On America’s Front Lines

Like most other big-city police forces, Philadelphia’s police have a political mandate to reduce drug-selling and violent crime by “getting tough” and exhibiting “zero tolerance” for illegal activity. On the other side of the struggle are a fairly small group of young jobless black men, but also many of the neighborhood’s older residents. The older residents’ quarrel with the police is not over the desirability of reducing drug use or violent crime. Most older residents long for both. What they hate is the way the police pursue this goal, which is all sticks and no carrots.

There is a lot of stopping, searching, chasing, and arresting young men, and a lot of breaking into middle-aged adults’ homes, where the police hope to find young fugitives, drugs, or both. What’s missing is any effort, either by the police or by anyone else in authority, to provide these young jobless men with ways to make a living legally.

At the moment, even the men who spend months looking for work seldom find it. Indeed, they seldom find even part-time or short-term work. As a result, they are almost always short of money. When they are broke, their mothers, girlfriends, or buddies will often take them in, but the generosity of people who also worry constantly about money seldom persists indefinitely. Furthermore, economic dependency is humiliating, leaving many men with a reservoir of anger and resentment that overflows at unpredictable moments.

Some of Goffman’s most original observations concern the way police searches for “dirty” young men affect relationships among people within the neighborhood. She reports that when the police were looking for someone, they routinely blackmailed the suspect’s friends to get information about his whereabouts. One common tactic was to enter the home of a suspect’s mother or girlfriend, often by breaking down the door so that the suspect would not have time to flee. If the suspect was not there, the police would demand information about where he was. If his mother or girlfriend said she did not know, the police would often threaten her with eviction. (Most low-rent residences are poorly maintained and in violation of building codes, so the police can have them declared uninhabitable.)

The police, Goffman writes, also threatened uncooperative girlfriends with losing custody of their children, who would then be placed in a foster home. The police could do this by telling the Child Welfare Department that the girlfriend was sheltering a drug dealer. Faced with a choice between losing her boyfriend or losing her children, most women eventually capitulated and told the police what they wanted to know. Of course, boyfriends know this is likely to happen, and after a certain amount of drama they might forgive the girlfriend. After all, boyfriends often move on, while children almost always want to stick with their mothers. As a result, men expect a woman to put her children first. People who spend time in poor black communities often comment on how distrustful residents are of one another. The fact that the police frequently blackmail residents of these neighborhoods to inform on one another presumably contributes to such pervasive distrust.

Who Was W.E.B. Du Bois?

Du Bois, who grew up in an educated but working-poor family in Great Barrington, had two undergraduate degrees, the first from Fisk and the second from Harvard. Before entering Harvard’s doctoral program in political science, he spent two years in Germany, which was then the unquestioned world capital of serious, scholarly social science—as Appiah puts it, “a German degree was the ironclad credential” in those days. It’s a much-noted irony that his studies were financed by a grant from a fund controlled by Rutherford B. Hayes, the former president who was able to assume that office because of a political deal that Du Bois devoted much of his later career to condemning: the Republican Party’s agreement to stop enforcing former slaves’ civil and voting rights in the South, in exchange for the White House.

The idea that during his own early childhood African-Americans had briefly had civil rights, voting rights, and a measure of political power, only to see them snatched away after 1876, never ceased to gall Du Bois. The tendency of national mainstream thinking and politics to efface, ignore, and excuse this appalling history, or even to glorify it, was always present in his sense of what it meant to be an American. He thought about all the parts of black America—the leadership, the agrarian peasantry in the South, the educational system, the city ghettos—against the background of a persistent denial of full citizenship. Socialism and communism’s appeal to him were intertwined with his sense of the intractability of the Jim Crow system. In this sense he was a Moses who had an idea of what the promised land might look like but never got to go up to the mountaintop and have a look at it.

The Chinese Invade Africa

There are one million Chinese active in Africa today, not only as guest workers building the continent’s telecommunications or transport infrastructure, but also including thousands of ordinary people who see Africa as a land of opportunity. For Westerners, Africa is mostly a series of kleptocracies, natural disasters, violent conflicts, and public health crises like the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa. But for many Chinese, Africa is an underpopulated region of forests, plains, and seemingly fallow lands, a vast continent (three times larger than China) of just one billion people that, in some places, is starting to grow quickly. We are in the midst of a historic movement of Chinese to Africa.

Although China’s foray into Africa has been a staple of media reports for the past decade, it’s worth pausing to consider just how dramatic this change is. When China first entered Africa in the 1960s, it was something of a curiosity, positioning itself as a fellow victim of imperialism, a socialist brother, or a provider of modest, low-end technology. Generally, though, it did little more than build the odd showpiece factory or railway line—good deeds to complement a kind of missionary Maoism not unlike the religious and ideological opportunism that drew Europeans to Africa in earlier eras. When China launched its economic reforms in the late 1970s, it was more concerned with its own development, and although engagement with Africa didn’t disappear, it was minimal.

That began to change in the 1990s, as China increased its aid to Africa, culminating in the triennial 2006 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing. Delegates from forty-eight countries attended, and the Chinese capital was lined with billboards hailing “Amazing Africa.” China pledged to double aid within three years and suddenly the world woke up to the fact that Africa had a new suitor besides the two chief colonial masters, Britain and France, and the winner of the cold war, the United States.

One of French’s most colorful chapters is set in Mozambique, where he finds a Chinese pioneer farmer named Hao who is determined not only to build a homestead, but to start a clan that will be part of the country’s economic takeoff. He has brought over two sons whom he wants to set up with local women. Hao hopes they will marry, procreate, and establish a clan of economic titans with vast holdings of land that can only be dreamed of in overcrowded, highly regulated China. It seems delusional, but is it more so than the white homesteaders of earlier eras?

When France Went Dreadfully Wrong

The French high command had enough troops and materiel in most categories (including the best tank of the campaign), but it put them in the wrong places and used them counterproductively. The hastily improvised German attack through the Ardennes hills that today looks like an easy, decisive victory was in fact so risky that the German General Staff watching from Berlin had moments of panic. We can no longer legitimately frame the interwar period as a one-way street to the inexorable defeat of a degenerate people.

There are other, more telling ways to frame the interwar years in France. Three weighty circumstances created challenges with which the French social and political system dealt ineffectively. First came the social and economic distortions produced by the world’s most destructive war up to that time. Then in 1929 the world fell into the Great Depression. The economic crisis had not ended when Hitler began to take his revenge for 1918. This time of fearsome stresses and feckless responses cost France its status as a Great Power. In the downward spiral many French people looked frantically for something better than the Third Republic and its official rationalism.

The Prisoner of History

On April 6, 1941 (Palm Sunday), Belgrade was bombed by the Nazis at five in the morning. There was no declaration of war or any warning that the planes were coming. A building across the street was hit and set on fire and I was thrown out of my bed and landed on the floor in a shower of glass from the broken windows. The bombing went on for four more days, killing some 20,000 people and destroying several hundred buildings. I imagine there are many Europeans of my generation whose first memories are also of fire, smoke, and streets lined with ruins.

In the days after the bombing, Yugoslavia was occupied by the German, Italian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian armies, and a bloody civil war erupted between various domestic political factions and ethnic groups, making life hell for most people, except for children like me who, not knowing any better, took it all in stride. Everybody thinks I’m out of my mind when I tell them that I had a happy childhood even with bombs falling on my head. Playing with toy soldiers, I would go boom, boom, and the planes would go boom, boom. In 1944, it was the American and the British bombers that brought death and destruction. As bad as that was, I recall the good times I had then, for while the grown-ups were busy with their troubles, I ran around with other kids and did pretty much as I pleased.

My parents had no ambition to stray far beyond the city where they were born, but like millions of others all over Europe, they found themselves homeless as a result of events beyond their control. Separated for over a decade, they were reunited in the summer of 1954, when my mother, my younger brother, and I disembarked from a ship in New York City and were met there by my father. He wore, as I recall, a white linen suit and a light blue shirt that made him look so American in our eyes that we were surprised that he spoke Serbian and knew our names.

Even that first day in America, I had a hunch that nothing would ever be the same. For someone older, that was bound to be terrifying, but I was sixteen years old, coming from a destroyed and impoverished continent, the son of parents who had not been together in a decade and no longer seemed to like each other very much, and I had no wish to look back. I could feel my old identity slipping away as I explored Manhattan and tried to make sense of what I was seeing. European cities were orderly and easier to read than this American megalopolis. Their grand old buildings and stylish hotels and cafés were confined to certain neighborhoods, while their pawnshops and pool halls were relegated to parts of town some people never got to see. Not so in New York, where one was likely to stumble across a skyscraper standing right next to a two-story shack with a shoe-shine parlor, or a double row of rundown movie houses with huge marquees advertising horror films and westerns, a short distance from the elegant Fifth Avenue and that apogee of Beaux Arts architecture, the New York Public Library.

Of course, there was also the problem of language. I could read English more or less, but speaking was a different matter. The shock of asking for directions and not being understood was mortifying. Every day in America, I realized, I would have a fresh opportunity to embarrass myself each time I opened my mouth. Nevertheless, the claim that an immigrant can never feel at home again didn’t prove to be quite true in my case. After a couple of years, even with my conspicuous accent, I felt that there was no other place for me but America.

