Peter Temin’s “The Vanishing Middle Class”: heavy emphasis on political engineering by race

The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy”, by MIT Economics professor Peter Temin, is another recent controversial tome on inequality. But unlike “Dream Hoarders” (July 7), this book talks about inequality in terms of collective political forces involving class, money, and especially race, with little direct attention to how individuals should be expected to behave, which was the point of my own “DADT III” book in 2014.

The parts of the book (from the TOC) give a sense of its message:  (I) is “An American Dual Economy”; (ii) “Politics in a Dual Economy”; (III) “Government in a Dual Economy”; (IV) “Comparisons and Conclusions”.   The book is relatively brief; the core parts comprise 160 pages, along with 17 pages of roman-number introduction. (By the way, I think that introductions should always be numbered in the main sequence of the book and show in the page count.)

Temin starts out by showing how capitalism alone tends to generate self-reinforcing inequality.  He calls the upper crust of society the “FTE Sector” (finance, technology and electronics).  Low-wage people doing manual labor or service jobs (or selling on commissions, for example) tend to aspire to enter the FTE but face serious self-perpetuating barriers.  Richer people can save money and owe less, can give their own children more advantages, and are more likely to have kids with “better” genes (the inconvenient truth of “A Troublesome Inheritance”, June 24, going back to ideas like those of Charles Murray), as well (particularly) of more access to “social capital” – informal interdependence with extended family and friends (the “Lotsa Helping Hands” idea in churches).  The economic system has burdened low-income people with student debt (especially with the rise of for-profit universities), upsidedown housing (the 2008 subprime crisis) and medical bills (even with Obamacare – and the GOP is partly right about this in my estimation).  You need to be able to save money to get any traction and move up.  I’ve worked as a debt collector before.  I’ve heard plenty of stories of how this works.

Temin then moves into race – and I’ll add here that in his conclusions he calls for a “Second Reconstruction”.  I wondered if he has sat through “Gone with the Wind”.  He connects race and the history of slavery (versus other, white immigration from Europe) and later segregation to the evolution of American democracy, an unprecedented political innovation at the time of the American Revolution. He traces particularly efforts to suppress blacks from voting (as with the 1964 murders in Mississippi) but he might have paid more attention to recent gerrymandering.  He also discusses incarceration and “war on drugs” policies as racially motivated, as well as attempts to privatize schools and lack of sufficient attention to urban infrastructure (he mentions the politics of constructing a third tunnel under the Hudson to New York, as well as Washington DC’s problems with Metro, leading to reduced hours and the Safe Track surges.  He does talk about the inability of school systems to properly pay teachers, But he could talk about the challenge for teachers from more privileged backgrounds to communicate with students in disadvantaged homes – something I encountered big time as a substitute teacher in the mid 2000’s.  On race and police, he mentions Ferguson (Michael Brown – see “Whose Streets”, May 8) and Florida (Trayvon Martin) without objective attention to the deeper facts behind these particular cases.   In the government area, he makes an interesting comparison of democracy, autocracy, and oligarchy (and rails against the Koch empire, which libertarians usually like; he regards Dallas as a cultural sub-capital for US business). He goes links personal debt to national debt and gets into a discussion about Social Security, denying that it is an earned annuity and implying it could be taken way from rich retired people who are otherwise coasting in neutral, like in the next debt ceiling crisis (which will happen Sept. 29, 2017).  He does present social insurance as needing government and federal oversight, and seems to think that sometimes lenders need to be ready for debt forgiveness (after a discussion of bankruptcy).

On race, I think Temin does not pay enough heed to the fact that economic and social problems of Trump’s rural base (white non-college-educated) are really similar to those of inner city blacks;  opioid has a similar dynamic as crack cocaine, and low-wage and resentment of elitism is pretty much the same.  Furthermore there are plenty of blacks in rural Trump country with the same problems as inner-city blacks and rural whites,

Temin refers to philosopher John Rawls and the 1971 opus “A Theory of Justice”, with his theory of distributive justice.  But it seems to me that such a tome would drill down to a discussion of the moral obligations of every person who finds the self in a more privileged system than others.  It goes beyond the idea of “giving back” or “paying it forward” to the idea of accepting personal interdependence with people in other social classes – a kind of resilience necessary to deal with common external threats (like what we have now).  Unearned wealth, if not widely used, can eventually lead to ugly ends, including shame and expropriation.  Coercion and revolutions do happen.  This is even a little more than my old 2004 essay “Pay your bills, pay your dues”.

