They Can’t Kill Us All: The Story of Black Lives Matter by Wesley Lowery

Image result for they can't kill us all wesley lowery

This review first appeared in The Sunday Business Post Magazine on January 15th, 2017.


During his farewell address in Chicago, on January 10th, 2017, Barack Obama talked about the (non-Republican) elephant in the room. “Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society,” he said. “Race relations are better than they were ten or twenty or thirty years ago […] But we’re not where we need to be.”

He wasn’t kidding.  On August 19th, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s crime was negligible: he had stolen some cigarillos from a convenience store. The officer involved, Darren Wilson, fired seven bullets into Brown’s body. Wilson was never charged for the shooting. Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, is what they call “majority-minority”: i.e. 52% of its population is African-American. But the civic government of Ferguson – including the police department – is overwhelmingly white. Brown’s shooting sparked a conflagration: by the following evening, peaceful protests had turned violent, and a nascent movement, taking the name Black Lives Matter, had found a new cause. What the success of Black Lives Matter made unignorably clear is that the “postracial America” foreseen eight years ago by certain optimists was a dream gone sour.

In the United States, according to statistics compiled by the Washington Post, an unarmed black person is shot and killed by police officers every ten days. One of the journalists who helped to compile these stats is 26-year-old Wesley Lowery, who was on the ground in Ferguson the day after Michael Brown’s death. Sending dispatches from his laptop in a McDonald’s, Lowery was ordered by cops to clear the area; two minutes later, he was arrested. Lowery’s father is African-American. They Can’t Kill Us All, Lowery’s report on the Black Lives Matter movement, is perhaps excusably passionate and partisan. As he says: “even with a black president in office, my shade of pigment remained a hazard […] I’m a black man in America who is often tasked with telling the story of black men and women killed on American streets by those who are sworn to protect them.”

In other words, Lowery is himself helplessly implicated in the story he is telling. Despite the occasional gesture towards even-handedness, he is transparently on the side of the protestors and against “the nightly militarised response of law enforcement” to their demonstrations. They Can’t Kill Us All is a fiery hunk of committed, first-person reportage, a dispatch from the front lines of a righteous struggle. Lowery, in his ardour, sometimes gets carried away. “The bitter taste of injustice is intoxicating on the tongue of a traumatised people,” he writes, which is the sort of line that might go down well at a protest rally, but that doesn’t get us very far as analysis. Occasionally Lowery’s prose, rushing down the turnpike, gets itself involved in a collision: “A shortsighted framing, divorced from historical context, led us to litigate and relitigate every specific detail of the shooting without fully grasping the groundswell of pain and frustration fuming from the pores of the people of Ferguson – which also left us blindsided by what was to come.” Journalism may be history’s rough draft, but surely it doesn’t need to be quite as rough as this.

Lowery’s outrage confers advantages and disadvantages. It is impossible not to conclude, from a perusal of his pages, that police departments in many American cities are disfigured by racism. Hair-trigger cops, almost all of them white, shoot first and ask no questions – and, later, pay no price.  The most harrowing incident Lowery relates is the death of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, in November 2014. Two white patrol cops, responding to reports of “a black male sitting on a swing and pointing a gun at people” in a city park, shot Rice dead two minutes after they arrived on the scene. Rice was 12 years old. His gun was a toy.

But Lowery’s passion does him, and his readers, an analytical disservice. “Black Lives Matter,” he writes, “is best thought of as an ideology.” But neither Lowery nor his interviewees can offer a persuasive account of the movement’s ideological platform. Instead, Lowery excitedly catalogues the number of times “#blacklivesmatter” has been retweeted. He relies disproportionately on events limited to social media, as if sharing a Facebook post counted as political activism.

Lowery does briefly acknowledge “the darker side of […] social media,” noting that some movement activists “had a propensity to play a bit fast and loose with the facts” – or, in plainer terms, to lie.  The weasel words here are telling. In Lowery’s world of them-versus-us, they (the authorities) lie; we (the protestors) have a propensity to play fast and loose with the truth. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Lowery that the social media landscape is a wilderness of mirrors in which nothing should be taken at face value – neither the words of your enemies nor the words of your friends. On Twitter, you can say anything you want – it will be forgotten within the hour. Just ask Donald Trump.

It’s been mooted that Trump’s ascension will transform Barack Obama into a tragic figure. But Obama’s tragedy isn’t that his successor is something like his human opposite (while Obama is urbane, Trump is vulgar; while Obama is forthright, Trump is a liar; while Obama is an intellectual, Trump is a moron; and so forth). Obama’s tragedy is that, during his Presidency, America’s half-healed racial wound was torn open once again, and began to fester. Obama is fond of quoting a remark made by Dr. Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is a comforting thought. But it isn’t true. There is no “arc of the moral universe.” There are only human beings, who are, among other things, violent, racist, deceitful , and stubborn. Lowery, in his zeal, has glimpsed this truth only fitfully. His book is nonetheless indispensable, even as it marshals only the rudiments of a long and painful story.


Zero K by Don DeLillo

Image result for zero k don delillo

This review first appeared in The Sunday Business Post Magazine on 19th June 2016.


In 1997 Don DeLillo published Underworld: a vast, diffuse, almost embarassingly rich account of America’s postwar decades, dense with the miraculous perceptions that have marked DeLillo’s vision since the publication of his first novel, Americana, in 1971. DeLillo’s reputation, already stratospheric, went into orbit. Martin Amis articulated the consensus view: “DeLillo suddenly fills the sky […] Underworld renders DeLillo a great novelist.”

Even at the time, however, there were murmurs of dissent. The High Priest of Realism, James Wood, took to the pages of The New Republic to argue that Underworld was a “failure […] a collection of lavish fragments” that “enforces relations between its parts which it cannot coax.” The story of how Wood – a dogmatic traditionalist who patrols the borders of literature, denying access to anyone who hasn’t made the proper obeisances to Chekhov – became the most influential literary critic of our time must be left for another day. But Wood’s doubts about Underworld were sufficient, it seems, to diminish the standing of one of the greatest of living American novelists. DeLillo’s reputation, over the two decades since Underworld appeared, has demonstrably faded – to the point where the arrival of Zero K, his sixteenth novel, has been an occasion for cautious praise, rather than for the gratified excitement it properly deserves.

Matters weren’t helped, of course, by the publication, after Underworld, of four spectral, meditative novellas: The Body Artist (2001), Cosmopolis (2003), Falling Man (2007), and Point Omega (2010). In these works the native chill of DeLillo’s prose seemed to lower by several crucial degrees.  Each of these books circled around a small handful of obsessions: abstract art, the philosophy of time, the granular detail of personal memory. Notable by its absence was DeLillo’s ear for what he calls, in his new book,  “the world hum” – that scalpel-sharp sense of the contemporary that has made DeLillo’s work so indispensible to any engagement with our imperfectly postmodern moment. The detached, almost Buddhist quality of these late works seemed to signal the evaporation of a formerly boiling talent.

The good news is that Zero K, after a worrying initial descent into the familiar conceptual nonspace of post-Underworld DeLillo, feels very much like a return to form.  The first part takes place in the Convergence, an underground facility somewhere in Kazakhstan that is partly a cryogenics lab, partly a meditation retreat, and partly a conceptual art installation. Here the super-rich – the masters of capital – come to avail themselves of the latest in immortality solutions: dying people have their vital organs removed and their bodies frozen in “pods” at something approaching zero degrees Kelvin (Zero K), to await resurrection in the bleeding-edge future.

Our witness to this improbable dream is Jeffrey Lockhart, son of billionaire finance wizard Ross Lockhart. Ross’s terminally ill second wife, Artis, is waiting, in a state of “languid contentment,” to undergo the Zero K procedure. Meanwhile, in the antiseptic corridors of the Convergence, silent screens show newsreel footage of natural disasters, and a monk tends to the dying in their hospice.

The Convergence section of Zero K drifts perilously close to the bloodless abstraction of Point Omega or The Body Artist, although numerous flashes of the old brilliance still appear: walking the corridors, Jeffrey encounters a boy in a motorized wheelchair, flanked by adults who “stared straight ahead, into authorised space.” But once the book leaves Kazakhstan – by way of a brief Beckettian monologue from the frozen Artis (“She is living within the grim limits of self”) – and returns to New York, the reader experiences a bracing jolt of energy. Here it is: the contemporary world, as only DeLillo can see it. And you realise, with relief, that the Zero K conceit – with all its attendant science-fictional hoopla – is simply the book’s deep engine, the power-source that takes DeLillo where he really wants to go: straight into the heart of the contemporary.

He may find himself diverted now and then by the poetry of transcendence, but DeLillo with one cocked ear is always listening to the sound of right now: to “the oceanic sound of people living and thinking and talking, billions, everywhere, waiting for trains, marching to war, licking food off their fingers. Or simply being who they are. The world hum.”

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer (full review)

Image result for borne jeff vandermeer

To mark the paperback publication of Borne (Fourth Estate), and the release, on Netflix, of Alex Garland’s film of Annihilation, here’s my review of Jeff Vandermeer’s most recent novel. The piece originally appeared in The Sunday Business Post Magazine on 13th August 2017.


Jeff Vandermeer never looked like a writer fated for mainstream success. His early work is outré even by the standards of contemporary science fiction: in Finch (2009), for example, the imaginary city of Ambergris is invaded by sentient ambulatory mushrooms (for a while, in the precincts of SF fandom, Vandermeer was known as “the mushroom guy”). To all appearances, Vandermeer’s talent was defiantly baroque, dreamy, genre-bound. He seemed unlikely ever to achieve escape velocity.

Then, in 2014, Vandermeer published three novels – Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, known collectively as the Southern Reach trilogy – and something unexpected happened. The mushroom guy was a hit. Vandermeer was profiled in The New Yorker, raved about in The New York Times. A film of Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman and directed by Alex Garland, is due in 2018. The Southern Reach books were rightly hailed as a major achievement: drawing upon a rich loam of influences (from nature writing to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, from espionage fiction to the horror tales of H.P. Lovecraft), Vandermeer synthesized something sharp, gripping, enigmatic, and emotionally resonant.

At the centre of the trilogy is Area X, a wilderness zone that may or may not be the site of an alien incursion. In Area X, reality assumes strange configurations. Periodically, a government agency known as the Southern Reach sends an expedition into Area X. These expeditions tend to disappear, in horrific circumstances. Area X is both alien and familiar – it is both a parody of the Chernobyl exclusion zone (the site of a unique catastrophe) and a rendering of nature itself (the ordinary world, perceived as something radically other). The Southern Reach trilogy is a central work of 21st century imaginative fiction; if you haven’t read it already, you should procure a copy, post haste.

And while you’re at it, you should also pick up a copy of Vandermeer’s new one, Borne. If the Southern Reach trilogy was a sly, sinuous, allusive riff on the anxieties of the West in the 21st century, then Borne is a frontal assault on those anxieties: a haunting, and haunted, vision of a self-mutilating world brought to the brink of collapse. It also features a giant flying bear (but, disappointingly, no mushrooms).

The bear’s name is Mord. He is Godzilla-sized; he crushes buildings wherever he lies down to sleep. He is the de facto ruler of Borne’s unnamed post-apocalyptic city – a place in which unregulated genetic engineering has led to a biotech apocalypse. In Borne’s post-urban hellscape, feral children with mutant wasps for eyes prowl the remains of burnt-out buildings; red salamanders rain from the sky and melt into a poisonous mush; rivers roil and bubble with a stew of fatal toxins. The organisation responsible for creating Mord – as well as sundry other monstrosities – is known simply as the Company. Daily, from the ruins of its HQ, the Company sends out more biotech abominations. Civil order is a wistful dream.

Our narrator, Rachel, survives by scavenging for useful biotech. One day, combing through the fur of a sleeping Mord, she discovers Borne: a glowing, blob-like creature unlike anything she has ever seen. Rachel – who lives with her partner Wick in a fortified, desolate hotel – takes Borne home and raises him as a kind of ersatz child. As Borne grows, he manifests an alarming nature: he can assume strange shapes at will, and he thrives by “absorbing” stray denizens of the city.

This should be ridiculous – a giant flying bear? A shapeshifting blob who acts like a stroppy teenager (“I need my space”)? But it works. Freely mingling horror and absurdity, Vandermeer channels the darkest nightmares of the West – its terror of the other, its terror of itself. In its dark beauty, in the sombre extremity of its vision, Borne bypasses the higher reaches of consciousness and shows us not what we fear, but what we are: “We cared but we didn’t do.” Borne is both weirder and less cleanly written than the Southern Reach books; it probably won’t settle quite so comfortably into the 21st century SFF canon. But as a fiendishly inventive tragedy about “the mysteries of existence and why we did the things we do, to each other and to animals,” Borne has few equals and no peers.

Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir by John Banville

Image result for john banville time pieces

This review of Time Pieces first appeared in The Sunday Business Post Magazine on 13th November 2016.


Vladimir Nabokov was evidently much on John Banville’s mind during the writing of Time Pieces, his new Dublin memoir – specifically, I would guess, Nabokov’s glittering, enigmatic autobiography, Speak , Memory (1951). “The cradle rocks above an abyss,” that famous book begins, “and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Time Pieces offers in its early pages a similar, and similarly phrased, reflection: “What transmutation must the present go through in order to become the past? Time’s alchemy works in a bright abyss.”

There aren’t many living writers who can legitimately claim parity with Nabokov, one of the twentieth century’s great masters of English prose. John Banville is one of them. His writing is Nabokovian in the sense that it pays close attention to the felt surface of the world – in Time Pieces he notices a heron hunting in the Grand Canal, and is struck by “the clean sharp dangerous lines of the thing, the long bill like a lovingly fashioned ceremonial blade.” Banville’s writing is Nabokovian in other ways, too.  His novels are fascinated by masks and duality, and by the elusive and perhaps fictional nature of the self. They may look like confessions, these books, but you will search through them in vain for any trace of the autobiographical. Banville the man, as opposed to Banville the writer, remains elusive – as elusive, in his way, as any of the haunted and spectral narrators who people his books.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, to find that Banville’s memoir of his life in Dublin isn’t exactly in the True-Confessions mode. As memoirs go, Time Pieces is pretty coy about the hard facts. Anyone looking for the dirt on JB will come away disappointed. But Speak, Memory is similarly reticent. Both Nabokov and Banville understand that as soon as a memory is written down, it becomes a work of artifice – that is to say, it becomes a fiction. This might be why Time Pieces feels very much of a piece (pun not quite intended) with Banville’s novels – essayistic, meditative, and lyrical, it is a beautifully crafted, carefully shaped work of art, and quite different from the sort of book that usually gets shelved in the “memoir” section.

A good deal of Time Pieces is given over to excursions into Dublin’s cultural and architectural history. In the company of his friend “Cicero” – the hypercivilised developer Harry Crosbie – Banville zips around Dublin in a two-seater vintage sports car, visiting the Botanical Gardens, lamenting the destruction of Georgian Dublin, and viewing the remains of Nelson’s Pillar (you can see Nelson’s head in the reading room of Pearse Street Library). As reportage, this is highly entertaining; but it remains a rather coy way to approach the business of writing a memoir.

Some facts of a biographical nature can nonetheless be gleaned from the pages of Time Pieces. That Banville grew up in Wexford we already knew; here he notes, regretfully, that he saw the town as “no more than a staging post on my way elsewhere” – “I did not even bother to learn the names of most of the streets.” Writers generally treat their home town harshly – and generally come to regret it. “In imaginative terms,” Banville writes, “this indifference to my birthplace, to its history, and to the complex and subtle life of its people, was not only arrogant but foolish, and wasteful, too.”

It was Dublin that attracted Banville, as a child and as an adult.  Time Pieces begins with an immaculate account of a childhood visit to the city. It was the 1950s, and Dublin was “grey and graceless,” but for the young Banville it was “a place of magical promise towards which my starved young soul endlessly yearned.” (Banville is very good, incidentally, on the high-stakes emotions of youth, as when he writes of “my adolescent self – that poor poseur shivering in the cheap shoes of his emotions.”)

After school Banville went to live with his aunt in a flat in Lower Mount Street, and began to write. (Another memoirist might give us a few pages about his early creative struggles and so on – but Banville doesn’t say a word.) He became a smitten frequenter of the artistic demi-monde of “Baggotonia” – the stamping-ground of Behan, Kavanagh, and Flann O’Brien – where, in Banville’s words, “the loudest among the legends produced precious little” and “many a masterpiece was talked into thin air and spirited away by the fumes of alcohol” (a world that has now transferred itself to the vicinity of Grogan’s on South William Street, but which remains, amusingly, otherwise unchanged).

Banville’s text is accompanied, throughout, by pictures taken by the photographer and filmmaker Paul Joyce. They are sombre, these pictures, and generally show a Dublin denuded of people, so that when a picture of Banville himself appears – his back to the camera – it comes as something of a shock. It’s an appropriate shock, I think, for such an elusive book. But the real pleasure of the book comes, as always with Banville, from the prose. Banville is a real writer – helplessly alert to the way words chime against each other. On a tour of the older sections of the Rotunda Hospital, he notes his guide’s “infectious enthusiasm” – and the cliché is renovated by its context: what other brand of enthusiasm would you expect to find, in a hospital?

At one point, rather ruefully, Banville mentions a bit of flash-fiction he wrote, in emulation of Hemingway’s famous “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”: “Should have lived more, written less.” This squib, Banville says, expresses “a serious and bitter truth.” It’s difficult not to feel that if Banville had written less, the world would not have been enriched by so many of his sentences. But perhaps this is to miss the point entirely. The fact remains: he has written, and he has written beautifully – in Time Pieces no less than in his extraordinary novels.

Restless Souls by Dan Sheehan

Image result for restless souls book dan sheehan

My review of Dan Sheehan’s debut novel Restless Souls (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s a short excerpt:

For the most part Sheehan’s prose is readable and clear, though there are quite a few clichés: Karl has “handfuls of hazy, rose-tinted memories” of his late father; Tom meets a roomful of “Gung-ho war correspondents.” Clichés in prose usually suggest an author who hasn’t quite seen clearly enough what he is attempting to evoke – though there are some vivid descriptions of life in Sarajevo under siege.

There are also some tonal problems. “I somehow scraped a pass on the rechecks of my maths paper,” Karl tells us, “and therefore became eligible to attend one of Ireland’s fine establishments of higher education.” This is the fake worldliness of insecure young men, of course. But it isn’t entirely clear whether Sheehan shares this fake worldliness, or whether he’s gently sending Karl up. A grown-up’s perspective might have helped; but the grown-ups in Restless Souls are spectral figures, suggesting that Sheehan doesn’t quite see them clearly, either (Tom’s mother, for instance, has aged skin like “crinkled rolling paper” – but if Tom is in his mid-twenties, then surely his mother can’t be much past fifty?).

Educated by Tara Westover

Image result for tara westover educated

My review of Tara Westover’s memoir Educated (Hutchinson) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

Westover grew up in a “jagged little patch of Idaho.” Her father hauled scrap metal. Her mother sold homeopathic tinctures & worked, reluctantly, as the local midwife. The Westovers were paranoid individualists of a peculiarly American kind. They lived “off the grid.” Tara’s father believed that the US government was an agent of Satan. The kids spent their summers canning fruit and installing solar panels: “that way we’d have water and electricity in the End of Days, when everyone else was drinking from puddles and living in darkness.”

