I happened to be reading James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son over the weekend, and came across this passage which put me immediately in mind of the Baldwin-William F. Buckley debate I posted some months ago. Baldwin, on his experience of being wrongfully imprisoned in France:
The story of the drop de lit, finally told, caused great merriment in the courtroom, whereupon my friend decided that the French were "great." I was chilled by their merriment, even though it was meant to warm me. It could only remind me of the laughter I heard at home, laughter which I had sometimes deliberately elicited. This laughter is the laughter of those who consider themselves to be at a safe remove from the wretched, for whom the pain of living is not real. I had heard it so often in my native land that I resolved to find a place where I would never hear it anymore. In some deep, black, stony, and liberating way, my life, in my own eyes, began during that first year in Paris, when it was borne in on me that this laughter is universal and can never be stilled.The passage was striking because it captures Buckley perfectly: he is a man incapable of taking the actual situation of the black person in America seriously, as a felt and lived experience and not a totum of resentment or some claim against him. Because he cannot take it seriously, he laughs and makes jokes about it; the resolution of any particular matter is only a concern inasmuch as it allows him to score points against his opponents, or allows his opponents to score points against him. The laughter reveals that he is, on some unfortunate level, not serious--it reveals not a failure to grasp the essence of this issue but the lack of something of considerably greater importance: it touches his credibility not only on this topic but on all topics he discusses.
And I think it's worse than this because this tendency toward humor--irony, wit, the best and most dismissive put-downs of undesirable people and tendencies of thought--corrupts much in conservative thought. It makes meager spiritual development acceptable, and it diminishes the realm in which conservative thought can actively flourish.
Labels: race and politics