31 August 2016

sitting with colin

As it happened, I read Joe Posnanski's column about Colin Kaepernick while I was on my way to see a game of the Class A Brooklyn Cyclones, and I read the comments. And it occurred to me as I was walking from the train to the ballpark that I might try sitting through the national anthem. Not especially to make any political statement, although one would almost certainly be inferred, and although I'm inclined to support both Colin Kaepernick's position and his right to express it, and even I might argue that his method of protest is as effective - or at least as prominent - as any he might choose. But mostly I was curious to see what it would feel like. I'm certain I've never sat through the national anthem in my life. I don't think it's ever occurred to me.

I was curious to see whether people might say anything, what they would say. I thought I might answer, "I'm sitting with Colin."  Then I thought that might be a bad idea.

But, as it happened, I got to the ballpark about two minutes too late; they were starting the song as I hit the top of the stairs, and it would have been really weird to rush to my seat and sit down in the middle of the song. So instead I stood on the concourse and observed people. Most people were standing at some form of attention, looking at the flag or the field or the singer.  The hot dog salespeople were standing the same way, and I wondered if they were instructed to do so - I don't think I've ever noticed a concession stand employee during the national anthem. One couple ran up to the concession stand - I didn't see whether they were served right away.

Do sportswriters stand during the national anthem? I mean, they're working. Certainly cameramen and sound engineers and the guys in the truck don't stand at attention. People have jobs to do. Commerce, of various kinds, overrides patriotic duty, I guess. Political opinion, not so much it seems.

So I sort of walked around, looking at the way people were behaving. It was odd. It felt like being in a "Twilight Zone" episode where everyone else has been frozen in their tracks, while I was free to wander around. It really was as if time had stopped for a minute or two. That was powerful.

Then the game started, and I found my seat, and mostly forgot about it until the seventh inning, when at the start of the seventh-inning stretch the singer came back out to sing "God Bless America."  The PA announcer said, "we invite you to stand..."  I thought that was interesting, as if this weren't really compulsory, as if he were giving me permission not to stand.  Maybe it's a level of sensitivity about things that you might find in multicultural Brooklyn. Maybe it was just courteous wording.

The weather in New York in late August and September is as perfect as you'll find it anywhere. The days are warm, the mornings and evenings cool, the sky almost invariably cloudless. It's delightful and full of the sadness of summer ending. And full of the sadness of that horrible day 15 years ago, and the horrible days after, days when the sky was clear save for a long gray smudge low over the western sky, when everywhere you turned you saw a flyer with a face and the word "Missing." I don't think I've walked out into a day like that, a day like today, without feeling a little of that sadness. I imagine it's like that for many people, or in any case the news starts to run anniversary-type stories, probably more than usual this year for being the 15th anniversary. So September 11 is not far from the surface in people's minds, I think.

For me, the sadness has become mixed with resentment, resentment about what the day gas come to mean, resentment about the way it was hijacked for a war without end and the perpetual messages of fear that are spread through "See Something? Say Something" advertisements, about the animosity directed toward ordinary people, about the bad faith of politicians and would-be politicians, about the compulsory patriotism that is our national faith. It dishonors that day and the people who lost their lives that day, the way we have come to commemorate it.

I get that I may be an outlier in this regard.  I didn't know anyone personally who died on September 11, and I didn't know anyone personally who died in the wars that followed.  Maybe I don't get to say how those events should be commemorated.  I certainly don't speak for anyone but myself.  

I find the enlistment of "God Bless America" in this cause to be particularly distasteful.  The national anthem has going for it, at this point, 100 years of tradition, and to the extent it's not simply empty ritual, it may at least, as one of Joe Posnanski's Facebook commenters noted, a pause to acknowledge a greater unity before taking the field as foes.  I think the use of "God Bless America," on the other hand, is nakedly political.  it's as if the powers that be are saying, you can forget slavery, you can forget the extermination of the natives of this land, you can set aside all the crimes and injustices ever committed here, but you can't play a single sporting event in the city of New York without pausing in the middle to recall that one day, and without invoking the supreme deity on our side.  That's not what the song says, of course, but like any symbol, it has come to mean more things, other things, besides its literal meanings. For me, "God Bless America" carries meanings that I refuse stand for.

Was that too cute?  If so, I'll edit it out.

So, during the preamble to the seventh-inning stretch, I carried out my experiment.  I probably carried it out with more feeling than I would have during the national anthem.  If people thought I was making a point, they weren't wrong about my opinions, anyway.

The experience was: odd.  I was self-aware.  I wonder how self-aware Colin Kaepernick was; a great deal, I'd imagine.  He had certainly thought it through.  I was aware of what to do with my hands - I started to cross my arms, and then immediately uncrossed them.  The man sitting in front of me saw me remaining seated as he rose, and looked at me with something that might have been contempt.  He didn't say anything, just stood and placed his hand over his heart.  He looked like someone who might have been a firefighter once.  I looked around, as much as I could without being too conspicuous about it.  I certainly didn't see anyone else sitting.

It was a statement, I suppose, whether I wanted it to be or not.  It wasn't much of a statement; I doubt even the man in front of me remembers.  I don't think I won anyone over to the cause.  It didn't feel good, exactly.  Standing for "God Bless America" has never felt good, either.  It wasn't a big deal.

Maybe it wasn't a big deal because it wasn't a big deal,  It's possible to imagine the guy in front of me taking offense, and then it might have become a deal of some size.  Colin K is more visible than I am, of course, and lives in a world inhabited in part by professional offense-takers, and so that has become a big deal.  It seems to me that, other than those offense-takers, it might not be one.

The singer went off.  They played "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."  I stood up for that.

25 August 2016

polish that silver

I read today the extraordinarily smug letter sent by the dean of students of the University of Chicago to the U's entering undergraduates.  Here is what I think about it.  There's a bit here that you might find hurtful or offensive, and I hope you'll understand it in the context of the events.

When I was a graduate student at the U of C,  I took a seminar about Richard Wright.  It was a pretty good course, but then pretty much any course in which you read the near-entirety of Wright's writings is likely to be pretty good.  I don't remember too much about what we talked about in the class, except that a lot of it was about media and the way Wright used media to frame the way his characters were seen and saw themselves.

I do remember one incident pretty vividly, though.  It was sometime in the middle of the course.  I don't remember what book we were reading at that point, or what the topic of discussion was.  But the professor, whom I'll leave nameless, was making a point about the way people could have multiple images of black people in their heads; could separate and compartmentalize their feelings about one black person from their different feelings about all black people.  He talked about his grandmother, who loved Cab Calloway, listened to him all the time.  And then she would turn around and tell him, "Polish that silver 'til it shines like a nigger's heel."

Well, there it was.  Some of us laughed, I think; I probably laughed.  It was a startling thing to hear.

A few class sessions later, the professor set aside his regular lesson to talk about a complaint that had been lodged against him to the dean by a student in the class.  The complaint was that the story had been told without the appropriate context.  It was told in a humorous way, and people had laughed, and the seriousness of using the word "nigger" wasn't appreciated.  He was both trying to apologize to the student who had complained, and to anyone else offended, and also explain that he hadn't meant that, and also express hurt that the student hadn't come to him directly rather than filing a complaint.  We had a discussion about it.  It wasn't very successful.  We were all guessing about who the student was, and I suspect he - if I recall, he outed himself as the complainant along the way - felt further victimized by the discussion.  I would have felt that way.  I don't think you can successfully hold a discussion that's an apology and a defense and a complaint all in one.  In any case, it was really unsatisfying for everybody, and we went through the rest of the course carrying that with us, and I suspect it was a pretty painful experience for one student in particular.

To be clear, this was a graduate course.  The student in question never struck me as someone in need of protection from difficult ideas.  To be a graduate student in English at the U of Chicago, you had to know your shit, and you had to be able to work, and you had to have a certain willingness to stand your ground.  I don't think he was someone in need of coddling.  And I don't think that was what he was asking for.  It seems to me now that maybe he was just asking for the knowledge that he could engage in rigorous debate, discussions, and even disagreements in an environment of civility and mutual respect.

I suspect, even more than me, that moment was all that he remembered.

How easy it would have been for the professor to have simply said, "My grandmother would tell me -  and I don't want to offend anyone with this language, I'm making a point as honestly as I can ..."  To have used, you know, a trigger warning.  A student might not have felt mocked, and would have learned more.  I would have learned more - at least, more about the stated purposes of the course.  We wouldn't have spent a class in a tortured discussion of race and academic protocol and suspicion and doubt.  We might have been able to get to know each other better and learn more from each others' experiences.  I don't really see what would have been wrong with that.

Then again: the U of C struck me, as I've noted before, as a place where they brought together the smartest people in the world, gave them all the resources in the world, and let them do whatever the hell they wanted without regard for the repercussions.  It's the sort of place you go if you want to invent atom bombs.  So some number of people can be glad that that place still exists.