showdowns in expensive restaurants. That masturbatory vision is everywhere, has been technologically enhanced, is hard to escape. Slut shaming and revenge porn have become new forms of old disciplinary practices, and civility among all humans, regardless of sex or gender, has broken down in increasingly dangerous and invasive ways.

Meanwhile, the rejected aesthetic of conical bras or underwear in which you couldn’t breathe seems to have been replaced by aesthetic endurances of a far more painful nature: dressing up occurs within a cultural bell jar of peculiar insistence that the life of the mind be inscribed on the body—tattooed onto it, pieced through it, or surgically altered—in order to be heard.

Gay speaks to the mean-spirited perfectionism that so many young women must deal with today. The book is peppered with the vocabulary of a generation many of whom don’t know who Shirley Chisolm or Gloria Steinem are—words like “crappy,” “asshole,” “drama,” and “divas”—yet Gay’s message remains quietly humane, gently humorous. It is an instruction manual for the postfeminist, post–Ms. Magazine, post-peace-and-love crowd. Bad Feminist is Miss Manners for messed-up millennials.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


By Patricia J. Williams

I spent July 4 at a social-justice retreat in rural Washington State, driving up into the mountains with a group of colleagues through spectacularly picturesque small towns bright with fluttering red, white, and blue banners.

“There’s a wonderful general store here,” one of my friends told me as we pulled in for gas along the way. “You’ll love the place and its genuine old-fashioned charm.” I like old-fashioned as much as the next, so while the rest of the company peeled off to get pizza, I puttered my way across the road and pushed open the creaky wood- frame door to the friendly sound of jangling sleigh bells hung from the knob.

The reception inside, however, didn’t match that warm, silvery welcome. A little girl of about 5 or 6 who’d been coloring on the floor looked up. I smiled; she scowled, gathered her crayons, and huffed over to her mother. The mother, who was doing what looked like accounting at a round oak table, glanced at me, frowned, and refused to make eye contact. There was another woman behind the counter who eyed me with such apparent hostility that I almost turned and left on the spot. But then I thought, “I’m projecting. They’re having a bad day—it has nothing to do with me.”

So I put my head down and wandered around, looking for the charm rather than the chill of an earlier era. “Excuse me, please,” I asked the woman monitoring the cash register, feeling that careful politeness might warm things a bit. “Do you have ice cream?”

“Yer looking at it,” she snarled without moving. Flushed with humiliation and feeling accused somehow, I scuttled sideways toward the exit. Just then, one of my friends walked into the store. “Hello, mister,” piped up the little girl cheerfully. Then another of the party came in. “How can I help you, sir?” asked the woman behind the counter. As my friends and the cashier engaged in a somewhat giddily suggestive discussion of various sausages, I slipped out quickly and retreated to the car.

It’s hard to figure out exactly what accounts for the difference in our experience. I’m an old, gray-haired black woman; my friends were younger white men. I felt it had to do with race, but it could have been age, or gender, or something random. It wasn’t like they were flying the Confederate flag.

There’s just no way to know, we told ourselves. We moved on to other things.

Wending our way along the mountain roads, we traveled through terrain not so different from that of Pasco, just on the other side of the Cascades. Pasco was the scene of a police shooting early this year that has left Washington State bitterly divided. Last February, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, a migrant farmworker from Mexico who’d apparently taken an ample dose of amphetamines, went on a rock-throwing spree in downtown Pasco during rush hour. Cellphone videos taken by bystanders reveal him in a state of considerable incoherence and distress: weaving off balance, running in circles, flinging rocks and gravel at cars, passersby, police. The images show the police first trying to tase him, then shooting at him. Zambrano-Montes runs across the street to the front of a busy supermarket, three officers in pursuit. The police shoot again, this time a larger volley. He falls to the sidewalk, and they circle his body for a few moments before handcuffing his limp arms behind his back.

