Trembling With Thought: Immersed in the world of the former First Lady

review by Patricia J. Williams, Times Literary Supplement, published February 8. 2019



by Michelle Obama

488pp. Viking. £25.

978 0 241 33414 0

US: Crown. $32.50. 978 1 524 76313 8


One of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child [is] – What do you want to be when you grow up?  As if growing up were finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.” This assertion appears on the first page of the former First Lady Michelle Robinson Obama’s new autobiography, and its implicit commitment to life’s infinite possibilities resonates invitingly on every page thereafter. Indeed, Obama’s fidelity to what she calls the “responsibility” of optimism is reflected in the very choice of title: Becoming .

Perhaps we all grow up by learning to be curators of our own dreams. And this is a book about the care and cultivation of the American Dream, in its best sense: the dream of survivors, played forward through generations of their descendants. The myth with which every American child is imbued – that anyone, no matter how humble their origins, can grow up to be President – is a tribute to the tenacious faith-in-a-better-tomorrow of slaves, serfs and victims of pogroms and genocides. The election of Barack Obama was supposed to have been the apotheosis of that dream, the “post-racial” triumph of the Civil Rights movement, in concert with Emma Lazarus’s paean to equality, human rights and mercy, as inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty– “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.

Of course, dreams require a wakeful world in which to be made manifest. And so there is a kind of lurking dread as one reads of Michelle Obama’s donning a floaty gown for the Inaugural Ball, her heart filled with appreciation for the “dreaminess” of her family’s trajectory from a crowded walk-up apartment on Chicago’s South Side to the White House. We know that time has marched on to Donald Trump’s proclaimed nightmare of “American carnage”; and that the generosity of birthright citizenship has been besieged and unbalanced by wildly alienating fears of “alien invasion”.

Perhaps part of the power of Becoming derives from the rueful longing one feels for the Obama administration’s coherence and gravitas – and from the reminder of the sorts of metamorphoses made possible by kindness, inclusivity, good education and good health care for all. This acute sense of then and now inspires reflection on difference, and the meeting of extremes – what the philosopher and man of letters Édouard Glissant might have called a “trembling of thought”: he captured in that phrase an awakened state of vulnerable humanity that “unites us in absolute diversity, in a whirlpool of encounter”. Such thought trembling at this political moment operates like a quiet call to action.

Obama’s meditation on her life is broken into three sections: the first, “Becoming Me”, is about having to engage with the myriad negative messages conveyed to children like her, growing up in a working-class, largely black neighbourhood on the South Side of Chicago. She is in primary school when she observes white neighbours disappearing in droves, moving to suburbs, motivated by the notion that having a black neighbour, no matter how congenial, will “lower the property values”. (The unfortunate demographic transformation known as “white flight”, begun in the 1950s, was underwritten by government banking policies through which white people could get subsidized mortgages to live in leafy, suburban white-only geographies, while black applicants were consigned to “red-lined” “urban jungles” that had been arbitrarily designated “too risky” for loans.) In short order, her neighbourhood becomes an “inner city ghetto”. The precocious Michelle Robinson experiences this most directly as systematic disinvestment in education for children who look like her. “Failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result”, she observes.

Fraser and Marian Robinson, Michelle’s determined parents, fight hard to educate her and her elder brother, Craig. They place a premium on books, piano lessons, gentle self-discipline and orderly comportment in a disordering world. They bypass the strictures of shamefully underfunded neighbourhood schools and, against the odds, place their children in racially integrated, city-wide programmes reserved for “gifted” students (by which is too often simply meant well resourced and privately tutored). Her parents teach her to push past the “perfunctory, patronizing” smiles of guidance counsellors who, with “practiced efficiency”, tell students where they do and do not belong. “I’m not sure”, says one such counsellor, “that you’re Princeton material.” Both Michelle and her brother defy those challenges – despite the price and the constant self-doubts–and graduate from Princeton with flying colours.

She goes on to Harvard Law School and then to work at Sidley Austin, one of the US’s leading law firms, where she meets, mentors and marries the remarkable man who will be President. Having checked off all the boxes of success, and having ambitiously and obediently proved that she is indeed “good enough”, she finally finds time and respite to listen to her own inner desires. And with that, a door opens to an important realization –that, no matter how much she excelled at it, she “hated being a lawyer”.

The next section of the book, “Becoming Us”, reveals the shape-shifting reinventions Michelle Obama undergoes in the early years of her marriage to a man she describes as both the love of her life and her dispositional opposite. Barack Hussein Obama is loose and relaxed, while she adheres to careful planning. She fears the relentlessly unforgiving world of politics as he increasingly throws himself into it. Amid this new configuration of her life she reveals yet more layers of her own complexity: never a static being, she leaves her well-paying law firm to turn to public interest projects, eventually becoming the executive director for community affairs for the University of Chicago Medical Center. She loses her father, becomes a mother, juggles the duties of work and home. She is constantly rethinking, redoing, remapping. She forgives herself as she forgives others. She is generous, nimble, resilient.

In the section entitled “Becoming More”, we are privy to an unprecedented and intimate view of both the hyper-visibility and the secrecy of life in the White House. Obama’s prose up to this point has been graceful, poignant and witty; here it really takes flight. In her tenure as First Lady she must confront the near-superhuman demands and constraints placed on any political spouse –demands and constraints that are, in the Obamas’ case, amplified by their being the first African American First Family. Here we become party to her worry as her daughter Sasha leaves for her first day of school in a government van, “peering through ballistic-proof glass”. We learn in fine detail the toll it takes, living under such scrutiny: of the bullets someone on the street fired into the windows of the West Wing; of living in a house where opening a window for fresh air or venturing outside without overseers, advance approval, and a bevy of handlers, is impossible. She makes us feel the odd sensory deprivation that results from bombproof insulation’s dampening of sound. We learn what it feels like to have one’s person constantly demeaned as too big, too dark or too “mannish”. She learns to handle being simultaneously idolized and disparaged by anonymous “kooks”, not to mention high-ranking members of Congress. “Dignity is a choice”, she declares. Most famously, she resolves that “when they go low, we go high”.

Obama does ponder the long history of racial violence in America and its ongoing eruptions; but for the most part she is remarkably restrained in calling out the retributive voices of right-wingers such as the shock-jock Rush Limbaugh, who continues to intone “I hope Obama fails”, even now. There is circumspection in her words as she struggles to describe the emotional devastation wreaked in 2015 by the white nationalist Dylann Roof, who shot nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston South Carolina, proclaiming as he did so: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go”. What she does not say is that Roof’s murders were committed on the 193rd anniversary of another massacre at the same site: in 1822, white citizens suspected Denmark Vesey, the founding pastor of Emanuel, of planning a slave revolt. As a result of that rumour, Vesey and thirty-five others were hanged and the church burned to the ground. Roof claims to have chosen his mark with that history in mind. Obama also refrains from observing that Roof’s views are echoed to an alarming degree in the discourse of her husband’s successor. Without substantiation, President Trump casts generalized blame on asylum seekers from Latin and Central America for rape, drug trafficking, child smuggling and murder. “These aren’t people”, he has said of undocumented migrants. “These are animals.”

Obama’s composure breaks, however, when she writes of her profound distress at Trump’s insidiously xenophobic and baseless conspiracy theories about her husband: that he was not born in the US, that he was not a citizen but instead a “secret Muslim”, a fifth columnist of Kenyan infiltration. To Trump, she writes, this was a game. “He knew it wasn’t true.” Yet these “loud and reckless innuendos” were “putting my family’s safety at risk. And for this, I’d never forgive him”. It is not lost on her, the fact that, to certain minds, the election of an African American President seemed almost equivalent to a foreign invasion, a radical takeover, a palace coup. No matter how genial, competent or well mannered, “we ourselves are a provocation”. Yet even as she acknowledges that such reactionary resentment is as “old and deep and dangerous as ever”, she never adorns her description of this history with any hint of bitterness. “We lived with it as a family, and we lived with it as a nation. And carried on as gracefully as we could.”

It is in her carrying on that we learn to appreciate the enormous talent for life, justice and joy that characterizes this remarkable woman, amid her teams of guards, servants, secret service, managers of schedules and controllers of information and image. We learn of the care with which she figured out how best to wield the “soft and undefined” yet still extraordinary power that comes with being First Lady: the power to lobby for causes such as better school nutrition or veterans’ benefits. It is here, too, that we learn of how deeply attentive she and her husband are to notions of public service, self-sacrifice and the pursuit of the “collective best” as a balance to individual self-interest. We learn of her pride in the complete absence of scandal during the entire eight years of her husband’s administration. (Indeed, the Obamas paid for all their own expenses while living at the White House, including any food they or their guests ate, personal sundries, and even “every roll of toilet paper”.) She notes that her husband made a point of reading ten citizens’ letters every night from the thousands received; some of them were fan mail, some quite the opposite. “He read all of it, seeing it as part of the responsibility that came with the oath . . . he knew he had an obligation to stay open, to shut nothing out. While the rest of us slept, he took down the fences and let everything inside.” Barack Obama’s understanding of his job, she says, was “to take the chaos and metabolize it somehow into calm leadership”. How she and the President “comported ourselves in the face of instability mattered”: “Part of our role, as we understood it, was to model reason, compassion and consistency”.

It is not until the epilogue that Obama gives her greatest display of resilience. After the emotionally fraught campaign of 2016, and the transfer of power to a man whose political agenda she euphemistically describes as having “caused many Americans to doubt themselves and to doubt and fear one another”, while leaving “vulnerable members of our society exposed and dehumanized”, she returns to the resolute faith that begins with opening the hearts and minds of children, teaching them possibility rather than reinforcing labels such as “ghetto” or “militant”, labels that “foretold failure and then hastened its arrival”. We who are adults, she says, must set the table for our children’s future, and that means providing the instruction in how to believe that there is a future. To her, there is no other choice: “We have to hand them hope. Progress isn’t made through fear . . . . It was possible, I knew, to live on two planes at once – to have one’s feet planted in reality, but pointed in the direction of progress . . . . You got somewhere by building that better reality, if only in your own mind. . . . You may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be”.

Her words contrast with the alarmist hysteria now emanating from the White House. And it is the election of Trump that leads Obama to pose a question that haunts her whole narrative: “What lasts?”

If Obama’s tale is all about becoming, the undercurrent of that tale is one of enduring –at Princeton, in the White House, in America itself – and ultimately the generosity involved in belonging. Hence, she is careful to position her “I” so that it is never far from broad coalitions of “we”. Knowing that her life in politics has made her an attention magnet, she decides that if the media “wanted to follow me, I was going to take them places”. And so she does, directing that attention to the needs of the homeless, the status of military veterans, disability rights and social goodwill: “the gaze belonged here”.

When she visits a girls’ school in London, in 2009, she hugs “every girl I could reach”, acutely aware that she is melding for them “where I came from” with the symbolic power of being First Lady. Such existential complexity is precisely what is missing from Trump’s world view: his static, declarative sentence structure is locked in inherency.  You are what you are. Or else you aren’t. It’s all in the blood. Trump’s uncle taught at MIT; the President has cited this as reason enough to believe in his own “very stable genius”.

By the last chapter of Becoming , one wants to linger among the many affable images of the Obama family with their mutual respect, kindness and general level-headedness. One wants to wallow in descriptions of the floppy bounding of their two large amiable dogs. On finishing I started reading the book again, just to stay muffled a bit longer in its bright and uplifting faith in the world.  The late Amos Oz once recalled the advice given by so many elders, recent refugees from the Second World War, to “enjoy every day because not every child grows up to be a person”. It was, he mused, “probably their way of telling me about the Holocaust or the frame of Jewish history . . . . I wanted to become a book, not a man. The house was full of books written by dead men, and I thought a book may survive”. This passage comes to mind because Michelle Obama’s memoir is threaded through with similar apprehensions of short-livedness; as a child she was sheltered by elders who used African American history both to warn and to inspire. Both Oz and Obama grew up with the mandate to soak in as much knowledge as they could while proceeding with the daily enjoyments of life– card games, shared meals, the company of cousins, books on the walls of small apartments, the reinforcements of love intertwined with sad dark histories.

Becoming provides a kindly disruption to the status quo. As Michelle Obama writes on the very last page, as though it were a threshold to the future:  “Let’s invite one another in”.


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Revisting The Racial Imaginary (Again…)

It’s not funny….


grit my teeth as I sit down to write—yet again!—on the question of blackface. Gucci kicked off Black History Month with the debut of an $890 black balaclava with big, red, knitted lips surrounding the mouth opening. This seemed exceptionally provocative given that Dolce & Gabbana is still apologizing for last year’s “slave sandals,” and the luxury-coat manufacturer Moncler is still making nice after mass-producing a line of clothing emblazoned with loud images of black-faced “golliwogs.” Meanwhile, there’s the viral photo taken at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky showing a crowd of students, some in full black body paint, taunting an African-American basketball player from a visiting team. “School spirit” is how some people described the scene of howling, scowling boys, but to me, they looked nothing less than feral. And let’s not forget that every public figure in the state of Virginia seems to have once played dress-up in blackface, memorialized by the yearbooks of decades past.

As Washington Post critic Robin Givhan has noted, none of these acts were performed by “elementary schoolchildren with a tenuous grasp on American history”—or European colonial history, for that matter. Rather, the perpetrators—teenagers, adults, and full-scale multinational conglomerates—should all have known better. “Whether some sleek photograph in a fashion magazine or a grainy one in an Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, it’s all the same,” Givhan writes. “Blackface gets to the discomforting core of how black people are seen by the broader culture and how some white people see themselves.”

