Teju Cole on American Racism

American racism has many moving parts and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage. It can hoard its malice in great stillness for a long time, all the while pretending to look the other way. Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” The news of the day (old news, but raw as a fresh wound) is that black American life is disposable from the point of view of policing, sentencing, economic policy, and countless terrifying forms of disregard. There is a vivid performance of innocence, but there’s no actual innocence left.

 

Cole, Teju. Known and Strange Things: Essays, Random House, New York, 2016: 15-16.

Angela Davis from Marin County Jail, May 1971

In the heat of our pursuit for fundamental human rights, Black people have been continually cautioned to be patient. We are advised that as long as we remain faithful to the existing democratic order, the glorious moment will eventually arrive when we will come into our own as full-fledged human beings.

But having been taught by bitter experience, we know that there is a glaring incongruity between democracy and the capitalist economy that is the source of our ills.

*

There is a distinct and qualitative difference between one breaking a law for one’s own individual self-interest and violating it in the interests of a class or a people whose oppression is expressed either directly or indirectly through that particular law. The former might be called a criminal, but the latter, as a reformist or revolutionary, is interested in universal social change. Captured, he or she is a political prisoner.

The offense of the political prisoner is his/her boldness, persistent challenging—legally or extra-legally—of fundamental social wrongs fostered and reinforced by the state. He/she has opposed unjust laws and exploitative, racist social conditions in general, with the ultimate aim of transforming these laws and this society into an order harmonious with the material and spiritual needs and interests of the vast majority of its members.

*

In Black communities, wherever they are located, there exists an ever-present reminder that our universe must remain stable in its drabness, its poverty, its brutality. From Birmingham to Harlem to Watts, Black ghettoes are occupied, patrolled and often attacked by massive deployments of police. The police, domestic caretakers of violence, are the oppressor’s emissaries, charged with the task of containing us within the boundaries of our oppression.

The announced function of the police, to protect and serve the people, becomes the grotesque caricature of protecting and preserving the interests of our oppressors and serving us nothing but injustice. They are there to intimidate and persuade Blacks with their violence that we are powerless to alter the conditions of our lives.

They encircle the community with a shield of violence, too often forcing the natural aggression of the Black community inwards. The courts not only consistently abstain from prosecuting criminal behavior on the part of the police, but they convict, on the basis of biased police testimony, countless Black men and women.

*

The [current] movement is presently at a critical juncture. Fascist methods of repression threaten to physically decapitate and obliterate the movement. Dangerous ideological tendencies from within threaten to isolate the movement and diminish its revolutionary impact. Both menaces must be counteracted in order to ensure our survival. Revolutionary Blacks must spearhead and provide leadership for a broad anti-fascist movement.

 

Davis, Angela. Political Prisoners, Prisons and Black Liberation, written from Marin County Jail, May 1971. From If They Come in the Morning…Voices of Resistance. Verso Books, London, 2016: 27-43. First published by The Third Press, 1971.

Mark Greif on Seeing Through Police

A surprise of being around police is how much they touch you. The purpose of touching by police is to make persons touchable. Touch readies more touch. It is preparatory.

The sudden violent arrest at a protest is almost never sudden if you have been watching the officer and the longer sequence.

In recent decades, African Americans have made proverbial the facetious offenses that police seem to be pursuing: “driving while black,” “shopping while black,” and walking while black.” The history of racial terrorism by whites is old. Police have gradually taken up its responsibilities in a process that goes back more than a century. Police departments’ role in racial terror has survived even where racism has waned and their forces have integrated nonwhite officers. Racial terrorism is simply part of the job for local and metropolitan police forces in America – any policing at the level of the city, broadly construed.

Racial terror creates enormous complications for any ordinary theory of what American police do, just as it carves a fundamental division between the experience and the expectations that non-African American citizens have of police and those held by African Americans.

The more time you spend looking at police, the more you see that the law is not a true resource for them…Police lack law…This explains the police perception of, and anathema toward, any symbol of disorder or mess. In their daily practice, police pledge at every level to avoid mess or clean it up.

Part of the reason police seem at present un-reformable is that they have no intelligible place in the philosophy of democracy. It’s possible they never have. When our theories of democracy took shape, police as we know them were a minor tertiary agency and an afterthought. If police don’t take stock of the Constitution, might it be because our Constitution can’t conceive of them?

Liberal and social contract theories of democracy – from Hobbes and Locke to the American Republic constituted in 1789 – do have a central place for punishment, but not for police. Crime and punishment belong to judicial proceedings and courts, where the cause can be unfolded after the fact.

Secrecy by police in a public place always identifies them as a suspect. Yet police departments hold tightly to their capacities for secrecy and claim them to be necessary for their heroic function of detection and investigation. Insofar as as detection of crime is what police wish their job was about, police are likely always to strain for greater secrecy in a democracy.

Where sight disappears, abuse becomes possible.

Police are negotiators, but without access to contract, law or eloquence. Their medium is not law. Police negotiate without any single, unitary reference or goal. Even a traffic stop becomes a negotiation.

When police eye African Americans, harass African Americans, obstruct the movements of African Americans and wind up drawing their guns and murdering African Americans – which even in the twenty-first century they do with regularity and impunity, no matter the police department or region of the United States – it’s first because America still sees racially. Kidnapping an African labor force to build the country is still the country’s unrepented sin.

Violence is given to police as a technique they alone can use, in the service of the overall nonviolence or pacification of society such that citizens need never use violence legitimately upon one another – they route it through police, so to speak. But this formal device winds up defining police by their application of violence. They wind up originating violence as a means of resolving any social deadlock. Police add violence to situations. This becomes a way of injecting testing violence or domination into the heart of society in a public way.

Our neighbors may support [police] wickedness. We may have no idea how to fix it. Still, police violence differs from other forms of violence and domination that have no visible presence, or public check. The police measure out in public what the society will tolerate, even to our shame.

 

 

Greif, Mark. Seeing Through Police, from Against Everything: On Dishonest Times. Verso Books, London, 2016: 270-285.

coronavirus blues

Daydreaming in aisle five

toothpaste and shampoo

silent sparkling commerce

air conditioned

red arrows on scuffed white tile

a guide in the labyrinth

whole aisles are wastelands

handwritten signs: OUT OF STOCK

no one looks at me

not masked employees

shuffling

ignoring everyone

afraid

not shoppers

some unmasked

aggressive

center-of-the-universe

others kind, warm

smiling behind masks

at the absurdity

a blackbird loops above the bakery

scouting crumbs

I’ve been here too long

they don’t have what I need

 

back in the car I

sanitize

mask down

never dreamed I’d need

masks for my family

 

through deserted streets

atomic sunlight

paranoid and guilty

for what I might now carry

 

portrait of a mute

IMG_0942

There he was, pale faced and morose. Nobody like him anywhere. Beneath the white lamp glow, sullen there with his stack of blank papers, which would be creased or imperfect if only he didn’t fill them so quickly, if only the pages remained longer in his care, beneath his pen and his scrutiny.

What is the measure of a man? Is it in his handwriting? A person’s life displayed before the discerning reader, as if in a crystal ball. Wade’s short bursts of near-perfect proportionality were written hastily, without error, as if the author, given to spasmodic and obsessive episodes with the pen, always knew where his pen was headed. As if the pen cast a sweeping glance like headlights upon the fibers and terrain it was soon to illuminate. As if the driver of that pen, omniscient and aware of his fate, preferred to follow blindly rather than see his journey.

Galeano on Marx

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14 March : CAPITAL — In 1883 a crowd gathered for Karl Marx’s funeral in a London cemetery — a crowd of eleven, counting the undertaker.

The most famous of his sayings became his epitaph: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’

The prophet of global change spent his life fleeing the police and his creditors.

Regarding his masterwork, he said: ‘No one ever wrote so much about money while having so little.’ Capital will not even pay for the cigars I smoked while writing it.’

 

From Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, trans. by Fried, Mark. Penguin Group, New York, 2013: 85.  

Dialogue with Nietzsche, c. 2020

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Nietzsche: For the New Year: I still live, I still think; I must still live, for I must still think.[1]

T: The new year will be one of intense thought paired with increased mental rest. The idea is to continue expanding the intellectual rigor—more study and writing—then periodically scram (more often). The last thing I want is to end up like you, looking up from a pile of horse shit.[2]

[laughter]

Changes in mind and body strike in real time, not arbitrarily. Waves of thought inundate my mental shoreline, but I must continue—how else to improve on yesterday? Then take pause to quiet the mind after high tide. Each day is a lesson in writing: reflective, creative, wasteful. Advance yesterday’s intent and record its progress. Every day for decades. A different page on the calendar does not change it.

Nietzsche: The best author will be he who is ashamed to become one.[3]

T: I’ll never be ashamed and I’ll never be the best. We’ve both written ridiculous nonsense in our lives, but all I’m ashamed of are the early works and their palpable infancy. Where is your shame, dear teacher?[4]

Nietzsche: The happiest fate is that of the author who, as an old man, is able to say that all there was in him of life-inspiring, strengthening, exalting, enlightening thoughts and feelings still lives on in his writings, and that he himself now only represents the gray ashes while the fire has been kept alive and spread out.[5]

T: We writers are ash before the creative process, a storm of fire in the midst of the work and ash once again when the work is complete. The energy used to create the work is powerful enough to spawn something immortal. For somehow, in creating an object of the intellect, as you wrote: “I am of today and before, but something is in me that is of tomorrow, and the day following, and time to come.”[6]

And yes, live! Today is an opportunity and tomorrow will be another, shall you find good fortune to arrive upon its shore.

Nietzsche: Be of good cheer; what does it matter! How much is still possible! Learn to laugh at yourselves as you ought to laugh![7]

T: Laughter is undoubtedly the skeleton key for this labyrinth. Reference your example of the Dionysian impulse within us: yearning for what makes us feel good and perform at our best.[8] Look to your student Foucault who embodied it as a life philosophy. Just as with you and extremes of the mind, Foucault surrendered to physical extremes. My (more) moderate perspective reminds me that laughter is responsible for the best memories of my brief life, and that if I were to chase an extreme, marry myself to it entirely without fear of residual repercussions or side effects (e.g., you: terrible death, Foucault: terrible death[9]), it would be a life of laughter. Laughter is death’s most formidable adversary.

Nietzsche: Living—that is to continually eliminate from ourselves what is about to die.[10]

T: The human experience is living in a house one block from train tracks upon which trains traverse a hundred times a day, sirens blaring at all hours, shaking the room and waking the sleeper just as she falls asleep, finally.[11]

Nietzsche: The thinker, as likewise the artist, who has put his best self into his works, feels an almost malicious joy when he sees how his mind and body are being slowly damaged and destroyed by time, as if from a dark corner he were spying a thief at his money chest, knowing all the time that it was empty and his treasures in safety.[12]

T: Many of my edges at age 40 are yet smoothed from genetics and (relative) youth but most are visibly chipped and cracking, some damaged. I’m not ashamed or prideful of my imperfections but have always been aware of my mortality. Close proximity to death as a child wired my brain to expect to die at any time, anywhere—especially in the home. It’s no wonder I isolate myself and carry a notebook to ponder mortality like a friend or adversary (selfsame).

Nietzsche: A person needs to learn much if he is to live, to fight his battle for survival…[13]

T: One survives by learning to adapt. If you don’t adapt, you don’t survive. But we always need more critical thinkers, people who yearn to continue learning as they age. These individuals feel responsible for examining the human condition and improving it. Perhaps it is their responsibility—who else will do it?

Nietzsche: There is much that is difficult for the spirit, the strong reverent spirit that would bear much: but its strength demands the difficult and the most difficult.[14]

T: You can’t set examples if you’re afraid of responsibility.

Nietzsche: Anyone and everyone wants to lie back in the shadow of the tree that the genius has planted, while avoiding the hard necessity of working for that genius, of making him possible.[15]

T: It’s about inspiration, willpower and ability. Do average people feel inspired into action? Do they have the willpower to act? Are they able to act? For as you once wrote: “One must speak to indolent and sleepy senses with thunder and heavenly fireworks.”[16]

I look to you and the other sages to help me understand the current state of global affairs. I want to know what motivates people and why. American politics are a mess and it’s the same just about everywhere. Perhaps the fissure between core ideals has become too large to traverse. It’s an era of intense bickering and stubbornness, of falsity and lies. It’s difficult for anyone to discern the truth. People have thus perpetuated the falseness and lies, which have evolved into something greater than the lie tellers.

Nietzsche: The greatest labor of human beings hitherto has been to agree with one another regarding a number of things, and to impose upon themselves a law of agreement, which is indifferent to whether these things are true or false. This is the discipline of the mind that has thus far preserved mankind, but the counter-impulses are still so powerful that one can truly speak of the future of mankind with little confidence.[17]

T: Confidence has lapsed with the destruction of institutions—it’s been a steady erosion. People have become comfortable with their supposed leaders behaving in opposition to established norms of decorum and respect, but also in opposition to fundamental principles. They have become accustomed to false representation. Their president in America lies and steals, he works backchannels and shouts and pushes buttons and has amassed a squadron of blind followers who believe the lies or at least tolerate them. It’s unclear how the fanaticism reached such elevated levels—do they actually believe the lies (are they duped), or do they hate the other ideals so much as to become responsible for their own blindness?

Nietzsche: Fanaticism is the sole volitional strength to which the weak and irresolute can be excited, as a sort of hypnotizing of the entire sensory-intellectual system, in favor of the over-abundant nutrition (hypertrophy) of a particular point of view and particular sentiment, which then dominates […] When a man arrives at the fundamental conviction that he requires to be commanded, he becomes a believer.[18]

T: You used believer there in the context of Christianity, but it applies to any fanatic belief (blindness).[19]

Nietzsche: Belief is always most desired, most pressingly needed where there is a lack of will: for the will […] is the distinguishing characteristic of sovereignty and power. That is to say, the less a person knows how to command, the more urgent is his desire for that which commands, and commands sternly—a god, a prince, a caste, a physician, a confessor, a dogma, a party conscience.[20]

T: I’d like to continue this discussion again once I’ve reread your later writings like The Will to Power, The Antichrist and Twilight of the Idols. Perhaps in the spring. Until then I’ll use your teaching and the teachings of others to navigate this terrain and find a pathway through. I can carry the light that you and the others kept aflame. Thank you as always.

_______________________________________

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science. Trans. by Common, Thomas. Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 2008: 133.

[2] Nietzsche famously collapsed in Turin, Italy on January 3, 1889 after witnessing a horse flogging. He collapsed at the horse’s feet, beginning his descent (ascent?) into madness and subsequent death.

[3] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human. Trans. by Zimmern, Helen. Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 2008: 107.

[4] T: My teacher should be ashamed of his misogyny. It’s easy for me to critique the great thinker more than a century removed, but his view of women is misaligned, at best. One reason for this is undoubtedly his soured relationship with Lou Salomé, a female intellectual he admired and fell in love with. In 1882, Nietzsche, along with his friend, philosopher Paul Rée, assembled an intellectual trio with 21-year-old Salomé. Nietzsche fell for Salomé straight away and at least three times proposed marriage to her. Salomé rejected Nietzsche’s advances and ultimately began romantic relations with Rée, leaving Nietzsche alone, in anguish.

[5] Human, All Too Human: 113.

[6] Nietzsche, Friedrich, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. by Martin, Clancy. Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 2007: 112.

[7] Thus Spoke Zarathustra: 251.

[8] T: Nietzsche’s dialectic of Apollo and Dionysius in his book The Birth of Tragedy is basically this: Human life is a continual struggle between two internally competing instincts, or powers—Apollonian (rationality, lightness, structure, harmony, restraint) and Dionysian (madness, chaos, drunkenness, ecstasy, creativity).

[9] T: Nietzsche had at least two strokes following his collapse in Turin, and he died (aged 55) from pneumonia 19 months after falling at the horse’s feet. Michel Foucault, 20th-Century philosopher, died of complications from AIDS in 1984 (aged 57) after admitting to rampant unprotected sexual encounters with men in San Francisco and elsewhere in the early 1980s.

[10] The Gay Science: 41.

[11] T: In early winter 2019 I moved to such a spot. Now, after a few months next to the train tracks, I feel a Dionysian urge to destroy the trains and smother their hellish screams that cannot be escaped at any hour. Lying awake in the darkness I calculate the men or women responsible for the blaring horns and I design the most violent stratagems upon their very lives.

[12] Human, All Too Human: 113.

[13] Nietzsche, Friedrich, Anti-Education. Trans. by Searls, Damion. New York Review Books, New York, 2016: 54.

[14] Thus Spoke Zarathustra: 25.

[15] Anti-Education: 14.

[16] Thus Spoke Zarathustra: 82.

[17] The Gay Science: 65.

[18] The Gay Science: 182.

[19] fanatic: a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal, especially for an extreme religious or political cause. New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press, 2010.

[20] The Gay Science: 181.