When Orwell wrote down the very first political lesson he learned, he still went by his birth name, Eric Blair. The lesson was this: It is often illegal to be somewhere, and since poor people have less choice over where they happen to be at any given time, it is most often they who lack a legal right just to stand, sit, or lie around. The police move them on, to the next place it will be illegal for them to be.
The 17-year old Blair had been travelling by train. Beckoned by an acquaintance waving from a village station, he got off, was delayed, and was, as it turned out, left behind. There were no more trains that day. Even later in life, when he became known as George Orwell, Blair never had much money in his pocket. That day, he records, he had seven and a half pence, or about $5. It was enough to pay for dinner or a bed at the local Y but not both. It was August, so he decided to buy food and skip the shelter.
In a letter to a friend, he wrote that once he had bought his dinner, he sought out a palace to sleep rough, “finally [coming] to anchor in a corner field” near some garden plots.
As dogs began to bark nearby, Blair worried that, “people frequently got fourteen days for sleeping in someone else’s field & ‘having no visible means of support’.” And that described him to a T. He was illegally occupying the only place he could be, given his options.
I mention this episode for a few reasons. First, in the huge shadow of Orwell’s later, more formidable writings, it is often forgotten that his first political inklings were very simple ones about the plight of the poor. This was the very first one.
Second, like so many of Orwell’s small, offhand observations–such as calling London’s plutocrats the “one percent” in 1943–this one would grow into its own weighty branch of political discourse. It applies directly to refugees and asylum seekers. (Our whole approach to the southern U.S. border, for example, is to shrink the space in which potential refugees have standing to plea their cases. We are doing our damndest to make it illegal for them to be anywhere.) The whole edifice of the Jim Crow South rested on the legal power to use poverty as a stand-in for race and therefore a pretext for racial oppression. It kept Blacks in “their” place, which was almost nowhere. Southern whites simply made it illegal for the poor to be anywhere they might try to exercise a human right. Then all they had to do was apply the law.
Third, Blair’s letter highlights why it is not, as is often alleged, hypocritical for privileged members of society to acquaint themselves with the plights of others. Yeah, of course he got on a train the next day and just went home. When Orwell published Down and Out in Paris and London and then, a few years later, The Road to Wigan Pier, he caught the full force of the standard reactionary critique of this kind of thing: that comfortable do-gooders posing as the poor are merely dabbling in others’ suffering, something that is in poor taste and morally dishonest. A white, middle-class student, like Orwell sleeping in the field, can at any time remove himself to the comforts of home. They can never know the full extent of what it means to be poor.
To which the rest of Orwell’s writings would say: Yes, that is absolutely the point. Only those who can return to the comforts of home can approach the halls of power, where injustices are redressed. Were an activist to transform himself to a poor person, he would an unremarkable instance of the injustice he opposed. Orwell saw, many decades before the idea of a “social justice warrior,” that the allies of the oppressed must come from the privileged class, and they will always look awkward doing their jobs. But their jobs must be done.
Two years ago I stopped commenting directly on the deprivations of Trump World. This was basically for two reasons. One, I concluded that Trump was below comment. I try to keep a certain tone here, and it would be brought down if I were I to opine, say, that Trump is 300 pounds of orange dogshit in a suit. Hardly salutary stuff, even if true.
Two, discussing our current politics on social media doesn’t accomplish anything. I got tired of the pointlessness of flame wars long ago. No one actually learns anything from Facebook fights. Temperatures are raised, hours are wasted. Notice how similar are the feelings produced by “winning” and “losing” an argument online.
But the insurrection in the capital Wednesday pushed me to comment one last time. You see, I had already referred to Trump’s movement as a mob several years ago. On Wednesday it took concrete form. When Trump’s footsoldiers actually went marauding through Washington, I thought, What did the “respectable” enablers of this virulently ignorant cult think would come from their efforts?That they would just get their juicy tax cuts and the rabble would fade back into 4chan?
In the Atlantic yesterday, Graeme Wood answered a related question. “Every decent person knew,” he wrote, “that Trumpism would lead somewhere like this, with red-capped mobs befouling the halls of government and terrorizing the very Republicans who had indulged their leader for the past four years.”
The lunacy of firing up the crassest, stupidest, most loathsome people in the country and expecting a politically desirable result seems self evident. But here’s the main thing that galls me about yesterday’s unrest: it reflected who we really are, not the bizarre outcome of a secretive scheme.
In run-of-the-mill autocracies, the oppression can always be blamed on the one strongman in charge. The people get a pass, morally speaking. Who can doubt, for example, that millions of powerless North Koreans suffer the cruel whims of their dictator simply because of the coercive power he has concentrated in a small ruling clique? It’s not their fault.
But it is different with Trumpian tyranny. This is us.
Wednesday’s rabble may not represent a majority of our society, but, linked to more than 70 million voters, they are terrifyingly strong.
Furthermore, this mob draws real strength and purpose from a deep well of toxic illiteracy. There is nothing fake about its political culture, which is unmistakably made in the USA.
Although shameful, this is hardly surprising. Our churches have taught the mob to privilege faith over reason and to worship their leaders as prophets. Gun culture and toxic individualism have produced reverence for political violence. Our laws and lobbyists have put guns everywhere. The self-help movement has persuaded millions they are the center of the universe and they can believe whatever they wish and achieve whatever they believe. Our racist historical legacy has convinced millions that violent protest–no matter how uninformed–is a sacred right reserved for white Americans.
At the bottom of this well is an inexhaustible fund of credulity. And, hard is it may be to believe, this constitutes real power. Once you convince a mob that two plus two equals five, you have bestowed on them a sense of invincibility; that whatever fantasies they believe–bigoted, outrageously stupid, or otherwise–will effect an endless series of victories. When they attack policemen while carrying Blue Lives Matter flags, they draw strength from the moral whiplash they induce in the rest of us. We’re stuck with those pitiful artifacts of reality–logic, facts, rational inquiry and so on. We can’t make sense. And they know this signals a loss of power for us.
In the meantime, the rest of the world may or may not recognize how perilous this moment is. The world’s leading superpower is ruled by a lunatic whose only recognizable loyalty is to a nihilistic cult that has put him at its center and highest altar. Yes, this is us.
The mature George Orwell recalled in a 1946 essay, “Why I Write,” that it was not just literature that he had spent his early life composing. To be sure, he had churned out a lot of text in his green years. He wrote plays, poems, articles, book reviews; offered to do translations from French.
“But side by side with all this,” he wrote, “for fifteen years or more, I was carrying out a literary exercise of a quite different kind: this was the making up of a continuous ‘story’ about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind.”
A Leeds public librarian who saw a lot of the 28-year old Orwell while he was hacking away on the manuscript for Down and Out in Paris and London remarked that he “seemed to be in the process of re-arranging himself.” Funny comment. But insightful too. Orwell was simultaneously producing what would become his first major publication and “making up [the] continuous story about” himself. He was constructing his identity.
One of Orwell’s most striking observations in “Why I Write” is this: “I am not able,” he wrote, “and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood.” This from the same man who wrote that it’s important to be your age. He also wrote that by forty, you have the face you deserve. He scorned people for trying to look or act younger than they were. He doesn’t seem keen on looking back. So then what was he “re-arranging”?
Obviously Orwell had something peculiar in mind when he said he could not abandon the world-view of his childhood. He wasn’t talking about wanting to be a child again. But he clearly believed there was something about one’s past that is too important let go.
I took the title of this post from James Baldwin’s 1985 essay, “The Price of the Ticket.” In it, Baldwin wrote this about renewing oneself:
In the church I come from–which is not at all the same church to which white Americans belong–we were counselled, from time to time, to do our first works over. . . . To do your first works over means to reexamine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came.
So my agenda for the year is to know whence I came; to go back and do my first works over, to reacquaint myself with the man whose writing became a pivot in my life. Because where I have ended up, I feel like I have almost nothing left to say, or maybe nothing left to take from the great store of Orwell’s thoughts. This is not because I’ve lost hope in Orwell’s message. I still believe that social democracy offers people the best opportunity for stopping the organized dominion of humans over other humans. But Jesus, is that message faltering. Look where we are.
