James Baldwin, Loyal Opposition, & the Word Made Flesh

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Lord of my word, inventor of all words,/ Supreme Creator of the Word, Oh God/ Who made our words to be as free as birds,/ To sing, and wing and ring when angels nod!

–Claude McKay, The Word

I am deeply convinced of the fact that…everyone is responsible, collectively, for social affairs. Once one assumes this standpoint of social responsibility, there can be no doubt that metanoetics is indispensable for each person at each moment…metanoetics, like morality, can provide the way to a universal philosophy.

–Tanabe Hajime, Philosophy as Metanoetics

As a writer, I’m very much stuck on the words of James Baldwin that tell us “alas, to be an American writer today means mounting an unending attack on all that Americans believe themselves to hold sacred. It means fighting a… guerrilla warfare with that American complacency which so inadequately masks the American panic.”

Ordinarily, liberals, especially conscientious ones, don’t think of ourselves as complacent! But if you think, for instance, about those people who rioted at the Capitol last January; compared to them we are complacent. And those people were more or less just the “goons.” They’re useful to the architects of a theocracy that isn’t about inclusivity and the common good for all people but about dividing the saved from the unsaved, the righteous from the wicked, the good Americans who’d make America Great again from those who’d let it be overrun by poor desperate immigrants. Beyond that, it’s about saving the “parasitical” system that benefits themselves. And they’re not complacent! If you look at the Supreme Court lineup, compared to all their ceaseless efforts to change that body toward the conservative theocratic end, we are complacent. Even if you look at the people who adamantly won’t wear masks or get vaccinations (not that I agree with them), we are complacent.

Where, for us, is the spirit of resistance that would motivate us, in the name of the good-for-all – not excepting all those Pope Francis calls ‘the invisibles’ -the incarcerated, the homeless, the addicted, the impoverished – to the very halls of Congress to willfully demand that the elected legislators obey the will of the people, not the war profiteers and kleptocrats now running Congress. This “coup d’etat” will not stop itself even when its direction is toward the destruction of life on the planet. But, I must ask because it isn’t clear to me, is it the will of the people that legislators should serve the common good and not the self-interest of the monied class? Where are our wills now?

Mind you, I’m not saying this to make us feel like the bad guys, and I am completely not interested in arousing liberal guilt! But it’s important to ask: if not going to Washington to disturb legislators and the President, if not open resistance to the government that does not serve the people, against or for what would we set our wills? I think that it’s now possible to see that on the liberal end we cannot set our wills on the side of the good for all. We vote for lesser evils, and we get evil. Even if there are good reasons for voting for the “electable” candidate, that’s still voting our fear, not our vision.

That is, liberalism, as quite simply ultimate faith in reason has gone as far as it can take us; the darkness coming from the irrational unconscious side of our determined rationality now threatens to swallow up life on the planet. Even our liberal spirituality, being spiritual and not religious, cannot challenge the ultimacy of reason. But to where can liberals, we who mistrust religious authority, turn for ultimate authority when our knowledge can go only as far as where reason takes us? Beyond reason we just cannot see! And reason cannot make real the demands of our hearts. It makes no appeal to our imaginations that are starved for beauty and vision. Reason alone cannot direct our wills toward our higher duty or obligation. In sum, we cannot alter ourselves or our way of life unless we consciously serve a Higher Authority than Reason – as our rightwing counterparts do (but not as they do!). That is, the choice we have is not between Reason and QAnon conspiracies, anti-mask, and stolen election theories; it’s between wall-building divisiveness and the rule of Absolute Love.

We can’t get beyond reason until we let go of reason. Trusting in religious authority, or God, is an obstacle for liberals only because we cannot find the way out of reason’s cul-de-sac. From reason’s point of view, belief in God is what the atheists say it is, pie-in-the-sky, useless except for creating divisions and causing wars. What about what liberals say God is? The only way by which we can find out, by which we can know legitimately the authority of God-is-love is individually. I call it the “bottom-up” way, the transformative way; Professor Hajime calls it metanoetics (zange).

The trick is, to let go of reason and still retain reason. That is, we want to be actors and agents in this social world, and for that we need our reason. So that, to find the absolute authority our reason can gladly serve, one must run oneself right into reason’s limit. For this we need the “unresolvables,” those problems that cause us moral pain. Most often we wish they’d just go away so we can get back to “normal.” Because reason has taught us that all problems can be solved, we have no tolerance for them or for learning their lessons of transformation. I hope to make clear we can thank heaven for those problems, especially the ones that have no solution. In fact, we should lose the belief right now – today! – that all problems have solutions and instead learn to live in relation to solutionless problems, the ones that defeat us as in Rilke’s poem: (“this is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.”)

Evidence for my case: Remember we conveniently believed racism was “solved,” or at least vastly improved after the 60’s civil rights movements? Remember we thought feminism had improved the lot of women, but conveniently, we weren’t looking at poor women and immigrant women and women of color, nor were we really thinking about how families could still provide their irreplaceable function of bringing up our children to feel safe in a world that isn’t safe – a task needing intact extended families and communities, for which daycare cannot substitute? The problems we face today are very advanced, many-fronted, and apocalyptically frightening. The world feels anti-human on so many levels. And this horror, if you will, can be traced to this very faith, that problems are ultimately solvable and so we don’t need to treat them as real. (Orin points out a tech company ad to me: “Using Artificial Intelligence to solve the previously unsolvable problems.” )

Legitimate Hope Belongs To the Underclass

I’m convinced because we of the liberal class in a sense are the chief beneficiaries of this faith in Progress, that we have an outstanding obligation to “un-deploy” the facile belief that things will work out. They won’t. We are not in charge! If there is a way out of the bind we are in, and that’s a big if, and I’m not the first to say this, we’ll – each of us one by one – have to give up our cherished, delusional and naïve hope based in our own pie-in-the-sky faith in progress.

How can this be done? Picture the alcoholic who confesses her addiction, and in so doing is met by that spiritual “other” AA calls the Higher Power. Like Hajime’s “Other Power,” it transforms. It turns people around, gives them a new kind of hope, one that requires constant replenishment (“it works if you work it”). The catch is, the new kind of hope comes only to those who repent. And people only repent who are in some fashion brought to their knees, without hope. In this way, this new hope is restricted to an “underclass,” to be a member of which one must be without hope.

Recently Orin and I watched a movie called Skins (2004). The protagonist, a native policeman on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation named Rudy Yellow Lodge (Eric Schweig) has been doing self-styled vigilante work on behalf of his severely impoverished people. He burns down a liquor store in an off-reservation town that makes grotesque profits from the immiseration of alcoholic Indians. Near the end of the movie he learns that the liquor store owner got a massive insurance payment and is opening a bigger, better store with a drive-through window. The real underclass, often people of color, colonized people, native people, homeless people and addicts, lives always with the opposite expectation of ours, that things will not get better, the catastrophe already is in, and could get worse. Their hopelessness is not a pretty picture. But it is the basis for honest hope, not our naïve delusional kind.

For it must be clear – the “pie-in-the-sky” belief that things will work out, our problems are solvable causes unintended (but great) harm to the earth and other living creatures. The low expectation of the underclass does not do that. Moreover, their low expectation allows them to find necessity in both community and in God-As-Love which for us have become optional. I point this out because grim as repentance may sound, though it reduces yourself to the hopelessness of the underclass, it is also the means to reconnecting with the creative soul that insists on imagination, that “requires of us our song,” as the (biblical) words of the reggae song puts it. And it causes those who serve it to be passionately, unreasonably opposed to illegitimate, divisive and self-serving (evil) authority. (Not wishing to reveal Skins‘ ending, I can simply say this opposition is exemplified in Rudy’s defiant gesture.)

Genuine repentance is a transformative process that bumps reason off its throne and replaces it with the unifying, “all-is-one” reality that requires each of us serve it humbly with our song, our voice: i.e., to be poet, artist, desire-devotee, prophet, madman or “as if mad.” Without connection to Spirit, all the green initiatives, all the inclusion of black and Asian people in our media, the frantic attempts to change the numbers instead of ourselves, will change nothing. (Even I, here, am attempting to persuade you reasonably, because that is the language we have in common. Serious people – other than the indigenous – do not speak in poetry!)

The Word made Flesh or Art As Dissent

When Baldwin spoke of the task of the American writer being to “attack” American complacency, he was making a rueful truth claim about art, not just a personal statement about his art. This is not the way we think about it, but what if the voice of authentic self-expression, the creative voice, is dissent? In America, dissent has a noble tradition, Patrick Henry and all the rest. Intellectually we might agree dissent is necessary for the health of the community, but at the same time it is always the unwanted guest at the dinner party. It’s the voice of the unresolvables that is neglected in a complacent reality. The negating voice if you will, the Greeks called it Nemesis, the messenger with the unwanted information that will turn problem into crisis.

Meaning, dissent isn’t a job anybody wants! Even when a dissenting voice becomes powerful and influential, like James Baldwin’s in the 60’s and 70’s we can be sure Baldwin carried a burden of loneliness that would be intolerable for most of us. But he knew there had to be a crisis if complacent white Americans were to realize we were the problem, that his task was not to smooth things over but to keep applying the tonic of truth to the American conscience. Abolitionist John Brown knew there had to be a crisis if slavery was ever to be abolished and was hung for it. Claude McKay, Harlem Renaissance poet, was also a member of the most persecuted labor organization in U.S. history, the IWW; their dangerous slogan: One Big Union.

At the same time, we love the voices of these dissenters through whom the Word is made flesh. In the words of Baldwin, Claude McKay, John Brown, MLK, Jr., Pope Francis, Jesus, etc., we hear their absolute insistence on standing up for “the invisibles,” we know intuitively they speak for the no-exceptions-inclusivity of love over all other rules and realities that must, miraculously, even include ourselves! This is why we love their words. Their words allow us to imagine the reality of love, the real truth of interdependence that has to be real for each person if we are to escape the trap of “problem solved.” They make it bearable to know the things Americans believe to be sacred are not.

It is from this understanding that our “poem,” our Cafe, exists in Utica. It is for this that I write; for me, because of its somewhat maverick quality my writing is an act both of standing up for the invisible of my creative soul – which is my individual voice – and of dissent against the America that has allowed America to be soulless, from which I am not separate. Every act of writing strengthens for me the sense that I, incomplete and imperfect as I am, am not wrong for the opposition I feel to the things Americans believe to be sacred; these things are not sacred, the creative soul is sacred.

If we people on the liberal left have a prayer of responding to the rise of hate on the extreme Christian (Fascist) Right, religion has to be taken back from them. We each have to find our personal form of active mediation with Absolute Love, our form of prayer, each one finding his/her way to make room for the “Other Power” that exists in the dissenting voice in our own souls. Each person’s creative soul is her own underclass that needs her to make its Word – the truth of inclusivity and interdependence – flesh.



Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.