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Journeys in the Deep South III:  The Longevity of Segregation

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Politics, Culture VI

This week marks the 60th anniversary of what became known as the most intense crisis over integration in the country’s history.  Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, looks unlike any other school in the United States.  Its website features the Principal welcoming visitors to “America’s Most Beautiful High School.”  Beautiful is not quite the word for this hulk of a fortress; ‘imposing’ is far more apt.

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Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

The present structure dates to 1927, though in its first incarnation the school dates to 1869; many mergers later, it became the Little Rock Central High School.  It is now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service as the site has been declared of national importance.  Earlier this month, when my daughter and I visited the school, which is fully functional with an enrollment of around 2500 students and therefore cannot be visited without an escort, the Park ranger who served as our guide mentioned that it was built at a cost of $1.5 million, then perhaps the most expensive public high school in the country. We were also told that the city and the NPS have made a bid for Central High to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, a designation supposedly reserved for natural, architectural, cultural, or spiritual sites of incalculable richness.

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Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

In the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, which held the separation of public schooling for whites and blacks to be unconstitutional, effectively pronouncing the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ a guaranteed recipe for social inequality, Central High School in Little Rock would become the ground for testing the country’s resolve to move towards desegregation.  In Arkansas, the Little Rock School Board put forth a plan whereby the integration of schools would begin at the elementary level, and then incrementally proceed over the course of a few years to encompass middle and high schools.  The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed suit in 1956 on behalf of 33 black students who had sought admission in a number of white schools.  Not only was progress slow, even though court rulings had urged schools to proceed “with all deliberate speed” to implement integration, but the innocuously named Citizens’ Councils, which were nothing but associations of white supremacists determined to keep schools and other nurseries of their race havens of lily-white purity, were also adopting both constitutional and extra-constitutional measures, that is to say intimidation and violence, to keep segregation intact.

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A plaque at the Visitors Center, Little Rock National Historic Site.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

In Little Rock, some black families with school-going children determined, with the active assistance of the NAACP, to have their children admitted to Central High. Nearly 150 black students were identified as, in principle, candidates for admission; over the next few months, this number continued to dwindle:  some families, intimidated by white hostility, had moved out of Little Rock, while others felt their resolve weaken.  The school was informed, shortly before the beginning of the new term in September 1957, that a small number of black children intended to enroll at Central High.  White segregationists made it known in no uncertain terms that they were equally determined to prevent their citadel of learning from being defiled.  Both sides appealed to Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who, by the standards of the Deep South, appeared to be only moderately conservative, in other words someone who could be counted upon to least give black people a hearing. The segregationists warned that the forcible integration of the school would lead to violence; the desegregationists, insisting upon their constitutional rights, urged adherence to the rule of law.  Faubus in turn sought the intervention of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a veteran of more than one battle who surely, in his days as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and Governor of the American Zone of Occupied Germany, never anticipated that he would be sorely tested by a high school in what was little more than a town in the American backwaters.

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A painting by George Hunt of the Little Rock Nine, now at the Visitors Center:  according to the plaque, they are “flanked by a soldier on the left, who symbolizes the defense of every citizen’s rights, and an adult supporter on the right, representing leadership.”  The painting was commissioned on the 40th anniversary of the events at Central High; it hung in the Clinton White House and in 2005 was featured on a postage stamp.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

The story of the integration of Little Rock Central High School, which in September 1957 had 1900 white students, has been told in countless number of books and documentaries and need not be enumerated at any length here.  Nine black students sought to enter school on the first day of term on September 4th:  when they made their way to school they felt emboldened by the presence of the Arkansas National Guard.  Eisenhower, however, had been outsmarted by Faubus, the very model of pusillanimity:  as the students found out, the Guard had been sent to strengthen the hand of white racists, not the young black students who were jeered, taunted, and abused by a large crowd of white students egged on by their parents and other ‘responsible citizens’.  By dint of circumstances, fifteen-year old Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, found herself alone, hounded by a mob—one instance where the use of this word is justified, a headless beast baying for blood.  She walked back to the bus stop—here, as all so often in the story of the Civil Rights movement, the semiotics of the bus stop—from where she took a bus to safety.  On orders of a Federal Judge, the Arkansas Guard was some days later ordered removed from the school:  thus, on September 23rd, a second attempt was made by the nine students to enter the school.  They walked, with determination; they were met with abuse, vulgarity, spittle.  They prevailed, or seemed to:  by lunch-time, the mob of 1000 white people outside the school appeared to be out of control, and the children were escorted out of school under armed guard.  At this juncture, Eisenhower sent units of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock and federalized, by Executive Order 10730, the Arkansas National Guard.  Finally, on September 25th, the Little Rock Nine, escorted by soldiers, entered the school premises and lasted the day.  On television, some days later, Governor Faubus described Little Rock as “occupied territory”!

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Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, a hostile crowed behind her:  the (in)famous photograph that was splashed across newspapers in the US and around the world.  Source:  The Heroine Collective; see:  http://www.theheroinecollective.com/elizabeth-eckford/

The story of Little Rock’s integration crisis is narrated with care and sensitivity at the National Park Service Visitor Center outside the school.  The vast majority of visitors will surely view the Visitor Center with its exhibits as an inspiring educational experience and as acknowledgment, howsoever belated, of the evils of racism.  They will be relieved by the presumption that African Americans have finally been given their due and that white people, in turn, have tamed some of their nastier instincts and curtailed their drive towards racism.  Such exhibits are certainly reassuring to citizens who have been bred on a number of ideas, among them the notion that, at least in the United States, the good eventually prevails, and that the story of humankind is fundamentally an uplifting narrative of the triumph of progress—albeit in fits and starts. The United States has, of course, become remarkably good at such demonstrations of repentance, and this kind of museum complex must be seen as complementing what I have described in numerous writings of mine as a culture of ‘apologies’.  All such narratives thrive on the idea of heroes (and increasingly heroines), and the growing trend now is to find such heroic figures from among the ranks of common people. There is something particularly uplifting, we are being told, about the fact that a common person—in the case of Central High School, school-age children being subjected to violent intimidation—can rise to the ranks of the martyred, a reminder as well of the similar potential within each person. Thus the near canonization of the Little Rock Nine. No one engaged in such exercises has been much exercised by Brecht’s observation, “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

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The scene outside Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas, after school was over:  12 September 2017.  Photo:  Vinay Lal.