This year I will be paying off an intellectual debt that’s been bothering me for a long time. Even though I’ve read all of Orwell’s major works and many of his minor ones, I’ve never read a single biography of him. One day in 2008 I was reading Orwell’s luminous essay “Charles Dickens” over a beer, and the next thing you know I jumped straight in, with all the inelegance of an amateur, and, in my own way, tried to take over his lifelong project of turning political writing into art. I wanted to make all his novels and essays mine, but without plagiarizing them if that makes any sense. Having helped myself so liberally to Orwell’s art, I feel obligated to get to know the man himself, or at least the “story” he told himself about himself.
My “first works,” then, could be more accurately referred to as my “unfinished start.” I will go back and read all of Orwell plus all the reputable biographies of him and the major commentaries. But this will amount to much more than just ticking through a reading list. Going back and reframing and reevaluating your most formative ideas is to court disturbance at the very bottom of the soul. Baldwin, the prophet of re-doing one’s first works, knew this. He wrote, in a 1965 essay:
[H]istory is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, therefore, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.
Orwell, by the way, also felt that writing was a way of recreating oneself through self-criticism in order to rob history of its power. Though he did not speak of great pain and terror, he did write that he had “a power of facing unpleasant facts.” Together with his facility with words, he “felt that this created a sort of private world I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.” While I don’t feel that my everyday life is a failure, I do have a sense that too much is falling apart around me. I can’t keep the sky from falling. But I can go back and re-arrange myself, or at least make up a new chapter in the “continuous ‘story’ about myself.” I may testify, or I may stay silent, but I will try–in reading all of Orwell, and more–to know whence I came.
The pivotal event in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1982 novel Deadeye Dick is when the narrator-protagonist Rudy Waltz shoots and kills a pregnant woman in Midland City, Ohio, circa 1950. Rudy is 12 years old, and for a thrill he has fired his father’s Springfield rifle from an attic window. (It’s actually a cupola window: Rudy’s eccentric and grandiose father designed the house as an art studio.) Eloise Metzger, vacuuming in her house half a mile away, is struck between the eyes. She never knew what hit her.
Since Rudy can’t be tried as an adult, the police feel it is only right to get in some rough justice while they can. So they smear Rudy’s face in ink, to “faceprint” him, put him in a cage, and invite Midland City’s notables to come jeer at him. They also have the widower, George Metzger, come down to confront Rudy–and maybe do more.
The police tell Metzger that they would look the other way should he try to grab one of their service revolvers and in the scuffle accidentally shoot Rudy. Or, they could arrange for Rudy to fall down some stairs. Refusing those offers, Metzger is handed an electric cable and encouraged to whip Rudy, who is bent over a table and held down by police. His 12-year old ass bared, Rudy bleats to Metzger that the shooting was only an accident. Instead of whaling on the boy, the widower drops the whip and goes to walk away. But the police implore him: he must at least have something to say.
Bereft and mortified, Metzger says to the heavens: “God–there should not be animals like us. There should be no lives like ours.”
Why did Vonnegut have Metzger say this?
It seems perfectly clear: it is a cry of naked dread, an objection to something having gone drastically wrong in society. Vonnegut never cloaks his liberal horror in literary contraptions like reverie, post-structuralism or what have you. When he wants, say, a lonely, alienated housewife to end her misery through suicide, he has her eat Drāno and liquefy her insides. Still, like the plain-looking parables in Sunday school, there are often deeper meanings to Vonnegut, and it can be instructive to find out what they are.
The most noteworthy thing about Metzger’s lamentation is his use of the plural ours. Isn’t his wife the sole victim here? Whose fates, exactly, is he ruing so bitterly when he says there should be no lives like ours? These:
His wife, Eloise. She was shot and killed on Mothers Day, in her own home, minding her own business.
Her unborn baby, who had no business of her own, as of yet, to mind.
Metzger himself. He has lost his wife suddenly and inexplicably, to an unintelligible combination of malice and randomness. Further, he must explain this loss to his children and continue to raise them as if the world made sense.
Rudy. He doesn’t really know why he fired the gun, only that his action was wrong. He was in a trance-like state. The gun seemed to want to be fired.
Rudy’s parents. Why had they allowed him access to deadly weapons and taught him a fondness for using them?
The police. Amped up on outrage, they abused a child and violated his constitutional rights, including the Eighth Amendment, the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The main peculiarity of the scene is Metzger’s identification with, rather than repulsion from, Rudy. This would be highly unusual in real life. Facing his wife’s killer, Metzger does not condemn him. He refuses to cast Rudy out of the community to which Metzger himself belongs. He won’t go along with the Midland City mob, which had spent all afternoon shouting at Rudy that he was a monster. And even though Metzger may not be aware of their role in the tragedy, we may add more lives to those Metzger wishes had not come into being:
7. The Midland City mob, who turned out to stigmatize Rudy.
Rudy, for his part, understands the point of the police’s exercise in rough justice. They are exalting a moral vision that sharply separates wrongdoers from the innocent wronged. Not just their jobs, but the cohesion of society depends on maintaining this illusion. It is important for keeping people assured that life will not slip into chaos.
In the cage under the courthouse, 12-year old Rudy knows he has done a grave wrong, but he also knows that it is not mere revenge that has inspired the decent folk of Midland City to turn him bodily into a taboo. They are trying to isolate and neutralize the overpowering threat of moral chaos. “I wonder,” Rudy reflects, “if it mattered much that I was in the cage in the basement of the old courthouse . . . . A curiously carved bone or stick, or a dried mud doll with straw hair would have served as well as I did, there on the bench, as long as the community believed, as Midland City believed of me, that it was a package of evil magic. Everybody could feel safe for a while. Bad luck was caged. There was bad luck, cringing on the bench in there.”
Evil cannot be neatly circumscribed in the acts and choices of a single individual. It is almost always systemic, with connections going every which way. Under the courthouse, Metzger is appalled at how the police have been transformed by righteous moral outrage into sadistic jackals. Furthermore, they tried to multiply the blight of evil by inviting Metzger to join their debauch. Why did Metzger hold back? His unprepossessing entrance to the dungeon gives a strange clue:
He wore horn-rimmed spectacles, and his eyes were red from crying, or maybe from too much cigarette smoke. He was smoking when he came down the stairs, followed by the detective who had gone to get him. He behaved as though he himself were a criminal, puffing on the same cigarette he would be smoking when he was propped against the basement wall in front of a firing squad.
Metzger knows that his wife’s death was caused by a collective, societal moral failure, not an isolated act of pure evil. And he is a member of the society whose imperfections brought it about. How does he know this? Because he writes about ordinary people living ordinary lives every day, and as such, he knows that life happens to people. We are moral agents, yes, who deliberate and make choices about what to do, but we nonetheless remain imperfectly in control of the harms and goods we cause with those choices. Plus, shit just happens, oftentimes horrible, tragic shit. Taken on the whole, we are moral patients and agents.
Deadeye Dick is above all else a meditation on the meaning of life. Our lives come to us unbidden: we have no idea what they will hold–good or bad–or even what life is. Vonnegut opens the novel by soliloquizing on this mystery:
To the as-yet-unborn, to all innocent wisps of undifferentiated nothingness: Watch out for life. I have caught life. I have come down with life. I was a wisp of undifferentiated nothingness, and then a little peephole opened quite suddenly. Light and sound poured in. Voices began to describe me and my surroundings. Nothing they said could be appealed. They said I was a boy named Rudolph Waltz, and that was that.
Most harms are too complex to accommodate a clear, unambiguous assignment of blame. Rudy arrived in that fateful cupola as a result of absentee parenting, and other accidents of fate. Rudy’s father, Otto, was not so much evil as morally vacant, and just plain weird and self-centered. He had struggled to be an artist in 1920s Vienna in the same circles Adolf Hitler, and the two became friends. Acting in goodwill, Otto may have helped Hitler survive pneumonia one winter. So it goes. After many years back in Midland City, Ohio, Otto’s enthusiasm for fascism faded, but not before leaving a mark on his sons. As teens they commiserated, “Couldn’t we at least have had a father who didn’t say ‘Heil Hitler’ to everyone, including Izzy Finkelstein?”
If there is a clear morality tale to be read in Deadeye Dick, it is about the intersection of small human quirks, missteps, and lapses that lead to large, life-ruining tragedies. It is not the huge, radioactive evil of Nazism in Rudy’s father’s past that leads to the shooting of Eloise. Rather it is Otto’s eccentricity and neglect of basic parenting obligations. Through no fault of his own, Rudy is given a deeply haphazard moral education that can be described as grotesque at best. Then there is the cupola, teeming with guns. Anything–or nothing–could have happened as a result of that combination. But what happened happened.
“That is my principle objection to life, I think” muses the 50-year old Rudy, looking back on his shooting of Eloise Metzger; “It’s too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes.”
The narrow, political message of Deadeye Dick is that we Americans stand out among nations in how easy we have made it, through gun culture, to enable people to make such “perfectly horrible mistakes.” Indeed, the more we spread guns and gun-love, the harder it becomes to categorize shooting deaths as mistakes or even tragedies. We choose them. And this is the broader, philosophical message of Deadeye Dick. The attitude of George Metzger, and especially his harsh, strange pronouncement should point us toward lessons we need to learn in collective duty and responsibility. We speak fine words about valuing human life and safeguarding decency and so forth, but our actions to the contrary speak much louder than our words. Maybe there should be no lives like ours.
There’s a moment about halfway through Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution in which an ordinary guy is in a paddle boat out on the Potomac River in D.C. getting ready to propose to his girlfriend. Although he doesn’t know it, a major terrorist attack is about to ruin his plans.
In a good thriller, it is precisely the terrorist attacks, the intrepid federal agents, and the sleek technology that must be rendered well. These things drive the plot and quicken the book’s pulse. P.W. Singer and August Cole, the authors of Burn In, surely get these things right. Their novel of a near-future techno-dystopia is believable, engaging and satisfying. It’s a great potboiler whose every technological innovation–including a robotic FBI agent at the center of the plot–already exists in real life (and is duly footnoted, an unusual touch for a novel).
But it’s the sociological nuances Singer and Cole deliver that make Burn-In better than your average political thriller–how the tendrils of dystopia are creepily evident in everyday life circa 2020. That ordinary guy about to propose? He’d considered going conventional, dressing in a suit and kneeling by the cherry trees on the shore to pop the question. But he decided instead to dress down and take his girl out for a diversionary boat ride. An algorithm told him to do this: his girlfriend’s “profile showed greater joy from surprise.”
The paradox of fabricating spontaneity is not the only thing that makes this small moment oh-so-2020. Everything about it is shaped by the way we live now, in the ether. Here’s how the question gets popped:
This was it. This was the moment. He blinked twice rapidly to start the vizglasses recording that would go out live to all the friends and family he’d marked for notice. . . . Dana’s eyes widened and she blinked twice as well. She knew.
What Dana knew was that she too wanted her vizglasses to capture the moment and broadcast it to a select group of friends and family. She wasn’t blinking because of the rapturous, overwhelming joy of what was happening. She was, like her boyfriend, manufacturing the moment. The heart emojis would come fluttering in to her vizglasses before she had time to catch her breath.
In his 1754 essay “On the Origin of the Inequality of Mankind,” Jean Jacques Rousseau worried that the expansion of commerce and social mobility in Europe was opening up a field of mass culture in which all people could increasingly compare themselves to their peers and neighbors. He saw trouble brewing. Because succeeding in a commercial meritocracy was inextricably linked to showing one’s success, life threatened to become a never-ending strut-fest. Rousseau wrote:
I would show how much this universal desire for reputation, honors and advancement, which inflames us all, exercises and holds up to comparison our faculties and powers; how it excites and multiplies our passions, and, by creating universal competition and rivalry, or rather enmity, among men, occasions numberless failures, successes and disturbances of all kinds by making so many aspirants run the same course. I could show that it is to this ardor to be talked about, and this frenzy to distinguish ourselves, that we owe the best and the worst things we possess, . . . a great many bad things, and a very few good ones.
In the real world of December 2020, we humans are on the cusp of shaping a reality in which our lives are only felt to be real if they are not just lived but performed. The more we stage our lives and try to emulate our favorite influencers, the further we get inside the bizarro universe that the sociologist Jean Baudrillard saw coming in his 1981 book Simulacra and Simulation. It sounded strange when he said it, but our lived reality has become inextricable from our performative simulations of it. This twilight zone is undeniable. Baudrillard’s weird abstraction has been made concrete by the digital revolution and especially social media. Our lives are driven by the “ardor to be talked about,” as Rousseau put it. To an increasingly miserable degree, we are coextensive with our social media feed.
And it’s not just people who fade out of “real” existence if they lack a digital correlate. It’s basically everything. “Digital twinning” technology promises to take up most of the world’s physical entities into the internet of things. Maybe these will be the only entities that matter when whatever is offline just doesn’t work anymore. And then there’s the datafication of everything. It’s enough to make you shrug, take a drag on your Gauloise, and admit, “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte.”
Baudrillard called this strange new world “hyper-reality,” a world in which representations of events (or facts, or things, what have you) are ontologically privileged over the things to which they putatively refer.
Well, in the real world such as it is in 2020, you should go ahead and read Burn-In. While it’s still fiction.
Wait, did I just say that? Yes, of course I did. I’m still alive, with a mind of my own. My home planet is green and wily enough to heal itself of all of mankind’s follies, eventually. There’s peace in that. Plus, we humans might still have a good run.
As Epictetus wrote almost 2,000 years ago, “I laugh at those who think they can damage me. They do not know who I am, they do not know what I think, they cannot even touch the things which are really mine and with which I live.”
The first part of this passage sounds a little snotty for Epictetus, and, furthermore, not very applicable to my life. Why would I be laughing at anyone? I doubt seriously anyone is “trying to damage me,” and in any case my acquaintances surely know what I think. At least when it comes to the big stuff, I keep no secrets. I write everything down in these pages.
But I do recognize that the forces of history are, at this moment, mounting a not-so-subtle threat to the freedom of conscience that I practice here. Although I’m not expecting the midnight knock on the door next week or next month, I do realize that the growing ranks of reactionary yokelism, given the opportunity, would rather send in the cops and book burners than leave me in peace. They’ve been strong before: they’re looking for a comeback.
For now, though, “the things which are really mine and with which I live” remain inviolate. I added to my store of treasure in 2020 despite the raging of several convergent shit storms, and for that reason, it was a very good year.
Not-so-random Vonnegut quote to establish tone: “‘Sometimes the pool-pah,’ Bokonon tells us, ‘exceeds the power of humans to comment.’ Bokonon translates pool-pah at one point in The Books of Bokonon as ‘shit storm’ and at another point as ‘wrath of God.'”
Hence my use of the phrase.
As usual, I had no plan, except to read, and comment. I read what I liked. I bookended the year (pun intended, I guess) with Joan Didion–Democracy, Miami, South and West, and Where I was From in January, then–what else?–The Year of Magical Thinking in December. It seemed apt. It was.
Mostly what I liked this year was Big Explainers, books that plotted the long course of culture, history, and human destiny.
I’ll start with the biggest. For years I had put off reading Jared Diamond’s landmark 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, but no longer. I read it this year, and it is superb. Diamond argues powerfully that it is not the innate cleverness of people in today’s developed nations that explains the wealth and order they enjoy. Rather, hundreds of thousands of years ago, climate and geography gifted certain parts of the earth with robust agricultural potential, mostly in the form of protein-rich grains. These, in turn, determined the sizes of local populations and eventual development of governing bureaucracies with concomitant needs for abstract knowledge. The rest is literally history. If you live where the growing was good in the late Neolithic age, lucky you.
