Blow, Cohen and Kristof

In “Darren Wilson’s Quest for Distance” Mr. Blow says Wilson must have made the calculation that a magazine profile would humanize and rehabilitate him in some way. He was wrong.  Mr. Cohen, in “Incurable American Excess,” says Europeans are hardwired to social protection, Americans to an individualism that rewards and ravages.  Mr. Kristof, in “Making Life Harder for Pimps,” says credit card companies have upended the business model of sex traffickers by eliminating a way they pay for advertising.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Leading up to the first anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — and the cultural convolutions that followed — The New Yorker has published an article including extensive interviews with Darren Wilson, the police officer who pulled the trigger.

A grand jury refused to indict Wilson in Brown’s death and the Justice Department cleared him of willfully violating Brown’s civil rights. (Brown’s family is now pursuing a civil suit against the city of Ferguson, the former police chief and Wilson.)

Still, the case remains a polarizing one, as some view it as an example of a needless escalation of hostility that too often leaves a person dead; others view Wilson as a hero and now also as a victim. (Wilson says in the interviews that he has been subject to death threats, can’t move freely without worry in his own community and can’t land another police job.)

The Justice Department issued two reports in the case. The one that cleared Wilson also contradicted some claims of vocal witnesses, claims that became central to the outrage that followed. It found that Brown was not shot in the back, and it deemed unreliable assertions that Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was fatally shot.

But the second report, a comprehensive look at the Ferguson Police Department and courts, found widespread racial targeting of black citizens that permeated the system.

As Jake Halpern put it in The New Yorker article:

“Together, the two reports frustrated attempts to arrive at a clean moral conclusion. Wilson had violated no protocol in his deadly interaction with Brown, yet he was part of a corrupt and racist system.”

That is the backdrop against which Wilson’s comments in the article must stand.

Wilson and his attorneys must have made the calculation that a profile would humanize and rehabilitate him in some way, that the image that emerged of an isolated man being rebuffed by reticent police forces and barraged by threats would be empathetic and restorative. That effort, it seems to me, has backfired.

There is a calculated coldness, a willful obliviousness, a penchant for sweeping racial generalization that is unflattering, if not repugnant, in Wilson’s words.

Wilson admits that he hasn’t read the Justice Department report of systemic racism in Ferguson. (“I don’t have any desire,” he said. “I’m not going to keep living in the past about what Ferguson did. It’s out of my control.”) He also doesn’t seem to recognize or value Brown’s personhood. (“Do I think about who he was as a person? Not really, because it doesn’t matter at this point. Do I think he had the best upbringing? No. Not at all.”)

But to me, the most fascinating part of the interview was the portion where Wilson makes the false claim others often make: that the present is divorced from the past.

“People who experienced that, and were mistreated, have a legitimate claim,” he told me. “Other people don’t.” I asked him if he thought that young people in North County and elsewhere used this legacy as an excuse. “I think so,” he replied.

“I am really simple in the way that I look at life,” Wilson said. “What happened to my great-grandfather is not happening to me. I can’t base my actions off what happened to him.” Wilson said that police officers didn’t have the luxury of dwelling on the past. “We can’t fix in thirty minutes what happened thirty years ago,” he said. “We have to fix what’s happening now. That’s my job as a police officer. I’m not going to delve into people’s life-long history and figure out why they’re feeling a certain way, in a certain moment.” He added, “I’m not a psychologist.”

Ah, this is exactly why structural racism is so resilient: detachment. It requires a faith in individualism separate from systems and history, a faith in a lie. Both Wilson and Brown were operating in a cultural context informed by more than their own actions — it was born long before they were, it is ingrained, it is institutional, it is not only racially aware but racially conceived.

Nothing occurring in America can be divorced from America, the whole of America as it now exists and came to exist. Our present culture rests on historical context.

Yet this false detachment and distancing is what makes the predation of structural racism so perfect: It is an edifice without a single, maleficent architect or even a council thereof. It grows out of collective desire to perform a collective deed. It isn’t so much conscious brainchild as subliminal mind meld.

It is like the hive. No single bee need be aware of the hive’s entirety or its enormity. Just doing one seemingly innocuous task contributes to the whole. In fact, you needn’t participate at all to reap the benefits of the system.

It is as exquisite as it is insidious. It can also be deadly.

At another point, Wilson talks about the disproportionately black towns in what is called “North County” — where he chose to work, by the way, for career advancement reasons — as a kind of culturally degenerate morass. He is quoted as saying in the article of the citizens there: “They’re so wrapped up in a different culture than — what I’m trying to say is, the right culture, the better one to pick from.”

Here is the exchange with the author that follows:

This sounded like racial code language. I pressed him: what did he mean by “a different culture”? Wilson struggled to respond. He said that he meant “pre-gang culture, where you are just running in the streets—not worried about working in the morning, just worried about your immediate gratification.” He added, “It is the same younger culture that is everywhere in the inner cities.”

Wilson speaks of these communities as riddled with pathology rather than ravaged by poverty and, again, as if history, design and systemic racial oppressions like the ones described in the second Justice Department report play no role.

The station from which we start in the world is not arbitrarily assigned by birth lottery but preordained by legacy. Our lives are built upon past lives, those of parents and ancestors. Our access and mobility are enabled or restricted by structures, both young and ancient. I maintain that there is valor in effort, that trying to overcome is indeed a form of overcoming, that holding fast to hope in a world that would strip one naked of it is itself a herculean effort and a moral victory.

Yet I refuse to allow my abiding self-determinism to blind me to systems designed and built on devaluation and destruction. I know as others do the frustration and fatigue of swimming against a current rather than being carried by it. There are realities that must not be ignored or minimized.

Wilson’s interview doesn’t make him appear more human. It reaffirms the degree to which the American mind can seek to divest others of humanity, and it lays bare how historical illiteracy and incuriousness creates the comfortable distance on which pernicious structural racism relies.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

A few years ago, Americans and Europeans were asked in a Pew Global Attitudes survey what was more important: “freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference,” or “state guarantees that nobody is in need.” In the United States, 58 percent chose freedom and only 35 percent a state pledge to eradicate neediness. In Britain, the response was the opposite: 55 percent opted for state guarantees and just 38 percent for freedom. On the European Continent — in Germany, France and Spain — those considering state protection as more important than freedom from state interference rose to 62 percent.

This finding gets to the heart of trans-Atlantic differences. Americans, who dwell in a vast country, sparsely populated by European standards, are hardwired to the notion of individual self-reliance. Europeans, with two 20th-century experiences of cataclysmic societal fracture, are bound to the idea of social solidarity as prudent safeguard and guarantor of human decency. The French see the state as a noble idea and embodiment of citizens’ rights. Americans tend to see the state as a predator on those rights. The French ennoble the dutiful public servant. Americans ennoble the disruptive entrepreneur.

To return from Europe to the United States, as I did recently, is to be struck by the crumbling infrastructure, the paucity of public spaces, the conspicuous waste (of food and energy above all), the dirtiness of cities and the acuteness of their poverty. It is also to be overwhelmed by the volume and vital clamor of American life, the challenging interaction, the bracing intermingling of Americans of all stripes, the strident individualism. Europe is more organized, America more alive. Europe purrs; even its hardship seems somehow muted. America revs. The differences can feel violent.

In his intriguing new book, “The United States of Excess,” Robert Paarlberg, a political scientist, cites the 2011 Pew survey as he grapples with these divergent cultures. His focus is on American overconsumption of fuel and food. Why, he asks, is the United States an “outlier” in greenhouse gas emissions and obesity, and what, if anything, will it do about it? Per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the United States are about twice those of the other wealthy nations of the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. American obesity (just over a third of American adults are now obese) is running at about twice the European average and six times the Japanese.

Paarlberg argues persuasively that these American phenomena are linked. He finds their causes in demographic, cultural and political factors. A resource-rich, spacious nation, mistrustful of government authority, persuaded that responsibility is individual rather than collective, optimistic about the capacity of science and technology to resolve any problem, and living in a polarized political system paralyzed by its “multiple veto points,” tends toward “a scrambling form of adaptation” rather than “effective mitigation.”

Americans, in their majority, don’t want to increase taxes on fossil fuels or tax sugar-sweetened drinks because they see such measures as a regressive encroachment on individual freedoms — to drive an automobile and consume what you want. They won’t go the German route of promoting renewables like solar and wind power by guaranteeing higher fixed prices for those who generate it because higher electricity costs would result. Whether it comes to food or fuel, they don’t want measures where “voting-age adults are being coerced into a lifestyle change.”

Individualism trumps all — and innovation, it is somehow believed, will save the country from individualism’s ravages. Paarlberg notes that: “Americans eat alone while at work, alone while commuting to work in the car, alone at the food court while shopping, alone at home while watching TV, and alone in front of the refrigerator both before and after normal mealtime.”

But if all that eating continues to generate obesity — as it will — Americans tend to put their faith in “improved bariatric surgeries, and new blockbuster diet drugs” that “will be challenges welcomed by America’s innovative and responsive private market institutions.” Rather than cut back, they prefer to consume more — whether fuel or food — and then find ways to offset excess.