The crisis of Little Rock, remarkably, persists—not at Little Rock as such, which on the day of my visit seemed a bit of an oasis, as a visibly diverse body of students sauntered in the mid-afternoon after school was let out towards the long line of school buses, but rather in the nation at large. In a country of ‘experts’, there are many who continue to study the patterns of segregation which dominate American public school education.  Some have argued that segregation is, if anything, a more intense problem today than it was in the day of Jim Crow:  back then, one knew the problem for what it was, nor were black children steeped in the ideology of whiteness.  Even many of those, and they must surely be the majority, who are not inclined to at all accept such a reading are nevertheless prepared to accept the softer version of the verdict that American public schooling is, with respect to the question of segregation alone, in deep distress.  The Civil Rights Project at UCLA has documented long-term reversals of gains made during the Civil Rights era, and its recent report on growing segregation in the South has this to say: “Building on the gains of the Civil Rights era, from 1968 to 1980, the percentage of Black students in intensely segregated schools (schools where 90 percent or more are students of color) fell from almost 80 percent to a low of about 23 percent. But since then, the percentage of Black students in intensely segregated schools has risen to more than one in three (35.8%).”  A recent article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, which often furnishes insights into contemporary American society that are unavailable in American newspapers, states baldly that “US schools are, on balance, more segregated today than they were 45 years ago.”  The article documents two schools in the Jackson school district in Mississippi:  Raines is 99% black, and only 4% of its students are proficient in math and 11% in English; a few blocks away, Madison Elementary is 70% white, and over 70% of its students are proficient in both English and math.

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This monument to the Little Rock Nine stands in the State Capitol Building gardens.  Sculptors:  Deering, Scallion and Deering Studio.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

The battle that was fought at Little Rock was never just over integration:  the question of the rights of states and the prerogatives of the Federal government was paramount, as it is today in nearly all the disputes that have rankled the nation, whether they be over statues of confederate soldiers or Obamacare.  I shall turn to these questions in later essays:  however, to the extent that segregation became the visible platform over which the lines of battle were drawn, it is indisputably clear that the fortress of segregation has yet to be breached.

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Journeys in the Deep South II:  The Lorraine Hotel, Memphis

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics V

Paul Robeson was quite possibly nay certainly the most talented person in 20th Century America and a gigantic figure on the world stage.  This will strike many people as an absurd claim:  Robeson is now a largely forgotten figure, even if known in passing to many among those with more than a modicum of knowledge about American arts, letters, and politics.  Some will object that he is commemorated with an American postage stamp, a sure sign of his recognition and even admission into the ranks of the establishment.  At this juncture, I will not speak at length of the politics of postage stamps; suffice to say that the postage stamp is practically obsolete.  The philatelist is now akin to a troglodyte, a remnant of a different age; certainly, judging from the example of my own children, the postage stamp is barely even an object of curiosity.  Few American children of the present generation have ever mailed a letter:  a subject for another set of reflections.  So, all this is by way of suggesting that a postage stamp no longer redeems an individual or puts him or her on a pedestal, and one can barely conclude from Robinson’s deification on a postage stamp that America recognizes him for the supreme genius that he was.

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Robeson first acquired a reputation as American college football’s greatest star, though as a black person even this recognition was very late in coming; he also went on to earn varsity letters in track, basketball, and football.  It is doubtful that there was ever a more accomplished college athlete than Robeson.  But should one think that he had merely set the example for the professional black athlete, and paved the way for a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or a Michael Jordan, it is well to recall that he graduated from Rutgers in 1919 as the class valedictorian.  He then went on to build a reputation as an international opera star, singer, and movie and theater actor; he was the first black man to play the role of Othello, first in London and then, during World War II, on Broadway, in which role he had a longer run than any other actor, white or black:  300 performances.  By the 1920s, Robeson, born in April 1898, had earned a law degree from Columbia University; he was, moreover, already a committed political activist, and in the late 1930s he became part of the international brigade of volunteers determined to confront the rise of fascism in Spain.

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Paul Robeson with Uta Hagen in the Theatre Guild production of Othello (1943–4).  Source:  Wiki Commons.

It is also in the 1930s that Robeson turned towards Africa, in an attempt to understood his own roots and heritage; at home, in the United States, this had already led him to become a forceful voice against lynching and a ferocious advocate of the rights of the working class, white as much as black.  In 1934, by which time Robeson had made London his home, he enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he is said to have studied a score of African dialects.  To his many other gifts, which make words such as ‘extraordinary’ appear positively pedestrian, we can add his flair for languages.  The National Archive webpage on Robeson mentions, quite casually, that he sang in more than 25 languages, a claim substantiated by the archival record and many of his biographers; the short biography of him that appears on the PBS website states “that he spoke fifteen languages”. In his late 50s, Robeson turned to the study of Arabic and Hebrew.  The phrase ‘Renaissance Man’, clichéd as it is, seems wholly inadequate to describe a person of his oceanic accomplishments.

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Peggy Ashcroft and, as Othello, Paul Robeson, 1930.

In 1939, on the eve of the war, Robeson returned to the United States where he was at once established as the country’s “Number One” entertainer.  But Robeson’s political awakening had also taken him to the Soviet Union.  His son has described his father’s intellectual journey aptly: “Freedom movements in the European colonies of Africa and Asia faced fierce repression, with many top leaders in prison or in exile.  The eloquent voices of Gandhi and Nehru in India, as well the compelling appeals of freedom movement leaders from the length and breadth of the African continent, were eliciting ever greater international support as the Soviet Union threw its considerable weight behind the anticolonialist cause” (Paul Robeson, Jr., The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898-1939 [New York:  John Wiley & Sons, 2001], 285).  Though Robeson’s support for the American war effort was unequivocal, his concert tour in the Soviet Union (1936-37), refusal to criticize Soviet policies, and outspoken defense of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the war earned him the enmity of anti-communist crusaders.  He was among the most prominent people in the country to be investigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his committee; his passport was revoked.  The exchange that transpired between him and members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities on 12 June 1956 is a remarkable document, a timely and chilling reminder of the revival of brute strategies of compelling fealty to flag and country in our own times:

“Could I say that the reason that I am here today, you know, from the mouth of the State Department itself, is: I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa. . . .  The other reason that I am here today, again from the State Department and from the court record of the court of appeals, is that when I am abroad I speak out against the injustices against the Negro people of this land. I sent a message to the Bandung Conference and so forth. That is why I am here. This is the basis, and I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist, I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America. My mother was born in your state, Mr. Walter, and my mother was a Quaker, and my ancestors in the time of Washington baked bread for George Washington’s troops when they crossed the Delaware, and my own father was a slave. I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country. And they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today. You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people, for the rights of workers, and I have been on many a picket line for the steelworkers too.”