A curious discovery: one reason why ideas and technology have tended to spread on an east-west axis rather than a north-south one is that good growing climates tend to resemble one another along latitudinal lines. As good ideas about cultivation spread left-right over the eons, so did other information. This is why, for example, the United States is more like China in complexity and social organization than Brazil.
Although I would not know it until I was well underway, I found a companion book to Diamond in Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. Published in 2019, Gods of the Upper Air is a cultural biography of Franz Boas and his circle of grad student proteges, which included Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston. Between Boas’s rise from obscurity in the 1880s and his academic prominence in the 1940s, he and his colleagues invented the discipline of cultural anthropology. In doing so, they debunked one of the firmest, most deeply-rooted myths in the Anglo-European consciousness, “an intensely modern fiction; that the highway of human social development led straight to us.” The human story did no such of thing, of course; it led every which way, and we are all simply along for whatever ride our ideas, totems and taboos take us on.
The excellent history The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900 – 1914by Philipp Blom argues that technological change in turn-of-the-century Europe drove such rapid societal change, life was literally disorienting. People went crazy from not knowing what was happening around them because it was all happening so fast. I reviewed Blom here.
As satisfying as The Vertigo Years is, at 488 pages, it is a hundred pages too short. Somehow a book about the drama of rapid technological change failed entirely to address the invention of powered flight and its nearly immediate effects on culture, politics and the economy. Luckily, I was able to fill this gap by reading David McCullough’s biography The Wright Brothers. One thing many Americans might not know about the invention of the airplane is that is was primarily European demand for flight technology that drove Wright Brother’s pursuit of it. There were hardly any American believers in Wilbur and Orville’s mad scheme early on. McCullough recounts this history with page-turning energy.
Personally, I usually find McCullough stodgy and jingoistic. He has made a career of out of choosing unassailably patriotic topics (the Brooklyn Bridge! Lewis and Clark!) and praising them to high heaven. And although his bias as a court historian is evident throughout most of The Wright Brothers, he still occasionally brings out intrinsically thrilling themes and episodes. When the reader sits alongside Wilbur and Orville in their first Kitty Hawk beach shack in 1901–actually little more than a tent–and feels the burlap covering of their camp chairs as they sketch, calculate, plan and dispute, one experiences with them the highest form of human flourishing, which consists, not in consumption, comfort and and satiety, but in feverish inquiry and discovery. Wilbur and Orville are sitting on sackcloth; they are hungry, mosquito bitten, alone, but they just don’t care, they are so driven. They are possibly the happiest people on earth, and they are dirt poor.
McCullough also touches on the most socially consequential aspect of the Wright Brothers’ work–the pace of change it sparked. In 1908 Wilbur Wright, alone, flew his plane in front of 150 people in Le Mans, France. He was a barely known American inventor on the tenuous cusp of a breakthrough. Not one other plane on earth could fly like his in 1908, and no one else on earth knew how to pilot as he did. One year later, crowds of 50,000 would gather in Reims, France to watch 22 pilots race 22 different kinds of planes. The speed and extent of this breakthrough put me in mind of the first two driverless vehicle rallies, sponsored by the U.S. government and held in California’s Mojave Desert in 2004 and 2005. In the first year, not one car completed the 132-mile course, and most failed early and spectacularly. The best vehicle in 2004 didn’t even make seven and a half miles. The next year, every entrant but one passed that mark, and five vehicles completed the whole course. These days, they all finish; driverless cars are old hat. The Wright Brothers were perhaps the first human beings to acquaint us with this intense pace of technological change. You can reject it or embrace it, but the world is changing around you, accumulating and compounding social disruptions at a speed we are ill-equipped to grasp.
Americans, it turns out, were never really ready for modernity. For all our claims to be wise, critical and clear-sighted, we come from belief communities that were congenitally weird and gullible–you know: morons. See Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History for an elucidating study of the brazen credulity that has always distinguished Americans’ beliefs. I reviewed it here. It will make you weep for our epistemic lostness, or at least it should.
A more clinical diagnosis of our parlous grasp of reality can be found in Tom Nichols’s 2018 book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. In a country where “nobody tells me what to think” is a real attitude, Nichols argues persuasively that the obligations of good citizenship include being informed consumers of expertise. Epistemic humility, not cognitive arrogance or in-the-know skepticism, is the order of the day. A nation that cherishes free thought and rebellion against authority, though, is always at risk of becoming acutely stupid, even if that nation has a bounty of accomplished and generous experts to help us find our way. Welcome to where we are though.
Perhaps the most satisfying book I read this year was David S. Reynolds’s Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (which I reviewed here). Whitman was not just a man stirred to poetry by the mystical promise of our country. Our country was falling apart before his eyes in the 1850s, and Whitman was on a very literal mission to try hold it together with a national cycle of poems. That’s why he wrote Leaves of Grass, and then kept rewriting it and rewriting it as America changed and went to war with itself. Read Reynolds for a wonderful exploration of how Whitman’s poetic development paralleled historic shifts in American politics and especially the struggle to abolish slavery. (Can’t wait to read Reynolds’s new book on Abraham Lincoln next year.)
Don’t tell my wife, but I fell in love with another woman this year and developed a crush on another one. I couldn’t help it: both of them are Big Explainers.
The most consequential book I read this year was Jill Lepore’s 2019 These Truths: A History of the United States. An endowed professor at Harvard, Lepore believes elite national historians should, at the peak of their careers, produce single-volume histories of their subjects, something that used to be traditional. The big picture needs to be painted. But for too long in recent decades, Lepore writes, U.S. historians have neglected big questions about the nation’s purpose and vision, tending instead to toodle around in arcane specialty areas. Americans, however, want to understand the epic story of their country, and as Lepore tartly points out, “They can get it from scholars, or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will.” Ceding the field to whoever has an angle (Bill O’Reilly is America’s best seller of “history” books: let that sink in.) is a recipe for disaster. “When serious historians abandon the study of the nation,” warns Lepore, “when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.”
And so Lepore wrote These Truths as a corrective, a “common history for a people” to try to ward off the disaster of populism. “The American experiment rests on three political ideas–” Lepore writes in the introduction, “‘these truths,’ Thomas Jefferson called them–political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. [. . . ]. The real dispute is between ‘these truths’ and the course of events: Does American history prove these truths, or does it belie them?” In the 900 pages of Lepore’s book, we get the best answer to this question an American historian has offered in decades. It is an extraordinary success.
Lepore is a heroine of the post-ideological world. She holds all of history in her hands but somehow manages to come across as a mom from down the street (which she is), a close friend who happens to be a Harvard professor. She writes angelically and effortlessly, it seems. One suspects that her frequent essays for the New Yorker are simply worked-up versions of her class notes, they appear so regularly. I fell head-over-heels for Lepore this year, also reading by her: The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death (2012); Book of Ages: The Life and Opinion of Jane Franklin (2013); The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (2010), reviewed here; Joe Gould’s Teeth (2016); This America: The Case for the Nation (2019); and her latest, just out in October, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future(2020). It would have been a very good year even had it only included Lepore.
But there was more. I also found I could not stop reading the novels of Lionel Shriver. Shriver is the ultimate topical novelist. She just keeps taking up subjects that define our national unease and laying them out in 3-D detail. Reading her books is like rubbernecking a freeway pileup but instead of being told to look away, Shriver says to us, “I know you want to look, so open your eyes and take in every last gory bit.”
And so Shriver has ended up documenting our national pathologies in high definition, from school shootings in We Need to Talk about Kevin (which I reviewed here as the novel of 1990s America); to morbid obesity in Big Brother (also reviewed here); to healthcare and dying in So Much for That (commented upon here); to national debt and monetary policy (yes, really) in The Mandibles (also reviewed here); to the political usefulness of terrorism in The New Republic. Shriver was easily my most reviewed author this year. I abhor her politics, which tend toward a kind of jaunty libertarianism, but I admire her artistic courage. And obviously I can’t resist her stories. Shriver is my nomination for the definitive turn-of-the-century American novelist. She shows us how the American Century came and went.
