Crazytown: A Bob Woodward Book, an Anonymous New York Times Op-Ed


September 8,2018

Crazytown: A Bob Woodward Book, an Anonymous New York Times Op-Ed, and a Growing Crisis for the Trump Presidency

The Republican “resistance” goes public (sort of), and everyone freaks out.

On Wednesday morning, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, walked out to address the cameras stationed in front of the West Wing and offered one of the week’s most unintentionally revealing comments. The first reports were out about the contents of Bob Woodward’s damning new account of the Trump Administration, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” and she was trying, not all that successfully, to downplay and deny the book’s sorry chronicle of internal chaos, dissension, and dismay within the White House over the President’s behavior. “I haven’t read a lot of his books,” she said, of Woodward, before going on to dismiss his latest as fiction.

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Trump is the eighth President of the United States to have been subjected to the Woodward treatment, and, had Sanders read his previous works, she would have known exactly what to expect: a devastating reported account of the Trump Presidency that will be consulted as a first draft of the grim history it portrays long after the best-sellers by Michael Wolff and Omarosa Manigault Newman have been forgotten. Merely dismissing it as fiction was never going to work. The book begins with what Woodward calls “an administrative coup d’etat”—Trump’s former chief economic adviser deciding to steal key papers off the President’s Oval Office desk in order to stop him from pulling out of a South Korean free-trade deal as tensions escalated with North Korea last summer. The book ends with the President’s lawyer John Dowd quitting his legal team, concluding that he could no longer represent someone he believed to be “a fucking liar.”

As Sanders spoke to reporters on Wednesday, her White House colleagues told journalists that they had only just managed to obtain a copy of the book, which does not go on sale to the public until next week. Up until then, they were left with the excerpts in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and CNN, which mostly emphasized, as Dwight Garner put it, in the Times, that “if this book has a single point to drive home, it is that the president of the United States is a congenital liar.” Trump’s lies, of course, have been thoroughly covered territory throughout his Presidency, especially because so many of them occur in public. Amazingly, it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.

Reading through a copy of the book obtained by The New Yorker, however, I was struck by a different theme: what Woodward has written is not just the story of a deeply flawed President but also, finally, an account of what those surrounding him have chosen to do about it. Throughout much of Trump’s first year in office, the shorthand had it that, while Trump was an inexperienced, and possibly even dangerous, newcomer to politics, he could be managed by the grownups he had invited into his government. Many of those grownups are now gone, fired by Trump or pushed out by scandal, and for months they have been telling people how bad it was, or how much they did to stop the President, or how much worse it could have been. Here, then, are some of the details of what they claim to have done to control Trump: Gary Cohn, who was the economic adviser until he resigned, early this year, swiped that order to withdraw from a free-trade agreement with South Korea, and another one to unilaterally withdraw from NAFTA. H. R. McMaster, the soon-to-be-fired national-security adviser, pondered quitting after the President ranted against U.S. allies and threatened to pull troops out of Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, but he remained in the job and convinced Trump, at least temporarily, not to go through with it. James Mattis, the generally unflappable Defense Secretary, told the President, “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III here,” during a contentious meeting that exasperated him so much, according to Woodward, that he later complained Trump behaved like a “fifth- or sixth-grader.” Another session in the Pentagon with the national-security team and Trump went so famously badly that, afterward, the Secretary of State at the time, Rex Tillerson, called Trump a “fucking moron,” a detail that Woodward confirms here for posterity.

This is hardly a flattering picture of what the internal pushback to Trump looks like. Many of Woodward’s sources come across as caricatures of Washington power brokers, scheming against one another as they jockey for Trump’s favor, shamelessly flattering the President, fuming about insults and threatening to quit but never actually doing so. I was about halfway through the book on Wednesday afternoon when the news cycle interrupted my reading: an anonymous Op-Ed by a “senior official in the Trump administration” had just been published by the Times, praising the “unsung heroes” inside the White House who have secretly been members of the same clandestine “resistance” chronicled in the Woodward book. “It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era,” Anonymous wrote, “but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.”

It was as if one of Woodward’s sources had chosen to publish a real-time epilogue in the pages of the Times. Reading the Op-Ed, I immediately thought of an amazing passage in the book, which quoted a summary of a national-security meeting written by a White House official (and which never even made it into the news accounts about the book). It said, “The president proceeded to lecture and insult the entire group about how they didn’t know anything when it came to defense or national security. It seems clear that many of the president’s senior advisers, especially those in the national security realm, are extremely concerned with his erratic nature, his relative ignorance, his inability to learn, as well as what they consider his dangerous views.”

Both the Op-Ed and the book convey the laments of conservatives who, in many respects, are fine with the Trump agenda but not with the man. That is, for now, what passes for the Republican wing of the resistance. So far, it is mostly underground, or perhaps still largely nonexistent; we don’t really know. The Republicans who control Capitol Hill have not joined, or even made token moves toward addressing these significant concerns raised by members of their own party. Instead, the silence from the congressional G.O.P., awaiting its fate in the November midterm elections and still wary of crossing the President who remains popular with the Republican base, has been deafening.

Meanwhile, the anonymous article and the nameless accounts in Woodward’s book have already infuriated those who have publicly struggled against Trump. For instance, The Atlantic’s David Frum, a former Bush Administration speechwriter, called the Op-Ed “a cowardly coup from within the administration” and said it “threatens to inflame the president’s paranoia and further endanger American security.” Such objections to the nascent Republican resistance are understandable; this is not the principled public combat of a democratic system as envisaged by the Founders. It is secretive and uncomfortable, the stuff of office backstabbing and private betrayals. It is not enough for those who have staked out public opposition to Trump, and it likely never will be. It is about ego and vanity as much as patriotism and principle. Most of all, it is a reminder of the terrible dilemma that Trump has posed for Republicans since the moment he announced his campaign for President, and will pose as long as he is in office.

 

A few minutes after the Post published the first story about the Woodward book, I met with a foreign-policy expert who is well connected in the Trump national-security world. The news seemed very much consistent with what both of us had been hearing since the beginning of the Administration. His friends who have been on the inside, he told me, have invariably told him stories like those now turning up in the news: “As bad as you think it is, it’s actually worse.” Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, who is one of Trump’s most open critics on Capitol Hill, made a similar point to an interviewer on Thursday. “It’s just so similar to what so many of us hear from senior people around the White House, you know, three times a week,” Sasse said. “So it’s really troubling, and yet, in a way, not surprising.”

As Thomas Wright, a Brookings scholar who has emerged as one of the most insightful analysts of Trump’s foreign policy, told me, “It’s the first time, maybe in history, key advisers have gone into the Administration to stop the President, not to enable him”—and that was back in January. The call has always been coming from inside the building.

By Thursday morning, Chris Cillizza had posted on CNN’s Web site a list of thirteen Trump insiders who could have written the article: Don McGahn, the departing White House counsel (Trump kicked him out, via Twitter, just last week); Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, who was publicly humiliated by Trump in the aftermath of Trump’s summit with Vladimir Putin; Kellyanne Conway, the White House counsellor whose own husband has emerged as a Trump-bashing tweeter; John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, reported by Woodward and others to have called Trump an “idiot”; Kirstjen Nielsen, the Kelly ally who heads the Department of Homeland Security and has been repeatedly dressed down by Trump in front of her colleagues; Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has come under withering, near-daily attack by Trump; Mattis, the Secretary of Defense and the most respected member of the President’s Cabinet; Fiona Hill, the top Russia expert on the National Security Council; Vice-President Mike Pence; Nikki Haley, the Ambassador to the United Nations, who has publicly expressed differences with Trump on Russia; and even “Javanka”—Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner—and Trump’s own wife, the long-suffering Melania Trump.

Others I spoke with suggested less well-known names in the senior ranks of various foreign-policy and national-security jobs, or in top economic posts. Could it have been Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, a former Democrat who has been humiliated by Trump from the start, according to the Woodward book? Or Larry Kudlow, the free-trader heading his National Economic Council? One prominent Washingtonian sent me a long e-mail laying out the case for John Bolton, the national-security adviser whose hawkish views on such subjects as North Korea and Russia have been repeatedly undercut by Trump. National Review published a case for Jon Huntsman, the 2012 Republican Presidential candidate now serving as Trump’s Ambassador to Moscow.

Just as quickly as the speculation about who did it, the denials started rolling in. The Vice-President, the director of National Intelligence, the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the Defense Secretary, the Treasury Secretary, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Ambassador to the United Nations, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and several others I’m sure I’m missing felt compelled to put out statements on Thursday morning denying that they wrote the Op-Ed calling Trump “impetuous, adversarial, petty, and ineffective.” Even Ben Carson, the wacky former surgeon and 2016 Presidential candidate now serving as Trump’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, put out a statement saying he wasn’t the Op-Ed author, though no one, at least that I am aware of, had speculated that he was. And that was a day after the Woodward denials: the White House chief of staff denied calling Trump an “idiot”; the Secretary of Defense denied calling him a middle-schooler; and his former lawyer denied calling him a “fucking liar.”

The denials seemed like some of those pointless, if required, Washington rituals. After all, Mark Felt, the deputy director of the F.B.I. during the Nixon Administration, who had been Woodward’s original secret source about the Watergate scandal, denied publicly for years that he was “Deep Throat,” a fact pointed out on Twitter on Wednesday, as journalists circulated a copy of an old Wall Street Journal story with Felt’s denial as the lede. Felt revealed himself as Woodward’s source before he died, and Woodward later published a book all about their dealings, “The Secret Man,” another book that Sarah Huckabee Sanders presumably did not read but should have: at the center of the tale is the story of how the F.B.I., outraged by the flagrant lawlessness of the President, decided to use its powers to take Nixon on.

At 6:58 A.M. on Thursday, as Washington obsessed over the identity of this latest Anonymous and I read the last few pages of Woodward’s damaging account, Trump tweeted about one person he had worked closely with who had “unwavering faith” in him: the dictator of North Korea. “Thank you Chairman Kim,” he enthused. “We will get it done together!” It was plaintive and pathetic and, yes, more than a little bit crazy.

It’s mornings like these that Trump’s beleaguered staff must dread more than anything. Reince Priebus, Trump’s fired first chief of staff, called the White House bedroom where Trump did most of his tweeting “the devil’s workshop,” Woodward reported. But Priebus’s successor, John Kelly, came up with the phrase that probably best sums up the situation. At one point in “Fear,” Woodward quotes Kelly calling his post as Trump’s chief of staff “the worst job I’ve ever had,” and describing the Trump White House as “crazytown.” It would have been the perfect title for the book, and I suspect that Kelly’s memorable description of the Trump Presidency may well outlive Kelly’s accomplishments in the job.

For twenty months, Washington has been asking, Is this the crisis? Is this finally the constitutional confrontation we have been waiting for? The Trump Presidency, to those closely watching it, and to many of those participating in it, has always seemed unsustainable. And yet it has gone on, and will keep going on, until and unless something seismic happens in our politics—and our Congress—to change it. We don’t need to wonder when the crisis will hit; it already has. Every day since January 20, 2017, has been the crisis.

 

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  • Susan B. Glasser is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where she writes a weekly column on life in Trump’s Washington.

  • https://www.newyorker.com

Foreign Policy: Francis Fukuyama Postpones the End of History


September 3, 2018

Foreign Policy: Francis Fukuyama Postpones the End of History

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The political scientist argues that the desire of identity groups for recognition is a key threat to liberalism.

In February, 1989, Francis Fukuyama gave a talk on international relations at the University of Chicago. Fukuyama was thirty-six years old, and on his way from a job at the RAND Corporation, in Santa Monica, where he had worked as an expert on Soviet foreign policy, to a post as the deputy director of policy planning at the State Department, in Washington.

It was a good moment for talking about international relations, and a good moment for Soviet experts especially, because, two months earlier, on December 7, 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev had announced, in a speech at the United Nations, that the Soviet Union would no longer intervene in the affairs of its Eastern European satellite states. Those nations could now become democratic. It was the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

At RAND, Fukuyama had produced focussed analyses of Soviet policy. In Chicago, he permitted himself to think big. His talk came to the attention of Owen Harries, an editor at a Washington journal called The National Interest, and Harries offered to publish it. The article was titled “The End of History?” It came out in the summer of 1989, and it turned the foreign-policy world on its ear.

Fukuyama’s argument was that, with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, the last ideological alternative to liberalism had been eliminated. Fascism had been killed off in the Second World War, and now Communism was imploding. In states, like China, that called themselves Communist, political and economic reforms were heading in the direction of a liberal order.

So, if you imagined history as the process by which liberal institutions—representative government, free markets, and consumerist culture—become universal, it might be possible to say that history had reached its goal. Stuff would still happen, obviously, and smaller states could be expected to experience ethnic and religious tensions and become home to illiberal ideas. But “it matters very little what strange thoughts occur to people in Albania or Burkina Faso,” Fukuyama explained, “for we are interested in what one could in some sense call the common ideological heritage of mankind.”

Hegel, Fukuyama said, had written of a moment when a perfectly rational form of society and the state would become victorious. Now, with Communism vanquished and the major powers converging on a single political and economic model, Hegel’s prediction had finally been fulfilled. There would be a “Common Marketization” of international relations and the world would achieve homeostasis.

Even among little magazines, The National Interest was little. Launched in 1985 by Irving Kristol, the leading figure in neoconservatism, it had by 1989 a circulation of six thousand. Fukuyama himself was virtually unknown outside the world of professional Sovietologists, people not given to eschatological reflection. But the “end of history” claim was picked up in the mainstream press, Fukuyama was profiled by James Atlas in the New York Times Magazine, and his article was debated in Britain and in France and translated into many languages, from Japanese to Icelandic. Some of the responses to “The End of History?” were dismissive; almost all of them were skeptical. But somehow the phrase found its way into post-Cold War thought, and it stuck.

One of the reasons for the stickiness was that Fukuyama was lucky. He got out about six months ahead of the curve—his article appearing before the Velvet Revolution, in Czechoslovakia, and before the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, in November, 1989. Fukuyama was betting on present trends continuing, always a high-risk gamble in the international-relations business.

Any number of things might have happened for Gorbachev’s promise not to cash out: political resistance within the Soviet Union, the refusal of the Eastern European puppet regimes to cede power, the United States misplaying its hand. But events in Europe unfolded more or less according to Fukuyama’s prediction, and, on December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union voted itself out of existence. The Cold War really was over.

Events in Asia were not so obliging. Fukuyama missed completely the suppression of the pro-democracy movement in China. There is no mention of the massacre in Tiananmen Square in “The End of History?,” presumably because the piece was in production when it happened, in June, 1989. This does not seem to have made a difference to the article’s reception, however. Almost none of the initial responses to the piece mentioned Tiananmen, either—even though many people already believed that China, not Russia, was the power that liberal democracies would have to reckon with in the future. “The End of History?” was a little Eurocentric.

There was also a seductive twist to Fukuyama’s argument. At the end of the article, he suggested that life after history might be sad. When all political efforts were committed to “the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands” (sounds good to me), we might feel nostalgia for the “courage, imagination, and idealism” that animated the old struggles for liberalism and democracy. This speculative flourish recalled the famous question that John Stuart Mill said he asked himself as a young man: If all the political and social reforms you believe in came to pass, would it make you a happier human being? That is always an interesting question.

Another reason that Fukuyama’s article got noticed may have had to do with his new job title. The office of policy planning at State had been created in 1947 by George Kennan, who was its first chief. In July of that year, Kennan published the so-called X article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” in Foreign Affairs. It appeared anonymously—signed with an “X”—but once the press learned his identity the article was received as an official statement of American Cold War policy.

“The Sources of Soviet Conduct” defined the containment doctrine, according to which the aim of American policy was to keep the Soviet Union inside its box. The United States did not need to intervene in Soviet affairs, Kennan believed, because Communism was bound to collapse from its own inefficiency. Four decades later, when “The End of History?” appeared, that is exactly what seemed to be happening. That April, Kennan, then eighty-five, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to declare that the Cold War was over. He received a standing ovation. Fukuyama’s article could thus be seen as a bookend to Kennan’s.

It was not the bookend Kennan would have written. Containment is a realist doctrine. Realists think that a nation’s foreign policy should be guided by dispassionate consideration of its own interests, not by moral principles, or by a belief that nations share a “harmony of interests.” To Kennan, it was of no concern to the United States what the Soviets did inside their own box. The only thing that mattered was that Communism not be allowed to expand.

The National Interest, as the name proclaims, is a realist foreign-policy journal. But Fukuyama’s premise was that nations do share a harmony of interests, and that their convergence on liberal political and economic models was mutually beneficial. Realism imagines nations to be in perpetual competition with one another; Fukuyama was saying that this was no longer going to be the case. He offered Cold War realists a kind of valediction: their mission, though philosophically misconceived, had been accomplished. Now they were out of a job. “Frank thought that what was happening spelled the end of the Realpolitik world,” Harries later said. It must have tickled him to have published Fukuyama’s article.

Twenty-nine years later, it seems that the realists haven’t gone anywhere, and that history has a few more tricks up its sleeve. It turns out that liberal democracy and free trade may actually be rather fragile achievements. (Consumerism appears safe for now.) There is something out there that doesn’t like liberalism, and is making trouble for the survival of its institutions.

 

Fukuyama thinks he knows what that something is, and his answer is summed up in the title of his new book, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The demand for recognition, Fukuyama says, is the “master concept” that explains all the contemporary dissatisfactions with the global liberal order: Vladimir Putin, Osama bin Laden, Xi Jinping, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, gay marriage, ISIS, Brexit, resurgent European nationalisms, anti-immigration political movements, campus identity politics, and the election of Donald Trump. It also explains the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, Chinese Communism, the civil-rights movement, the women’s movement, multiculturalism, and the thought of Luther, Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, and Simone de Beauvoir. Oh, and the whole business begins with Plato’s Republic. Fukuyama covers all of this in less than two hundred pages. How does he do it?

Not well. Some of the problem comes from misunderstanding figures like Beauvoir and Freud; some comes from reducing the work of complex writers like Rousseau and Nietzsche to a single philosophical bullet point. A lot comes from the astonishingly blasé assumption—which was also the astonishingly blasé assumption of “The End of History?”—that Western thought is universal thought. But the whole project, trying to fit Vladimir Putin into the same analytic paradigm as Black Lives Matter and tracing them both back to Martin Luther, is far-fetched. It’s a case of Great Booksism: history as a chain of paper dolls cut out of books that only a tiny fraction of human beings have even heard of. Fukuyama is a smart man, but no one could have made this argument work.

Why is the desire for recognition—or identity politics, as Fukuyama also calls it—a threat to liberalism? Because it cannot be satisfied by economic or procedural reforms. Having the same amount of wealth as everyone else or the same opportunity to acquire it is not a substitute for respect. Fukuyama thinks that political movements that appear to be about legal and economic equality—gay marriage, for example, or #MeToo—are really about recognition and respect. Women who are sexually harassed in the workplace feel that their dignity has been violated, that they are being treated as less than fully human.

Fukuyama gives this desire for recognition a Greek name, taken from Plato’s Republic: thymos. He says that thymos is “a universal aspect of human nature that has always existed.” In the Republic, thymos is distinct from the two other parts of the soul that Socrates names: reason and appetite. Appetites we share with animals; reason is what makes us human. Thymos is in between.

The term has been defined in various ways. “Passion” is one translation; “spirit,” as in “spiritedness,” is another. Fukuyama defines thymos as “the seat of judgments of worth.” This seems a semantic overreach. In the Republic, Socrates associates thymos with children and dogs, beings whose reactions need to be controlled by reason. The term is generally taken to refer to our instinctive response when we feel we’re being disrespected. We bristle. We swell with amour propre. We honk the horn. We overreact.

Plato had Socrates divide the psyche into three parts in order to assign roles to the citizens of his imaginary republic. Appetite is the principal attribute of the plebes, passion of the warriors, and reason of the philosopher kings. The Republic is philosophy; it is not cognitive science. Yet Fukuyama adopts Plato’s heuristic and biologizes it. “Today we know that feelings of pride and self-esteem are related to levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain,” he says, and points to studies done with chimps (which Socrates would have counted as animals, but never mind).

But so what? Lots of feelings are related to changes in serotonin levels. In fact, every feeling we experience—lust, anger, depression, exasperation—has a corollary in brain chemistry. That’s how consciousness works. To say, as Fukuyama does, that “the desire for status—megalothymia—is rooted in human biology” is the academic equivalent of palmistry. You’re just making it up.

Fukuyama resorts to this tactic because he wants to do with the desire for recognition what he did with liberalism in “The End of History?” He wants to universalize it. This allows him to argue, for example, that the feelings that led to the rise of Vladimir Putin are exactly the same (albeit “on a larger scale”) as the feelings of a woman who complains that her potential is limited by gender discrimination. The woman can’t help it. She needs the serotonin, just like the Russians.

Hegel thought that the end of history would arrive when humans achieved perfect self-knowledge and self-mastery, when life was rational and transparent. Rationality and transparency are the values of classical liberalism. Rationality and transparency are supposed to be what make free markets and democratic elections work. People understand how the system functions, and that allows them to make rational choices.

The trouble with thymos is that it is not rational. People not only sacrifice worldly goods for recognition; they die for recognition. The choice to die is not rational. “Human psychology is much more complex than the rather simpleminded economic model suggests,” Fukuyama concludes.

“Sorry I’m late. I got caught up at home being happy.”

But how was that model of the rational economic actor ever plausible? It’s not just that human beings are neurotic; it’s that, on the list of things human beings are neurotic about, money is close to the top. People hoard money; they squander it; they marry for it; they kill for it. Don’t economists ever read novels? Practically every realist novel, from Austen and Balzac to James and Wharton, is about people behaving badly around money. Free markets didn’t change that. They arguably made people even crazier.

And as with money so with most of life. The notion that we have some mental faculty called “reason” that functions independently of our needs, desires, anxieties, and superstitions is, well, Platonic. Right now, you are trying to decide whether to finish this piece or turn to the cartoon-caption contest. Which mental faculty are you using to make this decision? Which is responsible for your opinion of Donald Trump? How can you tell?

“Identity” can be read as a corrective to the position that Fukuyama staked out in “The End of History?” Universal liberalism isn’t impeded by ideology, like fascism or communism, but by passion. Liberalism remains the ideal political and economic system, but it needs to find ways to accommodate and neutralize this pesky desire for recognition. What is odd about Fukuyama’s dilemma is that, in the philosophical source for his original theory about the end of history, recognition was not a problem. Recognition was, in fact, the means to get there.

That source was not Hegel. As Fukuyama stated explicitly in “The End of History?,” he was adopting an interpretation of Hegel made in the nineteen-thirties by a semi-obscure intellectual adventurer named Alexandre Kojève. How, fifty years later, Kojève’s ideas got into the pages of a Washington policy journal is an unusual story of intellectual musical chairs.

Kojève was born in 1902 into a well-off Moscow family, and he was raised in a cultivated atmosphere. The painter Wassily Kandinsky was an uncle. Kojève was a prodigious intellect; by the time he was eighteen, he was fluent in Russian, German, French, and English, and read Latin. Later, he learned Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan in order to study Buddhism. In 1918, he went to prison for some sort of black-market transaction. After he got out, he and a friend managed to cross the closed Soviet border into Poland, where they were briefly jailed on suspicion of espionage. With the pointed encouragement of Polish authorities, Kojève left for Germany. He studied philosophy with Karl Jaspers at Heidelberg and lived as a bon vivant in Weimar Berlin. In 1926, he moved to Paris, where he continued to live the high life while writing a dissertation that dealt with quantum physics.

Kojève had invested his inheritance in the French company that made La Vache Qui Rit cheese, but he lost everything in the stock-market crash. In 1933, in need of income, he accepted a friend’s offer to take over a seminar on Hegel at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. He ended up running the course for six years.

People who were around Kojève seem to have regarded him as a kind of magician. In the Hegel seminar, he taught just one text, “The Phenomenology of Spirit,” first published in 1807. He would read a passage aloud in German (the book had not been translated into French) and then, extemporaneously and in perfect French (with an enchanting Slavic accent), provide his own commentary. People found him eloquent, brilliant, mesmerizing. Enrollment was small, around twenty, but a number of future intellectual luminaries, like Hannah Arendt and Jacques Lacan, either took the class or sat in on it.

For Kojève, the key concept in Hegel’s “Phenomenology” was recognition. Human beings want the recognition of other human beings in order to become self-conscious—to know themselves as autonomous individuals. As Kojève put it, humans desire, and what they desire is either something that other humans desire or the desire of other humans. “Human history,” he said, “is the history of desired desires.” What makes this complicated is that in the struggle for recognition there are winners and losers. The terms Hegel used for these can be translated as lords and servants, but also as masters and slaves, which are the terms Kojève used. The master wins the recognition of the slave, but his satisfaction is empty, since he does not recognize the slave as human in turn. The slave, lacking recognition from the master, must seek it in some other way.

Kojève thought that the other way was through labor. The slave achieves his sense of self by work that transforms the natural world into a human world. But the slave is driven to labor in the first place because of the master’s refusal to recognize him. This “master-slave dialectic” is the motor of human history, and human history comes to an end when there are no more masters or slaves, and all are recognized equally.

This is the idea that Marx had adopted to describe history as the history of class struggle. That struggle also has winners and losers, and its penultimate phase was the struggle between property owners (the bourgeoisie) and workers (the proletariat). The struggle would come to an end with the overthrow of capitalism and the arrival of a classless society—communism. Kojève called himself, mischievously or not, a Communist, and people listening to him in the nineteen-thirties would have understood this to be the subtext of his commentary. Equality of recognition was history’s goal, whether that meant Communist equality or liberal equality. People would stop killing one another in the name of dignity and self-respect, and life would probably be boring.

After the war, Kojève’s lectures were published as “Introduction to the Reading of Hegel,” a book that went through many printings in France. By then, he had stopped teaching and had become an official in the French Ministry of Economic Affairs, where he played an influential behind-the-scenes role in establishing the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union—in other words, Common Marketization. He liked to say that he was presiding over the end of history.

In 1953, Allan Bloom, then a graduate student at the University of Chicago, met Kojève in Paris, at his office in the ministry. (The connection was presumably made through the émigré political theorist Leo Strauss, who was teaching at Chicago and who carried on a long correspondence with Kojève.) “I was seduced,” Bloom later said. He began studying with Kojève, and their meetings continued until Kojève’s death, in 1968. In 1969, Bloom arranged for the publication of the first English translation of the Hegel lectures and contributed an introduction. He was then a professor at Cornell.

Fukuyama entered Cornell as a freshman in 1970. He lived in Telluride House, a selective academic society for students and faculty, where Bloom was a resident. Fukuyama enrolled in Bloom’s freshman course on Greek philosophy, and, according to Atlas, he and Bloom “shared meals and talked philosophy until all hours.”

As it happened, that was Bloom’s last year at Cornell. He resigned in disgust at the way the administration had handled the occupation of a university building by armed students from the Afro-American Society. Fukuyama graduated in 1974 with a degree in classics. Following an excursus into the world of poststructuralist theory at Yale and in Paris, he switched his field to political science and received his Ph.D. from Harvard’s government department. He graduated in 1979, and went to RAND.

By then, Bloom was back at the University of Chicago, as a professor in the Committee on Social Thought. In 1982, he published an article on the condition of higher education in William F. Buckley’s National Review. He did not think the condition was good. Encouraged by his friend Saul Bellow, he decided to turn the article into a book. “The Closing of the American Mind,” which Simon & Schuster brought out in February, 1987, launched a campaign of criticism of American higher education that has taken little time off since.

“The Closing of the American Mind” is a Great Booksist attempt to account for the rise of cultural relativism, which Bloom thought was the bane of American higher education. Almost no one at Simon & Schuster had great hopes for sales. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that when the editor who signed the book, Erwin Glikes, left the firm to run the Free Press he was invited to take Bloom’s book, not yet published, with him, and he declined.

If so, he missed out on one of the publishing phenomena of the decade. After a slow start, “The Closing of the American Mind” went to No. 1 on the Times best-seller list and stayed there for two and a half months. By March, 1988, it had sold a million hardcover copies in the United States alone. It made Bloom a rich man.

It was Bloom, along with another professor at Chicago, Nathan Tarcov, who invited Fukuyama to give his February, 1989, talk on international relations. If Fukuyama had not already been thinking about it, it is easy to imagine him deciding that, under the circumstances, it might be interesting to say something Kojèvean.

When “The End of History?” ran in The National Interest that summer, Bloom had become a star in the neoconservative firmament, and his was the first of six responses that the magazine printed to accompany the article. Bloom called it “bold and brilliant.” Possibly seeing the way the wind was blowing, Glikes offered Fukuyama six hundred thousand dollars to turn his article into a book. “The End of History and the Last Man” was published by the Free Press in 1992.

The book was a best-seller, but not a huge one, maybe because the excitement about the end of the Cold War had cooled. Fukuyama had taken his time writing it. “The End of History and the Last Man” is not a journal article on steroids. It is a thoughtful examination of the questions raised by the piece in The National Interest, and one of those questions is the problem of thymos, which occupies much of the book. A lot of “Identity” is a recap of what Fukuyama had already said there.

The importance of recognition has been emphasized by writers other than Kojève. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, for example, whose book “The Sources of the Self,” published in 1989, the same year as “The End of History?,” argued that the modern idea of the self involved a cultural shift from the concept of honor, which is something for the few, to dignity, which is aspired to by all. In 1992, in the essay “The Politics of Recognition,” Taylor analyzed the advent of multiculturalism in terms similar to the ones Fukuyama uses in “Identity.” (Taylor, too, is a Hegel expert.)

Fukuyama acknowledges that identity politics has done some good, and he says that people on the right exaggerate the prevalence of political correctness and the effects of affirmative action. He also thinks that people on the left have become obsessed with cultural and identitarian politics, and have abandoned social policy. But he has surprisingly few policy suggestions himself.

He has no interest in the solution that liberals typically adopt to accommodate diversity: pluralism and multiculturalism. Taylor, for example, has championed the right of the Québécois to pass laws preserving a French-language culture in their province. Fukuyama concedes that people need a sense of national identity, whether ethnic or creedal, but otherwise he remains an assimilationist and a universalist. He wants to iron out differences, not protect them. He suggests measures like a mandatory national-service requirement and a more meaningful path to citizenship for immigrants.

It’s unfortunate that Fukuyama has hung his authorial hat on meta-historical claims. In other books—notably “The Great Disruption” (1999) and a two-volume world history, “The Origins of Political Order” (2011) and “Political Order and Political Decay” (2014)—he distinguishes civilizational differences and uses empirical data to explain social trends. But thymos is too clumsy an instrument to be much help in understanding contemporary politics.

Wouldn’t it be important to distinguish people who ultimately don’t want differences to matter, like the people involved in #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, from people who ultimately do want them to matter, like ISIS militants, Brexit voters, or separatist nationalists? And what about people who are neither Mexican nor immigrants and who feel indignation at the treatment of Mexican immigrants? Black Americans risked their lives for civil rights, but so did white Americans. How would Socrates classify that behavior? Borrowed thymos?

It might also be good to replace the linear “if present trends continue” conception of history as a steady progression toward some stable state with the dialectical conception of history that Hegel and Kojève in fact used. Present trends don’t continue. They produce backlashes and reshufflings of the social deck. The identities that people embrace today are the identities their children will want to escape from tomorrow. History is somersaults all the way to the end. That’s why it’s so hard to write, and so hard to predict. Unless you’re lucky. ♦

 

This article appears in the print edition of the September 3, 2018, issue, with the headline “What Identity Demands.”

  • Louis Menand, a staff writer since 2001, was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2016.

Remembering America’s James Baldwin and What he stood for


August 3, 2018

Remembering America’s James Baldwin and What he stood for

Letter from a Region in My Mind

Take up the White Man’s burden—
Ye dare not stoop to less—
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you.

Kipling.

Down at the cross where my Saviour died,
Down where for cleansing from sin I cried,
There to my heart was the blood applied,
Singing glory to His name!

—Hymn.

I underwent, during the summer that I became fourteen, a prolonged religious crisis. I use “religious” in the common, and arbitrary, sense, meaning that I then discovered God, His saints and angels, and His blazing Hell. And since I had been born in a Christian nation, I accepted this Deity as the only one. I supposed Him to exist only within the walls of a church—in fact, of our church—and I also supposed that God and safety were synonymous. The word “safety” brings us to the real meaning of the word “religious” as we use it. Therefore, to state it in another, more accurate way, I became, during my fourteenth year, for the first time in my life, afraid—afraid of the evil within me and afraid of the evil without. What I saw around me that summer in Harlem was what I had always seen; nothing had changed. But now, without any warning, the whores and pimps and racketeers on the Avenue had become a personal menace. It had not before occurred to me that I could become one of them, but now I realized that we had been produced by the same circumstances.

Many of my comrades were clearly headed for the Avenue, and my father said that I was headed that way, too. My friends began to drink and smoke, and embarked—at first avid, then groaning—on their sexual careers. Girls, only slightly older than I was, who sang in the choir or taught Sunday school, the children of holy parents, underwent, before my eyes, their incredible metamorphosis, of which the most bewildering aspect was not their budding breasts or their rounding behinds but something deeper and more subtle, in their eyes, their heat, their odor, and the inflection of their voices. Like the strangers on the Avenue, they became, in the twinkling of an eye, unutterably different and fantastically present. Owing to the way I had been raised, the abrupt discomfort that all this aroused in me and the fact that I had no idea what my voice or my mind or my body was likely to do next caused me to consider myself one of the most depraved people on earth. Matters were not helped by the fact that these holy girls seemed rather to enjoy my terrified lapses, our grim, guilty, tormented experiments, which were at once as chill and joyless as the Russian steppes and hotter, by far, than all the fires of Hell.

Yet there was something deeper than these changes, and less definable, that frightened me. It was real in both the boys and the girls, but it was, somehow, more vivid in the boys. In the case of the girls, one watched them turning into matrons before they had become women. They began to manifest a curious and really rather terrifying single-mindedness. It is hard to say exactly how this was conveyed: something implacable in the set of the lips, something farseeing (seeing what?) in the eyes, some new and crushing determination in the walk, something peremptory in the voice. They did not tease us, the boys, any more; they reprimanded us sharply, saying, “You better be thinking about your soul!” For the girls also saw the evidence on the Avenue, knew what the price would be, for them, of one misstep, knew that they had to be protected and that we were the only protection there was.

