Saturday, November 3, 2018

A New York Story

I am about halfway through reading the Beastie Boys Book, which I recommend heartily.  The early chapters are my favorites – Ad-Rock and Mike D are particularly adept at summoning the ghost of New York City in the 1980s, with all of its dangers and possibilities.  
I am not generally given to nostalgia for the New York City of this era -- I thought it was bad when Washington Square Park was an open-air drug market and you couldn’t walk down 42ndStreet without being approached by prostitutes.  But Ad-Rock and MCA highlight some important elements of the ‘80s that are worth celebrating.  
Most notably, the 1980s in New York was a time of cultural cross-pollination, as punk met new wave met disco met rap (among other things). For example, in 1982, a DJ from the Bronx, Afrika Bambaataa, transformed “Trans-Europe Express” by the German electronic band Kraftwerk into the groundbreaking hip-hop single “Planet Rock."  
These kinds of mash-ups, which were happening seemingly every few weeks, were a big part of what initially attracted me to hip-hop.  It was positively dizzying to see a new musical genre emerge from the shards of other, earlier genres.  On Licensed to Ill, the Beastie Boys’ debut album, you could hear bits and bobs from Trouble Funk, Led Zeppelin, War, the Clash, and dozens of other groups, all stirred together into something new and different. This kind of borrowing doesn’t feel possible today given the legalities/costs of sampling and the current obsession with cultural appropriation. 
Licensed to Ill came out in 1986.  I was 19 years old, a Washington DC kid going to school at Wesleyan University.  
Around that time, I made one of my first trips to New York by myself, meeting a few college buddies to watch the Knicks play the Bulls.  (Unfortunately, Michael Jordan got injured before the game, turning a marquee match-up into something considerably less exciting. If memory serves, Patrick Ewing also didn’t play.)  
Anyway, the next day, I went to catch a cab.  I was trying to get to Port Authority so I could take a bus back to school in Connecticut.  No doubt I looked like what I was: an easy mark. 
A man approached me as I tried to pretend I was the kind of person who knew how to hail a cab: “Where you goin’?”
“To Port Authority,” I responded
“I’ll take you. Five dollars.”
Any real New Yorker will know what comes next.  I took out my wallet to give him five dollars. As soon as the wallet came out of my pocket, he grabbed it and started running.  
I took off after him. I know not what I would have done had I caught him.  But try to catch him I did, sprinting after him for blocks.  I was fueled by pure desperation.  These were the days before cell phones.  Without my wallet, I had no money, no ID, no credit cards…no way of getting back to college.
I thought I was gaining on the thief when he turned the corner off the avenue and onto a side street.  As I followed after him, I came crashing into an elderly woman with a shopping bag, nearly knocking her over.  The chase was over.
I apologized profusely to the woman.  She asked me what happened.  I told her my sob story.  After she had composed herself, she instructed me to walk with her.  
I thought I was doing her a favor, accompanying her to ensure that no further harm befell her on her shopping trip.  But when I looked up, we were at the Port Authority.  She took some bills out of her purse and gave me enough money to buy a bus ticket to Middletown, Connecticut.  I didn’t ask her name or get her address.  I never saw her again.  But needless to say, I will never forget her kindness.
The moral of the story: New York taketh away, but it also giveth. The ‘80s had some bad bits, but some good bits too. 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

20 Years in Crown Heights

Twenty years ago, we created a storefront mediation center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  In some ways, it was a lunatic undertaking.  The Center for Court Innovation was only a couple of years old.  We had no name recognition and zero reputation.  Nor did we have meaningful roots or connections in Crown Heights.  What we had was a small grant from the City of New York, which was interested in improving inter-group relations in the neighborhood and willing to give us some room to decide what that should look like.  More than that, we had the two things that have proven crucial to all of our success over the years, both in Crown Heights and the world beyond: we had an idea and we had talented people. 

Yesterday, we held a ribbon-cutting to celebrate the re-naming of the Mediation Center, which will now be known as Neighbors In Action.  I must confess to a bit of sadness at saying farewell to the Mediation Center.  The Mediation Center was launched the week my first daughter was born, so it has always had a special place in my heart.  Over the years, we worked hard to establish the Mediation Center and to develop its identity.  It has become well-known and well-liked not just in central Brooklyn but across the City.  Nonetheless, the name change is probably overdue -- the project long ago moved away from a primary focus on either mediation or Crown Heights.

