Book Reviews: Two by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me. Some readers will criticize him for his lack of attention to a few basic grammatical rules. Okay, he needs to brush up on the mechanics, as many journalists do. Others may not like his style — the book takes the form of a long message to his son about what it means to be a black man in America. I think it is the perfect approach for his subject, making the book personal, emotional, and thoughtful. It reminds me of the innovation with narrative that the white civil-rights advocate Lillian Smith used in books like Killers of the Dream and Our Faces, Our Words. Coates could do a whole lot worse than follow Smith’s example. In our deeply divided society, this book will be rejected by many readers who have lost patience with what they perceive as a hypersensitive generation coddled by American universities where almost everyone is a victim of mistreatment and therefore has an excuse for irresponsibility. I don’t think Coates has fallen into that trap, either real or imagined. I highly recommend this title to anyone who wants some insights into the struggles of what an African-American colleague described once as “waking up everyday, looking in the mirror, and knowing you are wearing black skin.”

We Were Eight Years In Power
We Were Eight Years In Power

Coates is one of the most powerful voices in the country on identity politics and its ill effects on social justice, most especially for African-Americans. In interviews, Coates has made it clear that he sees little hope for conditions in America to improve with regard to the plight of African-Americans. We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy is a collection of essays, many appearing previously in The Atlantic, that reaffirms that opinion. His vision is definitely pessimistic and perhaps depressing. It would be easy to dismiss Coates as a man made bitter by his own struggles to be heard and to overcome the legacy of bondage that characterizes the black experience in America. But, his analysis is careful and calculating, and to some degree even objective. He is relentless in shining the scorching light on white supremacy and how it has systematically crushed the spirit of African-Americans, even during the Obama administration. Coates now sees white supremacy back on full exhibit, in the open, and he dubs Donald Trump as the “first white president.” The election of Barack Obama clearly set a standard and was perceived by his supporters to alter the course of American history. However, many white Americans distorted that monumental watermark into perversion: “If a black man can be president, then any white man — no matter how fallen — can be president.”

Pledging Allegiance

I started pledging allegiance to the flag when I was a small child in elementary school, a ritual that I never questioned and that was just as much a part of the daily routine as lunch, recess, and reading from a primer about the riveting adventures of Dick, Jane, and Spot. I can vaguely remember that there were one or two students who were exempt from “saying the pledge,” and we were told that their religion forbade them from participating. At the time, I couldn’t begin to fathom the meaning behind such a religious restriction, having no exposure to any faith traditions outside rural Southern Baptist churches. You can’t get more patriotic than Southern Baptists. I don’t recall reciting the pledge in class when I attended a white-flight, church-sponsored private high school, which strikes me now as most ironic. Maybe we did and I was just too preoccupied with friends, girls, and turbulent hormones to give it any thought at all. Even as young children we could all rattle off the run-on sentence with no regard whatsoever to its intent of inspiring devotion to the homeland. When Francis Bellamy penned the original pledge in 1892, it was generic enough to be adopted by any republic with a flag, not just the United States, and it had no mention of God even though its author was a minister. The pledge was given official recognition by Congress in 1942. The divine creator was inserted in 1954 by a request of President Eisenhower and an act of Congress in reaction to atheism associated with the spread of Communism.

The United States didn’t have an official patriotic song until 1931 when Congress passed a law formally designating “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. Fast forward almost a century and now we find ourselves in a national debate over the proper respect for this song and that waving banner it praises. Of all places, the most high-profile test of true patriotism in this country apparently takes place just before kick-off at televised football games in the National Football League. The suggestion is that respect for a song and respect for the United States are of equal importance. I cannot quite agree with that premise. Should American citizens respect the National Anthem? Perhaps, but I don’t necessarily consider such respect to be a qualification of patriotism. Should they respect the flag? Well, they should be encouraged to respect the flag, although pledging allegiance to it should never be required by law.  Furthermore, I don’t think demonstrations of allegiance to the National Anthem or the American flag should be a requirement of employment either, even for athletes, but that isn’t my decision to make.  Disrespect of the flag is a right protected by our constitutional government and demonstrates the price of democracy and free speech. Without this protection, waving a flag that represents the Confederacy — a failed attempt to disband the government of the United States — would be an illegal act. The mere display of a Confederate flag is a blatant disrespect of the Republic, but we permit it. In certain parts of the country, flying the Confederate flag is encouraged, even by elected officials who have sworn allegiance to the Constitution over and over again. Somehow, this paradox wreaks of hypocrisy to me.