On July 1, the last of a series of documents was released in connection with a much-delayed follow-up report on the shooting. Included were eight videos, each taken from a slightly different angle, all available for public viewing on YouTube; from no perspective does it appear that anyone deserved to die. Zambrano-Montes seems guilty of obstreperous (if fairly ordinary) disorderly conduct. But what’s most astonishing about the encounter—which took four minutes from beginning to end—was the utter lack of police discipline: a Wild West rampage on a public street during rush hour. Seventeen bullets were fired in all. As many as seven entered Zambrano-Montes’s body. Six more were retrieved from the walls of the supermarket, a gas station, and a vending machine. Four were never found.

If I personally find it hard to imagine what might justify such a response, the statements from the officers and some witnesses tell a radically different story. “He was willing to do anything he could to get me to shoot him,” said Officer Adrian Alaniz. “He wanted to die,” said someone who knew Zambrano-Montes at the local homeless shelter. According to one bystander, he looked like a “caged tiger.” Police told investigators that they consider rocks to be deadly weapons—“one rock can kill you”—and that it was “a life-and-death” situation. When asked why they decided to fire on a man who was running away from them, Officer Ryan Flanagan explained: “I wasn’t chasing him down to shoot and kill him. But he wasn’t going to get away, either.”

Flanagan resigned from the force about two weeks before the report’s release. The county coroner has called for an inquest, but that won’t start until September at the earliest. As of this writing, there has been no decision on whether to bring charges against any of the officers. Franklin County prosecutor Shawn Sant has stated that the final decision on whether the shooting was justified “would not come soon.”

It’s hard to figure out what accounts for such differences in perspective. But as long as we live in a culture with such aggressively policed boundaries of social division—whether age, gender, race, accent, or class—our individual experiences at the general store of our humanity will always be at odds. What manifestation has just come lurching through the opened door: a lady or a tiger? Is there really just no way to know?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What No One Is Saying About the Cleveland Police Shooting Case

The Nation Magazine, June 15, 2015

by Patricia J. Williams

O n May 23, Cuyahoga County Judge John O’Donnell exonerated Cleveland policeman Michael Brelo, who had been charged with voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. The facts of the case, as recounted in the judge’s lengthy opinion, are these: Russell and Williams were driving in a 1979 Malibu when, at about 10:30 on the evening in question, they were stopped by an officer who says that Williams shouted out the window, “What the fuck did we do this time?” In O’Donnell’s less-than-coherent description, the officer then “decided not to pursue the stop, which he initiated after Russell turned left without a signal because he had seen Russell do a possible drug deal a few minutes earlier outside the nearby men’s homeless shelter.” That officer “returned to his duties without telling anybody else of the encounter.”

Moments later, and two miles on, Russell and Williams were driving past a police station when two officers standing outside heard a sound they thought was gunfire and gave chase—a chase that lasted 22 miles, involved speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour, and was joined by 62 police cars and over 100 officers. As expressed in bulletins along the way, the police thought that “two black males” were in the car, that one was “pointing a gun out the back window” and then “possibly loading a weapon.” It’s worth underscoring that all of these assumptions were wrong. No proof of a drug deal was ever produced. The occupants of the car were a man and a woman. The sound that the officers heard was apparently the Malibu backfiring, since both Russell and Williams were unarmed.

The chase finally ended when Russell drove down a dead-end street—or, in Judge O’Donnell’s evocative words, “down a road that, seen from above, looks like the barrel of a gun. Russell raced into that gun barrel….” It’s worth noting that the entire world is often unreasonably gun-shaped to those who spend too much time with weapons. For example, the officers acquitted in the beating of Rodney King—also after a car chase—described his body as being “cocked” like a gun even when he was lying bloodied and broken-boned on the ground. As the police converged on Russell and Williams, they fired 137 shots, 49 of which came from Officer Brelo’s gun. The final 15 were discharged when he leaped on the car’s front hood and shot directly at them through the windshield.

The legal logic that was to come brings to mind a study conducted by law professors Dan Kahan, David Hoffman, and Donald Braman after a black man was run off the road by the police and left paralyzed in 2001; he lost a controversial lawsuit against the department six years later. The researchers, in studying the divided public opinion about who was at fault, concluded: “We attribute these divisions to the psychological disposition of individuals to resolve disputed facts in a manner supportive of their group identities.”

