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.

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.

RIP Muhammad Ali: Once And Always, The Greatest

Muhammad Ali was the first Black Muslim American I heard of. Before his name entered my immature consciousness,  I did not know Americans could be Black or Muslim. (This revelation came to me during a classroom trivia quiz; ‘Muhammad Ali’ was the answer to the question ‘Who is the world heavyweight champion?’) It is hard now, more than forty years later, to adequately describe the presence that Muhammad Ali had in the lives of young boys like me in the 1970s. Ali was the Greatest; there was no disputing it. He went down, and he came back up. He had his jaw broken; he lost his title; he went to jail. But he kept fighting, literally and figuratively. I read his The Greatest as a young boy and quickly memorized its details: his Louisville childhood, his Golden Gloves bouts, his 1960 Olympic gold medal, his throwing the medal into a river in response to Jim Crow experiences at a local restaurant, the going professional, the precocious career, the fights with Sonny Liston, the draft resistance, the surrender of the title, the loss to Ken Norton, the epic bouts with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, the comebacks. (The Greatest ends with the Zaire fight; a postscript mentions the Thrilla in Manila with Joe Frazier.)

It was a story that once again, introduced me to a side of America  I did not  know about; it was an awakening and an enlightenment.

I think I dimly understood as I read Ali’s autobiography that I was not reading the story of an ordinary sportsman, that there was no way to make sense of Ali’s life without thinking about the racial politics in which it was embedded. You just could not. ‘Nigger’ is a very common word in The Greatest; you hear it when Cassius Clay wants to be served at a whites-only restaurant; you hear it in the story Ali is told by a black man about how he was castrated by the Ku Klux Klan in the American South; you hear it in the dismay over his conversion to Islam, as he changed his name to ‘Cassius X’ and then, ‘Muhammad Ali’; you hear it in the epithets hurled Ali’s way after he refused to participate in the war crime known as ‘Vietnam’; you hear it in the glee of those cheering for his opponents; you could, if you cocked your ear at the right angle, hear it in the recurring fantasy of the Great White Hope who would show up to whip this upstart black man’s ass and teach him some manners.

Because that’s what Ali didn’t have. He didn’t have manners. He was rude; he spoke about things people didn’t want sportsmen to talk about: racism, apartheid, white supremacy, an immoral foreign policy. He gatecrashed a party in which sports champions, especially black ones, were expected to be polite and deferential and grateful to their white backers for having been lifted out of the poverty that was otherwise their birthright. Ali would not settle for such handouts; he wanted nothing less than a full seat at the table.

Ali was a very good boxer too. He was the lightest heavyweight of all; he had great footwork; he threw a mean jab. He was never famous as a big puncher, but he still knocked out many of his opponents. His most incredible achievement still remains his beating George Foreman in 1974. It is worth remembering that Foreman had knocked out–in very early rounds–Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, two men who had taken Ali the distance in long, brutal, fifteen-round bouts of battering; Ali was expected to lose comprehensively to him. Instead, Ali knocked Foreman out in the eighth round with a straight right. An astonishing result in an astonishing fight.

There are people today who still imagine that sports can, and should be, divorced from politics. Muhammad Ali married the two; he was a sportsman who was a politician. He fought political battles every time he stepped into a ring and dropped into his fighting crouch; he fought them every time he answered a question at a press conference, knowing that reporters wanted copy that would confirm stereotypes of dumb, hulking, brutes who directed primeval force at their civilized white opponents. Ali walked away from fame and fortune when he was at the height of his powers; he could have simply taken up a cushy military job behind the front lines, visited some troops, performed the modern equivalent of a minstrel show and done his bit to ‘keep the troops happy’ with a few witty lines. He would have come back to safety soon enough, and could have fought every fight from that point on under the banner of ‘American soldier’ or ‘war veteran.’ He could have kissed the collective ass of national self-righteousness, and asked the nation to shower its kind blessings on him; instead he handed out generous helpings of stubborn defiance.

A couple of years after I had arrived in the US, I spent an afternoon drinking with a friend in a bar in New Jersey. As the evening crept up, an old man at the counter went on a rant about Ali, about how he could have been the greatest, but he threw it all away: “all he had to do was to serve in the military just like every other young man in his time did.” Yes, that’s ‘all’ he had to do. And he didn’t. He knew the simplicity and ease of the path not taken; he knew the difficulties of the fork he did choose. It is crucial to the Ali legend that we understand his greatest bravery lay not in his ability to take a beating, to withstand a punch; it lay in his defiance of commonsense and consensus, in his refusal to seek out easy popularity, to swim with the tide.

Ali was a black man in America; that fact alone made him a fighter. He knew that every time he stepped into the ring; and he knew his fights didn’t end when he stepped back out. His participation in that continuing struggle, and his awareness of it, made him the Greatest, once and always.

RIP Muhammad Ali.

Of Broken Windows And Broken Spines

It was a dark and stormy night. But I was not swayed by the forces and the voices that commanded me to turn back from this lonely road I had set out on. For I was righteous, and I knew I was on the right path. Yea, for even though I was midway through life’s journey and in dark woods, I had not lost the right road. I was headed for the mountaintop, where my appointment with fate lay waiting. With head bowed, infected by a spirit of appropriate and comely humility, I pressed on. Far greater rewards than any this material world could promise me would soon be mine.

Soon, the moment was at hand. There was no need for incantations, no call to burn incense or fall on my knees. I had made the journey; I was here; my presence was adequate testimony to my standing as deserved recipient for the revelations that would follow as sure as night follows day.

And then the voice was heard, its sonorous, majestic tones momentarily hushing the peals of thunder that periodically threatened to split the firmament apart:

Speak, my child! I am your deity tonight. Your perplexities are for me to resolve; your darkness is for me to dispel. Speak!

I could not help myself. I fell to my knees, even as I knew that such obeisance was hopelessly old-fashioned, a holdover only required by the archaic gods and not by these egalitarians. When I had composed myself and dared to look up, I spoke, my voice trembling:

I am perplexed my Lord, by the violence that perpetually stalks my land. I am mystified by this scourge that claims the lives of men, women, and children, that turns us into killers and victims, into widows and orphans. How may we be freed from its clammy clutches? How may we reduce its toll? How may we bring the mourning and wailing to an end?

The voice spoke again, calm and measured, even as I thought I detected some thinly disguised impatience coursing through its tones:

You come to me with a seemingly perennial mystery, my child, which is only intractable insofar as you refuse to penetrate to its transparent and accessible core, its clear and limpid solution.

The voice spoke in riddles. What could it mean?  Only an arrogant disciple would ask for a revelation to be repeated and clarified. But I was at my wit’s end. The toll was too great to bear; we could not be pallbearers at funerals any more. I spoke up, trembling with fear.

My Lord, I am foolish and dense, my mind is addled. What is this great simplicity you speak of? Why are we not privy to it as you are?

There was a momentary silence. And then, again, that familiar aural benediction:

My child, the mystery is not great. You must only learn to grieve for broken spines as much as you do for broken windows.

And with that, the voice was gone.

 

The Trials Of Muhammad Ali

We all know the story:

In 1967, three years after winning the heavyweight title, [Muhammad] Ali refused to be conscripted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. The U.S. government declined to recognize him as a conscientious objector, however, because Ali declared that he would fight in a war if directed to do so by Allah or his messenger (Elijah Muhammad). He was eventually arrested and found guilty on draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing title. He did not fight again for nearly four years—losing a time of peak performance in an athlete’s career. Ali’s appeal worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 1971 his conviction was overturned. The Supreme Court held that, since the appeals board gave no reason for the denial of a conscientious objector exemption to petitioner, it was impossible to determine on which of the three grounds offered in the Justice Department’s letter that board had relied. Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation.

But even if you do, or think you do, you should still go see Bill Siegel‘s The Trials of Muhammad Ali. Because it is almost inconceivable, in this day and age, to think that a professional sportsman at the prime of his career, would take on, and steadfastly stay true to, a political and moral stance that was quite as unpopular as Ali’s was in his time.

Muhammad Ali was not just a black man in 1960s America; he was a black Muslim. But he was not just a black Muslim, he was a vocal and visible one, who made it clear his faith was not just a matter of personal spirituality but a political statement too. He did not keep his allegiance to the Nation of Islam and its radical theoretical commitments and pronouncements a secret, and he insisted that he be called by his adopted name, punishing those, like Ernie Terrell, who refused to respect this new identity.

Many found Ali’s commitment to the Nation of Islam problematic, and indeed, some of his echoing of that group’s most polarizing statements are still discomfiting. But it is precisely his unapologetic statement of those beliefs that provides The Trials of Muhammad Ali one of its strongest moments. In a television interview–on the David Frost show–Ali is asked for reassurance that he does not really believe that ‘the white man is the devil’ as Elijah Muhammad says (“That’s not really true, is it?”). Much to Frost’s surprise, Ali does not back down. Instead, he passionately affirms his beliefs all over again; he believes in every word Elijah preaches.  As he points out to Frost, he’s given up his title, he’s ready to go to jail, he’s given up many dollars of earnings; these actions which made him, a black man, even more unpopular, and also cost him his livelihood were made possible by the strength of his faith in a man who he considered to have shown him the light. Given that, why would Frost expect Ali to disown him on national television?

Ali’s words can be viewed as evidence of an unintelligent bullheadedness. but they are also admirable. He could have thrown Elijah under the bus for the sake of an easy and cheap popularity with a mainstream national audience, and then, when questioned about his turncoat words by his friends and other followers of the Nation of Islam, he could have performed another backpedal, claiming his words had been ‘taken out of context.’ A slither here, a slide there, and Ali could have deftly wiggled between the cracks, keeping everyone happy.

But Ali kept it simple. He was standing on his feet, and he didn’t intend to sink to his knees again.

An Officer’s View On The NYPD Protests: Still Blinkered

Steve Osborne, proudly standing with his back to the Mayor and the city of New York, comes to tell us why the New York City Police Department has been throwing an extended tantrum that would put a toddler to shame. (Interestingly enough, the NYPD has given itself a ‘time-out’ and like harried parents everywhere, we are oh-so relieved and wondering if the offender should stay in there just a little longer.)

Osborne’s Op-Ed is not much more than Pat Lynch Lite:

Mr. de Blasio is more than any other public figure in this city responsible for feelings of demoralization among the police. It did not help to tell the world about instructing his son, Dante, who is biracial, to be wary of the police, or to publicly signal support of anti-police protesters (for instance, by standing alongside the Rev. Al Sharpton, a staunch backer of the protests). If there is any self-pity involved, which I doubt, it is only because we lack respect from our elected officials and parts of the media.

Quick question for Osborne: Did you read my piece about the ‘deadly self-pity of the police’? You really should. You might be able to rent a clue if you did so.

Osborne writes one sensible, revealing, paragraph:

Most cops I know feel tired of being pushed to do more and more, and then even more. More police productivity has meant far less crime, but at a certain point New York began to feel like, yes, a police state, and the police don’t like it any more than you do. Tremendous successes were achieved in battling crime and making this city a much better place to live and work in and visit. But the time has probably come for the Police Department to ease up on the low-level “broken-windows” stuff while re-evaluating the impact it may or may not have on real, serious crime. No one will welcome this more than the average cop on the beat, who has been pressed to find crime where so much less of it exists.

As the NYPD’s ‘strike’, its refusal to arrest anyone ‘unless absolutely necessary’, has shown, the sky has not fallen on our heads while the police have decided to kick back just for a bit and ease up on the usual ‘up against the wall’ nonsense. (The police seem to not have studied the history of strikes: they are meant to show you are indispensable, not the other way around.)

As for the rest: Spare us this incessant whining, this invocation of weeping, anxious women waiting at home for their soldier men to return from the front after doing battle. I’ve met many men who fought in real wars, and they never went on and on like this self-absorbed lot who can’t get it through their heads that their methods might have something to do with the lack of ‘respect’ sent their way. Stop asking for respect, and start showing some for the citizens you police. You might be surprised with what comes your way.