Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are


My favorite scene in Black Panther is the interrogation between Ulysses Klaue, played by Andy Serkis, and CIA operative Everett K. Ross, played by Martin Freeman. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), both Wakandans, watch as Klaue and Ross banter—Ross wants to know how Klaue got his hand(s) on vibranium, while Klaue, an Afrikaner, insists on the existence of Wakanda as a “technological marvel” on par with El Dorado. The scene plays little role in the story other than to establish character, but cleverly recasts the “bad guy is ok with being caught” trope as a metaphor for race relations: Serkis’s white supremacist (“I can see you!” he insists) debates with Freeman’s well-meaning but naïve white professional (“I’m doing you guys a favor by letting you even be in here”) about whether blacks are more powerful and independent than they let on, as Boseman and Gurira (“Americans…” she hisses) roll their eyes from the other side of a one-way mirror standing in for the color line. The effect is to convey both the black and white experiences such that the viewer can relate to them simultaneously, no matter where you come from.

Boseman is from South Carolina. Gurira was born in Iowa and raised in Zimbabwe. Serkis and Freeman are both English. None of the actors are portraying their actual nationality, and the two British actors are performing a pantomime about the existential status of a country that, after all, doesn’t exist. The fact that we can still take this scene seriously is a direct product of Barack Obama’s own approach to race. There are important cultural—and political—costs to this.

Before reading Rising Star, I had forgotten my own skepticism of Obama after his 2004 convention speech through fall 2007, believing he was not ready and advertising his opposition to the Iraq War out of proportion to his accomplishments. I had forgotten the electric inspiration of his Iowa speech, which made his campaign feel like a movement. I had forgotten my anger at my parents, my sister, and myself for being so slow to support him. And I had not realized the extent to which these sentiments were emblematic of a new culture just then being born: claiming to navigate the color line while suppressing an actual politics of race.

It’s a huge book, but its underlying thesis is simple: “Barack Obama” doesn’t actually exist. Barack Hussein Obama, a failed biracial writer raised in Indonesia and Hawaii, is frustrated at the world for not giving him a history or sense of orientation from which he could describe who he is or what stories he should bother to tell. Inspired by misreadings of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., he remakes himself into an inheritor of their legacies as a post-racial politician, able to be all things to all people and forsaking a firm set of ideals or principles. The failures of his Presidency—Republican political gains, growing inequality, continuing racial strife, Trump’s election—reflect Obama’s fundamental lack of self-understanding and directionless ambition.

These are strong claims, and to be blunt I do not take them seriously. It is true Obama exhibited a profound willingness to compromise and reframe his own positions in response to changing political realities, but this clearly flows from his commitment to pragmatism. I find his emotional intelligence—and sheer intelligence—intimidating, not underwhelming. If there has always been an aloofness or superficiality to his public persona, I credit this to the kenosis of trying to be a national figure while also writing the most resonant and insightful American political speeches of the twenty-first century. Still, this book demands to be taken seriously, and the perspective it offers has provided grounds for reflection on my previous posts as well as myself.

Obama is a “We” politician whose life and training reflect the politics of the “I”. His tragedy and his accomplishment is that he found a way to identify not as black, nor as white, nor as biracial, but as a navigator of the color line, as a mediator of the difference it once enforced. This empowered him to reflect and refract the color line without fundamentally transcending its limitations, to displace its effects rather than demolish them. This distinction is crucial for understanding how Obama laid the groundwork for Trump’s Presidency, which is not an aberration from but an exacerbation of Obama’s rhetorical strategy.

I will explore these ideas in future posts. For now, I will summarize the narrative steps and events of Rising Star that suggest how this identity was formed:

-Obama is raised mainly by his grandparents, and feels severe abandonment at the hands of his mother (he later transferred these feelings to his entirely symbolic “father”, Obama Sr., who he never knew). He is a slacker in high school, goes to college in California to meet expectations, and is annoyed at professors who expect more from him than B writing assignments. He transfers to Columbia and dates a white woman, also raised in Indonesia and who shares his sense of disorientation.
-Ambitious but unsure of himself, he signs up for a community organizing gig in Chicago, apparently looking for writing material. He is only hired because the team’s exclusively white members are not trusted in Roseland, on the far south side. While there he immerses himself in the philosophy of Saul Alinsky, which helped him understand community organizing as a quest to identify heroes and villains in order to gin up anger and resistance, before ultimately rejecting its strategies as parochial and unable to sustain real political change across diverse communities facing the same structural problems caused by a changing economy.
-Obama’s sense of abandonment is quenched by the love he finds there: from his teammates, from role models like Jeremiah Wright, from the community members he helps (and sometimes sleeps with), from a biracial UChicago grad student with whom he goes steady and to whom he later proposes, and ultimately from himself, when he discovers his destiny to be President. Obama quickly maps out the next thirty years of his life: he will go to Harvard (as his father did), he will return to Chicago and become mayor (as Harold Washington did), then governor of Illinois.
-His experiences in Chicago—and in particular his failure to convince his girlfriend’s parents, who perceive him as entitled and arrogant, of his worthiness—motivate him to break up with her and identify fully as black before undertaking his master plan. Somehow he realizes that the ticket to his own political ascendancy is to accept and inhabit the standpoint of a black man who can understand whites from within, rather than a biracial man at home in both worlds (or neither). He imagines marrying a dream woman with the “mind of Toni Morrison and the body of Whitney Houston”.
-He spends his time at Harvard Law running circles around other students and professors alike, armed with an organizer’s sense of resolving interpersonal conflicts and an actual knowledge of how race and inequality work beyond the classroom. He learns nothing there except how to win friends and influence people, and knows it. He decides not to apply to join the Law Review (but is roped in), not to run for its Presidency (but is roped in), and not to pursue clerkships (though he is offered all of them and wins even more respect for saying no). In his spare time he wins Michelle.
-He experiences failure back in Chicago: loses potential black allies by challenging Alice Walker’s signatures to become a state senator, is horrified at the consumption of graft and cuisine and loose sex in Springfield, runs for Congress in 2000 and loses, struggles to impregnate Michelle, and does not quit smoking. He toys with the idea (which Michelle encourages) of leaving politics entirely, before a broad coalition of white allies (e.g. Mayor Daley, who does not want Obama to challenge him, and David Axelrod, who wants to redeem himself from Daley’s corporatism and lack of ideals) and key black supporters (e.g. the Springfield majority leader, who wants him to be a feather in his cap rather than a thorn in his side) to run for U.S. Senate. He also pens a dishonest personal account of growing up black in Hawaii and combines or erases his non-black girlfriends, portraying his life as a story of race relations.
-He wants to bide his time in the U.S. Senate and soak up achievements before running for President, but others’ expectations—supporters across Illinois, his own Chicago network, the media, and finally national Democrats who realize the party will embarrass itself if he doesn’t run—force him to declare after just two years. His abandonment issues flare up when Wright leaves the campaign, but this affords an opportunity for more personal reflection on race and political grounds to cut Clinton off at the color line, which he does in “A More Perfect Union”. His nomination is sealed when he loses Indiana by a smaller than expected margin.

