To amuse ourselves during the Pandemic Experiment, my oldest grandson Yasu and I started a study group using Teams, the Microsoft version of Zoom. Within a month, our study group expanded to include my wife, our two daughters, our youngest granddaughter, and Yasu’s brother. We were three generations in three states and met three times a week. (I know three appears here as a magic number.)
Our seven-member group read three books to grasp the fundamentals of American life: Tocqueville’s Democracy in America for how individualism and equality shape our lives; Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for how most of us have a vision of ourselves that we struggle to incarnate; and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for how culture makes Blacks invisible to Whites.
To better educated ourselves about systemic racism, we decided to read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Before opening this classic work, we turned to YouTube to watch the legendary debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley sponsored by the Cambridge Union in 1965 on the subject Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?
Are Blacks American?
We were shocked when Baldwin said, “The problem in America is that we [Negroes] have been integrated for a very long time. Put me next to any African and you will see what I mean.” Baldwin immigrated to Paris in 1948; when he watched White Americans abroad in Europe, he observed that he shared with them a “shorthand” that no Englishman or no Frenchman understood. Americans are frank, open, direct, informal, and readily ignore social codes. They regard Englishmen as stuff-shirts and Frenchmen as rude. Englishmen stand erect when talking and would not dare to slouch down in a chair or lean against a wall while addressing another as Americans often do. No Frenchman would invite a workman into his house to share a drink as many Americans do. Until recently, no educated European would appear at a public gathering in blue jeans and a tee-shirt. The shared shorthand of casualness and directness is a concrete demonstration that the American Negro is “an American; as American as the Americans who despise him.” As usual, Baldwin invokes reality: “The Negro has been formed by this nation, for better or for worse, and does not belong to any other.”
In 1955, Baldwin wrote that most White Americans find it impossible “to accept the Black man as one of themselves,” and most likely that is true today. If you do not believe that most White Americans believe that Blacks in their country are not Americans, listen to Buckley in the debate proclaim, “The fundamental friend of the Negro people in the United States is the good nature and is the generosity and is the good wishes, is the decency, the fundamental decencies that do lie at the reserves of the spirit of the American people.” In this sentence, Buckley, clearly, separates Americans and the Negro people and exposes the White belief that Blacks are an alien people living in their country.
However, Buckley is wrong, and Baldwin is right; Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, all ethnic Americans who have been in this country for more than one generation share the same shorthand, which includes freedom as the highest value. I have yet to meet an American — rich or poor, White or Black, old or young — who does not smart under the thumb of another. Democratic equality instills in us a disposition to rebel against all authority: “Who in the hell are you to tell me what to do?” In my favorite bookstore, the clerks claim to know better than the owner how to run the shop. I learned early on in college teaching that if I directly told a student what to do, his eyes would cloud over with black anger. At a conference, I met a biologist, a professed good Catholic, who told me that no pope in Rome was going to tell him how to conduct his sex life.
We Americans have the unshakeable conviction that inequality prohibits genuine freedom, that subservience to any authority, no matter how well disguised, is slavery. In his I-Have-a-Dream speech, the concluding words of Martin Luther King, Jr. speak to every American: “When we let [freedom] ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last!/ Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
While Whites and Blacks share the same goal — freedom — they are not escaping from the same oppression. Consider the 1950s in White America, when many young adults learned to question middle-class values by reading books. Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Catcher in the Rye, praises the innocence of childhood and feels revulsion for the phoniness of the adult world, where keeping up appearances is central. The novel Revolutionary Road is an “indictment of American life in the 1950s,” as capsulized by its author Richard Yates. The principal characters in the book, Frank and April Wheeler, dream of leaving the “hopeless emptiness” of the Connecticut suburbs for Paris, but fail to become expatriates because of a “lust for conformity.” Underneath all their dreams is a “blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price.” The title of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road resonates with the desire buried deep in every White heart — to be free, to throw off all social constraints.
Every creative white artist in the 1950s rebelled against the “hopeless emptiness” of the White middle class committed to a comfortable life free from economic anxiety and emotional distress, “clinging to safety and security at any price,” refusing to hear any challenge to militarism, racism, or consumerism. The pain and suffering of the Blacks and marginalized Whites supplied the ground for a more truthful popular music for Whites. The Rolling Stones would not have existed without Robert Johnson, the great Mississippi Delta blues musician. Bob Dylan transformed the music of Woody Guthrie about the displaced Okies to angry songs about social and economic injustice in the 1960s. The Beatles openly acknowledged their debt to Chuck Berry: “He was a Magician . . . we learnt so many things from him.”
For many Blacks, the freedom flight from the South to the North was a matter of life and death. During the height of Jim Crow in Eustis, Florida, 1945, George Swanson Starling attempted to unionize citrus fruit pickers, most of whom were Black like himself. As a boy and a young adult, Starling’s life was circumscribed by “all the stepping off the sidewalk, not looking even in the direction of a white woman, the sirring and ma’aming and waiting until all the white people had been served before buying [his] ice cream cone, with violence and even death awaiting any misstep.”
Starling knew that unionizing Blacks was dangerous, and when he learned that several of the citrus grove owners were plotting to take him out to a distant cypress swamp for a necktie party, he knew the lynching threat was real and that he had to get out of Lake County before the growers got to him. He left his wife behind as he escaped to New York City on the Silver Meteor, a fast-moving passenger train.
In the Lynching Era between 1877 to 1950, Whites in twelve Southern states lynched 3,959 Black men and women. In 1915, the lynching of Thomas Brooks, who was being taken for trial from Memphis to Somerville, was reported in detail in a Memphis newspaper. “Hundreds of kodaks clicked all morning at the scene of the lynching. People in automobiles and carriages came from miles around to view the corpse dangling from the end of a rope under the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railway bridge. Picture card photographers installed a portable printing plant at the bridge and reaped a harvest in selling postcards showing a photograph of the lynched Negro.
“Women and children were there by the score. At a number of country schools the day’s routine was delayed until boy and girl pupils could get back from viewing the lynched man.
“Brooks was hanged from the trestle work of the railroad bridge. His body dangled over the public highway and was suspended low enough for travelers along the road today to reach up and spin the corpse around.”
The American Dream
Neither Baldwin nor Buckley in their debate defined the American Dream, which we will take to simply mean that in America through hard work, men and women can have a better life for themselves and their children than their parents had. In the year of the debate, 1965, most Americans, Blacks and Whites, believed in the American Dream, although everyone knew that equal opportunities were not available for Blacks, and thus for them, a “better life” was severely limited.
The economic boom of the 1950s established the white middle class. The suburbs were an escape from the confines of narrow ethnic communities in an unglamorous part of the inner city. The two-car family became the norm; mom tended the family and dad supplied the money; the children aided by their parents and attuned to mass media developed their own world.
The economic prosperity after World War II spilled over into the Black world. After George Swanson Starling fled to New York to avoid being lynched, he became a railroad porter, saved his money, and brought a brownstone. In his retirement years, he rented the entire building except for one room that he kept for himself. A Black boy from the South carved out a better life than his sharecropper grandfather had.
But nothing stays the same in America. Over the last fifty years, life in America did not get progressively better. The prosperity of the worker declined substantially. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, 44 percent of all workers ages eighteen to sixty-four are low-wage workers with a median hourly wage of $10.22 and median annual earnings of $17,950. Economists Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman attribute low wages to the near elimination of private-sector unions, to automation and the offshoring of manufacturing jobs, and to tax policies that favor corporations and the rich. Many low-wage earners say it is better to have a [expletive] job than no job at all.
In 1973, productivity and worker income became uncoupled. (See Graph 1.) In real terms, average hourly earnings peaked more than 45 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 had the same purchasing power that $23.68 would today.
As manufacturing jobs were shipped abroad, many White workers found themselves on the down escalator to the underclass. Here is a typical story. Kelly Stark, a 56-year-old mother of two, was laid off from Ford Motors. She had worked there twenty-one years and had attained an hourly wage of $26.24 and with overtime annual earnings of $86,000. After her departure from Ford, Stark hustled and found a job at Carrier Corporation for $17.50 an hour plus overtime and benefits. When Carrier laid off workers in anticipation of moving the factory to Monterey, Mexico, she was forced to take a job at $14.50 an hour, without benefits, scanning documents.
Kelly Stark’s economic plummet can be seen in Graph 2. Over the forty years from 1978-2018, worker compensation increased by 12%, while CEOs’ compensation increased by 940%. In 2007, 300,000 Americans collectively enjoyed almost as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans. The upper 1% took in 23% of the nation’s income. In 2017, the top 1% controlled 38.6% of America’s wealth. Twenty billionaires were worth as much as the bottom half of America. The five heirs to the Walmart fortune were worth $140 billion.
America is splitting into three economic classes: the economic elite, the upper 1%; the professionals, the upper 15%; and the underclass, low-wage workers who cannot meet an unexpected four-hundred-dollar expense. Daron Acemoglu, an economist at M.I.T., worries that “low-wage workers are doing really badly, and this will destroy our society.”
For Whites and Blacks in the underclass, the American Dream has vanished. Many Whites on the down escalator to the underclass believe that cheap immigrant labor destroyed the American Dream, that people not like them are ruining America.
Is America headed for civil strife?
For different reasons, Baldwin and Buckley envisioned a nightmare future for America. On the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation, Baldwin told his nephew in a letter that White America “set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever.” Despite the Emancipation, the Negro remained “trapped, disinherited, and despised” in his native country. “The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated.”
Baldwin concluded his part of the debate on a dark note: “There is scarcely any hope for the American Dream, because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it.”
Buckley claimed that any organized campaign by Blacks to wreck the American Dream would be an attempt to “overthrow that civilization which we consider to be the faith of our fathers.” In such a radical confrontation, “we [Whites] will fight . . . on beaches and on hills and on mountains and on landing ground,” just as the English fought the Germans, for civilization is at stake.
Fifty-five years after the debate, American is split into two warring camps. The narrative of the Left focuses on an imagined future where every individual is free to choose any lifestyle he or she desires unhindered by social pressure and law. The founding principle of American is equality, now subverted by wealthy individuals and Corporate America. To restore the promise of equality, the unjust influence of the economic elite must be countered by a more progressive tax system; otherwise, America is lost.
The story of the Right harks back to a golden era, a past sometimes imaged, where America embodied the traditional values of Protestantism, essentially middle-class life of the 1950s. Decent people, the majority then, adhered to family values. The men worked hard, prospered, and looked after their families; the women willingly sacrificed career ambitions for their children and their husbands’ careers. The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that maybe only force can save it.
Both the Left and the Right describe themselves as good people, morally correct and politically astute, and the Other as bad people, morally bankrupt and hopelessly ignorant. Forty-two percent of Democrats view Republicans as “downright evil,” and the same exact percentage of Republicans think the same of Democrats. The warfare between the Left and the Right produced a paralyzed Congress, a blindness to reality, and kabuki political theater.
The viewers of Fox News and MSNBC listen to outrageous speech that evokes anger, fear, and moral indignation through overgeneralizations, ad hominin attacks, and belittling ridicule of opponents. Stories about welfare moms, fake homeless, wasted federal money on disaster relief, the huge salaries of CEOs, corporate malfeasance, and the narrow mindedness of politicians keep viewers coming back, advertising money flowing in, and profits soaring. The Pew Research Center found that ad sales on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News increased by 62% from 2012 to 2017.
Echoing Buckley with great urgency, the Right fears America is exceedingly close to losing its founding principles. When Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, in 1979, his constituents were a minority even then. By 2017, the Moral Majority had shrunk even further. Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, summarized the state of the once dominant ethnic group in the title of his essay “Orthodox Christians Must Now Learn to Live as Exiles in Our Own Country,” that expresses the sentiment of the Right that “things have changed so much that I often feel a stranger in my own country.” Dreher and the remnant of the WASPs believe that they own America and that their was hijacked by immigrants, atheists, and perverts.
Recent data from the Census Bureau indicates that by 2044 the non-Hispanic white-alone population will be a minority. Soon, White America will not be the dominant class, and the caste system that has oppressed Blacks for the last four hundred years will disappear or be greatly weakened. Such a future greatly angers Whites, especially those closest economically to the Blacks. The visual heir of Buckley is an armed extremist exhibiting on his body that civilization is at stake (see photograph).
Black Lives Matter advocates nonviolent civil disobedience to protest incidents of police brutality and other racially motivated violence against Blacks. In recent protests in Portland, Ore., Seattle, Wash., and Kenosha, Wis., most of the protestors adhered to the principles of nonviolence; some did not.
In the debate, Baldwin discussed the danger of Blacks turning away from anything any White American says, which is understandable for they have been betrayed by American politicians for so long: “I do not know, and neither does Martin Luther King, none of us know how to deal with those people whom the White world has so long ignored, who do not believe anything the White world says and do not entirely believe anything I or Martin is saying. And one cannot blame them. You watch what has happened to them in less than twenty years.”
The upcoming political firestorm
Without a modicum of trust and no shared fundamental facts, no common good exists in America. No group or person defines or speaks for what is best for all Americans, because science, media, and the courts are so ensnared in politics. Under such conditions, violent confrontation between the Left and Right seems inevitable and probably desired by both sides as the only way that the political divide can now be eliminated.
The violence in Kenosha indicates the country is headed for the fire this time. The shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black, seven times in the back by a White police officer sparked rioting. After several days of mayhem, private militias arrived in Kenosha to defend businesses and property from the protestors. Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from nearby Antioch, Ill., joined a group of armed counterprotesters.
According to eyewitnesses, Rittenhouse was approached by Joseph Rosenbaum, who threw a plastic bag in his direction. The 17-year-old retreated several steps and then turned to face Rosenbaum with his AR-15 in the ready position. Nearby, an unknown gunman shot into the air. Rosenbaum reached for the barrel of Rittenhouse’s rifle. Rittenhouse fired four rounds, one of which struck Rosenbaum in the head, killing him, and then fled the scene.
Running, he tripped and fell to the ground. He fired four rounds at a small group of people running toward him. One person in that group was hit in the chest and fell to the ground dead. Rittenhouse got up and walked toward several police vehicles with his hands raised. Although bystanders identified him as the shooter, police did not detain him for questioning. The next day in Illinois, Rittenhouse was arrested. Authorities charged him with first-degree murder.
Rittenhouse quickly became a hero of the Right. Tucker Carlson on his Fox News show with over 4 million viewers asked rhetorically, “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” Carlson blamed local political leaders for the killings: “Kenosha has devolved into anarchy because the authorities in charge of the city abandoned it. People in charge in Wisconsin from the governor on down refused to enforce the law. They stood back and watched Kenosha burn.”
Fox News host Laura Ingraham defended Kyle Rittenhouse. She said she did not want to “prejudice the case . . . [but] we cannot arrive at a place in our country where law-abiding Americans who are trying to protect themselves and their property are made into villains.” Ann Coulter, a right-wing media pundit with more than 2.2 million Twitter followers, tweeted, “I want him [Kyle Rittenhouse] as my president.”
President Trump maintained that Rittenhouse was trying to get away from his attackers and “he fell, and they very violently attacked him. I guess he was in very big trouble. He probably would have been killed.”
The Left is shooting back. Six days after Rittenhouse killed two protestors, an antifa supporter in Portland shot and killed Aaron Danielson, a right-wing activist wearing a Patriot Prayer cap and riding in the back of a pick-up truck that was part of a pro-Trump caravan. The suspected shooter, Michael Reinoehl, was shot and killed by law enforcement agents as they attempted to arrest him. Two months before his death, Reinoehl posted online that “things are bad right now and they can only get worse. But that is how a radical change comes about.”
The United States of America is headed for a political firestorm: the inept management of the Covid-19 pandemic, lock-down induced craziness, mass unemployment, staggering business failures, intense racial and partisan polarization, the Trump personality cult, and the likelihood of violence after the November presidential election no matter who wins.
The Left and Right believe a presidential victory of the other side would have irreversible consequences. For the Left, a reelection of Trump would rapidly advance the rise of fascism in the United States and mean a return to the oppression of immigrants, Blacks, women, gays, and lesbians. For the Right, the election of Biden would accelerate the expansion of Marxism and would cause the destruction of what made America great. Such apocalyptic visions make the likelihood of violence after the election almost inevitable.
Already, political craziness has occurred. Federal and state authorities arrested thirteen men planning to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer before the presidential election in November. The group planned to take Governor Whitmer to a secure location in Wisconsin for a trail as a tyrant violating the U.S. Constitution by enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing to slow the spread of Covid-19. The right-wing extremists hoped to start a civil war leading to societal collapse.
In a video posted on Facebook, Dan Bongino, a popular right-wing commentator and radio host, ranted that Democrats were planning a coup against President Trump on Election Day; the video has been viewed 2.9 million times. And Trump promotes such extreme rhetoric; he proclaimed at a rally in Virginia, “Biden will disarm law abiding Americans. At the same time, they’ll have riots down your street.”
I certainly do not have a crystal ball to foretell the future during this unpredictable time, but history is a guide to the possible outcomes of the impending political firestorm. John Lewis, a leader of SNCC in the Sixties, in his Farewell Address to America published on the day of his funeral, told Americans that he took hope in that “millions of people . . . set aside race, class, age, language, and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.” He said, “Emmett Till was my George Floyd.”
Many White Americans have joined Black Lives Matter to protest the killing of George Floyd and police brutality, but the turnout and the media attention have not had the impact on White America that Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama had, when hundreds of peaceful Blacks led by John Lewis and Reverend Hosea Williams were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by Alabama state troopers on national television. Bloody Sunday happened on March 7, 1965, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law August 6, 1965.
Lesson Number 1. Without massive support from White America, no federal law establishing guidelines with penalties to prohibit police violence will be passed.
After the police attacks on Bloody Sunday, the marchers regrouped at the Brown Chapel AME Church; some wanted revenge and almost left to get their guns. Reverend Andrew Young listened to their understandable rage and talked “them down . . . by simply asking questions. ‘What kind of gun you got? A .32, .38. How’s that going to hold up against the automatic rifles and 10 gauge shotguns that they’ve got? And how many you got? There are at least 200, you know, shotguns out there with buckshot in them. You ever see buckshot? You ever see what buckshot does to a deer?’ And most of them had. And you make people think about the specifics of violence and then they realize how suicidal and nonsensical it is.”
Lesson Number 2: The police are militarized; a violent revolution is doomed to blood in the streets.
The Sixties were filled with hope; the civil rights activists, the marchers against the Vietnam War, and the hippies on communes shared the firm belief that America could be radically changed for the better, to become an exemplar of social justice, to stand for peace not war, and to embrace spirituality instead of materialism.
“Everybody was talking this love, peace, you know, racism was supposed to be really unhip,” recalls Claudia King, a Black woman, 23-years-old during the Summer of Love in San Francisco. “I mean there’s all these things that were, you know, not acceptable for a few minutes, you know? It was just the little short time, but it was really just like something that shimmered.”
The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam was a massive demonstration and teach-in across the United States. Over a quarter of million people attended the Moratorium march in Washington, D.C., October 15, 1969. The march was completely peaceful; the main theme was grief and sorrow over the war, not anger and rage. A month later, the Vietnam Moratorium Committee staged the largest antiwar protest in United States history when half a million people attended a mostly peaceful demonstration in Washington. Journalist and historian Stanley Karnow wrote the Moratorium marches were “a sober, almost melancholy manifestation of middle-class concern.”
I lived in New Mexico during the Sixties, a wild, crazy time. Hippies built communes, preached and lived peace and love, spurned materialism, and unquestionably believed individualism and capitalism were on their last legs. The new America would be communal and peaceful, founded on the spiritual nature of the human person. The communes were a heady mix of mysticism and utopianism.
In many ways, the Sixties did change America for the better. Blacks can now travel across the country by car and rent a room in any motel and not be like Martin Luther King, Jr., who had to sleep in his car, for motels did not rent to Blacks then. Today, women outnumber men in medical and law schools. Gays and lesbians are openly accepted. The Moratorium marches did not end the Vietnam War or military adventurism, but the United States Military will never again institute a draft.
Peter Coyote, a countercultural activist in San Francisco and later a film actor and director, sums up the Sixties as “an experiment. But I don’t think that the search for some kind of moral stance is ever bullshit. I don’t think that the search for justice and some kind of economic equity is ever bullshit. I don’t think that trying to leave a smaller footprint on the planet is bullshit. I don’t think exploring alternative spiritual and medical practices is bullshit. They were all valid searches, and they’ve all been completely integrated into the culture today.”
Yet, America was not radically changed for the better. After the Sixties, Corporate America seized control of the government, 44 percent of all workers ages eighteen to sixty-four now are low-wage earners; average hourly earnings peaked more than 45 years ago; segregation between Blacks and Whites is currently by jobs and income. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that for civil rights to be fully implemented in America, poor Whites and Blacks together would have to seek to eliminate poverty, to demand their fair share of the enormous wealth produced in America. Tragically, Dr. King was murdered just as he planned a march on Washington to unite Blacks and White for economic justice.
Lesson Number 3. S.S. America is headed for the massive iceberg of greed, incompetence, and all-around stupidity that probably will not be averted.
In the Presidential Debate held on 29 September 2020, President Trump clearly stated that if he does not win the Electoral College in November, the upcoming election will be fraudulent and that he will have the Supreme Court decide, where he has the votes. If Trump remains true to his speech, then November 2020 will be Bloody November.
 James Baldwin, “Stanger in the Village,” in Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955).
 James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1993 ).
 Baldwin, “Stanger in the Village.”
 Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (New York: Vintage 2000 ), p. 200.
 Yates, Interview.
 Paul McCartney, https://www.paulmccartney.com/news-blogs/news/paul-on-chuck-berry.
 Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Vintage, 2010), p. 62.
 Forty percent of Americans have difficulty dealing with unexpected, small expenses. See Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2018 – May 2019.
 Baldwin, The Fire Next Time. Italics in the original.
 Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason, Lethal Mass Partisanship: Prevalence, Correlates, & Electoral Contingencies.
 New Census Bureau Report Analyzes U.S. Population Projections (3 March 2015).
 Hallie Golden, Mike Baker, and Adam Goldman, Suspect in Fatal Portland Shooting Is Killed by Officers During Arrest.
 Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, What We Know About the Alleged Plot to Kidnap Michigan’s Governor.
 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983) p. 599.