Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is Upon Us: “For the American Right, the price of power has been a deal with the devil of white supremacy”

William F. Buckley, I suppose, would have wanted to be remembered as a powerful and charismatic public intellectual for conservatism and one of the foundational thinkers in the late 20th-/early 21st-century formation of conservative thought and the current Republican Party.

While Buckley failed as a political candidate and may in many ways be lost to history, his goals have been mostly accomplished—creating a Republican movement that succeeded in significant ways from Ronald Reagan’s rise through the election of Donald Trump, with only minor detours for centerists such as Bill Clinton (anti-welfare and “tough on crime” advocate) and Barack Obama.

What did Buckley envision?

His was a political ideology that shifted the 1950s Republican moderates and liberals to a reactionary party grounded in (when convenient) libertarian principles and Christian values that stood firm against the rising tide of Brown v. Board (school integration) and the Civil Rights Act of the mid-1960s as well as the violent civil rights movement swelling from the 1950s into the 1970s.

Buckley repeatedly argued that Black people killed during the Civil Rights Era had provoked the violence, for example. He was a “know your place” sort of racist.

Buckley held firm throughout his public career that Southern whites had the right to their beliefs, even if those beliefs were racist, and that the federal government must not impede on those rights (Constitutionally wrong, was his thin argument), even if those efforts sought to gain the full rights of Black people.

Yes, Buckley was a racist, the sort of racist who admitted racism was a plight on humanity and the U.S., but he argued, it was a plight that must be allowed to play out somewhat organically and not spurred by the influence of government mandate (whether through the courts or legislation). Buckley was also the sort of racist who claimed whites were superior to Black people at the moment, even as he wasn’t going to argue directly there were genetic differences (although he was fine with letting such claims linger).

Buckley rarely even flinched and sometimes eagerly trafficked with those who did make much more gross and hateful claims—George Wallace, James Jackson Kilpatrick, etc.

In Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is Upon Us, using the James Baldwin/Buckley debate as the crux of his examination, Buccola draws a powerful conclusion about Buckley’s impact on U.S. politics: “For the American Right, the price of power has been a deal with the devil of white supremacy” (p. 365).

The line from Buckley to the Reagan Revolution and then to the current Trump administration is straight and direct. For those who want to claim that Trump is an aberration, a distortion of modern/contemporary Republicanism, Buccola’s book is a harsh slap in the face.

Trump and the current Republican Party is at least a logical conclusion to what Buckley and other conservatives started in the 1940s-1950s.

Buckley mastered what we now see as typical Trumpisms: claiming belief trumps evidence, cozying up to blatant racists for partisan political expediency, making sweeping ideological claims about “the individual” while refusing to recognize the inequities that weigh on real individuals (especially if those individuals are not white), resorting to American exceptionalism and framing any enemy as being “anti-American,” promoting boot-strapping over government intervention, and refusing to acknowledge one’s own enormous privilege while also claiming great accomplishment from hard work and intellectual superiority.

In short, Buckley wrote Trump’s playbook, although Trump is a slightly more buffoonish version of Buckley, himself a stylized character, more theater than substance despite Buckley’s penchant for arcane vocabulary.

However, I must stress here that despite my initial focus on Buckley, Buccola’s outstanding scholarship and compelling writing has one star: James Baldwin.

From The Atlantic: James Baldwin, right, discusses a civil-rights incident with Bayard Rustin, left. (AP)

Just as Baldwin was often the complicated and complicating moral compass while he was alive, Baldwin provides not only context, but the moral counterbalance to Buckley’s inexcusable dispassionate dogmatism.

As someone who has often written about and teaches from Baldwin, I recognize in Buccola an essential primer on Baldwin’s evolving thought throughout the key decades surrounding the Buckley debate in 1965.

Readers witness Baldwin being smeared as a communist (and his explanations to the contrary), labeled “anti-American” (although he repeatedly argues that to criticize the U.S. is to love it), provoked to pick sides between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (Baldwin resisted, praising both men but cautioning against the dangers of any strict obligations to organized religion), and characterized as a leading cause of racial violence (maybe the central target of Buckley’s “blame the victims” campaign).

While Baldwin sought always to live the life of an artist, he was drawn time and again into his role as public intellectual, journalist, practitioner of the jeremiad, public speaker, and debater.