Indeed: What is it that these blackface-donning white people see in themselves? Blackface is widely dismissed by those who perform it as a “joke.” But if it’s humor, it is surely a most aggressive form thereof; there’s also a strong undercurrent of defiance, an anger whose subtext is “Piss off—just try and make me stop.”

It reminds me of a Confederate flag I saw and wrote about some time ago, waving from the back of a jacked-up monster truck. There was an image of a large black assault weapon printed across the flag, and under that the words “Come and get me.” There is a threatening undertone to the gleeful taunting, and in the persistent, insistent claim that blackface is “unintentional” racism.

“For some people,” continues Givhan, “the idea of dressing up in blackface is just another form of drag.” While drag can sometimes be subversive, ironic, liberating, and gender-bending, blackface is more often like a dare, or the defiant smirk of someone who bears you no good will.

As such, blackface operates as a policing of social boundaries. A bit like Halloween or Mardi Gras, it is a form of play that inverts the self, marks the upside down, and points to whatever one is not. Moreover, it resembles certain anthropological or quasi-religious rituals that “call out” or cast curses on the objects of contempt. In other words, blackface gestures at a phenotype that may be mocked; it makes amusing theater of black defilement while passing as “jocular,” white, and mostly male bonding.

Blackface is part of an armamentarium of cultural habits that diminish black bodies as hyperbolically magical, all while signaling that they are dirty, dangerous, and untouchable. My father, who grew up under Jim Crow, used to describe white people rubbing his head for good luck. When I was 3, I remember an elderly white woman giving me a penny because giving one to a “colored child” was like throwing it in a wishing well. To be so relentlessly projected upon is a central feature of existing as a racialized entity.

For generations, soap companies have played on the riff of whether race can be washed off or is a permanent curse; whether it is safe to touch a black person without “the stain” being contagious. The game of blackface, then, seems to operate very similarly to the way that the bestowing of “cooties” works among children: as a cautionary negative, a stigmatizing witch’s wand of potentially pulverizing intensity. Look out, we are warned, for what happens to you when you make contact with that “Negro touch”…

And cooties, like boot polish, are powerful forms of sorcery. As child psychologist Lawrence Hirschfeld has written, they have no particular form or consistent definition, yet they cast spells. They are literal curses, simple but terrifically powerful assignments of social contamination.

Blackface is one of the many ways such social borders are signaled. The magical touch of the untouchable marks insiders from outsiders in political as well as personal ways, giving rise to something like what the philosopher Étienne Balibar calls an “interior border.” Unfortunately, hexing in the name of difference has become a ceaseless feature of our political life: Calling CNN or ABC “enemies of the people,” for example, makes them antagonists within. Equating asylum seekers with murderers, rapists, and drug mules is a way of rendering them contemptible. Even wearing a MAGA cap has become not merely a badge of tribal allegiance but an emblem of proud hostility toward designated “others.”

President Trump has declared his intention to institute a national state of emergency in order to implement the gated world he envisions for our future. But even before we get around to steel walls, this aggressive racial pantomiming and walling-off of worlds has terrible and irrational consequences for us all.

It lends conceptual authority to forms of segregation ranging from redlining to mass incarceration. The casting of curses settles into the bones, a coiled power ready to strike when suddenly unsettled, no longer a joke, no longer a spot of bad judgment, no longer laughable at all.

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We Have Entered A Dangerous Moral Universe

What futures can we imagine when we no longer trust our senses?

friend of mine has a new habit of sighing, “I’m so glad I’m not 10 years old.” It’s an interesting way to express her pessimism: by personifying her angst in the figure of a child. She’s worried about the encroaching climate devastation, the current administration’s relentless denialism of reproducible fact, and our nation’s increasingly exuberant geysers of zealotry. The planet’s increasing numbers of humans aren’t helping her peace of mind, either: They’re charted to spike to 11 billion by 2100—before which time toxic air may be suffocating us into extinction anyway.

I try to resist giving in to dark imaginings, but I share her dread. I don’t know what to do; I am sometimes unable to trust even my own senses. One of the peculiar responses to the proliferation of plundered forests, rising seas, authoritarianism, trolls, bots, dark money, and the politics of what The Washington Post has engagingly labeled “bottomless Pinocchios” is that there are moments when I feel as though I’m dreaming. I don’t trust anything.

Here’s a silly example: Recently, I went to a restaurant and ordered haddock. I was served what appeared to be a nice rosy slab of grilled salmon. “This isn’t haddock,” I said. “Yes, it is,” said the waitress. But it was late, and the kitchen was closing, so I decided to be grateful for whatever it was.

“How was your haddock?” the waitress asked later as she cleared my table. I faltered: Should I not notice that I’d been invited into a continuing lie? Or maybe it was some genetically altered version of a haddock, one whose normally flaky white flesh now comes in thick pink steaks. I’ve fished for haddock and gutted haddock—and I’ve done the same with salmon. I know the appearance, the taste, the difference. And yet… I doubted myself.

Our political moment is as Orwellian as that fish. Everything I thought I knew—as a lawyer, a citizen, a native speaker of English—has been challenged.

Yesterday, my friend sighed about being a hypothetical child again, but this time her resignation hit harder. I had just heard about the death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old Mayan girl who was fleeing Guatemala with her father, and who died while in the custody of the US Border Patrol. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen expressed sympathy over Jakelin’s death, but faulted her family. “This family chose to cross illegally,” Nielsen said on Fox and Friends.

The language of consumption preference is a semantic tic in the Trump administration, with agency heads styling unspeakable cruelty as a “disincentive” for those who “choose” to flee life-threatening conditions. “Choice” imputes blame; it shifts the burden of responsibility and effectively criminalizes the process of asylum-seeking.

We have entered a dangerous moral universe. It reminds me of the notorious “Collateral Murder” video released by WikiLeaks in 2010, which showed US helicopters gunning down a small group of people walking on a street in Baghdad. At least a dozen people, including civilians and two journalists, were killed, and two young children were seriously wounded. A voice in the helicopter can be heard saying, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” A second voice responds: “That’s right.”

War turns meaning upside down. In a 2007 interview with author David Finkel, Gen. David Petraeus said of the American soldiers killed in Iraq: “The truth is you never get used to losses…. But if you have some good days, it sort of drains away.”

My inner 10-year-old does not want to get “used to losses.” Indeed, the refusal to do so is the very claim that has been made, under “public trust” doctrine, in the pending federal-court case of Juliana v. the United States. The plaintiffs are 21 children ranging from 11 to 22 years old, and they have alleged that the destruction of the earth’s atmosphere is a violation of substantive due process and equal protection, because it threatens their very future. The rest of us, meanwhile, seem to have forgotten that government should inspire public trust.

Surely this determined sense of a right to exist is the same commitment that Jakelin’s father felt as he fled the legacy of a civil war specifically targeting Mayan populations in Guatemala. Surely this insistence on the right to be is what also drives the stateless millions around the globe fleeing displacement by war, toxins, climate change, flood, famine, and drought.

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Kavanaugh’s Defenders in Congress Don’t Care About Process

The hearings reveal disparities in who gets to speak out—and who must remain silent.



