Let The Fire Burn, And Ferguson

Jason Osder‘s searing Let the Fire Burn–a documentary about the tragic standoff between the radical black liberation group MOVE and the Philadelphia city administration in 1985–is ostensibly a documentary about an America of thirty years ago, but it is also about the America of today.

Last night, as my wife and I waited for the ‘verdict’ in Ferguson, we decided to watch Let the Fire Burn; at its conclusion, we sat there stunned and speechless and disbelieving. I could hear my wife sobbing. Contemplating the death of children, left to burn, and indeed, possibly forced back into a burning house by gunfire from a homicidal police force will do that to you. I got up, walked over to my dormant desktop machine, touched the space bar, and watched the screen spring to life. I checked my social media news feed: as expected, the grand jury in Ferguson decided not to indict, and thus bring to trial, the police officer Darren Wilson, for the deadly shooting of Michael Brown.

The brutality and cruelty of what we had just paid witness to was enough to make me pen the following initial response on my Facebook page:

Jesus Christ, the racist, malevolent stupidity on display in this documentary was unbelievable and unbearable.

Much of that same thick, unblinking, deadly mental and moral dysfunction has been on display in Ferguson: in the murderous shooting of Michael Brown, the heavy-handed reaction to the protests, (which sparked an inquiry by Amnesty International), the refusal to indict, the timing of the announcement, and sure enough, the pronouncements of St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch.

To place this latest episode of the continuing tragedy of African-American life in some context, to see that black American life has always been cheap, that the police get away with murder all too often, all too easily, Let The Fire Burn is essential viewing.

There is no doubt MOVE in the Philadelphia of 1985 was a prickly bunch: they were radical in their deeds; they could be violent; there is ample cause for disagreement with their indoctrinaire methods; they were anti-social and bad neighbors. But nothing I saw in Let The Fire Burn will convince me that the police action, the heavily armed blockade of their ‘headquarters’ in a predominantly black neighborhood, followed by a gun battle in which over ten thousand rounds were discharged, the bombing of their house by a incendiary device dropped by a helicopter, and then fatally, the decision to not put out the fire, and burn down not just the house with its occupants still inside, but a total of sixty-one homes, could ever be justified.

Let The Fire Burn is made up entirely of archival footage; there are no talking heads, no contemporary analysis, no hindsight to be offered. The words and actions you see and hear are those of almost thirty years ago. They speak for themselves; no commentary is required. This is documentary making of the highest order. Watch it, weep, and rage. Most of all because nothing has changed.

Susan Sontag’s Paragraphed Interview Answers

In his introduction to Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stones Interview, Jonathan Cott writes:

In one of her journal entries from 1965, Susan avowed: To give no interviews until I can sound as clear + authoritative + direct as Lillian Hellman in Paris Review.” ….as I listened to her clear, authoritative, and direct responses to my questions, it was obvious that she had attained the conversational goal that she had set for herself many years before.

Unlike almost any other person whom I’ve ever interviewed…Susan spoke not in sentences but in measured and expansive paragraphs. And what seemed most striking to me was the exactitude and “moral and linguistic fine-tuning”…with which she framed and and elaborated her thoughts, precisely calibrating her intended meanings wit h parenthetical remarks and qualifying words…the munificence and fluency of her conversation manifesting what the French refer to as an ivresse du discours–an inebriation with the spoken word.

I saw Sontag interviewed once, at the 92nd Street YMCA, sometime in 1991 or 1992. Her interviewer was, I think, if memory serves me correctly, the then editor of Vanity Fair Graydon Carter. (The interview was held shortly after the release of her novel The Volcano Lover: A Romance.) My reaction to hearing and seeing her speak–at some length, for the interview was no mere bagatelle–was similar to Cott’s: for years afterwards, whenever I described the interview, I would say, “She doesn’t just speak in complete, well-formed sentences; she speaks in paragraphs.” Sontag clearly had a great deal to call upon and invoke in her answers; her ability to quickly organize her thoughts into the aural form in which she presented them to her listeners was luminously on display.

It was the first time I had seen Sontag speak; I would see her once again, possibly at a book reading of some sort. She signed my copy of AIDS and its Metaphors on that occasion. Then, she did not speak as much so I did not get a chance to revisit my earlier impression of her. But I think it has remained indelible over the years.

I remember one remark in particular, from her 92nd Street Y appearance, one that made me chuckle then, and often still does so: that the right time and place to write an autobiography was after death, from beyond the grave. Everything else was premature, a too-quick reckoning of finality when the possibility for change was still at hand. (Sontag was quite obsessed by reinvention and moving on to newer selves so such a statement should not be too surprising, but it was her manner of framing it that made it distinctive.)

If only she supply us with her authoritative, clear, and direct autobiography now. I bet it’d be an interesting read.

Note: Around that time, as Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign kicked off, a campaign trail reporter for the New York Times made note of how the Arkansas governor was  “that modern rarity, a candidate who spoke in complete sentences.” Clearly, that was a good time for the spoken word.

The Road And The Apocalyptic World of the Homeless

Last week, the students in my Philosophical Issues in Literature class and I, as part of our ongoing discussion about Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, watched John Hillcoat‘s cinematic adaptation of it. On Monday, we watched roughly half the movie in class, and then on Wednesday, we concentrated on three scenes: the encounter with Ely the ‘blind’ old man; the encounter with the thief; and the closing scenes, as the Boy meets his ‘new family.’

After we had finished viewing the encounter with Ely, I asked my students what they made of the differences between the novel and the movie’s treatment of that event. This spun into an interesting discussion about the imagery employed by McCarthy and Hillcoat, especially as many of my students felt that the movie could not quite conjure up the novel’s aura of apocalyptic destitution that swirls around Ely and his gnomic pronouncements on the state of the world.

Building on this, I asked my students what they made of the movie’s visual descriptions of the Man, the Boy, and Ely: their filthy dress, their dirty, unkempt, unwashed appearance, their patched up shoes, the cart containing their possessions that they push along. (The book also makes note of the Ely’s terrible smell.) What did this most remind them of? A few hands went up: these characters looked like New York City’s homeless, an often familiar sight.

As this identification was made, my students realized, I think, what I was getting at.

The central characters in The Road are homeless folk. They might seem unfamiliar to us at first, because the world described in the novel and the movie–devastated by an unspecified catastrophe–looks comfortably distant from our normal, everyday existence. But the homeless among us live in such a post-apocalyptic world now: an apocalypse has already occurred in their lives. They are without homes, dirty, hungry, on the edge of starvation, reduced to foraging for scraps, smothered in their own waste, stinking to high heaven, perennially in danger of being set on, assaulted, set on fire, or murdered (as news bulletins often remind us). Unlike the Man, the Boy, and Ely, they don’t have to fear cannibalism (not yet anyway) but perhaps they can sense there is little hope in their lives, little to drive them onwards except the brute desire to stay alive.

If we want to engage in an exercise of the imagination and think about how the Man and the Boy might feel we might want to think of those homeless folk we see in New York City’s subway stations and streets. If we wish to conjecture about how the man and the boy experience the cold in their world, which will eventually freeze their starving, impoverished selves to death, we need only think about how every winter, in subzero temperatures, the homeless desperately try to survive, using cardboard boxes, sleeping on top of subway gratings, seeking warm corners and nooks, hopefully safe from marauders at night, next to, and on top of, some of the world’s most expensive real estate.

So while we might sustain the illusion that the events described in The Road are fiction, the homeless remind us the apocalypse–conceived as fantasy in novel and movie–is already all around us.

Steven Salaita, Palestinians, And Autobiography

Last night, along with many Brooklyn College students, faculty (and some external visitors) I attended ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine. (My previous posts on this event can be found here and here.)

As Robin has noted over at his blog, there was a genuine conversation to be participated in: hard questions, hard answers, disputation. Most importantly, I think, there were moments of discomfort and bluntness.

I want to make note here, very quickly, of  a point of interest that stood out for me (among many, many others).

I was intrigued by Robin’s opening questions to Salaita, asking him to tell the audience a little bit about himself: his family background, his academic interests, his writings etc. At this stage, I was, as someone who had read–and sometimes written–a great deal about La Affaire Salaita, eager and impatient to move on to a discussion of the finer particulars of his case: what’s next in the legal battles, how strong is the First Amendment case etc. Surely, all this was just throat-clearing before the substantive discussion would begin.

But as Salaita began answering these queries, I realized something all over again: all too often, ‘the Palestinian’ is a shadowy figure: not fully filled out, a zone of unknowing into which all too many fears and anxieties are projected.  The state of exile of the Palestinian people, their refugee status, their diasporic existence has often meant that they seem like creatures that flit from place to place, not resting, not stopping to acquire detail, painted on by everyone but themselves. (‘All the Palestinian people, where do they all come from’?) They exist in a blur, our understandings of them underwritten by forces often beyond their control. In that context, the mere fact of hearing a Palestinian speak, telling us ‘where he is coming from’ – whether it is by informing us of the nationality of his father, a Jordanian, or his mother, a Palestinian, born and raised in Nicaragua, and where he was born – Appalachia, if I heard him right! – is enlightening. These simple autobiographical details humanize the too-frequently dehumanized. (The little intellectual autobiography that Salaita provided–for instance, detailing his realization of the notions of colonialism and dispossession tied together American Indian studies and the Palestinian question–did this too.)

For Americans, these particulars Steven Salaita fit into the fabric of American life, into its immigrant past, into cultures and histories and geographies in which they too have a stake. They might force a reckoning of the Palestinian as a ‘new kind of American,’ as heir to long-standing local traditions of political disputation, and enabled a viewing of his dissent in a different light. Without the context of Salaita’s embedding in his past, his family and the places he made his own, his intellectual journeys, those who encounter him will always find it easy to rely on, yet again, on the accounts of those who have an ideological interest in offering alternative narratives of his motivations and inclinations.

Standing By Sponsoring ‘Steven Salaita At Brooklyn College’

Last week, I made note here of the philosophy department at Brooklyn College co-sponsoring ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, an event organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine and scheduled for Thursday, November 20th.

As you will notice, on the link for the event above, there is a disclaimer, in fine print, which reads:

Co-sponsorship does not imply agreement with, or support of, views expressed at a student-hosted event.

This disclaimer was deemed necessary–in this case, at least–because departments are made skittish by accusations of anti-semitism and anti-Israel stances.  But that is not all. The SJP’s use of the word ‘allies’–again, in the link above for the event–has not sat well with some of my colleagues in the philosophy department: it seems to imply the department is engaged in active endorsement of the ‘content’ of the event.  Perhaps the philosophy department shouldn’t be co-sponsoring any such events for fear of not being able to ‘control the message’?

In response to their expressions of concern, I sent the following email to my colleagues:

Some thoughts.

1. I think it would be an ambitious inference for someone to make that the ‘allies’ in question refer to the departments and organizations sponsoring the event (as opposed to say, those attending the event). Some folks will, no doubt, make precisely such an inference. But I wonder if that were even true, what would we be allies to? I still think it would be precisely those issues which are at stake: academic freedom, free speech, academic governance – and the chance to see them discussed in an open forum.  We should be able to articulate a defense for that even in the face of ill-motivated accusations. There should be no need to backpedal in the face of an accusation that “we are actively promoting a pro-Palestine/anti-Israel stance” when it is false. (Indeed, the event is titled ‘Silencing Dissent”.)

2. The word ‘sponsor’ has had, prior to the BDS event last year, a relatively unambiguous meaning on our campus; it has acquired this notoriety almost entirely due to hostility expressed to events organized by the SJP. Has there ever been such a fuss about the word when some other student organization is involved? Indeed, given that the student organization in question is named Students for Justice in Palestine, their events are *always* going to be characterized as being anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. I mean, JUSTICE in PALESTINE? That’s a red rag if there ever was one. If departments get too skitty when it comes to the SJP, if they do not co-sponsor any events organized by SJP for fear of the furore it will provoke, then they will co-operate in a de-facto ostracization of a student group. “Every time you guys organize an event, we get shit from alumni and the press – no thanks, we can’t co-sponsor.” This doesn’t seem like a great move for us to make as a department of philosophy, ostensible lovers of wisdom. [link added]

I don’t want to broaden this discussion too much, but let us not kid ourselves about what is going on here. A tenured faculty member was fired, from a state university, for his public speech, because it was deemed to render him unfit to fulfill his academic duties. (Let us not forget the administration at UIUC rode roughshod over faculty decisions pertaining to hiring and tenure.) We are doing the right thing by sponsoring this event, by being part of the effort to have Salaita on campus, talking about the issues involved.

Personally, I see it as an honorable act by this department to ‘co-sponsor’ an event that highlights issues of utmost importance to the modern university. We are a philosophy department; we claim to teach analytic and argumentative skills, all the better to puncture hypocrisy, irrationality, and intellectual dishonesty. We should be able to mount an adequate defense of our actions here and in any other situation we think deserves our support. I do not think we should run for the hills because of a dishonest rhetorical tirade, because people insist on imputing motives and reasons for our actions that we do not actually hold.

Tillich On Symbols, Religion, And Myths

This week, I’ve been teaching and discussing excerpts from Paul Tillich‘s Dynamics of Faith in my philosophy of religion class. (In particular, we’ve tackled _The Meaning of Symbol_, _Religious Symbols_, and _Symbols and Myths_, all excerpted in From Religion To Tolstoy and Camus, Walter Kaufmann, ed.)  I suggested to my students before we started our conversation that hopefully, on its completion, they would find the rhetorical use of “just/only a symbol” or “merely symbolic” , or “just a myth” to be quite interestingly problematized. I’d like to think it was.

Tillich’s contributions to our understanding of religious language, knowledge, and practice–which show the influence of existential and psychoanalytic thought in channeling both Nietzsche and Freud–are manifold and important, and I cannot do justice to them here. But it is worth reminding ourselves of what they might be by pointing in their direction.

First, Tillich attempts to distinguish ‘symbol’ from ‘sign’ to indicate the abstraction, origins, and applications of the former. This characterization lends itself to a broader philosophical discussion about abstraction and meaning-making in general, and which allows an invocation of the use of symbols and signs in natural and formal languages. Most importantly, it invokes questions central to our reckoning of art and poetry: how do these create meaning, what kind of ‘access to reality’ do they afford us, how do the poet and the artist enable a species of experience unlike any other? Second, he tackles squarely the existential nature of the questions–the meaning and the purpose of life, the relations of our finite life to a potentially infinite existence–that lie at the heart of a certain species of religious engagement. This permits a reckoning of the nature of the human condition such that the kinds of questions that Tillich alludes to, matters of ‘ultimate concern’, that transcend the finite particulars of human life, can be understood as being forced upon us so that non-engagement with them is not an option; this also allows analogies to be drawn about how certain kinds of philosophical questions are, as it were, ‘posed for us’. Third, he redefines ‘God’ in a way that removes a certain species of sterile debate–that of disputing the general theistic conception of God–from the domain of religious thought and draws the atheist into the existential fold; fourth, his treatment of ‘myths’ and ‘mythologies’ offers us a new understanding of religious sentiment and attitudes and allows for a criticism of reductionist attitudes to knowledge; (The discussion here of ‘demythologizing’, the attempt to render myths meaningful in alternative orders of meaning, and the ‘broken myth’ is masterful.); finally, he argues that the defenses of religion’s mythologies by ‘literalism’ contribute to a devaluation of religious thought and sentiment.

Tillich’s treatment of religious symbols and language is historical and anthropological and cultural, one that affords a distinctive answer to one of philosophy of religion’s most central questions; religion is an outward, concrete manifestation of an existential, perennial, unconscious impulse, relying on symbols and stories to engage with questions fundamental to the human condition.

Sponsoring ‘Steven Salaita At Brooklyn College’

Last Tuesday, the philosophy department of Brooklyn College voted to co-sponsor ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, an event organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine and scheduled for Thursday, November 20th. (In so doing, we joined the ranks of the departments of political science and sociology, as well as the Shirley Chisholm Project, Brooklyn for Peace, Jewish Voice for Peace – New York Chapter, and the International Socialist Organization.)

Because I had suggested–during the ‘new business’ section of our department meeting–that the department sponsor the event, and because the BDS controversy at Brooklyn College focused so much attention on the business of academic departments ‘sponsoring’ supposedly ‘political’ and ‘one-sided’ events, I offered some arguments about the desirability of the philosophy department signing on as a co-sponsor, even if our vote to do so would attract some of the same hostility the political science department at Brooklyn College had during the BDS event.

Those arguments can be summed up quite easily. Steven Salaita will soon be claiming, in a court of law, that: he lost his job because his constitutional right to free speech was infringed by a state actor; his speech was found offensive on political grounds; his academic freedom was violated; he lost his livelihood because he espoused his political opinions in a manner offensive to some. A debate about these issues, conducted with a law professor and moderated by a political theorist (who also teaches Constitutional Law), would offer to our students–even if they disagreed vehemently with Salaita’s political viewpoints–a chance to engage with many philosophical, political and legal problems, all of which they are exposed to, in theoretical form, in their many readings across our curriculum.

Most broadly, philosophy students would see philosophy in action: they would see arguments presented and analyzed and applied to an issue of contemporary political and moral significance. (One of my colleagues pointed out that our department offers a popular Philosophy and Law major, which ostensibly prepares them for law school admission and careers in the law; this demographic would be an ideal audience for the discussion.)

As might be imagined, given the furore generated by the BDS event last year, there was some trepidation over whether such a departmental vote, or the use of the language of ‘sponsorship’ was a good idea. In response, I analogized our sponsorship decision as akin to the inclusion  of a reading on a class syllabus (During the BDS controversy, I had made a similar argument in response to the claim that sponsoring an event entailed ‘endorsement’ of the speakers’ opinions.) When a philosophy professor does so, she says no more than that she thinks her students should read the reading and engage with it critically; it is worth reading, even if only to criticize it. (This semester, I had included Gobineau in my Social Philosophy reading list; I certainly did not intend to promulgate a theory of the Aryan master race by doing so.)

Lastly, I suggested issues of academic freedom are of utmost relevance and importance for all academic disciplines today. Every department on campus should be interested in a discussion centering on them.

We voted; the motion carried.