First of the Month A website of the radical imagination. 2015-08-23T02:44:44-05:00 Ambassador Satch's Talk-Back Julian Bond dug the first issue of First of the Month and stayed in our corner. While his support for First was of vanishingly small import compared to his other services to our country, it was an honor to know he was paying attention. After Amiri Baraka died last year, Bond sent First a swatch of an interview he'd conducted with Baraka under the aegis of the University of Virginia’s “Explorations in Black Leadership” program. Once it was edited and published he wrote to say "it was great to read this again, especially the Louis Armstrong section." What follows is the section he highlighted.

BOND: I can remember being distant from, that is, I embraced Charlie Parker, but Louis Armstrong, it took me a while to—

BARAKA: To understand that.

BOND:—embrace Louis Armstrong—

BARAKA: I understand took me a while to really know who Louis Armstrong was, you know. I mean, I was an adult before I could dig Louis. And before I really, before I really manifested who that was—the greatest trumpet player, ever, anywhere, you know—I was like in my forties or something like that. You know.

BOND: Yes. I was turned off by what I took to be the clownish—

BARAKA: Yeah, the clownish—

BOND:—aspects of his—

BARAKA: Absolutely.


BARAKA: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

BOND: And I couldn't. I couldn't do it.

BARAKA: Of course…all of those teeth and what not, you see. But then later on, it—and then remember when Louis came out with the thing during the Arkansas—

BOND: Little Rock crisis. Yeah.

BARAKA: Yeah, the Little Rock crisis...I'll tell you what really blew my mind about Louis Armstrong. He was on—this was much later—he was on a television interview with his manager, Joe Glaser. And the commentator asked him, "Well, Mr. Armstrong, can you tell us in your sixty years of being in the music business what have you learned? ...What would you tell young people." He said, "Well, I'll tell ya' one thing I learned is if you're black and you're in the music business, you gotta find yourself some white man and make yourself that white man's nigger. Ain't that right, Joe?"

BOND: Really? Oh, my Lord. What a remarkable thing.

BARAKA: No, I saw that actually. It made you want to look away from the television.

BOND: Yes. Yes.

BARAKA: I said because he's obviously been waiting fifty years—

BOND: To say to them. What did Glaser say?

BARAKA: Joe Glaser didn't say nothing…he looked like somebody had peed on his shoe, actually…He looked just like "Cut to the commercial." You know?

nation Julian Bond & Amiri Baraka 2015-08-23T02:44:44-05:00
Part Three This installment of Hornick's ongoing essay (see
Part Two here
) considers how serializing generates powerful effects in the Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, the fourth and final of which will be published in English in September of this year.

Taken collectively, the Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante comprise a single story about the relationship and separate experiences of two best friends, Lila and Elena (the narrator, also called "Lenù"), from childhood in the 1950’s through their 60’s or 70’s. Despite a framing device that enables us to know that Elena, the narrator, is reconstructing the story of their lives on the basis of the memory of things she retains well into her sixties or beyond, the narrative is chronological: childhood in the 1950’s is followed by young adulthood in the 1960’s, and so on.

The storytelling is thus too linear for those critics who have compared Ferrante to the far more Proustian (and circle-chasing) Karl Ove Knausgaard—but I suspect many readers will get through to the end of the Neapolitan Novels but not so far with the Knausgaard books. Ferrante’s writing is not about "each cornflake" and the story follows lines of changing fortune, not cycles of endless returns to earlier times. People seem to enjoy reading these books, even though their pleasure makes some readers nervous. They complain that the books move too quickly, that too much happens with too little attention to surface, language, or day-to-day feeling, that they conform too closely to the themes and situations of “chick lit” (see, for example, Dayna Tortorici’s recent essay in n+1)—that they are in some sense cheesy. To condense my response to those who praise these books but worry that their “conventional” and “fabricated” devices relegate them to a category Tortorici refers to as the “pleasure genres”, the Neapolitan Novels (like most novels, I would have thought) generate emotional responses because of form, not despite it.

The most obvious formal element of these novels is their length. The cumulative effect of reading all of them, in all their plentitude and magnitude—because of their plenitude and magnitude—can be extremely powerful, in part because they test the limits of readerly memory which, as time goes on, tends to mix observation with fantasy, fact with interpretation. Some of these events linger in the memory but many of them are quickly told in such a way that we are almost encouraged to forget them—if only to be cruelly reminded of them later. The final scene of the first volume My Brilliant Friend, for example, produced from my throat an involuntary noise somewhere on the spectrum between screaming and gasping.

That scene concludes a section of the novels that carry the subtitle “Adolescence: The Story of the Shoes.” It occurs at the wedding of Lila. Lenù notices that Lila has “become as pale as when she was a child, whiter than her wedding dress.” Lenù follows Lila’s gaze and sees the bride herself glaring at a particular man wearing a particular pair of shoes. The book ends there, with no action beyond this chain of looks—a woman sees another woman seeing a man wearing a particular pair of shoes. In isolation this may seem a mundane event, but to read it in context is to experience Ferrante's narrative technique at full force, and few story beats in the first three volumes can match the power of this particular moment.

Those shoes represent an enormous personal and institutional betrayal, the stink of a fundamental injustice, and their appearance at this moment leaves us eager for the future but puzzled about our interpretation of the past. My Brilliant Friend ends, in other words, with a cliffhanger, but I detect no accompanying reek of the ormaggio that generally emanates from that much patronized plot device. I found myself desperately interested in what would happen next, but in some ways much more preoccupied with what had slipped my observation or memory, with why I didn’t see this one coming. It might have been the return of the repressed or the arrival of the ‘always already’ or maybe just a lousy memory on my part, but I should not have overlooked or forgotten all the clues in the book that these shoes would arrive when they did, and carry the meanings they carry at that moment. What a chump you are, I said to myself, what an idiot. Bitten by patriarchy yet again; suckered in by the devious institutional power structure that lurks behind all the delusion that we are self-determining, able to protect ourselves from oppressive, humiliating custom.

The twisted effect of this particular device at the end of the first novel is a backward propulsion. But it doesn’t work through literal flashback (although there are clues in this passage that encourage us to remember past events). Rather, the sheer shock of this event forces one to rethink (and in my case) reinterpret the meaning of everything I felt and thought about what was happening. The impact of a single moment can emanate, not from what we have remembered, but from what we have overlooked or forgotten. In that final scene, very little happens; the impact of this moment derives from what the reader is made to suddenly, painfully remember—which is what Ferrante has also made the reader forget.

The strongest feeling I had at the end of the “Story of the Shoes” was surprise, and it led me towards reinterpretation—of the text itself, yes, but more significantly of my own way of reading, of a path I pursued with some artful misdirection from the author. What happened to me was “strong misreading”, which happens when the reader is lulled into misinterpretation only to be, as Stanley Fish put it, “surprised by sin.” Fish was talking about another big epic narrative, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and I’m not sure I ever understood his point until I realized that I had been cajoled by the novelist into an initial reading of the story of Lila and Lenù as a pair of survivors, winners, conquerors. How wrong was that first interpretation of events? I went back and re-read the book to make sense of the ending and found all sorts of things I should have remembered but chose not to remember or overlooked—and the more I think about this, the more I think Ferrante wanted me to forget a lot of sins.

Rather, the remembering narrator of the Neapolitan Novels is determined to keep the past in the past, and the ultimate effect doesn’t pull us endlessly back to a single version of originating events but pushes us outward to an understanding of co-existing narratives and indeterminate conclusions. We might be tempted to read these novels, then, as post-modernist—and Lila suggests as much, near the end of Volume III, when she says, “Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.” But in the eyes of Lenú the narrator, Lila’s skepticism is more personal than philosophical, and the general tendency of the story suggests that while personal memoirs may be ineluctably subjective, a transcendently objective material history is occurring, one that can’t be permanently denied. In other words, this is not the same thing as the device used by Proust and borrowed by Knausgaard, the drama of a memory-fueled voyage into the past that collapses time within a single consciousness. There is more than solipsism in Ferrante’s world.

Ferrante’s novels suggest that a voyage backward alters the meaning of the present, but doesn’t alter the present or become the present. We need a present separate from the past because the past was pretty horrible, but this is no simple “trauma memory” situation. Incessant remembering can be a privilege or a curse. As Nietzsche said, “If you can’t forget, you can never be happy.” For Italian women in the generation of the author and her characters, to remember fully is either a curse to be avoided or a hazardous luxury. Ferrante, Lenù, and Lila can’t afford not to worry about what will come next but there will be no next without some creative and positive repression.

“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence,” says the narrator near the beginning of the first novel. If “nostalgia” is an act of creative reformulation in which bad things are written out of existence, of forced forgetting, this narrator’s relationship to the past somehow forces the reader to look for the moments of strength and survival and agency, not those which deny and oppress. One result of this is that instead of a story of innocent survivors we get one in which major characters actively participate in the making of misery. From the very beginning, children are not outside the social structures that brutalize them. They have fledgling agency but bear no moral responsibility when they are poorly treated, and yet they can knowingly and willfully bring on attack.

It is always unpleasant to be reminded that children too are violent, and learn early how to provoke violence in others so as to effect gratification of a desire. Several of Lenù’s key memories of Lila reveal this. In one early sequence Lila lures Lenù into a walk to the sea that culminates, not in their first view of the ocean, but into punishment for leaving the neighborhood. That punishment comes to Lenù but she perceives Lila, the instigator, as having arranged everything so that Lenù’s parents would pull her out of the school that Lila herself deserves to attend.

Lenù tells another story in which this pattern is more overt, although the object of Lila’s manipulation is more obscure. We are told that Fernando, Lila’s father, “when she didn’t provoke him, “was a kind, sympathetic man, a hard worker.” But Lila does provoke him, one day, when Lenù stands outside Lila’s house, yelling in to the house to try to save Lila from her father’s “rage” which “fed on itself,” but Lila, “she—I heard her—kept on insulting her father”:

We were ten, soon we would be eleven. I was filling out, Lila remained small and thin, she was light and delicate. Suddenly the shouting stopped and a few seconds later my friend flew out the window, passed over my head, and landed on the asphalt behind me.

I was stunned. Fernando looked out, still screaming horrible threats at his daughter. He had thrown her like a thing. (BF, 82)

Lila suffers a broken arm from this treatment, but her initial response, the one the narrator presents as more immediately important, is stoic and even boastful. Lila struggles physically to lift herself from the ground but she bears an “amused grimace” and claims, “’I haven’t hurt myself.’” Of course she didn’t—her father did.

Lila’s being “thrown like a thing” may remind readers of the moment, pages earlier, when the girls throw each others’ dolls irretrievably through a grate into their neighbor’s basement. She and Lenù, at this point, are indeed mere things in the hands of fathers who throw children from windows and brothers who threaten sisters when they attract the attention of other boys on the stradone. The uncomfortable stress on her willingness to bring violence to herself comes across as another form of agency, however distorted. If, on my first reading, I couldn’t quite register all of the ways in which Lenù and Lila were being deformed by external conditions, it was because they see themselves more as soldiers than victims. Lila is treated as a thing but she is never, ever a thing to Elena or to us.

If the Neapolitan Novels themselves aren’t entirely revolutionary, on the other hand, we might say they do record a revolution. My first reading—the creative misreading, the one that tricked me into believing Lenù and Lila could conquer male supremacy within a single generation—was clearly a far more optimistic one and tended to regard the ancient, traditional patriarchal culture of Italy as significant in the story because it was crumbling around the characters’ tiny feet. Inspired by their cleverness and the rewards and encouragement they receive at school, and stuck by the moment when the six-year-old Lila takes Lenù’s hand on a quest to retrieve their thrown-away dolls, I was in love with my assumption that together they would thrive and advance out of poverty and patriarchal oppression into a new world, one sometimes horrific but often exhilaratingly progressive. I read through Ferrante anticipating the girls’ lives would improve, materially anyway, because I sensed (or the modern Italian imaginary supplied) signs of the coming Italian Economic Miracle, Italian feminism, anarchy and Autonomia, the technology economy, the pill and reproductive rights. From the singular perspective of women’s rights it would be difficult to interpret that history as anything other than a fairly decisive triumph. Despite the book’s intense focus on a small neighborhood and, even as it widens out geographically, into a society in which everyone somehow stills knows everyone else, the presence of an enormous historical change is constantly felt.

In the second half of the 20th century, as Mussolini and Rossellini gave way to Berlusconi and Armani, major changes within the church and state and economy vastly improved the lives of many Italian women. Few girls born in the time and place of Ferrante’s protagonists faced the particular kind of patriarchal restriction their mothers and ostensibly all preceding generations of women had faced. More than the other important “autobiographical” serial novelists of our day, Elena Ferrante puts to use a number of 19th century narrative techniques that, I have argued above, serve the nature of the story she wants to tell and the story she perhaps had to tell as a white, Western woman born into a particular historical moment. This moment fostered, for the first time in history, the participation of women at the highest level of economic, political, and cultural life.

Her stories cover a period in which it was possible, perhaps for the first time in modern Western history, to make women into central protagonists who bear the kind of ambitions and self-defeating propensities, face the same kind of obstacles, and enjoy many of the personal freedoms grasped by the 19th century Balzacian or Dickensian male hero. Thus, the Neapolitan Novels may amount to the first major treatment of female protagonists as deeply flawed and full of bad faith as the male protagonists of the 19th Century. Now women, too, could take advantage of the new social mobility men assumed in the 19th century, but with it came the bad conscience of Great Expectations. In the Neapolitan Novels, girls and women seduce and allow themselves to be seduced by inappropriate and “bad” men, become famous for writing books, lead and inspire labor movements, and dole out physical and emotional abuse before, during, and after they receive it. Ferrante’s heroines behave, in short, with a level of freedom and authority that makes them characters in a kind of fiction that could not have been taken as “realistic” before World War II; when they are bad, they are bad within a new freedom that masks a broader but no less real set of restrictions. Tolstoy wanted to hold Anna Karenina morally responsible for her adultery but in the end couldn’t quite do it—the deck was stacked against her from the get-go. This is not quite the case for Ferrante’s women. Indeed, Volume III ends with a Tolstoyan act on the part of one of the two protagonists; Volume IV will presumably determine what vengeance, if any, will fall upon her.

Though they have much in common with the protagonists of other feminist series—Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs or Doris Lessing’s “Children of Violence” series, for instance—Lila and Lenù, like the novels in which they appear, are free of philosophical ambitions and, for all their engagement with modern Italian politics, the Neapolitan Novels don’t align with any identifiable ideology. Its characters are angry, but not with the kind of genetic resentment that, Virginia Woolf argued in the 1930’s, necessarily limited women who would try to express their view of truth through poetic forms. It’s not at all clear yet, to me and probably to Ferrante herself, whether all this newfound privilege will last or continue to grow—and vestiges of patriarchy continue to haunt us, as we see in the appearance of those shoes on the last page of My Brilliant Friend.

While it’s possible the final installment may pull another reversal and make their classically comic tale one a tragic one, in what we English-readers have seen so far the story of Lenù and Lila takes place in an increasingly post-patriarchal world. Sharing much with post-colonial literature, the Neapolitan Novels might best be approached with concepts developed by the best critics and historians of the 19th Century. In trying to explain the complexity of narrative art in relation to the ever-greater and more fluid complexity of social class and culture in the rise and fall of industrialization, Mary Poovey employed the estimable phrase “uneven development,” and Raymond Williams described a cultural history whose dynamics he could only articulate through his concept of emergent and residual “structures of feeling.”

Similarly, “The Story of the Shoes” reminds us that both personal and collective progress and stultification can co-exist over the course of a life. A certain kind of sub rosa political structure continues to govern their lives, but this will not stop Ferrante from telling the story of late-twentieth-century women as anything other than an often euphoric tale marking their entrée into the world of free thought and choice that has become more and more available to many, if not all, women in the post-WWII West. Sexism and patriarchal assumptions continue to restrict Ferrante’s characters well into the decade they’ve reached by the end of the third volume. But those restrictions, like those of class that confuse and affect the destiny of Dickens’s characters, are no longer all-encompassing and global. These books tell the story of those who live in a world in which patriarchy is no longer the ocean. Now it’s merely the shark.

Speaking of sharks … those creatures that must keep moving in order to live … in the next installment I consider Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle.

culturewatch Karen Hornick 2015-08-19T09:29:09-05:00
Doom in the Bud: Golding's Studies in a Dying Culture Full Communism

Communism is free time and nothing else, he thought when he woke up in the morning. And when he went to sleep: predicting what life will be like under communism would be like packing for a dream.

He let himself sink into his dreams like an abulic and solitary vagabond who lies down soiled in his own shit, or like a heavily medicated hebephrenic who sits on a bench on the grounds of the psychiatric institution to which he has been confined for life, smoking with one hand, playing with himself or with his neighbor—if proximity or charity demanded it—with the other. He didn’t think much of the mentally ill or the homeless, who seemed like images of history’s inertia, incapable of the least social labor.

Once he’d been to an art exhibition sponsored by the usual bourgeois simpletons and left-sentimentalists, in which the “work” of the incarcerated mentally ill was put on display. Most of it was the surrealist pastiche, the unconscious and infantile Afro-primitivism, the lame and clichéd psychedelia of inner torment (the inner life of lumpens being nothing but the ideology of certain social workers and art critics), that one would expect from such a socially progressive production. But the work of one “artist” struck him in particular. The artist, who was Puerto Rican or maybe Central American and who had a room to himself in the museum, painted what could only be described as monomaniacal and endless variations on a single theme: that of his own psychiatric institution being attacked by the myriad but ultimately interchangeable forces of modern military and paramilitary history. As if he were a member of some single-minded and provincial revolutionary front from the 1970s (the ETA, for instance), he was willing to accept succor and material support from the seediest and most ideologically unscrupulous sources. Al Qaeda flew airplanes into the institution in one canvass as readily as George Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom liberated it in another. Stalin’s Red Army was as willing to help as were the North American forces who invaded Omaha Beach on D-Day. The Syrian civil war was a veritable potpourri for the artist’s overheated imagination: ISIS, the Free Syrian Army, the bourgeois-nationalist Kurdistan Worker’s Party, and even a kind of comic-book Assad (looking like an Arab Mao) were offered leading roles. Curiously enough, no fascist or explicitly right-wing groups were enlisted in the patient’s liberation art, as if he were atavistically devoted to some mythical anti-fascist principle, as if even his madness had been colonized by Popular Front ideology.

He left the museum inspired. Not by the artist, but by the artist’s unwitting metaphor for the deviations and opportunisms of the Marxist tradition, which at least since Lenin had been willing to throw in its lot with vanguardism, nationalism, Third Worldism, Keynesian fascism, anarchism, and social democracy, not to mention such absurdities as autonomism, radical chic left-wing terrorism, Castro-Bolivarianism, anti-capitalist environmentalism, feminism, anti-racism, etc., etc. (the bad infinity of left ideology).

He went to the exhibition on a date with a white girl. Otherwise he never would have gone. Still, he had to admit it was more interesting than the standard exhibitions of prisoners’ art, with their idiotic iterations on Black Panther kitsch.

He’d given up dating white girls, but not before he’d given up dating black girls (the opposite trajectory of most of his friends, who’d suddenly re-discovered diaspora solidarity, black pride, black beauty, etc., those petty-bourgeois mystifications for which he had no time).

Ultimately he didn’t believe in friendship, anyway. Friendship was early capitalism’s crypto-queer and licentious answer to the disciplinary pain of heterosexual relationships, and though it may once have served a purpose, it was currently a vestigial and epiphenomenal solace, at best. Not that it mattered whether the bourgeoisie continued the institution of friendship. Or rather, it mattered, because social relations do after all have effects, secondary effects, on both the forces and the relations of production. But they don’t matter in and of themselves. For all he cared, if the bourgeoisie wanted (not that it was a question of wanting) to rush towards the cliff as social or as autistic lemmings, as onanistic isolates or as orgiastically enmeshed porifera awash in the current sexual and psycho-sexual fads of the day, it could do as it pleased. When the working class—which as Marx and Engels correctly noted in The German Ideology (whatever they said in the vulgar and polemical heat of the moment of the Manifesto), has no interest to assert against the bourgeoisie—takes power, the social pseudo-question, and the sexual pseudo-question, will not even be solved, but will disappear. In the meantime, what was needed was the development of communist Wittgensteins (Wittgenstein himself was a communist, though he didn’t know it, especially when he spied for the Soviet Union). Though it wasn’t as if being silent about the things whereof we cannot speak would make a difference, historically. Or maybe it would. Maybe it was precisely that silence that would usher in the millennium of free time. At the very least, if the left won’t shut up, it should at least do us (history, the working class) the favor of getting out of the way.

For instance, on Syriza, if they’d just let the fascist Keynesian capitalist state go on with its business of believing in the illusion that it’s killing the Greek workers, when in fact it’s killing itself. Or if they stopped their hypocritical support for ersatz anti-capitalist politicians, when it’s the pro-business politicians who will always have the workers’ support. Why do they think workers support pro-business policies? Out of “false consciousness?,” the invention of that Hungarian fascist Lukacs. No, they do it out of class consciousness, the true and noumenal class consciousness, not the fake and fascist class consciousness invented by Lenin and Kautsky out of thin air, out of narcissistic flatulence. As if the working class had any idea about, or interest in, class struggle!

When he wasn’t tweeting about communist monetarism, or picking fights with left-wing journalists, or drafting manifestos that aimed at the conversion of the libertarian right to the communist idea, he liked to amuse himself by jerking off on Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?, pissing on Mao’s Red Book, defecating on Nkrumah’s Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism, drawing swastikas on the covers of Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment (in order to save money and to pay tribute to Debord, for whom he had a soft spot in spite of himself, he generally performed these black rites in the bathroom stalls of bookstores), sending death threats to Thomas Picketty and Paul Krugman, sending pseudonymous letters to the Federal Reserve claiming to be a COINTELPRO-like infiltrator of various left-wing movements, posting neo-Nazi literature on anti-Zionist websites and posting anti-Zionist literature on neo-Nazi websites, writing stories for porn sites about Kim Il Sung’s sex parties in Switzerland, (usually, but not always, rejected), engaging in friendly conversation with online financial dommes about currency versus money, about Keynes’ currency fetish being a transference maneuver designed to hide his secret masochistic desire to sit on a cock, about the masochistic tendencies of Greenspan and about the possibility of Yellen being a repressed and colonized dominatrix, about whether pussy was use value and cock the Keynesian fascist state’s surplus value, about whether the return of matriarchy could forestall the communist revolution or if the communist revolution were itself nothing but matriarchy, though, in principle, speculating about the communist future was anathema to him.

He never had nightmares, though his dreams were often violent, blood-stained, and apocalyptic. He dreamed, ataraxically, about the failures of the Paris Commune with a certain relish. He dreamed about Marx’s silent science and the noisy wails of Marxists. He dreamed about Iron Age Jewish kings and Iron Age Jewish prophets who marched against the corrupt worshippers of Baal (Baal being class warfare or anti-imperialist struggle, he recognized) and the uxorious husbands of Jezebel (Jezebel being unscrupulous Marxist intellectualism, he recognized). He dreamed about the annihilation of the House of Ahab (Ahab being the fetish for the contingency and inassimilability of history, he recognized). He dreamed about the compatibility of revivalist prophecy and street theater, about how the communist kingdom of free time would convert everyone into a vaudevillian actor prophesying the empty entertainment of free time, which, having no content and no history, would open up onto vast vistas of boredom, the working class in power, alert to nothing, unresentfully orphaned, dead to the fascist past.