I went to a seminar on managing organizational growth recently and one of the speakers said that organizations are either busy growing or busy dying.  I don't quite believe this is true -- I think sometimes less is more.  But I do believe that organizations can't stay the same.  They need to evolve and adapt.  And that's what makes me most proud of our history in Crown Heights.  Thanks to great on-site leadership, we have consistently dreamed up and implemented new programmatic wrinkles. When you take a step back, it is clear that, no matter what the name on the t-shirt says, we have become a valuable neighborhood institution -- nurturing amazing local talent, addressing pressing local problems, and knitting together diverse local groups. 

The two photos above and below tell a bit of the story of our work in Crown Heights.  Our location has changed. Our branding has gotten better.  Our team has gotten exponentially bigger.  But it still comes down to our ability to generate good ideas and attract outstanding people. 

Congratulations to all who have played a role in making both the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center and Neighbors in Action happen.

Monday, July 16, 2018

"Band-Aids or Brain Surgery"

This week has begun with sad news: Robert Keating has passed away. 

Keating (and he was always "Keating" to me) was, for the better part of four decades, one of the most influential criminal justice policymakers in New York City.  He held a number of important positions during those years, including serving as criminal justice coordinator for Mayor Ed Koch and the chief administrative judge for the New York City criminal courts.

It was in this capacity that Keating helped to midwife the Midtown Community Court.  The photo above captures him (on the right) with Midtown's founding director John Feinblatt back in the early 1990s. 

As this early New York Times piece highlights, Keating was a capable rhetorician.  He used the expression "band-aids or brain surgery" to describe the limited options (jail or nothing) available to judges in many criminal cases. His support was absolutely crucial in helping the Midtown Community Court overcome the opposition of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. 

I first met Keating in 1994 as part of the interview process for the job as lead planner of the Red Hook Community Justice Center.  Wearing his trademark bow tie, he made a strong first impression. He was an operator.  He liked to gossip.  But most of all, he liked to get things done.

I got to see this quality up close on many joint projects over the years. Among other things, we worked together to create a judicial summit in the aftermath of 9-11 and the (alas) short-lived Journal of Court Innovation. He participated in numerous roundtables that we organized at the Center for Court Innovation, including a memorable one on failure in the criminal justice system. We served together on the board of the New York City Criminal Justice Agency. And we crossed paths frequently as part of his service on the board of the Fund for the City of New York. 

It always made me happy whenever Keating was involved in a project.  You always knew what you were getting from him: intelligence, leadership, and a sense of fun. You could throw Keating into complicated situations and he would somehow manage to make sense of them.  A good example of this was when we arranged for him to speak in London about community courts.  With very little preparation, he was able to make a convincing case to many of the leaders of the justice system in England. 

But perhaps my strongest memory of Keating is of a piece of paper.  In the early days of the Midtown Community Court, we produced a regular internal report about the work of the Court -- what types of cases were being processed by the court, the disposition rate, compliance with alternative sanctions, etc.  For years, it was known as the "Keating Report."  This to me symbolizes his commitment to his craft, his interest in the internal workings of the justice system, his personal sense of responsibility, and his relentless dedication to positive change. 

I will miss him.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

How to Change the Criminal Justice System

For reasons that are somewhat obscure to me, in recent days I have felt the need to defend criminal justice practitioners.  This is odd for a couple of reasons.

First, I am nobody's idea of a frontline practitioner -- I have never arrested, prosecuted, adjudicated, or rehabilitated anybody.  Second, the agency where I work is in many respects predicated on a critique of standard practice in the justice system -- if system actors were doing their jobs perfectly, there would be no need for an agency like the Center for Court Innovation.

That said, I have felt protective of judges, attorneys, and other frontline players in recent days.  One potential reason for this is that so much of the conversation about justice reform pretends like they don't exist or that their insights aren't of any value.  I wrote a whole book, with Aubrey Fox, a few years ago that looked at the many ways that practitioners can spell the difference between success and failure when it comes to criminal justice reform.  I still believe in this idea.  (See Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure.)