“This United States Government”, Robeson told the court of inquisition, “should go down to Mississippi and protect my people.  That is what should happen.”  Why, as Robeson had asked more than once, would Negroes fight on behalf of a government that had ruthlessly put them down for 300 years against a nation [the Soviet Union] where racial discrimination was prohibited?  Let us listen to another portion of the exchange:

“In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being. Where I did not feel the pressure of color as I feel [it] in this Committee today.

“Mr. SCHERER: Why do you not stay in Russia?

“Mr. ROBESON: Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear? I am for peace with the Soviet Union, and I am for peace with China, and I am not for peace or friendship with the Fascist Franco, and I am not for peace with Fascist Nazi Germans. I am for peace with decent people.”

As their exchange winds up, Robeson ends with a devastating indictment: “You are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” The damage, however, had been done; Robeson was a wounded, marked man.  In consequence of his public defilement, he found that he was shunned by artists, intellectuals, and former colleagues and fellow-travelers in ideas.  His income declined sharply and Robeson went into forced early retirement.  In the late 1950s, by virtue of the decision of the Supreme Court, in the case of Kent v. Dulles, Robeson’s passport was returned to him.  He had a triumphant thunderous concert tour in the Soviet Union in 1959, but this ‘rehabilitation’ came too late as the ostracism had taken a physical and mental toll of his life.  For the remainder of his life, until his death in 1976, Robeson became largely a recluse.

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Paul Robeson, “Negro Songs”, a recording in Russian issued by the Soviet Ministry of Culture.

This brings me, then, to the Lorraine Hotel, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination and now a majestic Civil Rights Museum.  I shall speak of it as a memorial site to King elsewhere.  For now, I have another nagging doubt.  Whatever the differences between the movement’s most well-known advocates, and whatever, for example, the strategic differences between major organizations such as SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and others, the adherence to nonviolence remained common to the movement’s different constituent elements. Even Malcolm X is acknowledged, with respect.  How is it, then, that in this museum, where the struggle of African Americans to claim a rightful place for themselves in the history of America is documented with such sensitivity, the name of Paul Robeson is—as far as I can tell—entirely missing from the grand narrative which takes us from the Emancipation Proclamation to King’s “I’ve Seen the Mountain-top” speech and the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965)?  How is it that Paul Robeson, a colossus among giants, remains unrecognized, unacknowledged, unsung in this shrine to the struggle of black people—a shrine shaped by Robeson’s own people?  Is it the case that the leaders and activists of the Civil Rights movement, many of whom remained committed to a staunch anti-communism, were never reconciled to Robeson, perhaps seeing in him a well-meaning naïve human rights advocate who could not and would not recognize the unmitigated evils of Stalinist Russia?

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Editorial drawing of Paul Robeson by Charles Alston, 1943.  Source:  National Archives of the United States.  http://www.archives.gov/files/images/alston-drawing.jgp

Through the mid-1950s, after that is the murder of Emmett Till, the commencement of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the activism of Medgar Evers that would lead to his assassination, Robeson continued to be recognized, more particularly in the African American press, as a unique spokesperson for black people.  The Afro-American, published from Baltimore, was forthright in its headline reporting what had transpired at Robeson’s investigation by the House Committee: “Mr. Robeson is Right” (23 June 1956).  The Sun-Reporter of San Francisco, on the same day, affirmed his place in the American public sphere: “Robeson as far as most Negroes are concerned occupies a unique position in the U.S., or the world, for that matter.  Whites hate and fear him simply because he is the conscience of the U.S. in the field of color relations.”  The Charlottesville-Albermale Tribune on June 22 declared the House Committee’s persecution of Robeson a “fiasco” and ventured to give forth the opinion that denying Robeson the right to travel or sing “is more hurtful to American prestige abroad than any intemperate statement he ever made.”  Other black-owned newspapers, none that could be characterized as communist in their ideological predisposition, were similarly effusive in their praise of Robeson as the preeminent voice “for justice, happiness and freedom”, as the supreme embodiment of “the unrestrained and righteous rage that has broken bonds” (California Voice, Oakland, 22 June 1956).

What is thus clear is that Robeson remained not merely in the limelight in the mid-1950s but that he was generally recognized as the conscience of black America.  His evisceration from the public record is deplorable enough, but the fact that he should have been excised from the memory even of much of black America and from the narratives of the struggle for civil rights is something that is profoundly troubling.  In 1948, W. E. B. DuBois had been forced out of the NAACP, which considered DuBois’s sympathies for communism a liability; a decade later, the NAACP was itself marginalized as SCLC and the radicals of SNCC pushed for a more aggressive stance against segregation and racism.  The Civil Rights Movement might well be the only revolution that the United States has ever had; even here, though, the absence of Paul Robeson from the received narrative points to what the conventional language of Marxism would characterize as its essentially “bourgeois” characteristic.  Whatever else might be required to bring the still unredeemed promise of the Civil Rights movement to fruition, Paul Robeson will certainly have to be given his due, and more.

Journeys in the Deep South I – A Birthday Tribute, September 22, to Reverend James M. Lawson

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics IV

 

Here I am at long last, at the site of what can likely be described as the first workshop of nonviolence in Jim Crow South.  The attempt to desegregate lunch counters was, of course, far from being the first step in the long road to gain equal rights for black people in the US during the course of what is now characterized as the Civil Rights Movement.  It had been preceded by the Montgomery Bus Boycott—and, in turn, concerted struggles to integrate transportation services in a large number of cities in the southern states.  The Nashville Sit-ins, long in the planning, were not even the first such act of nonviolent resistance.  When over a hundred students from Nashville’s historically black colleges and universities such as Fisk sat down in segregated lunch counters on 10 February 1960 in open defiance of the law, they had already been preceded by four black students who had initiated the same action at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina.

 

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A plaque that commemorates the site of the Nashville Sit-ins, on Fifth Avenue.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Nevertheless, what transpired in Nashville marks an extraordinary moment in the history of nonviolent resistance in the United States:  to reiterate, it is here that we can justly speak of the first workshop of nonviolence in the deeply segregated South.  The architect of this movement was the Reverend James M. Lawson, on whom I expect to lavish many entries in the weeks and months ahead.  Reverend Lawson, who is 89 years old today, had spent a long stint in India during the 1950s—three years, from 1953 to 1956, as a Methodist minister in Nagpur, to be precise.  Though the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were all steeped in the writings of Gandhi, Lawson was the only principal figure to have lived in India—an assignment that the young clergyman accepted readily since, as he thought, it would give him an opportunity to study at first hand the life of Gandhi and understand how he had forged a movement of mass nonviolent resistance in India.

When the Montgomery bus boycott was first organized, Lawson was still in India; he returned to the US a year later and shortly thereafter, as he has put it me on more than one occasion, “shook hands with Martin”.  Lawson brought to the movement a detailed knowledge of the strategies of nonviolent resistance deployed by Gandhi that no one else, possibly barring Bayard Rustin, could claim.  In the Deep South, the iron law of segregation prevailed in every domain of life and in every visage of social relations between the races.  The landmark Supreme Court ruling in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) had signaled the intent of civil rights activists to break the barriers of segregation, but the legislatures of the southern states had effectively adopted the stance attributed to President Andrew Johnson in the celebrated case of Worcester v. Georgia (1832) where the Court had ruled that the Federal Government had sole jurisdiction in dealing with Indian (ie, Native American) nations:  “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”  If progress in desegregating schools was thus stalled, in other domains of public life the Brown decision had barely scratched the surface.

In 1958, then, Lawson set upon a course of action that would alter the face of the Civil Rights Movement.  He was determined to integrate lunch counters:  not only was the segregation pervasive here, but Lawson would have understood that who one eats with and who one shares one’s bread with are among the most significant markers of social existence.  The lunch counter at a Woolworth’s store was the most visible face of segregation in a public space.  Lawson had arrived in Nashville in 1958, enrolling as a student in the Master’s program at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University.  But he was already one of the leaders of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, and committed to nonviolent activism.  Nashville was also home to several universities—not just Vanderbilt, but historically black colleges and universities such as Fisk, Tennessee State University, and the American Baptist College (Seminary).

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Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee:  this “Gothically imposing structure” is less than 300 meters from Clark Memorial Church, and it is from Fisk, among other universities, that black students were drawn to the Reverend Lawson and the Civil Rights Movement.  Photo: Vinay Lal, September 2017.

In September 1958, Lawson gathered students around him and commenced what would become a year-long workshop in nonviolent civil action and resistance.  The red-brick Clark Memorial Methodist Church, at 14th Avenue North, less than 300 meters from Fisk University, would become the nursery where an entire generation of activists—Diane Nash, James Bevel, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry, to mention only some of those who would become prominent in the civil rights movement and in American public life—were trained by Lawson to live out the principles of nonviolent resistance.

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Clark Memorial Methodist Church, 1014 Fourteenth Avenue North, Nashville.  It is in mainly in the basement of this church that the Rev. Lawson conducted his famous workshops in nonviolent resistance.  “Clark Memorial”, wrote John Lewis in his memoir of 1998, “is still there today, a modest redbrick chapel two blocks away from the Gothically imposing structures of Fisk. There are no plaques, no monuments, nothing to suggest that anything historic happened there.  It’s just a little church on a sleepy street . . .  But from the autumn of 1958 into the following fall, that little building played a major role in educating, preparing and shaping a group of young men and women who would lead the way for years to come in the nonviolent struggle for civil rights in America.”  (Walking with the Wind, p. 76). Photo:  Vinay Lal.

He assigned students, or might one say his protégés, readings from Gandhi, Thoreau, Lao-Tzu, and Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian who would author the influential Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), a work that is also said to have been important to the thinking of Barack Obama.  John Lewis, the long-time Congressman from Georgia who is Lawson’s most celebrated protégé, has furnished a reasonably long description in Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998) of Lawson’s workshop; as he put it, “We discussed and debated every aspect of Gandhi’s principles, from his concept of ahimsa … to satyagraha—literally, ‘steadfastness in truth,’ a grounding foundation of nonviolent civil disobedience, of active pacifism” (p. 76).

Lawson taught his students how to take the blows of injustice upon their own shoulders and, with forbearance, humility, and patience, transform the perpetrators of violence; more precisely, he had them enact, time and again, the roles of both violent segregationists and nonviolent civil resisters at lunch counters.  A group of black people would be seated at lunch counters intended for white people; another group of white men would sneer and spit at them, empty bottles of ketchup and mustard on their heads, throw punches at them, and kick them while they writhed in pain on the ground.  Lawson trained his students not only to forgo any retaliation, but to endure whatever insults the segregationists threw their way.  “Back in that fall of ‘58”, Lewis would reminiscence in his memoir, “we were just kids, totally mesmerized by the torrent of energy and ideas and inspiration washing over us every Tuesday night in those Jim Lawson workshops” (p. 80).

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The reverse side of the plaque.  Photo:  Vinay Lal.

Malcolm X, perhaps the most significant (and in his own way mesmerizing) detractor of nonviolent resistance in his days, had quite a few cynical things to say about the sit-ins.  We’ve done plenty of sitting around, he told a captive audience in his famous “The Bullet or the Ballot” speech.  Malcolm could be compelling, even enthralling, but it is his very seductiveness of which we should be wary.  Meanwhile, nearly sixty years later, the Reverend James Lawson is still carrying out workshops in nonviolent resistance in Los Angeles, which he adopted as home over forty years ago.  His very life, one might say, is an object lesson on the meaning of fortitude and patience as part of the grammar of a life steeped in the ethos of nonviolence.

