Rereading Native Son

I’ve begun re-reading a book (with the students in my philosophical issues in literature class this semester) which, as I noted here a while ago, made a dramatic impact on me on my first reading of it: Richard Wright‘s Native Son. Thus far, I’ve read and discussed Book One with my students (on Wednesday last week); we will resume discussions on April 8th once spring break is over. But even on this brief revisitation I’m struck by how my reading has changed. I’m now twenty-six years older than I was on my first reading. Then, I was thinking about returning to graduate school; now, I’m a tenured professor assigning the same text to my undergraduates. Then, I read Native Son in the anticipation of discussing it with my girlfriend, who had gifted it to me; I think I subconsciously hoped to impress an older and wiser woman with my sensitive and nuanced take on Bigger Thomas’ fate. Now, I read Book One (Fear) of Native Son in anticipation of discussing it with my students, many of whom have already shown themselves capable of sensitive and nuanced readings of the novels I have assigned them thus far; I therefore look forward to their understanding of this classic novel, daring to hope that they will bring a new interpretation and understanding of this material to my attention.  For my part, I’m far more attentive to many plot details and devices on this reading; I’ve become, I think, a more careful and sensitive reader over the years, looking for more, and often finding it, in the texts I read.

Before we began class discussions I subjected my students to a little autobiographical detail: I informed them of my prior reading, of the book’s influence on me, of the passage of time since then, how I would be re-reading the text with them, and so on. I did not detail the full extent of Native Son‘s impact on me; that discussion will have to wait till Bigger’s trial and his defense by Max. But I cannot wait to do so; I wonder if I will be able to capture the sense I had twenty-six years ago of suddenly seeing the world in a whole new light. One part of that anticipation also fills me with dread; what if my students simply do not ‘get’ from it what I was able to? What if, indeed, as I read on, I find myself disappointed by Native Son?

But if the first class discussion last week was any indicator, I needn’t entertain such fears. My students ‘came through’: they had read the first book closely; they had responded to Wright’s dramatic evocation of a fearful, angry, and violent Bigger, living in a ‘black world’ disjoint from a ‘white world,’ destined to run afoul of those forces that had conspired to make him who he was, to drive him to kill, negligently and willfully alike, onwards to his fatal rendezvous with America, his home and his graveyard. Bigger’s story endures; it does so because much else–like the forces that harried him–has too.

That Elusive Mark By Which To Distinguish Good People From Bad

In Journey to the End of the NightCéline‘s central character, Ferdinand Bardamu is confronted with uncontrovertible evidence of moral goodness in Sergeant Alcide–who is nobly working away in a remote colonial outpost to financially support a niece who is little more than a perfect stranger to him. That night, as Bardamu gazes at the sleeping Alcide, now once again, in inactivity, utterly unremarkable and undistinguishable from others who serve like him, he thinks to himself:

There ought to be some mark by which to distinguish good people from bad.

There isn’t, of course. But that hasn’t stopped mankind from continuing to hold on to this forlorn hope in the face of the stubborn difficulty of making moral judgements and evaluations about our fellow humans. Sometimes we seek to evaluate fellow humans on the basis of simple tests of conformance to a pre-established, clearly specified, moral code or decision procedure; sometimes we drop all pretence of sophisticated ethical analysis and take refuge in literal external marks.

These external marks and identifiers have varied through and across space and time and cultures. Sometimes shadings of skin pigmentations have been established as the distinguishing marker of goodness; sometimes it is the shape of the skull that has been taken to be the desired marker; sometimes national or ethnic origin; sometimes religious affiliation. (If that religious affiliation is visible by means of an external marker–like a turban for instance–then so much the better. West Pakistani troops conducting genocide in East Pakistan in 1971 were fond of asking Bengali civilians to drop their pants and expose their genitals;¹ the uncircumcised ones were led off to be shot; their bodies had revealed them to be of the wrong religion, and that was all that mattered as the West Pakistani Army sought to cleanse East Pakistan of those subversive elements that threatened the Pakistani polity.)

Confronted with this history of failure to find the distinguishing external mark of goodness, perhaps emblazoned on our foreheads by the cosmic branding authority, hope has turned elsewhere, inwards. Perhaps the distinguishing mark is not placed outside on our bodies but will be found inside us–in some innard or other. Perhaps there is ‘bad blood’ in some among us, or even worse, some might have ‘bad brains.’ Unsurprisingly, we have turned to neuroscience to help us with moral decisions: here is a brain state found in mass murderers and criminals; innocents do not seem to have it; our penal and moral decisions have received invaluable assistance. But as a growing litany of problems with neuroscientific inference suggest, these identifications of brain states and their correlations with particular behavior and the explanations that result rest on shaky foundations.

In the face of this determination to seek simple markers for moral judgement my ‘There isn’t, of course’ seems rather glib; it fails to acknowledge the endless frustration and difficulty of decision-making in the moral domain–and the temptation to seek refuge in the clearly visible.

Note: R. J Rummel, Death by Government, page 323

Gide’s Immoralist And The Existential Necessity Of The Colony

The immoralist at the heart of André Gide‘s The Immoralist, Michel, does not travel just anywhere; he travels to French colonies like Algeria and Tunisia; the boys who he meets, is attracted to, and falls in love with, are not just any boys; they are Muslim Arab boys. He is old; they are young. He is white; they are brown. He is sick and tubercular; they are young and exuberant, bursting to the seams with health and vitality. Their blood is redder, and flows more freely; Michel’s blood is black, and hideous, and disgusting. He is diseased, but as he spends time among his new companions, whose bodies and nakedness underneath their clothes he cannot take his eyes off of, his health improves and he begins to describe the arc of a journey to greater health and well-being, away from disease; he begins a journey from flirting with death to welcoming life in all its fullness. The language that Gide uses to describe Michel’s journey or passage is richly symbolic and metaphorical, and invites multiple interpretations, mingling as it does, these descriptions of the physical with those of the mental, so that we are tempted to see Michel’s journey from bad to good health as his journey from being ‘a lost soul’ to being ‘a found self’; that much is straightforward.

But why place this journey in colonized lands, why make the vehicles of Michel’s transformation and self-discovery be the colonized, the subjugated, the colonial subject? For one, we can see the colonizer use both the land and the peoples of the colony as his experiential space for self-discovery; it becomes one more of the services or functions that the colonized provides; besides markets, it provides an avenue and domain for self-construction; it becomes one more of the means by which the colonizer comes to realize himself. Because the colonized inhabits a world in which the colonizer has been, as it were, ‘marketed’, Michel finds in the colonies and in the gaze of the colonial subject, one component of his identity: how a Frenchman is understood by those he has colonized. If the colonial identity is an indissoluble part of what it meant to be a Frenchman in the twentieth century then Michel has done the right thing by traveling to a French colony; it is there that he will find out what a Frenchman truly is.

But this salvation need not be individual; all of French culture and Western civilization may be redeemed in the colonies; it is where a decadent, dying civilization looks to being revitalized; to literally being brought back to life. French and Western civilization has become old and tubercular, its blood is polluted. But the Muslim Arab world is younger, even if immature, it promises a new vision of life to a culture on its death-bed and drags it back from its flirtation with death.

The colony is a material and spiritual and existential necessity; it extends the life of the colonizer; the journey to a new form of life for the colonizer begins there.

On Being Both ‘Bad’ And ‘Great’

Recently, in response to Richard Seymour‘s essay on Winston Churchill in Jacobin–one whose tagline read “Churchill was no hero — he was a vile racist fanatical about violence and fiercely supportive of imperialism,” I wrote the following on my Facebook status page:

Indians have known this and said this forever. Hopefully, now that a white Englishman has said the same thing, we won’t be subjected to any more nauseating Churchill hagiography.

In response, a friend wrote:

The very idea that someone might be both terrible and great. Sounds like another century.

To which yet another friend responded:

Can we from India remember the terrible part? Or should we dilute the gaze full of genocidal hatred he fixed upon us, and remember that he was great to some other people, just not us? I think (and I admit I am entirely biased) he has blotted enough of his record via-a-vis India for us in India not to worry about his greatness.

This little exchange encapsulates quite neatly a recurring aspect of post-colonial discourse and debate–the historical evaluation of colonialists and imperialists. Here, I make note of a revisionist take on Churchill–such revisionism is not new with respect to Churchill though my embittered status makes it seem so–and express the hope that such revisionism will lead to a continuing revaluation of Churchill’s ‘legacy’ and ‘achievements,’ which thus far, have included the persistent and continual reminders of how ‘he saved the world from Nazism.’  In response, I am admonished for my blinkered view, for my insistence that Churchill’s racism and imperialism sully his ‘legacy’ and am urged to take on a more catholic and stereoscopic view. In return, a post-colonial subject–whose nationality is identified–says that as far as Indians were concerned, this dimension overpowers other aspects of his life and work. It was, you see, the dimension ‘we’ were exposed to; those other aspects of his ‘greatness’ were often experienced by others.

This debate is destined to continue and recur. It is therefore incumbent on me to make note of a fallacy that underwrites it: the insistence that the ‘greatness’ and ‘badness’ of colonial leaders–or perhaps just colonialism in general–be universally recognized and acknowledged by the very same people. It is not enough that Churchill be described as ‘great’ by some and ‘bad’ by yet others, and that in some supposedly ‘final analysis’ a complicated, variegated, synoptic of the man and his work might emerge; no, rather, it is necessary that Churchill’s ‘badness’ and ‘greatness’ both be acknowledged by the same demographic: the post-colonial subject, who otherwise stands accused of a lack of historical perspective and perhaps even ingratitude. The post-colonial subject cannot, for instance, just add his contribution assessing the colonialist as ‘bad’ to the mix; he must too, contribute a shade of gray. No unequivocal assessments or opinions for him and her.

This does not sound like an invitation to a more complex view of the world; it is merely a push back down the slope to a familiar position where the manner and form of the post-colonial subject’s action and speech is to be regulated by a set of normative criteria that diffuse its force and power–whether rhetorical or  material. Old habits die hard.

The NYPD Tells Us What They Think Of Brooklyn College Students

This is most decidedly a storm in a tea-cup, but it is a most revealing one. The New York City Police and their friends at the New York Post do not like the concern expressed by some Brooklyn College students about the presence of police on their campus:

Brooklyn College is kowtowing to cop-hating students by directing officers who need a bathroom break to the broken-down facilities in a building on the far edge of campus. A visit by The Post to the first-floor men’s room…revealed a broken toilet with a hideously stained seat and an “OUT OF ORDER” sign taped to the door of its stall. There was also a total lack of soap and paper towels. A junior…said it was far and away the worst place to go on the campus, which is part of the City University of New York system. “The bathroom is horrendous,” Abe said. “You can only wash your hands in one of the sinks because the other two are broken.”

Well, at least we have confirmation that our facilities are broken down and dysfunctional.

Meanwhile, an unidentified student is drafting a petition to college President Michelle Anderson to completely exile police….The student told the paper he wants Anderson to make it clear “that we do not want the NYPD on campus in any respect even if it’s just to take breaks and use bathroom.” Several students told The Post they and their pals shared the sentiment….Student-body President Nissim Said blamed the sentiments on an NYPD operation that sent an undercover cop to infiltrate the school’s Muslim community in search of Islamic terrorists.

Most interesting however, are the NYPD’s reactions. Please pay attention to the language below. Note the hostility, the entitlement, the self-pity:

Police who patrol the neighborhood around Brooklyn College were outraged at the students’ hostility to law-enforcement personnel. “It’s not like we’re invading their campus,” one cop said. “We’re only going there to use the bathroom.” Another called the students “insane,” adding: “That protester culture is warping their f–king minds.” NYPD sergeants-union chief Ed Mullins suggested, “Maybe it’s time these students, who fail to recognize the value of those protecting them, go take classes abroad — where they can have their bathrooms all to themselves.”

 In another article, an old offender, the morally deficient Pat Lynch chimed in as well:

The head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Pat Lynch, said the college “needs to stand up for police officers and teach students to appreciate those who risk their lives so that they can get an education.”

“They will learn when they get out in the real world that police officers not only protect the rights of all to voice their opinions, regardless of how ill informed or moronic they may be, but we are the ones who will risk our lives to save them when an active shooter appears on campus,” he added.

The inconvenience caused to the police is minor; their reactions however, suggests that severe psychic damage has been caused. The fragility on display is alarming, a familiar reminder that the folks who patrol our city, ostensibly keeping the peace, all the while armed to the hilt, are very angry folks, easy to offend. Perhaps in these reactions we find the best case made for the students’ request that they stay off campus. With their guns and anger.

Note: The city’s Mayor, Bill De Blasio not wanting a repeat of the unpleasantness that has marred his relationship with the city’s police force, obligingly agreed:

Mayor de Blasio said the school “should never ban any police presence on campus.” “That makes no sense whatsoever,” Hizzoner said. “But even if it’s a student group, I think it’s misguided. I agree with the commissioner.”

 

The Boycotter’s Guide To The NFL

Should you or should you not boycott the NFL? Let’s review the cases for and against.

For: if you boycott the NFL, you will be supporting the civil rights protest conducted by Colin Kaepernick–one underway since last year when he began taking a knee during the playing of the American national anthem before NFL games; this protest has resulted in him not finding a single NFL team willing to hire him this season–while simultaneously hiring players with inferior records. (None of those players, obviously, were as ‘uppity’ as Kaepernick was.) You will thus be condemning an organization that has systematically covered up the dangerous work environment that it provides to its employees–google ‘concussion NFL cover up’; which has refused to treat the domestic violence perpetrated by its players as a problem worthy of a serious response–google ‘NFL domestic violence’; and several of whose owners donated a million dollars each to help elect an incompetent white supremacist President of the United States.

Against: if you boycott the NFL, you will be supporting a boycott call sent out by the aforementioned ‘incompetent white supremacist President of the United States’–who would like NFL teams to fire any players who dare to speak up in any shape or form against the systemic racism that so often afflicts their fellow Americans,failing which fans should stay away from the league.

The case for boycotting the NFL is strong regardless of the Trump Intervention. Trump’s boycott call is not directed at those who would find themselves in agreement with the actions of Colin Kaepernick–and all those who have joined him in protesting at NFL games. It is directed, instead, at those who call the players who protest thus ‘spoiled rich ungrateful millionaires.’ (Apparently, earning the wages that are due to you in the particular political economy that regulates your profession means you lose your right to protest; moreover, if rich folks don’t have a right to protest, then how come they have the right to be elected President?) That is, if you are boycotting the NFL, continue to do so. You aren’t the one Trump was talking to in the first place.

The effect of Trump’s decidedly amateurish intervention in this ‘debate’ has been singular: today’s games have been marked by widespread protests, ranging from multiple players taking the knee during the national anthem to entire teams refusing to take the field for the playing of the national anthem to singers of the anthem themselves taking a knee. It has also forced NFL owners to to cease and desist from puckering up and kissing the ample Trump backside to actually speaking up against him. (The odious owner of the much maligned New England Patriots has led the way.) There is much to enjoy in this squabbling spectacle: the protest Trump sought to condemn has only grown as a result, and the NFL’s owners have found themselves backed into a corner where precisely no friends can be found.

Meanwhile, keep your hands off the remote on Sundays, and skip the football pages in the sports section.

Political Tactics, Antifa, And Punching Nazis

In response to my post ‘Punching Nazis in the Face and Anti-Antifa Critiques‘ a friend of mine offered some critical responses on Facebook; these responses have offered me an opportunity to try to express my original claims more clearly. My responses are below. (Excerpts from my original post are indented in plain text; my friend’s responses are italicized.)

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