Friday, January 27, 2017

CBR9 #2: Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.

Yesterday afternoon, I read Frank Bruni's opinion piece, titled "The Wrong Way to Take On Trump." Bruni – former political reporter turned restaurant critic turned opinion columnist for the New York Times – decided to school the American public on how we should "go high" when talking, protesting,  and generally reacting to Trump. Except he didn't really give specifics on what to do, nor did he interview any activists on their advice. Bruni spent the majority of this column telling us how we failed in our liberal-ness (listing obvious examples such as the tweet sent out about Barron Trump and Madonna's provocative stage antics) and his last two paragraphs basically can be summed up to this: "to rant less and organise more. To resist taunts and stick with facts. to answer invective with intelligence."

Thanks, man. I didn't know that at all. How helpful.

And that piece just reminded me of all the column inches devoted to how the Black Lives Matters protesters were doing it wrong, how they should have done it this other way instead; how they need to be peaceful. And it just made me even madder.

Which is what compelled me to revisit Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail. I haven't read it since... maybe high school? I'm not sure, truly. But I wanted my anger to be justified, to be sated in some way, to stop feeling like I'm guilty when my white, male friends tell me that I am "attacking" them when all I am simply doing is talking and stating facts about race, sexism, and civil rights.

It will be no shocker to anybody when I say that so much of what King wrote in 1963 is still relevant today. From the description of having to hear the word "wait" over and over again for your civil liberties, to the line on police brutality ("hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalise, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity") to the descriptions of economic desolation for minorities ("air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society") – yes, it is still so relevant today.

What I did miss as a teenager though was how much of a burn master King was. He really got some choice jabs in! From his use of sarcasm ("I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticism are sincerely set forth") to his blunt statement of emotion ("I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will.") to his subtle digs to the ministers who wrote the statement criticising King's demonstrations ("History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged grips seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.") King was totally all about setting them on fire.

But the real reason I wanted to reread it was for his admonition of the white moderate. Here is the beginning:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." 

Oh, he goes on, all right. King is merciless in his descriptions of the white moderate – and he is even nuanced enough to include middle-class blacks who have profited in that society and now has economic security (like The Invisible Man in the beginning of the book) – and it's astounding to me how direct parallels can be drawn in regards to the Black Lives Matters movement, and to the way certain (white, privileged) liberals have taken to reprimanding those with more vocal anxieties post-inauguration.

Seriously, there's even a #notallmen #notallwhitepeople section in the letter! King criticises the Southern church leaders (though he commended a single revered for welcoming black people to the worship service and Catholic leaders for integrating Springhill College) for preaching to follow the laws of integration, not because it is morally right, but because it is now a law. "I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour," he said. This was basically his #yesallchurches moment.

Another interesting thing that stood out to me was his purposeful use of indecisive language during key moments of the letter. "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom..." or "I had hoped that the white moderate would see this. Maybe I was too optimistic. Maybe I expected too much. I guess I should have realised that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed."

These "guess" "hope" and "maybe"s, read in an earnest way, take on a disappointed tone. It makes the reader feel that King truly had hope for the church leaders to do better, and he is greatly saddened by their lack of action. But read in a modern tone – which is how it started to sound in my head once I realised what an OG he was – it takes on an ironic tone, and then the piece shifts to anger. I don't know why I never saw it before, but now that I'm reading it in this current political climate, I can't help but feel like the moderates never showed up to begin with.

One final thing to mention: A friend of mine who reminded me of the letter when I was speaking with him also said that I am angry at these moderates because "that's really just aiming at someone you can hit." In a way, it's probably true.

Monday, January 23, 2017

CBR9 #1: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

New year, new Cannonball Read, so let's just kick it off by jumping straight to my review!

I purchased Story of Your Life and Others after I saw Arrival in theaters, which rocked me to my core, and I wanted to see just how it translated from the page to the screen. The answer? Very differently. For one, Chiang is a lot more technical in his descriptions, and I really appreciate the sparse-ness of his language. He does not use wordy descriptions to manipulate emotions out of his readers; he simply lets the readers draw the parallels between the science-y concepts he talking about to the plot events.

Overall, the emotional punch of the short story is quite similar to the movie, and I will refrain from discussing too much about it lest it ruins the film for anyone. If you haven't seen it, go. Run. Go see it.

But I will talk about his other pieces in the book. Once that made me really comprehend the varied paths that Chiang's mind traverses was Hell Is the Absence of God. He takes a single concept – "Does God exist?" – and runs completely amok with it by making it not a question, but a fact. Yes, God exists; yes, angels exist; yes, heaven and hell exist; but do people still believe and love God unquestioningly? I really enjoyed the world that he created where angels would appear on earth, but leave devastating consequences amidst "miracles," and a single man's quest to try and convince himself to love God despite the fact that his beloved (devout) wife was taken away from him too early.

Liking What You See: A Documentary has also burrowed itself into my mind. In this world, people are able to input some sort of device into their brains that blocks the neural paths that allow for them to recognize physical attractiveness in others. What happens then is that people will not be able to see if someone is attractive or unattractive, and would judge others only on the content of their personality. It's certainly an appealing idea and piece of imaginative technology, but Chiang does not just leave it to the realms of simplicity. The short story also follows the journey of a young girl who grew up with calli – the shortened name of the neurological procedure – who discovered what it was like to see others' faces... and liking it. One other student interviewed in the documentary also said that making society blind to physical appearances is just another way of erasing the problem by pretending it isn't there. There are a lot of strange and interesting discussions to be had from just this story, and I am very grateful – and slightly disturbed, truthfully – to have experienced it.