In Memoriam

Let’s Not Kid Ourselves

Let’s Not Kid Ourselves

On David Berman

Much of what David Berman wrote and performed throughout his life was country music: songs about the sadness and difficulty of trying to get by in the world, along with descriptions of that world. “When God was young, he made the wind and the sun,” Berman sang on the opening song of Bright Flight. “And since then, it’s been a slow education.” When country songs are successful, it is because their outward simplicity, their plain-spokenness, their colloquialisms emerge out of enormous and delicate efforts of emotional compression. You can tell when a country song is just simple—when the necessary effort hasn’t been made—and you can tell when a songwriter hasn’t pulled off the compression, because then the song sounds mannered. But when both elements are working, a country song can shimmer, throb, or glare at you with an uncomfortable intensity.

One Part Retribution, One Part Redemption

One Part Retribution, One Part Redemption

On Binyavanga Wainaina, 1971–2019

Wainaina was in fine form the day we met, a mind on fire, and a cultural worker at the height of his powers. So the news this past week that we had lost him so early at age 48, of a stroke, hit my world hard. I had seen him in Berlin a couple years back, at one of the gatherings at Savvy Contemporary art gallery. He had suffered a racist attack while in Berlin, but was unbowed and determined to continue his sojourning. For many of us in diaspora, losing Binyavanga Wainaina felt like we were left with one less heartbeat in our chest. We have to spread his message to the world; we have the technology.

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Meaning of Emancipation

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Meaning of Emancipation

He was a revolutionary, if one committed to nonviolence. But nonviolence does not exhaust his philosophy

As a theorist of inequality, King is our contemporary. But he was also a philosopher of equality, and thus of emancipation. At the core of his thought one finds the political subjectivity that the civil rights struggle was helping to engender. Important as his final year was, the radical outlines of this project are visible from 1955 to 1963, as King was drawn deeper into political activism and answered the call to engage in a political sequence that exceeded the boundaries of the existing situation.

The Painful Sum of Things

The Painful Sum of Things

On V. S. Naipaul

I have admired Naipaul as much as I have found him difficult to admire, a murky admixture that I find difficult to explain or clarify, and which I find with no other writer, to anything like the same degree. (Edward Said referred to his “pained admiration,” and dissonant phrases of that kind are scattered through appreciations of his work.) I know, too, that you knew him, which I did not. I don’t know if that makes him more or less difficult to appraise.

Ordinary Faithfulness

Ordinary Faithfulness

Stanley Cavell, 1926–2018

Philosopher Stanley Cavell, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard, who died on June 19 at age 91, published his first book, Must We Mean What We Say?, during the strike. The book’s essays cover a broad range of subjects, from modernist music and Beckett’s Endgame to Kierkegaard and King Lear. But one area—political theory—is noticeably absent. And yet, two essays, which were composed over the course of the ’60s, speak directly to the most pressing political issues of the decade: civil rights and the war in Vietnam.

Workers Full of Poems

Workers Full of Poems

On Eddie Sadlowski, 1938–2018

Sadlowski embodied the wish for organized labor to wake from its postwar slumber and again throw its weight behind a great movement for a different country, as it had done in the 1930s and before. The AFL-CIO had shamefully backed the Vietnam War; Sadlowski opposed it and denounced the growth of “the weapons economy”—of which steel was very much a part. Many of the unions in the federation, including the USWA, had dragged their heels at best on racial integration of their workplaces; Sadlowski called for strengthening the union’s civil rights apparatus, attracting the support of Jesse Jackson and members of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. Much of organized labor met environmentalism with hostility; Sadlowski dissented. “It’s one hell of a thing for me to say—we just don’t need any more steel mills. We don’t need that kind of industrial growth, at the expense of what the environment should be.” He followed the thought where it led: “Enough with the car!” What more radical claim could a blue-collar worker make about postwar society than to doubt the automobile?