Hesitation Blues or ‘Slow Down, Casey Jones’

Casey Jones

Casey Jones. By J. E. France (from the collection of Bruce Gurner, maintained by the Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum). [Public domain]

“Can I let you know? Why must I hesitate?” –Reverend Gary Davis

Though I like the resolution passed by the House of Representatives condemning Trump’s tweets, maybe there’s something to be said for hesitating, for delaying a bit. The Democrats, though they did the right thing, walked right into Trump’s trap.

For me, Donald Trump, George Orwell, what we teach, Richard Rorty and a book of mine published six years ago have been simmering together some days and I’ve been forced to take my time before publicly reacting. These things have been simmering since I left home for a short vacation at Lake Placid without my computer. That was Sunday, when Trump cut with a rusty saw, one I remember from the sixties, rasping ‘Go back where you came from.’ I was still away when he trotted out that worse-than-dead metaphor, the one about his not having racist bones. Now that I’m back home, I am thinking the wait was advantageous. And am wishing the Democrats had hesitated a bit, too.

“Love it or leave it,” the phrase we protesters of the Vietnam War heard, incensed me back then; I loved this country—still do. I just didn’t love what our leaders were doing—still don’t. They did not embody America, and don’t today. No matter what he or his followers think, Trump is not America.

Do we convince anyone of that by pointing out what everyone not themselves rabid racists already knows?

In the sixties, the two Americas (see The Cult of Individualism), the Calvinist America and the Enlightenment America, came to a head (once again) and adherents of the liberal Enlightenment tradition thought they had won. They had not, as we are now learning, our fingers pressed down, as Tom Wingfield might say, on a fiery Braille alphabet of what we so easily call resurgent racism. Calvinist America had its great defeat in 1964; the children of the liberal Enlightenment are fleeing in terror right now. Trump’s words regarding the Squad, in this context, are no more than a simple ‘we win and you lose.’ Or, ‘The field is ours, so go away.’ His words have, when we step back a bit, no real meaning at all. Trump is surely racist, but that’s not what his tweets were about or what generated them. So, we may be fools when we jump right in, battling racism when he is off ensuring he wins the 2020 election.

The best thing we can be doing is working to defeat Trump, not arguing about how horrible he is. Or isn’t.

Understanding that, Trump loves the reduction of what he says to race. That only cements his past victory and makes his next one likely, for the focus on race tacitly enfolds all whites into his new ‘club’ and makes the opposition a group of divided nationalities with no real allegiance to this country and no real staying power. All of this is dishonest, of course but… how much, in light of all of this, can the Squad ever trust even whites like, ahem, Nancy Pelosi—even when they express outrage? Trump believes he has split the Democrats for good. And laughs.

He is playing politics with lies, meanings and the English language.

Which brings us to Orwell. And not just 1984 or even Animal Farm, though both are relevant to the current American discussion.

In June, I had my summer-school students read and dissect Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”; we talked a great deal about dead and dying metaphors, but we did not (because Orwell does not) talk about zombie metaphors, about ones that rise from the grave with a meaning opposite from what the user intends. Two zombie phrases of the past week (only the second is a metaphor) that never died a proper death are “Some of my best friends are black”—or Chinese, or whatever—and “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” Both have opened their soulless eyes. And we have let them.

The former has been used to argue that Trump can’t be racist. Not only has he made Elaine Chao his Secretary of Transportation, but he has dated a black woman. Oh, and by the way, his son-in-law is Jewish. How could he hate anyone because of ethnicity?

The zombie nature of these two phrases isn’t just that they were killed but didn’t die. It’s that they come back emphasizing just the opposite of what was originally (though rather hypocritically or self-servingly) meant. Now, like creatures with dirt from the grave and pieces of skin dripping from them along with bits of rotting clothing, they aren’t at all logical, but are the opposite of what they once seemed. That is, rather than arguments that the declarer isn’t racist, they are sure signs of racism. ‘Racist bones’ should have stayed in the tomb.

Trump likes zombie metaphors like these and uses them with impunity, for he knows that zombies attract attention while the real issues slip by, ignored.

Now, back to John Calvin and the Enlightenment. In the introduction to The Cult of Individualism, I wrote:

Philosopher Richard Rorty once lashed out against one of the myths engendered by the Enlightenment: “The idea that liberal societies are bound together by philosophical beliefs seems to me ludicrous. What binds societies together are common vocabularies and common hopes.” He is right, of course. It is not ideas—or even a lack of them—that gird cultures but common aspirations and the ability to share them. But language, which allows those common vocabularies, can also mask deep cultural divides, the scars of generations of conflict. That has happened in America.

If I were to read that fresh today, I would groan at the simplification I had fallen victim to. But I wrote it in 2012, before the uneasy truces between the two Americas I defined began to unravel and even twist out of control. Thing is, our common vocabularies and common hopes now really do most always mask divergent meanings—and each side sees the meanings of the other, to complicate things further, as the real zombies. Trump’s comments can’t be racist, his supporters insist, for they reflect their own beliefs—and they are not racists.

So they sincerely believe, all evidence to the contrary.

See what I mean?

When I wrote the book, I really did think that language and goals in common could bring people together, diverse beliefs and masked meanings and long-term differences notwithstanding. Not that my book is wrong (the interpretations of history still stand, I think), but I was far too rosy in my outlook. I jumped too quickly to what I wanted to believe.

For the past few years, and partly as a result, I have been trying to teach my students to hesitate. Americans jump too quickly into belief today, no matter what tradition they come from. At Lake Placid, I had a loud discourse at an outdoor restaurant with a man a decade my senior. Our wives kept the peace, but neither of us gave an inch. He told me all college professors are Communists. I asked when he last visited a campus. He told me all about Puerto Rican attitudes toward the federal government and I asked if he had ever been there. He admitted, finally, that he gets most of his news from YouTube. It was then that my wife, quite rightly, shut me up and asked his wife for restaurant recommendations.

After a few minutes, he came over to our table and we shook hands. We had hesitated, though not because we had wanted to, and had been pulled back because of the power of our small communities and recognition, on slowing down, that there was nothing to be won in continuing as we had been. Fortunately for us, we both had something that Trump lacks—a reason to slow down (annoyed spouses, in this case). And neither of us needed, as Trump does, to be constantly victorious.

However, though we share a city (we are both New Yorkers), a language, an ethnicity, and even goals (we also talked a little of what we want from our lives), we had no common philosophy or vision of the world. We exemplified the divide I write about in the book. We walked away without rancor only because something stronger that our politics interceded. Something made us hesitate, and we are both the better for it.

If we want to win in today’s politics, we could learn from that.

When I am teaching, I ask my students to do more than ‘research’ a subject, for ‘research’ has begun to mean ‘look it up on the internet in order to find a book or article that seems to support what you already believe.’ I ask them to slow down, to hesitate. To run their ideas by someone else–a classmate, a friend, a partner.

Don’t be Casey Jones trying to stop the southbound #1 from colliding with a stopped freight, I tell them. No matter how heroic it may seem that he died saving the passengers, if he had hesitated earlier, had come around the curve at a slower pace, there would have been no need for his sacrifice.  And a dead hero is still dead.

We all, not just the students I implore to take time before making decisions or classifications, could learn from that. The Democrats sure need to, or Trump will once again eat their lunch.

Trump may be a racist. But his racism should not be allowed to become his tool. It has been in the past; we should be smart enough not to fall for that trick again. Just as my students become better scholars when they hesitate, we who want pluralism to triumph further our cause best when we slow down a bit and refuse to jump into battles of another’s choosing.

We all sometimes need a trip of Lake Placid, so we can think before we react.

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