Author: Peter Temin
Title, Subtitle: The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy” The book cover hides the word “Middle” in black and that fooled me!
publication date 2017
ISBN 9780262036160
Publication: 2017, MIT Press, 234 pages with appendix and index, 4 parts, 14 chapters + Introduction
Link: official

(Posted: Friday, Aug. 11, 2017 at 2:30 PM)

“Get Out”: really vicious satire on race in a horror movie context where slaves are zombies

“Get Out” is a phrase I once heard used brutally as someone was thrown out of a gay talk group for his willful insularity in New York City back in 1975.

And in the movie by Jordan Peele by this name, the phrase occurs as an African-American slave zombie orders (black) Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), by autonomous bark, to leave a social gathering on the Alabama estate, hidden deep in southern pine forest, of his white and rich girl friend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams).

Get Out” is another road horror film, and this one is even more vicious in its satire than “A Cure for Wellness” (February 19), and not just because it exploits the interracial dating angle, as well as modern day slavery.  The film is cleverly shot and written, with lots of metaphoric speech, and creepy twelve-tone music by Michael Abels (himself African-American, but obviously well-schooled in Schoenberg’s style of composition, with a touch of Shostakovich sometimes, with a four-note motive).

Chris has a best friend at the TSA (Rod Williams) who scours Bing to find out who the docile “servants” really were before they disappeared.  The film has an opening shot of the kidnapping of one of the servants, not to be explained for a while, as Peele uses a story setup technique familiar to me in somewhat similar (stylistically) “horror” films by Jorge Ameer, like “The House of Adam” (2006).  (Ameer is a black filmmaker who likes to make erotic mystery films with white gay men as subjects.)

Adding to the chill is, of course, the patriarch of the estate, Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford), who makes the white supremacy of today’s alt-right seem tame indeed.  Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) turns out to be a rather silly sidekick.

And wife Missy (Catherine Keener)adds a sci-fi element when she hypnotizes Chris, supposedly to get him to give up smoking, fitting in to the fear that he will be converted into a zombie slave.  Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson are appropriately sincere and robotic in their “The Stepford Wives” (permissively speaking) roles.

Like “Wellness”, the film has an early scene involving a deer accident. And the climax also has an ideal from “Hannibal” (2000), with skull removal, that doesn’t quite fit the rest of the plot.

Name: Get Out
Director, writer:  Jordan Peele
Released:  2017/2/24
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Ballston Quarter, Regal, large auditorium, nearly sold out, 2017.2.25, late afternoon; audience clapped at end
Length:  103
Rating:  R
Companies:  Blumhouse, QC, Universal Studios
Link:  official

Picture: Near Columbus, GA and Fort Benning, mine, 2014.

(Posted: Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017 at 9:30 PM EST)

“13th” traces US racism to use of prison slave labor

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Name: 13th
Director, writer:  Ava DuVernay
Released:  2016/9
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length 100
Rating PG-13
Companies: Netflix Red Envelope
Link: Fortune

13th”, directed by Ava DuVernay for Netflix studios, is a powerful documentary that traces racism (particularly what we saw in Trump’s campaign this year) and racial profiling all the way back to the logical sequels of slavery.

The 13tn Amendment to the Constitution prohibits slavery except for convicted criminals.  (I could wonder immediately about involuntary conscription into the Armed Forces.)  So “Negros” were often convicted of small crimes so they could be “re-slaved” by prison labor.  The film traces the use of prison labor all the way into recent history with the privatization of prisons for profit with many of the laws drafted by a conservative pressure group, ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), such as SB1070 (NPR story )

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The use of prison labor corresponds with many trends in race and criminal law since Reconstruction, leading to segregation and the whole “Jim Crow Law” legal establishment in the South. Then in the 1970, Richard Nixon developed a code of criminalization associating drug abuse and pot with war protesters and with blacks.  (The Army, however, gradually became a place where African Americans could advance, as it already was in 1968, when I was drafted.  That had been helped by Truman’s desegregation of the military in 1948.) I recall a very draconian anti-drug law signed by Rockefeller for New York State in 1973.  The Reagan years continued the anti-drug campaign with Nancy’s “Just Say No” campaign, and with particularly the explosion of crack.

This documentary maintains that the 1915 epic “The Birth of the Nation” helped foment the KKK,. The film covers the practice of lynching, with graphic autobiographical accounts and pictures (which the late Gode Davis has covered in his unfinished film “American Lynching”, of which I saw parts of, about 30 minutes, in his home in 2003).  The film mentions autobiographies of black people affected by segregation, and the gradual exposure of the evils of segregation with the media of the day – big magazines (as in “Loving”, yesterday), and television, which televised the Civil Rights movement in the south – Selma, and the death of Emmett Till.

The film does present several of the most corrosive and provocative rants by Donald Trump early in his 2016 campaign. (In fact, his pet saying has been rephrased as “Make America White Again.”) The film mentions Trump’s demand of the the death penalty (no longer possible) for “The Central Park Five” even though those men (from a late 80s case) were later exonerated by DNA evidence (and had been coerced to confess) – the wrongful conviction issue that has become a career for filmmaker Andrew Jenks.

The film looks at relative incarceration rates by race and notes that in many states, felons cannot vote again.  (An earlier film, May 10, covered te way sex offenders are kept away from society forever by the criminal justice system.)

At the end, the film summarizes several of the police shooting cases that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, especially Ferguson, and Fernando Castille in Minnesota.  Darrien Hunt in Utah would have been a good one to cover (Reid Ewing tweeted a lot about the incident).

(Posted: Sunday, November 13, 2016 at 9:45 PM EST)

“The Birth of a Nation”: riveting rendition of the Nat Turner slave rebellion in Tidewater Virginia in 1831

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Name: The Birth of a Nation
Director, writer:  Nate Parker
Released:  2016/10/7
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, morning, 2016/10/8, small audience
Length 120
Rating R
Companies: Fox Searchlight
Link: official

Unlike the massive (and pro-white) scale of the 1915 silent epic by D.W. Griffith (Netflix), the new film “The Birth of a Nation” from Nate Parker and Fox focuses on one incident, Nat Turner’s Rebellion (or the Southampton Rebellion) of Aug. 21-23, 1831 in Tidewater Virginia, led by Turner and rebel slaves at the Belmont Plantation.

Nate Parker’s interpretation is that the incident helps explain racial profiling and general racism today.  That may seem like a stretch.

But the environment in which slaves lived is presented as brutal indeed.  The boy Nate witnesses secret initiations where men’s chests are branded.  Plantation owners are shown as demanding a great showing of social subservience and obedience from slaves, just for the sake of authority itself.  Cruel punishments, such as a scene where all of a slaves teeth are pulled by forced and then gruel is forced down, are depicted.

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But Nate had somehow learned a little reading, which impressed the plantation owner’s wife in 1809.  She hit upon the idea of training him to become a preacher to use religion to keep slaves subordinated. At the same time, rather like a private in Army Basic, the boy was still kept in his place, made to pick cotton like everyone else.

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Nat (Nate Parker) dutifully uses the Bible (1 Peter verses  ) to convince slaves they need to obey to go to heaven.  He seems to be in favor with young owner Samuel Turner (a handsome Armie Hammer), who hosts a big dinner to enhance his political reputation. But when Nat baptizes a white man by immersion in the James River, carnage breaks out.

Nat finds other passages in the Bible to justify leading a violent rebellion.  The uprising starts with a quiet nighttime home invasion of the Turner house, where Turner and others are brutally hacked, conscious of their political crimes as they die. It’s ugly, and it shows there is no glory in dying at the hands of an enemy you have made indignant by mistreatment, even indirect.  But soon the other landowners bring their weapons, and a full battle ensues.  Nat escapes for a while, but is caught.  Near the end of the film is a scene in a swamp showing a dozen or so slaves hanging, lynched (the origin’s of Gode Davis’s idea for “American Lynching”).

The film was actually shot around Savannah, GA, and shows some pancake flat, low lying cotton fields.

(Published: Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016 at 4 PM EDT)