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Archive for February 4th, 2017

‘I Am Not Your Negro’.  Might Make You Rethink Race

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James Baldwin in 1965. Raoul Peck’s documentary about him, “I Am Not Your Negro,” is an introduction to his work and an advanced seminar in racial politics. Credit Sedat Pakay

A few weeks ago, in reaction to something we had written about blackness and whiteness in recent movies, my colleague Manohla Dargis and I received a note from a reader. “Since when is everything about race?” he wanted to know. Perhaps it was a rhetorical question.

A flippant — though by no means inaccurate — answer would have been 1619.

But a more constructive response might have been to recommend Raoul Peck’s life-altering new documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro.” Let me do so now, for that reader (if he’s still interested) and for everybody else, too.

Whatever you think about the past and future of what used to be called “race relations” — white supremacy and the resistance to it, in plainer English — this movie will make you think again, and may even change your mind. Though its principal figure, the novelist, playwright and essayist James Baldwin, is a man who has been dead for nearly 30 years, you would be hard-pressed to find a movie that speaks to the present moment with greater clarity and force, insisting on uncomfortable truths and drawing stark lessons from the shadows of history.

To call “I Am Not Your Negro” a movie about James Baldwin would be to understate Mr. Peck’s achievement. It’s more of a posthumous collaboration, an uncanny and thrilling communion between the filmmaker — whose previous work includes both a documentary and a narrative feature about the Congolese anti-colonialist leader Patrice Lumumba — and his subject.

The voice-over narration (read by Samuel L. Jackson) is entirely drawn from Baldwin’s work. Much of it comes from notes and letters written in the mid-1970s, when Baldwin was somewhat reluctantly sketching out a book, never to be completed, about the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Reflections on those men (all of whom Baldwin knew well) and their legacies are interspersed with passages from other books and essays, notably “The Devil Finds Work,” Baldwin’s 1976 meditation on race, Hollywood and the mythology of white innocence.

His published and unpublished words — some of the most powerful and penetrating ever assembled on the tortured subject of American identity — accompany images from old talk shows and news reports, from classic movies and from our own decidedly non-post-racial present.

Baldwin could not have known about Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, about the presidency of Barack Obama and the recrudescence of white nationalism in its wake, but in a sense he explained it all in advance.

He understood the deep, contradictory patterns of our history, and articulated, with a passion and clarity that few others have matched, the psychological dimensions of racial conflict: the suppression of black humanity under slavery and Jim Crow and the insistence on it in African-American politics and art; the dialectic of guilt and rage, forgiveness and denial that distorts relations between black and white citizens in the North as well as the South; the lengths that white people will go to wash themselves clean of their complicity in oppression.

A former child preacher, he remained a natural, if somewhat reluctant, performer — a master of the heavy sigh, the raised eyebrow and the rhetorical flourish.

At one point, on “The Dick Cavett Show,” Baldwin tangles with Paul Weiss, a Yale philosophy professor who scolds him for dwelling so much on racial issues. The initial spectacle of mediocrity condescending to genius is painful, but the subsequent triumph of self-taught brilliance over credentialed ignorance is thrilling to witness.

In that exchange, as in a speech for an audience of British university students, you are aware of Baldwin’s profound weariness.

He must explain himself — and also his country — again and again, with what must have been sorely tested patience. When the students erupt in a standing ovation at the end of his remarks, Baldwin looks surprised, even flustered.

You glimpse an aspect of his personality that was often evident in his writing: the vulnerable, bright, ambitious man thrust into a public role that was not always comfortable.

“I want to be an honest man and a good writer,” he wrote early in his career, in the introductory note to his first collection of essays, “Notes of a Native Son.

The disarming, intimate candor of that statement characterized much of what would follow, as would a reckoning with the difficulties of living up to such apparently straightforward aspirations.

Without sliding into confessional bathos, his voice was always personal and frank, creating in the reader a feeling of complicity, of shared knowledge and knowing humor.

“I Am Not Your Negro” reproduces and redoubles this effect. It doesn’t just make you aware of Baldwin, or hold him up as a figure to be admired from a distance. You feel entirely in his presence, hanging on his every word, following the implications of his ideas as they travel from his experience to yours.

At the end of the movie, you are convinced that you know him. And, more important, that he knows you. To read Baldwin is to be read by him, to feel the glow of his affection, the sting of his scorn, the weight of his disappointment, the gift of his trust.

Recounting his visits to the South, where he reported on the civil rights movement and the murderous white response to it, Baldwin modestly described himself as a witness, a watchful presence on the sidelines of tragedy and heroism, an outsider by virtue of his Northern origins, his sexuality and his alienation from the Christianity of his childhood.

But he was also a prophet, able to see the truths revealed by the contingent, complicated actions of ordinary people on both sides of the conflict. This is not to say that he transcended the struggle or detached himself from it.

On the contrary, he demonstrated that writing well and thinking clearly are manifestations of commitment, and that irony, skepticism and a ruthless critical spirit are necessary tools for effective moral and political action.

“I Am Not Your Negro” is a thrilling introduction to his work, a remedial course in American history, and an advanced seminar in racial politics — a concise, roughly 90-minute movie with the scope and impact of a 10-hour mini-series or a literary doorstop.

It is not an easy or a consoling movie, but it is the opposite of bitter or despairing. “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive,” Baldwin said. “I’m forced to be an optimist.”

Donald Trump: The Menace. By Paul Krugman

For the past couple of months, thoughtful people have been quietly worrying that the Trump administration might get us into a foreign policy crisis, maybe even a war.

Partly this worry reflected Donald Trump’s addiction to bombast and swagger, which plays fine in Breitbart and on Fox News but doesn’t go down well with foreign governments.

But it also reflected a cold view of the incentives the new administration would face: as working-class voters began to realize that candidate Trump’s promises about jobs and health care were insincere, foreign distractions would look increasingly attractive.

FEB. 3, 2017

The most likely flash point seemed to be China, the subject of much Trumpist tough talk, where disputes over islands in the South China Sea could easily turn into shooting incidents.

But the war with China will, it seems, have to wait.

First comes Australia. And Mexico. And Iran. And the European Union. But never Russia (That’s the only good wait)

And while there may be an element of cynical calculation in some of the administration’s crisismongering, this is looking less and less like a political strategy and more and more like a psychological syndrome.

But this is the age of Trump: In a call with Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, the U.S. president boasted about his election victory and complained about an existing agreement to take some of the refugees Australia has been holding, accusing Mr. Turnbull of sending us the “next Boston bombers.” Then he abruptly ended the conversation after only 25 minutes.

Well, at least Mr. Trump didn’t threaten to invade Australia. In his conversation with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, however, he did just that.

According to The Associated Press, he told our neighbor’s democratically elected leader: “You have a bunch of bad hombres down there. You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.”

White House sources are now claiming that this threat — remember, the U.S. has in fact invaded Mexico in the past, and the Mexicans have not forgotten — was a lighthearted joke. If you believe that, I have a Mexico-paid-for border wall to sell you.

The blowups with Mexico and Australia have overshadowed a more conventional war of words with Iran, which tested a missile on Sunday. This was definitely a provocation.

But the White House warning that it was “putting Iran on notice” raises the question, notice of what?

Given the way the administration has been alienating our allies, tighter sanctions aren’t going to happen. Are we ready for a war?

There was also a curious contrast between the response to Iran and the response to another, more serious provocation: Russia’s escalation of its proxy war in Ukraine.

Senator John McCain called on the president to help Ukraine. Strangely, however, the White House has said nothing at all about Russia’s actions. This is getting a bit obvious, isn’t it?

Oh, and one more thing: Peter Navarro, head of Mr. Trump’s new National Trade Council, accused Germany of exploiting the United States with an undervalued currency.

There’s an interesting economics discussion to be had here, but government officials aren’t supposed to make that sort of accusation unless they’re prepared to fight a trade war. Are they?

I doubt it. In fact, this administration doesn’t seem prepared on any front.

Mr. Trump’s confrontational phone calls, in particular, don’t sound like the working out of an economic or even political strategy — cunning schemers don’t waste time boasting about their election victories and whining about media reports on crowd sizes.

America and the world can’t take much more of this.

Think about it: If you had an employee behaving this way, you’d immediately remove him from any position of responsibility and strongly suggest that he seek counseling. And this guy is commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military.

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adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

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