The lack of capacity for critical thinking among some of the American electorate is nothing new. The French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville famously noted it in the late 1830s in the two volumes of his book, Democracy in America. Almost 130 years later, the American historian Richard Hofstadter remarked upon it in two of his works from the early 1960s, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, and The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Both of Hofstadter’s works still apply today in complementary fashion as the 2020 election nears and Clueless Leader and his cult followers on the far right drop in greater and greater numbers off the edge of reality into the realm of psychotic fever dreams.
Mike Caulfield’s “Four Moves and a Habit” method for the detection of Fake News online. Infographic created by Shonnmharen.
The great difference between now and the early 1960s, when Hofstadter wrote about the propensity of some people for ignoring facts that didn’t fit their world view, is that those people now have access to the internet and to social media, where they can spread their diseased notions like a contagion. Rumors that once took days or weeks to spread, and in the process may have fizzled out when confronted by facts, now spread in minutes and hours in a continuous onslaught that drowns outs facts. For those too intellectually lazy to engage in critical thinking, there has never been a better time for finding spurious rumors to prop up their dangerously bonkers ideas.
Most of the rumor mongering conspiracy theorists with dangerously bonkers ideas are now, and have always been, on the far right of the American political spectrum. It’s an ongoing feature of American life that the ruling class demonizes the far left because they rightly suspect the far left would overturn the cushy lifestyle of the ruling class if they could, and to help them turn the focus of hatred and suspicion upon the far left the ruling class has always had willing allies, or rather dupes, among the far right. Useful idiots.
These are the kind of people who adhere to QAnon conspiracy theories about the evil character of Democrats and Antifa partly out of credulity since they want to believe the stories, and partly because it titillates them that most reasonable adults, and particularly liberals, are outraged and appalled by the stories. For a third of the American electorate, an incapacity for critical thinking is displayed as a badge of honor, not of shame.
Too many right wing delusionists are willing, even eager, to use violence when they don’t get their way. In this they are aided and abetted by the ruling class, who use them as a cudgel against the far left and anyone else who questions the established capitalist order. Terrorism in this country has almost always come from the far right, not the far left, and for nearly four years now the current president has winked and nodded at right wing terrorists in this country. He has filled a powder keg with dangerous fantasies and then recently lit the fuse with his call out to right wing terrorists ahead of the election.
A sketch from a January 1979 episode of Second City Television, starring Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, and Dave Thomas. In 2016, 52% of white women voted for the Republican presidential candidate, someone who would be incapable of understanding this SCTV sketch as satire.
For Richard Hofstadter in his examination of American history there have been breakdowns in what may be considered the consensus of political views reconciling economic and cultural differences (though he himself chafed at being lumped with the post World War II era “consensus” historians), but only one failure of consensus, and that led to the Civil War. Perhaps hope can be found in the realization that the truly dangerous right wing terrorists in this country are fewer in number than they would have everyone else believe. If the current president somehow gains four more years in power, however, that glimmer of hope may go dark because more violent reactionaries will become ever more emboldened, growing their numbers to become a visceral threat, sinister and close.
Hypocognition – a term from psychology and linguistics meaning the inability to discuss or process a concept because of the lack of a word or words for it.
“Phubbing” is a portmanteau made up of “phone” and “snubbing”, and it describes the act of looking at one’s phone (presumably a smartphone) in order to avoid interaction with another person. It’s nearly always a rude action, and it can be dismissive and disrespectful when the phubber employs it to imply that whatever might be displayed on the phone’s screen is more interesting than the person in front of him or her. It’s a term that didn’t exist – and couldn’t have existed – before smartphones became ubiquitous.
People appear to have an ingrained reverence for the immediate demands of technological devices. Before smartphones, extricating oneself from an unwanted interaction in public meant having to invent excuses, such as an urgent appointment. Burying one’s interest in a book has never worked as well in closing off conversation as getting a phone call or even just looking intently at a smartphone’s screen. People will stop everything for someone who is on the phone, or nowadays only looking at one.
Detail of The Meeting Place, a 2008 high relief sculpture by Paul Day, on the concourse of St. Pancras train station in London, England. Photo by Patrice78500.
The concept of using one’s smartphone to rudely dismiss another person now has a name, “phubbing”, and therefore no longer falls into the category of hypocognition. There are numerous other fuzzy concepts that still qualify as hypocognition, at least for some people. The two groups at either extreme in their reaction to the coronavirus may be engaged in hypocognition, each of a different kind. There are the people who refuse to take public health measures seriously, and so endanger everyone; and there are the people who have allowed their fears to so intimidate them that they have imposed some unnecessary burdens on the rest of society in order to help them assuage those fears, as if they were unaware that everything in life carries an element of risk.
And then there is the matter of white privilege. African-Americans understand the concept of white privilege because they have to cope with its consequences throughout their lives. Most Caucasian-Americans do not grasp the concept because they swim in the currents of white privilege every day. It is the medium that envelopes them, and they cannot see how it protects them from the same dangers and insecurities faced by their African-American neighbors.
For example, say a white man is out jogging through a largely black neighborhood. This particular neighborhood is undergoing gentrification, by which everyone understands houses owned or rented by mostly poor blacks are being bought up cheaply by better off whites and then inhabited by them. The white jogger is new to the neighborhood, part of an influx of people who can afford nice things, and whose clothes generally reflect their status. But most folks would give this jogger a pass even if he wore old clothes with holes and tears for his exercise. No one in the neighborhood, black or white, suspects the white jogger is up to anything other than jogging.
Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks discuss the origins of some concepts in this clip from a portion of their ever changing 2000 Year Old Man improvisational comedy routine. This 1967 appearance is from the television program The Colgate Comedy Hour. Comedian Dick Shawn introduced them. R.I.P., Carl Reiner (1922-2020).
Now take the same circumstances and flip them 180 degrees, with a black man jogging through a largely white neighborhood. The black man lives in the neighborhood, and thus people don’t consider he has any gentrifying influence, no matter whether the neighborhood is working class or upper middle class. The black jogger wears neither very good nor very bad clothes for his exercise. All other factors being neutral, he’s just a black man out for a run through a white neighborhood. Think about what might happen. The black jogger does, all the time. The white jogger in the other neighborhood, he never has to consider the possibility of something bad happening to him, simply because of who he is. That’s white privilege.
Tongues are wagging and fingers are busy typing all around the country about the Instagram influencer topic of “perineum sunning”. Or did the topic gain traction on Instagram from a post by a micro-influencer? Or even less popular than that? Wherever she was a week or two ago in the Instagram influencer pecking order, surely by now she is on her way to becoming a mega-influencer, if there is such a ranking.
The perineum is the part of the human body between the genitals and the anus, and according to Metaphysical Meagan, the influencer everyone is now talking and writing about, it feels good and is good for her – and possibly for you, too – to expose that area to direct sunlight for as little as less than a minute each day. Judging from pictures posted online by M. Meagan and others, the preferred method of achieving the proper exposure is lying naked on one’s back and splaying one’s legs in the air. The pictures of people baring their nether parts to the sun are hilarious.
A Miami Beach, Florida postcard from February 1967, in the Postcard Collection of the State Library and Archives of Florida.
As stupid trends go, this is relatively harmless, like mood rings or pet rocks. A few people will get rich off it, some others will buy into it and wonder why they did years later, and most will shake their heads and chuckle about it. In any event, the trend will pass soon, knocked off the radar by the next supposed big thing. The adherents of perineum sunning promote it’s dubious health benefits, and it is doubtful their claim will lead to great harm for Instagram devotees who follow prescribed practice and expose their perinea to the sun for less than a minute a day. Why talk or write about it then, and give this silliness more free publicity? Because of what this kind of ultimate silliness says about us and how we arrived at this moment.
First of all, the relatively recent phenomenon of the fascination with a suntanned physique as a sign of health and wealth is an attribute of white people generally, and of some white people with too much time and money on their hands particularly. Until the 1920s, a suntan was the mark of working class people who toiled outdoors all day for little pay, and the upper classes therefore scorned suntans and suntanned people. That flipped in the 1920s and ’30s, in some cases for worthwhile health reasons, such as the recognition that rickets was caused by a lack of vitamin D, a vitamin the skin produces upon exposure to sunlight. Other reasons had to do with displaying one’s wealth and the leisure time to be able to travel to far off, exotic locales and lie around in luxurious idleness soaking up the sun’s rays. Suddenly having a healthy glow from a tan was the in thing among the upper crust, and being pasty white was for the lower orders or the sick.
Now white folks with too much time and too much money are doffing all their clothes, lying back and flinging their legs in the air to get a warm, toasty feeling down where the sun don’t normally shine, and some of them are taking pictures of their frivolity and writing about it and distributing the goings-on to followers who eagerly soak it all in like the rays of the sun, for good or ill. Well, more power to them. It beats working for a living.
“Aggrieved entitlement” is a term almost exclusively applicable to white, American men because it takes note of the historically high levels of privilege of that demographic relative to the rest of society, and how as the less privileged have demanded equal treatment some white, entitled American men feel an erosion of their privilege. They feel “aggrieved” about the situation particularly because they think their loss of privilege is unjustified. A less charitable way of describing how they feel is to call them self-pitying and selfish.
A 1952 publicity photo of John Wayne (1907-1979), the actor whose image represented for many throughout the middle of the 20th century the ideal of American manhood, and who is even now still revered by some.
There is good reason to feel uncharitable toward a segment of society when its most extreme members act out their anger and frustrations by shooting and killing other human beings, sometimes on a massive scale. A disproportionate number of mass shooters are angry white men. After every mass shooting, there are calls for tighter gun control and for better mental health evaluations and treatments. Those are measures worth acting upon, if government leaders can ever muster the political will and courage to pass significant legislation and allocate sufficient resources to support them.
The largest element underlying gun violence goes unaddressed, however, and that is the sickness of this society. This is a society that values athletes more highly than teachers, and rewards cutthroat capitalists with outsized political power and immunity from customary ethical standards of doing business with the public and cooperating with workers and government. This is a society that puts cartoonish displays of machismo in its popular entertainment and then exalts them as models of the male ideal. This is a society where the term “toxic masculinity” has become necessary to describe behavior we unfortunately have come to witness every day.
The Searchers was a 1956 western film directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne.
Until the society as a whole works to correct the conditions nurturing the ideas some white men have that the possession, worship, and ultimately homicidal use of guns is the best way to make themselves feel better, then mass shootings are likely to keep occurring. These men deserve our empathy, or understanding, so that we can more effectively pinpoint and effect societal remedies. They do not deserve our sympathy, or sorriness, for how they feel about their changing circumstances. Just as the majority of children who come from broken homes do not grow up to become criminals, only a very few white men are so wrapped up in their sense of aggrieved entitlement that they lash out violently. Everyone has problems; most people find peaceful, constructive ways to cope with them.
Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, the warped character at the center of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. The story is told from Bickle’s perspective, which helps the audience have empathy for him. It’s up to individual audience members to decide if they feel sympathy for him. Warning: foul language.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, a physical law first stated by Isaac Newton, and it seems it applies to forces within society as well. As women and non-white ethnic groups have fought for equal rights over the past 100 years or so, there has been an opposite reaction from men and white people, though not all of them in equal measure. As women have gained power in the marketplace and in the home, we have unfortunately seen the coining of terms like “man up”. As non-white ethnic groups have expressed their growing power in increasing numbers at the ballot box, we have begun to hear the phrase “take back our country” from some in the white majority who feel threatened by slippage in their dominant status. If meanness of spirit can be learned, then generosity of spirit can be taught, and society should emphasize the value in it. More Tom Joad, less Rambo.
In an idiotic stunt on her Fox News television program on September 6, right wing commentator Laura Ingraham thought it would be good fun to upset liberals by sticking plastic straws and incandescent light bulbs into a slab of cooked meat and then sucking on one of the straws. The stunt revealed more about her emotional immaturity and that of her viewers who might have enjoyed the bizarre demonstration than it did about the ultimate worth of the causes she was mocking. That wasn’t her point, of course; the point for people like Ms. Ingraham and her fans is provoking liberals merely for the dubious enjoyment of provoking liberals, an attitude that displays all the maturity of a seventh grader shooting spitballs from the back of a classroom.
An Optimist and a Pessimist, an 1893 painting by Vladimir Makovsky (1846-1920).
The unwillingness of bad faith media figures like Laura Ingraham to honestly and substantively discuss issues such as the environment generally, and the Green New Deal in particular, reveals their worries about how environmental initiatives like the Global Climate Strike may disrupt their lives and worldviews, and how because of their fears they resent the people backing the initiatives. They see it all as an infringement on their liberty rather than as a concession to sharing limited resources and playing nice with those unlike themselves. To them, it is not a matter of viewing the relative fullness or emptiness of a glass as it is a matter of resenting the people telling them that for the health of the planet and all its inhabitants, flora as well as fauna, all of us had better accept the situation of a glass not entirely full because constant demands by a relative few for an always full glass are causing environmental degradation and eventually, perhaps sooner rather then later, the glass will be empty for everyone.
But that’s what environmental science is telling us. Getting upset about it or denying it and hiding one’s head in the sand is not going to change it, any more than immature and unhelpful behaviors have ever changed other scientific realities. Worse yet is attacking the messengers in a bad faith attempt to disregard the messages. Why disregard clear, coherent messages? Because they disrupt the status quo for powerful people with vested interests in keeping things as they are, in continuing the business as usual of corporate profiteering at the expense of the long term habitability of the commons. Right wing pundits may not always consciously carry water for corporate exploiters of the environment and of workers, but since their interests often align with them the result is the same. The pundits know their audience is uniquely susceptible to fear and hate mongering, and they peddle those wares regularly to enrich themselves.
In this talk Noam Chomsky gave in April 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts, he looked back at the original New Deal to examine how the Green New Deal promises to change economic relationships while enacting energy and environmental initiatives.
The Green New Deal is felt as a threat by right wingers and by entrenched corporate interests because its environmental initiatives will reach into and change the entire economy, and that’s something they cannot help but see any other way than as a negative, a glass half empty. The privileges of white people generally, and of rich people in particular, will be eroded during these economic changes, and that’s a good thing for everyone else and for the planet, because the over extension and abuse of those privileges has been largely responsible for getting all of us into this mess in the first place. No matter how the over privileged feel about the changes, they will have to accept them and get used to them, because the alternative for them is grimmer still, as well as for everyone on our lifeboat Earth as it continues moving around the Sun.
What kind of English word is “Winnemucca”? How about “taco”? “Fond du Lac”? People who get bent out of shape over other people speaking languages besides English while out in public in this country probably fail to realize how many English words have their origin in other languages. As much as 30 percent of English words are borrowed from the world’s thousands of languages. It would be difficult or impossible for the average English speaker to use only Anglo-Saxon words.
In the United States especially, where nearly 100 percent of the population comes from elsewhere in the world, the English language is a polyglot mixture made up of additions from languages everywhere, and yet it stands apart in its diction, its spelling, and in other ways. Place names preeminently use some version borrowed from the many Native American languages that have all but disappeared otherwise. What does it mean to send somebody back where they came from, when almost everybody came from somewhere else at one time? Send them back where? To Ohio? To Florida? If we go back far enough in time, almost everyone will have to leave, and the Native Americans – what is left of them – will no doubt feel immense relief, as of an oppressive burden lifting away from them.
The Tower of Babel, a painting by Pieter Breugel the Elder (c. 1525/1530-1569).
Exclusionary talk is loco chauvinism. It is meshuga, and yahoos who go on about sending others back where they came from are clearly non compos mentis. They should examine their own origins, which in the latest generation or two or three might be in places like Tulsa, Santa Fe, Tennessee, or Baraboo, but going back further could be traced to Scotland, or Frankfurt, or Sarajevo, and ultimately to Africa. White folks weren’t always white, and anyway no deity ever descended from the heavens to declare whiteness a superior trait. It only matters to people who are terrified of losing their imagined superior place in society, and must have Others to look down upon. Ordering Others to speak English when they are conversing among themselves is not only high-handed, it ignores how immigrants have enriched and informed English itself with words and expressions from everywhere. The proper remark for an English-only speaker to make in that case, if any is necessary at all, is gracias, or merci, or danke, or mahalo, or arigatô, or . . .
Johnny Cash (1932-2003) sang a North American version of “I’ve Been Everywhere”, a song written in 1959 by Australian country singer Geoff Mack, and which in the original version included all Australian place names, many of them originating in the languages of the Australian Aboriginal peoples.
“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)
It’s been 154 years since the Civil War ended and still Southern white supremacists expect everyone else in the country to walk on eggshells around them so as not to upset their mythology or the chips on their shoulders. Yesterday, July 13, was Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee, a holiday there since 1931, when it seemed like a good idea to commemorate a Confederate general who murdered captive black Union soldiers during the war, and after it became the first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Now it’s 2019, and Tennessee Governor Bill Lee‘s lame excuse for continuing the practice is that it is what’s expected of him under the law, even though he could push to have the law changed if he had the political will and courage.
All this hiding behind the disingenuous mantra of “heritage, not hate” is for the purpose of upholding monuments to and celebrations of Confederate leaders whose actions and beliefs, however much they deluded themselves and others in their own times into feeling were noble and righteous, have in the past 154 years proven to be in the service of one overriding principle – white supremacy. Dress up evil however you want, turn somersaults in logic if you like – in the end it’s still evil. Once state and local governments withdraw their sponsorship of these Confederate monuments and celebrations, individuals are still free to honor them in private if they are so inclined. No one is infringing their First Amendment free speech rights in speaking out on behalf of their Confederate idols in the public square; it’s just that everyone else no longer has to be subject to the constant looming presence of publicly sponsored monuments and celebrations reminding them to know their place, particularly if they are the descendants of slaves.
Theater poster for the 1915 D.W. Griffith filmThe Birth of a Nation. The movie glorified the KKK and set the stage for the organization’s resurgence shortly afterward.
In the past two and a half years, because of the tone set by the White Supremacist-in-Chief occupying the Oval Office (proving not all white supremacists are Southerners, by any means), more awful people have crept from the shadows into the light than many decent people were aware existed. As the specter of awful behavior grows, it is not enough for decent people to shun it and the awful people who afflict society with their malevolent derangement; decent people need to confront it, preferably without violence, but by speaking out forcefully and often in public, because otherwise a bully will always take silence to mean assent, even approval.
A clip from an August 2017 episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert which aired shortly after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
After a generation has passed, will we erect monuments to the malignant culture that has grown within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol? Will we celebrate the concentration camps for brown-skinned immigrants at “detention sites” from Texas to California and elsewhere around the country? Stopping the cancerous growth of white supremacy will require more decent white people standing up to it and saying “enough already”, an outspoken attitude of noble and righteous indignation that is long past overdue, as evidenced by a state still celebrating in 2019 the hateful heritage of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
In an exchange in Decatur, Alabama, between a police employee and a handcuffed citizen, the employee identified himself as F*ck You when the citizen asked his name. The citizen and another young man had been filming a music video outside, and there are conflicting accounts about whether they used a handgun as a prop in filming. The sight of the handgun may have prompted a passerby to call police. It is unclear if that is what brought police to the scene, but if it did, then the two young men used poor judgment in filming in public with a handgun without making it abundantly clear they were engaged in a harmless fiction.
Further speculation on what brought about the police encounter devolves into victim blaming and sidetracks the basic point, which is that the behavior of Officer F*ck You was clearly out of bounds and unnecessary. It turned out the two citizens had not been up to no good and there had been no need to handcuff them and illegally search at least one of them. Officer F*ck You’s thin skinned behavior is precisely the kind of escalation of an encounter with a citizen that too often ends with the police employee meting out violent street injustice. A person as hotheaded and drunk with power as Officer F*ck You has no business dealing with the public.
Many people dealing with the public find it helpful to wear a sticker like this one. Write in whatever name you like, but try to be nice! Image created by Eviatar Bach.
We can imagine other scenarios for the encounter in order to guess at why it went wrong, but thankfully stopped short of becoming another incident of a police employee murdering a citizen. What if the two citizens had been middle-aged white businessmen in suits and ties? Chances are higher in that case there would have been no police encounter at all, even if a passerby had spotted a handgun. Surely such fine gentlemen must have good reason for what they’re doing! Perhaps they’re police detectives filming a training video!
Had the police nonetheless been called to the scene, chances are high the police employees would have treated the two white, middle-aged men in suits with circumspection and respect while working politely toward a peaceful resolution to the problem. Had Officer F*ck You been called to the scene at all, he might have introduced himself instead as Sam-I-Am, the character in Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham who beguiles another character into trying the titular foods. Or he could have said with a salty twist “Call me Ishmael”, as the narrator does at the beginning of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
“The Name Game”, a 1964 song written by Shirley Ellis and Lincoln Chase, and performed by Shirley Ellis.
There are any number of names Officer F*ck You could have used if it is the policy of the Decatur police department for employees not to identify themselves when asked by a citizen. He could have referred to such a policy as a reason for not giving any name at all. Contrary to what many people may believe, it is not a matter of law that police employees identify themselves by name, but a matter of each police department’s policy. All of the alternative tactics mentioned above would have conveyed a less hostile tenor and might have even lowered the tension. Isn’t that what a police employee is supposed to do in order to keep the peace? What purpose does it serve when a police employee gets in a citizen’s face when that person simply asks for a name and badge number? Who does it protect to belligerently retort “F*ck You! F*ck You is my name!”?
Today is the 30th anniversary of the release of Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing, first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in France. May 19 is also the birth date of Malcolm X, whose posthumous influence on the film Mr. Lee acknowledges with a quote from him at the end, along with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.. The quotes are about non-violent resistance to oppression (the Rev. King) and the occasional need for violence in self defense against oppressors (Malcolm X). As throughout the rest of the movie, Mr. Lee makes no judgements, but merely puts those ideas out there for the audience to consider. Do the Right Thing provokes thought; it does not provide answers, and 30 years later the state of race relations in America has hardly budged from what Mr. Lee portrayed in the film.
The film did not win the highest prize at Cannes, the Palme d’Or, though it was nominated. It was not nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and the film that won the honor for 1989 was Driving Miss Daisy, a good film about race relations but a safe one for Hollywood, and a film that in the years since has receded in importance in the rear view mirror. Nearly 30 years later, Spike Lee’s film BlacKkKlansman was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars but lost to another safe film about race relations, Green Book. Both Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book are films produced by largely white filmmakers for consumption by a largely white audience, and are meant to comfort white liberals without unduly upsetting white conservatives. That each received Hollywood’s highest honor is a testament to the institution’s eagerness to pat itself on the back for occasionally making a social message movie without rocking too many boats.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X waiting for a press conference to begin in March 1964. Photo by Marion S. Trikosko for U.S. News & World Report, now in a collection at the Library of Congress.
What’s missing in that equation, of course, are African-Americans. In contrast, Spike Lee has made films for everybody, and Do the Right Thing was groundbreaking in that respect. All the characters he portrays are well rounded, with good and bad aspects to all of them. As the late film critic Roger Ebert noted, there are no heroes or villains that we can easily hang labels on. Those portrayals are more true to life than the safe, near-stereotypes portrayed in Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book. The complexity can also leave some viewers uneasy, since they desire the satisfaction of stories that follow a familiar arc leading to either a comforting conclusion or one that at least ties up some loose ends of the story. Do the Right Thing provides none of that. It is a wonder a major Hollywood studio, Universal, backed the film financially and distributed it widely. That it was popular with the public and, eventually, with most critics despite its unconventionality in style and substance is a testament to how well crafted it was by Mr. Lee and his cast and crew.
Ossie Davis as Da Mayor has a confrontation with some youths on the street in Do the Right Thing. Warning: foul language.
30 years laterDo the Right Thing stays with people who view it now for the first time as much as it did with people who saw it then, prompting the same questions in their minds. A few years before Mr. Lee made the film, there was the racially charged incident at Howard Beach in the New York City borough of Queens, an incident which informed the events in Do the Right Thing. Two years after the movie came out, there was the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, and despite the incident being filmed by a bystander, showing the excessive use of force by the police, the cops were subsequently cleared in court, leading to riots in black neighborhoods. There has been no end of ugly, often fatal, incidents in America like those portrayed in the movie, and they just keep coming, like waves pounding the shore. The observations Spike Lee made in Do the Right Thing about race relations in America are still relevant today; the question remains – is anybody listening well enough to change things?
“I just want to say – you know – can we all get along? Can we, can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?”
— Rodney King, speaking on television in relation to the riots in Los Angeles on May 1, 1992, after a jury acquitted the police who beat him the year before.
Mr. Vonnegut was most of all a Humanist, as he himself proclaimed, and the last thing any Humanist would claim is to also be a Saint. On looking back at Vonnegut’s work, the one feature that stands out as discordant from our modern perspective is his treatment of female characters, whom he usually portrayed without much depth, and sometimes unsympathetically for no good reason. That again is viewed from our perch 50 years in the future. Mr. Vonnegut was not out of step with his times in regard to men’s views about women, sad and embarrassing as that may seem to us now. 50 years from now, who can say how people will view us for opinions and attitudes we hold in keeping with our own time?
An anonymous painting, possibly by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich (1712-1774), of a fire at Dresden Castle.
We must remember that until Slaughterhouse-Five came out in 1969, nearly every book and movie in Western culture depicted the Allies in World War II as the good guys, and the Axis as the bad guys, with little shading of gray to add any moral nuance. The Humanist in Mr. Vonnegut could not abide that state of affairs, particularly since he had been present as a prisoner of war at the Allied fire bombing of the German city of Dresden, a target which had virtually no military or political value. The primary reason Allied command ordered the fire bombing was to terrorize the civilian population. In doing so, the Allies sought to deal out righteous retribution for German bombing of English cities earlier in the war. Atrocities, in other words, were perpetrated to one degree or another by both sides, and that is the nature of war and part of human nature and cannot be avoided, no matter how much books and movies gloss it over and glamorize one side over the other. And so it goes – to borrow a phrase from Mr. Vonnegut.
Slaughterhouse-Five was not revisionist history, but a necessary corrective to over two decades of mostly superficial accounts of World War II, at least in the popular media. It joined John Hersey’s 1946 non-fiction book Hiroshima in telling of war’s cost in suffering and the capacity for cruelty, alongside acts of kindness. In 1970, a non-fiction book written by Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, was published and changed the national discourse about relations with Native Americans, a discourse which had been dominated for over a century by white people of European descent demonizing them.
American prisoners caught in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 march to their quarters in Dresden, Germany. In February 1945, Allied air forces fire bombed the city, killing as many as 25,000 Germans, mostly women and children. The 1972 film, directed by George Roy Hill, starred Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim, the character based on Kurt Vonnegut, and Eugene Roche as his friend Edgar Derby, the ranking soldier among the prisoners.
Important works by great writers and historians come along infrequently and, while nothing and no one is ever perfect, their overall worth to humanity becomes even more apparent over time than at initial publication. Mark Twain’s 1885 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, another great work that has stood the test of time, has also been subjected to periodic bouts of righteous indignation and banishment by different groups for divergent reasons over the years. Certainly we cringe today at some of its language and at the attitudes Mr. Twain portrayed, but many readers, perhaps most, understand that at the heart of the novel is the growing respect and friendship between a white boy and a black man, which in its day was a radical idea that undermined social conventions. We are all prisoners of our time and cannot, like Billy Pilgrim, the central character of Slaughterhouse-Five, become unstuck in time. But we can be charitable and preserve and cherish the greater Humanist vision given us by Kurt Vonnegut and other writers whose works have stood outside of time, imperfect as the writers and their works, like we and our works, will always be.