Judge O’Donnell was certain about fault—or, at least, who wasn’t at fault. He wrote that Brelo had acted “out of conformity with police training,” was in a fit of passion or rage incited by his belief that he was in imminent danger, and that he “knowingly” fired shots that indisputably could have killed either Russell or Williams. But O’Donnell went on to say that there were so many officers firing that it was impossible to show that the deaths “were caused by Brelo’s bullets specifically.”

In coming to this conclusion, Judge O’Donnell invoked an analogy first posited by Justice Antonin Scalia in the 2014 case Burrage v. United States: “Consider a baseball game in which the visiting team’s leadoff batter hits a home run in the top of the first inning. If the visiting team goes on to win by a score of 1 to 0, [everyone] would agree that the victory resulted from the home run. By contrast, it makes little sense to say that an event resulted from…some earlier action if the action merely played a nonessential contributing role in producing the event. If the visiting team wound up winning 5 to 2 rather than 1 to 0, one would be surprised to read in the sports page that the victory resulted from the leadoff batter’s early, non-dispositive home run.”

In reading O’Donnell’s comparison of Brelo’s deadly volley to a “non-dispositive home run” in a sporting event, I wondered how universally applicable this might be. When rival biker gangs in Waco, Texas, fired hundreds of rounds at each other, leaving nine dead, 18 hospitalized, and 170 arrested, are we to anticipate the perpetrators’ mass exoneration because it’s just too hard to figure out who fired the bullets that actually killed someone? (The defendants in that case have already been charged with conspiracy under laws governing organized crime, and a massive forensic investigation is under way so that murder charges may be brought.) Judge O’Donnell put it this way: “Nor is it realistic to think that my conclusion will incentivize a group of police officers to fire as many bullets from as many officers as possible at a suspect in the hopes of obscuring the ultimate cause of the suspect’s death. The events of November 29, 2012 are sui generis and not likely to recur.”

I hope so. But there are plenty of people who believe that Russell and Williams “had it coming,” that they “needed killing,” according to some online pundits. There are others who believe that they committed “cop-assisted suicide,” and that the police were not the responsible agents of their death. And, of course, there are those who believe that the cops’ error-riddled perceptions of Russell and Williams were not the result of overreaction or poor training, but rather a sensible response to the existential-future-threat-imagined-as-immediate-possibility that life on “the mean streets” presents generally. As philosopher Brian Massumi says of the operative logic of such an existential threat: “Because the threat’s futurity is firmly held in the present, it short-circuits its own effect. It self-deters. This does not mean it ceases to operate as a cause. It means that its causality is displaced. It is no longer in a position to realize its original effect, annihilation. •

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


Faith-based attempts to upend public accommodation laws are nothing new

By Patricia J. Williams

This article appears in the May 1, 2015 print edition of The Washington Spectator

Posted on May 1, 2015 in Culture, Legal Affairs, Politics,

As Republican presidential hopefuls race to embrace the “religious freedom” of businesses to refuse to serve the LGBT community, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the ideological history behind the laws that focused the nation’s attention on Indiana and Arkansas, and, of course, the glibly homophobic management of Memories Pizza.

Faith-based attempts to upend public accommodation laws based on the inherent sinfulness of certain others are nothing new. The civil-rights movement is underwritten by its successful refutation of the “right” of religiously premised belief systems to trump national interests in preserving equal access to civic spaces and publicly offered services. Today, we tend to think of Jim Crow’s legal barriers as merely the expression of secular prejudice. But de jure segregation reflected pervasive religious beliefs in the inequality of races and divinely commanded social order.

The case of Bob Jones University v. United States is perhaps the best-known example of the effort to assert First Amendment religious freedom of expression (in addition to freedom of association) as justification for exclusion. Until 1971, BJU had barred admission to African Americans, and offered only limited admission to other minorities. Then, in 1971, under pressure from the civil-rights movement, it began to admit only married African Americans.

