Meanwhile, this morning I received this email, so clearly at least one of us knows how to stick to his knitting:
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went on Instagram this week and gave an hour of sustained rhetoric that will change the minds of no one, but will give her choir a whole passionate symphony to sing together.
One of the subjects she addressed was “white supremacy,” which is a term that has to be confusing a lot of us these days.
Forgive us. We are old.
And for like 50 of our 51 years, “white supremacists” were skinhead guys, swastika-tattooed guys and guys with hoods. They were guys who, when you accused them of being “white supremacists,” said, “Yer goddamned right!”
Now, leaders like Ocasio-Cortez and antiracist writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates are saying the whole American society is white supremacist, which means a lot of us regular old white people must be white supremacists. Which is totally ridiculous. Or was totally ridiculous, until like 15 minutes ago it seems like to most of us, who just spent five years deciding what we thought about cultural appropriation.
I don’t have a huge antiracist bookshelf, I admit. And I’ve already caught some reviewer hell for some words in my forthcoming book that question the usefulness of the term “white privilege,” as sometimes used in conversation. “I don’t think that’s the last you’re going to hear about that,” said my wife, who had urged me to spike that essay in the first place. But I’m happy to have that debate; and I won’t even much mind losing it. During this mind-stretching year, I feel like I’m in college again.
But what are we to think of the idea that “white supremacists” are prevalent among us—or even that many of us have white supremacists inside us? When there are still the shaved-head/swastika/hooded guys out there—and so prominently of late!—going by the same name?
Here’s what I think is meant by non-skinhead/swastika/hooded white supremacists (and I eagerly invite clarification, elaboration or refutation): White people who love all people. Who have Black friends. Who think Martin Luther King was terrific. Who think Mexicans are terrific. Who want the best for all people. Who may be Republican and may be Democrat. And who may even be Black! But just believe—no, just sort of assume—basically and maybe even so deep down that they don’t actually even think about it, that white people (and/or men) are the drivers of history and naturally belong in the center, and in charge of the future. (And in charge of defining terms like “white supremacist.”)
Because that was the social order they spent their formative years in, the social order they learned to operate in and the social order they believe they know how to live out the rest of their lives in—and raise their kids in. The only social order they’ve ever known.
They don’t hate the idea of not being at the center of the social order: They just can’t imagine it, exactly. That makes them feel dumb. And when grown-ups feel dumb, they feel scared. And when they feel scared, some of them behave defensively, dismissing white meditations like the one you’re reading as “woke virtue signaling.”
Now, if you define white supremacist like that, how many of us have to cop to white supremacist attitudes, if we’re being honest? I think it would be easier to count the number of us who can entirely declaim it.
But if we’re going to have a mainstream grappling with this kind of white supremacy, it does seem we need a new word that’s decoupled from another term that’s equivalent to, scum of the earth.
Which is different.
Does the escalation from anger to madness in this country have anything to do with our physical isolation from one another over the last year?
The question came to my mind as I read a remembrance of James Harvey, a cultural historian who focused on American movies. He wrote specifically about his love for American movie theaters—”the feeling in the place” when you’re watching a movie with random other Americans, and yet you experience the story together in a shared spirit that Harvey called, “the common American knowingness.”
What is that thing? It’s not political agreement. It’s a deeper agreement than that, about basic human reality. It’s important for making relationships work. And maybe it’s essential to holding a country like ours together.
Lot of people think air-conditioning made America less familiar, bringing neighbors in from our summer porches. Arthur Miller wrote about Central Park in New York, before air-conditioning. People slept outside on fire escapes, or in Central Park, where Miller remembered tip-toeing “among the hundreds of people, singles and families, who slept on the grass, next to their big alarm clocks, which set up a mild cacophony of the seconds passing, one clock’s ticks syncopating with another’s. Babies cried in the darkness, men’s deep voices murmured, and a woman let out an occasional high laugh beside the lake.”
Common American knowingness, common American space.
I think that was what a pal of mine was referring to recently when he agreed we should not argue politics while we can’t see each other. He wrote: “Any intelligent debate on the subject of America in today’s light, between you and I, could only be done over a pool table and many beers :)”
Not that either of us looks forward to that session at all or that the beer will do much good. (I’m thinking of a boozy argument with another friend that was so fierce his false teeth kept falling out onto the bar.) But that the spacial proximity around the pool table will make us real to one another once again, and harder, since we still have great love in our hearts, for the other to dismiss. In a room together we will not be mere debate opponents to be scored against, but living, breathing people, accountable to parallel lifetimes of accumulated common knowingness—common American knowingness.
My high-school daughter and her classmates have long suspected that their beloved choir teacher is a Trump guy. Now, Trump people are a rare species in these parts, and as scary to Chicago kids as Sasquatch. So this notion always troubled them, but the man was so charming and funny and loving (and musical) a presence in their daily lives that it never came to a head. (I’ve seen this teacher make a joke during a choir concert; the kids laugh in harmony.) But during this year of remote learning—complete with George Floyd and the election—steam began to build, until one Zoom period last week, when a student demanded that the teacher talk about what had happened at the Capitol. He refused: “This is my class.” One or more students said something to the principal. The teacher read a statement yesterday, tearfully. “I love every one of you,” he concluded. Afterward, my daughter was in tears, too.
“I don’t know what to think,” she said. “I know, Honey,” I said.
John Kennedy said sixty years ago, “Let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
Whatever else we need to do to hold this country together—and our families and our friendships and our schools and our workplaces—we’ve got to make it safe to start sharing that air again, before it’s too late.