The Class of ‘Black Panther’…

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Most of the now-18 Marvel superhero movies can be described as comic confections. Perhaps overdone desserts. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther serves far richer fare. Perhaps a Marvel meal. Some have hailed it a “masterpiece”, others have called the now-much-laud-laden work a “triumph”, a crowning piece in a “21-st century Black Renaissance”. And with such a dense film follows readings: sociopolitical, racial, cinematic and particularly allegorical. None should collapse the meaning of Coogler and Joe Cole’s story into a singular message. But let me offer one about class.

In high fictive fashion, the plot of Black Panther turns on the slaying of one brother by another. The conquering brother, for decades, rules the rich land of Wakanda hidden in the heart of Africa. The slain brother leaves behind a son. That son suffers the poverty of the American ghetto, climbs the ranks of the US marines and then the super-hero underworld. He returns to Wakanda, on behalf of his dead father, to avenge that death and conquer the hermit kingdom. He vows to disperse its natural wealth out of Africa, outsourcing the riches for all those not-as-fortunate slum-dwellers like himself (and presumably for some bad guys.)

At the heart of the tale rests an enigmatic bind. The Wakandans come to believe that their power, their store of priceless vibranium, is both too much and too little. They fear that their alien element will overwhelm the world with its destructive potential. At the same time, they fear that they are not powerful enough, that they will be plundered and destroyed by that same fragile world. To skirt this paradox, these twin nightmares of strength and weakness, they isolate. They hide, looking after themselves, developing a hyper-advanced but insular culture. They ignore the plight of other cultures not so materially blessed.

Such quandary suggests other allegories for other times. Here I underline one: Within the African American experience, the unfolding stakes speak not just to race but to class. Will elite Africans or African Anglo-Americans (the Wakandans) help those poor who have fallen behind? Or, by extension, must those successful in the black diaspora stay hidden? Have they hidden? In a white-dominated society have fortunate African Americans been forced to don the cloak of the exceptional Negros? Have they felt compelled to pull up the ladder once they have climbed? Must the Erik Killmongers (or the Wire’s Wallaces) be abandoned so that at least a few may achieve? And when is it time? When will the riches of the few be shared with the many?

It is a seductive set of questions. And, perhaps, a dangerous one. The suggestion that one’s success is contingent on leaving others behind bares a cruel zero-sum logic. It denies the cumulative and often multiplier effect of success and progress. Such limited reasoning, such reason of limits, plays heavy on an older model of development. It is a model now discarded. It is a model, perhaps not coincidentally, that ruled during mercantilist days when empires were built on resources like vibranium and slaves, on mine and not yours. Such dreary logic emphasized that one’s gain rested on another’s lost. It denied the fruits of free trade, invention and group advancement that have been the staple of modern society. In Black Panther, by implication, the corruption in Wakanda, the isolationist path that the Wakandans choose, comes from it being a single-resource state. Isolated, they remain the kind of power over-reliant on material and not human capital, the type of state that ruled during those darker mercantilist times.black-panther-mask

And yet, for all the flash and spark, the true royalty the film displays are its unequaled cast: Angela Bassett, Chadwick Boseman, Sterling K. Brown, Winston Duke, Danai Gurira, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, Lupita Nyong’o, Forest Whitaker and Letitia Wright. They are indeed as fine a cast as has been recently assembled. And they are joined in direction and design by Coogler and Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Hannah Beachler and Ruth E. Carter. They represent (and make up) an Anglo-American artistic elite. Like the vibranium ore the Wakandans’ mine, this luminescent ensemble is pooled to peak power and grace, not a note misplayed. But, to follow the film’s logic, they represent the kind of elite, an upper class, that, like the Wakandans, must decide whether they will pool their own resources or sacrifice for the many, as Mary Church Terrell preached, lift as they climb.

In answer, in the final grace note of the movie, amidst the confines of a [bit ratchety] United Nations assembly, Boseman as King T’Challa promises to come out of hiding. He pledges to share his people’s gift of vibranium with the despairing world. And just so, like an Inceptive spiral the completion of the film fulfills the very promise of its teaser. So far from hiding, the film Black Panther presents full-throatedly the pooled glory of the black diaspora for all to see, poor and rich—in defiance and for our troubled times. It is no comic confection.

