Saturday, September 2, 2017

Tears We Cannot Stop

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
Michael Eric Dyson (St. Martin's Press, 2017)

Michael Eric Dyson is a worthy prophet for these racially troubled times. He is a sociology professor who's also a Baptist minister, with a background in philosophy; in this book, he is speaking as a preacher, appealing powerfully to our moral sense. Tears We Cannot Stop is structured as a worship service, with a sermon at its heart. It's both up-to-the-minute, from the era of Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter, and steeped in America's history.

By way of invocation, Dyson describes his young daughter coming face to face with racism, and his son fearing for his life in a traffic stop. By way of scripture, he quotes Martin Luther King, noting that King had different messages for his black and white audiences. "That didn't make King a Janus-faced liar. He was, instead, a man of noble forbearance. He understood what white folk could hear; he knew what you dared not listen to. He knew what you could bear to know."

Dr. Dyson is, as Dr. King was, called to press the limits of what white people could stand to hear. His sermon is a jeremiad, a lamentation meant to penetrate our ignorance, and our willful blindness. His urgency is as intimate as it is urgent: "Beloved, let me start by telling you an ugly secret: there is no such thing as white people. And yet so many of them, so many of you, exist." His point is that whiteness exists in a social realm, as a political force. "It is most effective when it makes itself invisible, when it appears neutral, human, American."

Because what does that make the black man? Alien, non-human, un-American; and it has had this effect from the U.S. Constitution making a slave three-fifths of a man, to right-wing websites making Barack Obama a Kenyan Muslim. Most of us would strongly prefer to imagine that this has nothing to do with us; but racial covenants in real estate extended, in law, into my lifetime, and in practice, into the present day.

My local realtor's "Blue Lives Matter" window sign might just as well say "Whites Only", though I daresay they would deny it. And of course, no one has ever argued that the lives of police officers don't matter; no cases of violence against them go unreported. What Black Lives Matter is arguing is that, until the justice system starts treating black people fairly, 'All Lives Matter' will remain a lie.

The traditional defensive retort to that is what-about-ism, 'isn't black on black crime the real problem?' Dyson sees that coming a mile away. "Beloved, why is it that every time black folk talk about how poorly the cops treat us you say that we should focus instead on how we slaughter each other in the streets every day? Isn't that like asking the person who tells you that they're suffering from cancer to focus instead on their diabetes? Your racial bedside manner has always been fairly atrocious."

Dyson is well aware that his sermon is spoken to a congregation variously ready to hear it. But at this moment when outright white supremacy is being countenanced in public, we need to stay in touch with the facts on the ground, and this book has them. We also need to admit the ways the status quo benefits us, without being flattened by embarrassment, shame, helplessness, or the frustration and anger that those feelings often spark. As the Bible says so often, 'Listen up!'

Monday, July 31, 2017

Funny Girl

Funny Girl: a Novel
Nick Hornby (2014, Riverhead Books)

     When we meet the Girl of the title, Barbara Parker is making the most of her face and figure to become Miss Blackpool, 1964. But, facing the prospect of a year of smiling and having her picture taken, she gives up her title and departs for London. She starts out with the same sort of dreary department store job she had up North, but her looks get her an agent, and her agent gets her an audition. (He hates the way all his models want to be actresses, but what can you do? And he comes up with her new name, Sophie Straw.) Once a couple of writers and a producer get a look at her, she lands the lead in a television comedy.

     The show is called Barbara (and Jim). The parentheses are a way to get up the nose of Clive, the actor who plays Jim. He doesn't want to be a second banana in a show he has the lead in; he wants to be a movie star. The pair are written as an odd couple: Jim is university educated, a liberal from the Home Counties, somewhat tame and timid, while Barbara is a working class Tory from the North. Because of Sophie's sparkle and drive, this happy crew get to make a whole new kind of comedy: "The class system, men and women and the relationships between them, snobbery, education, the North and the South, politics, the way that a new country seemed to be emerging from the dismal old one that they'd all grown up in."

    At the same time, and very neatly, Hornby gets to write a novel about all those things. Sophie is legitimately working class, though she takes pains to learn a more posh London accent. Her Dad and aunt, back home, are wildly proud about her being on the telly; they are the intended audience of such mass entertainment. The producer, Dennis Maxwell-Baker, is from the educated middle class; he gets no respect from his wife, a humorless blue-stocking who is cheating on him with an even more humorless intellectual, the sort who pontificates on the BBC Third Program, (and brags about not having a TV.) These two high-hat Sophie so badly at a party that Tony and Bill get an episode out of it. Dennis, naturally, has a huge but agonizingly silent crush on Sophie.

     It's a fact of life: a new thing is always being born, especially in the 1960's. In the time it takes the Beatles to go from "She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah)" to Revolver, Jim and Barbara have a baby, and go in for a fateful round of marriage counseling. Clive and Sophie get so famous that they date each other because the public expects them to (which is not, in private, so awfully much fun.) Tony, somewhat improbably, acquires a wife and child of his own; Bill writes a memoir about his wild gay youth; Dennis divorces his wife. And Barbara (and Jim) goes from 'Have you seen it yet?' to 'Oh, my Dad watches that.'

     As Hornby shows us, there are many kinds of success. Would the critics of the day have disdained the laughs Shakespeare got? Is a script written to keep a kiddo in nappies less worthy than a slim volume of poetry? Is a book that sells 12,000 copies more important than a half-hour of television that seventeen million people watch? Maybe the end was written in the beginning; and maybe the best time of all was the first day Sophie walked in, a beauty queen with a genius for comedy, before the public had any stake in the world the five of them were making together.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

White Trash

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Nancy Isenberg (Viking, 2016)

    There's a long-running class war among white people in this country, which the upper class is winning. Nancy Isenberg's White Trash explains why it could hardly be otherwise. Generation after generation, the class of people with property, education, and money ascribe undesirable traits to the class without, as though they somehow deserve to be dirty, uneducated, and landless. This war tends to be underground, or invisible; or perhaps it's hiding in plain sight.

    From the days of the Jamestown and Plymouth settlements, America was seen as a place to send people England considered expendible. Paupers, orphans, and petty criminals were sent to these shores, usually in indentured servitude, so that a householder would be responsible for them. Indebtedness could become a legacy, and many such immigrants had no other. Especially in Virginia, a few wealthy men claimed all the good land, leaving swampland or the rocky hills for those who had no legal claim.

    This was still true after the colonies became the United States. "Both crackers and squatters–two terms that became shorthand for landless migrant–supposedly stayed just one step of the 'real' farmers, Jefferson's idealized, commercially oriented cultivators. They lived off the grid, rarely attended school or joined a church, and remained a potent symbol of poverty. To be lower class was to be one of the landless." These were the people who were so cut off from state governments that, when the southern states left the nation, they tried to leave the states - in the case of West Virginia, actually succeeding.

    After the Civil War, Freedman's Bureaus brought federal help to refugees both white and black, but "[I]n the race for self-reliance, poor whites seemed to many bureau agents never to have left the starting gate." The moneyed interests in the southern states had not seen fit to provide an education for their poor neighbors, preferring to keep them desperate and indentured as share-croppers, an attitude that has not entirely disappeared. The unstable equilibrium between pity and censure usually leaned toward the latter: there must be something wrong with people so backward. Was it genetic? In some places, the proposed solutions included sterilization of women at the behest of the state. 
    The Great Depression opened the way for a renewed Federal effort at helping the rural poor; electricity and sanitation were definite improvements, while some housing projects were public catastrophes. Photographers and sociologists roamed the South, gawking at the crackers and rednecks, who understandably bridled at the resulting portrayals.

    Isenberg covers the past fifty years by way of some of the cultural and political figures you may remember. We meet the Joads, the migratory clan from The Grapes of Wrath, and Robert E. Lee Ewell, the scrawny, brutish villain in To Kill A Mockingbird, who lives behind the town dump "in an old Negro cabin." There was a vogue in the 1960s for comedy about rural whites, exemplified by Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies; later, The Dukes of Hazard glorified moonshining and the Confederate flag.

     Country singer Dolly Parton played the part of the redneck made good. "Her image, as Parton confessed in her autobiography, expressed the desire of poor white trash girls to see themselves as magazine models." Evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, though she came from Minnesota, captured the same hyper-feminine image in her Pentecostal television ministry, which she and her husband Jim produced in North Carolina. They enjoyed lavish wealth, while fund-raising almost continuously. "The people whom the Praise the Lord Ministry conned were mainly poor whites; the majority of the program's viewers were born-again, with less than a high school education, and were most pitifully, unemployed." 
    White Trash is a serious, comprehensive history, seemingly distilling a book into each paragraph. The primary conclusion seems to be that we always have the poor with us. It's essential to be aware of the history, though, because people don't deserve to be invisible. Knowing what has happened before lets us see how it's happening now, and how far we fall short of our democratic ideals. We may not be able to cure poverty, but there's no good reason to be blind to it.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Colony in a Nation

A Colony in a Nation
Chris Hayes (W.W. Norton, 2017)

      In August of 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. His body lay on the street for four hours. The people of Ferguson were joined in the ensuing protest by people from other parts of the U.S., in one of the founding moments of the Black Lives Matter movement. Chris Hayes traveled there to cover the scene for MSNBC. A Colony in a Nation arises out of that experience, but it overflows that place and time in a fertile way.

      A subsequent Department of Justice report on policing in Ferguson portrayed a militarized police department, ready to bring a level of violence against the people that would be more appropriate to an actual war zone. The report also lays out a very disturbing pattern of capricious and petty policing, actually designed to bring revenue into the city coffers, as opposed to making the city safer. The fines for petty offenses are multiplied usuriously by missed court appearances, but there actually aren't enough hours in the court calendars to handle all the cases the police can generate. It's the urban version of an old-fashioned speed trap. 
       Hayes draws a striking comparison to the history of the American revolution. In the 1760s, pressed by the costs of the Seven Years War, the British government increased its demands for customs revenue in the colonies. They harassed smugglers (including John Hancock) and invaded private homes, to the humiliation and annoyance of the colonists. The use of police action, and eventually the British Navy itself, to enrich the government was one of the most significant grievances the revolutionary Americans charged against the British crown. 
       Of course, when the Americans won the right to set their own taxes and democratically decide on their own policing practices, they did not extend such full citizenship to everyone living here. The well-regulated militias of the Second Amendment were needed to defend the western borders against unfriendly tribes of native peoples, and to maintain order where slavery made white people a frightened minority. "American history is the story of white fear, of the constant violent impulses it produces and the management and ordering of those impulses. White fear keeps the citizens of the Nation wary of the Colony, and fuels their desire to keep it separate."

      It was actually Richard Nixon who said that black Americans didn't want to be "a colony in a nation.' Hayes says, "And yet he helped bring about that very thing. Over the half-century since he delivered those words, we have built a colony in a nation, not in the classic Marxist sense but in the deep sense we can appreciate as a former colony ourselves: A territory that isn't actually free."

     That's an idea with great explanatory force, whether you're looking at disparities in housing and education, or differences in rates of incarceration. If where you live and what you look like puts you at risk of being stopped and frisked on suspicion of nothing in particular, you're not free. You're a subject, not a citizen. "In ways large and small and constant, the Nation exhibits its contempt for the lives of its subjects in the Colony and indifference to their value. This is the central component of the white fear that sustains the Colony: the simple inability to recognize, deeply, fully totally, the humanity of those on the other side."

      Chris Hayes is an excellent writer. I haven't done justice to the completeness and cogency of his moral argument, but I think it holds up. "The Colony pays tribute to the Nation. The citizens enjoy tangible gains at the expense of the subjects, even though, or especially when, those gains aren't material. While in some cases quantifiable dollars move from one realm to the other, a certain psychological expropriation, a net transfer of well-being, is far more common and far more insidious." What security, and what rights, would we take away from our second-class citizens if it meant more comfort, and safer blindness, for ourselves?

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
Sarah Vowell (Riverhead, 2015)

     Sarah Vowell claims that she is not so much a historian as a 'historian-adjacent, nonfiction wise guy', and she's probably right; but perhaps her books are all the more deliciously readable for it, at least in this moment when her vernacular is fresh. She may also be overstating the case, because there's a real historical argument being made in this book, placing the American Revolution in the context of the long-running rivalry between Great Britain and France.

     What we know as the French and Indian War was the American chapter of the Seven Years War, which might have been termed the first World War, stretching as it did across parts of four continents. In the concluding peace treaty of 1763, the French were humiliated. "Thus the massive chunk of North America for more than two centuries–from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico–was downsized to scraps." Another, more personal consequence was that the future Marquis de Lafayette lost his father. "The death of his father at the hands of British forces merely provided the boy with a specific target at a young age. Soldiering in general was his destiny, just as it had been for his father before him..." 
     Vowell describes how Lafayette absconded to Philadelphia when he was only nineteen. Orphaned but wealthy, he left behind a wife who would shortly bear their first child; evidently he was more interested in finding a father than in being one, and he adopted George Washington to fill the role. It helped that he paid his own way to America, and offered to serve without pay. "On July 31 [1777] Congress commissioned him as a volunteer major general, which is to say, he was basically an unpaid intern wearing a general's sash."

     In his first action, at the battle of Brandywine, Lafayette sustained a musket-ball wound in his leg, which he bore with "pride and delight"–here, indeed, was a young man who "tended to confuse glory with love." In due course, Lafayette became of military use to Washington, heading up a division of Virginians; his unquenchable loyalty may have been even more welcome, as Washington was being second-guessed by the Continental Congress and members of his own staff. The heroic stature both men would later attain was no sure thing in the winter of 1777-1778.

     Vowell marches us about from Boston to the Carolinas, following the fortunes of the revolu-tionaries, and the diplomatic and naval goings-on that would ultimately decide their fate. Only in 1781, when at last they had the French navy coordinating to deny the British supplies and reinforcements, did the Americans gain the upper hand in their negotiations with the King.

    The book abounds with thought-provoking irony. If we had stayed in the British Empire, would slavery have ended sooner, as it did in the British West Indies in the 1830's? Americans went to war protesting taxes levied to pay for the last war; the French government later lost its head, at least partly over taxes it raised to fight in that cause. The shelves may not have needed another volume about the American Revolution, but now it has one more you can take to the beach, and you'll probably stay awake reading it.

May 2017, by email.