First Thoughts for My Beloved Community

I.

Concentrate on this feeling. The hopelessness, the feeling of entrapment, the thought of flight, the heart-tugging fear you feel looking at your children asleep and imagining the world they’ll grow up in. This is a feeling– and I’m addressing my urban white lefty community– that’s attended every election (every police shooting, every teargas canister, every widening of surveillance, every gotcha drone strike) for our Muslim neighbors, our black neighbors, our trans neighbors, our immigrant neighbors. Now we urban white lefties can feel it too. That fear.

Concentrate on it– really invite it, so you can recall it in your body when your own moment for showing up in solidarity comes. Or for more than a moment, when you’re making the countless small decisions that orient a life as a whole. We’re called to be bread for each other, to transform ourselves, to lift up and love the humanity of those whom this new president will almost certainly surveil, incarcerate, disenfranchise, assault, degrade, bomb, and torture.

II.

If this is your thing, pray, listen to meditative music, read something sacred (for me today it’s Psalm 73), remember that we’re held in a mystery that we can never master, carried in a movement and a love that’s bigger than us. That feeling of awe isn’t the same as passivity.

III.

Just as politicized organizers of color have been saying for decades, our white lefty cynicism and hopeless contempt won’t protect us, our inaction won’t protect us.

And just as politicized organizers of color have been saying for decades, racism is a potent force in American politics. Concentrate on that feeling, the way that knowledge feels. Poor and working-class whites have felt the sting of exclusion from decades of urban neoliberal policymaking. Its fruits have been poverty, deindustrialization, wage stagnation, drug abuse, suicide. Now, given years of assiduous right-wing organizing; and given a candidate who ran as an outsider, who embraces a cult of action and victory, who’s too tough to brook civility, compromise, or dissent, who calls back a nationalist rhetoric of greatness to be reclaimed; these voters have embraced him.

And just as politicized organizers of color have been saying for decades, the “normal” of privileged folks is another’s crisis. It is easy to intellectually sympathize with those crushed by globalized capital (or for that matter by white supremacy, patriarchy, and empire) without really understanding in our bodies what it’s like to live in fear, uncertainty, powerlessness, and alienation. Trump harnessed those emotions among whites and is willing to weaponize them. Now urban white lefty folks, many of whom are insulated from the shocks of neoliberalism, suddenly feel the ground moving under us, too.

But I’m remembering too something Stokeley Carmichael said: “You can’t organize people if you don’t like them.” Urban white lefties, this is our call to do organizing with rural whites. They are not an implacable, homogenous enemy, but are, just as much as any community, a source of potentially liberatory energy: as a hotbed for labor organizing, as a community of potentially welcoming and justice-oriented Christians, as people who don’t want to see their homeland polluted to death.

And please remember, as I’m trying to remember, that most poor white people voted for nobody: disenfranchisement of those on the economic bottom has been as important to Republican power as gerrymandering and Citizens United. Categorical enlightened-white loathing of a fictitious single category of poor bigoted-white is poison.

IV.

It seems likely that, with majorities in both houses of Congress, the new president will have the means to push the Supreme Court back to its essentially reactionary/pro-Big Guy role of the pre-Marshall Court era; further restrict access to abortion; further militarize the police; surveil and detain Muslims and possibly radical Black organizers as well; significantly weaken programs like Medicaid and TANF; roll back all protections of the Voting Rights Act; enable industry capture of the EPA; embolden (with his violent rhetoric) racist cops, transphobic legislatures, and anti-immigrant bullies.

And that’s just domestically.

None of this requires an explicit authoritarian power grab– arresting opposition senators, shutting down media outlets, cultivating enemy lists– but who knows? In four years, will America look more like England or Poland does now? Or more like Argentina or the Philippines did in the 1980s?

Or, with Trump’s bluster matched by indiscipline and deep personal ugliness, he may simply get hammered by a change of political tide (in organized opposition and mainstream institutional resistance) in two years. But if that happens, it won’t be because we checked out, gave up in disgust, or stuck to our politically-liberal cities.

It’s time to organize.

V.

The next days, weeks, months will show how the Democrats react. There’s an actual possibility that they may have to shift toward being a multi-racial populist coalition party, with a fifty-state strategy, to survive. But they may take exactly the wrong lesson, blaming (say) Black Lives Matter and Sanders for daring to criticize the genteel East Coast neoliberal-moderate consensus that’s dominated the party for 20+ years; they may attempt to drag the party back toward some imagined “center.”

I don’t want to discount the simple power of reactionary sexist hatred in Clinton’s defeat. It’s also important to remember that— from her hawkishness to her association with her husband’s crime bill to her friendliness with Wall Street— many people found reasons to simply distrust her as a leader.

VI.

I’m no great fan of the liberal state. But the right-wing push toward hard partisanship, the exacerbation of inequality, and intentional dysfunction has served to drain any sense of comity, shared commitment, or common aspiration out of civic life.

I want to build the power of the people whom this president will seek to crush. At the same time, as much as any other anti-authoritarian, I want a country whose processes and politics encourage us to build relationships with one another; not just fight. I hope the rhetoric of those in resistance to Trump is about healing and solidarity as well as power.

VII.

Here are some things I’ve read and heard since Tuesday night that have grounded me and given me perspective.

Glenn Greenwald, “Democrats, Trump, and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit

Damon Young, “This is What White Supremacy Looks Like

Ruby Sales interviewed by Krista Tippett, “Where Does It Hurt?: the Spiritual Crisis of White America

Eric Posner, “Are There Limits to Trump’s Power?

Charles Mudede, “I Thought America Would Never Become a Zimbabwe. I Was Wrong.

Would love to know what’s done so for you.

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Songs I Like #8: King Tubby, “Hijack the Barber”

I started this during a music-writing activity I did during the July swelter with my students at King County Jail.

These last couple weeks have been so steady-hot that I’ve had to cultivate the art of slow: slow moving, slow eating, slow love and slow days so I can (hopefully) not break that first sweat; club soda with lime, strawberries, rose wine, frozen coconut bars, and, finally, dub reggae.

I’m probably one of the only non-stoned people in Seattle to love dub–the languorous, liquid species of instrumental reggae that cuts the vocals into echoing shreds, turns the horns into punctuation, and soaks the drum accents until they sound like they were played in a cathedral, adding a third dimension to the music and making its tricky editing sound sensual, and above all easy. In a dub track, only the bass remains untouched, the song’s heartbeat and soul, and I have a subwoofer that turns the bass into a kind of heavy massage.

Dub was the only music my dad forbade; he forgave Suicide Machines screaming “I don’t give a shit about you stupid motherfuckers!” and Sublime’s porn samples and Snoop Dogg and Dre spelling out their revenge on Luke, but when I put on Lee Perry’s Arkology box, he said, “God, please turn off that mind-rotting stuff!” Up to my room with it I’d slink. But now, I think even he’d agree that it’s just too damn hot for verses and choruses.

One day I’ll convince Cait that we need to put a $1,000 stereo into the $2,000 Camry we share with our housemate, but until then, I can get rattled and stretched and beaten by my dub LPs only at home on my couch, letting our ceiling fan stir my hair, letting the music accent the dreaminess and dusty heat of these summer days.

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New Publication: Returning to the Death of God Theologians

The editors at Young Adult Catholics have published a three-part essay of mine on encountering the Death of God theologians. Is the transcendent real? Have we forgotten it? Is it being withheld from us? Have we outgrown it? Here’s the piece: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

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New Publication: Review of Erica Mena and Robert Fernandez

Hey folks, new review of Erica Mena’s Featherbone (Ricochet) and Robert Fernandez’s Pink Reef (Canarium) up this morning at Jacket2.

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New Publication: on Corina Copp and Ben Fama

Hey folks— my review of Corina Copp’s The Green Ray and Ben Fama’s Fantasy is up now in the new Kenyon Review Online. Enjoy!

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A Premature Eulogy for Robert Christgau

Robert Christgau isn’t dead. He slips on his orthotics and goes to shows; he listens closely to many hundreds of new records a year and writes beautifully about dozens of them. I don’t want to wait until the 75-year-old rock critic kicks the bucket to consider his virtues and talk about how much I love him.

Christgau at home. Image lifted from Brooklyn Magazine profile "The Dean's List"

Christgau at home. Image lifted from Brooklyn Magazine profile “The Dean’s List”

Christgau’s lifelong affection for the rock and roll’s collective cultural appeal, physical pleasure, and black-led but deeply integrated racial history has made him prickly toward those who apply high-art ambitions to the genre. It’s also made him unusually sensitive, as white critics go, to the ways that race and racism play out in rock and roll.

As early as 1967, mainstream tastemakers began to embrace the more ambitious white West Coast and English rockers as “geniuses” making “art” in the mixed idiom of rock and roll, conferring a cultural legitimacy (and a European Modernist heritage) on their cryptic lyrics and heady, baroque arrangements. This legitimacy would long elude, say, black geniuses in the rock and roll tradition, from James Brown to Holland-Dozier-Holland. Surveying the white-dominated, “forward-thinking” scene at that year’s Monterey Pop Festival, Christgau noted that he didn’t see anyone there who felt their music had a kinship “with, say, Martha and the Vandellas.” As rock became “art,” with the racial baggage this implied, Christgau stuck with his own sense of pleasure as a critic, refusing to take surface opacity for depth.

And as recently as last year, he noted that the much-maligned hit-factory style currently dominating pop—where beatmakers shop their rhythms to producers who match those backing tracks to a series of hookwriters and then to a singer—had at last undone the Eurocentric tradition of songwriting credits (and royalties) being divided between the lyricist and melodist. For decades, the rhythmmakers—the crew that carries the song’s heartbeat, the people who make a good tune a hit—being consigned only to per-session payment, or at best a small slice of royalties. Now, thanks to the hit factory, they’re the first ones getting paid.

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1978. Lifted from Pacifica’s website: http://www.scpr.org/

He has the kind of beautifully subtle distinction in his listening that comes from paying close attention to his own sense of pleasure ahead of—and sometimes against—critical chatter. His acuteness means he can find things to admire and enjoy even in records that make him uneasy or that he’s inclined to strongly dislike. He’s not afraid to speak in moral terms about records he finds revolting. Plus, of course, his writing’s polish and concision means he can say/evoke/riff on/crack wise about a lot in very few words. It remains damn refreshing to read criticism that (to echo a formulation from writer Carl Wilson) works hard to locate for whom, to whom, and by what channels a work of art speaks: Christgau’s criticism is social, free of bohemian chauvinism. It’s also refreshing that, though Christgau has zero interest in making himself like something, he’s willing to ask himself what it’s like for him to like something, and share the fruits of this question with his readers.

(This is not to cover up some obnoxious moments in his writing—at one point referring to Hendrix, an artist he adored, as a “psychedelic Uncle Tom”; making a nasty sexist quip about the Donnas; chastising Nas and Damian Marley’s critical Afrocentrism by informing them that critical dissent is protected thanks only to the European Enlightenment. And, of course, sometimes I find his reviews reactionary or misguided or etc. He’s written a lot.)

And then, of course, there are the fruits of his work. Through his inimitable and seemingly inexhaustible Consumer Guide (14,000 reviews there to browse), I’ve discovered easily a hundred completely-new-to-me-at-the-time records I now adore. (Surely I’m not the only one to trawl Spotify with his A-pluses in a separate tab?) This spring alone I’m getting to know Wussy’s Funeral Songs, Kate & Anna McGarrigle’s Tell My Sister rarities collection, the Three Tenors of Soul’s All the Way from Philadelphia, Sly & Robbie Present Taxi, Sam Mangwana’s Maria Tebbo twofer, Amy LaVere’s Hallelujah I’m a Dreamer, and Ornette Coleman’s Of Human Feelings. He hates metal; he’s grossed out by most jazz fusion; he detests prog rock. But he’ll listen attentively to it three times before he tells you so.

Christgau, I look forward to years of not-having-to-miss-you-yet.

Love

JAT

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New Poems in The Stockholm Review of Literature

A batch of my poems are online now in the decentered and uncanny journal The Stockholm Review of Literature. Much gratitude to the editors. (While you’re there, please also discover and adore Andy Stallings’ excerpts from his book-length sequence Paradise.)

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