The Decline of Ideas

In the second half of the 20th century, the United States underwent a fundamental political shift. Traditional party loyalties weakened. Ideological identification gained preeminence. The Grand Old Party became the party of the Right just as the party of FDR and JFK turned to the Left.yet today that great historical pivot toward ideological stratification between the two partisan powers has shown signs of reversing.partisan In the Trump Era, loyalty to a man (and not loyalty to a cause) has become the measure.

Over the last half-century, driven significantly by the battles over African Americans’ civil rights and the decline of the American manufacturing sector and its unions, Conservative Democrats in the South and Southwest broke from the once-steady New Deal coalition to become Republicans. Even in the last two decade the seats held by most of the so-called Blue-Dog Democrats of the (mostly) mid-Atlantic, the center-right politicians of the party, have flipped to red. At the same time the liberal Republicans of the Northeast and West Coast were replaced by a solid block of Democratic politicians. The Blue-State-Red-State American divide of many-an-election-night “magic wall” was set, seemingly intransigent, ideologically impregnable.

Yet today, rather than a purity of ideas, President Donald Trump has signaled ideological flexibility. He has turned away from such mainstay Republican doctrines as free trade, low tariffs, muscular internationalism and lower deficits with promises of American-foreign-policy retreat and fiscal profligacy (see e.g., $1.5 trillion of infrastructure, $25 billion for the Wall.) In Trump we have ideological confusion: a supply-side populist, a big-spending libertarian, a hawkish isolationist.

It is the “Nunes Memo”, however, that has revealed most profoundly a break away from ideological clarity and toward partisanship. And not simply for the Republicans but for the Democrats as well. Indeed, in the latest partisan spat over FISA-court decisions to surveille the one-time-Trump-aide Carter Page, it is hard to miss. The Republicans, once stalwart defenders of government intelligence and policing, have pivoted to an attack on those same institutions as assailants of civil liberties. In turn, liberal Democrats, once consistent critics of FBI and CIA investigative overreach, once outspoken opponents of “over-classification” of state’s evidence, have fallen back on calls for state secrecy. The Left has issued a whole-hearted defense of government institutions that they so frequently (and recently) distrusted. Previous issue-based affinities have been traded for party-based allegiance. The magnetic-magnate-in-the-middle attracting and repelling Republicans and Democrats alike is, of course, Trump.

Is such ideological inconsistency merely run-of-the-mill hypocrisy, corruption, political expediency? We have seen this play before in loyalties to Bill and Hillary Clinton. Yet instead of exceptions, the partisan battles of the Clinton era now appear portentous of today if not tomorrow. Just as with the present president, loyalty and animosity toward Clinton split the country in two along party lines. The cries against sexual harassment now so central to the #metoo revolution were then voiced by Republicans, a party never before particular advocates of that cause. In turn Bill’s party faithful came dutifully to his aid with nary a considerate thought to his allegers. Moreover, both Clintons’ apparently corrupt campaign styles, their profligate use of fame to enrich themselves and their celebrity standing, has voiced of the kind of Wall-Street greed so often vociferously pooh-poohed by Democrats. And yet a large constituency within the party has continued to revere both Hillary and Bill.

Repelled by the Trump administration’s agenda, Republican stalwarts like Joe Scarborough and Nicole Wallace have shed their party status. Conservative mainstays like David Frum and Bill Kristol have found themselves in the ideological wilderness. Even centrists like The Atlantic’s Jonathan Rauch and Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes have called for battling the White House’s agenda by “rising above our independent predilections and behav[e] like dumb-ass partisans.”

The 2018 elections may well mark this great historical reversal. Previously the mid-term was predicted to be full of primary purges. The progressive-Bernie-Sanders wing of the Democratic Party was once anticipated to push out more centrist Clinton-leaning hangers-on. In the Republican party the more radical Bannonistas, the Roy-Moore model, the Tea-Party purists were expected to unseat their more pragmatic red-state counterparts. Yet with Trump in full-partisan swing, such a shift to the ideological edges now seems quaint. Like the fight over the “Nunes Memo”, the upcoming election may well turn on who is the loyal partisan rather than who has the purist ideas. At stake will be control of the House of Representatives. In place of governing philosophy will be Trump affinity. For the opportunity to lead or block potential impeachment proceedings has taken over as the organizing partisan principle for the upcoming campaign.

Trump is the New __________

THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION: Every historian worries over presentism — the tendency for contemporary sentiment to distort the study of the past. Some call it projection. In graduate school, it’s teleology, or what the French historian Marc Bloch dubbed “the most unpardonable of sins: anachronism.” And so, lightly we tread, tippy-toed, when formulating a historical analogy: the likening of something then to something now

The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. censured such allusive fare. Analogy rips historical example free of root, context, idiosyncrasy, and counterexample. Such evidence plucked from the past suffers from “confirmation bias,” speciously corroborating contemporary-minded hypotheses for the already predisposed. “History by rationalization,” Schlesinger damned… [FULL ARTICLE]

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LETTER TO THE EDITOR, THE NEW YORKER: ON “JOHN KELLY AND THE LANGUAGE OF THE MILITARY COUP”

Dear editor,

As a tremendous admirer of Masha Gessen’s previous work, I was disappointed to read her latest comment in The New Yorker on “John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup.” I think Ms. Gessen speaks with little understanding of the civic depth of our society, the checks and balances in our system, the storied, culled and ambivalent relationship we have with our military, the health of our free universities, businesses and press. She does the classic move of many authors: she projects the subject of her latest book (totalitarianism) onto what she sees. So, lo and behold, she watches Adm. Kelly’s extraordinarily complex speech–by equal parts moving and disturbing, a historic text that will no doubt be dissected for years, decades to come–and she lodges her book’s totalitarian thesis into this latest space. Before reading her reaction, I had just turned on CNN’s Wolf Blitzer as a retired four-star was calling Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders “ignorant” because earlier today she demanded that no one question a four-star such as Kelly. David Axelrod was fuming. Meanwhile Sen. John McCain and co. have been running Defense Secretary Mattis et al through the ringer all day at the Senate. Two former presidents just took our current president to the woodshed just yesterday. That’s how our system, unlike the authoritarian Soviet Union in which Ms. Gessen grew up, works. It’s not pretty and we are still working on the recipe but the sausage still comes out damn fine.

Sincerely,
Zachary Jonathan Jacobson, PhD

Verlander to Houston

DETROIT FREE PRESS: Justin Verlander paced in the living room of his apartment in downtown Birmingham. He was agitated, anxiously mulling his options. Kate Upton, his supermodel fiancée, was with him as he repeated: “Trust your instincts. Trust your instincts.”

Verlander, the Tigers’ longtime ace right-hander, called his agent as midnight approached Aug. 31. He called members of his family and Houston Astros owner Jim Crane. He had spent 13 seasons with the Tigers, helping them reach two World Series and serving as the catalyst for one of the most successful runs in franchise history. Armed with a no-trade clause, under the league’s 10-5 rule, he could have ended negotiations with the Astros at any time. Instead, he peppered Crane and his prospective Houston teammates with questions… [FULL ARTICLE]

The Sorrows of Old Verlander

A car with two men pulled up to Justin Verlander’s penthouse apartment in downtown Birmingham. They parked. It was a Thursday at just about 11:30 pm, August 31st. They were coming from the Detroit Tigers’ central office, sent by General Manager Al Avila, with papers for the Tigers’ long-time star to sign. After a year of speculation on-and-off, after 13 years of donning the Old English D, through stubble thick and thin, less than an hour before the season’s last deadline, Verlander had been traded to the Houston Astros. The one catch, the calling that brought the pair of Tigers baseball operations officials to Verlander’s door near midnight on a Thursday, was that the veteran ace had a veto.

Under the league’s 10-5 rule, after ten years in the league and five on the same team, a player like the Tigers’ ace had the right to refuse being traded. Verlander had to sign off his no-trade clause. The pair of Tigers reps were there to get the pitcher’s go-ahead before the clock struck twelve and, in the meantime, wait outside.

Upstairs, back from a late dinner at The Bird & The Bread, about a five minute walk, it was a Thursday, the last day of August. Verlander had pitched the previous day: sixinnings, one run, at Coors Field in Denver, his 380th start with the Tigers. After a mediocre start to the season, Verlander had thrown gem after gem in the month of August, dropping his ERA from 4.29 to 3.82. There had been a bustle of trade talk in the last two months, but, that night, less than an hour to go until the midnight deadline, Verlander was convinced he would remain a Tiger for at least the last couple of months of this season. Avila had assured him that “no deal was probable.” Verlander recalled thinking, “I can put my mind at ease and just finish the season.”

