'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, August 09, 2010

August Wilson and the American Left 

On Saturday night, I had a rare opportunity to go to the theatre, and decided to see a production of August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean at The Next Stage. It was a small, intimate production in a theatre that does not hold more than 75 people. After seeing this play, as well as Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, it is clear to me that very few American artists have ever examined the interwoven themes of race, class, identity, migration and capitalist exploitation with the insight of Wilson. His work has a significance beyond the admittedly important African American world in which they are situated. If you watch one of his plays, you are perpetually compelled to confront theory with the reality of lived experience.

In Gem, there is an especially important way in which this happens, through the profound question of forgiveness, and the extent to which it is an essential feature of any enduring community, and hence, any effective political movement. Set in 1904, the narrative in Gem is centered around the decision of a factory worker to jump into the river and drown himself instead facing punishment for something that he didn't do, stealing a bucket of nails. Afterwards, the man who did take the nails, Citizen Barlow, arrives at Aunt Ester's, the home of an elderly women known for her ability to clean souls.

Barlow admits that he took the nails, and plaintatively asks, why didn't he come out of the water? Ester has the answer: He'd rather die innocent than live guilty, suggesting that the man evaded the injustice of the world in which he lived through death, an extreme form of protest. And the other African American workers respond to it that way, thereafter refusing to work, despite a severe economic downturn. But the essential question is the fate of Barlow within the larger community.

Despite what some might expect, Ester and her circle of friends do not condemn Barlow to the life of an outcast. Instead, Ester washes his soul by compelling him to confront the traumatic experience of being transported from Africa to the United States as all of their ancestors were. Here, bound by imaginary chains, Barlow must seize the opportunity to confess his misdeed to all of the other captives, or be alone forever. Peter had three chances, you may not get another one, implores Ester. Wilson brings out the truth that people invariably do terrible things, but they are only lost when they are separated from their collective identity. In this, curiously enough, his perspective is reminiscent of the German anarchist Landauer, who emphasized that we embody all of those who came before us.

It is an important subject for the American left, and possibly even the global left, which has been notorious for sectarian condemnation and intrigue. Instead of extending a hand to those with whom we disagree, and even personally dislike, we have been all to willing to shove them through the door. For African Americans, as represented by Wilson, the price of such expulsions is too high, as they need all the help that they can get surviving in a country dominated by whites. More personally, there is a bond amongst all going back to slavery days that is emotionally hard to sever, even with someone who treats his own people as harshly as the black cop, Caesar. Thus, the emphasis is upon rehabilitation, with the characters in Gem celebrating Barlow's return from the metaphorical slave ship, ecstatic that he understands his familial bond with those who struggled against slavery and continue to do so against industrial exploitation. Similarly, we should also retain our association with those who share vision of the future, even if we have intense disagreements and conflicts.

Two examples may serve to illustrate the principle. In the last month or so, I have published two posts critical of Chomsky's perspective on Palestine, and, particularly, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Several years ago, I disagreed with his statement that the US should bring back the draft. With a few exceptions, I have focused upon the substance of what Chomsky has said, not upon Chomsky personally. Without question, Chomsky is a titan of the global left and nothing will ever change that. But we can, and should think for ourselves and persist in our own views when we believe them to be correct. Most importantly, we should extend the same respect that we give Chomsky to all other leftists. In other words, we should not mitigate Chomsky's perceived errors, while mercilessly punishing others who lack his record of achievement and popular support. Instead, we should respectfully disagree when appropriate without seeking to ostracize anyone.

Here is another example. I frequently comment on blogs like Lenin's Tomb and The Unrepentant Marxist, even though I am not a Leninist like Richard Seymour and Louis Proyect, the people responsible for these blogs. I am open about being anarchist influenced, and Seymour seems fine with it, Proyect less so, probably because I was a little too strident in criticizing his overly broad characterizations of anarchists. I visit both blogs because I find them informative, and refuse to allow my access to information and my ability to communicate with others to be compromised by sectarianism. Someone I highly respect told me awhile ago that they refused to buy Seymour's book, The Liberal Defence of Murder, even though he believed that it was probably pretty good, because Seymour is affiliated with the British Socialist Workers Party. Despite the entryism and sectarianism that many associate with the SWP, you can still read Seymour's book without endorsing them.

Perhaps, there are some Leninists and anarchists out there who consider my perspective too infused by the residue of Christianity. But Wilson has an answer to this in Gem as well. Nearly all the characters justify their social attitudes by references to Christ or the Bible. However, in all instances, with the exception of Caesar, they are quite radical, prioritizing the needs of people over the profits of whites and the wealthy. Instead of seeing such people as impaired by their Christian faith, it may be more accurate to understand them as invoking Christian utopianism in the service of an egalitarian enterprise.

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