On ‘The Fire Next Time’

The Fire Next TimeThe Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, and just about anything else written by James Baldwin, remains relevant. It’s spooky and altogether tragic that pieces written in the 1960s reflect the current realities lived by black communities and individuals in the US today.

Eloquent. Honest. Brutally clear and well-reasoned throughout, The Fire Next Time, much like all of his works, should be required reading for us all. They also serve as a stark reminder of the as yet unfulfilled promises of the Civil Rights era.

We will never move beyond the divisions we face now if we do not honestly and openly sit down and listen to one another and attempt to understand what it means to grow up black in the US.

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[Religious] liberty?

I don’t mind religion. Nor do I hate the idea of belief systems. Religion, of any sort, simply doesn’t work for me, and really hasn’t since I was 5. I’ve explored them, studied several rather intensely, and honestly I just do not get it. No offence intended.

To be honest, I don’t even really take offence at anyone’s religiosity or the teachings of a particular religion precisely because it’s not mine. Some ideas and notions are incredibly offensive to me—condemning homosexuality or gender nonconformity, subjecting women to positions of inferiority and essentially removing them from the possibility of holding positions of power or subjecting them to standards based on their worth defined by men, etc. I find these notions more a matter of interpretation rather than simply a matter of religion per se. Individuals will always find ways to justify their propensity for shittiness and attempt to maintain their positions of power. To my mind, doing so through religious dogma remains particularly effective as a method rather than necessarily a matter of religion alone.

Keep the masses uninformed or unexposed to different ideas and, of course, they’ll follow along blindly. Teach them to not question authority by using scare tactics ranging from punishment in the here and now to an eternity of misery and damnation, and likely they won’t critically examine the shaky foundations upon which those beliefs are based.

But, that’s not my problem with religion. I do question beliefs. And, I do question authority. My own, and those specifically I’m told I must believe. It did not make sense to me at 5, and it still baffles me.

Whilst I don’t mind the religion of others, I do mind being forced to adhere to and follow the beliefs and ideology of ANY religion. It matters not a jot if that religion is Protestantism, Baptism, Catholicism, Satanism, Hinduism, Islam or ANY other dogma that professes to be ‘The Truth’. Not just one capital T, but two. Unless there is verifiable, testable, replicable evidence to back up a claim, I’m not interested. Call it blasphemy, and call me a heathen. You will not be the first.

Believe what you need to in order to cope / manage / understand  / make sense of this crazy world around you. But, creating laws based on any religion is not evidence-based nor does it allow for religious liberty for ALL religions. Anywhere.

So, if we’re going to venture down the rabbit hole of creating a task force to ensure Christians are not persecuted due to their religion, will we do the same for those Muslims who associate with Daesh or who follow Sharia law? How about Rastafarians? (I’m fine with that, although I suspect Jeff Sessions won’t be.) How about the polygamous practices and child marriage practices of some sects of Mormonism?

In the United States, the framers of the US Constitution sought to ensure that no religion stood above any other, and that no religion was a part of the State or government. They felt it so important that they made it the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I’m looking specifically at Thomas Paine here, but they all had important points to make specifically in relation to this:

Religion

Take a stand

There was a time, what seems like long ago, when political party affiliation wasn’t quite so starkly divisive. When an individual aligning as a democrat spoke respectfully to an individual aligned as a republican. When discussions of policy could take place and consensus could be reached. When cooperation was rewarded and legislation truly was bipartisan or nonpartisan.

When any interaction did not descend quickly into a mud-slinging insult-trading tirade, ending with both individuals storming off like petulant children who didn’t get their favourite ice cream cone because they behaved badly.

Those were good times.

I’m no longer surprised by any policy decisions from this administration. Angry and sad, yes. Outraged most of the time, yes. Incredulous, yes. But, not surprised.

What keeps me awake at night and leaves me utterly gut-wrenched is the knowledge that people I know support seemingly inhumane measures. More so, these individuals I respect mightily continue to twist themselves in knots to support actions which go against everything they previously believed in to justify this administration’s actions. And, the knowledge that there are far too many others just like them.

It’s left me oh so weary.

This latest battle, separating children from their parents at the border, … I don’t have the words. I cannot understand how anyone can justify this. And, yet, they do.

A quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr has been on repeat in my head for what seems like days. ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.’ Attempting to find the context and its origin, I discovered that it isn’t actually a direct quote, but a paraphrase. The original text stems from a sermon King gave in Selma following Bloody Sunday, another dark day in our history:

Deep down in our non-violent creed is the conviction there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, some great truth stands before the door of his life — some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right. A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. He died…

A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.

— Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., Sermon in Selma, 8 March 1965
Regardless of party leaning or affiliation, regardless of creed, regardless of degrees of separation from your own ancestral immigration to the US, can we not set aside those differences and agree that this, children, are worth taking a stand for?
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Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

On ‘Women & Power: A Manifesto’

Women & Power: A Manifesto

Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received this little gem of a book through one of my yearly subscriptions from Strand Books.

Weaving a thread that connects the lack of women in positions of power to women’s roles in ancient Greece provides much fodder for the reasons women today remain the minority in power positions.

From the time of Aristophanes to imagery of a Triumph Trump holding the severed head of a Hillary Medusa, this book-derived-from-a-lecture offers much to consider.

It also challenges us to reconsider why when women speak up, it often takes a man to validate her position and words for us to hear them. Even today.

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On ‘I Can’t Breathe’

I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay StreetI Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can’t imagine anyone watching the video of the last minutes of Eric Garner’s life and not being utterly horrified. Horrified by the excessive use of force and complete lack of concern for a man’s life.

I also cannot imagine how haunted Matt Taibbi must be from the research and passion he put into this book. But, I’m glad he took on those ghosts and took such care into getting the narrative right. He succeeded in so many ways.

By all accounts, Eric Garner shouldn’t be dead. At least not because of an illegal choke-hold. But, he is, leaving a giant hole in his family’s life as well as the community he called home. By all accounts, the man responsible for choking him to death — Daniel Pantaleo — should have been held to account. He was not. In a rather twisted alter-reality, Pantaleo is viewed by many as the victim.

This book isn’t just about that fateful arrest and its aftermath. It’s about a system — in New York as well as the United States in general — that forces us all to examine our own ideas of community, safety and policing, and the consequences of attempting to ‘feel safe’. It’s about what we’re willing to allow police to do to feel safe. And, it’s about what we will accept as ‘the way it is’.

As much as I respect anyone who chooses a career in law enforcement, I also fear how far the justice system itself has gone to protect its members. When entire communities recount story after story after story of ‘walking while black’, being pulled from cars and brutally beaten for asking a question, and then charged with crimes they did not and could not possibly commit, we must recognise that something is broken. And, it’s not the windows.

Taibbi packs so much food-for-thought within this book. It’s heartbreaking, even more so when you consider living within the realities he describes so painstakingly. We know Eric Garner’s name because of the clear evidence of brutality captured on a cell phone. The world saw that video and collectively gasped. We gasped again when a grand jury came back with no indictment.

Taibbi begins this book by describing another event in Staten Island. Ibrahim ‘Brian’ Annan, a young man stopped by police around the same time Garner was choked, was pulled from his car and beaten so violently by two police officers that one leg was broken in three places. He was charged with a total of seven felonies, all of which were eventually dropped, a process which took nearly a dozen court appearances and more than two years. The charges lobbed against Annan were so absurd and so obviously intended to simply force him to relent even the judge presiding over the cases found them silly. Annan’s beating was not captured on film. And, whilst disabled, he lived to tell the story. But, sadly, this is not uncommon in Staten Island, in particular, or in other inner cities in general (think Baltimore and Freddie Grey). It is sadly not new, either. Taibbi also tells the tale of Clementine Ross, a woman who has been waiting 50 years for closure on the shooting of her husband by a cop in Arkansas. His crime? Asking for a receipt.

Matt Taibbi focuses on a killing on Bay Street. But, given all of the names of all those who have died before and since Eric Garner, individuals primarily unarmed and shot by law enforcement officials, I’m surprised any of us can breathe.

