James Baldwin On The Non-Existence Of The American Worker

In The Fire Next Time (Vintage International, New York, 1993(1962), p. 88), James Baldwin writes:

People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal…but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here [in America], where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to find their feet on the shifting sands of status. (Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hands of the boss’ daughter.)

What does it mean to say that in this country, ‘spiritually speaking, there are no workers’? I can only venture an educated guess here as someone who has read a bit of Baldwin and been awed by the catholic generosity of spirit that is visible in the angriest of voices; I do not claim to understand Baldwin’s complicated relationship with spirituality for this is a man who was of the church, and left it, and indeed, claims that a certain kind of membership in, and affiliation with, the Christian Church is incompatible with morality (p. 47). So, to be a worker, spiritually speaking, for Baldwin would be to envision yourself as a member of a community first and foremost, a brotherhood and fraternity, a sorority and a sisterhood, one drawn together by common purpose and shared ideals, by a vision of a shared life and a common good, one achieved by joint effort, where the inevitable pitfalls of life are safeguarded by mutual security and respect and love. The workers’ union in this vision is a collective community, one dedicated to the common good of all its members, safeguarded with the passion that can only spring from mutual love. Idealized yes, but that is nature of visions imbued with love.

Such is not the community of workers here in America; here instead, workers are caught up in a zero-sum fantasy in which the rights and privileges earned by others are occasion for envy and rancor and self-hatred. As I’ve noted here, the American worker wants company in his misery, his lack of vacations, his shrinking wages, his implacable downward mobility; the unionized worker, one who has bargained collectively to secure better wages and working hours and vacation and healthcare, is not an object of admiration, but of envious fury. There is no aspirational ideal here.

Candidates for the boss’ daughter know there can only be one ‘winner’; all others are competitors to be vanquished. There can be no co-operation here; no mutual support; a ‘win’ by one is a ‘loss’ for another. Suitors compete; they are racked by envy and jealousy alike; they do not entertain noble emotions. They are hoping for luck, for recognition, for the hand of fortune to reach out and touch and elevate them; they are possessed by the desire to possess’ the boss’ riches as an inheritance that will make their dream come true, that of wealth and power and fortune made theirs by dint of a magical selection. Not by collective effort and solidarity.

How can the suitor ever see another suitor as a brother?

NYPD to CUNY Students: Drop Dead

Corey Robin has an excellent post on the latest twist in the ‘General Petraeus at CUNY‘ fubar situation: students protesting Petraeus’ presence at CUNY are treated, first, to a tongue-lashing by various CUNY administrators including the University Faculty Senate, and then, when six of them are arrested, manhandled, and have the book thrown at them by New York City police, the same folks shrink into stony silence.

I don’t have anything to add to Corey’s perspicuous analysis of CUNY administrators’ continued kowtowing to the powers that be. I do, however, want to make a few remarks about what this incident shows about CUNY students and their relationship with New York City police and the rest of the city.

When videos of the CUNY students’ arrest first became available, angered by what I had seen, I posted a link to the video on Facebook and added the following intemperate status:

NYPD’s thugs are back in action. At :33 you can see four of the City’s finest holding down a student while one punches him in the back [addendum: to be more precise, in the kidneys]. And for sheer porcinity it’s hard to beat that thug at 1:44.

Unsurprisingly, when the same video made the rounds of many other sites, opinions on the police’s actions were split roughly evenly between reactions like mine, which see these actions as yet another instance of heavy-handed policing, and others, which amounted to describing the students as scruffy hooligans, not fit to lick Petraeus’ boots, who needed the ass-whipping that had been sent their way by New York’s Finest.  This contrary reaction is, as noted, hardly noteworthy.

What, I think, is more problematic, is that New York’s police force, which is, I think, drawn from the same demographic as most CUNY students are, seem to hold the same blinkered opinion about them; they do not, now–having made it through the police academy, and become part of the Grand American Correctional Apparatus–feel any solidarity with them.  They are committed now to protecting the Powerful and manning their barricades; they see no resonance in the struggles of these students, not even on behalf of their own children, who in all probability will attend the same city university. Surely, they aren’t dreaming that their salaries will enable them to climb up this American ladder, whose rungs are disappearing upward quicker than ever, and allow them to pay the tuition at one of those swanky schools that the plutocrats’ children go to?

The police is a unionized force made up of working class folks; its struggles should be seen by them as existing on a continuum with those of the students who attend a public university like CUNY.  But so successful has the brainwashing and indoctrination of the police been, that every time they step out, booted, uniformed, swaggering and strutting on a city street, swinging their night-sticks, and see a ‘long-haired punk,’ they fail to recognize a little bit of themselves. With every blow they hand out to a protester, they merely ensure that their miserable state of endless precinct-centered resentment and bitterness will continue.

The pity is that they don’t suffer alone; they make the rest of us bear the burden of their anomie too.

Loss of Faith, the Jewish Atheist, and Working Class Rebellion in ‘Christ in Concrete’

In yesterday’s post on Pietro Di Donato‘s Christ in Concrete, I had noted how Annunziata and Paul’s session with the medium, the Cripple, could perhaps be viewed as an affirmation of the power of the life-sustaining myth. There is a hint of irony in that suggestion, because among the central messages of Di Donato’s impassioned novel are the loss of faith, the failure of Catholicism, the disillusionment of Paul with the myths that are supposed to sustain him; in their place, Donato tells us, what will sustain Paul is the companionship of his fellow workers. The final scenes of the book, which include the crucifix-crushing encounter between Paul and his mother, make the loss of faith explosively clear, but the tension, the tautening and ultimate snapping of the ties between the Church, Paul’s faith, and Paul has been building for a while, perhaps ever since his pleas for charitable assistance from the Church were rebuffed.

One of the interesting features of the novel for me–one that I did not see addressed in Fred Gardaphé‘s introduction to the Signet Classic edition–is the role played by Paul’s friendship with the Russian Jew Louis Molov, the ‘somber boy with the shaved head’ who lives with his family in their neighborhood. When Paul first encounters Molov, he has just ably defended himself against an attack by the local bullies. Fascinated and intrigued, Paul goes to meet him and finds Louis reading a book, and not just any old one: Thorstein Veblen‘s The Economic Theory of the Leisure Class. (Louis, incidentally, is in the eighth grade! Talk about precocious.) Louis tells Paul about his brother, Leov, who met his death at the hands of the Czar’s soldiers because he tried to ‘organize the peasants against the war’ and ‘made a great speech against the Czar and his war.’

Later, as their friendship blooms, and as they visit the cemetery where Geremio, Paul’s father, is buried, Louis introduces Paul to a shocking idea, one that follows on the heels of his suggestion that Paul’s father’s death and his brother’s had something in common:

“Do you think that your father and these other men buried here will someday rise from their graves and cry revenge?”

“…Revenge…why?”

“Why? Did they want to die?”

“…Want to?”

“My brother Leov did not want to die. They shot the life out of him against his will, but he sprang up from his grave and destroyed the Czar and all his soldiers!”

“He was dead…?”

“They killed him–but his spirit threw the grave aside and paid back the murders of centuries!”

“That was the spirit of God’

“That was the spirit of my brother’s ideals.”

“I don’t understand. Your brother was dead. Only God could have punished his killers.”

Louis’s gray eyes studied Paul.

“What God?”

“Why…God…”

“Whose God?”

“Whose God? There’s only one God.”

“Where?”

“Everywhere.”

“You have seen your father?”

“Yes…”

“And you know your mother?”

“Of course.”

“And you love them?”

“Why, yes.”

“Have you seen God?”

Paul felt something weakening him.

“Louis–haven’t you–don’t you believe in God?”

The gray eyes turned full on him.

“There is no God.”

I hope it is clear why this aspect of the book is interesting: the choice, on Donato’s part, to make a precocious  Jewish boy the vehicle for the delivery–from a land and faith far from Paul’s own–of the messages of working class rebellion and atheism. In doing so, Di Donato is explicitly acknowledging what might have been a trope of his time.