‘A person does not lightly elect to oppose a society’ — Baton Rouge and St. Paul


By the time James Baldwin published No Name in the Street in 1972 the American left was heaving from the fissures created by a movement that had so rattled the political elites that not only had a fealty to exposing truths about race, class, and sexuality splintered any notion of solidarity but a president declared unofficial war on all of these groups. To write that the Left were Victims of Its Own Success denotes submission to those same elites; it accepts their terms of the debate. Amid the tumult Baldwin realized how little fundamentals had changed:

To be an Afro-American, or an American black, is to be in the situation, intolerably exaggerated, of all those who have ever found themselves part of a civilization which they could in no ways honorably defend — which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly to attack and condemn — and who yet spoke out of the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life. Whoever is part of whatever civilization helplessly loves some aspects of it, and some of the people in it. A person does not lightly elect to oppose a society. One would much rather be at home among one’s compatriots than be mocked and detested by them. And there is a level on which the mockery of the people, even their hatred, is moving because it is so blind; it is terrible to watch people cling to their captivity and insist on their own destruction. I think black people have always felt this about America, and Americans, and have always seen, spinning above the thoughtless American head, the shape of the wrath to come.

The hopes raised by the Freedom Summer and the Great Society legislation a decade ago had been reified by a system assuring that even the most efficacious reforms would crash against the recalcitrance of a white ruling class whose aggrandized notions about itself as liberal and compassionate could not outpace its instinct to resist the unfamiliar and the foreign. Over the next two decades this class would accept integrated classrooms and boardrooms so long as their white children resided in condo communities behind guarded gates; increased turnout so long as they didn’t vote for legislators and presidents who spoke their language; and police departments employing men and women of color if they didn’t condemn the imprisonment or murder of black boys and girls for petty offenses on terms set by that ruling class in the early nineties.

Here we are in St. Paul and Baton Rouge, marveling at the number of police departments with the budget to buy body cameras, part of a civilization which we can in no ways honorably defend, struggling to make it honorable and worthy of life.

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