Baldwin vs. Buckley

It’s always upsetting to realize that you’ve admired a racist.  Even when, as is often the case, you suspect that a cherished intellectual or cultural figure was probably a racist (for example, because of the time in which they lived), it’s always unpleasant to be presented with the proof.

I have always been a casual fan of William F. Buckley, Jr.  He was a beautiful writer, and he could be very funny, in a supercilious way (I happen to like superciliousness).  Despite the fact that I disagree with many of his positions and conclusions, I have always thought of him as an extremely smart man, and I admired that.

But, then, the other night, I watched the 1965 debate at the Cambridge Union between Buckley and James Baldwin.  The proposition was ‘The American dream has been purchased at the expense of the American Negro’.  Baldwin spoke pro, Buckley against, the proposition.

James Baldwin is magnificent always, but never more so than here.  He is, for my money, the best crafter of prose who has ever written in American English, but he was also a wonderful speaker, and there are several moments in during his argument which have become rightly famous:

James Baldwin
James Baldwin, from Esquire.com

“It comes as a great shock to discover the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.”

“I am stating very seriously, and this is not an overstatement, that I picked the cotton, and I carried it to market and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip, for nothing.  For nothing.  The southern oligarchy which has until today so much power in Washington and so some power in the world, was created by my labor and my sweat and the violation of my women and the murder of my children.  This, in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

“It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one ninth of its population is beneath them.”

Buckley has the admittedly thankless task of following Baldwin.  No one should have to follow Baldwin’s blinding moral clarity, but Buckley, it immediately becomes clear, is a particularly terrible choice.  He proves this by saying, almost with his first breath:

“I propose to pay him [Baldwin] the honor this night of saying to him, ‘Mr. Baldwin, I am going to speak to you without any reference whatever to those surrounding protections which you are used to in virtue of the fact that you are a negro.”

It reveals the enormity of the error in Buckley’s thinking that he believes, in 1965, and after hearing Baldwin’s own, wrenching words, that being African-American has afforded Baldwin any protections at all.  He does seem to feel that an enormous amount of unnecessary angst goes into discussions of America’s racial troubles, because he goes on to say:

“I challenge you to name me another civilization any time any where in the history of the world in which the problems of the minority which have been showing considerable material and political advancement is as much a subject of dramatic concern as it is in the United States.”

Which quote implies, at least to me, that Buckley doesn’t think that the treatment of African-Americans deserves so much “dramatic concern”.

That this attitude was (and still is) common makes it no less unforgivable.  Buckley acknowledges that there is racial discrimination, but he seems to wish that everyone weren’t so worked up about it.  This view is only possible if you believe that it is not urgent that the rights and the humanity of black Americans be observed to the exact degree they would be if they were white.  And to feel that any discrepancy is not urgent can only arise from an intrinsic lack of feeling that black Americans are equal to yourself.

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William F. Buckley Jr., from the National Review website

All of which was bad enough.  But then, then, Buckley said something which was so chilling and menacing that I believe it has permanently rearranged my opinion of him.  He promised the Cambridge Union (and Baldwin, who surely knew better) that Americans were essentially decent, and that “the fundamental friend of the Negro people in the United States is the good nature, and is the generosity, and is the wishes, is the decency, the fundamental decency that do lie at the heart of the spirit of the American people”.  And, then, Buckley threatened them:

“Because if it does finally come to a confrontation, a radical confrontation, between giving up what we understand to be the best features of the American way of life…then we will fight the issue, and we will fight the issue not only in the Cambridge Union but we will fight it as you were once recently called to do on beaches and on hills and on mountains and on landing grounds and we will be convinced that just as you won the war against a particular threat to civilization, you were nevertheless waging a war in favor of and for the benefit of Germans, your own enemies, just as we are convinced that, if it should ever come to that kind of a confrontation, our own determination to win the struggle will be a determination to win the war  not only for whites but also for Negros.”

In case that is unclear, what Buckley is saying is this: if African-Americans force white Americans to confront their own lack of decency, the whites will meet them in war, and that this battle will be done for the sake of the blacks themselves.  Because, according to Buckley, it is in the interests of black Americans that everyone find white Americans fundamentally decent.