In 1975, after further pressure, it allowed entrance of unmarried African Americans but still forbade interracial dating, and denied entry to “applicants engaged in an interracial marriage or known to advocate interracial marriage or dating.” In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court revoked BJU’s tax-exempt status based on its racially discriminatory policies. Despite this, BJU resisted, based on assertions that God commanded separation of the races. And so it paid several million in back taxes and continued its exclusionary practices based on its freedom of expression under the First Amendment. It continued that policy until 2000, when George W. Bush kicked off his presidential campaign at BJU. The media uproar prompted its president, Bob Jones III, to nullify the ban on interracial dating, not on religious grounds, but so as not to haunt Bush’s campaign.

A second example is the 1925 case of State of Tennessee v. John Scopes. Scopes was a high school teacher prosecuted for violating the state’s Butler Act, which banned teaching human evolution in any public school. The law’s rationale was premised on fundamentalist dogma that Biblical literalism transcended all human knowledge.

That trial, best known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” is mostly remembered as a battle between science and pseudoscience. But it was also a battle between theological and secular justifications for notions of racial superiority. William Jennings Bryan, arguing for the creationist state law, resisted evolutionary theories that purported to teach children that mankind was descended “not even from American monkeys, but old world monkeys.” Not coincidentally, Bryan was a good friend of Bob Jones, the eponymous evangelist who founded BJU in 1927, in part because of Bryan’s urging.

While Clarence Darrow is remembered arguing on the more “liberal” side against the Butler Act, the deeper truth is that the secular beliefs of the time were not a lot better than the religious doctrine. The particular theory of evolution Scopes was accused of teaching came from Civic Biology, a textbook written by George William Hunter. Hunter believed, as many do to this day, that there were five distinct human races, representing an ascending order of evolution and civilization: Ethiopian, Malay, American Indian, Mongolian, and Caucasian. He was an enthusiastic defender of segregating each of the five, consistent with the tenets of the then-burgeoning American Eugenics Society and the theories of the infamous eugenicist Charles Davenport. Here’s an excerpt from Hunter’s textbook:

“Improvement of Man. – If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved, it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection. This improvement of the future race has a number of factors in which we as individuals may play a part. These are personal hygiene, selection of healthy mates, and the betterment of the environment.

Eugenics. – When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. Tuberculosis, syphilis, that dread disease which cripples and kills hundreds of thousands of innocent children, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness criminal to hand down to posterity.

Parasitism and its Cost to Society. – Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist.

The Remedy. – If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.”

Darrow lost the case, and today we are still fighting about whether creationism may be taught in public schools.

Bob Jones University lost its case in the Supreme Court, but continued the battle until secular as well as religious public opinion had so shifted that it was forced to abandon its racialist policies. Perhaps Americans have reached a similar turning point regarding secular as well as religious intolerance toward LGBT communities: Indiana’s governor and Legislature met with such vehement resistance to the religious freedom law that they have been backtracking even after revising the law.

It was the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that gave renewed life to Indiana’s arguments that religious belief can thwart principles of public accommodation. There, a narrow majority of the court allowed a family-owned corporation to refuse to pay for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act, holding that to do so would violate the owners’ religious belief that contraception is a sin. It was, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor observed, “a decision of startling breadth,” reopening a century-old debate about the rights of businesses or collectives to discriminate against citizens by cherry-picking among the laws they intend to respect.

The First Amendment protects both secular expression and religious belief in very broad ways. But that protection is not absolute. When belief carries over into action that disrupts either civil order or public safety, then public interest will outweigh even religious interests. We constrain, by law, expressions that communicate fraud, threats, conspiracy, treason, or second-class citizenship—even when those expressions are underwritten by religious beliefs. It is never an easy balance, but one we need to negotiate endlessly as an part of our political process: We are entitled to our beliefs no matter how wild or unsubstantiated, but not to impose them as obstacles or dangers to the constitutional rights of others. This much is a foundational value of public accommodation. We abandon that project at our peril.

