Pontius Pilate For Some Reason: The Master & Margarita Readalong

The time is now, my ducklings! After promising it to us for many moons, Alice of Reading Rambo has commenced her fall readalong of The Master and Margarita. Though no official word has yet been handed down, I am choosing to believe that this readalong is sponsored by M&Ms. You can agree or disagree with me as you see fit.

To my extreme shame, The M&M has been sitting on my shelf for six and a half years unread — and what makes it even worse is that my sister gave it to me for my birthday, so not only am I a slacker in reading classic Russian novels, but I am also a birthday ingrate.

In my defense, my sister gave me this book and then advised me to keep a running list of characters and all their various names, and that is — Imma be honest — not the greatest way to make a book seem unmissable. I believe I tried this out when I was living in New Haven and going to Blue State Coffee every morning, and then two things happened, viz.:

  1. My list consisted of two people and one of them immediately got decapitated right as I had figured out all four things the text was going to call him; and
  2. A really obnoxious Yale bro complimented me on my reading choice and I wanted to spite him by hating the book he loved.

So, super legit reasons for never continuing this book for nearly seven years. I guess I can forgive Bulgakov for promptly killing Berlioz / the editor / Mikhail Alexandrovich / Misha, given that he seems like the exact kind of dude who would get into a big argument with you about atheism when you’re just trying to scootch around him and get your hands on the half-and-half so you can go sit down with your damn coffee before you have to get into work.

always true
always true

Anyway, here’s a list of things that happen in the first eight chapters of The Master and Margarita. I kind of don’t know how to comment on any of this, given that so much of it caused me to say “the fuck?” rather than reach any sensible conclusion about what the book is trying to say.

  1. The two characters we meet right off the bat have names that begin with the same letter. God damn it, Bulgakov. They meet a scary guy who claims to be a professor of black magic and also professes to know the future and to have been present at the court of Pontius Pilate.
  2. One of them quickly goes under a bus and his head comes off, pop. Fine. Now I only have to remember one character whose name begins with B.
  3. This one apartment is cursed, but Styopa Likhodeyev, also known as Stepan Bogdanovich, chooses to live there anyway. The professor of black magic, whose name is Woland and who I presume is the devil, comes to stay there also, along with his very large black cat (Margarita, I presume?) and a skinny fellow with a pince-nez. Don’t live in cursed apartments, team.
  4. The poet Bezdomy, also known as Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyryov, tries to convince the town that Woland is a dangerous criminal. Unfortunately, he does not say the useful information that Woland predicted the exact manner of the dead guy’s death. Instead he fixates on this story Woland told them about Pontius Pilate. Like it wasn’t even that good a story. No wonder everyone thinks Bezdomy has lost his hold on reality.

So far, incredibly Russian. It is good I am reading this with a crowd because if I were reading it myself, I cannot promise I would continue this tremendously confusing and random novel.

Ha ha no, it doesn’t suck. It’s just extremely Russian. It’s very, very, very Russian but I can plow through it. Thanks to wonderful Alice for hosting! I’m going to understand this book some day!

no I mean I guess I get why people go to Russia, like maybe all the hostility and freezing cold weather is what they're craving
no I mean I guess I get why people go to Russia, like maybe all the hostility and freezing cold weather is what they’re craving

Social Justice Book Club: The New Jim Crow (Halfway Through!)

Here it is mid-August, and we are midway through The New Jim Crow, and I’ve decided to take this opportunity to teach us all about asset forfeiture. Did you know about this? Did everyone know about this but me? Basically, if the police think that someone’s car or money or computer is being used in the commission of a crime, they can just TAKE it. And then they can just, like, KEEP it. Even if the person who owns the property doesn’t know or agree to their property being used in commission of a crime (Alexander uses the example of a woman whose boyfriend uses her car to go pick up drugs), the police can still take it. And keep it.

Which, naturally, disproportionately affects poor people, because loss of an asset like a car or a computer is much much more ruinous if you don’t have the means to dash out and acquire a new one to replace the one the cops took. Meanwhile, police departments have a specific financial stake in asset forfeiture, which means that they are incentivized to police in a way that maximizes their profit. When obvs we would like their motive to be just straight-up reduction of crime.

Anyway. Onward to my mid-book discussion of The New Jim Crow. Let it be stated that I rejoice in this book’s existence, and I believe it makes crucial arguments that are and will remain really important to any kind of criminal justice reform this country institutes.

New Jim Crow

1) Alexander writes in the introduction that she consciously chose to focus her writing on African American men–though she recognizes that the criminal justice system can have even harsher consequences for women (particular women of color) and Latinos.

Yeah, I — huh. This was a slightly weird moment for me. She says that this was a conscious decision but doesn’t get into why it’s the decision she made. Of course, it’s her book and her decision, but given that women of color and non-black POC are so frequently left out of the conversation, it was weird to have Alexander say this without supplying any further explanation. Throughout the book I felt like I was missing crucial context because of what she decided to leave out.

2) In Chapter 1: The Rebirth of Caste, Alexander writes “…eliminating ‘savages’ is less of a moral problem than eliminating human beings, and therefore American Indians came to be understood as a lesser race–uncivilized savages–thus providing a justification for the extermination of native peoples.” (23) How much, if at all, do you think this same explanation can apply to modern-day murders of black people, in which a victim’s criminal record, physical appearance, and/or attitude towards police officers is used as a “justification” of that person’s killing–both by police and by those defending them?

Oh, gosh. A lot. Really a lot. I think that we’ve reached a point, as a society, where the concept of being “tough on crime” has made it very difficult to convince people of the humanity of people who have been convicted of crimes. And this is a major rhetorical strategy used to defend police officers who shoot to kill when the situation seems not to have called for it.

Another major element in this, though, is that people like to find ways to separate themselves from victims of any kind of tragedy, so that they can feel sure that the bad thing that befell their neighbor will never befall them or anyone they care about. What was the rape victim wearing? Was the cancer patient a smoker? Did the man killed by police have a criminal record? Denying black humanity is a terrible tradition in our country; and denying the innocence of those faced with misfortune appears to be, like, endemic to humans.

3) Writing about the birth of Jim Crow, Alexander reminds us that it is difficult to remember that “alternate paths were not only available at one time, but nearly embraced.” (35) Does the same apply today? Are there alternate paths we could have embraced in recent history, and/or could embrace moving forward?

I’m afraid I can’t do this one right now. I am too scared of the alternate paths that might be about to happen to this country, which I am pretty sure are going to be, like, national downfall kind of alternate paths. We’ll talk again when the election’s over with.

this election

4) On the opening pages of Chapter 2: The Lockdown, Alexander writes about the [mis]perception of the criminal justice system, as shaped by popular television shows and movies. The New Jim Crow was written in 2010, before Serial, Making a Murderer, Orange is the New Black… etc. Do you think representations of the criminal justice system in popular entertainment have changed in the last six years? Is that a good thing?

Wellllllllll. Sort of. I don’t think we’ve yet had a better indictment of the existing criminal justice system than the first and third seasons of The Wire, for instance, and that was all the way back in aught-two.1 Given that the sheer number of TV shows has increased dramatically in the last six years, I would say that sure, by volume, we have more shows that offer a nuanced vision of the criminal justice system.

On the other hand, we still have all the same old Laws and Orders we used to, all the same CSIs, and some of those franchises have grown, not shrunk. Likewise, there’s a near-infinite supply of buddy-cop-style shows, very few of which are endeavoring to complicate popular views of the criminal justice system as fundamentally, well, just. Even more than six years ago, we are inundated by choice, and the depictions of criminal justice that we choose to spend time on are probably reflective to a large extent of the beliefs we already hold.

Which is to say: The gay agenda on TV worked awesome. I’m skeptical for the moment that pop culture is going to be a similarly important ally in convincing America of the injustice of our national prison culture. Call me a cynic.

5) From the start, Alexander stated that she aimed to prove that disproportionate rates of incarceration [and/or criminal justice system control] of young black males is not a symptom of poverty, but “evidence of a new racial caste system at work.” Based on these first three chapters, do you think she’s done as much?

Again I say: Well, sort of. Alexander’s done a terrific job so far of proving the racial bias that happens at every level of the criminal justice system, and I already believed that the so-called War on Drugs was a measure of political posturing and racial control. So far so good on that one.

Without asking Michelle Alexander and this one book to be all things to all people, I will say that I think The New Jim Crow is an important piece of the criminal justice reform puzzle, but it’s not as comprehensive as maybe I wanted/expected it to be. Alexander is talking about a specific thing: the impact of drug policy on the lives of black men in America. That is important, an important conversation to have.

At the same time, there’s plenty that she’s not talking about: non-black people in the criminal justice system; violent crime of any description; women basically at all; the voices and roles of black policymakers; differing patterns of law enforcement in communities with different racial demographics; etc. Again, this is fine, and the elements that Alexander is discussing are really important. I just think that to say “this is systemic to the degree that Jim Crow laws were systemic,” while ignoring (by design) huge swathes of the system in question, is a dicey affair. It’s an eye-catching parallel, but not one that I’m confident (so far) Alexander’s arguments have justified.

  1. I forgot to tell you, I’ve decided to say aught-two instead of oh-two because, well, mostly because I just want to.

Social Justice Book Club: The New Jim Crow

Very very belatedly, I have managed to write a post for the wonderful August edition of the Social Justice Book Club, hosted by the glorious and brilliant Kerry at Entomology of a Bookworm. I promise to be more prompt in future posts.

The New Jim Crow

1. Where do you plan on discussing this book the most? Feel free to share links to your blog, social media channels, snap handles, etc.

Mostly on the blog! I’ll be answering mid-month and end-of-month discussion questions, and I’ll also probably be twittering about it at @readingtheend as I go along, with the hashtag #SJBookClub.

2. Why did you decide to join in on the reading and/or discussion of this book?

A couple of reasons, the most important being that I’ve been meaning to read The New Jim Crow practically since it came out — but in a rather heartening turn of events, it’s been checked out from my public library every time I’ve thought to look for it.

On a more macro level, one of the big things to come out of Book Blogger Appreciation Week this year is that I’m connecting more to other nonfiction enthusiasts around the blogosphere. There are more of us than I realized! So the Social Justice Book Club is a terrific way for us all to get together and chat about the greatness of nonfiction.

3. In the very first line of the introduction to the book, Michelle Alexander writes, “This book is not for everyone.” What do you make of that as a entree into The New Jim Crow

Mm, radical honesty. Cynically, it’s a good way to make readers who are already receptive to Alexander’s ideas feel like virtuous mavericks of the book world. But equally, it’s just a statement of fact: Many people do not want to be forced to look at the racial injustice in our criminal justice system, because it upsets the feeling that one lives in a just universe, and it is pleasant to feel that one lives in a just universe.

4. What, if anything, are you most looking forward to about this book?

Learning more specifics about the ways the criminal justice system targets racial minorities. I already believe that to be true, but I’m looking forward to getting into some of the nitty-gritty details. I’ll be particularly interested to learn about some of the ways that historical racial segregation continues to impact laws and law enforcement w/r/t minority populations.

Thanks to Kerry for hosting. I can’t wait to dig into this book!