Saturday, September 16, 2017

On James Baldwin and Privilege

In a previous post I claimed that James Baldwin didn't use the academic jargon of the political left, jargon that has grown stale: "privilege," "ally," and the like.

I was wrong.

I saw a production of his 1964 play Blues for Mr. Charlie last night. Here is the white Southern moderate admitting his shortcomings to a southern reverend who seeks justice for his murdered son: "Please understand that it is not so easy to leap over the fence, to give things up -- alright, to surrender privilege! But if you were among the privileged you would know what I mean."

Baldwin is too intelligent a writer to let anyone -- white or black -- completely off the hook, and also too humane a writer to hate anyone as much as they deserve to be hated. There are so many meanings in these two sentences. The white man is whining to the black man to understand his pain, his own "blues." The white man is admitting to his mediocrity. The white man is also telling the black man that he gets the result of this privilege, that his privilege has led to turpitude, and that the white man is in his own way trapped by the system as much as the reverend. He is telling him that he will never achieve a kind of humanity the black man already has. The world has cursed me with privilege, the white man whines.

There are several layers of irony on this one. None of the black men in the play are themselves paragons of moral rectitude. Baldwin presents the Emmett Till stand-in as a recovering junkie and womanizer, but that's what makes Baldwin different than the average meme poster.


The word "privilege" is stale in your mouth. It is not stale in Baldwin's.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

On Brock Turner

Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who was found guilty of a brutal sexual assault and who then got off with a six-month sentence of which he only served half, is now the textbook definition of rape.

Turner strikes me as a hateful human being. There are people who have committed rape and murder who eventually reform and have something like, you know, guilt. If you glance at Turner's Twitter feed, which I did in a desire to feel rotten, you will see a young man who loves Donald Trump, still blames alcohol for his assault on a defenseless woman, leans on Christianity to make himself feel better about himself rather than to become a better person, and who is still cheering on Stanford football.

Still, I've written about my discomfort with changing our laws to deny those accused of rape their rights and, in a time when we're trying to decrease our prison population, to increase rapists' prison sentences. I may hate Turner, but I was not as appalled by his relatively light sentence as many others were.

What's the point of making Turner the textbook definition of rape? Are the people treating this development with glee all that different from the village crowd who wants to place the monster in stocks and pelt him with rotten fruit? Maybe Brock Turner has it all coming. Maybe the mob will prevent future rapes. But forgive me when I say that mobs really freak me out. It doesn't take much to steer that much hatred from someone who deserves it to someone who doesn't.

Black Mirror Season 2: Episode 2 "White Bear" (2013). I'm not a huge fan of the show because, unlike the best science fiction, it isn't that complicated nor complex. Sometimes the point of a work of art is a little too obvious because the problem it documents is a little too obvious.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

On Criminal Neglect

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, and you're an asthmatic or an older person with heart problems, this past month has been terrible. The heavy smoke and ash from wildfires, first from British Columbia and then later from Washington and Oregon, blanketed the region. At one point the air quality in Tacoma was worse than the air quality in Beijing. We're likely to get more dry summers, and thus more forest fires, and thus more heavy clouds of smoke in the decades to come thanks to climate change.

If you live in the Gulf states, you're likely to experience more category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the coming years, ripping apart houses, destroying infrastructure. News reports talk about films of excrement that will be covering the streets of Florida. It's possible that many people who won't die during the impact of the hurricane may end up dying from diseases that may spread in its aftermath.

We already know about climate change refugees in Asia and the Middle East. Analysts claim that climate change has caused a diminishment resources which has led directly to the war in Syria. These refugees are members of the bottom billion of the world population, the members of the human race who live in dire poverty.

Some rich people will die. Many moderately comfortable people will die. Millions and millions of poor people will die. No one is safe. Some are more unsafe than others. The feeble attempts to combat climate change at the macro level aren't laughable. They're criminal neglect.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

On Orson Welles's The Trial and Zagreb

These two paragraphs are an aside in my dissertation. Leon Rizmaul, the co-producer of The Other Side of Orson Welles, a documentary about Welles’s lifelong relationship with the former Yugoslavia, provided me with this information.

In The Trial (1962), Orson Welles used Zagreb to describe a city with no names. We can defy Welles and add the proper names to the shooting locations for the final scene. Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) stands in the empty square in front of the gothic Zagreb Cathedral where he is grabbed by two policemen (Raoul Delfosse and Jean-Claude Rémoleux) and dragged through Gradec, in a circuitous path along the narrow streets lined with small interwar modernist and Austro-Hungarian buildings, finally passing through the Stone Gate. It’s nighttime and Edmond Richard’s deep focus cinematography fetishizes every stone. The film cuts several hours forward into daylight, as well as a few kilometers south, past a modernist building just north of the Sava River. The screen is layered white on white. In the next jump, Josef K. and the policemen are a kilometer or so north, in the desolate, infertile fields behind the main train station, not visible on screen, near the site of today’s main bus station. In his essay-film Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Thom Andersen notes Hollywood’s “war on modern architecture,” namely its habit of using new, utopian structures for the shooting locations of villains' hangouts in thrillers and spy movies. Zagreb’s cityscape was emerging at the time The Trial was filmed, and the new modern buildings were meant to define a new city for a new country. But these buildings, as well as the well-preserved Austro-Hungarian architecture were to become a topsy-turvy vision of an uncanny city, unmoored from time, more frightening than the (named) Vienna of The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949).
The policemen throw Josef K. into a quarry. They position themselves on either side of him, passing a knife, suggesting the other perform the final murder. In the novel, one of the policemen jabs the knife into Josef K.’s stomach, an intimate killing, more primal than death via the machinery of guns in the Great War that was being fought at the time Kafka was writing. In Welles’s film the two policemen walk out of the quarry, and after Josef K. dares them to kill him, they light and throw a stick of dynamite into the ditch. Welles turns Zagreb, the second largest city of Yugoslavia but still hardly a major European capital, into a stage for the apocalypse.

