Blow, Cohen and Krugman

In “Sandra and Kindra: Suicides or Something Sinister?” Mr. Blow says the deaths of two black women who died in police custody raise so-far unanswered questions.  In “Afghanistan, Empires and the Grateful Dead” Mr. Cohen discusses conflict and loss and a broken-down VW Kombi. He ponders what a long, strange trip it’s been.  Prof. Krugman, in “Europe’s Impossible Dream,” explains how fantasy economics led to disaster.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Although the mantra “Black Lives Matter” was developed by black women, I often worry that in the collective consciousness it carries with it an implicit masculine association, one that renders subordinate or even invisible the very real and concurrent subjugation and suffering of black women, one that assigns to these women a role of supporter and soother and without enough space or liberty to express and advocate for their own.

Last week, the prism shifted a bit, as America and the social justice movement focused on the mysterious cases of two black women who died in police custody.

The first and most prominent was Sandra Bland, a black woman from suburban Chicago who had moved to Texas to take a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A & M University, a historically black school about 50 miles northwest of Houston.

She never started that job. After being arrested following a traffic stop, Bland was found dead in her jail cell. The police say she killed herself. Her family and friends doubt it.

As The New York Times reported last week: Bland “was arrested last Friday in Waller County by an officer with the Texas Department of Public Safety on a charge of assaulting a public servant. She had been pulled over for failing to signal a lane change.”

The Times continued:

“A statement from the Waller County Sheriff’s Office said that the cause of Ms. Bland’s death appeared to be self-inflicted asphyxiation. An autopsy on Tuesday classified her death as suicide by hanging, according to The Chicago Tribune.”

Indeed, the Waller County district attorney, Elton Mathis, told a Houston station last week: “I will admit it is strange someone who had everything going for her would have taken her own life.”

According to NBC News, Mathis also said: “If there was something nefarious, or if there was some foul play involved, we’ll get to the bottom of that.”

The F.B.I. has joined that investigation.

Then, there was the case of 18-year-old Kindra Chapman, arrested on Tuesday in Alabama for allegedly stealing a cellphone.According to AL.com: “Jailers last saw her alive at 6:30 p.m. She was found unresponsive at 7:50 p.m. Authorities said she used a bed sheet to hang herself.” According to the paper, she had been booked in the Homewood City Jail at 6:22 p.m.

The deaths seem odd: young women killing themselves after only being jailed only a few days or a less than a couple hours, before a trial or conviction, for relatively minor crimes.

And the official explanations that they were suicides run counter to prevailing patterns of behavior as documented by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which has found that, on the whole, men are more likely to commit suicide in local jails than women, young people are less likely to do so than older people, and black people are the least likely to do so than any other racial or ethnic group.

That doesn’t mean that these women didn’t commit suicide, but it does help to explain why their coinciding deaths might be hard for people to accept.

Indeed, because state violence echoes through the African-American experience in this country, it is even understandable if black people might occasionally experience a sort of Phantom Lynching Syndrome, having grown so accustomed to the reality of a history of ritualized barbarism that they would sense its presence even in its absence.

We have to wait to see what, if any, new information comes out about these cases. But it is right to resist simple explanations for extraordinary events.

These black women’s live must matter enough for there to be full investigations of the events surrounding their deaths to assure their families and the public that no “foul play” was involved.

Women are not adjuncts to this movement for social justice and the equal valuation of all lives; they are elemental to it.

The same week that news broke about these black women found dead in their jail cells, Google celebrated the 153rd birthday of anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells with a Google Doodle image. There seemed to me a fortuitous righteousness in the timing, an aligning of stars, an act of cosmic symmetry: celebrating a black female civil rights icon at the very moment that black females were the singular focus of the present civil rights movement.

Wells once said: “Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.”

I think that this burden of proof remains, and in this moment has gathered onto itself an increased, incandescent urgency, “like the light from a fire which consumes a witch,” as James Baldwin once phrased it.

