More Notes on America from James Baldwin

Let me present, further to my Notes on America from James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son, More Notes on America from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son:

In the Preface to the 1984 Edition, Baldwin writes:

“It is not pleasant to be forced to recognize, more than thirty years later, that neither this dynamic [of race relations] nor this necessity [to find one’s place in it] have changed. There have been superficial changes, with results at best ambiguous and, at worst, disastrous. Morally, there has been no change at all and a moral change is the only real one. … The only real change vividly discernible in this present, unspeakably dangerous chaos is a panic-stricken apprehension on the part of those who have maligned and subjugated others for so long that the tables have been turned.”

If that was unpleasant to write in 1984, how much more unpleasant is it that today, another thirty plus years later, it is still the case that “North Americans appear to believe these legends [of white supremacy], which they have created and which absolutely nothing in reality corroborates, until today. And when these legends are attacked, as is happening now — all over a globe which has never been and never will be White — my countrymen become childishly vindictive and unutterably dangerous”?

Baldwin’s declaration that “[t]he people who think of themselves as White have the choice of becoming human or irrelevant” is no less poignant today than it was at the time of writing, and though we are yet to see the sentiment reach its ultimate expression, matters do seem to be coming to a head, judging by how “childishly vindictive and unutterably dangerous” capital-W White people are becoming.

One wonders if things have improved since Baldwin wrote that he “can conceive of no Negro native to this country who has not, by the age of puberty, been irreparably scarred by the conditions of his life. All over Harlem, Negro boys and girls are growing into stunted maturity, trying desperately to find a place to stand; and the wonder is not that so many are ruined but that so many survive.”

Certainly, it is still the case that “Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions … into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the battle field.”

Finally, Baldwin takes his readers right to the very heart of the issue when he writes: “I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once the hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.” Neither is he himself free of this burden, though he offers up some hope:

“Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.
“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. This first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, on one’s own live, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. The fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.”

-BeLessHuman

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Marcela’s Retort

If anyone calls me a wild beast and a basilisk, let him shun me as a mischievous and evil thing; if he calls me ungrateful, let him serve me no more; if he calls me strange, know me no more; if cruel, follow me no more; for this wild beast, this basilisk, this ungrateful, strange, and cruel creature will in no way seek, serve, know, or follow him.

-Miguel de Cervantes, The Adventures of Don Quixote

Seeing the Edge

count zero the edge clip.jpg

“He says that’s too bad, in a way, because there are so few people left who can even see the edge.”
“The edge?”
“The edge of the crowd. We’re lost in the middle, you and I. Or I am, at any rate.”

-William Gibson, Count Zero

Not a Book Review: It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

“I think I’ll indulge in the luxury of being independent, for once, and vote Prohibition or the Battle Creek bran-and-spinach ticket, or anything that makes some sense!”

Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here is an alternative history novel about fascism coming to the United States of America. It’s not so much prescience. The book was written in 1935 as the Nazis were ratcheting up their good works in Germany, and a lot of the story was more or less a direct transfer of Nazi tactics to a North American sensibility. But there are some fascinating parallels, not with 1930s Germany, but with the 2016 US Presidential Election, particularly in the early chapters, before the election of Senator Benzedrine “Buzz” Windrip [sic]. No, it’s not prescience. These are timeless Americanisms. Almost a century later, politics in America has gotten better, has gotten worse, has stayed exactly the same.

Trump supporters aren’t called the League of Forgotten Men but they could just as easily have been. There isn’t a Reverend Paul Peter Prang, whose “weekly radio address … was to millions the very oracle of God”; there are dozens of them, though there certainly have been competitors for the title of Lee Sarason. And men, it seems, have never stopped paying lip service to “draining the swamp”.

“[E]ven if our Buzzy maybe has got a few faults, he’s on the side of the plain people, and against all the tight old political machines …”

Windrip was a clown, a liar, and a charlatan, “ascending from the vulgar fraud of selling bogus medicine, standing in front of a megaphone, to the dignity of selling bogus economics, standing … in front of a microphone.” He was “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store. Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. … [He] would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts–figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”

When approached by supplicants vis a vis the moral defense/condemnation of a burlesque show, he “called the clergymen “Doctor” or “Brother” or both; he called the promoters “Buddy” and “Pal”; he gave equally ringing promises to both; and for both he loyally did nothing whatever.” Similarly, “it was known that, though he drank a lot, Senator Windrip also praised teetotalism a lot, while his rival, Walt Trowbridge, though he drank but little, said nothing at all in support of the Messiahs of Prohibition.”

So, at the tragic end of the tragic day, the people saw in him, “for all his clownish swindlerism, a free vigor which promised a rejuvenation of the crippled and senile capitalistic system.”

Coincidentally, Windrip is a Democrat, but then so was Trump once. In the end, it makes no difference. America is a two-party country, both of them for the rich, and the poor are just pawns kicked around the chess board.

Windrip’s opponent in the presidential election, Walter Trowbridge, “quietly, steadfastly, speaking on the radio and in a few great halls, explained that he did advocate an enormously improved distribution of wealth, but that it must be achieved by steady digging and not by dynamite that would destroy more than it excavated.” Windrip flatly promises $5000 to every “real American family”.

As Lewis writes, the “conspicuous fault of [the opposition] was that it represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for … all the primitive emotions they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.” It didn’t matter that “one tenth of 1 per cent of the population at the top have an aggregate income equal to 42 per cent at the bottom. Figures like that are too astronomical. Don’t mean a thing in the world to a fellow with his eyes–and nose–down in a transmission box …”

It’s an obvious observation (though not obvious enough for the country to have done anything about it) which Lewis puts keenly when he writes that “Windrip’s just something nasty that’s been vomited up. Plenty others still left fermenting in the stomach … No, Buzz isn’t important–it’s the sickness that made us throw him up that we’ve got to attend to”. At another spot, he adds that “Windrip is only the lightest cork on the whirlpool. He didn’t plot all this thing. With all the justified discontent there is against the smart politicians and the Plush Horses of Plutocracy–oh, if it hadn’t been one Windrip, it’d been another.” Of course this is also where life outstrips the greatest imagination. Who did 2016 America elect to defend this “justified discontent” but the plushest of the Plush Horses!

Dark times follow, which we are not here to discuss. A good history book of Nazi Germany will suffice. Instead, Lewis offers up a prayer for all of us:

Blessed be they who are not Patriots and Idealists, and who do not feel they must dash right in and Do Something About It, something so immediately important that all doubters must be liquidated–tortured–slaughtered!

With respect to this, Trump’s America is both better and worse. Trump has not built an overt state-run terror machine to violently suppress minorities, the press and political opponents, but that is not to say that every one of these groups has been terrorised in myriad ways more insidious and thereby more difficult to combat and resist.

Lewis astutely observes that “the world struggle today was not of Communism against Fascism, but of tolerance against the bigotry that was preached equally by Communism and Fascism. But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word “Fascism” and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty.”

But the book does end, there is an ‘end’ to the trials of Doremus Jessup–yes, he’s the hero of the story, the editor of a small local paper called The Informer, and sure it’s quite a late introduction for the main character, but this is not a book review so what does it matter, here he is anyway–and approaching the final chapters, I couldn’t help being nervous about the potential resolution. Was everyone going to die? Does he love Big Brother? Part of me wished for a happy ending but as Lewis himself reminds us (referencing Romain Rolland), “a country that tolerates evil means–evil manners, standards of ethics–for a generation, will be so poisoned that it never will have any good end.” How does a country recover from totalitarianism?

Let’s not forget that It can’t Happen Here was written and published in 1935, before the outbreak of the second World War, nor had a world war precipitated in the book by the time the story ends in 1939. But yes, spoilers ahead, I’m going to tell you how it ends. Like I said, there is no easy road away from totalitarianism. The dictator Windrip is deposed by his second-in-command Sarason, who is soon after removed by the Secretary of War and head of the military Colonel Dewey Haik, and things, which up until that point had been atrocious and irredeemable, get even worse. War is declared on Mexico, less for any substantial reason than in the hopes of uniting the country against an outside enemy. Fortunately, the move backfires and instead plunges the country into civil war, which, very soon thereafter, in one final dig at America and perhaps highlighting the root cause of all the aforementioned and -quoted evils, “halted, because in the America which had so warmly praised itself for its “widespread popular free education,” there had been so very little education; widespread, popular, free, or anything else, that most people did not know what they wanted–indeed knew about so few things to want at all.”

-BeLessHuman

What kind of parrot am I?

What kind of parrot am I? … Better then to acknowledge that what we are is what we have been taught, that done, at least it will be possible to choose our own teacher. I know I am made up of other people’s say so, veins of tradition, a particular kind of education, borrowed methods that have disguised themselves as personal habits. I know that what I am is quite the opposite of an individual. But if the parrot is to speak, let him be taught by a singing master. Parrot may not learn to sing but he will know what singing is. That is why I have tried to hide myself among the best; music, pictures, books, philosophy, theology, like Dante, my great teacher is dead. My alive friends privately consider me to be rather highbrow and stuffy, but we are all stuffed, stuffed with other people’s ideas parading as our own.

-Jeanette Winterson, Art & Lies

[more quotes at irepeatinmysleep.wordpress.com]

Thank you, Mr Steinbeck

From Cannery Row by John Steinbeck: “It has always seemed strange to me … The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

Thank you Steinbeck for capturing so succinctly the core problem of our capitalist society. It’s up to us to change it.

Old England, Old World

Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard. We are very bad at scale. The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history.

-Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk

Beyond Human

We, with our propensity for murder, torture, slavery, rape, cannibalism, pillage, advertising jingles, shag carpets, and golf, how could we be seriously considered as the perfection of a four-billion-year-old grandiose experiment? Perhaps as a race, we have evolved as far as we are capable, yet that by no means suggests that evolution has called it quits. In all likelihood, it has something beyond human on the drawing board. We tend to refer to our most barbaric and crapulous behaviour as “inhuman,” whereas, in point of fact, it is exactly human, definitively and quintessentially human, since no other creature habitually indulges in comparable atrocities.

-Tom Robbins, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas

The Daily Press

The daily press is the evil principle of the modern world, and time will only serve to disclose this fact with greater and greater clearness. The capacity of the newspaper for degeneration is sophistically without limit, since it can always sink lower and lower in its choice of readers. At last it will stir up all those dregs of humanity which no state or government can control.

-Sören Kierkegaard, The Last Years: Journals 1853-5 quoted in Hunter S. Thompson, Hell’s Angels

 

For more quotes like this, see irepeatinmysleep.wordpress.com.

Notes on America from James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name

Insights from over 50 years ago cut even deeper today for the fact that we have learnt absolutely nothing.

On anti-intellectualism and the myth of America:
[W]e [as Americans] have a very deep-seated distrust of real intellectual effort (probably because we suspect that it will destroy, as I hope it does, that myth of America to which we cling so desperately).

On racism and poverty:
Now I am perfectly aware that there are other slums in which white men are fighting for their lives, and mainly losing. I know that blood is also flowing through those streets and that the human damage there is incalculable. People are continually pointing out to me the wretchedness of white people in order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account of the American failure does not console me and it should not console anyone else.

On the American dream:
The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black rose from the slums into the big time. The existence–the public existence–of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort … and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few. … Furthermore, the American equation of success with the big time reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement. This equation has placed our cities among the most dangerous in the world and has placed our youth among the most empty and most bewildered. The situation of our youth is not mysterious. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. That is exactly what our children are doing. They are imitating our immorality, our disrespect for the pain of others.

On justifying our crimes:
The world has never lacked for horrifying examples [even if Birmingham is worse, no doubt Johannesburg, South Africa, beats it by several miles, and Buchenwald was one of the worst things that ever happened in the entire history of the world]; but I do not believe that these examples are meant to be used as justification for our own crimes. This perpetual justification empties the heart of all human feeling. The emptier our hearts become, the greater will be our crimes.

More on the myth of America:
This illusion owes everything to the great American illusion that our state is a state to be envied by other people: we are powerful, and we are rich. But our power makes us uncomfortable and we handle it very ineptly. … If we ourselves were not so fond of this illusion, we might understand ourselves and other peoples better than we do, and be enabled to help them understand us. I am very often tempted to believe that this illusion is all that is left of the great dream that was to have become America; whether this is so or not, this illusion certainly prevents us from making America what we say we want it to be.

On education:
It is hard enough, God knows, under the best of circumstances, to get an education in this country. White children are graduated yearly who can neither read, write, nor think, and who are in a state of the most abysmal ignorance concerning the world around them. But at least they are white. They are under the illusion–which, since they are so badly educated, sometimes has a fatal tenacity–that they can do whatever they want to do. Perhaps that is exactly what they are doing, in which case we had best all go down in prayer.

On false nostalgia:
I am afraid that most of the white people I have ever known impressed me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order, against which dream, unfailingly and unconsciously, they tested and very often lost their lives.

 

Quotes from Nobody Knows My Name by James Baldwin, collected on irepeatinmysleep.wordpress.com.