Listening to news reports over the last weeks, I have felt sadness and a deep sense of the absurd. As 1,600 migrant children were quietly transferred under cover of darkness to tent cities in the desert, I watched reports in which Donald Trump defended Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh by comparing him to George Washington—who, the president asserted, might also “have a couple of things in his past.” The next clip on the newsfeed was titled “Seal slaps man with octopus.” Somehow, the juxtaposition seemed apt.

The Kavanaugh hearing has become a spectacle blocking all other light. The nation stopped and fell silent during Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony because it raised existential questions about the norms of teenage behavior, about class difference, and about the disproportionate power over women’s bodies wielded in clubby circles of privilege. Likewise, Kavanaugh’s own testimony provoked questions about men’s and women’s comparative expectations for self-composure; what it signals when men cry; and, most of all, what it means when a judicial candidate expresses explicitly partisan rage against “revenge”-seeking Democrats, “outside left-wing opposition groups,” and those acting “on behalf of the Clintons.”

After each day of the hearings, I rode the bus home. For a hundred blocks, I overheard New Yorkers discussing the spectacle: teenage girls comparing their so-unhappy experiences at parties with drunken classmates; a conversation in Spanish about what Kavanaugh might rule if he were considering the indefinite detention of children; a pair of black mothers marveling at a country-club lifestyle in which “boys would be boys” without fear of police officers crashing the good times; three law students snorting at what they called Kavanaugh’s “originalist” meanings of “boof” and “devil’s triangle”; an elderly couple recalling that Strom Thurmond had waxed “quite righteously” during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991, but that only after Thurmond’s death did it come out that he had fathered a child by his family’s 16-year-old black maid. “Wouldn’t that be statutory rape in today’s world?” asked the wife. “Not to mention child labor,” fretted the husband.

Over the noise, I have been struck by the significant silences about procedural structure. Much has been made of the fact that this is a “job interview, not a trial,” where the formal or usual courtroom rules would apply. Fair enough—but Senate committees still have power as deliberative bodies charged with ensuring that judicial codes of ethics will be followed.

Yet when Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana was asked what criteria he would use to evaluate Blasey Ford’s credibility, he responded, “That’s like asking me to explain the Holy Spirit.” It was a response that underscored the utter lack of a standard of proof by which the committee seemed to be proceeding.

The Republican majority on the committee has displayed a peculiar resistance to a clear process. In their refusal to allow more facts and voices to be introduced, they effectively imposed a binary structure of “he said/she said.” Needless to say, it’s harder to prove any case if you cut out and thereby silence the potential corroboration of other witnesses.

Moreover, in hiring Maricopa County prosecutor Rachel Mitchell to question Blasey Ford, the GOP committee members literally used a female body to shield themselves from “looking” insensitive and overbearingly male. In relentlessly pitching Mitchell as a “sex-crimes prosecutor,” they misleadingly hinted at the sort of process due in a full-fledged criminal trial. They did not mention that this would have required a more extensive investigation, including questioning material witnesses like Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge.

At the final hearing, Kavanaugh complained—loudly—that “advice and consent” is being turned into “search and destroy.” It’s a catchy line, delivered with the zingy precision of a spitball in a high-school classroom. But “advice and consent” is a process: the constitutional mechanism designed precisely to inquire into and screen out judicial distemper. That senatorial duty doesn’t constitute a “calculated and orchestrated political hit” job, as Kavanaugh fumed.

As Senators Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham shouted at Democrats for supposedly rendering the proceedings a “sham,” I was struck by how their high-volume unruliness contrasted with the hearings for Jeff Sessions’s nomination as attorney general in 2017. Back then, Senator Elizabeth Warren attempted to read a 1986 letter into the record from the late Coretta Scott King, who had asserted that Sessions lacked “temperament, fairness and judgment.” Senator Steve Daines of Montana cut her off. “I’m simply reading what [King] wrote about what the nomination of Sessions to be a federal-court judge meant, and what it would mean in history, for her,” Warren said. “You stated that a sitting senator is a disgrace to the Department of Justice,” he replied.

Daines and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell formally censured Warren under Rule XIX: “No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator…any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”

There is such irony in this double standard about who may speak, who can shout, who has license to call out bias or an aggressive disposition in whom. Blasey Ford alleged that Kavanaugh’s laughter was the most searing element of their encounter. At least as troubling is her allegation that she endured that mirth with his hand clamped over her mouth. That violent image of silencing will live on as a chilling metaphor for all the other interests at stake in decisions over who will be granted hearing—and who left to suffer without.

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Reasons to Believe

10 ways to respond to Brett Kavanaugh’s defenders.


These arguments are specious. I have condensed them into 10 talking points, followed by some well-worn responses that I had the foresight to store in a time machine some 27 years ago, when Clarence Thomas was questioned over Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment.

1. ”Look at all the good stuff he’s done; he’s an altar boy and a scout.”Many people who do good stuff also commit terrible wrongs; the question is whether the accused did what his accuser said he did. Have we learned nothing from Larry Nassar and Jerry Sandusky, both of whom were popular sports figures and child molesters at the same time? When actions in one sphere, or appearances like beauty or class or race or the number of advanced degrees, become ciphers for embodied goodness or badness, we are in the slippery realm of profiling and prejudice.

2. She’s the only one coming forward. If he’d really done it, there would be others.” How many do there have to be? A second woman, Deborah Ramirez, now says Kavanaugh thrust his penis in her face during their time at Yale. But the point is not whether Kavanaugh did another thing at some other time and place. The idea that assault doesn’t count unless it comes in multiples is logic akin to a dog being granted “one free bite.” As the woman who was raped by Stanford University student Brock Turner wrote: “We should not create a culture that suggests [rapists] learn that rape is wrong through trial and error.” Nor should we forget the lessons of Anita Hill’s experience: It is very hard for witnesses to come forward and present themselves publicly—and even globally—to discuss such intimate and humiliating experiences.

3. ”It was 36 years ago. After so much time, she’s still stuck on that?” Funny that, how trauma and PTSD linger so annoyingly, long after the party’s over

4. It wasn’t intercourse; it was just a touch.” Ms. Blasey Ford did not allege that she was penetrated. She alleged attempted intercourse—attempted rape by any other name. The common-law definition of battery is harmful or offensive nonconsensual contact with another’s person. Surely Blasey Ford’s allegations constitute “just a touch” of that.

5. What boy hasn’t done this in high school? You can’t judge a man’s character based on what he did at 17!” Many boys endure surges of testosterone; most retire to their bedrooms, rather than assaulting girls, to relieve themselves. And while, as a legal matter, the lack of a fully developed frontal cortex may indeed mitigate some punishments, it doesn’t excuse a person’s actions outright. It is simply not true that every high-school boy does what Kavanaugh is alleged to have done; nor is every wayward teenager the beneficiary of such “boys will be boys” excuses for their bad behavior. When the probation officer in Turner’s case cited his having had to give up a “hard-earned swimming scholarship” as a reason for mitigation, his victim’s response was apt: “If I had been sexually assaulted by an unathletic guy from a community college, what would his sentence be?”

