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The sentence itself becomes a kind of captivity.

Today’s Poetry Foundation poem-of-the-day is “Passive Voice” by Laura Da’.  It goes like this:

I use a trick to teach students
how to avoid passive voice.

Circle the verbs.
Imagine inserting “by zombies”
after each one.

Have the words been claimed
by the flesh-hungry undead?
If so, passive voice.

I wonder if these
sixth graders will recollect,
on summer vacation,
as they stretch their legs
on the way home
from Yellowstone or Yosemite
and the byway’s historical marker
beckons them to the
site of an Indian village—

Where trouble was brewing.
Where, after further hostilities, the army was directed to enter.
Where the village was razed after the skirmish occurred.
Where most were women and children.


Of course, it makes me think of Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS.  That would be the most direct—the closest connection, I guess.  But also, of an idea I have been circling these last couple of years—a thing I keep coming back to.  It has to do with how there seems never to be a real subject, so often when we talk about racism.  With how there can be all this racism, without there seeming to be any racists.  A thing being done every day, everywhere—but nobody doing it.  Like some variation of a philosopher’s paradox or a children’s game—or like the old wives’ tale about watched pots.

And yet, there’s the water as always: boiling.


I think of an essay from last summer, in The Paris Review.  A piece by Aracelis Girmay.  I go look for it, and I read it again.  I remember these bits, especially:

The kids love the story of Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X.  They read a little at first, then a little more.  We give them the large brushstrokes of the burning house, but we talk for long about Malcolm’s brilliant family, their commitments and work, the ladybugs in the garden.  In Mae Among the Stars, when the teacher dismisses Mae’s dream to become an astronaut, our son is shocked.  “Why would a teacher say that to a child?”  He asks this very question, out of what seems to us the blue, over several weeks, then months.  We do not mention that the teacher is White.  We do not mention that the people who burn Malcolm Little’s house are White.


We are on a Zoom call with my child’s class.  One of his White classmates has gone to a march with her family, in the middle of a pandemic, to march for Black Lives.  The power of this is not lost on me.   I am moved by their family’s investment and risk, a risk I do not take.   I study the child’s face.  The baby still in her voice, her cheeks, the way she holds her mouth.  She says, “George Floyd was killed because...”  And I click the sound off.  My youngest says, “I can’t hear, Mommy.”  Just a second, I tell them both, just a second.

I remember the way it felt to read that in the summer of 2020.

“George Floyd was killed because...”

I remember the sound of Girmay’s voice in my head, telling her children—except maybe it’s not only, not even, not really her children she’s telling.

Just a second, she says.

Just a second.

She does not let them hear how the sentence ends because she knows from how it starts, what’s coming.  It is a sentence in which their Blackness is already object:

“George Floyd was killed because...”

A sentence Laura Da’ would recognize, for its passive voice:

Have the words been claimed?  (The zombies are already there.)

A sentence maybe too, that Sara Ahmed would recognize:

If whiteness gains currency by being unnoticed, then what does it mean to notice whiteness?

Most of all, it is a sentence that Girmay recognizes.  That she knows, you could say, like the back of her own hand:

The sentence I expect is a variation on a theme: George Floyd was killed because of the color of his skin.  People are mistreated because of the color of their skin.  George Floyd was killed because his skin was brown.

Our skin is brown.

We stand in the light of the sentence but the perpetrator is under cover, cloaked. But by what, and in whose service?


I think of Robin DiAngelo, in that talk with Claudia Rankine from last September:

[My] training in sociology has given me a question that’s never failed me, and that is, “How does it function?”  And [...] that’s what we have to acknowledge.

And from maybe a month earlier, in that conversation with Krista Tippett:

But when I stepped out of myself and asked, yes, but how is it functioning right now, in this room?  Regardless of what is driving your silence, how is it functioning?  Well, it’s functioning to uphold racism.

I go back to Girmay:

But by what, and in whose service?