Even Malcolm X was apt to warn others that Baldwin was always his own man—so what he said and when he said it remained Baldwin’s.

Guiding Baldwin was his own conception of love:

In order to achieve freedom of this sort, Baldwin contended, we must love one another. His understanding of love was deep and complex, and the love he prescribed was difficult and often unsettling. To love someone, he explained, is to deny them “spiritual and social ease,” which “hard as if may sound,” is “the most important thing that one human being can do for another.” Love requires us to force each other to confront the delusions that we rely on to avoid taking responsibility for our lives. “Love takes off the masks,” Baldwin declared, “that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” (From The Fire Is Upon Us, Nicholas Buccola, p. 163, quoting from Baldwin’s “Down at the Cross,” pp. 335, 341)

And that commitment rested against Baldwin’s consternation about white America:

“There are days—this is one of them—when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it … [and] how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here.” … “I am terrified,” [Baldwin] said, “by the  moral apathy, the death of the heart that is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I am human …. And this means that they have become … moral monsters.” (p. 186)

Ultimately, Baldwin had the irrefutable last word on race in the U.S.:

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,’ but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie. (On Language, Race and the Black Writer, James Baldwin, Los Angeles Times, 1979)

And as Buccola quotes Baldwin talking to “students at Cambridge”:

What is happening in the poor woman, the poor man’s mind. They have been raised to believe, and by now they helplessly believe, that no matter how terrible their lives may be, and their lives have been quite terrible, and no matter how far they fall, no matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous knowledge and consolation which is like a heavenly revelation: at least they are not black. (p. 259)

Yet, Buccola paraphrases Baldwin arguing “most white Americans live in a state of denial” (p. 347).

Buccola makes a deeply compelling choice by framing the racial/racist history of the U.S., and how that drives and intermingles with U.S. partisan politics as well as media, with one moment in U.S. history—when Buckley and Baldwin directly debate “the motion of the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro” (p. 376; note that this volume includes the most intact transcript existing of the debate, another gem of this book).

These two men, born within a year of each other although Baldwin was in Harlem and Buckley, in extreme wealth and privilege, are not mere tokens of history, but valid voices of the current tensions in a country that wants to call itself free and equitable but often, like Buckley, refuses to acknowledge our sins (as Baldwin did) or do anything about them.

Reading Buccola’s extended exegesis of the debate, I am reminded of comedian George Carlin: “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

And, of course, more Baldwin: “The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something we do not understand and do not want to admit” (“Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,’” 1948).

In the Epilogue, Buccola shares Baldwin’s recollection of Buckley avoiding an elevator packed with Baldwin and his Black friends:

“He will say, of course, if challenged, that the elevator was crowded, but I remember the split second—the twinkling of an eye—in which he looked at me and he saw me looking at him. Okay. But I [emphasis in original] would have gotten on the elevator.”

Racist. Liar. Coward. These are the words that came into Baldwin’s mind when he thought of Buckley. (p. 361)

Apt words, chilling words, that serve us, sadly, now.

James Baldwin, 24 May 1963: “the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority”

Recognizing in 1963 what would eventually be the Trump voter, James Baldwin in an interview with Kenneth Clark:

“These days—this is one of them—when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it … [and] how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here.” … “I am terrified,” [Baldwin] said, “by the  moral apathy, the death of the heart that is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I am human …. And this means that they have become … moral monsters.” [From The Fire Is Upon Us, Nicholas Buccola, p. 186]

Ellen Is Wrong: “Love takes off the masks”

Ellen DeGeneres sitting and yucking it up with George W. Bush in the owner’s suite of an NFL game—including the Dallas Cowboys, owned by Jerry Jones—may be the perfect metaphor for the U.S. in 2019.

While DeGeneres as a gay woman has become a key public figure in the broader fight for equity, she ultimately has attained something, like Oprah, that keeps her well above the consequences of inequity in the U.S.—enormous wealth and celebrity.

Laughing in the rarified air of the owner’s suite, DeGeneres and Bush are literally well above the actual game in which grown men bash each other senseless for the entertainment and enormous profit of others.

In this contemporary colosseum, we should be reminded that DeGeneres and Bush are merely two actors in an exclusive club of wealth and fame.

DeGeneres has doubled-down after some have criticized her being very publicly chummy with the former president, who is also good pals with Michelle Obama. Fans of DeGeneres have praised her for her message of love and her argument that we can and should love each other even if—and maybe especially if—we have different beliefs.