If Le Corbusier was right (and I know he was)—namely, that our world is a charnel house, strewn with the detritus of dead epochs—then I, too, am an ideological graveyard, stalked by necrophiliacs. I have never hidden my mortuary wounds, my past. But nor have I succumbed to the naïve, postmodern fallacy that a wound or a past can be apprehended directly: I’m no banshee, no activist. For instance, if one wanted to caricaturize my inner life—and as a former member of a certain revolutionary organization whose name I wish to forget, I recognize relentless caricature as a method in Sun Tzu’s endless war—one could easily discover in those unquiet dimensions various mausoleums or various rotten corpses: the Spartacist League screaming rehearsed chants on behalf of NAMBLA and defending North Korea when the vulgar petty bourgeoisie wanted to defend Palestine; Lyndon Larouche administering electroshock therapy to the genitals of credulous initiates; Lyndon Larouche inventing the Star Wars missile defense system for Reagan and teaming up with the Klan to attack heterodox Trotskyites and fascist Maoists in the South (I’ve jerked off to the objectively righteous Greensboro Massacre more than twice); Bukharin’s caricatures of a Circean Lenin—transformed into a pig—being sodomized by Stalin; my condemnation of the rapists of the Socialist Workers Party (UK) not because I believe in the hysterical claims of intersectional rape-crying revisionists but because I’ve always loathed moronic Cliffites and trendy hashtag activists; the ruthless manner in which I dated a girl during my undergrad days solely in order to gain access to the leadership of the organization, but relentlessly mocked her for being overweight, and raped her repeatedly; the way I look at the world through my dead bird’s eyes, eyes that have surveyed history—its shitty architecture, its shittier art—with a keen hatred of its forms, leaving behind only the pale products of my libido and some academic papers on Soviet Constructivism and some strident quietist ironies and some interventions on behalf of certain wars, certain bigotries, certain depraved modes of human behavior and depraved categories of human thought (having realized that, pace my rabbinical mentor, the destruction of the abstract was not the product of necessary historical changes, but of gnostic mutations in human consciousness).

As a Marxist, however, I’ve never shied away from self-criticism, though naturally not Stalinist self-criticism, which lapses into moralism and tautology. I’ve always believed in the gap between thinking and judging, a gap whose arch extends from truth to the abyss, or from the narcissistic personal identity of the Jew to the impersonal non-identity of the abortive future, which is the opposite of Kautsky’s future, since, though postponed, it never arrives. When I think of the ideal future, which is the only future, the no-future one might say, I think of a Polish anti-communist propaganda poster from 1919, in which a naked, hirsute, hook-nosed, and beer-bellied Trotsky clutches a pistol and sits on a mound of white skulls, overlooking a massacre in a snow-white landscape, his Red Army thugs strangely blanched and Mongoloid-looking (though still white), a white and skeletal Death gnawing on his neck. In the same way, I defended Charlie Hebdo, not out of a sentimental politics of life, but because I believe art’s only function is to humiliate, degrade, distort, and biologize (to the point of abstraction, whereupon we realize there is no biology, only cruelty, and no art, only history). Even Trotsky defended the crude atheistic propaganda of the satirical journal Godless, “where there are a great many cartoons, sometimes quite effective ones, by some of our best cartoonists. Issue after Issue one finds in its pages an ongoing, tireless duel being conducted with Jehova, Christ, and Allah, hand-to-hand combat between the talented artist Dmitrii Moor and God. Of course, we are to a man on Moor’s side completely.” And recently the so-called hard-communists have been defending Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev with his absurd ideas of Islamo-communism, or C.L.R. James with his black Jacobin nonsense!

Not to mention the martyr complex surround Allende: that populist pigmy, that whiskey-guzzling Stalinist, that caudillo Popular Frontist, whose goal was to save Chilean capitalism.

Though Trotsky has nothing left to tell us, either.

In the end, my cowardice got the better of me. I should have spoken more clearly, more forcefully. There were moments in which I seemed to give way—ostensibly in order to win over a greater portion of truth to my side, through tactical retreat—but in the end, as I said, I kept retreating, though on the surface I become more brittle, more polemical, more sure of myself. I started to think more highly of Bordiga, for instance, but at the same time publicly I started to say that racism was a real problem. I inched back towards the organization I was purged from, like a dog or a buzzard circling a certain kind of carrion. I grew older. Zionist publications contacted me to contribute and I even considered their offers. I was pure but my purity had a good deal of impurity in it, or rather my impurity was pure. I succumbed to the indigeneity trend by writing about Buryat architecture in Soviet Russia. I started to think that my beloved or at least my sheltering institution, the University of Chicago, was a palimpsest of pedophilia, violence, and cultism. But what else was what I was left with other than a tradition: a tradition, and careerism, and a popular (or relatively popular) blog?

culturewatch David Golding 2015-08-19T03:35:34-05:00
Enigma & Genius: On Lebron James and Draymond Green After a grueling six preparatory weeks of the NBA Playoffs, basketball fans and Lebron James followers alike had a week off before the Finals began. After conquering the Eastern Conference, King James seemed as worn out as I felt, but one could hope that the rest would be as rejuvenative as the two week mid-season rest he gave himself for his thirtieth birthday, after which he returned to his own self, turning around what looked like a disappointing season for the returning Odysseus of Northeast Ohio.

Freed up from the networks’s tyranny [1], I spent my found time watching a recently-acquired DVD biography of Oscar Robertson (The Big O: The Oscar Robertson Story), the standard to which I have long argued that James should be held. It was stunning to watch Robertson as a young player all the way back to high school in the early 50’s, inventing and mastering all the elements of modern basketball, in effect writing its first textbook with his play. Didactic, instructional, inspirational, utterly real, it was like reading a manual, with animated and illustrated rules of instruction, of just how to play.

Shortly afterwards, while watching my DVR recording of Game Four of Cleveland’s sweep of the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, I saw how much James had progressed on his road to mastery of what one might call Oscar’s “distributional instincts.” James had been dominant throughout that series, after insuring his Cavs’ place in the Eastern Finals with an incredible corner shot in Game Four of the Cleveland-Chicago series, a shot that instantly trumped and in effect erased Derrick Rose’s earlier heroics.

What, if anything, did he lack? Size? Certainly not. He is like Oscar, and later on Magic Johnson, in relation to his competition. Game? Not really. Character? Harder to say, as this consists of many elements, perhaps most crucially decision-making, a notion that challenges the brave new pseudo-science of data analytics and metrics. Lebron’s overall level of play is undeniably great beyond comparison, but does he understand “how to play”? Does he sense what is called for and when?

In Game Four of the Cleveland-Atlanta series, with the Cavs up 3-0, 7’ center Tomofey Mosgov scored the first Cleveland basket, then made a sensational out-of-character steal and was sprinting up the left baseline. The ball came to James, who began pushing the ball up-court, but in a strangely unhurried way. He was waiting for Mosgov to run the floor, seeking to reward him with a pinpoint pass for a lay-up. Unaccustomed to sprinting, the big man seemed too tired to dunk and layed it in.

This was the kind of maturity and patience one hoped that Lebron would develop: the waiting for Mosgov to get up court, the holding of the ball without tipping his hand, the perfectly thrown and measured pass. All were reminiscent of Oscar, the inventor of triple doubles, but real ones, the thirty/ten/ten variety. (To be meaningful, the total needs to add up to at least forty, with a minimum of twenty points. Oscar’s prototype was 30/10/10.)

Going into Game Four of the Cavs’ sweep of top-seeded Atlanta in the Eastern Conference Finals, James was averaging 33/12/10. Winning 118-88, he was able to ease off the Oscar-esque statistics, having made his point. He played only 29 minutes, settling for 23/9/7, and two steals, numbers which would project into an Oscar triple-double. The day before, he indicated that he was getting round-the-clock treatment for various undisclosed ailments, stating simply (NY Times, May 28, 2015): “There’s a sacrifice to your body when you want to win.” He had a week off to rest.


However much he has become used to being the cynosure of attention, this was an especially challenging season for King James. Having lured Kevin Love to Cleveland in the wake of his celebrated return home, James had a younger but equally formidable pair of stars (Love and Kyrie Irving) with whom to form another Big Three, but synchronicity was strangely lacking until mid-season. The Cavaliers had built a credible team around him, at least on paper, but it frayed at the edges with injuries and, early in the season, an inability to get in sync, until after James disappeared for those two weeks on December 30, 2014, his thirtieth birthday.

Especially mystifying was the lack of apparent synergy between James and Love. It had seemed the perfect union: Love’s unequalled outlet passes and James’s open court brilliance; the best quarterback passer and the best tight end; but the expected chemistry mysteriously eluded them [2]. As James turned thirty, there was renewed urgency to the question of whether he could really be trusted with Oscar’s legacy?

And what happened when James turned thirty? He didn’t dress for the next two weeks, while Cleveland went 1-7, plummeting to .500 (19-19), and then a game under with a 107-100 loss to Phoenix when he finally returned. But then began a long win streak, making the Cavaliers one of the contenders to represent the down-trodden East against the rampaging Golden State Warriors. Cleveland’s streak and second-half season revival had much to do with the acquisition of a new set of team-mates for Lebron, mostly notably Mosgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, refugees from the sadly deteriorated, mismanaged, and tanking New York Knick franchise.[3]

Although James more than salvaged what looked at mid-season like a disastrous year, his hegemony was being challenged by Stephen Curry, who took the MVP trophy and supplanted James as the league’s most popular player, as measured by jersey sales. I wondered whether LeBron’s destiny was to be a foil for others: first Duncan, now Curry; like Wilt Chamberlain’s relation to Bill Russell (or Karl Malone’s to Michael Jordan).


My long-standing fascination with James made it difficult or me to embrace the Warriors whole-heartedly, though they represented my adopted home town. It was a familiar position for me, having grown up with the mediocre pre-Walt Frazier Knickerbocker teams of the late 50’s and early 60’s.

Then, the eight team NBA offered frequent double-headers at the Garden in which the “preliminary game” often featured Oscar, Elgin, Wilt or Russell, sometimes Wilt against Russell; great match-ups that made the Knick game seem almost amateurish. Rooting for the home team seemed to be a futile act of sentimental foolishness. Frequently, with the Knicks way behind, I left at the half of the second game.

So I could remain a Lebron fan even against Golden State, my only real problem being that Golden State’s Draymond Green had become my favorite player: watching games as much as I could through his eyes, I saw him demonstrate almost nightly a uniquely refined sensing of pace, allowing him to make maximum use of the nuances of screens and floor spacing.

Draymond Green has a unique basketball intelligence, a rare kind of wisdom, like that of big men (Russell, Walton) who directed traffic and movement from a different angle. He actually seems to decide whom to sponsor at different moments, thereby protecting and highlighting Curry: French pastry don’t go all the time, but Green sees to it that he gets enough!


In Game One, after Carlos Santana kicked off Bay Area narcissusjingotech furor with his souped-up version of the national anthem, it seemed that Golden State would dominate, but Cleveland managed to slow tempo enough to take the Warriors out of their rhythm and force them to grind out possessions in similar fashion as did the Memphis Grizzlies in a series that Memphis led 2-1, before succumbing 4-2.

Both of the first two Finals games were decided in overtime, with Game One going to Golden State and Game Two to Cleveland. James had the opportunity to win each of them, had he hit very makeable shots; in both games, Curry looked insignificant, often weak, and Green was strangely out of his unusual uncanny zone.

The day before Game Two, after James had been heroic, but come up short in the opener, the thought came to me—unbidden—that the best outcome possible was for James to get 55 points and sprain his ankle on the game-winning shot, not enough to affect his career or to have any lasting effect, but severe enough to give him the rest of the series off.

He was out there seemingly alone, toiling mightily, fiercely but stoically determined, as if struggling to stave off the inevitable, against a team that was like a bottled up explosion. If it went beyond four or five games, it seemed that James was bound to start looking bad, maybe get hurt.

Walking on and off the court, he looked like an exhausted laborer, carrying all the world’s burdens.

It’s not easy being a superhero in real life, but James accepts his role. In the overtime win in Game Two, he played 50 of 53-minutes, getting himself 16 rebounds and 11 assists, along with 39 points, but—perhaps due to fatigue—shot only 4-for-22 in the second half and overtime, and, for the second straight game, missed a potential game-winning shot at the end of regulation, at close-range in traffic. In overtime, he had a layup blocked at the rim by Draymond Green.

Early in the second half, James drove to the hoop only to have his first shot blocked by 7’1” Andrew Bogut and his second by Green, but this was James’ game: playing point guard at 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, bringing the ball up court, directing plays, with free reign [4], he seemed burdened, but larger than the game itself.

Somehow, unlike Michael Jordan, Lebron works as a tragic figure, as did Oscar. James needs to learn when to carry his teammates, whereas Michael had to learn how to involve them. This is what we fans demand of our super-heroes. The Warriors looked so much lighter. Not that they’re not serious about basketball, but there is a lightness and exuberance about the way they play. “I take my profession, I take my craft, very seriously,” James said, very seriously. He appeared to be above the fray.

As of Game Three, it seemed all about endurance for Lebron. Or would the story line shift to redemption for the struggling and seemingly weak Curry, that wispy Ariel-like MVP, seemingly Warrior Management Consultant Jerry West’s creation, just as Ariel was Prospero’s? Well, both: Lebron did have the strength to endure, and prevail, AND Curry almost stole the game in the fourth quarter.

After Game Three, James remarked that he was not getting much sleep but that he would be fine with that for the remainder of the series. Might he be planting a seed presaging self-destruction? Thoughts of the “old LeBron,” the one who was uniquely magnificent yet liable to disappear at key junctures, like the Conference Final he lost to Boston before defecting to Miami (a defection later reframed as a sabbatical or as his long-deferred college years) or, just a year later, when he vanished mysteriously in the Finals series against Dallas.

As of Game Four, everything changed, with Golden State starting Andre Iguadola on James, and moving Draymond Green to center. Green had thirteen first half points, and outscored the Cleveland team for the game’s first seven minutes. Later, after being a distributor, eschewing open threes, Green drove and got LeBron to commit his third foul.

James’s first half statistics were 20/8/8, playing all 24 minutes, but how quickly the Warriors can change games! At 69-65, you live and die with each possession, and wind up losing 103-82. Showing fatigue, James’s had another poor shooting night (7-for-22), including five missed free-throws. Why must his technique remain so horrendous?

With Cleveland trailing 44-32, a hard foul by Bogut sent LeBron stumbling out of bounds at full speed and crashing into a camera, cutting the right side of his head. He stayed down for a couple of minutes, but soon he was back in the game, without any mention of concussion protocol, with only “some glue,” as he said later. “I was just trying to regain my composure. Our medical staff did a great job to stop the bleeding, and I got some stitches just now. Didn’t need (any) concussion protocol. At the time, I just knew I had to shoot the free throws. Didn’t matter what was going on with my head. I had to go out there and shoot those free throws.” I was reminded of my thought before Game Two that the best outcome possible was for James to make an early but honorable exit. This NBA season was unduly and ominously marred by injuries to many key players, leading to consideration of schedule changes in the direction of eliminating all back-to-back games.

Echoing his mantra-like stance of many years, which used to be unsatisfying but which people now hear and react to more sympathetically differently. James said simply: “three games left, possibly. Biggest stage in the world. Go out, execute, live with the results. No pressure. I’ve been through a little bit in my pretty cool career.” James was once again demonstrating the difference in the way he thinks from Michael Jordan, to whom he is often compared: Jordan could only live with one result, which often he willed.

There were many reasons that the Warriors won Game Four, much being made of the great contribution of Iguadola (22 points to LeBron’s 20), whom Coach Steve Kerr started in place of 7’1” Bogut, but the most important part of that adjustment may have been moving 6’7” Draymond Green to center. For the first time in the series, and continuing for the rest of Golden State’s unblemished rest of the way, Green played like himself for an entire game, not only contributing seventeen points, seven rebounds, and six assists, but also the three-point play that tied the score at 20-20, after Cleveland had scored the game’s first seven points.

In Game Five (104-91), with Cleveland’s Timofey Mosgov playing only nine minutes after scoring 28 in Game Four, Golden State continued to run its offense through Green, a kind of point power forward turned point center. Again, a late Warrior explosion (25-11) torpedoed a close game (80-79, Cleveland leading, with seven minutes left) into a rout: 104-91. James had a 40/14/11 triple double, rivaling Jerry West’s 42/13/12 gem in the 1974 Finals. There was talk of this being a precedent for James’ getting the MVP in a losing cause, but that was against Boston. Bill Russell had plenty of MVP’s, and could afford to be generous! To win that prize, LeBron would have to find a way to win the last two games, but it seemed clear that the Warriors had irrevocably turned the tide.

In Game Six, a 28-15 first quarter saw the Warriors pile up assists on each of their first 11 baskets! Seeming to want to conserve energy (he had averaged 46 minutes per game), and again shooting poorly, James still had fifteen points and eight rebounds at half-time, with Cleveland somehow (the Warriors went suddenly cold) remaining close at 45-43, then taking a brief lead early in the second half, before the roof fell in, and the score was suddenly 69-55. It was anticlimactic (like the whole playoffs, really, with Golden State not having to face the best teams at full strength; a shame, a pity), almost not a game, it seemed, though Cleveland actually made it close again near the end (105-97).

Cleveland had no real offense. When wired for the television audience, Coach David Blatt, who resembles Vladmir Putin, spouted nothing but clichés; at best, he resembled a jockey, whipping and imploring a horse, whereas the Warriors were like picadors firing away at the wounded bull. Kerr’s exhortations, by contrast, were personal, heartening, and encouraging.

Playing forty-seven minutes, James once again posted a monster line (32/18/9), despite continued poor shooting. He looked like an undynamic laborer all game, even as he seemed to be able to control pace. All game, he was eschewing threes, as if trying to make the game as ugly as possible.

Yes, his percentages had been low, but wasn’t this the only way to loosen up the defense, and the right time to roll the dice? Continuing to bang against Iguudola had been frustrating, tiring, and generally futile. Plus, as bad a three-point shooter as James had been in the play-offs, he has a history of making big threes. (Like those in his 48 point game versus Detroit in Game Five of the Eastern Finals in 2007, AND his heroic game-winner and series-changer against Chicago in this year’s Eastern Conference Semi-Finals).

Green’s triple-double cemented (well, made more plausible) my case for his being the key to the team; its motor, in contemporary parlance. Maybe even the MVP. Complicated, because both he and Curry both recovered mightily in the Warriors’ last three games (he had 37 in Game Six), all wins, after both had inconsistent and disappointing early games, at the same time that Iguadola, challenging James, was stealing everyone’s hearts and minds [5].

Some players get to be known only by their first names, though it’s very hard to use just the first or last name of Draymond Green. Still, he is the heart and soul of his Warriors, who embody a new kind of game, playing “small ball” (invented at Golden State by Don Nelson decades ago, but finally taken to a championship level), relying on three-pointers, fine passing, and good character.

But back to Lebron, as always, and yes, the shooting: James’s pathetic display amped up dubiousness about all his decisions (which seemed especially questionable in Game Six where he kept force-feeding the post). For the whole playoffs, his shooting percentage was just 42%, 39.8% for the Finals, in which he averaged an incredible 36/13/9 line. This compares badly to 48.8 % for the regular season. His three-point percentage was 23% in the playoffs, compared to 35.4 % for the regular season. The Warriors are a 40% three-point shooting team.

Did Lebron try to do too much? Should he have taken more threes? Yes, but not shooting them at 23%. Why is his percentage so low? Magic’s improved every year he was in the league. Oscar disdained the long shot, but there was no three point shot then. He would have mastered the twenty-three footer if it mattered, but then, that was a bad shot [6].

Lebron’s overall level of play is undeniably great beyond comparison, but does he understand “how to play”? Does he sense what is called for and when? Compared to Michael and Oscar, can Lebron adapt to the situation? And why, with his work ethic, does his shot remain so inconsistent? These questions have remain unanswered for too long now. If he isn’t willing to consult with Magic or Oscar, I only wish he had Draymond Green with him to nudge and guide him over the top.

But what if Love and Irving had not been hurt? We’ll never know. So many imponderables. And why, we must remind ourselves, does it really matter? Because, I like to think, aesthetically, greatness has its own inherent reward and magnetism.

The book James is writing has several chapters left. Lebron is a free agent now, but will always be judged by the choices he makes.


1 ABC and ESPN are both owned by the Walt Disney Company, ESPN’s curiously-named Executive Vice President John Wildhack explained.

2 During the second half season, it was there more often, though Love had been assigned (again, mysteriously) a role which generally left him exclusively a three-point shooter.

3 The playoffs were full of Knick refugees: Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton and A’mar’e Stoudemire in Dallas; Beno Udruh in Memphis; Pablo Prigione in Houston; Chris Copeland in Indiana but returning to the bar scene in New York to get beat up; Mike Woodson, seemingly in disguise with glasses and a moustache next to Doc Rivers on the L.A. Clipper bench. It’s as if they had fled the Garden, and the playoffs were suddenly welcoming the Garden refugees, just as clueless owner James Dolan was repopulating it by welcoming back anti-feminist icon Isaiah Thomas to lean in with the New York Liberty.

4 Of necessity! James had completely turned around the Chicago Bulls series with an heroic three-pointer from the dead left corner in the critical Game Four, when Cleveland desperately needed to regain the home-court advantage they had lost when James regressed to the passivity we had sometimes seen in years past. On that play, he defied and over-ruled the one Coach David Blatt had drawn up in the huddle.

When the microphone is on him in the huddles, Blatt never seems to have anything to say beyond motivational slogans, like before Game One of the Finals, when he succinctly intoned “It’s a business situation.”

5 Overall in the playoffs, Green was fourth in assists, third in rebounds, and second in steals.

6 Oddly enough, neither James nor Curry, though in different ways, has a normal conception of what a good shot is. As Jeff Van Gundy has it, Curry is redefining what a good shot is.

culturewatch Bob Liss 2015-08-18T23:57:59-05:00
The African Lady (Redux) When Ta-Nehisi Coates was trying to make sense of the world as a young student, his first working theory "held all black people as kings in exile, a nation of original men severed from our original names and our majestic Nubian culture." With help from teachers at Howard, Coates thought his way out of compensatory history:

It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. And there was so much terrible out there even among us.

Coates's movement of mind sent your editor back to the following post by Anita Franklin, which originally appeared here in 2013. B.D.

It’s 1973, I am 15 years old and yearning to live in Flatbush. It’s a better neighborhood than where I am and I think to myself I bet the landlords there make sure that the boiler works in the winter. I earn $40 a month for sweeping and mopping the floors and stairs of the 5 story walk up once a week. It is a typical poor, polyglot group of people of color in my building and in English, Spanish and patois we try to be organized. You see the winters are bitchin’ and one family I know has sickle cell anemia. The winter cold is bitter on sickle cell. As a group of tenants we agree to take a stand and put our rent into escrow. Not just on behalf of the family living with sickle cell but because as a group we know we are entitled to heat and hot water.

My absolute crush at the time was the beautiful tall elegant African Lady who lived on the 4th Floor. She was always wrapped in heavy fabric with rich colors and stylized patterns that might be ancient symbols. She didn’t wear jeans or suits, only dresses that draped and tied and fitted her form perfectly. In the winter, she didn’t wear a coat but a long wool cape. I liked the way she took up space when she moved. She wore bold jewelry and high hair that was more a work of art than a political statement. Every time I saw her on the stairs I could see in her careful coiffure where our corn rows had come from, our box plaits, twists and even that very old time country style of wrapping braids in yarn had begun. I thought there was kinship here, an authenticity and grandeur that I could emulate.

Because I was a young person with energy and ideals I was asked by the tenants to approach the African Lady to join us. I could never catch her in, not even when I knew she was there in her apartment, would she answer the door for me. But when the white landlord came to her door just before Thanksgiving, she opened it and because I was sweeping and mopping the stairs on the landing below I heard their conversation when her voice rose and let out my nightmare. “You can’t talk to me like that. I am not one of these ex-slaves you are used to bullying about. I am a Nigerian!!” And our landlord said back to her. “I don’t care what kind of nigger you call yourself you pay your rent and you pay it on time.”

I felt bad for the African Lady but I also recognized that I too had been wounded in that encounter on the 4th floor.

Fast forward and it’s April 11th 2013 in the North of England and I have rushed into Sheffield with my friends to catch up with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has decided to open the tour of her new novel Americanah here in Yorkshire. I have known, studied and indeed lived in Africa for a time so I am not the same girl desperate for approval that I once was. Still I recognize in the regal gait and elaborate grooming of Chimamanda something of the African Lady I loved as a girl.

This is a long awaited and much anticipated third novel. But unlike Purple Hibiscus and Half a Yellow Sun, this novel is not set in Nigeria and does not really add to outsiders’ knowledge of that part of the world. The continent, the family and parents of the protagonist, Ifemelu, are more like mountains off in the distance from the narrative. Perhaps because of this, there is a yearning in Americanah, a grinding homesickness and displacement which is offset only by the fact that her heroine has the option to return home.

Ifemelu is a fabulous character. She is coping with America – at least certain parts of it, and looking to understand the differences between a place like Princeton and a place like Trenton. She is trying to understand why she has to leave Princeton in order to get her hair done in a natural style. And she is also trying to help other people new to the country understand the ways of America’s complex and bewildering culture(s). The novel too is complex, multi-layered, multi-storied. One British critic called it “exhausting.” There is an attempt to get to grips with American obsessions about race and to compare the American experience with the British. But that’s like trying to mix oil and water. There’s a lot of furious shaking but beyond a certain level the comparisons she wants to make between the UK and the US around “race” simply do not work.

Americanah is Adichie’s sweet but often barbed commentary on the US. The title while sounding like Americana, is, in the mouth of anyone from West Africa, a rebuke, a denunciation. Of course there are many tones to accompany the insult. Gently mocking. Howling with derision. Among friends – a light reminder not to be so pompous.

Some readers in the US will choose to take the novel as a poke in the eye. Others will recognize the book as affectionate too. It is not an angry work, as she said in Sheffield. “You have not yet seen me do angry. I can do angry very well and this is not it.”

And it is not chiefly or, better, solely, about race. Adichie herself claims that it is about love. Particularly self-love. Subtly provocative and written with supreme deftness, Americanah helps us understand that identity is always partial and contingent and yes, exhausting. Certainly, Adichie shows us that to be African and then to endure the process of becoming Black is a massive journey, not just a plane ride.

I come out of the theatre into the cold and my mind harks back to the African Lady and the incident on the 4th Floor of that dilapidated building in Crown Heights. We got a new boiler in the end before Christmas in 1973 and much later I became a trade unionist, community worker and, after moving to the UK, what would be regarded in the US as an Associate Professor in the social sciences.

After so many years I know what it is to live in another country and my heart reaches out to Ifemelu and others like her. I have always wondered what happened to the African Lady. It was said that she sneaked out of the building late one night. No one really knew what happened. For myself always, I like to think that somehow or another she made it home.

world Anita Franklin 2015-08-18T22:22:06-05:00
Kazin, Bellow and Trilling: A Triptych I have a stake in Zachary Leader’s new huge first volume biography of Saul Bellow that has just appeared. Bellow was a friend and Leader gives a brief account of the exchange I had with him days before he died. When I visited, his assistant told me that Saul had not been speaking for days and would I try to get him to speak. I asked Saul “what do you have to say for yourself?” A pause and he lit up. “I’ve been thinking: am I a man or a jerk?” I said “would you believe my answer?"

He assented, and I said “you are a man.” He seemed pleased. Word of the exchange got around, and when heard by Martin Amis, Bellow’s question underwent a change. In a memorial service in New York, Amis altered “jerk” to “joke.” I distinctly heard “jerk,” and Leader, who accurately reports what I heard, notes that “jerk” was the word Saul’s father applied to him. He also translates “man” to “mentsch,” which is a richer word meaning human being as well as resonating with moral worth. I have written elsewhere about Bellow as a man and as a writer. I want now to take a more indirect route and place him in the company of two eminent critics of his generation, Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling.

Kazin was a gifted verbal portraitist, his subjects other writers past and present. In portraying them, he portrayed himself as well. A short essay (an excerpt from New York Jew) on Saul Bellow and Lionel Trilling turns into a triptych of all three—illuminating them as writers, Americans and Jews. The Bellow of the essay is of a time when he had published short stories, but before he had published a single novel. Kazin reflects on Bellow’s power of observation and immense confidence in his destiny as artist. “As I walked him across Brooklyn Bridge and around my favorite streets in Brooklyn Heights, he looked at my city with great detachment. He had the gift—without warning, it would follow a séance of brooding Jewish introspection—of making you see the most microscopic event in the street because he happened to be seeing it. In the course of some startling observations on the future of the war, the pain of Nazism, the neurotic effects of apartment-house hunting on his friends in New York…he thought up some very funny jokes, puns, and double entendres. It was sometimes difficult to catch the punch line, he laughed so fast with hearty pleasure at things so well said, in a voice that already shaped its words with careful public clarity. He explained, as casually as if he were in a ballpark faulting a pitcher, that Fitzgerald was weak, but Dreiser strong in the right places. He examined Hemingway’s style like a surgeon pondering another surgeon’s stitches. Then, familiarly calling on D.H. Lawrence…as our particular brother in arms he pointed to the bilious and smoke-dirty sky over the Squibb factory on Columbia Heights. Like Lawrence, he wanted no “umbrella” between him and the essential mystery. He wanted direct contact with everything in the universe around him… Listening to Bellow, I became intellectually happy—an effect he was soon to have on a great many writers of his generation” (171-72).

Kazin’s exuberant language captures the spirit of Bellow’s presence. (Note incidentally or not so incidentally the use of the possessive case in his reference to the streets of Brooklyn and to the city itself: my streets, my city. Philip Rahv once mocked him: “Hey Alfred, What’s this about our mountains, our rivers?” Solotaroff, xv.) Kazin’s sense of identification with Bellow is complete, though for various reasons not to be sustained over the years that followed. (A liberal throughout his career, Kazin and Bellow found themselves on different sides politically as the aging Bellow turned conservative. Bellow, always hypersensitive to criticism, took umbrage at Kazin’s unfavorable view of Mr. Sammler’s Planet.) The essay does not provide a single passage that Bellow had written. Here as elsewhere in much of his writing, Kazin focuses on the man, the character of the artist; the art is more or less assumed, left for detailed analysis and interpretation to close readers. Kazin says the following of his own work: “my tendency as writer and critic [is] to dwell on ‘high points’ of a text, the emotional peaks, the ‘isolated beauties,’ instead of the argument of a book. My weakness as a literary scholar and as a writer is to opt for the creative moment rather than for the argument But only the argument settles anything in a book…” (Journals, 325-26). In his characterization of Bellow’s powers of observation and expression, Kazin is declaring his own aspiration.

Kazin’s Trilling is another story: it begins in acceptance and appreciation (Trilling had praised On Native Grounds) and ends in rejection and disappointment. Here is Kazin’s portrait of Trilling. “[He] already had his distinguished white hair over a handsome face that seemed to be furrowed, hooded, closed up with constant thought. The life was all within, despite his debonair practiced easiness of manner. With his look of consciously occupying an important place, his already worn face, his brilliant discriminations as we talked, he quietly defended himself from the many things he had left behind. He seemed to feel more than the usual literary connection to things English and proudly told me that his mother had been born in England. Victorian England would be his intellectual motherland” (173). Whatever Trilling may have told Kazin, Trilling’s intellectual homeland extended beyond England to the Europe of Goethe, Stendhal and Freud, among many other European writers, as a reading of his essays shows.

Having inadvertently offended Diana, Trilling’s wife, on the first and only visit he had made to their apartment, Kazin became persona non grata. The estrangement, however, had a deeper source, his Jewishness, which he wore upon his sleeve. “For Trilling I would always be ‘too Jewish,’ too full of my lower class experience.” Bellow was comfortable in his Jewishness, though he did not make it front and center as Kazin tended to do. In the essay, Kazin shifts abruptly from the Jewish theme to Trilling’s mildly favorable, though somewhat condescending, review of Augie March in order to expose the abstractness of Trilling’s diction and his tepid prose—as if, one might surmise, Trilling’s anglophilic temperament was a case of repressed Jewishness, something neither Kazin nor Bellow could be accused of. Here are two sentences from Trilling’s review of Augie March: “It is a good subject; it has its own implicit richness; one can almost say that if a writer comes to it with honesty and painstakingness, he can scarcely fail to make something good of it. We have then a prose that is articulate to that last degree, very fluent and rapid, yet thick with metaphor and epithet” (Solotaroff, 173). Not a felicitous instance of Trilling’s prose, but hardly representative of its capacity elsewhere for “brilliant discriminations,” as Kazin himself acknowledges. Kazin tells us what we already know: “I felt more at home with Bellow’s attitude toward experience.” (His resentment toward Trilling, as expressed in his journals, became obsessive, doing justice neither to Trilling nor to Kazin.)

The differences between Bellow and Trilling and Kazin’s relation to them throw unexpected light on their different attitudes toward America. Without abandoning the Yiddishkeit of their origins, both Kazin and Bellow embraced an America that, despite obstacles, seemed to beckon to them. I am an American, Brooklyn born, Kazin could have said echoing Augie March. With this qualification: Kazin was intellectually and emotionally volatile. In one mood he would embrace America as if he were in full possession of the country, and in another mood declare his insurmountable sense of being an outsider. In the journals, he writes: “I’ve never felt like an American. But that’s because I’ve given up trying to feel like an American…[And] yet Americans feel deprived of what they once had. They feel that it is no more their country. No wonder that the Jewish writer comes in to fill the vacuum” (305). Wasn’t Kazin one of those writers? Not knowing Kazin personally, but on the evidence of his work, I don’t think that he ever stopped trying to feel like an American/

Kazin and Bellow were at a rare moment in American history when gifted first generation Jews could look back with affection to a parochial past they were leaving behind as well as forward (in Kazin’s case with great apprehension, uncertainty and high anxiety) to an expansive future of American adventure and opportunity, a double-mindedness that informed and enriched their imaginations. (In an introduction to an anthology Kazin’s America: Critical and Personal Writings, Ted Solotaroff notes that Kazin began a draft of his memoir Walker in the City with the following sentence: “Every time I go back to Brownsville, it is as if I had never lived there” only to change the last two words to “been away,” the change made after he had paid a visit to his family, another instance of Kazin’s volatility and self-contradiction.) The fact is that Jewish writers of Kazin’s, Bellow’s and Bernard Malamud’s generation never really left their past behind. As Kazin remarks of Malamud’s characters: “they all speak with vigor the same depressed sounding dialect, giving a Yiddish cadence to New York English.” The Yiddishkeit of Jewish American writers infiltrated American culture.

Trilling, the son of an English Jew, who had migrated to America, lacked that past. His was an English past, and he looked upon America and its cultural achievement from the critical vantage point of an assumed superior Jamesian and Arnoldian anglophilic and Eurocentric perspective. An apparently assimilated Jew, Trilling seemed intellectually less at home in America than the Yiddish speaking Bellow and even the all-too-Jewish Kazin in his affirmative mood. Trilling was preeminent as literary and cultural critic of what he called the moral imagination, which had a source in a selective view of the novel, of which Jane Austen and Henry James were exemplary figures. His critique of American liberalism from the inside still resonates in our political culture. Kazin had an openness to American experience that Trilling lacked—as in the following passage: “Every once in a while some token—a sentence in a book, a voice heard—will recall for me the fresh instant delight in American landscape and culture…The sentence this morning fresh as a spring wind comes from Constance Rourke’s book on Audubon, on the sudden realization that his ornithology showed a national sense of scale, that like Whitman he was a great voice of American nationality” (Solotaroff, xvi). It was Kazin’s view of Bellow and writers made happy by Bellow: Malamud and Roth, the non-Jewish writer, William Kennedy and the English writers, Martin Amis and Ian MacEwan, among others, that prevailed, contributing to the richness of contemporary American and English literature. Though Kazin was by no means an uncritical reader of contemporary fiction (at times he would complain about its sorry state), he was nevertheless a thoroughly engaged reader and saw himself as writing “in the service of contemporary literature.” (Biased in favor of realism, he was an unfriendly critic of technically experimental fiction.)

Here is an irony of the difference between Kazin and Trilling. Kazin was more or less comfortable in his role as critic and man of letters. One has only to read On Native Grounds to appreciate his enthusiasm as critic of American fiction at the outset of his career. Trilling, on the other hand, never really happy as critic*, despite the acclaim he received, longed to be a novelist (he did complete one novel and a few stories), but had little affinity for American fiction being written in his time and in the past. “I’m always surprised to hear myself referred to as a critic…I did not ever undertake to be a critic—being a critic was not, in Wordsworth’s phrase, part of the plan that pleased my boyish thought, or my adolescent thought, or even my thought as a young man. The plan that did please my thought was certainly literary, but what it envisaged was a career as a novelist. To this intention, criticism, when I began to practice it, was always secondary, an afterthought: in short, not a vocation but an avocation.” Could it be that his frustration as novelist manqué had something to do with his Jamesian sensibility and ties to his Victorian motherland? Would he have found himself as novelist in an earlier time and place?

I am a decade and a half younger than Bellow and Kazin and grew up in Kazin’s Brooklyn. (Walker in the City is a wonderful book about Brownsville, the backyard of East New York, the neighborhood of my childhood and adolescence.) Possessing Kazin’s experience of Yiddishkeit, I made my trip on Brooklyn Bridge (actually in the subway under another bridge) to Columbia where Trilling was my teacher and to Bard College for my first teaching job where Bellow became by friend. I met Kazin only once. In their different ways, Bellow and Trilling enlarged my experience of America and the world. I should add I had the good fortune of never having offended Diana.

A personal anecdote: A student at Columbia College age nineteen or twenty, I was interviewed for admittance to an advanced colloquium in literature at Columbia. One of the interviewers, Quentin Anderson, a Jamesian friend and disciple of Trilling, asked me to name a book I particularly admired. I said An American Tragedy. Dreiser’s novel was iconic in the Marxist environment in which I had grown up. It also had a reputation for bad prose among admirers of James. Anderson invited me into his office afterwards, informed me that I was admitted to the colloquium and then told me the crushing news: I was an intelligent and serious student, but would never experience the higher triumphs of the imagination (for example, James’s novels), if I remained an admirer of Dreiser. I did become an admirer of James’s work, but I regret never asking Bellow, who was an admirer of Dreiser, about “the right places where Dreiser was strong.”

What all three have in common is the instability of their American identities. Bellow’s wholehearted embrace of it in Augie March was a phase in his career. In Ravelstein, he laments the insufficiency of the American language to convey dark thoughts as if he wanted to fall back on the Yiddish of his upbringing. I asked him once about his friendships at Boston University. He didn’t come up with any names, and I mentioned a distinguished critic whom I thought was his friend. He said that he was a fine man, but what was lacking in him for the full satisfaction of friendship was knowledge of Yiddish. I was fortunate to have the knowledge. Kazin approached America with wide open arms, but, feeling rejected, he said he gave up trying to be American. And Trilling without a recognizable Yiddish background and with a Jamesian sensibility seemed to observe the American scene from across the Atlantic. America is an ideal, an abstraction, made concrete by the hyphenate status of the people who make up the country. In introducing himself, Augie March describes himself as an American Chicago born without mentioning that he is Jewish. He did not have to. His Jewishness is evident in the way he enriched the American idiom, as Kazin was among the first to appreciate.

culturewatch Eugene Goodheart 2015-08-18T22:00:21-05:00
Very Serious Fantasts P.W. Singer and August Cole have just published Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War. They seem to have a lot in common: both have B.A.s and advanced degrees from various Ivies, both seem admirably well-connected in the think tanks and a number of adjacent worlds, both possess what seem to be glittering resumes, both advise Very Serious People and/or parts of the American government on security matters, in their book jacket photo they strangely resemble one another (both are trim, dark-haired, clean-featured, wear navy suits with blue open-collared dress shirts and no neckties), and their PR releases suggest that both are in their early forties. Singer seems the more widely published of the two, having four other books, all well received. Ghost Fleet is blurbed by (among others) two admirals, a general, the producer of The Hunger Games and an executive producer of Game of Thrones. One admiral alleges that Ghost Fleet is “a plausible, frightening, and pitch-perfect vision of what such a war could look like in the near future. This page-turning marvel is the best source of high-tech geopolitical visioneering” (sic), the other that it is “Thoughtful, strategic and relevant”. Several blurbs compare Singer and Cole to Tom Clancy, apparently under the impression that this is high praise for a book by two people who are elsewhere described as strategic analysts, and use the word techno-thriller. That doesn’t seem quite right, since techno-thrillers normally dramatize military technology that actually exists. A few of the blurbs and reviews say that Ghost Fleet is entertaining, more that it is important. So what sort of authors are Singer and Cole, within which genres are they working, and what can we make of the literary and sub-literary traditions within which they stand? On a less literary plane, does Ghost Fleet contain a useful way to think about the near-term military consequences of new technologies?

Ghost Fleet is what used to be called a tale of the next war, a genre with a long and interesting history, often commercially profitable but not without risk, since prophecy is difficult, and in some famous instances this particular variety of prophecy has provoked devastating parody. In 1909 James Blyth published The Swoop of the Vulure, recounting a bolt from the blue German descent upon England in 1918. The invasion, abetted by treacherous German Jewish immigrants, is doomed from the start, in the first instance by the pluck and quick wits of a fisherman, and results in the capture of the Kaiser by a British officer and the capture of Berlin by the French army. Posterity is indebted to Blyth for inspiring P.G. Wodehouse to expand an earlier pseudonymous short story into his first wholly successful and original comic novel. In immediate and direct response to Blyth Wodehouse published The Swoop! or How Clarence Saved England A Tale of the Great Invasion. We can already see the master’s hand at work: “When the papers arrived next morning, it was seen that the situation was even worse than had at first been suspected. Not only had the Germans effected a landing in Essex, but, in addition, no fewer than eight other hostile armies had, by some remarkable coincidence, hit on that identical moment for launching their long-prepared blow. England was not merely beneath the heel of the invader. It was beneath the heels of nine invaders. There was barely standing-room.” In the same year A.A. Milne, famous to us for Winnie-the-Pooh, published “The Secret of the Army Aeroplane”, a quietly hilarious response to William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 (1906), in which the Germans invade Britain, possibly also to his The Great War in England, 1897 (1894), in which the French and Russians had invaded Britain. In 1910 the genre fell afoul of Heath Robinson, whose eleven cartoons on invasion novels were commissioned for The Sketch. While being pilloried by Gillray, Rowlandson or Hogarth might have been more immediately unpleasant, being the object of Heath Robinson’s gift for apparently genial ridicule was no box of chocolates:

Parody presumes familiarity, and by 1909 fictions of future wars, the genre Blyth was working in, was very familiar indeed, having exploded in the immediate aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. The first English fiction about a near-future war appeared in the early 1640s, but follow-ups were only sporadic until 1871, when Lt. Col Henry Chesney published “The Battle of Dorking”. The memory of Chesney’s success outlasted the celebrity of his story, spurring a vast number of imitators both abroad and at home. First short stories and then novels (usually serialized) poured off the presses, first on the Continent and eventually in the United States. I .F. Clarke, the leading specialist on the genre, thought that “The Battle of Dorking” must have been the most discussed and imitated short story ever written, and I know no reason to doubt him, but across the Channel the nomenclature and the general tendency of the plots differed. Germans wrote about Der Zukunftskrieg, the Future War, in which they were almost invariably successful and sometimes the confident aggressors (but no more immune to mockery than the British originals, e.g. Carl Siwinna’s dryly witty Vademecum für Phantasiestrategen of 1909, available in both print and on line translations). The French wrote of La Guerre de demain, in which the French were also almost always successful, often against Britain. A much larger proportion of the British ‘tales of the next war’, however, imagined a crushing defeat, usually a bolt from the blue to which Britain succumbed.

Chesney had been impressed by the startling speed with which the centuries of French military primacy had been shattered at Sedan, and his story was intended as propaganda for conscription. German and French authors with policy axes to grind tended to propagandize for other things—they already had conscription—while British writers tended to dread their country’s complacency and what they took to be its indifference to a changing balance of power. The French efforts may have been in large part compensatory fantasy; at least initially, the German ones often instead suggested a happy consciousness of their relative power and what they took to be their destiny. The most common motive for writing something remains money rather than political enthusiasm—Dr. Johnson put it more strongly, with "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money"—and a lot of the writers who imitated Chesney may have intended no more than making a buck. Le Queux, author of two commercially successful invasion fantasies, also published one hundred and fifty other novels, most of them with titles like Strange Tales of a Nihilist, The Hunchback of Westminster, Whosoever Loveth: Being the Secret of a Lady's Maid, and The Red Widow, Or The Death-Dealers of London, although it is only fair to acknowledge that the desire to make a buck does not preclude authors also being sincere jingoes and xenophobes, or for that matter intelligent (if not invariably longsighted) patriots. The genre thrived until 1914, resumed at first haltingly after the war, has never entirely gone out of style, and has boomed again after 1978, when General Hackett published The Third World War: The Untold Story. Hackett’s was the first of a long run of pseudo-histories of a war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, some written by nominal experts, most not; the best was Ralph Peters’ Red Army (1989), written while Peters was a serving officer, and apparently for some years a cult classic within the officer corps. The genre has sold steadily ever since, and authorial motivations have as usual been various. At one level, Singer and Cole have written a tale of the next war, and their blurbs and reviewers claim that they have achieved three of that genre’s more common purposes: they are warning and informing readers about a real and unprecedented risk, they persuade readers that they know what they’re talking about, and they are capable entertainers. None of the blurbs and reviews I’ve seen suggest that there are possible hazards for writers attempting these three ends simultaneously.

There are some grounds for thinking that these two might know what they’re talking about: Singer began as an academic and a policy wonk, his resume is impressive, as is Cole’s, and people pay these men for their opinions on matters of strategy and military technology. In 2003, shortly before the Blackwater scandals became a hot story, Singer published Corporate Warriors, the best among a burst of books written on PMFs (private military firms). He’d expanded an essay he’d written for International Security while on a post doc at Harvard and published while he was at Brookings; the book went through a number of editions and publishers, and is still in print. His competition tended toward either dystopian scandal-mongering or academic aridity, but Singer was judicious, thorough and lucid. He also wrote clean academic prose that was almost wholly free of jargon, an increasingly rare commodity, and his book was widely and plausibly considered important for both interested citizens and policy makers. I had to read pretty widely for a review essay on books about PMFs for Dissent, and thought Corporate Warriors far and away the best of the lot.

Singer published three more works of non-fiction—on child soldiers, on the robotic revolution in weaponry, and on cyber warfare and cyber security—and all praised extravagantly by figures in the worlds of security policy, journalism and entertainment. The tone of the books became less academic, not necessarily a fault, since Singer was now writing for broader audiences. Very Serious People, a number of them in fact very serious people, blurbed the books as the ones all serious people ought to read, and if you were only going to read one book on a subject, Singer’s books might well have been the ones you ought to have read, and not only because they were probably the ones your peers had read. Singer is by training a political scientist, not a military historian, and it shows—this is not necessarily a good thing—but historians rarely write books aimed at the policy world. Simultaneously, Singer’s career zoomed. He was successively employed by a series of prestigious think tanks, wrote for both the higher journalism and the higher tier of not-quite-academic journals, made his way onto various Top 100 list—Global Thinkers, most influential defense commentators, etc.—was coordinator of a Defense Policy Task Force for Obama’s 2008 campaign, served on various government advisory boards, made the rounds at the networks, and got at least a toe into the waters in Hollywood, television and video games. Cole has comparable achievements and connections, although on what seems a smaller scale.

