Hayesy Sunday

Back in Seattle, living alone with a huge TV set, I used to watch a lot of Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. At that time, the show was dominated by the phrase “traffic problems on the George Washington Bridge”.

Oh, how the worm turns.

When Maddow was unavailable, Chris Hayes would sub in. They seemed to be cut from the same cloth: liberal commentators with an engaging, academic lecturing style and an emphasis on history and colorful anecdotes.

On Sunday, Hayes spoke at Lehman College, a CUNY site in the Bronx, and I went to listen, along with a few hundred white liberal retirees and younger Bronx locals. It was more or less part of a book tour for A Colony in a Nation, Hayes’s new book.

I haven’t read the book, but the notion seems to be that for some people — basically non-whites — their daily experience is more like living in a colony governed by a foreign power than it is like living in a self-governing democracy. It’s an interesting “frame”, a “theory” only in the philosopher’s sense. It isn’t a prescription, or even a prediction, just a metaphor supported by remarkable stories from American history.

Hayes suggested that curious audience members seek out a few video clips, which he didn’t show. One was Ronald Reagan’s 1980 visit to the South Bronx, in an area which looks more like a devastated third-world country than part of a major US city. Reagan promised to restore jobs to these blighted areas. Instead, the Reagan administration funded a city program that covered some of the broken windows in the area with decals of lovely interiors.

Hayes, a famous rich white man with a white TV audience, is perhaps not the ideal messenger for a reminder about the mistreatment of poor minorities in the US, and the prioritization of white Americans’ needs, but it turns out he’s also a Bronx native. He’s also just as eloquent in person as on his TV show.

I enjoyed the speech, a welcome reminder about the depth of the disparity between communities, deepened by overly white police forces that are accountable to the fearful voting public, not the neighborhoods they patrol. I was intrigued by his analysis of Donald Trump, who came of age at the peak of New York’s racially tinged crime wave, and now projects the dysfunction of that era out to the country at large. I even liked his distinction between policing philosophies that focus on reducing violent crime and “maintaining order”.

Sometimes I get annoyed at writers who jump to solutions, as if each problem in the world has a two sentence solution. (The Economist is particularly bad.) But after an hour soaking in the significance of the problem, some ideas on how to address it would have been a nice touch.

P.S. One other funny thing about this event was the audience’s inability, implicit in the questions they asked, to distinguish Chris Hayes and MSNBC from the Democratic Party, and especially the Bernie Sanders wing. The media’s polite veil of impartiality seems to be lost on their audience.

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