In this moment, it falls to many of us to take up the mantle and articulate and illuminate the balance of the sinning against, vs. the sinning, for both black men and women alike.

This week that means investigating the “suicides” of Sandra and Kindra.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

We had not planned to be in Afghanistan for the 1973 coup. In fact we had not planned much of anything. But that’s the way it turned out. When the Afghan king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, was ousted after a 40-year reign, we were in Kandahar in the courtyard of some hotel trying to learn how to ignore the flies. Another guest, who’d mastered the fly trick and attained imperturbability, had a short-wave radio. It picked up the BBC World Service news.

A coup? My two friends and I were on the hippie trail. This was not part of the deal, dude. Even Afghans seemed blown away. They of course had no idea that the overthrow of their monarch would presage decades of unrest in which the Soviet Union would find its quagmire and the United States discover the dangers of a short attention span.

They knew nothing of how the mujahedeen “holy warriors,” schooled in American-backed Wahhabi fundamentalism, would battle Soviet troops until they withdrew to an enfeebled Communist empire, how the Wahhabis would turn on their negligent American patron, how the Taliban would emerge to restore order, or how the United States after 9/11 would fight a long Afghan war with a disastrous Iraqi sidebar.

Nor did we. Afghanistan, even kingless, had majesty. Its coup seemed uneventful. We drove up to Kabul. I think we saw one tank.

The road to Afghanistan from London had led across a Turkey still impenetrable, where only the children smiled, the shah’s Iran, where Mashhad’s cobalt blue mosque made an indelible impression, and the dusty border near Herat, where we first became acquainted with the pride of the Afghan gaze.

Our VW Kombi was called Pigpen, named after the keyboardist of theGrateful Dead who’d died that year. The Dead loomed large, our sunshine daydream. “Truckin”’ was our anthem — until the cassette machine got stolen. Then we strained for the harmonies of “Uncle John’s Band.” In Kabul we had an Ace of Hearts painted on the front of Pigpen.

Up to Bamiyan we went and sat on the heads of the 1,500-year-old Buddhas, since destroyed by the Taliban as “gods of the infidels.” We gazed at the sacred valley. The peace seemed eternal; it would not be. Everything passes except the dream that it will not. In Band-e-Amir, the night sky was of a breathtaking brilliance. On my 18th birthday, I thought I found my star, blotted out the rest, and recalled the line from “Box of Rain” — “Maybe you’ll find direction around some corner where it’s been waiting to meet you.” Later, deep in the Hindu Kush, Pigpen broke down. Like so many before us, we limped out of Afghanistan but we brought the Kombi home. There is much to be said for journeys without maps.

So of course I had to resume the journey earlier this month at Soldier Field in Chicago, where the Grateful Dead sans Jerry Garcia regrouped on their 50th anniversary to bid farewell. I’d last seen them on a Haight-Ashbury pilgrimage in San Francisco in 1974. Well, we’d all changed. Peace signs had not won the day any more than time’s imprint could be effaced. A cynic would take the view that the dollar sign had prevailed. But the magic of the music, in its moments of improvised brilliance, precluded any such heartless reflection. Hugs and hopes of old and young filled the stadium. Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart still did their thing. Listen to “Friend of the Devil” and find yourself back on the road from Herat to Kandahar — four decades, a mere ripple on water.

A Palestinian friend and physician, Sahar Halabi, attended the concert with me. Her odyssey had taken her from Algiers to Liverpool and on to the Midwest. Later, she sent me something she had once written about her search for her family’s home, from which they were ousted in 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence, which Palestinians call their “Nakba,” or catastrophe.

She wrote: “The story of the old large house was a constant in my childhood, not because of the repetition, but because it was a palpable entity which I could almost touch with my imagination. To all of the Palestinian refugees in diaspora, the land of Palestine is not a physical place, only sheer longing.” On a visit to Israel in 2009, she goes back to the place where the house once stood and digs: “The old design of the intertwined blue and red curved lines of the tiles appear, and I understood. These were the tiles of the floors on which my mother took her first unsteady steps.” A fragment is now in her Chicago home.

Fragments, memories, conflicts, the intractability of understanding and the constancy of the Dead: What a long, strange trip it’s been. As Hart said, “I’ll leave you with this: Please, be kind.”

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

There’s a bit of a lull in the news from Europe, but the underlying situation is as terrible as ever. Greece is experiencing a slump worse than the Great Depression, and nothing happening now offers hope of recovery. Spain has been hailed as a success story, because its economy is finally growing — but it still has 22 percent unemployment. And there is an arc of stagnationacross the continent’s top: Finland is experiencing a depression comparable to that in southern Europe, and Denmark and the Netherlands are also doing very badly.

How did things go so wrong? The answer is that this is what happens when self-indulgent politicians ignore arithmetic and the lessons of history. And no, I’m not talking about leftists in Greece or elsewhere; I’m talking about ultra-respectable men in Berlin, Paris, and Brussels, who have spent a quarter-century trying to run Europe on the basis of fantasy economics.

To someone who didn’t know much economics, or chose to ignore awkward questions, establishing a unified European currency sounded like a great idea. It would make doing business across national borders easier, while serving as a powerful symbol of unity. Who could have foreseen the huge problems the euro would eventually cause?

Actually, lots of people. In January 2010 two European economists published an article titled “It Can’t Happen, It’s a Bad Idea, It Won’t Last,” mocking American economists who had warned that the euro would cause big problems. As it turned out, the article was an accidental classic: at the very moment it was being written, all those dire warnings were in the process of being vindicated. And the article’s intended hall of shame — the long list of economists it cites for wrongheaded pessimism — has instead become a sort of honor roll, a who’s who of those who got it more or less right.

The only big mistake of the euroskeptics was underestimating just how much damage the single currency would do.

The point is that it wasn’t at all hard to see, right from the beginning, that currency union without political union was a very dubious project. So why did Europe go ahead with it?

Mainly, I’d say, because the idea of the euro sounded so good. That is, it sounded forward-looking, European-minded, exactly the kind of thing that appeals to the kind of people who give speeches at Davos. Such people didn’t want nerdy economists telling them that their glamorous vision was a bad idea.

Indeed, within Europe’s elite it quickly became very hard to raise objections to the currency project. I remember the atmosphere of the early 1990s very well: anyone who questioned the desirability of the euro was effectively shut out of the discussion. Furthermore, if you were an American expressing doubts you were invariably accused of ulterior motives — of being hostile to Europe, or wanting to preserve the dollar’s “exorbitant privilege.”

And the euro came. For a decade after its introduction a huge financial bubble masked its underlying problems. But now, as I said, all of the skeptics’ fears have been vindicated.

Furthermore, the story doesn’t end there. When the predicted and predictable strains on the euro began, Europe’s policy response was to impose draconian austerity on debtor nations — and to deny the simple logic and historical evidence indicating that such policies would inflict terrible economic damage while failing to achieve the promised debt reduction.

It’s astonishing even now how blithely top European officials dismissed warnings that slashing government spending and raising taxes would cause deep recessions, how they insisted that all would be well because fiscal discipline would inspire confidence. (It didn’t.) The truth is that trying to deal with large debts through austerity alone — in particular, while simultaneously pursuing a hard-money policy — has never worked. It didn’t work for Britain after World War I, despite immense sacrifices; why would anyone expect it to work for Greece?

What should Europe do now? There are no good answers — but the reason there are no good answers is because the euro has turned into a Roach Motel, a trap that’s hard to escape. If Greece still had its own currency, the case for devaluing that currency, improving Greek competitiveness and ending deflation, would be overwhelming.

The fact that Greece no longer has a currency, that it would have to create one from scratch, vastly raises the stakes. My guess is that euro exit will still prove necessary. And in any case it will be essential to write down much of Greece’s debt.

But we’re not having a clear discussion of these options, because European discourse is still dominated by ideas the continent’s elite would like to be true, but aren’t. And Europe is paying a terrible price for this monstrous self-indulgence.

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