The rest is (mostly) history. Here are my more analytical takeaways:

-Every post-college career step Obama took was made possible by his adopted racial identity as a black man. He is considered more prepared for a position because, and not in spite of, his blackness. It is his main qualification, like a bullet point on his resume.
-Obama never truly understood or took seriously the foundation of white racial anxiety, despite possessing a profound understanding of its mechanics and how to assuage them. Nor did he understand the causes for black parochialism that made Chicago neighborhoods not see each other as allies, or made some abandon him after he turned on Alice Walker and Bobby Rush. For him, race is a heritage you adopt in order to find your place in the world and hitch your wagon to a wider sense of purpose, what allows you to relate to other people. But the experience of race as something you possess against your will, that ethnicity is ultimately rooted in nationality, a sense of place that is exclusive and to which others simply cannot belong or fully appreciate, was beyond him.
-There is a ghostly cynicism and indifference about Obama that never goes away. There’s something deeply sad about a man who decides when he’s 25 exactly how he will spend every year of the rest of his life, and I got the sense that Obama gave up trying to become an independent writer when he realized that he could just embody the great unfinished story of the Civil Rights Movement. The hunger of whites around Obama from Harvard on, who openly expect him to be that movement’s capstone, is disturbing, as is Obama’s willingness feed that hunger.
-His career steps all take the same shape: 1) join a new organization, 2) be horrified at its backwardness, racism, and insufficiency, 3) adopt a principled stance of “aren’t we better than this” that impresses a set of old institutional hands who nod silently at his pronouncements, 4) resist their calls for him to take charge of it before giving in, 5) briefly take charge, 6) abandon responsibility for its maintenance when the next opportunity is in sight. Per his Mandela speech on global capitalism and populist anger, Obama’s current arc is somewhere between 2) and 3).
-The tragic dénouement offered by his Chicago girlfriend is that Obama’s willingness to meet the world as it is in order to make the world what it should be—his pragmatism—came at the cost of his sensuousness, the capacity to feel and breathe and just be himself without already evaluating whether it is possible or practical to feel those things. This is disturbing to me and I am still processing its implications. Axelrod observed that his famous 2004 convention speech would have been conventional and over-rehearsed if not for his being interrupted by the Kansas delegation’s cheers—he smiles, points to them, puts his shoulders back, and is suddenly “there” in a way he wasn’t before. At key moments in his path, this sensuousness or “We”-ness somehow pointed the way for his next great evolutionary leap, before receding into an “I”-ness of strategy and calculation and post-racial hobnobbing.

“Cast down your bucket where you are” is one of the most infamous statements on race relations in American history. Uttered by Booker T. Washington, it is often interpreted as the need for African-Americans to know their place and not try to rise above their station in life—to become sharecroppers and shoe-shiners before politicians and poets. The hero of Invisible Man, which apparently served as both inspiration and structural model for Obama’s Dreams from My Father, recites it after taking part in a bloody battle royale for the amusement of white patrons, for whom it serves as his admission to a historically black college. But Washington’s parable illustrating the line is instructive:

“A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal, ‘Water, water; we die of thirst!’ The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’ A second time the signal, ‘Water, water; send us water!’ ran up from the distressed vessel, and was answered, ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’ And a third and fourth signal for water was answered, ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’ The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River.”

Race is such a complex category because it is both existential and sensuous. It must be both owned and felt, inhabited and accepted, chosen as well as obeyed, for a true reconciliation to occur. It is both a story you tell every day and a script you cannot help but follow. What intrigues me about Obama after Rising Star, and which makes me respect him more even as I admire him less, is his willingness to align his own process of ethnic self-actualization with the demands of his chosen political destiny. Had he not done this, it’s doubtful he could have become President, and we are richer for his having done it, if more disoriented in turn.

Obama, despite his thirst in New York and Harvard and Springfield and Washington, refused to cast down his bucket where he was, but not because he was ambitious or lacked principle. It was because he deliberately abandoned the effort to make sense of himself in terms of himself, and with it whatever organic versions of himself may have emerged. He learned to navigate the color line at the expense of learning to navigate and accept the full blessed contradictions of his own being. Without him there is no Ta-Nahesi Coates, or Jordan Peele, or Childish Gambino, or Ava DuVernay. But there probably also would not be Sherriff Joe Arpaio, and assuredly not Donald Trump. We are now all navigating that estuary, many of us against our will. How many of us are willing to cast down our buckets where we are?

I cannot help but imagine some other version of Obama who, after successfully linking up with and inhabiting the black experience on the south side, rejected the Harvard offer in favor of Northwestern (where he was also accepted) and stayed with his UChicago girlfriend. School allegiances notwithstanding, it would have been hard. He would probably have become a civil rights lawyer, stayed involved in organizing, perhaps run for local office. It would have meant fewer speeches, less money, and certainly less attention. He would not have married, and would have either given up the effort to reinterpret himself as black or dedicated himself to a more protracted struggle for identity. But he might have begun to put down and cast earth around the roots he so desperately craved, and perhaps arrived at truths about race that are less inspiring but more edifying than the ones he is known for. I can’t claim to understand what it means to be biracial or post-racial, but after growing up in the political order he helped articulate, I recognize they are not the same thing. Thanks, Obama.


An “I” for An “I”


Continuing my reflections on the “I” and the “We”, I’d like to expand on my motivations for drawing this distinction and what, independent of our current political climate, inspired it. Several weeks ago I was walking uphill from my apartment to the university campus where I am a student. On any given day I am either blasting CHVRCHES through my headphones or ruminating over the proper benchmarks of political and cultural history, and that day it was the latter. I was specifically reflecting on an earlier post I’d written about The Age of Reform, and how my affection for Hofstadter’s narrative sweep contrasted with my reading of New Left historians, queer theorists, and other contemporary cultural critics. I remember being ambivalent about this as I formally introduced myself to a cashier, who recognized me and had remembered my ordinary lunch order (avocado toast with poached egg) but didn’t know my name. I stood in line, waiting for the egg to get poached and the toast to be properly slathered in avocado and for some reconciliation between “consensus” American history and post-structuralism to present itself to me. I sat down at a small table of polished beech wood that would have been at home in an Apple store, and decided that this opposition boiled down to a debate over whether America was always already itself or was always trying to become something other than itself. A decorative slice of orange framed the toast. It’s always divided into two sides, one with the avocado and the other with the egg, and I started with the egg side this time, and noticed an Asian undergraduate student sitting across from me at the same moment I bit into it. The roof of my mouth burned, and I realized I should have started with the avocado part and let the egg cool down first. This was the first thing that had happened that day that was unusual. Somehow, out of this moment, it occurred to me that these two positions were themselves the answer to the problem, and the I—We distinction was born.

I need this levity to introduce my reflections here on what a pure “I” culture, as existed during the post-60s Age of Identity, looks like at its absolute worst and most suffocating. I decided to expose myself to a historical event of which I have childhood memories: the televised O.J. Simpson murder trial. Its tragedy was not, as I remembered it, about race. It was how the color line had so thoroughly warped our sense of justice, history, and fame.

Made in America is perhaps the most compelling documentary I’ve ever seen, less encyclopedic than Eyes on the Prize yet oddly appropriate as a thematic sequel. Its brilliance lies in its willingness to subject the O.J. trial to sustained historical and sociological analysis, to point out that O.J.’s rise in Los Angeles as the only prominent black athlete to not make a point of his race was tragically interpreted by contemporaries as redeeming the Watts riots and the Rodney King video and the decades of racial abuse perpetrated by the LAPD. O.J. was the great success story, the Horatio Alger of the black community, who publicly didn’t call himself black and who privately laughed with acquaintances who observed how strange it was that, at bars, he was expected to “associate with ****ers”. The documentary brilliantly portrays O.J. Simpson as a true American sociopath, indeed as sociopathy in an American register. It does this so well that I could not help but similarly reflect on Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson, other contemporary “black” celebrities and distinctively American geniuses who could all but cross the color line, at the price of segregating their own souls, and at the cost of innocent women and children.

The O.J. trial went on for even longer than what happened in the courtroom. It was arguably decided during the infamous “low speech car chase” on the highway back to the Simpson compound, when the police called his cell phone (it is somehow strange to know there were cell phones even back then) to tell him that “people don’t want to see The Juice like this,” i.e. suicidal. Or even earlier when he was brought in the day after the murders, briefly held and questioned by the police, only to be let go—because he’s The Juice. Or even earlier, when his team won the Heisman in 1968. The ugly, nauseating fact of the matter is that The Juice was not the kind of person who could credibly be found guilty or innocent of a crime with the gravity of double homicide, because the integrity of our national culture would have been compromised. Our narrative of post-60s race relations would have to be discarded. Were that not the case, it would have been possible for the trial to take less than fifteen months, for it to have been watched by fewer than 100 million people, and for one man to have been put on trial rather than the second largest city in the country. Why did this happen?

What struck me was less the brazenness of the defense than the fecklessness of the prosecutors, whose black representative competed for media attention with Johnny Cochran, insisted on asking O.J. to try on the bloody gloves from the crime scene, and who looked personally destroyed by the trial’s outcome. As one interviewee observed, in another timeline he could have ended up at Cochran’s own law firm, rather than looking like an Uncle Tom.

I found myself expecting the trial to have been some clumsy caricature of race relations standing in for murder charges—that O.J.’s conviction would have meant to find yet another innocent black man guilty, or for his innocence to mean that black celebrities somehow get special treatment. Clarence Thomas had already demonstrated in 1991 that race could be used not just to exonerate but to extricate oneself from the entire process of judicial scrutiny—that race could be used as a wild card. No, what made the O.J. trial an authentic and singular American tragedy was the way the color line infected every level of the process, from jury selection to the judge’s deliberations (why was the jury allowed to take a tour of O.J.’s private residence, away from the crime scene?) to prosecutors’ self-neutering to public reactions to the decision, which farcically mirrored the outcry over the Rodney King video four years prior.