Buckley served during World War II – he understood what it meant to be compared to Nazis (he famously threatened to punch Gore Vidal for doing it to him).  And yet he is here comparing African-Americans to Nazis.  And he is equating the defense of white decency with the defence of civilization, and he was doing it at a time, let us be very clear, when white society in the United States was not decent (which is not to say that it is decent now).

The fact that you are willing to defend an idea with arms does not make the idea right or true; anyone who fought against Nazis should have known that.  This is a shameful performance on Buckley’s part: it should be remembered, and held against him.  I admired his mind once, but it was used here to dispicable effect.  I’ll admire it no longer.

To Cease to be Divided

     Do you ever wonder whether everything you believe is wrong?

     I mean, not ‘everything’, obviously – I’m sure we all believe many, many true things. But do you ever wonder whether your deeply held beliefs, the pillars of your world-view, the informational basis around which you organize yourself as a moral or ethical member of society, as a citizen, might be wrong?

     I worry about this all the time.  I’m someone who, a generation ago, would have identified as a moderate conservative with liberal social values, which position today makes me pretty solidly liberal.  I live in the Northeast, surrounded by other liberals, and the constant lament these days, the endless question, is:

     How can conservatives believe the things that they believe?  Don’t they see that their views are incoherent?  That their new President lies?  How can they so casually disregard science, fact, data, consistency?

     I am sure that conservatives wonder the same things about liberals; I read conservative news, so I know for a fact that they do.  When two opposing sides disagree about the nature of reality, when each is sure that they are correct, when they will state opposite “facts” with equal confidence and each side rejects the “facts” of the other, my question is this:

     How can you be sure you’re on the right side?  How do you know that it’s the other side that is deafened by their echo chamber, and not yours?

     As far as I can tell, I am the only person in the country right now worrying about this. Everyone else seems very sure that they are on the right side, and they become more sure every day.  Thus, the two sides grow further apart.

     I’m not sure I’m right.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m wrong.  I’m sure I hold some number of beliefs which are completely ass-backwards – I just don’t know which ones.

     How can you tell if your mind is open?  How would you measure such a thing?  I read people who disagree with me, and sometimes they persuade me: does this happen enough?  Too much?  If it doesn’t happen often, is that because I’m closed-minded, or because I’m already mostly right?

     Whenever I find myself very sure that my side is right, I think back (bear with me) to O.J. Simpson’s murder trial.  I was just a kid when O.J. went to trial, but I remember quite clearly that all the adults in my affluent and mostly-white world were sure that O.J. was guilty.

     More than that, these adults were dismayed by what they saw as the shameless race-baiting of O.J.’s lawyers, which they considered manipulative and transparently false.  O.J. was one of the most famous men in the country: of course the police weren’t being racist with him.  Of course they hadn’t planted that glove, that accusation was elaborate, absurd.  The police might have been racist in Montgomery in the 1950’s, but this was the 1990’s, L.A.: they didn’t frame black men anymore.

     And I remember that they all seemed disturbed that black Americans had fallen for the cynical ploy of lawyers.  It seemed credulous and paranoid to the adults around me, for whom the police were an accommodating if obstructionist presence.  It seemed as if race mattered more to them (black people) than truth, as if they were willing to overlook facts in order to stay loyal to their side.

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From fivethirtyeight.com: At the time of the trial, nearly the same percentage of black Americans thought O.J. was innocent as white Americans thought he was guilty.

     None of these white adults would have identified themselves as racist; they would have been hurt and offended by the accusation.  But it never seemed to occur to them that, perhaps, every black person in America wasn’t paranoid, that when they said that it was plausible to them that the L.A.P.D. would try to frame the most famous black man in America, it was because they were having very different experiences with police than white people.  That the world, that even their own country, was much bigger than their experience.

     But no one around me seemed to figure that out then – it wasn’t until decades later, when dash cam footage showed police shooting and killing many unarmed black men, that we understood how the police looked to other Americans.

     I think about this whenever I hear liberals lament the blindness of conservatives, because I hear them say the same things about those conservatives that we said about black Americans: that they care more about their team than about ‘reality’.  The implication is that we are superior or smarter, that we see more clearly, that ‘we’ know what reality is.  I’m not sure that’s true.  That wasn’t the case back then – maybe it’s not the case now.  Because, sometimes, the problem isn’t whether you see clearly or not; it’s that you only believe what you see yourself, but the world is much, much bigger than what any one side can see.

     So I wonder: what am I missing now?  What don’t I know?  What can’t I see?  What are my prejudices?  How can I tell the difference between when you are wrong and when I am wrong?  I am sure we are both wrong much of the time, but how can I tell which is which?  I’m frantic to know this, to see into the darkness of my own ignorance and error.  I just need a light I can trust.

Featured Image:

Reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdict, taken from atlantablackstar.com

The Founding Father Problem

     Since you’ve insisted, I will admit it to you: I really dislike Thomas Jefferson.  In fact, I dislike him personally and profoundly, almost violently – I try not to dwell on my feelings in public, lest I become agitated and make a spectacle of myself, but the truth is, if I think about him for too long at a stretch, I will end ranting and cursing, even to myself.

     There are many good reasons to dislike Thomas Jefferson: you might loathe the American farmer.  You might have sided strongly with Alexander Hamilton.  You might date the decline in American culture to the introduction of the dumbwaiter to the continent.  You might be a banker.

     I hate him because he was an accomplished hypocrite, and I believe that his moral janus-face helped lodge something poisonous at the heart of the American story.

     I’m not talking about slavery.  Well, I am, but I’m not.  Slavery was disgusting – obviously, the decision of the founding fathers to allow the practice to continue in their new nation was despicable.

     But the problem with Jefferson, in particular, is subtler: more than any other founding father (with the possible exception of George Washington), we identify with Jefferson our particularly American virtues.  He was, after all, the author of our most exalted sentence:

     We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

     It’s magnificent – it fills Americans with patriotic feeling.  It expresses the quality about which we are most proud.  For this reason, we have always cherished Thomas Jefferson, as though he embodied in his person, and not merely in his words, our best self.

     But, of course, he didn’t.  Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves.  It’s all well and good to crow about universal human rights, but when you go home and rape the humans you own, you should have no claim on the affections of any nation which prizes those rights.

     We ought to have repudiated Jefferson when we repudiated slavery, but we didn’t: we tried to keep the man while ignoring the slave owner, and I don’t think we can do that.

     Slavery, the keeping of people in bondage, is an unpardonable crime – why do we pardon it for the sake of our founders?  Jefferson gives us no reason to forgive him – he did not even manumit his slaves after his death, like Washington, despite recognizing that the institution was morally repugnant.

     He also cannot take refuge in his age – many of Jefferson’s contemporaries realized that slavery was evil and acted accordingly, including Benjamin Franklin and the aforementioned Alexander Hamilton.  And even if his peers had not seen their way to moral clarity on the issue of slavery, I don’t believe we would be unreasonable in nurturing higher hopes for Jefferson than for other men: he was, after all, the author of our guiding moral statement.

     And Jefferson did realize that slavery was an immoral institution.  He even took steps to limit its spread in the new world; he just stopped short of implementing measures which would have personally diminished him, and that is evil.  A man who looked at black Americans and failed to see the crimes being committed against them would be morally, fatally, blind; a man who saw, but would not act for love of profit, should be damned by history.

     If we are to grapple properly with slavery, we need to stop excusing the men who committed it.  We don’t allow other nations to excuse their own crimes against humanity, or the men who commit them.  Jefferson wasn’t merely a slave owner – he was a head of state, a powerful man who’s interventions helped perpetuate the institution.

     We would not forgive the Germans if they exalted a Nazi statesman because he was the author of some beautiful words, enshrined his image on their currency, named towns and roads and hospitals after him.  The ownership of a race, the complete refusal to admit its humanity, is not less evil than its extermination.  We should not pretend that Jefferson is anything less than a monster.

     It shouldn’t shock anyone that a nation which persists in revering Thomas Jefferson would, in 2016, essentially allow police to shoot black men without reason or repercussion.  If we were, as a nation, serious about valuing black lives, we would not celebrate men who traded in them.

Freddie Gray

A friend of mine, a woman a little younger than I am and also white, is reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.  This week, in the wake of the indictment of six Baltimore cops for murder or manslaughter in the death Freddie Gray, she asked me, “What should we do?”

She meant ‘we’, ‘white people’, and, I think, when she said, ‘What should we do?’, she didn’t just mean, ‘How can we help?’ – she also intended the harder, subtler question, ‘What am I supposed to do with my anger about this? How do I understand and cope with how desperate this makes me feel, especially in light of my own complicity?’

During the winter, I go to the gym most days after work.  The TVs over the treadmills are usually set to CNN, and this is pretty much the only the network television I watch.  During the past few months, I have run while, each week, it seems, CNN covers another murder of a black man by the police.  Lately, as we all know, there have been videos of these deaths, and I watch while these men are killed over and over and over, and all I can think, ‘We should all have known that this was happening.’

There are a number of systems failing in these videos, many policies indicted in the facts of these deaths: the expansion of police powers, the war on drugs, entrenched, multi-generational poverty.  There are more evils at work here than simple racism.

But simple racism is there: there are fewer consequences for killing blacks than there are for killing whites, and police across the country have been exploiting that difference for a long time.  Black lives matter, but they matter less than white lives.  This is an empirical truth and a moral catastrophe.

This problem has not gotten worse recently: the police did not just start killing black men this year.  The national media did not finally develop a racial conscience; white people are not more aware, more sensitive, than we were in 2005.  So what changed – why are we talking about this now?

Because now there’s video.

Everyone has a camera now, smartphones which feel like an extension of their arms, and their own personal social media platforms.  The situation is exactly the same, but now there’s proof.

I feel crushed by this fact: black Americans have, for decades, insisted that they were the victims of police brutality.  Most white people didn’t believe them, and even those of us who did, who believed that, yes, stop-and-frisk was racist, that blacks were systematically harassed by police, we didn’t imagine, didn’t really understand, that they were being routinely murdered by the police.

At least, I hope we didn’t.  Because the other possibility is that we did, and we just didn’t care.

But they were – they were being killed by the police, and we might have done something about it much sooner if only we had believed what we were told.  Unfortunately, and indisputably, the word of the black community is insufficient: they must have video corroboration, even in cases of their own deaths.

Truly, we had no good excuse for not believing the charges of racial violence made against the police.  In the entire history of black-white relations in America, every single time a system could victimize or disadvantage blacks, it has.  After slavery, after Jim Crow, after civil rights, when the black community said, ‘We’re scared of the police,’ where on earth did white people find the gall to disregard them?

It’s well past time to accept this: black Americans and white Americans occupy different countries.  Our experience does not delimit theirs, and the fact of the difference in their experience is not grounds for us to dismiss it.  It’s time for the white community to treat the testimony of black Americans as equal to their own.

If we had, perhaps we would not still live in a country where racist drug laws provide a thin cover behind which cops arbitrarily torture and execute an unknown number of black men.  If we had had a little moral imagination, we might have stopped this a long time ago – instead, we needed to wait for it to come out on video before we would even start talking about it.

So what should we do?

Here’s what we can do, for a start: the next time a black person tells us, ‘I can’t ever get a cab’, ‘They won’t lease us apartments’, ‘They treat me like I’m only there to shoplift’, ‘I was going the speed limit’, ‘I wasn’t resisting arrest’, ‘They kill us for no reason’, we can believe them.

Image taken from the New York Times

‘King, Look Into Your Heart’

‘Evil’ is a word which, I think, should be applied with care.  I believe that most cruel human actions are the result of ignorance, or cowardice, or illness.  Some, though, are the result of greed, or anger, or selfishness, and those may fairly be called ‘evil’.

The historian Beverly Gage recently published the unredacted version of a famous, evil document.  In 1964, William Sullivan, a deputy of J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI, composed and mailed an anonymous letter to Martin Luther King Jr.

Hoover suspected King of communist sympathies and had been tapping King’s home, office and hotel rooms, and so knew of King’s extramarital affairs.  A tape of one such encounter apparently accompanied the missive.

The letter, which was sent the same year King won the Nobel Peace Prize and which references it, is addressed to KING, explaining that it will not dignify him a ‘Mr.’, ‘Reverend’, or ‘Dr.’ in light of his “abnormal personal behavoir [sic]”.

The letter instructs him, “King, look into your heart.  You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes.”  It calls him “evil, vicious”.  It tells him, “Listen to yourself you filthy, abnormal animal” and threatens him with the exposure of his affairs, warning him that, “You are done.  The American public, the church organizations that have been helping – Protestant [edited for legibility], Catholic and Jews will know you for what you are – an evil, abnormal beast.”

Threatens him, unless, within 34 days, he completes an act unspecified: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do.  You know what it is…there’s only one way out for you.”  King, who apparently didn’t buy the letter for one minute and saw Hoover clearly behind it, thought that the letter was designed to make him kill himself.

This letter is evil along so many axes: the government wire-tapping of political dissidents, the targeting of a non-violent civil rights leader and the attempt to drive him to suicide, the leveraging of a man’s legal sexual appetites against him in the political arena, the patronizing and caricaturish attempt to play on racial loyalty.  This letter is utterly unredeemed by any generous or normal human virtue; there is nothing in this sorry episode that the American government should feel good about.

And this was not so long ago – fifty years.  I was not alive, but my parents were.  We can hardly argue that these are the sins of our remote ancestors, that we are a wholly different nation now.  Dr. Gage, in her great short piece in the New York Times, is absolutely right: when we decide to trust our government, when we try to imagine what baseness we’re capable of today, it is worth remembering what base acts we committed only yesterday.

Image taken from the New York Times article cited above.

Eric Garner

Let us call a spade a spade.

Here, in the United States, a police officer can kill a black man without fear of serious legal repercussion.  Be the man unarmed, unthreatening, even if there are cameras rolling, a cop can kill him and walk away.

There are two problems here.  The first is that cops have too much latitude to kill people.  Being a cop is dangerous and important work, and so we, the people they serve and protect, have extended to them credit against our lives.  We have given them the benefit of the doubt, and granted them dramatically expanded rights of self-defense.  We have given them license, when vulnerable or afraid, to protect themselves and each other, with the weapons we suffer them to carry.

They have abused that privilege.  They, or some too-great number of them, kill with impunity.  That is outrageous, and it needs to stop.  Cops should not be allowed to shoot unarmed men.  Cops should not be allowed to taze non-cooperative people to death.  Cops should not be allowed to choke the life out of a man, ever.

This does not mean that police should forbear while people shoot at them.  If a cop believes that someone is about to pull a weapon on him, let him shoot.  But, if he is wrong, and there is no weapon, then let him stand for murder.  Don’t let him enjoy the protection of his fellow officers then, or the complicity of the prosecutors.  And if these police killings are the work of a few bad apples, then let their brothers in blue police them.  At the very, very least, the killing of an unarmed person should result in the automatic loss of a badge.  Cops are citizens among citizens – let them enjoy no more protections than we.

The second problem is that the black community has disproportionately borne the weight of these injustices.  This should surprise no one: the black community has been made to bear the weight of many, many injustices.

In this case, the problem is not only that blacks come under undue and undeserved pressure from the criminal justice system, but also that abuses of power which victimize blacks are less likely to be punished, less likely to be treated by the community as the outrages that they are.

The black community must contend with a police force that can harass, assault, incarcerate, and murder them – their ability to make meaningful protest is hampered by the danger the police pose to them.

The white community tsk-tsks and fails to indict – we have voted less with our feet than with our essential apathy.

And it must be apathy, for there is no excuse for disbelief.  True, people tend to believe the evidence of their eyes, and the white community, particularly the white community with power, has a different relationship with the police than the black community.  If I were going only by my own experience, I would have to conclude that the police in the United States are merely an armed concierge service.  But they are not.  And, given the overwhelming evidence, historical and contemporary, it would be absurd to doubt that the American government and populace are capable of systematically disenfranchising, terrorizing, or brutalizing black Americans.

There are self-interested reasons to care: if the police can trample on their rights, then they can trample on your’s.

But, more than that, the fact that people don’t look like you, the fact that their misfortune does not happen to be your’s, does not excuse you for turning a blind eye to a wrong done to them.

The police may not value black lives as much as white lives, but we should.  What would you do if Eric Garner had been white?  Would your outrage be the same?  Or would it be easier to imagine then that the next person killed might be your neighbor, or son, or husband?  Or you?  What would you do, if you really believed that the reality that strangled him might reach out and touch you next?  Would you remark how sad it all was, and then turn off the T.V.?  I don’t think so.

Image taken from Time.com.