I’ve never understood the bellicosity against Kathy Griffin. And neither do regular people. (Even after her 2017 controversy, Griffin still managed to fill theatres around the world.) I’ve always liked her. Her first comedy album, For Your Consideration, was so successful that she was the first woman to hit #1 on the Billboard Top Comedy Albums chart. She’s won two Emmys and a Grammy Award. She’s funny, often provocative, and has been a tireless advocate for LGBTQ rights well before most mainstream celebrities. She’s done USO tours. Gloss over the raunch and you’ll clearly see that her life and performances have been guided, first and foremost, by empathy. When her only sister was diagnosed with cancer, she shaved her head in solidarity. When Sia was attacked over her movie Music, it was Griffin who stepped in and saved her from suicide. Kathy Griffin stumped for same-sex marriage when it wasn’t fashionable to do so and she organized rallies in Washington to protest the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” rule, a now embarrassingly regressive and homophobic idea that, one must remember, was conjured up by none other than Bill Clinton.
Presumably much of the ire that has been directed Griffin’s way comes from the atavistic notion — one that has often been promulgated by other women (and those who don’t like Griffin include Soldead O’Brien and Chelsea Clinton) — that a woman who wavers between the blunt and the scatological as adeptly as a male comic just shouldn’t count. (Case in point: Dave Chappelle still has a career, despite appallingly transphobic comments in his latest special.) But Kathy Griffin has been punished by the mainstream media in a way that has always struck me as cruel and deeply unfair. She was the perfect hosting partner for Anderson Cooper during CNN’s annual New Year’s Eve coverage at Times Square, but her salacious on-air banter sparked rebuke, even though it was relatively mild compared to men.
Then the Trump bloody head photo incident happened on May 30, 2017. Griffin posted a short video where she held up a crude model of Trump’s noggin and suffered significant professional and personal repercussions for it. But much like her advocacy of LGBTQ rights, Griffin was well ahead of the curve about the dangers of Donald Trump and the need to offer bold pushback. Trump not only mismanaged a pandemic that has gone on to kill nearly 900,000 Americans, but, among his countless transgressions, he inspired the unthinkable: the violent January 6, 2021 insurrection on the Capitol. The most vocal opponents to Griffin weren’t the Trump family and his lapdogs, but “liberal” actors like Jeffrey Wright and Debra Messing. (Nearly five years later, it can be argued that Messing using her energies to publicly expose Trump supporters was a more repugnant act than Griffin’s photo. At least Griffin confined her protest to an artistic statement.)
She was dropped by CNN. Dropped from her promotional deals. Thousands of death threats. Didn’t get a television role again until recently — in the latest season of Search Party, which just dropped on HBO Max. Despite being ignobly pushed out of Hollywood, she hit the tour circuit not long after and her shows sold out in minutes. Again, regular people love her. It was the people in power and other entertainers who resented her. And for what? Because she’s a provocative loudmouth? Who cares? The world needs provocative loudmouths. The world needs Kathy Griffin.
Now The New York Times has just profiled her after she recovered from lung cancer treatment. That it would take Griffin losing a lung to merit this type of coverage says everything you need to know about how the media industrial complex throws modest troublemakers under the bus. In the profile, Griffin says, “I wasn’t canceled. I was erased.” She said that she didn’t have any desire to make enemies. She only wanted to make people laugh. And she did. She offended Jeff Zucker by demanding what she was worth for her New Year’s Eve appearances.
It’s clear that Griffin has been punished for being a woman. After all, Jeffrey Toobin can be welcomed back into the CNN fold after masturbating during a Zoom meeting. She has needlessly suffered because she’s a woman. But as reported by the Times, she has remained the consummate professional — most recently on the set of Search Party
It’s also clear that Griffin has been punished for being politically outspoken, often on subjects that the mainstream media isn’t ready to take on. But also because she gets through to a large audience. And if there is one constant across every cultural sector, it’s this: the people in power, particularly more risk-averse artists and shameless networking types who prop up mediocrity in order to get ahead, resent anyone who can be both appealing to a mass audience and revealing. (See, for example, the recent divisive critical reaction to Don’t Look Up.)
At a time in which we need to shake up a population that has grown exhausted by the listlessness of do-nothing Democrats, Kathy Griffin should be welcomed back and tapped as an invaluable resource — not only on how to not only speak to the vox populi, but how to win back the nation. Her instinct for knowing when to fight a risky political battle is one of her many unsung and underappreciated talents. It aligns quite neatly with her comedic timing. Kathy Griffin is the populist provocateur who wins people over with her charm and her honesty. Anyone who attacked her in the last five years did so because they are resentful that they only hold onto their dull and unadventurous perches because they have nothing new to say and all they have left are past laurels to rest on. These bitter has-beens owe Kathy Griffin not only an apology, but a fulsome invitation to return to the party.
I have to be honest. V.S. Naipaul’s literary work is so abominably heartless that I would be greatly tempted to fire bottlerockets all night from my Brooklyn rooftop while wearing nothing more than a male monokini if his scabrous worldview and his pointless head games were permanently erased from the canon. He is surely the most overrated writer of the 20th century.
I’ve delivered variations of these sentiments over the phone to amused literary friends, who, when they weren’t laughing their asses off over my five minute anti-Naipaul soliloquies, were good enough to urge me to forgo the semi-scholarly format of this ridiculous years-long project and simply speak from the heart. I shall do my best to be as thoughtful as I can about my Naipaul bellicosity, which is, alas, the only way to move forward with this project. I can tell you this much. Not even Finnegans Wake, which took me five years to read and eventually write about, made me feel as frustrated as I was with A House for Mr. Biswas. Even the books on the list that I haven’t cared for all that much (The Old Wives’ Tale, the wildly overrated Ragtime, the failings of Kim) still contained something essential or interesting. You could see why a bunch of old white dudes decided to canonize the books even if they seemed to be speaking a hoary language — even accounting for the folkways and mores of 1998. But A House for Mr. Biswas was a joyless chore during the two times I read it. It is a reactionary monument to imperialistic ugliness that isn’t so much a thoughtful examination of colonialism as it is an author catching mice in a glue trap and watching them squirm their way into a slow and painful death instead of putting them out of their misery with a hammer.
In his life and his work, Naipaul was a sadistic bully, a narcissistic tyrant, and a mean-spirited man who used his powers to punch down. The only quality that distinguishes Naipaul from Donald Trump is his descriptive acumen and his honed prose. There is a moment in A House for Mr. Biswas in which Naipaul has a mother snap off branches from a hibiscus bush to discipline her child and it represents that brilliant exactitude. But that’s pretty much it. There isn’t a single Nobel laureate who basks in repugnancy like this simply because he can. Knut Hamsun was a terrible person (who later turned Nazi), but his masterpiece Hunger actually made you feel something about the down-and-out impoverished wretch at the center of the novel. The late great Toni Morrison, inexplicably omitted from the Modern Library canon, used ugly imagery to reveal the deep humanity within victims of racism and oppression. But what does Naipaul offer other than pointless cruelty? James Wood offered the hamfisted theory that Naipaul adopted the dual role of the colonizer and the colonized to adopt “a cool, summary omniscience that he uses to provoke our rebellious compassion.” But I personally could not feel any compassion for Biswas, in large part because I was constantly aware of the manipulative way that Naipaul had rigged the game. Naipaul, in other words, is an old school bully lulling and gaslighting the reader into a phony empathy. Having no empathy to offer, Naipaul leaves such overanalytical and generous critics as Wood to mine the gelid prose and do the work that Naipaul himself couldn’t be bothered to do. That Naipaul was able to play this game of three-card monte on so many says a great deal about how the literary establishment has a knack for propping up bona-fide sociopaths. Even progressive-minded naifs like Teju Cole stumped for this novel, claiming House to be “a masterwork of realism,” but largely on the basis of its itemized lists and of the way that the book encumbers the reader with its turgid pace. Both Wood and Cole acknowledge that it falls upon the reader to provide the munificence that Naipaul himself cannot. But they refuse to acknowledge that the faults of House‘s thin characterizations very much fall on Naipaul’s shoulders. If a writer isn’t committed to depicting the human, then why even bother praising the writer?
For the Spainards, Mr. Biswas knew, had surrendered the island one hundred years before, and their descendants had disappeared; yet they left a memory of reckless valour, and this memory had passed to people who came from another continent and didn’t know what a Spainard was, people who, in their huts of mud and grass where time and distance were obliterated, still frightened their children with the name of Alexander, of whose greatness they knew nothing.
I don’t gainsay Naipaul’s command at the sentence level, such as the measured passage above. At times, Naipaul comes across as the holistic sage reminding us that all of our lives are mired in historical cycles in which we often forget the final festoons of the previous arc. But grifters often talk in cant that suggest a larger tapestry. If you speak in ways that suggest larger cosmic contours, many people are going to assume that there’s something more to your tale than a mean monodimensional character who treats his family badly and who spends most of the goddamned novel writhing in anger and resentment simply because he never has the guts to make a real decision. I suspect Naipaul has bamboozled so many otherwise cogent minds because this kind of pedestrian toxic masculinity, especially in an older book, can be easily excused as a “sign of the times.” But even with Wuthering Heights‘s Heathcliff, named by Bustle‘s Charlotte Ahlin as the “most toxic male character in all of literature,” we can still understand why he forces his son Linton to marry. Heathcliff grows nastier as the novel continues. But he’s still tormented by Catherine’s ghost and the dregs of being bullied and locked in an attic. Mr. Biswas, by contrast, loses his father Raghu early on in the book after Mr. Biswas, entrusted to take care of a neighbor’s calf, falls into a stream and drowns. Mr. Biswas hides beneath his bed in shame. Raghu dives in for the missing calf and his own son. Raghu dies. Emily Bronte had the smarts to connect Heathcliff’s psychology to the past, which makes him more than merely a “toxic male character.” We want to understand why he behaves as he does. But, with Naipaul, the drowning incident is rarely referenced again in the novel. So Mr. Biswas is a man flung into misfortunes in the present without really acknowledging his past. Does this make him as much of a dope as any other ostensible cipher living out a failed life on a former Spanish colony? Apparently.
But there’s something much seedier at work here. As I pointed out with A Bend in the River, Naipual’s bad faith portrayal of low-caste types has always felt supererogatory. He isn’t taking potshots in an interesting or bona-fide punk rock way that challenges the audience. He revels in filth and ugliness and he chooses targets who are just too easy to flambee. You may recall my love for Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, which featured some wild and outlandish depictions of degeneracy, but Caldwell used his broad caricatures to implicate his audience for their generalizations about the poor. It’s clear to me that Naipaul doesn’t have any such grand game afoot here, other than reveling in his hideous hubris. He’s happy to see his inventions rot. The man lived to hurl unpleasant observations about unpleasant people, both in his life and in his fiction. And I say this as a huge fan of unlikable characters. Naipaul’s ensemble isn’t terribly interesting or dimensional. For all my complaints about Evelyn Waugh, at least that reactionary clown was committed to some kind of beauty. A throwback beauty that came from a repressed Catholicism, but a beauty nonetheless. What do we get with Naipaul? Hari “humming from some hymn book in his cheerless way.”
While I commend Naiapul’s prose powers (his description of a box imprinted with the circles of condensed milk cans and his evocation of gods for the Tulsi house are two of many examples of what make him a commendable stylist), I really don’t see why Mr. Biswas deserves such an expansive volume. He is mean, arrogant, cowardly, and an altogether predictable specimen of 20th century masculinity. He possesses no empathy for the people who surround him, looking at his future wife Shama not with compassion as she is berated by a customer, but “as a child.” He expresses flights of wild behavior that might be characterized as bipolar. He throws fits, feels as if he is entitled to a job. Even in describing Mr. Biswas in the way I am here, I fear that I am making him more interesting he deserves to be portrayed. Naipaul doesn’t give us a real reason for Mr. Biswaa’s ego or his cruelty — despite the fact that we are constantly surrounded by his family, which include in-laws who are too numerous to track without notes. He would prefer to wallow in ugliness — both in the ramshackle aesthetic of rural Trinidad and the boorish behavior of his many side characters. There are unlikable characters and villains in literature who deserve our attention because we want to know how they came to be who they are. But with Mr. Biswas, I never felt any strong pull to know him any further. Mr. Biswas is an unremarkable reader, a mediocre sign-painter, and a ham-fisted writer who never has anything especially interesting to say, but always has an especially monstrous act to mete out to anyone in his surrounding orbit.
So I’m quite happy to be rid of Naipaul. I will never read him again. There are people who still swear by Naipaul. Robert McCrum once declared Naipaul to be “the greatest living writer of English prose.” But what’s the point of picking up the pen when you don’t have a pulse?
December 22, 1940 may be literature’s answer to July 4, 1826, the day in which John Adams rasped his last words on his deathbed. “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” he gasped, not knowing that Jefferson himself had passed away only five hours before. One hundred and fourteen years later, two towering literary titans, far more obscure in their time than Adams and Jefferson had been in theirs, met their end at a needlessly early age. On December 21, 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald collapsed inside a ground-floor apartment not far from the Sunset Strip at the age of 44. The alcohol had finally caught up with him. He believed himself a failure. He would never know that his tragically brief life and his coruscating work would be rediscovered only a handful of years later — not long after 155,000 copies of The Great Gatsby were distributed to World War II servicemen. The next day, about two hundred miles southwest of Fitzgerald’s home, Nathanael West and his wife Eileen McKenney (whose sprightly spirit would be immortalized by her sister Ruth in a series of light but amusing New Yorker pieces later turned into a wildly successful stage show called My Sister Eileen) would be killed instantly in a car collision on their way back from Mexico. West was, by all reports, a notoriously awful driver and he was even younger than Fitzgerald. Just thirty-seven.
Both men had turned to screenwriting to stay afloat during the Great Depression. Both men had much to say about the traps and illusions of American life. But it would take longer for West to be reassessed and appreciated — in large part because he was arguably fiercer than Fitz with his fiction. He had his finger firmly on the troubling pulse of feral American life and he wasn’t afraid to use it with the other nine at his typewriter. In a short essay called “Some Notes on Violence,” West pointed to the idiomatic violence that had permeated every corner of printed media: “We did not start with the ideas of printing tales of violence. We now believe that we would be doing violence by suppressing them.” His razor-sharp satire featured philandering dwarves, skewered the hideous contradictions of gaudy Hollywood spectacle, and, in just one of many enthralling flashes of his grimly hilarious invention, depicted a dead horse serving as au courant decor at the bottom of a swimming pool. (In an age in which urine-drinking is prescribed as a COVID remedy and reality star Stephanie Matto makes $200,000 selling her farts in a jar, one wonders why the present fictional landscape doesn’t reflect our scabrous realities and why 85% of today’s gatekeepers are so hostile to such a necessary dialogue between fiction and life. But then this is the same universe in which Hanya Yanagihara’s excellent, quite readable, and wildly ambitious new novel, To Paradise, is framed by The New York Times in belittingly racist and sexist terms, assuaging an increasingly unadventurous bourgeois readership: “Can an Asian American woman write a great American novel?” (Well, of course, she can. Why even summon the rhetoric?))
West’s high point as a novelist was arguably The Day of the Locust — just as compact as Gatsby in its length and sentences, but more wryly surreal than ethereal. And he had a genius for fusing this talent with a theatrically visceral and often bleakly comic strain revealing the FOMO and desperate collective belonging at any vicious cost that one sees prominently among numerous Instagram influencers today. Consider this scene at a funeral:
He knew their kind. While not torch-bearers themselves, they would run behind the fire and do a great deal of the shouting. They had come to see Harry buried, hoping for a dramatic incident of some sort, hoping at least for one of the mourners to be led weeping hysterically from the chapel. It seemed to Tod that they stared back at him with an expression of vicious, acrid boredom that trembled on the edge of violence.
This is followed not long after by an old woman who shows up with “a face pulled out of shape by badly-fitting store teeth” whispering to “a man sucking on the handle of a home-made walking stick.” This close attention to background characters making do with either the remaining scraps they could cobble together or the insufficient products on sale at a store obviously sprang from the Great Depression and West’s own experience working at a hotel, where he undoubtedly observed a motley array of eccentrics and strange outliers. (Jay Martin’s excellent biography, Nathanael West: The Art of His Life, covers quite a bit of these hotel days and reveals West to be an impeccable bullshit artist in his life, wheeling deals to help other writers land rooms and constantly reinventing the details of his life to negotiate a failing capitalist system.) But West’s panoramic description also feels unsettlingly close to our present time, in which inflation, the supply chain, and an inept framework increasingly leaving Americans out in the cold produces the same plausible character types. And in another eerie parallel to the present, The Day of the Locust also includes a dismal romantic rival named Homer Simpson. The only song Homer knows is the national anthem
The novel follows Tod Hackett, an artist who has moved to Hollywood to find inspiration for what he hopes will be his masterwork painting, “The Burning of Los Angeles.” (I casually wondered if Rage Against the Machine’s album The Battle of Los Angeles took titular inspiration from West. But sadly no interviewer appears to have asked Zack de la Rocha and company this.) He swoons for Faye Greener after seeing her in the hall at a dismal complex called San Berdoo. But Faye can “only love a handsome man and would only let a wealthy man love her.” Tod harbors disturbingly intense and violent fantasies towards Faye. Is Tod mentally unbalanced? Or is this the inevitable byproduct of trying to find inspiration in a landscape of contradictions? West smartly leaves these questions open for the reader to infer.