6. ”The allegations against Brett Kavanaugh are ‘destroying his life.’” It hovers somewhere between privileged arrogance and outright gangsterism to assert that allegations of urgent public interest shouldn’t be put forward if the other party will lose face. If we are to have deliberative fact-finding bodies as part of our governance, it is both cynical and corrosive to dismiss those processes out of hand as “lynchings,” “witch hunts,” or “mob rule.”

7. ”If it were true, she would have said something sooner.” There are many reasons that victims of sexual assault find it difficult to speak, not just “sooner” but at all. Indeed, the very power of #MeToo is precisely the accumulation of narratives whose telling provides courage as well as corroboration, and without which individual stories might never be connected to others in bringing about broader notions of justice.

9. ”An investigation wouldn’t help because it doesn’t matter what anyone else has to say.” This is a particularly cynical form of closed-mindedness, a seeming commitment to a framing of “he said/she said” even when testimonial, forensic, or other kinds of evidence might be brought to bear. It’s an ultra-libertarian way of saying “I don’t care,” a doctrinally rigid manner of asserting “My mind is already made up.”

10. ”Who are we to judge?” Who, indeed. “We” are “the people.” And in the present circumstance, it is precisely our democratic duty, and that of our elected representatives, to hold to the highest account—to judge—those who would judge us.

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How Not To: ‘White Voice,’ Blackface, and the Ethics of Representation

When is it fair to speak with someone else’s voice?

The Nation Magazine, September 10-17, 2018

In Boots Riley’s new film Sorry to Bother You, Cassius, the movie’s black protagonist, struggles to make a living as a call-center salesman. An older, more experienced black colleague named Langston comes to his rescue: “Use your white voice,” he advises. As K. Austin Collins noted recently in Vanity Fair, “The white voice is a fantasy of whiteness, as Langston explains it; even white people don’t really live up to it…. It’s what success sounds like—with the added implication that when it comes to race, success is not meted out equally.”

Indeed: Some years ago, I lost the audition to record the version of one of my own books. A talented professional actress won the role of speaking me. She did a fine job, and her delivery was probably much better than mine—although I had to learn to hear myself in her, and to own this rendering of my words. Later, I was told that the reason I failed the audition was that my voice “did not sound black enough.”

The rub, in both scenarios, is between the “sound of success” and stereotyped accents of woe; between the plain meaning of a message and the social context that renders its messenger credible, or incredible. Who is empowered to say what about whom? That question is at the heart of many recent debates about the uses of “white voice,” “brown voice,” “blackface,” transgender casting, minstrelsy, mockery, and the complexities of appropriation. The politics of representation are never easy. “Pussy” can be a cat in Britain, a hat in New York, a satirical Riot in Russia, and a vagina in the mind of Donald Trump. It all depends on context, intent, history, time, place, and diction.

Trump impersonated a call-center worker during a 2016 campaign rally. Transliteration is dangerous, but it sounded something like “we yahr frum Indy-yah.” The “joke” was prelude to his expressing disgust at the worker’s not being American by abruptly hanging up the phone. Trump was speaking in a voice he disowned in order to mark racial and ethnic difference as contemptible; that’s why it was hurtful.

By contrast, in Sorry to Bother You, identical ideas are heard as not-identical when spoken in a white rather than a black accent. Cassius used a voice that was not “his own” to mock illogical assumptions of racial difference. That made it fair game.

At another rally, Trump delivered a ham-fisted “Asian” accent to ventriloquize Chinese and Japanese businessmen (“We want deal!”). A self-described “Asian guy” then wrote on Twitter that he wasn’t offended because “I mimic southern hicks [in the US] all the tiimmmeeeee.” The self-serving disingenuousness of such a tit-for-tat misses the point: It’s not about political correctness, or freedom of speech, but that “the voice” is a crude reduction designed to diminish anything substantive said by “hicks” and greedy Asian businessmen alike. The implication of this type of speech is that we don’t have to listen to someone who is nothing more than a funny accent.

The deeper ethical dimension of this argument centers on the use of metaphor. Metaphors allow us to give form to a phenomenon by invoking a likeness as it appears to us. They inevitably reveal our inner sorting mechanisms: Recently, I heard a man call to his small dog, “Come here, Mommy!”

What attributes does he assign to dogs and/or mothers in joining them taxonomically? How does such joinder affect his behavior toward either?

Metaphor, catachresis, anthropomorphosis, code-switching, “passing,” inflection, speaking in a different voice, satire—these all refract versions of what we receive as truth. It follows that the relentless typecasting of underrepresented religions, cultures, or ethnicities—i.e., populations generally unable to present themselves in mass media—keeps us stupidly naive. Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem With Apu makes this point brilliantly by examining the intent, connotation, and effect of Hank Azaria’s “brown voicing” of Apu, The Simpsons’ most prominent South Asian character.

Everyone on The Simpsons is a caricature: bratty kids, deadbeat dads, mad scientists, stupid teachers, and so on. But the problem with Apu is that he’s a meta-caricature: an animation of white Americans performing what they imagine South Asians to be. Apu is little more than the avatar of a specific team of white television writers and producers carelessly and inaccurately mouthing how they think Indians speak—despite more than two decades of complaints from actual Indian Americans and South Asians who get bullied with Apu-isms every day, and who resent relentless requests to “do the accent.” Kondabolu repeatedly points out the faulty syllogism: In The Simpsons, Apu is the singularized cultural representation of his parents—but his complex, plural parents are not Apu.

Kondabolu’s film looks at the wider social injury of various forms of minstrelsy that are too often romanticized as “funny” or “exotic” or “typical” of “them” and “their culture.” On-screen and off, the show’s producers grow anxious when Kondabolu explains the lived consequences of their misrepresenting Indian-American experience with no humanizing countercurrent. Over and over, they question whether criticism of Apu means that they can never use accents or speak for another.

Yet humor without wholesale misrepresentation or diminishment is not impossible. What it does require are thought and research, as well as a disciplined refusal to crudely generalize. If we can’t see that Apu is a projection of white self-regard and not a “real Indian,” then we probably won’t ever grasp the insidious irony of Donald Trump blackfacing and brown-voicing the world beyond our borders, while White House–voicing—and thereby legitimizing—Alex Jones, David Duke, and possibly Vladimir Putin. When comedic reductionism becomes (sur)realpolitik, it is no longer just minstrelsy; it is disenfranchisement. We cakewalk to the polls.

