“A love supreme, supreme…”
– John Coltrane
“(Brian DePalma’s) Hi Mom (1970) was the kind of film that could only be made outside the system. Since then, no mainstream movie has said more about race or media.”
– Armond White, The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World
“Responsible citizenship in a diverse democracy is not principally about noticing what’s bad; it’s about constructing what’s good. You need to defeat the things you do not love (i.e, racism) by building the things you do.”
– Eboo Patel, Opinion, NY Times, 5/14/22
Among NY Times op-ed pieces I occasionally find essays by writers with religious affiliation bringing something like a “peace-and-love-based” perspective into the secular domain dominated by the “real world” of liberal politics and faith in science. Perhaps I’m fascinated by writers who get to offer their religious perspective on such an influential platform (however discreetly), and by how, in keeping with the mainstream, they will tame profound religious truth. I was pleased coming across Eboo Patel’s essay addressing American racism for, although he’s fully an anti-racist activist, the point he makes is to counter the negativity that fuels much anti-racist activism and that – though he does not explicitly say so – keeps that activism from serving the larger goal of peace and unity that is nemesis to market-based reality.
In his essay, Mr. Patel harkens back to his personal awakening to America’s systemic racism in college. With consciousness raised, he saw his father’s purchase of a Subway sandwich franchise – instead of starting his own shop – as a justified response to “the wound…of American racism, ” since, as his father knew, white people are not “going to buy sandwiches from a brown guy from India named Sadruddin.” Some 29 years later the writer now sees the other side of his father’s franchise choice: though an acknowledgment of racism, it had allowed his father to achieve the financial basis that among other things, got his children their college educations. The writer, whose children in turn face not only racism, but also anti-Muslim attitudes, concludes, ”I want [my children] to derive their identity from loving Islam, not hating Islamophobia.”
I overwhelmingly agree with him. But perhaps because I’m not a vulnerable brown, Muslim person, but white, middle class, liberal-raised, I fear I must say, “Yes…but.” On behalf of liberal brethren who may read in the father’s story a blessing of the bourgeois melting pot, I must hold out for a little more “noticing what’s bad.” For isn’t the danger in disguising one’s brownness and strange name in the corporate blandness of the Subway franchise, suburban schools, etc., how brown immigrants become white, leaving racism fairly well intact? By no means do I critique the choices made by people who must navigate their lives in the capitalist, racist, Islamophobic context. But now, with fascism on the rise, don’t we have to submit the pragmatic choices we make to live according to what we can afford, to a higher standard? The targets of racist hate can hardly be faulted, but how do we deal with the fact that achieving affluence and “whiteness” will not change the pre-conditions for racism, the petri dish for intolerance, that are structural and systemic in America?
I admit I have a strange way of showing my agreement with Mr. Patel! However, like him, I see too well the dangers in devoting oneself to “seeing the bad in everything,” the weak foundation negativity makes. I too believe we must build what we love which surely is the just and peaceful society in which each one stands for the good of all. But like other writers of conscience and faith who make it to the pages of the Times, Mr. Patel stops short of mentioning the unmentionable. His vision of an interdependent society in which otherness is respected depends upon a moral absolute ( Allah!) that doesn’t exist in a society where Caesar’s power is served, where profits are valued over people. To “build what we love” must we not reject the system we cannot love rather than make ourselves fit in it? Must we not be counter to the ruling ethos predicated in the discardability of human beings? Any one of us can come up with mountains of evidence that our liberal leadership, our Democratic Party faithful do not serve the absolute good of love, peace and unity! But more importantly, neither do we when we hate racism, but do not love love! And that is how liberal America cedes the social ground to hate.
The Times and other mainstream media can be counted on to report event after event that speaks hate, but nothing that speaks too precisely of love. The perspective of “Love Supreme,” inseparable from religious purpose, in a carefully secular society is effectively incapacitated, marginalized, useful for comforting the downtrodden and the already comfortable alike, but never interfering in business as usual. This condition of imaginative/religious/poetic impoverishment allows fascism to flourish, for the archenemy of fascism is not anti-fascism but love. Even if we’re poor at it, even if we have learned so many good reasons to modify, concede, qualify, do the best we can in the given circumstances, the goal of love will always be the society of peace, of the good for all, of interdependence and unity.
So bamboozled are we in liberal society, that we do not see its unspoken rule: The person whose faith is in the “God of love,” who walks that talk must avoid the marginalization that goes with “preaching.” In other words, to fit into the reassuringly Democratic liberal pages of the Times, he (or she) must erase his/her truth, similarly to the way Mr. Patel’s father must hide his brownness and strange name behind the bland, white, corporate franchise.
Neither of these “erasures,” though both allow white society/supremacy to remain comfortable, will further the cause of “otherness” in America. However, it is not up to the brown man and woman to change this! We only can change ourselves, not anybody else. The true safety that can allow “otherness,” the indivisible truth of peace, will not happen until the individuals that make up liberal white America become our own authentic “othernesses.” Identifying with one’s otherness is exceedingly uncomfortable because of the vulnerability that goes with it, but its compensations are immense: becoming one’s “otherness” is simply the creative life; it leads to individuality and inward freedom, to the joy we mainly have learned to live without in our “quietly desperate” lives.
A fascinating segment in Brian DePalma’s early film, Hi Mom (1970), which Orin and I watched recently, focuses intensely on race. The protagonist Jon Rubin (Robert DeNiro), a would-be young film maker and Vietnam vet, having been fired by one (porn) producer, joins an experimental black theater troupe producing a play called “Be Black Baby.” In the actual performance, the white audience members are first forced to eat soul food, then have their faces blacked while the black actors put on white face. The play becomes increasingly terrifying as the black-faced whites are taken further into the experience of”being black,” which is essentially to be subjected to a heightening brutality, that ends in one black-faced white woman being raped by two white-faced black men. DeNiro/Rubin, in the part of the policeman called to the scene, enters ostensibly to help the terrified white people in black face, but ends up brutalizing them with his night stick.
I had never seen anything like this in film! Here were white people being forced to experience the “otherness” of the oppressed – the complete powerlessness against monstrous brutality. Being a black comedy, the terrified white people end up afterward gushing over their experience for a PBS interview. But here I wish to add: The otherness the white participants experienced is the black man or woman’s, not their own. Their own otherness, the other that exists independently – godlike – in the creative soul – would not have tolerated their making fools of themselves for their “15 seconds” of fame! In the white person identifying with her “otherness,” its darkness no longer is projected on the darker brother and sister but has to be continuously integrated in the white soul; it necessitates attunement on a different and creative basis, an ongoing process of meaning-making, the transformation of inner reality, including painful, dark reality residing in the Unconscious, by means of art.
The world in which love has been incapacitated is a world without meaning. Given the current danger facing humanity and all life on earth, we need to understand that meaninglessness is not simply a philosophical plight “in our heads,” nor is it inevitable, but has to be defied. The task of making meaning is as much a reinvigoration of love as are acts of charity and, like charity, it begins at home! A fair statement of the task facing each of us was brought to us on May 13, when the Brooklyn-based jazz trio Ember performed at The Other Side in Utica. Ember’s final selection, composed by drummer Vinnie Sperrazza (other members are Caleb Curtis, sax and Noah Garabedian, bass), he called something like Making Meaning When There’s No Meaning.
That night, listening to the young artists, held in the spell of improvisational grace expressed right before us in the room, my belief was affirmed. Meaning-making is a creative act; without it moral lives continue full of inconsistencies, actions uninformed by ideals – we talk but do not walk our talk. And here I tread carefully, my object being to condemn no one but to illustrate the extreme difficulty of walking the talk – changing what we can change – within the liberal/market results-oriented reality we cannot change.
For an example, I know not a single liberal who isn’t pro-diversity. Bur how meaningful is it to talk about diversity when we live in all-white communities, as most of us do? The arrangement “works” for white people only because our morals are relative; there is no necessary connection between the moral good imagined and actual behavior, or between the evil I see in the world and my behavior. All-white communities in one place mean ghettoized communities in others. They may be a mix of colors, as in Utica where many refugees have made our schools into “rainbows” but the “mix” will be conspicuously uniform, the reverse of the suburban white school. So, what do liberals mean when they talk about diversity?
Worth noting: The black community in Buffalo that was the scene of the May 14 racist shooting is, so we’re being told in post-BLM media’s determination to present black reality in a positive light, a “real” community; in fact, what’s being revealed is a vanguard of cooperative neighborly living from which, were we willing, we could learn so much! What they have learned without diversity is what we must learn with it!
Possibly influenced by 3 years in seminary, where I was fortunate to meet a few Christian renegades who walked the talk, when a moment came 30-plus years ago to decide where we would live, Orin and I chose the city of Utica precisely for its diversity. Although critical of compulsory schooling, we weren’t yet homeschoolers; among public schools, it made sense to us that our children have the social benefit of an urban school.
Mind you, I say this without a speck, not a drop, of superiority! In the sense that heroism is path not deed, I’m an indefensibly cowardly hero. Walking this talk has been isolating, a constant soul-wrestling with feelings of being wrong! I think our kids affirm the decision we made – along with starting our quixotic coffeeshop business it may have influenced their choices to stay here in Utica – but I don’t know that for sure. This spring, some 20 years since our youngest child graduated from high school, there are signs in Utica that others are hearing this call to live against the grain, in diversity, which is to say, to make diversity a reality, to make meaning. School Board elections this month engendered a conversation in the community that possibly signals a change. At the end of a video promoting the 3 “change” candidates, one of them black, the two young women film makers discussed their own decisions to keep their children in Utica, in public schools. They sounded like me and I cried!
If we continue to fail to work out social meaning for ourselves, to break out from the script in a jazz-improvisational kind of way, we can but passively accept the one that’s been given to us, which with all of its benefits for some, is also the given of white supremacy, endless war, inequality, destruction of the biosphere, etc. The heroism of “breaking out” into meaning, is local, unmediated and unsung. Because, art-like, this heroism defies the conditions of market-based society, it’s a path through a forest where one is assailed by lions of horrendous doubt; it cannot be navigated without both the connection to creative “otherness” on the “inside” and the community of talk-walking comrades on the outside; even one comrade can be a start. Most difficult of all, it cannot seek results, but learn to wait for the gift to come back full circle.
Friday night, at the end of the jazz performance, Vinnie called Orin and me out, thanking us for The Other Side, our little arts space. In the vocabulary of jazz “cats,” he called us and what we do “hip.” I admit, he made us feel seen, and I, a tiny bit pleased to be included in that “from-the-bottom” accolade deserved far more by Orin than I. Maybe, I hypothesize, hipness is just a matter of walking the talk, making what you do align with love for the creative spirit and the practice of creativity. You don’t have to call it God; call it poetry, but constructing what feels good to your inmost other is the first step in changing what can be changed, escaping the noose of negativity.