Do we show respect for the country by habitually standing for a song while giving little or no thought to its lyrics? Is there any evidence that daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag by children later produced within their adult hearts and minds some measure of undying loyalty to their country, upstanding moral character, or compliance to the law? I wonder how many people in the stadium seats could actually write the lyrics of the first verse of the National Anthem (much less the other long-forgotten stanzas). I wonder how many Americans think about the fact that this country was not “the land of the free” for over a million people in bondage at the time the song was written. I wonder how many times before April 19, 1995 Timothy McVeigh stood for the National Anthem and pledged his allegiance to the flag.

Before anyone can honestly be expected to honor the flag, he or she needs to be able to respect the Republic for which it stands. In truth, we all know that recent developments around this issue aren’t really about a 19th-century song or a piece of red, white, and blue cloth. They are just symbols of a collective dream that cannot come true for too many of our citizens who don’t have the privilege afforded those of European descent. Perhaps, some day, when America truly is a unified Republic that is “indivisible, with liberty and justice for ALL,” everyone will be proud to pledge allegiance to the flag that waves over a land of free and brave patriots.

Election Obsession

You might have election obsession (with all kinds of apologies to Mr. Foxworthy):

If 9 out of every 10 posts you share on your Facebook page are “breaking news” stories designed to “expose” the “truth” about one of the candidates, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

If you can’t have a conversation about something as benign as your last vacation without eventually referring to a political party or a candidate, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

If your Facebook page has turned into a news feed from sources that have titles including words like liberal, conservative, left, right, progressive, or patriot, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

If you are convinced that everything that is wrong with America is embodied in one candidate while everything that could be right about the country can be achieved through the efforts of the other candidate, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

If photos of candidates show up on your Facebook feed more often than your family members or your pets, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

If you know more about the personal life and background of a candidate than you do about some of your best friends, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

And finally, if you have contemplated leaving the country if your candidate of choice doesn’t win, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

The Dynamics of Laws

People who break the law are committing a crime, and so by definition, they are criminals. Therefore, people who enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers are illegal immigrants and are criminals. Anyone who doesn’t report income to the IRS is also a criminal. Anyone who downloads commercial, copyrighted music without paying for it is a criminal. Anyone who commits insurance fraud is a criminal. Anyone who engages in insider trading is a criminal. Illegal gamblers are criminals. Most people in the country who smoke or sell marijuana are criminals. People who speed are criminals. Gun laws across the country are routinely ignored, and those who do so are criminals.  Laws are never, absolutely never, static or permanent. They have to evolve with a society. That goes for laws about drugs, guns, speed limits, gambling, prostitution, and yes, immigration.

Should we still have laws in place that make it criminal for a woman to vote in elections? Should Jim Crow laws still be in place to “control” the black population? Laws have changed over and over in our history to reflect how the society evolves. We tend to criminalize activity that isn’t so harmful sometimes while ignoring crimes that are, especially if we consider ourselves “innocent.”

Let’s all pick up some big rocks and throw them at the prostitute and tell Jesus to be quiet. Better yet, let’s try to structure our laws, all of our laws, to reflect how the country works, to protect private property, and to help peaceful people in the U.S. pursue happiness.

How About an Early Election?

Many voting precincts around the country allow people to vote early for elections, which is a dandy idea if you ask me.  I get to avoid a line even if there aren’t any real crowds (sadly), and I take care of my civic responsibility at a time that suits my schedule.  Early voting is a wonderful convenience.  Given the current political climate leading up to what is likely the most controversial and divisive presidential election of my lifetime, I would like to carry the concept one step further.  Let’s get this over with by having an early election.  If social media is any indication of the current volatility of emotion and anxiety surrounding the election, we need to blow the lid off this pressure cooker as soon as possible.  Is there really anybody left out there who hasn’t made a decision about the candidates?