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Bad Blood

by Patricia J. Williams
The Times Literary Supplement, July 20, 2018, No 6016,

“The Beautiful Baby Competition” by Frank Brangwyn (1867–1956)
© Bonhams, London/Bridgeman Images
Molly Ladd-Taylor
Scott W. Stern
“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”, said Donald Trump of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, as he launched his election campaign in 2015. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he later asked, as President, referring to immigrants from Haiti and the African continent. In a tweet last month, while rationalizing policies that segregate, imprison and summarily deport asylum seekers, he framed the problem as one of outright pestilence: “Democrats . . . don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants . . . to pour in and infest our country”. And Trump’s nativism is not unique among powerful American politicians: the House Speaker, Paul Ryan, has urged “higher birth rates in this country” as a way of boosting the economy. As the immigration attorney Matt Cameron wrote in a recent issue of the Baffler: “[Ryan] did this within weeks of backing massive legislative cuts to legal immigration rates and passively blocking a legislative solution to the DREAM Act that would have ensured the lives and futures of more than one million young aspiring Americans who happened to have been born in the wrong kinds of countries to the wrong kinds of parents”.
The overtly eugenic populism that has resurged in the United States recently has been shocking to some (if not enough): Lock ’em upClean ’em out. Not our children. Build that wall. The Justice Department has for some time been not only deporting but criminalizing asylum seekers, penalizing the poor and stateless merely for seeking entry to the US. Most notoriously, the government has been taking children away from their families as penalty for that supposed crime. Before Trump ordered such separations to stop, the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, suggested that child removal would “disincentivize” others from coming. Under this programme, even infants and toddlers have been shipped thousands of miles away from their parents, to often untraceable destinations all over the continent. Some children have ended up in crowded cages and warehouses on abandoned army bases. Some of their identities have been lost in the process, so that they might never be reunited with their desperate parents. And, as Cameron sums it up, “we arrive now at this new border, a place that any person of conscience must recognize as a point of no moral return. A country that would not only rip children from the arms of their parents, but then intentionally orphan and exile them just to ‘send a message’, risks not only losing them, but itself”.
But if some contemporary US policies seem uniquely inhumane, it is important to recognize how many of them have direct historical precedent. It’s perhaps easy to see in the logic of America’s mass incarceration, or its so-called “school-to-prison pipeline”, or the internment camps where ethnic Japanese citizens were confined during the Second World War, or the enduring scar of slave auctions by which familial relationships were rendered irrelevant as children were snatched from their mothers and sold as chattel. Less well remembered, however, is the Progressive Era’s embrace of social Darwinism – a pseudoscience popular in Britain and Europe as well, but which, in America, came together as a powerfully institutionalized set of laws and enforcement mechanisms premissed on a mixture of misogyny, class bias, race panic and anti-immigrant resentment. It was during this period, from the late 1800s through to the first half of the twentieth century, that New York’s infamous Eugenics Records Office was formed to issue “pedigrees” of Nordic purity. This was the era of the Social Hygiene movement, which justified moral purges, intimate oversight of poor women’s reproductive choices, separation of children from parents, mass sterilizations, and the indefinite detention of those deemed “unfit”. This, too, was a time when the “American Plan” for eugenic manipulation flourished and grew – and which, when studied and implemented by Nazi Germany, morphed into the Final Solution.
This long-ignored history is the subject of Molly Ladd-Taylor’s Fixing the Poor: Eugenic sterilization and child welfare in the twentieth century, which studies the impact of efforts to “contain” and distinguish the variously and often incoherently defined problems of “delinquency”, “immorality”, “imbecility”, “waywardness” and “feeblemindedness”. Poor people, particularly women and girls, were suspected disproportionately of being the source of such conditions. Ideologically, “treatment” was framed as an issue of public health, but Ladd-Taylor shows that an even greater concern was sparing the public purse. Thus, sorting the “deserving” from the “undeserving” poor became a primary metric in deciding quarantine, steril­ization, education, or release. Venereal disease, prostitution and mental disability were seen not only as social contagions but also as biologically incorrigible, genetic, innate. “Pauperism” became an economic disease, a parasite on the public dole and a burden on taxpayers; its elimination was paramount.
Ladd-Taylor literally follows the money that underwrote hospitals, prisons and special schools, using the state of Minnesota as an exemplar. There, as in many states, public policy was driven to a great degree by per­ceptions of economic class as embodied. Thus, middle-class youths were often privileged as “too independent” and therefore in need of more home-training, more moral uplift, firmer parental intervention. Indeed, “delinquency” became normalized as a stage of white middle-class boys’ development. They needed “guidance, not strict punishment”, according to one judge quoted by Ladd-Taylor, because such boys had energy, initiative and “are the ones who, under proper conditions, make the very best citizens”. This belief grew out of the common law tradition of seeing the state as protector, underpinned by depictions of the juvenile court judge as a “wise and kind father”.
In contrast, the working class and very poor were treated as inherently dependent on state resources – destined for eternal pauperism, in other words. These latter became ciphers for contagion, carriers of corruption, and therefore in need of confinement. The distinction between the deserving and the undeserving rested on quite explicit assumptions of heritable worth: at one end, “innocent” delinquents needed more care and support; at the other, “dangerous” defectives warranted strict control for fear of their contaminating others and multiplying. Families were torn apart in this sorting process: those children deemed “in suitable condition of body and mind to receive instruction” were housed in institutions such as the State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children in Owatonna, Minnesota, until they could be “placed out to work or adopted”. In the mid-1880s, the school’s superintendent, Galen A. Merrill, rationalized: “There are parents who are not worthy to rear citizens of this republic”.
A second book, The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, surveillance, and the decades-long government plan to imprison “promiscuous” women by Scott W. Stern, looks at the same set of laws during more or less the same time frame, but through the particular experience of Nina McCall, one of many white working-class teenagers swept up by the state of Michigan’s over-zealous morality police, and whose life was upended by the ensuing nightmare. Suspected of having venereal disease seemingly for no reason other than her having been observed unaccompanied on a trip to the Post Office, McCall was, in 1918, detained for months without any semblance of due process. She lost her job and her reputation and became estranged from her family. Her vagina was probed endlessly and her body injected with mercury and arsenic, all in the name of “cure”. The relentless prodding of “suspected” young women was not accompanied by anything like scientific rigour, consistency of observation, accuracy of record-keeping, or coherence of diagnosis. McCall, once forcibly tested, was arrested based on a supposed diagnosis of syphilis, but ended up being given anti-gonorrhoeal medications.  What makes McCall unusual among the many tens of thousands of American girls also targeted is that she sued the state. It took two years for her to be partially vindicated by the Michigan Supreme Court, which recognized her right to a trial, and even so her small victory did not slow the ideological diffusion of the American Plan for moral purge. (Tellingly, the court only ruled that McCall’s detainment was unlawful because the grounds for suspecting her of infection were a little too weak.) McCall’s story is captivating as pure biography, but it is all the more remarkable documentarily: it stands as one of the few formal challenges to these laws, and one of the very few whose heart-wrenching traces were captured in a trial record.
The American Plan (not to be confused with the anti-union movement of the same name) was a programme designed to control sexually transmitted disease. It was different from the earlier French Plan instituted by Napoleon, which sought to confine prostitution by semi-legalizing it. Known as “regulationism”, the French system required sex workers to register, submit to regular genital inspections, and confine their activities to particular (red light) districts. In contrast, the American Plan never completely bought the idea of prostitution as something that could or ought to be regulated; true to its more Puritan legacy, the US set about trying to eliminate “immorality” by outlawing it. Unsurprisingly, therefore, public governance tended to treat prostitution not merely as a moral failure but as a criminal act. “Waywardness” in a woman was deemed not only a product of socialization, but reflective of innate mental deficits associated with “imbecility” or “feeblemindedness”. Anti-corruption squads composed of police, sheriffs, social workers and religious leaders, combed the streets of cities and small towns, detaining women and girls en masse and conducting crude genital probes. And it did not necessarily matter whether these “tests” resulted in diagnosis of any sort, for the conduct of these righteous teams was itself often corrupted by greed, reputational gossip, and stereotype: black and immigrant women were presumed to be looser in their conduct. Poor women could be labelled promiscuous if they merely seemed so to a detention officer. A neighbour with a grudge could call the vice squad. In addition, police received bonuses in line with the number of arrests and detentions, and policies could be touted as “successful” based on volume alone. Although the Reagan revolution is remembered for its racialized nomination of “welfare queens” and “the undeserving poor”, these too are concepts that date back to the Progressive Era.