If you couldn’t tell, one of the main things I’m constantly seeking big explanations for is my country. I think any American could be forgiven for feeling they live in the most interesting country on earth, narcissistic as that sounds. I know I do. For me, this feeling springs from having experienced the denouement of the American Century at a far remove but in a way that felt up close–in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Italy, Germany–and then having to find my way into a new era that is certainly not the American Century anymore but which nonetheless bears the stamp of our ideas and ambition. How do I feel about all this? I suppose if a junior Roman bureaucrat who had spent most of his life administering things up in Gaul had felt sufficiently world-weary long about 430 C.E. to wonder what all the blood and treasure had been for, that’s what I would say I feel like right now. It feels like the Goths and Vandals already have their run of the place.
One of the best books I read this year spoke directly to this searching sense of melancholy. It was actually a re-read, and it was actually three books, not one–the America Trilogy by John Dos Passos.
I read Dos Passos to try to explain my country to myself. His is a story about freedom, identity, and how hemmed in Americans have always been by economics, even when riches are flowing our way. Money changes us, and we are always chasing money.
There are many broad themes laid over the stories of the characters’ lives in the series’ books–The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money–but the message that sticks with me is this: To prepare the American public to enter World War One, the government, led by Woodrow Wilson, had to force-feed our citizens certain grand and flattering myths that had always just sort of hung inertly in the air–myths about our national genius and moral benevolence and relationship with hard work. Today these ideas are easily recognizable as propaganda, but Wilson & Co. put a lot of effort into making them seem natural at the time. (For some excellent reading on how the media became the delivery system for such myths, see Walter Lippmann’s pathbreaking 1922 book Public Opinion.)
The active, deliberate promotion of our myths produced lasting social consequences, most of them bad. When Dos Passos has working class characters beaten down again and again in the America trilogy, it is almost always the war-going propaganda of the moneyed class that justifies the outrages. Dos Passos spares no details, for example, in retelling the lynching of Wesley Everest, a logger and labor rights activist on Armistice Day 1919 in Centralia, Washington. A World War One veteran, Everest was dragged from his jail cell by a an anti-union mob and hanged on the main bridge in the city. Some reports say he was castrated before the hanging. Who did this lynching? Dos Passos knows something about them:
The timber owners, the sawmill and shinglekings were patriots; they’d won the war (in the course of which the price of lumber had gone up from $16 a thousand feet to $116); . . . they set out to clear the reds out of the logging camps; free American institutions must be preserved at any cost.
The America trilogy is often described as a fascinating but pointless tapestry, a long series of character sketches and camera-eye impressions that goes nowhere. True, the series is light on plot, but it’s not true that it stops without a proper ending. The terrible climax of the trilogy is the execution in 1927 of Boston anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, falsely convicted of murder. Dos Passos renders a bitter, devastating judgment on this event. The moneyed class, he writes, showed in executing Sacco and Vanzetti that it owned the state outright and could use its sanctioned monopoly on violence for whatever it wished. The American oligarchy may not be an overt dictatorship of terror, but Dos Passos reminds us that no nation can be brave and free if 99 percent of its citizens walk the streets bent down with knowing that the rich hold the the legal power of life and death over them.
Also deeply rewarding was a series of books as wide and storied as Texas–Robert Caro’s award-winning biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson. To be honest, I only started reading the five-book series because I had to find out where Caro’s passion for political biography came from. I wasn’t all that interested in LBJ himself. Caro, who is 85 and has been a writer all his life, has only written about two politicians–LBJ and the New York City planner Robert Moses. After profiling Moses in the 900-page The Power Broker in 1974, Caro has basically spent his whole life since then researching and writing about LBJ. So, as I said, that’s why I took up Caro’s series.
I am only two books into The Years of Lyndon Johnson (which is still awaiting its fifth and final installment), but I will certainly finish it. It is Tolstoyan in its wide sweep of American and Texan politics. But it also illuminates Johnson as a Dostoyevskan figure, driven by raw ambition and demoniac exertions of will. Above anything else life had to offer, LBJ wanted to dominate other men. Though I didn’t take up Caro as a Big Explainer, that’s what he is. He assesses that LBJ is the pivotal U.S. president of the 20th century president. In trying to close the 100-year chapter of post-Civil War reconstruction and fulfill the promise of liberal governance, LBJ instead opened the door to unprecedented social change, which fueled fundamental distrust of the government. We haven’t been the same since.
I greatly appreciated Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, which I reviewed here. The packaged impression that many westerners have of Soviets is that their lives were thoroughly dictated to them: they hated and feared their political masters and never authentically believed in the ideology the Kremlin forced down their throats. This is how we like to picture the subjects of the USSR, as subjugated victims, waiting for the capitalist west to free them. The most important message of Secondhand Time is that, contrary to this view, many Soviets really did believe what they were taught, even if they knew their teachers were brutes. It turns out that real people found real reasons for believing in communism despite the horrors, large and small, that propped it up–the gulags, the informants, the secret police, the cult of Stalin, the show trials, the bread lines, the work camps, the mass relocations. Alexievich does the hard, honest work of reporting on the lives and memories of these real people.
(Wanting to make sense of the Soviets’ means of oppression, I also read Gulag: A History and Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Appelbaum. Both are excellent.)
Here is another aspect of communism that sticks in most Americans’ craws: that it could possibly grow in the soil of American political culture. But it did, and, moreover, American communists “prodded the country into becoming the democracy it always said it was,” as Vivian Gornick’s mother told her in the 1960s. Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism invites the reader to examine the widespread belief that communism–or any form of leftism–is organically un-American. Americans are political freedom fighters, Gornick reminds us, and some Americans wish to be free of crass consumerism and structural poverty as an imposed way of life. In the 1930s and 40s such Americans joined the communists in the thousands, out of a glowing conviction that “the party was possessed of a moral authority that lent concrete shape to a sense of social injustice made urgent by the Great Depression and World War II.” If you don’t have time to read Gornick’s 300-page book, she summarizes its arguments vividly in this essay in the New York Review of Books of April this year.
Toward the end of the year I read Richard Powers’s The Overstory, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Sometimes I wish I weren’t an amateur literary critic, and this was one of those times. The thing is, I was expecting The Overstory to beam out a life-changing message of immense power and beauty. That’s why it had been on my list since last year. The book is about the unimaginably large, patient role of trees in sustaining life as we know it. I was deeply moved and enlightened by The Overstory, which is why I didn’t enjoy having a few small misgivings about it along the way.
So first, don’t get me wrong. The Overstory is great. It is, in various places, subtle; it is deeply informative; it is passionate without being preachy; and it is, in the end, wise. The last hundred pages are near heartbreaking in their depiction of lost and bereft humans conjuring up hope from less than nothing. But it suffers from three nagging imperfections. First, for its overall stylistic excellence, it is occasionally noticeably conventional, even vapid. Two activists take off for a protest one day on “an unbelievably beautiful morning.” Although there are only a handful of these clunkers–maybe half a dozen in a 500-page book–they stand out because the rest of the writing is so good.
Second, one of the main characters, Olivia, remains bafflingly vague in how she came to care about trees as deeply as the plot demands of her. She simply has a near-death experience, which awakens her to ethereal presences that turn out to be arboreal. End of backstory: the trees are trying to reach her. In a book that should be making exquisite and compelling arguments for real, existing tree love (and often does), Powers just inserts a supernatural proxy into Olivia’s head somewhere offstage. And again, the flaw stands out for its stark exceptionalism. Most of Powers’s characters are beautifully drawn, in ways that illuminate their connections to the natural world and broaden the reader’s imagination.
Third, the almost smug satisfaction that some of Powers’s characters feel at the prospect that Earth’s biosphere will fight back and cleanse itself of the human stain is uncomfortably close to the religious fanatic’s lurid desire for apocalypse. I know this feeling, because I have a grain of sympathy with it. It is the idea that Kurt Vonnegut voiced when he hoped this aloud:
When the last living thing has died on account of us, how poetical it would be if Earth could say, in a voice floating up perhaps from the floor of the Grand Canyon, “It is done. People did not like it here.”
It is the novelist’s job, of course, to fictionalize real people with real feelings, so I am not quite blaming Powers for portraying characters who evince this ungenerous attitude. I suppose my unease is with myself. It’s somehow okay–even enjoyable, a kind of atheist’s pornography–to observe the religious believer wishing childishly for all of humanity to be extinguished as a price for taking him out of the picture. It is less satisfying, though, to encounter a shadow of this attitude in oneself. It is never pleasant to discover one’s own blind spots.
Which leads to my next book, a different kind of Big Explainer. Big explanations almost always come packaged in imperative and declarative sentences. Here, they say; believe this.
In one of the most searching books I read this year, a different kind of explanatory argument is made, in the form of a question. If Europe laid such confident claim to reason as the pathway to ending human suffering (through the project of Enlightenment), how did it end up inflicting so much suffering on so many? Dostoevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears, by Laszlo Foldenyi, is a collection of essays that probes this and related questions about inadequacy of reason to reflect humanity’s whole, true self. There is a vast part of human life–and it can even be an imaginative, fulfilling life–that has nothing to do with being an enlightened European or believing in John Rawls’s theory of justice. While we cannot, and should not deny the clear, systematic advantages bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment (vaccines, anyone?), Foldenyi inspires us to ask, in the tradition of Dostoevsky, what price we might pay if we deny there is a dimension of our existence that is not bounded by–and therefore not ameliorable by–reason. There is a real part of us that may take real nourishment from Walpurgisnacht. I am instinctively skeptical of the romantic line of inquiry, but as long as it is taken by thinkers as humane and intelligent as Foldenyi, it deserves serious attention.
Reading Foldenyi turned me on to the unusual 1975 Holocaust memoir novel Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz. This sounds impossible, but Kertesz tells of a journey from 1944 Budapest to near death in Auschwitz and back in an off-kilter tone that can only be compared to The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek. Like Schweik and his participation in World War One, Kertesz’s antagonist, trundled off to Auschwitz, accepts, almost cheerfully, the inner logic of the camps and every part of his experience in them. Back in Budapest after the war, he rejects the advice of his friends and family to obliterate his memories of the camps and make a completely clean break with the past. A real life, he protests to them, is a continuum; it cannot be broken off and started again. Auschwitz is part of him. Fatelessness is a meditation on what it means in extremis to accept time and chance as worthy of determining our identities.
For all the long, ruminative books I read this year, the one that really electrified me was short and powerful. It hit me like double espresso. It was Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless, the book that aired the ideas that dissolved the Iron Curtain and ended authoritarian rule in eastern and central Europe in the 20th century. I close with a few remarks on it, and my own weird country.
The problem that confronted the dissident Havel in 1977 Czechoslovakia was this: The countries of the Warsaw Pact were ruled by a regime grounded in lies so crude that not even a child could believe them. Everyone knew they were being lied to all the time about things big and small–factory output, the availability of bread, everything. How could this work as a system? Guns and tanks were not enough. Certainly guns and tanks could be used–and were used–to help hold the lies together, but they couldn’t do all the work all the time. The thing Havel discovered is that, for the system to work, ordinary human beings had to accommodate the lies and live as if they were true. Sincerity was not necessary. Havel explains:
Individuals need not believe all the mystifications, but they must behave as though they did,or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.
Many of my fellow citizens live within and accommodate a ghoulish complex of lies that outdo the Soviets’ in terms of sheer audacity. They say an election has just been stolen from their dear leader, who is secretly crusading against a cabal of child-trafficking, blood-drinking Jews and leftists. They say anyone can see what is happening; the evidence is so obvious they take it as a mark of disingenuousness to ask for it. A former three-star general openly incited sedition in support of this movement this very week. As I noted at the start, the jackals and troglodytes of reaction have been strong before, and they want a comeback.
The most humiliating thing for adults living in America still capable of competent citizenry is, unlike Havel’s fellow denizens of the Warsaw Pact, who were subjugated by Soviet arms, no one is forcing the trumpist louts to mouth these crude and childishly stupid lies. This is a voluntary movement of vehement delusion.
So, what is to be done? Havel called for the simplest, most powerful of antidotes–living within the truth. Create an inviolable self that answers to its inner priorities of creativity and discipline. Insist on a governing system that reflects the discipline and understanding necessary for this project. Will this be enough? Not even Havel knew, back in 1977. But he knew enough to admit democracy’s victory was not inevitable. The system of mass delusion could be kept up by active measures, he warned, “coming closer to some dreadful Orwellian vision of a world of absolute manipulation, while all the more articulate expressions of living within the truth are definitively snuffed out.”
2020 was a very good year. I insisted on articulating expressions of living within the truth. The results may have been embarrassingly bad, but at least I kept a light on, showing the jackals and troglodytes where they will have to knock if they want to send in the book burners. 2021 will be a very good year too.
In an excellent talk on George Orwell in 2004, Christopher Hitchens almost casually mentions that Orwell, for all of his thousands of essays and articles, never wrote a single critique of fascism. The political thinker of the 20th century trained all his fire on the left, not the right.
This was because, Hitchens reasoned, there was a viable set of arguments on the left that needed debunking. Communism at least started with the intellectually attractive premise that it could eliminate the exploitation of the great majority of people–the working class.
Fascism, though, was simply pornographic sadism given political form. It needed no dialectical rebuttal.
Hitchens draws this point out between 16:58 and 17:45 of his talk on Orwell:
But you can read him exhaustively, as I have done, . . . and he hardly writes anything about fascism at all. He doesn’t write a single essay about it and why you should be against it. He takes it for granted that, when you look down the gun barrel of Hitler and Mussolini and Franco and fascism and Nazism, that you don’t need to be told what’s wrong with it: here’s everything you hate. Here’s every bullying father, . . . every sadistic prison warden, every capitalist exploiter, every racist and Jew-baiter, every thug, . . . all rolled into one and double distilled and redone again so you’ve got the absolutely pure essence of everything that’s hateful.
I live in a broken country. Millions and millions of my fellow citizens are able to look down the barrel of Trumpism, which is a shabby, yokelized version of fascism but fascism nonetheless, and instead of beholding “the pure essence of everything that’s hateful,” and recoiling from it, they draw closer. They chant that Fauci should be fired; they clamor for Michigan’s governor should be locked up. They applaud the open calls to sedition Trump makes when he demands election laws be overridden to stop votes from being counted.
The overruling of institutions and the overriding of the law by gangs is vigilantism, an ugly and dangerous enough thing by itself. But give that kind of movement a national leader with real political power, and it becomes fascism.
There’s plenty to dislike in Biden. I’m not sure he’ll act fast enough on climate change. I’m not sure he can build the coalition he needs to revamp healthcare. But those are arguments to be had. Evidence will have to be sifted, tradeoffs weighed, and so forth. That is ordinary politics.
Trump and his Q-Anon base, his MAGA vigilantes, do not want politics. They do not want arguments, or evidence, or debates. They want the jails filled, guns everywhere, and facts-based discourse obliterated. They want you in your corner, afraid to come out because you’re not like them, and they can bludgeon you for being different.
Today is election day. I am probably having the worst political day of my life, and it’s because my country has put itself in a position where we actually have to make an argument against fascism. Orwell was wrong, and it breaks my heart to know he was wrong. You can’t just look at fascism and know it’s immoral–or 40 percent of our citizens cannot do so. It is humiliating that we have to summon reasons and arguments in the fight against fascism. But, we can put those arguments into one word, and the word is: no.
A Review of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.
BY MATTHEW HERBERT
(This review includes quotations of dated racial terms.)
In 1891, the Baltimore author and lawyer William Cabell Bruce penned “The Negro Problem,” a long essay that purported to explain the racial inferiority of African Americans, a status he said made them unfit to be citizens. Bruce was elected as a U.S. senator three years later and went on to write several well-received books, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Benjamin Franklin. He died wealthy and renowned.
Although Bruce’s essay was debunked in its substance over the years, it established a frame of reference that has proven highly durable. Neither writers nor sociologists nor politicians have escaped the viewpoint Bruce established in “The Negro Problem,” which was that African American pain was essentially self-inflicted.
This idea seems to come naturally even to progressives. It was the same viewpoint taken by four-time senator David Patrick Moynihan in 1964, when he led an in-depth study of the failures of African American families to achieve economic outcomes on par with white families. Although the resulting report was a well-intentioned attempt to redress structural economic injustices, it was widely perceived as a case of victim-blaming. It basically asked, What were black families doing wrong that kept them so poor?
Of course the concept of the “negro problem” is older than Moynihan, older than Bruce. As a political construct, it is at least as old as the three-fifths compromise, devised in 1787 by the founders at the Constitutional Convention. (The compromise was literally a statement of how much less black lives mattered, and it was precise in its answer.)
The weight of centuries of such white-shaped history was bearing down on novelist and essayist James Baldwin in the summer of 1968 when he sat for an interview with Esquire, and the first question posed to him was: “How can we get black people to cool it?” Protests had broken out in more than 100 American cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4th of that year. Forty three people died in the violence, and ultimately more than 20,000 were arrested. This hot season of protest followed what had been dubbed the “long, hot summer” of 1967, in which 159 riots broke out and 83 people died.
So when Esquire asked Baldwin–with astounding glibness–how black people could be brought to “cool it,” Baldwin was being asked the 1968 version of the question behind “the negro problem”: What was wrong with blacks now?
Baldwin’s reply was to the point: “It is not for us to cool it,” he said.
He went on,
It’s a very serious question in my mind whether or not the people of this country, the bulk of population of this country, have enough sense of what is really happening to their black co-citizens to understand why they’re in the streets. I know of this moment they maybe don’t know it, and this is proved by the reaction to the civil disorders. It came as no revelation to me or to any other black cat that white racism is at the bottom of the civil disorders. It came as a great shock apparently to a great many other people, including the President of the United States. And now you ask me if we can cool it. . . . What causes the eruptions, the riots, the revolts- whatever you want to call them- is the despair of being in a static position, absolutely static, of watching your father, your brother, your uncle, or your cousin- no matter how old the black cat is or how young- who has no future.
Baldwin is given too little credit for achieving what was essentially a Copernican revolution in thinking about race relations in the United States, putting whites at the center of “the negro problem.” The role reversal was only vaguely indicated in the Esquire interview, but Baldwin had already made it crystal clear five years before in his greatest essay, “The Fire Next Time.”
There, he accepted the premise that there was a “negro problem” but argued it was clearly and exclusively of white authorship. Furthermore, the problem’s intractability completely dissolved, he said, when it was recast in these terms. American society has a baseline setting, not of colorlessness, but of whiteness, Baldwin argued, and the burden of measuring up was laid on blacks. The supposedly neutral conception of race relations in America was that blacks were defective versions of whites.
But as Baldwin told Esquire, it was not for black people to assess what was wrong with this setup–still less explain their anger about it in 1968;–wasn’t it clear? It was for whites to figure out how they had managed to found a country on the basis of universal human liberty while also establishing, on the same territory, a totalitarian regime for the subjugation and enslavement of a whole class of people.
As Baldwin argues in “The Fire Next Time,” the history of the white ruling class in America is one written in blazing all-caps that tells of the tyrannizing of enslaved Africans, the reaping of unrequited capital from their work, and the disenfranchising and social disappearing of their descendants. The real crime, though, was the deliberate whitewashing of this history–the tossing of it all down the Orwellian memory hole. In 1963 virtually all of white America simply pretended history of any racial consequence whatsoever stopped with the passage of the 15th amendment in 1870. That’s when our society started being color neutral, according to our newly foreshortened perspective. Baldwin writes,
[T]his is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. . . . But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
Baldwin was misunderstood by both his audiences, black and white. The whites who read him were put off by the directness of his accusations and the uncompromising anger he often vented (he will never forgive them). His black audience saw him as pandering to whites; he wanted to help them get better, make themselves whole. Baldwin’s main black critics objected that, if African American liberation was their community’s essential cause, it need have nothing to do with bringing whites onboard, still less saving their souls. Freedom would have to be taken, not given, as far as they were concerned.
It is in this dialectical corner, trapped between two audiences–and two moral imperatives–that Princeton historian Eddie S. Glaude Jr. reevaluates the works of Baldwin in Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. I highly recommend Glaude’s book. It is a supremely readable cultural biography of Baldwin’s writings on race and politics.
Begin Again presents a clear, insightful analysis of the evolution of Baldwin’s thought throughout his career. It also voices a wonderful appreciation the power Baldwin’s writing still has to awaken the American conscience.
Baldwin’s writings were deeply shaped by his personal life and the pivotal events of the civil rights movement. The reader (like me) who mainly knows the raw, electrifying power of the content of Baldwin’s writings can learn a great deal about their context from Begin Again. I knew a fair amount about the effect of Baldwin’s exile to Paris from 1950 to 1956, and how it shaped his early novels and essays. But I knew hardly anything about his years spent later in Istanbul, where he sought the isolation of Ottoman city squares where he did not know the language.
Baldwin’s career was infamously up-and-down, and Glaude explains a great deal of this turbulence in terms of his changing role in the civil rights movement. The young Baldwin played a formative role in midwifing the civil rights movement (even referring to early activists as his children), and his writing in those years led up to the hopeful ideas of reconciliation expressed in “The Fire Next Time” in 1963. After MLK’s assassination in 1968, though, Baldwin felt (and expressed) sympathy with the more strident voices of black liberation, including members of the Black Panther Party. This pessimistic turn led to the other great literary signpost in Baldwin’s political writings, the long 1972 essay “No Name in the Streets,” (written mostly in Istanbul).
The common thread running through both these phases of Baldwin’s career was the idea of renewal, Glaude tells us. Whether radical reconciliation would come through writing, reflection and persuasion or through the Black Power strategy of showing white America how few peaceful options blacks had left, Baldwin believed change could come. Or, rather, he believed that this hope had to be held up.
The real gift of Begin Again is Glaude’s ability to both relate Baldwin’s message of hope and to amplify it in his own prophetic voice, which is clearly concerned with the present day. The best chapter of Begin Again is the last one, in which Glaude admits that even the exacting Baldwin might recognize some signs of real truth-telling about race in America today, such as the establishment of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama (often called the “Lynching Memorial”). But Glaude also argues how far back our truth-telling must go if we are to effect real reconciliation: all the way. “To do your first works over,” Glaude quotes Baldwin, “means to re-examine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it.”
As good as Begin Again is, though, Glaude only glances on the thing that makes Baldwin truly radical, and truly great: his deep perception of the human condition. Baldwin, a black, gay, poor, popeyed man–whose father had constantly told him throughout his youth that he was unlovable and, despite two attempts at suicide, turned himself into a tower of literary and moral force–saw straight into the struggle that makes human individuality. This struggle is the root of all our trouble, but also the root of any beauty or excellence we eke out in our brief time on earth.
We are responsible to life, Baldwin wrote in “The Fire Next Time.” We create and re-create ourselves every day. And if white Americans were monumentally bad at bearing up under this level of responsibility, that’s because everyone was. When Baldwin wrote to Robert Kennedy after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he begged to be “allowed” to share in the family’s grief, writing, “As we know in these trying days to come, you share our struggle, for our struggle is the same.” The challenge Baldwin saw for white Americans was the same challenge faced by any Americans, and indeed any human. it was the challenge of living honestly with oneself, which most people refused to do. Instead, as Glaude reads Baldwin, most of us “were too willing to hide behind the idols of race and ready to kill in order to defend them.”
The main conclusion of Begin Again is that this natural human inclination to believe the best about ourselves even when it is a barefaced lie has been made unusually easy for whites. We are born with a script prepared for us about the way our country works. It becomes natural for us to read straight from that script, starting from our school days, or even earlier. But James Baldwin was born with a very different script to read from. He was taught by his father he was unlovable; taught by his ghetto he was expendable and essentially worthless. It is hard simply to toss scripts like these out. Instead, as Glaude reminds, we have to “go back to our first works” and re-write them. We must keep re-writing them every day. That task is for all of us, and it does not know the color of our skin.
I’m chipping away at writing a review of Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five. It’s not going well.
The subject of Slaughterhouse Five is the aerial firebombing of Dresden, which killed 38,000 Germans on the night of February 14, 1945. The Allies, the good guys, did it. And we did it for the sake of retribution. The war was almost over, and Dresden had no military value. We just decided that burning down a Baroque city of opera houses and picture galleries would be a nice touch.
The event made no sense; it surpassed the human ability to comment. But still, Vonnegut was there. He bore witness. He had to write about it, and for years he called the working manuscript his “big, important Dresden novel,” poking fun at his own pretension and his own meager capacity to comment.
I’m in the same boat, trying to write about something much bigger than me. How do you say anything intelligent about a novel whose subject matter was chosen because it defies intelligent commentary? The recursive trick can only be pulled off once, I feel, and Vonnegut already did it.
While I was busy feeling stuck on Slaughterhouse Five, I needed a pick-me-up. So I re-read Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut’s eighth novel. It is zany and wise but not a masterpiece. On its release in 1973 it was widely panned for being cheaply outrageous. Even to me, a huge fan, Breakfast of Champions gives the impression in places of following a well-worn formula. But in a way it also offers proof of Vonnegut’s greatness. If Breakfast of Champions is the kind of thing Vonnegut can reel off on a bad day, truly we stand in the presence of a genius.
I’m going to prove it. And I’m going to prove it by cheating.
Rather than churning out one of my turgid, philosophical essays about hidden structures and moral realism and so forth, what I’m going to do is: march straight through the text of Breakfast of Champions and give you the money quotes. I will proffer only the smallest soupcons of comment along the way, promise. I just can’t be bothered to think very hard today.
Where better to start than with the founding of our country, by enlightened commercial privateers whom Vonnegut calls “sea pirates.” A good 35 years before the New York Times “1619 Project” claimed that rapaciousness and subjugation were organically part of our colonial founding, Vonnegut was already on point:
Actually, the sea pirates who had the most to do with the creation of the new government owned human slaves. They used human beings for machinery, and, even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they and their descendants continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines.
The sea pirates were white. The people who were already on the continent when the pirates arrived were copper-colored. When slavery was introduced onto the continent, the slaves were black. Color was everything.
Here is how the pirates were able to take whatever they wanted from anybody else: they had the best boats in the world, and they were meaner than anybody else, and they had gunpowder, which was a mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulphur. They touched this seemingly listless powder with fire, and it turned violently into gas. This gas blew projectiles out of metal tubes at terrific velocities. The projectiles cut through meat and bone very easily; so the pirates could wreck the wiring or the bellows or the plumbing of a stubborn human being, even when he was far, far away. The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were.
More or less, the sea pirates thought they were doing the copper-colored people a favor in 1492. That’s what we learned as kids in school, right?
The teachers told the children that  was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.
Breakfast of Champions is a novel of ideas, but not in the usual sense. Rather than tracing one or two big ideas all the way though, it goes different directions. Sometimes it’s about bad ideas and how humanity has survived despite having so many of them. Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s favorite made-up science fiction writer, does yeomen service looking into this question. He comes up with some answers, too.
And here, according to Trout, was the reason human beings could not reject ideas because they were bad: “Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.
The ideas Earthlings held didn’t matter for hundreds of thousands of year, since they couldn’t do much about them anyway. Ideas might as well be badges as anything.
. . . And then Earthlings discovered tools. Suddenly agreeing with friends could be a form of suicide or worse.
In our time, of course, our idea badges have been put to serious use, thanks to our tools. Cold War economics was instructive in this area:
Dwayne Hoover’s and Kilgore Trout’s country, where there was still plenty of everything, was opposed to Communism. It didn’t think that Earthlings who had a lot should share it with others unless they really wanted to, and most of them didn’t want to.
So they didn’t have to.
Everybody in America was supposed to grab whatever he could and hold on to it. Some Americans were very good at grabbing and holding, were fabulously well-to-do. Others couldn’t get their hands on doodly-squat.
Mostly we get our idea badges from school. Regarding Kilgore Trout’s chidlhood education in Ohio:
His high school was named after a slave owner who was also one of the world’s greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty.
So it goes.
Dwayne Hoover, Breakfast of Champions’s antagonist, is psychotic, Vonnegut tells us. It’s because of bad chemicals in his brain. Moreover:
A lot of people were like Dwayne: they created chemicals in their own bodies which were bad for their heads. But there were thousands upon thousands of other people in the city who bought bad chemicals and ate them or sniffed them–or injected them into their veins . . .
People took such awful chances with chemicals and their bodies because they wanted the quality of their lives to improve. They lived in ugly places where there were only ugly things to do. They didn’t own doodley-squat, so they couldn’t improve their surroundings. So they did their best to make their insides beautiful instead.
Well, it is hard being human. Kilgore Trout, impoverished, unknown science fiction writer, knows this:
[Street life] had given him a life not worth living, but it had given him an iron will to live. This was a common combination on the planet Earth.
And people in America aren’t just ravaging themselves over this dilemma. They’re doing it to the ground beneath their feet, too. As Kilgore Trout hitchhikes through West Virginia, he is positioned to observe:
The surface of the state had been demolished by men and machinery and explosives in order to make it yield up its coal. The coal was mostly gone now. It had been turned into heat.
The surface of West Virginia, with its coal and trees and topsoil gone, was rearranging what was left of itself in conformity with the laws of gravity. It was collapsing into all the holes which had been dug into it. Its mountains, which had once found it easy to stand by themselves, were sliding into valleys now.
The demolition of West Virginia had taken place with the approval of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the State Government, which drew their power from the people.
That last part is the kicker.
Life is not just institutionalized in demented ways in the America. Bad craziness seeps into every aspect of life, making you wonder if the gods themselves are crazy. This passage is allegorical–it’s about a dog–but you’ll get the point, I think. Lancer, the dog in question, is a greyhound, nervous and active by breed. He is kept
in a one-room apartment fourteen feet wide and twenty-six feet long, and six flights of stairs above street level. His entire life was devoted to unloading his excrement at the proper time and place. There were two proper places to put it: in the gutter outside the door seventy-two steps below, with the traffic whizzing by, or in a roasting pan his mistress kept in front of the Westinghouse refrigerator.
Lancer had a very small brain, but he must have suspected from time to time, . . . that some kind of terrible mistake had been made.
We build our own hells. Or we placidly occupy them while we allow them to be built around us. Lancer didn’t ask for the life he had.
Although I’m a sturdily happy person and feel like forging ahead through all of life’s challenges right up till the end, I also feel, in a certain way, that an insuperable hell is being built around me. Vonnegut suggests something of it here:
As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.
Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.
And so on.
Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.
If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.
It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.
There are more great quotes from Breakfast of Champions, but this is the one I will close with, because it sums up certain discontents that I feel as keenly as Vonnegut does. I find myself done in by the idiot choices of my countrymen in the same way.
To wit: The society in which I live is consciously designed as a shooting gallery. It makes no more sense than Lancer the greyhound’s mad setup, but it is worse because it kills. In any encounter between law officer and citizen in America, both parties have a presumptive right to carry and use lethal force. And the reason the situation is this way is because gunfighting is the most meaningful story that Americans can bring themselves to believe about their lives–that it’s a frontier struggle, which is fun and exciting.
But it’s not. Life is chaotic: it lacks any point that we do not give it. We are compelled to give an unformed life narrative shape. Why did we give it this one? My brain is small, but I feel some terrible mistake been made.