Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More
Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.
By this it appears that reason is not, as sense and memory, born with us; nor gotten by experience only, as prudence is; but attained by industry: first in apt imposing of names; and secondly by getting a good and orderly method in proceeding from the elements, which are names, to assertions made by connexion of one of them to another; and so to syllogisms, which are the connexions of one assertion to another, till we come to a knowledge of all the consequences of names appertaining to the subject in hand; and that is it, men call science. And whereas sense and memory are but knowledge of fact, which is a thing past and irrevocable, science is the knowledge of consequences, and dependence of one fact upon another; by which, out of that we can presently do, we know how to do something else when we will, or the like, another time: because when we see how anything comes about, upon what causes, and by what manner; when the like causes come into our power, we see how to make it produce the like effects.
Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.
To conclude, the light of humane minds is perspicuous words, but by exact definitions first snuffed, and purged from ambiguity; reason is the pace; increase of science, the way; and the benefit of mankind, the end. And, on the contrary, metaphors, and senseless and ambiguous words are like ignes fatui; and reasoning upon them is wandering amongst innumerable absurdities; and their end, contention and sedition, or contempt.
...it is practically impossible, without great loss of life, especially at the present time, to prevent lynching of Negro rapists when the crime is committed against the white women of the South."
...strictly a white man's country, with a white man's civilization, and any dream on the part of the Negro Race to share social and political equality will be shattered in the end.
Theodore Bilbo worked to block funding for Howard University, tried to initiate a "Back to Africa" campaign for colonizing black citizens, attempted to segregate the national parks, dismissed multiracial children as "a motley melee of misceginated mongrels," attempted to ban interracial marriage in Washington, D.C., and raged against antilynching legislation that would compel "Southern girls to use the stools and toilets of damn syphilitic women." And he did this as a progressive.You know folks, I run Washington. I'm mayor there...Some niggers came to see me one time in Washington to try to get the right to vote there. The leader was a smart nigger. Of course he was half white. I told him that the nigger would never vote in Washington. Hell, if we give 'em the right to vote up there, half the niggers in the South will move into Washington and we'll have a black Government. No Southerner would sit in Congress under those conditions.
Probably the most bracing aspect of Ira Katznelson's new history of the New Deal, Fear Itself, is his portrait of the marriage of progressive domestic policy and white supremacy. I knew the outlines of this stuff, but for a flaming commie like me, the extent of the embrace is hard to take:
Far more enduring was the New Deal's intimate partnership with those in the South who preached white supremacy. For this whole period -- the last in American history when public racism was legitimate in speech and action -- southern representatives acted not on the fringes but as an indispensable part of the governing political party.
It actually starts much earlier with Woodrow Wilson who forged a "composite of racism and progressive liberalism" which "came to dominate the Democratic Party, and, with it, the content and boundaries of social reform."
The composite endured after Wilson:
During the 1920s, Alabama's Oscar Underwood and Joseph Robinson of Arkansas led the Democratic Party in the House; Senate Democrats were led by Claude Kitchin of North Carolina until 1923, then by Finis Garrett of Tennessee. With no realistic threat to segregation on the horizon, southern members often allied successfully with western Republican progressives led by Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin and George Norris of Nebraska.The uniting force that makes all of this possible is white supremacy. In the Democratic Party of the early 20th century, everything was negotiable save the advancement of black people. Not even the protection of black people was countenanced. During the same period Southern Democrats were supporting railroad unions, they were actively fighting anti-lynching laws. You could easily bring the women's suffrage movement into this also which, by the 20s, had embraced the spirit of white supremacy. The embrace was likely necessary.
This coalition propelled reform legislation that included the Water Power Act of 1920 and the Merchant Marine Act of the same year, as well as tax laws that maintained the progressive income, inheritance, and excess profits provisions that had been brought in during World War I. It also passed the Maternity and Infancy Welfare Act of 1921, jointly sponsored in the House by the Texas Democrat Morris Sheppard and Iowa Republican Horace Towner, whose pattern of local administration sharply discriminated against black families in the South.
The South's Democrats also supported collective bargaining for unions in the railroad industry, and large-scale power projects, including the epic construction of Boulder Dam, a project that would not be undertaken until 1931.
Their tax policies, in the main, grew more moderate after the 1924 Republican landslide, which weakened that party's progressive wing, but even the more conservative southern Democrats, like Underwood, "sustained much more 'progressive' voting records than their Republican colleagues from New England and the mid-American states" throughout the 1920s.
I don't know where Katznelson is ultimately going, but I think his point is that -- in the end -- it was a lot of this New Deal legislation, however flawed, that helped bring about segregation's end. Unfortunately, the effects of a social safety net engineered for the aid of some and the hindering of others is still with us.
Many prisoners of the Japanese had suffered a particularly gruesome and cruel fate. General MacArthur had given Australian forces the dispiriting task of clearing New Guinea and Borneo of the remaining pockets of Japanese. It became clear from all the reports collected later by U.S. authorities and the Australian War Crimes Section that the 'widespread practice of cannibalism by Japanese soldiers in the Asia-Pacific war was something more than merely random incidents perpetrated by individuals or small groups subject to extreme conditions. The testimonies indicate that cannibalism was a systematic and organized military strategy.The practice of treating prisoners as 'human cattle' had not come about from a collapse of discipline. It was usually directed by officers. Apart from local people, victims of cannibalism included Papuan soldiers, Australians, Americans, and Indian prisoners of war who had refused to join the Indian National Army. At the end of the war, their Japanese captors had kept the Indians alive so that they could butcher them to eat one at a time. Even the inhumanity of the Nazis' Hunger Plan in the east never descended to such levels.Because the subject was so upsetting to families of soldiers who had died in the Pacific War, the Allies suppressed all information on the subject, and cannibalism never featured as a crime at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal in 1946.
The mass of incendiaries raining down in a tighter pattern than usual on the eastern side of the city accelerated the conglomeration of individual fires into one gigantic furnace. This created a chimney or volcano of heat which shot into the sky and sucked in hurricane force winds at ground level. This fanned the roaring flames still further. At 17,000 feet, the air-crew could smell roasting flesh.On the ground, the blast of hot air tore off clothes, stripping people naked and setting their hair ablaze. Flesh was desiccated, leaving it like pemmican. As in Wuppertal, tarmac boiled and people became glued to it like insects on a flypaper. Houses would explode into a blaze in a moment. The fire service was rapidly overwhelmed. Those civilians who stayed in cellars suffocated or died from smoke inhalation or carbon-monoxide poisoning.They, according to the Hamburg authorities later, represented between 70 and 80 per cent of the 40,000 people who died. Many of the other bodies were so carbonized that they were never recovered...Harris's attempt to break German morale had failed. Yet he still refused to admit defeat and he certainly refused to recant. He despised government attempts to whitewash the bombing campaign by claiming that the RAF was going only for military targets and that civilian deaths were unavoidable. He simply regarded industrial workers and their housing as legitimate targets in a modern militarized state. He rejected any idea that they should be 'ashamed of area bombing.'
Paul acknowledged criticism for the speech he gave at Howard University Wednesday, saying, "I think some think a white person is not allowed to talk about black history ... which I think is unfair."At Howard, he spoke for about an hour about how, historically, Democrats opposed integration and minority voting rights, while Republicans were the party of Abraham Lincoln. At Simmons, he talked about how blacks once registered in large numbers as Republicans, how Democrats in Kentucky opposed constitutional amendments that gave African Americans expanded rights and how Henry Watterson, editor of The Courier-Journal from its creation in 1868 until 1919, opposed letting black people vote."Much of the public doesn't know that anymore, and part of my reason for bringing it out was that so people know Republicans aren't hostile to civil rights or somehow to African Americans," he said.
Reason has a good video up looking at the cross-section of opinion which followed Rand Paul's visit to Howard University. (With Chad Bozeman out there doing work, it's a good time to be a Bison.) I offered some of my own thoughts on Friday's All In With Chris Hayes. Here are a few more.
1.) I've gone back and forth on this but I think Rand Paul deserves credit. These sorts of speeches are often done by conservatives as a way of signaling to moderate whites that they aren't racist. The Mitt Romney show at the 2012 NAACP convention is the best example.
I think Paul's was different. I can't remember a potential Republican presidential candidate standing before a group of black students like that and actually taking questions. And these were not plants. Paul got the full brunt of a school where black history and politics are the air.
2.) Someone should have told Rand Paul he was going to a school where black history and politics are the air. At a university founded by prominent 19th-century Republicans, where every student is subject to an African-American (studies, lit, history, etc.) requirement, you can not hope to surprise them with "Famous Black Republican Facts." They know this. And anyone so moved to attend a Rand Paul speech at Howard will almost certainly know it better than Rand Paul. (Edward Brooke!)
3.) The lack of someones is particularly telling. It's not so much that Rand Paul is a Republican that matters, it's his obvious lack of either good African-American advisers, or advisers who simply cared enough to do some recon. Someone who knew Howard could have told him that he was walking into a lion's den. This is the real and hard value of diversity, an area where, for at least the next decade, Dems will enjoy an advantage. They are better are talking to diverse audiences simply because they've had more practice. This isn't mission impossible. But to be good at talking to black people, you must talk to black people.
4.) This should not be a series of "speeches." Paul should go back to Howard and sit in on a couple of classes. He should just sit there and listen. I know he's a busy guy, but there is so much there that he clearly doesn't know. If he can't do it, he should send someone to do it. Better, he should hire a couple of smart kids out of Howard's poli-sci department who are sympathetic to his politics. (They are there.)
5.) Paul's answer to the Civil Rights Act question was deeply damaging. Nothing he did there hurt him more than outright lying. This is 2013. All these kids need do is google Rand Paul and Civil Rights Act to see what Paul actually said. It would be like Obama announcing his support for marriage equality, by claiming he'd always supported it. The worst part is he didn't even have to lie. A simple "I've learned a few things since becoming a senator" would have sufficed. Unforced error. Again, no one around Paul to say, "It's Howard. A third of SNCC went here. You are going to get this question. You must have a good answer."
6.) If you are a libertarian and dismayed by the largely critical reaction to Paul's speech, you should understand that much of it is because black liberals, like me, actually expect more of Rand Paul than we expected of Mitt Romney. Again, a lot of us have family whose politics are not very different from Rand Paul's. These are people who don't like foreign wars, who don't like our incarceration rates, and don't like our deficit.
These people are not me. But the fact that we end up voting for the same guy is a distortion of democracy. We deserve to fight it out. Having that fight doesn't require the GOP to fully embrace Obamacare. It requires the GOP to stop attempting to limit the number of people who are voting, and start competing for them. At this moment, the GOP has a choice. It can embrace the "Gifts" logic of Mitt Romney which holds that black people will never vote for a Republican, or it can make a pitch and compete.
Rand Paul -- skeptical of foreign war, skeptical of the drug war, skeptical of mass incarceration -- is the most credible Republican to make that pitch. We don't have any expectations for Steve King. Paul is different, and is being judged accordingly. You don't get to do something striking and courageous (like Paul's actual filibuster) and get judged by the standards of cowards.
"I am not a prejudiced person," Gile said Friday. "I have built Habitat homes for colored people." Gile said he also has a close friend whom he regards as a sister who is black. "I don't ever do anything bad and don't know how to do anything bad. People know I am not," he said.In addition to building Habitat homes, Gile has been involved with CAPS, DVACK, the Food Bank, Salvation Army and Salina Rescue Mission, and he helped start Hunger Barrel, Souper Bowl and Project Salina. In 1989, Gile was awarded the JC Penney Golden Rule award for his volunteer work and he was given the Salina Award for Outstanding Citizen in 2009.
"Martin Luther King says that darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can," LL Cool J said. "Hate can't drive out hate, only love can. So what we're talking about is compassion...."Brad Paisley backs him up:"I'm not advising anyone to truly forget slavery, but what I'm saying is forget the slavery mentality," LL Cool J said. "Forget the bitterness. Don't get bitter, get better."
One of the problems with the idea that America needs a "Conversation On Race" is that it presumes that "America" has something intelligent to say about race. All you need do is look at how American history is taught in this country to realize that that is basically impossible. I have had conversations with very well-educated people who, with a straight face, have told me that there are Black Confederates. If you ask a very well educated person how the GI Bill exacerbated the wealth gap, or how New Deal housing policy helped create the ghetto they very likely will not know. And they do not know, not because they are ignorant, stupid, or immoral, they do not know because they are part of country that has decided that "not knowing" is in its interest. There's no room for any sort of serious conversation when the basic facts of history are not accessible. It would be like me demanding a conversation on Vichy France--en Français. So we retreat to mushy, moist talk about who "feelings," "intentions," "good people" and "loving fathers." The great Jay Smooth once said that we need to move from a "what you are" conversation ("you are a racist") to a "what you are doing" conversation. Unfortunately this presumes a groundwork of honesty and good faith. No such good faith exists because we are ignorant, and deep down inside, we know it and are ashamed of it."Let's not be victims of things that happened so long ago," Paisley said.
The du-rag/red-flag line Paisley cites at the end belongs to LL Cool J, one of the two guys "that believe in who they are." LL Cool J has enjoyed a kind of longevity with which very few rappers can compete. In the mid-'80s and early '90s, particularly, he was a dynamic MC. (I am still partial to the "I'm Bad"/"Radio"/"Go Cut Creator Go" era.) His career has blossomed beyond the record industry to include music and film. I can understand why an artist like Paisley would be attracted to an artist like LL Cool J. I can't for the life of me understand why he'd choose LL Cool J to begin "a conversation" to reconcile. Rap is overrun with artists who've spent some portion of their career attempting to have "a conversation." There's Chuck D. There's Big Daddy Kane. There's KRS-ONE. There's Talib. There's Mos Def. There's Kendrick Lamar. There's Black Thought. There's Dead Prez. And so on. In an artform distinguished by a critical mass concerned with racism, LL's work is distinguished by its lack of concern. Which is fine. "Pink Cookies" is dope. "Booming System" is dope. "I Shot Ya" is dope. I even rock that "Who Do You Love" joint. But I wouldn't call up Talib Kweli to record a song about gang violence in L.A., and I wouldn't call up KRS-ONE to drop a verse on a love ballad. The only real reason to call up LL is that he is black and thus must have something insightful to say about the Confederate Flag.
"At this point, after all these albums and all these hits, I have no interest in phoning it in, and I think that [the song] comes from an honest place in both cases, and that's why it's on there and why I'm so proud of it. This isn't a stunt. This isn't something that I just came up with just to be sort of shocking or anything like that. I knew it would be, but I'm sort of doing it in spite of that, really.
"I'm doing it because it just feels more relevant than it even did a few years ago. I think that we're going through an adolescence in America when it comes to race. You know, it's like we're almost grown up. You have these little moments as a country where it's like, 'Wow things are getting better.' And then you have one where it's like, 'Wow, no they're not.'
"It really came to a boil last year with Lincoln and Django, and there's just a lot of talk about it. It was really obvious to me that we still have issues as a nation with this. There are two little channels in each chorus that really steal the pie. One of them is, 'We're still picking up the pieces, walking on eggshells, fighting over yesterday,' and the other is, 'Paying for the mistakes that a lot of folks made long before we came.' We're all left holding the bag here, left with the burden of these generations. And I think the younger generations are really kind of looking for ways out of this.
"I just think art has a responsibility to lead the way, and I don't know the answers, but I feel like asking the question is the first step, and we're asking the question in a big way. How do I show my Southern pride? What is offensive to you? And he kind of replies, and his summation is really that whole let bygones be bygones and 'If you don't judge my do rag, I won't judge your red flag.' We don't solve anything, but it's two guys that believe in who they are and where they're from very honestly having a conversation and trying to reconcile."
The assumption that there is no real difference among black people is exactly what racism is. Our differences, our right to our individuality, is what makes us human. The point of racism is to rob black people of that right. It would be no different than me assuming that Rachel Weisz must necessarily have something to say about black-Jewish relations, or me assuming that Paisley must know something about barbecue because he's Southern.
It is no different than the only black kid in class being asked to explain "race" to white people, or asking the same question of the sole black dude in your office. The entire fight is to get white people to respect the fact that Mos Def holding a microphone is not LL Cool J holding a microphone, that Trayvon Martin is not De'Marquise Elkins, that wearing a hoodie and being black does not make you the same as every other person wearing a hoodie and being black.
Paisley wants to know how he can express his Southern Pride. Here are some ways. He could hold a huge party on Martin Luther King's birthday, to celebrate a Southerner's contribution to the world of democracy. He could rock a T-shirt emblazoned with Faulkner's Light In August, and celebrate the South's immense contribution to American literature. He could preach about the contributions of unknown Southern soldiers like Andrew Jackson Smith. He could tell the world about the original Cassius Clay. He could insist that Tennessee raise a statue to Ida B. Wells.
Every one of these people are Southerners. And every one of them contributed to this great country. But to do that Paisley would have to be more interested in a challenging conversation and less interested in a comforting lecture.
Negroes are human, not superhuman. Like all people, they have differing personalities, diverse financial interests and varied aspirations. There are Negroes who will never fight for freedom. There are Negroes who will seek to profit for themselves alone from the struggle. There are even Negroes who will cooperate with there oppressors. These facts should depress no one. Every minority and every people has its share of opportunists, profiteers, free-loaders, and escapists."
In an earlier post, I wrote:
It is often said that racism is the result of a lack of education, that it must be defeated by civilization and progress. Nothing points to the silliness of that idea like the Holocaust. "Civilization" is irrelevant to racism. I don't even know what "civilization" means. When all your great theory, and awesome literature, and philosophy amounts to state bent on genocide, what is it worth? There were groups of hunter-gatherers wandering the Kalahari who were more civilized than Germany in 1943.
I probably should not have.
I was trying to do two things: 1.) Question the idea of "civilization," a word that I have a hard time disentangling from intellectual bigotry. 2.) Point out that even by the standards of those who use words like "civilization, " alleged "civilizations" often fail.
But sometimes when we try to question a bigoted claim, we end up simply restating the bigoted claim. I should have been clearer. I don't want anyone leaving with the impression that I think it is helpful, useful, or even accurate to attempt laud entire ethnic groups as "civilized" and others as "uncivilized." Not because it's "mean," but because I don't think such talk has any meaning or content.
Some of the deepest revelations of my life have come from sitting with Herman Melville. Even deeper ones have come from sitting with my father. I would expect that exact same thing to be true on the Kalahari.
I'm getting toward the end of Antony Beevor's The Second World War. If you only know the outlines of World War II, I would very heartily recommend it. Speaking for myself, this is the first book I've read that devotes considerable attention to the Holocaust. It's one thing to know the numbers. It is another to be faced with the methodology.
When studying a great evil, my general approach is to try to preserve my judgment but suspend my judgmentalism. In other words, I want to be able to tell you very forthrightly about the evils of, say, slavery, while at the same time telling you about the psychology of the slaveholder. And I want to do this with the full knowledge that I could have been on either side of the whip.
No historian whom I've read better handles this than Drew Gilpin-Faust. Her work on the women planters during the Civil War does not excuse anyone. When she speaks of patriarchy or white supremacy, she does it with seriousness and specificity. She manages to avoid the temptation to lump women, blacks, and poor whites into some vague activist mélange called "The People." And at the same time, Faust is able to sketch the very real societal bonds that kept these women in a cage. That humanist approach to history, as opposed to marshaling history for condemnation or the improvement of collective self-esteem, is one I have tried to emulate.
In the case of the Holocaust, it is failing me. For all the talk of supremacy, Nazism in Beevor's telling is savagery and cannibalism. I don't mean that for rhetorical effect. The Nazis are using human body hair, human skin, and human fat to make products. When practiced by the darker peoples of the world, we call this savagery. Here is Beevor quoting a Nazi paymaster in the Ukraine:
In Bereza-Kartuska where I took my midday break, 1,300 Jews had been shot the day before. They were taken to a hollow outside the town. Men, women and children were forced to undress completely and were dealt with by a shot through the back of the head. Their clothes were disinfected for reuse. I am convinced that if the war lasts much longer Jews will be processed into sausage and be served up to Russian prisoners of war or to qualified Jewish workers.
Vasily Grossman looking at Treblinka noted that 800,000 Jews and 'Gypsies' -- a population of "a small European capital city" -- were killed by a staff numbering just over a hundred. "Never before in human history," writes Beevor, "had so many people been killed by so few executioners."
So I find humanism failing me here. Perhaps it is because I am American and not German, and thus there's greater distance. Or perhaps it's because I just haven't read enough. (When I first began studying slavery, I was not a humanist.) Certainly the scale of death, and its industrialization, presents a challenge. The irony of slavery (in the United States) is that planters have an incentive to keep enslaved people alive. You see the embers of the kind of hate that could lead to genocide, but never the fire. There's just too much money involved.
Anyway, I am not saying this as though it's a fresh insight, I strongly suspect that the entire field of Holocaust Studies is grappling with this challenge. Or maybe the field has gotten past it. I just don't know.
One final point. It is often said that racism is the result of a lack of education, that it must be defeated by civilization and progress. Nothing points to the silliness of that idea like the Holocaust. "Civilization" is irrelevant to racism. I don't even know what "civilization" means. When all your great theory, and awesome literature, and philosophy amounts to state bent on genocide, what is it worth? There were groups of hunter-gatherers wandering the Kalahari who were more civilized than Germany in 1943.
Michael's judgment was not merely wrong. It was "dishonest, cheap, low." And it had impact. It is hard now to convey the drumbeat of arguments for the war and also of ridicule and impatience for anyone who lacked war fever. That is what you see in Michael's contemptuous dismissal of Gore. The buildup to the war was probably Christopher Hitchens's worst moment, too, when he was dead-set on the moral rightness of the invasion and intent on demolishing people who disagreed. The two of them, Michael and Christopher, were not the only ones striking this tone, but they were very influential.Now, the complication. At just the time Michael was writing those words about Al Gore, he was supporting and trying to improve my cover story, in his own magazine, arguing that we would regret the consequences of invasion for many years to come. None of us is simple.
...presides over an administration that is unusually intelligent -- and also cunning -- unusually experienced, unusually disciplined and unusually bold.
Democrats will howl...that the president is not competent, that his administration is not to be trusted, that Republican presidents and Republican policies are radical and dangerous and frightening and bad...I suppose they will continue to believe this, and continue to say it, in voices growing ever more shrill and ever more loud, yet, oddly, ever more distant and faint.
The debate is over. The left has hardened itself around the core value of a furious, permanent, reactionary opposition to the devil-state America, which stands as the paramount evil of the world and the paramount threat to the world, and whose aims must be thwarted even at the cost of supporting fascists and tyrants...
It is remarkable enough that the United States is setting out to undertake the invasion of a nation, the destruction of a regime and the liberation of a people. But to do this with only one real military ally, with much of the world against it, with a war plan that is still, by necessity, in flux days before the advent, with an invasion force that contains only one fully deployed heavy armored division -- and to have, under these circumstances, the division's commander sleeping pretty good at night: Well, that is extraordinary.A victory on these terms will change the power dynamics of the world. And there will be a victory on these terms.
Sometimes people delay marriage because they are searching for the perfect soul mate. But that view has it backward. Your spouse becomes your soul mate after you've made those vows to each other in front of God and the people who matter to you. You don't marry someone because he's your soul mate; he becomes your soul mate because you married him.
As long-time readers of this blog know, I have a somewhat contentious relationship with the idea of marriage. I've been with my wife for 15 years. We got married two years ago, mostly because I was afraid of exactly what happened to me two weeks ago taking place, and there being some confusion about who was charged with my affairs. If we were religious, we probably would have married right away.
At any rate, I entered the long-term, monogamous portion of my relationship when I was 23. My son was born when I was 24 and my partner (now wife) was 23. The seal was our son. We were pretty clear that our 20s--as they exist in the popular American mind--were over when he was born. Whatever. We weren't doing shit but drinking and smoking anyway. Besides I thought she was sort of cool. And she thought I was sort of cool. And we both thought cool people might make a cool kid together.
And knowing that you don't meet cool people every day, and knowing, too, that coolness is a force in the universe which cool kids don't always understand, and that four cool hands are cooler than two, we thought it imperative that we play some Al Green, and, like, stay together, and, like, make sure that cool kid went on to become a cool dude.
Here is where I relate to Shaw--the act of making the boy was the act of making me a man. Before creating family, I was prepared to subject myself to any number of stupid things. Knowing that other people suffer when you suffer has a way of leading you from childish things. (If you are cool.)
And that's been good. But it's been good with a lot bumps in the road--some of them existential. I don't know how it is for other people, but my sense is that any long-term relationship, any long, happy marriage, has had points when its primary advocates could see the end. And not a theoretical end, an actual end; a path untaken, but very much possible.
Where I differ with Shaw isn't in the advantages she sees in marrying young, but in the certainty and determinism. The notion that the declaration of marriage can make a human, with all their hard flaws, into something as abstract and moist as a "soul-mate" strikes me as off. Even if it's on for you, to declare it as such for the world strikes me as surely off.
To decide to romantically cohabitate with another person for the rest of your life, to make a family with that person, is to go to war. To borrow the language of my mother--you had best love their dirty drawers, because you will be seeing them. And it strikes me that you should understand that cool people fail at being cool together all the time. Sometimes they fail for lack of morality, but very often not.
That women--with all they have to lose in this world, having to struggle to secure the kind of things that the other half of the world takes for granted (the body, for instance)--would be particularly discerning about such a decision, that they would wait until accumulating some amount of power, financial and otherwise, seems logical. The dynamics of power--societal and personal--are inseparable from marriage. Those of us who've, thus far, managed to navigate those dynamics should probably be more thankful than boastful. May our days ever be thus.
My study in Switzerland was pretty intense. Class began at about 8:30 every morning and went until 1. There was une brève pause from 10 to 10:30. I was still working on east coast time, so my studies began at about 3 in the morning and finished around 7. Much to my tutor's amusement, I spent the first half of class just trying to get my head in the game. I would have an exercise, know the answer, and take two minutes to actually bring it out. In the afternoons there was often some sort extracurricular activity. I went out to a vineyard on Wednesday in the small town of Aigle. Best wine in the world.
What I picked up from my study is what I already knew--acquiring a new language is hard, and people who claim that you can do so inside of a year without changing anything else about your life probably have their hand in your pocket. It isn't to say that no one can do it. But if you're going to learn a new language you should expect a fight and gird yourself accordingly. You should even expect it to be hard if it's your child.
My tutor here in the States learned French when she was six at an immersion school. Her recollections of picking up French are bracing: long periods of not knowing and knowing you don't know; French teachers yelling at you for doing something wrong, and you not being sure what it was. My son has just started his French studies (his request, not mine) and they're going to intensify over the summer, so I expect him to get a little bit of the same. It's obviously true that it's easier to acquire language when you're younger. But this has no meaning to the individual experiencing it--your only frame of reference is your own skin.
Accordingly, I had a French session yesterday and picked up the intensity. Two hours, instead of the usual hour. All of it in French. If I didn't understand something my tutor was trying to explain, oh well. C'est Français. By the end, my brain was cake batter. Language really is different that other intellectual pursuits in its physicality. Learning to properly pronounce "Vevey" isn't a matter of abstract theory--it's a matter of training your mouth and tongue, in the same way a ballerina or singer trains, in the same way one would master a jump shot. There's just no way to make that go quicker. Hours must be put in. Reps must be performed. There's no other way.
In many ways I compare it to my journey of becoming a healthy person. The same get-rich-quick claims revolve around language-learning, as around weight loss. But I found that becoming a healthier person meant acting, thinking and making the kind of decisions that a healthier person would. It was not enough to say that I wanted to lose 20 pounds, any more than it would be enough to say I want to speak French. In both cases, I have had to learn to think like the man I wanted to be. Your old self can't come with you. In both cases I found that I what I doing was more important than what I consider myself to be. Words like "intelligence" and "discipline" held no power for me. Words like "practice" and "planning" did.
I don't say this to ward anyone away from a foreign language, or from French specifically. On the contrary, there's a beautiful democracy to it all. I am not convinced that anyone can be a Baudelaire. But I am convinced that anyone can understand, and make themselves understood. It's just that the work is unrelenting. It's a law of nature. There's no way around it.
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Pardon my French
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