Sunday, November 13, 2016

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This brief book, winner of the National Book Award, consists of what a man tells his fifteen-year old son about the world, and how he may prepare himself for what lies ahead. The author is Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African American journalist who grew up in the ghettos of Baltimore and Philadelphia. His subject is the Dream, by which he means white America, and the primordial threat it represents to the African American's body:

Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the pre-eminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society, and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible - this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white...The new people were something else before they were white - Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish - and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again... The elevation of the belief in being white was ... achieved through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies. 

Coates reviews his life, from his childhood in which If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later.

But he finds freedom in the library, where he can read what he wants and learn in ways that fit his experience and curiosity. He goes on to Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, DC, where truly the best and brightest of black culture are assembled. He meets students from other cities, other countries, other world-views, and his eagerness to learn takes him to Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, where every day he requests three books, and from them absorbs history, culture, philosophy. He meets, among other young people, his wife. But even within this cultural elite, the inescapable fact of their status in America is brutally present.

Prince Jones was an accomplished handsome young man, a paragon of what Howard University meant to Coates. But one night Prince Jones was murdered by a Prince Georges County, Maryland, police officer. What facts we know seem incomprehensible: Jones was driving from PG County through DC into northern Virginia to see his fiancee, and during that journey was pursued by a lone PG County undercover cop in drug dealer's clothes, through three jurisdictions, then shot in his car a block from his destination. The cop confronted Jones with his gun drawn and no badge. The cop's quarry was a drug dealer whose physique was not even remotely similar to Jones'. He claimed Jones tried to run over him with his jeep. During the inquiry, it was learned: The officer was a known liar. A year earlier he had arrested a man on false evidence. Prosecutors had been forced to drop every case in which the officer was involved. The officer was demoted, restored, then put out on the street to continue his work...[after the inquiry into Jones' death, the officer] was charged with nothing. He was punished by no one. He was returned to his work... 

The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country's criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies - the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects - are the product of democratic will... The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.

Coates delineates an unbridgeable gap between white America and the lives of black people. He traces this schism to the roots of our country, in which slave-holders prevailed in keeping slavery legal in the new nation. He is not wrong about the peril of being black in America, where no matter who you are, if you're black you can be shot down by a police officer - or citizen - so blinded by fear that imagining a weapon in a black man's hand is sufficient cause to kill him - and be exonerated for doing so.

Coates does not believe in God. He believes that body and soul are one, and that this life is all we have. He knows he is living in the cross-hairs, vulnerable at any moment to have his body taken from him by someone he does not know, who sees in him only a threat. He conveys this danger to his son, hoping it will not keep him from expressing his vitality.

Given the outcome of our recent election, what can people he identifies as white do?
We can challenge the militarizing of police departments: using armored vehicles and body armor and automatic weapons reinforces the attitude that they are at war, constantly under threat, patrolling for enemies, ready for combat.
We can challenge the justice system that allows murderers to walk free if those they killed were black.
We can challenge the penal system, in which for-profit prisons create a demand for cells to be filled.
We can challenge our own assumptions and fears, which form the basis of this deadly system.

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin

Published in 1971, The Lathe of Heaven has complete relevance for our time. Ursula Le Guin's perceptive references to overpopulation, global warming, and the ravages too many humans have wrought on our planet, are as immediate as if she'd written them last week. But those problems are incidental to the story, which is about human limits and hubris.

In Portland, Oregon in the near future, George Orr, an average man in every respect but one, seeks the assistance of a psychologist, Dr. Haber:
"Why do you think your mother didn't notice that reality had changed since last night?"
"Well, she didn't dream it. I mean, the dream really did change reality. It made a different reality, retroactively, which she'd been part of all along. Being in it, she had no memory of any other. I did, I remembered both, because I the moment of the change. This is the only way I can explain it, I know it doesn't make sense. But I have got to have some explanation, or else face the fact that I am insane."

So Dr. Haber tests him with hypnosis, recording a short effective dream on his Augmentor, a machine he has built to record brain activity in different states; sure enough, George's dream changes the mural on the wall from Mt. Hood to a racehorse. The doctor undertakes to help George, but gradually seeks more and more to control his dreaming, to direct it. As you might guess, the subconscious, while suggestible, is also unpredictable, and Dr. Haber's "solutions" to world problems have their own terrible consequences, while George is caught between not wanting to be his tool, and believing his visits to Dr. Haber are his only alternative to suicide.

That's enough story to go on. Le Guin's writing has a wonderfully distinct voice:

When he came out of the portals of Willamette East Tower, the March sky was high and clear above the street canyons. The wind had come round to blow from the east, the dry desert wind that from time to time enlivened the wet, hot, sad, gray weather of the Valley of the Willamette.

Le Guin shows us the incremental corruption of power - Dr. Haber has good intentions, but they are his intentions, based on his view of how the world should be. Inevitably his sense of self-importance drowns out his ability to listen, and his faith in the machine he has perfected gives him the illusion of understanding George's mental processes as he dreams. Like humans of every era, Dr. Haber knows enough to be dangerous, but not enough to realize how dangerous his knowledge is.

He wants to be in charge, more than he wants to be part of a whole. In this election season, that seems so familiar. Yet, given that Le Guin wrote this book 45 years ago, I feel more hopeful than I have in months, that this too shall pass, and life will go on. I highly recommend this book!