Dec 15 2017

How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People: Write about Race (Part III of III)

porticos in Bologna, Italia

How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People:
Write about Race (Part III of III)

Toward Some Solutions to the Political Problem of Writing about Race while Being Aware of One’s Own Race

Part III.

In Part I, I brought up the four questions of Al-farabi (872–950 AD) to ask for any political situation: What, How, What from, What for? And in Part II, I applied those questions to four recent articles discussing and/or involving the problem of writing about race. If Al-farabi’s fourth question, What for?, were properly applied, it would seek to find the end and final purpose for why each writer wrote what they did. “The real question in this debate,” answers Jess Row, “couldn’t be more fundamental: What are novels for, and what are novelists for?” Row insists that writers (particularly white fiction writers) write in ways and on topics that are politically relevant, because the denial that one’s art is politically relevant exposes the ignorance of the artist’s privileged place in culture, an ignorance that further represses others from partaking in that privilege.

Wesley Yang says the reason for writing about race is because: “Part of responding to the coalition of white resentment from which the [alt-right] posters emerged in ways that stanches rather than feeds its growth, then, means taking stock of the way our own thinking has been affected by polarizing memes.”

Aaron Mak wrote about race because he wants to solidify “the cooperation necessary between people of color to overcome systemic racism” without “contorting” one’s “identity” to new bureaucratic systems that establish new categories of racism. For as the Freedom Rider founder James Farmer (1920–1999) once pointed out, racism is inevitably bureaucratic. [1]

Andy Ngo wrote about race because “The lack of any ideological counterpoise has created a vacuum where ideas have no mechanism or incentive for moderation.” For Ngo, such a vacuum needs to be (ideally) eliminated, but at the very least, penetrated by asking hard questions (such as asking When is racism disguised as antiracism?). These hard questions penetrate because they modulate the discussion rather than amplify its intensity.

I have no original ideas to add to their proposed solutions. I can only thumb through my notes, find some seemingly relevant quotations—some sidelights that might shine toward some solutions to the political problem of writing about race and being aware of one’s own race while writing:

For Susan Sontag (1933–2004), translation helps the writer understand the race that the writer is not:

Literary translation, I think, is preeminently an ethical task, and one that mirrors and duplicates the role of literature itself, which is to extend our sympathies; to educate the heart and mind; to create inwardness; to secure and deepen the awareness (with all its consequences) that other people, people different from us, really do exist. [2]

For Wendell Berry (1934–), imagination helps the writer understand the race that the writer is not:

By imagination I do not mean the ability to make things up or to make a realistic copy. I mean the ability to make real to oneself the life of one’s place or the life of an enemy—and therein, I believe, is implied, imagination in the highest sense.[3]

For Harry Crews (1935–2012), creativity (artifice) helps the writer understand the race that the writer is not:

The only way to deal with the real world was [and is] to challenge it with one of your own making.[4]



[1] In Farmer’s words:

Curiously, by a quirk of New York state laws, my first daughter’s birth certificate lists her as a Negro and the same one is classified as white. When Tami was born, a child of mixed marriage was Negro, and when Abbey was born, a child took its race from the mother. (Lay Bare the Heart: an Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement, (Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1985) 214)

[2] Sontag, At the Same Time, edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump. (New York, NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007) “The Word of India” 177. Yet, as Benedict Anderson (1936–2015) once observed:

Proverbially, a writer loses his/her book at the moment that it is published and enters the public sphere. But to feel the full melancholy force of the adage, there is nothing like facing a translation of a book into a language the author does not understand. (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (London: Verso, 1983), (Revised edition 2006) 228)

[3] Berry, “American Imagination and the Civil War,” The Sewanee Review, 115 (Fall 2007): 587–602 at 596–97.

[4] Harry Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1978) 126.

Dec 3 2017

Some Notes on “How to Think” by Alan Jacobs

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Some Notes on How to Think (2017) by Alan Jacobs

  • “To be freely aware and richly responsible” means gracefully attending to the “relational goods” of one’s neighbor (Jacobs 47-49)….
  • One must graciously attend/adjust/adapt these relational goods–what Roger Scruton calls “negotiating our posture toward the other,” (Jacobs 83)….
  • Genuine questioning in a community is conversation, not communication, (Jacobs 59) as I’ve recently pointed out:

Communication [says Wendell Berry] is when you’re being told to do something by someone else, like to remove a statue or let it remain. Conversation, on the other hand, is dialogue, a back-and-forth process of giving and receiving. Or to use the words of Martin Buber, while conversation is a mode of discourse where an “I” and a “You” function as reciprocal partners, communication is a mode of discourse between an all-powerful “I” talking down to a faceless, listening “It.” The first treats humans as individuals; the latter as mere objects of manipulation. Hence the fluidity of conversation is open to inquiry in ways that rigid communication isn’t.

  • Out of that negotiation one finds a You in their neighbor instead of an It….
  • My neighbor who voted differently than I….
  • As I read How to Think, I keep recalling words from Martin Buber (1878-1965Knowledge of Man (1966):

Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfillment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness….  (69) Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other…. (71)

By far the greater part of what is today called conversation among men would be more properly and precisely described as speechifying. In general, people do not really speak to one another, but each, although turned to the other, really speaks to a fictitious court of appeal whose life consists of noting but listening to him…. (78–79)

Man exists anthropologically not in his isolation, but in the completeness of the relation between man and man; what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity…. (84)

Now, since if there is anything real, then (on account of this reality consisting in the ultimate agreement of all men, and on account of the fact that reasoning from parts to whole, is the only kind of synthetic reasoning which men possess) it follows necessarily that a sufficiently long succession of inferences from parts to whole will lead men to a knowledge of it, so that in that case they cannot be fated on the whole to be thoroughly unlucky in their inductions. This second branch of the problem is in fact equivalent to asking why there is anything real, and thus its solution will carry the solution of the former branch one step further…. Each of us is an insurance company, in short….

The care that men have for what is to happen after they are dead, cannot be selfish. And finally and chiefly, the constant use of the word “we” — as when we speak of our possessions on the Pacific — our destiny as a republic — in cases in which no personal interests at all are involved, show conclusively that men do not make their personal interests their only ones, and therefore may, at least, subordinate them to the interests of the community.

But just the revelation of the possibility of this complete self-sacrifice in man, and the belief in its saving power, will serve to redeem the logicality of all men. For he who recognizes the logical necessity of complete self-identification of one’s own interests with those of the community, and its potential existence in man, even if he has it not himself, will perceive that only the inferences of that man who has it are logical, and so views his own inferences as being valid only so far as they would be accepted by that man. But so far as he has this belief, he becomes identified with that man. And that ideal perfection of knowledge by which we have seen that reality is constituted must thus belong to a community in which this identification is complete…. (“Ground of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities.”)

Finally, as what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community. (“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.”)

Great to see @ayjay and @austinkleon at @bookpeople tonight #books #thinking #literature #ATX #Austin

A post shared by Christopher Landrum (@bookbread2) on

Mar 11 2016

Wendell Berry at South by Southwest

bookbread Canterbury

Rod Dreher often refers to the work of Wendell Berry, as in this instance from The Little Way of Ruthie Leming:

When a community loses its memory, its member no longer know one another,” writes the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry. “How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they now whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another. And this is our predicament now.” [1]

Now, according to Gracy Olmstead at The American Conservative, Austin filmmaker Laura Dunn has made a documentary about Berry that’s to debut at South by Southwest:

The Seer, a new documentary about writer Wendell Berry, set to be released at Austin’s South by Southwest Festival on Saturday. The film is co-produced and directed with her husband, Jef Sewell, and backed by executive producers Terrence Malick and Robert Redford, as well as several co-producers including Nick Offerman (fondly known as Ron Swanson on the TV comedy series “Parks and Rec”).

Berry is a Kentucky-born farmer and philosopher, essayist and poet, environmental activist and localist. He’s written fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and has been the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the National Humanities Medal, and the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award.

Read the whole thing over here.



[1] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. p. 208.

Jan 19 2016


bookbread Canterbury


Both of Rod Dreher’s books The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013) and How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015) deal with, in his words: “my disordered relationship with family and place,” or, as he tells a new friend upon his arrival to their rural Louisiana community:

“Yea, it’s like the family and place thing cast a spell over all of us,” I said. “It’s helpful for me to see them as good people who are just as captive to that false image as I was…. The real religion of our parish is ancestor worship.” [1]

Things like having a family, maintaining sacredness of a local place, even being a secular fan who has a favorite sports team are all means to various ends. Now folks can argue which ends should be prioritized over others like: the Platonic good, self-examined life, or the Christian holy, sanctified life, or the secular American Dream of a house and healthcare insurance, or the quaint life of liberation from illusions. But whatever the end is, it cannot be achieved by substituting the means toward that end for that end. In other words, winning the game isn’t the same as receiving the trophy.

Mistaking means for ends is like mixing up the difference between icons and idols. Whenever means to ends are mistaken for the ends themselves, those means corrupt the progress and corrode access to the particular ends sought. Dreher quotes from Dante translator Andrew Frisardi, who explains the distinction between icons and idols:

[Frisardi writes:] An icon is an image for contemplating a reality that transcends the specific image; the image leads the mind, through the senses, to direct communion with the unintelligibles. An idol is an image to which we are attached for the sake of the image per se. Obviously one and the same object can be an idol or an icon—our approach to it is what makes the difference.

Then Dreher adds:

This insight had clarified earlier to me the nature of my disordered relationship with family and place. Now it expanded my understanding of my basic condition. It wasn’t simply that I saw a family, place, and religion as idols—that is, as ends in themselves—but that my distorted vision prevented me from seeing them as they really were: as icons, damaged, though they may be, through which the light of God shone. They were not ends, but imperfect means to the perfect end: God. [2]

This distinction between idols and icons may sound a bit too abstract to the ears of the non-religious. Another way to think of it is:

The map is not the territory it marks. [3]

Whether secular or religious, mistaking the map for the land it represents is quite common in twenty-first century America. This is why it’s easier to cheer for a football match from afar than to play the game on a field.


But the act of mistaking the map for the territory it marks is not limited to contemporary Christian contexts. In his Autobiography the Jewish thinker Salomon Maimon (1753–1800) explained how many Jewish traditions, particularly Kabbalah—originally just a word for “tradition”—were just as susceptible to corruption.

As Maimon puts it:

Originally the Cabbalah was nothing but psychology, physics, morals, politics, and such sciences, represented by means of symbols and hieroglyphs in fables and allegories, the occult meaning of which was disclosed only to those who were competent to understand it. By and by, however, perhaps as the result of many revolutions, this occult meaning was lost, and the signs were taken for the things signified. But as it was easy to perceive that these signs necessarily had meant something, it was left to the imagination to invent an occult meaning which had long been lost. The remotest analogies between signs and things were seized, till at last the Cabbalah degenerated into an art of madness according to method, or a systematic science resting on conceits. [4]

I wonder about the significance of Maimon pointing out that the result of the corruption of Kabballah in eighteenth century rural Poland occurred, in his view, “as the result of many revolutions”—not just a single, drastic change, not an isolated pogrom—implying it takes more than a single catastrophe for a community to forget its sacred stories [5] and thereafter begin mistaking idols for icons and means for ends.


  • An icon is like a map, and idolatry is like mistaking the map for the territory it marks.
  • No doubt folks, whether religious or otherwise, sometimes need maps and icons.
  • Whether one believes they are lost or not, maps offer possibilities—they let us go to new places and become more familiar with places we already know.
  • I know some folks who use maps, some who know the way without a map, some content with being lost, and some content with never knowing they were lost.
  • “Possibility is the deconstruction of contentment.” ––Elizabeth Anscombe [6]
  • Dreher mentions damaged icons—but a damaged treasure map is much more mysterious than one in mint condition.
  • It is a very different experience reading or using a map when one has already visited a territory and reading/using a map when one has never before visited a particular place.
  • A map never contains 100% information.

(To be continued….)



[1] Dreher, Rod. How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. pp. 172, 200.

[2] Ibid, 175–76.

[3] Bateson, Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc. 2005. p.  21; Capra, Fritijof. The Tao of Physics. Boston: Shambhala. Third Edition. 1991. p. 28; Korzybski, Alfred. “A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics”, paper presented before the American Mathematical Society at the New Orleans, Louisiana, meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, December 28, 1931. Reprinted in Science and Sanity. 1933. pp. 747–61.

[4] Maimon, Solomon. Autobiography. Translated from the German, with Additions and Notes, by J. Clark Murray. Boston: Cupples & Hurd. 1888. p. 94.

[5] As Dreher puts it:

When a community loses its memory, its member no longer know one another,” writes the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry. “How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they now whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another. And this is our predicament now.” (The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. p. 208)

[6] Anscombe, G.E.M. “You Can have Sex without Children: Christianity and the New Offer.” From Renewal of Religious Structures: Proceedings of the Canadian Centenary Theological Congress. Toronto. 1968. The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Oxford UP. 1982. p. 82.