Friday, June 1, 2012

Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America by Charles H. Ferguson--PLEASE READ AND SPREAD THE WORD!

Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America
by Charles H. Ferguson
Crown Business, 2012

Book Description
Publication Date:
May 22, 2012

Charles H. Ferguson, who electrified the world with his Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, now explains how a predator elite took over the country, step by step, and he exposes the networks of academic, financial, and political influence, in all recent administrations, that prepared the predators’ path to conquest.

Over the last several decades, the United States has undergone one of the most radical social and economic transformations in its history.

· Finance has become America’s dominant industry, while manufacturing, even for high technology industries, has nearly disappeared.

· The financial sector has become increasingly criminalized, with the widespread fraud that caused the housing bubble going completely unpunished.

· Federal tax collections as a share of GDP are at their lowest level in sixty years, with the wealthy and highly profitable corporations enjoying the greatest tax reductions.

· Most shockingly, the United States, so long the beacon of opportunity for the ambitious poor, has become one of the world’s most unequal and unfair societies.

If you’re smart and a hard worker, but your parents aren’t rich, you’re now better off being born in Munich, Germany or in Singapore than in Cleveland, Ohio or New York.
This radical shift did not happen by accident.

Ferguson shows how, since the Reagan administration in the 1980s, both major political parties have become captives of the moneyed elite. It was the Clinton administration that dismantled the regulatory controls that protected the average citizen from avaricious financiers. It was the Bush team that destroyed the federal revenue base with its grotesquely skewed tax cuts for the rich. And it is the Obama White House that has allowed financial criminals to continue to operate unchecked, even after supposed “reforms” installed after the collapse of 2008.

Guest Reviewer: Simon Johnson on Predator Nation by Charles H. Ferguson

Simon Johnson is coauthor of 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown and White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters To You.

Predator Nation demolishes the view that the global financial crisis was merely some sort of freak accident. Charles Ferguson makes a convincing case that the world’s banking system was brought to the brink of complete collapse in 2008–09 by a virulent combination of unchecked greed and criminal behavior.

This is an epic crime story with an apparently clean getaway, courtesy of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Both presidents proved unwilling to hold anyone to account—or even to launch meaningful investigations.

Leading bankers walked away with billions of dollars in unjustified compensation. The costs imposed on the rest of us can be measured in the trillions of dollars.

Predator Nation provides a roadmap for prosecution, systematically covering the banks involved, the names of culpable executives, the obvious crimes, the precise laws broken, and the evidence hiding in plain sight. No doubt it will be widely ignored by our legal officials.

Ferguson’s points are also intensely political. Reckless behavior by bankers can be traced back to the bipartisan consensus around deregulating finance in recent decades. This result is a socially destructive industry with immense political power—and capable of defeating all attempts at meaningful reform. The continued predominance of rogue finance is greatly facilitated by its effective corruption of American academia and many so-called “independent experts” (documented in Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning movie, Inside Job.)

Big banks hold American politics in a death grip. To understand this—and to start to think about how to break this grip—read Predator Nation and give a copy to everyone you know.

Reviews & Praise for Predator Nation

"A tightly argued, profusely footnoted and deeply enraged castigation of everyone involved, Predator Nation isn’t just a factually unchallengeable account of how Wall Street blew up the global economy. It’s a denunciation, a call for justice and a warning."Salon

“With Predator Nation, Charles Ferguson sets out to finish what he started with his Oscar-winning documentary, Inside Job. This take-no-prisoners account of the financial crisis follows the money, connects the dots, names names, and asks the questions our leaders still refuse to answer: how have those responsible for the crisis not been held accountable, and how can we make sure it doesn’t happen again?—Arianna Huffington, president and editor in chief of the Huffington Post Media Group

“There is fraud at the heart of Wall Street—deliberate intellectual, business, and political deception. Charles Ferguson is in hot pursuit. Inside Job shook up the cozy world of academic finance. Predator Nation should stir prosecutors into action. And if we fail to reform our political system, you can say goodbye to American democracy.” —Simon Johnson, coauthor of White House Burning and professor at MIT Sloan School of Management

“Ferguson presents a fierce indictment of predatory activities of parts of the financial system and of the corruption of democracy that ‘big money’ financial lobbying has caused. A book well worth reading regardless of whether you fully agree or not with all of its arguments.” Nouriel Roubini, professor of economics and international business at Stern School of Business, New York University, and chairman of Roubini Global Economics

“The definitive financial crisis book has now been written. With an encyclopedic factual foundation to support his arguments, the ever-brilliant Charles Ferguson has given us Inside Job on steroids. The collusion between Wall Street and Washington that brought our economy to its knees is set out in a way that will have steam coming out of your ears in fury.” —Eliot Spitzer

“A deeply argued call to action from a lucid, impassioned polemicist.”Kirkus (starred review)

“Charles Ferguson's Predator Nation is nothing less than a devastating narrative portrait of the many times Wall Street has made Main Street and others the victims of its predatory schemes. In his inimitable clear-headed style, Ferguson correctly asks, why do they keep getting away with it? Why indeed.”—William D. Cohan, author of House of Cards and Money and Power

Product Details:
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Crown Business (May 22, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 030795255X
ISBN-13: 978-0307952554

Sunday, September 26, 2010
An Incisive Examination of the 2008 Financial Crisis

A Film Review of 'Inside Job' and Interview with the Director Charles Ferguson

by Chuleenan Svetvilas
September 26, 2010
The Panopticon Review


Inside Job tackles the financial crisis of 2008, delving into the economic policies, conflicts of interest, hubris, and greed that created this decades-long disaster in the making. Yeah, a documentary about the financial catastrophe seems like a super-boring film to sit through but this film is anything but dull. Through riveting personal interviews and plenty of facts and figures, director Charles Ferguson chronicles the intricate web of connections among the investment banks, credit rating agencies, economists, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Treasury Department under the Reagan, Bush I and II, and Clinton administrations.

Though the film is loaded with talking heads — everyone from New York University economics professor Nouriel Roubini (aka Dr. Doom) and former New York governor Eliot Spitzer to French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde and former Federal Reserve Board member Frederic Mishkin — it is tightly edited to keep the viewer's interest.

Ferguson asks pointed questions and it is painfully funny as well as infuriating to watch Mishkin squirm as he tries to explain whether the credit ratings were accurate and why he left his position in the midst of the economic collapse. Economist Glen Hubbard, former chair of the U.S. council of Economic Advisors under George W. Bush and now dean of Columbia’s business school, becomes very hostile and angry when asked about his financial conflicts of interest, for example not revealing that he was paid $100,000 to testify in defense of a financial company. He sneers at Ferguson, "You have three more minutes. Give it your best shot."

Narrated by Matt Damon, the film is divided into five parts: 1. How We Got Here, 2. The Bubble, 3. The Crisis, 4. Accountability, and 5. Where We Are Now. The first four sections craft a cogent argument that deregulation was at the root of the financial crisis and that there were many opportunities to lessen its impact or even prevent it from happening in the first place. The last part seems to falter, not only because it shows how the Obama administration is simply continuing the same policies as previous administrations but because the fury Ferguson raises in the previous parts is gone. It ends with platitudes. The last scene, one of city streets, ends with Damon’s voice intoning: "It won't be easy, but some things are worth fighting for."

Chuleenan Svetvilas interviewed director Charles Ferguson in San Francisco on September 21. Inside Job, his second film, will open in New York on October 8 and Los Angeles on October 15, and in the Bay Area on October 22. Ferguson's first documentary, No End in Sight, a remarkable exposé and indictment of the occupation of Iraq, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2007.

When and why did you decide to make this film about the 2008 financial crisis?

Well I made the final decision when in a 48-hour period, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and AIG fell apart in September of 2008. And when also, as a result of that and everything else that was going on, we all found ourselves staring into nothingness. Then it was crystal clear that this was a gigantic thing and would be with us for a very long time and would have a lot of effects on a lot of people; it was something worth looking into. I had actually started thinking about it earlier, long before. I have two friends, both of whom are in the film, Nouriel Roubini and Charles Morris. They’re both old friends of mine.

In 2007 both Nouriel and Charlie began telling me that there was this huge problem coming and in late 2007 I read Charlie’s book and manuscript. It was published in February 2008, one month before Bear Stearns had collapsed and it was called The Trillion Dollar Meltdown. And at the time I thought he was exaggerating and he told me, “Just you wait, Charles.” And then you know, when major financial institutions began collapsing, I began to take my friends more seriously. Then in September of 2008 I decided, I gotta do this.

At that point did you start contacting people to interview? Once you decided to make the film, what was the first thing you did?

The first thing actually was I approached the two guys who run Sony Pictures Classics, Michael Barker and Tom Bernard and asked them if they would be interested in the film and they said yes. And in fact they financed a little over half the film and agreed to distribute it. So it was at that point that I started doing serious work. The first thing that we did is a lot of research. I talked to a million people. I read everything I could get my hands on.

We did mainly research for six months, a lot of research, including who we might want to film. Then we started filming in March/April 2009. We filmed basically through the end of the summer. I think our last interview was in September 2009 by which point we had already started the editing. We started editing around the time of the last interview.

So did you come up with the other half of the budget yourself?

We had another equity investor and then a small fraction of it is me, myself as an equity investor.

Did you feel that you were well prepared to tackle this subject because you already had one critically acclaimed documentary under your belt [No End in Sight] and then you have this PhD in political science from M.I.T. where you studied economics, political economy, and economic history?

It did and it helped a lot. My prior background in academia was very useful. In the first place I knew a lot of these guys. I also had some understanding of the issues. I wouldn’t say I had a lot. I had become rather disconnected from the financial world over the previous decade and it had changed a lot. It’s very clear that it had changed a lot and mostly for the worse. But I had some familiarity with finance and I also knew from my prior academic background, about the conflicts of interest in academic economics. I had seen the beginnings of that problem when I was a graduate student and a post-doc. So when the crisis occurred and I started making the film, I thought, there’s probably something here so I should look at this. And I looked and I found.

So when you were a graduate student, what did you think about the Chicago School of thinking regarding economics? Did you think that it was a viable thing – unfettered capitalism?

No, and it always seemed obviously dubious to me. I spent a lot of time studying it actually. I took a lot of economics. I read a lot of the kind of advocacy things that the Chicago School and other people wrote. I read Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman’s book, and it always struck me as just very clearly deficient in reality for one thing. It seems as if Friedman was completely sincere in his beliefs. There’s no evidence that he was doing this for financial gain but it was clear that many other people were.

And he had his faithful disciples, Alan Greenspan being one of them.


I saw an interview you did in Cannes and you said that you were surprised by the Bush administration’s incompetent handling of the financial crisis. I’m wondering why you were surprised given that you had done No End in Sight, which showed the incredibly inept handing of the occupation of Iraq.

The reason I was surprised was that some of the people who were doing the handling in this case were people who seemed to be more practical and less ideological than the people who had been in charge of the Iraq war. Hank Paulson, whatever you think of him, he had real experience with the real world, not experience handling a financial crisis but a lot of experience with handling what investment banks do and how they behave. And so I was very surprised when it turned out that neither he nor Bernanke had understood that when they shut down Lehman Brothers that British and Japanese bankruptcy law would force the immediate closing of those offices, the immediate freezing of all transactions and accounts that would have this cascading effect throughout the financial system. He didn’t know that. I found that rather surprising, that he wouldn’t know that, that he wouldn’t take the trouble to find out.

I also thought that there would be more and more intelligent consultation with other people. When I asked Christine Lagarde, the finance minister of France, how did you find out Lehman was going to go bankrupt, I assumed that she was going to tell me a day or two earlier or someone had given her a call, and when she told me she found out about it after the fact by opening up the morning paper, I was dumbfounded.

Why wouldn’t you talk to other people who have a stake in this? We’re talking about a worldwide financial market, not just a U.S. financial market.

That seems to have escaped their notice.

Did you decide to structure the film in these five parts because that was the best way to explain the different steps of what had happened? I see similarities to your previous film: dividing the film into different parts and going through things chronologically and having people reflect back on what happened.

I think that I just naturally think like that. I guess it’s my academic background, I don’t know. I have a somewhat systematic, rigorous mind. I tend to do that to things. So partially that and partially I thought that the subject required it. This is something that could be very easily complicated where it would be easy for people to get lost. So giving some structural guidance in the film was something that would help relax the viewer and guild the viewer through a fairly complicated film. There’s a lot of facts in that movie. There’s over 100 documents in that film and a lot of people say a lot of things so it just seemed like a good idea but it’s always naturally how I tend to approach things.

There is a heavy use of voiceover in the film. You have Matt Damon reciting a lot of facts that way. Was that one way you tried to get around putting a lot of numbers and figures on screen to avoid overwhelming the viewer?

Yes, and also we tried to use a mixture of different ways to present information just to keep people stimulated so they wouldn’t get bored. So sometimes you would look at a graph and sometimes you would hear it from somebody’s voice. Sometimes you would see somebody saying it to you. We tried to keep the film visually and otherwise stimulating.

Did you try to interview Brooksley Born, [former head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission]?

Yes, I actually had a very long private conversation with her off the record. She didn’t want to be interviewed on the record because she knew that she was soon going to be appointed to be a member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which she is now a member of. My inference, she didn’t say this, but my inference is that she was afraid that if she spoke on the record that she wouldn’t get appointed and she wanted to be part of that effort. So she didn’t feel comfortable being interviewed on the record. It was too bad. She’s amazing to talk to, really an amazing person.

Does the same thing go for Elizabeth Warren?

Yes, I also had a long private conversation with her. She also declined to be interviewed on the record for similar reasons.

You make it really clear in your film that the regulators, the ratings agencies, economists, etc. didn’t do their job. And even after the crisis they still wouldn’t say that they didn’t do their job or would imply that somebody was looking at things but clearly that’s not true. So what do you hope to accomplish with this film?

I hope to make people aware that this is still an important issue that hasn’t been dealt with and they should become more active in dealing with it — both with regard to their personal financial lives and also in the larger political landscape. Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, so too finance is too important to be left to the financiers. So first of all that. I also just wanted to inform people about why it is that America is still in this state, why so many people are losing, have lost their jobs, their savings. I think that, I hope that people want to understand that.

You had mentioned earlier how you were aware of the conflicts of interest regarding people in academia, the economists. At what point during the interviews with people like Glen Hubbard [dean of Columbia Business School and economics professor] did you start asking more probing questions about conflicts of interest?

It depended but it was pretty early. I usually asked them a few relatively general questions first. I wanted to hear what they thought about the crisis in general and so I usually asked them those kind of questions first but pretty quickly I started asking them about these other things and they got uncomfortable pretty quickly.

Yeah, Hubbard was incredibly uncomfortable and said, “You’ve got three minutes.” So how long had you been talking to him before he started shutting down and getting really angry?

Maybe 15, 20 minutes into the interview. There was tension almost immediately but then it kind of got progressively more tense.

Were you surprised that it got so tense so quickly?

I didn’t know what to expect. The personal chemistry issue, how people are going to respond at the emotional level was hard to predict and people responded differently but I was a little bit surprised at how hostile Glen Hubbard got.

After all he agreed to be interviewed.

Yes, but I think what happened with all those people is that they’re not used to being challenged. They’re used to being deferred to, they’re used to people being very respectful and favorable and not antagonistic and not challenging. So I think that they were surprised that they were being challenged. And I think that they were also surprised at how much I knew. They weren’t used to people having read through their papers and gone through their C.V., looked at their financial disclosure forms. I think that came as a bit of a shock to them.

What’s your next project?

I don’t know, I have a number of ideas, some of them documentaries, some of them feature films. Right now I’m spending all of my energy trying to make sure people watch this film. That’s going to totally consume me for at least the next month, maybe for even longer but certainly for the next month.

What are your plans for the film’s website?

The website will have many things on it. It has a lot of information about the people in the film. It has information about some of the issues discussed in the film. It has links to an enormous number of the documents that we read and reference materials that we read: articles, books, all kinds of things. Also, links to organizations that work on these issues. So there’s going to be a lot on the website.

Do you plan on doing a book like you did with your other film?

I tend to doubt it. For one thing the website is going to have so much material on it that it’s not clear to me that there would be much additional benefit to doing the book. Also, I hope that the film speaks for itself. I hope that from watching the film that people will get a good enough idea what the issues are.

What question would you like to be asked or is there anything else you would like to add?

Well, I will take your opportunity to say that I think that the most disappointing thing I encountered was the reaction of the Obama administration and of President Obama personally. Many of us had high hopes for him and he’s been a great disappointment and that’s really too bad. A big opportunity lost but hopefully, hopefully the American people will start pushing him to change.

Chuleenan Svetvilas is a writer and editor in Berkeley, California. Her articles on film have appeared in print and/or online in Alternet, California Lawyer, Documentary, DOX, Hyphen, The Panopticon Review, and Mother Jones. Her 2007 review of Offside will be reprinted in Soccer vs. The State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics in 2011.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Frank Rich On America's Ongoing 'Post-Racial' Farce and Its Profound and Disturbing Consequences For U.S. Culture and Social Reality

2009: Clybourne Park
1959: A Raisin in the Sun
(Photo: Bettmann/Corbis)

"History repeats itself. The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce"
--Karl Marx

"That Norris takes a bleak—albeit frequently hilarious—view of our racial state of affairs is not hard to fathom. For all the national chatter about a “post-racial America” following the 2008 election, America seems more obsessed with race than ever, if less honest about it, since Obama strode onto the national stage. If the official milestones of his administration thus far include the passage of the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the endorsement of gay marriage, they have often been upstaged by the red-letter incidents of racial conflict that have steadily rolled out on a parallel track. Just a short list would include: the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Cambridge; the hysterical tea-party rally against health-care reform that showered obscenities on black congressmen entering the Capitol; the ousting of the African- American Department of Agriculture worker Shirley Sherrod after she was libeled as a racist; the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia; the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida; and, this month, the protest of more than 40 percent of West Virginia Democratic-primary voters, who pulled the lever for an obscure white federal- prison inmate rather than endorse a second run for the incumbent president of their own party. Last week brought the pièce de résistance: the Times revelation of a proposed super-PAC TV commercial that would slime Obama as pretending to be a “metrosexual black Abe Lincoln.” With material this good, it’s hard for a playwright to keep up. But Norris comes close."
--Frank Rich

As I've said many times before our ongoing identification with, and ongoing submission to, the reigning oppressive ideologies and practices of our present historical epoch is yet another massive indictment of the typically unrestrained hatred, hubris, and hypocrisy of our current society and culture and that its historically vile and always pervasive racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia has become even MORE blatantly transparent since Obama was elected President in 2008. The great Frank Rich who has the extraordinary distinction of being not only the major political journalist of our time but also the best American drama critic of the past 30 years reveals in the following essay/review on the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Bruce Norris's play Clybourne Park, a scathing satire and theatrical attack on the lies, contradictions, hypocrisies, bad faith, phony posturing, mindless cruelty, delusional platititudes, venal demagoguery, and false consciousness permeating so-called "race relations" in the United Hates today, that what we are utterly failing to honestly confront both in our art and our politics today is the stark REALITY of how and why White Supremacy as doctrine and practice (and its always equally tenacious partners-in-crime Capitalism and Patriarchy) continues to RULE AND DOMINATE American society and culture in all of its social, institutional, and spiritual aspects and dimensions. Please read the following masterful essay and pass the word--especially to ALL AMERICAN ARTISTS AND THE GENERAL CITIZENRY...


Post-Racial Farce

Since America elected its first black president, the conversation on race has turned just as loopy as the hilarious and audacious Clybourne Park.

By Frank Rich
May 20, 2012

Eight times a week, audiences at the play Clybourne Park are laughing at jokes as racist as any ever heard in a modern Broadway theater. While the audiences are mostly (though not exclusively) white, the racism onstage does meet a basic diversity quota. No sooner does a white man ask and answer the question “What’s long and hard on a black man?” than he is countered by a black female antagonist posing the riddle “Why is a white woman like a tampon?” Unlike the intentionally tasteless gags minted by the South Park guys at The Book of Mormon around the corner, these jokes were not written to sow escapist mirth. They are more mean-spirited than funny. The audience’s laughter is triggered not by the characters’ wit, which is minimal, but by the sheer audacity of their racial volleys. It is the audacity of rage, not hope.

The play’s 52-year-old author, Bruce Norris, is white. He has already won the Pulitzer Prize for this work and next month could win the Tony, too. Though Clybourne Park didn’t arrive on Broadway until this spring, it has been a cultural fixture during much of the Obama presidency. Following its Off Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons in early 2010, it has been produced in Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Los Angeles; London (where it won the Tony equivalent, the Olivier); and Obama’s own town of Chicago. Chicago is also where the play is set, in two very different American eras 50 years apart—1959 (Act I) and 2009 (Act II). Or nominally different, anyway. Clybourne Park says that when it comes to race in America, not that much has changed over the past half-century, the historic arrival of an African-American family in the White House notwithstanding.

A Scene From A Raisin in the Sun
A Scene From Clybourne Park

Both halves of his play are about a fight over a plain little house in the (fictional) neighborhood of Clybourne Park. In 1959, a three-generation black family from a ghetto on the South Side has just purchased it and is preparing to move in—over the objections of a neighborhood association that wants to keep its enclave lily-white. By 2009, that battle over integration is half-forgotten ancient history. Clybourne Park, like so many other urban neighborhoods nationwide, had long ago turned black in the wake of wholesale white flight to the suburbs. The house has since devolved into a graffiti-defaced teardown, battered by decades of poverty, crime, drugs, and neglect. But lo and behold, the neighborhood is “changing” again. A young white suburban couple is moving back into the rapidly gentrifying Clybourne Park. It’s convenient for work, and there’s a new Whole Foods besides. The only hitch is that middle-class African-Americans in the present-day neighborhood association are as hostile to white intruders as their racist white antecedents were to black home buyers 50 years earlier.

Norris started writing Clybourne in 2006, before Obama ran for president. He tweaked the script slightly after his ascension. “Even though I was a supporter,” the playwright said when I spoke to him recently, “I listened to his speech of hope and change, and I thought to myself, ‘Good luck.’ ” That pessimism led him to add a line for the character of Bev, a white fifties housewife even more sheltered than Betty Draper from the America outside her immediate domain. “I really believe things are about to change for the better,” she says. Bev’s naïve declaration of hope, delivered in the play’s coda, seems laughably delusional after the audience has bathed in two hours of mayhem among the white and black characters, none of it happily resolved. However well meaning, she’s a fool destined to be mowed down by historical forces she doesn’t remotely understand or anticipate.

That Norris takes a bleak—albeit frequently hilarious—view of our racial state of affairs is not hard to fathom. For all the national chatter about a “post-racial America” following the 2008 election, America seems more obsessed with race than ever, if less honest about it, since Obama strode onto the national stage. If the official milestones of his administration thus far include the passage of the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the endorsement of gay marriage, they have often been upstaged by the red-letter incidents of racial conflict that have steadily rolled out on a parallel track. Just a short list would include: the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Cambridge; the hysterical tea-party rally against health-care reform that showered obscenities on black congressmen entering the Capitol; the ousting of the African- American Department of Agriculture worker Shirley Sherrod after she was libeled as a racist; the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia; the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida; and, this month, the protest of more than 40 percent of West Virginia Democratic-primary voters, who pulled the lever for an obscure white federal- prison inmate rather than endorse a second run for the incumbent president of their own party. Last week brought the pièce de résistance: the Times revelation of a proposed super-PAC TV commercial that would slime Obama as pretending to be a “metrosexual black Abe Lincoln.” With material this good, it’s hard for a playwright to keep up. But ­Norris comes close.

In the standard telling of American racial history, the heroes, villains, and victims of such stories tend to be unambiguous. In keeping with our present reality, Clybourne Park departs from that pattern by going after white liberals and black characters, too. Indeed, Norris has been taken for a conservative by some because he sometimes portrays well-intentioned whites as sanctimonious and patronizing hypocrites. In truth, he’s just an equal-opportunity misanthrope. There is hardly anyone in either act of the play—fifteen characters in all—who is sympathetic, not even the ghostly Korean War veteran who had the good sense to commit suicide before the curtain goes up on Act I. Norris’s collection of Americans would be right at home on any cable channel whenever a racial story, even an anecdote as relatively small bore as a testy conflict between a black Harvard professor and a white cop, rises to the level of 24/7 infotainment.

Norris violates another fundamental maxim of mainstream narratives of American racial history written by whites as well—that they should be uplifting parables with a clear-cut message and, at the end, a glimmer of racial justice yet to come, God be willing. Clybourne Park could not be further removed in sensibility from, say, To Kill a Mockingbird (whose 50th anniversary was celebrated in 2010 just as Shirley Sherrod was being pilloried). His play doesn’t culminate in a stirring courtroom scene but with the protracted telling of a joke about a “big black man” raping a “little white guy” in a jail cell. Norris’s mission is to prod those of us who have tended to be starry-eyed about Obama’s breakthrough into conducting a reality check. He reminds us that America has a long way to go before it gets anywhere near its promised nirvana of racial reconciliation, if it ever does. He tells us that unreconstructed white racists, of whom there are still a significant number in America, are not the whole problem. His lunatic humor may not be built for the ages, but it surely encapsulates the lunatic racial atmosphere of the Obama years to date.

There has been change on the American playing field of race since Inauguration Day 2009—not so much for the better or the worse, but a shift into a kind of twilight zone where the nation’s racial conversation has moved from its usual gears of intractability, obfuscation, angry debate, and platitudinous sentimentality to the truly unhinged. It’s as if everyone can now say, well, that’s that, we’ve elected our first African-American president, we can pat ourselves on the back for doing so, and, with that noble and historic accomplishment in the bank, we will sign on to sideshows ranging from a Herman Cain stunt presidential run to a malicious jihad mounted by a right-wing hit man in Los Angeles, Andrew Breitbart, to destroy Sherrod, an obscure federal worker in Georgia. You’d think Obama’s victory gave the entire country permission to act out like the racial brawlers of Clybourne Park.

It has certainly encouraged the GOP to unleash its id and wax with unapologetic nostalgia about the good ole days of the Jim Crow South. Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia issued a proclamation declaring Confederate History Month with no mention of slavery. Rand Paul, when running successfully for senator of Kentucky, disparaged the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Haley Barbour, the former GOP chairman and Mississippi governor and almost presidential candidate, reminisced about how things were not “that bad” back when the segregationist White Citizens’ Councils were in charge of Yazoo City during his halcyon youth. Toss in such other uninhibited party leaders as Newt Gingrich, branding Obama “the best food-stamp president in American history,” and Karl Rove, who labeled the public-spirited rapper Common “a thug” when Obama invited him to a poetry evening at the White House, and you see why some white voters in Steubenville, Ohio, were happy to confide to a Times reporter this month that they wouldn’t be casting ballots for a black man.

But this renaissance of neo-Confederatism on the right is retro. We’ve been there, done that many times in the decades since Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” turned the party of Lincoln into a haven for the old Dixiecrats. What’s new in the Obama era are the less binary racial free-for-alls dramatized so vividly in Clybourne Park. Though some of these episodes have comic elements that seem like holdovers from The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s eighties satirical assault on liberal political correctness, they have become wackier in plot and boast a wider cast of characters: white conservatives and liberals, black conservatives and liberals, and a political-media Establishment that is more easily manipulated by racial provocateurs than at any time in recent memory.

The Sherrod case is an apt example. As you may recall, this sad tale began when the late Breitbart hyped a maliciously edited video of a speech she made at an NAACP gathering in Georgia. Sherrod seemed to be telling how she had discriminated against a white farmer. In the full version, we’d learn, she was instead offering a heartwarming account of how she overcame her historical racial grievances to help a white farmer out. That the rabid Breitbart would tar Sherrod was no surprise. That some in the mainstream press would recycle his libel without vetting it is, sadly, par for the course. But that the NAACP would also pile on, condemning Sherrod as “shameful” without even checking the record of an event it had sponsored, was nuts. So was the cowardly behavior of Tom Vilsack, the white secretary of Agriculture, who in a panic immediately forced Sherrod’s resignation, with the knowledge and tacit approval of the Obama White House.

What Breitbart understood was that the election of an African-American president has thrown white and black liberals on the defensive. The NAACP and Vilsack were so eager to appear color-blind in the new “post- racial” America that they would rather sell Sherrod out than wait for any facts that might alter the story. Once it became clear to Obama that his own camp had been snookered, he apologized to her and called for a discussion of race that “needs to take place not on cable TV, not just through a bunch of academic symposia or fancy commissions or panels, not through political posturing, but around kitchen tables, and water coolers, and church basements, and in our schools.” Whatever. There was no discussion of how the NAACP, the White House, and a Cabinet department were so easily enlisted in Breitbart’s assault on Sherrod in the first place. There were no repercussions for Vilsack, who remains in his sinecure today.

Breitbart, of course, isn’t the only one to wield a maliciously edited recording to serve a racial animus; his legacy is that he helped solidify an Obama-era trend. NBC News would do the same in the Trayvon Martin case, airing an audio recording on the Today show in which George Zimmerman seemed to profile his victim as black to a police dispatcher when in fact he was only responding to the dispatcher’s direct question (edited out by NBC). On the right, a website founded by the conservative pundit Michelle Malkin tried to stack the deck against Trayvon by posting a defamatory, racially stereotyped photo portrait that turned out to be of a different young black man. In a category of his own was Spike Lee, who tweeted an address he thought was Zimmerman’s to some 250,000 followers. How he wanted others to act on this information was unspecified, but in any event, the address actually belonged to an innocent white couple in their seventies who were forced to flee their home to escape a torrent of death threats and other harrassments. (Lee ultimately did the right thing, apologizing and agreeing to compensate them.)

Like the Sherrod incident, the Martin killing made almost everyone who touched it look bad, not just the derelict Floridian officials in proximity. The so-called liberal national media didn’t report on the case until three weeks after it happened. Once they started playing catchup, reporters and commentators alike flew into a tizzy trying to figure out how to shoehorn Zimmerman’s Hispanic ethnicity into the rigid black-vs.-white racial grid the narrative demanded. Conservative pundits tried to drown out the Martin tragedy altogether (and the role played by weak gun control and “stand your ground” laws in abetting it) by complaining vociferously that the mainstream press and black leaders habitually ignore America’s epidemic of black-on-black violence. For good measure, the original story was further muddied by debates over whether it was out of line for Obama to say he could have had a son who looked like Trayvon, whether hoodies should be banned (not for Mark Zuckerberg, apparently), and whether the Times was right to identify Zimmerman as a “white Hispanic” instead of simply a Hispanic. If there ever is justice in this case, which there may well not be, it will hardly be looked back on as a clarifying episode in the story of America’s struggle with race.

The Trayvon Martin mêlée, at least, was about something grave at its core: An unarmed 17-year-old boy had been killed, and law enforcement had failed to act. What was the Herman Cain presidential campaign about? As an indicator of present-day racial disingenuousness in America, this brief but delicious saga is hard to top. It’s the one recent national farce that delivers comedy as well as substance to match that of Clybourne Park. It offers something to embarrass everyone.

Let us not sugarcoat the central fact: Cain is a clown, if an entertaining one, who may well be a perfectly capable pizza marketer and motivational speaker but who had no more qualifications for the presidency than a Friars Club roastmaster. Yet no matter how unabashedly and frequently he advertised his own shortcomings, few had the temerity to say this short-lived emperor had no clothes—whether he was “joking” about building an electrified fence to stop illegal immigration, or reveling in his complete ignorance of foreign policy (from Libya to “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan”), or proposing economic panaceas that were a euphonic delight but otherwise as nonsensical as a pronouncement by Chauncey Gardiner in Being There.

The silence was notably conspicuous among those Republican and conservative leaders who saw in Cain a tool to portray the GOP as a more inclusive brand than the nearly all-white bastion it actually is. (Just 8 percent of blacks identify themselves as Republican, according to Pew.) The only time conservatives criticized Cain— accusing him of playing the “race card,” needless to say—was when he had the temerity to suggest that the “Niggerhead” sign at a hunting ranch leased by Rick Perry was “insensitive.” That daring bit of truth-telling on Cain’s part was soon forgiven and forgotten (including by Cain), and he was back to being hailed on the right as “a magnificent man” and “a great man,” in the words of Ann Coulter. His only real sin was “getting too uppity” for liberals, Rush Limbaugh explained helpfully. Once Cain started to reel from multiple accusations of sexual harassment, Coulter and her cohort eulogized him as Clarence Thomas redux—the blameless victim of a “high-tech lynching.” When Cain finally dropped out of the race, The Wall Street Journal editorial page faulted him not for his dubious personal behavior but for his inept public-relations management.

After the Herminator’s candidacy finally did implode under the weight of the aggrieved women coming forward (five proved to be the tipping point), his farcical journey through the entire racial spectrum of the presidential race came full circle. He went from being a figurative clown to a professional one, reemerging as a popular comic partner for white liberal comedians like Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, and John Oliver of The Daily Show, playing Richard Pryor to their Gene Wilder in delightful segments of neo-minstrelsy. Only in America! The GOP, meanwhile, liberated from its expedient shotgun marriage to a black front-runner, could return to its racial business-as-usual—its campaign to depress minority turnout on Election Day by pushing onerous new voting requirements in any state legislature they can.

Herman Cain could not have defeated Obama. Whether Republican efforts to curtail voter turnout can help do so is unknown. In retrospect, it’s not even clear whether Obama’s election in 2008 was a historic triumph of America over its racial legacy or a freak confluence of unlikely forces. Voters went to the polls just as the economy was crashing, and the only alternative to the black man was a crabby old white guy who didn’t seem to have a clue about what was going on.

The 2012 contest may be a more revealing indicator of the racial state of the union. Obama is running against the whitest man America could produce—a product of white states, white neighborhoods, and white institutions that include a church that didn’t give African-Americans full equal rights until 1978, well after the Old Confederacy had been forced to surrender to the new order of federal civil-rights laws. The new Census Bureau report that minority births have finally surpassed white births can only increase the demographic panic in a GOP that looks less and less like the electorate. No one should have been surprised to learn last week that one of the right’s billionaire sugar daddies was considering writing a $10 million check to support an ad campaign that would have exhumed the Reverend Jeremiah Wright in its plot to persuade America to “hate the president.”

Romney has declined invitations to see The Book of Mormon. It’s hard to imagine that he’d even recognize the historical context of Clybourne Park. Norris’s raucous comedy was inspired by a mostly somber (and seminal) Broadway drama of 1959, A Raisin in the Sun, by a young black woman, Lorraine Hansberry, then 28. (She would die at 34.) Her play has a single white character: Karl Lindner, the milquetoast emissary from the Clybourne Park neighborhood association who wants to bribe the black family, the Youngers, to prevent them from moving into their newly purchased house. The white man proves unable to buy what he wants. Raisin ends with the indelible image of the family matriarch, a domestic worker, walking out of her old home into a future that no one could foresee but that surely held more promise than the dead-end existence she is leaving behind.

Hansberry took her title from a poem by Langston Hughes that opens with the lines “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / Like a raisin in the sun?” Hughes ended the verse with a more volatile possibility: “Or does it explode?” (Italics his.) Explode it did, in the years after Hans berry’s final curtain, and Norris’s play is most of all an effort to sort through the ensuing wreckage. By the second act of Clybourne Park, everything is on the table, including slavery, the American stain that neither time nor civil-rights advances can ever erase. “We get it, okay?” says the exasperated white homebuyer when that past rears up. “And we apologize. But what good does it do, if we perpetually fall into the same, predictable little euphemistic tap dance around the topic?” To which a black man of the neighborhood association sneers, “You know how to tap dance?”

And so the tap dancing continues—verbally, that is—as both the white and black characters work hard not just to offend each other but to take offense even when none is intended. Both Norris’s and Hansberry’s white men put great store in resolving conflicts by talking things out—to “say what it is we’re really saying …,” as one Clybourne line has it. It’s the same pitch that Obama has made nearly every time the country has driven into a racial ditch during his term. “We should all make more of an effort to discuss with one another, in a truthful and mature and responsible way, the divides that still exist,” he said during the Sherrod fracas. But for the most part we never get there, any more than do the characters of Clybourne Park.

You have to feel sympathy for Obama. A born conciliator with a well-documented history of avoiding and defusing racial confrontation, he did not want to wake up every day as The Black President. If he were white, he could duck a lot of these episodes instead of having to calibrate a political response each time. One can almost imagine the calculus: If I hold a “beer summit” for Gates, do I invite Sherrod in for tea? If I remain silent about the execution of Troy Davis, can I speak up about the killing of Trayvon Martin?

But while Clybourne Park captures the volatile blend of racial hostilities, gamesmanship, dishonesty, and sheer posturing that Obama, and, for that matter, the entire country, is up against, might it be too bleak? I still remember seeing A Raisin in the Sun as a white middle-class kid in 1961, a few months after the Kennedy inaugural, when it played the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., on tour. It was just as Martin Luther King was bringing his gospel to the nation. For an 11-year-old attending a (de facto) segregated public-school system in the nation’s capital, it was an awakening to the unreconstructed apartheid America all around me. Anyone of any race who remembers that America knows just how epic a difference the civil-rights movement made in sweeping so much of it away. The actual lives of many, if hardly all, black Americans have improved immeasurably in those 50 years.

I asked Norris if he really is as pessimistic about America’s capacity for change as his play would indicate. Yes and no. “Joe Biden says Will & Grace changed the world,” he said. “Did The Jeffersons or Cosby change the world? I don’t think so.” What Norris does see is “incredible progress on the legislative front in terms of greater justice for minorities.” But he doesn’t think that legislation can alter human nature and “prevent a change to something much worse” if, for instance, America were to fall into another economic crisis. “It’s harder to be liberal and tolerant when your existence is threatened,” he says. “You circle the wagons.”

Norris’s vision is dark—darker than my own—but he’s an artist and has no obligation to soothe or flatter his constituency. His play is truly a thing without hope, and he aims to provoke. I was particularly struck by the exasperated reactions of a group of New York City public-high-school seniors—at Talent Unlimited, a performing-arts school—who recently saw Clybourne Park and then responded to it in essays that their teacher shared with me. One of them ended her paper with this abrupt summation: “Both couples got very offended about what the other couple was saying about their race and the issue of racism was never solved.” She and her classmates—who, as it happens, attend one of the nation’s most segregated school systems—might as well learn now that, even in the age of Obama, a solution is not in sight.

Frank Rich joined New York magazine in June 2011 as Writer-at-Large, writing monthly on politics and culture, and editing a special monthly section anchored by his essay. He is also a commentator on, engaging in regular dialogues on the news of the week.

Rich joined the magazine following a distinguished career at the New York Times, where he had been an op-ed columnist since 1994. He was previously the paper's chief drama critic, from 1980 to 1993. His weekly 1,500-word essay helped inaugurate the expanded opinion pages that the Times introduced in the Sunday "Week in Review" section in 2005. From 2003 to 2005, Rich had been the front-page columnist for the Sunday "Arts & Leisure" section as part of that section's redesign and expansion. He also served as senior adviser to the Times'The New York Times Magazine. The dual title was a first for the Times.

He has written about culture and politics for many national publications. His books include Ghost Light: A Memoir and, most recently, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrina. Rich is also a creative consultant to HBO, where he is an executive producer of two projects, Veep, a comedy series written and directed by Armando Iannucci and starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and a documentary on Stephen Sondheim.

A native of Washington, D.C., and graduate of Harvard, he lives in New York City with his wife, the novelist and journalist Alex Witchel.