Publisher's Note — October 5, 2017, 11:31 am

A Sad Heritage

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on October 2, 2017. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

The violent events in Charlottesville this summer have revived debates about the persistence of racism in the United States, the motivations of the “heroes” who fought on the side of the Confederacy, and the justifications for the prospective removal of hundreds of monuments and sculptures that celebrate the losing side in the American Civil War. This absorbing subject merits the attention of all Americans, including lefty journalists like me. So let’s review the sorry record of racial inequality in the United States and the legacy of slavery.

According to the United States Census Bureau, 23.9 percent of African Americans are living below the poverty threshold, compared with 11.6 percent of the white population.

In a country where home ownership is sacred, 42.3 percent of black citizens own their own homes, as opposed to 72.2 percent of whites.

For the most unfortunate occupants of real estate, the percentages are reversed: 2.3 percent of blacks live in prison, whereas .04 percent of whites are obliged to reside there. African Americans make up 13 percent of the overall population and represent 40 percent of the incarcerated population; white Americans, 64 percent of the entire population, account for 39 percent of prisoners.

The 2016 unemployment rate for black Americans was 10.1 percent, compared with 4.9 percent for whites.

The median annual income for a black American in 2016 was $38,555; for a non-Hispanic white American it rose to $63,155.

Among blacks, the infant mortality rate (number of deaths per every 1,000 live births) in 2014 was 10.9 percent, as opposed to 4.9 percent among whites.

The percentage of people who were born into the lowest income quintile and who remain in the bottom fifth once they become adults is 54 percent for blacks versus 31 percent for whites.

According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, the current wage gap, measured in terms of the average hourly pay for blacks and whites, is at 26.7 percent and rising; in 1979, it was at 18.1 percent.

Had enough? Are you convinced that there’s a systemic problem? That everything’s been stacked against black Americans from the start?

We’re familiar with the analysis offered by a great many intellectuals on the right: Blacks are the victims of excessive governmental intervention and too many social subsidies. The protection afforded them by the state has made them lazy. Welfare destroys black families. And so on and on. And then, lo and behold, Charlottesville erupts. An excellent opportunity for the left to reply to the right, no?

Apparently not. The liberal left, as usual these days, favors symbolic gestures over concrete proposals. I hear people everywhere shouting that this or that statue of General Robert E. Lee must come down, but nowhere do I hear people react to racist demonstrations by calling on the government to raise the federal minimum wage. Neo-Nazis and Donald Trump’s equivocal and ignorant words in their defense have been roundly denounced throughout the land, but there’s been total silence about improving the public schools in black neighborhoods. It seems that the idea of giving any real help to black people put at a disadvantage by American history takes second place to eradicating that same tarnished history’s embarrassing representations.

And so we live in a hall of political mirrors where the weakest victims of the spectacle are bound to end up aggravated and frustrated. Can anyone seriously think, for example, that replacing General Lee’s three-dimensional image in Charlottesville by a two-dimensional picture of Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill is going to be a game-changer for a young, uneducated, unemployed St. Louis man subject to harassment by the police?

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King used metaphors drawn from the Bible, but he never played with meaningless symbols. On one day he’d put his body on the front line, physically confronting high-pressure firehoses and armed policemen; on another, he’d march side-by-side with striking garbage workers. He never resorted to the kind of banal rhetoric broadcast non-stop on the MSNBC television channel, which speaks for the reactionaries of the Clinton/Obama Democratic Party. Bill Clinton, for his part, famously lowered welfare payments to poor black mothers in the 1990s, invoking such concepts as “reform” and “legitimate” work. As for Barack Obama, he notably failed in his not-very-energetic efforts to boost the federal minimum wage from its current, ludicrous level of $7.25 an hour, a raise that would have meant a small step forward for a working underclass dominated by African Americans.

I’m not saying that a monument erected in honor of Stonewall Jackson should stand in a public square and affront the descendants of slaves. But I’d like the black worker who helps demolish that statue to be well paid, to have been educated in a good public school, and to have access to free medical insurance. History demands it.

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Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Rebirth of a Nation·

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Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

Illustration by Taylor Callery (detail)
Blood Money·

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Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

Illustration by John Ritter (detail)
The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

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When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
Wrong Object·

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e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

Average life span, in years, of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon:


Researchers in California succeeded in teaching genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to communicate using a new chemical “language”; the research aims at turning cells into tiny robots.

Theresa May’s Brexit proposal was rejected; Trump suggested raking to prevent forest fires; Jair Bolsonaro insulted Cuban doctors working in Brazil

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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