Woe unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the LORD.
Laquan McDonald was killed by Chicago police in the middle of Chicago’s Pulaski Road in October of last year; the video of his death was not released, however, until just before Thanksgiving this year. In response, mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel fired police superintendent Gerry McCarthy, while many have called for Emanuel himself to resign—actions that might seem to demonstrate just how powerful a single document can be; for example, according to former mayoral candidate Chuy Garcia, who forced Emanuel to the electoral brink earlier this year, had the video of McDonald’s death been released before the election he (Garcia) might have won. Yet, so long ago as 1949, the novelist James Baldwin was warning against believing in the magical powers of any one document to transform the behavior of the Chicago police, much less any larger entities: the mistake, Baldwin says, of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son—a book about the Chicago police railroading a black criminal—is that, taken far enough, a belief in the revolutionary benefits of a “report from the pit” eventually allows us “a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book”—or watching such a video—“at all.” It’s a penetrating point, of course—but, in the nearly seventy years since Baldwin wrote, perhaps it might be observed that the real problem isn’t the belief in the radical possibilities of a book or a video, but the very belief in “radicalness” at all: for more than a century, American intellectuals have beat the drum for dramatic phase transitions, while ignoring the very real and obvious political changes that could be instituted were there only the support for them. Or to put it another way, American intellectuals have for decades supported Voltaire against Leibniz—even though it’s Leibniz who likely could do more to prevent deaths like McDonald’s.
To say so of course is to risk seeming to speak in riddles: what do European intellectuals from more than two centuries ago have to do with the death of a contemporary American teenager? Yet, while it might be agreed that McDonald’s death demands change, the nature of that change is likely to be determined by our attitudes towards change itself—attitudes that can be represented by the German philosopher and scientist Gottfried Leibniz on the one hand, and on the other by the French philosophe Francois-Marie Arouet, who chose the pen-name Voltaire. The choice between these two long-dead opponents will determine whether McDonald’s death will register as anything more than another nearly-anonymous casualty.
Leibniz, the older of the two, is best known for his work inventing (at the same time as the Englishman Isaac Newton) calculus; a mathematical tool not only immensely important to the history of the world—virtually everything technological, from genetics research to flights to the moon, owes itself to Leibniz’s innovation—but also because it is “the mathematical study of change,” as Wikipedia has put it. Leibniz’ predecessor, Johannes Kepler, had shown how to calculate the area of a circle by treating the shape as an infinite-sided polygon with “infinitesimal” sides: sides so short as to be unmeasurable, but still possessing a length. Liebniz’s (and Newton’s) achievement, in turn, showed how to make this sort of operation work in other contexts also, on the grounds that—as Leibniz wrote—“whatever succeeds for the finite, also succeeds for the infinite.” In other words, Liebniz showed how to take—by lumping together—what might otherwise be considered to be beneath notice (“infinitesimal”) or so vast and august as to be beyond merely human powers (“infinite”) and make it useful for human purposes. By treating change as a smoothly gradual process, Leibniz found he could apply mathematics in places previously thought of as too resistant to mathematical operations.
Leibniz justified his work on the basis of what the biologist Stephen Jay Gould called “a deeply rooted bias of Western thought,” a bias that “predisposes us to look for continuity and gradual change: natura non facit saltum (“nature does not make leaps”), as the older naturalists proclaimed.” “In nature,” Leibniz wrote in his New Essays, “everything happens by degrees, nothing by jumps.” Leibniz thusly justified the smoothing operation of calculus on the basis of reality itself was smooth.
Voltaire, by contrast, ridiculed Leibniz’s stance. In Candide, the French writer depicted the shock of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755—and, thusly, refuted the notion that nature does not make leaps. At the center of Lisbon, after all, the earthquake opened five meter wide fissures in the earth—an earth which, quite literally, leaped. Today, many if not most scholars take a Voltairean, rather than Leibnizian, view of change: take, for instance, the writer John McPhee’s big book of the state of geology, Annals of the Former Earth.
“We were taught all wrong,” McPhee cites Anita Harris, a geologist with the U.S. Geologic Survey as saying in his book, Annals of the Former World: “We were taught,” says Harris, “that changes on the face of the earth come in a slow steady march.” Yet through the arguments of people like Bretz and Alvarez, that is no longer accepted doctrine within geology; what the field now says is that the “steady march” just “isn’t what happens.” Instead, the “slow steady march of geologic time is punctuated with catastrophes.” In fields from English literature to mathematics, the reigning ideas are in favor of sudden, or Voltairean, rather than gradual, or Leibnizian, change.
Consider, for instance, how McPhee once described the very river to which Chicago owes a great measure of its existence, the Mississippi: “Southern Louisiana exists in its present form,” McPhee wrote, “because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there … like a pianist playing with one hand—frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions.” J. Harlen Bretz is famous within geology for his work interpreting what are now known as the Channeled Scablands—Bretz found that the features he was seeing were the result of massive and sudden floods, not a gradual and continual process—and Luis Alvarez proposed that the extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous Period of the Mesozoic Era, popularly known as the end of the dinosaurs, was caused by the impact of an asteroid near what is now Chicxulub, Mexico. And these are only examples of a Voltairean view within the natural sciences.
As the former editor of The Baffler, Thomas Frank, has made a career of saying, the American academy is awash in scholars hostile to Leibniz, with or without realizing it. The humanities for example are bursting with professors “unremittingly hostile to elitism, hierarchy, and cultural authority.” And not just the academy: “the official narratives of American business” also “all agree that we inhabit an age of radical democratic transformation,” and “[c}ommercial fantasies of rebellion, liberation, and outright ‘revolution’ against the stultifying demands of mass society are commonplace almost to the point of invisibility in advertising, movies, and television programming.” American life generally, one might agree with Frank, is “a 24-hour carnival, a showplace of transgression and inversion of values.” We are all Voltaireans now.
But, why should that matter?
It matters because under a Voltairean, “catastrophic” model, a sudden eruption like a video of a shooting, one that provokes the firing of the head of the police, might be considered a sufficient index of “change.” Which, in a sense, it obviously is: there will now be someone else in charge. Yet, in another—as James Baldwin knew—it isn’t at all: I suspect that no one would wager that merely replacing the police superintendent significantly changes the odds of there being, someday, another Laquan McDonald.
Under a Leibnizian model, however, it becomes possible to tell the kind of story that Radley Balko told in The Washington Post in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. In a story headlined “Problem of Ferguson isn’t racism—it’s de-centralization,” Balko described how Brown’s death wasn’t the result of “racism,” exactly, but rather due to the fact that the St. Louis suburbs are so fragmented, so Balkanized, that many of them are dependent on traffic stops and other forms of policing in order to make their payrolls and provide services. In short, police shootings can be traced back to weak governments—governments that are weak precisely because they do not gather up that which (or those who) might be thought to be beneath notice. The St. Louis suburbs, in other words, could be said to be analogous to the state of mathematics before the arrival of Leibniz (and Newton): rather than collecting the weak into something useful and powerful, these local governments allow the power of their voters to be diffused and scattered.
A Leibnizian investigator, in other words, might find that the problems of Chicago could be related to the fact that, in a survey of local governments conducted by the Census Bureau and reported by the magazine Governing, “Illinois stands out with 6,968 localities, about 2000 more than Pennsylvania, with the next-most governments.” As a recent study by David Miller, director of the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, the greater Chicago area is the most governmentally fragmented place in the United States, scoring first in Miller’s “metropolitan power diffusion index.” As Governing put what might be the salient point: “political patronage plays a role in preserving many of the state’s existing structures”—that is, by dividing up government into many, many different entities, forces for the status quo are able to dilute the influence of the state’s voters and thus effectively insulate themselves from reality.
“My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill,” observes the Jehovah of Ezekiel 34; “yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them.” But though in this way the flock “became a prey, and my flock became meat to every beast of the field,” the Lord Of All Existence does not then conclude by wiping out said beasts. Instead, the Emperor of the Universe declares: “I am against the shepherds.” Jehovah’s point is, one might observe, the same as Leibniz’s: no matter how powerless an infinitesimal sheep might be, gathered together they can become powerful enough to make journeys to the heavens. What Laquan McDonald’s death indicts, therefore, is not the wickedness of wolves—but, rather, the weakness of shepherds.