But here is the problem. If this were about beliefs—if DeGeneres were Muslim and Bush, Christian, and they were showing how people of different faiths can and should love each other—then DeGeneres would be entirely justified.

This, however, is not about beliefs.

W. Bush for decades was a key leader of the Republican Party, which enacted policy and laws as well as advocated for policy and laws that are anti-gay, anti-woman, pro-mass incarceration, pro-gun, etc.

And here is the crucial point: These laws are inherently inequitable; they deny life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Additionally, these laws and policies negatively impact marginalized and impoverished Americans disproportionately.

Yes, Ellen has faced inequity as a women and for being gay, but on balance, her wealth and celebrity have greatly mollified those consequences; she—and W. Bush—is but a far-removed observer of this world that is quite real for the rest of us.

For example, as Republicans move the U.S. toward greatly restricting and even banning abortion, we must recognize that wealthy women will never be denied excellent health care, excellent birth control, and access to safe abortions.

Never.

These restrictive and harmful laws will mostly negatively impact marginalized and impoverished American women.

DeGeneres and Bush see politics and belief, then, as just a game—not really all that different than the NFL contest where they sat as far as possible away from the violence.

Republican or Democrat? Cowboy or Packer? What’s the diff, eh?

Ultimately, DeGeneres has no obligations, however, to live her life any other way than the way she wants, including keeping and fostering her connectedness to the world of enormous wealth and celebrity. She has reminded us over and over that she is friends with Aaron Rogers (quarterback of the Packers, who were playing the Cowboys as she lounged with W.)—and of course, with Justin Bieber.

Using her enormous bully pulpit, DeGeneres goes beyond living her life, often, and advocates for the rest of us to live our lives a certain way; in this case, she is preaching a sort of universal and unconditional love.

How, then, can DeGeneres be wrong?

At one level, DeGeneres’s message approaches respectability politics, at least to the point that many people supporting her seem to think she is calling for civility among political rivals. Respectability politics is often used to deflect from the central issue, as was the case with Colin Kaepernick.

Calls for civility also work as a shield for those with power and privilege. Just as the rich and famous often live above the consequences of laws and social norms, people with power and wealth have expectations for others that they themselves never follow.

Respect authority. Watch your tone.

There is nothing civil about declaring homosexuality a sin; there is nothing civil about calling abortion murder.

On another level, DeGeneres simply misunderstands or at least oversimplifies love. Instead, I recommend James Baldwin’s admonitions about love:

In order to achieve freedom of this sort, Baldwin contended, we must love one another. His understanding of love was deep and complex, and the love he prescribed was difficult and often unsettling. To love someone, he explained, is to deny them “spiritual and social ease,” which “hard as if may sound,” is “the most important thing that one human being can do for another.” Love requires us to force each other to confront the delusions that we rely on to avoid taking responsibility for our lives. “Love takes off the masks,” Baldwin declared, “that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” (From The Fire Is Upon Us, Nicholas Buccola, p. 163, quoting from Baldwin’s “Down at the Cross,” pp. 335, 341)

I am not saying DeGeneres should be uncivil to W. Bush, but I am saying that what someone of her stature and influence could do is to love Bush in such a way that he feels spiritual and social discomfort, that is he is forced to take off the masks of his corrupt political ideologies.

That Bush accepts responsibility for the consequences of his actions.

As Baldwin implored throughout his career, it is a terrible delusion that the rich and famous believe they are above it all because there is simply nothing that doesn’t impact each and everyone one of us even as some seem to be having a great time while, you know, Rome is burning.

Recommended

Why Rihanna Turned Down the Superbowl

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments: Reading and Writing Beyond Gilead

Becka said that spelling was not reading: reading, she said, was when you could hear the words as if they were a song. (p. 297)

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

“How did Gilead fall?” Margaret Atwood asks in the Acknowledgements, noting that The Testaments, set 15 years after the main action of The Handmaid’s Tale but drafted 30-plus years after that novel, “was written in response to this question” (p. 417).

Even a writer of Atwood’s talent and success probably could never have imagined that Handmaid has become the cultural and political touchstone that has occurred with the rise of Trump and the popular Hulu series.

Those who found Handmaid in the late 1980s to be powerful then and an extremely compelling work of fiction may be skeptical about Atwood’s very late return to this now modern classic. For both the newly converted and the long-time fans of Atwood, I want to assure you all that this much delayed sequel pays off quite wonderfully.

I came to Atwood as a teacher—specifically high school Advanced Placement Literature and Composition—and then as a scholar. I have also grounded a tremendous amount of my academic and public work in Atwood’s fiction and non-fiction.

With efforts here, then, to avoid as much as possible spoilers, I want to highlight a few of the ways in which Atwood maintains elements from Handmaid while also extending her writer’s urge to connect literacy with empowerment and attaining ones full humanity.

The Testaments offers the narratives of three women—notably including Aunt Lydia from Handmaid. In both novels, as is common with Atwood’s fiction, the narrations are both lending a voice to those often unheard or silenced and working as meta-narrations about the nature of truth when stories are told, retold, and examined (both novels end with Gilead being  the focus of academic scholarship).

Much of Atwood’s fiction is an exploration of what it means to tell and retell stories.

Names and renaming are also prominent in the sequel, dramatizing the power of names and (re)naming as those processes disproportionately impact women in the service of men and patriarchy.

Handmaid details the end of the U.S. and how Gilead comes into being, although much of that is limited to what Offred could have known as a handmaid. Then, many of the finer details are revealed in the Historical Notes, a scholarly examination of Gilead well after its fall.

Testaments broadens the perspectives by including one voice from an inner woman of power, a woman mostly trapped in the upper levels of the Gilead machine, and another view from outside (Canada) that is both somewhat naive and deeply cynical.

These testaments piece together a well established Gilead for the reader and also document the theocracy’s final days. Some of the most compelling elements here are the full development of Aunt Lydia and the careful examination of two characters being groomed to be Aunts (after narrowly avoiding being wed to Commanders).

Part XVII: Reading Room serves as an excellent example of where Atwood excels in combining many of the thematic and narratives elements of her dystopian speculative novel. Aunts are women designed within Gilead to control other women; Aunts are embodiments of a sort of paradoxical authority, including their legal access to reading and writing.

In their journey to becoming Aunts, Agnes and Becka—who have bonded over their fears of being married to a Commander—take on a mentee (Agnes)/mentor (Becka) relationship since Becka has learned to read and write well ahead of Agnes. The motif of reading and writing is emphasized near the end of the novel, and Gilead, I think, to highlight the power of language.

Agnes struggles:

My reading abilities progressed slowly and with many stumbles. Becka helped a lot. We used Bible verses to practise, from the approved selection that was available to Supplicants.. With my very own eyes I was able to read portions of Scripture that I had until then only heard. (p. 297)

These scenes reminded me of Atwood’s deft use in the original novel of Commanders reading scripture to the Wives and Handmaids, with the reader alerted to what Becka soon reveals to Agnes:

The day came when the locked wooden Bible box reserved for me would be brought out to the Reading Room and I would finally open this most forbidden of books. I was very excited about it, but that morning Becka said, “I need to warn you.”

“Warn me?” I said. “But it’s holy.”

“It doesn’t say what they say it says.” (p. 302)

This echoes in Handmaid when the Commander reads the Bible before the Ceremony with Offred:

The Commander pauses, looking down, scanning the page….We lean toward him a little, iron fillings to the magnet. He has something we don’t have, he has the word. How we squandered it once….

For lunch it was the Beatitudes….They played it from a tape….The voice was a man’s….I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking. (pp. 88-89)

In both novels, Atwood reveals that whoever controls the word maintains power. These novels should remind readers that throughout history, learning to read has been carefully controlled—who is allowed, who is not, and who remains so burdened with living that to read seems a luxury.

And so Agnes gains a sort of consciousness along with gaining literacy: “Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to other questions, and then to others” (p. 299).

As Becka cautioned, Agnes confronts that “[t]he truth was not noble, it was horrible”:

This is what the Aunts meant, then, when they said women’s minds were too weak for reading. We would crumble, we would fall apart under the contradictions, we would not be able to hold firm.

Up until that time I had not seriously doubted the rightness and especially the truthfulness of Gilead’s theology. If I’d failed at perfection, I’d concluded that the fault was mine. But as I discovered what had been changed by Gilead, what had been added, and what had been omitted, I feared I might lose my faith. (p. 303)

This awakening in Agnes born of her learning to read and write leads to a larger theme for Atwood: “Once a story you’ve regarded as true has turned false, you begin suspecting all stories” (p. 307).