The Fact of Being Black: History, Culture, Politics III

Dick Gregory passed away at the age of 84 on August 19 in Washington, DC.  I never had the good fortune to meet him; now, in retrospect, I wish I had taken the trouble to seek him out.   But why do I even characterize it as “trouble”?  Somehow I am, in such situations, always reminded of what Ezra Pound purportedly told T S Eliot when the latter had first come to meet the older poet, ‘You have an obligation to meet the great men of your times.”  Or at least that is my recollection of how one of my teachers, Professor Hugh Kenner, narrated the meeting between the two poets.

I first heard of Dick Gregory, effectively the first black man to break the racial barrier at comedy clubs, in the early 1980s.  The “Troubles”, as they were called, in Northern Ireland were at their height; and among those whose names was constantly in the news was Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who died on the 66th day of a hunger strike in protest against prison conditions in Her Majesty’s Prisons and in quest of the recognition that as a political prisoner he could not be treated as a common criminal.  Bobby Sands, of course, never recognized the legitimacy of the division of Ireland and the English occupation of Northern Ireland.

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Dick Gregory at Ohio University, Feb 1968.

It is around this time that there was in the American press frequent mention of Dick Gregory, who, it turns out, engaged frequently in political fasts.  Much like Gandhi, Gregory disavowed the word ‘hunger strike’; he would have understood hunger striking as something rather different from fasting, which, whatever its political implications, was also seen as a form of spiritual, moral, and bodily cleansing.  This distinction is scarcely understood, and almost never acknowledged in public commentary; it is also, not surprisingly, lost on the writer of Gregory’s obituary in the New York Times, who has this to say:  “There seemed few causes he would not embrace.  He took to fasting for weeks on end, his once-robust body shrinking at times to 95 pounds. Across the decades, he went on dozens of hungers strikes, over issues including the Vietnam War, the failed Equal Rights Amendment, police brutality, South African apartheid, nuclear power, prison reform, drug abuse and American Indian rights.”

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Dick Gregory with Muhammad Ali.

Francis Watson once described Gandhi as “Master of the Fast”. Whether the same can be said of Dick Gregory I do not know. When Gandhi fasted in the public domain, it was an event. George Orwell was not the only to marvel at the fact that when Gandhi fasted, the entire country appeared to come to a standstill. Gregory’s fasts were noted, sometimes barely so.  There are reports in the American media, from time to time, of “hunger strikes” waged by political prisoners, immigrants detailed in unhealthy conditions, and political activists. In the American political landscape, however, it has been largely activist priests (such as the Berrigan brothers) from the Catholic Church, social workers such as the remarkable Dorothy Day (who was born into a nominally Christian, or rather Episcopalian, family before converting to Catholicism), or political activists and labor leaders such as Cesar Chavez, who took recourse to fasting.

Much has been made, justly, of Gregory’s extraordinary gift for political humor and his indefatigable fight to secure the rights not just of African Americans but all those who have suffered injustice. I shall turn to this shortly; but, perhaps even more arrestingly, what is nearly singular about Dick Gregory is that he is quite likely the only major African American figure from the period of the civil rights movement and beyond who recognized fasting as part of the arsenal of nonviolent resistance.  Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, James Lawson, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, among others, African Americans offered concerted nonviolent resistance; and so, as a matter of course, they filled the jails, led boycotts, took part in strikes, used the power of the word, and shamed, or tried to shame, their oppressors into relinquishing their privileges, listening to their conscience, and accepting the black person on an equal footing.  But American Civil Rights leaders never fasted; indeed, fasting was never part of their political lexicon.  One could say, without implying any moral import, that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the most well-known face of the movement, even had a weakness for food.

Dick Gregory was thus virtually alone among the most recognized African American political activists who took recourse to fasting.  His resort to fasting made him publicly known; however, fasting remained fundamentally alien to American political traditions, except, as I have noted, among those who took their inspiration from the Catholic tradition.  One hopes that Gregory’s unique place in the American political tradition, at least in this respect, will receive much greater recognition in the years ahead.

Gregory’s obituaries, notably in the New York Times, the Guardian (London), and the Washington Post, certainly do justice to his gift with words, his incisive political humor and wit, and the resilience that carried Gregory through hard times, from his birth under conditions of poverty to the fact that his increasing activism came at a steep price for himself and his family.  The articles detail at some length how he came to conquer the comedy club scene, particularly after a break at Chicago’s Playboy Club in January 1961, and this at a time when black comedians were shut out of the lucrative club scene.  This history, therefore, need not be rehearsed.  But what stands out is the fact that, unlike modern-day comedians, whose routines are not merely laced with obscenities but are deadeningly juvenile and colossally repetitive, Dick Gregory throughout remained politically engaging and inventive.  On the subject of segregation, who else but Dick Gregory could say this:  “Segregation is not all bad.  Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”  Even as he joined others in the classic demonstrations and marches that came to signify the Civil Rights movement, he retained a certain perspective that one might expect from a more distant observer.  Thus, as a way of suggesting that outcomes were unpredictable, however keen and meticulous the planning, Gregory once remarked:  “I sat in at a lunch counter for nine months.  When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted.”

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Dick and Lillian Gregory; they married in 1959.  She survives him.

So rich a life, so much to write about.  He had his weaknesses, among them a penchant for conspiracy theories.  One can forgive this weakness in any person of African descent, whether in Africa, Haiti, the US, the British Caribbean, or elsewhere; the whole world must seem at times to them to have conspired against them.  And yet Gregory was magnificently funny.  One only hopes that his life will not be reduced to another morality tale about ‘an American life’ and the ‘greatness of America’.  A careless reading of his life might suggest precisely this.  “Where else in the world but America”, he remarked, “could I have lived in the worst neighborhoods, attended the worst schools, rode in the back of the bus, and get paid $5,000 a week for just talking about it?”  Oh, yes, I can hear all those who can’t detect the obvious note of humor screeching about the great singularity of ‘the American dream’.  One might point to Gregory’s scathing indictment in 2005, on the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, of the United States as the “most dishonest, ungodly, unspiritual nation that ever existed in the history of the planet.”  But this dénouement would be less characteristic of Dick Gregory than his response to being honored with the key to the city of St. Louis by its mayor and then being denied a hotel room in his hometown:  “They gave me the key to the city and then they changed all the locks.”

 

For something like two minutes, the town of Madras, Oregon, which fell on what scientists call “the path of totality”, descended into complete darkness on the morning of August 21 before being blanketed by the sun’s rays.