Until Westover went to BYU, she was almost totally ignorant of the outside world. She “had never heard” of the Twin Towers “until they fell.” When she tried to read Les Miserables as a teenager, “Napoleon felt no more real to me than Jean Valjean. I had never heard of either.” She was baffled by her first-year Western Civ lectures: “I thought Europe was a country.”

Winners and Losers

“The drama of history, formerly reserved for heroes and their anxious and awestruck onlookers, has spread out to encompass the entire human race. In contemporary life there are no spectators, only actors – winners and losers.” – Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New (1959).

Why Does Black Panther Make No Sense?

Image result for black panther

This post contains spoilers. 

What actually happens, in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (Disney/Marvel Studios)? A secretly wealthy African country named Wakanda gets a new king, T’Challa, who sets about trying to control Wakanda’s supply of vibranium, a magic substance that can be used to make everything from laser weapons to fancy suits to monorails. Deploying superpowers conferred on him by a glowing purple herb, T’Challa tracks down and captures a South African nogoodnik named Ulysses Klaue, who has been stealing vibranium and selling it to someone (we don’t really know who). But Klaue, it transpires,  is in cahoots with Eric “Killmonger” Stevens, the abandoned son of a Wakandan spy who has been radicalised by growing up in America (which, fair enough). Killmonger deposes T’Challa, throws him off a waterfall, and announces that Wakanda will now construct a global empire using vibranium weapons, in revenge for centuries of Western colonisation (once again, you see his point). T’Challa’s powers are restored using the glowing purple herb; Killmonger is stabbed to death by T’Challa in a confusingly choreographed fight; T’Challa, finding himself semi-persuaded by Killmonger’s arguments, announces the opening of a Wakandan Outreach Centre in Oakland, California, which will (T’Challa is vague on the details) have something to do with bringing STEM education to underprivileged African-American kids.

As a plot, this doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. But there are other ways of looking at the film. The consensus is that Black Panther is a movie about race. Black writers, including Rahawa Haile in this fascinating essay, have spoken movingly about what it means to see a mainstream blockbuster that takes such careful cognizance of African culture (and the best thing by far about Black Panther is the way it looks and sounds). But the plot I’ve outlined above isn’t really about race (except, of course, for Killmonger’s “radicalisation” in the US, more on which in a moment). In fact, Black Panther is a movie about how Western capitalism is the only viable solution to the world’s problems.

Let’s start with vibranium. Wakanda, we’re told, is rich because it controls the world’s supply of this magic substance. In other words, Wakanda’s wealth is based on the scrupulous preservation of a monopoly. Although the movie never states this explicitly, we are given to understand that if vibranium became generally available on the world market, Wakanda would be screwed. Most of what T’Challa does in Black Panther is designed to prevent this from happening.

In narrative terms, vibranium is the film’s McGuffin. In economic terms, vibranium – the magic substance that can make anything and potentially change the world, depending on what you do with it – is capital. Wakanda, we’re told by a news broadcast early in the film, doesn’t trade with other countries. Everyone in the world thinks that Wakanda is desperately poor. But behind its holographic facade, Wakanda is actually enormously rich. It is, in fact, a Western capitalist country in the heart of Africa. This is what makes Wakanda powerful – its dedication to the principles of capitalism. What Black Panther is telling us, whether it knows it or not, is that the real solution to Africa’s problems is to become more like the West – i.e. more capitalist.

As king of Wakanda, T’Challa’s task is to preserve and maintain Wakanda’s capital. Pretty much the first thing he does after his coronation is go to a market, where his people are happily buying and selling – i.e., carrying on like good Western consumers. At the end of the movie, when he’s been restored to the throne, T’Challa visits the market again – letting us know that the capitalist status quo has been restored. Pretty much the second thing T’Challa does as king is set off to South Korea to capture Klaue. We’re told that Klaue has been murdering Wakandans, but his real crime is economic: he is a threat to Wakanda’s monopoly on vibranium.

On one level, Black Panther is clearly meant to be a story about a good king and a bad king, like Macbeth or Hamlet or Richard III. Following the classic pattern, the good king (T’Challa) is followed by the bad (Killmonger), and the land sickens until the good king is restored to the throne. It’s hardly surprising that America in 2018 should tell itself this particular tale, as the land sickens under a bad king. But actually Black Panther only feints in the direction of this story. “It’s hard for a good man to be king,” T’Challa’s father tells him in a dream-vision at the beginning of the movie. Hearing this, you expect the rest of Black Panther to maneuver T’Challa into a situation where he will be forced to choose between being a good man and being a good king. But this isn’t what happens. In fact, there is no internal conflict in Black Panther. As a character, T’Challa is a blank. He is never forced to confront his own internal divisions. Instead, his task is to repel an alien ideology. This he accomplishes without endangering his sense of self. In her essay, Rahawa Haile remarks that “If T’Challa as a character feels like the least interesting part of Black Panther, it might be because he is not the primary character pushing the narrative forward. Instead, he is in a constant position of defense.” But this begs the question: what is T’Challa defending?

I’d like to suggest that what he’s defending is neoliberalism. T’Challa acts to preserve Wakanda’s capital accumulations; his job, as king, is to ensure that the Wakandan markets are free to do as they will. T’Challa’s blankness derives from his symbolic function in the movie. He is the embodiment of friendly, growth-centric, free-market capitalism – which is, according to Black Panther, not only not an ideology but the best and only way to fix the world.

Neoliberalism’s triumphant progress across the globe has, of course, partly been due to its success at denying that it is an ideology at all. It is marvellously invisible – it “seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable,” as the late Mark Fisher wrote in Capitalist Realism (2009). T’Challa, as neoliberalism’s avatar, is a blank because he, too, occupies the horizons of the thinkable. He is an African leader who fights to defend the principles of free-market capitalism. He is therefore – I would submit – the acceptable face of blackness in the 21st century West.

He is, in other words, Barack Obama. In a recent essay for the London Review of Books, Pankaj Mishra summarised the case against Obama:

Obama occasionally denounced the ‘fat cats’ of Wall Street, but Wall Street contributed heavily to his campaign, and he entrusted his economic policy to it early in his tenure, bailing out banks and the insurance mega-company AIG with no quid pro quo. African-Americans had turned out in record numbers in 2008, demonstrating their love of an ostensible compatriot, but Obama ensured that he would be immune to the charge of loving blacks too much. Colour-blind to the suffering caused by mortgage foreclosures, he scolded African-Americans, using the neoliberal idiom of individual responsibility, for their moral failings as fathers, husbands and competitors in the global marketplace. 

In telling the story of T’Challa’s return to the throne, Black Panther is offering a fable about the restoration of the neoliberal order – and promising that neoliberalism has the power to heal the centuries-old scars left by slavery and institutionalised racism. T’Challa’s superhero identity – the Black Panther – is explained in terms of African tribal magic (that glowing purple herb). But really, he’s just another version of Iron Man. His power is being rich. The Outreach Centre he promises to open at the end of the movie is clearly designed along neoliberal lines: it will teach poor black kids how to get ahead in a techno-capitalist world. The last shots of the movie show us T’Challa standing in the neighbourhood where he will build his centre. An African-American child approaches him and asks, “Who are you?” T’Challa doesn’t answer; and the movie expects us to fill in: “I’m Black Panther.” But the real answer to the kid’s question is, “I’m President Obama, using wealth to improve the lives of poor black kids.” The good king is restored to the throne; the land is healed.

Far more interesting than T’Challa is Eric “Killmonger” Stevens, who – aside from being saddled with the worst Evil Name of any Marvel villain – is provided with a clear back story and a motivation that you can actually get behind. Killmonger is out for revenge on the West. His father the Wakandan spy was “radicalised” (this term is used) by his time in the US – he mentions mass incarceration, police shootings, and other crimes against the African-American community. Killmonger’s father is killed by T’Challa’s father (to preserve Wakanda’s monopoly on vibranium, naturally). Killmonger himself is then radicalised. He wants to use Wakanda’s unlimited wealth to wage war against the white West, to exact revenge for slavery, imperialism, and other racist crimes. He is the movie’s unstable element. His clearly articulated political goals – with which you just might find yourself in sympathy – must be refuted; the threat he represents to the neoliberal order must be neutralised. This is what T’Challa does. The movie taints Killmonger by portraying him as an ideologue, in contrast to T’Challa’s blank goodness. But T’Challa, of course, is just as much an ideologue as Killmonger. His ideology is merely chameleonically disguised.

Significantly, Killmonger has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. His body is marked all over with scars, each one commemorating a “confirmed kill.” (Ta-Nehisi Coates: ‘In America it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.”) In other words, Killmonger is the scary stereotype of the black man – violent, dangerous, a killer. (Not at all like T’Challa, who uses his powers to preserve the free market.) Killmonger’s experience of being black in America (poverty, military service, politicised rage) is the thing the movie needs to render harmless and defeat. His presence on the throne of Wakanda is seen as profoundly unnatural – at the beginning of the scene in which Eric assumes the Wakandan throne, the camera (i.e. the world) is literally turned upside down. As king, he is given the following line of dialogue: “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire.” This might be read as a sly bit of rhetoric, on his part: he will turn the very tools of colonial oppression against its perpetrators. But in context, this line is telling us: The West has abandoned its old imperialist ways, and Africa should not now adopt them; instead, it should join us in our globalised free market, which has no ulterior motive at all! When Killmonger dies, there is a strange moment of pathos, as he watches the sun set on Wakanda (i.e. the sun setting on his dream of a Wakandan empire). It is almost as if the movie is grieving for the lost possibilities that Killmonger represents – as if it can’t quite accept its own propagandistic message. But Killmonger is neutralised nonetheless; and soon T’Challa is proudly surveying the market, and all is right with the world.

For a film with an almost exclusively black cast, Black Panther is highly reassuring to certain parts of the white capitalist West. But I suppose it’s asking too much of Disney and Marvel to make a movie in which Killmonger is the hero.


One final note: it seems that franchise movies can’t stop showing us casinos. In Black Panther, we’re treated to a shot of Stan Lee scooping T’Challa’s abandoned winnings from a craps table, in what is essentially a middle finger to the entire audience. Casinos, of course, are capitalism distilled: you pays your money, you takes your chance, but the house always wins. See you at Avengers: Infinity War in April.

Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan 2001-2016 by Steve Coll

Image result for steve coll directorate s

My review of Steve Coll’s landmark history of the War on Terror, Directorate S (Allen Lane), appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

For Directorate S – a sequel to Ghost Wars – Coll has interviewed hundreds of key players, trawled the archives, and studied the cache of secret State Department cables released by Wikileaks in 2010. His goal is “to provide a thorough, reliable history of how the CIA, the ISI [Pakistan’s secret service], and Afghan intelligence influenced the rise of a new war in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban,” and of how this led to the regeneration of Al Qaeda and the creation of ISIS. In 757 pages of granular detail, he does just this.

The story Coll tells is, perhaps not surprisingly, a tragicomedy of errors.  “That’s Bin Laden or Al Qaeda,” said Rich Blee, the CIA’s Afghanistan specialist, moments after he watched the second plane hit the World Trade Centre on a TV in his office at Langley. It was the last thing the CIA would get right for a while. Finding itself vastly empowered in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Agency began to mould US foreign policy as at no time since the end of the Cold War. From its bunkers and basements in Virginia, the CIA confidently dispatched operatives to countries whose histories and politics they had grasped only shakily, if at all.