James Baldwin Versus “Great-Power Competition”
A few years ago, I read for the first time James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.
Baldwin wrote it in 1963, just as the Civil Rights Movement was about to have a breakthrough. Its style was unusual, presented in the first person as two letters of advice to his nephew—a young black teen growing up in a deeply racist country.
The Fire Next Time is the best kind of literary non-fiction—poetic prose, emotional truths, historical perspective, personalism. It was also mercifully short. Some of the quotes from it that offer transcendent truths:
Time catches up with kingdoms and crushes them, gets its teeth into doctrines and rends them; time reveals the foundations on which any kingdom rests, and eats those foundation, and it destroys doctrines by proving them to be untrue.
To accept ones past—ones history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.
the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation.
the only real advantage Russia has...is the moral history of the Western world. Russia's secret weapon is the bewilderment and despair and hunger of millions of people of whose existence we are scarcely aware.
renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not--safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom disappears.
I find myself drawing on these insights in all sorts of contexts, but most especially on my foreign policy beat.
If you read between the lines of Pacific Power Paradox, you see that the way Baldwin sees the world was my source code for that book. There’s a meta way in which American hegemony is waning because it’s built on false histories and doctrines of hypocrisy. A romantic image of American power was perpetuating injustice-cum-instability; a corrective was needed for the sake of a better future.
The reason for this post, though, is not to help Baldwin with posthumous sales or draw a comparison that will inevitably make my prose look graceless. It’s this: I only just now discovered that, throughout the 1960s, the FBI invested A LOT of time and money into surveilling and harassing Baldwin for absolutely bullshit reasons.
It’s an unbelievable story and it says something in microcosm about how geopolitics is an affront to political and economic democracy.