The cruelties as well as the efficiencies underwriting this system were at least partly the legacy of practices endured by slaves in the South and indentured servants in the urban North. During nineteenth-century slave auctions women, and men, were often stripped for display, their genitals publicly inspected for signs of disease, their personalities rated for docility and passive obedience. And, given popular medical theories of the time that African and “inferior” breeds were impervious to the normal limits of pain, the bodies of black slave women and Irish immigrants disproportionately served as the experimental playground for doctors perfecting early gynaecological methods and surgical sterilization. (Those looking for detailed accounts of this might turn to Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid: The dark history of medical experimentation on black Americans from colonial times to the present, 2006, and Deidre Cooper Owens’s Medical Bondage:Race, gender, and the origin of American gynecology, 2017.)
During the Progressive Era a new kind of bureaucratic order began to have appeal. The passion for too-neat typologies advanced by some natural historians and scientists – “Conceive for a moment”, Louis Agassiz wrote in a letter in 1863, “the difference it would make in future ages . . . if instead of the manly population descended from cognate nations, the United States should hereafter be inhabited by the effeminate progeny of mixed races, half indian, half negro, sprinkled with white blood . . . . I shudder at the consequences” – became crossed with the pleasing pseudo-mathematical balance sheets of actuarialism. In 1906, the Race Betterment Foundation was established in Battle Creek, Michigan, by John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of the corn flake and a tireless polemicist for the “purity of the gene pool”. An advocate of sexual abstinence, he campaigned against masturbation as well as racial miscegenation. His foundation became an influential force in advancing theories about the evils of sex unless it were seed sown in the “proper” advancement of racial hygiene and superior “pedigree”. His foundation sponsored many of the eugenic fairs and congresses that flourished during this period, including Fitter Family and Better Baby competitions. Around the same time, the biologist Charles Davenport founded the American Breeder’s Association, whose mission was to spread the alarm about “the menace to society of inferior blood”. Davenport, who supported ster­ili­zation of “unfit” human “stock” as well as restrictions on immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, went on to establish the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, which became the enduring centre of the American eugenics movement. (Over the past half-century, the laboratory has distanced itself from those origins, becoming better known as the intellectual home of Barbara McClintock, James Watson, Francis Crick, Carol Greider and others, and for their work in molecular genetics, cancer research and the discovery of telomeres. Nevertheless, the archives of the American Eugenics Movement are still housed there, and may be studied at Davenport also believed, Ladd-Taylor points out, that Mendel’s theory of inheritance in simple organisms such as pea plants could be flatly applied to traits in human populations. He thought, wrongly, that a complex range of conditions – in those days, labelled variously as idiocy, imbecility, defectiveness and degeneracy – resulted from a single trait that could be reliably predicted by dominant and recessive patterns of transmission. This mistake was used to justify sterilization, institutionalization and segregation of “fertile feebleminded” women during childbearing years.
In 1911, John D. Rockefeller, Jr created the Bureau of Social Hygiene to counter (largely baseless) public fears of “white slavery”. In the name of science, he funded a laboratory in the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford, dedicated to eugenic propositions. Women “adrift” could be rounded up, quarantined and subjected to tests not only designed to ferret out venereal disease, but to sort the subjects by IQ, degree of “degenerate” disposition, and purported educability in the arts of housekeeping. Those deemed “incorrigible” or “feebleminded” might face life imprisonment; those deemed more responsive to supervised intervention and schedules of reform might eventually be hired out as domestic servants, seamstresses, or laundresses. There were institutional distinctions among homes for the feeble-minded, detention centres, reformatories and jails. Meanwhile, the application of Mendelianism to human reproduction soon became overlaid with statistical modelling. In 1877, the prison reformer Richard Dugdale had done a study entitled “The Jukes: A study in crime, pauperism, disease and heredity”, covering seven generations of “debauchery” and “degeneracy” among a rural family living in upstate New York. In 1915, this report was rewritten by Arthur H. Estabrook, who was funded by the Eugenics Record Office to foreground the role of pure heredity. This latter version made the Jukes iconic in the public imagination, Ladd-Taylor says, as “an inbreeding rural family too lazy to look for work and living in a hovel [and who] epitomized the supposed innate unfitness of poor ‘white trash’”. While Dugdale himself had urged that improved social environment was central to “fixing” such people, the practical impact of Estabrook’s take was more sinister: it frightened the public sufficiently to spawn a movement that placed great emphasis on heritability of moral and mental weakness. Fixing the Poor clearly documents how this led to broad justifications for sterilization programmes.
Under the American Plan, degeneracy was also a matter of youth, aesthetic appearance and “obvious” abnormality. Children as young as eleven, including those who had been abused or the victims of incest, could be carelessly labelled “incorrigible” if they looked “slovenly”, and quarantined or scheduled for tubal ligation. And as Susan Schweik has shown in her masterly study The Ugly Laws: Disability in public (2010), many states were also passing ordinances during the Progressive Era limiting the ability of people deemed unpleasant-looking to move about in public without licences. The limping, burnt, or blind, polio sufferers, those with shrivelled limbs, conspicuous birthmarks or speech impediments – all might be banned not only from begging but from conspicuous “display” of themselves in public. Appearance alone became a measure of how much these subjects might be able to seek employment, pursue a career, appeal to human empathy, or ask for alms. This exacting scrutiny, the measurement of brows, of jaw, of width of noses and distance between eyes, became a literal blood sport, a phrenology of racial and class supremacy. Meanwhile, the capacious label of “feebleminded” increasingly led to diminutions of respect for the personhood of those so branded. They became the to-be-controlled, incapable of “real” or human feeling, future-less yet “insatiably” needy. Both Fixing the Poor and The Trials of Nina McCall are filled with quotes from legislators, lawyers, doctors and religious crusaders that compare victims caught in this system to “vegetables”, empty vessels and the walking dead. As Stern points out, and Ladd-Taylor would agree, “feeblemindedness was more than just a mental condition; it was an indicator of morality”. Thus, it was linked inextricably to the undermining of “our civilization”.
Yet the seeming haphazardness of cate­g­or­ization disguises the degree to which the American Plan was indeed a plan: and one of its features was precisely decentralization. As Nina McCall’s story illustrates, it was a system encouraged by the federal government, but whose administration was pretty much left to individual states, where standards were both varied and incoherently pursued. Thus, overall statistics remain difficult to gather. Local administrators were granted wide discretion, making it hard to hold any given person or locality accountable for mistreatment or even death.
The goal of suppressing the fecundity of the “unfit” was further enabled by increasingly survivable forms of surgical sterilization. The first eugenic sterilization law was proposed in Michigan in 1897, and the first passed in Indiana in 1907. The Eugenics Record Office produced a Model Law that was enacted by a number of states, and by around 1918, American physicians had, according to Stern, started to see sterilization “as the most effective way of combating race degeneracy”. In 1927, that Model Law, as enacted by the state of Virginia, was tested before the Supreme Court, by the claim of Carrie Buck, an eighteen-year-old girl being held as “incorrigible” at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. Buck protested against involuntary sterilization on the grounds that it violated equal protection laws as well as her right to bodily integrity. She lost. In an infamous opinion (cited years later by Nazi doctors in their defence statements at the Nuremberg trials), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind . . . . Three generations of imbeciles is enough” (Buck vs Bell, 1927). For years after the ruling, the numbers of forced salpingectomies – by which the Fallopian tubes are entirely removed – climbed, while the standards of review fell. And in 1941, a new federal agency was created, the Social Protection Division. Its mission, Stern explains, was to “persuade local officials to enforce their own laws” to stamp out social disease. In 1946, Dwight Eisenhower, while Chief of Army Staff, endorsed a federal bill (ultimately not passed) that would have extended quarantine and prosecutions under the American Plan, further lowering the standard by replacing the words “infected persons” with persons “reasonably suspected of being infected”.
The fear of poor, dissolute and particularly of mulatta women who might “pass” as white and contaminate “pure” blood lines by infecting white men, meanwhile, became a quieter form of institutional disciplining. The Trials of Nina McCall documents efforts, during the First World War, to regulate and repress not only brothels near army bases, but to stop white soldiers from visiting black neighbourhoods as a way of preventing them from having any contact at all with black women, deemed “inevitably” promiscuous. And during the Second World War, the American Plan was applied in ways that reveal gross racial disparities. Prostitution was assumed if a white woman was merely in the presence of a black man, or, in one case, because she had been “seen repeatedly in a restaurant favored by Filipinos”. Indeed, while the data cited in both books primarily concern the mistreatment of white girls and women, the majority of women negatively affected by the American Plan were women of colour – particularly black, Chinese and indigenous. Those women’s fates are less well documented, but there are clear con­nections among perceptions of white female fragility, black contagion and the need for intervention. As the Surgeon General, Thomas Parran, opined in the 1940s, it is not the black person’s “fault” that syphilis is