Another reason that I have wanted to defend criminal justice agencies is that very few people seem inclined to do so these days.  These agencies are currently under siege from both the left and the right.  I don't hold any illusions; I know our justice agencies are deeply flawed.  And I also think that they are important institutions that our society cannot function effectively without.  Undermining public confidence in them seems like a dangerous game. 

At the end of the day, the goal of most criminal justice reform efforts is to change the behavior of system players.  There are many ways to attempt to accomplish this goal.  Certainly we have seen that legislative efforts or policy changes or impact litigation can successfully constrain the options of system actors, limiting their ability to impose lengthy prison sentences or detain individuals during the pre-trial period, for example.  I think all of these are legitimate pathways to change.  I also think that true and lasting change requires some measure of buy-in from police officers, probation officers, correctional officers and others who actually administer the criminal justice system each day.  And I think that this buy-in is mostly likely to occur when they have been part of the change process.

In recent years, I have written a handful of pieces that attempt to make this case. I think I keep writing about this subject because I'm not sure that I have quite nailed it yet.  Here are a few examples:

Our Two Kinds of Justice, and How To Reconcile Them -- This piece, from Governing, attempts to wrestle with the reality that many people in the justice system are trying to do the right thing, but the system is not achieving just results.  

The Justice System Case for Radical Incrementalism -- This essay, written with Julian Adler, argues that New York City has been a case study of how small changes in practice can sometimes add up to systemic reform.  More on this subject can be found in our book, Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration

The Challenge of Cultural Change on Rikers Island -- I wrote this piece for the Gotham Gazette after stepping down from the NYC Board of Correction. It describes my experience visiting Rikers and meeting correctional officers that defied my preconceived notions.  

Thursday, April 26, 2018

More Than Just A Court

Earlier this week, I spoke at the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University.  It was a nice event, highlighted by a keynote address by former US Attorney General Eric Holder, who talked about the need to address the over-use of incarceration in this country.
When it was my turn to speak, I decided to tip my hat to the evening's host, former New York City Mayor Dinkins.  If you follow the dominoes, you could argue that I owe my career to Dinkins -- his decision to invest in the Midtown Community Court helped set the wheels in motion that ultimately led to the creation of the Center for Court Innovation.
This is a version of what I said at the Dinkins forum (definitely not verbatim):
I got my start in criminal justice in 1993.  Working for John Feinblatt, I played a small role in the planning of the Midtown Community Court.  Midtown was (and is) a neighborhood-based court that seeks to focus on misdemeanor crime in and around Times Square, offering alternatives to fines and short jail sentences.   It also seeks to treat individual defendants with dignity and respect, and to link them to the kinds of social services – drug treatment, counseling, job training – that might help them get their lives back on track.
In attempting to do all this, Midtown was tilting into a pretty strong head wind.  Remember, the context was 1993.  We were coming off a decade when they regularly made movies like Escape from New York, The Warriors, and Fort Apache the Bronx that offered a fairly bleak portrait of life in New York City. The crack epidemic was still very much in the forefront of people’s minds.  This was an era of tough-on-crime legislation.  Megan’s Law, Three-Strikes-and-You’re-Out, mandatory minimums…the net effect of all this was to toughen penalties for criminal behavior and tilt the scales of justice in the direction of prosecutors.
Given this backdrop, it took a measure of political courage to greenlight a project like the Midtown Community Court which explicitly sought to provide help to criminal defendants and was vehemently opposed by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. The Mayor who made Midtown happen was David Dinkins.  
In an editorial entitled “More than just a court” endorsing the project, the New York Times had this to say about Midtown:
The court that Mayor David Dinkins announced this week could improve justice and the quality of life where minor crime has become routine. The Midtown Community Court will hear misdemeanor cases. Rather than impose fines or short jail terms as is now common, the new court would sentence many such offenders to useful tasks like cleaning graffiti, helping at soup kitchens or sorting trash at recycling centers.  At the same time it would link them to social services available at the courthouse. It is a sound investment that could greatly enhance justice in the perception of both criminals and victims.
When Midtown was first launched in 1993 it was viewed as a radical, out-of-the-box idea.  If you fast forward to today, you will see that the rest of the criminal justice system in New York City has come to look a lot like the Midtown Community Court.  
New York City is much safer than it used to be.  Less well documented is the reality that the use of jail has also declined significantly.  Like crime, incarceration is down, and not just by a little. The use of jail in New York peaked at more than 20,000 in the 1990s. Today, there are less than 8,500 people behind bars. (As I have written elsewhere, this success is not down to any individual politician or piece of legislation, but rather the product of incremental changes that took place over the course of a generation.)
New York City has the lowest incarceration rate of all large American cities.  And it accomplished this during a period when incarceration rates were rising across the country. Remarkably, it is now possible to imagine closing Rikers Island.  Indeed, this is the official policy of the City of New York thanks to Mayor Bill De Blasio.  To say that this would have been inconceivable in 1993 is an understatement. 
So that’s the good news.  The bad news is that even though NYC is an international model of criminal justice reform, we still have glaring problems in our criminal justice system.  
If you take a trip to criminal court, the racial disparities in our system will smack you in the face.  And if you visit Rikers Island, you will see that the system is not really designed to recognize the fundamental humanity of those within it (be they detainees or correction officers).  Rather, it feels like the criminal justice system is an accelerant of human misery – that it takes people struggling with addiction and joblessness and mental health issues and other individual problems and makes them worse. 
There are many challenges that we need to confront before we can be said to have a justice system that lives up to its highest ideals in terms of fairness and effectiveness. But the biggest challenge for me is time.
I don’t think that the kind of transformation that we need to see in the justice system is going to happen overnight.  It is going to take time to win the hearts and minds of those who operate the justice system.  Unfortunately, there are dozens of other worthy issues competing for our (limited) attention spans. If I could ask for just one thing for those of us who are in the business of criminal justice reform, it would be the gift of patience.  

Saturday, April 21, 2018

There's Only One Arsène Wenger

Yesterday brought the sad news that Arsène Wenger, the manager of Arsenal, has decided to step down after more than two decades at the helm of the club.  Wenger's career at Arsenal has unfolded like a classic three-act drama:

Act 1: Arsène Who? -- He arrives as an outsider. His appointment prompts the newspaper headline "Arsène Who?" as befuddled journalists try to make sense of Arsenal's decision to give a professorial foreigner the keys to one of England's biggest teams.  

Act 2: Arsène Knows -- Skepticism turns to wonder.  Wenger helps to transform both Arsenal and British football generally.  He actively recruits players from around the globe, making his squad an emblem of international cooperation.  He introduces new disciplines of training and diet.  Most important from my perspective, he commits to an aesthetically-pleasing brand of football that emphasizes passing and movement and offensive flair.  And he wins -- a lot.  Three league titles.  Multiple FA Cups. Regular appearances in the Champions League. "Arsène Knows" banners pop up at Arsenal games. 

Act 3: Wenger Out -- After presiding over the most successful period in the club's history, including the move to a new, state-of-the-art stadium in 2006, Wenger sees Arsenal take a step backwards.  After finishing either first or second in the Premier League for 8 straight years, Arsenal goes a decade finishing either 3rd or 4th. A significant segment of the Arsenal fan base turns on Wenger, arguing that the game has passed him by.  "Wenger Out" banners appear at gatherings all over the world. 

Roughly speaking, over the course of twenty-two years in charge of Arsenal, Wenger has gone from unknown commodity to pathbreaking innovator to over-the-hill traditionalist.  I suppose it is an arc that most of us are doomed to follow in our careers.  

I first started following Arsenal in 2002. My brother was living in London at the time; he became a fan and I followed suit.  Those first couple of years were absolutely brilliant, highlighted by an unbeaten season and the graceful play of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.  It has been painful to watch the team's trajectory since then.  This year has been particularly bad -- the team has lost to less-talented clubs and their play has lacked both passion and coherence.  

Even as the team has underperformed, there is still much to admire about Wenger.  He is a smart, dignified public presence.  He never throws his players under the bus when the team loses.  And he sticks to his principles -- he has continued to attempt to play attacking football even as fans and commentators have implored him to improve the defensive solidity of his team. 

I'm not sure what lessons about life or leadership to take from Wenger's story.  It is hard not to conclude that he stayed too long at the party -- he probably should have retired several years ago.  It is also hard not to conclude that his greatness and his weakness are inextricably bound together: the same self belief that enabled him to overcome the doubters during the early years of his tenure made him resistant to change at the end of his reign.  

Watching Wenger as the losses and empty seats and vituperation have mounted has been has been an unpleasant experience.  He deserves better.  Now that he has announced his departure, it looks like he will get it -- the appreciations are starting to pour in from players and pundits alike.  

The best tribute that I can offer to Wenger is that he added to the amount of beauty in this world.  At their best, his Arsenal teams were a joy to watch, full of invention and style and grace.  Unique among his coaching peers, Wenger aspired to artistry.  In an interview a couple of years back he described his work this way: “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”  I doubt sincerely that we will ever see another manager like him.  He will be missed. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

About Alice

Today marks the retirement of Alice Tapia, a long-time community activist from Red Hook, Brooklyn.  Every healthy, functioning neighborhood needs Alice Tapias -- people who are willing to stand up and raise their hand when problems emerge and volunteers are needed.

I first met Alice in the mid 1990s, when I was tasked with putting together an AmeriCorps program in Red Hook.  With the benefit of hindsight, I now recognize that I was in way over my head.  I had to hold together a complicated multi-agency partnership, hire staff, find office and training space (for free), develop ties to the community so that we could organize service projects, and recruit 50 full-time participants -- all under intense time pressure given the necessities of federal funding.  I can't even begin to catalogue all of the mistakes that I made.  Somehow, the Red Hook Public Safety Corps managed not just to get off the ground but to survive and to help plant seeds that would later flower into the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

Any honest assessment of how this happened has to begin with an admission that it was largely due to dumb luck.  We caught a lot of good breaks along the way.  Perhaps the most important was that Alice agreed to be part of the initial class of Corps members.  Alice was a crucial piece in the puzzle because she was already a leader in the community, well known for her work on community gardens.  She gave our nascent program an immediate dose of credibility, signaling to everyone who knew her and looked up to her that they too should give us a chance.  In doing so, Alice was taking a risk, casting her lot with an untested group of staffers, all of whom were younger than her, and an as-yet unproven idea -- that a community justice program could help improve public safety and bolster local confidence in justice.

Over the years, Alice has played a number of different roles in Red Hook, becoming a staffer at the Justice Center, creating Women in Touch, serving on the tenant association, and showing up for countless community organizing efforts.  She also made a small cameo in Good Courts, the book that I co-wrote with John Feinblatt.  Below is an excerpt that describes a housing court case handled by Alex Calabrese, the presiding judge at the Red Hook Community Justice Center:

This anecdote is typical Alice -- she does the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes good outcomes possible.  Over the years, she has positively touched the lives of hundreds of people, using her patience, good humor, and good sense to help friends and strangers alike.  I am lucky to have had a chance to work alongside her.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Celebrating Innovators

This past week, the Center for Court Innovation threw a fundraiser honoring innovators from a variety of fields who have helped to make New York a better place.  To supplement the Center's official recounting of the event, I thought I'd offer a few selections from the files of photographer Michael Falco.

Honoree Quardean Lewis-Allen of Made in Brownsville talking with actor Jeffrey Wright, who served as the MC for the event.

Nick Turner of the Vera Institute of Justice with Rachel Williams of Morrison & Foerster and Sarah Williams of Propel Capital.  Sarah and Propel were honored for philanthropic innovation.

Honoree MaryAnne Gilmartin of LL&MAG and Center for Court Innovation alum Amanda Burden, now at Bloomberg Associates.  (That's my mom in the background and Liberty Aldrich of the Center for Court Innovation in the foreground.)

The Center for Court Innovation runs on collaboration.  Thankfully, in New York we are blessed with a number of great judicial partners.  Here are three from Brooklyn: judges Michael Yavinsky, Gerianne Abriano, and Alex Calabrese pose with Amanda Berman of the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

We honored New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore for her work to rethink the judicial response to the opioid crisis and her support of providing legal information to unrepresented litigants, among other achievements.  In this photo, she talks with Sherene Crawford of the Midtown Community Court and Ron Richter of JCCA. 

In recent years, we have done a great deal of work with the Manhattan DA's Office, including launching Project Reset, a diversion program that helps participants avoid going to court altogether.  Nitin Savur and District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. were both good enough to come to our event. 

Maybe my favorite photo from the party -- Victoria Pratt of TED talk fame at the podium.

Anyone who has ever put together a party for 250+ guests knows how challenging it can be.  Dozens of people at the Center for Court Innovation helped make the event special.  Here are some of them. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Cost of Good Intentions

The Cost of Good Intentions: New York City and the Liberal Experiment was written nearly forty years ago.  It is full of municipal jargon and the names of city bureaucrats that have long been forgotten.  And I found it absolutely riveting.  It makes for cautionary reading for anyone who is interested in expanding government's commitment to achieving social change.

The book's central character is John Lindsay, New York City's mayor for the tumultuous period of 1966-1973. Lindsay was a figure of both probity and charisma.  He successfully attracted a new generation of talented reformers into city government.  He improved the management of many city agencies and helped fight corruption in the police department.  He worked hard to engage New York's black and Latino population; indeed, his outreach is credited with helping New York avoid some of the urban unrest that roiled other American cities in the 1960s.

Lindsay's great strengths were balanced by significant weaknesses.  Some of these weaknesses were characterological. According to Morris:

The puritan's vision of the universe as a constant struggle between good and evil infused Lindsay's first months in office...The New York Times reported his obvious pleasure in conceiving himself as "a lone figure at war with the power structure."...Lindsay's grandiose conception of himself and his powers struck seasoned insiders as fatuous, and certainly arrogant.

Lindsay was hardly alone in seeing the world in stark moral terms -- he was in many ways emblematic of his times.  Morris is sympathetic to the challenges Lindsay faced.  A veteran of city government himself, Morris understands that managing New York City in the 1960s and early 1970s was no easy task.  He also provides important context, framing how New York's performance under Lindsay compared to other American cities of the era.  (Spoiler alert: Not that bad!)

Morris' fair-mindedness makes his ultimate judgement of Lindsay, and Lindsay's project, all the more powerful:

The soaring rhetoric of Lindsay's first administration did not lend itself to easy translation into day-to-day measuring rods of performance and seems to have generated only confusion and hostility among front-line workers.  Not just Lindsay, but liberals generally began to expect very much more from government in the 1960s...the entire battalion of city agencies -- parks, welfare, police, housing, the anti-poverty programs, hospitals, even sanitation -- were to be part of a massive effort at uplift, a final breaking-through of the barriers of oppression and discrimination that prolonged the abject misery of blacks and Hispanics...It was a splendid vision, but one that was seriously flawed, and from a management perspective, positively damaging.  City government is for the most part a fairly dull and mundane business...The sudden call to lofty achievement was, for most agencies, simply muddling.

These are important observations for today's criminal justice reformers.  So is Morris' conclusion that many of the city's well-meaning anti-poverty initiatives "had a strong tendency to emphasize symbol over content, to value structure and participation over program results."  Getting the details of implementation right and winning over the hearts of minds of frontline government practitioners (or at least figuring out how to prevent them from sabotaging new ideas and practices that they don't like)  are essential to any serious effort to reform the criminal justice system.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Dream As Yet Unfulfilled

This photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. hangs in my bedroom in Brooklyn.   Beyond liking the composition of the shot, I chose the photo for a couple of reasons. First, I was attracted to the intimacy of the image.  It does not capture King making a speech or leading a demonstration or meeting with world leaders, but rather hanging out in a hotel room reading the newspaper. For me, this is a reminder of King’s basic humanity; he was, at the end of the day, a normal person called to perform extraordinary deeds.

I also chose the photo for its historical significance.  King is pictured on the cusp of a major civil rights event: a march across the breadth of Mississippi that he undertook in 1966 after James Meredith (the man responsible for integrating the University of Mississippi) was shot by a would-be assassin. 

