Monday, October 06, 2008

What will happen to all that beauty then?

The picture is taken from a screen capture of a video clip of James Baldwin at YouTube.

There are lots of pejorative terms used by Americans to divide us. A good number of them refer to the people of the Appalachian Mountains. I'm a child of this region. There's quite a bit of nuance and history to some of these terms like: hick, cracker, and redneck. And much of that history involves the Scots-Irish settlement of the southern parts of Appalachia. The various strains of Protestant Christianity born abroad and raised in America are so numerous that the distinctions get blurred in mind. The short version is my heritage is not Scots-Irish, but tangled in a web of common history; enough so that I am called the names.

My sense is that Americans in general are considered stupid by people all over the world. So that Americans have so many ways of calling one another stupid, and that so many stick to me, must mean I'm really, really unsophisticated!

It's a very good thing for people to connect across cultures using the Internet. I have several online friendships with people in Uganda. Mostly we chat using instant messaging. The other day my friend M pointed to an op-ed by Ali Muzuri in Kampala's Daily Monitor, Black Atlantic and a post racial society. M and I talk a lot about politics, and I use M for his name because many of his views aren't particularly popular, or even safe to hold, in Uganda. M is an atheist and humanist. M is also a Baganda and tribalism is something we've talked about over the years. So in our conversation about Mazuri's essay M stated that he felt it important that Africans drive tribalism out of their hearts. My response was that I think that unlikely and am not sure it would be desirable even if possible.

That's the gist of it. How strange a country bumpkin, hick, redneck American like me to be opining on such a topic. But then again, I don't find it strange when M comments about American politics and letters. It's precisely such dangerous and difficult topics that make our dialog important.

After M and I talked I went on to read an essay by Colm Toibin in The New York Review of Books, James Baldwin & Barack Obama. I'm in my fifties so James Baldwin is a famous person to me. I'm not so sure that's true for many younger Americans. I asked M if he knew of Baldwin. He did know the name, and knew that Baldwin was gay, but hadn't read anything by Baldwin. As a Ugandan, it's rather difficult to imagine how M might grasp Baldwin's importance. That said both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. have legacies of great interest to some of my African friends including M. I'll send some links of some of Baldwin's writing to read. I wonder if it's too much water under the bridge by now that Baldwin's words might resonate in M?

Colm Toibin, an Irish intellectual and writer recongnized something essentially American in the similarities between Obama and Baldwin. Toibin ends his essay:
Both men set about establishing their authority by exploring themselves and how they came to make it up as they went along, as much as by exploring the world around them. In Obama's own mixed background and complex heritage he saw America; out of his own success, he saw hope and a new set of values. Out of his own childhood Baldwin produced a number of enduring literary masterpieces and out of his efforts to make sense of his own complex, playful personality and his own unique place in history he produced some of the best essays written in the twentieth century. Reading these essays and Obama's speeches, especially the ones that are high on inspiration and short on policy, one is struck by the connection between them, two men remaking the world against all the odds in their own likeness, not afraid to ask, when faced with the future of America as represented by its children, using Baldwin's wonderful phrase, questions that are alien to most politicians: "What will happen to all that beauty?"
Baldwin's question hung in my mind, especially thinking back to my conversation with M. Sometimes when M and I have talked about clans and the Buganda Kingdom I sense pleasure in his words about them. A happiness that an American would want to hear and learn, also, I think, pleasure in the apprehension of some beauty there. And so I was thinking about M's comment that tribalism needed to be "driven out of our hearts."

Searching online I found a page at, The Meaning of Love in Politics: A Letter by Hannah Arendt to James Baldwin. Arendt's letter to Baldwin was prompted by The New Yorker publishing a piece by Baldwin called Letter from a Region of My Mind in November of 1962. In 1963 that essay as well as an essay My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One-Hundredth Anniversary of The Emancipation were published together with an introductory chapter in the book The Fire Next Time.

Arendt took issue with Baldwin's faith that love between people could help America prevent a conflagration rooted in racial injustice and vengeance. Arendt wrote:
What frightened me in your essay was the gospel of love which you begin to preach at the end. In politics, love is a stranger, and when it intrudes upon it nothing is being achieved except hypocrisy. All the characteristics you stress in the Negro people: their beauty, their capacity for joy, their warmth, and their humanity, are well-known characteristics of all oppressed people. They grow out of suffering and they are the proudest possession of all pariahs. Unfortunately, they have never survived the hour of liberation by even five minutes. Hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive; you can afford them only in the private and, as a people, only so long as you are not free.
Arendt's letter to Baldwin was posted at in regards a sentence in a speech given by former President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Johannes Rau which Rau attributed to Arendt: "Politics is is the application of love for the world" which had been mentioned in a previous document posted at the site. The letter to Baldwin was to show that the sentence really didn't seem to fit with Arendt's views. M is in his late twenties. Just as I can't expect him to understand the sorts of names other Americans call me, I don't really understand his outsider status in Kampala as a poor kid from the country. But the sting of presumption and name calling I can at least relate to. There's a gap between M and me that for many reasons we both find building a bridge across worthwhile. In the USA there's a gap between generations, I suppose that's true everywhere. For the life of me I don't understand why so many of my generation think the young people today are apathetic. Perhaps one reason my generation thinks so is too many hardly read anything online at all (note the weasel words). As I was writing I got a telephone call from the Obama for President office. I've been there and talked in person to the young woman on the other end of the phone. There's a generation gap, but I could hardly ascribe to her or the other young people in the campaign office apathy. If anything, it's I who's apathetic.

The quotation President Rau attributed to Arendt seemed memorable, so I searched for it. And the search came up blank. The best match came from a blog post by Matt Birkhold, Politics, Love, and a Radical Revolution in Values at the YP4 Blog (that's Young People for). My friend M holds close an idea of cosmopolitanism. In his views I see something akin to Arendt's desire to exclude love and hate from the political sphere. In part this exclusion seems necessary to allow individual freedom in the private sphere. I'm not sure, I'll have to talk with M some more before expounding on what he thinks. But the whole conversation and serendipitous reading does make me look more carefully to see what I think. It's clear to me now that I do earnestly believe that love must be brought to bear upon political problems. Arendt's objection: "In politics, love is a stranger" cautions me to look deeper at my presuppositions.

Colm Toibin sees many similarities between Baldwin and Obama. But he also draws a distinction:
Whereas Baldwin sought to make distinctions, Obama always wants to make connections; his urge is to close circles even when they don't need to be closed or the closure is too neat to be fully trusted. Whereas Baldwin longed to disturb the peace, create untidy truths, Obama was slowly becoming a politician.
It seems that Obama's making connection is "a feature not a bug." Many, of course, do see his tendency as a flaw; if not outright hypocrisy, at least opening himself to the accusation of it. Online there's a effort to enlist Bold Progressives to hold an Obama presidency and a Democratic-led Congress to a progressive platform. I'm rather wimpy, and hesitant about signing pledges of any kind. But I see the point. Obama's capacity to make connections is essential, but such connections need the tempering of the those who like Toibin says of Baldwin who are ready to "disturb the peace" and "create untidy truths." Love, if it is to play any part in politics must be true.

Update: changed a confusing sentence.

1 comment:

Daisy said...

First, I just realized that your title is also quoted by Joanna Russ in THE FEMALE MAN, and although I am pretty familiar with Baldwin, I never realized who she was quoting. Duh!

Second, I see Hannah and raise her one Che Guevara:

"At the risk of sounding ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love."

Feminism reminds us always: the personal is political. Where did these folks LEARN about love? I think Baldwin was speaking as one who was brought up in the Church, as well as an entrenched member of the OLD SCHOOL New York City gay community, which at that time was very protective and took care of each other. On the flip side, we have Hannah Arendt, a brilliant Jewish student, taught about politics by the famous nazi philosopher (Martin Heidegger) who seduced her as a student. Of course she excluded love and hate from everything, or she might lose her mind thinking about WHAT SHE HAD DONE. Better to make it all very high-minded, theoretical and emotionally-removed.

She could then say her affair with MH wasn't "political" at all... and yet, didn't she make her career writing about the nazi war crimes trials? One wonders... hmmm... wonder why she decided to do THAT? (Getting even with anybody? Settling some old scores, maybe?)

I'd say Hannah Arendt, as much as I admire her, wasn't exactly the person we should be consulting regarding LOVE.

Just my opinion, of course. ;)