Colson Whitehead’s Slavery Novel “The Underground Railroad”: A Ferocious History of the Present

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If you want to read a really insightful and incisive review of Colson Whitehead’s deeply disturbing and sneakily-complex new novel, The Underground Railroad, you could do a lot worse than reading Adam Gopnik’s review of a new book on the Attica uprising in last week’s New Yorker. In talking about the slaughter that ensued when the state police, national guard and (tellingly) other prison guards took back the jail from the nearly all-black inmates, Gopnik writes:

In a curious way, the psychology of the (almost exclusively white) troopers and guards, more than the ideology of the inmates, seems most haunting now, as part of the permanent picture of American fixations. The inmates were doing what anyone would do in their situation: having seen a protest turn unexpectedly into a revolt that was sure to be short-lived, they desperately improvised a way to keep their dignity and be heard, to avoid the worst punishment and get some small reforms. Their occasionally overblown rhetoric was the act of men who, stripped of dignity, try to reclaim it. But the troopers and guards retaking the prison were indulging an orgy of racist violence neither ordered nor wholly explicable. There was no need for them to conduct a massacre to reassert their authority. They had all the firepower; the prisoners were armed only with homemade knives; the guards had control of the yard within minutes. Nor were they, so far as anyone can detect, under direct commands to kill. In an American tale already known fully to Mark Twain, a white ethnic proletariat could distinguish itself as superior only by its ability to be brutal to a still more subordinate class of color. When its members were denied their exercise of this “right,” they turned crazy and violent.

If you want to learn more about the novel, look at any Blue Lives Matter Facebook group, flip to a Trump rally, or read some hot takes on Colin Kaepernick. These will tell you as much about Whitehead’s book as any discussion of the past, because, while it is meticulously detailed, and unflinching in its cruelty, Whitehead is describing an American obsession with race, with oppression, and with the assertion of might. The novel isn’t a metaphor for today– it isn’t secretly about Michael Brown or Garfield Park– but it is all the more harrowing because of that. It doesn’t need to be. The story barely changes.

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The Super-Racism Behind Trump’s “Appeal” To Black Voters


Pictured: The Outreach Brigade

This has been Trump’s “pivot week”, a transparently phony attempt to pretend his campaign isn’t fueled entirely by white anger, and hasn’t been one long sustained howl designed to yodel bigots out of the woodwork. Hillary did a good job with her speech yesterday making sure that no one can forget that the alt-right misogynist racist part of his campaign isn’t just one aspect; it is the driving force. So Trump has pretended, of course, that the Democrats are the real racists.

This started last week when he asked black voters what they had to lose in voting for him.

“What do you have to lose? What do you have to lose? You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good. You have no jobs — 58 percent of your youth is unemployed,” Trump said on Friday in Dimondale, Mich., a mostly white community near Lansing. “What the hell do you have to lose?”

He’s also talked about crime, and how he would stop it so people wouldn’t get shot, and he would do so by making the police super-empowered, which might not be what the black community totally wants to hear right now, but regardless. Also, some African-Americans took exception to his idea that all their lives resemble area where even Robocops fear to tread. This is his outreach.

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Does Syrian Sovereignty Exist?


August 12th map, from Wikipedia, most recent I can find. How is a state supposed to come back from this?

BBC: Syrian rebels, backed by the Turkish military and US air cover, say they have taken the town of Jarablus from jihadists of so-called Islamic State.

The assault began at dawn when Turkish warplanes, tanks and special forces personnel crossed the nearby border.


Reuters:  Turkey sent more tanks into northern Syria on Thursday and demanded Kurdish militia fighters retreat within a week as it seeks to secure the border region and drive back Islamic State with its first major incursion into its neighbor.

There is a lot– a lot– to unpack here. Obviously, Turkey is interested in stopping ISIS, but more so, as the Soufan Group points out, in making sure that the Kurdish Syrian rebels don’t have a swatch of territory that is contiguous with Turkey, for fear of linkage with Turkey’s own Kurdish population.

The Turkish incursion is a significant event in the conflict, as it highlights the lengths that Turkey will go to prevent an autonomous Kurdish region along its southern border. Perhaps more significantly, the assault also made clear the limits of U.S. support for the Kurdish rebel forces that have been the most effective ground troops in the fight against the Islamic State. Calling the operation to retake Jarablus ‘Euphrates Shield,’ Turkey’s stated goal was to push back the Islamic State as well as the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD); Ankara views the latter, along with Turkish Kurdish groups, as a far greater threat than the Islamic State.

So, then: Turkey has sent troops and tanks and planes into Syria in order to dictate the future of the local Kurdish population in a post-ISIS region, which puts it in conflict with US designs, all of which will complicate Iraq (and its Kurds). Meanwhile, Turkey is playing around with Russia, which had been bombing Syria from Iran until that relationship went pear-shaped.

All of this is to ask a question this blog has been asking all year: what is Syria, anymore? Does it actually exist, or is it just a name on a map, lines that we all know so we still vaguely recognize? Does it actually have any sovereignty, and if so, who is in stewardship of that sovereignty? Is it Asad? That seems unlikely. Is it any of the rebel groups, including ISIS? What does it mean to own territory? What, ultimately, does it mean to be a nation when the nation has fallen apart, been vivisected, torn up, divided? And what does that mean for the future of the nation, and of the region?

I don’t have answers to these, but they are what we need to explore. As we’ve argued here before, the map is being rearranged. I don’t think there will be a recognizable “Syria” coming out of this in five, ten years. It’s the end of a long historical process starting with the fall of the Ottoman Empire (or at least the end of this phase, if there is one thing history teaches us, it is that eras never truly definitively end, and it is foolish to make predictions). I don’t think we’re really reckoning with what is going to come next, and what a possibly stateless future means. But as Turkey shows, there are many games being played here with future borders and future ideas of sovereignty, whether it is a UN-recognized map or the Iraq-like de facto states of ferocious Kurdish independence. I feel that until we come to terms with the sure and certain knowledge that what comes next is going to be very different than what came before, we won’t be able to encourage even least-bad outcomes.

Sins of the Fathers: East Chicago’s Poisoned Water and The Weight of History


East Chicago, 1972, around when the present began to crumble. Image from

East Chicago is one of those strange places that most of us only glimpse while driving past it, along its southern end, on a road trip that takes us through the rundown broken-factory grime of northwestern Indiana. If we’re going toward Chicago, it’s the last in a string of scary and polluted cities before you approach the rusted majesty of the Skyway, looming at imposing and strange angles, like a bridge out of Hell. More recently, East Chicago is the home of a booming casino. You get off 90 to get there, on what is essentially a designated highway, skirting the town itself. East Chicago just exists as a string of industrial lights and smoke glowing through the darkness.

It isn’t that, of course. It is a real city, where people live. It’s still a fairly-thriving Lake Michigan port, a beneficiary of this vast body of water, so crucial to the American experiment. It’s proximity to the lake, and to the Calumet and Chicago rivers, gave East Chicago some prominence in the steel industry, and its factories provided jobs and a living, even if a dirty and difficult one. Other industries bloomed in the area, in the days where Gary was a town to behold. But that legacy crumbled, leaving poison in its wake. This poison is metaphorical, but also terribly literal: East Chicago is facing a massive crisis in its drinking water, the weight of the past seeping into the present and darkening the future. It’s a reckoning with which we all have to deal.

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Guaranteed Rate Field: The Nadir Of White Sox Fandom


Image result for konerko grand slam

Just think of this and be happy.



It’s been a rough year to be a White Sox fan. It started with an unbearable redneck muppet who could barely find the Mendoza line complaining that his kid wasn’t allowed to manage games, then the actual season started out great before collapsing into just another mediocre year. Another in a long string of middling and plodding seasons for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2008 and, in that time, only came actually close once. Another year where in June you could squint your way back into contention, but every two or three game streak was followed by a bad week. The emblematic moment of our season was when one of the best pitchers in the game, and one of the best we’ve ever had, cut up the 1976 throwback jerseys because he didn’t want to wear them. That hurt for reasons I’ll explain in a second. The fact that the Cubs are the best team in baseball, with the brightest future, and who are doing everything right, and are genuinely likable, just makes it worse.

But there is a new low now. This is worse than Disco Demolition (which was awesome). This is worse than the Ligue boys (who were Cubs fans). This is way worse than the grand Comiskey name being changed to U.S. Cellular Field. I can’t…I can’t even type it.

BREAKING: Guaranteed Rate has purchased naming rights to U.S. Cellular Field. Will be known as Guaranteed Rate Field thru 2030.

This is just…it’s the worst. It’s the worst name. Worse than Enron, probably, because when the Astros stadium was first named that no one knew that they were a country-wrecking band of criminals. Some shady third-rate mortgage company with a terrible name? It’s disgusting. I like Jerry Reinsdorf, and I get that parks have to have naming rights these days, but this is abhorrent.

Worse, it is embarrassing. Being a Sox fan always means eating some crow, which for many turns into bitter anger and misplaced aggression. We have to listen to fans of a team that hasn’t been in the World Series since the end of WWII talk about how we don’t matter, and for the most part, they are right. Sports aren’t entirely about success. They are about the trappings of fandom, and our trappings aren’t glamorous.

And for the most part, that’s been fine. Many of us actually like it. We have our insularity, and we have our weirdness, and we have our quirks. Our history isn’t illustrious, and it is frequently grimy, but in a cool, late 70s, early 80s sort of way. We like it. We like bad fashion and dumb jokes and an owner who created an exploding scoreboard. We like being the weird cousin that no one cares about. There is an aggressive tribal attitude to it, sure, but there is also a sense of family. We have our family history, and that includes terrible choices, like those 1976 throwback unis. They were dumb, but they were fun, and they were ours. That’s why Sale cutting them up was such a blow. Our best player isn’t one of us, like Beuhrle and Konerko and Jermaine Dye and even (especially) Ozzie were. And more to the point, he shouldn’t be. Why would he? We’re not relevant, and just middling. That’s why this season is so hard.

And now this. “The Cell” was at least a decent dimunitive. US Comiscular was fun to say. There’s nothing here. It’s bland and insulting and a disgrace. No one can ever– ever!– say “let’s catch a game at Guaranteed Rate Stadium” without rolling their eyes. Everyone has every reason to make fun of us. They always made fun of us anyway, but we had our defenses. Now, year by pathetic year, and terrible business decision by terrible decision, those defenses are being stripped.

I’ll always be a White Sox fan, until the day I die, and will be passionate about them. I’ll always love going to the ballpark with my family. I’ll love our traditions.  I’ll still mostly call it “Sox Park”. But others won’t. It’s even more of a joke. This really hurts.

Tomorrow’s Irritation’s Today: There is No Pivot From Bigotry



“Lady, you knew I was a snake until you covered my ‘attempt at tacking toward the center'” – Ancient Parable


Imagine that you’re at a bar with a guy and he’s railing about blacks and Mexicans and Jews. He’s just going off, and with each drink, he gets more and more unhinged about them, more conspiratorial, until toward the end he’s a sweaty mess and raving about how they are all out to get him and ruin his life, because they are evil and awful people, barely even people.

Then, about a week later, you see him. He mentions that he had a job interview, and it turned out that the people in charge were black, so he didn’t say anything racist for a few hours. Would you think, well, this fellow certainly has turned a new leaf! Because raw self-interests forced him to tamp down his essential terribleness for a spell, he clearly isn’t a terrible racist anymore!

Of course you wouldn’t. So hey, media: don’t pretend Trump’s sudden incoherence on immigration, and his faltering, obviously-insincere attempts at softening his hardline stance are anything but a transparent attempt to erase the last 14 months (and really, 5 years). You know it is a cynical ruse when he actually uses the word “softening”, which is remarkably insincere. It’s like saying “we’re about to start pandering, believe me.”

Everyone “pivots”; we know this. It’s part of politics. But running on naked racism and white nationalism for over a year, then pretending you didn’t mean that, isn’t a pivot. It’s a way to hide the essential nature of your campaign to fool people who are just now paying attention. This isn’t something he should be able to get away with. The stakes are too high.

So I really, really, don’t want to see serious discussions on “did Trump manage to massage his message enough to appeal to his base without alienating more people?” He’s still the know-nothing fascist dimwit he’s always been, now he’s just pretending to be a real candidate for five or ten minutes. He’s clearly not. It’s part of the cynicism of GOP leaders— just pretend that you won’t be an epochal and country-wrecking disaster of a President for 3 months, ok?”– and it is incumbent upon the media not to let them get away with it. This isn’t Romney pivoting away from the far right. It’s George Wallace putting on Groucho glasses and pretending to be someone else. It’s a gaboon viper telling you he’s a caterpillar. It really can’t be allowed to work.

I’m Probably Going to Blame Teens For This


Don’t be so smug, Brayden. This is your fault. 


Facebook is running a small test that allows all videos to automatically start rolling with the sound on, rather than silently as they do now — this despite the company’s own research showing that unexpected, loud video ads annoy 80 percent of users.
[Peter Kafka | Recode]

I don’t really have much to comment on Facebook here, per se: they are going to do what they are going to do, and continue to make money, even as we grouse. And we will, because automatic videos with sound are annoying as hell. I work from home, where no one will ever look over and know I am goofing around when a video starts playing, and I still get instantly irritated and close whatever window the sound is in. It’s a natural reaction, a vestige of office-based guilt, but mostly annoyance. I’ll sit through ads. I’ll click on things. If I get a website for free, and enjoy the content, that’s the price. It’s fine. But not when you insist upon makign a racket. But anyway, that’s not what bugs me about this, really.

No, it’s that 80% that blows my mind. That seems overwhelming, but that means 20% of you aren’t annoyed by this. If you are talking to five people right now, one of them is ok with an ad for Hardees suddenly shouting at them. Who is fine with this? Who are you people? In some ways, this is more disturbing than knowing that millions of people are voting for Trump.

It’s probably teens. I knew it was teens. Even when it was the bears, I knew it was them.