Documentary: I Am Not Your Negro

—James Baldwin

I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary that uses words of James Baldwin (1924-1987) to narrate the events of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. It tells the story of activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. but in doing so tells a much bigger story.

The larger story Baldwin’s words tell is one of alienation in modern life and the failure of that elusive American Dream to come true for so many citizens. Of course, the movie is about race but it’s couched in a more general dissatisfaction with the way people in America are incentivized to live and think.

Cut in with the historic film reels from 50 years ago is footage of recent events. To see the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri protests contrasted with footage of the 1965 Watts Riots and the Rodney King beating in 1991 gives the history of America’s race relations the sense of a hopeless treadmill.

Throughout the film, James Baldwin speaks with such profound eloquence about the disappointments of modern life that whether or not you agree with him you are forced to wrestle with his provocative statements. He is a man driven to tell his story and describe the world as he sees it. His voice is compelling.

This documentary raises more questions than it answers, such as: Is there a hollowness at the core of modern American life that allows bigotry to fester? Collectively, would we rather deny this emptiness and carry on with vapid entertainments and theme park amusements? How can we address the disparity in outcome between black and white Americans that runs so far back in history? The answers this film provides is the cathartic therapy that can be found in probing these questions with Baldwin’s wise guidance.

This is the most accessible entry point I’ve encountered into Baldwin’s work. In the past, I’d attempted to read a book of essays and criticism several years ago and felt like I was missing the context for understanding what he was talking about. But here, his intellect and sympathy is on full display and it feels more relevant than ever. I think what he is searching for beyond a way to transcend the infernal tensions of race relations in America is to understand the universal pain of being a human in the modern world. What, after all, does it mean to be an American? We are all the benefactors of such amazing collective wealth. The question lingers as to how we can be responsible citizens while acknowledging our debts to those who came before? Moreover, to each other.

Here are his words from the film that most haunted me:

“I have always been struck in America by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch so deep that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life.

This failure of the private life has always had the most devastating effect on American public conduct and on black-white relations. If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves they never would have become so dependent on what they call the ‘Negro problem’.”


“Someone once said to me that the people in general cannot bear very much reality. He meant by this that they prefer fantasy to a truthful recreation of their experience. People have quite enough reality to bear by simply getting through their lives; raising their children, dealing with the eternal conundrums of birth, taxes, and death.

“What I’m trying to say to this country, to us, is that we must know this, we must realize this, that no other country in the world has been so fat, and so sleek, and so happy and so irresponsible, and so dead. No other country can afford to dream of a Plymouth and a wife, and a house with a fence, and the children growing up safely to go to college and to become executives, and then to marry and have the house, and Plymouth, and so forth.

A great many people do not live this way and they cannot imagine it, and do not know that when we talk about ‘democracy’ that this is what we mean.”


“This is the formula for a nation or a kingdom decline. For no kingdom can maintain itself by force alone. Force does not work the way its advocates think in fact it does. It does not, for example, reveal to the victim the strength of the adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness-even the panic-of the adversary. And this revelation invests the victim with passion.

“The American way of life has failed to make people happier or make them better. We do not want to admit this, and we do not admit it. We persist in believing that the empty and criminal among our children are the result of some miscalculation in the formula that can be corrected. That the bottomless and aimless hostility that makes our cities among the most dangerous in the world is created and felt by a handful of aberrants, that the lack, yawning everywhere in this country, of passionate conviction of personal authority proves only our rather appealing tendency to be gregarious and democratic.”

Indeed, this film isn’t easy to watch but it is certainly a powerful statement.

Movie trailer:

James Baldwin’s 1965 debate with William Buckley, Jr. (spirited and rational discourse like you’ll never see on 21st century TV)

The Chilling Effect of Fake News As Isolationist Propaganda


Vacant minds For Rent

“There’s a tendency to assume that our political leaders are masters of their message. But what we see from Miller, Abbott, and others suggests that the tail may actually be wagging the dog. They seem to enjoy spreading memes and sharing stories that fire up their base, but the ease with which they’re taken in by fake quotes and photoshopped images suggests that they’re not so much the people pulling the strings as they are the audience for string-pulling, whether they be created by lulz-seeking users on message boards or foreign agents. It’s alarming when the people behaving like any other sucker on the Internet are in high office, blithely sharing things that are compatible with their worldview—even if those things have been carefully fabricated to support it.

‘A Brief History of Texas Officials Falling for Fake Memes’, Dan Solomon

This article from Texas Monthly is instructive for me in thinking about the social media ‘censorship’ debate sparked by the removal of Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify’s removal of Austin-based Infowars from their services. Platform banning has proved to be an effective way of silencing voices who attract mass attention. However, the benefits may be temporary since the misdirected outrage that these divisive figureheads harness still smolders among the body politic. And someone new is always coming along to exploit it.

But what happens when your elected officials are falling for the same outrage memes? It may be one thing to pass paranoid delusions around with your friends but the situation passes another landmark in absurdity when your government officials are making decisions based on the fake narratives filling their heads and newsfeeds?

What made democracies strong in the past — a strong commitment to free speech and the free exchange of ideas — makes them profoundly vulnerable in the era of democratized propaganda and rampant misinformation.

Renee DiResta

It’s hard to believe that Texas is being run by people who believe deliberate fabrications about the nature of reality. If they don’t believe this stuff literally, it’s chilling to think they cynically deploy these memes as a power play to unite and rile their political base. To these politicians, are these incendiary memes simply instruments of retaining power? After all, ‘Vote for me or die’ is the most powerful of all campaign messages.

And personally, I shrug at the paternalism angle because I know better than to expose myself to this nonsense. Banning peddlers of falsehoods cannot save us from destructive worldviews. But as long as facts are invented to manipulate people’s emotions and then spread virally through social media networks then democracy as it was originally conceived will be impossible. Sound decision making requires accurate information about the world and so an informed citizenry is a necessary prerequisite for making the right collective decisions.

Still, an important question to ask is what would cause a significant portion of grown-ups to give up on reality. Are these people stupid or angry? Are their needs as a citizen being neglected? I would have to say that it runs deeper than ignorance vs. enlightenment. I also hesitate to chalk it all up to greed, ignorance, or racism. There is a strange tribalism going on where people are signaling their membership of a group by paying fealty to outrageous lies and ruinous policy decisions.

I’ve heard it said that every country gets the government it deserves but this is an embarrassing low.


It’s true because it feels true. Even though it’s false.

Further Reading

With Alex Jones, Facebook’s Worst Demons Abroad Begin to Come HomeNew York Times:

The problem, he said, goes beyond a few underregulated extremists. It also involves the algorithm-driven newsfeed that is core to the company’s business model. ‘They are blind to seeing the real repercussions,’ Mr. Dissanayake said of Facebook’s leaders.

The Quislings of American CollapseMedium:

People don’t betray their own tribes or families or countries unless, usually, they feel betrayed themselves. And so I think that these men feel deeply betrayed. Not just because they are “becoming a minority” and so on. But because they are the most downwardly mobile of all. White men in this group are the ones in society who have the biggest gap between the life they expected — and the life they live. They expected to live like their fathers — comfortable, stable lives where they sat atop old systems of racism, greed, oppression, and misogyny. But those systems have cracked apart, too, as America has collapsed. Everybody’s life is falling apart, more or less, unless you’re Jeff Bezos.

Presented here is the idea that online common spaces should be held accountable for absurd bloviations and distortions of common truth. Even though I said that I was agnostic about ‘censorship’ I do believe we should hold these companies to a higher standard since they dictate the content of an ever-increasing share of our daily lives.

Documentary: Hearts and Minds

This morning I watched an old documentary about the Vietnam War called Hearts and Minds. Having been released in 1974, it might as well be a primary historical source for the time period. Throughout the entire documentary there are only one or two people interviewed who maintain their conviction that going into Vietnam was the right decision to make. With the war being in its later stages at that point, by the early-1970s public opinion had curdled into a gnawing sense that America’s involvement had made a mistake:

Hearts and Minds is shot in the Cinéma vérité style which is empty of narration and is more like a sound-and-visual mosaic than a linearly constructed narrative film. The style provokes questions in the viewer’s mind instead of stating explicit conclusions. Documentaries today tend to be more pointed in their ends, and while they can be profound artistic statements they typically require less critical thinking from their audience.

Hearts and Minds got me thinking about history and what the past means today. How do we examine and account for the actions of people who came before us? How do we constructively improve on and learn from their mistakes? Moreover, how should we feel about all this?

“I look at the world and I notice its turning
With every mistake we must surely be learning”

—’While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, The Beatles

Here are a few of the thoughts and questions on my mind after watching this movie. More generally, these inquiries are about warfare and the nature of conflict in the 21st century instead of the Vietnam War:

  • With the atomic bomb hanging over our heads is humanity doomed to endlessly fight regional wars? The Vietnam War, Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya, Catholics vs. Protestants in Ireland, Israel vs. Palestine, African genocide, Russia annexing Crimea, the Syrian Civil War—these are mostly ancient grievances avenged on a modern battlefield. Major powers might get involved to further their own ends but these conflicts primarily remain regional. They’re limited in that they’re contained within their borders even though they have dramatic international consequences (refugee crises emboldening far-right demagoguery, wasting endless tax dollars nation-building abroad while neglecting infrastructure back home, etc.) but unlimited in that there is no end in sight. Compared to a raging inferno like World War II, these brush fires are geographically contained but still potentially ruinous for people outside the demarcated war-zones.


  • Are the battle-lines in modern war drawn between chaos and order? In modern war, is the enemy invisible and internal? Chaos is not evenly distributed across the world. There are golf courses of absolute tranquility next to neighborhoods that exist in crushing poverty. You’d probably feel safer on the golf course so could those hollowed out streets be thought of as a sort of battlefield?


  • Is there a limit to how thoroughly American citizens can distrust it’s government? The ever-expanding Vietnam War and Nixon were bad enough but now we have some guy in charge who will say anything to make the headlines and will then turn around and say that the press is the enemy of the people. Trust in government and its supporting institutions have crumbled over the past 50 years:



  • How do we properly show respect to our veterans? I’m not sure that as a civilian I can truly understand their experience. The question for them is how to come back to America and make sense of their traumatic wartime experience. Sadly, the best I’m able to provide is empathy and a vague sense of appreciation for their sacrifice.


“We’ve all tried very hard to escape what we’ve learned in Vietnam. They don’t realize that people fighting for their own freedom are not going to be stopped.”

21st Century Babel

—Chaos Monkeys by Antonio García Martínez’

I took this quote to be a concise description of why Facebook has the world so shook up since the populist backlash that won elections in 2016. It’s not just the Russian troll scare or privacy concerns; it’s that social media is a fundamentally new way of consuming the news. And it’s putting the interpretation of the news into the hands of the consumer like never before.

But by empowering consumers to chase their individual whims are we neglecting the power of shared truth? Without shared truth, can a society maintain its focus on a shared vision?

Skepticism is a great power that requires great responsibility. Giving consumers the ability to congregate around specific ideas is an exciting idea on paper but it has backfired in a lot of ways because the idea that everyone is properly equipped to make sense of our ever-increasingly complicated world overlooks human bias towards group-think, paranoia, fear, and whatever other base desires I’m overlooking. To surround yourself so efficiently with the flavor of information that you find comforting and agreeable means that the interesting and surprising stuff gets edited out and you, the consumer who’s being served so well, remains ignorant.

Our culture has a plethora of many myths that seem to represent the apotheosis of what is happening online. If Google is the Library of Alexandria then Facebook is the Tower of Babel—the technology that scatters people to ‘s attention toward their most basic inclinations,

Almost imperceptibly, while we chase these specially curated mass diversions, all shared national experiences except maybe the Super Bowl slowly fade to the periphery. And these sideshows are re-interpreted in so many different ways that any common ground crumbles beneath our feet. That, not Russian cyber-troll harnessing impotent grievances with the status quo, is why Facebook is such a decisive a challenge to democratic order.

As Martínez puts it so well in the afterward to his book, “The post-Enlightment man living in a liberal democracy believes he has a right to an opinion; post-Facebook, he also believes he has a right to his own reality. An online reality that aims to validate his worldview and bends reality to flatter his prejudices.” There is no going back.


While the townsfolk all look on…

Quotes, July Pt.2

Here are some quotes I’ve read or heard this month that I found especially thought-provoking. July was a busy month for reading/quote-mining:


“Ideology, by which I mean a totalizing and closed system that discounts or dismisses whatever does not ‘fit’ within it, has very little use for accurate descriptions of what is going on.”—Jean Bethke Elshtain

“We’re all born geniuses, but something in the process of living de-geniuses us.”—Buckmister Fuller


“Ideas seldom jump into the mind from nowhere. If they do, like Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch for a helicopter, they remain science fictions until technological advance makes them seem prescient. Ideas are seeded in frameworks of previous growths and need those same frameworks to flourish.“—John Man


“To sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.”—Raymond Loewy


“Every time history repeats itself the price goes up.”—Bumper Sticker


“Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”—Richard Nixon


“Ideas never survive contact with the real world in their pure form.”—Ben Judah


Simplicity is unforgiving, and it does not lie. This is the reason it is meticulously avoided by the amateur who is more interested in the ideas of simplicity and mastery rather than the honest self-investigation required by their actual process.”—Mercai Macavei (


“Human nature is everywhere morally ambivalent, the better angels cooing into one ear, their demonic cousins crowing into the other.’—Benjamin Barber