  • biologically different in [the Negro] than in the white; that his blood vessels are particularly susceptible so that late syphilis brings with it crippling circulatory diseases, cuts his working usefulness in half, and makes him [an] unemployable burden upon the community in the last years of his shortened life. It is through no fault of hers that the colored woman remains infectious two and one-half times as long as the white woman.
Stern reminds readers that even as these words were being uttered, the US was still conducting the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis study of 1932–72, in which the “natural” progress of syphilis in the bodies of 622 disenfranchised black men in Alabama was observed by the United States Public Health Service, with all treatment withheld even after penicillin was discovered. The men were told only that they had “bad blood”. (To add insult to injury, they were offered free burial insurance in exchange for participation.) Civil rights debates, too, often reverted to discussions of the sexual risks of integration, says Stern: “After the 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education, an organization called Separate Schools denounced the black community as ‘a vast reservoir of infectious venereal diseases’ . . . . When black female citizens in Birmingham, Alabama, tried to register to vote, they were sometimes asked if they had STIs”.
Come 1963, there were official records of 63,678 sterilizations having been performed under the US sterilization laws, although actual, unrecorded numbers are likely to have been far higher. By this time the use of penicillin was changing much, if not everything. The last vestiges of federal co-ordination for the American Plan melted away, leaving individual states as the unguided, inconsistent and sometimes extreme enforcers of social values; in addition, the nascent women’s movement began to challenge norms of sexual morality. Still, both Stern and Ladd-Taylor cite instances where the invocation of the American Plan persisted until the 1970s, as in Salt Lake City, Denver, or Fresno. Significantly, Stern tells how Andrea Dworkin, then a college student, was arrested during an anti-war protest in 1965. Dworkin, who would go on to become one of the best-known feminist writers and anti-pornography advocates in the world, was taken to New York City’s Women’s House of Detention where her experience echoed Nina McCall’s testimony so many years before: “In addition to the many strip searches by hand that police and nurses made into my vagina and anus, I was brutalized by two male doctors who gave me an internal examination, the first one I had ever had. They pretty much tore me up inside with a steel speculum and had themselves a fine time verbally tormenting me as well . . . . I began to bleed right after”. Stern notes that Dworkin “would continue to bleed for days after. When her family doctor examined her, the doctor burst into tears”.
These books are impossible to read without a confused sense of both hindsight and dreadful foreboding. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote that “the danger . . . is that today, with populations and homelessness everywhere on the increase, masses of people are continuously rendered superfluous if we continue to think of our world in utilit­arian terms”. That superfluity renders people disposable, mere things – “creating creatures who are alive in fact, but dead in law”, as the essayist Colin Dayan has described it. The weight of what no one wants, the extinction of those never given voice, is quietly buried in what Arendt thought of as “holes of oblivion”.
We Americans live in the present tense after all – everything is sui generis, everything popped up overnight by virtue of individual choice and choice alone. But there are echoes of the American Plan everywhere. The Sentencing Project, a public-interest research body, notes that the numbers of imprisoned women rose 646 per cent between 1980 and 2010 – 1.5 times the rate of men’s incarcer­ation during the same period. Fixing the Poor ends with a warning that “child welfare and criminal justice systems have emerged as leading instruments of eugenics control in the twenty-first century in part because they are easily reconciled with religious qualms about abortion, sterilization and reprogenic technologies”. Now as a century ago, we encourage “affluent Americans to have children, while deterring childbearing and childrearing by low-income women and single mothers, especially women with dis­abilities, drug addicts, and poor women of color”. The Trials of Nina McCall also ends on a haunting note: “Each of the laws that enabled the American Plan – those laws passed at general federal behest in 1917, 1918 and 1919 – remains on the books, in some form, to this day. Not one of them has ever been struck down by an appeals court”.

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