Then, his cell rang at about 11:20pm that Thursday night. It had been the Tigers. They had secured his trade to the Houston Astros. They needed an answer within the hour so that Verlander would be eligible to pitch in the playoffs. And just like that, as he recalled the scene: “Someone tells you, you’ve got 35, 40 minutes to decide if you want to move somewhere else, you don’t know anybody, you don’t know anything about it. Go!” He had shown interest in playing with the LA Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, but the Houston Astros? He reached out for guidance: to his agent, his family, prospective teammates, a potential new owner in the Astros’ Jim Crane. He peppered them with questions. “I mean…it was just a whirlwind of conversations with my agent, with representatives, with both organizations just really everything you can imagine and then when I’m not on the phone trying to decide whether I want to uproot my life that I’ve been here for 13 years so…the chance to win a world series. I’ve experienced two, haven’t won it…” Verlander asked Houston’s owner about the fallout of Hurricane Harvey. He had never been traded before. In those waning minutes, over the phone, Astro’s Cy Young ace Dallas Keuchel urged Verlander with little delicacy minced no words: the Astros were going to the playoffs, Detroit was going nowhere. And, so, clocking ticking down, Verlander decided. Upton enthusiastically agreed.

detroitverlander2The Tigers reps, who had been loitering for near an hour downstairs, gathered the documents with Verlander’s signature still fresh and, at about two minutes to midnight, they photographed and e-mailed the no-trade waiver to league headquarters. MLB approval took fifteen minutes. All was set by 12:15 am. It was done. Word went out to the Detroit Free Press’s Anthony Fenech who, three minutes later, at 12:18am, with still a suggestion of disbelief, tweeted: “The Tigers have traded Justin Verlander to the Astros, I’m told.” It was the end of an era in less than a dozen words.

“In a stunning reversal, after a deal seemingly collapsed,” improbably, he was gone while most of Detroit slept, two ticks to midnight, with his supermodel fiancée, those fancy cars, his Hall-of-Fame arm…after 13 years…the break-up was official. It was “the end of an era,” “the end of an era,” “the end of an era,” “the end of an era,” reporters beat and drummed. In the days following the announcement of the Tigers’ trading long-time star pitcher Justin Verlander to the Houston Astros, my Mom and I were reduced to terse texts back and forth of “sad” and “sad sad” and “still sad,” followed by “still sad”. (Or, as our president would say, “Sad!”)

Only on waking up that next morning, on that otherwise unexceptional Friday, did the excitement of a probable playoff birth kick in for Verlander. And that first morning after the trade, Tigers fans, stunned still, with appreciation and sorrow, tweeted: “too sad to get out of bed”; “truly never thought I’d see the day”; “I hope he gets a ring”; “Justin Verlander getting traded took away a part of my childhood”; “still in shock”; “worst wake up call ever”; “I can’t make it into work today on account of Justin Verlander being traded, I’m sure you understand”; “a kick in the gut”…And, yes, yes, yes, this is what happens in sports. If Michael Jordan can become a Wizard…If Roger Clemens can become a Yankee…If Brett Favre can become a Viking…

Shelve his unsold jerseys. Box his authenticated plaques, mint-collector coins, replica figurines, plush dolls, Lego figurines. Tear down the over-sized posters hung around the stadium. Cancel the bobble heads.

It truly is an end-of-an-era, as reporters have noted, not just for the loss of Verlander but for the Tigers’ owner Mike Ilitch, who bought the team in 1992. During his reign, Ilitch pounded dollar after dollar, some good, some good after bad. In the last decade, he opened his purse to the tune of $147,000,000 for players salaries on average each year, 5th in the league even though the city of Detroit remains 23rd in population, 17th in median income. Ilitch envisioned building a Tigers superteam. To hell with Moneyball metrics. To hell with Detroit as second class to New York, to LA, to Boston. Curse Chicago, our ever-classy cousin. Who’s Zoomin Who? Ilitch, our Little Caesar, our In-Denial-Chief, spent and spent some more, poaching other teams’ superstars, drinking their milkshakes, picking off stars: Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Kenny Rogers, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, David Price, Anibal Sanchez, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton.

Ilitch built a decade-long contender after longer-than-a-decade span of futility that was “not just bad” but “hopeless.” Under Ilitch’s largesse, the Tigers made the playoffs five times in nine years, putting together a team-record four-in-a-row streak, fighting to the World Series twice (in 2006 and 2012.) It was not so much an allegory but a wish fulfilled for the city’s renewal, for the Spirit of Detroit, profligacy in the face of pragmatism. And just so, Ilitch made his Red Wings champions again and again until, in direct reaction to Detroit’s dominance, the NHL tightened the screws on its salary cap for the sake of team parity. And Ilitch made the Tigers champions again, almost.