This created a problem whenever I came in contact with other immigrants, many of whom loathed everything I liked about my new country. I don’t remember exactly when it first crossed my mind that America had given me an opportunity to escape everything I secretly disliked about the old life. Not even the revered role of an intellectual in exile, haunted by twentieth-century history and nostalgia for the culture of Europe, ever appealed to me in the least. 

Obituary: Fred Branfman

He had gone to Laos to teach in his 20s, mostly to avoid the draft for Vietnam. In that war Laos was officially neutral, though it was fought over by right- and left-wing groups and supply-routes to the Vietcong ran through it. The American government denied it was conducting a war there, for conventional warfare was outlawed. Congress and the public were in the dark. It seemed that only Mr Branfman knew.

He had to get the story out. It was easier than he thought, for the villagers could read and write as well as draw, with chilling accuracy, T-28s and F-105s strafing their hills. The thatch-and-timber houses burned like candles, the villagers told him. All that was left was the red, bare earth. The paddies and ponds were poisoned, so the ducks died. Children picked up bombs, and their arms blew off. Everyone dug holes to creep into during the day, emerging at night to try to plant rice unseen, but bombs fell into the holes too. 

As a Jew he was inevitably reminded of the Holocaust, another clumsily concealed atrocity. It was “as if I had discovered Auschwitz when it was still going on”. His fury was never hard to ignite; like many of his contemporaries, he had burned to change the world since high school. He had been brought up to believe America was good, and triumphed in just wars. Now everything was upended. America had betrayed him: it was not merely socially unjust, especially towards blacks, but also brutal and criminal abroad.

Education in America

America has a poor record of luring ambitious people into teaching. This problem dates from the early 19th century, when schools were seen as places for moral guidance, and teachers were mostly low-paid, poorly trained women who prioritised faith over academic learning.

Elements of this attitude persists. Unlike countries with more successful school systems, such as Finland and Poland, teaching in America is still dominated by women and lacks prestige. Degree programmes are hardly selective, and teachers earn less than most other university-educated professionals.

“Often German politicians address a parliamentary chamber that is mostly empty. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ministers, if present at all, sit diagonally behind the orators, so that they can ignore them and catch up on some reading.”

German politics

But the bigger reason is Mrs Merkel’s style of governing and communicating. She lulls opponents and the public into passivity with soothing and often bureaucratic expressions that smother controversies, offend nobody and reassure everybody. Her German is “a rehearsed language, a numb and numbing language, whose function is to spread calm”, argues Dirk Kurbjuweit.

“Talking after Merkel in the Bundestag is the worst,” admits Anton Hofreiter, a parliamentary leader of the Greens. “The whole chamber is totally sedated and wondering what she has just said.” She does not attack individuals, so nobody hates her. Criticising her opinions is hard because she tends not to divulge them. In most debates “she stays silent, silent, silent, until it is clear which side will prevail. Then Merkel leaps so that it looks as though she had always been on that side,” says Mr Kurbjuweit. She constantly commissions opinion polls and usually heeds them.

When Mrs Merkel does have to sell a policy to parliament and the public, she often presents it as “alternativeless”. She used this word to describe the rescue packages for Greece and other measures in the euro crisis. It was voted by a language jury the ugliest German neologism of 2010, and has sparked sarcastic resistance on the political fringes. The anti-euro party even took the ironic name Alternative for Germany. But Mrs Merkel’s message appeals to the German mainstream, which wants exactly her brand of centrist and non-confrontational politics, and indeed her.

Most of Mrs Merkel’s predecessors stood for at least one big, controversial project. Konrad Adenauer after 1949 bound the new republic to the West at the cost of making reunification seem impossible. Willy Brandt recognised East Germany. Helmut Schmidt allowed American Pershing missiles in West Germany to deter a Soviet attack. Helmut Kohl made the Germans give up the D-mark for the euro. Gerhard Schröder liberalised the labour market.

Nobody in Germany today considers Angela Merkel capable of a similar level of leadership. Her power is immense but mainly potential. “She has not tried out how much power she has. For that she would have to dare to do something, to go against polls and the Zeitgeist,” concludes Mr Kurbjuweit. “In a certain way, Merkel is thus a powerless chancellor.” She uses her power to block, not to promote. It is power amassed but unused. If she goes on this way, that will be her main legacy.

“Some figures close to the Syrian government predict a breakdown of the regime. “I don’t see the current situation as sustainable,” says one. “I think Damascus will collapse at some point. When? I don’t know. Then there will be chaos that makes the current war look like nothing.””