In his multi-hyphenate ambitions, the musician who calls himself Juiceboxxx couldn’t be more modern—you might call him a punk rock-rapper-DJ-record executive-energy drink-magnate. Journalist Leon Neyfakh has been something more than a fan of Juiceboxxx’s since he was a teenager, when he booked a show for the artist in a church basement in his hometown of Oak Park, Illinois.
Juiceboxxx went on to the tireless, lonely, possibly hopeless pursuit of success on his own terms—no club was too dank, no futon too grubby, if it helped him get to the next, next level. And, for years, Neyfakh remained haunted from afar: was art really worth all the sacrifices? If it was, how did you know you’d made it? And what was the difference, anyway, between a person like Juiceboxxx—who devoted his life to being an artist—and a person like Neyfakh, who elected instead to pursue a stable career and a comfortable, middle-class existence?
Much more than a brilliant portrait of a charismatic musician always on the verge of something big, The Next Next Level is a wholly contemporary story of art, obsession, fame, ambition, and friendship—as well as viral videos, rap-rock, and the particulars of life on the margins of culture.
To be clear, we’re talking about this guy:
This post isn’t about Juiceboxxx. That’s just what I found when I looked up Leon Neyfakh after reading his review of 13th. It’s a documentary about the continuity of slavery and mass incarceration, named after the 13th Amendment:
Neyfakh’s review is very honest and impressionistic, which makes it a great illustration of liberal uselessness. The subtitle hints at what’s wrong: “I’m a criminal justice reporter, and Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix documentary about mass incarceration shocked me.” The first two paragraphs are about how hardcore he is after (two) years on the “criminal justice beat”:
Ava DuVernay’s new documentary about mass incarceration made me feel ashamed. After it ended, I thought about how much I’d gotten used to in just under two years of covering the criminal justice system for Slate—how thoroughly I have absorbed the unfathomable scale of the country’s prison crisis, and how normal it now seems to me that we tolerate a state of affairs that should be intolerable. I watched the movie for the first time with my wife, and was caught off guard about 20 minutes in, when a title card stating that the prison population had grown from 357,292 in 1970 to 513,900 10 years later made her audibly gasp. “Wait until we get to the ’80s and ’90s,” I said.
13th made me ashamed because it made me realize I’d stopped gasping. In its sweeping treatment of the history of American racism, the film brought me closer than I’ve ever been to understanding how it could be that so many people could have ever grown used to the moral catastrophes that were slavery and Jim Crow. How did they not wake up every morning, nauseated and panicked about what was happening? The same way people like me wake up in 2016 and take it as a given that there are 2.3 million people living in cages, a third of them black.
I don’t think he’s actually ashamed. I think he’s proud of himself for having an enlightenment experience, and he wants to tell everyone the other people who think it’s obvious we belong in cages. He still thinks that. The next paragraph also assumes a “we” who really want to believe the criminal justice system is a noble institution with a few bad apples. He condescendingly approves of the film’s title:
13th is named after the constitutional amendment that banned slavery—a putatively bright spot in the country’s history, except that, as the film underscores, it includes an exception that covers anyone who has been convicted of a crime. In that light, 13th is a perfectly ominous title for DuVernay’s project, the central argument of which is that, for hundreds of years now, the American justice system has been serving as a vehicle for racism and the political rhetoric that capitalizes on it. From the “convict leasing” of former slaves after 1865, to the criminalization of civil rights activism in the 1960s, to the craven politicking that used images of black criminality to win elections in the 1970s and ’80s, the story of how we got to our present moment is devastating in its coherence. Through interviews with a cast of experts that includes The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb, CNN commentator Van Jones, and Alabama-based justice advocate Bryan Stevenson, DuVernay’s film issues a warning: None of what’s happened has been an accident, and all of it has depended on the participation of rational people. Those of us who would prefer to think otherwise are forced to see the criminal justice system not as a well-intentioned instrument that has simply become overused, but as a weapon—one that has been aimed and fired with deliberateness and precision.
What does he mean that the film is “devastating in its coherence”? Was he, I mean, were we the white people expecting incoherence from the blacks? The guy reminds me of the Stanford Prison Experiment:
Listening to Jones, I was reminded of a time a few months into my tenure covering the criminal justice beat for Slate, when I wrote about an idea for reducing the prison population that turned out to be far more controversial than I expected. The idea, laid out on Vox, was simple enough: Instead of punishing so many people who have committed crimes by forcing them to spend years behind bars, let’s give some of them a chance to live out in the world, imposing strict rules on their conduct and using surveillance technology to monitor them. As long as these people know that breaking the rules will trigger swift and certain consequences, the argument went, they’ll be able to pay their debt to society under conditions that won’t upend their lives or expose them to the destructive horrors of the prison system.
It struck me as a promising proposal, especially after one of its proponents, then–University of California, Los Angeles professor Mark Kleiman, noted that it could be paid for with money that would otherwise be spent providing prisoners with room and board. But when I called some prominent criminal justice reform advocates and asked them what they thought of Kleiman’s vision, I was taken aback by the amount of opposition I heard...Others echoed these sentiments, saying that the system Kleiman had in mind was nothing more than a technocratic redeployment of the very same pro-carceral impulses that caused the number of Americans in jail and prison to surge from 350,000 in 1970 to more than 2 million in 2015.
Liberals aren’t really against the surveillance state, because it keeps the niggers in line. Neyfakh is a hip-hop fan, but I think this music would scare the crap out of him:
Like a renegade, amirite?
I think it’s telling that he emphasizes how “swift and certain” punishments would be in the fantasy he’s describing. He doesn’t think he has “pro-carceral impulses”. As if the introduction to his review didn’t exist, he just takes it for granted that there should be a prison system with “destructive horrors.” We’d still need that for some people…obviously.
He “especially” likes the argument that prison is a form of welfare (“room and board”), and white people have a loudly-stated hatred of spending tax dollars on a bunch of lazy, shiftless niggers on welfare.
He’s the useless one, though. Self-described!
I was skeptical of these arguments, and I nodded in agreement when Kleiman said to me, by way of rebuttal, “The proposition here is not that we should sentence people to this. The proposition is that we should take people who are currently in prison and let them out.” The debate revealed for me an important fault line in the criminal justice reform movement—one that separated optimistic pragmatists like Kleiman from radicals who demanded nothing less than revolution. In the weeks and months that followed, I remember rolling my eyes whenever I heard activists and academics in the latter camp make the point that incremental reforms of the sort Kleiman had in mind—tweaks to the system that they saw as reinforcing the basic structure of the carceral state instead of challenging it at its foundation—were the enemy of real progress.
This is where I should say that watching 13th changed my mind entirely—that after being confronted with the depth of the rot under our feet, I now see the folly of Kleiman-style incrementalism and am ready to declare myself a full-bore prison abolitionist. But that is not really true. As convincing as the film is in tracing the national pathology that connects slavery and mass incarceration, as effective as it is in forcing its viewers to reckon with the cruelty of the prison system, it left me, in the end, with the queasy guilt of a helpless bystander—someone who doesn’t want to tolerate the imprisonment of 2 million people but has no idea what that means in practice.
Leon Neyfakh is clearly an intelligent person, but he has a mental block that stops him from imagining the obvious: let them all the way out. It’s unthinkable. He can’t support a revolution. It’s just not done! Fucked up things just…have to continue. It’s natural.
In the concluding paragraph, he directly says that he sees himself as a bystander. He also admits that people like him decide, in aggregate, what’s tolerable and what’s not. Doublethink.
For people who have devoted their lives to fighting for political reform, this might read as a rejection of all the hard, slow, boring work that goes into making change happen. Part of me is tempted to read it that way, too. But maybe the point is that for all that work to matter, those of us on the sidelines—the bystanders who decide, in aggregate, what can be tolerated—must have an urgent, vivid understanding of what the people we’re counting on to achieve progress are up against. That’s what a film like 13th is for: It makes us gasp and not stop gasping.
Professionally, he must aspire to be an influential journalist. At the same time, he’s counting on others to achieve progress, as if he can’t do more than most with platforms like Slate, Rolling Stone, The New Republic, etc. Racism isn’t a problem for him, personally. Solving it isn’t his job. His job is to watch movies and write articles about how his emotional investments in white supremacy prevent him from reaching conclusions he clearly understands intellectually. Typical.
Juiceboxxx in a church basement…Something about this guy just creeps me out, as a black person.