History is the process of the past negotiating its terms of surrender to the future.
Although the past cannot defeat the future, it will do, and is currently doing, all it can, to break as many hearts as possible in the present. Cruelty seems to be the guiding principle of those in power, in the USA and across the globe, as they confront the horror of knowing that their power will soon be gone forever.
This is nothing new. In 19th Century Europe, monarchies crumbled under a rising tide of democracy. In the 21st, with a little courage and devotion to honesty and justice, we might see white male privilege go the way of kings, kaisers, and czars.
See if you recognize our current situation in these words that Victor Hugo wrote in 1862:
The past, it is true, is very strong right now. It is reviving. This revivification of a corpse is surprising. Here it is walking and advancing. It seems victorious; this dead man is a conqueror. He comes with his legion, superstitions, with his sword, despotism, with his banner, ignorance; within a little time he has won ten battles. He advances, he threatens, he laughs, he is at our doors. As for us, we will not despair.
We who believe, what can we fear?
There is no backward flow of ideas any more than of rivers.
But those who do not want the future should think it over. In saying no to progress, it is not the future they condemn, but themselves…There is only one way of refusing tomorrow and that is to die.
He concludes that chapter of Les Miserables with this observation of the relative powers of the hopes of the future and the fears of the past:
The ideal…thus lost in the depths – minute, isolated, imperceptible, shining, but surrounded by all those great black menaces monstrously amassed around it, yet no more in danger than a star in the jaws of the clouds.
By pure chance, I was flicking around TV last Sunday and landed on the 17th hole of the Masters Tournament. I have never considered golf a spectator sport, and the way I play it, it’s not much of a participatory sport either.
I share my home and my heart with someone who is currently obsessed with binge-watching Game of Thrones to get caught up on the current final season. Watching Tiger Woods marching through a crowd chanting his name, the only difference I could see between these two programs were the costumes.
One of the most hopeful things about the human race is the amount of time, energy, money, and enthusiasm we devote to sports. We are fascinated to see people do what nobody has done before and find out who can run the fastest, jump the highest, get a ball into a target or hit it with a stick. There are people who go to violent extremes in support of their team, but their problem is violence, and they would find any excuse to unleash it. I can’t blame sports for that.
Sports, like music and science, has its own vocabulary and sensibility that appeals to some people and has the opposite effect on others. Like those other fields, those who are most successful at it usually recognize how lucky they are and want to help younger people to follow their path.
I realize now that my hesitation to go down the Game of Thrones rabbit hole is not just resistance to pop culture phenomenon. I resent the idea that the pursuit of power is a worthy subject for entertainment. But if power is used in a constructive way – whether to fight injustice, or to hit a ball into a cup better than anyone else can – let the the games begin.
Reality changes all the time and it is never going to change back. We are never going back to the pre-Trump era or the one before the sexual revolution. We are never going back to racial purity.
I have to assume I’m a racist. I don’t think I am, but there are a lot of other people who don’t think they are who seem like they are to me. Racism, and the thing we call ‘race’ when we mean culture, are difficult to talk about because we live in a primitive society. We’ve built warehouses to incarcerate generations of young black men rather than talk about it. We say ‘the n-word’ because we have to be treated like children who aren’t allowed to say dirty words, too ignorant to understand their meaning.
Women and people of color who see me as a stranger must sometimes also see me as a danger. It would be reckless to treat me as a friend without getting to know me a little. To some people that feeling of instilling fear in strangers is a comfort, but it makes me nauseous.
Kurt Vonnegut said we’re still in the dark ages, and he’s right, but that doesn’t mean the dark ages won’t end any minute. Reality changes all the time and it is never going to change back.
Enough with this white supremacist bullshit. White people are not supreme. I know: I’m one and I’m not supreme at all.
It’s long past time we recognize and acknowledge – especially white people in this country – that white supremacy is a greater threat to civilization than Islamic fundamentalism. Both are dangerous for the same reason: they are about to become extinct. And that is a very good thing – even for those whose deepest beliefs will be exposed as delusion.
Just as every person of color has known discrimination and every woman has known sexual harassment, every man has felt the toxic side of masculinity and every white person has felt infected with the disease of white supremacy.
When the next age comes and our ancestors laugh at us the way we laugh at Neanderthals, white men will benefit along with everyone else from a world free of war, poverty, and human injustice. And that makes the fear of those clinging to their privilege so much more pathetic.
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This Veteran’s Day I am thinking about the legacy of veterans that goes beyond wars and weapons, to the ideas that compel people to take up arms, and to the wisdom that is gained through experience, especially such transforming experience as war.
Germany, in the early 1930s, was a shithole country. Not that our current president would categorize it that way – most of its residents being white – but it had debts that it could not pay. It rang up those debts in the first World War and thought it might be better to commit further atrocities than to pay off those debts. It was correct. Germany was allowed to prosper after the second World War, regardless of its offenses against the human race, in part because of the Marshall Plan.
Unlike the behavior after previous wars, the Allies did not confiscate the land and property of the Axis powers, or subjugate their people. Instead, the United States government from 1948-1952 gave roughly $100 billion in today’s dollars to rebuild their economies.
On June 5, 1947, US Secretary of State George Marshall spoke these words to the graduating class of Harvard University:
The modern system of the division of labor upon which the exchange of products is based is in danger of breaking down. … Aside from the demoralizing effect on the world at large and the possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned, the consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all. It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health to the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is not directed against any country, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Any government that is willing to assist in recovery will find full co-operation on the part of the United States. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.
The plan had bipartisan support from the Republican Congress and Democratic White House.
From the early 16th Century until the end of World War II, Europe’s militaries conquered or subjugated almost every other country on Earth and fought continuously against each other. Other than the warfare that accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia, and Russian invasions of Crimea and Ukraine, Europe has known peace for seven decades.
The changes in America were profound as well. Before the second World War most Americans were isolationist but as we learned the interconnected nature of human society in the 20th Century, we developed more globalist views. The realization that all the people of the world have more in common that opposition has brought peace and prosperity that the world never knew during millennia of nationalism. The wave of nationalist movements in the US and across the globe today pose a threat to the internationalist policies that we pioneered and whose value have been proven by experience.
We live in an age of short attention spans and sound bytes, which would seem to suggest shallow imaginations but it might signify something very different: an increased ability to absorb more information in less time. One example of this optimistic interpretation is the fact that we are living in a golden age of poetry. Nothing quite distills the human experience to its essence as well as poetry.
James Baldwin didn’t write a lot of poetry – only one book of his poems was published in his lifetime – but his prose captures the complexity of existence with the same density as poetry. He once said that “every poet is an optimist. But on the way to that optimism ‘you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all.’ ”
In his novel If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin suggests that if we are absorbing information more rapidly than our ancestors, we might come to regret it:
It doesn’t do to look too hard into this mystery, which is as far from being simple as it is from being safe. We don’t know enough about ourselves. I think it’s better to know that you don’t know, that way you can grow with the mystery as the mystery grows in you. But, these days, of course, everybody knows everything, that’s why so many people are lost.
There have always been some people who processed information at a higher capacity than others. James Baldwin was one. Here is the information he imagined being absorbed by a young woman on the subway:
I looked around the subway car. It was a little like the drawings I had seen of slave ships. Of course, they hadn’t had newspapers on the slave ships, hadn’t needed them yet; but, as concerned space (and also, perhaps, as concerned intention) the principle was exactly the same. A heavy man, smelling of hot sauce and toothpaste, breathed heavily into my face. It wasn’t his fault that he had to breathe, or that my face was there. His body pressed up against me, too, very hard, but this did not mean that he was thinking of rape, or thinking of me at all. He was probably wondering only – and this, dimly – how he was going to get through another day on the job. And he certainly did not see me.
There are two main characters in If Beale Street Could Talk. One is Fonny, an artist of a different type than Baldwin. This description of the sculptor’s process shows how all of art, like all of love, is one thing:
Fonny is working on the wood. It is a soft, brown wood, it stands on his worktable. He has decided to do a bust of me. The wall is covered with sketches. I am not here.
His tools are on the table. He walks around the wood, terrified. He does not want to touch it. He knows that he must. But does not want to defile the wood. He stares and stares, almost weeping. He wishes that the wood would speak to him; he is waiting for the wood to speak. Until it speaks, he cannot move. I am imprisoned somewhere in the silence of that wood, and so is he.
He picks up the chisel, he puts it down. He lights a cigarette, sits down on his work stool, stares, picks up the chisel again.
He puts it down, goes into the kitchen to pour himself a beer, comes back with the beer, sits down on the stool again, stares at the wood. The wood stares back at him.
“You cunt,” says Fonny.
Hi picks up the chisel again, and approaches the waiting wood. He touches it very lightly with his hand, he caresses it. He listens. He puts the chisel, teasingly, against it. The chisel begins to move. Fonny begins.
The other main character is the narrator, Tish. It might be a bit of a stretch from writer to sculptor, but nothing like a man trying to imagine how it feels to be a pregnant woman. Baldwin’s portrayal might be as close as a man’s ever gotten to accuracy in this scene with Tish and her sister:
I realize, for the first time, that the bar is loud. And I look around me. It’s actually a terrible place and I realize that the people here can only suppose that Ernestine and I are tired whores, or a Lesbian couple, or both. Well. We are certainly in it now, and it may get worse. It will, certainly – and now something almost as hard to catch as a whisper in a crowded place, as light and as definite as a spider’s web, strikes below my ribs, stunning and astonishing my heart – get worse. But that light tap, that kick, that signal, announces to me that what can get worse can get better. Yes. It will get worse. But the baby, turning for the first time in its incredible veil of water, announces its presence and claims me; tells me, in that instant, that what can get worse can get better; and that what can get better can get worse. In the meantime – forever – it is entirely up to me. The baby cannot get here without me. And, while I may have known this, in one way, a little while ago, now the baby knows it, and tells me that while it will certainly be worse, once it leaves the water, what gets worse can also get better. It will be in the water for a while yet: but it is preparing itself for a transformation. And so must I.
James Baldwin must have spent a lot of his time writing this novel in contemplation of pregnancy and of the differences between women and men.
Only a man can see in the face of a woman the girl she was. It is a secret which can be revealed only to a particular man, and, then only at his insistence. But men have no secrets, except from women, and never grow up in the way that women do. It is very much harder, and it takes much longer, for a man to grow up, and he could never do it at all without women. This is a mystery which can terrify and immobilize a woman, and it is always the key to her deepest distress. She must watch and guide, but he must lead, and he will always appear to be giving far more of his attention to his comrades than he is giving to her. But that noisy, outward openness of men with each other enables them to deal with the silence and secrecy of women, that silence and secrecy which contains the truth of a man, and releases it.
James Baldwin’s greatest talent is insight. As skilled as he was at his craft, his words were slaves to his thoughts and they revealed him: thoughtful and kind. In this scene, published the year he turned 50, his young couple, in the throes of first love, share a mean with their friend Daniel:
Fonny: chews on the rib, and watches me: and, in complete silence, without moving a muscle, we are laughing with each other. We are laughing for many reasons. We are joined together somewhere where no one can reach us, touch us, joined. We are happy, even, that we have food enough for Daniel, who eats peacefully, not knowing that we are laughing, but sensing that something wonderful has happened to us, which means that wonderful things happen, and that maybe something wonderful will happen to him. It’s wonderful, anyway, to be able to help a person to have that feeling.