Tag Archives: Journalism

Elaine Brown – The Condemnation of Little B

The Condemnation of Little B

Elaine BrownThe Condemnation of Little B (Beacon Press 2002)


More than 15 years ago, Elaine Brown wrote a wonderful book named The Condemnation of Little B.  It is both a sympathetic tale of Michel Lewis, known as “Little B,” who — when he was barely a teenager — was tried as an adult and convicted for a murder he most certainly did not commit, and a larger story of “New Age Racism” that explains why Little B’s individual story is, unfortunately, not all that unique.

The thrust of Brown’s analysis is conveyed by the way she recounts the prosecutor’s closing statement in Little B’s trial, which she says ended “with a dramatic flourish that revealed what the case against Little B was really about, about accommodating a powerful racist political socioeconomic agenda that at once invented and condemned black boys as superpredators.”  (p. 336).  This is part of the “New Age Racism” she describes, which is but an extension of old-fashioned racism:

“More than a century after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, more than 130 years since the legal end of slavery, the black communities of the United States effectively formed a third world enclave of subcitizens within the confines of this richest nation in the world.  Indeed, among the richest nations in the world, the United States, as the richest, maintained the highest poverty rate, with blacks at the bottom.”  (p. 355).

Brown’s scope is sweeping.  She manages to balance a sort of fast-paced “true crime” courtroom drama with a broader social science analysis of societal tends, as well as injecting the story of her own involvement investigating the case — while making that merely a framework to tell the story in an engaging way, without being a distraction from the real substance of the book.  The book opens with a tale of how Brown became aware of Little B and the dominant media narrative about him, which leads into an explanation of how her research ended up debunking that narrative.  She returns to Little B’s trial at the end of the book.  Throughout, it is as if she repeatedly asks, “Qui bono? [to whose benefit?],” in analyzing Little B’s situation and the actions of all the players involved.

In the middle part of the book, she covers the politicians who grandstand about being “tough on crime” while being fully aware of the racially discriminatory purpose and effect of the policies they enact behind a wall of public denial and feigned ignorance.  She covers the police and prison functionaries who viciously enforce degrading policies, careful not to question their own moral culpability in the process.  She discusses how courts have failed to uphold principles of universal justice, for instance, ruling that plea bargains for witnesses are shielded from laws against bribing witnesses that on on their face would make prosecutors dealing them out felons.  She discusses prosecutors repaying political supporters by engaging in witch hunts and duplicitous prosecutions — she even tells an anecdote about calling a prosecutor duplicitous to his face.  She critiques journalists of the so-called “fourth estate” who act as “an extension of the powerful” (p. 37) and who promote narratives that are contrary to fact but bolster the policies of ruling elites — others have called this a “propaganda model”.  She calls out many who benefited from past affirmative action programs only to now kick the ladder away and deny others the benefits they themselves received.  She also discusses how the United States’ “founding fathers” were unrepentant slave owners.  In short, she portrays the larger context for how Little B’s story is the natural and intended consequence of the interrelated institutions of government, law enforcement, and society that today make up the politically dominant neoliberal program, itself a product of a top-down reassertion of power.  And she names names.  She never blinks in calling out by name the particular actors in Little B’s saga, or those on a regional or national level, even historical figures, who have acted to maintain systems of (racial) oppression.

The person who comes in her sights for the most criticism is undoubtedly former President Bill Clinton.  There is a wealth of information here about Clinton’s duplicity, not only betraying campaign promises but ushering in the “New Age Racism” that Brown describes as a return to the Plessy v. Ferguson era.  Central to this is the Clinton crime bill of 1994, which greatly expanded incarceration rates, predominantly among blacks, introduced severe mandatory sentencing, increased prison and law enforcement spending, and was an ignoble model for similarly severe state laws, combined with Clinton and Al Gore‘s legislative push (again an inspiration to states) to “end welfare as we know it.”  Michelle Alexander‘s bestseller The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) basically just repeated points Brown had earlier made here.  For that matter this trend was just a continuing part of what Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers called a “Right Turn” in American politics.  It is summed up well by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu‘s metaphor of “the left hand and the right hand of the state” — with the “left hand” social welfare programs starved of funds and the “right hand” (really, more of a right fist) coercive police and military institutions expanded — a metaphor explored in depth in by Loïc Wacquant‘s Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity, and echoing the “Pyrrhic Defeat” theory of Jeffrey Reiman‘s The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, Katherine Beckett‘s Making Crime Pay: Law and Order in Contemporary American Politics, etc.

Brown’s research is astute and reliable.  As one example, she even mentions government involvement in promoting drug trafficking in a way that acknowledges the still under-publicized and under-taught history of such activities.  She also peers into the so-called “prison-industrial complex” to explain how private for-profit prisons need a supply of prisoners, and how manufacturing companies exploit forced convict labor.  She peppers statistics throughout the book to support her arguments, without ever becoming bogged down in them.  This is how readers know that during the 1990s, there was a 465.5% increase in the number of blacks imprisoned for drugs!  (p. 352).  And, at that, mostly for victimless nonviolent drug charges.

While much of her general historical analysis relies on Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States, a central part of her discussion of the “New Age Racism” of the people directly and indirectly involved in Little B’s case leans on Malcolm X‘s parable about the “field negro” and the “house negro”.  (See pp. 209-212).  Brown adopts the parallel terminology “New Age House Negros” — the contemporary version of Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s “Uncle Tom” character.  This is very much the same concept that political economist Ruy Mauro Marini noted (the same year Malcolm X was assassinated) in relation to a “sub-imperialism” that involved peripheral economies (like the Brazilian junta) collaborating actively with the imperialist expansion of core economies (like the United States), assuming in that expansion the position of a key nation.  It is also something Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso, mentioned in his speech at the United Nations on October 4, 1984.  For these “New Age House Negros” — Brown names people like Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, William Julius Wilson, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and others in this ignoble role — they are accepting personal benefits in exchange for betraying the larger cause of racial justice on a society-wide basis.  It is worth quoting Brown at length here:

“More than merely advocating and sanctioning government policies that contributed to and maintained the wretched state of ghettoized and millions of other poor blacks, there had now come to be a new crop of Negros who, positioned to actually influence the outcome of government activity, were actively undermining the cause of improving the lot of blacks in America.  Although their positions had been purchased with black blood in more than one hundred years of struggle, these new Negroes had become collaborators in a scheme that was imprisoning and further impoverishing more and more blacks.  Given the moribund state of independent efforts by blacks for freedom, government policies and programs still represented the sole resort of blacks for redress and remedy for past harm, the sole relief and hope for the millions of Little Bs.”  (p. 220).

These aren’t just blanket accusations.  Brown goes into sufficient depth to identify precisely the positions publicly advocated, the benefits obtained, as well as contrasting examples for context.  The people she criticizes generally deny these things, naturally, but Brown’s evidence in each case is more than adequate to convincingly show that these individuals got ahead by participating — as privileged collaborators and exceptions — to social systems of (racial) oppression.  And she does that without leaning merely on a “Beautiful Soul” contradiction or the inadequate description of “tokenism”.

A useful critique she offers in passing is of rapper Sean “P-Diddy” (formerly “Puff Daddy”) Combs, and the way his music’s message revolves around “a presumed conflict between the ‘player’ — a ghetto black who has gotten rich — and the resentment of the ‘player-hater’ — the black still stuck in the ghetto.”  (p. 240).  As a contrast, the TV show Good Times had a season two episode in 1975 called “The Debutante Ball” in which the protagonist Evans family, living in a public housing project, is confronted by the Robinson family, led by a father who became rich, left the ghetto, and wishes to sever all ties and connections to it — and hence does not want his daughter to attend a debutante ball with J.J. Evans, who is from the ghetto.  Unlike Puff Daddy/P. Diddy, who sides with the “player”, the Good Times episode has sympathies in the other direction, accusing the rich man (“player”) of forgetting where he came from and suggesting that he is being anti-social and betraying necessary black solidarity.  This regression is precisely the point Brown makes so well about “New Age Racism.”

When it comes to the discussion of Little B’s trial, Brown is critical of mistakes that his own lawyer made.  Actually, she felt that the senior defense attorney was ineffective and Little B would have been better served by his less experienced but more competent co-defense counsel.  In some instances, Brown has the benefit of hindsight.  Yet there were still some rather glaring errors and oversights made.  Those were compounded by a disinterested judge droning on in a monotone voice — something all too typical in criminal cases.  But Brown spends ample time on the prosecutor, who used “emotionalism to cover the barrenness of facts” in the state’s case.  (p. 327).  In other words, she calls her out for doing something that lowers public opinion of lawyers in general:  like a magician using distraction to perform a sleight of hand illusion, the prosecutor makes an emotionally manipulative case that distracts from the cold impersonal evidence that leads to a different conclusion.  Partly for this reason, some other countries use professional jurors, who can become more familiar with both courtroom procedure and tenth rate lawyer tricks, to perhaps see beyond them.  For those interested, Brown does point a finger at the mostly likely murderer, a neighborhood drug dealer known as “Big E”, who avoided a life sentence on other charges as part of a deal with prosecutors to testify against Little B.

While Brown’s book is about as thorough and well grounded as could be hoped, there are a few minor points where it might be improved.  Brown frequently reproduces quotes using “[sic]” to highlight supposed errors.  In at least a few cases there are no errors to be found, and Brown comes across as trying to shame the quoted speakers/writers in an exceptionally petty way.  Cornell West gets dissed here, which may have been fair at the time of publication, but since Brown’s book was published West has changed his public positions in ways that would seemingly satisfy Brown.  She also comes close to taking a very reductionist stance on racism, nearly divorcing it from other factors like economics, though she always pulls back from falling into that trap — resoundingly so with an MLK quote that closes the book.  Still, much of her analysis of political ideology comes up a bit short in general, left mostly to implication, and might have been bolstered by citing to some other authors who have already developed similar lines of thinking.  Adolph Reed, Jr. and Walter Benn Michaels come to mind.  It also would have been interesting, if a digression, to have read Brown’s views on the argument that race is a social construct not supported by scientific genetics.  Anyway, back on point, in the middle part of the book Brown criticizes “Enlightenment” era thinkers in a somewhat slipshod way.  She lists many of the big names, and then criticizes most of them.  But, for instance, she never gets around to debunking Jean-Jacques Rousseau on her list, which is curious because most of the framework of her book rests on concepts that run through Rousseau one way or another.  It isn’t so much that her political/philosophical analysis is wrong as much as it is vague and undeveloped.  Domenico Losurdo‘s Liberalism: A Counter-History was published after Brown’s book, which is too bad because it fills in the holes in Brown’s analysis in a perfectly complementary way.  Losurdo argued that Liberalism is and always has been premised on the exclusion of some from enjoyment of its loudly self-professed support of freedoms and civil rights.  He details at length how Liberalism has always advocated freedom while seeing no contradiction in supporting slavery at the same time — this being an essential aspect of Liberalism and not a deviation from it.  Rather, Liberalism always places the maintenance of some form of social hierarchy, however softened or limited, above rights and freedoms.  That is why the freedom that Liberalism promotes most strongly is ultimately only that of the unimpeded movement of economic capital.  Brown is advocating for the universal applicability of personal freedom, seemingly free from the limits of hierarchy.  This underscores something that is never explicitly stated in Brown’s book: she is really criticizing neoliberalism (the dominant strain of Liberalism at the time) from the left through the lens of one particular person’s story and the context behind it.

In this light, Brown’s book presents Little B’s case as a situation not terribly unlike the so-called “Dreyfus Affair” in Third Republic France a hundred years previous (1894-1906), in which an article by Émile Zola run under the iconic headline, “J’accuse!” publicized how the Jewish military captain Alfred Dreyfus was framed by military commanders.  That case illustrates a political divide manifested through law enforcement and judicial proceedings.  The basic split is between, on the one hand, those who believe that every person is equally entitled to a fair trial and that the innocent should never be punished for crimes they did not commit, and, on the other hand, those who believe in maintaining social institutions and traditions even at the cost of throwing a few innocent people in prison once and a while.  The latter tend to evoke Plato‘s idea of a “noble lie” used by elites to sustain a society of their own design, and Kant‘s position that such lies must never be questioned or exposed or else the legal foundation of society will collapse.  In this way, the people who throw innocents in prison often sincerely believe that they are doing good, even if they lie, plant evidence, deny access to an attorney, etc., because they are preserving a system that is necessary in their eyes — denying or concealing the essentially political choice involved in selecting a particular system in the first instance that puts some in power over others.  Elaine Brown is of course on the former side, decrying the imprisonment and punishment of any innocent person, and, by extension, seeing corresponding change to existing social systems to equalize power relations as desperately needed and long overdue.  Another reviewer put it well by writing, “She is witheringly good at exposing the myths that allow power groups, both black and white, to exploit and crush the weak with a comparatively untroubled conscience — all more or less veiled versions of racism, ranging from Jefferson‘s theories on why blacks can’t write poetry to today’s trumpeted ‘new phenomenon’ of young, black male ‘Superpredators’ sprouting in our midst.”  Taking Losurdo’s analysis as a reference, this amounts to saying that the centrist neoliberals are, at a very fundamental level, actually more aligned with the conservative/reactionary right than they admit.

Brown does inject herself into the narrative, particularly in the very beginning and very end of the book.  It is clear she rejects the so-called journalistic “ethics” of “non-involvement”, which can be questioned on moral grounds as being far too convenient for journalists.  But her perspective adds to the story, and orients readers to the author’s perspective.

The Condemnation of Little B is a landmark.  Unlike trashy, novelistic “true crime” books like Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood, which epitomize an emotionalism that sidesteps the deeper moral questions about social constructs and institutions, Brown dissects and critiques those overlooked questions with surgical precision.  It is remarkably comprehensive, always defends the moral high ground, and is relentless in questioning the legitimacy of social power structures.  Hats off to Brown.

Michael Lewis, “Little B”, remains in prison:  http://freelittleb.com/

Edward S. Herman – Fake News on Russia and Other Official Enemies

Link to an article by Edward S. Herman:

“Fake News on Russia and Other Official Enemies: The New York Times, 1917–2017”

 

Bonus links: “Evidence of Google Blacklisting of Left and Progressive Sites Continues to Mount” and New York Times eXaminer and Liberalism: A Counter-History and War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century and “How the ‘Fake News’ Scare Is Marginalizing the Left” and “Twitter Bans RT and Sputnik Ads, Who’s Next?” and “Who’s Afraid of Corporate COINTELPRO?” and “The Rise of the New McCarthyism”

Marc Woodworth & Ally-Jane Grossan – How to Write About Music

 How to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers

Marc Woodworth & Ally-Jane Grossan, EditorsHow to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers (Bloomsbury 2015)


The implicit premise of the book is really “how to get paid to write about popular music in a journalistic setting“.  This is not a book that talks about how to publish a book about music (biography, academic text, etc.).  It does not deal with getting a job writing the text for programs to euro-classical orchestral concerts, as just one more example.  While much of the book admirably tries to offer tips on the mechanics of writing for newspapers, magazines and large web sites, readers should bear in mind the underlying assumptions of the editors who put this together.

It is inevitable that all critics write from a certain cultural perspective.  Readers either share (or aspire to) that cultural perspective, or they don’t.  But more than that, professional critics for newspapers and magazines tend to get caught up in the economics of a popular music industry that, as a whole, makes money hyping one fad after another, covering the release of new recordings in order to generate demand for live performances.  The biggest problem this cultivates in critics is a tendency to foster a kind of privileged clique of insiders who are “up to date” on the latest fads.  Their writing accordingly spends as much — or more — effort developing and maintaining that sense of insider elitism as it does explaining and contextualizing the music that is ostensibly the focus of their written pieces.  A few contributors here acknowledge this and describe it as reasonable and inevitable.  But of course, it is neither of those things.  Yet writers do need to either choose the path of “professional” writing laid out in this book, or reject it, and only by overcoming the underlying assumptions and dictates of “capital”, that is, the large media businesses that pay professional music writers, can writers actively reject such dictates.  Of course, some writers are just shills who will say just about anything for a sufficiently large paycheck, or too dim-witted to comprehend what is going on.  But more insidious are those who simply internalize the dictates of their industry, constrained by dependence on their salary to not say anything against industry interests.  That can fairly be called “drinking the Kool-Aid.”  On the other hand, it is worth remembering that most critics who eschew remuneration do what they do to advocate for certain music against the commercial marketplace.  Critics often want to praise was has yet to or may never garner commercial success, which doesn’t necessarily reject elitism but merely shifts focus from an economic sphere toward a cultural/symbolic sphere.  So they don’t get off the hook so easily either.

Another aspect of this book is its liberalism.  Liberalism describes the political outlook of nearly all the contributors, and especially the editors.  There is a pervasive belief that the post-WWII golden years of the working class — the time when pop/rock journalism was first created — represents the norm.  Such an outlook is the embodiment of liberalism.  People on both the political left and right of liberalism see the post-WWII years in the global West as a historical anomaly — but with different subjective reactions.  On the Right, the post-WWII welfare state was a tragedy, and they make attempts to return to a new gilded age, or even to outright feudalism.  On the Left, there is a desire to re-attempt a Paris Commune or other egalitarian utopia, which the welfare state was an attempt to stave off.  While in places some contributors acknowledge that popular music criticism of the type the book emphasizes is a uniquely post-WWII creation, it definitely stops short of acknowledging any sort of coherent theory of why that is.  So questions like the following are outside its scope: is popular music largely a creation of the working class and, if so, wouldn’t bourgeois capital therefore want to suppress or undermine working class aspirations in the long-run by under-funding and co-opting musical criticism?  Before WWII, there was something known as the “Cultural Front” and the theories of “Cultural Hegemony” or a “Culture Industry,” or even of a “Leisure Class” that drew connections like this on the political left.  On the flip side, around WWII and the dawn of the welfare state, you have people on the political right like Ayn Rand writing The Fountainhead to advocate for toppling an existing aristocracy to (de facto) install another, with a firm insistence that the reasons for doing this cannot be questioned (because “A is A” and this is “objectivism”, among other nonsense retorts), followed after the war by the open attacks of the McCarthy witchhunts that eliminated almost all viewpoints to the left of centrist liberalism.  With the ascendancy of conservatism during the neoliberal “austerity” age, the working class base for music criticism has shrunk along with the sort of journalistic outlets that went along with it.  In short, the economy as a whole has shifted away from the one that for a brief window of time supported a robust middle and working class base interested in “legitimate” popular music criticism (i.e., from a working/middle class perspective), and critics and readers seeking to bolster it during its decline necessarily see the conservative shift as a negative, while still retaining the elements of professional elitism that largely keeps them at a distance from the political left whose militancy once arguably brought about the conditions for it in the first place.

Anyway, the contributors to How to Write About Music surely have the editor’s implicit assumptions in mind.  Numerous contributors, for instance, mention writing on an amateur basis for free on a web site of your own creation.  Some even go so far as to praise the “democratization” that web sites provide in that respect (other contributors are clearly threatened by it).  They mention these things as they chafe against the narrowness of the questions posed to them by the editors of this book.  It is to the credit of the editors that they leave these things in the book.

A number of contributors here make the same joke: in order to survive as a music writer, you should have a trust fund.  In other words, the means for making a living doing professional music criticism are limited at best.  Give up hoping against the odds!  But those jokes kind of avoid the larger implications.  Mostly, this book is about the mechanics of the current music industry: how to submit a successful proposal to an editor, how to take notes for a concert review, examples of the most common formats for the most common things editors publish.  And much of that discussion is pretty shallow.  Most writers will intuitively understand that you can prepare to write a concert review by bringing a notepad to the concert and scrawling some notes, expanding upon them later.  The more interesting of these discussions of industry mechanics describe the editorial process and the various defenses of the status quo offered by editors who retain a large degree of control in that arena.  The short take home message, once summarized obliquely by David Graeber, is that you only get to do what you want (write about music!) if before and above that you are a salesperson.  If you can’t “sell” (pitch) to editors effectively, you will be denied access to the largest mass-media publishing platforms.  End of story.  Those parts of the book resemble Chad Harbach‘s MFA Vs NYC The Two Cultures Of American Fiction, which detailed the two leading commercial hubs in the United States for fiction publishing (see also the companion e-book, Vanity Fair’s How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding by Keith Gessen).  The editorial pitch process is driven by emotional “gut” reactions, not rational decision-making, and there is absolutely nothing like a meritocracy in play.  The editors of How to Write About Music do not intend to make that topic the focus of this book, and certainly never question editors who go along with that regime, but at the edges this emerges and the occasional statements along these lines provide some of the most valuable information documented here.  Yet implicit in much of the book is a crude and tentative attempt to disabuse readers of the myth of a meritocracy in the world of published music writing.

The writing samples, culled from books, magazines, etc. are generally underwhelming. This reviewer has been largely unimpressed with the 33 1/3 book series, which seems to range from tedious drivel to the mediocre, with a few exceptions.  It is therefore unsurprising that a book by and about music writers this reviewer finds to be mostly bad or mediocre would have limited appeal.  Even excerpts drawn from places beyond the 33 1/3 book series are no better, and tend to be from the likes of Alex Ross and other writers working for urban liberal publications, especially a few web sites like The Quietus (which this reviewer has largely dismissed as uninteresting liberal multiculturalist blather).

So, on the one hand, readers who accept the basic premises of this book may actually find a lot they like.  On the other hand, readers should very much question the basic premise of the book and what it represents.

Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky – The 5 Filters of the Mass Media Machine

Link to a video narrated by Amy Goodman about the “Propaganda Model” of Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky:

“The 5 Filters of the Mass Media Machine”

(Incidentally, this video helpfully updates the “anti-communism” filter of the original version of the theory).

 

Bonus link: Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty