Jul 14 2017

A Future Without Sports

writing is its own sport

Or, The Current Absence of Reference to Sports
When Debating the Future of Our Country

I recall:

But it is the frequent error of those men (otherwise very commendable for their labours) to make excursions beyond their talent and their office, by pretending to point out the beauties and the faults; which is no part of their trade, which they always fail in, which the world never expected from them, nor gave them any thanks for endeavouring at.

––Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)[1]

Nonetheless, I read (and reread) two books and one article:

These two books, both alike in dignity, in fair view of what this reader has seen, deserve the following analysis:

  • Dreher writes to his own generation and, it seems, his elders.
  • Coates writes to his own generation as well as to his son, and, it seems, his son’s generation.
  • Dreher is adamantly orthodox in his Christianity.
  • Coates is adamantly atheist.
  • Dreher believes the United States of the Future (and much of it Today) will not protect the body of Christ (i.e. the Church).
  • Coates believes the United States of the Future (and much of it Today) will not protect the bodies of its citizens who happen to be designated “black,” (i.e. their literal, physical bodies).

Because I overdosed on sports as a child, and remain in rehab as an adult, perhaps I have “a strange Effect of narrow principles and short views,”[2]–for after reading these two authors it occurred to me that their books contain very little about sports other than:

  • Dreher’s book does contain a hunting episode, told more elaborately in his previous book).
  • Coates’ book does contain one reference to an athlete, Jackie Robinson.

So one can naturally conclude:

  • In the mind of Coates, sports will not protect the physical bodies of black Americans from discrimination.
  • In the mind of Dreher, sports will not protect the body of Christ in America from discrimination.

When they see the world around them and render their particular points of view into words, sports speak neither to Dreher nor to Coates as either a cultural affirmation that the authors can participate in, or have their kids participate in, or merely to watch as entertainment. Sports are not a part of the cultural assessments of these books. They are not relevant to the points Coates and Dreher want to make.

“Fear and hope are the two greatest natural motives of all men’s actions.”

––Jonathan Swift[3]

NOTES

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[1] Swift, A Tale of a Tub. 1704. “An Apology For the Book.”

[2] Swift, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver. 1726. II, vii.

[3] Swift, “The Testimony of Conscience [a Sermon].” 1714.


Jun 13 2017

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

III. CONVEX

So the literal thesis of the book is Coates (who is six years older than me) warning his 15-year-old son to cherish his physical body. But who else does Coates address in his book besides his son and self-conscious? As a child of the 1990s I don’t feel he was addressing someone like me who:

  • Recalls in 1991 riding in the van with my family past Luby’s in Killeen the day of the massacre heading to the nearby mall to buy my brother a birthday present;
  • grew up in central Texas and one Saturday afternoon in 1993 turned on the TV to learn about the first shots fired in what became known as the Waco disaster at Mount Carmel;
  • heard and saw in 1995 the horror of the Oklahoma City bombing as a response to Waco;
  • amid all of these were things heard and read various school-shootings from the 90s, particularly the 1998 Westside Middle School shooting at Craighead County, Arkansas and the 1998 Thurston High School shooting at Springfield, Oregon so that:
  • when, by the time I was 15 and one day heard on television in its “media language” [1] about the Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, such language and the incidents they described had become routine, jejune, unremarkable.

All of these episodes of violence were committed by Americans who were not labeled black by our country’s media, and I mention this only to show that someone from a very different background than Mr. Coates can grow up well-aware of irrational white violence. Coates also mentions an episode where, as a kid he had a pistol pointed at him by another kid, while I had a rifle pointed at me by a peer when I was college-age––an experience that still stings when recalled.

As a reader I cannot blame a writer older or younger than me for not being a part of my own generation, so when I point out that Coates mentions shootings of the innocent by police to his son,[2] but nothing of school shootings, I cannot fault him for the omission. But out of my own curiosity, I seek to understand his silence, for teaching occurs only in silence.[3] I am curious because this particular silence seems a little strange when in the twenty-first century U.S., a classmate can destroy her peer’s body just as quickly as a cop.

But perhaps I’m being too specific. Perhaps I need to zoom out and inspect the broader picture. Here I find Coates’ overall critique is against systems, bureaucracies, and institutions, not individuals, such as the person who threatened him with a firearm.[4] In this sense he reminds me of Václav Havel.[5] Yet a school shooting is a specific kind of shooting, and all shootings (whether by cops or by classmates) damage human flesh, which is the criterion Coates abides by to warn his son. So maybe it doesn’t matter much that he doesn’t mention school shootings.

And Coates does (quite rightly) ridicule grade schools for their institutionalizing.[6] This is where my reading and dreaming have led me to compare him to Thoreau:

It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.[7]

(go back to PART II of III)

(go back to PART I of III)

NOTES

[1] Coates: “We live in a “goal-oriented” era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything,” (Between the World and Me 12).

[2] Coates, Between the World and Me 9.

[3] Quoting Gershom Scholem: “Teaching is transmitted in silence—not by silence…. Where teaching breaks silence, its relation to life becomes dialectical. The outward history of teaching is based upon this fact.” (Weidner, Daniel. “Reading Gershom Scholem.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. Vol. 96. No. 2. (Spring 2006) at 208–09.)

[4] Coates, Between the World and Me 18, 78.

[5] As Havel puts it: “Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them.” (“Moc bezmocných.” (“The Power of the Powerless”) October 1978. Translated by Paul Wilson. § IV.)

Compare also some passages from Don Delillo’s novel Libra. NY: Viking. 1988:

I’ll tell you what it means, these orbiting sensors that can hear us in our beds. It means the end of loyalty. The more complex the systems [in a novel], the less conviction in people [who read it]. Conviction will be drained out of us. Devices will drain us, make us vague and pliant…. (p. 77) The Agency is always willing to consider a man in a new light. This is the nature of the business. There are shadows, there are new lights. The deeper the ambiguity, the more we believe, the more we trust, the more we band together. (p. 259)

[6] Coates, Between the World and Me 34.

[7] Thoreau, Walden, “I. On Economy.”


Jun 13 2017

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.)


Jun 13 2017

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

I. CONTEXT

Some newer books I’ve recently read and reread include Ta-Nehisi Coates,’ Between the World and Me (2015), Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015), Michael Morton’s Getting Life: an Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace (2014), and Mayra Hornbacher’s Madness: a Bipolar Life (2008).

In a certain sense they’re all coming-of-age books whose stories are not told in the traditional sequence that begins with childhood, follows into adolescence, then adulthood. Rather these authors narrate their struggles to adapt to new modes of behavior as they find themselves evolving from young adults into middle-aged ones. How so?

Coates, finding himself in the adult role of parenting a teenager, struggles to impart wisdom to his son; Dreher strives to reconcile with his father and the world view of his home town after a lifelong rift from both; Morton fights to survive after finding himself in prison wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife, while Hornbacher attempts to understand her battles with mental illness and all the instability it brings with it.

But of the four writers, I come back to Coates because, even though I’ve been a long time reader of his work, his book, after an initial reading, left me the most perplexed. Part of my confusion was unexpectedly encountering a text of such brevity and (seeming) simplicity. In my blurry memory, his “The Case for Reparations” article for the Atlantic (June 2014), which gained him national and international attention, seemed a bit longer than the 150 page chapbook published by Spiegel & Grau in 2015.

(go to Part II of III)


Jun 21 2016

Valleys & Mountains: from Nixon, Goethe, Machiavelli, & Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Machiavelli once penned a maxim about adjusting one’s point of view when trying to gain the understanding of a situation:

In the same way that landscape painters station themselves in the valleys in order to draw mountains or high ground, and ascend an eminence in order to get a good view of the plains, so it is necessary to be a prince to know thoroughly the nature of the people, and one of the populace to know the nature of princes.[1]

Compare Goethe:

Everything massive makes a peculiar impression, as being both sublime and comprehensible, and in going round such objects I drew as it were an unsurveyable summa summarum [sum of all sums] of my whole residence. [2]

Compare Richard Nixon’s “Farewell Address,” August 9, 1974:

We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think, as T.R. said, that the light had left his life forever. Not true.

It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you highest mountain.

Compare Ta-Nehisi Coates:

And there it is—the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.[3]

NOTES

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[1] Machiavelli, Il Principe. (The Prince.) “Dedication.” The line–“it is necessary to be a prince to know thoroughly the nature of the people, and one of the populace to know the nature of princes“–is particularly relevant when considering Gramsci’s great question:

One may therefore suppose that Machiavelli had in mind “those who are not in the know”, and that it was they whom he intended to educate politically. This was no negative political education—of tyrant-haters—as Foscolo seems to have understood it; but a positive education—of those who have to recognize certain means as necessary, even if they are the means of tyrants, because they desire certain ends. Anyone born into the traditional governing stratum acquires almost automatically the characteristics of the political realist, as a result of the entire educational complex which he absorbs from his family milieu, in which dynastic or patrimonial interests predominate. Who therefore is “not in the know”?

(Gramsci, Antonio. Quaderni del carcere. 1929–1935. (Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci.) Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. NY: International Publishers. 1971. “The Modern Prince” 135)

[2] Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Italienische Reise. 1816–17. From Goethe’s Travels in Italy: Together with his Second Residence in Rome and Fragments on Italy. Translated by A. J. W. Morrison and Charles Nisbet. London, UK: G. Bell and Sons. 1892.  “Rome, April 14, 1788” 546.

[3] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. NY: Spiegel & Grau. 2015. p. 105 citing Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage. Cambridge UP. 2008.