Category: Violence

Change, Violence, and Innocence

Two passages from two different novels by Salman Rushdie.

The first from Quichotte:

“After you were badly beaten, the essential part of you that made you a human being could come loose from the world, as if the self were a small boat and the rope mooring it to the dock slid off its cleats so that the dinghy drifted out helplessly into the middle of the pond; or as if a large vessel, a merchant ship, perhaps, began in the grip of a powerful current to drag its anchor and ran the risk of colliding with other ships or disastrously running aground.  He now understood that this loosening was perhaps not only physical but also ethical, that when violence was done to a person, then violence entered the range of what the person—previously peacable and law-abiding—afterwards included in the spectrum of what was possible.  It became an option” (339).

The psychology of violence, how it can be committed and why so many turn to it, has been a puzzle I have returned to again and again over the past forty years, without ever getting anything close to a solution that satisfied me.  That violence is contagious seems indisputable; that people become inured to violence is demonstrated by the behavior of soldiers in wartime; that much violence stems from an enraged self-righteousness also seems true.  But what has eluded me is how one commits the act itself—the plunging of the knife into another’s body, the pulling of the trigger of the gun whose barrel sits in one’s own mouth.  That seems non-human, which is perhaps why violence is often outsourced as bestial but also divine (Charles Taylor’s “numinous violence.”)  I don’t say Rushdie’s thought here is the answer, but it seems very shrewd to me, focusing in on the dehumanization that underlies the ability to act violently, while also highlighting the ways in which violence is done by those to whom violence has been done.  A curse handed down in various ways through time.

The second from Golden House:

“When I looked at the world beyond myself I saw my own moral weakness reflected in it. My parents had grown up in a fantasyland, the last generation in full employment, the last age of sex without fear, the last moment of politics without religion, but somehow their years in the fairy tale had grounded them, strengthened them, given them the conviction that by their own direct action they could change and improve the world, and allowed them to eat the apple of Eden, which gave them the knowledge of good and evil, without falling under the spell of the spiraling Jungle Book Kaa-eyes of the fatal trust-in-me Snake.  Whereas horror was spreading everywhere at high speed and we closed our eyes or appeased it” (188).

I always want to resist narratives of lost innocence—or of ancestors whose strength and virtues we cannot hope to reproduce. Lost innocence is in many ways the favorite American narrative, and it will play us as false as narratives about a lost greatness.  Yet Rushdie’s list of what we have lost resonates with me.  I graduated from college in 1974, into the gas crisis recession that started the ball rolling away from full employment and endless, inescapable precarity.  I turned 30 in 1983, just as AIDS appeared over the horizon and put an end to the promiscuity of the 1970s, my 20s.  And the emergence of the religious right in the Reagan triumphs of the 1980s was a shock to those of us who had assumed we lived in the secular world of the modern.  In short, the three things Rushdie lists were actual and momentous changes, registered (at least by me) in the moment.  The kind of thing that history throws at you—and you discover you are powerless to thwart. 

To discover one’s powerlessness is to lose a kind of innocent optimism, a faith that things can be made better.  But let’s not get carried away in either direction.  Life in 1955 America was terrible for blacks and gays, as J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy reigned.  That things in 2022 are better for blacks and gays is the result of hard, persistent political work.  We are never fully powerless, even if we are also never in the clear.  The forces of reaction are never annihilated.  The gains made yesterday can always be lost tomorrow.  The struggle is never decided once and for all in either direction.  2022 is better for gays and blacks than 1955, but in various ways worse than 2012.  

And it didn’t take the 1980s to teach us lessons in powerlessness.  The US waged a pointless and cruel war in Vietnam that millions of protesters were powerless to stop.  Nothing seemed capable of knocking the military-industrial complex off its keel, and the logic of doubling down on bad decisions, of not losing face, led the government to lie, spy on domestic dissenters, and pile violence upon violence.  History’s imperviousness to efforts to divert its floods coming at us from upriver is always ready to humble naïve political projects and hopes.

Still, it is important to note changes.  It is not just the same old same old.  Plus ça change and all that shrugging of the shoulders cynicism never has an accurate grasp of facts on the ground.  The terms of the struggle shift.  To take just one example: capitalism today is not the same as capitalism in 1955 or even 1990.  It is organized very differently, while the alignment of forces for and against various of its manifestations has also shifted dramatically.  Similarly, the obstacles blacks face in America today are very different from those they faced in 1955, and somewhat different from those faced in 1990.

So I think Rushdie does name three crucial things that did change in my lifetime, as someone who was just a bit too young to really live through the 60s (I was a freshman in high school in 1967), and for whom the 1970s and early 1980s were the truly formative years, the time of my coming into my own, picking my head up and actually getting a view of how this world I was entering was configured.  The loss of economic security was evident immediately in the way I and my classmates navigated the years after college.  No security assumed; it was going to be dog eat dog.  And the glee with which Reagan and his ilk embraced that inhuman and dehumanizing competition was appalling.  Especially when that cruelty was wrapped in the pieties of a Christianity that saw the sufferings of the poor as their just desert.

I was mostly a bystander to the promiscuity—both hetero- and homo- –of the 70s.  But a bystander in fairly close proximity to both of those worlds.  Some of its was tawdry, some of it exploitative (the abuse of unequal hierarchical relationships was rampant).  But there was also a joyousness that has been lost.  Not having sex always be a serious business has things to recommend it.  All the studies indicate that young people today (caught in the evermore insecure world of precarity) are having much less sex than my generation did at their age.  And I really can’t see that as a good thing.  Sex under the right conditions is one of the great goods of life.  It is a mark of our human perversity that we can also manage to turn it to evil so often and (apparently) so effortlessly.

When Rushdie’s narrator contemplates his parents’ faith that humans are moral and by striving can make a better world, he ends up demurring:

“And they were wrong.  The human race was savage, not moral.  I had lived in an enchanted garden but the savagery, the meaninglessness, the fury had come in over the walls and killed what I loved most” (152).

This is Rushdie’s valediction to a certain form of hopeful liberalism, a form he thinks was only made possible by the Trentes Glorieuses, those thirty halcyon years (ignoring Vietnam, Korea, and the violences of decolonization) in the West following the second World War. I, of course, still want to hold on to that hopeful liberalism, to its vision of a social democracy that does its utmost to deliver to all a life now reserved to the privileged.

Rushdie’s narrator’s viewpoint is echoed in one of the book’s epigraphs, which itself echoes the currently fashionable academic preoccupation with ways of living in the ruins.  The passage is taken from D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.  The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up little habitats, to have new little hopes.  It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road to the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles.  We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

Giving in to a notion of a necessarily ruined world, about which we can do nothing except try to carve out a “little habitat,” a way to keep on keeping on, seems defeatist to me.  But forging such a separate peace is also deeply alluring since the general madness and cruelty are so relentless and so resistant to alteration.

Hopelessness

“I want In the Wake to declare that we are Black people in the wake with no state or nation to protect us, with no citizenship bound to be respected, and to position us in the modalities of Black life lived in, as, under, despite Black death: to think, to be, and to act from there.  It is my particular hope that the praxis of the wake and wake work, the theory and performance of the wake and wake work, as modes of attending to Black life and Black suffering, are imagined and performed here with enough specificity to attend to the direness of the multiple and overlapping presents that we face” (Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being [Duke University Press, 2016], 22). 

A hope that reads likes hopelessness at the outset of a book that is best described as a dirge, a lamentation that bears witness to Black suffering and death without imagining or believing that suffering or death will come to an end. 

“The modalities of Black life lived” that Sharpe’s book presents are very circumscribed.  She offers no exemplars of resistance or defiance, no models of collective organizing. This lack is only supplemented by a vague call for mutual aid.  She speaks persistently in the first person plural, of a “we” who are called to “distinguish” practices of “care from state-imposed regimes of surveillance.  How can we think (and rethink and rethink) care laterally, in the register of the intramural, in a different relation than that of the violence of the state?  In what ways do we remember the dead, those lost in the Middle Passage, those who arrived reluctantly and those still arriving” (20).  Those practices of lateral care remain non-specific (except for the braiding of a young girl’s hair, as seen in a photograph [120]), while the book compulsively repeats the trauma of black suffering and death.

This is not a critique.  It is my attempt to come to terms with a discourse shaped by hopelessness.  The need to repeat again and again the facts of black suffering is rooted in the general oblivion of, the persistent will to deny, that suffering.  What does it mean—and how does one live—in a society that is more committed to your death than to your flourishing?  If the political institutions of that society are your enemy, where do you turn, what do you do?  Are there sources of power, of effective action, available to you outside the “normal” channels and able to carve out at least a minimal shelter in this storm?

I think of Ellison’s “invisible man,” trying to disappear, to escape the state and society’s gaze, as the only possible way to live (quite literally, to live—bare life, but still alive).  Being a fugitive, perpetually, because in the eyes of the law you are always suspect.  For Sharpe, this means that the fugitive slave law still governs the shape of Black lives.

Presumably, under these conditions, the only slight ray of hope would rest in a solidarity, in a “we,” forged by being oppressed together.  But that solidarity has proved hard to achieve.  In many works written by blacks, the strength of the black family is examined and celebrated.  But black community beyond the family is hard to achieve and sustain.  Despair and its concomitant violence on one hand; the temptations of accommodation, respectability, and uplift on the other.  And it’s very hard to create and sustain a social movement (political unity) that can persist in the face of continued frustration, of rare victories poised against daily defeats. 

The hard facts are eloquent enough.  The high rate of incarceration, the grim reality that blacks as a group have made no economic progress relative to whites since 1960, the resegregation of the nation’s schools, police harassment and brutality, gentrification, the environmental degradation of the places where blacks live.  The list goes on and on, its own dirge of hopelessness.

The dilemma (at least as I experience it): there could be few things worse than helicoptering in with facile suggestions about how these continued (and continual) outrages could be ameliorated, if not consigned to the trash bin of history.  Yet everything in my pragmatist temperament rebels against declaring a situation so intractable that all remedial action is pointless from the get go.  Yet, yet: it is surely true that nothing is more soul-destroying than futile action.  How long can one keep doing things that have no positive outcome, that demonstrably do nothing to change the prevailing, deplorable, conditions one is trying to work against?  Isn’t banging one’s head against a wall a terrible way to spend a life?  Are there alternatives to working at a change that will never come? Is there an “elsewhere” to escape to–and can you bring your family and friends with you, or is it every man for himself, an individualized escape from the general woe?

Sharpe’s solution of telling, over and over again, the tale of woes is not appealing to me.  I don’t see what to do with it, how to “go on” from where her book deposits me.  But I must respect that “weeping by the rivers of Babylon” may be the only option in some situations.  Situations where there is no way to “go on,” no way forward–and where devising one’s own personal escape is too shameful to accept. That I cannot quite wrap my head around that kind of situation speaks eloquently to my own subject position, what Bernard Williams would call “moral luck,” and what today’s jargon labels as “privilege.”  William James wrote about “a certain blindness” in human beings, about our inability to empathize past a certain point, to understand another’s despair (in this instance) if one’s own life has not been dominated by unjustly inflicted suffering and death.

I have come more and more to think that being able to “affirm” life (the core reference here is to Nietzsche) is a touchstone for thinking about human insanity.  A fundamental rage against the very terms of existence seems to underlie the violence we humans inflict on one another and on the world we inhabit.  The dirge, the wake, is the flip side of that inflicted violence, its accompaniment.  A perpetual sadness.  We, meaning humans, should be better than this; we can and do imagine being better, but somehow fail to bring those images to fruition.  And then, outrageously, we all too often fail to acknowledge that failure, insisting on our righteousness and on the justice (they got what they deserved) of others’ sufferings. 

J. Daniel Elam has written an eloquent book about alternative strategies developed by those who face a power that they see no way to dislodge.  I am going to turn to a discussion of Elam’s book in my next post.  The book:  World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth: Anticolonial Aesthetics, Postcolonial Politics (Fordham University Press, 2021).

A Short, and Mostly Gloomy, Post-Election Post

I wrote most of this post three days ago, then held on to it because it assumed Joe Biden’s victory and I didn’t want to jinx that outcome by anticipating it.  The wait, it turned out, had a positive effect on my mood.  Having it all hang in the balance for so long made the victory that much sweeter when it came.  And the pleasure, nay joy, of my friends and family made this sourpuss give way a bit.  Let’s appreciate what went right for a day or two.

The 2020 election has been a disaster for Democrats (and for liberals and the left more generally) and an uplifting delight for Republicans, especially the wonderfully named Vichy Republicans, the party hacks who have enabled the Trump presidency.

Not an unmitigated disaster, since getting rid of Trump is all to the good.  But Biden takes office unable to govern.  He will be thwarted at every turn—and the multiple problems afflicting the United States (climate change, crumbling infrastructure, a dysfunctional heath care system, economic inequality, racial injustice, the kleptocracy of our tax code and subsidies to big ag, big pharma, big oil and others) will go unaddressed for another four years.  And the vote reveals that more than 70 million of our fellow citizens could witness Trump’s antics, ineptitude, corruption, and cruelty for four years—and ask for more.

The Vichy Republicans, meanwhile, got exactly what they wanted out of Trump: massive tax cuts and a lock-hold on the federal judiciary.  And now they get to see him out the door, and replace inflammatory tweeting with their quiet entrenchment of minority rule to benefit the already rich and powerful. 

Trump has served their purpose and now they can reap the benefits of having the courts on their side as they go back to doing what they do best: nothing.  They will return to the 2010 to 2016 playbook: obstruct, obstruct, obstruct. While insuring legislative gridlock, they will use the courts to enhance corporate power, and voter suppression/gerrymandering; and they will mobilize “religious freedom” to enable discrimination, and to make abortions inaccessible (and perhaps illegal).  It’s all about unaccountability.  Corporations and politicians and the police are to be beyond the reach of the people—as are, of course, judges appointed for life.

The Republicans have learned that there is no price to be paid for the insider baseball stuff.  Game the system in any way you like to undermine democratic processes—and the vast majority of the public does not respond. Winning is everything, the rules of the game nothing. If there ever were “norms,” there are no longer.  Most likely, the norms only had some grip in the past because there was a centralized, elite media that actually did have some power in shaping public opinion.  Now we have ten million “influencers” and the resulting cacophony has blasted any chance of commonly adopted standards. 

Meanwhile, the Democrats must come to grips with how successfully the Republicans have used fear and hatred to mobilize voters.  The cry of “socialist” works with significant numbers of non-white voters (refugees from Cuba or China or Vietnam or Central America), while (as is evident here in North Carolina) significant numbers of white voters hate (the only appropriate word) “liberals.”  As they have in every election since 1968, a majority of white voters went for the Republican candidate for president.

The Democrats cannot depend on demographics to get them out of this hole.  This election demonstrates that non-white voters are not automatic Democratic voters.  And younger voters have a nasty habit of becoming more conservative as they get older (and more likely to actually vote). 

Against all evidence, the left wing of the party is going to argue that Biden was an uninspiring candidate and someone like Sanders or Warren would have done better.  That argument ignores the record turn-out for this election, as well as the resonance of the charge of “socialism” with many voters.  There simply are not enough non-voters out there who would have voted for Sanders to have won this election down-ballot for the Democrats.  Sanders (or some theoretical candidate of his ilk but younger, more dynamic, and sexier) would not have done better than Biden—and most likely would have done worse.  But that won’t stop those who will argue otherwise.

So the Democratic civil war will continue, and the activists might well get their chance to run a more progressive candidate in 2024.  Obviously, I don’t think that will go well.

Fintan O’Toole (characteristically brilliant, if uncharacteristically long-winded), in his post-election piece, considers how deep and permanent are the anti-democratic forces that Trump tapped and amplified. 

My only consolation—and I will admit to be being baffled by this fact—is how strong the taboo against political violence remains in the U.S.  In a country awash in guns, where gun violence is a regular occurrence and you only need to sneeze in the public square to receive hundreds of death threats in your email inbox, no one crosses the line over into directly political violence. Yes, we have the lone shooters who are inspired by the hate-filled rhetoric of Trump and of the right-wing web sites.  But organized violence directed at influencing political outcomes is still unknown in this country—despite posturings in that direction. The gun-toters at the polling place in Fairfax County, Virginia back in September, and the militia thugs occupying the Michigan state house in the summer turned out to be one-offs, not harbingers of general attempts at intimidation or of any actual violence.  Maybe now, in defeat, that line will get crossed as Trump continues to claim he was robbed.  But I don’t think we will see violence, even though we will have the lingering rot deep in the national psyche of at least 30% of Americans believing the election was stolen.  We know the power such grievances hold for right-wing politics. 

I always planned to stand outside a rural NC polling place on election day—and figured I would do so in the presence of guns.  I spent fourteen hours outside of Creedmoor Elementary School on November 3rd, passing out the Democrats’ sample ballot.  Creedmoor is about 45 northeast of Chapel Hill.  The three of us working for the Democrats were Chapel Hill imports; the eight people manning the Trump tent were all locals and they greeted by name most of the white voters and were polite to the African-American voters (whom they obviously did not know).  No guns and we had sporadic, cheerful conversations during the long day with the Trumpistas. No overt hostility. But it was also clear that every white voter was going for Trump. 

As Fred Kaplan says in a short essay in Slate and Wallace Shawn argues in a short piece in the New York Review of Books (links provided below; Heather Cox Richardson style): maybe this is just who we Americans are. (My colleague Kumi Silva has said “stop saying this is not what American are.”  The vote shows that racism and its cruelties are embedded deep in the American soul.) Our better angels have been put into storage; Americans see that we live in a harsh, unjust, dog-eat-dog world and are determined to get ours, letting the devil see to the hindmost.  Trump gave us permission to put all that do-gooder liberal stuff behind us.  No American exceptionalism—just the unalloyed freedom to be selfish without shame or guilt.

I don’t want to live in this society.  But it seems to be the society I am stuck in. 

Kaplan:

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/11/trumpism-election-results-america.html

Shawn:

O’Toole: