It’s never too late to observe the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, officially marked Monday in a muted fashion. A D.C. snowstorm whited out some of the official events, the nation’s leading civil rights leaders are furious over congressional inaction on voting rights, and Virginia swore in a new governor who wants to make it harder for kids to learn King’s legacy. We have 364 days to get this right before next year’s holiday, America.
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You can’t diagnose rage in America without talking about capitalism
Since graduating from Radnor High School on Philadelphia’s Main Line in 1979, on the very cusp of Ronald Reagan’s America, David Brooks — now boasting the ultimate punditry perch as a New York Times columnist — embraced U.S. conservatism only to recoil at what it became under the celebrity fascism of Donald Trump.
Today, “woke David Brooks” — a booster of President Biden as long as POTUS 46 stops listening to those darn leftists — writes very much like a man who’s felt the ground yanked from under his feet. His most recent Times column with the dramatic headline “America Is Falling Apart at the Seams” was actually a brilliant diagnosis of the national zeitgeist as we launch 2022: a mood of raw, unvarnished rage that’s seen car crashes rise just as quickly as the murder rate. And yet he’s baffled by the causes, or what a cure might be.
Asked Brooks: “What the hell is going on? The short answer: I don’t know. I also don’t know what’s causing the high rates of depression, suicide, and loneliness that dogged Americans even before the pandemic and that are the sad flip side of all the hostility and recklessness I’ve just described.” He obsessively touches on a few of his personal pet peeves — declining church attendance and (weirdly) campus “wokeness” — but I was struck by the one word that the columnist never uttered, or even came close to.
Maybe I was thinking that because — coincidentally or not — that same morning I’d seen a piece in conjunction with a strike by workers at Kroger supermarkets out West, which revealed the existence of a confidential 2018 report that circulated among top executives. The report showed that more than 20% of their store employees were receiving food stamps and most were earning well short of what was needed to rent a modest two-bedroom apartment.
“I literally work at a grocery store and can’t afford to eat regularly,” one Kroger worker reported anonymously in the report, noting a pretty inescapable irony of the situation. Of course, as you might expect, the leaders of Kroger were mortified by the finding and immediately implemented a large, across-the-board pay increase and ... ha-ha, you knew I was kidding, right? Instead, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen paid himself $22 million in 2020, which is more than 900 times as much as the typical worker. That’s pretty bad, even by modern U.S. capitalism standards.
It’s worth noting that Kroger’s corporate villainy isn’t exceptional. Also in 2020, a federal study found thousands of workers at big name brands like McDonald’s and Walmart are receiving some type of government assistance to make ends meet. No wonder that something snapped with the arrival of the coronavirus, when “essential workers” like those in supermarkets risked a deadly disease while the professional classes worked safely from home. The anger that Brooks described in his column is just part of a large scramble that also includes record numbers of middle-class workers quitting their jobs as well as a surge in students leaving college.
It surprised me that Brooks admits that the American way of life was breaking before COVID-19 yet he makes no mention of the groundbreaking research by Princeton’s Angus Deaton and Anne Case. Their 2015 investigation into “deaths of despair” from opioids or suicide found the spike disproportionate among middle-aged (and increasingly younger) working-class men. They’d seen first their job opportunities and then their self-esteem plunge in a “knowledge economy” that left them on the side of the road, and that also pretended that rigged economic inequality is a “meritocracy,” a creative way of blaming poor people for their own plight.
Even the poor people breaking their back for 10 hours a day in the back storage room at Kroger.
But this struck me as the biggest irony: That Brooks would admit to his cluelessness on the eve of the annual holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. That’s because — albeit decades apart, from completely opposite backgrounds — David Brooks and MLK often concerned themselves with the exact same question: What would a just, moral America look like? But the Atlanta-born preacher noticed things that a child of the Upper West Side and Philly’s Main Line did not.
After King won victories over legal segregation in the South in the mid-1960s, his subsequent failures fighting economic injustice in northern cities like Chicago led him to think bigger about systems of oppression that went deeper than the aftershocks of slavery and Jim Crow. As urban centers in Detroit, Newark, and elsewhere erupted in violent unrest, King saw the overlaps between racism, Vietnam-style militarism (a lesson also lost on Iraq War cheerleader Brooks) and inequality bred by capitalism.
“We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things,” King told his aides in May 1967. “We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all tied together … you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others … the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.”
The civil rights leader saw these things in a time when the pay gap between workers and CEOs was measured in the dozens, not the hundreds, when a worker on an assembly line could afford a decent home, and when there were still more people than guns in the United States. Had King somehow lived to the age of 93 this year, we don’t know exactly what he’d say about America falling apart at the seams, but he probably wouldn’t be surprised.
Yo, do this
Blame the suddenly cold weather or frequent winter visits from my movie-buff son, but my pre-Oscar-season film festival has stretched on, with two statue-worthy acting performances that flew under my radar when the films were released in 2021. Pig, which features a stunning and unlikely performance by Nicolas Cage (yes, the Nicolas Cage) is the kind of small but highly watchable indie film (streaming on Hulu) you wondered if they even made anymore, about a Portland truffle hunter with a backstory and his search for his lost ... well, you can guess. In The Eyes of Tammy Faye (HBO Max, currently), the brilliant Jessica Chastain does the impossible and makes you feel sympathy for her quirky Tammy Faye Bakker, adrift in a sea of televangelist sharks.
Mark Jacob is a former metro editor for the Chicago Tribune whose fame as a truth-teller has come since he retired from the newspaper business. That’s thanks to a pointed critique of lazy, “both side” practices in today’s political journalism which he says has enabled the Republican Party’s move toward fascism. You should hear what Jacob has to say in the latest episode of the Beyond Politics podcast, in which he charges that the media’s failure to take seriously the GOP’s assault on democracy “means they’re missing the biggest story of their entire lives.”
Ask me anything
Question: What do you have to say about Sinister [Arizona Sen. Kyrsten] Sinema pretending to be all pro-MLK while voting against his life’s work? — Via @georgejohnston on Twitter
Answer: I don’t want to give a free pass to Sinema — who tweeted Monday from her official account that “Today we remember the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” with the obligatory hashtag. This happened only three days after kneecapping the voting rights legislation that would have advanced King’s legacy, by refusing to budge on the filibuster. Her hypocrisy will likely end her Senate career in a 2024 primary. But I’d also note her tweet was nearly identical to scores of others from GOP politicians who’ve joined her in blocking the MLK-inspired legislation or from anti-union corporate brands oblivious that King died fighting for striking sanitation workers. Apparently, honoring MLK’s “life and legacy” with a cool photo while not engaging with anything he actually believed is the new version of “thoughts and prayers” from gun zealots after a mass shooting. Maybe some folks need to to sit MLK Day out.
Backstory on the new scandal from Outlaw’s Portland years
Ever since Donald Trump’s shock election as president in 2016, Portland, Oregon, has become the epicenter of rising concerns over political violence in America. The Pacific Coast city is a magnet for both young, radicalized leftists as well as members of right-wing “patriot groups,” in a state with surprisingly deep roots in white supremacy. The Portland police department has been caught in the middle of all this, but activists have long complained that rank-and-file cops crack down harder, and more violently, on left-wing protesters. Now, in a lawsuit over alleged civil rights abuses by officers during the 2020 George Floyd protests, those critics have uncovered some gob-smacking evidence: A police training presentation that concludes with an image that celebrates violence against “dirty hippies” who should end up “bandaged and stitched.”
But the training slides date from 2018 — a year when Portland’s police chief was Danielle Outlaw, who was later hired away by Philadelphia and still serves as police commissioner here. It’s not clear from the discovery whether Outlaw, as top cop, would have been aware of the controversial image. But the new bombshell does nothing to dispel the notion that the Portland police department was rife with civil-rights abuses during her time at the helm. That’s especially troubling in light of how Philadelphia police, under Outlaw’s command, responded to the George Floyd protests here. Among other problems, the commissioner and Mayor Kenney were forced to apologize for the tear-gassing of peaceful protesters on I-676. It seems that Outlaw’s past record has already been litigated, but hopefully Philadelphia’s next mayor — who can’t arrive soon enough — will take the vetting process more seriously if and when it’s time to replace Outlaw.
Inquirer reading list
The MLK Day holiday included an official day off for me, which meant that I only wrote one column this week. I used it for a deep dive into what’s emerging as one of the stranger aspects of the January 6 coup conspiracy, which was the submission of fake GOP Electoral College slates for Donald Trump in states that President Biden won. I looked at what happened in Pennsylvania, whether any crimes were committed, and some other unanswered questions.
When a lawyer for top Harrisburg Republicans shocked the Pennsylvania school-funding trial with his question about whether kids on — his words — “the McDonald’s track” really need to study algebra, you knew the issue was not going to die a quiet death. The Inquirer Opinion section published a timely op-ed from Laura Boyce, a former teacher and principal turned advocate. Boyce decried the rigging of a school-funding hierarchy in which your zip code can determine your outcome in life. The future of education in the Keystone State is a complex issue that can’t be dealt with in 20-second soundbites. You can ensure that Philadelphia and its suburbs get the civic conversation they deserve by subscribing to The Inquirer.