One reads this masterpiece in 2022 greatly saddened by the possibilities of what West could have become. Would he have floundered like Erskine Caldwell or soured into a bitter reactionary like Evelyn Waugh? I don’t think he would have. West was committed to grim playful truth right out of the gate — as his scatologically driven first work, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, made abundantly clear. It says quite a lot about the bleak tenor of the prewar Depression period that so many wild and dark comic novelists flourished. Much as one reads the fiction published just before World War I and marvels at the flowing frankness that just preceded Hemingway permanently altering the English language with his declarative sentences, so too does one approach Tobacco Road, Scoop, and The Day of the Locust with a sense of what might have been in literature if the Second World War had never happened. One then turns to our present pandemic age and wonders why most of today’s contemporary fiction writers remain so spineless, so dully vanilla and offensively weak-kneed and uninventive, so hostile to serving up appropriate pushback against our present devil’s bargain of late-stage capitalism and all of its concomitant horrors.
West would have been canceled quite swiftly if he were starting out today. Joe Woodward’s biography of Nathanael West, Alive Inside the Wreck, points to a fascinating review from Ben Abramson that appeared in Reading and Collecting in which he suggested that West’s books should be reviewed two or three years after publication so that they could be reviewed on “merits” rather than “merchandise.” Indeed, it is the mercantile thrust of vapid careerist “critics” on social media these days — the type epitomized by so many mediocre Twitter addicts who wouldn’t know, appreciate or stump for bona-fide punk rock even if they traveled back in time and became desecrated by excrement while standing in the front row of a GG Allin show — that motivates their own sham criteria and their head-in-the-sand approach to our societal ills. But eighty-three years after The Day of the Locust‘s publication — well past Abramson’s prescription for proper consideration — The Day of the Locust says more about the eternal and seemingly unfixable ailments of American life than most of today’s writers can summon over the course of a career. Despite being cut down in his prime, Nathanael West still survives.
I’ve already been transparent about the fact that I had an alcohol-fueled episode during a 36 hour period on Friday and Saturday, one in which I barely remember much of what I was doing. We’re talking vituperative emails and blackout drunk conversations that I don’t even recall on the phone with friends. Shameful assholic stuff that I would certainly not have done if I were sober. That’s why I attended a meeting today for the first time in my life. And that’s why I deleted my Twitter account. And that’s why I won’t be drinking again for a very long time, if ever. To all the friends who reached out to me and who know the true score and who actually know who I am and who have directed me to resources, thank you.
During the course of that hideous bender, a blog post in draft — seemingly listing the people who I wanted dead (a satirical holding place title that did not reflect the true intent of the list, of which more anon) and written after I had imbibed a large bottle of scotch, a six pack of beer, and a bottle of wine and was hardly in what I or any person would call a rational or clear-thinking place — was accidentally published and swiftly unpublished after I realized what I did. But blue-checkmarked authors like Jeff VanderMeer and Nick Mamatas (the latter, citing blue zone fighting, has also threatened me with a fight to the death and, as you can see from the screenshot, tried to hack my website) — two people who I have literally not thought about in years but that I was thinking about for reasons that shall soon become apparent, two people who I have said nothing about in more than a decade, two authors whose books I do not read and will not read and have no interest in reading or knowing in any way — but who have both gone out of their way to use their influence on Twitter, invoking my name to spread false rumors about me while also dredging up my drunkenly assembled list without context, which came from a very dark place that I hope you never have to experience. They are now so obsessed with me that they are literally scouring cached images of my website to impugn me and badmouth me. Trying to egg the addict back onto Twitter. These are clearly two harmful browbeaters who I will now not be including on the far more important list I was assembling and that I’m not supposed to talk about — one that involves submitting myself with humility and contrition to the people who I have wronged.
Mamatas and VanderMeer thrive on hating and injuring and hurting perceived enemies. (Here are a few examples. On October 7, 2020, VanderMeer claimed, sans evidence, that Dan Bloom “sent me strange and harassing emails, emailed venues I was speaking at insinuating that they could cut me loose.” Meanwhile, Weird Webzine, after not expressing enough fealty to Mamatas for a minimal contribution, was harassed by Mamatas on December 12, 2018.) People talked to me about the weirdly obsessive conduct of both men when I used to practice as a literary journalist. And it’s clear that it would delight them if I cracked. But I won’t. They want me to drink. They want me to be a raging asshole. They want me, in short, to suffer and be the worst human being possible. But they were on this list. Because I was thinking about the people for whom I had bad feelings about and trying to fix myself. I am truly baffled as to why I live rent-free in their heads. Because I have literally said or thought nothing at all about them for a good ten years. Not even in emails. But they seem peculiarly obsessed with me. They want you to know that I am an irredeemable human being. The timing here — and this was initiated by Mamatas — isn’t an accident. I’ve been public in other online places about the fact that I’m unemployed and in the running for jobs right now. And aside from disrupting my efforts at recovery, these two people want to take potential bread out of my mouth by making sure the social media deck is stacked against me. Which is something I wouldn’t even do to my worst enemy.
I know there is no appealing to either Mamatas or VanderMeer. Both have, in my personal dealings with them (the last I contacted them in any way was more than a good ten years ago, for Pete’s sake), possessed neither a stain of empathy nor an ability to commiserate and I’m hardly the only person who they’ve hunted down and invented stories and motivations about. I hope one day that the many victims of VanderMeer and Mamatas eventually come forward. My list should never have been published and was not intended to be published. It was the rough draft for another list. And it had a bold title. Because I have a sick sense of humor. But I just figured I would provide the appropriate context as I remain committed to carrying on with two very important things: (a) not returning to Twitter and (b) not drinking.
I am not afraid of telling the truth about myself. Even the unpleasant parts. And I’m certainly not afraid of either Mamtas or VanderMeer, who are both little more than schoolyard bullies in the form of sad and resentful middle-aged men and who will undoubtedly twist this essay (and the list with the acerbic title) to serve their own wildly narcissistic and abusive ends.
[To celebrate Martin Luther King weekend, I’m repubishing my 2019 essay on Why We Can’t Wait. King’s commitment to courage and humanism through nonviolent resistance remains one of the most inspiring legacies of the 20th century and deserves our great respect and consideration.]
It was a warm day in April when Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested. It was the thirteenth and the most important arrest of his life. King, wearing denim work pants and a gray fatigue shirt, was manacled along with fifty others that afternoon, joining close to a thousand more who had bravely submitted their bodies over many weeks to make a vital point about racial inequality and the unquestionable inhumanity of segregation.
The brave people of Birmingham had tried so many times before. They had attempted peaceful negotiation with a city that had closed sixty public parks rather than uphold the federal desegregation law. They had talked with businesses that had debased black people by denying them restaurant service and asking them to walk through doors labeled COLORED. Some of these atavistic signs had been removed, only for the placards to be returned to the windows once the businesses believed that their hollow gestures had been fulfilled. And so it became necessary to push harder — peacefully, but harder. The Birmingham police unleashed attack dogs on children and doused peaceful protesters with high-pressure water hoses and seemed hell-bent on debasing and arresting the growing throngs who stood up and said, without raising a fist and always believing in hope and often singing songs, “Enough. No more.”
There were many local leaders who claimed that they stood for the righteous, but who turned against King. White leaders in Birmingham believed — not unlike pro-segregation Governor George Wallace just three months earlier — that King’s nonviolent protests against segregation would incite a torrent of violence. But the violence never came from King’s well-trained camp and had actually emerged from the savage police force upholding an unjust law. King had been very careful with his activists, asking them to sign a ten-point Commitment Card that included these two vital points:
6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
Two days before King’s arrest, Bull Connor, the racist Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety and a man so vile and heartless that he’d once egged on Klansmen to beat Freedom Riders to a pulp for fifteen minutes as the police stood adjacent and did not intervene, had issued an injunction against the protests. He raised the bail bond from $200 to $1,500 for those who were arrested. (That’s $10,000 in 2019 dollars. When you consider the lower pay and the denied economic opportunities for Birmingham blacks, you can very well imagine what a cruel and needless punishment this was for many protesters who lived paycheck to paycheck.)
And so on Good Friday, it became necessary for King, along with his invaluable fellow leaders Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, to walk directly to Birmingham Jail and sing “We Shall Overcome.” King took a very big risk in doing so. But he needed to set an example for civil disobedience. He needed to show that he was not immune to the sacrifices of this very important fight. The bondsman who provided the bail for the demonstrators told King that he was out as King pondered the nearly diminished funds for the campaign. In jail, King would not be able to use his contacts and raise the money that would keep his campaign going. Despite all this, and this is probably one of the key takeaways from this remarkable episode in political history, King was dedicated to practicing what he preached. As he put it:
How could my failure now to submit to arrest be explained to the local community? What would be the verdict of the country about a man who had encouraged hundreds of people to make a stunning and then excused himself?
Many who watched this noble march, the details of which are documented in S. Jonathan Bass’s excellent book Blessed Are the Peacemakers, dressed in their Sunday best out of respect for King’s efforts. Police crept along with the marchers before Connor gave the final order. Shuttlesworth had left earlier. King, Abernathy, and their fellow protestors were soon surrounded by paddy wagons and motorcycles and a three-wheel motorcart. They dropped to their knees in peaceful prayer. The head of the patrol squeezed the back of King’s belt and escorted him into a police car. The police gripped the back of Abernathy’s shirt and steered him into a van.
King was placed in an isolation cell. Thankfully, he did not suffer physical brutality, but the atmosphere was dank enough to diminish a weaker man’s hope. As he wrote, “You will never know the meaning of utter darkness until you have lain in such a dungeon, knowing that sunlight is streaming overhead and still seeing only darkness below.” Jail officials refused a private meeting between King and his attorney. Wyatt Tee Walker, King’s chief of staff, sent a telegram to President Kennedy. The police did not permit King to speak to anyone for at least twenty-four hours.
As his confidantes gradually gained permission to speak to King, King became aware of a statement published by eight white clergy members in Birmingham — available here. This octet not only urged the black community to withdraw support for these demonstrations, but risibly suggested that King’s campaign was “unwise and untimely” and could be settled by the courts. They completely missed the point of what King was determined to accomplish.
King began drafting a response, scribbling around the margins of a newspaper. Abernathy asked King if the police had given him anything to write on. “No,” King replied, “I’m using toilet paper.” Within a week, he had paper and a notepad. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” contained in his incredibly inspiring book Why We Can’t Wait, is one of the most powerful statements ever written about civil rights. It nimbly argues for the need to take direct action rather than wait for injustice to be rectified. It remains an essential text for anyone who professes to champion humanity and dignity.
* * *
King’s “Letter” against the eight clergymen could just as easily apply to many “well-meaning” liberals today. He expertly fillets the white clergy for their lack of concern, pointing out that “the superficial kind of social analysis that deal with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” He points out that direct action is, in and of itself, a form of negotiation. The only way that an issue becomes lodged in the national conversation is when it becomes dramatized. King advocates a “constructive, nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth” — something that seems increasingly difficult for people on social media to understand as they block viewpoints that they vaguely disagree with and cower behind filter bubbles. He is also adamantly, and rightly, committed to not allowing anyone’s timetable to get in the way of fighting a national cancer that had then ignobly endured for 340 years. He distinguishes between the just and the unjust law, pointing out that “one has a moral responsibility to obey unjust laws.” But he is very careful and very clear about his definitions:
An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.
This is a cogent philosophy applicable to many ills beyond racism. This is radicalism in all of its beauty. This is precisely what made Martin Luther King one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. For me, Martin Luther King remains a true hero, a model for justice, humility, peace, moral responsibility, organizational acumen, progress, and doing what’s right. But it also made King dangerous enough for James Earl Ray, a staunch Wallace supporter, to assassinate him on April 4, 1968. (Incidentally, King’s family have supported Ray’s efforts to prove his innocence.)
* * *
Why We Can’t Wait‘s scope isn’t just limited to Birmingham. The book doesn’t hesitate to cover a vast historical trajectory that somehow stumps for action in 1963 and in 2019. It reminds us that much of what King was fighting for must remain at the forefront of today’s progressive politics, but also must involve a government that acts on behalf of the people: “There is a right and a wrong side in this conflict and the government does not belong the middle.” Unfortunately, the government has doggedly sided against human rights and against the majestic democracy of voting. While Jim Crow has thankfully been abolished, the recent battle to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965, gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013, shows that systemic racism remains very much alive and that the courts for which the eight white Birmingham clergy professed such faith and fealty are stacked against African-Americans. (A 2018 Harvard study discovered that counties freed from federal oversight saw a dramatic drop in minority voter turnout.)
Much as the end of physical slavery inspired racists to conjure up segregation as a new method of diminishing African-Americans, so too do we see such cavalier and dehumanizing “innovations” in present day racism. Police shootings and hate crimes are all driven by the same repugnant violence that King devoted his life to defeating.
The economic parallels between 1963 and 2019 are also distressingly acute. In Why We Can’t Wait, King noted that there were “two and one-half times as many jobless Negros as whites in 1963, and their median income was half that of the white man.” Fifty-six years later, the Bureau of Labor Statistics informs us that African Americans are nearly twice as unemployed as whites in a flush economic time with a low unemployment rate, with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting that the median household income for African-Americans in 2017 was $40,258 compared to $68,145 for whites. In other words, a black family now only makes 59% of the median income earned by a white family.
If these statistics are supposed to represent “progress,” then it’s clear that we’re still making the mistake of waiting. These are appalling and unacceptable baby steps towards the very necessary racial equality that King called for. White Americans continue to ignore these statistics and the putatively liberal politicians who profess to stand for fairness continue to demonstrate how tone-deaf they are to feral wrongs that affect real lives. As Ashley Williams learned in February 2016, white Democrats continue to dismiss anyone who challenges them on their disgraceful legacy of incarcerating people of color. The protester is “rude,” “not appropriate,” or is, in a particularly loaded gerund, “trespassing.” “Maybe you can listen to what I have to say” was Hillary Clinton’s response to Williams, to which one rightfully replies in the name of moral justice, “Hillary, maybe you’re the one here who needs to listen.”
Even Kamala Harris, now running for President, has tried to paint herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” when her record reveals clear support for measures that actively harm the lives of black people. In 2015, Harris opposed a bill that demanded greater probing into police officer shootings. That same year, she refused to support body cams, only to volte-face with egregious opportunism just ten days before announcing her candidacy. In the case of George Gage, Harris held back key exculpatory evidence that might have freed a man who did not have criminal record. Gage was forced to represent himself in court and is now serving a 70-year sentence. In upholding these savage inequities, I don’t think it’s a stretch to out Kamala Harris as a disingenuous fraud. Like many Democrats who pay mere lip service to policies that uproot lives, she is not a true friend to African Americans, much less humanity. It was a hardly a surprise when Black Lives Matter’s Johnetta Elzie declared that she was “not excited” about Harris’s candidacy back in January. After rereading King and being reminded of the evils of casual complicity, I can honestly say that, as someone who lives in a neighborhood where the police dole out regular injustices to African-Americans, I’m not incredibly thrilled about Harris either.
But what we do have in this present age is the ability to mobilize and fight, to march in the streets until our nation’s gravest ills become ubiquitously publicized, something that can no longer be ignored. What we have today is the power to vote and to not settle for any candidate who refuses to heed the realities that are presently eating our nation away from the inside. If such efforts fail or the futility of protesting makes one despondent, one can still turn to King for inspiration. King sees the upside in a failure, galvanizing the reader without ever sounding like a Pollyanna. Pointing to the 1962 sit-ins in Albany, Georgia, King observes that, while restaurants remained segregated after months of protest, the activism did result in more African-Americans voting and Georgia at long last electing “the first governor [who] pledged to respect and enforce the law equally.”
It’s sometimes difficult to summon hope when the political clime presently seems so intransigent, but I was surprised to find myself incredibly optimistic and fired up after rereading Why We Can’t Wait for the first time in more than two decades. This remarkable book from a rightfully towering figure seems to have answered every argument that milquetoasts produce against radicalism. No, we can’t wait. We shouldn’t wait. We must act today.