by Maria Popova
A short playlist of intellectual, creative, and spiritual invigoration.
We are storytelling animals and the actual telling of stories — that ancient aural mesmerism of the human voice — continues to bewitch us somehow more thoroughly than any other medium of tale-transmission. This, perhaps, is why podcasts have emerged as a storytelling modality capable of particular enchantment — a marriage of the primeval and the present.
Here are nine favorite exemplars of the medium, each showcased via one particularly spectacular episode and a sampler-playlist of three more treats from the show’s archives.
The Pulitzer-winning poet and shaman of paying attention, beloved and oft-quoted but rarely interviewed, cracks her inner world open at the age of 79 — and what gushes forth is nothing short of magic.
Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.
How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?
From poetry to 911 calls, WNYC’s Jad and Robert embark upon a characteristically mind-bending exploration of how close words can get us “to the truth and feel and force of life” and how far they can lead us stray from the actual meaning of things.
Any person is kind of a universe — they’re too big to comprehend in their entirety, and so any translation [of a person’s work] is only going to get you a tiny piece of that person, a tiny fraction.
The celebrated novelist, memoirist, and author of the superb Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life discusses the experience of growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family, her ongoing quest to master the art of presence, and the interplay of courage and vulnerability necessary for being an artist.
When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.
In a wide-ranging and wildly inspiring conversation, Amanda Palmer expands on her ideas from the indispensable The Art of Asking as she contemplates creativity, sanity, integrity, and what it means to be an artist.
Part of the struggle of actually finding happiness as an artist is the daily fight to not define success the way the rest of the world defines success — which is hard, because you have to fight the same battles every day.
Success has this very two-faced essence… As an artist playing the game in the industry… you kind of have to play that game a little bit and ride the balance, trying to get your book on the New York Times bestselling list and knowing what to do to do that, but also, simultaneously, not drinking the Kool-aid — swishing it around your mouth and spitting it out.
Other episodes of note: Matt Mullenweg on Polyphasic Sleep, Tequila, and Building Billion-Dollar Companies :: Tony Robbins on Morning Routines, Peak Performance, and Mastering Money :: Rolf Potts on Travel Tactics, Creating Time Wealth, and Lateral Thinking
From psychologists’ multiple theories about why a young man found his mind suddenly flooded with horribly violent images to how someone trapped in his body for thirteen years found true love, co-hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller ask the seemingly simple yet life-shaping question: “Are my thoughts related to my inner wishes, do they reveal who I really am?”
The world of therapists and how they think about thoughts … is in the middle of a huge revolution. And it’s one I don’t know if most people know about.
In another stimulating installment of this ongoing collaboration between TED and NPR, writer Elizabeth Gilbert, musician Sting, brain researcher Charles Limb, and education reform champion Sir Ken Robinson explore the origin of creativity from multiple perspectives.
I had a great story recently — I love telling it — of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was 6, and she was in the back, drawing. The teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention. In this drawing lesson, she did. And the teacher was fascinated.
She went over to her, and she said, what are you drawing?
And the girl said, I’m drawing a picture of God.
And the teacher said that nobody knows what God looks like, and the girl said, “They will in a minute.”
Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go… They’re not frightened of being wrong… If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original… And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost the capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.
The eminent scholar of Chinese thought, author of the excellent Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity, discusses the paradoxical nature of conscious intention.
There are a lot of goals that we cannot pursue directly: relaxation, happiness, attractiveness [and] creativity — when you pursue them directly, they flee from you… If you think about the two-system nature of the human mind, when you’re trying to relax, or you’re trying to be happy and not think about things, the part of the brain you’re trying to shut down is the part you’re using to do the shutting down. It’s like trying to dissemble a bicycle while you’re riding on it — it’s directly paradoxical.
The celebrated author and New Yorker contributor discusses, among myriad other insightful and fascinating things, how evolving as a writer is about bridging the gap between one’s values as a person and the values one’s writing espouses.
Maybe you would understand your artistry to be: Put me anywhere, I’ll find human beings; I’ll find human interest; I’ll find literature. And I guess you could argue the weirder — or maybe the less explored — the place, the better.
The Pulitzer-winning poet, MacArthur genius, and sage of creativity on the artistic imagination, shortly before his death. That Strand’s final interview should be a conversation with his daughter, the New York Public Library’s own Jessica Strand, only adds to the beauty and poignancy of that conversation.
I can’t imagine a life without books — without reading. I don’t know how people get through a day without reading!
As the total heads towards a million euros, I am proud of the donors from around the world. This campaign is by the people, for the people
You know when you just have a little idea, have a laugh to yourself and then move on with your day? I do that a lot, only on Sunday night, I didn’t let it pass but decided to try it out for real.
So, sat at the table after dinner, I started a crowdfunding campaign to try to rescue the Greek economy. Some basic maths told me that I only needed the entire population of Europe to donate €3.19 (£2.26) to reach the amount of the bailout fund. I included some nice perks for donating, including a Greek salad and holiday in Athens for two, and set up a page on IndieGoGo and a Twitter account.
Nobody was that interested at first, but after a couple of small stories on the internet, the idea seemed to explode overnight. I woke up to 1,200 emails and it got even more crazy from there.
I set up the crowdfunding campaign to support the Greek bailout because I was fed up with the dithering of our politicians. Every time a solution to bail out Greece is delayed, it’s a chance for politicians to posture and display their power, but during this time the real effect is on the people of Greece.
I wondered, could the people of Europe just have a crack at fixing this? Less talk, more direct action. If we want to sort it, let’s JFDI (just effing do it)! On Tuesday, between leaving for work and returning home, the crowdfunding page had raised over €200,000 in around six hours, which was incredible. This isn’t just about raising the cash, though. In providing the perks, we would be stimulating the Greek economy through trade – buying Greek products and employing Greeks to source and send the perks out.
The way to help a struggling economy is by investment and stimulus – not austerity and cuts. This crowdfunding is a reaction to the bullying of the Greek people by European politicians, but it could easily be about British politicians bullying the people of the north of England, Scotland and Wales. I want the people of Europe to realise that there is another option to austerity, despite what David Cameron and Angela Merkel tell you.
The reaction has been tremendous, I’ve received thousands of goodwill message and as I write almost €630,000 has been pledged by more than 38,000 donors. Many Greek people are messaging me to say how overjoyed they are to hear that real people around Europe care about them. It must be hard when you think the rest of the continent is against you.
The beauty of the internet and social media means that a campaign like this can become possible by word-of-mouth and people all across the world can get involved very quickly. The chance to use a crowdfunding site for social good is really exciting and I hope that others will follow my lead in future and start or get behind projects like this. Of course I would prefer that we had governments that listened and connected with the public, but I guess that getting people involved at a grassroots level might be the next best thing.
While I thought the campaign was near impossible when I started, I’ve since downgraded that to merely “improbable”. I sincerely hope that in the coming weeks I, and hundreds of Greeks, will be employed in wrapping bottles of ouzo and sending postcards of Alexis Tsipras out to people who have donated. The infrastructure required to do that alone would be quite something. But just think of the party!
Ultimately, I’m very proud of the people – not just from the UK, Greece or Europe but those from all over the world – who have got involved with this campaign. It truly is by the people, for the people.
“Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.”
In a 1966 interview, Saul Bellow (June 10, 1915–April 5, 2005) articulated the seed of what would blossom into a central concern of his life, and of our culture: “Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, in the eye of the storm… Art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” A quarter century later — already an elder with a Pulitzer Prize, a National Medal of Arts, and a Nobel Prize under his belt — Bellow would come to explore this duality more deliberately in his stirring essay on how artists and writers save us from the “moronic inferno” of distraction.
But nowhere does the celebrated author address his views on the artist’s task more directly than in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize awarded to him in 1976 “for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work.” Eventually published in Nobel Lectures in Literature, 1968–1980 (public library), it remains one of the greatest public addresses of all time.
Reflecting on the death of the notion of “character” in literature, Bellow writes:
I am interested here in the question of the artist’s priorities. Is it necessary, or good, that he should begin with historical analysis, with ideas or systems?
I myself am tired of obsolete notions and of mummies of all kinds but I never tire of reading the master novelists. And what is one to do about the characters in their books? Is it necessary to discontinue the investigation of character? Can anything so vivid in them now be utterly dead? … Can we accept the account of those conditions we are so “authoritatively” given? I suggest that it is not in the intrinsic interest of human beings but in these ideas and accounts that the problem lies.
With an almost Buddhist attitude as applicable to literature as it is to life itself, Bellow adds:
To find the source of trouble we must look into our own heads.
He admonishes against taking on faith any death knell rung by our culture’s so-called experts — lest we forget, Frank Lloyd Wright put it best when he quipped that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows’” — and in a sentiment that renders just as laughable the modern death knell for the novel, he writes:
The fact that the death notice of character “has been signed by most serious essayists” means only that another group of mummies, the most respectable leaders of the intellectual community, has laid down the law. It amuses me that these serious essayists should be allowed to sign the death notices of literary forms. Should art follow culture? Something has gone wrong.
Many decades before Tom Wolfe’s spectacular commencement address admonishing against the tyranny of the pseudo-intellectual, Bellow adds:
We must not make bosses of our intellectuals. And we do them no good by letting them run the arts. Should they, when they read novels, find nothing in them but the endorsement of their own opinions? Are we here on earth to play such games?
Once again, Bellow reminds us that the anxieties and paranoias which every generation sees as singular to its era are anything but — 1976 sounds an awful lot like today:
The condition of human beings has perhaps never been more difficult to define…
Every year we see scores of books and articles which tell [people] what a state they are in — which make intelligent or simpleminded or extravagant or lurid or demented statements. All reflect the crises we are in while telling us what we must do about them; these analysts are produced by the very disorder and confusion they prescribe for.
In private life, disorder or near-panic. In families — for husbands, wives, parents, children — confusion; in civic behavior, in personal loyalties, in sexual practices (I will not recite the whole list; we are tired of hearing it) — further confusion. And with this private disorder goes public bewilderment.
It is with these facts that knock us to the ground that we try to live… There is no simple choice between the children of light and the children of darkness… But I have made my point; we stand open to all anxieties. The decline and fall of everything is our daily dread, we are agitated in private life and tormented by public questions.
Let me interject here with a necessary caveat: Despite the Swedish Academy’s brief to celebrate the value of literature and the arts in ennobling the human spirit, a great many Nobel Prize acceptance speeches bear the distinct flavor of Grumpy Old Man. This is a natural, if hardly excusable, product of the fact that the Nobel Prize has a long history of being granted primarily to old white men, not to mention it was established by a particularly grumpy one — a fact increasingly glaring and uncomfortable even for those of us dedicated to preserving the wisdom of our cultural and civilizational elders. How exasperating that such extraordinary writers as Susan Sontag, Chinua Achebe, and Maya Angelou died without a Nobel Prize.
And perhaps the sample pool is too small to draw scientifically valid conclusions, but there is palpable anecdotal evidence that when a writer like Albert Camus, the youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, or Pearl S. Buck, the second youngest laureate and the youngest woman to receive the coveted accolade, takes the stage at the Swedish Academy, there is a decidedly different ratio of grumpiness to gladness in their speech, of embitterment to emboldening faith in the human spirit. (cf. Hemingway’s.)
And now back to Grumpy Old Man Bellow, who is beneath grumpiness — or else, after all, he wouldn’t be here — a staunch champion of the power of art to elevate and enlarge the human spirit. Against this backdrop of dread and ruin, amid our growing spiritual hunger for quietude, he asks:
Art and literature — what of them? … We are still able to think, to discriminate, and to feel. The purer, subtler, higher activities have not succumbed to fury or to nonsense. Not yet. Books continue to be written and read. It may be more difficult to reach the whirling mind of a modern reader but it is possible to cut through the noise and reach the quiet zone. In the quiet zone we may find that he is devoutly waiting for us. When complications increase, the desire for essentials increases too. The unending cycle of crises that began with the First World War has formed a kind of person, one who has livd through terrible, strange things, and in whom there is an observable shrinkage of prejudices, a casting off of disappointing ideologies, an ability to live with many kinds of madness, an immense desire for certain durable human goods — truth, for instance, or freedom, or wisdom.
Only art penetrates what pride, passion, intelligence and habit erect on all sides — the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive. Proust calls these hints our “true impressions.” The true impressions, our persistent intuitions, will, without art, be hidden from us and we will be left with nothing but a “terminology for practical ends which we falsely call life.”
Returning to the role of intellectuals in perpetuating such a quasi-reality of practical ends, Bellow considers the task of the writer and artist to reawaken our “true impressions”:
There is in the intellectual community a sizable inventory of attitudes that have become respectable — notions about society, human nature, class, politics, sex, about mind, about the physical universe, the evolution of life. Few writers, even among the best, have taken the trouble to re-examine these attitudes and orthodoxies… Literature has for nearly a century used the same stock of ideas, myths, strategies … maintaining all the usual things about mass society, dehumanization and the rest. How weary we are of them. How poorly the represent us. The pictures they offer no more resemble us than we resemble the reconstructed reptiles and other monsters in a museum of paleontology. We are much more limber, versatile, bette articulated, there is much more to us, we all feel it.
Bellow peers into the future of humanity, in the shaping of which we are all implicated — perhaps even more so today, when we are tenfold more interconnected and our fates more intertwined, than at the time of his speech:
Mankind [is] determining, in confusion and obscurity, whether it will endure or go under. The whole species — everybody — has gotten into the act. At such a time it is essential to lighten ourselves, to dump encumbrances, including the encumbrances of education and all organized platitudes, to make judgments of our own, to perform acts of our own… We must hunt for that under the wreckage of many systems. The failure of those systems may bring a blessed and necessary release from formulations, from an over-defined and misleading consciousness. With increasing frequency I dismiss as merely respectable opinions I have long held — or thought I held — and try to discern what I have really lived by, and what others live by.
In a sentiment that calls to mind psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s magnificent meditation on the necessary excesses of our inner lives, Bellow adds:
Our very vices, our mutilations, show how rich we are in thought and culture. How much we know. How much we even feel. The struggle that convulses us makes us want to simplify, to reconsider, to eliminate the tragic weakness which prevented writers — and readers — from being at once simple and true.
Writers, Bellow argues, are in a singular positions to cut through the veneer of respectable opinions and remind us the truth of who we are and who we can be:
The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with [writers], continues to read them and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for. At the center humankind struggles with collective powers for its freedom, the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul. If writers do not come again into the center it will not be because the center is pre-empted. It is not. They are free to enter. If they so wish.
Echoing the Dante-esque notion of “a love that moves the sun and the other stars,” Bellow closes with a breathtaking contemplation of our deeper search for meaning undergirding all great art and literature — those fragmentary glimpses of luminous lucidity through which we are reminded, although we soon forget again, of our eternal communion with the universe:
The essence of our real condition, the complexity, the confusion, the pain of it is shown to us in glimpses, in [Proust’s] “true impressions.” This essence reveals and then conceals itself. When it goes away it leaves us again in doubt. But we never seem to lose our connection with the depths from which these glimpses come. The sense of our real powers, powers we seem to derive from the universe itself, also comes and goes. We are reluctant to talk about this because there is nothing we can prove, because our language is inadequate and because few people are willing to risk talking about it. They would have to say, “There is a spirit” and that is taboo. So almost everyone keeps quiet about it, although almost everyone is aware of it.
The value of literature lies in these intermittent “true impressions.” A novel moves us back and forth between the world of objects, of actions, of appearances, and that other world from which these “true impressions” come and which moves us to believe that the good we hang onto so tenaciously — in the face of evil, so obstinately — is no illusion.
Art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential.
Complement with Dani Shapiro on the “animating presence” of secular spirituality and William Faulkner’s elevating Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the role of the writer as a booster of the human heart, then revisit Bellow on our dance with distraction.
Great articles and essays by the world’s best journalists and writers.
This is the eighth in a series of interviews with philosophers on race that I am conducting for The Stone. This week’s conversation is with Noam Chomsky, a linguist, political philosopher and one of the world’s most prominent public intellectuals. He is the author of many books, including, most recently, “On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare,” with Andre Vltchek.
– George Yancy
George Yancy: When I think about the title of your book “On Western Terrorism,” I’m reminded of the fact that many black people in the United States have had a long history of being terrorized by white racism, from random beatings to the lynching of more than 3,000 black people (including women) between 1882 and 1968. This is why in 2003, when I read about the dehumanizing acts committed at Abu Ghraib prison, I wasn’t surprised. I recall that after the photos appeared President George W. Bush said that “This is not the America I know.” But isn’t this the America black people have always known?
Noam Chomsky: The America that “black people have always known” is not an attractive one. The first black slaves were brought to the colonies 400 years ago. We cannot allow ourselves to forget that during this long period there have been only a few decades when African-Americans, apart from a few, had some limited possibilities for entering the mainstream of American society.
We also cannot allow ourselves to forget that the hideous slave labor camps of the new “empire of liberty” were a primary source for the wealth and privilege of American society, as well as England and the continent. The industrial revolution was based on cotton, produced primarily in the slave labor camps of the United States.
As is now known, they were highly efficient. Productivity increased even faster than in industry, thanks to the technology of the bullwhip and pistol, and the efficient practice of brutal torture, as Edward E. Baptist demonstrates in his recent study, “The Half Has Never Been Told.” The achievement includes not only the great wealth of the planter aristocracy but also American and British manufacturing, commerce and the financial institutions of modern state capitalism.
It is, or should be, well-known that the United States developed by flatly rejecting the principles of “sound economics” preached to it by the leading economists of the day, and familiar in today’s sober instructions to latecomers in development. Instead, the newly liberated colonies followed the model of England with radical state intervention in the economy, including high tariffs to protect infant industry, first textiles, later steel and others.
There was also another “virtual tariff.” In 1807, President Jefferson signed a bill banning the importation of slaves from abroad. His state of Virginia was the richest and most powerful of the states, and had exhausted its need for slaves. Rather, it was beginning to produce this valuable commodity for the expanding slave territories of the South. Banning import of these cotton-picking machines was thus a considerable boost to the Virginia economy. That was understood. Speaking for the slave importers, Charles Pinckney charged that “Virginia will gain by stopping the importations. Her slaves will rise in value, and she has more than she wants.” And Virginia indeed became a major exporter of slaves to the expanding slave society.
Some of the slave-owners, like Jefferson, appreciated the moral turpitude on which the economy relied. But he feared the liberation of slaves, who have “ten thousand recollections” of the crimes to which they were subjected. Fears that the victims might rise up and take revenge are deeply rooted in American culture, with reverberations to the present.
The Thirteenth Amendment formally ended slavery, but a decade later “slavery by another name” (also the title of an important study by Douglas A. Blackmon) was introduced. Black life was criminalized by overly harsh codes that targeted black people. Soon an even more valuable form of slavery was available for agribusiness, mining, steel — more valuable because the state, not the capitalist, was responsible for sustaining the enslaved labor force, meaning that blacks were arrested without real cause and prisoners were put to work for these business interests. The system provided a major contribution to the rapid industrial development from the late 19th century.
That system remained pretty much in place until World War II led to a need for free labor for the war industry. Then followed a few decades of rapid and relatively egalitarian growth, with the state playing an even more critical role in economic development than before. A black man might get a decent job in a unionized factory, buy a house, send his children to college, along with other opportunities. The civil rights movement opened other doors, though in limited ways. One illustration was the fate of Martin Luther King’s efforts to confront northern racism and develop a movement of the poor, which was effectively blocked.
The neoliberal reaction that set in from the late ‘70s, escalating under Reagan and his successors, hit the poorest and most oppressed sectors of society even more than the large majority, who have suffered relative stagnation or decline while wealth accumulates in very few hands. Reagan’s drug war, deeply racist in conception and execution, initiated a new Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s apt term for the revived criminalization of black life, evident in the shocking incarceration rates and the devastating impact on black society.
Reality is of course more complex than any simple recapitulation, but this is, unfortunately, a reasonably accurate first approximation to one of the two founding crimes of American society, alongside of the expulsion or extermination of the indigenous nations and destruction of their complex and rich civilizations.
G.Y.: While Jefferson may have understood the moral turpitude upon which slavery was based, in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he says that black people are dull in imagination, inferior in reasoning to whites, and that the male orangutans even prefer black women over their own. These myths, along with the black codes following the civil war, functioned to continue to oppress and police black people. What would you say are the contemporary myths and codes that are enacted to continue to oppress and police black people today?
N.C.: Unfortunately, Jefferson was far from alone. No need to review the shocking racism in otherwise enlightened circles until all too recently. On “contemporary myths and codes,” I would rather defer to the many eloquent voices of those who observe and often experience these bitter residues of a disgraceful past.
Perhaps the most appalling contemporary myth is that none of this happened. The title of Baptist’s book is all too apt, and the aftermath is much too little known and understood.
There is also a common variant of what has sometimes been called “intentional ignorance” of what it is inconvenient to know: “Yes, bad things happened in the past, but let us put all of that behind us and march on to a glorious future, all sharing equally in the rights and opportunities of citizenry.” The appalling statistics of today’s circumstances of African-American life can be confronted by other bitter residues of a shameful past, laments about black cultural inferiority, or worse, forgetting how our wealth and privilege was created in no small part by the centuries of torture and degradation of which we are the beneficiaries and they remain the victims. As for the very partial and hopelessly inadequate compensation that decency would require — that lies somewhere between the memory hole and anathema.
Jefferson, to his credit, at least recognized that the slavery in which he participated was “the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” And the Jefferson Memorial in Washington displays his words that “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Words that should stand in our consciousness alongside of John Quincy Adams’s reflections on the parallel founding crime over centuries, the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty…among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgment.”
What matters is our judgment, too long and too deeply suppressed, and the just reaction to it that is as yet barely contemplated.
G.Y.: This “intentional ignorance” regarding inconvenient truths about the suffering of African- Americans can also be used to frame the genocide of Native Americans. It was 18th century Swedish taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus who argued that Native Americans were governed by traits such as being “prone to anger,” a convenient myth for justifying the need for Native Americans to be “civilized” by whites. So, there are myths here as well. How does North America’s “amnesia” contribute to forms of racism directed uniquely toward Native Americans in our present moment and to their continual genocide?
N.C.: The useful myths began early on, and continue to the present. One of the first myths was formally established right after the King of England granted a Charter to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629, declaring that conversion of the Indians to Christianity is “the principal end of this plantation.” The colonists at once created the Great Seal of the Colony, which depicts an Indian holding a spear pointing downward in a sign of peace, with a scroll coming from his mouth pleading with the colonists to “Come over and help us.” This may have been the first case of “humanitarian intervention” — and, curiously, it turned out like so many others.
Years later Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story mused about “the wisdom of Providence” that caused the natives to disappear like “the withered leaves of autumn” even though the colonists had “constantly respected” them. Needless to say, the colonists who did not choose “intentional ignorance” knew much better, and the most knowledgeable, like Gen. Henry Knox, the first secretary of war of the United States, described “the utter extirpation of all the Indians in most populous parts of the Union [by means] more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru.”
Knox went on to warn that “a future historian may mark the causes of this destruction of the human race in sable colors.” There were a few — very few — who did so, like the heroic Helen Jackson, who in 1880 provided a detailed account of that “sad revelation of broken faith, of violated treaties, and of inhuman acts of violence [that] will bring a flush of shame to the cheeks of those who love their country.” Jackson’s important book barely sold. She was neglected and dismissed in favor of the version presented by Theodore Roosevelt, who explained that “The expansion of the peoples of white, or European, blood during the past four centuries…has been fraught with lasting benefit to most of the peoples already dwelling in the lands over which the expansion took place,” notably those who had been “extirpated” or expelled to destitution and misery.
The national poet, Walt Whitman, captured the general understanding when he wrote that “The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated; it is the law of the races, history… A superior grade of rats come and then all the minor rats are cleared out.” It wasn’t until the 1960s that the scale of the atrocities and their character began to enter even scholarship, and to some extent popular consciousness, though there is a long way to go.
That’s only a bare beginning of the shocking record of the Anglosphere and its settler-colonial version of imperialism, a form of imperialism that leads quite naturally to the “utter extirpation” of the indigenous population — and to “intentional ignorance” on the part of beneficiaries of the crimes.
G.Y.: Your response raises the issue of colonization as a form of occupation. James Baldwin, in his 1966 essay, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” wrote, “Harlem is policed like occupied territory.” This quote made me think of Ferguson, Mo. Some of the protesters in Ferguson even compared what they were seeing to the Gaza Strip. Can you speak to this comparative discourse of occupation?
N.C.: All kinds of comparisons are possible. When I went to the Gaza Strip a few years ago, what came to mind very quickly was the experience of being in jail (for civil disobedience, many times): the feeling, very strange to people who have had privileged lives, that you are totally under the control of some external authority, arbitrary and if it so chooses, cruel. But the differences between the two cases are, of course, vast.
More generally, I’m somewhat skeptical about the value of comparisons of the kind mentioned. There will of course be features common to the many diverse kinds of illegitimate authority, repression and violence. Sometimes they can be illuminating; for example, Michelle Alexander’s analogy of a new Jim Crow, mentioned earlier. Often they may efface crucial distinctions. I don’t frankly see anything general to say of much value. Each comparison has to be evaluated on its own.
G.Y.: These differences are vast and I certainly don’t want to conflate them. Post-911 seems to have ushered in an important space for making some comparisons. Some seem to think that Muslims of Arab descent have replaced African-Americans as the pariah in the United States. What are your views on this?
N.C.: Anti-Arab/Muslim racism has a long history, and there’s been a fair amount of literature about it. Jack Shaheen’s studies of stereotyping in visual media, for example. And there’s no doubt that it’s increased in recent years. To give just one vivid current example, audiences flocked in record-breaking numbers to a film, described in The New York Times Arts section as “a patriotic, pro-family picture,” about a sniper who claims to hold the championship in killing Iraqis during the United States invasion, and proudly describes his targets as “savage, despicable, evil … really no other way to describe what we encountered there.” This was referring specifically to his first kill, a woman holding a grenade when under attack by United States forces.
What’s important is not just the mentality of the sniper, but the reaction to such exploits at home when we invade and destroy a foreign country, hardly distinguishing one “raghead” from another. These attitudes go back to the “merciless Indian savages” of the Declaration of Independence and the savagery and fiendishness of others who have been in the way ever since, particularly when some “racial” element can be invoked — as when Lyndon Johnson lamented that if we let down our guard, we’ll be at the mercy of “every yellow dwarf with a pocket knife.” But within the United States, though there have been deplorable incidents, anti-Arab/Muslim racism among the public has been fairly restrained, I think.
G.Y.: Lastly, the reality of racism (whether it’s anti-black, anti-Arab, anti-Jewish, etc.) is toxic. While there is no single solution to racism, especially in terms of its various manifestations, what do you see as some of the necessary requirements for ending racist hatred?
N.C.: It’s easy to rattle off the usual answers: education, exploring and addressing the sources of the malady, joining together in common enterprises — labor struggles have been an important case — and so on. The answers are right, and have achieved a lot. Racism is far from eradicated, but it is not what it was not very long ago, thanks to such efforts. It’s a long, hard road. No magic wand, as far as I know.
This interview was conducted by email and edited. Previous interviews in this series (with Linda Martin Alcoff, Judith Butler, Joy James, Charles Mills, Falguni A. Sheth, Shannon Sullivan and Naomi Zack) can be found here.
George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Duquesne University. He has written, edited and co-edited numerous books, including “Black Bodies, White Gazes,” “Look, a White!” and “Pursuing Trayvon Martin,” co-edited with Janine Jones.
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