A Nation Without Law, Order, or Justice
When the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin dug his knee into the back of George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes while Floyd pleaded for help, he was merely following the president’s advice.“Please don’t be too nice,” Donald Trump told an audience of police officers on Long Island in 2017, in a speech largely focused on the MS-13 gang. The audience laughed. “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’”Floyd’s killing has sparked nationwide protests, despite the fact that the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans and left 40 million without work, is still killing about 1,000 people a day in the United States. Those Americans who were disproportionately dying from a plague came out in force to protest being murdered by their government. Trump, who ran as the “law and order” candidate, now presides over the very “American carnage” he vowed to end.A different president might have tried to quell the unrest and unify the nation, but Trump is incapable of that. He cannot rally Americans around a common identity or interest, because his presidency is a rejection of the concept, an affirmation of the conviction that America’s traditional social hierarchies are good and just. He is hardly the first president to embrace those hierarchies as unassailably virtuous, but he is the first in decades to do so openly. Law and order, for this president, simply means that he and his ideological allies are above the law, while others, such as Floyd, are merely subject to it. The chaos sweeping across the United States has many causes, but the one over which the president has the most control is the culture of lawlessness and impunity he has cultivated and embraced. When you attempt to impose “law and order” without justice, you get chaos.The moral core of the protests is a simple demand: that police who abuse their authority be held accountable, that black Americans be able to live free lives without fearing that they will be cut short by a chance encounter with law enforcement. This demand clashes with the history of the United States, in which the ideal of equal justice coexists uneasily with the tacit understanding of many Americans that guarding the color line is one of law enforcement’s obligations, a commitment that has existed from slavery to the beating of marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Ronald Reagan blamed the activist for his own murder, hissing that King’s death was the kind of “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order.”When a white dog-walker in Central Park threatened to call the police on a black bird-watcher and tell them that “an African American man is threatening my life,” she was leveraging their mutual understanding that the police exist to protect white people from black people. This is why Chauvin and his fellow officers thought nothing of him being videotaped as he dug his knee into Floyd’s neck, and why authorities in Georgia saw no crime in the stalking and killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Integrating police departments was meant to help align law enforcement with its stated ideals, but as in every other area of public policy, correcting centuries of tradition is an arduous task, even if one is sincerely committed to it.The president, a man who once called for the execution of five black and Hispanic teenagers for a crime they did not commit, is not just skeptical of reform. He views the violent enforcement of the color line as an honorable calling, and one that police officers should embrace rather than reject. Decades after taking out a newspaper ad demanding that New York “Bring back the death penalty and bring back our police!” the president still refuses to acknowledge the innocence of the Central Park Five. If they were not guilty of the actual crime, they were guilty of being the kind of people he wanted the police to crack down on.Trump has few ideological convictions as consistent as his belief in the redemptive power of state violence against religious and ethnic minorities. During the 2016 campaign, Trump regaled audiences with tales of apocryphal war crimes against Muslims by American service members, then he pardoned service members who engaged in actual war crimes. He vowed to disregard the constitutional rights of anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant, then he pardoned Joe Arpaio, an Arizona sheriff famous for violating those rights.Remarks like those the president made on Long Island are often dismissed by the president’s defenders as just an artifact of his brash personality. Hardly. The Trump administration has worked diligently to turn the president’s affection for extralegal cruelty against religious and ethnic minorities into public policy, from the Trump-era toddler jails for migrants to his anti-Muslim travel ban. As with the prior examples, Trump’s encouragement of police brutality is far more than bluster.One of the first things Jeff Sessions did after being confirmed as Trump’s attorney general was end the Justice Department’s oversight of local police departments, declaring that such investigations “undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness.” This is akin to a doctor declaring that cancer can only kill you if you discover you have it, and then canceling your screening.During the Obama administration, the civil-rights division of the Justice Department undertook an aggressive effort to root out unconstitutional policing practices, initiating more such investigations than any prior administration. The authority it relied on was authored by police reformers and tucked into the now-disfavored 1994 crime bill, drafted in part by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. Its inclusion in the bill was a response to the beating of Rodney King and the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers who attacked him. In other words, in 2017, the Trump administration took a provision of the law passed to prevent both riots and police brutality, crumpled it up, and threw it in the trash.In Miami, Obama-era investigators found “egregiously long delays in concluding administrative investigations of officer-involved shootings.” In Chicago, they found a widespread pattern of abuses hidden by “police officers’ code of silence,” which included lying and “affirmative efforts to conceal evidence.” In Baltimore, which was rocked by riots following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015, investigators discovered “repeated violations of … constitutional and statutory rights, further