“… this stony echo …”

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Phrase

From Phrase
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe

Phrase X

(“The Dead”)

Those are the ones, without identifiable faces, but
those are the ones who came,
they took their places around the lamp, they
said they were passing through but
asked why we were practically
refusing to let
go. They spoke
in rather hushed tones, with restraint, and
without anger. Both he and she were
weary and most anxious;
they thought from now on nothing more
would happen that might give a semblance
of veridiction to the vast, distant murmer, to
this stony echo (to the ashes, they said).
They were not complaining, they were simply
asking to be believed, he with his hat
on his head, and busying himself with his hands, and she,
prickly (or just proud), beautiful no doubt,
who from the depths of her age, with her graying eyes, and tears
– whereas he dared say nothing – appealed
not for reparation, but simply
for justice, that the laws
familiar to all be applied, the laws
that govern our insignificance, evil in the world,
and our infirmity. It is not credible,
no, she said, what has happened to us,
not credible: you know
this, you know we hadn’t done anything,
and you never mention it, never, never.
And he, barely audible: we
are the witnesses that out of shame you’re challenging.

(December 17, 1988 – February 29 1996)

jewish_couple

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“Do they really have a face different from ours?”

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Treblinka_-_Rail_tracks

‘Who among us is standing watch and warns us when the new executioners come? Do they really have a face different from ours? … And there is us, who when looking at this rubble sincerely believe that the racial mania is forever buried underneath there, us who see this image vanishing and act as if we were creating a new hope, as if we really believed that all that belongs only to one time and one country.’

Nuit et Brouillard, Night and Fog, 1956

Photograph: Rails at former Ramp #2, Treblinka

“Almost”

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In an interview on Canadian television in 1960, the great James Baldwin describes the experience of systemic racism in places where officially, according to the letter of the law, systemic racism does not exist. Our excerpt starts at 2:43 into the interview:

INTERVIEWER: James, are you suggesting then that in effect, officially, in the South, there is inequality and no freedom for the Negro, and unofficially, but just as effectively, there is no freedom for the Negro in the north?

BALDWIN: The terms are different but the reality is the same. A boy in Birmingham is in great trouble. In Birmingham, he has in a way one advantage, though. It’s very clear in Birmingham that he can’t go anywhere. A boy born in New York can go almost anywhere. Almost. This can drive you mad. This can drive you mad. You can live almost anywhere – if you fight to get in. You can enter almost any nightclub, you can go into almost any bar and nothing will happen, but this “almost” means that there is a bar, there is a hotel, there is a doorman, there is an elevator boy, there is somebody every day, there is that one place you cannot go, which means you went to every door on edge …”

That “almost” gives us something to think about. When a white person says, “Show me the evidence that systemic racism still exists in America”, we should respond, not with data (because racism itself is almost impossible to quantify), but with that little word … “Almost”.

The question we should ask, and we should ask it only after putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes, is this: From the perspective of a black person living in America in 2019, has the painful little “almost” described by James Baldwin disappeared altogether? In 2019, that “almost” takes on perhaps a variety of different forms than it did in 1960, but has it truly vanished into air?

Perhaps the Black Lives Matter movement exists, because that little “almost” still exists.

The Border Wall and the Logic of Hate

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“Build the Wall and Crime will Fall.” Trumpian immigration logic would have us believe that the very passage of an undocumented immigrant across the southern border is itself the proximate cause of that immigrant committing murder. It would be no different to say that the proximate cause of murder committed by a native-born citizen is that citizen’s birth on US soil. It ignores the host of other dynamic factors that contribute to the causation of the act of murder. Not to mention the complex array of statistical contributors to the rise and fall of crime rates in general.

It will be countered that “one US citizen murdered by a person who is not legally authorized to be here in the first place is one murdered citizen too many”. Admittedly, this argument gives rise to a certain moral satisfaction. However, if we carefully follow the logic of border wall zealotry, we find it leaves us impoverished both morally and philosophically.

Consider the following syllogism and its toxic affects when put in the service of ugly xenophobic tropes, e.g., “Illegals are coming across the border to kill you as you sleep in bed at night”:

A. Jose killed Sam.

B. Jose entered the country illegally.

C. If Jose had been stopped (by a big beautiful wall) from entering the country, Sam would be alive today.

There is a leap from B to C that ignores the infinite complexity of events. While it might not be strictly illogical, it’s simplistic logic for simpletons. When used to underpin vicious tropes employed against migrants and refugees, it does not serve advancement in understanding, but rather confirmation of bias and hatred.

Indeed, one citizen murdered (by anyone) is one murder too many. The logic of that statement is morally infallible. But to add “by an illegal who shouldn’t have been here in the first place” is to carry the banner of moral infallibility to places where humble reason fears to tread.

Upon a Beach

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For many centuries after
the glass corpses were committed

with a collective shrug
to the bilious waves of boiling oceans

and the flags waved empty and upside down
from the nodding stalks of upheaved cities,

the tenement rows of human cages
are what the victor lice remembered

and mouth-like sphincters
through which things like words

were known to pass — eyes shut
and opened like beetle wings —

and there was a brief dream
from which the children of men awoke


© 2019 David A. Welch

Imagine

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Refugee cage
trump_border speech

Imagine if last night’s border security speech had begun with words along these lines:

“Due to the ever-widening gap in wealth inequality, coupled with massive displacements caused by war and the far-reaching impacts of climate change, which will soon make certain regions of this earth uninhabitable, the current crisis of human migration will reach truly epic proportions in the coming years. Our nation must be ready to face this unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Part of that readiness will necessarily involve the modernization of border security and a transformation of our immigration processes.”

Imagine. It could have been a speech that opened a conversation. A conversation worth having. For in fact, a case can be made for dramatic improvements to border security, if we acknowledge the full extent of the humanitarian crisis that is looming.

For make no mistake: when coastal cities in the Third World end up underwater and a literal flood of refugees washes up on our doorstep, border security will definitely be an issue. We might very well need some sort of modernized barrier(s) to control the inflow of people. More importantly, we will need to transform our immigration system to let more people in (not less), and this will require an underlying spiritual and moral awakening.

Any hope of such an awakening grew dimmer last night.

Yes, last night could have been the opening of a real conversation. Instead, it was yet another mind-numbing exercise in demagoguery, and a closure of dialogue.

Postsynodal

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Guilttongue to handthorn
newer forms are needed
to receive the hostile host.
Thumbsmear of boneash,
metallic slatebrow; charnel
salt on back teeth
we rub
the hours with devotion.


© 2019 David A. Welch