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On ‘Notorious RBG’

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader GinsburgNotorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always reminded me a bit of my grandmother. Quiet. Proper. Often wearing a stern look or serious expression accentuated by flawless hair and pearls. And, retorts at the ready which leave all present to hear them slack-jawed and cowering at their own ignorance. In my family, we often repeated a mantra, ‘Don’t cross Grandma’. I would imagine some variant exists for RBG amongst those nearest and dearest.

Notorious RBG is a must-read for any self-respecting feminist or equal rights activist (Is there really a difference between the two?) needing a beacon of hope and a dose of ‘get up and go’. And, RBG the woman is that beacon during very dark times. This woman. Unlike her, rather than seeing nine women justices on the highest bench in the land, I’d like to see nine RBGs at SCOTUS.

Oh, to dare to dream.

Detailing her life as a young newlywed law student, then graduate of Columbia Law (top in her class) unable to land a job, then law professor (needing to hide her second pregnancy)…, she understands not just in theoretical terms but from lived experience what perceived differences mean and they affect us as individuals and groups. To her, it isn’t simply about disregarding those perceived differences and the ideal roles of men and women; it’s about those institutionalised cateogories and erasing the various barriers and injustices they unfairly impose upon us. Her weapon of choice, however, is the law and the US Constitution. And, this woman plays the long game.

As I was finishing this brilliant, inspiring book this morning, I wept. Not because of anything particularly troubling that appeard upon the page at that precise moment. But, because so many of us are simply too tired to continue fighting for and working towards what we believe is right and just. If this tiny woman could become one of the most inspiring memes of our times, we—who have benefitted from her tireless efforts in classrooms, courtrooms and on the bench—can certainly work just a little bit harder to solidify and make permanent those giant gains she made for us.

RBG inspires for many reasons. And, we do her and all others who have blazed various trails a disservice by simply giving in to despair because it is too damn hard.

One of the appendices features a list of ‘How to be like RBG’. It reads:

  • Work for what you believe in
  • But pick your battles
  • Don’t burn your bridges
  • Don’t be afraid to take charge
  • Think about what you want, then do the work
  • But then enjoy what makes you happy
  • Bring along your crew
  • Have a sense of humour
  • I’ve got my to-do list sorted then.

RBG. However long she graces the Supreme Court and this world, it won’t be nearly long enough to satisfy me. I’ll still want more. But, her legacy. Long may it guide and inspire us all. And, may we all have red hot pens at the ready to sharpen and hone our words. Because words and how we wield them truly matter.

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Solidarity

I’m of the mind that educational institutions should be palaces — and those who educate should be paid more than just about any other profession. To me, investing in education, particularly through public support to universities and research institutions, helps all of us within and across societies. When we know how to process information and distinguish fact from fiction, we can discuss issues which affect us all through informed debate, and shift our thinking as new information and evidence comes available.

Society at large in my mind should reward the many, many, many individuals who ceaselessly and unrelentingly dedicate their lives to educating others. It simply makes sense to me, as an individual, as a member of society and as an extended member of the University of Helsinki staff and faculty.

As further cuts to education and research are discussed and pushed forward as sound policy, I am appalled. I may not be a member of a particular union at the university; but I unequivocally support the unions and their members as they strike today. All those who work at and with the university to make it one of the best in the world deserve better. This collective of amazing, talented and indefatigably dedicated individuals should certainly be valued rather than continuously and rather callously put under increasing pressure to do more with stagnant (if not falling) wages and with the added understanding that their jobs and vocations may be but fleetingly secure.

Academic life is no joke. Nor is it particularly lucrative for the vast majority of us who have chosen it. And, most academics do not expect outrageously generous salaries or benefits. However, most of us understand that continual cuts result in increasing burdens on the entire system. Certainly, as employees, we suffer. But, more importantly, those seeking an education and knowledge suffer more.

If I were a member of one of the university unions, I would be striking today. Proudly. And resolutely.

Solidarity, my comrades! Your worth is immeasurable!

Solidarity-fist