2017 Total Solar Eclipse

This composite image shows the progression of a total solar eclipse over Madras, Oregon on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017.  The total eclipse started at 10:19 AM and lasted 2 minutes 2 seconds.  Source of image:  NASA.

It was surreal enough watching a solar eclipse unfold on one’s television screen; those who were present, whether in Madras or at places on “the path of totality”, have described themselves on social media sites as feeling thrilled, awe-struck, and privileged.  The usual words and phrases—“historic” or “once in a lifetime’s opportunity”—have been trumpeted by hundreds of thousands, but it will take some more reflection and the imagination of a poet to describe just what it is that generated such elation.  Meanwhile, there were some comic moments:  on one of the main American network channels, where viewers were constantly being reminded that looking at the eclipse with one’s naked eyes could lead to blindness, one anchor, speaking in great earnestness, assured his television viewers that watching the phenomenon on the screen was perfectly safe.  We need not run for the fire extinguisher in our home next time we see a blazing fire on the television screen.

It is said that those brief all too brief moments when the sun is completely blanked out before daylight again resumes throw animals into confusion.  “Giraffes and zebras at the Nashville Zoo were freaked out by Monday’s solar eclipse”, according to an article in the New York Post, “and went running wildly around their enclosures after the sky went dark.”  Shrieking crowds may have contributed to the animals’ erratic behavior, the article acknowledges, but during previous eclipses stories have been reported about spiders dismantling their webs and birds falling silent.

FlamingoesDuringTheEclipse

Flamingoes During the Eclipse, at the Nashville Zoo.  Source:  https://en.mogaznews.com/World-News/634491

What came to my mind, however, on watching the solar eclipse was one of the most engaging if morally troubling stories from the Mahabharata, a story that remarkably invokes a false sunset and tells of another sort of confusion in the minds of men.  On the thirteenth day of the war, the young Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna, is commanded by Yudhisthira to break the lotus formation into which the army of the composing camp, led by Duryodhana, has been formed.  Abhimanyu complies, if hesitatingly:  though ably instructed by his father on how to enter the formation, he has not been taught adequately about how to exit the maze.  And it is in this maze that the young warrior, more splendrous than the sun itself, meets his death.  Jayadratha—the ruler of Sindhu, son-in-law of Dhritarashtra, and a close ally of Duryodhana—moves his forces and seals the breaches, preventing reinforcements from helping Abhimanyu.  There are no pure victors or losers in the epic, as its readers know, and the Pandavas are scarcely without their blemishes; nevertheless, the greater cowardice is on the side of Duryodhana and his friends.  Thus their greatest and most seasoned warriors—Drona, Kripa, Aswathama, Karna, and others—all pounce on the young Abhimanyu and partake in his death.

Returning to camp that evening, Arjuna is apprised of the circumstances under which his son was killed. He at once takes a vow (and I quote here from R. K. Narayana’s Mahabharata, Chapter 15), “I swear that I shall kill Jayadratha, who trapped him [Abhimanyu], before the sun sets tomorrow.”  The following day, Jayadratha does what any man in his position would do:  knowing that he is no match for Arjuna, and considering too—what cannot be discussed at this juncture—the imperative to abide by one’s vow, Jayadratha wisely absents himself from the battlefield and “shelters behind a fortress of chariots, elephants, horsemen, and soldiers until late evening.”  What transpires next is best relayed in the simple if elegant rendering of the story by Narayana:

Arjuna battled his way through and reached Jayadratha, who was anxiously watching the western sky for the sun to set. The sky darkened and Jayadratha, feeling certain that he had passed Arjuna’s time limit, emerged from his shelter, whereupon Arjuna felled him with a single arrow.  Now the skies brightened again. It was still daylight; a false sunset had been created by Krishna, holding up his discus against the sun. He had adopted this strategy as it seemed to him the only way to bring Jayadratha out of hiding, and end that terrible day’s events.

JayadrathaFalseSunset

Krishna holds up his discus agains the sun; a false sunset lures Jayadratha from hiding and leads to his death.

We know, of course, that the Hindu nationalist brigade, led by the Prime Minister himself, will immediately summon the story as an insurmountable piece of evidence in support of the argument that every modern scientific advance is already anticipated in the Vedas and the capacious corpus of Sanskrit scientific knowledge.  Aryabhatta certainly knew a thing or two about eclipses and his computations of lunar eclipses were not far off the mark.

Aryabhatta5

The mathematician-astronomer, Aryabhatta (475-550 CE).

But, leaving aside such excursions into “Vedic science”, the story of the false sunset that killed Jayadratha attracts for many more compelling reasons.  Krishna’s machinations have long been the subject of discussions in Indian homes, among scholars and students of the Mahabharata, and in Indian folklore. Jayadratha, Karna, Duryodhana: Krishna plays a questionable role in advancing the death of each of these Kaurava heroes.  The story of Jayadratha suggests amply why the Mahabharata remains the supreme vehicle for discussing the contours and slippery nature of dharma.  Was Jayadratha simply deceived into death?  Was his life to be undone so that others could live? Might dharma require an ignoble deed if only to seed something nobler?  Why do we frequently mistake something for what it is not?

At least a few commentators have commented on the appositeness of the United States being witness to a complete solar eclipse after several decades at a moment in the country’s history when moral values that are alleged to have guided the country thus far seem to have greatly eroded.  Many people are thinking of the “darkness” that has enveloped the country.  But perhaps this metaphor is too easily available and should be resisted.  Perhaps those who are all too certain that what is presently transpiring in the US does not reflect the “real America” know too little about the history of their country.  I think that we would be better served, when reflecting upon the solar eclipse, in asking why it is that stories about the confusion in the minds of animals proliferate when it is the confusion in the minds of men that is far more striking.  Is the solar eclipse, the false sunset, yet another allegory about the twisted play of the real and the apparent in human lives?

 

 

On 12 July 2017, the Deputy Editor of the Indian Express, Ms. Seema Chisthi, interviewed me at my residence in New Delhi on the lynchings in India and on the political situation in the country.  Excerpts from the interview were published in the Indian Express a few days later under the title, “What We See in India Today is the Difference Between Formal and Real Citizenship”.  The interview as published in the newspaper can be accessed here:  http://indianexpress.com/article/india/what-we-see-in-india-is-the-difference-between-formal-and-real-citizenship-historian-vinay-lal-ucla-professor-4755247/

What follows is a slightly edited transcript of the published excerpts.

