“You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down”
Yesterday, waiting in suburban New Jersey for a train, I looked up and saw the scene below on the telephone wire looming right above the train platform. I knew that the birds would disperse as soon as the train arrived, and in fact the lights of the train were getting close. I quickly snapped this photo.
It’s not that I needed any proof of Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliance. But yet again I was reminded that — for me at least — there has never been a filmmaker who so skillfully and insidiously plays with my fears, anxieties, and obsessions, not to mention leaving haunting, mental residue that lasts for decades.
It was Tuesday, September 19, 2017. And, just for a moment, I felt like I was living in the village of Bodega Bay, California depicted in Hitchcock’s The Birds
– Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
Think of every stock photo and stereotype about 1950s and 1960s suburban America. Think about Dick and Jane reading books, gingham aprons, milk served in pitchers and cookie jars.
Think about kids lined up for polio shots, Ed Sullivan, and service station attendants wearing well-pressed uniforms.
It was not a complete fiction. I know. I was there.
But also – while you’re at it — think of whiteness, of blocks and blocks of white families doing white things, opening mail boxes to find magazines filled with stories about patio furniture and backyard BBQs and vacations in station wagons. And think of house after identical house, where any internal emotional turbulence or troublesome external social ferment could always be neatly hidden beneath the veneer of Cub Scout meetings, bake sales, and summer vacations.
Think of a whiteness so relentless that it was both everywhere and nowhere, pervasive yet so taken for granted that it could hardly be noticed. Imagine a place where you could come of age without ever seeing a black person in the flesh.
I thought of all these things – suddenly and without warning — in the middle of giving a lecture this Wednesday to 150 undergraduates about the rise of demographics, targeted media, and the death of mass circulation magazines. I talked about bloated audiences who, in their lack of demographic desirability, held no interest for advertisers starting to strategically target their messages. I thought of Life Magazine, on the verge of collapse. And I then I remembered the day that this issue arrived in our mail box.
Martin Luther King had been assassinated two weeks before. The event stunned and horrified us. I was fortunate to have parents who had taught my sisters and I about racial injustice. I still treasure the memory of one of my father’s finest moments when, hearing me utter an offensive racial remark at the age of eight, followed the charming fashion of the day and filled my mouth with a bar of ivory soap.
But we lived where we lived, and this magazine arrived like a live grenade. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead, and now we had to look his wife straight in the face. We had to see her grief. Even worse, we had to contend with her serenity in the midst of the horror. We had to imagine her husband with his eyes closed, stilled and silenced.
I know that sometimes, in our zeal to construct compelling life narratives, we look back and overstate the significance of events. But I also know that nothing was the same after that magazine arrived. Our comfortable world had been pierced by the reality that rifles could silence a man’s passion and indignation.
There is no dramatic or profound ending to this story.
Nothing magic happened.
Miraculous revelations of tolerance were nowhere to be seen.
There was no justice and nothing was flowing like a mighty stream.
Our neighborhood stayed the same. Most people remained remarkably skilled at maintaining a willful blindness that obscured the anger and ferment brewing in distant places.
But never again could we claim, at least not with a straight face, that we knew nothing of that other world where guns were fired and justice denied. It arrived on the cover of a long-defunct magazine, and somehow we sensed that the dream deferred, festering like a sore yet so invisible in our blindingly white world, would soon explode.
THE SECOND COMING
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Today on Meet the Press, George Will joined a growing group of conservative thinkers who — temporarily setting aside deeply held beliefs on the public policy and role of government — have expressed a more basic and profound concern about what it means when nothing a President says can be trusted.
Will imagines a scenario in which Trump might claim the need to exercise a pre-emptive nuclear option (something I absolutely oppose) and we might have no idea if the facts he presents to justify such a disastrous move are even remotely true.
To think we thought Stanley Kubrick’s character Dr. Strangelove was a cartoon.
We are living the cartoon, in all its absurdity and potential horror.