The Donald J. Trump Presidential Library

I have just learned that the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library released its website on the day of the Biden inauguration. Now, the politics surrounding the establishment of a presidential library can be tricky.  I recall a fair amount of controversy over the location of the George W. Bush library—not in my backyard!—which they finally put up in Dallas, Texas, adding yet another bit of ignominy to that city.

The tradition of presidential libraries began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his own is a rather humble affair.  But, like everything else, one-upmanship asserted itself, and such libraries have since become increasingly grandiose with the passing administrations.  Barack Obama, however, true to form, bucked this trend by creating his own brand of library.[1]

All of this might lead one to ponder the stamp that Trump will place on his own library. The first question is its location.  The libraries of Trump’s predecessors are typically located in places of high importance to these leaders. Witness the Harry S. Truman library in Independence, Missouri, or the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, situated just south of downtown Boston.

Where might Trump build his library? Vegas? Mar-a-lago? Next to that golf course in New Jersey?

The second question surrounding the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library has to do with its contents.  To date, presidential libraries have housed documents relevant to the operations of the administration of the land’s highest office: texts of speeches, reports, records of meetings, and so forth, assembled to assist scholars in understanding the history of the United States.  The Trump record, as I understand it, resides largely in Tweets and transcripts of compromising phone calls.  Is this what a scholar will discover as she combs these archives? Or might she find thousands of copies of The Art of the Deal alongside a single (upside-down) Bible? Maybe some Dick and Jane?

Perhaps my own experience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum a few years back might throw light on what occurs within these institutions. I was working at a university just north of Los Angeles at the time.

I had thought that I might drive to Rick Warren’s mega-church to hear his preaching. But getting there meant that I would have to cross LA , almost to Orange County, and I didn’t have that in me. I’d be staying closer to home and taking in the Reagan Museum and Library. I drove there, parked my car, walked a fair piece, and entered.

To the tourist’s eye, The Reagan Museum and Library is laid out in a straight line, rooms progressing from infancy to childhood to college–wherever that occurred: I still couldn’t place it–and on to the acting career and his rise and success in politics. But there was a big blip in the middle of it, like the lump in a boa constrictor that consumed a boar a week ago.

The opening was clogged with corpulent, virtually immobile people draped in American flags. I saw American flags tee shirts, kerchiefs, sneakers, whatever. I realized that, were I to adjust my progress to suit the molasses pace of the throng, that I’d never get through the place. Therefore, every time I spied an opening —always, all too brief—between the enormous bodies, I made for it. Most times I was successful, but the cost of error was dear: I might easily have been pressed to death. It was like running with the bulls not from ahead, but from within the pack. Terrifying!

Still, I persisted through Reagan’s childhood, Eureka College (that’s it!), his stint as governor of California, the 1980 election campaign, whereupon I met a roadblock outside the John Hinckley Assassination Attempt Chamber. Those of us who had thronged into the preceding room found our path blocked by a guard who informed us that the Assassination Attempt Chamber was full as usual, and because of the fire laws, we had to wait out in an octangular room, the highlight of which was a podium, behind which one could stand and learn what it was like to read from teleprompters. I mounted the platform and approached the podium. I had always thought that presidents read directly from screens. It turns out that an inverted image of the text of the speech is reflected off mirrors flanking the speaker at about 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock. Interesting. I hadn’t known that. Anyway, I stood behind the podium for about 30 seconds and silently read the script—something about the price of freedom.

After a time, Assassination Attempt Chamber emptied, and, as I had asserted myself at the front of the queue, I was the first one in and the first one out—why relive an assassination attempt? I quickly passed through a series of exhibits whose focus I couldn’t quite determine—I did, however, learn that Nancy Reagan’s birthday was the previous Friday. My real quarry, Air Force One, lay ahead.

I don’t know if you’ll agree with me on this point, but Air Force One is the highlight of “The Tour.” Enormous, and surrounded by squad cars, its nosecone pointing toward the mountains across the valley, supplying the unsettling impression that the pilot might be thinking of slamming the craft into one of them. I found myself accosted by a woman in military blues who offered, nay demanded, that I pose outside the entrance of the plane to deliver a presidential wave. I did so with a smirk planted on my face. She took a snapshot and informed me that after I departed the plane my souvenir photo would be awaiting me on the ground floor.

Air Force One, as far as I could tell, is a plane converted from commercial use, with most of the passenger seats scooped out and replaced with comfy little couches where those who discuss grave matters repose. It was nothing special, except for the ubiquitous jars of jelly beans and issues of Time magazine (Time? I would have thought US News and World Report). After about three minutes, I began to get the nervous feeling I get whenever I’m trying to get off a landed plane to meet a tight connection. Of course, the father of the family waddling in front of me felt the need to impress his endless knowledge of aircraft upon his kids and everyone else within earshot. He kept plying the poor guide with inane questions about fuel specs and the like as she stood there chuckling. I’ve traveled in the middle seat from Asia, and I’ve never been so happy to get off a plane in my life. Pure agony.

Once off the plane, I descended the stairs and was nearly shooed through a turnstile and into a line of visitors waiting to purchase the photos of themselves doing the Presidential Wave that woman at the entrance to the plane had taken. When I overheard “$17.95” I searched about for the nearest exit. All of the exits were marked with “Emergency Alarm Will Sound” signs, so I attempted to pose the question of how to leave the museum to a guard. She happened to be preoccupied with a crisis involving someone who had gotten lost inside Air Force One. Explanations of how a person can fail to emerge from a tube elude me.

I did notice a Guinness Beer sign and considered having a drink—I most certainly needed one, after all I’d just been through. However, given the ubiquity of police and secret service types on the premises, I thought it wiser to abstain. It was still morning, after all. The entire “Tour” had taken me less than 30 minutes.

I still had to leave the place, and I eventually located a guard not preoccupied in staring at Air Force One. She was quite old and told me that I could “Just get to my damn car” by working my way back to the entrance of the museum. Of course, doing so would require navigating my way through the teeth of the crowd that I had just escaped and would necessitate another delay at the Assassination Attempt Chamber. I shuddered, thanked her, and began my voyage back down Everest.

At about the year 1985, the guard who had previously blocked the entrance to the Assassination Attempt Chamber recognized me and attempted to shepherd me into some sort of Disney exhibit. I refused twice, the second time holding my phone in the air and inventing something about a family emergency. She led me to a side door, did something with a card key to deactivate the alarm, and ushered me out of the museum.

I dropped three feet onto a sun-scorched embankment, some distance from the parking lots. I skidded down the slope for another fifteen feet before righting myself and regaining my composure, which I didn’t need because there is little dignity to be found in side-stepping cacti as one hobbles one’s way two hundred yards at a forty-five-degree angle under a baking California sun.

After a time, I located my car. On my way out of the place, a police officer pulled me over and asked for my exit ticket. Apparently, in my grief I’d ignored a roadblock somewhere. I told him that I wasn’t certain of the ticket process and that I’d been rattled by what I’d seen. For some reason he laughed and let me off.

Whew! What a day! I’d learned quite a bit. There was the Gipper and Nancy Reagan’s birthday, and something about an invasion of Nicaragua. And there was the standing at the podium, and the magic of inversion.


[1] For an account, somewhat biased, of the history of presidential libraries, see https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/05/07/presidential-libraries-are-a-scam-could-obama-change-that-215109

This Is Your Republican Party

If you can stand to do so, take a long hard look at the faces of the rioters who breached the barricades and stormed the Capitol Building last week. You will notice a lot of white faces and Confederate flags.  I couldn’t find a single black person in all the images and footage of the riots, save for the policeman who cleverly drew the pursuing mob away from its principal targets (The poor guy probably thought he was about to be lynched).  Do you think Nancy Pelosi would be alive today if the insurrectionists had laid hands on her?

Yes, Donald Trump did incite the riot, and should be thrown out of office for doing so.  I keep reading about those who view Trump’s presidency as an aberration from the true spirit of the GOP, a one-off. Not so fast. Trump’s approval rating among Republicans stands at 90 percent.  Ninety percent! Ninety percent of Republicans either endorse or passively accept his racist behavior and policies.  The guy received 70 million votes in November’s election.   That’s quite a few people who think that he deserved a second term.

Look again at those white faces, at those people bearing Confederate flags and wearing shirts with slogans such as “Camp Auschwitz.”  That is your Republican party.  Those rioters identified on camera come from red states like Texas, Alabama, Arkansas.  If justice is served, they will face serious criminal charges.

For once, the idiots should have worn masks.

THOUGHTS ON BAD WAYS TO RELINQUISH POWER

Much has been made of US President Donald Trump’s aspirations toward a quasi-dictatorship in the vein of that set up by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Though Trump’s efforts at undermining the law of the land appear to have largely failed, we can still draw fruitful comparisons with Trump’s behavior during his final days in power with that of an honest-to-god, full-on dictator: Adolf Hitler.

Hey! Wait a minute! Trump is nowhere near as evil as Hitler!  I agree. Hitler’s brand of evil was far more repugnant than Trump’s. No fair basis for comparison resides on that score. I will suggest, however, that Trump has been as delusional during his final months in office as Hitler was during his last hundred days.

Let us begin with Hitler.  Hitler was never stable—spend thirty minutes with Mein Kampf, and you’ll seen what I mean—but one could argue that he became completely unhinged in the autumn of 1942, dismissing generals who questioned his decisions and denying the reality that the German armies in Stalingrad would perish if they did not retreat from the city.  When newly-minted Field Marshall Friedrich Paulus, the commander of the German army trapped in Stalingrad, surrendered to the Soviets after months of bitter street fighting, cold, and hunger, Hitler exploded in rage, branding Paulus a traitor.

Fast forward to April 1945.  Hitler has retreated to an underground bunker in Berlin and mighty Russian armies are at the gates of the city.  It is clear to everyone that the days of the Third Reich are numbered. Suddenly, news arrives that American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt has died. Hitler and his cronies are jubilant.  Surely, the death of America’s wartime president will spell the end of the US’s involvement in the war, leading to the collapse of the anti-Nazi alliance.  The Nazis will prevail!

Meanwhile, the German army is a spent force.  Yet Hitler refuses to concede that the armies that he directs exist only on paper. When his generals point out that the armies do not exist, Hitler erupts, calls them traitors, and insists that the Russians will suffer a humiliating defeat in Berlin. The Red Army continues its inexorable advance into Berlin.

Amid the shelling in the city, Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, arranges for a party to celebrate Hitler’s birthday, April 20. Realizing that the game is up, several of Hitler’s longtime lackies appear at the party, only to scurry away shortly afterward, abandoning the doomed Fuehrer to what awaits him. One of them, Minister of Armaments Albert Speer, informs Hitler that he has disregarded the order to flatten Germany’s infrastructure.  One might conclude that Hitler commands loyalty only so long as he has something to offer; once that ability crumbles, his supporters melt away. Meanwhile, against the advice of those who remain in the bunker, Hitler refuses to leave Berlin, the seat of his power.

Soon thereafter, Hitler learns that longtime henchmen Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler have attempted to displace him, whereupon he relieves them of their posts and reshuffles the remaining personnel to form a new government.

On April 29, before he takes his own life, Hitler dictates his final testament, a screed that blames the failure of the Third Reich (which he has finally come to accept) on the disloyalty of those he had trusted and on the German people who were unworthy of his leadership.

Now, let’s consider Trump’s behavior and whether we may detect a few parallels with that of Hitler.

Trump demands unconditional loyalty.  Much like the generals in the German army, anyone in the Trump administration who so much as raises a doubt about his judgment or the certainty of his electoral victory gets a pink slip.  Too many to mention. Now think about those who fled the Fuehrer in April 1945 to save their own skins. One need only consider those GOP members of Congress who have jumped ship on Trump, now that his time is nearly over.

Trump likewise refuses to accept defeat, regardless of the facts on the ground.  Hitler refused to give up the fighting because he saw salvation, however dubious, in the death of FDR and the appearance of imaginary armies under his control. Trump refuses to concede to Joe Biden. The President’s attempts to intimidate Michigan judges, his attempts (most recently in Georgia) to undermine the US political system, all with an eye to clinging to power, suggest that he and the facts have long ago parted ways.

While huddled in his bunker, Hitler ordered Albert Speer to flatten Germany (though allied bombers were doing well enough on that score, thank you!). Country be damned. Trump now huddles in the White House, fuming about his imminent loss of power while ignoring the accelerating COVID disaster, the pervasive joblessness, exhibiting a perfect willingness to let the country burn while he pursues his legal fantasies. Country be damned.  Trump has a famous temper. You will recall Hitler’s explosions when those around him addressed him with the language of reason. Hitler refused to leave Berlin. In the end, Trump may refuse to leave the White House. That would come as no surprise. I suppose that his last testament will assume the form of a falsehood-laced social media diatribe about how betrayal by others deprived him of power

The Fish Rots from the Head: Is there a Case to Be Made for a Second Trump Term?

The United States appears to have reached an impasse, and I hear rumblings about civil war.

With this in mind, let us consider an 1858 speech by President Abraham Lincoln concerning the threat that slavery posed to the unity of the country:

“If we could first know where we are, and wither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’”

Will Donald Trump lead the United States into such a crisis as Lincoln deemed necessary for the resolution of differences that plagued the nation?

He has certainly led to nation to the brink. Let us examine his record. The COVID death count in the United States is about to reach 200,000.[1] Those American who still have jobs nervously await the next economic downturn. The United States is an international pariah, and increasingly feckless before the growing military, economic, and political threat from China. Foreign nations have interfered in the American election process, and may well do so again. The president plays fast and loose with laws intended to limit his power.  Racial tension is at its highest since the 1960s.  Are we better off than we were in 2012?

A Trump landslide victory in the upcoming election would bring more of the same, with the United States slipping toward a civil reckoning similar to that which Lincoln mentioned.

If Joe Biden wins the election by a narrow margin, Trump will challenge the results.  A Supreme Court stacked with Republican appointees will back him. Biden won’t stand a chance there, and another hole will be poked into the shell of the Constitution. Trump considers himself beyond counsel now. If he wins the election, by hook or crook, he will accelerate the pace of consolidation of personal power at the expense of the system of checks and balances that once girded the United States political system. Further, Trump will continue to foment racial and political discord, fail to take seriously the COVIS threat, and turn his back on the country’s obligations abroad.

A continuation of the Trump presidency would likely bring civil discord in its train. Something would have to give.

Meanwhile, how effective would a Joe Biden presidency be?  If Biden did not inspire confidence, say, thirty years ago, how could he manage the trick now?  In such times as these? Should reasons of health force the 77-year-old Biden from office, then the country would have a black female president, and Republican America would not stand for that.[2]  You will recall the partisan roadblocks that Barack Obama faced as president, and he was at least a male. A Biden or Kamala presidency would likely witness more fraying along racial and political lines, but the chance of a cleansing of the country’s soul would be slim.

We must not lose sight of the fact that the United States has never been anything more than an idea created 240-odd years ago to protect the interests of the wealthy white men of that time. The interests of others have never meant all that much. So much has changed over the centuries that what little remains of the original version of the United States depends upon a president arrogating quasi-dictatorial powers to protect his own interests and those of his diminishing base of support.  This development sits uneasily beside the lofty idea upon which the United States claims to have been founded. Keep in mind that many considered the Soviet Union to be a good idea, until its god failed.

Voltaire once referred to the crumbling Holy Roman Empire as “neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” The United States, as it now stands, is neither one nation, nor indivisible, nor does it provide justice for all.

Re-electing Trump would force a long-overdue civil reckoning. People will only take so much.  Let the chips fall where they may.[3]

The fish does rot from the head.


[1] The United States, which has 4.25 percent of the world’s population, has 22 percent of world COVID cases.

[2] Having lived over twenty years in red states, I write with a fair degree of confidence on that score.

[3] If the United States remains divided against itself, what will the former United States look like in a few years? Well, the West Coast states might form one group, and the northeast another.  Texas, true to historical form, might go its own way. Would Canada accept Minnesota and Wisconsin? What about the rest of the country, the flyover zone between New York and California? The urban centers of the Midwest tend to lean left, while the rural areas lean to the right (Recall what Karl Rove said about Pennsylvania as being Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between). The blue cities sprinkled amid this sea of red might resemble the free imperial cities of the Holy Roman Empire, islands of independence within larger princely territories with oftentimes different religions and systems of rule.

Wither Academic Freedom?

First they burn the books. Then they kill people. History has shown us this repeatedly.

When I was in graduate school, New York University physics professor Alan Sokal submitted a bogus paper to the progressive academic journal Social Text. Suspecting that the editors of the journal would publish anything, so long as it employed popular linguistic jargon, Sokal submitted a bunch of jibberish, couched in trendy academic terms, in which he argued that gravity has no objective existence. In other words, gravity, the phenomenon that causes my pen to drop to the table if I release it from my grasp, is an illusion. Sokal went so far as to include deliberate arithmetic errors that a third-grader could spot on a cursory reading. Social Text published the article.[1]

Three weeks later, Sokal came clean about his hoax:

“The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that ‘the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project.’ They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.”

Social Text’s editors, such as they were, cried foul, accusing Sokal of playing a dirty trick.  Apparently those responsible for trafficking in such postmodern pap harbored little inclination to do some soul searching or to issue a mea culpa. No, none of that. They simply pointed the finger at the other guy, at the guy who had handed them the cyanide capsule.

Sokal’s accusation of intellectual laziness hit its target, for it lay bare the modern state of affairs: What you say doesn’t need to contain anything of substance, so long as it finds expression in politically acceptable terms. But heaven forfend you don’t use politically acceptable language!

Let us now consider last week’s controversy surrounding remarks made by University of Southern California Business School professor Greg Patton during an online business communication course.  In footage captured on Zoom, Patton, who has spent much time in China, used a Chinese expression to illustrate a point about one aspect of Chinese communication. Unfortunately, the Chinese term he used sounds rather like the N-word in English.

Some black students erupted in indignation and called for Professor Patton’s ouster. He has been relieved of his teaching duties for that course and has issued a formal apology.

Why? Because in order to support a legitimate academic point, Professor Patton employed language that a small number of students considered improper. Perhaps he should have avoided using an example to support an idea.

 Did Professor Sokal’s paper contain anything of substance?  Absolutely not. Did Professor Patton’s lecture contain anything of substance?  Absolutely.  Can language be hurtful?  Absolutely.  Can critical thought disappear when we place undue focus on politically correct language? Absolutely.  

So here we are. This, my friends, is the odor of lost academic freedom.

NB. It gets worse.   Getting academia to shoot itself in the foot has grown into a cottage industry.[2]


[1]Sokal, Alan D. “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Social Text. No. 46/47. (217-52).

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/new-sokal-hoax/572212/

]


Monumental Sins

Several years ago, upon my return from a trip abroad, my work colleagues asked me where I’d visited. Was it Paris? Amsterdam? London?

“Auschwitz,” I said.

Stone silence. Uncomfortable shuffling of feet. Averted glances.

I have an odd penchant for paying visits to sites of self-inflicted human catastrophes. I have stood in stupefied shock before the dome at Hiroshima and the flash shadows on buildings of people going about their daily activities when the bomb exploded.  I have regarded the remains of the Auschwitz gas chambers so hastily blown apart by the panicked SS guards before they force-marched thousands to their deaths in the snows of 1945. I have gazed upon the anguished Holocaust sculpture at Dachau, the prototypical Nazi concentration camp. I visit these places, unromantic as they are, because they are places of sober reflection, and subjects unsuited to our throwaway modern selfie culture. As I see it, a visit to such sites triggers cathartic reflection about the level to which humanity can descend if it is less than careful.  Their psychological and ethical import will endure so long as humans exist.

Now let us turn to American monuments. Monuments there are testaments to victory, to the triumphant forward march of the American Way, regardless of its moral implications. The Washington Monument. The Lincoln Memorial. Mount Rushmore.[1] Amid this ocean of reassurance, where does one turn for proper moral perspective, especially in light of the fact that the country’s diaper-clad president publicly bewails the dismantling of monuments celebrating the achievements of the Confederacy, such as they were?  One wonders if the US, not to mention the world, will survive its infancy.

Where are the American monuments that evoke soul-searching, in the manner of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, or Dachau? The memorial to the Oklahoma City bombing? Ground Zero?  The memorials in those places pay tribute to the innocent dead, as they should.  But those events, while tragic, represent one-offs and provide paltry occasion for higher moral reflection. America in those places was the victim. Where, however, are the memorials to the victims of America? Where is the memorial to the Native Americans wiped out in the nineteenth century, to the Trail of Tears? Or the tribute to the Blacks slaves on whose shoulders the economy of the young United States was built?  Where should Americans go to weep for our accumulated sins?

I suggest Hiroshima.


[1] Those seeking solace from the sting of the US defeat in Vietnam can find it at the Wall in Washington, DC, a memorial dwarfed by surrounding monuments. A strong athlete might jump high enough to place a quarter atop it.

Racism and the Tar Baby

I doubt that many read Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) these days. The Uncle Remus guy.[1]  He was de riguer reading for children in my day, and his stories involved an old black man named Uncle Remus sharing tales about the Old South, typically with animals as stand-in for humans. Disney made a few animated movies about Chandler’s stories, as I recall. One recurring theme throughout the stories was the rivalry between Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit and the unsuccessful attempts by Brer Fox to catch Brer Rabbit, in the manner of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.

My favorite Uncle Remus story as a child was “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story,” which begins with Brer Fox hatching yet another scheme to snare Brer Rabbit.  The gimmick has Brer Fox creating a human baby out of tar, placing a hat on its head, and situating it in the middle of a path frequented by Brer Rabbit.  Brer Fox lay in wait behind a nearby briar patch for Brer Rabbit to pass by, which he does, soon enough. Brer Rabbit approaches the black baby and greets it.  Infuriated by the disrespectful silence of the Tar Baby, Brer Rabbit threatens violence if the cheeky Tar Baby does not show due respect by removing its hat.[2] Further silence. Brer Rabbit loses his temper and punches the Tar Baby. Of course, his paw becomes stuck in the Tar Baby’s head. Brer Rabbit belts the Tar Baby with his free front paw. Same result. Brer Rabbit attempts to kick the Tar Baby into submission, achieving the same predictable results. After head-butting the Tar Baby, Brer Rabbit is entirely stuck.

I wonder if we might learn something from this story. Perhaps we might consider the Tar Baby as black America, and Brer Rabbit as the system that resorts to violent measures to cow dissenters into submissiveness should blacks not know their place. The more wedded to violence, the more hopelessly we find ourselves ensnared in the tar of racism.

So, what happened to Brer Fox, you ask?  We left him hiding out in the briar patch. Did he eat Brer Rabbit? Well, no. While Brer Fox contemplates how to kill his prey, Brer Rabbit implores his captor not to hurl him into the briar patch. Eventually, Brer Fox does just that, and Brer Rabbit escapes to a nearby hilltop, from where he mocks Brer Fox.
“Bred en bawn in a brier-patch, Brer Fox–bred en bawn in a brier-patch!”

So who or what does Brer Fox represent? To me, he represents the US justice system. So how is it that Brer Rabbit escapes justice? You tell me.


[1] A quick biography of Harris can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_Chandler_Harris

[2] (“‘I’m gwine ter larn you how ter talk ter ‘spectubble folks ef hit’s de las’
ack,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Ef you don’t take off dat hat en tell me
howdy, I’m gwine ter bus’ you wide open,’ sezee.)  The text of the story can be found here: http://www.en.utexas.edu/amlit/amlitprivate/texts/remus.htm

Can Book Clubs End Racism in the US? Hmmm…well…


The Huffington Post published an article on August 19 about the increasing popularity of book clubs focused on racism. The author of the article concludes that such clubs represent a first step in the path to appreciating the effects of racism on both sides of the divide.  I suspect that some white people will buy these books so as not to be caught flat-footed when the subject of recent literature on white supremacy arises at a cocktail party, or at whatever passes for a cocktail party in the year of Covid-19.[1] These are the Good Whites, those desperate to keep up the appearance of open-mindedness, but resolutely opposed to measures that might increase black presence in their neighborhoods and their children’s schools. All well and good, I suppose.

I, like any Good White, learned in school the officially-stamped US version of the history of racial oppression, which informed me about slavery, then the Civil War–which liberated the slaves—Reconstruction–which healed the wounds of the war–a bit of Jim Crow, a dash of Civil Rights, and ipso presto, a renewed nation in which any economic and social lag among blacks was attributed to laziness, drug abuse, etc. One who reads books such as White Fragility or White Rage might move a bit further along and arrive at the conclusion that despite the institutional racism that blacks have confronted for over 400 years, despite ongoing police brutality, despite statistics pointing to the widening chasm between black and white on sociological fronts too numerous to recite, we need only to engage in meaningful conversations and stir in a pinch of American optimism, and everything might turn out all right in the end.[2] 

Both books deplore institutional racism in the United States, and rightly so, but then peter out into softly-worded recommendations of ways to ameliorate the situation. I, however, believe that one must know the causes of a disease in order to attempt to cure it. In line with this, a knowledge of the history of race relations in the United States should be a prerequisite for discussing the matter intelligently. After finishing White Fragility, I was no better informed about racial tension in the US than I might have been had I read something by Charles Dickens. White Rage does provide a history of white suppression of blacks in the US, in a somewhat vitriolic tone, but in the end offers up a few pages of anodyne suggestions. The real problem is that this US racism business works at the gut level.  It is so deeply baked into the bread of US society that even well-meaning people on both sides find themselves incapable of expressing their thoughts on the matter without leavening that bread with apologies and mealy-mouthed suggestions as to how to rectify the problem.

If one wants to approach the issue of racism in the United States, one has to get one’s fingernails dirtier than that. As for books, I recommend the following works that cover the early history of slavery: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist and Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.[3] These titles suggest that a full appreciation the legacy of slavery might resist a book-of-the-month-club bromide. These two books make for grim reading, indeed. Any book that includes a chapter entitled “Anatomy of a Slave Mine” makes for grim reading, the harrowing stuff that causes you to bury your face in your hands as a Good White, as a beneficiary of institutional racism.

Let us, then, turn now to yet another book, one that keeps coming to mind when I think about the recent racial crises. Several years ago, Thomas Frank author of a book called What’s the Matter with Kansas? posed the question of why struggling small farmers from places like Kansas supported a Republican party whose policies undermined their economic position on every level.[4] Such people struggled far more mightily under measures put in place by Republican policymakers than they might have had the Democrats held the reins of power. Why did such people, in election after election, vote in ways that jeopardized their economic present and the future of their children? The answer: God and guns, over a bottle of domestic beer. Workers quivering on the cusp of financial ruin would rather have endured penury so long as the man occupying the seat of power purported to share their sentiments on two articles of the bill of rights, and voiced the message they sought in the “aw, shucks” manner of George W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan.  Republicans across the country knew that, played to it, and remained in control of the presidency and Congress until a couple of mis-managed wars and Barack Obama did them in.  In 2008 it had for a brief moment appeared that the US had finally surfaced from below the waves of its racist past.  Instead, the solution bobbed there unsteadily for a few years before being pulled back down again. In my view, the reaction to the election of Obama in places like Kansas unearthed the third, erstwhile unspoken, pillar of Republican support: racism. And we’re back where we were, except that our current president makes no bones about his distaste for people who don’t look like him. It’s on now…

White supremacists cling to racism like they cling to their belief in their god, or to the barrels of their guns. Racism in this context is a visceral, gut sentiment with centuries of momentum behind it.

To wit, not long ago I was forwarded a text from Fox News covering the near-fatal shooting of Chip Banks, a former NFL player, black, who lived in Atlanta after his professional career ended.  I read the Fox News briefing and scrolled down to the reader comments. No words of sympathy, no hope for Banks’s recovery. Instead, I came upon comments suggesting that Banks had got what he deserved, that he was in the ‘hood, and death would be the best thing that ever happened to him. One commenter posted a set of dubious statistics—pregnancies, drug usage, welfare—in support of his notion that blacks should be run out of the USA.  There were full-throated racial epithets as well. All this for a man clinging to life.[5]

No civil conversation, no book club, can contend with that.

If you wish to understand the sinister racist subtext, the baked bread, of American society, set aside the books and watch Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. In that movie Sal, a white owner of a pizzeria in a black neighborhood in New York City, has throughout the movie called out his older son, whose openly racist attitude offends Sal’s black customers. Sal goes so far as to tell a black employee named Mookie that he considers him a son.  Late in the movie, Sal objects to the loud music emanating from the boombox of a black customer named Radio Raheem. When Radio Raheem increases the volume, Sal hurls the N-word at him.  After a struggle, the place erupts, and white police officers arrive to finish the job by killing Radio Raheem with a chokehold. The pizzeria burns. Sal was a Good White, who said the right things until the tension between black and white became too great, and he revealed his racist colors in the end. Do the Right Thing was made in 1989.  It might have been made in 1979, in 2019, or in 2049.


[1] I suspect that the popularity of current best-sellers on the subject of racism will wane in time, just as the post-9/11 uptick in popularity of books about Islam subsided.

[2] DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Beacon Press, 2018. Anderson, Carol, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, Bloomsbury, 2017. I believe that I could have chosen any two books on the topic at random and come away with the same opinion, such is the surfeit of books on racism in 2020.

[3] The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Basic Books, 2014. Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, Anchor Books, 2008. A review essay focusing on these titles will appear in a later post.

[4] Frank, Thomas, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Picador, 2005.

[5] I have since learned that Chip Banks is on his way to recovery.

Past as Prologue, or Observations During a Plague Year

A note on Daniel Defoe and the Great Plague of 1665-66.

You may recognize Daniel Defoe as the author of Robinson Crusoe. He wrote a less famous work with the title Journal of a Plague Year, which recounts the Great Plague of London of 1665-66.  As Journal of a Plague Year was published in 1722, some fifty-five years after the events it describes, the work has come in for some criticism as to its historical veracity; Defoe would have been a small child at the time of the events that he describes. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that he would have invented the response of Londoners.  He certainly would have learned of events from those who had survived that visitation of the plague. What is more, Defoe’s account is largely confirmed by the diary of Samuel Pepys, a first-hand witness of the events of 1665-66.

How did Defoe describe the behavior of Londoners during the outbreak? Those with the means to do so fled to the countryside, including the king himself, along with his court. Those who remained—typically poor– were placed under quarantine if a member of the household found him/herself under suspicion of infection. The remaining rump of the government assigned supervision of quarantined houses to anyone willing to perform the task, and these people often looked the other way as inmates under their supervision broke quarantine to visit ale-houses or conduct personal business, thereby assisting the spread of the plague. The medical and ecclesiastical infrastructure in place were ill-equipped to handle the deluge of the infected and the corpses, and the dead in their great numbers were deposited in mass graves.  The economy, meanwhile, suffered from the diminution of local trade and the British crown’s ban on imports from the continent.  

Let’s investigate possible parallels with the handling of the 2020 crisis. Ineffective authorities?  Check. The medical infrastructure overwhelmed?  Check. Corpses in the streets? Roger. The poor succumbing in disproportionate numbers? Church dat. People defying sensible protocols put in place to prevent further spread of the disease? You bet.

Welcome to the eighteenth century.

Oh, and the London population recovered, and resumed its Malthusian trajectory. Now, who or what is Malthus?

A note on Thomas Malthus.

Wise minds look to the past as a guide to the present.  In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, those seeking historic parallels frequently point to the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918-1920 as a guide.  The Spanish flu did claim millions of lives, after all. But perhaps a glance into the deeper past might throw further light on the situation in 2020. Perhaps we did this to ourselves and are little better equipped to deal with a plague than were our seventeenth-century British forbears.

To illustrate my point, I turn your attention to Thomas Malthus, an eighteenth-century English clergyman and economist. Malthus argued that while food supply increases arithmetically over time, population increases exponentially. Thus, any increase in food supply will be far outstripped by a growth in population that this increase in calories cannot sustain.  Nature periodically addresses this overpopulation through plagues, famines, and warfare (starving peoples will attack their neighbors in their quest for food). Not surprisingly, it is the poor and undernourished whose number diminishes most from such demographic crises. The reduced post-disaster population will, after a time, resume its exponential growth that exceeds the food supply necessary to support it. Until the next demographic adjustment, that is.

Now, the world population at the time of Malthus’s essay in 1798 was about one billion. By 2020, this figure had swelled to 7.8 billion, an average increase of 780%, or 3.5 percent per year. However, this average increase is itself growing, shall we say, exponentially. To wit, the world population has grown to its current number from 6.1 billion in the year 2000, a 28 percent increase in a single generation.[1] Some estimates suggest that the world population will peak at 10.9 billion around the year 2100.[2]  But is that number sustainable?[3]  Let us not lose sight of the fact that global warming may well threaten the sustainability of the global food supply.

I am no demographer, but I wonder if the world is spitting us out. Are we a billion or two too many? Does this visitation of coronavirus indicate the onset of a new Malthusian crisis? Will further visitations occur, as was the case with earlier plagues, this time having morphed beyond whatever remedy we can come up with?

[1] https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/ Of course, advances in medicine and industrialized agriculture have facilitated much of this growth; we do not inhabit the same world as Malthus.

[2] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/06/17/worlds-population-is-projected-to-nearly-stop-growing-by-the-end-of-the-century/ More on the reliability of statistics in a later post.

[3] https://www.globalhungerindex.org/results.html#:~:text=The%20World&text=The%202019%20Global%20Hunger,of%2020.0%20(Figure%202.1). The creators of this website hold a somewhat optimistic view of trends in global malnutrition on the basis of the proportion of the world population that is undernourished.  But the absolute number surely have increased?

In Defense of Zoe Saldana’s “Nina”

Recently Zoe Saldana, an actress of color, tearfully apologized for portraying African-American singer Nina Simone in the 2016 biopic Nina. Saldana has come under heavy criticism for darkening her skin and wearing a prosthetic nose to appear more like Simone in the film.[1]  The more I read about this situation, the more I wonder whether any African-Americans had expressed interest in playing Nina Simone. Has anyone raised this question? I wonder further whether Ms. Saldana might have been better off had someone else who looked like Nina Simone but lacking in acting talent been cast in the role. In any event, the movie was fraught with inaccuracies and was universally panned.[2]

I happen to enjoy Nina Simone’s music, admire her defiance toward American racism, and believe there is a good biopic about her waiting to be made.  Along these lines, what if Ms. Saldana, a woman of color, happens, like me, to be a passionate admirer of Nina Simone?  What if Ms. Saldana’s dream has always been to show her respect for Nina Simone by acting in a film about her?  Why is that unacceptable?

In 2010 a biography of Nina Simone appeared.  David Brun-Lambert, its author, offered up convincing explanations for certain manifestations of her oftentimes prickly behavior.[3]  I read the book and came away with an appreciation of not only Nina Simone’s music, but also of her tenacity in pushing back against the racism that thwarted her dreams on several fronts and faced her at every turn.  Mississippi Goddam, indeed!  Now, Mr. Brun-Lambert is white.  I recall no politically-inspired condemnation of Brun-Lambert’s work. As far as I know, he issued no formal public apology.  Because of Brun-Lambert, many readers are closer to Nina Simone than they would have been without him.  I know that I am. If a white male can write an acceptable biography of a Black female, then why can’t a Jamaican/Puerto Rican female portray a Black female in a movie? What if viewers of Nina, intrigued by the film, took further interest in the music and message of Nina Simone?

I, for one, have a hard time accepting the fact that Ms. Saldana felt the need to apologize for portraying Nina Simone.  Ms. Saldana’s supposed sin lies in acting in the role of Nina Simone. But isn’t the portrayal of others the quintessence of acting? Criticism of Ms. Saldana’s performance should be based upon her skills as an actor, not upon the color of her skin or the make-up job. Shouldn’t we assess the film on its artistic merits instead of injecting issues of race into the discussion?

Has racial enmity come so far that art, which should count among its duties the bridging of racial differences–however constituted—must instead accentuate them?  Must we assign racial pigeonholes to our artists? Isn’t the Zoe Saldana case censorship’s kissing cousin, masquerading under the guise of political correctness?


[1] Before her apology, Ms. Saldana pointed to Elizabeth Taylor’s role as Cleopatra in 1963’s Cleopatra as precedent. The casting of Taylor in the role of an Egyptian has met with sporadic condemnation over the years. Nicole Kidman wore a prosthetic nose to appear more like Virginia Woolf in The Hours. That was an Australian attempting to pass for a Brit. But how, then, do we explain Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of an African-American professor in The Human Stain? Or Richard Gere portraying an American of Japanese descent in Akira Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August? Why do such cases not come in for deeper scrutiny?

[2] Those interested in watching a worthwhile film about Nina Simone should turn instead to the 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, which contains ample footage of the actual Nina Simone.

[3] Brun-Lambert, David. Nina Simone: A Biography. Aurum Press, 2010.