The Meredith March Against Fear was the subject of my college thesis, which argued that the demonstration was a pivotal event in the history of the civil rights movement – the moment when things began to fall apart.  Stokely Carmichael’s use of the slogan “black power” along the course of the march made national news, helping to expose a fault line between militant civil rights groups and those who were more interested in working with and within existing American institutions.

In many ways, Martin Luther King, Jr. was caught in the middle of this conflict.  King was both a radical and a moderate.  He was a fierce critic of American engagement in Vietnam and economic inequality at home.  At the same time, he never wavered from his commitment to non-violence and what he called “Negro-White unity.”  In my thesis, I wrote this:

King’s ability to avoid a retreat into bitterness and despair is testimony to the power of his idealism.  Throughout his life, King was motivated, in large part, by a sense of the possibilities of American democracy. He dreamed of creating a “beloved community” with a zeal that rivaled the Puritan longing for a shining city on a hill.  Although King would admit that the “the nation is sick,” he never abandoned his vision of American equality.  “In a real sense,” King said,

America is essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled.  It is a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities and of all creeds can live together as brothers. The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words, words lifted to cosmic proportions: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This is the dream.

These are difficult days for those of us who still believe in the American dream.  Seemingly every day, there is a new assault on core American values like pluralism, tolerance, and civility.  All too often these assaults are coming from inside the White House itself -- the latest being the President’s denigration of immigrants from Haiti and other countries.  Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s rebuke of the President was admirably succinct: “America is an idea, not a race.”

Just a few things I am thinking about on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Crisis Reading List

One of words that I notice being used a lot these days is "unprecedented" (usually with regard to some violation of long-accepted "norms").  I understand the logic, and the emotion, behind this phenomenon. After all, the past 12 months have seen a number of events -- Nazis marching in Virginia, the threat of nuclear conflict with North Korea, attacks on the media and other crucial civic institutions, etc. -- that have felt uniquely destabilizing.

Perhaps for this reason, my reading list for 2017 veered toward non-fiction grounded in crisis.  I started the year with The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. The Undoing Project is an intellectual history of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the two academics credited with creating the field of behavioral economics. Their friendship was forged in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s.  Even as he traces the arc of Kahneman and Tversky's career, Lewis takes pains to highlight the context that gave birth to their partnership: the sense of existential vulnerability experienced by Israelis during the early years of the country, which were marked by violence and conflict.

Next I turned to Thomas Ricks' Churchill and Orwell, a joint history of two legendary figures from England.  The context for the book is World War II, but Ricks seems to be writing with at least one eye on our present moment.  He lauds his two subjects for their shared commitment to truth over ideology and their willingness to take on political extremists on the Left and the Right.  In a way, it is a crazy book -- Ricks doesn't unearth any new historical material and his two central characters never actually interact with each other. But I thought the book worked on the strength of Ricks' storytelling and skill as a writer.  After reading the book, I saw that he went out of his way to credit his editor with helping him polish the manuscript.  Good on him.

I've written before about James Forman's Locking Up Our Own, my favorite criminal justice book of 2017, so I won't go into detail about it here, but it too describes a time and a place of crisis: Washington DC in the midst of the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

My calamity reading list reached its apogee with Alwyn Turner's Crisis? What Crisis: Britain in the 1970s.  This was actually the second book I read on this topic, along with Andy Beckett's When the Lights Went Out: What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies.  Both books offer a helpful  perspective on the current emergencies in the United States.  The winter of discontent...three-day work weeks...a series of disruptive labor strikes...trash piling up in Leicester Square...declining trust in government combined with a rise in political extremism -- the sense of a country coming apart at the seams was, I would argue, stronger in the UK in the 70s than it is now in the US.

I can't say that I have figured out some grand unifying theory or tidy set of lessons from all of these books.  But I have taken some (perhaps perverse?) comfort.  The times we are living through are challenging to be sure, but they are not wholly without precedent.  I am enough of an optimist to believe that better days are ahead of us if we can, collectively, summon the better angels of our nature. Best wishes for the new year.