THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 18, 2021
Can't hear a word they're saying: As we've noted previously, Richard Elman didn't seem to like the 1971 book, A Rap on Race.
Elman, a figure of the left, reviewed the book for the New York Times. He didn't just dislike the book—the book almost seemed to make him angry. As we've noted previously, he began his review as shown:
ELMAN (6/27/71): No fuss. No bother. Eliminate dirty smudges on the fingertips, broken nails, and messy erasure marks. You don't need to revise, rethink, or rewrite. You don't even need to write. Just think of it, folks: No more bloodshot eyes, or coffee bowels, or angry friends you've stood up to work just a little longer, harder, more. Sealed inside your own angry mortal human vacuum, to be just as fatuous as Margaret Mead and James Baldwin about the crisis of our time—particularly race—all you have to do is talk and not listen, always avoid expressing your feelings openly, refer constantly to other times and other cultures with historical and/or pseudo-historical truths, interrupt whenever possible, call yourself a prophet or a poet, insist that you are being emotionally sincere and/or objectively rational, and record it all on tape, to be transcribed later as a book.
To be as fatuous as Mead and Baldwin, all you had to do was talk and not listen! That was part of what Elman said, right straight out of the box.
A Rap on Race was the transcript, or at least the partial transcript, of a lengthy discussion between Baldwin and Mead from August 1970 The claim that their discussion had been "fatuous" may have been a bit surprising because of the stature of Baldwin and Mead as major, highly-regarded public intellectuals, and because they'd been conducting their "rap" about a subject which Elman called "the crisis of our time."
Mead and Baldwin were (and are) regarded as giants, and they were discussing a very important topic. It's always possible, of course, that the sheer importance of the topic may have contributed to the discussion's failure.
According to Elman, Mead and Baldwin had engaged in "bilge," in "blather," even in "blah blah blah." As he described the provenance of the rap, he offered a few examples:
ELMAN: With their tape recorder, Margaret Mead and James Baldwin got together one steamy night last August. They had a mutual friend. So first they ate dinner and then they went blah blah blah in front of the recorder late into that night and then again the next day—about New Guinea, South Africa, Women's Lib, the South, slavery, Christianity, their early childhood upbringings, Israel, the Arabs, the bomb, Paris, Istanbul, the English language, Huey Newton, John Wayne, the black bourgeoisie, Baldwin's 2-year-old grand nephew and Professor Mead's daughter.
"We've got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible," he said to her, poignantly enough, at one point, "because we are still each other's only hope." But, eventually, they got so angry and muddled that he was being accused of mouthing anti-Semitic nonsense and, as a final quid pro quo, he lumped her among his potential enemies and victimizers. Rather smugly, the anthropologist has said she could not possibly be a racist because of her impeccable upbringing and because she had once or twice coddled babies in Africa, Samoa, West Irian. Baldwin countered by asking how could he be an anti-Semite since one of his best friends was Jewish.
According to Elman, Mead had "rather smugly said she could not possibly be a racist because of her impeccable upbringing." Was that a reference to the exchange which is heard at the start of this YouTube tape, the exchange which starts like this?
MEAD: I learned about race when I was a child.
BALDWIN: How did you learn about that?
We admire Baldwin' courtesy at that point. To our ear, Mead proceeds to answer Baldwin's question with a strikingly self-satisfied, self-assured bit of autobiography—with a rap about her upbringing.
Was Elman referring to that presentation? We have no idea, but we will carry this thought away from Mead's presentation:
For perfectly understandable reasons, people who were socially defined as "white" were sometimes eager, even back then, to say that they weren't racist. For perfectly understandable reasons, this tendency still obtains today.
Was this 1970 conversation "bilge," or was it defined by its brilliance? As we've noted, different people have stated different views. Having noted that, let us also note this:
A few months before this conversation occurred, Midnight Cowboy won the 1970 Oscar as the Best Picture of 1969.
The film's theme song had been a big hit. Written and originally recorded by Fred Neil, it was performed in the movie by Harry Nilsson.
The song was called Everybody's Talkin'. Its lyrics started like this:
Everybody's talking at me
I don't hear a word they're saying
Only the echoes of my mind
People stopping, staring
I can't see their faces
Only the shadows of their eyes.
In the immediate aftermath of Midnight Cowboy's Oscar, Elman said that Baldwin and Mead were talking but not listening. According to Elman, the result was a lot of "blah blah blah" about the important subject of "race."
Right at the start of the YouTube recording, Mead asserts that she learned about race during her admirable upbringing. Fifty years later, we live in a world where the good decent people of our own liberal world are sometimes said to be eager to perform their lack of racism, or even their anti-racism, as Mead quickly did.
We can't help thinking that our own blue tribe can sometimes, in such forums, do a n enormous amount of talking but maybe a lot less listening. Is it possible that we don't hear a word some Others are saying—that we're only equipped to hear "the echo of our minds?"
This age-old question came to mind as we perused today's New York Times. We refer in particular to this lengthy opinion column by Farhad Manjoo, in which—or so it seems to us—Manjoo is making an effort, along the way, to be inclusive and fair.
We've been stunned by many things we've seen and heard, from our own tribe, over the past few weeks. In our view, our tribe can be ugly, cold-hearted, dishonest, cruel—and how we do love our scripts!
To our ear, Manjoo is trying hard today to be inclusive and fair, even as he argues a favored point about the uselessness of guns. Within a single sentence in this passage, he includes a talking-point of Fox News and a talking-point of our own. Perhaps you can pick them out:
MANJOO (11/18/21): The scene on the night of Aug. 25, 2020, had the makings of a classic gun-rights fantasy. An unruly mob had descended on private businesses. One such business was Car Source, an auto dealership with three locations in Kenosha. Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time and a resident of Illinois (his father lived in Kenosha), said he had come with a friend to protect Car Source on the invitation of the owner...
"His father lived in Kenosha" is a bow to The Others. At the same time, It's a statement of a basic fact our own corporate stars disappear.
At the same time, "Rittenhouse was a resident of Illinois" is a bow to our own Storyline—to the memorized, irrelevant claim, peddled about by by our ugly tribe, that the lad in question had "crossed state lines" that night.
It seems to us that Manjoo is trying to be fair and balanced in this morning's column. Still and all, he's arguing a particular preferred claim about guns—a claim he starts to articulate in this fuller passage:
MANJOO: The scene on the night of Aug. 25, 2020, had the makings of a classic gun-rights fantasy. An unruly mob had descended on private businesses. One such business was Car Source, an auto dealership with three locations in Kenosha. Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time and a resident of Illinois (his father lived in Kenosha), said he had come with a friend to protect Car Source on the invitation of the owner...
By the time Rittenhouse arrived, more than a hundred vehicles on a sales lot owned by Car Source had been set on fire. There were burning trash cans on the streets. Gunfire rang out often. Officers in riot gear and armed with tear gas were in control of much of the city, but there were sections where the police pulled back. It was here that the people with rifles took a stand against what they saw as a mob.
But as many witnesses testified, the rifles weren’t very helpful at all.
Is it true that the rifles in question "weren't very helpful" that night?
The word "very" is an obvious dodge. That said, credit where due:
To his vast credit, Manjoo notes that "more than a hundred vehicles on a sales lot owned by Car Source had been set on fire" by the time Rittenhouse (and his colleagues?) arrived. Within our vile and ugly tribe, we constantly disappear such facts, pretending that Rittenhouse and the others had arrived on the scene of a mere "protest" (full stop).
Unlike the bulk of our attack dogs, Manjoo is willing to say, without using the words, that arson and mayhem were underway in Kenosha. But here's what he doesn't say:
He doesn't say how many cars on the lot were set on fire after the men with the rifles arrived. Setting aside what happened elsewhere during the "protest" that night, is it possible that the rifles actually were helpful in halting the arson at that location that night?
We've been struck by the ugliness and cruelty of our own liberal tribe as our corporate tribunes pretend to discuss that evening's events.
We've also been struck by our blinding stupidity—by our devotion to Storyline and script. By our devotion to "motivated reasoning" as we mount out platforms and perform the (extremely limited) antiracism of which we suddenly seem so proud.
There's no false claim our corporate stars won't recite as we pursue this performance. Occasionally, we may lapse into unintentional humor, as when Manjoo says that "the people with rifles took a stand against what they saw as a mob."
Too funny! Exactly one paragraph earlier, Manjoo has explicitly said, in his own voice, that the car lot had been attacked by "a mob." Now, that becomes a mere perception on the part of the people with the rifles, as if the cars on that lot may have set fire to themselves.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep—and, for perfectly obvious reasons, discussions of race tend to involve vast stores of emotion. (For reasons our tribunes can explain, discussion of Rittenhouse's conduct that night has been framed as a discussion of race.)
Our deeply flawed species is strongly inclined to "motivated reasoning." That's true right from the jump.
In the past week, the tribunes on our TV shows have been deeply ugly, stupid and cruel—and they've been cosmically "motivated" as they pretend to discuss this most important general topic.
On YouTube, Mead quickly frames herself, and her upbringing, in something resembling the way Elman described.
It's natural that people will want to do that. But oh, what kind of performance is this, which goes from bad to much, much worse? In which we keep talkin' our own talking points, keep hearing the echoes of our own deeply flawed minds?
Tomorrow: Scarborough? Givhan / McCaskill? William Cornell Brooks?