Jun 13 2017

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (II of III)

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (II of III)

II. CONTENT

What is Between the World and Me about? It’s about how, in a bleak, blunt, literal sense Coates treasures the “black body” and urges his son to do the same. He says he learned this lesson from reading, among the many authors he names, (the pre-Hajj?) Malcom X.[1] According to Coates’ interpretation of Malcom, the meaning of life for black people in America is not survival of the fittest but simply survival. The aim of life for Coates is to preserve and protect one’s life, nothing more.

Throughout his book Coates repeatedly mentions, ridicules, and resents “the Dream,” a phrase that functions as a rhetorical device, referring both to Dr. King’s “Dream” speech and the general mythology of the American Dream. For Coates, to mythologize is to dream. To have hope in the face of counterevidence is to dream. [2] Dreaming is but a mental illness that leads to death. Waking life means mental health. These are the lessons he asks his son to learn.

I agree with his use of “the Dream” as a rhetorical device. To me mythology is also a form of dreaming. So is reading, for we are pseudo-conscious while we read and dream (as we learn in the first paragraph of Proust). All I do when I read is try to compare the things that stand out on the page at hand to things that have stood out on previous pages of previously-read books.

So in my reading and in my dreaming, I find the focus on the body as articulated by Coates seems to agree with Martin Buber’s call for humanity to “tend with holy care the holy treasury of our actuality.” [3] It might seem strange to compare (the nearly agnostic?) Buber to the adamantly atheist Coates. Buber has been accused of not regarding the Shoah with enough diligence, while Coates is almost exclusively focused on the consequences of American slavery.[4] But according to my dreams, as writers, both of them are engaged in philosophic anthropology—both strive to obtain a rigorous understanding of human culture. On the other hand Buber, who once declared “nothing can doom man but the belief in doom,” [5] might not have agreed with Coates’ fatalism that while the mind may dream the body can only die.[6]

(go to PART III of III)

(go back to PART I of III)

NOTES

[1] From Coates:

What did I mean, specifically, by the loss of my body? And if every black body was precious, a one of one, if Malcolm was correct and you must preserve your life, how could I see these precious lives as simply a collective mass, as the amorphous residue of plunder? (Between the World and Me. NY: Spiegel & Grau. 2015. p. 49.)

[2] In contrast to Cornel West who holds: “I am a prisoner of hope. I can look beyond the evidence and create new evidence. I can make leaps of faith to try to energize and galvanize each and every one.” (“A Grand Tradition of Struggle.” The English Journal. (July 2000.) 39–44 at 44.)

[3] Buber, Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) 1923. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. Scribner: NY. 1970. pp.136–37.

[4] Rubenstein, Richard L. “Martin Buber and the Holocaust: Some Reconsiderations.” New English Review. November 2012. An earlier version of this essay was presented in German at the Buber Centenary Conference in West Germany, 1978, chaired by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Walter Scheel. An earlier English version was published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1979.

[5] Buber, I and Thou. 107.

[6] As Coates writes:

What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it. I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself. (Between the World and Me 11–12.)


Jan 16 2017

Things Recently Read on Russia, Obama, Democracy, Christianity, & Community

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Things Recently Read on Russia, Obama, Democracy, Christianity, & Community

Reshared this week at First Things Magazine is an article where David Novak asked 21 years ago: must community exist prior to democracy? If it does, then it is possible, Novak argues, that the community, particularly the Jewish community, can be religious and its governing democracy secular.

Opposite the idea of several religious communities being collectively governed by a secular democracy is Tolstoy, who sought, in Thomas Larson’s recent words in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “spiritual self-reliance.” And Count Tolstoy finds the best examples of spiritual self-reliance in the lives and beliefs of Russian peasantry—something that espoused by someone today might lead them to later be accused of promoting an ideology of what Tim Strangleman at NewGeography.com this week called “working-class nostalgia.” But, as Strangleman points out, nostalgia tells us more about our attitude toward the present than any understanding we may have (or think we have) of the past.

On the other hand, as Emma Green finds out in the Atlantic Monthly, there are currently some liberals who do not believe outreach toward religious conservatives will be rewarding:

I [Michael Wear, a former Obama White House staffer] think Democrats felt like their outreach [to religious conservatives] wouldn’t be rewarded. For example: The president went to Notre Dame in May of 2009 and gave a speech about reducing the number of women seeking abortions. It was literally met by protests from the pro-life community. Now, there are reasons for this—I don’t mean to say that Obama gave a great speech and the pro-life community should have [acknowledged that]. But I think there was an expectation by Obama and the White House team that there would be more eagerness to find common ground.

Cornel West, who is in some ways a religious conservative, wrote in the Guardian this week a severe critique of the Obama Presidency. More than Obama himself, West focuses his criticism on Obama’s “cheerleaders” who refuse to bear the blame for Hillary Clinton’s defeat as well as the neoliberal economic failures of the Obama administration. On this latter issue West poses the question of whether commercial brands compel their consumers to shun integrity, and he suggests commonwealth of American society in the name of pure profit-seeking. On this last point, it is interesting to compare a passage from Benjamin Nathans’ “The Real Power of Putin” from back in the September New York Review of Books:

The Soviet Union from which Russia emerged in 1991 was the most purpose-driven society the world has ever seen. Yet Laqueur struggles to put his finger on what he calls “the emerging ‘Russian idea,’” partly because so many doctrines are competing for influence (Russian Orthodoxy, Eurasianism, antiglobalism, nationalism), and partly because, as he concedes, the vast majority of ordinary Russians “are not motivated by ideology; their psychology and ambitions are primarily those of members of a consumer society.”

As Alistair Roberts points out on his blog Alastair Adversaria, whether in Russia or America or elsewhere people hunger for truth, not only in purely rational terms, but hunger for truth in other people. We hunger for truth from the doctor when we ask what’s wrong and we hunger for the perceived truth in our leaders (whether or not the truth is actually there). This doubt of whether the truth is or isn’t there in that particular moment is like the wavering, lingering, roving sense of exile. And as Kate Harrison Brennan has recently written of the Western Christianity’s alleged perception of exile from rest of the participants in secular democracy, she reminds her flock that exile is a temporary condition; it should never be something one is comfortable with; on the other hand, as she expounds on Jeremiah:

The Israelites in exile were not just to tithe their cash crops, or to seek the good of their Babylonian oppressors as neighbours. Instead, they were to pray actively that the city would prosper, even before they did as a community in exile.