Friday, September 26, 2008

Alice Walker: loving the people

Note: This post makes has been percolating in my head since the weekend I read the article in the print edition of the Saturday Guardian, so I feel the need to get it down, even though it makes points quite similar to ones Noga has already made here.

“I love the Jews really only en masse, en détail I strictly avoid him.” – Wilhelm von Humboldt, quoted by Hannah Arendt

Luckily, Alice Walker will almost certainly never read this post. “Sometimes, reading a blog, which I do infrequently, I see that generations of Americans have been crippled, and can no longer spell or write a sentence.” Oh well.

Ms Walker provocatively opens her recent piece on the American presidency like this:

I remember seeing a picture of Fidel Castro in a parade with lots of other Cubans. It was during the emergency years, the "special period" when Cuba's relationship with the Soviet Union had collapsed and there was little gas or oil or fertiliser; people were struggling to find enough to eat. It was perhaps Cuba's nadir, as a small Caribbean island nation considered a dangerous threat by its nearest neighbour, the United States - which, during this period, tightened its embargo. Fidel, tall, haggard, his clothes hanging more loosely than usual from his gaunt frame, walked soberly along, surrounded by thousands of likewise downhearted, fearful people...

However poor the Cubans might be, I realised, they cared about each other and they had a leader who loved them. A leader who loved them. Imagine. A leader not afraid to be out in the streets with them, a leader not ashamed to show himself as troubled and humbled as they were. A leader who would not leave them to wonder and worry alone, but would stand with them, walk with them, celebrate with them - whatever the parade might be.

This is what I want for our country, more than anything. I want a leader who can love us.

Now, I have some admiration for Fidel Castro and what he has achieved, against all the odds. And I think that the American trade embargo on Cuba has been a cruel, counterproductive, vindictive policy, which has done nothing to further democracy and only helped immiserate the people of Cuba.

However, Castro’s regime has been a brutal authoritarian dictatorship. If Castro loves the people of Cuba, his love does not extend to letting them choose who should rule them, or letting them listen to or read any dissenting voices, or letting them access the internet or have a free press or borrow books from their libraries which challenge his worldview. If Castro loves the people of Cuba, his love is expressed through a system of neighbourhood informers who ensure political conformity, through the imprisonment of dissidents, through the outlawing of homosexuality, through allowing the sex tourism industry to flourish to bring in hard currency. If Castro loves the people of Cuba, he does not love them enough to let them form free trade unions, to let them go on strike or to let them travel abroad.

Whatever Bush’s faults, none of these things can be said about him. But Bush, Walker says, is all about “killing, under order, folks we don’t know; abusing children of whose existence we hadn’t heard; maiming and murdering animals that have done us no harm.” That, she says, is how we know Bush loves neither us nor himself.

John Kennedy, in contrast, Walker says, did love the American people. Maybe I’ve read too much James Ellroy and Gore Vidal to have a clear view of Kennedy, but he was the man who ordered the ridiculous Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow Castro’s government, the man who declared a war on Communism and turned a tiny military operation into the Vietnam war, the man who authorising the bombing, burning and napalming of Vietnamese civilians. In other words, sending Americans to kill folks they don’t know, abuse children, and, yes, maim animals.

Regardless of which picture is more accurate, though, I don’t think it is right to ask for a president who loves the American people. As soon as someone invokes The People, with that definite article, I get worried.

Hannah Arendt was famously rebuked by her friend Gershom Scholem for not loving the Jewish people enough. She replied (addressing him in her letter, I think, by his original German name Gerhardt): “I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective – neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons… I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.”

As I’ve said before, those who most love Humanity en masse, as von Humboldt puts it, in the abstract – The People – are those who least love actual humans en détail, in the flesh – who care least for real people, including real Americans. In fact, those who most love The People in the abstract are often those most able to kill and abuse and maim real people in the flesh.

Alice Walker, it seems, is a woman who cannot love her own daughter or grandson, yet loves the whole American people, despite their inability to write a sentence, despite them being “racist and sexist and greedy above all”. If I were an American, I would not want a president who loved me as Fidel loves the Cuban people or as Alice Walker loves the American people. I would want a president who loves her friends and her children.

If I were an American, I would vote for Barack Obama, but, as Noga says, his strongest supporters don’t make that easier.


Daniel Stark said...

Good post, I liked it. I'm not going out and saying I agreed with everything you said, but it was insightful.

This is also the first time in a long time that I've posted on your blog without being sick (like the past few times). Hooray!

bob said...

Thanks Daniel, glad to know you're better. I actually wrote a long reply to your comment on the Obama post, but kindly lost it and I didn't have the stamina to re-write. (Moral: always write long comments off-line, then paste them in.) Maybe I'll have another go

Ghajn said...

Hi, just found your blog. Also in Brockley :). On the topic of 'American people' a few years ago Harold Pinter did an acceptance speech talking about that invocation...should be on

Perhaps the thing to be questioned here is the concept of representation and what does it mean to represent a particular group of people? Where's the authority to do so come from, and how is it maintained from one moment to the next? Is it a valid abstraction? I think if those kinds of things are questioned, the rest of the stuff like loving ones people etc, can probably be seen as instrumental devices or simplistic nonsense with dark consequences...

Raaj said...

Alice Walker's womanist credo seems exemplified in the words and the passions of Shug. Walker's literature and life work have been an expression of splendor and love of life. But they have also arisen from Walker's immersion in the stuff of lamentation, outcry, blues.