Ilitch passed just seven months ago. Now his son Chris Ilitch controls the team. Following the Verlander trade, Ilitch the Younger, along with General Manager Al Avila, sent a letter almost immediately to season-ticket holders. Reassuring skeptical fans of their latest firesale (Avila had also traded his son Alex, JD Martinez, Justin Wilson and Justin Upton before the deadline.) The higher-ups promised “transitioning into a new era,” so unlike Chris’s father, but in fashion with the rest of the league’s latest “draft-and-develop” vogue, an investment in the “analytics department, “data-driven” solutions, “sustainable success,” and (unlike Mike’s high-priced acquisitions) “home-grown” talent, “player development”, a boost in scouting and instruction and a brand new super sexy “decision-support program” (read: computer system) for analytics named Caesar. They are positioned to cut $93 million from payroll in 2018.

And he still looks back fondly, Verlander tells his new Houston camera pool. But he dons a new lid for the first time since he made the majors. And of course, of his new friends, Verlander raves, “the fans are unbelievable.”

Now, another band of teammates sings his praises calling their newest pitcher “just old-school,” a “competitor,” “huge,” with “tremendous stuff.” Keuchel added, “excitement is an understatement.” Now it is Houston papers recounting stories Detroiters have heard time and again. The education in Verlander has begun. They review his Rookie-of-the-Year, Cy Young, Pitcher’s Triple Double and MVP. They discuss the glum intensity of his pre-start ritual: tramping back-and-forth through the clubhouse, “headphones over his ears, eyes glaring ahead, his focus so tuned that no one dared disturb him until he reached his locker.” They write of his uncanny ability to throw faster as his starts creep into the late innings. Now it’s Houston chroniclers waxing over how the spaghetti-armed Virginia kid pitched 80mph at age 13. Houston will learn that Nolan Ryan is his idol. Now it is Houston papers recounting his admirably goofy competitiveness: how, at Old Dominion, still lanky as ever, he fixated on “outdo[ing] teammates in running drills, leg presses and long toss,” only to “speed-walk to cars so he could claim the passenger’s seat.”  Verlander’s mother will again share the family lore. “We had to rein him in a little bit, even at the age of 8,” will again recall Kathy Verlander. “He wanted to be the first to finish his dinner. He wanted to play the adult rules when we played putt-putt. And still to this day, you play a game of Monopoly in this house, you’re taking your life in your own hands.”

From one restoration tale to another, from the saga of the city of Detroit’s rebuilding, now there is a new storyline developing for Verlander to take part. As ESPN’s David Schoenfield writes, “given the unfathomable damage Hurricane Harvey has caused in Houston, the Astros will become America’s Team as they go for their first World Series title, a rallying cry for the city and symbol of hope.” Astros fans will write of his Win for Warriors Foundation.

And they will read of Upton’s benign antics. They will learn of the small charms of Verlander’s tiny hometown, Goochland, VA. Of his mammoth car collection, his exacting Starbucks order: “a white mocha nonfat with no whipped cream and an extra shot of espresso.” Of his normcore aspirations with Upton, their dogs Riley and Harley. That, despite his tens of millions of dollars, he still enjoys the Cheesecake Factory and Olive Garden. That, on nights before his starts, he feasts on Taco Bell: “three crunchy Taco Supremes, a Cheesy Gordita Crunch and a Mexican Pizza.” But, as so many Detroiters know, “hold the tomatoes.”

For us Detroiters, for 13 years (a Bar-Mitzvah’s-worth!,) through stubble thick and thin, Verlander has been our brother-in-arm. He was no free agent, but our first-round draft pick after the historical embarrassment of 2003. He was our Rookie-of-the-Year, our ace, our all-star, strikeout king, no-hitter, no-hitter, Pitching Triple Crown, unanimous Cy Young, MVP, golden boy, slinger, scruffy diamond on our diamond’s rough, our main man on the cover of Sports Illustrated mowing ’em down for all the league to see. And just as his career looked to be down and done…a reinvention, he remade himself back into a Cy Young contender. Now, we have no more “Must See JV” to schedule around, but we can look forward to his donning the Old English D at Cooperstown. For he made us prouder. And now, for a time, quite sad.

Deep Thoughts by J. Comey (II)

“‘Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing,’ [he said. But] I did not reply or ask him what he meant by ‘that thing.'”

                                – James Comey, Jr.

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