If we’re honest with each other and ourselves, which hardly ever happens on social media, we know that what we all do is accentuate the negative news about the candidate we oppose and ignore the damning news about the one we support. After a while, most of the “breaking news” about the candidates just becomes sound and fury, signifying nothing. The latest scandal is just another bug on the windshield — hit the spray switch and the wipers and in a few seconds it’s gone. It doesn’t change the course, it certainly doesn’t change anybody’s mind, and it doesn’t get us any closer to being one nation indivisible.

Members of Congress will continue to thwart the efforts of the President no matter who wins the White House, and the President will continue to use executive orders and other powers to bypass Congress. With this model now firmly established in Washington, the federal government will get very little good work accomplished, which for some of the remnants of the Tea Party, will be just fine. The chances of the federal government shrinking any time soon are practically nonexistent, so the next best thing for the anti-government crowd is for the train to stall on the tracks. Of course, that means that horrible abuses of the system and wasteful spending of tax money will continue to escalate, and both of the controlling parties are equally out of control with spending.

I don’t know what it will take for Americans to overcome their deep differences. We may be too far gone. Even an attack on our own soil only produces a temporary and superficial sense of unity that is quickly forgotten when the partisan rhetoric machine cranks up again. I certainly don’t hold out any hope that Trump, Clinton, or Johnson will be able to bring the nation together. If the model of Darwinian evolution’s survival of the fittest can be applied to the U.S., perhaps we simply aren’t the fittest.

The Terrorist Name Game

I have understood all along why President Obama has resisted using terms like “Muslim extremists” or “radical Muslims” to identify terrorists who pervert Islam for evil purposes. Peaceful Muslims in this country are in a precarious state. However, his resistance to associate some terrorists acts with fundamentalist Muslims denies the very real danger presented by radical religious practice everywhere. Islam does not have a monopoly on terrorists who claim to be part of a religion. Peace-loving Christians have no trouble distinguishing the faith they practice from the hate-filled ideology of the Westboro Baptists or the KKKs of this country, but they rarely deny that these groups are identified with Christianity. They may call them fundamentalists, evangelicals, zealots, nutcases, or even ultra-conservatives, or they may use quotation marks to imply they are not truly “Christians” at all, but they don’t call them atheists or agnostics either. Bands of Hindu radicals have been responsible for murdering scores of Muslims and Christians. We need to accept the fact that evil people use religions — all religions — as excuses to carry out horrific acts of violence.

I tend to agree with some commentators lately who have started identifying ISIS as a cult, a term that typically has negative connotations for most people, especially people of faith. Just to clarify, I am thinking in terms of the ISIS organization. Even though the recent Orlando shooter apparently invoked the name of Allah in his 911 call, that doesn’t necessarily put him in the league with ISIS, and it certainly doesn’t qualify him to be a Muslim as it is defined by millions of members of that faith around the world. I am quite sure that assassins throughout history have shouted “God’s will be done” before committing similar acts of cowardliness and evil. Doing so did not make them Christians in my view. At the same time, the only real difference between a cult and a religion is the number of people who claim allegiance. I do think we need to recognize that some of these attacks on our soil are inspired by maniacs with a warped, perverted sense of religion. Sometimes it’s Christianity; other times it’s Islam. Ignoring that fact doesn’t help us understand the motivations any better and may actually hinder us from addressing this global problem.

I don’t really think that the labels the President or anyone else chooses to use to describe these monsters are going to diminish their zeal and their thirst for blood, but I do think understanding their identification with the religion can be helpful in combating them. Rather than marginalizing peaceful Muslims, perhaps we can get more of them to help us stamp out the “cult.” Peace-loving Christians sat in church with KKK members for decades, and probably still do now. The KKK certainly fits the description of a cult in my mind, and I would bet my next paycheck that a lot of people outside the Christian faith would identify the KKK as a Christian cult or a perverted Christian organization because of the language and symbols used by the organization. I have never heard anyone claim that the KKK was an independent cult that has no identification with Christianity. They would have said the same about Koresh’s clan. I can remember growing up in a Baptist church and being taught that Mormons were members of a cult, yet almost any scholarly treatment of Mormonism identifies it as a Protestant denomination. In other words, it is very difficult to define what a cult is, and most cults historically have had their roots in existing religions. We ignore what inspires young people to join radical, hateful groups at our peril, and a perverted affiliation with a major world religion is a strong incentive for a weak, impressionable mind.

The way many people distinguish violent religious fanatics from the mainstream practitioners is by claiming that the fanatics aren’t practicing the “true” faith. And yet, the pro-lifer who turns murderer by bombing an abortion clinic may embrace all the trappings of Christian practice: attending church regularly, giving to Christian charitable causes, praying every day, reading the Bible, etc. He believes that he is doing God’s will by sacrificing the evil doctor who, in his mind, is murdering the unborn. As twisted as he is in his thinking, he still identifies with fundamental Christian beliefs, many of which he will justify with the Bible. His friends and acquaintances will identify him as a Christian, and some of them will continue to do so after he commits murder, even though they may not condone his actions. They will say things like “his convictions were strong, but he went about it the wrong way.” The real irony is that the abortion doctor may actually believe many of the same tenants of the faith that his killer does. I think this same paradigm is sometimes at play with ISIS members and their sympathizers. Most peaceful Muslims are horrified by their actions and are in fact victims of their evil deeds. But I don’t think we can escape that a perverted interpretation of Islam is what drives ISIS and what attracts sympathizers.  Again, as peaceful people, we ignore that unavoidable truth at our own risk and by doing so hinder our ability to overcome terrorism in all its manifestations.

Forget the Pencil; Bring Your Pistol

As of today’s date, the “campus carry” bill has already passed the house and senate in Georgia and has been sent to the Governor for his signature.  If the bill becomes law, it will allow students who are 21 or older to carry a concealed weapon on the campuses of state colleges and universities.  Although I have many concerns about students carrying handguns around campus, I do understand the circumstances and fears that led to the push for such legislation.  One of my major concerns is the rhetoric that always seems to surround issues and legislation about weapons in Georgia and around the country.  For instance, when asked why he was supporting this particular bill, a Georgia state legislator purportedly said, “In general, the only people laws affect are those who obey the law.  What we put into law is not going to have any impact on criminals.”

I actually have respect for this legislator, although we are not in the same political camp. This statement no doubt expresses his philosophy and that of many of his constituents where this bill is concerned.  But, is this how we are to regard legislation and laws in our state in general?  If so, then why should the state ever pass any law prohibiting any activity ever again.  Why have laws that prohibit the sale of cocaine or more lethal drugs if the only people such laws affect are those who wouldn’t use the substance in the first place?  Why have laws against aggravated assault if such laws are only obeyed by nonviolent people.  Why have traffic laws or speed limits?

Indeed, why have laws that prevent people from carrying guns into the state capitol?  I suspect these particular laws will remain because the state will make sure it has the law enforcement presence and power to enforce them.  But securing a college campus with law enforcement officers is much more expensive than securing a few state government buildings, right?

I truly do sympathize with parents of students and the students themselves where campus violence has escalated, especially at places like Georgia Tech.  I’m just not yet convinced that encouraging students to arm themselves is the answer.  Incidentally, if the law only allows students 21 and older to carry, then how does this law protect the other 50-75% of students on the campus who will not be able to carry legally?  Have violent crimes only been committed against college students who are over the age of 21?

I fear that when elected officials admit that civility can no longer be maintained by laws, then we have basically given the masses permission to take law enforcement into their own hands.  And, I fear that arming college students sends that message loudly and clearly to young people during a very impressionable period of their lives.  I just hope that Georgians, and Americans for that matter, are not moving toward a paradigm of abandoning the role of law enforcement to serve and protect and moving toward a society where self-defense becomes the expectation rather than the act of last resort.