Blow and Cohen

In “Activists Confront Hillary Clinton” Mr. Blow says liberals and conservatives alike must answer for how the criminal justice system has been unleashed upon black people in this country.  Mr. Cohen, in “California Dreaming,” says Technology’s thrill is no more than an ephemeral distraction from the unchanging puzzles of life in any age.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

A newly released video from Good magazine, showing Hillary Clinton in a meeting being confronted by young activists from the Black Lives Matter movement, thrilled me to no end. It also depressed me just as much.

The activists called on Clinton to answer for her and her husband’s part in the rise of mass incarceration in this country, a phenomenon that disproportionately affects black and brown people.

Julius Jones, a Black Lives Matter activist from Boston, said to Clinton:

“I genuinely want to know: You, and your family, have been in no uncertain way partially responsible for this, more than most.”

He then asked:

“Now, there may have been unintended consequences, but now that you understand the consequences, what in your heart has changed, that’s going to change the direction of this country? What in you, like not your platform, not, not what you’re supposed to say, like how do you actually feel, that’s different than you did before? Like, what were the mistakes and how can those mistakes that you’ve made be lessons for all of America, or a moment of reflection on how we treat black people in this country?”

(Good magazine pointed out: “Hillary Clinton lobbied lawmakers to back the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Bill Clinton signed the act into law in 1994. The largest crime bill in history, it provided $9.7 billion in prison funding. From 1992 to 2000, the amount of prisoners in the U.S. increased almost 60 percent.”)

Clinton pointed to her record on civil rights work, but she never apologized for, or even acknowledged, her and her husband’s role in giving America the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest incarceration rate.

To me, the diversion was stunning, and telling.

Maggie Haberman noted in The New York Times that the exchange “showed Mrs. Clinton as even her admirers lament that she is seldom seen: spontaneous, impassioned and seemingly unconcerned about potential repercussions.”

Politically, that may be true. She was agile and evasive, for sure. She bobbed and weaved like Floyd Mayweather. But there was a moral issue, an accountability issue, that still hung rotting in the ring: What in her has changed, now that she has seen the devastation a policy she advocated has wrought?

(Last month, at the annual convention of the N.A.A.C.P., Bill Clinton did apologize, saying, “I signed a bill that made the problem worse.” He continued, “And I want to admit it.” His contrition makes Hillary’s nonapology all the more vexing.)

This is the part of the Black Lives Matter political protests that I love so much: The idea that you must test the fealty of your supposed friends in addition to battling the fury of your avowed foes.

The truth of America is that both liberals and conservatives alike have things for which they must answer, sins for which they must atone, when it comes to how the criminal justice system has been aimed at and unleashed upon black people in this country.

And it’s not just the Clintons who have things they must answer for on criminal justice and black people. As I have written about before, toward the end of his tenure, President George W. Bush drastically reduced funding for the Byrne Formula Grant Program, which had been established by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act to supercharge the war on drugs — a disastrous boondoggle that would come to be a war waged primarily against marijuana use by black men.

As the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out in 2011, “The racial disparities are staggering: despite the fact that whites engage in drug offenses at a higher rate than African-Americans, African-Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate that is 10 times greater than that of whites.’”

A group of senators, mostly Democrats, wrote a letter demanding that the funding be restored. Barack Obama ran on a promise to restore that funding, and once elected, he did just that. As I wrote in 2010:

“The 2009 stimulus package presented these Democrats with the opportunity, and they seized it. The legislation, designed by Democrats and signed by President Obama, included $2 billion for Byrne Grants to be awarded by the end of September 2010. That was nearly a 12-fold increase in financing. Whatever the merits of these programs, they are outweighed by the damage being done. Financing prevention is fine. Financing a race-based arrest epidemic is not.”

And these sins exist not only at the federal level, but also at the local level.

Many of the recent cases have been in some of our most liberal cities — cities that, as Isabel Wilkerson brilliantly pointed out in January, were the very ones to which black Americans flocked during the Great Migration.

Eric Garner was choked and killed by police in New York. Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police in Cleveland. Charley Saturmin Robinet was shot and killed by police in Los Angeles.

In a way, these deadly interactions are connected to civic policies that not only implicate the police officers but the liberals who occupy these cities themselves. Stop-and-frisk existed, in obscene proportions, in New York. And yet, most white voters in the city said that they approved of the program, according to a 2012 Quinnipiac University poll.

People from both sides of the aisle have cast poor black people to the wolves and averted their gaze from the ensuing carnage. But in a way, asking liberals to answer for their complicity is even more important than asking conservatives.

More than nine in 10 blacks vote Democratic. That level of fidelity should give black people some leverage, at the very least, to demand accountability

At one point in one of the videos, Clinton said:

“I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”

But what if the same person saying that was partially responsible for changing the laws that allocated the resources that built up a system that operated as a tool of destruction?

These young activists, indeed all of us, should expect liberals to have more direct answers for their own actions — and inactions — than the one Clinton gave.

There can be no sacred cows when black people have been treated like sacrificial lambs.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen, waxing rhapsodic or something:

To question change in the state whose companies have transformed the world by networking it may seem like California dreaming. Lives last long enough now for the reality of change to be manifest. The world is not what it was when much of existence drifted by in a disconnected state and productivity had not taken a 24/7 hold.

Undistracted immersion in place and mood was easier back in the 20th century. That could make for great journalism. On the other hand, communication was harder. That could make filing the journalism a nightmare.

On the one hand, on the other: That’s life in any century. It’s lived in the gray zone of uncertainty. Delusional certainty tends to be the domain of those with ambitions to lead the muddled crowd. Politics depends on the promise of change. That’s its elixir.

But I’ve been wondering. The more things change, say the French, the more they stay the same. Or as a similar idea is put in “The Leopard,” one of the greatest of Italian novels: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

They do change, sometimes with swift brutality. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia swept everything away — yet here is Vladimir Putin playing czar. Uprisings come and go but Egypt harkens for its pharaoh. We dreamed of paradise, lamented the leading East German protester of 1989 who would become Germany’s president, and woke up in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Scourges, from the plague to polio, are vanquished; others arise. The Medicis grow rich, become patrons of the arts, take a stab at just rule, before their inevitable fall; to be replaced in Florence-on-the-Pacific by the likes of Brin and Page and Omidyar and Thiel, who want to invest part of their dotcom fortunes in a more enlightened, healthier humanity.

The eternal puzzles of birth and love, death and beauty, injustice and poverty, persist. The search for happiness, and meaning, goes on. The same feelings exist in changed circumstances. Technology’s thrill may be no more than an ephemeral distraction from the immutable human condition, which constitutes the realm of art.

The catalyst to these musings was something I saw in Los Angeles, probably the last place I expected to see it because I think of the city as hot-wired to the new and inclined to the brittle. It was a bronze statue from the third century B.C. of a seated boxer, a life-size rendering of a bearded man who, to judge from the bruise on his cheek and his broken nose, has just emerged from a fight, or perhaps a series of fights. His body is strong, suggestive of the heroic, but his expression is excruciatingly human, full of stoicism and questioning.

Here I am, the boxer seems to say, and such is life: an unpredictable struggle for survival in which there is no escape from hard work and wisdom must be earned the hard way. You see, he murmurs across 2,300 years, I have done what I had to do and this is the state I find myself in: tired, battered but unflinching and alive.

The statue, found in Rome in 1885, is on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum, part of an astonishing exhibition called “Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World.” Astonishing for its beauty but perhaps above all for the range of expression evident in the statuary. Gods of imposing power are depicted, yet it is the emotion of human subjects in all its variety — from serenity to suffering, from elation to exhaustion — that is most unforgettable because all those emotions are recognizable as, well, contemporary.

The boxer made me think of one of my favorite paintings, Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X in Rome’s Doria Pamphilj Gallery, not in any particular detail but in the evocation of someone who has lived life to the full: the ruddy and weathered face of the pontiff, the shrewd eyes, the expression that says he sees through the pomp of his position and is aware that life, even at the summit of power, may be viewed as a cruel joke. “Troppo vero!” — “Too true!” — the pope is said to have exclaimed on seeing it.

My late uncle, Bert Cohen, was in Italy during World War II. On July 21, 1944, he reached Monte Cassino and wrote in his war diary: “Poor Cassino, wreck and desolation unbelievable, roads smashed and pitted, mines, booby traps and graves everywhere. Huge shell holes, craters filled with stagnant slime, smashed buildings, hardly outlines remaining, a silent sight of ghosts and shadows. Pictures should be taken of this monument to mankind’s worst moments and circulated through every school room in the world.”

Along with pictures of the Hellenistic boxer and the Italian pope to illustrate the illusions of power, the bruises of life, the persistence of hope and the limits of change. Relax — we’ve been here before.

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