Patricia J. Williams is a law professor at Columbia University and a regular columnist for The Nation.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


Published on The Nation (
The American Ritual of Racial Killings

Patricia J. Williams | April 29, 2015

What strikes me most about the recent videos of black men dying and dying and dying is the repetition. They all seem familiar—as in: We’ve heard it before, and before, and then well before even that. The scenes splashed across the news have become almost ritualistic, prayerful; they have a narrative potency that seems to move of its own accord, an agency exceeding that of the humans involved, whether police or suspects, victims or bystanders. We all know the words, we all sing along. In North Charleston, South Carolina, the death of Walter Scott began with a litany like so many before it: He reached for my weapon, a struggle ensued, I feared for my life, the weapon discharged. Amen.

The counternarrative, the recall and response, was provided by a passerby who captured the now-viral video of the killing on his cellphone. That, too, was a memory remembered, a chorus we knew before we knew: He was running away. He was shot in the back. He was unarmed. The weapon was planted. Repeat con affetto.

As Baltimore is rocked in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, our collective riot-song has been cranked up to full volume: They’re out of control! They’re wild animals! They’re burning down their own neighborhood! No wonder the police have to kill them! And in complex counterpoint, the dirge of mysterious-death-while-in-custody: No justice, no peace! interlaced with the percussive bass line of A thorough investigation will be undertaken.

Sigmund Freud thought of repetition as a source of the uncanny—something repressed that, when revealed, violates some affective order. As he used the word, “uncanny” meant the feeling of looking at something that is familiar or intimate yet simultaneously new or estranged. He related it to being “robbed of one’s eyes.”

Freddie Gray was arrested, according to police, because they “made eye contact” with him in the suggestive territory of “a known drug area.” Eyes thus caught, he ran. Police gave hot pursuit.

In some instances, the uncanny familiarity may not be lurking too far beneath the surface. In Baltimore, necks have been broken before by the police “rough-riding” arrestees: hog-tying them, putting them in the back of a van with no restraints, then intentionally veering at high speed. At one point it was called screen testing, because it would cause shackled prisoners to smash into the screen dividing the front and back of the van. In 2005, Dondi Johnson Sr. died after such a ride, suffering a catastrophic spinal-cord injury much like Freddie Gray’s. And in 2004, Jeffrey Alston was left paralyzed from the neck down, an injury also sustained in the back of a police van.

Freud’s image of stolen eyes haunts me: The circular looping of belated recognition and regret seems a shared impairment, a kind of socio-visual agnosia.

I made up that term, “socio-visual agnosia.” There is an actual neurological condition called visual agnosia. The patient in Oliver Sacks’ famous essay “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” suffered from it. It’s not a really a vision problem at all, but a neural disorder of perception that produces an inability to recognize objects or faces, or to identify a thing by its shape. So I’m taking a bit of a liberty here, deploying it as a metaphor for our collective hermeneutic disorder. Consider the man who mistook his gun for a Taser.

Robert Bates is the 73-year-old insurance agent whose longtime friend, Stanley Glanz, is the sheriff of Tulsa County, Oklahoma. Bates has paid for vacations for the top brass, as well as equipment for the police department. It seemed only polite to invite him along to test those goodies out. So when an unarmed black man named Eric Harris tried to make a run for it during a thoroughly bungled sting, Robert Bates—thrill-seeking insurance agent, volunteer hanger-on—reached for his Taser and pulled out his gun.

It was an accident, he said. According to the libretto, he was then supposed to sing about it being the worst day of his life. But Bates broke the rhythm of the score by describing it as the second-worst thing that had happened in his life, after suffering cancer. “I’m sorry,” he was recorded saying as he stood over the dying Harris. It was not the worst day of his life.

Pay-to-play has quite a genealogy, from fugitive slave hunts to more recent expeditions. As recently as the 1990s, Jerry Hodge, then vice chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, would invite his pals down to the prison and engage in a longstanding tradition among officials: to wit, a staged hunt of inmates, ostensibly as part of an exercise to train tracking dogs. Hodge and friends would enjoy a nice leisurely lunch, while an inmate, called a “dog boy,” was given a head start of a few hours to crisscross eight square miles of the prison compound. Then the party of official guests “mounted horses, assembled eight or nine dogs and rode off after the designated ‘escapee.’” After the exercise, there was a sumptuous barbecue, and participants received jackets embroidered with the words “The Ultimate Hunt.”