And in Testaments, “Beneath its outer show of virtue and purity, Gilead was rotting” (p. 308).

As compelling as Atwood’s motifs are in their deconstructing of history and the present, The Testaments if no mere “protest novel,” which James Baldwin rejected, explaining:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality….

The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in the insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended. (pp. 17-18)

Atwood doesn’t stoop to simple Continue reading

Re-reading Faulkner in Trumplandia: “[H]is ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions”

Season 2 of Mindhunter focuses on the Atlanta child murders; in one scene investigators interrogate a local KKK member.

As a lifelong white Southern male, I found the characterization of that man—what many would call a Georgia cracker—to be unsettling. He is arrogant, self-assured, and able, as he declares, to wrangle his way out of any trouble.

What is off, I think, is that in real life this type of poor Southern white man is an odd but distinct combination of embarrassed arrogance. They are stubbornly self-assured—and completely un-self-aware. But they are also painfully laconic, and if you look carefully, they often become flushed, the blood rising in their necks and faces as they swell with both anger and embarrassment.

In the audio of the wiretap that leads to this KKK member being interrogated, there are hints that Mindhunter is softening the characterizations (that dialogue, and the verb usage, is far too formal) so the scene that bothers me seems to be a reasonable cinematic decision—although it fits into a current narrative about white men now who seem to be afraid of losing status that they never deserved in the first place.

Within a couple days of watching that scene, I happened to finally view Burning, a celebrated Korean film based on Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” which is the Japanese author’s take on William Faulkner’s story of the same name.

After seeing the film, I decided to re-read both Faulkner’s and Murakami’s stories.

My experiences with Faulkner began flatly in high school, “The Bear,” and then more seriously in a Southern literature course where I found myself deeply embarrassed and suddenly aware of how much I did not know as a junior English education major. Immediately after I graduated college at the end of the first semester of my fifth year, I set out to read everything by Faulkner as I spent several month substitute teaching and doing a long-term sub—all while applying for what I hoped would be my first teaching job that coming fall.

Faulkner then provided for me, still deeply uncritical, an influential combination of modernism filtered through a deeply familiar Southern voice; there was much there that was technically and verbally dazzling (or so it seemed to me as a twenty-something want-to-be writer and teacher).

In 2019 Trumplandia, however, as I rapidly approach 60, I found a much different Faulkner in my re-reading of “Barn Burning”—one now informed by, for example, James Baldwin’s confrontation of Faulkner and the uncomfortable reality that even my well-educated friends now lament that times are really hard for white men in this #MeToo era.

If you are not from the South and you want to understand my opening concerns about the absence of the embarrassed arrogance in the KKK member being interrogated, or if you can’t quite grasp yet who Trump voters are, I suggest you wade into Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” to witness Abner Snopes. A few pages in, readers have the central character of Snopes detailed:

There was something about his wolf-like independence and even courage when the advantage was at least neutral which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his.

And later in the story, once the family has been once again relocated because of the father’s serial criminality, Abner Snopes chastises is young son Sarty (the eyes of the story) for nearly betraying his father in court:

“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat?”

You will witness Snopes go before the Justice of the Peace twice, quite guilty both time and quite determined that he should not be punished because his actions, to him, are entirely justified—both the burning of a barn and tracking horse manure across the rug when he arrives at Major de Spain’s farm. Snopes is all rugged individual (“wolf-like independence”) and white nationalism/tribalism (“‘your own blood'”) bundled into Southern embarrassed arrogance.

Few things anger many poor white males in the South more than questioning or challenging their honor code, a code wrapped in white nationalism; Snopes rations out his justice and expects everyone else to step aside, recognize its authority.

Re-reading the story also revealed to me how Faulkner incorporates a distinct element of materialism to the theme of individual versus communal justice. Snopes destroys the property of those wealthier than him to assert his dominance in the same way Snopes uses racial slurs about and at black characters in the story.

Snopes is just as domineering with his family, the women and children subject to his verbal and physical wrath, his expected but unpredictable lashing out. Snopes desperately clings to the mythical fiefdom he has manufactured thoughtlessly in his mind.

Faulkner’s story ends with the boy’s sense of “‘truth, justice'” finally coming to a deadly climax with his father’s barn burning, but even as the boy feels compelled to betray his father, his blood, Sarty cannot rise above the engrained but distorted myth of his father:

Father. My father, he thought. “He was brave!” he cried suddenly, aloud but not loud, no more than a whisper: “He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty—it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.

As Faulkner is apt to do often, the story reveals itself as one of the self-defeating South, where pride in tradition fails any reasonable effort to ground that pride in an ethical unpacking of the past.

Today the laconic embarrassed arrogance has shifted to rants on social media defending the Confederate Flag and arguing that the South fought the Civil War for state’s rights or wildly claiming many blacks fought in Confederate uniforms in that sacred war.

Especially in 2019, both Murakami’s story and the film adaptation help put Faulkner’s story and today’s angry white men in a sharp relief.

Murakami tends to traffic in disassociated men, what can be misinterpreted as sympathetic narratives about the male condition. His “Barn Burning” is steeped in the naive narrator (the film directly mentions The Great Gatsby, but those familiar with Murakami’s work can feel a sort of Nick narrator in this story, fascinated with the mysterious and wealthy boyfriend who appears with the younger woman at the center of the story).

Barn burning is the surprising confession by that mysterious new boyfriend, who decides to confide in the narrator and give the story both an air of mystery and a much more ambiguous (although still detached) moral center than Faulkner’s stark display of Southern honor:

“I’m not judging anything. They’re waiting to be burned. I’m simply obliging. You get it? I’m just taking on what’s there. Just like the rain….Well, all right, does this make me immoral? In my own way, I’d like to believe I’ve got my own morals. And that’s an extremely important force in human existence. A person can’t exist without morals.”

This self-identified barn burner, then, is a more expressive Abner Snopes, and Murakami’s version is far more ambiguous about the barn burnings and how the reader is supposed to judge, or not, the three main characters—the married narrator, the twenty-year-old woman involved with both men (and who falls asleep easily), and the new boyfriend who flatly states he burns barns.

Another twist added by Murakami is when the narrator confronts the barn burner about not being able to find the most recently burned barn: “‘All I can say is, you must have missed it. Does happen you know. Things so close up, they don’t even register.'”

A brief exchange but, I think, a valuable commentary on anyone’s lack of self-awareness—the inability see the things so close up but that still drive who we are, what we do, and how we navigate the world as if our morals are the right ones.

Murakami leaves the reader with more unanswered, however, capturing some of the indirect and ambiguous also lingering at the end of Faulkner’s story.

[Spoiler alert for the film Burning.]

And this brings me to the film adaptation that moves beyond Faulkner’s modernist and Murakami’s post-modernist tendencies.

In the film, the barn burning mystery (transposed to burning greenhouses) becomes a frame for the new boyfriend being a serial murderer and the central character being pushed himself into asserting violently his own moral code.

The movie adaptation steers the viewer into a psychological mystery. As we watch along with the central character, Lee Jong-su, a disturbing picture develop. Ben declares to his new girlfriend, after Shin Hae-mi has disappeared, that burning greenhouses is merely a metaphor (that the viewers and Jong-su recognize as a metaphor for his being a serial murderer of young women).

To work through Faulkner to Murakami to Burning is more than a journey through literary/film theory and genre/medium. This an exercise is coming to recognize the very real and violent consequences of the anger that rises in men of a certain type (maybe, as the film suggests, all men) who cling to their individualistic moral codes to the exclusion of everyone else.

These are not just the men of a short story or movie; these are the agents of mass shootings and the daily terrors of domestic violence and sexual aggression and assault.

As a white man from the South, I struggle with the sharp awareness that the tension in Sarty between some larger communal ethics and the myth of this father remains a reality for young men in 2019. I also fear that the new narrative that the world is becoming too hard for men is very fertile ground for the sort of unbridled arrogance and violence that pervades the U.S.

Faulkner’s story ends in allusion. The barn burning blazes behind Sarty, who understands what the gun fire he hears confirms. Yet, he walks away, and “[h]e did not look back.”

If Faulkner is being hopeful here, I cannot muster that same optimism today.

See Also

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

“That’s How I Got My Name”: Expanding the First Day of Class with Baldwin

Last academic year, I wrote about considering our students’ names more intentionally in terms of diversity and inclusion through activities around the following texts:

Today as I began an introductory course in education foundations and two first year writing seminars, I confronted students about how these texts address names and gender, familial connections in names, power dynamics, race and culture, and the connection between a name and understanding Self.

Instead of the usual cycling around the room for introductions, I asked which students disliked their names (see “My Name”), calling on them to share their names and why. From there I asked who liked their names, using the same process, and then prompted those with clipped names or nicknames, and those who went by middle names.

Many of the students during this discussion of the text did, in fact, introduce themselves, and we also shared stories of our names.

I explained that when I was in second grade Mrs. Townsend told me I was named for my father. However, I was Paul Lee Thomas, II, and named after my paternal grandfather (my father was Paul Keith Thomas, and went by Keith).

Since I grew up in a small town where everyone knew each other, my teacher identified my grandfather as Tommy; I suspect almost no one in the town were aware of his full given name.

I correct Mrs. Townsend, politely offering, “No, ma’am, I am named for my grandfather.”

This was the late 1960s in small town America so I was immediately sent into the hall as punishment for arguing with a teacher.

I was terrified, mostly about what punishment awaited me when I returned home. My father’s standard rule was my sister and I would receive double the punishment for any trouble we caused at school.

I imagine my parents either called Mrs. Townsend or my mother spoke with her. None the less, the next day, Mrs. Townsend took me in the hall to apologize.

To this day, I recall all this, more than 50 years ago, and I still resent that she refused to apologize in front of the class.

My story fits well against Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” which explores identity—student/black, instructor/white—and the imbalances of power connected with identity.

That power imbalance in schools and schooling is particularly important to name and address the first day of class, when our teaching is grounded in critical awareness.

With the first year writing seminars, I also added this year a talk by James Baldwin, “Baldwin’s Nigger”:

We watched the first 7 minutes or so, including when Baldwin uses the phrase “Baldwin’s nigger” to explain “That’s how I got my name.”

First, I shared this clip to explain to students my own complicated relationship with the racial slur—refusing to say the word aloud except when I am reading passages that include it, confessing I was raised in a racist home and community where the slur was all too common in the mouths of whites.

From there, I introduced my students to discomfort in a formal learning setting. They should expect to be intellectually uncomfortable from time to time, but none of them, I stressed, should be emotionally or physically uncomfortable.

Further, I guaranteed that they could come to me in private and their discomfort would be honored and addressed. For first year students, these are likely new concepts, I realize.

Baldwin’s talk also addresses the weight of names and ownership (similar to Kingsolver’s “Naming Myself”) so we explored the impact of names on gender and racial stereotypes as well as how names and titles can create or perpetuate imbalances of power.

I included a brief discussion of Malcolm X (renaming himself in defiance of enslavers’ names) as well as the “ordinary thing” of women giving up their maiden names and the implication of ownership in “Mrs.”

Including Baldwin’s talk, I think, has made this opening activity much richer, breathing even greater vivacity into starting a journey with students—notably since I also challenged them to seek ways to be humans and not students in our class.

We ended class by brainstorming about student behaviors that are not common outside of school—having to ask to go to the bathroom, raising a hand to speak.

While I was excited last academic year about my name activity and having a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of diversity and inclusion, this expanded version, adding Baldwin, has greatly enhanced the experiment—one I think I must always see as in progress.

“I was formed in a certain crucible,” Baldwin explains. For my students, today began a “certain crucible” for each of them, one they will eventually name and one that will, I hope, deepen their own understanding of the names and identities they choose and cast upon them.

A few months from now, we will all be something different, something new, and maybe even something better.

Free Speech, Free Market, and the Lingering “Rigid Refusal”

In the documentary Corridor of Shame, which explores the historical inequities of school funding in South Carolina along lines of race and social class, Senator (R, SC) Lindsey Graham claims while speaking at MLK Day in 2005: “We have a disparity of funding in a region of our state…. The reason we have disparity in funding is not cause we are prejudiced at the governmental level. It’s because we collect taxes based on property value. And our property value in those counties are pretty low because there’s no industry.”

Graham’s denial of systemic racism represents what Ta-Nehisi Coates called “elegant racism” while confronting the “oafish racism” of Cliven Bundy and former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling:

The problem with Cliven Bundy isn’t that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad. The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state’s rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s singularly segregationist candidacy.

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.

Graham acknowledges inequity, but uses “prejudiced” instead of “racist,” and casually rejects systemic racism.

As Coates explains, whites in the U.S. are more apt to acknowledge oafish racism while almost always employing elegant racism, such as denying systemic racism; therefore, Graham’s obfuscation is a powerful and effective political ploy, especially in the South.

In the matter of a few days recently, this distinction has played out in a public way with the NFL instituting a new policy about players protesting during the National Anthem and Roseanne Barr having her ABC sit-com canceled after a racist outburst on social media.

The NFL Anthem policy and Barr’s show cancelation have two important elements in common: what they represent in terms of how the U.S. confronts and understands racism, and how many in the U.S. have a deeply flawed understanding of free speech.

First, when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick initiated protests during the National Anthem, the public and political response has tended to misrepresent the actions. Kaepernick and other players were protesting systemic racism, inequitable policing of blacks often resulting in death, during the Anthem.

Notably, Barr’s oafish racism, comparing a person of color to an ape, has resulted in a similar outcome for Barr and Kaepernick—the loss of work—although the former is a racist and the latter is protesting racism.

While Kapernick and other protesting NFL players have been condemned for being political (disregarding they are taking credible stands against a reprehensible social reality), Barr has a history of being bigoted.

Writer Roxane Gay has examined that history and then the recent cancelation, in fact.

Also significant about these two situations is that the new NFL policy does in fact limit when and how NFL players can express themselves, but Barr was perfectly free to share her comments, with an incredibly wide audience.

That comparison leads to the now common aspect of the public discussion of Barr’s cancelation, claims that they are about free speech: Since the NFL and ABC are not the government, neither of these situations is an issue of free speech.

As Katherine Timpf explains:

First of all, this is in no way a free-speech or First Amendment issue. The First Amendment protects us from facing consequences from the government over our speech, not consequences from our peers or our employers. Yes, what Barr said, although abhorrent, absolutely was constitutionally protected speech, and, of course, it should be. After all, giving the government the power to decide what is and is not “acceptable” speech would be giving the government the power to silence whatever kind of speech it felt like silencing, which would be very dangerous indeed. Anyway, the point is, a free-speech-rights violation would be someone trying to, say, arrest Barr for her comments, not firing her for them. Her rights were in no way violated in this case. ABC simply exercised its own rights as a private company to decide whom it does and does not want to associate with, and it’s my view that no one should blame its executives for making the decision that they made.

Therefore, the NFL policy on the National Anthem and the cancelation of Barr’s sit-com are not about free speech but the free market. Both the NFL and ABC are hedging that their actions preserve their audiences, their bottom line.

And what those concerns about their audiences reinforce is that the public has a much lower tolerance for oafish racism (Barr) than for confronting elegant racism (NFL protests). The NFL believes its audience either denies or cannot see systemic racism, and thus does not support the so-called politics of NFL players who protest while ABC feels that continuing to give an oafish racist a major platform will erode their audience.

Here is where we must confront the problem with trusting the free market since doing the right thing is linked to the moral imperative of the majority, the consumers. Currently in the U.S., that majority remains insensitive to systemic inequity and injustice; therefore, elegant racism survives—even bolstered ironically when oafish racism is shamed and seemingly blunted.

When each oafish racist is given their due, those denying systemic racism have their worldview confirmed since they see individual punishment as justice.

These actions by the NFL and ABC reflect that in the U.S. whites are still in the early adolescent stage of racial consciousness. Being able to confront oafish racism isn’t even fully developed yet.

Many in the media called Barr’s slurs “racially insensitive,” showing the same sort of refusal to call a lie, a lie that now characterizes mainstream media. But a few in that media are calling Barr’s words “racist,” and ABC folded under the weight of that fact—although we should be asking why Barr had this second chance considering her history of bigotry.

As a people, white America is not adult enough, however, to move past finger-wagging at oafish racists and to acknowledge systemic racism because, as Coates recognizes, “to see racism in all its elegance is to implicate not just its active practitioners, but to implicate ourselves.”

James Baldwin’s “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'” remains a chilling warning then: “This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.”

That anything, as the NFL and ABC have exposed, is racism—the cancer destroying our democracy and our free market.

As consumers, we have a moral obligation to tell the NFL it is wrong; we will not stand for systemic racism. And we must tell ABC that canceling Barr’s sit-com is a start, but it isn’t enough.

As citizens, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror of the voting booth—something we have failed to do yet in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

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