I think of a piece I read more recently, by Michael Harriot in The Root, about the ways in which — across the narratives of mainstream media and everyday reporting on culture, politics, the economy, crime, Covid, and so much more — whiteness seems always to fade so far into the invisible:

Only a fool or a liar would say it’s not intentional that nearly every news outlet in America neglected to mention the most common characteristic of the anti-mask movement.  “People” don’t oppose mask mandates; it’s white people.  The people who tried to overthrow the government weren’t Republicans; they were white people.  “Parents” don’t object to Critical Race Theory, just white people.

There is nothing controversial about pointing out factual evidence.  In fact, one could argue that withholding or obscuring the most common characteristics of the people who hold these views actually enables them to maintain their power.

Earlier in the piece, he notes that the media have constructed a universe with whiteness at its center and everything else orbiting around a star so bright that it is unsafe for us to stare directly into it.

Earlier still, he asks:

Why won’t anyone say the thing we all know?


Back in Girmay’s essay, she imagines a seesaw:

My children are on one side and this White child, my son’s same age, same height and weight, is on the other side.  She is one child, my children are two.  And yet they are the ones hovering in the air, ungrounded.  He was killed because his skin was brown.  So goes the sentence that holds my children, dangling and subject, and that grants the White child her ground, her safety, her natural habitat, and close-to-the-earthness.  The consequences of White supremacy are named only in terms of my child’s suffering or potential suffering, named only in terms of the suffering of our beloveds, but not in terms of the causes, the perpetrators, the inheritors, not in terms of the consequences on the minds of the White children who have already been failed, have already been taught wrongly to stand outside of the equation with their families.

Our son already knows the basic principles of physics on which a seesaw is designed.  He knows that one and one is two.  He knows: from the chicken, the egg; from the apple tree, the apple; and so on.  So why should we teach him such a distorted logic that goes out of its way not to name the other subject in the sentence?  If we do, the sentence itself becomes a kind of captivity.  If we do, he will have no chance of knowing what it is he’s trying to get free from, and White children, too, will think the problem is out there, someone else’s, even his, and not the water they drink, the cleanish air they breathe.


I come back around at last, to Layli Long Soldier, and her book-length poem, WHEREAS.  When Krista Tippett had Long Soldier on her show, she described WHEREAS as a response to the little-publicized congressional resolution of “Apology to Native Peoples,” which was tucked inside — of all things — the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act.

This was a resolution that President Obama signed very quietly on a weekend in December 2009—some six days before Christmas.  Without any ceremony, without the presence of any tribal leaders (or anyone really, from among the “Native Peoples” to whom the Apology was ostensibly addressed...), and without reading any part of the apology out loud.

If you just happened to be reading the 67-page Defense Appropriations Act of 2010 (H.R. 3326), tucked away on page 45, in between sections detailing how much of your money the U.S. military would spend on what, you might notice Section 8113: “Apology to Native Peoples of the United States.”

Even after, the apology was never announced, read or publicized by the White House or by Congress.  There is no record/ing of the apology being made, signed, acknowledged, whatever.  By anyone.

(If whiteness gains currency by being unnoticed...)

As Tippett says, it was a resolution that was passed but never really — never spoken aloud, never really offered publicly.

(Why won’t anyone say the thing we all know?)

In talking with Tippett, Long Soldier tells of how even she did not hear of the resolution and the apology, until several months later:

But then I went online, and I read the apology, and then I went like, “Oh my gosh, the language — it’s so careful.”  It’s so carefully crafted.  I mean, my goodness, these guys are poets.  I mean, very astute and very aware of what each phrase — how do I say it — what each phrase may carry; the implication of each phrase.  So even the phrasing of “the arrival of Europeans opened a new chapter for Native People” — that’s crazy.  It wasn’t “opening a new chapter.”

That’s — yeah, that’s almost poetry.  That’s a very interesting way to look at what happened, right?  And going further into the document, just the idea — for example, they never mention genocide.  Things are phrased as “conflicts,” “lives were taken on both sides,” and things like that.

And look.  Even before you get to the “both sides” of it (for of course, there is the icy shudder of foreshadowing in that too...).  Look how lives were taken.

(We stand in the light of the sentence but the perpetrator is under cover, cloaked.)

How the zombies were already there.

(In fact, one could argue that withholding or obscuring the most common characteristics of the people who hold these views actually enables them to maintain their power.)


I remember a line that has haunted me for years now, from a New Yorker story about the mysterious Riese complex of underground tunnels and chambers that the Nazis had built, using slave labor from the camps, in what is now southwestern Poland.

At a certain point in the story, the writer meets a miner who agrees to take him to see an old tunnel which, he was told, was likely part of Riese:

The following day, I drove with him into the Owl Mountains.  We travelled along a series of winding mountain roads, into the heart of the area where most of the Riese tunnels are situated.  Along the way, we passed the town of Głuszyca and its cemetery, where some two thousand laborers from Riese, mainly Jews, were buried in a mass grave.

There are few tombstones.  One read simply, “This Was Done to People by People.”


I go back to Girmay’s essay and I finish reading it.  Towards the end there is a moment where she remembers what her mother taught her, about the power of the tongue:

Part of what I understood was that language could help us to live and could help us to die.

And I think to myself: Well.  Grammar, too.

[Santo Spirito, Firenze | sabato 13 novembre 2021 ore 21:11:16] []
[Aracelis Girmay] [Claudia Rankine] [Laura Da’] [Layli Long Soldier] [Michael Harriot] [Robin DiAngelo] [Sara Ahmed]
[empire & settler-colonialism] [language] [race & racism] [whiteness]

Reading Rant: On Steven Pinker

Every once in a while I go on what I call a reading rant.  Typically, this happens because someone says or writes — in a conversation, in an email, on social media, whatever — something that I feel tempted to (ahem) “discuss,” but because I’m trying these days to save my mental and emotional energy for other things (like getting very basically through the day) and/or because the someone in question may be somewhere on the spectrum between problematic and impossible, I try to hold myself back.  One of the ways that sometimes works for holding myself back, is to go off and read (or re-read) something smart, articulate and intellectually rigorous about the subject in question.  (Sometimes three or four or five somethings...)  Afterwards, I feel slightly better.  (Also, of course, slightly worse.)

Anyway.  Here are six pieces on why Steven Pinker is (depending on who you ask) an “annoying white male intellectual,” the “world’s most annoying man,” and a plain old “Pollyanna”:

— First up, at the Los Angeles Review of Books, there’s Jessica Riskin on “Pinker’s Pollyannish Philosophy and Its Perfidious Politics.”  (Speaking of nonsense, a few words about the data...)

— Next, via The Conversation, Vijay Kolinjivadi explains why Pinker’s book “‘Enlightenment Now’ rationalizes the violence of empire.”  (Pinker’s techno-optimism, rooted in a humanity that is separate from the non-human world, ironically condones a future of unspeakable violence....)

— Then, over at Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson calls him “The World’s Most Annoying Man.”  (Nobody has ever tried to look more Reasonable while being so ignorant and condescending...)

— At the New Statesman, John Gray also reviews the book, in “Unenlightened thinking: Steven Pinker’s embarrassing new book is a feeble sermon for rattled liberals.”  (One of the consequences of this unhistorical approach is that Pinker repeats fallacies that have been exposed time and time again...)

— And for the graph-geeks out there, there’s a rundown by Jeremy Lent at Open Democracy, of the specific ways in which “Steven Pinker’s ideas are fatally flawed: These eight graphs show why.”  (Since his work offers an intellectual rationale for many in the elite to continue practices that imperil humanity, it needs to be met with a detailed and rigorous response...)

— Finally, at Salon, Phil Torres discusses “Steven Pinker, Sam Harris and the epidemic of annoying white male intellectuals.”  (The problem with Pinker, and the whole Intellectual Dark Web, is that their claim to represent reason is total crap...)

Everything is amazing, indeed.

[Santo Spirito, Firenze | martedì 09 novembre 2021 ore 21:09:29] []
[empire & settler-colonialism] [neoliberalism] [progress narrative] [toxic positivity] [whiteness]