How should one weigh up Ghost Fleet’s blurbs? Very Serious People may or not mean their more hyperbolic praise—most people are charitable when blurbing books by folk they know. VSPs may not know too much about the genre these two are writing in, and may not have understood where they are particularly original (nowhere, in my view), nor where they are anything but. The blurbists may be praising the authors for their possible success at Chesney’s old ambition in “The Battle of Dorking”, for Singer and Cole seem to be warning us about various military threats posed by China to the United States, also a subject tangentially addressed in Singer’s last two books. On this score, it is of course too soon to have any idea of their insightfulness, but the odds are against them—the genre has an old record of failure, for as Yogi Berra observed, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”, and two other savants, Sam Goldwyn and Niels Bohr, expressed the same thought in almost the same words. But that there are threats is surely indisputable: China is rapidly building up its navy and military, it is investing in cyber warfare and by some definitions waging it, Chinese soldiers have blustered quite a bit about war with the US and a number of its allies, some people think that the Chinese are thinking very hard about a cyber-attack bolt from the blue as the heart of asymmetric warfare against our navy, etc. The initial effectiveness of tactical, technical and strategic surprise has been an agonizing and formative military experience for, among others, the United States (Pearl Harbor, the Ardennes, Korea), Britain and France (the Battle of France in 1940), the former Soviet Union (Barbarossa) Israel (the October War) and a number of Arab states (1956, 1967). The plausibility of any particular warning about any particular threat remains another matter.

Singer and Cole’s China war happens sometime in the near-ish but not immediate future—the date is indeterminate, but some of his protagonists, combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, are still in uniform. The first phase serves up some of the plot elements those turn of the century British and American tales of the next war relied on: the treacherous Chinese attack is a bolt from the blue, it is meticulously planned, and at least at first much—in this case, everything—goes wrong for the British or the Americans. To these elements they add a motif H.G. Wells made famous in the first great phase of the genre while also helping inventing another, which is why Ghost Fleet has been characterized by some reviewers as a techno-thriller. Future War writing did not always assume a radical breakthrough in military technology; the earlier tales of the next war instead assumed that military technology was pretty stable, which, after all, it had been for a couple of centuries. The Reign of George VI, 1900-1925, written in 1763, recounts a long series of British victories won with the military technology of the Seven Years War, which was not as absurd as it sounds, since the British conquered a fair portion of the globe using Brown Bess muskets…for one hundred and sixteen years. Well into the industrial age a fair number of the invasion novels assumed that foreign perfidy and British derelictions would suffice to destroy Britain with existing military and naval technology, just as the weapons of 1978 would save Hackett’s NATO. The large numbers of future war novels written in response of Hackett’s breakthrough book also generally restricted themselves to weapons already in service, possibly because like Hackett the best of those authors were either serving soldiers or veterans. In the early 1980s no American or Englishman had ever fought a war with the most modern NATO weapons, which was part of the reason why their revival of the tale of the next war was so compelling, but a number of them had trained long and hard to do so, they knew how their weapons were supposed to interact with Warsaw Pact hardware and doctrine, they had discussed their profession with a lot of combat veterans, and they sought to imagine and convey a strong sense and informed guess of what fighting in a modern war would be like. A number of them—Harold Coyle as well as Ralph Peters spring to mind—were writing war novels at least as much as they were writing polemical tracks, and sometimes writing pretty good ones.

But the tale of the next war did not always involve only current technology, because Wells and a number of others had added something new to the mix, the sudden arrival of a radically destabilizing military technology that would alter the balance of power. Wells wrote about tanks ("The Land Ironclads”, 1903), aircraft (The War in the Air, 1907) and nuclear weapons (The World Set Free, 1914). He often had a strong polemical purpose—“The Land Ironclads” seems to have been read and may have been intended as in part an optimistic allegory of the Boer War, The War in the Air as a dystopian, either racist or anti-racist and certainly an anti-imperialist vision of the effects of military innovation, and The World Set Free as a finally cheerful vision of the obsolescence of the nation state. Wells’ interest in revolutionary technologies was not unique, and writers working in this vein were very occasionally eerily prescient (although ignored). Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a brilliant appreciation of the effectiveness of using of submarines against the ships bringing in Britain’s food imports, (“Danger! Being the Log of Captain John Sirius”, 1914). Others, too, warned of both subs and military aircraft (although usually not of the reasons both would matter so much in the First World War). Conan Doyle aside, future war fiction authors who gave a technological rupture a starring role, a role that would be endlessly repeated in science fiction and post-war folk military history, tended to overestimate the frequency and effectiveness of radical innovation, which may both reflect and reinforce broad misunderstandings of the last two centuries of military history. The armies that fought the First World War are not famous for having swiftly and successfully worked out the implications of the new technologies that would so horrifically reshape the battles they had to fight, and as a result their generals are almost invariably condescended to with that easy scorn and perfect confidence the higher ignorance diffuses among non-specialists: even minimally competent Allied generals, it is assumed, would have done infinitely better.

Singer and Cole do something similar in Ghost Fleet, for while the First World War generals, like most people in most professions most of the time, did not immediately understand the implications of the new technologies almost all of them possessed, Singer’s Chinese and their Russian allies are at the start the only ones to possess devastating new tech, and they already understand its tactical implications perfectly. The authors give their Chinese not one but several such weapons, e.g. the means to launch devastating cyber-attacks while a series of high-orbit attacks launched by a Chinese space station on our satellites wholly blind the American forces, American electronics turn out to be built with sabotaged Chinese-manufactured chips that make our aircraft much worse than useless, so that our F35s are flying coffins, while the F35-clones and drones the Chinese have built with our stolen secrets all work perfectly; the Russians have given the Chinese a hitherto unknown but absolutely effective method for detecting submarines, so that our SSNs—the hunter-killer subs we currently assume will preserve our edge in blue-water naval combat—are instead sunk at will, while our ballistic missile submarines, in this future apparently our only nuclear weapons platforms, cannot be ordered to fire without being immediately destroyed, and such orders may only give the Chinese the excuse to destroy our cities; these and other tricks immediately cost us most of our surface navy; in a piece of very intricate but perfectly successful perfidy, the Chinese begin the war by successfully invading Hawaii, driving tanks off commercial cargo ships directly into combat, while a lot of Chinese infantry have arrived, if I remember correctly, disguised as tourists (a recurring ploy in the sillier fin de siècle tale of the next war, and one Heath Robinson ridiculed). And Singer and Cole have barely gotten started. In addition to the Russians serving as China’s willing junior partners, despite China being at the opening of the novel their feared and hated enemies, and also handing the Chinese their greatest and most secret weapon, all of our NATO allies other than the UK immediately desert us, whereas the Japanese abandon us within a day, and all of China’s other Asian rivals are immediately cowed into submission. The problem with this is not that none of it ever happens—the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact happened, nuclear weapons happened, Ultra, Purple and Magic happened, sonar and radar happened, and de Gaulle wisely noted that “treaties are like roses and young girls; they last while they last”—but that they all happen on the same day, they all work perfectly, and they all happen to the same people. In the history we know, by contrast, one belligerent gets the Me 262, another Ultra, a third turns out to have T-34s, and none of them work perfectly.

Another problem with Singer’s Chinese triumphs is that they are the inevitable victories won by the side possessing unobtanium—in Wikipedia’s splendid gloss, “aerospace engineers have used the term "unobtainium" when referring to unusual or costly materials, or when theoretically considering a material perfect for their needs in all respects, except that it does not exist.” Unobtanium does sometimes turn out to exist, but not very often, and then it isn’t unobtainium, e.g. if you lace graphite with boron, you can slow neutrons down to the point that you can get a chain reaction, which Allied scientists worked out in the 1940s, and German scientists didn’t. But while devastating new weapons possessed by only one belligerent became a standby of the less subtle science fiction—and one new technology did help win the Franco-Prussian War that kicked off the last century and a half of future war fiction—Krupp’s steel field artillery wasn’t the only thing that had mattered. The size of Prussia’s armies had also mattered, as had the defects of their enemy’s generalship. After all, the French also deployed a couple of greatly superior (and in one case absolutely secret and potentially devastating) new weapons, which turned out not to matter in 1871, in part because working out the tactical implications of a revolutionary weapon usually takes a lot of time. Tactical and strategic surprises have sometimes been devastating (although rarely decisive), but bolts from the blue made possible by radically new technology are rare enough that I cannot think of a pure example of one in military history as opposed to in science fiction, where they are ubiquitous. Ghost Fleet is thus at least as much a throwback to science fiction’s Golden Age pulps as it is a tale of the next war, and it follows pulp conventions when it recounts our eventual crushing victories as much as it does when it piles on our early catastrophic defeats. A mothballed American ship is refitted with a devastating new technology developed over the first weeks of the war (a rail gun powered by batteries using another hitherto-unknown isotope of unobtanium), and on its first use this single rail gun not only destroys fleets of enemy CVs but provides absolutely effective fire support for the re-invasion of Hawaii.

Another peculiarity in Ghost Fleet is the near-ish future’s economic and political situation. Oil is hundreds of dollars a barrel, China has secretly discovered the world’s largest underwater gas field in an American mid-Pacific economic exclusion zone, and is willing to fight a war to secure energy supplies we are already freely selling them. So far, so good: there is excellent reason to think that China’s current elites foresee a future of resource wars. Ghost Fleet's Chinese elites, however, are new, because three years ago a combination of military leaders and tycoons overthrew the Party—possible—and now rule with terrifying efficiency and no corruption. That last is a pretty good trick to pull off in just three years, not least because China’s generals are themselves exploiters of political privilege for economic gain on a very grand scale, as are, of course, China’s tycoons. The notion that an effortless replacement of one portion of a lawless, corrupt authoritarian elite by vast numbers of its own lawless, authoritarian and corrupt members, who are immediately free of two of these qualities, and thus supremely competent, seems an odd one for an author with a Harvard doctorate in political science assisted by another with a Harvard M.P.A. What do they teach people up there?

Not, it turns out, English: these gentlemen think the word "autarky" means "autonomy"—a particularly ominous mistake for people who affect to understand modern China—and also believe “I have abused your time” is how one makes a pro forma apology for a pretty terse presentation of a proposal for war to one’s colleagues and superiors. Ghost Fleet’s vision of American politics is also odd, happily full of deeply patriotic libertarian billionaires, deeply patriotic major stockholders of Walmart and deeply patriotic anarchist hackers, apparently the mass membership of Anonymous. Again, billionaires, brilliant corporate logisticians and anarchic free spirits are scarcely unknown in our history—they all chipped in to help us win both World Wars—but a lot of them also quarreled pretty savagely with the government and with one another. There’s none of that here—as in war, so in politics, and after those first reverses nothing important goes wrong. I am trying to guess what the admirals, generals, State Department folk and members of other elites who praise and employ Singer and Cole think of such a vision of war and politics. Maybe they simply think that a piece of genre fiction with twenty-two pages of footnotes must be worth something, but that possibility, however remote, is more credibly alarming than anything that happens in Ghost Fleet.

world Fredric Smoler 2015-08-18T19:33:17-05:00
Giving Us Something We Can Feel You couldn’t buy a copy of Between the World and Me on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a stretch last month since it was sold out of every book store. It was rousing to find out readers were hungry for Coates’s polemic against structural racism. Even if it meant the author had to look into the eyes of Charlie Rose (those empty spheres of influence). The oblivious Rose spent a couple flat minutes with Coates before ramping up for a more copacetic creative—Ant Man’s auteur. ("The mind of this country, taught to aim at low things, eats upon itself.” Pace Emerson.) Coates’s book may have gone pop but it deserves better than to be treated like product.

Between the World and Me responds to the maddening pattern of killings that began last August in Ferguson—and publication was sped up after the Charleston massacre—yet the book has breathing room in it. That’s what distinguishes art from entertainment, which is (per Aram Saroyan) “vacuum packed, without any room around the edges.” In the spirit of Coates's work this piece will go some unobvious places too.

Starting with the uncaptioned photo of a French door that faces p. 119 in Coates’s text. There are other snapshots in Between the World and Me—in one a college-age Coates holds a book by Basil Davidson; in another a slightly older Coates holds his son Samori—but that door needs more back story. It shows up in the middle of a passage where Coates bows to his spouse’s imagination (and rues how his own had been stunted as he came up hard in the West Baltimore ghetto). The picture is one of dozens of photos of doors—“giant doors—deep blue, ebony, turquoise and burning red”—his wife took when she visited Paris. These souvenirs of her solo trip conveyed something of the city’s essence—along with the frisson of travel itself—to Coates: “It occurred to me…that France wasn’t a thought experiment but an actual place, filled with actual people…whose lives really were different, whose sense of beauty was different.” Coates once shared a bud’s sense that traveling was a pointless luxury “like blowing the rent on a pink suit.” But, thanks to his wife, he got the bug though his idea of a vacation has fused with his vocation. (He’s put in serious time learning French and has written about what it means to think in another language.) In his own account, his trips to Paris have zip to do with escapism. Travel for him is about the miracle of the actual not fantasy life. Even when he’s beyond America’s race-based equations, he’s never that far in his head from home and his familiars. One afternoon in Le Jardin du Luxembourg this happy (if lonely) alien felt like a free man in Paris. Soon afterward, though, he found himself locked on his “generational chains”: “Even in Paris I could not shake my old way, the instinct to watch my back at every pass; and always be ready to go.”

Coates unpacks that "go" in Between the World and Me. He knows a Paris public garden isn’t just like Compton (or West Baltimore), but he tells why there’s always an ocean separating a homie like him from people who think they're white.


Coates has been accused of inventing a millennial radical chic shtick to guilt white liberals, yet it seems clear the readers over his shoulder are black folks. His critique of race-craft and mythy takes on American exceptionalism is shaped by awareness black people succumb to hegemania too:

For their innocence, they nullify your anger, your fear, until you are coming and going, and you find yourself inveighing against yourself—“Black people are the only people who…”—really inveighing against your own humanity and raging against the crime in your ghetto, because you are powerless before the great crime of history that brought the ghettos to be…

Last year, in his Atlantic piece making a fresh case for reparations, Coates enhanced the national conversation by popularizing revelatory work by historians who have documented the great crime of the redlining era, exposing “who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel.” His essay was informed, in particular, by Beryl Satter’s Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America. That harrowing book has rightly been praised for its “painstakingly thorough portrayal of the human costs of financial racism” in the urban North during the post-World War II period. Coates comes back to those human costs in Between the World and Me. Racism for him is “visceral” and the bottom line is bodily harm. He connects the “reduction” of black bodies by slavers or lynchers with his own upbringing in Baltimore’s ghetto, where “fear ruled everything around me,” where “the law did not protect us.” He limns the relation between chalk lines around black corpses in our time and red lines that hemmed in blacktowns back in the day. He cites evidence—not conspiracy theory—that confirms what “all black people” intuit—the Great Fear on the real side of town “is connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.”

Coates’s testimony is marked by his fidelity to lessons learned during his college days from elder black poets who faulted his own verse for its lack of specificity. Coates is now into details such as those he recalls when he tells how a fearful, rageful “small-eyed boy” pulled out a gun after school one day—“before the fighting weather of early spring”—shocking the 11 year old Coates into realizing his End might be just around the corner. Coates’s method moves him to try to quantify the impact of mortal thoughts and more mundane fears on his teenage head:

[E]ach day fully one third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not—all of which is to say I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.


Coates knows he has to break down this equipment for living to anyone who isn’t “street.” His plain facts of feeling surely hit me with the force of reality. Though I had less excuse for not-knowing than some other readers. An aside of Coates’s gives me a ghetto pass to roam here. He notes he identified Puerto Ricans and Dominicans as “cousins” after he got to NYC in 2001: “their rituals were so similar, the way they walked and gave dap, it was all familiar to me.” By that time I’d already witnessed my half-Dominican nephew Jaime do the Ice-G-thing during his Jr. High and High School years in NYC. Jaime lived in a vibrant, multi-racial neighborhood a block below 125th St. in West Harlem (where his father and mother—who’d grown up on the block—had amped up a sense of neighborhood by organizing tenants to resist landlords and urban gentry). He went to a Catholic school in the Bronx and his school uniform made him a target for bullies but even in his own hood, where his family was widely known (and loved) his dailiness was shaped by the need to watch his back. Ritual battles between around-the-way crews or more random violence was pervasive but I’m ashamed to admit it all went right by me on my way back and forth from my joint to his family’s apartment—my home away from home one hundred yards up Claremont Ave. As the Nineties went passing by, I realized when the sweetness of life for Jaime had begun to center on girls not the neighborhood candy store where we used to stop after I picked him up from elementary school, but I had no clue how much of his free time had come to be constrained by fear. I still remember the estranging evening I woke up (for a time). I’d been called in to help Jaime revise the template for his college application essay. His testament made it clear most of his mental energy had gone into protecting his body in the streets (or stealing kisses there). What happened in school classrooms or in the pages of books had seemed irreal to him. (If only Between the World and Me had come out as he was coming up.)


Hip hop was Jamie's culture. It was the soundtrack for young Coates’s life as well. He grasps why urban teenagers loved the music’s grand boasts and bluster: “it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were the masters of their own lives, their own streets, and their own bodies.” Jamie loved Nas’s early raps and that M.C. spoke to Coates too. (Though the lines of Nas’s he quotes in Between the World and Me are not for the ages.) Coates recalls how he was fired up in the late eighties when “conscious” hip hop by Public Enemy, KRS One et al. was in vogue. He also invokes the influence of black culture critics—“barely older than me”—who took hip hop as their subject then and were “creating a new language, one that I intuitively understood, to analyze our art, our world.”

He names names here and I was struck by the absence of Armond White who was, arguably, the most acute critic of classic hip hop. White, who writes for National Review (and Out), is now known chiefly as a defiantly contrarian film critic, Obama-basher, and scourge of Hollywood liberals-and-hacks. But the following passage from his piece last week on Straight Out of Compton hints at how his history as a black art-lover will always distance him from mighty white rightists:[1]

Hip-hop culture has produced some of the greatest, most adventurous pop art of the past quarter-century, from Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and Apocalypse 91 to Prince’s The Black Album, from De La Soul Is Dead to Son of Bazerk, from Geto Boys’ The Resurrection to the compelling and poisonous threnodies of The Chronic, “California Love,” and even the new-millennial brilliance of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy…But Straight Outta Compton disrespects the facts behind the art form. Public Enemy’s stature in hip-hop’s ideological history is, here, passed to N.W.A., a group that should rightly be understood as PE’s miscreant opposite: They’re punks in the bratty American sense, not in the sense of Britain’s politicized revolutionaries.

Coates and White share an esteem for rapper Kendrick Lamar whose good kid, mA.A.d city (2012) concept CD about “the ones in front of the gun” anticipated (and probably sparked) Coates’s own shots at evoking ghetto stress in Between the World and Me. There are other synergies between Coates’s and White’s ways in the world, which are most apparent in their earlier trajectories. Though Coates may have failed to pick up on White’s politics of culture in the late Eighties and Nineties because White appeared mostly in the New York City newspaper, The City Sun, rather than hip hop magazines with national circulation.

White wrote for and edited the Sun’s art pages which took in hip hop and other black arts traditions, without giving into ghetto-centricity or bowing to dry as dust vanity projects often favored by bourgie bohemians of color. But White’s eye traveled widely too. He was, chiefly, a film critic whose sensibility had been shaped by the nouvelle vague. What was most striking about his work was his broadscale responsiveness to any form of pop life that got real about human struggle. (White’s collection of essays from his Sun years was called The Resistance.) I flashed on White’s stance at the Sun—a (capital B) Black newspaper—when I read Coates’s reboot of “black power,” which he defines as an intellectual resource found in African American roots: “Black power is the dungeon-side view of Monticello—which is to say, the view taken in struggle."

A sequence in Between the World and Me jumped out at me as I was considering the link between Coates's power moves and White’s angles in the Sun. Coates recalls being pricked by Saul Bellow's smug rhetorical question: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”—and how he was juiced by writer Ralph Wiley’s response: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus…unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.” There were other, worse responses to Bellow’s ungenerous dis. One African American critic, for example, bowed to tribalism, praising playwright August Wilson as “our Shakespeare.” But White (like Wiley) wasn't going out like that: “Shakespeare is our Shakespeare!” (Though White was all in for Wilson too. I was his plus one as we both marveled at actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s soul-deep solo on how to cook greens in Wilson’s Seven Guitars.)

White’s instinct for struggle and his aesthetic impulse distanced him from Black Enterprise approaches to culture. It was always a hoot to watch him try to conceal his boredom when the subject of marketing came up in chatter at parties or panels. Coates has a best-seller now but he’s not one of those branded black public intellectuals who buy Henry Louis Gates’s mantra: “Remember Oprah, it’s all about the Benjamins.” Coates’s tales of his years as a less-than-stellar student and broke-ass writer prove he’s never been in it for grades or bucks. What gets him feening is “the rapture that comes only when you can no longer be lied to.”

When he was a kid, though, Coates allows he was stuck on the standard American ambition: “The Dream seemed to me to be the pinnacle then—to grow rich and live in one of those disconnected houses out in the country…” His wife “knew better” in part because she’d grown up in the suburbs. His story of how she led him to satori(s) in Paris though his “eyes were made in Baltimore” reminds me of what happened to White on his first trip there. White’s eyes were made in a Detroit black working class neighborhood. But even so he knew better than to yearn for the ‘burbs. When he saw the Eiffel Tower it lifted him out of time, back to an hour when he was running away from home as a child. Where did he think he was headed? When his family asked, the little boy answered: “I’m going to Paris.” His reply hints White was a born “Earthizen.” Someone who senses, per White’s favorite rapper, Chuck D: “Earth without art is…eh.”

Coates is glad his own child is a less armored world traveler than he is. He loves the way his “son’s eyes lit up like candles when we stood out on Saint-Germain-des pres.” But Coates’s own aesthetic—like Chuck D.’s by the way—is marked by an organic intellectual's will to hang tough with the black nation. (White, OTOH, has been tempted to say good-by to all that. He’s not only put off by African Americans’ identification with Obama but also by the new crop of black activists.) Coates advises his son to cultivate “black consciousness" in Between the World and Me’s Paris diary:

Understand that to be distanced, if only for a moment, from fear is not a passport out of the struggle. We will always be black, even if it means different things in difference places…Remember that you and I are brothers, are the children of trans-Atlantic rape. Remember the broader consciousness that comes with that. Remember that this consciousness can never be racial; it must always be cosmic.


Coates’s counsel reminds me of an African-American travel-lover—an ex-girlfriend of mine—who once looked to find a passport out of struggle though in the end her journey confirmed Coates's advice. I lost this ex to Rome (where she’d marry an Italian and have a bunch of Afropean kids) but, before that, she had an affair with Paris. After reading Between the World and Me, I went to find my copy of Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, which my ex read and marked up as she was prepping for her first trip to Paris. Rhys’s early stories of needful mistresses at the mercy of cosmopolitan men (and the promesse de bonne heure) are pretty far gone from, say, Travel and Leisure. (“Now, money, for the night is coming. Money for my hair, money for my teeth, money for shoes that won't deform my feet—it's not so easy now to walk around in cheap shoes with very high heels—money for good clothes, money, money. The night is coming.”) My straitened travel-lover (who wasn’t getting much help from the hard-up hard-on in her life back then) probably found herself feeling too close to Good Morning, Midnight’s anti-heroine. By the time my travel-lover was 100 pages deep and through the door to the fictional Parisian room evoked below, I suspect it seemed stifling to her:

I stayed there, looking down at the dark red, dirty carpet and seeing a dark wall in the hot sun—the wall so hot it burned your hand when you touched it—and the red and yellow flowers and the time of day when everything stands still.

She wasn't trying to hear Rhys’s static; next to this sentence she’d written in bold script: “S. is going to Paris. July 1, 1991.” A page later, my travel-lover found another margin for hope, floating off again from the story’s moored “I” into her own stream of consciousness: “But she won’t get there until July second!”

Her use of the third person hints at how it was second nature for her to objectify herself. She often seemed alienated from her own gorgeous body. (I mocked her out of her mad belief she required extra-strong anti-perspirant.) A beauty from a broken family of (lapsing) Jehovah’s Witnesses, my ex was used to being out of sorts. Her race-based double-consciousness mushroomed when she tested her way into a Ladies/Gentleman’s C prep school. After two years as a scholarship Sister, a parental abdication put her back on a Florida chain-gang of check-out girls. Then, escape to New York and a snowy time with coke-is-life Euro-trash. She wed her first Italian before she was twenty but their marriage ended after 10 months. Her own divorced mother, brother and sisters were a presence in New York, but her fam was never a haven. God had blessed her with an Afro-Italianate face (as well as a world-class ass) and she was dammed to get her own.

She figured out how every other month. She saw herself cat-walking from the Fashion Institute to Parsons School of Design, from Harlem computer classes to the French embassy, from entrepreneurial dog paths to Kidder Peabody trading floors. But she was no poseur. She dream-worked toward each of her futures. Especially the one that defined her Nineties. She’d learned how to speak Italian from her first husband during her months as a child bride and she retained that skill because she’d interrupt her other projects for binges of language practice.

Her mastery of Italian would enable her to make a life in Rome where she lived with her second husband and their children for years on a city block where she could see sheep grazing, though Italy didn’t turn out to be her country of destiny. I remember her calling me once after she learned I’d married a Senegalese woman. My ex let me know she’d been to Senegal. Her African sojourn had brought her Ancestors alive; she felt them in the ways Black Atlantic Brothers and Sisters walked and talked. Yet she knew she’d always be an outsider in the Motherland and her trip had also reinforced her sense of estrangement from African-Americans: “There’s so much pain in the culture. Who needs that?” I was stumped. Then the phone rang on another line. I put my ex on hold and picked up to hear a buddy laughing out loud. He was dying over the Ghetto Girlz' reset of the Geto Boys’ rap hit, “My Mind’s Playing Tricks on Me” which the Girlz had spun into a takedown of a down-low boyfriend: “Homie, my man’s been sucking dicks on me.” His black laughter seemed to answer my ex’s question. The Ghetto Girlz would’ve have cracked her up too. It was chastening to think I was able to get happy in the USA while my ex’s passport out of struggle had cut her off from black fun.

But she wasn’t fated to lose the joy or pain of African-American culture. My ex would return, after her second divorce, to New York where she got a real estate license and launched a new career. Back in the USA, she became (in her own phrase) a “politics junkie” alive to partisan conflicts and the development of black consciousness in the Obama era. She picked up on Coates’s Atlantic piece on reparations and we exchanged emails about Satter’s Family Properties—that chronicle of cheats and liars which poured off the page like it written for her due to her practical knowledge of real estate. She schooled me after I cited this line from Dwight Garner’s Times review of the book: "Family Properties is so packed with the horrors visited upon black families in Chicago from the 1940s through the 1970s that you will want to walk outside every 15 pages or so and simply scream in outrage.” My ex demurred: “He's joking right? I wanted to inflict harm on someone.” A line that might serve to define the difference between liberal-minded whites and folk who will always be black.


My ex's truth attack is in line with Coates’s skepticism toward black anger managers and retailers of pieties about the Civil Rights Movement. He writes about how “the glories of being beaten on camera” escaped him as he was growing up on streets where an ethic of nonviolence wasn’t a strategic option but a summons to personal destruction. After the Charleston massacre, Coates helped start the campaign to remove Confederate flags from State grounds, but he couldn't roll with black Georgians who “rushed” to forgive Dylann Roof. His attitude on this score is Malcomesque. He explains in Between the World and Me how he was stirred in his youth by Malcolm X’s plain clarities:

If he was angry he said so. If he hated, he hated because it was natural for the enslaved to hate the enslaver, as natural as Prometheus hating the birds. He would not turn the other cheek for you.

I’m guessing Coates’s might allow his unqualified endorsement of Malcolm as “the first political pragmatist I knew” risks slighting Martin Luther King’s canny politicking, But his attempt to work through Malcolm’s influence on him as he was cultivating his own gift for study is moving. His account of how hip hop voices revived Malcolm’s legacy in the late Eighties reminds me of an academic conference at a CUNY campus that aimed to cultivate that pop moment. It was about the liveliest University gathering I’ve ever attended. And I have a blurry memory of being struck by a young speaker from Baltimore. Could it have been Coates? What’s certain is that his arrival fulfills the promise of that X-y time—a promise deferred by Spike Lee’s Hollywood version of Malcolm’s life and trashed by the rise of gangsta rap. (See Armond White above on N.W.A.’s accession.)

The X revival had a heavy personal resonance for this white liberal. When I was in 6th grade in the Sixties a teacher I’d been bugging shut me up by giving me The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which became the story of my life. It steered me to the house I live in today with my West African wife and African-American son. Not that I would ever conflate my trip with Coates’s. I started from a college town that was closer to the Dream than to West Baltimore and I can imagine him rolling his eyes at any attempt to mix up my reading of the Autobiography with his need for his hero’s defense of black bodies (and black beauty). Looking back on my adolescence in Amherst MA, though, it occurs to me I went through one extreme reality check that might give him something he can feel.

It went down the summer after I got out of high school. I’d been playing b-ball—a 2 on 2 pick-up game in the gym at the college where my dad taught. The game ended when a guy on the other team stepped off abruptly. He had an issue, we learned later, with a foul that I’d (either) committed or called against him. While his departure seemed a little odd, it wouldn’t have stuck in my mind for long since I’d played in numberless pick-up games with touchy players (though of course most of them hung around for the finish). But a half an hour later, the day became unforgettable. The guy whose skin I’d got under—an Asian-American Amherst College student named Robert Ong—came back to the gym with a half-dozen black kids. High schoolers from the city of Springfield, they were enrolled in a program of tutoring and “cultural enrichment” during the summer on the campus where Ong had a gig teaching them Kung Fu. After I’d chased a ball to an open court, I looked up to see Ong and those young homies closing in. He said something I didn’t catch and they all came at me. As beat-downs go, it was pretty light stuff. I ended up with deep bruises on my back and shoulder from a belt buckle or a stick (or a karate chop). Bruises that kept me off the court for a couple weeks but my attackers didn’t break any of my bones. The kids were wearing sneakers so their kicks after I’d gone down to the floor weren’t dangerous. In the moment, though, I have to admit I was mad scared. The kids and their blows had come out of nowhere and, as I covered up, any horrible seemed possible.

I recall now how I lived scared for a couple months after the beating. The lure of an empty gym at night—perfect for solo shooting/fantasizing—was lost on me for a bit because I couldn’t help worrying the meanness in this world might roar through the doors at any second. What’s more telling, though, is how quickly I got over my bad day. Between the World and Me got me thinking about how those Springfield kids Ong bamboozled into doing his dirty work probably ended up ghetto vets unable to forget all the violence they’d seen, sown, or reaped. Their Master of Kung Fu, though, seems to have had the wind at his back. He moved on from his B.S. Third-Worldist summer at Amherst to Wall Street. Now he’s in Tampa where (according to the website of his SEO consulting biz) “Robert ‘Bob’ Ong plays competitive tennis and navigates sailboats in the Clearwater/ St. Petersburg waters.”

Back in the day, Amherst College barely disciplined Ong. (A tory prof, though, did refuse to let Ong take his political science class since this student had proved not to be a gentleman. Not my cup of tea exactly, but I’ll take it even today.) What happened in the gym is the kind of thing that’s supposed to turn leftists into conservatives. But my brother Tom kept me from going wrong/right. While my fear dogged me for a couple months, it always seemed petty given the example of courage Tom gifted me with on the afternoon I got assaulted. He was shooting baskets at the other end of the court when I was surrounded, but once he realized I was being beaten he raced toward the circle and took on all my attackers. I still don’t grasp how he fought them off but I know it wasn’t a cakewalk. (He took a punch to the head that put him in the hospital that night.)

My gym drama was a one-off—a singular event that wouldn’t shape my life (in part because I’d lived the Dream, far from a victim’s hood). But there was more of a portent in Tom’s acts that day. My brother’s future would disclose a tight connection between fate and character since he was destined to become a…Brother. Tom ended up working 25 years in the Post Office on 125th St. where almost all of his fellow employees were African-Americans. In his off hours, he did another (unpaid) job as tenant/community organizer in West Harlem where he lived with his family (see above) and became, in the fullness of time, the mayor of his block. There’s a passage in Between the World and Me that hints why Tom’s ease in Harlem only seemed exceptional to fools. Out to clarify emotional constructs black people have built to last in America, Coates invokes an exchange between himself and another Brother:

Not long ago I was standing in an airport retrieving a bag from a conveyor belt. I bumped into a young man and said, “My bad.” Without even looking up he said, “You straight.”…It was the briefest intimacy, but it captured much of the beauty of my black world…To call that feeling racial is to hand over all those diamonds fashioned by our ancestors to the plunderers

Tom helped push that feeling on during thousands of night shifts and numberless neighborhood meet-ups. I’ve been known to put my own bent shoulder to the wheel, but I’ve never been a straight-up member of Coates’s tribe as I was reminded earlier this month when I took my son to see an evening screening of last year’s James Brown documentary (Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown) at Marcus Garvey Park in Central Harlem. The amphitheater was full of aging blues and funk people. It was a classic Harlem crowd, somewhere between Jazzmobile's ancients and Dionysians at the Apollo. As I stood for a sec at the top of stone stairs, someone jostled me, “Move or I’ll punch your…” Bash from the past? Nope. A tease from a cat I played ball with for years in the Columbia gym (though neither of us had legit IDs). As I gave him my unclenched hand—too blind to risk a pound in the dark—and rapped a bit about his game and mine, I realized how out of practice I was. And I’m not talking about basketball. As my own neighborhood has been gentrified and age/parenting has cut into my black musicking, I don’t get much nationtime. That baller, though, didn’t make me feel like the White Shadow. He introduced me to his wife who took a photo of him with me and my son. Then he showed us pics of his four sons and 10 grandchildren. Before he split to hang with his fam, my son tried to give the player a pound but I’d done the white thing before so my friend shook him off. My son teased me about my unhip grip but—don’t call it comeback!—I may have seemed less lame to him later thanks to some unforced shout-outs to the screen and respondents in the crowd as J.B. got us all into the groove.

(“Do you know a lot about James Brown, dad?”
“Ah…lotsa white guys know more, like that Brit who spoke up in the movie, Mick Jagger.”)

After the show, we met up with my buddy and he walked us out of the park, acting like our host. His welcome and send-off reminded me of a nice Coates’s riff: “They made us a race. We made us a people.” I hope my son runs into more sociable folk like that avuncular baller. He’ll have a chance then to become mo' better than an outlier in Harlem.


Between the World and Me is framed as a letter to Coates’ son—a concept that echoes James Baldwin’s public letter to his nephew, which famously served as the introduction to The Fire Next Time. But it also reminded me of a more recent epistle on race—the late John Updike’s “A Letter to My Grandsons” (1989). Updike’s eldest daughter had married a West African and his letter was addressed to that couple’s two sons, Kwame and Anoff. The letter was meant to introduce them to their mother’s family history and American history. It wasn’t beamish about race matters. Updike acknowledged “black ghettos are…perhaps more dire places than they ever were.” But Updike put his faith in a willful evolutionism: “America is slowly becoming yours, I want to believe, as much as it is anyone’s…”

At least our laws now formally insist upon equal rights and our best corporations and educational institutions recruit blacks in an effort to right old imbalances, and professional sports and television commercials constantly offer images of multiracial camaraderie. An ideal colorblind society flickers at the forward edge of the sluggishly evolving one.

Such flickers can't concentrate the attention of Coates. They are snuffed out by Michael Brown’s body lying in the street for hours or that blunt, front page piece in the Sunday Times earlier this month: “An Indelible Black and White Line: A Year After Ferguson, Housing Segregation Defies Tools to Erase It.” Perhaps it’s not entirely fair to compare the late Updike’s upbeat progressivism with reporting on race today twenty-five years later. OTOH, let’s be just and look back too. It's hard to hook up Updike’s wishful projecting with the urgent prophecy of The Fire Next Time, though Updike probably imagined he was in Baldwin’s tradition. It’s true he comprehended Baldwin’s desire for a deep form of integration, encompassing the most intimate forms of communion between blacks and whites. Updike told his grandsons “there’s a floating sexual curiosity and potential love [between the races] that in your parents has come to earth and borne fruit and the blended shade of your dear brown skins will ever advertise.” Updike stood at a distance at the top of his letter. That phrase “dear brown skins,” though, hints at how he’d lose his detached posture on his way to the letter’s summit of mutual ease and trust: “the moment the other evening when fretful little Kwame let himself be walked to sleep on my shoulder.”

Updike’s delicacy here was and is undeniable. But, as one critic noted, his letter’s logic led from this emotional touchstone toward “minimization” of white supremacy’s legacy.

[Updike] acknowledges, that “you will each be in subtle (at best) ways the focus of distaste and hatred and fear that have nothing to do with anything but your skins.” But, he insists, shutting the door briefly opened upon black-white difference, “we must all take our chances, and the world is not anywhere basically a friendly place, though our mothers and fathers and school teachers would make it seem so.”[2]

Updike’s final qualification helps define the distance between his world-view and those of Baldwin and Coates. Neither of whom were raised by parents who could bring themselves to pretend the world is “basically a friendly place.” (At the risk of invoking too many African-American exemplars, Updike could’ve learned something from Ralph Ellison’s tribute to Richard Wright’s Black Boy which zeroed in on familial consequences of ruthless physical violence against African Americans in the Jim Crow era:

One of the Southern Negro family’s methods of protecting the child is a severe beating—a homeopathic dose of the violence generated by black and white relationships. Such beatings as Wright’s were administered for the child’s own good; a good which the child resisted, thus giving to family relationships an undercurrent of fear and hostility.)

Coates didn’t come up in the segregated South. His family wasn’t afraid of nightriders or white supremacist taboos. But scary crews and cops weren’t the only vectors of fear when Coates was growing up. He also had to be careful around his stressed dad (whose belt he felt). He’s honest about undercurrents of hostility in his family: “It was a loving house, even as it was besieged by its country, but it was hard.” That tough ‘hood and house birthed a wounded parent as Coates confesses to his teenaged son: “I wish I had been softer to you…”

Your mother had to teach me how to love you—how to kiss you and tell you I love you every day. Even now it does not feel a wholly natural act so much as it feels like ritual.

Coates’ letter to his son, like Updike’s missive to his grandsons, is a richly loving document. But the difference between their testaments is more striking (and more telling when it comes to America’s indelible racial divide). Take the contrast between Updike’s affecting image of a white elder comforting a black child (with its attendant implication an ideal color-blind society’s origins lie “not in the resolution of complex group conflict but in mysterious, irreversible movements of the passionate heart”[3]) and this scene where Coates recalls the night when his son learned Mike Brown’s killer wouldn’t be indicted:

[Y]ou went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I didn’t tell you it would be ok, because I have never believed it would be ok. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me; that this is your country, that this is your world, and you must find some way to live within the all of it. I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life…

It seems apt the most resonant passage in Updike’s dispatch from Dreamland is about putting a black kid to sleep. Coates’ letter, by contrast, is all about wake-up calls. (“Conscious” is probably the text’s key-word.)


Updike’s “Letter” presaged America’s Big Sleep on race during the Clinton era. Coates’s letter is very much a document of Obamatime. Though Coates has often distanced himself from the President. He’s had a problem with Obama’s tendency to talk up “personal responsibility” when addressing black people. Coates argues the President implicitly upholds institutional racism when his rhetoric veers too close to Bill Cosby’s “poundcake speech." Coates also protested against Obama’s inaction during the Sherrod episode: “Play your position!”

Cornel West's Facebook claim that Coates is Obama’s toady was a doofus move. But West's panic attack wasn’t entirely unfounded. Coates belongs to a younger cohort of black intellects who have grown up in public during the Obama era and set off West's generational sense of jealousy. I’m reminded just now of how one them was tested back in the day since that little drama helps place Coates’s rise within the context of Obama.

A black Democratic party consultant named Jamal Simmons distinguished himself as a canny (though not tendentious) defender of Obama during the 2007-8 campaign. Aware he was on the spot in a hot medium, Simmons played it cool, calm and respectable. Yet, on the night of the Texas primary, the Clintons’ lawyer Lanny Davis accused Simmons of being “angry.” Stunned, Simmons burned for a half-second, before getting back in the game. When Davis tried the same trick a couple days later—this time, accusing Obama of sounding “angry”—Simmons breezed past him without hinting at his own frustration at the Clinton man’s repeated efforts to conger up the threat of “Black Rage.”

Obama and his black surrogates must still be cool. Yet the President’s presence has untied sharper tongues like Coates’s. He's confessed visits to the White House helped get him going on Between the World and Me.

“Symbols matter” he mused to a reporter as they settled down to watch Obama’s Amazing Grace speech in Charleston. Obama’s undeniable incarnation of Man Thinking has eroded racial biases in the collective consciousness of our caste-like society. But his legacy rests not just on symbolic action, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. The struggle to uphold and expand that law will be crucial to Coates’s people and their bodies. Coates himself has confronted Obama here, pointing out in a public White House session blacks and Hispanics may be disproportionately left out of ACA’s protections since many governors of states with significant minority populations have opted out of the federal government’s expansion of Medicaid. Going forward, I suspect black people will be more alive to the need to build on Obama’s heaviest domestic policy achievement than white leftist ideologues. (Progressive fantasts, after all, have tended to have little use for the ACA.) Those of us who try to keep up with the black nation might find ourselves supporting a presidential candidate with no soul and less vision if she’s got the best chance to beat a Republican who’d gut the ACA. Black lives matter more than Bernie’s green Dream of Socialism. Can I get a witness?


I If you find it hard to get your mind around the idea this passage appeared in The National Review, consider that it’s not a one-off per White's recent piece “Paying Attention to Black Lives.”

2 Benjamin DeMott in The Trouble With Friendship.

3 DeMott Op. cit.

nation Benj DeMott 2015-08-18T07:21:10-05:00
Part Two What follows is the second installment in an ongoing serialized essay about two overlapping developments within modern American culture: the questionable popular demand that political leaders come “with a narrative” and, on the literary front, a general revival of approval for long serial narratives.

“[B]y nightfall all the ladies are like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum”... that line from the first chapter of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has stuck in my mind since I first read it in 8th grade. It conveys for me a certain way of thinking about summer as a time when all efforts to stay cool seem like phony wars against nature. It’s a time like today when, as I write this, we’re in the middle of our third big city heat wave. Everything solid is melting into one big teacake and I’m seeing connections everywhere that relate to my ongoing preoccupation with serial storytelling and political narratives—especially on the booklists. There, at this moment, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is #1 on the fiction side and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is first in non-fiction. Both books are about race in America, and both appeared in timely proximity to the massacre in Charleston. Lee’s book has shown what can happen when a book perceived as a prequel or second installment radically challenges the reader’s opinion of a major returning character. Coates, meanwhile, forces hard thinking about the difference between structural and individual racism. Does the history of race in America amount to one big, never-changing sameness, or is it episodic and character-driven?

To regard racism as a social structure, an institution and a tradition (rather than a moral weakness within an individual) reveals the fantasy behind the idolization of Atticus Finch. In Go Set a Watchman, the grown-up Scout returns to the South and sees Atticus from a perspective not far removed from that of Coates. Go Set a Watchman was not written as a sequel but someone, most probably for reasons largely commercial, decided to market it as one. But if Go Set a Watchman is assumed to be a serial continuation of To Kill a Mockingbird (as almost everyone thinks), it supports Coates’s view. However weak or bad it may be, it seems inevitable that this new addition will change how readers think of To Kill a Mockingbird, which will in turn change the meanings attached to it. I’m not sure Harper Lee herself is to blame for any of this; Go Set a Watchman was a first draft that was rewritten and edited into To Kill a Mockingbird, and the book pages are full of stories about why this rough draft should have been left in the archives.

Indeed, before Go Set a Watchman appeared, the newspapers questioned whether Harper Lee was mentally able to approve its publication, and the minute it appeared readers began to criticize its promoters for over-hyping what should have been a scholars-only edition rather than threatening to destroy the idealism readers have long associated with the character of Atticus Finch. To now find out that Atticus attended a KKK meeting is like finding out Thomas Jefferson owned slaves or something. Or, oh... wait a cotton-picking minute... maybe, as Coates’s argument would suggest, we should have already known that?

Scout narrates as an adult but she remembers her father Atticus Finch as she knew him then. Generations of middle-school teachers encouraged an interpretation of To Kill a Mockingbird that put too much faith in a text whose narrator is long on charm but somewhat short on reliability. To take the child’s view as the true one makes for weak reading and even worse arithmetic: founding the country and owning slaves didn’t fully add up to a perfect sum.

Anyone who encountered To Kill a Mockingbird as a child probably grew up believing in the existence of an unambivalently liberal, anti-racist straight white male lawyer in the Jim Crow South as credible and likely, may now feel a bit of a chump, especially those who named their pets or children “Atticus” (the new Adolf?). But there were “good” white men in the pre-civil-rights era South, weren’t there? And isn’t it in the nature of social structures to change over time, often under direct pressure from organized and individual protest?

Coates himself would probably answer “yes” to both of those questions, but I take his deeper point to be one that would encourage us to regard narratives such as To Kill a Mockingbird as juvenile. While it may have made white readers feel a bit better about their inner lives despite that novel’s bleak projection of the future of race relations (Atticus loses the fight but he’s a good man worthy of reverence nonetheless), how much solace did it offer to black readers left to contend with persisting, non-symbolic manifestations of the American heritage of racist violence, much of it operating (as Coates seems to see it) through institutional rather than individual agencies?

Whatever the fundamental logic of his argument, Coates has reason to blur the line between different understandings of the determining factors of histories. He’s not suggesting that individuals don’t act upon personal decisions, but that individuals do not always act with full consciousness of how their actions are shaped by, enact, and perpetuate larger social forces that may benefit their personal interests more than those whom they would help. I’m not sure Coates is proposing any clear solution (indeed, most of his thinking is pretty dire and pessimistic), but I do think he’s in a tradition that believes raising consciousness will produce better action. And what he’s contributing is a history of America constructed to unsettle the confidence of those who are paradoxically least comfortable investigating the righteousness of their positions on matters pertaining to race, and those with the greatest investment in imagining/remembering anti-racist white southern lawyers in isolated and tiny Southern towns before the 1950’s—white liberals.

Our embrace of Atticus didn’t represent an entirely bad impulse, and it may not have produced any behavior worse than unearned self-congratulation. But it’s generally a good thing when icons crumble and the loss of Atticus reminds us importantly, that he was, like all icons, imaginary. At best, Go Set a Watchman may produce is a more critical re-reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, not a mass rejection of it.

From all we know about the history of Go Set a Watchman, it was not written as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, but so many arguments for and against its publication turn on a perceived threat to Atticus. Are sequels, intended or not, the same thing as installments of a single story intended to be read in stages? Fair or not, that’s what people who fall in love with stories and characters do, and so I’m writing here as a reader, not from the author’s perspective. Though I might question the reading of Lee’s two novels as part of a larger single, story, I understand why it has happened, and it is certainly a practice I shall apply in the coming installments of this essay to the major serialized texts of our day, those I mentioned in Part One of this essay as the strongest example of the kind of thing that might be changing the nature of literary art in the beginning of the 21st century. If readers of Go Set a Watchman felt unfairly ambushed by the alteration of Scout’s representation of her father, they were reacting negatively to a bad use, intended or not, of the kind of shift that is unavoidable in XXL fiction. The best authors of long novels are those who intend to write big from the beginning, and they use these shifts consciously, for effects of various kinds. In the next installment of this essay, I will argue that this is what Elena Ferrante does in her Neapolitan Novels.

culturewatch Karen Hornick 2015-08-03T03:00:06-05:00
Shelby Steele's Historylessness What follows is a compacted version of a critique of Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character (1991) that originally appeared in The Trouble With Friendship (1995). That book by the late Benjamin DeMott showed how white and black neoconservatism, the rise of the black middle class, and the imagery and rhetoric of racial amity promulgated by mass media had coalesced into a “friendship orthodoxy.” This appealing, resolutely ahistorical mindset maintained that the nation’s racial problems could be solved without government intervention, “simply by black and whites working together, one on one, to reconcile differences.” Friendship orthodoxy sublated what was common wisdom in the Civil Rights era when the next steps had seemed obvious:

[S]ociety would have to admit that when one race deprives another of its humanity for centuries, those who have done the depriving are obligated to do what they can to restore the humanity of the deprived. The obligation clearly entailed the mounting of comprehensive long-term programs of developmental assistance—not guilt money—for nearly the entire black population. The path forward was unavoidable.

It was avoided.

Thus the vogue for nice, cheap fixes to the American Dilemma in the 80s and 90s. Friendship orthodoxy ruled then and it hangs on today. But the following clip of a spectral Shelby Steele arguing with Ta-Nehisi Coates hints we may not have to breathe its derelict air forever. Their dialogue, which dates back to earlier this year, impelled your editor to return to The Trouble With Friendship’s clarities about Steele’s emergence as the anti-Race Man back in the day.[1]

"Either them Korean motherfuckers are geniuses or your black asses are just plain dumb."
Do the Right Thing (1989)

The speaker of the line above is M.L., a black man who, with two companions—one of them Sweet Dick Willie, played by the late, great comedian Robin Harris—functions as the chorus in the Spike Lee film. Seated under a tatty umbrella on a Brooklyn street, the three men eye a Korean grocery across the way. “Lookit those Korean motherfuckers,” says M.L. “I betcha they haven’t been off the boat a year before they open up their own place. Motherfucking year off the motherfucking boat and they already got a business in our neighborhood—a good business…Now for the life of me, you know, I can’t figure this out.”

M.L.’s mocking conclusion (either Koreans are geniuses or blacks are dumb) is a detail of character but something else as well...

Castelike societies attempting to dismantle parts of their stratification systems lose patience quickly. Both the majority and the making-it minority, troubled by lack of change in the grossly disturbing elements of everyday bottom-caste experience, seek interpretations—stories—that explain slow rates of progress without attributing them either to large-scale, systemic, historical and socioeconomic factors or to foot-dragging on the part of elites. More than one caste-like society abroad has regressed swiftly to belief that its bottom caste suffer regrettably from ineradicable genetic defects. And talk of “black asses” as “just plain dumb” was one among many signs of similar temptation.

This is America, however. The country doesn’t easily give itself to public harshness. The traditions and pieties forbid the casual shedding of sameness myths. Its can-do rhetoric and sunny tales of black–white fellowship insist on white goodwill and blamelessness. Its fantasy life reverberates with tales of blacks who are necessarily, pleasingly, overwhelmingly grateful to whites...

The situation required a formula that would permit a measure of criticism of blacks—criticism that would check up short of genetic slander and that would simultaneously reaffirm whites’ earnest concern.

The formula arrived at provided an interpretation of slow black progress that was gratifyingly exculpatory. It proposed that the reason blacks were moving ahead only haltingly might be that excessive white generosity had slowed them down. The basic problem wasn’t the intellectual and educational and socioeconomic deficit piled up during centuries of absolute race stratification. It was, instead, the understandable but nevertheless not finally benign disposition of softhearted white Americans to spoil their black brothers and sisters rotten.

Chief spokesmen for this thesis outside the world of pop were the young black neoconservative academics—Shelby Steele and Stephen Carter were the best known—who, like Spike Lee, came to notice in the late 1980s. Arguing that efforts to aid African Americans through programs of racial preference caused psychological harm, these writers had a more complex agenda in mind than did the white Tories who often wrenched their words out of context. But Steele, Carter and others did insist that the time had come to stop “coddling the minority”; they strongly urged that black individualistic energy must henceforth be required to prove itself on its own.

The position made waves. Previous preaching, by whites, against special treatment for minorities had been easy to abuse as reactionary and heartless. And the rare black writer who sided with the preaching tended to avoid direct attacks on black activist leaders and seldom addressed a general audience. Not so the new black neoconservatives. Early achievers in professional disciplines, they were seeking a wide public—and, they didn’t hesitate to challenge black leaders who, certain that problems facing black Americans derived from historical caste reality, continued to urge new public commitments. Rightist commentators and organs of opinion praised the black neoconservatives unreservedly—“If you read no other book…make it Shelby Steele’s,” wrote George Will—and their message quickly got out…

Fairness demands repeated acknowledgement that a primary goal of the black neoconservatives was to put on record that at least some African Americans recognized the welfare system to be not merely a failure but, because it perpetuated dependency, a blight on the hopes of their race. In pursuing that goal, however, they laid less stress on the need for new conceptions of nationally supported racial development than on the themes of black-white sameness that had come to dominate cultural life. In short, despite huge differences in tone, idiom and ultimate purpose, pop and academic black conservatism jointly backed the attitudes and assumptions of friendship orthodoxy. And that cultural rapprochement hastened the process by which the orthodoxy established its broad claim to respectability. Instead of spectacles of knockabout bonhomie, in the pages of the black neoconservatives it was possible to find moral, philosophical, and psychological justifications for the view that the surest proof of white kindness and caring would be a national decision to leave blacks alone to solve their problems for themselves. And with the triumph of this view, friendship orthodoxy reached its apogee.

The definitive black neoconservative text was Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character (1991), subtitled A New Vision of Race in America. An English professor in the California state college system, Steele articulated his new vision in ten chapters composed in an autobiographical style. He drew on classroom knowledge of young black undergraduates, on memories of his own youth as a poor black growing up in Chicago, and on his adult experience as a suburbanite member of a secure and respected professional class.

But despite the uncontentious tone (one newspaper critic spoke of the author as “the perfect voice of reason in a sea of hate”), The Content of Our Character is a cunningly argued work. Structured as a series of essays redefining three key terms (power, racism, and the self), the book advances unremittingly toward its goal, namely the displacement of historical and socioeconomic factors from their once dominant position in race discourse. At one and the same time it provides new intellectual footing for the range of assumptions underlying the contemporary enlightened mind-set and defines, with passion, the grounds on which majority culture neglect of black Americans could now claim to be truly benign.

Black-White Sameness: The Theological Overview

Steele’s approach to the matter of interracial sameness lies through analysis of power relations between the races. Pre-Shelby Steele, conventional commentary on this subject focused—when addressing the period before emancipation—on white ownership of blacks, as chattel property, during the centuries of slavery. Commentary on post-emancipation power relations focused on denials to blacks, by whites, of the right to vote, to receive equal protection under law, use public facilities (schools, parks, transportation), and so on. The imbalance in power between the groups was seen in clear, concrete, objective events: the punishment of slaves with thirty lashes for attempting to learn to read, or, for an example in the present, shortages of text-books in schools attended by black pupils (as in the South Bronx, where members of a high school science course recently spent an entire year without texts).

The Content of Our Character takes the position that reading power relations in these terms is superficial. The events that count occur below the surface, in the psyche, and are determined by an inward calculus of innocence. “Innocence is power,” Steele declares in his opening chapter. “What blacks lost in power [through slavery] they gained in innocence—innocence that, in turn, allowed them to pursue power.” Good sense about power relations between the races therefore demands, Steele argues, that we look beyond social circumstances (oppression and victimization) to the moral and psychological transactions that social circumstance triggers.

When we do so, we grasp that laws of compensation have always been at work in black-white relations. (Exercising the power to oppress invariably costs the oppressor; suffering oppression invariably brings gain—in the form of moral capital—to the oppressed.) The oppressed relish possession of this moral capital, relish it so intensely that they refuse to give it up even after oppression ceases. (“We [blacks] have a hidden investment in victimization and poverty…One sees evidence of this in the near happiness with which certain black leaders recount the horror of Howard Beach.”) And accounts of the past or present that address power differentials between the races in moral terms—base white slaveowner or landlord, necessarily pure black slave or tenant—are simplistic. A basic corruption was and still is shared, and it was consensually acknowledged, to a degree, at the very beginning. “The original sin that brought us to an impasse…occurred centuries ago when it was first decided [presumably slaves and slave catchers arrived at the “decision” in consultation] to exploit racial differences as a means to power.”

Implicit in all this is that race difference today is a sham—a fanciful scrim curtain hiding the homely commonalities of human nature. Racial stratification simply doesn’t exist, because differences in worldly power are of negligible consequence. Humankind both black and white seeks personal advantage and endures the curse of imperfection; pleasures of selfishness on one side are matched by pleasures of moral vanity and self-pity on the other; shedding allegiance to the concepts of moral and social difference is the first step toward sanity.

Pushing readers to take that step, The Content of Our Character details approaches that helped the author himself advance beyond color. (“In the writing, I have had both to remember and forget that I am black. …I have tried to search out the human universals that explain the racial specifics.”) More than once Steele denounces flat out, as precious, those who take difference seriously. (“Difference becomes inaccessible preciousness toward which outsiders are expected to be simply and uncomprehendingly reverential.”) And, not trivial in rhetorical terms, Steele works the theme of essential sameness into the very rhythm and syntax of his prose, through heavy use of coordinated parallelism; sentences repeatedly balance white and black on the fulcrum of a semicolon. (“Whites gain superiority by not knowing blacks; blacks gain entitlement by not seeing their own responsibility for bettering themselves.”) It’s one measure of the author’s clarity about his mission that his syntactical structures echo the lesson pressed in his overt lines of argument. The lesson is that, because power is innocence and original sin corrupts us all, blacks and whites are the same.

Racism and Self-Deception: The Psychoanalytic Overview

Steele introduces one-on-one themes of sympathy and goodwill via a probe of the nature of racism. And again he dissents from conventional definitions. “Before the sixties,” he asserts, “race set the boundaries of black life. Now, especially for middle class blacks, it is far less a factor, though we don’t always like to admit it.” Black leaders are to blame for this minority evasiveness. “Though we have gained equality under law and even special entitlements through social programs and affirmative action, our leadership continues to stress our victimization.” Their dogged insistence that "white racism and racial discrimination are still the primary black problem” amount to a knee-jerk “party line.”

African Americans don’t need a party line; they do need, says Steele, a fresh concept of racism—one that directs the eye away from ancient offenses of whites and toward present-day self-deceptions of blacks themselves. Steele’s own fresh concept rests on a psychoanalytic theory of “denial,” “recomposition,” and “distortion”; it makes the term “racism” into a synonym for false charges, brought for ego-defensive purposes, by blacks ashamed of their performance in interracial encounters.

He draws a key example from an episode in his own youth. “In a nice but insistent way,” a white woman, mother of one of his swimming teammates in junior high, corrects Steele’s grammar and pronunciation when he lapses into black English. Steele is abashed. “I felt racial shame…It was as though she was saying that the black part of me was not good enough, would not do.“ Covering his mortification, he decides his friend’s mother should be ashamed of herself—for “being racist and humiliating me out of some perverse need.” And he says as much to the white teammate, telling the lad that his mother doesn’t “like black people and [is] taking it out on me.”

Later he learns he was wrong: the woman had grown up poor, by her own words “didn’t give a ‘good goddam’ about my race,” knew that Steele was ambitious, and had only meant to help him realize his ambitions. “My comment had genuinely hurt her…her motive in correcting my English had been no more than simple human kindness…I converted kindness into harassment and my racial shame into her racism.”

The book argues that this “sequence”—the rejection of one-on-one kindness, the racist transformation, by blacks, of white goodwill into ill will—“is one of the unrecognized yet potent forces in contemporary black life.” Everywhere blacks experience “integration shock”—eruptions of “racial doubt that come…in integrated situations.” And instead of facing up to that doubt and shame as something to be overcome within them, they “recompose” it, “externalize [doubts and threats] by seeing others as responsible for them.”

Racism thus conceived hasn’t to do with the evolution of yesterday’s enforced illiteracy into today’s text-bookless classrooms, or with the evolution of yesterday’s outright bans of blacks from trades into today’s job ceilings, or with the evolution of yesterday’s patterns of segregation (extending from housing into all sectors of life) into today’s token integration. Racism hasn’t to do with history or with caste structures or with the actions and policies of a majority reluctant to cope realistically with the consequences of history. Racism is, instead, a verbal or psychological magic practiced by blacks that renders invisible to them the truth of their own evasiveness—their own fear of not being good enough.

Redefining racism in these terms strengthens belief that history casts no useful light on race issues, and that political action in the public world achieves less in the way of solutions to race problems than can be achieved through explorations of the microworld of individual psychology (private responses, emotional intricacies). More important (considering the majority culture interest in distancing itself from anguish), the redefinition presents the persistence of anguish as itself a mode of perverse black aggression—an attempt, by blacks to distance themselves from the too kind, too demanding intrusiveness of the white discourse of one-on-one. In sum: whites excessively concerned about black disabilities are forcing blacks to cling to those disabilities out of defensive pride.

Can-Do and Autonomy: The Existential Perspective

The subject of will and choice touched on in Steele’s treatment of racism is the crux of The Content of Our Character—the point at which the paradox of neglect as the highest form of sympathy comes into sharpest focus. The matter is most fully broached in the discussion of concepts of self, and again the discussion begins with a dissent from standard definitions.

Two ranges of meaning, personal and social, figure in standard versions of self: the self as a directing inner entity (a felt continuity of experience, a “personality”) and the self as “influenced” (socially conditioned, shaped partly in reflective interaction with others). Steele’s dissent rests on the belief that, for African Americans, the social self is a kind of evil tempter—an “anti-self” luring people away from their first responsibility, which is to “show ourselves and (only indirectly) the larger society that we are not inferior in any dimension.”

Steele claims that, in African Americans, the idea of social conditioning swallows up the idea of the self as controlling agent, causing an enfeebling retreat into blackness as a sanctuary: “It is easier to be ‘African-American’ than to organize oneself on one’s own terms and around one’s own aspirations and then, through sustained effort and difficult achievement, put one’s insidious anti-self quietly to rest.” The anti-self or social self is irremediably defeatist; it pretends that there are no choices, and, for blacks, that pretense spells disaster.

“We can talk about the weakened black family and countless other scars of oppression and poverty,” Steele writes, but none of these things “eliminates the margin of choice that remains open. Choice lives in even the most blighted circumstances.” It does so because “the individual is the seat of all energy, creativity, motivation, and power.” Other groups—“particularly recent immigrants from Southeast Asia"—understand this. Steele’s version of can-do immigrants, like that of other black neoconservatives, totally ignores the differences in circumstances between them and African Americans (differences explored in caste scholarship). Can-do immigrants believe in “individual initiative, self-interested hard work, individual responsibility, delayed gratification.” But “our leadership, and black Americans in general have woefully neglected the power and importance of these values.” And the resulting weakness “has been since the mid-Sixties, a far greater detriment to our advancement than any remaining racial victimization.”

Most American tributes to the values of individualism are haunted by familiar presences from Horatio Alger to Charles Lindberg to Oliver North—go-getters, self-starters, Maslovian self-actualizers. Steele’s tribute is no exception, and he’s given to moralistic chiding in the Franklinesque vein. There’s an indictment of black parents, for instance, for sending their children an anti-can-do white-baiting "double message: go to school but don’t really apply yourself." There’s no allusion whatever to the connection between that behavior, de facto ascribed inferiority, and justifiable black hostility to abysmal school systems or to white moral self-congratulation.

Nor is there any hesitation in reaching outside the American context in building a case against African Americans. Tine and again, in stories of individuals losing the energizing sense of personal identity in “black identity,” and in descriptions of the collapse of the Civil Rights Movement into collectivist delusion, the author falls into existentialist fustian, invoking the language of limitless human possibility—of self-creation in total and absolute freedom, of individuals hurling themselves into an uncharted future. “Blacks must be responsible for actualizing their own lives,” Steele writes. “The responsible person knows that the quality of his life is something that he will have to make inside the limits of his fate...He can choose and act, and choose and act again, without illusion. He can create himself and make himself felt in the world. Such a person has power."

With the appearance of this unencumbered, uncircumscribed, unconditioned figure, Steele leaves can-do, making-it America behind and ascends to the plane of pure historylessness.

A number of writers—among them Glenn Loury, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Stephen Carter—hold equal rank with Shelby Steele as architects of black neoconservatism. But from the point of view of its impact on the enlightened mind-set, The Content of Our Character stands alone. It was the first work addressed to a general audience that translated the main themes of the friendship orthodoxy from comedy, entertainment, general gregariousness, liberal piety, and vague mysticism into cultural criticism and analysis. And with “neoconservatism” and friendship orthodoxy joined in metaphorical union, something akin to a single story came to be driven home at every cultural level—high, middle, low: history can be forgotten, git-go initiative is the miracle cure, impassivity equals concern (blacks must learn to go it alone), audacity equals concern (say a friendly hello to domestic workers and make their day), blacks and whites are one (taking equal chances, going head to head in fair competition, all in the same boat together in the American mainstream).

The outlook inspired by this story (optimistic, pessimistic, apathetic) vary along the axis from liberal to moderate to conservative. But the tragically simplistic assumptions that structure the tale seem now to have won acceptance throughout the educated and well-meaning majority. We are speaking, to repeat, of the enlightened mind-set.

Excerpted from Benjamin DeMott's The Trouble With Friendship (1995)


1 Pace Richard Torres who forwarded on a compendium of responses to Coates’ Between the World and Me which, in turn, led this editor to a Washington Post piece that included a link to the dialogue between Steele and Coates.

nation Benjamin DeMott 2015-07-20T16:14:29-05:00
Southern Changes Dylann Roof almost didn't go through with it--"everyone was so nice to me." The thought of him waiting/wondering in the church before he used the gun he bought at "Shooter's Choice" reminds me of this passage in Intruder in the Dust where Faulkner claimed every white Southern boy could lock into the moment before Pickett's Charge--the disaster at Gettysburg that came to stand for the Confederacy's mad gambles:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kempner and Armstead and Wilcox look grave, yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen year old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago...

That undone past no longer feels so near to the bulk of white Southern males. Their tomorrow won't begin 150 years ago. But it was all now to an outlier like Dylann Roof, who believed he was on the verge of starting a winnable race war. Roof knew he was on his own--"We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet...someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world and I guess that has to be me." Yet there were enough Confederates in the attic, prideful monument men, and "great White minds...out there" (per Roof's own net screed) to allow him to fantasize about waking up Johnny Rebel. Southern Heritage-mongers may continue to insist Roof trashed their ancestors' legacy of moonlight and magnolia, but his shots of horror were in their tradition.

In an act of imagination--and faith--as daring as Faulkner's, President Obama recast Roof as a divine tool of enlightenment in the president's eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. ("God works in a mysterious ways.") You don't have to roll with Obama's theology to realize Roof's dead eyes seem to have opened those of other Southerners who'd been blinded by BS about the Lost Cause. The regretful address delivered at the South Carolina State House last week by State Senator Paul Thurmond, son of a Dixiecrat, is on point. Thurmond rejected his own people's excuses for the Civil War:

Think about it for a second. Our ancestor were fighting for the right to keep human beings as slaves...I am not proud of this heritage. These practices were inhumane and wrong, wrong, wrong.


Thurmond's movement of mind might've moved the late, great Southern historian Lawrence Goodwyn who got more help on this front from his own father than Thurmond did. Goodwyn once explained how his dad's graceful truth attack started his march to freedom.

My father told me something when I was fourteen years old and he caught me reading a book by a famous Southern historian named Douglas Southall Freeman who wrote a four volume biography of Robert E. Lee called R.E. Lee. You can't call yourself a Southern historian if you haven't read that book. It's full of romance and insight and lyricism and error. Then he wrote three volumes, Lee's Lieutenants: A Study In Command. It's about the Army of Northern Virginia. And that's when you discover what an incredible army this was. So my father, a colonel in the army, was watching me read this book. And it's not the first one, it's seven books. I'd been reading about the Army of Northern Virginia all summer long. And he knew a few things, he's Georgian himself. His uncle, Pound, in Forsyth County, Georgia ran a military school; later became Gordon Military Institute, named after John B. Gordon, corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia, et cetera, et cetera.

And my father, he called me over to the table where he sat:
"You've been doing a lot of reading lately, what are you reading?"
"I'm reading about the Army of Northern Virginia."
“Oh, what do you think about that army?”
I said, “It was a hell of an army, I'll tell you that.”
He said, “Oh, tell me about it.”

He had that manner. And so I told him about how Lee divided his forces in the presence of the Union army at Chancellorsville, thus violating one of Napoleon's maxims of war, and descended on extreme flank of the Union Army and rolled it back up onto the United States Ford of the Rappahannock River and so forth and so on. And he saw the enthusiasm and God knows what else that was embedded in that recitation from Douglas Southall Freeman's imagination and he said: “Let me tell you something, boy. Southerners do the things they do because they don't know any better. You understand that?” And the only answer to that question in my father's presence was “Yes, sir. Yes, sir, I understand.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. He knew I had no idea and he wanted to fix me in error, so that when I grew up a little bit and knew more than I knew at the age of fourteen, I might remember this conversation...


There were plenty of memorable conversations about the Southern past that's not past on All In with Chris Hayes last week. Tuesday night Hayes alternated between candor and sufferance in an exchange with a Republican State Senator from South Carolina (not Thurmond) who'd come out in favor of removing the Confederate flag from grounds of the State office building in Charleston. When that politician nodded to those who equate that flag with "heritage" not "hate," Hayes pushed back (once), noting the Confederacy was founded explicitly on white supremacy and black slavery. When the pol slipped the point in his come-back, Hayes let it go--a gesture of forbearance that anticipated his response the next day (in a Facebook Q&A) to Governor Haley's statement about the flag: "I can only speak for myself, but I was happy with what she did, whatever the political calculation behind it was. I disagreed with her characterization of what the flag's essential, original meaning is, but given that she did the right thing I wasn't in a mood to quibble."

Hayes wisely avoided hammering on his own points last week. Instead, he made All In a platform for African Americans rooted in the South who did heavy lifting when it came to the burden of Southern history. Hayes' dialogues with them seemed to grow more intense as the nights passed. I was struck (though no more than Hayes himself) when an Alabama lawyer explained last Wednesday that his state's constitution still has provisions outlawing integrated schools--provisions that have been upheld by (white) voters as recently as 2012. The next night Duke Professor Paul Butler talked straight about why he felt asking African Americans to honor the valor of Confederates was equivalent to proposing Jews bow down to the bravery of Nazis.[1] While this issue was personal for Butler--he wasn't out to preen or cultivate a hyped-up "good" rage; he was being real. (If Butler considers the key role Southern white men played in the struggle to defeat Hitler in World War II, I'm guessing he'd be up to taking in more than just the ironic aspect of their time on the right side of history back in those grave days.)

Hayes never came on as a p.c. prig last week. This born Northern liberal is well aware white supremacy has never been a regional thing in America. That's still news, though, to certain citified types who identify white skin privilege with provincial wastelands and rural yahoos. After the terror in Charleston, for example, I got an email directing me to a piece by a "Humanist" who saw "anti-intellectualism" rather than racism at the base of Dylann Roof's mass shooting. The emailer doubled down on the author's take: "It is time to stop blaming all whites and instead examine all aspects of society and culture, especially those of the south and middle America suburbia which exemplifies the worst of American cultural emptiness and anti-intellectualism. Blacks out in the cultural wasteland should move to NYC." (Since militant atheist and Darwinist Richard Dawkins is another pundit who makes up this emailer's mind, it occurs to me she probably takes the Scopes trial of 1925 as an exemplary instance of the ongoing cultural conflict between America's rural wasteland and more urbane precincts. Though perhaps she's aware it was also a conflict between two versions of white supremacy--per Patricia Williams' recent account in the Washington Spectator:

The “Scopes Monkey Trial,” is mostly remembered as a battle between science and pseudoscience. But it was also a battle between theological and secular justifications for notions of racial superiority. William Jennings Bryan, arguing for the creationist state law, resisted evolutionary theories that purported to teach children that mankind was descended “not even from American monkeys, but old world monkeys"...

While Clarence Darrow is remembered arguing on the more “liberal” side against the Butler Act, the deeper truth is that the secular beliefs of the time were not a lot better than the religious doctrine. The particular theory of evolution Scopes was accused of teaching came from Civic Biology, a textbook written by George William Hunter. Hunter believed, as many do to this day, that there were five distinct human races, representing an ascending order of evolution and civilization: Ethiopian, Malay, American Indian, Mongolian, and Caucasian. He was an enthusiastic defender of segregating each of the five, consistent with the tenets of the then-burgeoning American Eugenics Society and the theories of the infamous eugenicist Charles Davenport.)

Lawrence Goodwyn--whose histories of American populism and Poland's Solidarnosc recovered democratic traditions traduced by metro-intellectuals--would've rolled his eyes at any New Yorker who assumed s'all good Up South. But I'd bet he'd've seen Chris Hayes as a brother above the Mason-Dixon line. I wish Goodwyn had been here to amp up All In's history lessons last week. His testimony about links between the Civil Rights Movement and the Civil War could've helped Hayes bring it all down home.


Near the end of Goodwyn's life he was interviewed about his own Southern changes by an oral historian named Paul Ortiz. Their Q&A included Goodwyn's recollection of his life-changing talk with his father. What follows is another (slightly compacted) swatch from that interview which seems right on time now too. It's about Goodwyn's experiences reporting on an episode in the modern Civil Rights Movement--the campaign against Jim Crow and white power in St. Augustine, Florida. (The full interview is available here along with a PDF copy of Goodwyn’s 1965 article in Harper’s Magazine, “Anarchy in St. Augustine,” which still has snap to its punch.) Ortiz and Goodwyn zero in on a moment when St. Augustine police enabled members of the Ku Klux Klan--operating as the “Ancient City Gun Club”--to attack Civil Rights marchers.

Ortiz:...You describe hearing something that breaks out when people attack the march. Can you talk about that?

Goodwyn:...So on this day it was obvious [the uniformed cops and non-uniformed members of the Ancient City Gun Club] had been doing some planning, neither was surprised by the presence of the other. It was almost a positioning of troops...Many officers, many more Klansmen, all the way around this block that the Movement was channeling...And here they came. They had banners. These were, now, in the summer of 1964, veteran civil rights organizers. They're strong, they have been there before, they have an entirely internalized non-violent philosophy, which they've learned from Dr. King. Now, he is not there that day; this march is led by Abernathy—I believe it was Abernathy, it could've been C.T. Vivian. The article will be clear about that, the written article. [According to Goodwyn’s Harpers piece, the march was actually led by another 60s hero, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.] Here they came, and it was evident that all mayhem, all hell, was gonna break loose...The tension was palpable. And about the time they got in front of me about halfway down that block—maybe a little more than half way—apparently it became evident to the Klansmen that if they didn't move now, these people were getting too far past them and all of a sudden they just rushed the marchers.

The scene disintegrated in mayhem and people began running. There were young men and young women, the Movement was young, but there were some older people, thirty, thirty-five, forty...They were chased by the Klan and I don't remember, nor does my story indicate, if there were officers running or not running after the demonstrators. I didn't notice, I just saw fleeing demonstrators and chasing Klansmen.

Then I heard this eerie yell, a loud yell. I became conscious of it and then after I became conscious of it, it seemed to grow. I don't know whether it was my consciousness of it that was growing or whether it actually grew. But all of a sudden I heard this huge just struck me that, my god, I think this is the rebel yell...Three seconds before that happened I was watching impending doom about to occur. The Civil Society in St. Augustine, Florida coming down the road; I was anxiety-ridden, worried, intense, attentive, but not thinking about the Civil War. I was watching the most vivid political conflict that I'd ever seen in my entire life. But I was not thinking about the rebel yell. And all of a sudden the scene breaks up, the scene disintegrates, people go in all directions. I hear this sound as I'm running across the square. I had a little reporter’s notebook in my back pocket and I pulled it out and took a few notes..."rebel yell." Question mark.

Ortiz: What did it mean?

Goodwyn: Yeah. And what it meant to me was, I had a new way to think about the American Civil War, that's what it meant. That's why it's a long war. America is just discovering itself. One hundred and fifty years later we're still discovering who we are. We're learning that people who took the election of Obama—was it a Republican stalwart who said it mockingly?: “Well, they'll call it a post-racial society now.” But there're also some innocents—Democrats, I think, that thought maybe we'd made a huge step forward. Well, we did make a step forward, but we made a step sideways and a step backward and a step inward most of all...

I've invoked that reflection of Goodwyn's before, but it's never seemed more penetrative. Last week might turn out to be the deepest stretch of the Obama era. Not that Americans don't have more to learn about the places that scare us under his aegis. Per Jedediah Purdy, though, there are limits to the mindful patriotism Obama first instantiated in his 2004 Convention speech. Purdy--a fervent, though not uncritical, supporter of the president and a fellow constitutional lawyer--points out Obama's mode of civic preaching is founded on a white lie about the country's origins. The progressive Christian Jeremiads of Obama (and others such as Rev. William Barber--the African-American minister who's sparked the Moral Monday movement) presume the template for American democracy has already been established. To perfect-the-unionists, it's all about redemption. But, as Purdy insists:

The settlements that became the United States did not begin as an imperfect democracy, struggling to work itself pure. They began as a project of settler colonialism...The exclusion and oppressions of American history began not as original sin, but as what conservative constitutional theorists call original meaning.

I've got too much Johnny Tremain on the brain to go all the way with Purdy. If it's wrong to love romantic portraits of the visionary New England revolutionary James Otis, I don't want to be right. But Purdy surely deserves a hearing at this conjuncture (if not the last word):

We are fooling ourselves if we believe the key is already hidden in our old principles, if we could just get them right--no matter how potent and attractive that idea is, no matter how much partial good we can manage with it. The problem is not just to perfect a flawed democracy, but to decolonize national life.

I'm confident Purdy would concede the president who will preside over that decolonizing process probably hasn't been born yet. In the meantime (as reported in the Sunday Times)...

A little after 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning on the grounds of the Alabama State Capitol, where in 1861, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy and where, more than a century later, George Wallace was snarling about segregation forever, workers quietly took down the battle flag at the Confederate memorial. Before the morning was over, they would take down three other flags of the Confederacy and even uproot the flagpoles.

While such actions provide no more than (what the President termed) "a modest but meaningful balm"--and not even that to intimates of the A.M.E. Zion Nine who have just started to grieve--perhaps the rest of us can be forgiven for imagining it's morning in America.


1 As Butler talked, I flashed on Reagan's trips to Bitburg and Philadelphia, Mississippi. This passage from Fredric Smoler's account of a trip to the American Military cemetery in Luxembourg--not far from the German graves in Bitburg--came to mind as well:

Helen Patton, the general's granddaughter, now married to a German, announces we mourn equally all who sacrifice themselves for a cause. The tourists are pleased to meet the granddaughter, but some of them seem to think this is to some degree nonsense, that the men who lie twenty yards away are ennobled by the cause for which they died, no matter how mean their motives at the time, while the Germans lying a few miles away are to some degree disgraced by the cause they bled for.
nation Benj DeMott 2015-06-27T13:39:45-05:00
"Money" Mayweather: A Postmodern Triumph Modern professional athletes are entirely beholden to their corporate masters. Fuck up the brand, and you’re gone. Pete Rose, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson. On and on.

The one name you will never ever see on that list is Floyd “Money” Mayweather. He is as morally reprehensible as any athlete has ever been, but he is also the first truly postmodern athlete. Jack Johnson and Muhammud Ali laid some pipe for him, but their times weren’t right for the kind of chaotic freedom Floyd Mayweather has forged for himself. He answers to no one. HBO and Showtime do his bidding. He is rich beyond compare. He made more in 36 minutes of work against Manny Pacquiao—$200 million—than LeBron James makes in a couple years, and he doesn’t have to do commercials. He doesn’t need to.

Hell, nobody wants Money Mayweather for a commercial anyhow even if he is undefeated in 48 fights after disposing of Pacquiao. Sponsors hate him, too. Big deal. Manny Pacquiao got one ten-second ad—and probably stained fingers—for pistachios before the latest Fight of the Century (albeit a 15-year-old century). And Manny has been no real role model either—women, gambling, the whole nine—but he has a tough wife, cooly-named Jinky, who laid the law down and got him back on some kind of straight track. He’ll probably be president of the Philippines some day, and will have a whole country to answer to.

The Money Mayweather camp before the Pacquiao fight was running around in shirts that had “TBE” on the back for “The Best Ever.” Very wrong. My friend, the light heavyweight Chuck Mussachio, pointed out correctly that Mayweather has never had a truly monumental fight, a la the Zale-Graziano wars or the greatest trilogy of them all, Ali-Frazier. For the record, my Top Five all-timers are: first, the incomparable Ray Robinson, then Ali, Rocky Marciano, Jack Dempsey, and Henry Armstrong. Ray Robinson would have brushed Money Mayweather aside like a teenaged pest. He would have hit him with a right hand over that shoulder roll and Money’s 100-grand mouthpiece would have been in the tenth row.

Ray Robinson, though, ended up broke in L.A., which is a bad, sad place to be broke. If Mayweather ends up broke, it will probably because of the end of the world’s financial system as we know it.

Until then, Mayweather will continue on whatever path he chooses to blaze for himself. And he is a pathfinder, let there be no doubt. He started out as a gifted ghetto punk in Grand Rapids where jail time was a family tradition, and he made himself into a billion-dollar brand, all told.

At 38, he has the face now of what Tom Wolfe called “a man in full.” He’ll probably never get locked up again. He is beyond so much. And there is a lively and deeply intelligent look to that face now. This is no fool, no matter how much he has played the self-created fool/villain. Warren Buffet doesn’t hang with fools. Fools don’t get all the toys.

The turning point was the Oscar De La Hoya fight. The so-called “Golden Boy” (although another L.A. fighter, Art Aragon, was the original Golden Boy back in the forties and fifties) was the biggest thing going then, and Mayweather originally turned down about 15 mil for the fight, saying it was an insult. Then he changed his identity from “Pretty Boy” Floyd to “Money” Mayweather and became world class obnoxious and the athlete everybody loved to hate and couldn’t wait to see get his ass kicked. Never happened, of course. He kicked Oscar’s ass and got $150 million for his troubles and never looked back, even counting jail time for assaulting women, although he did the time standing on his very rich head.

As the current phrase goes, he’s controlled the narrative every step of the way since then. In the background, admittedly, since 2006, lurked the current Dark Prince of boxing, Al Haymon, a former concert promoter who has quietly displaced Don King as the top promoter along with Bob Arum. But both Haymon and Warren Buffet are Mayweather advisers, at the most. The council he keeps is his own.

In an interview before the Pacquaio fight, Mayweather uttered one sentence that said it all: “I made the fight.”

He did. He was home in Las Vegas and he heard that Manny Pacquiao would be in Miami judging the Miss Universe contest and would be at a Miami Heat game that night. “Pack a bag,” he told his posse, and they flew off to Miami. That night, Money and company were courtside next to the Miami bench. Manny was across the way. At halftime, Money walked over, they shook hands, and he asked Manny to meet him in his suite later. They met and the deal got done. Money made the fight. Nobody else. He cleared away six years of torturous negotiations with a handshake. No fighter has ever done anything like that.

In 1992, Francis Fukayama incorrectly theorized in a jumble of neocon bromides that history had ended. And what Floyd Mayweather has wrought as the accidental champion of a postmodern aberration is no signpost to a new era in sports promotion and management. The system is too cemented into the greed of the times. The corporate masters are too firmly in charge.

Mayweather’s postmodern breakthrough is a one-man revolution that could have only happened in the wild west landscape of boxing. There are no leagues, no commissioners, every state has its own ruling body—or not—and you pays your money and you takes your choice and your chances. It’s as chaotic as the Internet.

And it’s been the perfect milieu for a fighter who is as comfortable with chaos as he is inside the ring where his bloodlines make him boxing royalty. His father and uncle were Detroit hitmen in the Tommy Hearns mold. He creates chaos and feeds off it. He does training runs through the grim Las Vegas streets at 3 a.m.

Mayweather says he’ll have one more fight and then pack it in. So now it’s about his legacy. From here, that will be that he was perhaps the great defensive fighter of all time, was undefeated, like Rocky Marciano, and made more money than any fighter in history. That’s all. He isn’t “the best ever” and has no real business making that claim.

And that’s most likely where the postmodern miracle that Money Mayweather has wrought ends. No matter what he does next, it won’t be the same. Say he goes into promoting like Oscar De La Hoya, who has done well with Bernard Hopkins in Golden Boy Promotions. Unless he can come up with a paradigm that completely breaks the current mold, he will be incessantly at loggerheads with everybody in the boxing “business” as he tries to wrestle out of the tarbaby corporate clutches that he was able to break free from as a fighter. Things are different on the other side of the table, especially when he has left a bad taste in the public’s mouth for decades.

But, with Money, you never know. Warren Buffet might whisper something in his ear that strikes a chord or Floyd himself might find another jackpot path.

But until that happens—or doesn’t—the brief postmodern reign of Floyd “Money” Mayweather will fade into the endless recesses of the intractable modern corporation.

One and done, baby.

culturewatch Bob Ingram 2015-05-17T12:16:03-05:00
Teaching the Conflict Writers and cartoonists who refuse to honor Charlie Hebdo aren’t thinking straight. Yet I don’t hate their impulse to distance themselves from those who are down with gratuitous humiliation of Muslims in France or anywhere else. That impulse feels homey to me in part because my wife is a practicing Muslim. Perhaps those of us who bow to the bravery of Charlie’s glorious nerds can agree, at least for a start, this old line from John Rawls is ponderable: “The best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making the things that seem most important to them look futile, obsolete and powerless.”

Rawls’ point might stick when it comes to Pamela Geller’s history of spite toward Muslims. (Though her fraught free speech demo in Texas seems more justifiable than her attempt to suppress freedom of religion by inciting a moral panic over the “Ground Zero” mosque.) Rawls’ point seems less dispositive, though, when it comes to Charlie, given the uncommon magnanimity displayed by the magazine’s stalwarts. The cartoonist Luz, for example, not only drew the famous “All Is Forgiven” cover, but amplified its message with a soulful expression of sympathy toward the Kouachis: “The terrorists were once kids, they drew like us, like all kids, then one day they perhaps lost their sense of humor, perhaps their child soul able to see the world from a bit of a distance…”

Luz—and other Charlie staffers who have incarnated a spirit of forgiveness—may be secularists but their instincts seem pretty Christian. After all, Christians are supposed to be good to those who persecute them and pray for their enemies. This demand, as Leszek Kolakowski once noted (and the Pope just allowed[1]) “violates human nature”: “We can be sure that there are, and there always have been, only very few people truly mature enough to meet this demand, but the edifice of civilization rests upon their shoulders, and whatever small accomplishment we have made, we owe to them.”[2]

We should give thanks for Luz et al.’s thin shoulders (though, pace Kolakowski, their charity may be a credit to that "child soul" not “maturity.”) Pamela Geller’s fear-mongering, OTOH, isn’t giving civilization much of a lift.

Charlie’s link to the French tradition of laicité place their contributors in the same camp as militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Hitchens, but the cartoonists’ light touch seems at odds with the zeal of those know-it-all scourges. I found an email from an acolyte of Dawkins/Hitchens (who’s also a Geller fan) in my inbox last week. Titled “Good News,” it celebrated the recent poll registering a decline in the number of Christians in America. The emailer was thrilled by the rising tide of unbelievers in the USA: “soon it will be ONE THIRD!”

Such triumphalism runs counter to one of the essential passages in recent American letters—Scott Spencer’s rendering, in his novel Man in the Woods, of a Christian convert’s sudden loss of faith. That loss isn’t presented as a freeing-up: “Conversion is convulsive, but reversion is strictly, stiff upper lip.” “Progressives” who assume losing your religion is all good might wise up if they check the faith-based experience of Spencer’s heroine. So let’s recur to this character's movement of mind now. She has made a career out of being born again, writing books and becoming a Christian broadcaster. Her crisis comes as she’s testifying on her quirky radio show, “Prays Well With Others.” In the midst of a rap on Jesus and neediness and giving back she stretches for her next riff and the rest of her Christ-less life begins: “The thing she reaches for—her next sentence—is not there. And its absence is immense. It’s like walking into a familiar room, and realizing, without precisely knowing why, that intruders have been here and you’ve been robbed.”

Spencer’s bereft woman recalls what fulfillment felt like:

Once, nearly five years ago, sitting on a bridge chair in the cinder-block florescent-lit basement of a Methodist church, and trying to plug in whatever humanist generalization she could claim as her Higher Power, Kate had cast her thoughts this way and that, wondering if her writing was her higher power or if it was [her daughter] Ruby. and then one of the A.A. people, a girl named Joy W., gone now, maybe drinking again, maybe off to California to zigzag after her dream of becoming a recording star, had her guitar with her and she had this sneaky way of performing which was to pretend she was just strumming and humming privately and the rest of the room was simply overhearing her. Joy, the pain in the ass, sang “I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted to This World,” in a lovely, clear, kind voice, and the song itself, so simple and so plaintive, forced Kate to look away. And there it was, a simple wooden cross on the basement wall, and really out of no impulse more elevated than curiosity, and even with a degree of irony and self-mockery, Kate thought the words, Thank you Jesus, and she whispered them aloud and felt, actually and unmistakably felt a presence. The sensation of being entered, filled, radiantly occupied did not make her feel larger but instead made her feel smaller, practically dismantled past the point of self-recognition and so it was no wonder that like millions before her, she wept. For the cross, for the words to that old church song, for the Father and for the Son, for the suffering, for the sacrifice, for the love, she wept because she was no longer alone, she wept because she knew she was going to stop drinking, she wept because she was—she could barely say the word, even to herself—saved.

And now it is gone, just as suddenly as these feeling came, they have disappeared.

They are gone.

It is gone.


I once could see and now I’m blind/I once was found and now I’m lost.

Spencer’s now graceless lady realizes she’s not only saying good-by to the Christian Nation...

But adios to the Jews, the Hindus, and the Muslims, and to all the New Agers with their brains like banana-bread and everyone else out there who like to pretend that there is some over-arching shape and meaning to life on earth, benign or otherwise, that there is someone to turn to in times of trouble and someone to honor with gratitude that we are not now forever on our own, making it up as we go along.

It takes negative capability (and stones?) for a novelist like Spencer to lament “making it up as we go along.” But after reading that passage it’s not hard to guess why he signed the letter from the PEN contingent protesting against Charlie Hebdo. He won’t reduce religion to God-botherers and, as a good novelist, he must suspect cartoons are too thin a medium to take in consolations of faith.

Such consolations may seem especially necessary to practicing Muslims among France’s marginalized population of North Africans. Not all believers Over There, though, deserve respect. And, on the real side, Spencer—and his PEN allies—aren’t placed to engage those among the devout who don’t merit a dis (or a bullet).

Instead of trying to fend off insults to believers, they could do something more useful for Maghrebis, with or without faith, by calling attention to artists whose work is rooted in the experience of that population. Take, for example, Mehdi Charef, who’s been making a case for the joys of “making it up as we go along” for more than a generation. Charef’s ‘80s novel and (later) film, Tea in the Harem of Archimedes sparked the “Beur movement” among France’s second generation of North African immigrants. (The term Beur being an amalgam of Berber and Europe.)

Charef summed up that cultural explosion:

Our parents who arrived in France after the war comprised a generation who came solely with the intention of working. They could not speak and they could not express themselves. It was work and nothing more. They sent money back to the family and that was it. But later their children came along. and they wanted another life which was not only working and having a job and going to school, but also included the possibility of expressing themselves culturally, in dance, literature, cinema, music, painting, sculpture...and that is what the Beur movement is.

Charef has refused to choose a purified Arab or French identity. Though he’s surely an heir to that young French Revolutionary who once declared “happiness is the new idea in Europe.” Tea in the Harem of Archimedes is a portrait of two no-future kids—one Arab, the other French—coming of age with their crew in a bleak suburban housing project. (Thirty years on, it may still have something pertinent to say about how the Kouachis became hard guys: "The children grow up as part of the cement and the concrete. They grow up and they begin to take on the characteristics of concrete: they're dry and cold and hard, to all appearances indestructible—but they've got hidden cracks.") Charef’s protest against that oppressive surround has resonance because he’s alive to his anti-heroes’ irrepressible instinct for fun and their knack for…making it up as they go along. In the film’s most indelible scene, the French boy (an illiterate who turned “Archimedes’ Theorem” into “Tea in the Harem of Archi-Ahmed”) acts like a novelist. On a road trip to the seashore, from the back seat of a stolen car, he entrances his buddies with a tale of romance in a warm climate. His gigolo plot isn’t much more sophisticated or believable than a Penthouse letter, but the emotion in his telling carries his audience away.

Tea in the Harem is a movie about fraternity. Nothing trumps the friendship between the two boys. In the movie’s final scene the Arab kid seems done-in. He sits on the beach waiting to be arrested by cops instead of running away with his best bud (and the rest of his friends). But the movie doesn’t fade into anomie. Asleep in the police van, Magid wakes up to see his French friend on the road up ahead, flagging down the police van, ready to go to jail with him. Solidarity whatever...

If Tea in the Harem is a boys’ movie, Charef’s Daughter of Keltoum[3] is one for women. It starts with its young westernized heroine on a bus in the mountainous desert region of Algeria. Rallia is returning from Switzerland to her birthplace, hoping to find her mother, Keltoum. Rallia stands in for Euro-strangers in the audience, noticing everything that seems exotic on her way to a stone house to which the bus driver had directed her. There she meets a weathered old man with warm eyes who she learns is her grandfather. Their encounter and blood-on-blood hug, a few minutes into the movie, manages to evoke deep comforts of home-coming, though we’re only a few minutes into the movie.

But the sense Rallia has found a haven is this harshly beautiful land soon gives way. Grandpa’s charm can’t sublate poverty and the relentless daily rounds of women who are treated as beasts of burden—water-bearers in particular—in the hill country. Rallia’s mother is said to work far away in a luxury resort, and when she fails to turn up, Rallia leaves the mountains to go find her in the city. The film becomes a road movie again. She’s accompanied by Nedjma, whom she believes is her aunt. On the road, Nedjma, who is disturbed and sometimes acts Out, will find a prospective mate—a handicapped man whose marriage proposal provides comic relief to the small crowd of bystanders who witness his offer but his neediness—and Nedjma’s—is no joke. Nobody in this film (or in Tea in the Harem) is made into a cartoon.

On their journey, Rallia and Nedjma meet an assortment of men and women—figures who reveal everyday realities of Algeria without becoming stereotypical. The defining sequence comes early when they encounter a man riding a mule—a rope attached to his waist stretches behind him around a corner where a woman he’s tied up walks into the frame. She’s his “repudiated” wife whom he means to replace with a younger woman. After he unties her, she tries to follow him back to her home and children but he threatens to beat her with a club. She ends up joining Rallia and Nejdma for a scene or two as the road leads them ineluctably to feminist resistance.

Daughter of Keltoum, though, is more serious than, say, Thelma and Louise. Charef doesn't settle for compensatory fantasies of killer women or matinee martyrdom. The film’s final scene is grounded in perdurable facts of globalization, even as it’s memorably open to interpretation. Rallia is headed back to Europe, having reconciled with her mother (who turns out to have been Nedjma, not Keltoum). As her bus heads out, she notices other passengers are smiling out the window—where she sees Nedjma running hard, hoping against hope to stay close to her modern daughter.

Charef’s scenarios of underdevelopment allow there are always good people who can’t keep up. Before Rallia catches that bus she exchanges a heavy look with her grandfather who gazes down at her from on top of his blasted hill. He’s going nowhere but he sends her off with love. Thinking of his kind face, I flashed on an anecdote of Richard Hoggart’s:

As my wife and I travelled, a quarter of a century ago, through the man-rejecting mountains of Afghanistan, our illiterate Muslim driver wound down the car window so as to allow a wasp to escape unharmed, saying as it made away: “Go with God..."

Hoggart looked back before 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Daughter of Keltoum is a pre-9/11 story too. (Made around 2000, it was first screened a couple days after 9/11.) But Charef was already on the right side of history. His artful response to Reaction in the Middle East reminds me of a passage in the ‘30s correspondence of Erich Auerbach (who'd confront the civilizational challenge of that time by writing his classic exegesis of the humanist tradition, Mimesis, as he lived in exile from Nazi Germany):

The challenge is not to grasp and digest all the evil that’s happening—that’s not too difficult—but much more to find a point of departure for those historical forces that can be set against it. . . To seek for them in myself, to track them down in the world, completely absorbs me.

Daughter of Keltoum seems to reflect Charef’s own search for such a point of departure. Unillusioned about prospects for quick and easy progress, his movie leaves you in a quandary even as it tries to answer the question: How do you bring woman’s liberation and the best of the West to Muhammadan mountains?

There are mountains beyond mountains—those housing projects in France where so many Beurs live (and which Charef knows inside out). This video for “Banlieu,” Karim Kacel’s song on the soundtrack for Tea in The Harem, goes there. It, in turn, sent me on a search for Cheb Mami’s “Douha Alia,” which I first heard in another French movie.[4] Cheb Mami is one of the originators of rai—the rebel music of young Algerians in-country and in the North African diaspora who resisted Algeria’s military dictatorship, Islamism and racism against Maghrebis in France. I’ll never tire of Mami’s song about being tired of love but in my search for it I bumped into something ugly. Mami was convicted in France a few years ago of kidnapping his ex-girlfriend, imprisoning her in a house in Algeria and trying to force her to have an abortion. Misogyny may not be that rare among pop stars, but I’ll allow the news in yesterday’s papers about Cheb Mami didn’t make me think of “Under My Thumb”; it seemed more directly related to that bound woman in Daughter of Keltoum.

I watched Keltoum with my wife on Mother’s Day. Thanks to Charef’s patient, close imagining, it drew her into a Muslim world of love and pain. (Forgive me for underscoring the difference between his approach and that of a cartoonist whose mockery of her religion might put her off.) The opening scenes that culminate in Rallia’s familial embrace with her grandfather had my wife wishing to visit her own beloved elders who raised her in West Africa. But when that home on the hill, with its dry well and benighted neighbors, took on the aspect of a hell-hole, she could handle the truth.

My secular son should have an easier time on this score, though I was worried when he reported most kids in his 6th grade class at his Upper West Side school assumed Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were blame-worthy. There's a need to breed an anti-fascist culture on the American left. I’ll try to do my part (without twigging to the atheism of twits) by steering my son to Smoler’s and O’Brien’s defenses of Charlie Hebdo as well as to the art of Beurs like Medhi Charef. These lines from an email by a First reader responding to Smoler’s post might also help teach my son what’s at stake: “a distant relative of mine, young middle aged fellow, two kids, nice wife, was himself shot in [Charlie Hebdo’s] offices and now lies somewhat paralyzed in a hospital, part of a leg missing; shot all over; entirely traumatized; no one knows whether he'll ever be able to leave the hospital; it was the second time he was caught in Muslim terrorist fire in France; horrible.”

That excruciation makes the Rawls quote that launched this trip seem almost quaint. Rawls was writing before 9/11 when it seemed natural for imperial middle Americans to put mental cruelty first. But, as we all know now, older ways of causing “long-lasting pain” are back with a vengeance.


1 Pope Francis has weighed in as follows: “If my good friend... says a curse word against my mother,” Francis joked, “he can expect a punch. It's normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” His common sense has its demotic charm. And it shouldn’t be understood too quickly. Francis might excuse a punch but he wasn’t justifying deliberate terror.

2 Adam Michnic quoted this line of his "master" Kolakowski in the Fall, 2014 issue of Salmagundi.

3 It seems likely the film's title is a play on the name of the last century's greatest Arab diva, Umm Kaltoum, which translates as: Mother of Kaltoum. Umm Kaltoum’s legacy is complex, but her voice is loved throughout the Arab world, though it’s anathema to anti-modern, Salafi extremists.

4 Andre Techine's Les Voleurs.

culturewatch Benj DeMott 2015-05-17T08:47:14-05:00
Thought Balloons If Smoler is to be criticized for anything, it is for an excess of kindliness...

—The ‘punching­ down’ meme was heard immediately after the Charlie Hebdo killings, but it was not very prominent. More common then were variations on the themes of insensitivity and offensiveness. What’s changed? To call the dead insensitive and offensive served in a pinch­—­­­this was an emergency, after all—­­but it was hardly sufficient. People, viz., Charlie Hebdo’s progressive critics, who presumably are principledly on the side of the transgressive, could not rest easily in the same motel room as, say, Jesse Helms. One will need to be offensive and insensitive, selectively, and needs are inarguable.

Punching down’s just the ticket. For 'We the undersigned, as writers[sic], thinkers[sic!], and members of PEN’ who wrote to denounce—'respectfully'—the award to Charlie Hebdo, talk of punches serves a stylistic purpose: in context, calls for sensitivity and inoffensiveness come across as more than a little prissy. But if punches are being thrown, by someone, well, there are about two dozen corpses that have to be, somehow, acknowledged. And vivid is better.

The ideological thrust of ‘punching down’ is more central. The dissociati of PEN are something greater than neutral. They are, as one hears so often in recent years, on the right side of history. They have aligned themselves with the subaltern.

But but but...when is one not punching down?[1] ‘Afflicting the comfortable’ has been trotted out (Small mercy, not ‘truth to power’ so far). There are almost 200 signatories to this anti-­Charlie letter. In those numbers, there is great comfort, surely. The attitudes on display in the letter are nowhere anything new, and nowhere seriously controversial. These dissidents ‘staunchly [in solidarity with Bouvard and Pecuchet] support expression that violates the acceptable[!].’ They allude to ‘journalists and whistleblowers[!] who have risked, and sometimes lost, their freedom (and even their lives) in service of the greater good.’ Well, first, what is this ‘good’[2] they invoke so blithely? And how do they know it, and do all of them know it? We can be sure of one thing: what makes this ‘good’ ‘greater’ is that it is innocent anything dialectical. More important, though, these signatories will not lose, or risk, their lives, or their freedom. When this is all over, their position on the proper guest lists will be secure. The fastidious are always welcome. ­­

—From the letter:

To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.

The syntax is off—to them, the cartoons must be seen, etc.—­­but we know what these wordsmiths mean. We know, because it’s so rote. ‘Marginalized, embattled, and victimized’: not one term considered, let alone argued. 'Shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises.’ To start with, the Charlie operation was hatched in Yemen. Second, avenging ‘insults‘ to the ‘Prophet’ started in the Seventh Century A.D., when France, as such, hardly existed. Third, ‘shaped’ how, exactly?

What does France owe, exactly, to an immigrant from Canada, or from Detroit? Take one of France’s more recent ‘colonial enterprises,' military action against jihadis in Mali. A Teju Cole must, inevitably, side with the relative indigenes against the colonial masters. No punching down! The word ‘colonial’ in this entire discussion is obnoxious. What Europe did in sub­-Saharan Africa is not comparable to her relations with the Arabs, and, more broadly, dar al-islam. Muhammadan assaults on Europe, and on France in particular, went on from the Eighth to the Nineteenth Centuries, and consisted largely of mass killings, enslavement, rape, and plunder.[3] The exploits of ISIS today show its members to be keen students of history, Even if we focus only on the almost recent history of Algeria—as we’re expected to do—­­and if we set aside Pontecorvo’s film, which is, not least or last, a brilliant pr job for an indefensible one­-party state, we find something a little different from the accepted history. If it was a war of ‘savagery,’ a common enough description, it was resolved not because the French ever came close to military defeat, but only because the French nation proved less persistent in depravity then the FLN (and later the GAI). It should be remembered­­—or for the benefit of our ‘thinkers,’ learned­­—that the overwhelming majority of those killed by the FLN, in hot pursuit of liberation, were Muslim.

The letter contains a reference to ‘devout Muslims.’ But aren’t their devotions their business, and how do they become somebody else’s problem? But then—­'the Prophet.’ The title is bad enough, the capital worse, but worst of all, so close to ‘devout Muslims,’ ‘their Prophet’ might have been expected. Instead..., no honesty is to be had from these people. And last, ‘intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.’ Our belle-lettrists don’t know, and won’t be told, anything about the cartoonists’ intentions. ‘Further’ is, of course, question-begging. ‘Humiliation and suffering’: this is a cartoon we’re talking about. ­

—Elsewhere in the letter, we read that the PEN award

also valorizes selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-­Islamic, anti-­Maghreb, anti-­Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.

This passage comes almost immediately after a passage claiming that ‘equal­-opportunity’ offensiveness couldn’t really be equal...That Charlie was not selectively offensive had just been conceded, and not just arguendo. ‘Valorizes’ is a word that was bound to show up. The best, though is ‘anti-Maghreb.’ Somebody worked at this. How doth the busy bee! Mashriqis get a pass, apparently. It’s those Maghribis we love to hate. UBL, Saddaam, al-Zarqawi, al­Baghdadi, all bad enough, but at least­­—not one of those.

—Garry Trudeau;

By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died.

Garry Trudeau made a career of political commentary, for which there was a ready audience. He invited that audience to enjoy the spectacle of the inferiority, moral and intellectual, of the other guy. That’s how political entertainment works. Trudeau doesn’t specify who that ‘powerless, disenfranchised minority’ is. They are presumably North Africans and their descendants—metropolitan France’s sizable black population does not figure in the fantasy world of the signatories. But are these beurs ‘powerless’ and ‘disenfranchised’? Minorities do not cast the deciding vote.

Republican voters in California may be irrelevant in a Presidential election. But they are not disenfranchised[4], and they can only be called ‘powerless’ by someone intent on a dishonest argument. The drawings were ‘crude’ and ‘vulgar.’ A stylistic choice surely. The range of artistic talent at Charlie was not on display, and not to the point. Trudeau, who never got rich as a draftsman himself, might want to step lightly here. And ‘closer to graffiti than cartoons’? So what if they were? And look at them: they aren’t. What would Trudeau have to say about Philip Guston? Nothing too interesting, I’m pretty sure. And Basquiat and Keith Haring, who were explicitly inspired by graffiti artists?

Trudeau, it’s been noted, is wrong on French law. Houellebecq was prosecuted—and acquitted—for calling Islam the ‘stupidest’ religion. Had he called its adherents stupid, he might have been convicted (cf. Brigitte Bardot). The distinction may seem elusive, but it is such things that have summoned lawyers into existence. Trudeau is not expected to know much about French law—voila!—or really, about—no, let it go. He should, at least, try to make sense. Inciting is urging someone to do something. Charlie might incite someone to have a beer during Ramadan. It does not incite people to ‘violent protest’—against Charlie. And how is a cartoon in Paris ‘directly’ connected to Niger? A few years back, Benedict XVI gave a rather high-toned lecture at Regensburg. Nobody has described it as either crude or vulgar, and as we might expect, a man in a white cassock doesn’t travel with a can of spray paint...Nevertheless, there were widespread ‘violent protests'—voila! (unless it’s ecce—and many people were killed.

—Francine Prose:

The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders—white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists—is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.

Ms. Prose is universally recognized as a competent novelist, so when she speaks of ‘narrative’, we are bound to listen. But what narrative? The skin of the victims was not shown, and that not all the victims were of Western European stock is not something she’s in any hurry to disclose: her own narrative has its demands. That the victims were Europeans was less important to the media splash than the fact that this had taken place in Europe­­—in Paris!! The Kouachi brothers were the ones who made religion central, not the ‘narrative.’ Can a narrative, that imaginary imaginary ‘feed neatly’ into anything? What are these cultural prejudices, and what are the disastrous mistakes? To hear her explain herself would be great fun, albeit not for her.

And a little later:

The bitterness and rage of the criticism that we have received point out how difficult people find it to think with any clarity on these issues and how easy it has been for the media—and our culturee—to fan the flames of prejudice against Islam. As a result, many innocent Muslims have been tarred with the brush of Islamic extremism.

She sees bitterness and rage. I see someone who expected plaudits for her sensitivity and brilliance. Her moral one-upmanship proved a bust. Ah well, ‘clarity’ is ‘difficult.’ But then, if the only alternatives are fanning the flames and tarring with the brush, we owe it, not to her, but to the many innocent Muslims, to do better.

—Smoler misspelled Trudeau’s first name and in discussing Scott Canfield, neglected to add that Mr. Canfield apparently prefers to be known as ‘Jacob.’ I’m sure Smoler had his reasons. Whatever they are, I salute him for carrying on a delightful First of the Month tradition. I would add: I know Dr. Smoler and hold him in high regard. But were I to learn that he thought Gary or Garry Trudeau was something worth knowing or that Scott Canfield likes to use a different name [5], or if he knew the names and the spellings of the Kardashians, in such case, I would no longer be at home to him.

—Scott Canfield a/k/a Jacob Canfield, a/k/a Jacob Monir Canfield is an interesting case. Unlike Trudeau, he is a very talented draftsman. Look him up. He is described online thus:

He works at a tea shop and reads a lot.

There’s even a photo of the blackboard in front of his tea shop.[6]His intervention comes as no surprise. What did surprise me was this: Something about Scott Canfield triggered a memory, something I hadn’t thought of in decades. A friend in high school told me about a neighbor of his, talking about his pet dog. Every time I see that little pink hard-on peeking out, he said, I just want to stomp on it. The memory came unbidden, but somehow, it feeds neatly into the narrative.

—The state of the cartoon ‘controversy’ is discouraging. Guns have been drawn, and been fired. Bodies are piling up. One might say, if one were so minded, that the issue had been joined. It was bad enough that pencils were being juxtaposed with Kalashnikovs. Today even the propriety of drawing is still being argued. We should be well past January. The ComicCon spinoff in Garland TX has been damned as ‘provocative.’ It’s hardly necessary to share Pamela Geller’s views across the board. We do owe her this: without her, Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi would still be burdening the earth.


1 Yahoos can be mocked, and there will be paying customers there to get it. I myself enjoy quoting Barack Obama, who sets new standards for vacuity and pomposity, but many other people are less amused than I am.

2 Elsewhere in the letter, it’s ‘the good of humanity.’

3 Or, as the late Mu’ammar Qadhdhaafi called it, ‘the light of civilization.’

4 By the way, disenfranchised and un-enfranchised do not mean the same thing. Confusing the two may serve a polemical end, but it is more likely, as in Trudeau’s case, just slovenly.

5 One variant spelling is Kanfield.

6 One takes it as read that the Western tea shop is a frankly racist institution. It is particularly galling that such ardor on the Charlie issue could be feigned by one whose Orientalizing profiteering­­ and vice versa!­­ has been the cause of so great anguish to billions.

"war on terror" Charles O'Brien 2015-05-11T13:36:39-05:00
Seven Weddings and a Funeral “I didn’t tell the whole truth, no one tells the whole truth...”
-Robert Durst


If not the best pop film so far this year, Maroon 5’s “Sugar” music video is surely one of the most significant. I think Andy Warhol would’ve given props to director David Dobkin and the band—not just for “Sugar”’s popularity (358 million YouTube views as of this writing) but also for how this video reveals, even as it exploits, the needs of a new pop audience.

Following on from Dobkin’s feature film Wedding Crashers (2005), “Sugar” purports to record a real-life quick-fire series of surprise Maroon 5 performances at Los Angeles wedding receptions, trailing the band as they cut furrows of “WTF” shock and delight through seven separate and diverse gatherings. But the documentary pretense is little more than a patina; trick shots and conspicuously “entertaining” wedding guests (dancing Asians, for example, have become a reliable visual gag in contemporary music videos), among many other touches, are not-so-subtle signs of artifice. In fact, just days after the video premiered, bloggers were pointing out that several of “Sugar”’s awestruck faces belonged to professional performers—including a “bride” identified as an unmarried America’s Next Top Model alum. The broad consensus, for those who care, is that five of the seven weddings shown appear to have been staged.

Which begs the question: Are viewers who enjoy the “Sugar” video extremely naïve, or extremely sophisticated? But it’s a question impossible to answer, since the answer “both” clearly doesn’t make sense. The video itself is undoubtedly sophisticated: an adroitly edited mélange—okay, “mashup”—of viral stunt, documentary, performance film, and musical narrative, flitting between these radically different modes as fast as Final Cut Pro will allow. It’s a con that outsmarts itself, thus fooling no one. But in true Warholian style, this self-betraying con may be the most seductive kind of all.

“Sugar”’s secret weapon is its pacing, each onset of the catchy chorus—and perhaps no earworm has burrowed this deep since Katy Perry’s “Firework”—coinciding with a drop of the curtain revealing Maroon 5 doing their thing at yet another wedding, and the entire crowd immediately going nuts. The fragmented state of pop culture today makes this sort of unanimous reaction quite unlikely in the real world, but the pleasure of the video comes from watching the band evoke an inversion in the social atmosphere that is as smooth and inevitable as a well-executed chord change. Of course, the suspension of one’s disbelief in order to receive this pleasure entails the instant acceptance of the video’s main premise: Maroon 5 are such magical people that even on the most important day of your life, they are still more important than you.

And yet I confess I’m not immune to Dobkin and frontman Adam Levine’s charms here, which may have something to do with the religious heritage I share with them. I detect a certain residual resemblance between “Sugar”’s repeated curtain drops and the opening of the Ark to reveal the Torah during shul, at which the whole congregation rises to acknowledge the entrance of the Divine. Likening Pop to Religion is tired, I know; so I’ll be more specific and posit that “Sugar” is a sort of remake, from a Jewish perspective, of Catholic Brian De Palma’s 1984 “Dancing in the Dark” video for Bruce Springsteen. Bruce pulling ingénue Courteney Cox up out of the crowd to dance on stage with him finds a contemporary equivalent in Levine hopping down from the stage to embrace the newlyweds, real and sham alike, at the end of the “Sugar” video.

Levine’s questionable gesture of humility reflects how pop culture has changed since the 1980s. After all, his success stems as much from playing himself, as a judge on the reality competition show The Voice, as from playing with Maroon 5. The impossibility of assimilating person, artist and brand into a coherent whole necessitates an equally impossible aesthetic. Dormant forces must be marshaled and mashed up: “Sugar”’s style conflates oral with visual culture, such that viewers accept its blatant fakeries as so many embellishments in a folktale.

So add to all the contradictions mentioned above one final chin-scratcher: This video is both entirely of its time and entirely nostalgic. One bridging sequence shows a carful of girls pulling up beside the Levinemobile and stopping for a few selfies with the band, but the mid-traffic party is promptly dispersed by LAPD sirens. The girls, representing today’s Instagram audience, want and receive only the evanescent. At wedding after wedding, Maroon 5 promise to restore endurance to ritual: the substance that lingers from pop’s pre-internet highpoints. And the crowd exults. Of course, “Sugar” includes no gay weddings; for gays, one assumes, no popstar is needed to lend importance to a ritual that opened itself to receive them so recently.

Were the weddings real? Does anyone believe that pornstars love each other?


According to the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, “nearly everyone” has followed the HBO docu-series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, directed by Andrew Jarecki. In fact, this true-crime drama about an alleged serial murderer garnered nothing like Maroon 5 numbers: The initial airing of its sensational finale averaged well under one million viewers. Gopnik’s exaggeration was characteristic of HBO’s camp followers in the bourgeois media, who are accustomed to inflating the audience for their favorite “quality” programs like protest organizers misrepresenting turnout.

The Jinx’s finale, as much as the “Sugar” video, pandered to the cynical naivete, the “smart” gullibility, of its core demographic. Presenting a genuinely maddening tale of the one-percenter and real-estate heir Robert Durst, who skirted punishment for at least three (probably more—Google him) killings, Jarecki seemed to jab at the same vein of ressentiment that fed David Fincher’s much-lauded film Zodiac (2007). In that movie, a sense of bourgeois entitlement and class hatred were given repulsively opportunistic vent in Jake Gyllenhaal’s nerd-vigilante protagonist. “I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it’s him,” Gyllenhaal says of the working-class prime suspect in the Zodiac Killer case. He gets his wish in Fincher’s penultimate scene, a sneering stare-down that appears to be all the justice this director believes in.

When Jarecki uncovers a piece of bombshell evidence seemingly tying Durst to one of the murders, he exposes his own lack of belief in justice by not putting it in the hands of police immediately. Instead, he hatches plans to entrap Durst by springing it on him in an interview. In doing so, he wrenches his narrative off-track: It never becomes clear why Durst, after repeatedly refusing to be interviewed a second time, eventually consents to be taped without his lawyer present (not the case in the first interview). The signs of artifice are as glaring here as in the Maroon 5 video.

The series concludes with a blood-chilling free-associative rant Durst delivered on a hot mic from inside the bathroom at Jarecki’s studio (or so the director claims). Gopnik compares it to a Shakespeare soliloquy. But no one who has read journalistic accounts of the Durst case over the years—the suggestive biographical information largely missing from The Jinx—could be completely surprised by the revelation of his psychopathy. Like Maroon 5 excising gays from the “Sugar” video, Jarecki blanches at the Leopold-and-Loeb essence of Durst’s life story. Taking cues from Jarecki, most reviewers of The Jinx isolated as the pivotal utterance in Durst’s speech, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” But the enormity of his evil is better suggested elsewhere. “You’re right, of course,” Durst says (to an internalized inquisitor? To the audience Jarecki commands?). “But you can’t imagine.”

Ben Kessler can be reached at His Twitter handle is @koolfresh.

culturewatch Ben Kessler 2015-05-04T23:20:43-05:00