On Renaming

On Sunday, the Times published an op-ed by Daniel Duane about the names at Yosemite National Park. He argues that our naming of landmarks constituted an erasure of the genocide of Indian Indians. He calls for a renaming program.

It's a long piece and at the end we get this kicker:

Of course, none of this will mean much without input from Native Californians like Mark Minch, an English professor at the University of California, Riverside, who helped me see the dubious value of Indian names as recorded by a white soldier in 1851 and the likelihood that name changes would do little other than soothe the colonial conscience. I got a similar response from Bill Leonard, a descendant of Tenaya and a longtime leader of the Southern Sierra Miwok. 
Mr. Leonard reminded me that he’s just one guy and can’t speak for others, then gently explained that my whole argument felt beside the point. Renaming, he said, “is not going to make us feel any better or more important — the reality is, most of us could care less what they call things.” Mr. Leonard preferred to talk about the Southern Sierra Miwok’s decades-long campaign for tribal recognition by the federal government. The other thing on Mr. Leonard’s mind was the traffic. “If you want to figure how to get rid of some of the tourists, I’d be happy about that!” he said. “There’s so many people in Yosemite we can’t even get there. So we don’t care who calls what anything! You can’t even find a parking spot!” That may be too much to ask.
I can speak a little closer to home. I would like to see commemorative plaques at the University of Washington remembering and honoring the Japanese-American students who fought back against their internment during World War II. I would like to see a giant monument at University Village, the closest thing to a tony shopping center in the Seattle area, commemorating the Indians who once lived there. I suspect we'll get these statues sooner than later. King County eventually changed its official namesake from William Rufus King, who had supported slavery as a Democrat back in the 1850s, to Martin Luther King, Jr. The former King may have been a territorial governor of Washington and the latter King may have spent a total of two days in the area, but, come on, the state of Washington was named for a man who had never seen the West Coast. It's easy for KUOW, the local NPR station, to adopt gender neutral language. But rents will continue to skyrocket and Amazon will continue to extend its tentacles throughout Seattle and become more awful. Things will get worse for the city's poor residents.

It is a lot harder to take down those Confederate statues, but it's starting happen. You can get people to, as bell hooks said, decolonize their minds, at least a little, metaphorically. It may take decades, but it can happen. It's a hell of a lot harder to get people to give up the material. They'll hold onto the material with firmer hands than they'll hold onto what they think is their history.

Monday, September 4, 2017

On Having Left Facebook

The fun guy at a Halloween Party from two years whom I never saw again; the lovely people with whom I spent two weeks canvassing in 2010 for DLP candidates in Minnesota; the young man with whom I shared a hookah in Sarajevo in the summer of 2011; an elementary school friend whom I had last seen at a shopping mall in Potomac, Maryland when I was 18; the smart high school friend whom I found annoying but interesting in equal measure; former co-workers writing from Vietnam, Bulgaria, Latvia, Sarajevo, Croatia, Hungary, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Chicago, and North Carolina; the scholars I've met at conferences; D.C. journalists, some hacks, some pros; the minor celebrities in the subcultures I inhabit (academia and comics criticism) who take my friend requests or even -- ! -- send me one; distant relatives and close ones; former students; former teachers. Their kids. Their new jobs. Their spouses. The occasional announcement of a death or a divorce. Pictures of vacation spots. Civil War reenactments; country music; Alfred Hitchcock's long lost Holocaust film; pre-war French photography; marathon running; Edward Gibbon; the new superhero movie, the new Iranian movie; a science fiction novel set in an alternate history Congo; pictures of Mars. Political silliness in the Balkans; gay rights in Vietnam; essays about how Canada isn't any better than the U.S. Democratic socialists. Hard-core commies. Centrists. Liberals. Small-c conservatives. Identitarians. Misogynists. Feminists. Racists. Anti-Semites. Zionists. Moderates. Pacifists. Anti-racists. Gay people who are clearly closeted. Gay people who are out and proud. The transgender person documenting her transition. The fat person documenting his weight loss. The idiotic political debates. The smart political debates. All of it coalescing into the present. High school and college and middle school and my years abroad and my early years of grad school never going away, always there, smashed up against each other. Reminders of everything I had thought and hoped I had left behind. Few reminders of what I miss.

I live here now: