Bearing Witness to the Truth

James Baldwin was among the most essential American writers of the 20th century.  Now, thanks to a new film about his life and work, called, I Am Not Your Negro, we can be assured that his influence will extend well into the 21st.

It may have been mere coincidence that this movie, directed by Raoul Peck, opened in Boston on the first weekend of Black History Month, but that doesn’t make the timing any less perfect.  After all, it was Baldwin—paraphrasing his hero Richard Wright—who observed, “The history of America is the history of the Negro in America.  And it’s not a pretty picture.”  If you don’t understand that very basic truth about our country, you don’t know anything at all.

The good news is that—for several obvious reasons—you couldn’t have picked a riper moment to get yourself up to speed on the subject of racism in the United States.  To that end—and just as a jumping-off point—you could do a lot worse than to track down every word that James Baldwin ever wrote.

Though the man himself has been dead for nearly three decades, the force of Baldwin’s ideas has never been more robust or germane to our ongoing National Conversation About Race.  While there are many great writers today who’ve devoted their lives to the struggle against white supremacy in our society, they are essentially carrying on an argument that originated with Baldwin and his contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s—an argument that was, itself, adapted from the generations of black intellectuals who came before.  If the specific battles have evolved from one era to the next, the overall war has remained the same, with the forces of oppression on one side and the forces of emancipation on the other.  As we know, the good guys do not always win.

Among the leading luminaries of his time—the majority of whom he knew personally—Baldwin served as a sort of philosophical and temperamental way station between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X—an unhappy medium bridging the Civil Rights Movement’s righteous anger to its “better angels” restraint.  Like Malcolm, Baldwin was prepared to excoriate the entirety of white America for its crimes against black humanity, while, like Martin, he was also willing to give (some) white people the benefit of the doubt.  Not unlike our most recent ex-president, he could acknowledge that evil springs from ignorance as much as from malevolence, insisting all the while that even accidental racism can ultimately poison a society to death.

As a polemicist—most famously in The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son—Baldwin’s great strength was to follow the truth wherever it led him, and to do so without compromise or fear.  Fiercely confident in his convictions—all of which were borne from hard-won personal experience—he never hesitated to tell people what they needed to know, rather than what they wanted to hear.  He had little patience for making his readers complacent—including fellow African-Americans—opting to challenge their assumptions at every opportunity, never sure that the fight for racial equality would—or could—end happily for either side.

The secret to his success—the reason so many readers discover him and can’t let him go—is the unparalleled beauty of his words—the way he bleeds poetry from a mountain of pain and despair.  It’s one thing to possess a probing mind and a fiery heart—both of which he had in spades—but to pour it all out in evocative, lyrical prose—so deep, yet seemingly so effortless—is the mark of not just a great thinker, but a great artist, as well.

Indeed, when he wasn’t churning out furious copy on the breadth and depth of racial injustice, Baldwin was penning first-rate novels like Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, which tell passionate, sexy, tragic stories of social outcasts and were, for their time, extraordinarily frank about such taboos as homosexuality and mixed-race relationships.  Here, as in his essays, Baldwin felt liberated to portray the world as it really was, unburdened by cultural mores that supposedly made such honesty impossible.

And it’s not like this moral courage didn’t have a real cost.  As shown in I Am Not Your Negro, by the mid-1960s Baldwin became a major target of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  All told, the Bureau’s file on Baldwin ran 1,884 pages and chronicled everything from his political activities to his sexuality—both of which were complicated, to say the least—and seemed to view him as a national threat almost on par with Communism and the Black Panthers.

In retrospect, there may be no higher honor for a writer than to earn a spot on J. Edgar Hoover’s enemies list—particularly when Baldwin himself always claimed to be an observer of the Civil Rights Movement, not an active participant.  That the FBI could be so terrified of a man whose only weapon was a typewriter should give real hope to those who doubt the elemental power of the pen.  That Baldwin’s homosexuality caused his own allies to view him with suspicion is a tragic irony that underlines why the fight for equality tends to be so goddamned messy and disappointing.

However controversial he proved in his own time—indeed, because of it—James Baldwin has long since earned a place of immortality among the brave black men and women who risked life and limb to secure a measure of dignity and autonomy in a society determined to give them neither.  To the extent that millions of Americans are unaware of Baldwin’s immense contemporary importance to the ongoing struggle against white supremacy, I Am Not Your Negro provides a superb introduction to both the man and the worldview he espoused.  If Peck’s movie leads more people to explore the primary sources—and, through them, to achieve a greater understanding of the meaning of a life inside a black body—it will count as an unqualified triumph of documentary cinema.  No Oscar required.

The End of Comedy

Should today’s comedians tailor their material for people with no sense of humor?

Obviously the answer is no.  But you’d never know it from the past few weeks, in which far too many humorless rubes have had far too much say—and sway—over what cheeky, intelligent comics are allowed to say.

Increasingly, we are becoming a society in which every public statement—be it serious or in jest—must be understood by the dumbest, most literal-minded person in the room, and in which irony and sophistication are punished and looked upon with scorn.

It’s a form of cultural suicide.  Shame on us for doing so little to stop it.

We could look just about anywhere for examples, but at this moment, we might as well begin with Trevor Noah.

A stand-up comedian by trade, Noah was unknown to most Americans until the fateful moment two weeks ago when he was given the job of a lifetime:  Successor to Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central.

Naturally, this announcement led Daily Show viewers to plumb the Internet for clues about who the heck Trevor Noah is.  As it turns out, he is an uncommonly deft and sneakily subversive 31-year-old from South Africa who found great success in his country of birth—in radio, television and onstage—before wafting over to the United States in 2011.

He is also an extremely active presence on Twitter.  Since joining in 2009, he has issued nearly 9,000 tweets in all.  (That’s roughly four per day, in case you didn’t want to do the math.)

Like the rest of us, Noah tweets pretty much every half-clever thought that pops into his head, and because he tells jokes for a living, the entirety of his Twitter output covers an awful lot of ground.

By itself, this fact is not especially interesting—and certainly not “newsworthy”—but then the world made a horrifying discovery from which it has not yet recovered:  Some of those 9,000 tweets were politically incorrect.

The horror.

I confess that I have not personally read all six years’ worth of brain droppings from an entertainer who’s been culturally relevant for 15 days.  However, many people apparently have, because within hours of Noah’s hire, they produced the aforementioned damning tweets, about which two facts stand out:  First, none of them is less than three years old.  And second, you can count them on the fingers of one hand.

What is their content, you ask?  Which 140-character quips are so horrible—so appallingly beyond the pale—that their existence is germane to us several years after the fact, and are possibly grounds for dismissal for the man who quipped them?

They were, in no particular order:  A putdown of Nazi Germany.  A mild critique of Israel.  An observation about the scarcity of white women with curves.  And a musing about the value of alcohol for women with a few too many curves.

And.  That’s.  About.  It.

At this juncture, we could go further into depth, if we were so inclined.  We could follow the lead of Noah’s critics, attempting to connect a handful of disparate tweets to the inner workings of Noah’s soul.

Or we could choose option B:  Grow up, get a life and stop throwing a tantrum every time someone says something that makes us uncomfortable.

I’ll keep it simple:  If a biracial comedian’s cracks about white women are too much for you to handle, then you have no business watching Comedy Central.  If you cannot stomach the notion of an émigré from South Africa having a critical view of Israel—a country that tacitly supported the former’s apartheid government until the bitter end—then you’d better steer clear of any newspaper or magazine that crosses your desk, because it just might give you a heart attack.

Sorry to break the news, but one of the consequences of living in a country with freedom of speech is that people will occasionally speak freely, and you might not agree with all of them.

Or, in this case, even understand what they’re saying.

My fear, you see, is not just that free expression itself is under attack, but that a great deal of this offense-taking is based on misapprehensions.  That smart people cannot say anything in public without worrying how their words might be interpreted by idiots.

Case in point:  Note the stupidity surrounding Bill Maher’s recent throwaway gag about how Zayn Malik, the now-ex-member of One Direction, bears a passing resemblance to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Juvenile, yes.  But the logic could not have been more obvious:  Person A looks like Person B, end of joke.  It’s funny (or not) because one is evil while the other is an innocuous pop star, and that’s what irony is all about.

No one could possibly have understood the joke in any other way.  And so, of course, everyone did.

OK, not everyone.  But there were enough complaints about Maher “comparing” Malik to Tsarnaev—paired with the fact that Malik is Muslim, which no one outside the One Direction fan club would have known—for this to become a news story in many major publications.  For a solid few days, an HBO talk show host was compelled to explain the comedic concept of implying that one famous person looks a little bit like another famous person.

Has America really become that intellectually infantile?  Is this the level to which our public discourse has plunged?  How long will our best and brightest continue to shoulder this burden before everyone else finally wises up?

Certainly, it’s not a new phenomenon that an entire culture can get dragged down by its lowest-hanging fruit—our so-called “bad apples.”  Just look at how a handful of corrupt, racist cops have single-handedly tarnished the image of their entire profession, even as 90-something percent of their colleagues are doing their jobs exactly as they should.

But it’s even trickier when it comes to the militant enforcement of political correctness, because unlike killing unarmed black people, being offended by a joke as a result of your own ignorance is not against the law.  As my eighth grade history teacher said, “In this country, you’re allowed to be stupid.”

And it’s not just about jokes.  The tendency to lazily misinterpret a sophisticated public statement has consequences for our political leaders, too.  And, indeed, for the very language we speak.

I am reminded, for instance, of candidate Mitt Romney touting his family’s support for civil rights by saying, “I saw my father march with Martin Luther King.”  George Romney was, indeed, a strong ally of the Civil Rights Movement, consistently supporting Dr. King’s efforts and even leading a Michigan march (as the state’s governor) to protest the police brutality in Selma, Alabama in 1965. However, according to newspaper reports, Romney and Dr. King never literally appeared at the same event on the same day.  This led the media to tar Mitt Romney as a liar for implying that they had.

In one sense, the media were right to call Romney out for saying something that was technically untrue.  However, considering the full context of Romney’s statement—namely, the fact that his father was a champion of black civil rights, despite being a white Republican—we can accept the words “march with” as a rhetorical device in service to a broader truth, rather than as a bald-faced fabrication.

Except that we don’t accept such things anymore, because we’re too busy setting mousetraps for our public servants to get caught in.  Thanks to the wonders of the interwebs, we live in an age in which every statement is maniacally fact-checked and a politician can’t get away with anything.

For the most part, this is a good thing, because it means that true deceptions get exposed within minutes of being uttered and our leaders are kept relatively honest.

However, this instinct toward righteous, ruthless truth-seeking can be taken too far, leading us to take down politicians for transcendently silly reasons, and possibly dissuading future leaders from ever entering the arena.

So long as our public figures have reason to worry that everything they say will be taken literally—including words and phrases that are self-evidently figurative—they will have no choice but to dumb down their oratory and rhetoric until all the poetic flourishes are gone—and, with it, any hint of inspiration or linguistic flair.

That’s how our future is looking, so you’d better prepare yourself.  At long last, we are fulfilling the prophesy of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who remarked one week after 9/11, “It’s the end of the age of irony.”

It took 13 years, but we’ve finally achieved a culture in which no one is allowed to be funny.

That is, unless one of two things happens:  Either the dolts who can’t take a joke suddenly acquire the powers of subtlety, or the rest of us stop giving them the time of day.  I don’t know about you, but I have a pretty good idea about which of those scenarios is more likely to occur in our lifetime.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that stupidity cannot be eradicated.  It can only be marginalized, ridiculed and ultimately ignored.