David Brooks Should Take A Knee And Stop Writing Stupid Op-Eds

David Brooks wants to “persuade” high school football players who are kneeling during the national anthem to protest systemic racism that what they are doing is “extremely counterproductive.” He does so by identifying this country’s “civic religion,” which is “a fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism” and “based on a moral premise–that all men are created equal.”  This religion has been “nurtured…by sharing moments of reverence.” Sadly, this religion is now “under assault” from a “globalist mentality” and  “critics like Ta-Nehisi Coates” and a “multicultural mind-set.” Now, unfortunately, Americans are not so patriotic any more and so now, “sitting out the anthem takes place in the context of looming post-nationalism.” As such, when Americans sing the national anthem, “we’re not commenting on the state of America….We’re expressing gratitude for our ancestors and what they left us.” But if we don’t sing the anthem, all hell breaks loose:

We will lose the sense that we’re all in this together. We’ll lose the sense of shared loyalty to ideas bigger and more transcendent than our own short lives. If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story. People will become strangers to one another…You will strengthen Donald Trump’s ethnic nationalism….

Roughly: if you don’t sing the national anthem and show the appropriate respect to a country whose blessings in your case have been decidedly ambiguous, racists like Donald Trump wins. So you see, if you fight racism, racism wins. Cut one head off, another one appears. Why don’t you just give up, shut up, stand up, and sing? You’re playing football, stayin’ healthy; you might go to the NFL and make lots and lots and lots of money like that other ingrate, Colin Kaepernick. You’ll get to participate in sponsored rituals of patriotism in big stadiums. So go ahead and sing that “radical song about a radical place [and its slavery].”

Because Brooks’ column is an advice column, let me dial 1-800-RENT-A-CLUE for him. The only folks instantiating the “civic religion” Brooks speaks of are the high-school football players who, through their public protests, are risking abuse and denigration from patriots, and worse, patronizing advice from painfully clueless, overpaid, incompetent writers. They, and not the hysterical patriots, are the ones actually displaying a “fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism.” Their actions indicate that they don’t consider this nation a finished product; they consider it a work in the making. By doing so, through their peaceful, non-disruptive protest, they are making the most hopeful statement of all: that political activism can lead to change. Their actions are not complacent and quietist like Brooks; their silent protest is expressive and eloquent. It adds another note to the American symphony, which is an unfinished work. The American ideal is not a coin, which once minted, carries the same value; it is an ongoing notion, one revealed by history, and by action and thought.

The high-school football players are dynamic innovators in this realm of political practice and theory; Brooks represents stagnancy and stasis. America needs more of the former, less of the latter.

The NRA On The Dallas Shooting

The National Rifle Association has issued the following statement in response to the shootings in Dallas:

Today is a great day for the Second Amendment, that everlasting guarantee of our right to bear arms and take them up against a tyrannical government. For months and years now, we at the National Rifle Association have watched with increasing dismay as law-enforcement officers have used their firearms to shoot innocent citizens for a variety of offences–sometimes playing in a playground, sometimes shopping, sometimes running away from police. These were all bothersome, but then we learned of the death of Brother Philando Castile, who was legally carrying a gun, and was then shot dead by a police officer as he reached for his license.  Enough is enough.

And that’s not a thought that just we at the NRA had. Clearly some peace-and-justice loving fellow citizens had the same thought and decided to act on it: by using their firearms, their constitutionally protected guns, against the agents of this oppressive police state, ruled by that socialist autocrat, Barack Obama, who would like nothing better than to take away our guns. So they fired on the police; that the police succumbed to their shooting is an indictment of the police’s training, their inability to defend themselves with their guns. No more protection can be afforded to our citizens than to arm them with guns, as many, and as heavy a caliber, as possible. These the police had; they simply did not use them well enough.

The shooters did nothing wrong; they were merely ‘speaking up’ as citizens, heavily armed ones. They knew their guns were there to protect them and their communities and families from danger–just like the founding fathers intended–and so they did.

Let us not respond to these shootings with alarmist rhetoric about protests endangering lives; protests do not endanger people’s lives, people do.

Justice Hugo Black, The Ku Klux Klan, And The Trump Candidacy

In 1914, Hugo Black–a future Supreme Court Justice–was elected solicitor, or district attorney in Birmingham, Alabama. He lobbied to improve prison conditions for both black and whites, and even published a report on coerced confessions. As a trial lawyer, he had successfully represented a black man who had been imprisoned twenty-five weeks beyond his original sentence. But he remained a prisoner of his time and place.

After a stint as district attorney, Black became a personal injury lawyer, and showed himself a master of the racial dog whistle. In one case, he defended a Protestant minister, E. R. Stephenson, accused of murdering a Catholic priest, James Coyle, who had performed the marriage of the minister’s daughter, Ruth, to a Puerto Rican laborer, Pedro Gussman. During his questioning of prosecution witnesses, he asked several of them, “You’re Catholic, aren’t you?” Later, he asked for floodlights to be installed in the courtroom, and had them shone on the decidedly not-white Puerto Rican bridegroom during his testimony, saying that he “just wanted the jury to see that man.” And then, during his closing argument to the jury, many of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan, Black recited the Ku Klux Klan prayer, “Our father and our God. We, as klansmen, acknowledge our dependence upon Thee.” The jury voted to acquit.

In 1923, Black joined the Klan as a prelude to running for Senate. During his electioneering, Black marched with the Klan and spoke at over a hundred meetings, all the while decked out in Klan robes. He struck many populist and nativist themes in his stump speeches, railing against corporations and income inequality and immigrants. In 1926, he was awarded, and happily accepted, the Klan’s ‘grand passport’ after winning the Democratic Party’s primary. When a clerk asked him why he had joined the Klan, Black replied, “Why, son, if you wanted to be elected to the Senate in Alabama in the 1920s, you’d join the Klan too.”

As Black’s biography shows, racist and nativist populists who rose to power are not unknown in American political history; neither is their skilled deployment of race-baiting techniques and their sounding of dog whistles. The artful politician can invite the sympathy of the working class by concentrating on those issues that address their economic bottom line even as he appeals to their baser instincts by readily finding scapegoats among the usual suspects: foreigners and people of color. Donald Trump has learned his lessons well, even if there is little evidence he burned any midnight oil reading the biographies of Supreme Court Justices. He’s not alone in imbibing these lessons, of course; most of the Republican Party have been diligent students of their dark arts. Trump has just done it better.

And so Trump might yet say to someone who would ask him why, during the election season of 2016, he went on tirades against Mexicans and Muslims, welcomed the support of white supremacists, accused Federal judges of bias, and sought to ban an entire class of immigrants from the nation, “Why son, if you wanted to be the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in the new millennium, you’d been a fascist too!”

Note: This post is cribbed from Jeffrey Rosen‘s The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America (Times Books, New York, 2006, pp. 136-137).

Men Writing As Women, And Vice-Versa

A few days ago, I excerpted a passage from James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974)  in which the central character, a young woman named Tish, describes her–and her boyfriend, Fonny’s–perceptions of Bell, the policeman who has sent Fonny to jail.

Tish:

But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of [Bell’s] eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death.

Fonny:

When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said.

My annotation concluded:

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.

Except that in the passage I noted, Fonny’s perceptions–that of a black man–of Bell are actually those of Tish–a black woman–for she is the narrator of the story. Baldwin, a male writer, has written a novel in first-person where the gender of the narrator is not his. This, as might be imagined, is not a task that novelists often attempt. Our own interiority is hard enough to ‘capture’; the description of another kind of subjectivity is particularly intractable task. Third-person descriptions of another gender are a little easier than first-person perspectives, even if only marginally. (As Meg Toth noted in the discussion I make note of below, “Inhabiting a different perspective is not the same as writing well about it in the third person….So many authors write sensitively and insightfully about main characters of the opposite sex, but using first person to do so is rare.” Baldwin even provides us an explicit description of Fonny and Tish’s love-making; it is a remarkable scene, powerful and sensitive.)

What makes Baldwin’s novel particularly interesting is that our pre-encounter-with-the-text expectation is that we will read Baldwin as one of the most vivid male articulators of a distinctive ‘literary black rage.’ (Richard Wright would be yet another.) But instead, Baldwin turns his attention elsewhere. In the case of my reading of If Beale Street Could Talk, considerable anonymity preceded it: I had never heard of it, a sad commentary on my knowledge of Baldwin’s work; I found it a battered paperback copy on a stoop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and intrigued, brought it back home with me; when I opened it to read, I had not even read the jacket description; this made the little shock I experienced on finding out that Tish was the narrator especially distinctive and pleasurable. There is something to be said for skipping reviews.

Note: After reading Beale Street, I made the following query on Facebook:

Favorite novel written in first-person where the author’s gender is not the same as the central character’s?

The response to this quest was gratifying; I will post the list that emerged–including novels that are actually written in third-person–anon. It is very rich; I’m looking forward to the reading that lies in store.

James Baldwin On A White Policeman’s Eyes

In James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974) Fonny, a young black man, is in jail for rape–his supposed victim’s eyewitness identification is probably mistaken; ‘outside,’ his pregnant girlfriend, Tish, wonders about the policeman, Bell, who arrested Fonny. Bell had wanted to arrest Fonny for assault ever since he had violently defended Tish from a young Italian man’s unwelcome advances, and had only been thwarted by a white bystander, an Italian woman who owned the store Tish was shopping in.

Now, as the Tish’s family fights to prove Fonny’s innocence, Tish is haunted by Bell; she knows his name; she ‘sees’ him everywhere; she has memorized his badge number. Since that day Tish first met Bell, he has come to reside in her self as an abiding memory, an unforgettable and disturbing impression:

I had certainly seen him before that particular afternoon, but he had been just another cop. After that afternoon, he had read hair and blue eyes. He walked the way John Wayne walks, striding out to clean up the universe, and he believed all that shit: a wicked, stupid, infantile motherfucker. Like his heroes, he was kind of pigheaded, heavy gutted, big assed, and his eyes were as blank as George Washington’s eyes. But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of those eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death. If you look steadily into that unblinking blue, into that pinpoint at the center of the eye, you discover a bottomless cruelty, a viciousness cold and icy. In that eye, you do not exist: if you are lucky. If that eye, from its height, has been forced to notice you, if you do exist in the unbelievably frozen winter which lives behind that eye, you are marked, marked, marked, like a man in a black overcoat, crawling, fleeing, across the snow. The eye resents your presence in the landscape, cluttering up the view. Presently, the black overcoat will be still, turning red with blood, and the snow will be red, and the eye resents this, too, blinks once, and causes more snow to fall, covering it all. Sometimes I was with Fonny when I crossed Bell’s path, sometimes I was alone. When I was with Fonny, the eyes looked straight ahead, into a freezing sun. When I was alone, the eyes clawed me like a cat’s claws, raked me like a rake. These eyes look only into the eyes of the conquered victim. They cannot look into any other eyes. When Fonny was alone, the same thing happened. Bell’s eyes swept over Fonny’s black body with the unanswerable cruelty of lust, as though he had lit the blowtorch and had it aimed at Fonny’s sex. When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said. [pp. 185-186.]

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.

W. E. B DuBois On The Exportation Of Domestic Pathology

In ‘Of Mr. Booker T. Washington And Others’ (from The Souls of Black Folk, Bedford St. Martins, 1997, pp. 68) W. E. B. DuBois writes:

This triple paradox in Mr. Washington’s position is the object of criticism by two classes of colored Americans. One class is spiritually descended from Toussaint the Savior, through Gabriel, Vesey, and Turner, and they represent the attitude of revolt and revenge; they hate the white South blindly and distrust the white race generally, and so far as they agree on definite action, think that the Negro’s only hope lies in emigration beyond the borders of the United States. And yet, by the irony of fate, nothing has more effectually made this programme seem hopeless than the recent course of the United States toward weaker and darker peoples in the West Indies, Hawaii, and the Philippines,—for where in the world may we go and be safe from lying and brute Force?

DuBois was, as might be expected from such a perspicuous thinker, onto something here. Just as wars fought overseas invariably come back home to roost, to corrupt and fester domestic realities by injecting into them the same militarism on display elsewhere–witness the policing on display in Ferguson and the awesome militarization soldiers in the War on Drugs are able to employ, so too, are domestic pathologies sooner or later exported overseas. Especially if the political power in question is capable of projecting itself to the furthest reaches of the world. It seeks and finds expression elsewhere; it has the means to do so; its motivating principles and ideologies lend it problematic form.

As DuBois notes, a nation capable of oppressing its own domestic ‘other,’ will have little compunction in translating that contempt into even more murderous form in its foreign policies. Especially if it sees that same ‘other’ present elsewhere. If indigenous people are exterminated at home, their extermination elsewhere will be of little consequence (it comes as little surprise that US foreign policy in Latin American has consistently propped up regimes who have enacted brutal programs of suppression of directed at their indigenous peoples); if people of color and women are denied rights at home, their enslavement elsewhere will matter little if required as a cornerstone of international relations (the long tolerance of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the propping up of dictatorships in the Middle East and elsewhere pay adequate testimony to this claim). Indeed, the increased ‘otherness’ of the peoples in distant lands may lend the foreign policy an especially brutal and indifferent edge.

It should be small wonder then that the rest of the world looks on with some nervousness at developments in seemingly domestic political matters in the American domain; an America more enlightened in its treatment of citizens at home has taken the first step–no matter how halting and tentative–in extending similar treatment to others who are the subjects of its policies elsewhere.

DuBois knew ‘colored Americans’ would not find respite elsewhere; sooner or later, they would have to fight a power that would soon find them in their new homes. Better to begin that battle now, here.

An Unsettling Vision Of An Ugly Word

I’ve been reading Garry WillsCertain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1994; a light and entertaining read this election season) over the past couple of days–on the subway, naturally. On Monday night, as I rode back to Brooklyn from Manhattan to pick up my daughter on daycare, I came to the chapter on Andrew Young (under the rubric ‘Diplomatic Leader’). In it, I read the following paragraph on page 75:

One of [Martin Luther] King’s tactics was to go around the police and politicians to ask businessmen if they did not want peace for their community. Young was especially helpful here. He played a key role in forming an accord with Birmingham businessmen. “As the night dragged on, both sides tended to credit the mild, unflappable Andrew Young with ideas that achieved overall balance by proceeding in mixed stages.” [citing Taylor Branch, Parting The Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (Simon and Schuster, New York, pp. 781)].

As I read this paragraph I did a double-take. I thought I had seen a word, which in point of fact was not present in the passage I had just read. Now, I sometimes see,  when I quickly glance at a portion of a text, a kind of verbal mash-up: words formed by running together the preliminary portion of a word in one below with the closing portion of a word in the line immediately below. Imagine for instance that I had run together the ‘gl’ of ‘glance’ above with the closing ‘ow’ of the ‘below’ which closes the sentence to form ‘glow.’ (A line intervenes between these two, but you catch my drift I hope.) When I look again, the word is gone.

But the ‘vision’ I had just had was of a different kind. For I had, disturbingly enough, seen that vile word, ‘nigger.’ Apparently, I had run together the ‘ni’ of ‘night’ with the ‘gge’ of ‘dragged’ (present in the quote from Taylor Branch’s book.) This was distinct from the kind described above, because I had ‘used’ words in the same line.

I think I have an explanation for why this happened. Look at the words that surround ‘night’ and ‘dragged’ in this passage: [Martin Luther] King, police, politicians, peace, Birmingham. When I see these words, especially in the context of the situation being described–the Civil Rights struggle in the Deep South–images present themselves to me. They are iconic; they arise without conscious invocation–you might know the ones I mean (police dogs, water cannons, marches, truncheons). They bring with them other connotations and associations.

One of them is the unending racial abuse directed at those who went on sit-downs, marches, rallies, and university and school integrations. The most common word in that torrent of abuse was ‘nigger,’ hurled again and again, with venom and spite and anger, conveying an unconcealed hatred and violence, spat in the face of those who dared step into the front line. I’ve seen it in the pages of every book on the civil rights struggle; I’ve heard it in every documentary.

On Monday night, I looked at a reminder of the battle for Civil Rights, and I saw it again. Perhaps this election season has primed me for it.

Note: For a similar experience, do read this post related to the Vietnam War.