With the strong policy measures needed to control excess consumption — taxes, regulations and mandates — blocked, political leaders are “tempted to shift more resources and psychological energy toward the second-best path of adaptation,” Paarlberg writes: Easier, and potentially more profitable, to develop drought-resistant farm crops or improve coastal protection systems than tackle global warming by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

His conclusions are pessimistic. The world should not expect America to change. Its response to overconsumption is inadequate. On global warming, the country adapts but does not confront, content “to protect itself, and itself alone.” On obesity, it shuns the kind of coordinated policy action that will help the less fortunate, particularly disadvantaged minorities.

The question, of course, is whether America’s virtues — its creative churn, vitality and energy — are intrinsic to these vices. My own pessimistic conclusion is that they probably are.

Last but not least we have Mr. Kristof:

In the long struggle against sex trafficking, we finally have a breakthrough!

It didn’t come from Congress, or the White House, from the courts or the police. Rather, it came from credit card companies: Pimps can no longer easily use American Express, Visa or MasterCard to pay for prostitution ads in which they sell 15-year-old girls as if they were pizzas.

That upended the business model of sex trafficking. Pimps all over the country are reduced to figuring out how to pay to promote their ads with, yes, Bitcoin!

Human trafficking is one of the most insidious human rights abuses in the United States — some 100,000 minors are trafficked into the sex trade each year in America. So let me explain how we came to enjoy a triumph over traffickers.

A website called Backpage.com has for years dominated the sex trade advertising business. In April alone it published more than 1.4 million ads in its adult services section in the United States. Almost every time a girl is rescued from traffickers, it turns out that she was peddled on Backpage.

Last year I wrote about a missing 15-year-old Boston girl whose parents were beside themselves with worry. In their living room, I pulled out my laptop, opened up Backpage and quickly found seminude advertisements for the girl, who turned out to be in a hotel room with an armed pimp.

Backpage is allowed to operate because of a loophole in the Communications Decency Act. Attorneys general from 48 states havepleaded with Backpage to stop this exploitation, to no effect. Girls who have been sold on Backpage when they were as young as 13 have sued the company, but haven’t succeeded because of the loophole.

Then suddenly this summer, the miracle of the market intervened.

Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County, Ill., wrote tough letters to Visa and MasterCard, calling on them to stop allowing their cards to pay for sex ads on Backpage. Both companies effectively agreed. To its great credit, American Express in April stopped working with Backpage for adult ads, so as of the beginning of July pimps had no easy way to pay for advertisements.

Flummoxed, Backpage responded by making its basic sex ads free, but, even with a fee to promote a free ad, that’s not a business model that can sustain it. Backpage is suing Sheriff Dart, but my sense is that pimps won’t be using their credit cards again on the site any time soon.

“If it’s down for six months, that’s six months of children who aren’t raped,” says Yiota Souras of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

So bravo to American Express, MasterCard and Visa — and to Sheriff Dart — for getting results where Congress failed.

There will still be human trafficking, of course, and pimps will find other ways to peddle kids. But it may not be quite so easy for traffickers as it was.

“When on Backpage, I was advertised in the same way as a car or a phone, but with even less value than a bike,” one girl told me late last year. She said she was advertised at the age of 15 and 16 and raped 1,000 times as a result.

My guess is that a majority of sex ads on Backpage are for consenting adults. But a significant minority are for sex with children or with women who are coerced — representing some of the largest and most mistreated classes of human rights victims in America. We don’t have the moral authority to tell other countries to end modern forms of slavery when we don’t clean up our own act.

There has also been progress in other areas. The police in America are going after pimps more, and sometimes johns, as well (that still needs to happen more).

The Nordic model to combat trafficking and exploitation, pioneered in Sweden, has been gaining ground, too. It provides for the arrest of johns while offering help rebuilding the lives of women who were selling sex. Nothing works all that well in curbing sex trafficking, but this model has succeeded better than other approaches.

Yet in some quarters, there’s still a myopia about the degree to which this is a human rights issue. Amnesty International will consider a proposal in the coming days that would call for full decriminalization of the sex trade, including for johns, on the theory that this would benefit sex workers. Nice theory, but a failed one. It has been tried repeatedly and it invariably benefited johns while exacerbating abuse of women and girls: A parallel underground market emerges for underage girls.

Let’s hope Amnesty comes to its senses and, as Swanee Hunt of Harvard put it, avoids “endorsing one of the most exploitative human rights abuses of our time.” Then we can go back to celebrating the struggles of America’s sex traffickers as their business model is upended.

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