In the light of the recent cases of lynchings in India, is there a shift in the way communal tension has been exploding on the surface from how it did in earlier decades?

Yes, there is. There is no doubt in my mind that the kind of anti-Muslim sentiment that we have seen in the US or parts of Western Europe has repercussions in India, emboldening the advocates of Hindutva. The notion among some in India is that if Muslims, particularly in the so-called modern West, can be attacked, then we can do that too, we have the license to do that with impunity. In the US, I see many advocates of Hindutva who are now suggesting that the US, India and Israel form a natural alliance with one another as, in their worldview, these democracies are being “threatened” by forces of Islam and are under assault from radical Muslims. This certainly was not the international environment in the 1960s or 1970s. That’s at the macro level. It is not just the RSS or VHP but a slightly larger strand of Indian society that has become complicit in these attacks or lynchings that we see in India, exactly like in the US. There was a virulent white racism that was so pervasive that you did not need to have institutional membership in the KKK or John Birch Society, people were complicit in it without a formal association with white supremacist groups.

What is the kind of signal that a political dispensation like India has now send to the law enforcement machinery?

I think the problem is twofold. What do you do when the state becomes somewhat thuggish?  So, the people who are targeted are not just Muslims, but also Dalits and Africans. We should be attentive to it because there are groups of people whose very lives are at risk.  In all authoritarian states, signals are sent down to the people from the top. We don’t need to take the example of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s totalitarian state, you can turn to authoritarian states now where you can see very clearly, it is same attitude at the top, middle and bottom.  Once the masses imbibe the idea that the leadership will tolerate extreme intolerance, the oppressive attitude becomes pervasive. These problems are not distinct to India today, we see a similar repression and acute intolerance—think of the United States.  Similarly, Turkey is in dire straits. China, Russia, [Rodrigo] Duterte in the Philippines… the list goes on. This could be attributed to what is being termed the ‘strongman’ phenomenon. But I feel the problem is much greater and we have to speak of ‘nationalism’.  What is happening today shows the limits of the nationalist project and what a disease nationalism can become in certain circumstances. Now this is very hard for the newly independent and formerly colonized countries to accept, which fought for freedom on the basis of the idea of nationalism; but wherever you had nationalist movements, you have had to rethink the nationalist idea. It has become the only kind of political community to which we all have to pay obeisance. What we see in India — and which is clear in a large number of other countries, especially US – is the difference between formal citizenship and real citizenship on the ground. In the US, African-Americans are for the most part only formal citizens without the rights of a citizen on the ground. This is the case for a large number of people in India.

So how does one un-thug the state?

It’s always a difficult question. We need to consider what are the sources of resistance in the society and there is a gamut of forms of resistance. We can take the view that one has to work with the institutions in the land, but such a position is clearly inadequate and I think India has mastered the subterfuge. That subterfuge is that India has, in most domains of life, the most progressive legislation in the world. So, in some ways, the progressive legislation obfuscates the nature of the problem and clouds it.  Let us recognize that the law cannot regulate my prejudices or feelings. But it can certainly do something to regulate prejudicial conduct, particularly when repercussions are extraordinarily severe for someone at the other end.  So we would certainly have to think of the rule of law, even as I am cautioning against viewing it as the solution to all our ills.  I would argue for a greater need for satyagraha as an instrument than which has a place in democracy. Especially where the law is sometimes used as an instrument for either doing nothing or installing new regimes of repression. As we are living in a democracy, at least pro forma, and we have a functioning court system, it is very important that what can be gained through satyagraha must be recognized.  Organised, non-violent civil resistance has a place. It need not follow exactly what Gandhi did.  We may have to, we certainly will have to, use satyagraha in different ways. This can’t just be done through social media or Facebook or Twitter — this needs people on the ground to build resistance. We need masses of people together, congregating in public spheres in opposition to injustice. It cannot be left to social media.

Are you optimistic about India today?

Yes, we must be clear that we should not let Hindutva forces hijack what we have. Unlike my friends on the Left-liberal end of the spectrum, I have great respect for the spiritual resources of the Indic civilisation, which includes aspects of the Indo-Islamic tradition which developed here, which was unprecedented.  Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism—all this is part of our legacy. We have had writers, philosophers, artists, and reformers who have reckoned with these questions for hundreds of years, and I am not ready to call all that inconsequential. So, yes, I am optimistic, on the whole.

 

 

The New York Times in an editorial piece published on July 1, under the title “Mr. Trump, Melting Under Criticism,” has weighed in on Mr. Trump’s Twitter War, most recently on the MSNBC co-hosts Joe Scarborough and (especially) Mika Brzezinski, with the observation that the President of the United States “does not appear to realize that he is embarrassing himself” (emphasis added).  This is in reference, of course, to his tweet about “low I.Q. crazy Mika” and “Psycho Joe”, and his characterization of Ms. Brzezinski as “bleeding badly from a face-lift.” TrumpMorningJoeTweet

The ‘venerable’ Times laments, as do many other media outlets and perhaps considerable segments of the American population, the “creepy misogyny”, cyberbullying, and the pathetic boasts of sexual prowess that have informed the conduct of Mr. Trump since before he assumed office and which have shown no signs of diminishing since he was installed in the White House.  However, the New York Times ends the piece with a wholly predictable piece of humbug, which is an illustration if nothing else of the limits of this newspaper’s imagination.  Inquiring if the “etiquette of professional wrestling and reality television truly pass as acceptable for the Oval Office”, the paper’s editors affirms that “the breadth and depth of bipartisan repugnance for this president’s insults suggests, thankfully, that the answer may prove to be no.”

 

The phrase “bipartisan repugnance” is itself a species of charlatanism, assuming as it does that “bipartisanship” is the gold standard from which the present generation of American politicians have regrettably departed.  The democrats have deviated so far over the last several decades from any kind of politics where social equality is at all meaningful that to speak of “bipartisanship” in this vein is to show not an iota of awareness of the fact that the masquerade of a single political party posturing as two is the critical problem in American politics.  But let us leave aside this weighty matter for another one which may suggest why a man charged with sexual harassment and worse by at least fifteen women did not only not have to pay any price for his reprehensible conduct but rather was rewarded by being elected to the highest office in the country.  The import of this may perhaps be understood when we reflect on the fact that the recently exonerated Bill Cosby, whose own sordid saga of gross sexual misconduct has been played out in the press in vivid detail, felt emboldened enough to state that he would go on tour and conduct “town halls” where he would instruct young men on how to avoid accusations of sexual conduct.  Mr. Cosby is nowadays described as a “disgraced comedian”, but evidently he was not disgraced enough, not if he had the temerity to counsel young men on how they might take advantage of women and avoid the risk of accusation.  This last act of the “comedian” would be comic if it were not so repulsive.

 

Let us return, then, to the sentence on which so much pivots: “He [Trump] does not appear to realize that he is embarrassing himself.”  Feminists are not alone in pointing out that Mr. Trump appears to take special delight in demeaning women, and many will point to the apparent tolerance for such conduct as an indication of the deeply misogynist strands in much of American society.  Women, on this argument, are far from being considered as equal, and it is widely understood that, at least in certain sectors of American society, the denigration of women has no adverse consequences for sexists or misogynists.  All of this may well be true, and the argument of American feminism about the distance that women have yet to travel is all but unimpeachable.  But Mr. Trump is nothing if not an equal opportunity employer:  he has held forth, after all, on Mexicans as rapists, on Muslims as terrorists, on the Chinese as (currency) manipulators, and so on.  Mr. Trump’s contempt for a good portion of humankind does not even remotely rescue him from the charge of misogyny, but his political demeanor suggests that something more is at stake than his contempt for women, ‘losers’, and others whom he so clearly disdains.

 

Why, to rephrase the question, does Mr. Trump not experience any sense of shame?  If a person is consistently thought, by a good portion of the media and the public, to be a habitual liar, misogynist, bully, sexual assaulter, brutally vindictive, and authoritarian to boot, one might think that at some point such a person could be shamed into doing better or displaying some of those qualities, such as contrition, which round out a person as human.  Seven decades ago, when Japan came under American occupation and American anthropologists were called upon to provide some insights into Japanese character to ease the task of ruling over a defeated but proud ‘alien’ race, Ruth Benedict answered the call with a study, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), where she distinguished the modern West with its supposed ‘culture of guilt’ from Japan with its ‘culture of shame’.  The precise problems with Benedict’s understanding of Japanese culture are many, among them the presupposition that what may be called the guilt regime of Christianity stands opposed to the notion of social order and civility that characterizes a Confucian-driven society.  Nevertheless, her notion of a ‘culture of shame’ is not without use.  Thus, to take a singularly spectacular example, when the Japanese company Akagi Nyugyo raised the price of its immensely popular ice cream bar from 60 Yen to 70 Yen, or by less than the equivalent of ten cents, the first such raise in 25 years, the chief executives and other employees of the company appeared together in public in a collective display of remorse.  This was an expression of the shame they experienced in, as it were, having to betray the trust the public had reposed in them.  Stories of Japanese executives committing suicide when they have been caught in mismanagement of a company, or profiting from their own mistakes, are legion.

 

Mr. Trump stands at the very opposite end of this spectrum:  he is a specimen of a man who does not experience any shame at all.  However, what is alarming about American society is that he does not even remotely stand in singular and sinister isolation in this respect, even if the tendency is to cast him as something of an aberration.  The problem runs much deeper:  indeed, I would hazard the thought that the idea of shame is no longer a part of the vocabulary of American public life.  The idea of shame has virtually disappeared from the American lexicon; it is a relic of a pre-modern era.  That is precisely why jail sentences, nominal or otherwise, have no bearing on the future political or public conduct of public figures and celebrities.  After her conviction in 2004 of financial fraud, Martha Stewart did not sink into oblivion; she merely went through a hiatus and by 2012 had assumed the Chairmanship of her namesake company.  The sexting scandals of Anthony Weiner which led to his conviction in 2011 did not preclude him from making a run for the New York mayor’s office in 2013.  It is precisely this utter lack of shame which Donald Trump and Bill Cosby find enabling in their crusading attempts to cast themselves as victims of aggressive and lying women.

 

Political party affiliations are of no consequence in this state of affairs:  if there is any “bipartisanship” in American public life, it resides in the fact that Democrats and Republicans are equally shameless.  Thus, in the present dispute between Mr. Trump and the “Morning Joe” show co-hosts, it is not each party’s opposition to the other but rather the sheer complementariness of their positions that is strikingly palpable.  The relationship of Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski to Mr. Trump has been nothing if not, in the words of the New York Times, a “roller-coaster” ride.  Scarborough was at one time rather close to Mr. Trump, even a political confidante, and he was briefly even under consideration for the position of Mr. Trump’s running mate.  Mr. Trump’s pointed objection to Joe and Mika as fundamentally hypocritical, considering they spent three evenings at his exclusive private resort, Mar-a-Lago, around New Year’s Eve has received less attention than it deserves.

Joe&MikaAtMar-a-Lago

The original caption runs thus:  Journalists have criticized Joe Scarborough and his MSNBC co-host, Mika Brzezinski, for attending President-Elect Donald Trump’s New Year’s Eve party on his Mar-a-Lago estate.  Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4083068/Morning-Joe-host-s-hit-claims-cosy-relationship-Trump-attending-president-elect-s-New-Year-s-Eve-party-Mar-Lago-estate.html#ixzz4libsN9tf 

It is not that Mr. Trump stands exonerated, contrary to what he believes; rather, we have to question whether it was merely lack of judgement on their part, or, as I am suggesting, that Mika & Joe inhabit fundamentally the same amoral universe which has defined Mr. Trump, which made them consort with Mr. Trump months after repeated allegations of egregious sexual misconduct on his part had become part of the record.  It is not that Mr. Trump has changed in the six months since they wined and dined with him; Mr. Trump has not transformed from a gracious and unassuming host to a raging lunatic.  We may, if we wish, put down the strained relationship of this recently-engaged couple to Mr. Trump as something akin to the estrangement of lovers; or we may characterize their relationship as illustrative of what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences.  Beyond all this, I submit, the supposed dispute between these two parties is illustrative of the fact that concepts such as shame have now disappeared from American public life.