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Saturday, January 21, 2017

A romantic assumption

The Rebirth of a  Romantic Assumption

When I knew my mother was dying in 1992, I began to cry.  My mother, looking at me quite sternly, said: "When do you plan to grow up?  I never promised you I'd be here forever.  Besides, I am tired."

Aware that the mouth of D. J. Trump  has humiliated the indecency of democratic politics, divided Americans beyond reconciliation, and positioned his nation to implode, it is pragmatic to grow up.  American citizens should woman-up and man-up to the death of the romantic assumption and act accordingly. This assumption is an obese fantasy of natural superiority and greatness, and its essential irrationality condemns it to be romantic.  As a non-scientific element in the biocultural evolving of the human mind, it is universal; it is a powerful determinant in shaping histories; it is seductive in the sense that it captivates the imaginations of  the ignorant as well as the intelligent and satisfies everyone's perverse desire to be great.  Fact-check Trump's record in order to explain why and how he gambled and raked in all the electoral chips. If citizens man-up and woman-up, they increase the likelihood of recognizing that, according to Leon P. Baradat,  "reactionary extremism did not die in 1945 with Hitler and Mussolini. It has reemerged from time to  time, most recently during the current decade in Europe and the United States." It is the linchpin in Trump's plans to make America great.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            January 20, 2017

Friday, January 20, 2017

Anti-Fascist Words in New Orleans

Anti-Fascist Words in New Orleans

 It is Carnival Time in New Orleans, the pre-Lenten season of misrule.  This city, famous for many things, it not famous for having a robust tradition of left-wing thinking.  That is neither good nor bad; it is just a symptom of ideological minimalism.

Under the influence of carnival, the sincere effort of the Antenna/Press Street art space to organize an Anti-Fascist Reading Group is tainted by theatricality through no fault of its own.  The gravity of a peculiar Zeitgeist governs the turning of its moral compass.  It should not be dismissed as trivial that the address of Antenna is 3718 St. Claude Avenue, because it is located in a site of rampant gentrification.  Nor should it be overlooked that the organizing meeting occurred on the evening of January 19, 2017, the eve of the live birth of the Age of Trump.   The meeting belongs to a family of reactive national gatherings, all of them associated with fear of American fascism.  From the vantage of conservative or right-wing thinking, the Antenna  effort is a reactionary instance of sour grapes. From the vantage of what Hoke Glover calls free black thought, it is at once retarded and Caucasian, insufficiently indigenous or vernacular.  It articulated in a new key what a number of African American thinkers, who are intimate with struggles,  had been saying under the radar for many, many years. America was fascist before Donald Trump was born.  Add the probability that the "powers that be" in  New Orleans have been abetting vernacular fascism since 2005 and then try to deconstruct a nest of contradictions.

My participation in the meeting and my response to it was ambivalent.  I was dismayed that fellow participants (mainly white) evidenced little sense of what the pedagogy of the oppressed is.  I sensed that they were fearful and outraged; that they  possessed a sense of dread but lacked a sense of oppression quite as much as they lacked respect for local knowledge, the epistemology of indigenous peoples in the Americas. Even if I was misreading strangers  ---I had previous conversations with only one participant---I was not misreading their inability to acknowledge themselves as the Other. Carnival is a vacuum for good, well-meant intentions.  But I was heartened that they wanted to do the right thing. They are simply afflicted by what the Critical Ethnic Studies Association might describe as "the limitations of liberal multicultural institutionalization within the academy, which often relies on a politics of identity representation that is dilated and domesticated by nation-building and capitalist imperatives."  By virtue of Latinate rhetoric, the CESA statement secures a place in a nest of contradictions.  And my ambivalence does not exist outside the nest.

To return to the main point.  The Antenna/Press Street organizers suggested the reading group should have bi-monthly meetings to discuss themes derived from fiction, nonfiction, and film.  Knowing  by count of hands that the majority of the participants had read Umberto Eco's 1995 essay "Ur-Fascism," I recommended that we use his list of fourteen features of ur-fascism to generate themes and select readings  for future meetings ---

1.  cult of tradition

2.  rejection of modernism

3.  action for action's sake

4.  treason of disagreement

5.  fear of difference

6.  appeal to a frustrated middle class

7.  obsession with a plot

8.  people feeling "humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies"

9.  pacifism is trafficking with the enemy/ life is permanent warfare

10.  contempt for the weak/ popular elitism

11.  everybody is educated to become a hero

12.  machismo

13.  selective populism

14.  Newspeak   [ n.b., tweets constitute new speech]

The main themes that popped up were ecology, agriculture, regionalism, surveillance, and digital security.  I added in my second brief comment that terrorism and American evasion of cultural memory regarding indigenous peoples were crucial themes.  I wasn't familiar with most of the  titles that popped up ----Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology by Pierre Clastres, Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott, The Fight to Vote by Michael Waldman, The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, The Next Revolution: Sustainable Activism for  the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige, but I did recognize White Noise by Don DeLillo, The Trial by Frantz Kafka, 1984 by George Orwell.  I left the meeting before a theme and the reading (s) for the next meeting were set, left wondering why no titles by right-wing  or neo-fascist intellectuals (other than those referenced by "Ur-Fascism" ) popped up.  I think it is obligatory for people who embrace anti-fascist postures to do what many African Americans have been doing for centuries: read the propaganda of the  enemies as well as the hymns addressed to the choir.  I shall attend the next meeting of this reading group to discover answers.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            January 20, 2017

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

USA Kwansaba


Truth is not a product to consume,

a dim Leni Riefenstahl frame of things

falling, fallen apart in a stolid mind.

In sulking hearts bad blood freely flows.

Reason razors tissue to trump another card

as fingers ,  palms, and hands  play games

for which our sages have unholy names.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 18, 2017

Monday, January 16, 2017

Charles M. Blow and Integrity

Charles M. Blow and Integrity

Allah does not love that evil should be noised abroad in public speech, except where injustice has been done; for Allah is He who hears and knows all things.

The Qur'an, Surah 4, 147

Subtle. Urbane. Serious.  Down home wise.  Cool.  Alert.  Smooth.  Old School humorous. Rational.  These adjectives came to mind as I listened to Charles M. Blow speak at a "Conversation in Color" (Tulane University, January 16, 2017) with Dr. Kara Tucina Olidge, Executive Director of the Amistad Research Center.  Anyone who has read Blow's op-eds in the New York Times is aware he does not suffer fools.  Nor does he cheapen himself with the kind of correctness that provides absolution for the fake fuckery of neo-fascism.  His integrity is refreshing.

In principle, all forms of human culture, in its full global and historical diversity, are accessible to the identity of every human being on the planet.

Naomi Zack

The fact that he was speaking on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day about his life, the functions of contemporary journalism, and the Zeitgeist did not inspire me to have nostalgic visions of struggles for civil and human rights since the founding of the United States of America.  It inspired me to silently applaud his integrity as he spoke about why the moral virtue of  resistance ought to be complemented by affirmative acts, about the rightness of his saying that Americans should cease evading the obvious: empires rise and crumble.  I agree with him that we should create blueprints for moral argument and allow hatred (evil, vulgarity, barbarism or whatever) to hang itself.  Blow's rhetoric was affirmative, sobering and ethical.

Your integrity is more important than having commerce with correctness.

J. W. Ward, Jr.

I did disagree with Blow that what circulates on Twitter and in other social networks is news, although he has legitimate, professional reasons for believing trash talk is news.  In my opinion, universal  trash talk is only one symptom of the malaise that the news should interrogate, analyze, and interpret  for readers who don't have the means or the luxury of fact-checking 24/7/365.  As the designs of American neo-fascism become more transparent after January 20, 2017, it is possible for journalists who have integrity to take steps to make print journalism great again, to restore confidence in standards.  I treasure the conclusion of Blow's op-ed  "John's Gospel of Trump's Illegitimacy" ( NYT, January 16, 2017, page A21): Mr. Trump, I join John Lewis in asserting with full confidence and clear conscience that I, too, don't see you as a legitimate president.  Your presidency is illegitimate insofar as outside interference in an election violates our standards and principles.  You will wear that scarlet "I" on your tan chest for as long as you sit in the White House.  But agreeing with Lewis and Blow is the easy way out. And I am obligated, for the sake of my own integrity, to do more radical work by performing  acts of affirmation.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            January 17, 2017

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Spike Lee

SPIKE LEE: Chinese questions and American answers


1.  Is the racial problem in America still as tense as depicted in the films by Spike Lee?

  Yes.  In fact, we have to speak not of a single problem but of a range of problems.  The most intense problem, of course, is the division and distrust occasioned by the killing of unarmed non-white males and females by police officers and individual citizens. We should anticipate that racial problems will flourish under the leadership of Donald Trump.

2. Which part of America sees the tensest relation between black and white?

 Small and large American cities, areas that have histories of obvious as well as hidden (or underreported) discord between and among ethnic groups.  Discussion of relations between whites and blacks is too simple-minded; it prevents a truly critical understanding of how problematic America's experiment with democracy is in the 21st century.

3.  In the film Do the Right Thing, what do you think is the most significant cause of the tragedy? The hot weather, dirty words, or the racial discrimination?

 The primary cause is a combination of climate, language, and instances of racist behaviors.  Trying to identify a "most significant cause" is a reductive gesture, which fails to deal with the complexity of cause and effect.

4. In the film School Daze, do you think Jane should be responsible for her own tragedy?

  Yes.  Jane is a victim of male aggression and exploitation to be sure, but she is not bereft of the ability to make choices;  she makes a poor choice that leads to disgrace and tragic outcomes.

5. Do you believe America will be able to solve the racial problem in the near future?

 No.  The racial problem is complicated by the always changing demographics of the United States.

6. What exactly is the main purpose of Spike Lee's making so many films about race? 

I suspect the main purpose to expose the multiple facets of the concept of "race" as a national problem.  There are many subtle ways in which American films depict racial issues.  In the films of Spike Lee, we see the depiction and exposure more plainly than in films, especially some science fiction films, that seem not to deal with race as a central topic.

7.  Do you advocate Martin Luther King's belief that violence is not a way to solve discrimination, or Malcolm X's that violence is intelligence when used in self-defense?

 While I believe King's advocating non-violent resistance in the face of social injustice was admirable,  I believe that Malcolm X's championing of self-defense is the better course of action.  We must make choices between non-violence and violence on the basis of individual situations.

8.  What can we do to stop being racist and being discriminated upon when we come to the United States?   

This Chinese question has two unequal, dissimilar parts.  First, I will not presume that Chinese people are racist (until you provide proof that they are) and in need of eradicating their racist behaviors. Second, it is not possible to avoid being discriminated against in some form, whether one is a citizen or a foreign visitor.  The social dynamics of the United States may minimize discrimination against visitors, but our day-to-day politics cannot guarantee the absence of discrimination.

9. In seeing the movie about Malcolm X, I have a question about the authenticity of the Malcolm in the movie and whether it is the "real" representation of the real person Malcolm, especially his conflict with the leader of the Nation of Islam. 

There are a few elements of authenticity in the film, but as a totality the film deals much more Malcolm X as an American icon, as a projection of what Spike Lee thought was the way to make a film about an iconic, very controversial person.  Thus, we do not have an absolutely "real" representation.  We have an adjusted representation ( the film) of an adjusted representation (Alex Haley's decisions about how to configure  the life of Malcolm Little/ El Hajj Malik el Shabazz;  Haley's epilogue for the autobiography is crucial.  We need to examine how Malcolm's conflict with the Honorable Elijah Muhammed was first "represented"  in The Autobiography of Malcolm X  (and account for Alex Haley's agency in adjusting Malcolm's autobiographical narrative);  when we view the portrayal of the conflict in Lee's film, we have to recall that distortion is an element of film as a medium and that even minimally edited documentaries will provide us with distortions.  Lee's film is a biopic not a documentary. That fact may frustrate the expectations of some spectators.

10.  And I was confused in seeing the movie Do the Right Thing.  I'm just wondering what is the right thing to do?

 The right thing to do is to continue to ask the question "What is the right thing to do?". This is the most straightforward response I can make to the question, because all decisions about right actions are most often determined by the specifics of a given situation.


School Daze ----Spike Lee exaggerates the internal culture of the HBCU---preoccupation with ritual, preoccupation with "color" distinctions derived from the history of American slavery, sexual negotiations  in order to delineate why HBCUs are special institutions within the dynamic space of American higher education.

Do the Right Thing ---In the Internet ranking constructed by Vulture.Com, this film is judged to be "a triumph of craftsmanship and vision, with both Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson delivering a powerfully atmospheric snapshot of life in late-eighties Bed-Stuy [Brooklyn] at a time of escalating racial tension in the city.  But the film's precise, funny characters and vivid, sweltering look would meant nothing without Lee's wise and ultimately sad vision of multicultural America as a place where good intentions and casual mistrust are as commonplace as the local pizzeria."  Moreover, the film is a decidedly New York vision of what is sad about multicultural America; Lee's films about New Orleans and Chicago give us slightly better visions of how American citizens co-exist.  Indeed, the portrayal  of Chicago in Chi-Raq (2015) illuminates Lee's uncanny ability to represent frustration, but it also reveals Lee's inability to provide social critiques without large doses of comedy.

Malcolm X  ---Vulture. Com ranks this film as Lee's second best. "Over its three-and-a-half-hour running time, Malcolm X tells a great American story of a great American character, and is that rare biopic that allows us not only to get to know and understand our hero, but to watch him change. Challenging, moving, and uncompromising, it also never forgets to be gloriously entertaining…."  When the actor Ossie Davis explained why he eulogized Malcolm X, he proudly asserted "that Malcolm  --- whatever else he was or was not ---- Malcolm was a man!"  I argue that biopics are less good than sustained examinations of a man's words as paths to understanding his place in world history.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            January 15, 2017

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Demons in America

As was the case in 2016, a considerable amount of our  critical reflection  will be influenced by the legacy of Leo Strauss (1899-1973),  by the ideas he proposed regarding political philosophy, Jewish studies, and Islamic studies.  We shall ponder how those ideas were transformed  into domestic and foreign polices during the two terms President Obama served in office and how they may be further twisted, with Machiavellian zeal, as the Trump administration struggles with odd phenomena : dread,  fear, terrorism, and the fallacy of greatness;  the ecology of the ego;  the denial of climate change, the increase of mental health  and drug addiction problems,  the irreversible widening of the gap between wealth and poverty in our nation. We shall weigh the pragmatic  desire to toss faith, hope and charity into a black hole , to use the  white nose to smell out false news, and to cultivate abject disregard for the sanctity of human life.  All that matters in 2017 is one's ability to persuade others that fake lies are true facts.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Note to my cousin in Brazil


I detect meaningful and painful excavation in your reflections.  That is good.  At some point, writers benefit from stepping outside of themselves to discover who they are as a result of where they have been.  Prior to undertaking this exercise in THE KATRINA PAPERS, I had sketched it out in the first stanza of  my poem "The Impossible All These Years"---

Sometime before you hit forty,

You must step outside your bones,

Audit the maze your flesh has made.

And be amazed how much consequence

Morality has planted on your feet,

How much ambivalence is the harvest

Of your legs, how much lost potential

Is barned in your gut, how much

Opportunity has leaked from your pores.

Discovering what baggage you carry is important.  So too is knowing how space and time have shaped your attitudes, your values.  It seems right that you now have a special regard for land, for the rural, for the possession of land, because being attached to the soil is an aspect of our family's history.  Your grandfather's grandparents --Jeff and Bertha--were country people (St. James Parish) before they transformed themselves into urban dwellers (New Orleans).  However remote we are from our ancestors, we still have a bit of cultural memory, and that memory, however imprecise, influences our moral compass and how we write.

There are spiritual advantages in being intimate, as you put it, with land and people.  As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, the necessity of having city skills troubles any nostalgia we might have for the rural intimacy we know but have not experienced directly.  We have to be honest about the twilight zone character of our living.  Even in Brazil, I suspect indigenous peoples who live in the Amazon would find the worldview of people who live in Rio to be unnatural and twisted.  Likewise, your living in Brazil gives you a certain luxury to be critical of modern carelessness and excess among African-descended peoples in the USA. Your making peace with that condition of consciousness is an existential responsibility.  It is a long journey. And to  answer your question about the Age of Trump  ----yes, some awakening will occur between now and 2020, but many of us will hasten to sleep again.  Keep excavating.
Your cousin,