Simpson did not bother me. Strangely, I found myself feeling sorry for him, sorry for his emptiness and rage and Olympian ability to compartmentalize his own suffering and loneliness. What sickened me, so much so that I gagged and retched, was the behavior and statements of the whites tasked with witnessing or litigating or arguing the trial. It was Robert Kardashian, a friend of Simpson, a member of his defense team, and father of the children who would give us Keeping up with the Kardashians, a show whose announcement Simpson gleefully watched on a hotel room television immediately before attempting armed robbery in 2007, a crime that would finally send him to jail. It was Nicole Simpson’s father, a man whose eyes somehow already conveyed that he would never recover from her death, asked on camera by reporters to compare the racial beliefs of Adolf Hitler and Mark Fuhrman, whose testimony was key to the prosecution. It was the faces of white pedestrians across the country, taunted by blacks in innumerable photos taken the day of the decision, that showed not pity nor compassion nor sorrow but disbelief and revulsion.

Words like “absurdity” and “irony” are not big enough for this witches’ brew of celebrity, race relations, and inequality. I am not sure I can think of one now. What the trial demonstrated forcefully was the way the fallout of the Civil Rights Movement had traded true racial reconciliation for a mere vision of it, for spectacle. This was driven home for me by the tacit admission that O.J.’s innocence was payback for the acquittal of Rodney King’s beaters—in the minds of O.J.’s jurors, that spectacle demanded another in kind. To borrow the language of my previous post, it was literally an “I” for an “I”.

Re-witnessing the trial’s outcome reminded me of my coauthor’s dissection of liberals’ favorite hobbyhorse: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That statement, while not fallacious, betrays an emotional need to spectate a righteousness one cannot fully inhabit. It treats history as a spectacle, and therefore oneself as a spectator, an “I” for whom the drama’s conclusion does not depend on everyone playing a role assigned by history to them. In other words it is not a sensuous statement, and true reconciliation must be sensuous. In life and in race relations, it’s a lot easier to put on a new pair of glasses than to undergo eye surgery, though technically—and tragically—it makes no difference to the spectator.

What stays with me about my deep dive into the Simpson trial is a sense of cosmic misapprehension, the sheer waste of human life, and emotion, and struggle that went into exonerating a man who was clearly responsible in order to preserve any imagined sense of racial justice, the shamelessness of O.J. portraying himself as a post-racial athlete yet ultimately relying on his race to get off scot-free.

The term “race relations” is telling. I used to think it narrowly referred to the need for a healthy civic culture including both whites and blacks, and whether they could face each other in public or private as equals. I now recognize that it means something more disconcerting and metaphysical, that the categories that comprise our civic culture—money, fame, sex, crime, politics—are somehow the product of race, in some ways obvious, others mysterious. The relations between these things have to change if we are to make headway on the race problem.

We are still working through this. Race is always on display, if you are primed to see it for what it is. It was even there during the Kavanaugh hearing, courtesy of Lindsay Graham: “You’re supposed to be Bill Cosby when you’re a junior and senior in high school, and all of a sudden you’ve got over it…Here’s my understanding: if you’ve lived a good life, people will recognize it.”

It says something about our culture and how little it has changed since the Simpson trial that, of all the parodies and dismissals of Graham’s behavior at that hearing, he could still say this without anyone batting an eye. Racial otherness may be unavoidable in a country as multifarious as ours, but the color line is a problem because it shapes our sense of who, or what behavior, is redeemable in the eyes of certain people, and what isn’t, and how such redemption might be earned. As long as the “I” sets the agenda, the people who bear the cost of that redemption don’t even need to be on trial for the spectacle to transpire.

The Abject Righteousness of the Civil Rights Movement

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath–

America will be!

-Langston Hughes, “Let America be America Again,” 1935


Recently I’ve been reflecting about citizenship, and all its connotations, in uncomfortable registers. I’ve been motivated by how to prepare for the 2018 midterms, including which candidates to support and how to get involved, and also newly conscious of how Trump’s election and governance have scrambled my understanding of American politics and history. I’m hardly alone in this. It feels like every week there is a new confusion on the left about what is going on right now, and why it’s happening, in order to at least begin to decide whether to care about it.

One haute example of this is the debate between Francis Fukuyama’s and Louis Menand’s philosophies of history. Fukuyama’s idealism proposes that history is predestined “given current trends,” while Menand instead suggests it is defined more by shuffling, disagreements, and unpredictable coalitions. We’ve seen Obama himself appear to waffle about this, first by echoing the call that the arc of the moral universe, while long, does in fact bend towards justice, and later by suggesting, post-Trump, that history “zigs and zags”.

From long reflection, I have come to believe the phenomenon of Trump hinges predominantly on race, and I will explore this topic in future posts. For now, I’d like to prepare those substantive reflections—and also expand on the themes of earlier writings on this blog and elsewhere—by briefly commenting on what seems to make American history tick or flow in certain directions, and how this organizes my sense of what should be done. It’s easy for conversations like this to descend into navel-gazing or airy abstractions, and indeed there’s a bravura in even trying to do it that I suspect makes most commentators avoid it on principle.

Let me say up front that, echoing a recent Facebook post by my friend Nicholas Mulder, if you assign any significance or weight to the daily news, you need a philosophy of history. Whether you think events are stochastic or statistically predictive, or if grand narratives are even possible, is implicitly at stake if you are inclined to groan while reading the Huffington Post or to tweet #metoo.

In America there’s always been this conflict between the “We” and the “I.” It’s seared into our cultural makeup that America is both a collective work-in-progress and a vehicle for personal freedom. Here I mobilize it in a more specific, political sense: a profound and abiding disagreement over how republican politics should operate in this country, and how decisions should be made. The debate is between epistocracy (i.e. that those who know best and are most qualified should rule) and democracy proper. Both themes are present in the Declaration of Independence, famously contrasting a deliberative “we” against the failures of the English King George III. Yet we know from history that proto-Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams favored administrative power and a centralized financial system, while remaining skeptical of the “common man” and putting down Shay’s Rebellion. Though we mythologize the country’s founding as a democratic revolution, this tension between independence and interdependence remained, seared into the Constitution and justified in The Federalist Papers.

Let me say provocatively (because I cannot hope to fully elaborate the point here) that this conflict between the “We” and the “I” is shot all the way through American political history, that we seem to have been living in a great Age of Identity since the social protests of the 60s and 70s, and that there are now signs of a reborn “We” in the forms of protest and resistance following Trump’s election. Again, this is still early days, and we will need a complete diagnosis of this past age in order to learn how to move forward, which neither I nor anyone else can now provide. But I have already found the “We” and the “I” useful for schematizing past upheavals.

Allow me to elaborate on this stance with reference to the Civil Rights Movement. I recently finished watching the documentary series Eyes on the Prize, which traces the movement from Brown vs. Board of Education to Harold Washington’s election as the first black mayor of Chicago in 1983. I was alerted to it by a passing mention in an essay that claimed viewing it was necessary for one’s civic education to be complete (!).

The episodes are filled with moments so harrowing that I sometimes broke out in a sweat from anxiety, and spent long minutes on my phone as scenes passed by on my laptop that I was too embarrassed to consider head-on. John F. Kennedy, audibly embarrassed, on the phone with the governor of Mississippi, pleading that a single black student needed to be admitted to Ole Miss or else the National Guard would need to be deployed. Young white women explaining to a reporter their own shifting beliefs about whether blacks are racially inferior or just uneducated, as in the background the Little Rock Nine pass down the sidewalk into school. An older white woman in Cicero, Illinois, possibly Italian or Polish but who looked exactly like my mother, confiding to an interviewer that “of course it’s fine for Negroes to live here, but the question is, are they Negroes or ****ers?” The Detroit conflagration as block after block of the city was swallowed up in racial fury. Faculty at Howard University explaining to students why courses in black identity (what would later be known as African-American Studies) were counter to the mission of Historically Black Colleges. New York Jews discovering their inner whiteness as they raged against blacks and “black consciousness” allies over community control of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district in Brooklyn. Robert F. Kennedy talking softly to a dirt-poor family in the Black Belt about the importance of learning to read, and tentatively stroking the face of the youngest boy as he walks away. The literal drowning of Resurrection City from downpours on the National Mall, extinguishing the Poor People’s Campaign. A woman crying fifteen years later as she describes singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” under a full moon as RFK’s hearse drove past the Lincoln Memorial. A middle-aged Asian woman shoved into the back of a police van, trying to get out the tune to “We Shall Overcome” and plaintively holding the van door open so she remains visible to the TV cameras. A reporter gagging out of moral sickness as, just behind him, the Attica prison revolt was doused in gas, calling out to his cameraman to cut the feed as the mic can only pick up the sound of bones being broken. White Bostonians overturning police cars and attacking horses while screaming racial slurs I’d never heard before, protesting the forced desegregation of public schools.

And yet, there were moments of unimaginable heroism. The decision of Emmett Till’s mother to have an open coffin at her son’s funeral so that thousands of blacks in Chicago could see “what they did to my baby” when he spoke up to a white woman in Mississippi, was lynched, and stuffed at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River. Members of SNCC training for hours at a time and days on end as their own members, white and black, assaulted and beat them as training for the real abuse of sit-ins at lunch counters. The mayor of Nashville vaporizing his own political base by answering the persistent queries of a civil rights worker that while as a public official he swore to uphold all laws including segregation, as a man he could not defend its practice. An uncut three minute sequence of marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, seeing what was about to happen, yet continuing straight into a charging horse-mounted policeman’s baton. Fannie Lou Hamer ignored at the 1964 DNC for having the gall to ask if Mississippi’s closed society was in fact America. Stokely Carmichael inventing, on the spot, the phrase “black power” during the March Against Fear, defying the philosophy and temperament of Martin Luther King, Jr. even as they marched step by step. Cassius Clay, a couple years before becoming Muhammad Ali, insisting over and over that he is “already beautiful” as a sports announcer questions whether he “looks good enough for the cameras yet.” The spontaneous gelling of black consciousness as, for the first time in Howard University’s history, the elected homecoming queen would sport an afro.

In other words it was thirty years of history, well-told and ill-gotten.

I find some of its lessons difficult to absorb. I had never before seen Martin Luther King, Jr.’s achievements as a product of failure, but his own moral arc was defined by personal trauma and strategic blunders that stymied the movement repeatedly. It was out of such blunders—which to him felt less like setbacks than like a totalizing morass of major depression—that King became the moral force we have mythologized. The central example came in the form of Laurie Pritchett, chief of police in Albany, Georgia, who broke the SCLC’s naïve attempt to overwhelm Southern jails. Pritchett figured out how to fight nonviolence with nonviolence by coordinating with other sheriffs to keep his own jails from overflowing. King retreated to lick his wounds for weeks at his home, focusing thereafter on more specific, symbolic victories like Selma and Montgomery (Howard Zinn was part of the Albany movement and to this day views this pivot as a major, tragic blunder). Watching “I Have A Dream” after seeing King be broken made me hear, for the first time, the desperation, despair, and raw deferment in that speech of any near-term expectation of recognition and dignity. What got me wasn’t that King was defeated—it was that he was confused. History was not moving in the inexorable direction inaugurated by the big “We” of the Freedom Riders, SNCC, and SCLC.

It was this conflict between King and Pritchett that oddly reminded me most of our current political moment, in which Cory Booker refers to his own release of confidential Kavanaugh documents as “civil disobedience”, and some on the left advocate the exclusion of Trump supporters from restaurants and boutiques. At the time, King was realizing that the great moral authority of one “We” was running up against, and gummed up by, the indignation and recalcitrance and brute effectiveness of a counter-mobilized “We”. So he became willfully symbolic, shifting into the King of the history books, and alienating many of his more radical adherents in the process.

In effect King gambled that his “We” would scale better and win a war of attrition against Southern anachronism. He refused to take any actions and lead any protests that were not permitted to proceed by federal authorities and judges, including the crowning jewel of Selma, finally extinguishing the Jim Crow South by outing it as politically unworkable and contrary to the American experiment–that it was in fact an “I” pretending to be a “We”. Yet, his movement ran aground when it went north to confront the quieter, more restrained, more economical, and ultimately more pernicious racism of redlining.

Like today, there seems to have been a strategically unworkable, yet changing relationship between political tactics and moral compasses, whose plate tectonics could not be refastened by the hands of men while the ground shifted beneath them.

During the Civil Rights Era both sides unequivocally claimed the moral high ground. Both were convinced of their own righteousness. However I slowly realized, episode by episode, that the movement’s defining feature was not this righteousness but its insistence on democracy as a radically moral and potentially self-destructive commitment to personal autonomy. As the movement ate itself alive, as the SCLC and SNCC eroded and splintered into the Black Panthers against the institutionalists, its true irreverence came to the surface. Why should I fight so hard to be considered part of America? Why can’t I myself be America? What is this paltry “America” that whites think they own? Don’t ask for their permission to free the slave that’s inside you, do it yourself. The rise of black epistemology was, in this sense, a declaration of independence from the old-form civil rights movement, just as the Founders’ was from King George III. The “We” that King helped birth was bleeding out into multitudes of “I’s”. It’s not surprising why, when asked what they most remember about the year 1968, O.J. Simpson’s teammates have cited their winning the Heisman Trophy.

Still, in the process, the movement rewrote the moral calculus by which anyone in this country could take up the mantle of citizenship. We remain stuck today in the molds of resentment and civic pride first cast at that time.

Today I think that mold, particularly for whites, has become brittle and unworkable. In future posts I will explore what this means for being a citizen in the Trump era, and possibly after.

Untimely Ragtime?


Partly out of nostalgia and partly out of moral yearning, I recently picked up and finished Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform. I had wanted to move beyond foggy clichés of the Progressive Era I picked up from high school AP history: America getting its act together after the Gilded Age, recognizing the social problems of urbanization and income inequality, Tammany Hall, national parks, muckrakers, etc. Only after finishing the book did I recall other, more private associations I’d forged during my adolescence: a sixth grade book report on Teddy Roosevelt, whose principled self-reinvention from sickly invalid child to strapping warrior now strikes me as a Caucasian beta-release of Malcolm X; my love for The Music Man, whose soundtrack I spent the last month of seventh grade falling asleep to on the top floor of my family’s farmhouse; raw associations between Woodrow Wilson and my mother, both college presidents who rechanneled a youthful idealistic streak into a self-assured, WASP-y stoicism; a recent embrace of old-school pragmatism in Dewey’s philosophy and institutional reforms. For me, the Progressive Era was the American chapter of American history, when the country finally began to consider what the right parts of itself could do about the wrong parts, and thereby define its genius for the rest of the world.

Hofstadter’s summary was interesting on its own terms. I was struck by his dark presentation of the period as stridently hypocritical. This is remarkable, since his narrative is exclusively domestic (with little mention of America’s imperial adventures) and deeply negligent of the African-American experience (Hofstadter writes admirably of Jefferson’s yeoman autonomy, given his relatively small number of slaves). His broader theses, grouped within the American canon of “consensus history”, frame the Progressive Era as continuous with earlier political-economic struggles, fought over the same values and core concerns that animated the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, that forged the Era of Good Feelings, that tragically hiccuped during the Civil War, and that gorged themselves during the Gilded Age.

Frankly, I envy Hofstadter’s naïve confidence in this continuity; the book was written before neo-Marxism and the broader New Left made it impossible to imagine this kind of national narrative as something other than power paying tribute to itself. We are now in a moment where that confidence, shaken from its coziness and tempered with a heavy dose of humility, is sorely needed. Hofstadter was writing at a time when our national identity was not seriously in question, which empowered him to trace the profound moral transformations and compromises that were indeed happening in all their maddening capaciousness. He helps show that any javelin worth throwing requires reaching farther back than you can see.

Moreover, Hofstadter makes moral judgments of all the dominant players (including William Jennings Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson) to the point of declaring that the dominant personality trait of the period was class hypocrisy. But it was a strategic hypocrisy, as the nation wanted its leaders to tell it something that was impossible: its ideals could be reconciled with the modern trappings of urban infrastructure without compromising their integrity. It was possible, we were told, to preserve our virginal, natural integrity even as the land was made publicly available for sightseeing and recreation. This is why, consumed with fear of socialism and anarchism and swarthy immigrants, we kept voting Harold Hill’s into office. Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock, and the Golden Rule!


Indeed, what most troubled me was the uncanny parallels between the Age of Reform and the Age of Trump, which increasingly feels like America finally abandoning the elite consensus politics of the Cold War in favor of the more elemental appeal of the huckster. As pundits and elite opinion-makers now grapple with Trump’s significance, Progressive thinkers and representatives likewise grappled with our sense of lost innocence. I was hoping to find answers to today’s challenges, not historical ironies, but the list of analogs is overwhelming:

-A popular second-term President finds his administration mired in scandal, environmental crises, and corporate corruption, climaxing with an economic recession of unprecedented magnitude. His party is thereafter taken over by populists, signaling the end of a Gilded Age defined by growing income inequality and political impassivity.

-A younger generation of upwardly mobile “status revolutionaries” vows to overthrow the political system, but is split between nativist populism and progressive institutional adaptation. Leaders of these movements share an obsession with fighting graft and reforming the voting process, which was widely perceived as rigged or corrupt.

-Populists and progressives hate each other. The former are seen as ignorant xenophobic country bumpkins, the latter as self-righteous snobs foolishly opening the door to revolutionary social forces. Both are in fact rooted in older American political traditions (respectively, Jacksonian-Jeffersonian democracy and the New England town hall) and both enjoy a vitality that survived major upheavals: global war, market instability, immigration tensions.

-Progressives tend to pat themselves on the pack for their economic dynamism, belief in social progress, and moral purpose, and sometimes explicitly equate these factors. Populists view these stances as hypocritical or self-contradictory, but are themselves split between left-wing social democracy and right-wing white nationalism.

-Progressive support for free trade is matched by populist obsession with tariffs and trade wars with other countries in order to protect American workers. There is a sustained, unresolved debate over the cultural costs of the former and the economic costs of the latter.

-It is simultaneously a golden age and dark age of journalism: newspapers are crudely politicized, serving as mouthpieces for powerful interests and indirectly responsible for starting wars, but a new generation of muckrakers invent genres of storytelling and investigation using new media tools to reveal hitherto unacknowledged aspects of daily American life for public appraisal, laying the groundwork for social reform.

-Women rise up in unprecedented numbers to visibly challenge the patriarchal status quo. They win new rights and recognition, partly due to widespread frustration with the utterly corrosive spirit of national politics and the desire to civilize it with female comeliness and compassion.

Tthe most important political struggles are not partisan, but institutional: reformers want to rewrite the rules of politics and representation, climaxing in a series of constitutional amendments.

-Racism plays a key political role, but primarily through new immigrant waves that gel uncomfortably with the WASP culture of the Northeast and Midwest; a reckoning with the legacy of slavery is instead sublimated into nostalgia for the South as a realer, lost version of what America once was. A handful of black public intellectuals rise to prominence, but largely work on the periphery of the political conversation.

-New socio-technical infrastructures allow unprecedented numbers of people to simultaneously feel intimately connected to each other yet utterly anonymous and alone. This acts as a moral catalyst for the politicization of privacy, and while socialists and anarchists attempt to challenge the hegemony of market society, the center of political gravity moves toward developing standards of fairness by which the government can challenge big business without being totally antagonistic.

After assessing these factors, I have tried to derive lessons from that time period for the present moment:

-Populism and progressivism were each defined by self-contradictions that helped galvanize their appeal but limited their success geographically and institutionally. Their greatest accomplishments usually arose from collaborations between the two (e.g. trustbusting) or the willingness to extend political enfranchisement to a previously marginalized group (women, immigrants).

-It seems likely that the Progressive Era, and the zeitgeist we have now entered, are the “default” political setting of America: economically dynamic but morally rambunctious, culturally diverse but anxious for a common ethnic denominator, entrepreneurial but capable of collective social action, modernizing yet questioning the way technology ties us together. Trump’s presidency may be disturbing in large part because of how staid and artificially static our ideological divisions have remained since the Cold War, while his appeal forces us to confront the unfinished work of reform undertaken over a century ago regarding America’s key divisions: white vs. black, rural vs. urban, rich vs. poor. This is what America does when it is not distracted by foreign wars or debilitating recessions.

-We are now finally moving away from the form of liberalism that was captured and ossified in the New Deal, in favor of one that turns itself back on the institutions that for so long harbored its contradictions. The culture of university life, itself a product of the Progressive Era, is now under sustained political assault and may be economically unsustainable; unions, the pipe dream of socialist labor organizers, are almost dead; cities are once again the object of unprecedented economic growth and, at least from many populists, cultural scorn.

-The New Deal was historically unique. The country was reacting to unprecedented existential threats both foreign and domestic, and we cannot realistically expect Trump to be replaced by some comparable move toward red-meat social liberalism. The work to be done during the Progressive Era was actually much harder than the New Deal’s ad hoc commitments: to discover, in the emergent social forms and patterns of a new century, an emergent expression of democracy more true to our original blueprint than the timber of that time could provide.

-Barring outstanding figures, the Age of Reform was not a story of good guys vs. bad guys. The price paid by the Progressives for their idealism and social gospel was an unfiltered utopianism and unreflective sanctimony that could devolve into imperialism, state-sponsored eugenics, and unworkable international agreements like the League of Nations. The Populists are easier to vilify, but their isolationism and disdain for elites served an effective counterweight to Europe (which was working very hard to destroy itself), and their commitment to good-old-fashioned agrarianism put an intimidating future in context with an imagined past. Nations need stories, and while the Populists failed at making America great again, they at least articulated a vision of greatness that reformists, working from scratch, had to match in order to be taken seriously. To conduct their experiments, the Progressives needed a null hypothesis.

The Soothing Horror of the American Civil War

2ee58f52a3212c966ab5c8703acb04b3But often conflict first.

About a year ago I developed a fascination with the First World War. Not so much the military aspect, which I had explored thoroughly, if naively, as a child, but its politics. I was struck by how it seemed to be at the root of so many conflicts facing the world today: it was the beginning of America’s reluctant engagement with the world as a global power and its conception of a liberal international order, the origin of the alienation of Russia from the West and the center of gravity of China’s Century of Humiliation, it saw the birth of the modern Middle East and The West’s dysfunctional connection with it, and was the beginning of the end of Europe’s central role in world affairs. In many ways we are today still reckoning with its aftermath.

But more recently I realized that on the contrary it was also arguably the beginning of a cover-up of one of the primary issues we now face: America’s internal struggles and divisions. External enemies in the form of first the Kaiser’s and then Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and more recently Islamic Terrorism have allowed, or more probably compelled, us to forget the conflicted nature of our soul which animated so much of our earlier history and which has never really gone away.

I remember a discussion with my grandmother on the eve of Trump’s election. She told me, to my surprise, that even though she’d lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War and the Cold War and the 1960’s and 9/11, she’d never been more afraid for the country than she is now.

“I wasn’t really worried then, because we were always united. Now we’re so divided, it’s never been like this.”

There was something prophetic about what she said, given what’s happened since our conversation. But of course in a larger sense, it’s not true. We’ve been divided, and it’s been far worse. Not just “Cowboys and Indians”, not just national and ethnic conflicts between America and Mexico, not just Whiskey Rebellions and deadly duels. The most destructive, and arguably the central, conflict of our history was totally internal: The American Civil War. Our modern struggle with ourselves may be less an aberration and more a return to form.

And so I’ve found myself reaching for another bygone era of war in order to reconcile myself with current events. In particular, the antics of the Trump administration these past few weeks seemed to push me to a boiling point, which I found I was only able to dissipate by binge watching Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary on Netflix. It’s been cathartic.

The documentary conveys the horrors of slavery, the conflict that ended it, and the fog of war, panic, anger and confusion that permeated the era, in a way that’s almost paradoxically soothing in the sense of contextualizing our current problems and making them seem trifling in comparison. In being reminded of this history, our current discord seems both less surprising and less insurmountable. The truth is that this is part of who we are, and so while inescapable it’s also something we’ve fought with before and have learned to work through, even if at great cost.

There were a number of smaller lessons.

One aspect of the documentary I find interesting is its focus on the confusion about the meaning of the war during its early years. All were horrified by the crisis that was occurring, and as Lincoln later said “All knew that [slavery] was, somehow,” on some level, “the cause of the war”. But there was no clear consensus on whether or not it was more or less also about states’ rights, or the overzealousness and violence of Northern abolitionists, or some other problem.

And so arguably it was not the military victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863, but the political victory of emancipation in 1862, which was the turning point of the war. With emancipation, Lincoln was able to set the terms of the war in a way that made it simultaneously just, grounded in reality, and (all importantly) winnable. He won the battle for a consensus on what the war was really about, and won it in such a way that the outcome of the conflict was practically assured and purposeful.

There is a parallel here with our own time, and a lesson.

The documentary quotes Herman Melville as calling the fanatic John Brown “the meteor of the war.” Our own crisis was sparked by the meteoric rise of Donald Trump. Just like in 1861, although we are quite sure we are experiencing an existential crisis as a nation of some sort, and we have some vague idea that it involves a reckoning with our history of racism and sexism, but also perhaps economic inequality, and rapid societal changes, and the smugness of liberal coastal elites, and neoliberalism, and various other things, we haven’t settled this. We’re still debating it and on some level we’re still confused. Certain in our horror, perplexed by how and why it’s happened, we’re stuck.

The lesson is that decisively answering the question must be the first step in resolving the crisis. The nature of our current problems must be understood, or perhaps simply decided upon. We have to ascertain, resolve, and build consensus around the meaning of our problems in a way that is truthful but also makes the conflict winnable and meaningful.

I have my own opinion on this, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Another aspect is the nature of Presidential leadership. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln, in an important sense, really was the “first rate second rate man” he was mocked as in his time. But this may also have been what made him great. Arguably a “first rate” man (or woman) cannot be a truly great leader of a democracy, especially in a time of genuine crisis, because a “first rate” man has too much moral certainty and can believe too much in his own abilities. Lincoln had to feel things out, to negotiate personalities that were bigger than his, had to make mistakes and learn from them, and it was precisely these qualities that ensured his eventual successes in leading a conflicted democracy through its greatest crisis. It’s ironic in light of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent deification of Lincoln (which is nevertheless excellent), and the impact it apparently had on both Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s conception of what might be called the “philosopher king” chief executive. I’m proud of the presidential tenure of the genuinely first rate first rate man Barack Obama, but going forward we may be wise to look for a humbler, more small d-democratic, leader, who can negotiate the complexities of our time with humility and flexibility more than raw talent and carefully honed technocratic skill.

There were other lessons from the documentary, which I’m still chewing on. The war itself may be, like our history, something too big to ever fully be reckoned with in a final way.

After all, to echo Ta-Nehisi Coates, it was this violent forge of Civil War where so much of modern America, and therefore of the whole modern world, was born.

The painful hopeful secret of American society is that the whole nation is and always has been a wild, sometimes violent, laboratory of democracy, one whose results and conclusions impact the whole world around it. America must, and can, solve its own domestic problems before it can play its role in guiding the world through the current era of international crisis. For better and for worse, this is who we are.