Nora Caplan-Bricker (executive editor): I recently finished reading Home Bound, a richly layered new memoir by the writer and attorney Vanessa A. Bee. The book considers all the things that a home can be to a person: not only a place of shelter, but an arbitrary determinant of opportunity, a social signifier, a speculative investment. And, at the same time, a loving attempt to externalize one’s interior self; the comforting manifestation of a cherished set of ideas.
In a series of essayistic reflections, Bee explores how her many homes have shaped the direction of her life and contributed to her complex sense of identity. Born in Cameroon, she was adopted as a baby by her biological aunt, and spent her early childhood in a majority-white town in central France before moving into government-administered housing in Lyon, then in London. When she was a pre-teen, she and her mom moved to Reno, Nevada, where they at first lived crammed into an aunt and uncle’s already full house. Bee narrates the way her social and political consciousness emerged in response to her shifting place in the world. Whereas, in Lyon, she realized during a series of neighborhood protests against police brutality that “the mere act of living in this project makes us the kind of people who’d burn our own homes . . . a reality that subsumed our identity the moment we qualified for the white apartment,” in Reno, she may have shared a bed with her cousin, but the middle class neighborhood “masked my poverty and excused by blackness. It allowed me to pass.”
Bee has said that she initially set out to write “an essay collection loosely themed around the importance of state assistance for economically vulnerable kids to succeed—a sort of anti-Hillbilly Elegy.” Her book interweaves this thread with more intimate explorations of her family lineages—but her insistence that a home is a right remains central. For Bee, a better world would be one in which everyone had not only adequate shelter, but the ability to shape their surroundings; she writes about buying her first condo—while working at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), trying to guarantee affordable housing for others—and painting the walls, as she was forbidden to do while living in the apartment in Lyon.
This emphasis on housing as a site of personal agency as well as decommodified security reminded me of the wonderful book Modern Housing for America, by the historian Gail Radford, about a New Deal-era group often remembered as the “housers,” a movement of activists and intellectuals who attempted to bring high-quality social housing to the US. The group insisted that public housing must be beautiful and desirable, offering not only the essentials but also “freedom and flexibility.” Radford tells what is ultimately the story of the movement’s crushing defeat without acceding to the tendency of past events to generate their own sense of inevitability. It’s no wonder that the book has become popular among a new generation of housing activists; it quietly insists on an enduringly revolutionary set of possibilities. Bee’s own book ends on a forward-looking note, as she lets go of some of the homes she has carried with her and embraces others. If readers of this newsletter will excuse the shameless promo, I should mention that I’m excited to discuss all of this and more with her in a conversation at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., this coming Tuesday, 11/1.
Aparna Gopalan (JC fellow): Recommending a book by Mike Davis this week feels like adding to the sea with an eye dropper. Beautiful, moving words have been written about Davis’s books, his life, his ethos, his “prophetic” analyses, his piercing prose, his refusal of careerism, his commitment to the cause of labor. Then there are Davis’s own self-representations, mined from countless interviews, which seem to capture his essence better than what anyone else can write.
What could I add to all this to convince you to read or reread Davis but a personal story? As for many others, Davis was my gateway drug to socialism. I went to college aspiring, embarrassingly, to become a development economist. Reading Planet of Slums shattered that dream. “From Karl Marx to Max Weber, classical social theory believed that the great cities of the future would follow in the industrializing footsteps of Manchester, Berlin, and Chicago,” Davis wrote. “Most cities of the South, however, more closely resemble Victorian Dublin,” a Dickensian slumscape of destitution, disease, and despair.
The sheer erudition of Planet of Slums—the speed with which it zipped from place to place without ever losing local specificity or the global picture—blew me away, but what was most mind-boggling about the book was how Davis completely subverted understandings of capitalism, progress, and history itself. In hoping to be a development economist, I had wanted to help “develop” my country (India) so “we” could reach where Manchester, Berlin, and Chicago had. But here was Davis telling me that in fact the whole world—Manchester, Berlin, and Chicago included—was actually heading the way of Bombay and Rio, and that this trajectory was no error or glitch to be fixed by an economist but exactly what the system was designed to produce and keep producing into the future. “The one billion city-dwellers who inhabit postmodern slums,” Davis wrote, “might well look back with envy at the ruins of the sturdy mud homes of...Anatolia, erected at the very dawn of city life nine thousand years ago.”
The post-Slums reversal left me reeling and made me deeply suspicious of everything else I had ever read or learned that had taken the narrative of history-as-progress for granted. After all, what Davis challenged here was more than just a definition of urbanism or development—it was the baseline assumption inherent to modernity that however unequally, however incompletely, over the past several thousand years things have been getting better. What if this were false for the vast majority of people? How dramatically would everything we do have to shift if we accepted that the slum was going to be the norm in a generation or two, not the ignoble exception? Through years of graduate work, organizing, conversations, and writing, I’ve gone back to Davis’s provocation again and again, asking myself the same questions.
If, as the cliche goes, the mind is not a vase to be filled but a fire to be lit, it was Davis who lit mine along with thousands of others’ in a conflagration that may have the power to change things or at least to tip the first domino. My political personhood began with Mike Davis, and I mourn what we’ve all lost now that he is gone—our teller of truths, starter of fires.
Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): Never in a million years did I think I would be summoned to defend the viciously maligned gay rom-com Bros in the Jewish Currents newsletter—and not only because I am deeply, hopelessly straight. But also because it’s admittedly . . . not great. I don’t frankly disagree with Ari when they wrote, last week, about the “total lack of chemistry in all its guises” between the leads.
But—and of course, I should really stay in my lane here, but whatever—it’s just a studio rom-com! It’s allowed to, like, have a few laughs and be totally forgettable. Why does it have to be, as Ari reported of the conversations swirling around the film in the queer community, the “not-kidding-around-this-time nail in the coffin of queer life and art”? Take it from a straight: Rom-coms are bad! That’s part of their appeal! And this one had some actual laughs (though admittedly I can’t remember them now), which is more than I can say for that abomination of a gay Christmas movie Happiest Season. (Of course, I only watched that Christmas movie because it was gay and I can’t say I’ve seen other ones. Are all of them that soulless?) I understand the pressures that come with greater mainstream representation, but freed of personal investment from this particular representational discourse, I’ve decided to die on the hill of mindless fun.
But perhaps the real reason I feel compelled to make Bros the first (totally gratuitous) back-to-back rec in this newsletter is that Ari left out a crucial piece of context for those fence-sitters in the JC readership. This is almost less a gay rom-com than it is a Jew/non-Jew rom-com (a hallmark of all the greats of the genre: Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally): In a kind of curious bait and switch, the only real conflict between the two leads, while disguised as being about Billy Eichner’s over-the-top gay presentation, is actually about his over-the-top Jewiness. Basically, what’s-his-face hot guy and his nice goyishe family are annoyed. Is it a parable about internalized homophobia or heartland antisemitism or just about the fact that Jews and/or gays need to tone it down? Who cares! It’s Friday night and I want to not think about the midterms or kids throwing soup at Van Gogh or, god forbid, Kanye for approximately 120 minutes. Consider this your permission to do that!
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): I recently read two articles in a left-wing magazine that I found politically ignorant and, in fact, ignoble. They were all that’s terrible in left-wing writing, replete with name-calling and self-righteousness, filled with a self-proclaimed purity few mortals can attain to. Turning from them in disgust, I needed to read someone I could be confident would not disappoint, someone free of cant and self-delusion. I had to choose between H.L. Mencken and Joan Didion. Not having re-read her since her death, I went for the latter’ classic collection, The White Album. I was right to do so: Didion never lets you down.
Her mastery of language, eye for detail, and refusal of the obvious make all of the essays, written during the height of the ’60s and into the ’70s, essential documents of their time and of our society. It makes no difference what subject she examines, even unlikely ones, like Hollywood or shopping malls or the establishment of high-occupancy vehicle lanes in Los Angeles. But where Didion excelled, and where many—I warn you all now—will find her extremely problematic, is her description of ’60s America as a country not breaking out of its shackles but descending into chaos.
For Didion, the representative event of the new America being born was the Manson murders, the low point of the decade elevated to an archetypal moment. Student radicals are mocked, their posturing interpreted as ultimately meaningless, their college occupations empty, for “disorder was its own point.” A fundraising event held at the home of Sammy Davis Jr. is ridiculed as mercilessly for its vapidity as Tom Wolfe’s account of a different event in Radical Chic. The music played there is mocked as “not 1968 rock but the kind of jazz people used to have on their record players when everyone who believed in the Family of Man bought Scandinavian stainless-steel flatware and voted for Adlai Stevenson.”
All of this is relatively light compared to her attacks on the still-young women’s movement. Didion rejects the notion that women are protesting their status in society: “But of course something other than an objection to being ‘discriminated against’ was at work here, something other than an aversion to being ‘stereotyped’ in one’s sex role. Increasingly it seems that the aversion was to adult sexual life itself: how much cleaner to stay forever children.”
Any magazine editor who published these words today would be unemployed by day’s end. Didion would later write about political issues from a slightly different viewpoint, and do so brilliantly. But the heart of Didion, why she is still necessary, is for her tonic effect, for her illusionless vision of humanity. She was part of a generation, that, as she wrote, “lived with the ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs,” of experiencing “the political irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man’s own blood.” We all need a dose of Didion, those who refuse ambiguity most of all.