Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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May 17, 2007
"Bring your toothbrushes."

Walrus magazine ran a great article by Austin Clarke a couple months back, all about how the man's mid-1963 interview with Malcolm X came to happen.

Clarke describes how he set out trying to interview James Baldwin.

Why Baldwin, why then? Clarke does not mention it, but it seems that Baldwin just recently had made the cover of Time in May 17, 1963. Soon thereafter, it seems, Baldwin gave a pretty devastating interview included in "The Negro and the American Promise," television special that was broadcast nationally (in the nation of Canada too? I do not know) on June 24, 1963. Links to video clips of that interview, and the interviews on the same show with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, are here.

Clarke had no luck finding Baldwin, who it turns out was out of the country. Instead, he spent his time scouring Harlem; haunting bars, coffee shops and diners; hanging out and listening to jazz at the Five Spot (then apparently located at 2 St. Mark's Place) and Basin Street [East]; . . . and ended up scoring an interview with Malcolm X.

[update 6/28/07: Clarke writes that some of his sources on the streets of Harlem told him jokingly that Baldwin was on vacation in "Greece" with "Giovanni." If the sources' comments had at least some basis in truth, that Baldwin was on vacation in Europe, I wonder what, if anything, it says about Baldwin's personality that during the very weeks when he could have basked in additional media attention in the USA, he devoted his energies to personal relationships and/or seclusion.]

The audio of part of Clark's interview with Malcolm X is (or was) on-line, on the Walrus website. Some of what Malcolm had to say seems bound by the time (i.e., his comments about contemporary political figures); other parts, less so (comments about white liberalism); and some, more timeless. Here is my transcription of what he said about the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision:

They purposely put it in a language -- now, you know, sir, that these men on the Supreme Court are masters of the King's English, masters of legal phraseology -- and if they wanted a decision that no one could get around, they would have given one.

But they gave their Supreme Court desegregation decision in 1954 purposely in a language -- phraseology --that enabled all of the crooks in this country to get -- find loopholes in it that would keep them from having to enforce the Supreme Court desegregation decision.

So that even after the decision was handed down, our problem has still not been solved.

The Brown decision had no small amount of attention paid to it when its 50th birthday came around, a few years back. The various       analyses of whether, as Malcolm put it, the "problem" had been "solved" after 50 years were, to put it mildly, depressing.

I have not seen much of anything that updates the story to suggest that the situation has improved since 2004. If anything, to the extent that resegregation in public education in connected with income inequality, the picture is not looking better. Look, for example, at the cover story of the current issue of Dollars and Sense magazine, by James M. Cypher, entitled "Slicing Up at the Long Barbeque: Who Gorges, Who Serves, and Who Gets Roasted?" But this is a topic for another post, if not a whole series of them, if not an entire blog or two.

[update 6/1/07: Here's a recent update that I missed (until I found it by chance, weeks after the fact, in my endless reading backlog) and it ain't encouraging: "Still Separate After All These Years," from The Economist for 4/28-5/4/07]

But what I, for some reason, pondered over the most from the interview was Malcolm's observations about the U.S. Supreme Court's use -- or misuse -- of language. I started to wonder about the extent to which the writing style that Malcolm X was denouncing, one shot through with vagueness and ambiguity, might not be what some people (maybe even those on the Supreme Court) then and now would consider to be a good thing.

To be sure, even on the abstract level, it's easy to see how, when a legally authoritative statement is seen, with the benefit of hindsight, to be loaded with uncertainty and "loopholes," the feeling results of having the rug pulled out from under you. As two legal profs pointed out earlier this year in a St. John's Law Review article (.pdf), about ambiguity that lurks, even when people think they agree about things:

[A]mbiguity will generally go unnoticed, at least until sometime after signing.

And ambiguity is pernicious: it can render illusory what the parties had thought to be a meeting of the minds.

Then again, to pick up the question and look at it from another perspective, just for the sake of intellectual curiosity, perhaps a case in favor of ambiguity and vagueness can be made. Maybe Malcolm was being too harsh.

In the early 70s, a later Supreme Court explained why criminal laws, at least, are so vague and deliberately so: so that they can be "general enough to take into account a variety of human conduct."

In a fascinating 1987 article in "defense" of ambiguity, one that could prompt a reflection or two about the history and strategies of the civil rights struggle in the USA, a legal mediator theorized that one's attitude towards ambiguity comes in part from whether you are part of the "radical" wing or the "moderate majority" of the group that's negotiating.

He also says that "interpretation of an ambiguity depends partly on the enforcement mechanism specified in the agreement."

Suggesting, in turn, perhaps, that the appetite for ambiguity connects with what your idea is of where the "enforcement mechanism" of last resort is located: in the courts? in the streets with picket signs? in the streets with guns?

Then there was the ever grooovy Alan Watts, who wrote some things in defense of vagueness, again on kind of an abstract level, that I think are delightful. He discusses people who are phobic about vagueness as follows:

There is doubtless a deep sense of security in being able . . . to feel that one has mastered a logical method which can tear other opinions, and especially metaphysical opinions, to shreds.

Attitudes of this kind usually go together with a somewhat aggressive and hostile type of personality which employs sharp definition like the edge of a sword. . . .

There is a place in life for a sharp knife, but there is a still more important place for other kinds of contact with the world. Man is not to be an intellectual porcupine, meeting his environment with a surface of spikes . . . whereby the world is not set at a distance like an enemy to be shot.

Then there's the literature professor who wrote a book that suggests how cultivation of a willingness to tolerate and a training to navigage ambiguity assists not only in the appreciation of texts but also in interpersonal communication.

In his poignant experience, not a "day or week or month" goes by that we are not accused by someone near us of "how we must have unconsciously intended to send the very message that we are now disavowing."

[reflections on interpersonal vagueness & ambiguity could be grist for a whole other post . . .

In her article "In Defense of Ambiguity: Understanding Bisexuality's Invisibility through Cognitive Psychology" (Chapter Two), Heather E. Macalister . . . considers the relative meaninglessness of labels as well as the necessity for their use in constructing new and more complex cognitive schema. Bisexuality as a concept is as slippery as an avocado stone. . . . (.pdf)

Then again, do we really want precise communicative efficacy? Sometimes, the fuzzy line is more desirable. . . .

Besides, plausible deniability is a girl's best friend.



Having dumped the above jigsaw puzzle pieces on the table, maybe here is a good place to switch perspectives yet again, and wonder about the non-abstract circumstances of the political situation in the midst of which Malcolm X was being interviewed, in 1963.

A splendid Boston Review article, co-written by Dan M. Kahan, reminds the reader of how a backdrop of institutionalized racism will tend to give oppressed people a damned good reason to feel mistrust, whenever vagueness or ambiguity in the law give authority figures any wiggle room whatsoever for how they wield power.

Kahan is writing specifically about the criminal law context, and, for example, the extremely exact language of the "you have the right to remain silent" warning that the law imposes on cops to say.

Kahan drops the great phrase, "discretion skepticism," about which another scholar has written:

Discretion skepticism is, of course, responsive to institutional racism by insisting that law enforcement be exercised according to very precise rules.

By imposing such rules on law enforcers, courts impeded the responsiveness of law enforcers to the demands of racist white political establishments.

Another scholar has pointed out how vague language in criminal laws can give the cops and the criminal justice system extra room for racist law enforcement, until the definition of a "crime" starts to resemble that of "obscenity," in which the enforcer cannot
[or will not]

intelligibly define for you in advance what it is, but knows it when they see it. In other words, you're nailed after the fact, blindsided, with no advance notice that you were about to get the book thrown at you.

Against such a backdrop, in an atmosphere of such justifiable mistrust, why should not Malcolm X have denounced a Supreme Court decision that contained vagueness, ambiguity, loopholes, or that allowed any room for evasion?

[cf. Malcolm X's "Ballot or Bullet" speech from April 1964, for more on his attitude towards the U.S. legal system:

It's time for you and me to stop sitting in this country, letting some cracker senators, Northern crackers and Southern crackers, sit there in Washington, D.C., and come to a conclusion in their mind that you and I are supposed to have civil rights.

There's no white man going to tell me anything about my rights.

Brothers and sisters, always remember, if it doesn't take senators and congressmen and presidential proclamations to give freedom to the white man, it is not necessary for legislation or proclamation or Supreme Court decisions to give freedom to the black man.

You let that white man know, if this is a country of freedom, let it be a country of freedom;

and if it's not a country of freedom, change it.


And by what available means could a hypothetically "nonvague" solution have been achieved anyway?

What do you do when you're caught in a vicious cycle because so much suspicion fills the air that you don't even know how to begin to discuss the nature of the suspicion, its sources, its history?

[After all, not only did Malcolm X's mistrust of the USA's power structure have a realistic basis, but the mistrust swung both ways -- and then some, as Malcolm's extensive FBI file attests.

I guess that vagueness and ambiguity can be dangerous too, insofar as they involve a certain measure of silence.

We can envision a locked-in dynamic at work here, and slightly later in the 60s, and even in more recent contexts, in which both sides face off across a DMZ where silence is the main feature.

Neither side has as much information as they want, coming across the divide, about what their "enemy" is saying, doing, thinking and supposedly plotting. We strain our ears but hear nothing, or not as much as we'd like to hear.

Both or either side can plug the informational gap or deficit by starting to see conspiracies everywhere.

Increasingly paranoid ideas might emerge from the tension that emerges from the informational vacuum, about the other side's supposed omniscience, omnipotence, ubiquity, resourcefulness, cleverness and Evil, all of which seem to become ever more magnified.

I guess that, in such a setting, if you were a government official or law enforcement officer, I don't know, but your growing voraciousness for more and more information might make you increasingly imaginative about how to use the tools of state power that you have.

You might feel that secretly listening to your enemy's private conversations, no matter how widespread your listening, is no longer enough.

You might become desperate in your wish that you could resort to increasingly extreme methods to get inside the head of the enemy, to read their minds, break their silence, to break all silence.

[The state's credo becomes "Silence for me but not for thee"?
With "silence" interchangable with "discretion," "knowledge," "power," "wiggle room," "Privacy," "vagueness" or whatever?]

Who knows?]

Which brings me back to events of early 1963, and the real point of this whole post --which is really just to post and save some interesting links I found about what happened on May 2, 1963.

May 2nd was the day I started listening to that Austin Clarke interview. It was also the day that I wondered whether you could not pick just about any date on the calendar and find that it corresponded to some interesting event in the history of the civil rights struggle in the USA.

May 2nd, I also learned, was the date in 1963, just a couple weeks before that James Baldwin Time cover, of what became known as the "Children's Crusade" march, in Birmingham, Alabama.

A general summary articles about the march and its importance is here.

A nice timeline that shows the march within some of the historical chronology of civil rights movement events of 1963 is here.

An in-depth article about the march, from Alabama Heritage magazine in 2003, is here.

A webpage with the testimonies of people who participated in the march as children is here.

The march was also the subject of an Oscar-winning film a couple years back.

A sense of what Malcolm X thought of the march at the time can be obtained here, in the absolutely riveting doctoral thesis of one Seneca Vaught, about how the experience of prison influenced key, 20th century figures in the civil rights struggle in the USA. We learn that, according to the New York Times, Malcolm said, "Real men don't put their children on the firing line." (see p. 181)

Finally, here is pretty inspiring piece about the power of radio and local media, and how a local DJ announced that a "party" was going to happen downtown, and gave the kids of Birmingham a special instruction, to alert them to the fact that the day of the march had come. His special instruction is the title of this post.

Oh, and as for today's date? And whether it corresponds to anything in particular in US civil rights history?

It's the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.