Last week—last terrible, terrible week—it felt like the stupidest, least important thing anyone could have been doing was writing a blog on trivia and the arts. But what could one say, really, in a situation where no one's words were helping: not the President's, who was powerless; not the protestors who for all their right passion and outrage couldn't overturn a verdict; and certainly not the final words of nine jurors in Missouri. "All I have is a voice," Auden wrote once. But voices don't bring back the dead, prosecute the unarraigned, or reform a law enforcement system. One wants to "signal boost." Still, re-posting something on Facebook seems a hollow gesture in the face of injustice, at least to this millennial. Maybe I should have anyway. When all gestures are equivalent in weightlessness, maybe each one matters equally.
The problem is that nothing seems like quite enough. You could throw the weight of your life against racism, and still it would loom there, an incorporeal phantom hovering over America—and Britain, and France, South Africa, Canada, Israel, Korea, and on and on (there is nowhere truly free). A shadow cost of racism is all the lives lived to fight racism when they could have been doing something else; and, as glorious and admirable as it is, we should not pretend that fighting racism is what anyone ought to have to spend their life doing in a better world. "Can there be beauty in Sodom?" Dmitri Karamazov asks in Dostoevsky's novel. The philosopher Gavin Lawrence makes this point about the life of Michael Dummett, who left behind his academic career at one point to fight against racism.
"Different situations call for different activities, or contributions, from us; and sometimes these situations are inherently defective, bad, or tragic. It is not that we cannot rise to the occasion, and do what has to be done. It is rather that the situation, so to speak, doesn’t rise to us and our greatest potentialities. In a certain sense, it doesn’t bring out the best in us—though in another sense it may. Dummett, in the introduction to his first book on Frege, records how he felt forced away from philosophy to help combat rampant racism in Britain. Clearly, one might think, this was the best thing he could have done in those circumstances—it is surely wrong calmly to philosophize in the presence of such injustice. It is important, and admirable, that he possessed the right values and correctly exercised them in the situation in which he found himself. Yet there is also a sense in which surely it would have been better had such a situation not arisen and he been able to continue his philosophical work. And had the situation required his continued presence to his dying day, that doubtless would have constituted a worthwhile and successful life, but only so to a less than ideal extent. One doesn’t ideally want to have to spend one’s lifetime combatting others’ evil stupidities."I don't think it is the case that the world would be better had a John Ashbery or a Cindy Sherman (or a Kara Walker or a Zadie Smith) dropped their artistic vocations in order to fight racism—or advocate for the environment, or any number of morally exigent causes. More importantly, it seems to be wrong to say that they should have, declined to do so, and are thereby wrong. But I wish it were the case that racism had not loomed so large over the life and works of James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison; that Malcolm X had been liberated to become a writer and advocate at large; that Martin Luther King, Jr. could simply have been a theologian and John Lewis could have simply become a politician, or that Barack Obama could simply be President without dealing with the idiocies of commentators alleging racism at him, or the hatred that roils on Internet comment threads. (The YouTube username is the modern KKK hood: it anonymizes hate speech.)
And in the wake of this horrible moment that has reminded us all how much racism stains modern America, it's minority friends and colleagues who are committed to creating ideas and art whom I admire most, who—despite the injustice of the moment—persist in starting to realize the world that we wished we lived in: everyone in a Ph.D. program, everyone starting to publish, everyone trying to find their way. (It's now that institutions like the Mellon Mays program seem most important to me.) I've been thinking about that Lawrence quote a lot this past week. And I agree with it in many ways. But I also think that it would be wrong to live lives that fail to at least partially realize the ideal world we want to create, to succumb in that way to evil stupidities. Life can be lived on multiple registers, and while we might be wrong to privilege only what we most enjoy, it would be an acquiescence to give it up entirely, or even to give up its chief place in the life one wants to live.