eroding the community’s trust in the police.” In Ferguson, Missouri, an investigation following the protests and riots sparked by the killing of Michael Brown found that local police had set “maximizing revenue as the priority,” not solving crime, leading to officers crushing the town’s impoverished black residents with fines and fees designed to finance the local government. If the Trump administration had not abandoned any effort at police oversight, it might have discovered that Minnesota police had rendered dozens of suspects unconscious with the same knee restraint that killed Floyd.Among the police forces investigated was the Suffolk County Police Department, the jurisdiction where Trump gave his speech extolling the virtues of police brutality. The department entered into a federal-supervision agreement in 2014 to take measures to avoid discriminating against Hispanic residents.The Justice Department’s probes were not criminal investigations. Their purpose was to curb police abuses and, by doing so, to improve local law-enforcement agencies’ relationships with their communities and reduce crime. When a local community lives in fear of the police, its members will minimize their interactions with cops as much as possible, lest they end up like Floyd.Despite violent-crime rates falling nationwide, solving murders in big cities in America is a coin toss, because the communities most likely to suffer from violent crime do not trust the police enough to seek their aid. When a casual encounter with law-enforcement officers can lead to your death, you are unlikely to seek or accept their protection. These investigations were no panacea for discrimination or police abuses, nor were they a guarantee against unrest. but they were a good-faith attempt to align policing with equal treatment under the law.Ideally, overseeing police misconduct would be the job of local elected officials. But what appears to be a public-policy problem is also a problem of political power. Local leaders cower in fear of the power of police unions, whose political interests include not just securing higher wages and benefits or better equipment and overtime pay, but impunity for criminal behavior.“Many of these unions have pushed collective bargaining agreements that make it all but impossible for departments to punish, much less fire, officers,” as BuzzFeed News’ Melissa Segura has written. “These agreements defang civilian review boards and police internal affairs departments, and they even prevent police chiefs from providing meaningful oversight, according to community activists and civil rights lawyers. Meanwhile, the unions have set up legal slush funds to defend officers sued for misconduct.”The approach of many police unions both reinforces the code of silence for police abuse and makes officers’ whose consciences are troubled less likely to intervene, because the social costs of speaking out are so much greater than the possibility that a corrupt officer will face justice for breaking the law.“It’s tough when somebody witnesses something and they want to speak up against it. You feel like if you do speak up, you’ll end up looking like the bad guy. Now people don’t want to talk to you,” Michael Baysmore, a black former cop in Baltimore, told BuzzFeed News in 2016. “And if nothing even happens to the person you spoke up against, it’s almost like, what’s the point?”The extent of police unions’ power was illustrated this weekend, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, elected as a police reformer, defended cops plowing through protesters with cars even as the local sergeants’ union doxxed his daughter for participating in the protests.The Obama administration’s reform efforts, although ultimately aimed at improving policing, were seen by the police unions as a “war on cops,” because they threatened the impunity to which their organizations aspired. By 2015, the ubiquity of cellphone cameras and their ability to document for white audiences the shocking regularity of lethal encounters between police and black Americans had led some police-union officials to reconsider their approach. But the rise of Donald Trump, and his unqualified embrace of both racial discrimination and official impunity for law enforcement, offered new political possibilities.In 2016, the Fraternal Order of Police—the nation’s largest police union, with more than 330,000 members—endorsed Trump, while many of its black members dissented. The goodwill and benign intentions of individual police officers cannot override the focus of their political organizations, which, with some notable exceptions, are intently focused on ensuring that their worst members are exempt from the law. “Between 1996 and 2015,” Segura noted, “newly unionized law enforcement agencies saw a 27% uptick in misconduct complaints—a phenomenon the researchers tied largely to protections afforded by union contracts.”Police departments themselves are not monolithic—some actually rejected Sessions’s offer to rescind federal-oversight agreements—and some law-enforcement organizations, those run by black officers in particular, have tried to rectify the profession’s history of discrimination. But the political power of police unions, the impunity granted by police contracts, and the culture of silence enforced by both leave little room for dissent, with isolation and ignominy as a reward for those who do. The entrenched legal doctrine of qualified immunity ensures that the most egregious violations of the Constitution cannot be addressed in civil court. A system that so efficiently stifles accountability cannot be overcome by the good intentions of individual officers. It is a system that ensures, as a matter of design, that bad apples remain to spoil the batch. And that was before the president encouraged police to engage in brutality for its own sakeThe head of the police union in Minneapolis, Bob Kroll, decried the Obama administration’s “handcuffing and oppression of the police” at a Trump rally in 2019. On Monday, Kroll released a letter complaining that it was the four police officers who had been fired over Floyd's death had been denied “due process.” Floyd, who was being detained on suspicion of forgery, was to blame for his own death, because of his “violent criminal history.” This is a worldview that is consonant with Trumpism, in that it imagines being democratically accountable to those you regard as beneath you as tyranny, and the unquestioned authority to impose your will on those people as freedom. But amidst the president's vocal encouragement of police brutality, his administration's conscious abdication of oversight, and the police unions’ fanatical resistance to accountability, the condemnations of Floyd's killing from Trump and his allies ring hollow.This agenda of impunity for police who break the law has merged flawlessly with President Trump’s belief in impunity for himself and his allies. Both political philosophies envision a line drawn between those who are protected by the law and those who are subject to it. As Trump’s second attorney general, William Barr, articulated with chilling clarity, communities that protest police abuses “might find themselves without the police protection they need.” This principle does not apply to the president or other members of the ruling party in good standing—merely to Americans whose rights have historically been easily revocable, and occasionally to those who express solidarity with them.Trump borrowed law and order from Richard Nixon, a president whose lawlessness Trump consciously imitates. Viewed with the clarity of history, Nixon’s appeals to law and order were a euphemism for brutality against black Americans seeking equality. But in 1968, Nixon’s law-and-order campaign was an effort at triangulation between the explicit white-supremacist cruelty of George Wallace and what Nixon framed as the permissiveness of liberal Democrats such as Hubert Humphrey.As the historian Rick Perlstein recounts in Nixonland, when asked by a black reporter what law and order meant, Nixon replied, “To me law and order must be combined with justice. Now that’s what I want for America. I want the kind of law and order that deserves respect.” Reporters today do not bother asking Trump what law and order means, because everyone already understands that it simply means violence.Trump has dispensed with any pretense of seeking justice, and the Trump-era Republican Party has closed every possible path for reforming the police. Federal oversight of police is oppression. Elected officials who seek police reform have “blood on their hands.” The exercise of prosecutorial discretion by district attorneys is “anti-law enforcement” when it involves “seeking sentences that are pathetically lenient,” in the words of Barr, who has meanwhile busied himself with bailing out the president’s criminal associates. Those who challenge police abuses are not even allowed the dignity of protesting in silence. This is not the rule of law; it is the rule of might, and it is devoid of anything resembling justice.After Floyd’s death, Minneapolis erupted in protests, including riots that began last Wednesday night and lasted through the weekend. The protests spread across the country, and in some cases so did the violence. In an atmosphere of lawlessness, opportunists looking to harm others, cause destruction, vandalize, or steal will attach themselves to whatever legitimate cause they can find. Those acting out of rage or grief may do the same. But whether motivated by rage, greed, or outright malice, such criminal acts cannot discredit demands for police accountability, or justify police brutality. They cannot repeal the Constitution.Many police departments across the country seem determined to escalate rather than prevent violence. Videos of protests have shown “police officers in recent nights using batons, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets on protesters, bystanders and journalists, often without warning or seemingly unprovoked,” as The New York Times reported. This was Barr’s prophecy: an ungrateful public, protesting the unjust taking of human lives by law enforcement, punished for the foolish belief that their rights were inalienable. A First Amendment that guarantees the freedom to criticize the government only when you do not criticize the government is meaningless.For a century, such riots in America have followed a familiar script—there is an incident of police brutality that goes unpunished, a protest, an escalation by police, and then a riot. These incidents are icebergs—the precipitating event and the destruction that follows are merely what can be seen above the surface. Underneath lie years of anger, abuse, and neglect. We do not know how the president’s encouragement of such abuse has shaped policing in the cities now rocked by protests, because his Justice Department has willingly blinded itself to the answer.There is no romance in the destruction. Riots are, for the communities in which they occur, desperate acts of self-immolation, with consequences that can last for decades. Yet the historical record shows that the authorities often avoid taking the grievances of such communities seriously until buildings start burning. Only then do those who previously dismissed nonviolent protests against police brutality, or participated in belittling or silencing them, begin to pay attention and ask what would move such people to violence.Such riots are, in the long run, devastating for all involved. But a legal and political system that sees no crime in the murder of black Americans by police until things are set on fire leaves black Americans with two terrible options: acquiescing to a system in which your life does not matter, or engaging in acts of destruction and self-destruction that persuade authorities to treat the needless taking of a life by police officers as a crime worth investigating, let alone punishing.To say that a grievance is justified is not to justify every action taken by the aggrieved. But as a nation, we bear particular responsibility for the violence committed by police. We do not pay civilian rioters and looters with taxpayer dollars and empower them with the authority to use lethal force to protect our rights and our persons, as we do with police officers. That authority is a power granted by the people, and if it is abused, it must be withdrawn.Most of Trump’s predecessors in the 20th century, including Nixon, who believed black people unfit for self-government, preoccupied themselves with preserving the credibility of an unequal justice system. By forswearing even that, by publicly reveling in the idea that state violence should be used to affirm America’s traditional social hierarchies, by denying the very legitimacy of both private protest and social reform, the Trump administration has undermined respect for the law more than any radical left-wing professor or hotheaded activist. The president sees the law as a thing of mere violence, a matter of who has enough guns to enforce their will. You can make people fear the law at gunpoint, but you cannot make them respect it.Just as his supporters mistake cruelty for honesty and bluster for courage, Trump has mistaken bloodlust for leadership. The bombast hides the fundamental truth that the president is a coward, so crippled by the fear of appearing weak that he screams for blood from the safety of his darkened White House, emerging only to gas peaceful protesters and clergymen in an attempt to look strong. He is incapable of understanding how further brutality fuels the unrest he has proved incompetent at confronting.Donald Trump proclaimed himself the law-and-order candidate. This is what law and order without justice looks like: a nation without law, order, or justice.
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Watch: The Vox Book Club talks The Secret History’s class politics with Nicole Cliffe
Vox The Vox Book Club’s live event covered how The Secret History fits into dark academia and why Bunny would be the worst at quarantine. Last Thursday, the Vox Book Club met on Zoom for the second time ever to discuss The Secret History with special guest Nicole Cliffe, co-founder of The Toast and a columnist at Slate. Over the course of 45 minutes, we delved into The Secret History’s inverted detective novel structure, its vexed class politics, and which of the classics kids would be the worst at quarantine. Also, Nicole got to show off her collection of haunted jewelry, and the ghost of the bacchanalia briefly kicked me (Constance) off of Zoom entirely. (It’s okay, I made it back.) If you attended the event live, we’re very glad we got to chat with you. But if you couldn’t, video of the entire thing is now available to watch (embedded above), or you can read a transcript of the highlights below. In the meantime, the Vox Book Club is heading full steam ahead into June, when we’ll be reading the ideal summer book, The Princess Bride. Join us back here for the first discussion post on Friday, June 5, and sign up for the Vox Book Club newsletter to be sure you don’t miss anything. Why college is the correct time to read The Secret History Constance Grady So Nicole, tell me your Secret History backstory. How did you first get to know this book? Nicole Cliffe I read it in college, which is the correct time to read it for the first time. I feel this very strongly, although I’m very jealous of my friends who are reading it for the first time, because you can never go back. The immersive experience of it is I feel best handled after high school, but before you can rent a car without a surcharge. But I read it in college. I was on full financial aid and many people I was there with were very wealthy, and constantly seemed to be aware of things that I was utterly clueless about. And so I’ve always really kind of pulled for Richard in that respect. There were a lot of moments that rang true. I actually wore this a green velvet jacket today because of the jacket that Richard is so proud to wear to his first lunch with Bunny, and then finds out it’s actually the wrong season to wear it. Even when there’s never a wrong season to wear an elderly Burberry jacket. Constance Grady Especially if it’s silk, but Bunny has very exacting standards for the rest of the world, apparently. And I have to agree on college being the best time to read it. I actually didn’t read it until a couple of years ago, around the same time that I read The Likeness by Tana French for the first time. It was a weird experience to put them both together, because they’re both sort of doing very similar things, but they come into it with totally different points of view. Tana French loves her fierce tough woman who will take no shit [so that’s who narrates The Likeness]. And then there’s, god bless Richard, who is just this weird, weird passive character who doesn’t really want to tell you anything about what’s happening. I love him, but I think he’s kind of terrible. Nicole Cliffe Something I always really admired about Richard, because it’s not something I can possess, is that Richard has the ability to just shut up. Richard will talk in the book about how people will constantly misinterpret his complete refusal to talk about himself as like, “Ooh, he’s sexy, mysterious, stoic, clearly richer than we think it, et cetera, et cetera.” Constance Grady He’s definitely one of those people who has convinced the world that he’s brooding and stoic, but that’s just his face. Nicole Cliffe Yes, it is absolutely just his face. He is a fragile little hamster. Constance Grady He’s also, I think, kind of a weird character for a dark academia book. That’s just a weird little sub-genre that tends to either go full Gothic and be about the spunky virgin who is learning the dark secrets, or else have a knowing character who’s deep and secretive and we’re delving into their dark secrets with them. Richard sort of splits the difference between those two in a weird way. He’s like his own final girl for this weird book. Nicole Cliffe Yes. Oh, I love that. I love Richard is his own final girl. I think that’s fantastic. Like he’s haunted, but he’s making do. Constance Grady He’s gonna get the fire ax in the end and get through it. Nicole Cliffe He’s going to be okay. He’s going to be okay. He’s going to be that one hitchhiker in the road at the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I promise I won’t talk about horror movies today. Constance Grady I think it’s perfectly fine to bring in horror, because this is a little bit of a riff on horror as much as it’s anything. Nicole Cliffe It’s the exact right amount of magic for a book as far as I’m concerned. Unless the book is about magic. If you’re The Night Circus, go to town. But I like that we just totally accepted there was a bacchanalian thing. They saw Dionysius. And the only other magical realism elements in the book are just, he has weird dreams and everybody in a novel has weird dreams where they see dead people. So it doesn’t really count. It reminds me of a much better book, Ian McEwen’s The Child in Time, which if you haven’t read it is fantastic. It’s an entire novel about loss and humanity. And there is one scene in which the protagonist is outside doing his thing, walks by a restaurant, and sees his parents. They’re in their twenties before he was born. I love when books do that, when it’s just the normal universe, but there’s one thing. Because I think we would all like to have one experience. The perplexing class politics of The Secret History Nicole Cliffe I absolutely did fall in with similar people in college. And if the group of vague weirdos I was hanging out with at the time — most of whom were just dolls, like lovely people — but if they’d been like, “We’ve murdered someone, now you’re on board, we have to go do a second murder,” I probably would have. Constance Grady I mean once you’re in with the group, you gotta commit. I think part of what makes this book so fun is that the group really is so compelling. It’s less about the individual people, who are kind of vague, I think, for the first half. But their house is so nice. Their lifestyle is so fun. Nicole Cliffe It’s like Vampire Weekend’s first album. It’s got that vibe, it’s like linen and picnics and drinking all day in little amounts until you just lose your sense of proportion altogether. Constance Grady Champagne in your teapot, quoting The Wasteland at each other in a rowboat. What is not to like? Nicole Cliffe And then speaking Greek to each other in code is just such a thing. Constance Grady This is I think part of the dark academia thing, which I would love to talk about as an aesthetic. I just realized it had a name very recently, so now I’m all over it. It’s so compelling to a very specific subset of people, of whom I am one. It’s as though it offers you the exclusivity of feeling like you’re being cool, but it’s for nerds. Nicole Cliffe It’s such for nerds. I appreciate that Donna Tartt has so many scenes where Richard will randomly be at a real party for normal college students and they’ll be like, “Why are you hanging around with these weirdos?” And you’re like, “Oh, there’s this whole other thing going on at Hampden that’s just normal college and not experiencing this completely bizarre world.” Constance Grady And Richard is very condescending to that world. But I think it’s so charming. Like I love Judy Poovey. I feel like she deserves so much better from Richard. She’s constantly giving him cocaine and beautiful vintage clothing and her car keys and Richard’s just like, “Well, you’re just gauche.” Nicole Cliffe That’s the sort of thing I’d expect from Judy who’s also from California, which isn’t cool. Constance Grady Richard does not have enough appreciation for Joan Didion, for someone from California with his aesthetic. Nicole Cliffe His relationship to California is like John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats talking about California. No, I picture John Darnielle sometimes as Richard, had he gone a totally different route. Constance Grady Oh my god, that is very true. Oh, hopefully Richard grows up to be as wise as John Darnielle. Nicole Cliffe I don’t think anyone can be as wise as John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats because he’s a wonderful person. Constance Grady I deeply cherish his social media presence every day. Nicole Cliffe It’s so pure. Who would be worst on Twitter? Any of our characters. Constance Grady Oh god. Okay. So the obvious answer is Henry, but Henry, I feel like, doesn’t do Twitter like at all. Like there’s no scenario in which he would. Nicole Cliffe No, no. Some of the characters, I think, we’re talking like Charles and Camilla — which by the way, it was 1992. There’s already such a choice to name the twins Charles and Camilla. But they remind me of the sort of classic Upper East Side WASP phenomenon which is always that a woman’s name should only be in the paper three times: birth, announcement of marriage, death. Constance Grady Yes. And also they are both very vague personalities in general. So I think if they were, they would only do retweets strictly. Nicole Cliffe They’re so wispy. Deeply. Especially Camilla. Just like deeply, deeply wispy. When we talk about Richard’s like weird sexuality, there’s that Camilla is just an idea of a woman. Constance Grady She’s just what he projects, what he thinks he was supposed to want, out into the world. Nicole Cliffe Which is why he’s always surprised when characters disappoint or surprise him because he doesn’t actually know these people for beans even before the murder. Constance Grady He has very specific ideas of who he thinks they are, and that does not have any real relationship with who they actually are. The real characters are kind of peeking out at us around the edges of what Richard is telling us. Nicole Cliffe Those are really interesting moments for Tartt as a stylist when she does that. I’m writing a horror novel, a haunted house novel. It’s my first novel. And now whenever I’m reading a book, I’m really looking at the mechanics and being like, okay, first novels, what are people doing that they shouldn’t do? And she does too much telling, not showing. Like that scene where Richard says, “I’m still haunted by that laughter.” We can tell. We can tell that’s the whole point of the book, that you’re still haunted by their laughs slash this incident. You don’t need to be like, “Those days still wear on me.” That’s why we’re reading the book. Constance Grady I think that’s true. But I also think it’s such a Richard thing to want to show us the exact ways in which he’s tortured in order to impress upon us that he’s genuinely a good person. Which is what makes me so suspicious that he’s secretly really, really terrible. Nicole Cliffe He’s so interesting on that front. You know, I think that if I had to pick a portion of the book that I felt was the best written, it’s got to be that portion where he is freezing to death in the warehouse, Constance Grady Harrowing! Nicole Cliffe It’s harrowing. It’s harrowing and that entire sequence of events around it where he’s, freezing, spending all day at work refusing, despite the fact that all of the other characters are constantly asking each other for money, he’s the one who can’t do it. Julian is like, “Oh, you’re more of a stoic than I thought.” And I’m like, “Oh no, this is a thing for Richard.” He’s grasped that he doesn’t have the vocabulary to ask people for money the same way that they do. Because rich college students are constantly asking people to cover things for them. I knew the first time I read it, that when he went to lunch with Bunny that day that Bunny was not going to be picking up the check. And I just had all of these flashbacks of just spending an entire meal, like, Who’s going to get the check? Why are we at this restaurant? Constance Grady They’ll even pull one of those, “We’ll just split it down the middle.” It’s like, am I really going to pay for all of your cocktails? Nicole Cliffe And you know Richard drank an ice water and ate a salad just in case things went south on him. Constance Grady And even Henry has that moment where he’s like, “It’s frankly very stupid that you aren’t asking us for money.” And it’s so interesting because Richard has absolutely no problem taking things when they’re offered. He takes, and he can ask for things from Judy Poovey because she’s the same class as him. Nicole Cliffe It doesn’t demean him in any way because of the contempt he feels for her. It’s like she’s supposed to be giving him things. Constance Grady And he loves getting stuff from Henry and the rest of the crowd, but he just can’t bring himself to verbally make the request. The fact that Bunny does sponge off him for that lunch, I’ve always felt like it’s part of why Richard eventually turns on him. Because he flips the relationship they’re supposed to have, where Richard is supposed to be the one who benefits and the one who receives all of these showers of wealth. And then Bunny shows up and he’s the sponge, he’s the parasite. Nicole Cliffe Oh no, that’s not supposed to be how it goes. It’s interesting to me also that it’s during that lunch that he notices like, “Oh, he’s also homophobic and anti-Semitic.” Because I don’t think he would have had quite the same reaction had that lunch turned out differently. Constance Grady If Bunny had abided by the rules of civility as Richard understands them, his bigotry would have been less offensive. Nicole Cliffe And no one is more obsessed with the rules of civility than people who are extremely new to it. Richard’s subliminal and repressed sexuality Nicole Cliffe It’s so anthropological, the first third of the novel in particular because Richard makes such a study of them. He’s so quiet, he just watches. And then of course because he believes he knows them much better than he does. That’s why the events of the final third of the novel, he just is completely at lunch. He’s utterly at sea about how things have gone at that point. Constance Grady And he’s so taken aback, even though the rest of the characters are always sort of like, “Oh, well we assumed you’d figured this out.” Like he goes to Francis with the news that the twins are sleeping together and Francis is like, “No, obviously.” Nicole Cliffe You can’t have a good dark academia book without an incestuous relationship at some point. Constance Grady That’s just the law. Or like at least a couple hidden homosexual interests, which also happened in this book. Richard is so deeply in love with Francis, my god. Nicole Cliffe It’s so extreme. I think sometimes too that Donna Tartt really struggles with writing a male protagonist. Not to be like, she just assumes he’s a lady and works with that, but you do have moments. The perspective is a little asexual, you know? Constance Grady I think that was what Bret Easton Ellis has said, when he talks about reading the book and workshopping it with her. Apparently he gave it back to her and said, “My one critique is that with Richard, you’ve written this college student man who never really looks at anyone, either man or woman.” And he says Donna just glared at him. Which I think is a really beautiful moment and I hoped Donna Tartt gave Bret Easton Ellis that glare many times. Nicole Cliffe But it also suggests that it’s somewhat intentional, at least on her part. She thought about it and had self-knowledge about it and was like, “Nope, this is Richard. People are weird. I’m rolling with it.” Constance Grady He is just a very closed-off character, to us as much as anyone else. And that’s part of what makes the novel so paranoid and gives it that forward drive and the energy. Nicole Cliffe And I’m sure not everyone is meant to identify so much with Richard. But because very few people are affluent super WASPs who don’t get particularly good grades, who have weird trusts from which they get money, obviously when you write this book, you realize that most people are coming in as a Richard. And it’s always one of those easy ways to do a movie or a book or a TV show: You have a new character who doesn’t know what the hell is going on. So the author gets to explain the nature of what’s going on to them. The mystery of Henry’s mind Constance Grady One of the things that I think is so fun is Richard is constantly talking about how much he likes detective novels and just like comparing Henry to Sherlock Holmes, riffing off of that. And then at the very end you have that, “Maybe Henry’s not actually dead, maybe he’s like Sherlock Holmes and faked shooting himself in the head somehow.” What do you think all of those detective novel references are doing? The go-to answer is that it’s an inverted detective novel. Nicole Cliffe Which I like. I like it when books lay stuff out like that at the beginning, because it also means the book is planning on doing something more interesting than revealing a mystery to us with a gotcha. It’s always been more interesting for me to start with, you know, “The day I shot my mother began with blah,” and then the rest of the book is taking us to that point. I’ve always enjoyed that. There’s also the fact that if you’re a great student of detective fiction and suddenly you wind yourself up an accessory after the fact to a previous murder, and then an active participant in second murder, that’s going to throw you off a little bit, probably. And you see this, like when he’s talking to the cops becoming aware that the police are not Sherlock Holmes. Constance Grady They’re so stupid in this book. Nicole Cliffe So, so foolish. Each theory sillier is in the last, and that’s often how these things work out. If I committed a true crime, I think I would give the police too many details of like my fake narrative. And I would try not to because I know that’s a problem. But you can see that he really thinks that they’re snowing him a lot. Because there’s a lot in this book, as we’ve mentioned, of people who know more than you think they do and people assume you know more than you actually do. Constance Grady One of the big ambiguities is that I always go back and forth on is whether Henry actually did mean to frame Richard. Which is sort of suggested at the end and he’s kind of like, “Ooh, did he?” And then he just never really decides. I kind of feel like he did, just because he refuses to let Richard in on the alibi that the core four used, but I can never make up my mind for sure. Nicole Cliffe I liked that ambiguity. I tend to agree with you that that was the plan, and the threads didn’t get picked up on. But it would be a very Henry thing to do. It’s funny, I had forgotten how bad Henry is when you’re rereading it. You know, you’re like, “Oh, like Henry’s the one who comes in bails him out of lunch and then really does his best to make him understand it is not his fault at all,” Which was not necessary. He could have just come and paid $200 for the ridiculous lunch and then been like, okay, see you on Monday. But he really wanted to let him know that “This is some stuff Bunny does, that drives us all crazy.” Constance Grady And he comes into the incredibly harrowing winter section to the rescue and it’s just such a relief when he shows up. It’s like, “Oh, all the tension disappeared.” Nicole Cliffe He lets him sleep in his bed. He sleeps on the pull-out couch. There’s always the interesting thing, the fact that people have a desperate, desperate need to think of themselves as good people, especially when they’ve done something objectively horrifying. And the fact that he’s so brusque when anyone tries to thank him, I think is part of that, because he knows that what he’s doing isn’t really purely altruistic. It’s not just because he likes Richard. It’s a little bit of a power play. But it took me a long time into the book to be like, “Oh, Henry’s terrible.” Constance Grady It always shocks me again when I get to the scene toward the end, where he’s tending his garden. Richard comes along and Henry turns to him and says, “You don’t care a great deal for people, do you? Neither do I.” Nicole Cliffe That’s some forced team-building, right there. That is what that is. Constance Grady I do kind of feel like Richard does not appear to care a great deal for other people, because he’s super chill about joining up in all these murders. But it always shocked me when Henry just straight-out admits to it. Nicole Cliffe And I think it was interesting of Tartt. Because at the beginning we have Richard talking about his general distaste for California. His particular home, his particular situation, but we don’t get into the abusive nature of his home until very, very near the end. And that’s the sort of moment where you’re like, “Oh, if I’d had this information about Richard in chapter one, I would think differently of Richard.” But Richard is also trying to make us feel a certain way about him at the beginning. Constance Grady Yeah. You have the layers of intention there. Nicole Cliffe Yes. Toward the end we get more of the unvarnished truth, sort of like Richard acknowledging who Richard is on a certain level. Again, always via distancing. Asking the real questions Constance Grady How do the classics kids survive quarantine? I feel like Henry sees zero changes to his lifestyle. Nicole Cliffe Oh yeah, no issues there. Bunny would have come completely unglued. Constance Grady Bunny 100 percent is one of those people who’s walking around without a mask, talking about freedom. Nicole Cliffe Oh, freedoms. He would have terrible political opinions. I think that Richard would do whatever his state told him to do. Charles and Camilla would have hunkered down together somewhere. Just doing their thing. Julian would not know about quarantine. Constance Grady Yes. Julian just continues living his life. Nicole Cliffe I’ve always wondered, because obviously Sherlock Holmes is a big deal in here, I have always wondered about that moment in the BBC Sherlock when it turns out that Sherlock as Benedict Cumberbatch does not know about the moon landing. Constance Grady I think that’s in “A Study in Scarlet,” the original, that Watson finds out that Sherlock Holmes does not know that the earth orbits the sun or something. Nicole Cliffe Because it’s irrelevant to the work. Yeah. And I think instead of the work, in this book it’s their weird lives. That’s what they believe in. Constance Grady The commitment to the aesthetic. Okay, super quick, I feel like this book requires a fuck/marry/kill. Nicole Cliffe I was thinking about this, because that’s all we do now. And I think you fuck Francis because he’d be an interesting kind of a freak. He dresses like Prince. Constance Grady He’s always seducing ostensibly straight boys, so there has to be something there. Nicole Cliffe But I’m pretty sure he has also been with ladies at least a couple of times, for practice. So I’m intrigued toward that. I’m going to come in strong on kill Bunny. I think they had to kill Bunny. I didn’t care Bunny died. It didn’t bother me at all. I’m a terrible person. In terms of marry, that’s where it gets interesting. On the one hand, I was in love with Camilla. I’ve always been in love with Camilla. But reading it again, I’m like, “Oh, there’s nothing there.” She’s very beautiful. Constance Grady She’s very beautiful, which she is why she would have been a perfect Gwyneth Paltrow character had that movie deal gone through. Nicole Cliffe The idea of making this movie, I was saying to you earlier that I think that Bunny would have been done so perfectly by a very young Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I think he really could have brought what was necessary to do a fantastic Bunny. Constance Grady Really just the entire cast of The Talented Mr. Ripley should just move over. Nicole Cliffe But to get back to who you marry, this is the most challenging one, because I don’t think you want to marry anyone in this book. They would drive you in insane in a minute. Absolutely, totally around the bend. It’s impossible. One could marry Richard, but I wouldn’t recommend it. That self-loathing! Julian knows a lot of cool people, has a nice house, throws cool parties. But I just couldn’t deal with someone who was that overly invested in his undergraduates. Really this would only work for undergraduates because graduate students are so tightly wound. If they were to have a bacchanalia, the entire college would have run red with blood. It would not have been a farmer. They would wipe out everyone outside because their lives are so difficult. And then go wild on the quad. Constance Grady I feel like the only one of these characters who gives off any kind of sexual energy is Henry. It’s a wholly unappealing energy, but this game is about making hard choices. Nicole Cliffe It is. So go with that. Is he your pick for marry? Constance Grady I would marry Francis, personally. I think he’s the only one of those characters who is close to a good person and also he has that sweet summer house. Nicole Cliffe So you would get the great house and the cool clothes. Constance Grady Which maybe I could borrow! Nicole Cliffe Oh, I’m sure they’d be long dusters and things, you’d look amazing. I think he would have worn this blouse. Constance Grady 100 percent. Nicole Cliffe I wanted to wear creepy jewelry today to be in tune with things. So I have these sort of evil eye clip-ons. And this [holding up a ring] is a probably haunted art deco diamond. I got it on the Real Real for nothing. These [gesturing to necklace of lockets] are Victorian morning lockets that are haunted, but they’re sealed. One of them came to my house open and empty. But that’s good, because that means whatever’s wrong with it is back with the previous owner. Because, you know, I’ve had bad experiences with haunted jewelry before. Not that it has stopped me. Constance Grady I think you should have gotten a discount on this one because that’s one less ghost for you. Nicole Cliffe Exactly. That’s what I care about most. I’m trying to pop it open for you. It’s this one, it opens and it’s empty. Constance Grady Oh, and I would kill Richard. Just for being mean to Judy alone. I mean the amount of cocaine she gave him. Nicole Cliffe And the dinner jacket. Which she didn’t have to do! Constance Grady And I know she was going to cut it up, but I feel like she would have made something really cool out of it. Nicole Cliffe Oh, she would have, I bet she had very cool things. Many drugs at this school. Constance Grady I feel like that’s just a documentary aspect of the book’s setup. Nicole Cliffe The late ’80s. There were drugs at my college, but no one ever offered me any, ever. Not once. Constance Grady Same. I think I just exuded an energy that was like, “No, she will not.” Nicole Cliffe I would absolutely have tried any drugs. But no one ever did. There was this very Secret History-esque semi-secret literary society at my school. I would leave their parties and then the next day people would be like, “There were so much coke at that party.” And I’d be like, “Wow. Wow.” Constance Grady I hope anyone who from your college who is watching this now feels ashamed of themselves. Nicole Cliffe They should, I would have been very classy and cool. You missed out. Questions from the audience Constance Grady David says, “I spent the book wondering if it was headed toward a critique of insular academic learning about truth, beauty, et cetera, that made absolutely no impact on the moral lives of the people involved. I’m not sure it ever got there. Do you think Tartt intended such a critique?” Nicole Cliffe No, I don’t think she did. I don’t think there’s a lot of big societal stuff happening here. I think that it’s more in-group/out-group dynamics and class stuff. And the university is just the perfect setting to let those things play out to their natural conclusion. It’s a great Petri dish, especially because it’s about young people who are desperately trying to decide what kind of people they are, and what could happen. Obviously, the kind of people you decide you want to be like could turn out to be bacchanalian murderer-type people. Academia is a nightmare. So much of this is that the people you thought were aggravating turn out to be good. So he [Richard] really should’ve listened when his advisor was like, “I think it’s really bad for you to take all of your classes with this one guy who’s really weird.” And he was like, “That’s what I want.” And that guy actually turns out to be kind of helpful when he gets out of it. So I’m looking at a question now from Jennifer, which is, “Why do you think Tartt wrote about alcohol and cigarettes so much?” I think it probably is just a reflection of the atmosphere in Bennington-slash-Hampden at the time. It was the ’80s, and people were just using tremendous amounts of drugs. But I think it also goes back to the fact that these characters are always trying to place themselves in a heightened state. They’re on uppers, they’re on downers, they’re trying to not feel their feelings. The idea that they might have to experience a feeling and live with it and endure it is utterly alien to these people. Which is also the allure of the bacchanalia itself: this idea that you can check out from your own very tightly wound very stoic persona, and just let it all go completely wild. If you enjoy this book, I think you would really like J.G. Ballard’s novella Running Wild. He’s a genius. We lost him too soon. But I think that particular writing about the desire of people who are very, very constricted and how ham they go when something comes off the wheels or they have an excuse to, it’s really, really interesting. This next question is from Tanya. “Do you think that by the end of the story, Richard is fully encompassed as an insider in this group? Do his friends love him as much as he loves them?” No. No, they do not. I do not think they do at all. Constance Grady I would have to agree. I think he never really fully understands who they are, and they always sort of erect a wall and keep him out of their super-secret alibis and various other revelations that they’ve been hiding from him. Nicole Cliffe And some of which is a gift, right? Obviously you don’t want to be like, “Oh, by the way, we’re murderers and we have bacchanalias and things like that.” That’s a tough opener. But I also think if they’d known that Richard had no money, that none of this would have gone down. I mean, obviously Julian wouldn’t have taken him because Julian has his own very weird ideas of who should study the classics, which is clearly people who do not need to do anything for the rest of their lives. Which I don’t want to say is a 100 percent accurate, but, you know, Constance Grady It is definitely a degree that is most useful to people who don’t need to worry about money for the rest of their lives. Sarah says, “You’ve talked about Sherlock Holmes as an influence, but I’m curious about other influences in the book. I always thought at the lunch scene with Bunny as being an inverse of the lunch scene that Charles has with Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. And the bit about Richard’s silence being mistaken for depth is the inverse of Nick Caraway, his comment that his approachability always makes people tell him things and he wishes they wouldn’t in The Great Gatsby. But I’m wondering if there are other things like that that I’m missing.” Nicole Cliffe I love this question. Well, we have a specific moment where Richard talks about rereading The Great Gatsby when he’s strapped. This book is drenched, drenched in Brideshead. The only thing that would make it more Brideshead is Catholicism. And instead we have Greek gods. But just in terms of his joy at being taken to a big weird country house and doing nothing and eating weird meals and drinking things and lying on the lawn playing literal croquet. Constance Grady And I think in a lot of ways Brideshead is the ur-text for all the dark academia books. It’s all over the Magicians trilogy as well. It is the original, as the characters in Brideshead say of Sebastian. To keep up with the Vox Book Club, subscribe to our newsletter and chime in for our discussion of The Princess Bride. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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