They understood that they must act as God’s decoys, saving the souls of the boys for Jesus and binding the bodies of the boys in marriage. For this was the beginning of our burning time, and “It is better,” said St. Paul—who elsewhere, with a most unusual and stunning exactness, described himself as a “wretched man”—“to marry than to burn.” And I began to feel in the boys a curious, wary, bewildered despair, as though they were now settling in for the long, hard winter of life. I did not know then what it was that I was reacting to; I put it to myself that they were letting themselves go. In the same way that the girls were destined to gain as much weight as their mothers, the boys, it was clear, would rise no higher than their fathers. School began to reveal itself, therefore, as a child’s game that one could not win, and boys dropped out of school and went to work.

My father wanted me to do the same. I refused, even though I no longer had any illusions about what an education could do for me; I had already encountered too many college-graduate handymen. My friends were now “downtown,” busy, as they put it, “fighting the man.” They began to care less about the way they looked, the way they dressed, the things they did; presently, one found them in twos and threes and fours, in a hallway, sharing a jug of wine or a bottle of whiskey, talking, cursing, fighting, sometimes weeping: lost, and unable to say what it was that oppressed them, except that they knew it was “the man”—the white man. And there seemed to be no way whatever to remove this cloud that stood between them and the sun, between them and love and life and power, between them and whatever it was that they wanted.

One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long. The humiliation did not apply merely to working days, or workers; I was thirteen and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and, for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots. Just before and then during the Second World War, many of my friends fled into the service, all to be changed there, and rarely for the better, many to be ruined, and many to die. Others fled to other states and cities—that is, to other ghettos. Some went on wine or whiskey or the needle, and are still on it. And others, like me, fled into the church.

For the wages of sin were visible everywhere, in every wine-stained and urine-splashed hallway, in every clanging ambulance bell, in every scar on the faces of the pimps and their whores, in every helpless, newborn baby being brought into this danger, in every knife and pistol fight on the Avenue, and in every disastrous bulletin: a cousin, mother of six, suddenly gone mad, the children parcelled out here and there; an indestructible aunt rewarded for years of hard labor by a slow, agonizing death in a terrible small room; someone’s bright son blown into eternity by his own hand; another turned robber and carried off to jail. It was a summer of dreadful speculations and discoveries, of which these were not the worst. Crime became real, for example—for the first time—not as a possibility but as the possibility.

One would never defeat one’s circumstances by working and saving one’s pennies; one would never, by working, acquire that many pennies, and, besides, the social treatment accorded even the most successful Negroes proved that one needed, in order to be free, something more than a bank account. One needed a handle, a lever, a means of inspiring fear. It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it, and that everyone else—housewives, taxi-drivers, elevator boys, dishwashers, bartenders, lawyers, judges, doctors, and grocers—would never, by the operation of any generous human feeling, cease to use you as an outlet for his frustrations and hostilities. Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that, or to seem to do it, which was (and is) good enough.

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There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.

People more advantageously placed than we in Harlem were, and are, will no doubt find the psychology and the view of human nature sketched above dismal and shocking in the extreme. But the Negro’s experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live. His own condition is overwhelming proof that white people do not live by these standards.

Negro servants have been smuggling odds and ends out of white homes for generations, and white people have been delighted to have them do it, because it has assuaged a dim guilt and testified to the intrinsic superiority of white people. Even the most doltish and servile Negro could scarcely fail to be impressed by the disparity between his situation and that of the people for whom he worked; Negroes who were neither doltish nor servile did not feel that they were doing anything wrong when they robbed white people. In spite of the Puritan-Yankee equation of virtue with well-being, Negroes had excellent reasons for doubting that money was made or kept by any very striking adherence to the Christian virtues; it certainly did not work that way for black Christians.

In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns, the law—in a word, power. But it was a criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever. And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection.

It turned out, then, that summer, that the moral barriers that I had supposed to exist between me and the dangers of a criminal career were so tenuous as to be nearly nonexistent. I certainly could not discover any principled reason for not becoming a criminal, and it is not my poor, God-fearing parents who are to be indicted for the lack but this society. I was icily determined—more determined, really, than I then knew—never to make my peace with the ghetto but to die and go to Hell before I would let any white man spit on me, before I would accept my “place” in this republic.

I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was, and limit me that way, and polish me off that way. And yet, of course, at the same time, I was being spat on and defined and described and limited, and could have been polished off with no effort whatever. Every Negro boy—in my situation during those years, at least—who reaches this point realizes, at once, profoundly, because he wants to live, that he stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a “thing,” a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way. And it does not matter what the gimmick is. It was this last realization that terrified me and—since it revealed that the door opened on so many dangers—helped to hurl me into the church. And, by an unforeseeable paradox, it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick.

For when I tried to assess my capabilities, I realized that I had almost none. In order to achieve the life I wanted, I had been dealt, it seemed to me, the worst possible hand. I could not become a prizefighter—many of us tried but very few succeeded. I could not sing. I could not dance. I had been well conditioned by the world in which I grew up, so I did not yet dare take the idea of becoming a writer seriously. The only other possibility seemed to involve my becoming one of the sordid people on the Avenue, who were not really as sordid as I then imagined but who frightened me terribly, both because I did not want to live that life and because of what they made me feel.

Everything inflamed me, and that was bad enough, but I myself had also become a source of fire and temptation. I had been far too well raised, alas, to suppose that any of the extremely explicit overtures made to me that summer, sometimes by boys and girls but also, more alarmingly, by older men and women, had anything to do with my attractiveness. On the contrary, since the Harlem idea of seduction is, to put it mildly, blunt, whatever these people saw in me merely confirmed my sense of my depravity.

It is certainly sad that the awakening of one’s senses should lead to such a merciless judgment of oneself—to say nothing of the time and anguish one spends in the effort to arrive at any other—but it is also inevitable that a literal attempt to mortify the flesh should be made among black people like those with whom I grew up. Negroes in this country—and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking, exist in any other—are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world. This world is white and they are black. White people hold the power, which means that they are superior to blacks (intrinsically, that is: God decreed it so), and the world has innumerable ways of making this difference known and felt and feared.

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Long before the Negro child perceives this difference, and even longer before he understands it, he has begun to react to it, he has begun to be controlled by it. Every effort made by the child’s elders to prepare him for a fate from which they cannot protect him causes him secretly, in terror, to begin to await, without knowing that he is doing so, his mysterious and inexorable punishment. He must be “good” not only in order to please his parents and not only to avoid being punished by them; behind their authority stands another, nameless and impersonal, infinitely harder to please, and bottomlessly cruel. And this filters into the child’s consciousness through his parents’ tone of voice as he is being exhorted, punished, or loved; in the sudden, uncontrollable note of fear heard in his mother’s or his father’s voice when he has strayed beyond some particular boundary. He does not know what the boundary is, and he can get no explanation of it, which is frightening enough, but the fear he hears in the voices of his elders is more frightening still. The fear that I heard in my father’s voice, for example, when he realized that I really believed I could do anything a white boy could do, and had every intention of proving it, was not at all like the fear I heard when one of us was ill or had fallen down the stairs or strayed too far from the house. It was another fear, a fear that the child, in challenging the white world’s assumptions, was putting himself in the path of destruction.

A child cannot, thank Heaven, know how vast and how merciless is the nature of power, with what unbelievable cruelty people treat each other. He reacts to the fear in his parents’ voices because his parents hold up the world for him and he has no protection without them. I defended myself, as I imagined, against the fear my father made me feel by remembering that he was very old-fashioned. Also, I prided myself on the fact that I already knew how to outwit him. To defend oneself against a fear is simply to insure that one will, one day, be conquered by it; fears must be faced. As for one’s wits, it is just not true that one can live by them—not, that is, if one wishes really to live. That summer, in any case, all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and controlled my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me, and drove me into the church.

As I look back, everything I did seems curiously deliberate, though it certainly did not seem deliberate then. For example, I did not join the church of which my father was a member and in which he preached. My best friend in school, who attended a different church, had already “surrendered his life to the Lord,” and he was very anxious about my soul’s salvation. (I wasn’t, but any human attention was better than none.) One Saturday afternoon, he took me to his church. There were no services that day, and the church was empty, except for some women cleaning and some other women praying. My friend took me into the back room to meet his pastor—a woman. There she sat, in her robes, smiling, an extremely proud and handsome woman, with Africa, Europe, and the America of the American Indian blended in her face.

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She was perhaps forty-five or fifty at this time, and in our world she was a very celebrated woman. My friend was about to introduce me when she looked at me and smiled and said, “Whose little boy are you? “ Now this, unbelievably, was precisely the phrase used by pimps and racketeers on the Avenue when they suggested, both humorously and intensely, that I “hang out” with them. Perhaps part of the terror they had caused me to feel came from the fact that I unquestionably wanted to be somebody’s little boy. I was so frightened, and at the mercy of so many conundrums, that inevitably, that summer, someone would have taken me over; one doesn’t, in Harlem, long remain standing on any auction block. It was my good luck—perhaps—that I found myself in the church racket instead of some other, and surrendered to a spiritual seduction long before I came to any carnal knowledge. For when the pastor asked me, with that marvellous smile, “Whose little boy are you?” my heart replied at once, “Why, yours.”

The summer wore on, and things got worse. I became more guilty and more frightened, and kept all this bottled up inside me, and naturally, inescapably, one night, when this woman had finished preaching, everything came roaring, screaming, crying out, and I fell to the ground before the altar. It was the strangest sensation I have ever had in my life—up to that time, or since. I had not known that it was going to happen, or that it could happen. One moment I was on my feet, singing and clapping and, at the same time, working out in my head the plot of a play I was working on then; the next moment, with no transition, no sensation of falling, I was on my back, with the lights beating down into my face and all the vertical saints above me. I did not know what I was doing down so low, or how I had got there. And the anguish that filled me cannot be described. It moved in me like one of those floods that devastate counties, tearing everything down, tearing children from their parents and lovers from each other, and making everything an unrecognizable waste.

All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain; it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—then utter disaster was my portion. Yes, it does indeed mean something—something unspeakable—to be born, in a white country, an Anglo-Teutonic, antisexual country, black. You very soon, without knowing it, give up all hope of communion. Black people, mainly, look down or look up but do not look at each other, not at you, and white people, mainly, look away. And the universe is simply a sounding drum; there is no way, no way whatever, so it seemed then and has sometimes seemed since, to get through a life, to love your wife and children, or your friends, or your mother and father, or to be loved.

The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—as who has not?—of human love, God’s love alone is left. But God—and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly—is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far? Why? In spite of all I said thereafter, I found no answer on the floor—not that answer, anyway—and I was on the floor all night. Over me, to bring me “through,” the saints sang and rejoiced and prayed. And in the morning, when they raised me, they told me that I was “save.”

Well, indeed I was, in a way, for I was utterly drained and exhausted, and released, for the first time, from all my guilty torment. I was aware then only of my relief. For many years, I could not ask myself why human relief had to be achieved in a fashion at once so pagan and so desperate—in a fashion at once so unspeakably old and so unutterably new. And by the time I was able to ask myself this question, I was also able to see that the principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles governing the rites and customs of other churches, white.

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The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others. I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.

I was saved. But at the same time, out of a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand, I realized immediately that I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be too bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue. And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground. Anyway, very shortly after I joined the church, I became a preacher—a Young Minister—and I remained in the pulpit for more than three years. My youth quickly made me a much bigger drawing card than my father. I pushed this advantage ruthlessly, for it was the most effective means I had found of breaking his hold over me. That was the most frightening time of my life, and quite the most dishonest, and the resulting hysteria lent great passion to my sermons—for a while.

I relished the attention and the relative immunity from punishment that my new status gave me, and I relished, above all, the sudden right to privacy. It had to be recognized, after all, that I was still a schoolboy, with my schoolwork to do, and I was also expected to prepare at least one sermon a week. During what we may call my heyday, I preached much more often than that. This meant that there were hours and even whole days when I could not be interrupted—not even by my father. I had immobilized him. It took rather more time for me to realize that I had also immobilized myself, and had escaped from nothing whatever.

The church was very exciting. It took a long time for me to disengage myself from this excitement, and on the blindest, most visceral level, I never really have, and never will. There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord. There is still, for me, no pathos quite like the pathos of those multicolored, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord. I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing the church, as Leadbelly and so many others have testified, to rock.

Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they said, “the Word”—when the church and I were one. Their pain and their joy were mine, and mine were theirs—they surrendered their pain and joy to me, I surrendered mine to them-and their cries of “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” and “Yes, Lord’ ” and “Praise His name!” and “Preach it, brother!” sustained and whipped on my solos until we all became equal, wringing wet, singing and dancing, in anguish and rejoicing, at the foot of the altar. It was, for a long time, in spite of—or, not inconceivably because of—the shabbiness of my motives, my only sustenance, my meat and drink. I rushed home from school, to the church, to the altar, to be alone there, to commune with Jesus, my dearest Friend, who would never fail me, who knew all the secrets of my heart. Perhaps He did, but I didn’t, and the bargain we struck, actually, down there at the foot of the cross, was that He would never let me find out.

He failed his bargain. He was a much better Man than I took Him for. It happened, as things do, imperceptibly, in many ways at once. I date it—the slow crumbling of my faith, the pulverization of my fortress—from the time, about a year after I had begun to preach, when I began to read again. I justified this desire by the fact that I was still in school, and I began, fatally, with Dostoevski. By this time, I was in a high school that was predominantly Jewish.

This meant that I was surrounded by people who were, by definition, beyond any hope of salvation, who laughed at the tracts and leaflets I brought to school, and who pointed out that the Gospels had been written long after the death of Christ. This might not have been so distressing if it had not forced me to read the tracts and leaflets myself, for they were indeed, unless one believed their message already, impossible to believe. I remember feeling dimly that there was a kind of blackmail in it. People, I felt, ought to love the Lord because they loved Him, and not because they were afraid of going to Hell. I was forced, reluctantly, to realize that the Bible itself had been written by men, and translated by men out of languages I could not read, and I was already, without quite admitting it to myself, terribly involved with the effort of putting words on paper. Of course, I had the rebuttal ready: These men had all been operating under divine inspiration. Had they? All of them? And I also knew by now, alas, far more about divine inspiration than I dared admit, for I knew how I worked myself up into my own visions, and how frequently—indeed, incessantly—the visions God granted to me differed from the visions He granted to my father. I did not understand the dreams I had at night, but I knew that they were not holy. For that matter, I knew that my waking hours were far from holy.

I spent most of my time in a state of repentance for things I had vividly desired to do but had not done. The fact that I was dealing with Jews brought the whole question of color, which I had been desperately avoiding, into the terrified center of my mind. I realized that the Bible had been written by white men. I knew that, according to many Christians, I was a descendant of Ham, who had been cursed, and that I was therefore predestined to be a slave. This had nothing to do with anything I was, or contained, or could become; my fate had been sealed forever, from the beginning of time. And it seemed, indeed, when one looked out over Christendom, that this was what Christendom effectively believed. It was certainly the way it behaved. I remembered the Italian priests and bishops blessing Italian boys who were on their way to Ethiopia.

Again, the Jewish boys in high school were troubling because I could find no point of connection between them and the Jewish pawnbrokers and landlords and grocery-store owners in Harlem. I knew that these people were Jews—God knows I was told it often enough—but I thought of them only as white. Jews, as such, until I got to high school, were all incarcerated in the Old Testament, and their names were Abraham, Moses, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Job, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It was bewildering to find them so many miles and centuries out of Egypt, and so far from the fiery furnace. My best friend in high school was a Jew. He came to our house once, and afterward my father asked, as he asked about everyone, “Is he a Christian?”—by which he meant “Is he saved?” I really do not know whether my answer came out of innocence or venom, but I said, coldly, “No. He’s Jewish.”

My father slammed me across the face with his great palm, and in that moment everything flooded back—all the hatred and all the fear, and the depth of a merciless resolve to kill my father rather than allow my father to kill me—and I knew that all those sermons and tears and all that repentance and rejoicing had changed nothing. I wondered if I was expected to be glad that a friend of mine, or anyone, was to be tormented forever in Hell, and I also thought, suddenly, of the Jews in another Christian nation, Germany. They were not so far from the fiery furnace after all, and my best friend might have been one of them. I told my father, “He’s a better Christian than you are,” and walked out of the house. The battle between us was in the open, but that was all right; it was almost a relief. A more deadly struggle had begun.

Being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked. I knew the other ministers and knew the quality of their lives. And I don’t mean to suggest by this the “Elmer Gantry” sort of hypocrisy concerning sensuality; it was a deeper, deadlier, and more subtle hypocrisy than that, and a little honest sensuality, or a lot, would have been like water in an extremely bitter desert.

I knew how to work on a congregation until the last dime was surrendered—it was not very hard to do—and I knew where the money for “the Lord’s work” went. I knew, though I did not wish to know it, that I had no respect for the people with whom I worked. I could not have said it then, but I also knew that if I continued I would soon have no respect for myself. And the fact that I was “the young Brother Baldwin” increased my value with those same pimps and racketeers who had helped to stampede me into the church in the first place. They still saw the little boy they intended to take over. They were waiting for me to come to my senses and realize that I was in a very lucrative business. They knew that I did not yet realize this, and also that I had not yet begun to suspect where my own needs, coming up (they were very patient), could drive me. They themselves did know the score, and they knew that the odds were in their favor. And, really, I knew it, too. I was even lonelier and more vulnerable than I had been before. And the blood of the Lamb had not cleansed me in any way whatever. I was just as black as I had been the day that I was born.

Therefore, when I faced a congregation, it began to take all the strength I had not to stammer, not to curse, not to tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize, for example, a rent strike. When I watched all the children, their copper, brown, and beige faces staring up at me as I taught Sunday school, I felt that I was committing a crime in talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling them to reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to gain the crown of eternal life. Were only Negroes to gain this crown? Was Heaven, then, to be merely another ghetto? Perhaps I might have been able to reconcile myself even to this if I had been able to believe that there was any loving-kindness to be found in the haven I represented. But I had been in the pulpit too long and I had seen too many monstrous things. I don’t refer merely to the glaring fact that the minister eventually acquires houses and Cadillacs while the faithful continue to scrub floors and drop their dimes and quarters and dollars into the plate. I really mean that there was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair. The transfiguring power of the Holy Ghost ended when the service ended, and salvation stopped at the church door. When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant every body. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all. I was told by a minister, for example, that I should never, on any public conveyance, under any circumstances, rise and give my seat to a white woman. White men never rose for Negro women.

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Well, that was true enough, in the main—I saw his point. But what was the point, the purpose, of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me? What others did was their responsibility, for which they would answer when the judgment trumpet sounded. But what I did was my responsibility, and I would have to answer, too—unless, of course, there was also in Heaven a special dispensation for the benighted black, who was not to be judged in the same way as other human beings, or angels. It probably occurred to me around this time that the vision people hold of the world to come is but a reflection, with predictable wishful distortions, of the world in which they live. And this did not apply only to Negroes, who were no more “simple” or “spontaneous” or “Christian” than anybody else—who were merely more oppressed. In the same way that we, for white people, were the descendants of Ham, and were cursed forever, white people were, for us, the descendants of Cain. And the passion with which we loved the Lord was a measure of how deeply we feared and distrusted and, in the end, hated almost all strangers, always, and avoided and despised ourselves.

But I cannot leave it at that; there is more to it than that. In spite of everything, there was in the life I fled a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster that are very moving and very rare. Perhaps we were, all of us—pimps, whores, racketeers, church members, and children—bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run; if so, within these limits we sometimes achieved with each other a freedom that was close to love.

I remember, anyway, church suppers and outings, and, later, after I left the church, rent and waistline parties where rage and sorrow sat in the darkness and did not stir, and we ate and drank and talked and laughed and danced and forgot all about “the man.” We had the liquor, the chicken, the music, and each other, and had no need to pretend to be what we were not. This is the freedom that one hears in some gospel songs, for example, and in jazz. In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged. White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them—sounding, in both cases, so helplessly, defenselessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices. Only people who have been “down the line,” as the song puts it, know what this music is about. I think it was Big Bill Broonzy who used to sing “I Feel So Good,” a really joyful song about a man who is on his way to the railroad station to meet his girl. She’s coming home. It is the singer’s incredibly moving exuberance that makes one realize how leaden the time must have been while she was gone.

There is no guarantee that she will stay this time, either, as the singer clearly knows, and, in fact, she has not yet actually arrived. Tonight, or tomorrow, or within the next five minutes, he may very well be singing “Lonesome in My Bedroom,” or insisting, “Ain’t we, ain’t we, going to make it all right? Well, if we don’t today, we will tomorrow night.” White Americans do not understand the depths out of which such an ironic tenacity comes, but they suspect that the force is sensual, and they are terrified of sensuality and do not any longer understand it. The word “sensual” is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it And I am not being frivolous now, either. Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become.

It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present any more than they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

White Christians have also forgotten several elementary historical details. They have forgotten that the religion that is now identified with their virtue and their power—“God is on our side,” says Dr. Verwoerd—came out of a rocky piece of ground in what is now known as the Middle East before color was invented, and that in order for the Christian church to be established, Christ had to be put to death, by Rome, and that the real architect of the Christian church was not the disreputable, sun-baked Hebrew who gave it his name but the mercilessly fanatical and self-righteous St. Paul. The energy that was buried with the rise of the Christian nations must come back into the world; nothing can prevent it. Many of us, I think, both long to see this happen and are terrified of it, for though this transformation contains the hope of liberation, it also imposes a necessity for great change.

But in order to deal with the untapped and dormant force of the previously subjugated, in order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world, America and all the Western nations will be forced to reëxamine themselves and release themselves from many things that are now taken to be sacred, and to discard nearly all the assumptions that have been used to justify their lives and their anguish and their crimes so long.

“The white man’s Heaven,” sings a Black Muslim minister, “is the black man’s Hell.” One may object—possibly—that this puts the matter somewhat too simply, but the song is true, and it has been true for as long as white men have ruled the world. The Africans put it another way: When the white man came to Africa, the white man had the Bible and the African had the land, but now it is the white man who is being, reluctantly and bloodily, separated from the land, and the African who is still attempting to digest or to vomit up the Bible.

The struggle, therefore, that now begins in the world is extremely complex, involving the historical role of Christianity in the realm of power—that is, politics—and in the realm of morals. In the realm of power, Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty—necessarily, since a religion ordinarily imposes on those who have discovered the true faith the spiritual duty of liberating the infidels. This particular true faith, moreover, is more deeply concerned about the soul than it is about the body, to which fact the flesh (and the corpses) of countless infidels bears witness. It goes without saying, then, that whoever questions the authority of the true faith also contests the right of the nations that hold this faith to rule over him—contests, in short, their title to his land. The spreading of the Gospel, regardless of the motives or the integrity or the heroism of some of the missionaries, was an absolutely indispensable justification for the planting of the flag. Priests and nuns and schoolteachers helped to protect and sanctify the power that was so ruthlessly being used by people who were indeed seeking a city, but not one in the heavens, and one to be made, very definitely, by captive hands.

The Christian church itself—again, as distinguished from some of its ministers—sanctified and rejoiced in the conquests of the flag, and encouraged, if it did not formulate, the belief that conquest, with the resulting relative well-being of the Western populations, was proof of the favor of God. God had come a long way from the desert—but then so had Allah, though in a very different direction. God, going north, and rising on the wings of power, had become white, and Allah, out of power, and on the dark side of Heaven, had become—for all practical purposes, anyway—black. Thus, in the realm of morals the role of Christianity has been, at best, ambivalent. Even leaving out of account the remarkable arrogance that assumed that the ways and morals of others were inferior to those of Christians, and that they therefore had every right, and could use any means, to change them, the collision between cultures—and the schizophrenia in the mind of Christendom—had rendered the domain of morals as chartless as the sea once was, and as treacherous as the sea still is. It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible; I think we must believe that it is possible) must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.

 

I had heard a great deal, long before I finally met him, of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and of the Nation of Islam movement, of which he is the leader. I paid very little attention to what I heard, because the burden of his message did not strike me as being very original; I had been hearing variations of it all my life. I sometimes found myself in Harlem on Saturday nights, and I stood in the crowds, at 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, and listened to the Muslim speakers. But I had heard hundreds of such speeches—or so it seemed to me at first. Anyway, I have long had a very definite tendency to tune out the moment I come anywhere near either a pulpit or a soapbox. What these men were saying about white people I had often heard before. And I dismissed the Nation of Islam’s demand for a separate black economy in America, which I had also heard before, as willful, and even mischievous, nonsense. Then two things caused me to begin to listen to the speeches, and one was the behavior of the police.

After all, I had seen men dragged from their platforms on this very corner for saying less virulent things, and I had seen many crowds dispersed by policemen, with clubs or on horseback. But the policemen were doing nothing now. Obviously, this was not because they had become more human but because they were under orders and because they were afraid. And indeed they were, and I was delighted to see it. There they stood, in twos and threes and fours, in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces, totally unprepared, as is the way with American he-men, for anything that could not be settled with a club or a fist or a gun. I might have pitied them if I had not found myself in their hands so often and discovered, through ugly experience, what they were like when they held the power and what they were like when you held the power. The behavior of the crowd, its silent intensity, was the other thing that forced me to reassess the speakers and their message.

I sometimes think, with despair, that Americans will swallow whole any political speech whatever—we’ve been doing very little else, these last, bad years—so it may not mean anything to say that this sense of integrity, after what Harlem, especially, has been through in the way of demagogues, was a very startling change. Still, the speakers had an air of utter dedication, and the people looked toward them with a kind of intelligence of hope on their faces—not as though they were being consoled or drugged but as though they were being jolted.

Power was the subject of the speeches I heard. We were offered, as Nation of Islam doctrine, historical and divine proof that all white people are cursed, and are devils, and are about to be brought down. This has been revealed by Allah Himself to His prophet, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The white man’s rule will be ended forever in ten or fifteen years (and it must be conceded that all present signs would seem to bear witness to the accuracy of the prophet’s statement). The crowd seemed to swallow this theology with no effort—all crowds do swallow theology this way, I gather, in both sides of Jerusalem, in Istanbul, and in Rome—and, as theology goes, it was no more indigestible than the more familiar brand asserting that there is a curse on the sons of Ham. No more, and no less, and it had been designed for the same purpose; namely, the sanctification of power. But very little time was spent on theology, for one did not need to prove to a Harlem audience that all white men were devils. They were merely glad to have, at last, divine corroboration of their experience, to hear—and it was a tremendous thing to hear—that they had been lied to for all these years and generations, and that their captivity was ending, for God was black. Why were they hearing it now, since this was not the first time it had been said? I had heard it many times, from various prophets, during all the years that I was growing up.

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Elijah Muhammad himself has now been carrying the same message for more than thirty years; he is not an overnight sensation, and we owe his ministry, I am told, to the fact that when he was a child of six or so, his father was lynched before his eyes. (So much for states’ rights.) And now, suddenly, people who have never before been able to hear this message hear it, and believe it, and are changed. Elijah Muhammad has been able to do what generations of welfare workers and committees and resolutions and reports and housing projects and playgrounds have failed to do: to heal and redeem drunkards and junkies, to convert people who have come out of prison and to keep them out, to make men chaste and women virtuous, and to invest both the male and the female with a pride and a serenity that hang about them like an unfailing light. He has done all these things, which our Christian church has spectacularly failed to do. How has Elijah managed it?

Well, in a way—and I have no wish to minimize his peculiar role and his peculiar achievement—it is not he who has done it but time. Time catches up with kingdoms and crushes them, gets its teeth into doctrines and rends them; time reveals the foundations on which any kingdom rests, and eats at those foundations, and it destroys doctrines by proving them to be untrue. In those days, not so very long ago, when the priests of that church which stands in Rome gave God’s blessing to Italian boys being sent out to ravage a defenseless black country—which until that event, incidentally, had not considered itself to be black—it was not possible to believe in a black God. To entertain such a belief would have been to entertain madness. But time has passed, and in that time the Christian world has revealed itself as morally bankrupt and politically unstable. The Tunisians were quite right in 1956—and it was a very significant moment in Western (and African) history—when they countered the French justification for remaining in North Africa with the question “Are the

French ready for self-government?” Again, the terms “civilized” and “Christian” begin to have a very strange ring, particularly in the ears of those who have been judged to be neither civilized nor Christian, when a Christian nation surrenders to a foul and violent orgy, as Germany did during the Third Reich. For the crime of their ancestry, millions of people in the middle of the twentieth century, and in the heart of Europe—God’s citadel—were sent to a death so calculated, so hideous, and so prolonged that no age before this enlightened one had been able to imagine it, much less achieve and record it. Furthermore, those beneath the western heel, unlike those within the West, are aware that Germany’s current role in Europe is to act as a bulwark against the “uncivilized” hordes, and since power is what the powerless want, they understand very well what we of the West want to keep, and are not deluded by our talk of a freedom that we have never been willing to share with them. From my own point of view, the fact of the Third Reich alone makes obsolete forever any question of Christian superiority, except in technological terms. White people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust in Germany.

They did not know that they could act that way. But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded—at least, in the same way. For my part, the fate of the Jews, and the world’s indifference to it, frightened me very much. I could not but feel, in those sorrowful years, that this human indifference, concerning which I knew so much already, would be my portion on the day that the United States decided to murder its Negroes systematically instead of little by little and catch-as-catch-can. I was, of course, authoritatively assured that what had happened to the Jews in Germany could not happen to the Negroes in America, but I thought, bleakly, that the German Jews had probably believed similar counsellors, and, again, I could not share the white man’s vision of himself for the very good reason that white men in America do not behave toward black men the way they behave toward each other. When a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed. I know. I have been carried into precinct basements often enough, and I have seen and heard and endured the secrets of desperate white men and women, which they knew were safe with me, because even if I should speak, no one would believe me. And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.

The treatment accorded the Negro during the Second World War marks, for me, a turning point in the Negro’s relation to America. To put it briefly, and somewhat too simply, a certain hope died, a certain respect for white Americans faded. One began to pity them, or to hate them. You must put yourself in the skin of a man who is wearing the uniform of his country, is a candidate for death in its defense, and who is called a “nigger” by his comrades-in-arms and his officers; who is almost always given the hardest, ugliest, most menial work to do; who knows that the white G.I. has informed the Europeans that he is subhuman (so much for the American male’s sexual security); who does not dance at the U.S.O. the night white soldiers dance there, and does not drink in the same bars white soldiers drink in; and who watches German prisoners of war being treated by Americans with more human dignity than he has ever received at their hands. And who, at the same time, as a human being, is far freer in a strange land than he has ever been at home. Home!

The very word begins to have a despairing and diabolical ring. You must consider what happens to this citizen, after all he has endured, when he returns—home: starch, in his shoes, for a job, for a place to live; ride, in his skin, on segregated buses; see, with his eyes, the signs saying “White” and “Colored,” and especially the signs that say “White Ladies” and “Colored Women;” look into the eyes of his wife; look into the eyes of his son; listen, with his ears, to political speeches, North and South; imagine yourself being told to “wait.” And all this is happening in the richest and freest country in the world, and in the middle of the twentieth century. The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur in you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.

I and two Negro acquaintances, all of us well past thirty, and looking it, were in the bar of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport several months ago, and the bartender refused to serve us, because, he said, we looked too young. It took a vast amount of patience not to strangle him, and great insistence and some luck to get the manager, who defended his bartender on the ground that he was “new” and had not yet, presumably, learned how to distinguish between a Negro boy of twenty and a Negro “boy” of thirty-seven. Well, we were served, finally, of course, but by this time no amount of Scotch would have helped us. The bar was very crowded, and our altercation had been extremely noisy; not one customer in the bar had done anything to help us. When it was over, and the three of us stood at the bar trembling with rage and frustration, and drinking—and trapped, now, in the airport, for we had deliberately come early in order to have a few drinks and to eat—a young white man standing near us asked if we were students.

I suppose he thought that this was the only possible explanation for our putting up a fight. I told him that he hadn’t wanted to talk to us earlier and we didn’t want to talk to him now. The reply visibly hurt his feelings, and this, in turn, caused me to despise him. But when one of us, a Korean War veteran, told this young man that the fight we had been having in the bar had been his fight, too, the young man said, “I lost my conscience a long time ago,” and turned and walked out. I know that one would rather not think so, but this young man is typical. So, on the basis of the evidence, had everyone else in the bar lost his conscience. A few years ago, I would have hated these people with all my heart. Now I pitied them, pitied them in order not to despise them. And this is not the happiest way to feel toward one’s countrymen.

But, in the end, it is the threat of universal extinction hanging over all the world today that changes, totally and forever, the nature of reality and brings into devastating question the true meaning of man’s history. We human beings now have the power to exterminate ourselves; this seems to be the entire sum of our achievement. We have taken this journey and arrived at this place in God’s name. This, then, is the best that God (the white God) can do. If that is so, then it is time to replace Him—replace Him with what? And this void, this despair, this torment is felt everywhere in the West, from the streets of Stockholm to the churches of New Orleans and the sidewalks of Harlem.

God is black. All black men belong to Islam; they have been chosen And Islam shall rule the world. The dream, the sentiment is old; only the color is new. And it is this dream, this sweet possibility, that thousands of oppressed black men and women in this country now carry away with them after the Muslim minister has spoken, through the dark, noisome ghetto streets, into the hovels where so many have perished. The white God has not delivered them; perhaps the black God will.

While I was in Chicago last summer, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad invited me to have dinner at his home. This is a stately mansion on Chicago’s South Side, and it is the headquarters of the Nation of Islam movement. I had not gone to Chicago to meet Elijah Muhammad—he was not in my thoughts at all—but the moment I received the invitation, it occurred to me that I ought to have expected it. In a way, I owe the invitation to the incredible, abysmal, and really cowardly obtuseness of white liberals. Whether in private debate or in public, any attempt I made to explain how the Black Muslim movement came about, and how it has achieved such force, was met with a blankness that revealed the little connection that the liberals’ attitudes have with their perceptions or their lives, or even their knowledge—revealed, in fact, that they could deal with the Negro as a symbol or a victim but had no sense of him as a man.

When Malcolm X, who is considered the movement’s second-in-command, and heir apparent, points out that the cry of “violence” was not raised, for example, when the Israelis fought to regain Israel, and, indeed, is raised only when black men indicate that they will fight for their rights, he is speaking the truth. The conquests of England, every single one of them bloody, are part of what Americans have in mind when they speak of England’s glory. In the United States, violence and heroism have been made synonymous except when it comes to blacks, and the only way to defeat Malcolm’s point is to concede it and then ask oneself why this is so. Malcolm’s statement is not answered by references to the triumphs of the N.A.A.C.P., the more particularly since very few liberals have any notion of how long, how costly, and how heartbreaking a task it is to gather the evidence that one can carry into court, or how long such court battles take. Neither is it answered by references to the student sit-in movement, if only because not all Negroes are students and not all of them live in the South. I, in any case, certainly refuse to be put in the position of denying the truth of Malcolm’s statements simply because I disagree with his conclusions, or in order to pacify the liberal conscience.

Things are as bad as the Muslims say they are—in fact, they are worse, and the Muslims do not help matters—but there is no reason that black men should be expected to be more patient, more forbearing, more farseeing than whites; indeed, quite the contrary. The real reason that nonviolence is considered to be a virtue in Negroes—I am not speaking now of its tactical value, another matter altogether—is that white men do not want their lives, their self-image, or their property threatened. One wishes they would say so more often. At the end of a television program on which Malcolm X and I both appeared, Malcolm was stopped by a white member of the audience who said, “I have a thousand dollars and an acre of land. What’s going to happen to me?”

I admired the directness of the man’s question, but I didn’t hear Malcolm’s reply, because I was trying to explain to someone else that the situation of the Irish a hundred years ago and the situation of the Negro today cannot very usefully he compared. Negroes were brought here in chains long before the Irish ever thought of leaving Ireland; what manner of consolation is it to be told that emigrants arriving here—voluntarily—long after you did have risen far above you? In the hall, as I was waiting for the elevator, someone shook my hand and said, “Goodbye, Mr. James Baldwin. We’ll soon be addressing you as Mr. James X.” And I thought, for an awful moment, My God, if this goes on much longer, you probably will. Elijah Muhammad had seen this show, I think, or another one, and he had been told about me. Therefore, late on a hot Sunday afternoon, I presented myself at his door.

I was frightened, because I had, in effect, been summoned into a royal presence. I was frightened for another reason, too. I knew the tension in me between love and power, between pain and rage, and the curious, the grinding way I remained extended between these poles—perpetually attempting to choose the better rather than the worse. But this choice was a choice in terms of a personal, a private better (I was, after all, a writer); what was its relevance in terms of a social worse? Here was the South Side—a million in captivity—stretching from this doorstep as far as the eye could see. And they didn’t even read; depressed populations don’t have the time or energy to spare. The affluent populations, which should have been their help, didn’t, as far as could be discovered, read, either—they merely bought books and devoured them, but not in order to learn: in order to learn new attitudes. Also, I knew that once I had entered the house, I couldn’t smoke or drink, and I felt guilty about the cigarettes in my pocket, as I had felt years ago when my friend first took me into his church. I was half an hour late, having got lost on the way here, and I felt as deserving of a scolding as a schoolboy.

The young man who came to the door—he was about thirty, perhaps, with a handsome, smiling face—didn’t seem to find my lateness offensive, and led me into a large room. On one side of the room sat half a dozen women, all in white; they were much occupied with a beautiful baby, who seemed to belong to the youngest of the women. On the other side of the room sat seven or eight men, young, dressed in dark suits, very much at ease, and very imposing. The sunlight came into the room with the peacefulness one remembers from rooms in one’s early childhood—a sunlight encountered later only in one’s dreams.

I remember being astounded by the quietness, the ease, the peace, the taste. I was introduced, they greeted me with a genuine cordiality and respect—and the respect increased my fright, for it meant that they expected something of me that I knew in my heart, for their sakes, I could not give—and we sat down. Elijah Muhammad was not in the room. Conversation was slow, but not as stiff as I had feared it would be. They kept it going, for I simply did not know which subjects I could acceptably bring up. They knew more about me, and had read more of what I had written, than I had expected, and I wondered what they made of it all, what they took my usefulness to be. The women were carrying on their own conversation, in low tones; I gathered that they were not expected to take part in male conversations. A few women kept coming in and out of the room, apparently making preparations for dinner. We, the men, did not plunge deeply into any subject, for, clearly, we were all waiting for the appearance of Elijah. Presently, the men, one by one, left the room and returned. Then I was asked if I would like to wash, and I, too, walked down the hall to the bathroom. Shortly after I came back, we stood up, and Elijah entered.

I do not know what I had expected to see. I had read some of his speeches, and had heard fragments of others on the radio and on television, so I associated him with ferocity. But, no—the man who came into the room was small and slender, really very delicately put together, with a thin face, large, warm eyes, and a most winning smile. Something came into the room with him—his disciples’ joy at seeing him, his joy at seeing them. It was the kind of encounter one watches with a smile simply because it is so rare that people enjoy one another. He teased the women, like a father, with no hint of that ugly and unctuous flirtatiousness I knew so well from other churches, and they responded like that, with great freedom and yet from a great and loving distance. He had seen me when he came into the room, I knew, though he had not looked my way. I had the feeling, as he talked and laughed with the others, whom I could only think of as his children, that he was sizing me up, deciding something. Now he turned toward me, to welcome me, with that marvellous smile, and carried me back nearly twenty-four years, to that moment when the pastor had smiled at me and said, “Whose little boy are you?” I did not respond now as I had responded then, because there are some things (not many, alas!) that one cannot do twice. But I knew what he made me feel, how I was drawn toward his peculiar authority, how his smile promised to take the burden of my life off my shoulders.

Take your burdens to the Lord and leave them there. The central quality in Elijah’s face is pain, and his smile is a witness to it—pain so old and deep and black that it becomes personal and particular only when he smiles. One wonders what he would sound like if he could sing. He turned to me, with that smile, and said something like “I’ve got a lot to say to you, but we’ll wait until we sit down.” And I laughed. He made me think of my father and me as we might have been if we had been friends.

In the dining room, there were two long tables; the men sat at one and the women at the other. Elijah was at the head of our table, and I was seated at his left. I can scarcely remember what we ate, except that it was plentiful, sane, and simple—so sane and simple that it made me feel extremely decadent, and I think that I drank, therefore, two glasses of milk. Elijah mentioned having seen me on television and said that it seemed to him that I was not yet brainwashed and was trying to become myself. He said this in a curiously unnerving way, his eyes looking into mine and one hand half hiding his lips, as though he were trying to conceal bad teeth. But his teeth were not bad. Then I remembered hearing that he had spent time in prison. I suppose that I would like to become myself, whatever that may mean, but I knew that Elijah’s meaning and mine were not the same. I said yes, I was trying to be me, but I did not know how to say more than that, and so I waited.

Whenever Elijah spoke, a kind of chorus arose from the table, saying “Yes, that’s right.” This began to set my teeth on edge. And Elijah himself had a further, unnerving habit, which was to ricochet his questions and comments off someone else on their way to you. Now, turning to the man on his right, he began to speak of the white devils with whom I had last appeared on TV: What had they made him (me) feel? I could not answer this and was not absolutely certain that I was expected to. The people referred to had certainly made me feel exasperated and useless, but I did not think of them as devils. Elijah went on about the crimes of white people, to this endless chorus of “Yes, that’s right.” Someone at the table said, “The white man sure is a devil. He proves that by his own actions.”

I looked around. It was a very young man who had said this, scarcely more than a boy—very dark and sober, very bitter. Elijah began to speak of the Christian religion, of Christians, in this same soft, joking way. I began to see that Elijah’s power came from his single-mindedness. There is nothing calculated about him; he means every word he says. The real reason, according to Elijah, that I failed to realize that the white man was a devil was that I had been too long exposed to white teaching and had never received true instruction. “The so-called American Negro” is the only reason Allah has permitted the United States to endure so long; the white man’s time was up in 1913, but it is the will of Allah that this lost black nation, the black men of this country, be redeemed from their white masters and returned to the true faith, which is Islam. Until this is done—and it will be accomplished very soon—the total destruction of the white man is being delayed. Elijah’s mission is to return “the so-called Negro” to Islam, to separate the chosen of Allah from this doomed nation. Furthermore, the white man knows his history, knows himself to be a devil, and knows that his time is running out, and all his technology, psychology, science, and “tricknology” are being expended in the effort to prevent black men from hearing the truth. This truth is that at the very beginning of time there was not one white face to be found in all the universe. Black men ruled the earth and the black man was perfect. This is the truth concerning the era that white men now refer to as prehistoric. They want black men to believe that they, like white men, once lived in caves and swung from trees and ate their meat raw and did not have the power of speech. But this is not true. Black men were never in such a condition.

Allah allowed the Devil, through his scientists, to carry on infernal experiments, which resulted, finally, in the creation of the devil known as the white man, and later, even more disastrously, in the creation of the white woman. And it was decreed that these monstrous creatures should rule the earth for a certain number of years—I forget how many thousand, but, in any case, their rule now is ending, and Allah, who had never approved of the creation of the white man in the first place (who knows him, in fact, to be not a man at all but a devil), is anxious to restore the rule of peace that the rise of the white man totally destroyed. There is thus, by definition, no virtue in white people, and since they are another creation entirely and can no more, by breeding, become black than a cat, by breeding, can become a horse, there is no hope for them.

There is nothing new in this merciless formulation except the explicitness of its symbols and the candor of its hatred. Its emotional tone is as familiar to me as my own skin; it is but another way of saying that sinners shall be bound in Hell a thousand years. That sinners have always, for American Negroes, been white is a truth we needn’t labor, and every American Negro, therefore, risks having the gates of paranoia close on him.

In a society that is entirely hostile, and, by its nature, seems determined to cut you down—that has cut down so many in the past and cuts down so many every day—it begins to be almost impossible to distinguish a real from a fancied injury. One can very quickly cease to attempt this distinction, and, what is worse, one usually ceases to attempt it without realizing that one has done so. All doormen, for example, and all policemen have by now, for me, become exactly the same, and my style with them is designed simply to intimidate them before they can intimidate me. No doubt I am guilty of some injustice here, but it is irreducible, since I cannot risk assuming that the humanity of these people is more real to them than their uniforms. Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color. And this leads, imperceptibly but inevitably, to a state of mind in which, having long ago learned to expect the worst, one finds it very easy to believe the worst.

The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it. In the beginning—and neither can this be overstated—a Negro just cannot believe that white people are treating him as they do; he does not know what he has done to merit it. And when he realizes that the treatment accorded him has nothing to do with anything he has done, that the attempt of white people to destroy him—for that is what it is—is utterly gratuitous, it is not hard for him to think of white people as devils. For the horrors of the American Negro’s life there has been almost no language. The privacy of his experience, which is only beginning to be recognized in language, and which is denied or ignored in official and popular speech—hence the Negro idiom—lends credibility to any system that pretends to clarify it. And, in fact, the truth about the black man, as a historical entity and as a human being, has been hidden from him, deliberately and cruelly; the power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions. So every attempt is made to cut that black man down—not only was made yesterday but is made today.

Who, then, is to say with authority where the root of so much anguish and evil lies? Why, then, is it not possible that an things began with the black man and that he was perfect—especially since this is precisely the claim that white people have put forward for themselves all these years? Furthermore, it is now absolutely clear that white people are a minority in the world—so severe a minority that they now look rather more like an invention—and that they cannot possibly hope to rule it any longer. If this is so, why is it not also possible that they achieved their original dominance by stealth and cunning and bloodshed and in opposition to the will of Heaven, and not, as they claim, by Heaven’s will? And if this is so, then the sword they have used so long against others can now, without mercy, be used against them. Heavenly witnesses are a tricky lot, to be used by whoever is closest to Heaven at the time. And legend and theology, which are designed to sanctify our fears, crimes, and aspirations, also reveal them for what they are.

I said, at last, in answer to some other ricocheted question, “I left the church twenty years ago and I haven’t joined anything since.” It was my way of saying that I did not intend to join their movement, either.

“And what are you now?” Elijah asked.

I was in something of a bind, for I really could not say—could not allow myself to be stampeded into saying—that I was a Christian. “I? Now? Nothing.” This was not enough. “I’m a writer. I like doing things alone.” I heard myself saying this. Elijah smiled at me. “I don’t, anyway,” I said, finally, “think about it a great deal.”

Elijah said, to his right, “I think he ought to think about it all the deal,” and with this the table agreed. But there was nothing malicious or condemnatory in it. I had the stifling feeling that they knew I belonged to them but knew that I did not know it yet, that I remained unready, and that they were simply waiting, patiently, and with assurance, for me to discover the truth for myself. For where else, after all, could I go? I was black, and therefore a part of Islam, and would be saved from the holocaust awaiting the white world whether I would or no. My weak, deluded scruples could avail nothing against the iron word of the prophet.

I felt that I was back in my father’s house—as, indeed, in a way, I was—and I told Elijah that I did not care if white and black people married, and that I had many white friends. I would have no choice, if it came to it, but to perish with them, for (I said to myself, but not to Elijah), “I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than color?”

Elijah looked at me with great kindness and affection, great pity, as though he were reading my heart, and indicated, skeptically, that I might have white friends, or think I did, and they might be trying to be decent—now—but their time was up. It was almost as though he were saying, “They had their chance, man, and they goofed!”

And I looked around the table. I certainly had no evidence to give them that would outweigh Elijah’s authority or the evidence of their own lives or the reality of the streets outside. Yes, I knew two or three people, white, whom I would trust with my life, and I knew a few others, white, who were struggling as hard as they knew how, and with great effort and sweat and risk, to make the world more human. But how could I say this? One cannot argue with anyone’s experience or decision or belief. All my evidence would be thrown out of court as irrelevant to the main body of the case, for I could cite only exceptions.

The South Side proved the justice of the indictment; the state of the world proved the justice of the indictment. Everything else, stretching back throughout recorded time, was merely a history of those exceptions who had tried to change the world and had failed. Was this true? Had they failed? How much depended on the point of view! For it would seem that a certain category of exceptions never failed to make the world worse—that category, precisely, for whom power is more real than love. And yet power is real, and many things, including, very often, love, cannot be achieved without it. In the eeriest way possible, I suddenly had a glimpse of what white people must go through at a dinner table when they are trying to prove that Negroes are not subhuman. I had almost said, after all, “Well, take my friend Mary,” and very nearly descended to a catalogue of those virtues that gave Mary the right to be alive. And in what hope? That Elijah and the others would nod their heads solemnly and say, at last, “Well, she’s all right—but the others!

And I looked again at the young faces around the table, and looked back at Elijah, who was saying that no people in history had ever been respected who had not owned their land. And the table said, “Yes, that’s right.” I could not deny the truth of this statement. For everyone else has, is, a nation, with a specific location and a flag—even, these days, the Jew. It is only “the so-called American Negro” who remains trapped, disinherited, and despised, in a nation that has kept him in bondage for nearly four hundred years and is still unable to recognize him as a human being. And the Black Muslims, along with many people who are not Muslims, no longer wish for a recognition so grudging and (should it ever be achieved) so tardy. Again, it cannot be denied that this point of view is abundantly justified by American Negro history. It is galling indeed to have stood so long, hat in hand, waiting for Americans to grow up enough to realize that you do not threaten them.

On the other hand, how is the American Negro now to form himself into a separate nation? For this—and not only from the Muslim point of view—would seem to be his only hope of not perishing in the American backwater and being entirely and forever forgotten, as though he had never existed at all and his travail had been for nothing.

Elijah’s intensity and the bitter isolation and disaffection of these young men and the despair of the streets outside had caused me to glimpse dimly what may now seem to be a fantasy, although, in an age so fantastical, I would hesitate to say precisely what a fantasy is. Let us say that the Muslims were to achieve the possession of the six or seven states that they claim are owed to Negroes by the United States as “back payment” for slave labor. Clearly, the United States would never surrender this territory, on any terms whatever, unless it found it impossible, for whatever reason, to hold it—unless, that is, the United States were to be reduced as a world power, exactly the way, and at the same degree of speed, that England has been forced to relinquish her Empire. (It is simply not true—and the state of her ex-colonies proves this—that England “always meant to go.”) If the states were Southern states—and the Muslims seem to favor this—then the borders of a hostile Latin America would be raised, in effect, to, say, Maryland. Of the American borders on the sea, one would face toward a powerless Europe and the other toward an untrustworthy and nonwhite East, and on the North, after Canada, there would be only Alaska, which is a Russian border.

The effect of this would be that the white people of the United States and Canada would find themselves marooned on a hostile continent, with the rest of the white world probably unwilling and certainly unable to come to their aid. All this is not, to my mind, the most imminent of possibilities, but if I were a Muslim, this is the possibility that I would find myself holding in the center of my mind, and driving toward. And if I were a Muslim, I would not hesitate to utilize—or, indeed, to exacerbate—the social and spiritual discontent that reigns here, for, at the very worst, I would merely have contributed to the destruction of a house I hated, and it would not matter if I perished, too. One has been perishing here so long!

And what were they thinking around the table? “I’ve come,” said Elijah, “to give you something which can never be taken away from you.” How solemn the table became then, and how great a light rose in the dark faces! This is the message that has spread through streets and tenements and prisons, through the narcotics wards, and past the filth and sadism of mental hospitals to a people from whom everything has been taken away, including, most crucially, their sense of their own worth. People cannot live without this sense; they will do anything whatever to regain it. This is why the most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose. You do not need ten such men—one will do. And Elijah, I should imagine, has had nothing to lose since the day he saw his father’s blood rush out—rush down, and splash, so the legend has it, down through the leaves of a tree, on him. But neither did the other men around the table have anything to lose.

“Return to your true religion,” Elijah has written. “Throw off the chains of the slavemaster, the devil, and return to the fold. Stop drinking his alcohol, using his dope—protect your women—and forsake the filthy swine.” I remembered my buddies of years ago, in the hallways, with their wine and their whiskey and their tears; in hallways still, frozen on the needle; and my brother saying to me once, “If Harlem didn’t have so many churches and junkies, there’d be blood flowing in the streets.” Protect your women: a difficult thing to do in a civilization sexually so pathetic that the white man’s masculinity depends on a denial of the masculinity of the blacks. Protect your women: in a civilization that emasculates the male and abuses the female, and in which, moreover, the male is forced to depend on the female’s bread winning power. Protect your women: in the teeth of the white man’s boast “We figure we’re doing you folks a favor by pumping some white blood into your kids,” and while facing the Southern shotgun and the Northern billy. Years ago, we used to say, “Yes, I’m black, goddammit, and I’m beautiful!”—in defiance, into the void. But now—now—African kings and heroes have come into the world, out of the past, the past that can now be put to the uses of power. And black has become a beautiful color—not because it is loved but because it is feared. And this urgency on the part of American Negroes is not to be forgotten! As they watch black men elsewhere rise, the promise held out, at last, that they may walk the earth with the authority with which white men walk, protected by the power that white men shall have no longer, is enough, and more than enough, to empty prisons and pull God down from Heaven. It has happened before, many times, before color was invented, and the hope of Heaven has always been a metaphor for the achievement of this particular state of grace. The song says, “I know my robe’s going to fit me well. I tried it on at the gates of Hell.”

It was time to leave, and we stood in the large living room, saying good night, with everything curiously and heavily unresolved. I could not help feeling that I had failed a test, in their eyes and in my own, or that I had failed to heed a warning. Elijah and I shook hands, and he asked me where I was going. Wherever it was, I would be driven there—“because, when we invite someone here,” he said, “we take the responsibility of protecting him from the white devils until he gets wherever it is he’s going.” I was, in fact, going to have a drink with several white devils on the other side of town. I confess that for a fraction of a second I hesitated to give the address—the kind of address that in Chicago, as in all American cities, identified itself as a white address by value of its location. But I did give it, and Elijah and I walked out onto the steps, and one of the young men vanished to get the car. It was very strange to stand with Elijah for those few moments, facing those vivid, violent, so problematical streets. I felt very close to him, and really wished to be able to love and honor him as a witness, an ally, and a father. I felt that I knew something of his pain and his fury, and, yes, even his beauty. Yet precisely because of the reality and the nature of those streets—because of what he conceived as his responsibility and what I took to be mine—we would always be strangers, and possibly, one day, enemies. The car arrived—a gleaming, metallic, grossly American blue—and Elijah and I shook hands and said good night once more. He walked into his mansion and shut the door.

The driver and I started on our way through dark, murmuring—and, at this hour, strangely beautiful—Chicago, along the lake. We returned to the discussion of the land. How were we—Negroes—to get this land? I asked this of the dark boy who had said earlier, at the table, that the white man’s actions proved him to be a devil. He spoke to me first of the Muslim temples that were being built, or were about to be built, in various parts of the United States, of the strength of the Muslim following, and of the amount of money that is annually at the disposal of Negroes—something like twenty billion dollars. “That alone shows you how strong we are,” he said. But, I persisted, cautiously, and in somewhat different terms, this twenty billion dollars, or whatever it is, depends on the total economy of the United States. What happens when the Negro is no longer a part of this economy? Leaving aside the fact that in order for this to happen the economy of the United States will itself have had to undergo radical and certainly disastrous changes, the American Negro’s spending power will obviously no longer be the same. On what, then, will the economy of this separate nation be based? The boy gave me a rather strange look. I said hurriedly, “I’m not saying it can’t be done—I just want to know how it’s to be done.” I was thinking, In order for this to happen, your entire frame of reference will have to change, and you will be forced to surrender many things that you now scarcely know you have. I didn’t feel that the things I had in mind, such as the pseudo-elegant heap of tin in which we were riding, had any very great value But life would be very different without them, and I wondered if he had thought of this.

How can one, however, dream of power in any other terms than in the symbols of power? The boy could see that freedom depended on the possession of land; he was persuaded that, in one way or another, Negroes must achieve this possession. In the meantime, he could walk the streets and fear nothing, because there were millions like him, coming soon, now, to power. He was held together, in short, by a dream—though it is just as well to remember that some dreams come true—and was united with his “brothers” on the basis of their color. Perhaps one cannot ask for more. People always seem to band together according to a principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases them from personal responsibility.

Yet I could have hoped that the Muslim movement had been able to inculcate in the demoralized Negro population a truer and more individual sense of its own worth, so that Negroes in the Northern ghettos could begin, in concrete terms, and at whatever price, to change their situation. But in order to change a situation one has first to see it for what it is: in the present case, to accept the fact, whatever one does with it thereafter, that the Negro has been formed by this nation, for better or for worse, and does not belong to any other-—not to Africa, and certainly not to Islam. The paradox—and a fearful paradox it is—is that the American Negro can have no future anywhere, on any continent, as long as he is unwilling to accept his past. To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought. How can the American Negro’s past be used? The unprecedented price demanded—and at this embattled hour of the world’s history—is the transcendence of the realities of color, of nations, and of altars.

“Anyway,” the boy said suddenly, after a very long silence, “things won’t ever again be the way they used to be. I know that.”

And so we arrived in enemy territory, and they set me down at the enemy’s door.

 

No one seems to know where the Nation of Islam gets its money. A vast amount, of course, is contributed by Negroes, but there are rumors to the effect that people like the Birchites and certain Texas oil millionaires look with favor on the movement. I have no way of knowing whether there is any truth to the rumors, though since these people make such a point of keeping the races separate, I wouldn’t be surprised if for this smoke there was some fire. In any case, during a recent Muslim rally, George Lincoln Rockwell, the chief of the American Nazi party, made a point of contributing about twenty dollars to the cause, and he and Malcolm X decided that, racially speaking, anyway, they were in complete agreement. The glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another—or others—always has been and always will be a recipe for murder. There is no way around this. If one is permitted to treat any group of people with special disfavor because of their race or the color of their skin, there is no limit to what one will force them to endure, and, since the entire race has been mysteriously indicted, no reason not to attempt to destroy it root and branch. This is precisely what the Nazis attempted.

Their only originality lay in the means they used. It is scarcely worthwhile to attempt remembering how many times the sun has looked down on the slaughter of the innocents. I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know—we see it around us every day—the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff—and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.

Now, it is extremely unlikely that Negroes will ever rise to power in the United States, because they are only approximately a ninth of this nation. They are not in the position of the Africans, who are attempting to reclaim their land and break the colonial yoke and recover from the colonial experience. The Negro situation is dangerous in a different way, both for the Negro qua Negro and for the country of which he forms so troubled and troubling a part. The American Negro is a unique creation; he has no counterpart anywhere, and no predecessors. The Muslims react to this fact by referring to the Negro as “the so-called American Negro” and substituting for the names inherited from slavery the letter “X.”

It is a fact that every American Negro hears a name that originally belonged to the white man whose chattel he was. I am called Baldwin because I was either sold by my African tribe or kidnapped out of it into the hands of a white Christian named Baldwin, who forced me to kneel at the foot of the cross. I am, then, both visibly and legally the descendant of slaves in a white, Protestant country, and this is what it means to be an American Negro, this is who he is—a kidnapped pagan, who was sold like an animal and treated like one, who was once defined by the American Constitution as “three-fifths” of a man, and who, according to the Dred Scott decision, had no rights that a white man was bound to respect. And today, a hundred years after his technical emancipation, he remains—with the possible exception of the American Indian—the most despised creature in his country. Now, there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure. And it is clear that white Americans are not simply unwilling to effect these changes; they are, in the main, so slothful have they become, unable even to envision them.

It must be added that the Negro himself no longer believes in the good faith of white Americans—if, indeed, he ever could have. What the Negro has discovered, and on an international level, is that power to intimidate which he has always had privately but hitherto could manipulate only privately—for private ends often, for limited ends always. And therefore when the country speaks of a “new” Negro, which it has been doing every hour on the hour for decades, it is not really referring to a change in the Negro, which, in any case, it is quite incapable of assessing, but only to a new difficulty in keeping him in his place, to the fact that it encounters him (again! again!) barring yet another door to its spiritual and social ease. This is probably, hard and odd as it may sound, the most important thing that one human being can do for another—it is certainly one of the most important things; hence the torment and necessity of love—and this is the enormous contribution that the Negro has made to this otherwise shapeless and undiscovered country. Consequently, white Americans are in nothing more deluded than in supposing that Negroes could ever have imagined that white people would “give” them anything. It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be. One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—that is to say, risking oneself. If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving. And, after all, one can give freedom only by setting someone free. This, in the case of the Negro, the American republic has never become sufficiently mature to do.

White Americans have contented themselves with gestures that are now described as “tokenism.” For hard example, white Americans congratulate themselves on the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in the schools; they suppose, in spite of the mountain of evidence that has since accumulated to the contrary, that this was proof of a change of heart—or, as they like to say, progress. Perhaps. It all depends on how one reads the word “progress.” Most of the Negroes I know do not believe that this immense concession would ever have been made if it had not been for the competition of the Cold War, and the fact that Africa was clearly liberating herself and therefore had, for political reasons, to be wooed by the descendants of her former masters. Had it been a matter of love or justice, the 1954 decision would surely have occurred sooner; were it not for the realities of power in this difficult era, it might very well not have occurred yet. This seems an extremely harsh way of stating the case—ungrateful, as it were—but the evidence that supports this way of stating it is not easily refuted. I myself do not think that it can be refuted at all. In any event, the sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to deal with hard problems.

These have been dealt with, when they have been dealt with at all, out of necessity—and in political terms, anyway, necessity means concessions made in order to stay on top. I think this is a fact, which it serves no purpose to deny, but, whether it is a fact or not, this is what the black populations of the world, including black Americans, really believe. The word “independence” in Africa and the word “integration” here are almost equally meaningless; that is, Europe has not yet left Africa, and black men here are not yet free. And both of these last statements are undeniable facts, related facts, containing the gravest implications for us all. The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.

This has everything to do, of course, with the nature of that dream and with the fact that we Americans, of whatever color, do not dare examine it and are far from having made it a reality. There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves. People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal (equal, after all, to what and to whom?) but they love the idea of being superior.

And this human truth has an especially grinding force here, where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to find their feet on the shifting sands of status. (Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hand of the boss’s daughter.) Furthermore, I have met only a very few people—and most of these were not Americans—who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear. It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation. We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels.

Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster. Whoever doubts this last statement has only to open his ears, his heart, his mind, to the testimony of—for example—any Cuban peasant or any Spanish poet, and ask himself what he would feel about us if he were the victim of our performance in pre-Castro Cuba or in Spain. We defend our curious role in Spain by referring to the Russian menace and the necessity of protecting the free world. It has not occurred to us that we have simply been mesmerized by Russia, and that the only real advantage Russia has in what we think of as a struggle between the East and the West is the moral history of the western world. Russia’s secret weapon is the bewilderment and despair and hunger of millions of people of whose existence we are scarcely aware. The Russian Communists are not in the least concerned about these people. But our ignorance and indecision have had the effect, if not of delivering them into Russian hands, of plunging them very deeply in the Russian shadow, for which effect—and it is hard to blame them—the most articulate among them, and the most oppressed as well, distrust us all the more.

Our power and our fear of change help bind these people to their misery and bewilderment, and insofar as they find this state intolerable we are intolerably menaced. For if they find their state intolerable, but are too heavily oppressed to change it, they are simply pawns in the hands of larger powers, which, in such a context, are always unscrupulous, and when, eventually, they do change their situation—as in Cuba—we are menaced more than ever, by the vacuum that succeeds all violent upheavals. We should certainly know by now that it is one thing to overthrow a dictator or repel an invader and quite another thing really to achieve a revolution.

Time and time and time again, the people discover that they have merely betrayed themselves into the hands of yet another Pharaoh, who, since he was necessary to put the broken country together, will not let them go. Perhaps, people being the conundrums that they are, and having so little desire to shoulder the burden of their lives, this is what will always happen. But at the bottom of my heart I do not believe this. I think that people can be better than that, and I know that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is. Anyway, the point here is that we are living in an age of revolution, whether we will or no, and that America is the only western nation with both the power and, as I hope to suggest, the experience that may help to make these revolutions real and minimize the human damage. Any attempt we make to oppose these outbursts of energy is tantamount to signing our death warrant.

Behind what we think of as the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do not face when they regard a Negro: reality—the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about its destruction. It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant—birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so—and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depth—change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not—safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom disappears. And by destruction I mean precisely the abdication by Americans of any effort really to be free. The Negro can precipitate this abdication because white Americans have never, in all their long history, been able to look on him as a man like themselves. This point need not be labored; it is proved over and over again by the Negro’s continuing position here, and his indescribable struggle to defeat the stratagems that white Americans have used, and use, to deny him his humanity. America could have used in other ways the energy that both groups have expended in this conflict.

America, of all the Western nations, has been best placed to prove the uselessness and the obsolescence of the concept of color. But it has not dared to accept this opportunity, or even to conceive of it as an opportunity. White Americans have thought of it as their shame, and have envied those more civilized and elegant European nations that were untroubled by the presence of black men on their shores. This is because white Americans have supposed “Europe” and “civilization” to be synonyms—which they are not—and have been distrustful of other standards and other sources of vitality, especially those produced in America itself, and have attempted to behave in all matters as though what was east for Europe was also east for them. What it comes to is that if we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements, and transform them. The price of this transformation is the unconditional freedom of the Negro; it is not too much to say that he, who has been so long rejected, must now be embraced, and at no matter what psychic or social risk. He is the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or as dark as his. And the Negro recognizes this, in a negative way. Hence the question: Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?

White Americans find it as difficult as white people elsewhere do to divest themselves of the notion that they are in possession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want. And this assumption—which, for example, makes the solution to the Negro problem depend on the speed with which Negroes accept and adopt white standards—is revealed in all kinds of striking ways, from Bobby Kennedy’s assurance that a Negro can become President in forty years to the unfortunate tone of warm congratulation with which so many liberals address their Negro equals. It is the Negro, of course, who is presumed to have become equal—an achievement that not only proves the comforting fact that perseverance has no color but also overwhelmingly corroborates the white man’s sense of his own value. Alas, this value can scarcely be corroborated in any other way; there is certainly little enough in the white man’s public or private life that one should desire to imitate. White men, at the bottom of their hearts, know this.

 

Therefore, a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. And I submit, then, that the racial tensions that menace Americans today have little to do with real antipathy—on the contrary, indeed—and are involved only symbolically with color. These tensions are rooted in the very same depths as those from which love springs, or murder. The white man’s unadmitted—and apparently, to him, unspeakable—private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro. The only way he can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become a part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveler’s checks, visits surreptitiously after dark. How can one respect, let alone adopt, the values of a people who do not, on any level whatever, live the way they say they do, or the way they say they should? I cannot accept the proposition that the four-hundred-year travail of the American Negro should result merely in his attainment of the present level of the American civilization. I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now—in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life—expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power—and no one holds power forever. White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks—the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind. Why, for example—especially knowing the family as I do—I should want to marry your sister is a great mystery to me. But your sister and I have every right to marry if we wish to, and no one has the right to stop us. If she cannot raise me to her level, perhaps I can raise her to mine.

In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation—if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white. But white men with far more political power than that possessed by the Nation of Islam movement have been advocating exactly this, in effect, for generations. If this sentiment is honored when it falls from the lips of Senator Byrd, then there is no reason it should not be honored when it falls from the lips of Malcolm X. And any Congressional committee wishing to investigate the latter must also be willing to investigate the former. They are expressing exactly the same sentiments and represent exactly the same danger. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that white people are better equipped to frame the laws by which I am to be governed than I am. It is entirely unacceptable that I should have no voice in the political affairs of my own country, for I am not a ward of America; I am one of the first Americans to arrive on these shores.

This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt that he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, and trust, all joy impossible—this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering—enough is certainly as good as a feast—but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth—and, indeed, no church—can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable. This is because, in order to save his life, he is forced to look beneath appearances, to take nothing for granted, to hear the meaning behind the words. If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring; whatever it brings must be borne.

And at this level of experience one’s bitterness begins to be palatable, and hatred becomes too heavy a sack to carry. The apprehension of life here so briefly and inadequately sketched has been the experience of generations of Negroes, and it helps to explain how they have endured and how they have been able to produce children of kindergarten age who can walk through mobs to get to school. It demands great force and great cunning continually to assault the mighty and indifferent fortress of white supremacy, as Negroes in this country have done so long. It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate. The Negro boys and girls who are facing mobs today come out of a long line of improbable aristocrats—the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced.

I say “this country” because their frame of reference was totally American. They were hewing out of the mountain of white supremacy the stone of their individuality. I have great respect for that unsung army of black men and women who trudged down back lanes and entered back doors, saying “Yes, sir” and “No, Ma’am” in order to acquire a new roof for the schoolhouse, new books, a new chemistry lab, more beds for the dormitories, more dormitories. They did not like saying “Yes, sir” and “No, Ma’am,” but the country was in no hurry to educate Negroes, these black men and women knew that the job had to be done, and they put their pride in their pockets in order to do it. It is very hard to believe that they were in any way inferior to the white men and women who opened those back doors. It is very hard to believe that those men and women, raising their children, eating their greens, crying their curses, weeping their tears, singing their songs, making their love, as the sun rose, as the sun set, were in any way inferior to the white men and women who crept over to share these splendors after the sun went down. But we must avoid the European error; we must not suppose that, because the situation, the ways, the perceptions of black people so radically differed from those of whites, they were racially superior. I am proud of these people not because of their color but because of their intelligence and their spiritual force and their beauty. The country should be proud of them, too, but, alas, not many people in this country even know of their existence. And the reason for this ignorance is that a knowledge of the role these people played—and play—in American life would reveal more about America to Americans than Americans wish to know.

The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred.

The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing. One watched the lives they led. One could not be fooled about that; one watched the things they did and the excuses that they gave themselves, and if a white man was really in trouble, deep trouble, it was to the Negro’s door that he came. And one felt that if one had had that white man’s worldly advantages, one would never have become as bewildered and as joyless and as thoughtlessly cruel as he. The Negro came to the white man for a roof or for five dollars or for a letter to the judge; the white man came to the Negro for love. But he was not often able to give what he came seeking. The price was too high; he had too much to lose. And the Negro knew this, too. When one knows this about a man, it is impossible for one to hate him, but unless he becomes a man—becomes equal—it is also impossible for one to love him. Ultimately, one tends to avoid him, for the universal characteristic of children is to assume that they have a monopoly on trouble, and therefore a monopoly on you. (Ask any Negro what he knows about the white people with whom he works. And then ask the white people with whom he works what they know about him. )

How can the American Negro past be used? It is entirely possible that this dishonored past will rise up soon to smite all of us. There are some wars, for example (if anyone on the globe is still mad enough to go to war) that the American Negro will not support, however many of his people may be coerced—and there is a limit to the number of people any government can put in prison, and a rigid limit indeed to the practicality of such a course. A bill is coming in that I fear America is not prepared to pay. “The problem of the twentieth century,” wrote W. E. B. Du Bois around sixty years ago, “is the problem of the color line.”

 

A fearful and delicate problem, which compromises, when it does not corrupt, all the American efforts to build a better world—here, there, or anywhere. It is for this reason that everything white Americans think they believe in must now be re-ëxamined. What one would not like to see again is the consolidation of peoples on the basis of their color. But as long as we in the West place on color the value that we do, we make it impossible for the great unwashed to consolidate themselves according to any other principle. Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality. But this is a distinction so extremely hard to make that the West has not been able to make it yet. And at the center of this dreadful storm, this vast confusion, stand the black people of this nation, who must now share the fate of a nation that has never accepted them, to which they were brought in chains. Well, if this is so, one has no choice but to do all in one’s power to change that fate, and at no matter what risk—eviction, imprisonment, torture, death. For the sake of one’s children, in order to minimize the bill that they must pay, one must be careful not to take refuge in any delusion—and the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion. I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand—and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.

When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty? For black people, though I am aware that some of us, black and white, do not know it yet, are very beautiful. And when I sat at Elijah’s table and watched the baby, the women, and the men, and we talked about God’s—or Allah’s—vengeance, I wondered, when that vengeance was achieved, What will happen to all that beauty then? I could also see that the intransigence and ignorance of the white world might make that vengeance inevitable—a vengeance that does not really depend on, and cannot really be executed by, any person or organization, and that cannot be prevented by any police force or army: historical vengeance, a cosmic vengeance, based on the law that we recognize when we say, “Whatever goes up must come down.” And here we are, at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

 

The New Yorker: The Rise of McPolitics in America


June 27, 2018

The Rise of McPolitics

Democrats and Republicans belong to increasingly homogeneous parties. Can we survive the loss of local politics?

For the first five days after Kennedy was shot, a mourning nation wondered whether his agenda could possibly outlast him. Even key members of the Cabinet doubted whether Johnson, hastily sworn in as the thirty-sixth President of the United States aboard the airplane on which his predecessor had landed in Dallas three hours earlier, would follow through on civil-rights legislation. But when Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress on November 27, 1963, he threw down the gauntlet to Southern Democrats. “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory,” he said, to their horror, “than the earliest possible passage of the civil-rights bill for which he fought so long.”

In the ensuing years, Jim Crow finally came to an end—and so did the highly local party system that had prevailed, in one form or another, since the Civil War. Segregationists in the South no longer saw the Democratic Party as their natural home. In 1968, many of them supported the third-party candidacy of George Wallace, formerly the Democratic governor of Alabama. During the following decades, conservative Democrats slowly gravitated toward the Republican Party, and the Democratic Party, for the first time in its history, became liberal on both social and economic issues: across the nation, Democrats now stood for at least some modicum of wealth redistribution and racial integration.

Republicans underwent a similar transformation, adopting a militant preference for free markets and low taxes while opposing abortion and gay rights. At the same time, they set out to capitalize on the electoral opportunity presented by the schism in the Democratic Party. Starting with Richard Nixon, every Republican candidate who took the White House employed some form of what had been named, in a deceptively genteel turn of phrase, the Southern Strategy.

As the ambitious civil-rights legislation of the nineteen-sixties realigned America’s political parties, a host of deeper structural changes redirected citizens’ attention toward the capital. Thanks to the postwar boom, public jobs came to look less attractive than private ones, weakening the power wielded by local party bosses. More recent changes in the media have also played an important role. Local papers and radio stations, once the country’s dominant sources of information, brought together national, state, and municipal news; as a result, Americans who were primarily interested in what was going on in Washington still learned a lot about their home towns. Today, voters increasingly get their news from broadcast networks and cable channels, or from social-media sites and online publications, which are less likely to require them to pay attention to their city hall or state capitol.

As early as the nineteen-eighties, political scientists were noting that the nature of American politics was changing in fundamental ways. The power of the Presidency had greatly expanded. The national parties had gained vastly more control over state and local subdivisions. “In the sense that Paris is the capital of France,” the political scientist William M. Lunch observed in 1987, “Washington is becoming the capital of the United States.”

In the decades since, what Lunch dubbed the “nationalization of American politics” has only intensified. As Hopkins shows, voters recognize that state and local politics can have a big impact on their lives, determining, for example, how much property tax they have to pay or how good their children’s school is likely to be. And yet they now devote very little attention to politics below the national level.

This transformation can explain many features of contemporary politics that would otherwise be deeply puzzling. How, for instance, could governors in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere refuse to allow the expansion of Medicaid to poor adults in their states, even though the federal government would (at least at first) have footed the entire bill? Hopkins provides an answer that is both simple and convincing: voters, donors, and activists are much more likely to judge elected officials on whether they pass an ideological purity test than on whether they bring tangible benefits to their districts.

In the past few decades, Hopkins shows, Americans have grown less able to name their governor and less likely to vote in local elections. Conversely, they now have much stronger feelings about national figures, like senators or Presidential candidates. If they could choose whether their party got to occupy the White House or the governor’s mansion, most would pick the former. Even the attention of the donor class has nationalized. From 1998 to 2012, the amount of money poured into an average Senate race doubled; the cost of governors’ races barely budged.

Once upon a time, every community in America had its own store with its own local products. Today, chains like Walmart and Home Depot offer the same wares all over the country. The parties, Hopkins believes, have undergone a similar process of homogenization: “Just as an Egg McMuffin is the same in every McDonald’s, America’s two major political parties are increasingly perceived to offer the same choices throughout the country.”

Americans aren’t just less interested in local politics than they once were; their voting behavior is also much less determined by their place of residence or by the attributes of a particular candidate. It’s true that a voter’s home town or home state can help predict which party she supports. But, as Hopkins explains, party affiliation is influenced more by factors like race and religion than by local interests or political traditions. Once we know a voter’s demographic information, finding out where she lives helps little to predict her political behavior. A white, evangelical, middle-aged woman who earns fifty thousand dollars a year and has two children is scarcely more likely to vote Republican today if she lives in Springfield, Missouri, than if she lives in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Hopkins is a sure-footed guide to the twilight of local politics, and he’s aware of the risks that these developments may pose. Voters’ focus on national issues, he points out, is likely to “crowd out more local concerns.” And since most Americans pay little attention to local politics and are likely to vote for just about any candidate who shares their party affiliation, mayors and governors no longer have as much reason to place the needs of their constituents over those of special-interest groups: “Their actions in office might well reflect the wishes of the people most likely to advance their careers, whether they are activists, donors, or fellow partisans from other states.”

But Hopkins fails to ponder the most important implications of his own findings. Anybody who has looked on as Donald Trump accused the opposition of “treason” and denigrated the press as “the enemy of the American people” might find the title of Hopkins’s book perplexing. Yet “The Increasingly United States” has surprisingly little to say about the way in which the growing focus on national politics and the deepening partisan divide could undermine the stability of our political system.

 

When the Founding Fathers set out to design the institutions that still structure our national life, they had every reason to fear that their enterprise would end in failure. By the late eighteenth century, monarchy had conquered most of the Western world. The last republics to survive the early modern era, like the Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia, were engulfed in strife at home and imperiled by powerful competition from abroad. Institutions that aimed at collective self-government had all but vanished. So the drafters of the Constitution, as they set out to defy the odds, naturally asked themselves what went wrong for the many republics that had come—and gone—before them.

The diagnosis they arrived at was simple: those predecessors—Athens and Rome, Florence and Siena—had been undone by “the violence of faction.” As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers:

The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. . . . The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.

Madison’s solution to the problem of what we might call partisanship fundamentally shaped America. Many polities, he pointed out, had simply tried to remove its cause—either through the destruction of liberty, a remedy he termed “worse than the disease,” or through an attempt to give every man the same opinions, an undertaking he thought futile “as long as the reason of man continues fallible.” In a piece of madcap logic that has come to set the tone for the country’s freewheeling cultural and political life, Madison instead insisted that America should resolve the problem of factions by multiplying their number: the more factions there are, he argued, the less likely that any one of them can attain dominance.

Although Madison failed to anticipate the rise of modern parties, the country’s politics followed something like the model he had envisaged until late into the twentieth century. At the time of Kennedy’s election, Southern Democrats intent on perpetuating segregation clashed with Northern Democrats focussed on the economic conditions of the working class, Northern Democrats clashed with country-club Republicans focussed on the interests of business, country-club Republicans clashed with socially conservative Republicans opposed to the evils of modern life, and so on. Even the things that politicians from different parts of the country did have in common—self-interest and a taste for patronage—reliably turned them into competitors on the national scene. (As Lunch put it, “Mayor Daley did not care very much what the president did in foreign policy, but he wanted assurances that when federal funds were divided, Chicago would receive its share.”)

Today, this messy process of brokering flawed compromises among a large number of factions and interest groups has mostly given way to a stark conflict between two opposing camps. According to a recent study by the political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, Americans may now be more likely to discriminate on the basis of party than on the basis of race: asked to choose between equally qualified scholarship applicants, Democratic and Republican participants alike heavily favored applicants who were identified as belonging to the same political party they did. White participants in the study were much less likely to penalize an applicant for being black than participants of one party were to penalize applicants of the other.

As Lilliana Mason argues in a sobering new book, “Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity” (Chicago), factors such as class, race, religion, gender, and sexuality used to cut across one another to a significant extent. In an earlier age, a voter might have identified herself as both a conservative and a Presbyterian. Each of these identities predisposed her to have a negative opinion of people who did not belong to the same group. But since there were plenty of non-Presbyterian conservatives, as well as plenty of non-conservative Presbyterians, each of these “cleavages” held the other one in check.

Image result for July 2018 Cover of The New Yorker

In the past decades, though, “partisan, ideological, religious, and racial identities have . . . moved into strong alignment,” Mason writes. Religious communities, for example, are far less politically diverse than they once were: “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preference as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.” As a result, Mason argues, all those factions have fused into two new mega-identities: Democrat and Republican.

 

A few months after the American Political Science Association called on Democrats and Republicans to transform themselves into truly national, ideologically cohesive parties, Arthur Schlesinger published an impassioned retort:

Is not the fact that each party has a liberal and conservative wing a genuine source of national strength and cohesion? . . . The result is, of course, that no group can have the desperate feeling that all options are foreclosed, all access to power barred, by the victory of the opposition: there will always be somebody in a Democratic administration on whose shoulders business can weep, and even a Republican administration will have somewhere a refuge for labor. If the party division were strictly ideological, each presidential election would subject national unity to a fearful test. We must remember that the one election when our parties stood irrevocably on questions of principle was the election of 1860.

Schlesinger’s words have proved prophetic. The conviction that a victory by Hillary Clinton would permanently bar conservatives from power was a core theme among some of the loudest advocates of the movement’s accommodation with Trumpism. Michael Anton, in his Claremont Review essay “The Flight 93 Election,” saw “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty” as an imminent threat to the survival of the American republic. With his team’s total and permanent defeat supposedly on the horizon, Anton advocated the kind of high-stakes gamble taken by passengers on the airliner that crashed into a field in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania, on 9/11:

Charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.

Liberals, though appalled by Anton’s race-tinged rhetoric, often share his assessment of the situation: they, too, believe that democracy’s fate now hinges on the next election. This is worrying: you can reject the idea that Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame for the breakdown of civility in American politics—or that Hillary Clinton posed as much of a threat to the rules and norms of liberal democracy as Donald Trump does—and still recognize that a situation in which partisans on both sides think that they face existential stakes every four years is not sustainable for very long.

As Robert A. Dahl argued, developing democracies in their early years often avoid ferocious factionalism by restricting participation in their political institutions to a comparatively small set of people. But, over time, one excluded group after another can win inclusion in those same institutions—like poor white men, former slaves, and women, in the United States. Not for the first time, that greater inclusion, personified by President Barack Obama, has now bred a potent backlash.

It is tempting to take this as evidence in support of a deeply pessimistic interpretation of the country’s past and its likely future: any robust attempt to remedy social injustice will inevitably lead those who have immense privileges to reverse the tide of progress or even to jettison their commitment to shared political institutions. But past periods of majoritarian backlash haven’t fully turned back the clock. The resistance to Reconstruction gave this country the intolerable reality of segregation—but it did not reintroduce chattel slavery. The resistance to the civil-rights agenda of the nineteen-sixties perpetuated forms of both economic and political discrimination—but it did not reëstablish segregation. In the same way, resistance to the full participation of women, immigrants, sexual minorities, and African-Americans in the nation’s public life may have helped give rise to Trump—but it is very unlikely to undo the vast changes of the past fifty years.

As politics has become more national, it has overcome many of the problems that political scientists bemoaned in the early nineteen-fifties. People now cast their votes to advance their political ideology, not to get a public job. They can rest assured that their support for a liberal Presidential candidate will not elect a conservative Vice-President (or vice versa). But so long as all politics was local, as Tip O’Neill famously insisted, it also performed an important service to the republic. Fights over property taxes and subway lines gave rise to competing interests and idiosyncratic alliances, helping to turn Madison’s logic of defeating factionalism through the proliferation of factions into daily political reality. The true danger of Americans’ fading interest in local politics is not, as Hopkins would have it, that weighty matters like roads or schools will go ignored. It is that a politics in which all Americans fancy themselves bit actors in the same great drama of state, cheering or jeering an identical cast of heroes and villains, is much more likely to split the country into two mutually hostile tribes.

The nationalization of American politics has led to the rise of two political mega-identities. But it does not foreordain that they will be incapable of finding common ground, or that the current period of intense partisanship will go on forever. In the past, times of heightened animosity have often been followed by periods of unexpected calm. Ordinary citizens are less polarized in their opinions than the political parties in Washington; many long for moderation. And, despite the central role that attacks on minorities played in Trump’s campaign, most Americans have grown more, not less, tolerant of compatriots who do not share their ethnicity, their religion, or their sexual orientation.

In ways that Schlesinger anticipated, the deep divide between supporters and opponents of President Trump is subjecting national unity to a fearful test. The danger that a highly nationalized and deeply partisan politics poses to American institutions is undoubtedly real. But, just as it would be naïve to pretend that a happy ending is assured because our political institutions have managed to incorporate new groups in the past, so, too, would it be cynical to conclude that America is too riven with conflict—or too rotten with injustice—to be redeemed. ♦

 

This article appears in the print edition of the July 2, 2018, issue, with the headline “McPolitics.”

The Trump-Kim Summit: Reality TV or a New Era?


June 13, 2018

The Trump-Kim Summit: Reality TV or a New Era?

In Singapore, North Korea reaffirmed an agreement to “work toward” complete denuclearization. But two other key words long sought by the U.S.—“verifiable” and “irreversible”—were missing.Photograph by Evan Vucci / AP

 

Three days after angering his six closest Western allies, President Trump embraced Asia’s most notorious dictator at a steamy resort in Singapore and heralded a “very special bond” in new relations between the United States and North Korea. Trump and Kim signed a two-page statement—big on ideas but slim on specifics—that committed North Korea to “complete denuclearization” and said that the United States would “provide security guarantees” for a country with which it is still technically at war.

“We’re very proud of what took place today,” Trump said, after the two men, appearing relaxed after three rounds of talks, signed the four-point declaration. “I think our whole relationship with North Korea and the Korean Peninsula is going to be a very much different situation than it has been in the past. We both want to do something.” The President said that the world will be “very impressed, very happy” as the two nations take care of “a very dangerous problem for the world.”

Kim chimed in, saying, “We had a very historic meeting and agreed to leave the past behind. The world will see a major change.”

The four-point statement committed the countries to establishing new diplomatic relations. It pledged to “join efforts” to build a “lasting and stable peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula, and that would appear to include South Korea. In especially vague terms, North Korea reaffirmed an agreement—originally made between the two Koreas at their historic summit on April 27th—to “work toward” complete denuclearization. Two other key words long sought by the United States—“verifiable” and “irreversible”—were missing. Finally, the two nations vowed to recover the remains of prisoners of war from the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953, in which more than thirty-three thousand Americans were killed. Almost eight thousand American troops remain unaccounted for.

Trump also announced that he would cancel regularly scheduled military exercises—which he referred to as “war games”—with South Korea, which have been pivotal to South Korea’s security. Trump called the exercises, which will next take place in August, “provocative,” adopting North Korea’s position and language on both terms. The United States still has twenty-eight thousand troops in the South.

In Washington, there is broad support for Trump’s diplomacy, especially after a year of threatening rhetoric that seemed to move the U.S. and North Korea ominously close to war. Ten months ago, the President warned Kim of “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Yet former U.S. negotiators with North Korea and senior military experts who worked on the issue were distinctly unimpressed—even baffled—by the lack of substance at the summit, the first meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea.

“As hyped as the meeting was, the result is underwhelming,” Wendy Sherman, who was a top negotiator with North Korea in the Clinton and Obama Administrations and the lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal, said. “The document not only doesn’t break new ground—it is less than previous documents, including the 1992 Joint Declaration, the Agreed Framework of 1994, and the September, 2005, Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks.” All were diplomatic initiatives by the three previous Presidents that eventually collapsed because Pyongyang was found to be cheating or in violation of its pledges.

All earlier efforts by both Republican and Democratic Administrations emphasized verification, the core issue in virtually every U.S. agreement on nuclear-arms control with any nation, and incorporated international accords such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Trump also gave Kim a “major concession” without equivalent reciprocal steps, Sherman added, by cancelling joint exercises with South Korea.

The government in Seoul appeared surprised by the cancellation. “We need to find out the exact meaning or intention behind his comments at this point,” a South Korean military official said. The Pentagon also appeared to be caught off guard by the announcement, the Times reported. Defense Secretary James Mattis has long backed the U.S.-South Korean exercises as central to America’s role in East Asia. Pentagon officials both in Seoul and Washington said they had received no new instructions and were still planning for exercises that are now only a couple of months away.

The brief statement “landed with a thud,” Abraham Denmark, the director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, told me. “No new commitments from Kim on denuclearization, or even a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear or missile programs. No new assurances from the United States. The statement mostly reiterates what was said at the inter-Korean summit, and sets vague plans for future meetings. We knew there was a long way to go, but this statement makes very little progress.”

Pyongyang and Beijing are the big winners coming out of the summit, especially because of the limits on U.S. military activities in South Korea. Trump had also suggested earlier that he might draw down U.S. troops, who have been stationed on the Peninsula for seven decades. “Kim got a huge propaganda win and a metric ton of legitimacy,” Denmark said. “Expect North Korean media to replay these images for years, showing how the world respects Kim and that North Korea is now recognized as an equal to the United States and the other great powers of the world. Kim gave up nothing new.” China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, got everything that it wanted, too.

At the press conference, Trump said he has extended an invitation to Kim to visit the White House at some “appropriate” time in the future, implying after progress has been made with “denuclearization”—the pivotal concept that’s still not spelled out specifically in the statement. Kim accepted the invitation, the President said, adding, “There’s no limit to what North Korea can achieve if it gives up its nuclear weapons.” The White House prepared a four-minute video to illustrate the potential for Kim—and the alternatives.

“A new world can begin today—one of respect, friendship, and good will,” the narrator vows, referring to Trump and Kim as “two men, two leaders, one destiny.” The video features high-rise condo units, drones, packed grocery stores, car-assembly plants, and babies in modern incubators. “The past does not have to be the future,” the narrator says. “It comes down to a choice.” The video then shows the bleak future without diplomacy: bombs going off, troops at the demilitarized zone. “The future remains to be written.”

The brief summit—originally scheduled for two days—was rife with lofty language from the President about the North Korean leader, who has executed members of his own family to consolidate power. “Well, he is very talented,” Trump said. “Anybody that takes over a situation like he did, at twenty-six years of age, and is able to run it, and run it tough.”

The summit was historic simply because it allowed the socialization of two countries at war, and it “didn’t obviously fly off the rails,” James (Spider) Marks, a retired major general who was a senior intelligence officer on North Korea, told me. But a “Presidential pat on the back does not connote trust. It can start trust-building, and we all should hope that that is the intended outcome.”

The danger is that the new U.S.-North Korean agreement offers no guidelines on how to convert principles into disarmament practice, or even of how many arms it covers. The Administration has previously thrown in all of North Korea’s intercontinental missiles and its biological and chemical weapons. “Unfortunately, it is still unclear whether the two sides are on the same page about definitions and the pace, and the sequencing of many steps involved in the complete ‘denuclearization’ of the Korean Peninsula,” Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said in a statement. North Korea has yet to provide a full rundown of its deadliest weapons; the agreement offers no details on timing or process. It also does not mention who will oversee the three big steps—the dismantlement of the nuclear arsenal, the verification of that dismantlement, and future inspections. Will part of it be done by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog that has been central to many such inspections? Or will the United States claim most or all of the roles? The I.A.E.A has already said it is gearing up to participate.

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Otto Warmbier sacrificed

The most conspicuous item missing from the statement was the issue of human rights, which has been central to U.S. policy for decades. Tens of thousands of political prisoners are believed to be held by Kim’s regime, according to human-rights groups. The American Otto Warmbier died within days of his release from a North Korean prison because of alleged torture that left him brain-damaged. Trump—who called his North Korean counterpart “very smart” and “talented”—was repeatedly pressed on whether he brought it up. The President actually cited Warmbier as the pivot to diplomacy. “Otto did not die in vain,” he said at a press conference before leaving Singapore. “I think, without Otto, this would not have happened.”

Sherman was outraged. “The President’s comments on human rights—that those in labor camps would be winners, that this meeting wouldn’t have happened but for Otto Warmbier’s death, and that Kim was loved by his people and was trustworthy—those comments are not worthy of a President of the United States,” she said.

Others urged separating the issues immediately at hand. “Let’s not roll the Kim regime’s egregious and undeniable human-rights violations into our evaluation of success of the summit,” Marks said. “This is about reducing the clear and present danger of global nuclear annihilation, not human rights.” The irony of the President’s approach, however, is that it exactly mirrors what the Obama Administration did in its diplomacy with Iran, out of which came the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Obama wanted to focus on eliminating Tehran’s deadliest arms program first before taking on other issues, including human rights.

Trump, who claimed that he had not slept for twenty-five hours, basked in the attention of the choreographed summit. But he will face tough questions about how to translate a modest statement into the most robust program anywhere in the world to limit nuclear proliferation as the initiative—to be led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—moves forward. Meanwhile, key allies left in the dirt at the G-7 summit over the weekend may be wondering what happens next with them, too.

Image result for justin trudeau and donald trump dumb and dumber

Trump took time at the press conference following the summit to again scold Canada, the closest U.S. ally geographically and its second-largest trading partner. A member of NATO, its troops have fought and died alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan. More than twenty-six thousand Canadians fought in the Korean War; more than five hundred were killed. But alliance be damned. The President was infuriated after Prime Minister Trudeau said that Canada would not be “pushed around” by the United States. “He learned that’s going to cost a lot of money for the people of Canada,” Trump told reporters in Singapore. “He learned.” After the Singapore summit, the temperamental President seems to be on better terms with a North Korean despot than a Canadian democrat.

This post has been updated.

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Trump–The Demolition Man and an Upscale Archie Bunker


June 12, 2018

Trump–The Demolition Man and an Upscale Archie Bunker

by John Cassidy@www.newyorker.com

Image result for Trump the demolition man

 

Donald Trump hasn’t changed. The many biases and misconceptions that he has about the United States and its place in the world go back as far as 1990, when an interviewer from Playboy asked him about the first thing he would do if he were elected President. “Many things,” Trump replied. “A toughness of attitude would prevail. I’d throw a tax on every Mercedes-Benz rolling into this country and on all Japanese products, and we’d have wonderful allies again.” A President Trump, he went on, “wouldn’t trust our allies; he’d have a huge military arsenal, perfect it, understand it. Part of the problem is that we’re defending some of the wealthiest countries in the world for nothing . . . . We’re being laughed at around the world.”

This clearly wasn’t a man who had studied much history, beyond perhaps the volume of Hitler’s speeches that his former wife Ivana once claimed that he kept by his bed. He seemed blissfully unaware of how, after the Second World War, the U.S. used its military and economic power to create an open international economic system in which American multinational companies such as Ford, General Motors, and I.B.M. were guaranteed a growing and prosperous market. And he seemed similarly clueless about the role that multilateral institutions like NATO, the G-7, and the International Monetary Fund played in extending and perpetuating American power.

Image result for Trump the demolition man, The Economist Cover

If Trump’s worldview has any consistency, it is as the ideology of a certain type of parochial, embittered, outer-borough New Yorker, an upscale Archie Bunker. The first great misfortune that befell the U.S. and its allies came in November of 2016, when this small-minded parvenu was elected President. The second came earlier this year, when Trump belatedly realized that he didn’t have to surround himself with wiser and more knowledgeable people who could restrain his impulses. He replaced H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, and Gary Cohn, the head of the National Economic Council, with John Bolton and Larry Kudlow, two wizened conservative talking heads who both know their role, which is to parrot whatever nonsense Trump comes up with on any given day.

On Saturday, Trump once again made a stunning display of his ignorance. Before departing early from the G-7 summit in La Malbaie, Quebec, to fly to Singapore, he issued a preposterous threat to cut off all U.S.-Canadian trade if the Canadians responded to his imposition of tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum goods entering the United States by levying similar duties on some American goods entering Canada. At a press conference that Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, held to close the summit, he was inevitably asked whether his government would go ahead with the retaliatory tariffs despite Trump’s barking. “I have made it very clear to the President that it is not something we relish doing, but it is something that we absolutely will do,” Trudeau said. “Because Canadians, we’re polite, we’re reasonable, but we also will not be pushed around.”

In diplomatese, Trudeau’s statement was polite but firm. (He also said that he stood ready to resolve the trade dispute in consultation with Trump.) But when Trump watched, or got wind of, the press conference on Air Force One as he flew to Singapore, he flipped out and fired up his Twitter account, describing Trudeau as, “Very dishonest & weak,” and adding, “Our Tariffs are in response to his of 270% on dairy!” He also said that he had ordered the U.S. representatives on the ground to not endorse the G-7 communique that they had previously agreed on.

Far from trying to talk Trump around, or clear up the mess that the President had created, Bolton and Kudlow made matters worse. On Saturday afternoon, Bolton tweeted out the most talked-about image from the G-7 meeting, in which a seated Trump is being confronted by Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, and Emmanuel Macron, the President of France. “Just another #G7 where other countries expect America will always be their bank. The President made it clear today. No more,” he wrote.

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On Sunday, Kudlow said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Trudeau “kind of stabbed us in the back,” and added, “It was a betrayal.” Another Trump aide, Peter Navarro, who is a self-styled trade hawk, told Fox News, “There’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad-faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door.”

The invocation of Weimaresque rhetoric to describe a trade dispute with America’s closest neighbor was something to behold. But in geopolitical terms, it wasn’t even the most provocative thing that Team Trump did over the weekend. Before, during, and after the G-7 summit, the U.S. President called for Vladimir Putin’s Russia to be allowed to rejoin the group, and sought to downplay the reason that the country got kicked out in the first place—Putin’s decision, in 2014, to invade Crimea and destabilize eastern Ukraine.

“Something happened a while ago where Russia is no longer in,” Trump said, at a press conference on Saturday. “I think it would be an asset to have Russia back in.” He didn’t dwell on Putin’s aggression further, other than to say that questions about it should be addressed to Barack Obama, who “allowed Russia to take Crimea. I may have a much different attitude.”

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Really? At this stage, Trump’s bromance with Putin is so obvious that it has turned into something of a joke. Guy Verhofstadt, the former Prime Minister of Belgium who is now a powerbroker in the European Parliament, tweeted out the viral G-7 photo, and suggested a caption for what Merkel was saying to Trump: “Just tell us what Vladimir has on you. Maybe we can help.” Putin, for his part, said he would welcome a summit meeting with Trump in the Oval Office.

It is possible, of course, that Putin doesn’t have anything on Trump, and that Trump has simply had a lifelong affection for ruthless, authoritarian figures that overwhelms any actual knowledge he may have picked up in the past seventeen months about the benefits of Atlanticism, a liberal trading order, or anything else. Back in that 1990 Playboy interview, in addition to expressing his protectionist beliefs about the economy, he criticized Mikhail Gorbachev for allowing the Soviet Union to break up and praised the leaders of China for putting down the Tiananmen Square demonstrations “with strength.”

This side of Trump—the wannabe strongman—has always been there. But the truly alarming thing is how few restraining influences it now faces. Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has maintained a steadfast support for NATO and the Atlantic alliance more generally, appears to be about the only one left. The Vice-President, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of the Treasury are all Trump toadies. John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, seems to be a busted flush. The Republican leadership on Capitol Hill is AWOL. And Fox News, which is Trump’s main source of information, is a Trump echo chamber.

And so we go to Sentosa Island, in Singapore, where the North Korean boy autocrat awaits. After Trump’s behavior in the past few days, the world will be watching nervously.

  • John Cassidy has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. He also writes a column about politics, economics, and more for newyorker.com.

  • Here’s a who’s who of the people pictured (pic above), and where they stand on the trade row that defined the summit.

    1. Donald Trump, US President

    Mr Trump shocked America’s allies – namely the EU, Mexico and Canada – when he recently announced a 25% tariff on imports of steel and 10% on aluminium from these countries. They are all threatening retaliatory measures and the rift overshadowed the summit, leaving the American president isolated at times. Mr Trump departed before the other leaders, and complained that America was “like the piggy bank that everybody is robbing”.

    He then tore into Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a pair of tweets, calling him “very dishonest and weak” and attacking his “false statements” after Mr Trudeau reasserted his strong opposition to the US tariffs in a news conference.

    2. John Bolton, US National Security Adviser

    It’s been just three months since he was appointed President Trump’s top security adviser but John Bolton has already made an impact. One of the President’s arguments for the tariffs is on “national security grounds” – a view Mr Bolton has stridently backed.

    3. Kazuyuki Yamazaki, Japanese Senior Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs

    Promoted to the post in July 2017, he recently led a Japanese delegation to Pakistan and took part in joint talks between Japan, China and South Korea in Seoul about a proposed free trade agreement.

  • 4. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister

    He has come under increased pressure to join retaliatory measures against America’s tariffs. This puts him in a difficult position – he has tried hard to cultivate a warm relationship with President Trump and the two are said to have met at least 10 times since he was elected to the White House.

    5. Yasutoshi Nishimura, Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary

    The MP from Japan’s governing party once worked in the ministry of international trade and industry.

    6. Angela Merkel, German Chancellor

    She has been at the forefront of talks to try to resolve differences at the summit, as is clear in this photo. Mrs Merkel apparently floated an idea to set up a mechanism to resolve trade disputes between the US and its allies on Friday. Asked during the summit about her relationship with President Trump, Mrs Merkel said the two leaders did not always agree but could talk to each other: “I can say that I maintain a very open and direct relationship with the American president.”

    7. Emmanuel Macron, French President

    He engaged in a Twitter spat with President Trump over the tariffs hours before the summit – leading some to question whether the blossoming “bromance” between the two was over. Despite this, they were seen to be on good terms, and President Macron’s team said his talks with Trump were “frank and robust”. However, following Mr Trump’s online outburst against Mr Trudeau, the French president issued a statement that “international co-operation cannot be dictated by fits of anger and throwaway remarks”.

    8. Theresa May, UK Prime Minister

    In a telephone call last week, she told President Trump she found the US tariffs “unjustified and deeply disappointing”. But she also struck a more conciliatory tone at the summit, urging fellow leaders to step back from the brink of a possible trade war.

    9. Larry Kudlow, Director of the US National Economic Council

    Mr Trump’s top economic adviser has defended the new tariffs and said his boss should not be blamed for trade tensions. After the summit, Mr Kudlow told CNN that the president and his team had gone to the summit “in good faith” but that Mr Trudeau had “stabbed us in the back” in his news conference.