The Ultimate Hunt. It anticipates, it hungers for, it so wants a reality show that should have been. It is as though to fill in that subjunctive mood, perhaps, that, more recently, Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio infamously offered the actor Steven Seagal a tank with which to break up a coven of animal cruelty, a conspiracy of cockfighters, a dangerous den of rioting roosters, the original cage-fighters—right there in Maricopa County. Sheriff Arpaio needed good publicity, it seems. And Seagal had a reality show and a TV crew at hand, which filmed him driving said tank, along with a SWAT team and a bomb-disposal robot, through the front wall of the poultry-harboring residence, crushing the family’s new puppy. The warrior birds were taken into custody and killed.

If you’ve heard about this incident, it was probably because there was much discussion about whether killing the puppy was absolutely necessary. Killing the cocks to save them from cruelty lent a touch of irony to the endeavor.

It is a quandary sometimes, how to save the animals from themselves.

The front page of The New York Times’s April 21, 2015, edition featured a story estimating that approximately 1.5 million black men are absent from daily life in the United States, mostly through incarceration or early death. This has created a lifelong gender gap that is not found among white Americans. These men are “missing,” said the article, invisible and unmourned. This plague of disappearing is a long-term ritual, in a song cycle of eternal return. We know the words. But this perpetual erasure “robs the eyes” of all of us. It blinds our polity. It sacrifices worlds.

Source URL:

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Precision Medicine

The scientific race toward “precision medicine” is shifting the ethical foundations of public health.

Patricia J. Williams April 3, 2015  

For those unaware of how much biotechnology is changing the very nature of human identity, now is the time for a quick game of catch-up.  A good place to start might be Bregtke van der Haak’s documentary film, “DNA Dreams,” at ; It’s about the material resources being expended, globally, upon utopian visions of “curing” just about every social misery through genetic manipulation.   Disease, hunger, stupidity, will be edited out of the genome according to the soaring ambition of some techno-ideologues; whilst harmony, musicality and soaring intellectualism will become the new norm, just by transplanting our mitochondria, editing our nuclei, enhancing our chemistry.  The visuals of the film alone speak volumes:  set mainly against the dystopic, concrete jungle that is Beijing, China, the landscape in and out of the lab is grey with bureaucratic heaviness and the ash of atmospheric pollution, testament to the anthropocene era’s other crises of ecological short-sightedness, of hubris, and of overweening human error.

Of course if you believe that complex traits like intelligence or sociality or political disposition are entirely reducible to immutable genetic functions of memory and executive function, I won’t be able to dissuade you here. So go ahead, find the golden “genetic button” for x, y, or z trait and flip that switch to perfect health, self-control and immortality.  Welcome to Oz.

But if you worry that epigenetics factors like education or diet or or stress or starvation or race or stress in the womb or other environmental factors—like kindness or cruelty–have at least equal claim upon our life prospects, then take a look at a few recent bioethical happenings begging for our collective attention.  The first is the National Institutes of Health’s “precision medicine” initiative “to leverage genomics, informatics, and health information technology to accelerate biomedical discoveries.”   The panel overseeing the project include not only academic researchers but representatives of insurance companies, corporations like Intel and Google, the Defense Department, and a healthy array of venture investment. The goal is to create a “national research cohort of about 1 million people, whose biological data, as well as environmental, lifestyle and behavioral information” is to be shared with researchers.

One obvious question is where they find a million samples. Most of those will come from the data of anyone who’s ever sent in a spit sample to direct-to-consumer kits or ancestry-tracking kits to companies like 23andMe, particularly those who’ve participated in the chat-room conversations hosted by such companies in order to mine your lifestyle choices. If so, you agreed to having your data used for research and development, whether you remember providing specific consent or not. Not that anyone reads the intricate online terms of service for much of anything anymore, but building data sets for experimentation and pharmaceutical development has always been the wealth generator for such companies. (Here’s the link to an earlier column I did on this topic:; and to another in Genewatch magazine, co-authored with Columbia University biologist Robert Pollack: .)

A recent, even more momentous technological development is CRISPR(Cas9), standing for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” a technology that can delete as well as add heritable genetic variants. Worried about Alzheimer’s? Breast cancer? Parkinson’s?  Simply edit it out of your body and/or that of your children’s children.  Don’t like red hair? Short stature? Big nose? Ditto.  Want strong bones? Resistance to heart disease? Oh snap. The process is so simple and low-cost, that, according to Harvard geneticist George Church, it’s “going to get to the point where it’s like you are doing the equivalent of cosmetic surgery.” [1]

There has been little political attention to this. But within the last few weeks, there have been calls from an impressive array of scientists—including even Church and a number of those involved in the discovery of CRISPR, in both Nature and Science Magazines for a moratorium on its use in humans. Some of them have called only for a public conversation; others have called for a global ban, because it effectively allows non-consensual experimentation on future human generations.  But many more see it as an irrefutably good thing.  Says bioethicist John Harris, of Manchester University in the UK, “The human genome is not perfect…It’s ethically imperative to positively support this technology.” While much of the quest for so-called “precision medicine” is being framed as inevitably beneficial, it signals a shift in ethical guidelines that is breathtakingly broad.   As philosopher Nikolas Rose has observed, the very project of medicine seem to have shifted from a metric of health versus disease to one of ever-expanding “perfectibility” of the species itself.

A related concern is that that public health organizations like the NIH, the FDA and the FTC seem increasingly aligned with organizations whose ethics are driven by proprietary interests rather than public health. The structure of labs in today’s world means that individual researchers stand to make billions, through assays and patents.  This is not to blame scientists:  that’s their job, their passion, as well as their profit. They will of course adhere to a model that renders “science” their god, and the mysteries of its unraveling as the highest good.  Knowledge will be pure and will yearn to be “free” as well as “freed.” Nothing will go wrong because their intentions are pure. Don’t you want to cure all human disease! We are not Nazis! We’ll be careful!

But the trouble with profit motive as an ethical framework for human health and heredity is that it deploys a risk-benefit analysis.  It directs our gaze to the brand new! miraculous! happy making! potential of product rather than patient. Corporations are responsible to their stakeholders not to public interest. And if there are risks, they will be downplayed as the lessons of lead or tobacco or coal companies should have taught us. Negative or unintended consequences are more likely to be passed over.  And even where there are “miracle cures,” the benefits of that research will not necessarily be available without price.  Where there is no plan for distributed benefit, we will have what we have:  a system where “perfected” or socially preferred traits will be available only to the highest bidder—to narrow classes of stakeholder, defined by wealth or other privileged access.

The narrowing of ethical concern from human health to products that “fix” or “perfect” means that other aspects of market value drive the pursuit.  What’s going on now is also a rat race to “beat out” others in the charge to the patent office, a lunge to own all parts of the genome, to close down the public commons in the bio-territory of the genome.   Hence, much of this has an urgency to its framing that exploits our anxiety about mortality itself. Hurry up or you’ll die of an ugly disease! And do it so that “we” win the race—for everything’s a race.  A race against time. A race to file patents. A race to market. A race to better babies, better boobs. There is never enough glory or gain, there is always the moving goal post.

Let me be clear:  I am not against research in principle.  I do not even believe that there are necessarily clear boundaries between what we call “natural” artifice, or even human and non-human.  But the human body is a complex system, a biome within biomes.  We are at the very beginning of our appreciation of its genetic as well as cellular, bacterial and viral complexity. We are still only beginning to understand the cascading effect that the stresses, starvations or traumas of one generation can transmit epigenetically to future generations.

From thalidomide to global warming, short-term risk-benefit analyses rather than long-term disinterested methodologies and controlled study have led us down paths of irretrievable harm.  What we have failed to imagine becomes “inconsequential,” swept under the rug as “side” effects, collateral damage, lessons learned rather than lives ruined.  The post-war aversion to eugenics–that despite great variability from one human to another, no one life is worth more than another in the scheme of things–has eroded.  Never have we more needed thoughtful, unrushed and thoroughly democratic models of transparency, public discussion, and distributive justice.

[1] “Engineering the Perfect Baby,” MIT Technology Review, March 5, 2015.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized