A few quick recent reads — November 18, 2017

A few quick recent reads

  • Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

Red background. Black text overlaid on yellow ribbons. At the top of the page is an upside-down rooster's head, presumably separated forcibly from the body of the chicken.

Really exceptional candy, genus “chefs talk about how difficult it is to be a chef.” It sounds really, really difficult to be a chef. And Hamilton’s background is part of why I figure I’m not cut out to be a chef: my sense of the industry is that everyone is heavily tattooed, is used to routinely going to sleep at 3am, drinks a lot after work, does a lot of cocaine, and basically had to start as a dishwasher in their teens to get the right attitude.

Hamilton’s youth sounds atypical even within the world of the chef. Her parents divorced and more or less left their kids to raise themselves — in their crazy home in the woods — when Hamilton was 13. In the years preceding that, her French mother had taught her to cook like a civilized human rather than like an American child raised on hot dogs and Little Debbie Snack Cakes. They held fabulous parties in the woods, where they roasted pigs on a spit and fed hundreds of the Broadway people her father had met in his work designing scenery for the stage.

It’s rare for Blood, Bones, and Butter to descend into the standard tropes of the genre. And then the final section is a complete left turn even within the world of the book: it becomes clear that Hamilton is writing about the dissolution of her marriage. There can be no question, by the time you reach the end, that she is going to get divorced. No normal human being could tolerate the abuse she metes out onto her now-ex-husband. I suppose it’s just possible that their therapy has been so successful, and they’ve so learned the tricks of intra-couple honesty, that she can say all these things on the page without leaving any hurt feelings. The text itself argues against it: Hamilton is a self-described fiery fighter, which sounds like the opposite of her ex. And if I were her husband, I would have a hard time seeing, written down on the page,

he has never, incredibly, incomprehensibly, said anything important to me.

So yes, she’s divorced. You know it even without Googling for it; Googling confirms it.

  • Susan Landau, Listening In: Cybersecurity in an Insecure Age

The words 'Listening In, and the subtitle, are made to look like a sound wave emerging from a point source on the left side of the page. The background looks like grey bricks. So it's sort of a mashup of sound waves and graffiti on a brick wall.

Very solid work digging into both the details of privacy-enhancing technologies, and the details of how law enforcement conducts investigations in the presence of encryption. Landau’s thesis — with which I think nearly all security experts would agree — is that encryption helps the good guys just as much as it helps the bad guys. We want to keep Hillary Clinton’s emails secure so that the Russians can’t get into them; if widespread encryption means that the police have to do more work to get into the bad guys’ computers, that’s a tradeoff worth making. Landau goes into great and enjoyable detail on exactly how the police can still do their jobs.

One small critique: Landau uses widespread surveillance cameras (as in the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing) and pen-register data (which allow the police to see who called whom and when, if not what exactly what was said during the call) as evidence that the police don’t need access to encrypted communications. A natural response there is that civil libertarians, such as me, would prefer a society with fewer surveillance cameras and tighter control over pen-register data. If I were her editor, I would have asked her to argue the stronger case: could police still get what they wanted, even if civil libertarians got everything they wanted?

This is not an unanswerable objection. One underlying premise of Landau’s civil libertarianism is that the police don’t have a right to walk through your door easily. They have a right to walk through your door, given a warrant that’s been granted to them after they’ve demonstrated to a neutral magistrate that they have a good reason to walk through that door. On one side of the debate, we have police who insist that omnipresent strong encryption is creating a world of doors that can’t be opened no matter how hard we hit them with the battering ram. On the other side — Landau’s side — we have a lot of evidence that police still have many tools in their arsenal, and that police have been sounding the alarm about impossible-to-open doors for more than two decades. There’s still no reason to believe them; and besides: the benefits to our society from universal high-grade security are immense.

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

Red background. Set on the background is a weathered sheet of paper. On the sheet of paper is written the title, subtitle, and author's name. I assume the piece of paper is supposed to look like an old-timey advertisement for a slave auction.

Worth reading if only as a study in how Coates’s thought evolved over the eight years of the Obama presidency. His career essentially began around 2008, when he was writing about Bill Cosby and the politics of black respectability; back then Cosby was barnstorming the country telling black men to clean up, take care of the children they fathered, and so forth. The Obamas were, in essence, the apotheosis of black-respectability politics; they were African-Americans’ best picture of themselves.

Eight years taught Coates that it doesn’t matter: black people have to be twice as good to get half the respect. White people cannot stomach the idea of a black man on top. Whiteness is defined, in Coates’s completely convincing telling, by white supremacy. Blackness is, by definition, inferior. And so we ended up with the first white-supremacist president, as white people recoiled against the thought of ever being beneath a black man.

In one of the stops on his book tour, when Ezra Klein interviewed him, Klein asks Coates when he would know that the age of white supremacy had ended; Coates’s response was that the black-white wealth gap would have to disappear. (ObBook, in queue: Black Wealth / White Wealth.) This flows somewhat naturally from Coates’s Case for Reparations, which is included within We Were Eight Years in Power. The argument in that essay, and within the collection, is wholly convincing and wholly dispiriting.

After reading Coates and hearing him speak, I always find myself desperate to ask what I can do. What am I doing, as a white man, that makes the problem of white supremacy worse? The nearest answer that’s ready to hand is that white people make the school system worse when they — wholly rationally — send their kids to private schools or move to wealthy suburbs, leaving urban school systems underfunded and filled with black students in poverty.

Which of course points out that the problem of white supremacy is systemic, not individual. I can make a hero (or a martyr, if you’d like) out of my kid by sending him to an underfunded public school, but those with the means can and do, largely, leave underperforming urban school systems if they have the choice. A collective-action problem does not have an individual solution. I can work my ass off to improve my neighborhood school, like gentrifiers tried to do in the 70s in Boston. Is that the solution? I don’t know. I always leave Coates’s books looking desperately for answers. His role isn’t to provide them. His role, like that of his hero James Baldwin (please go read this astonishing collection), is to stare honestly at the society he’s part of and methodically tear off Band-Aids.