Monthly Archives: July 2015

Photo: Lisa Roe (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Photo: Lisa Roe (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Today, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me, was published. I’m something of a fan-boy, having followed his blog for years now. I’ve always had a deep respect for people who use blogs to think hard and out loud, and few do so better than him. When I came across his blog, I think maybe in 2009 or 2010, I immediately thought that this was someone who had a profound understanding not only of his subject matter (race and American culture) but also of this format, the blog.

Everyone is talking about his work this week, deservedly so, about his writing and his thoughts, for instance in this very nice beatification in New York Magazine. But while his writing and thinking are what should be most interesting about him, let me just briefly tell you another reason he’s an intellectual role model for me: he possesses one of the rarest intellectual virtues, that of humility.

He is someone who knows he doesn’t know everything and who openly carries that in everything he does. I love that about him. I remember seeing him castigating some snooty readers for making fun of him after he said that he hadn’t read (I think) Hobbes. In a world of know-it-all’s, and people who check Wikipedia before they write a single line, his frankness about what he doesn’t know is not just something he does for show or to get out of tight spots, in a sense it’s the entire point of what he does. He doesn’t know stuff and then he works really hard to find out.

Anyway, I’m just getting started with the Kindle edition of the book, but so far it’s really, really good. The man can bang sentences together like you wouldn’t believe. He’s one of those people who work super hard to make things look easy. These paragraphs from the opening chapter of the book, which you can read parts of in The Atlantic, here, are not just really well written, but they also hit me hard:

The boy with the small eyes reached into his ski jacket and pulled out a gun. I recall it in the slowest motion, as though in a dream. There the boy stood, with the gun brandished, which he slowly untucked, tucked, then untucked once more, and in his small eyes I saw a surging rage that could, in an instant, erase my body. That was 1986. That year I felt myself to be drowning in the news reports of murder. I was aware that these murders very often did not land upon the intended targets but fell upon great-aunts, PTA mothers, overtime uncles, and joyful children—fell upon them random and relentless, like great sheets of rain. I knew this in theory but could not understand it as fact until the boy with the small eyes stood across from me holding my entire body in his small hands.

I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like fog. I knew that West Baltimore, where I lived; that the north side of Philadelphia, where my cousins lived; that the South Side of Chicago, where friends of my father lived, comprised a world apart. Somewhere out there beyond the firmament, past the asteroid belt, there were other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies. I knew this because there was a large television in my living room. In the evenings I would sit before this television bearing witness to the dispatches from this other world. There were little white boys with complete collections of football cards, their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak. That other world was suburban and endless, organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice-cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and endless lawns. Comparing these dispatches with the facts of my native world, I came to understand that my country was a galaxy, and this galaxy stretched from the pandemonium of West Baltimore to the happy hunting grounds of Mr. Belvedere. I obsessed over the distance between that other sector of space and my own. I knew that my portion of the American galaxy, where bodies were enslaved by a tenacious gravity, was black and that the other, liberated portion was not. I knew that some inscrutable energy preserved the breach. I felt, but did not yet understand, the relation between that other world and me. And I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape.

Reading them triggered some memories in me which are maybe thematically linked to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book.


In the middle of these paragraphs, I suddenly surprised myself by being viscerally taken with memories of a cool, quiet morning in a small, African country almost ten years ago.

On the way up the hill to the bus station, we were ambushed and robbed by five men. The tense, coiled anger of the man who put the knife to my throat, who took my money and who could have chosen to take my life or the life of the woman who is now my wife — his anger is still right here with me now, in my hotel room, all these years later. I’m still shaking with anger myself and fear.

I can’t forgive the men who ambushed us. They took more from us than the pitiful haul of things they took. But in another, more distant sense, their violence was understandable. To be expected, almost. It was a corrupt state with spectacular levels of income inequality and a staggering, unbelievably brutal epidemic of HIV laying waste to the population. Bad societies produce people like this, people who don’t care if they live or die, who don’t care if they kill you or not.

And here is the difference between me and the man who held the knife to my belly and hissed at me. Just a few hours later, I was in an entirely different country. I was sitting in a lounge chair by a pool in an expensive hotel in a former colonial administration house. I was steadying my nerves on a gin tonic which had been served to me by an immaculately uniformed waiter while I waited for dinner. The sky was growing dark and the swallows flew intense, intricate dances above me. The man who held the knife to me was where he would in all likelihood spend the rest of his days: in what was almost certainly an uncomfortable, unsafe place, getting high.

A few weeks later, I would be back at my desk, in my safe, prosperous, European country. I’m still here. If the actuarial tables and his lifestyle is a guide, he is almost certainly dead by now. Maybe not, maybe he was lucky, but in all likelihood he is. And his life was almost certainly an unhappy one, filled with misery, depridation and pain; caused by him, done to him.

I can’t help but think of him and his agency simply as a cog in a malfunctioning machine that reproduces misery. That misery is produced by policy, Western and African. It is a predictable outcome. A desired one, almost.

I remember sitting at the poolside, looking at the swallows dancing, thinking about responsibility and what it means to be that man who has been produced by that country. What is it to choose to do ill in a country where doing good is almost impossible? And what was the fairness in me being me, being able to afford the pool, the gin tonics, the servants, the staggering inequality of being able to summon such goods and services as if out of thin air. Who was he? What forces compelled him to do what he did? What did he want, what forces in the country wanted through him?

I’ve completely forgotten his face by now. But I can recall exactly what the knife looked like.

My life has mostly been blessedly free of fear and violence. I think Ta-Nehisi Coates gets at some of the reasons it’s hard to understand what living with fear does to someone. I lived with fear for a few weeks, a few months. It isn’t woven into the very fabric my life is made of. I need to be thankful for that.


On another note entirely,  it’s my two year anniversary with today, the machine tells me. I’m actually very happy with this place and what it has become. Thanks to the wonderful generosity of the staff, who have featured this blog on a couple of occasions, I have over 6.000 followers and feel that the blog has begun to become what I wanted it to be when I started it.

The only thing that’s not, really, is that I can’t quite live up to my ideal of posting something every day, and that I would like to hear more from those of you who read the blog. Saying such things are a little ritual on most blogs, but I like this, I’ll keep writing, I’ll keep thinking out loud. Thank you for reading and commenting.


“Dear chancellor Merkel. Please accept this gift in honour of your solidarity and help in this time of need. Sincerely, the Greeks.”

1. NAI — in which your blogger explains his absence

(Feel free to skip ahead until the Greferendum bit. This post starts with some dithering.)

I’ve forgotten what writing for pleasure feels like. A visceral sensation: the French philosopher Roland Barthes talks about the pleasure of the text. The erotics of just writing for no particular reason. And the sensation of writing as a way of externalising thinking, of taking thinking outside the body.

The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas — for my body does not have the same ideas I do.

Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

I’ve been away for a good long while now. Not so much writer’s block as a writer blocked from writing. I used to have a job which had the bug / feature that I couldn’t say my opinions out loud. Then I changed jobs to something of a dream job of mine, which means that I now can speak my mind, about the very things I want to speak my mind about, but I have ridiculously little time to do it (and I’m sorry folks, but the family is getting the rest of the free time. I love you all dearly, but if we don’t share DNA or a bed, you’re at least number three on my list of priorities). So here we are. And yet, there’s something to be said for this anonymity. And this place which I already have lying around. So maybe it’s time to begin writing again?

These sorts of throat-clearings are a genre convention of sorts for blogging. Like diary entries from adolescence, months apart, this blog has decayed until every post begins with an apology for not posting. I’ll try to get back on the horse. I might even surprise myself by keeping it up. But writing should always be a tour of surprises, of thoughts surprising yourself by appearing, fully formed as if out of nowhere, as you write them down.


2. OXI — in which your blogger talks about the latest events in Greece, wherein contained many extraordinarily dumb and unnecessary references to Greek mythology and antiquity, as is customary when writing about Greece.

And speaking of surprising horses, how about those Greeks? I’ve been riveted to the unfolding events in Greece these past days. I’ve found the spectacle unfolding to be not only of great historical significance but also somehow deeply moving. Having grown up in a family with deep dedication to leftist ideals, the sight of people cooperating massively, courageously, against the entrenched powers of the elites is something which triggers that profound, childish sense of aaaw, yeah — justice in me.

You don’t need to be the oracle at Delphi to know that the Greferendum isn’t the end of Greece’s trouble. But at least this way the Greeks chose democracy (which was invented, sort of!, in Greece!) self-determination over the tyranny (from the Greek! Tyrannos!) of the leaders of the Eurozone. To be honest, the behaviour of the European leaders has been shameful. You can learn a lot about people and institutions from how they treat those weaker than themselves (like in all those Greek tragedies where the gods mess with the people just to mess with them). You can learn even more from how they treat the weak when they have something to gain. 

In this case, there was zero concern in the European community of political leaders for the Greek population. It was, as the great Cassandra of our time, Paul Krugman, said, shameful:

The campaign of bullying — the attempt to terrify Greeks by cutting off bank financing and threatening general chaos, all with the almost open goal of pushing the current leftist government out of office — was a shameful moment in a Europe that claims to believe in democratic principles. It would have set a terrible precedent if that campaign had succeeded, even if the creditors were making sense.

I think there are two things which keep suprising me about the situation in Greece.

The first is that there is actual surprise that the Greek population rejected an impossible dilemma. The troika asked them to destroy the future of Greece in one of two ways. The Greek leadership responded by cutting the Gordian knot: the dilemma was a false one. That we are surprised at the choice made by the Greek people should be a cause for alarm in us. It means that we are blindly accepting a false paradigm of economy. Austerity has a terrible track record. It should be cast out in shame, like Oedipus at the end of Oedipus the KingAs Thomas Piketty, Jeffrey Sachs and a group of notable economists are saying in an open letter to Merkel in today’s The Nation

The never-ending austerity that Europe is force-feeding the Greek people is simply not working. Now Greece has loudly said no more.

As most of the world knew it would, the financial demands made by Europe have crushed the Greek economy, led to mass unemployment, a collapse of the banking system, made the external debt crisis far worse, with the debt problem escalating to an unpayable 175 percent of GDP. The economy now lies broken with tax receipts nose-diving, output and employment depressed, and businesses starved of capital.

The humanitarian impact has been colossal—40 percent of children now live in poverty, infant mortality is sky-rocketing and youth unemployment is close to 50 percent. Corruption, tax evasion and bad accounting by previous Greek governments helped create the debt problem. The Greeks have complied with much of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s call for austerity—cut salaries, cut government spending, slashed pensions, privatized and deregulated, and raised taxes. But in recent years the series of so-called adjustment programs inflicted on the likes of Greece has served only to make a Great Depression the likes of which have been unseen in Europe since 1929-1933. The medicine prescribed by the German Finance Ministry and Brussels has bled the patient, not cured the disease.

They finish with a full broadside against Merkel:

To Chancellor Merkel our message is clear; we urge you to take this vital action of leadership for Greece and Germany, and also for the world. History will remember you for your actions this week. We expect and count on you to provide the bold and generous steps towards Greece that will serve Europe for generations to come.

The second thing which amazes me is this: that this simplistic way of thinking about debt is still completely dominant. I keep thinking this week about David Graeber’s wonderful book Debt: The First 5.000 Years. It shows how the language of debt, a semi-fictitious construct, is completely taken for granted, and yet falls apart when picked at. Debts are not some great Moloch which has to be fed regularly. They can be extended, relieved or forgiven. Of course they can. They have been all along.

And it should be obvious there is equal responsibility on borrower and lender for the transaction. When the debt of Greece became impossible to pay without great human suffering, the time had come for the Eurozone to get creative, to help and show solidarity with their Greek partners. They did not. It was a profound failure of both empathy and the imagination. A bit of a Greek tragedy. Sort of.

(Sincerely sorry for all the bad Greek references. It’s just that all the bad commentators are doing it. I find it annoying.)