No wicked people necessary—history repeats itself

James Baldwin understood the difference betweeen spineless and wicked people

James Baldwin in London, 1969 Photo by Allan Warren – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I’ve been rereading James Baldwin lately; I highly recommend it.

I still remember the shivers that went down my spine the first time I read The Fire Next Time, probably more than 30 years ago. Of course, I didn’t understand it—not the way I do today. And probably not the way I will, if nuclear holocaust or some other kind of holocaust doesn’t take us all, 30 years from now.

If you think of the Civil Rights Movement as ranks of orderly marchers singing “We Shall Overcome,” punctuated by the occasional Southern sheriff wielding water cannons and police dogs; if the Black Lives Matter movement came as a surprise to you; if you don’t understand how deep the roots of inequality are in this country, and how widely its noxious flower still blooms—then it may be time for you to reread James Baldwin, too.

History repeats itself, damn it

Why am I writing about James Baldwin when there’s so much else—so many other horrifying things—going on right now? Because it’s true what they say about history repeating itself. And although Baldwin wrote in another time about another subject, a lot of what I found in his 1962 essay “Letter from a Region in My Mind” could apply to what we’re dealing with today.

The demise of “the American experiment” seems imminent. Russia seems to have affected the outcome of our most recent election—perhaps even with the encouragement, if not assistance, of the man who now sits in the White House. At any other time in my life, the idea that a foreign power had interfered in the election would have set alarm bells ringing; the fact that it was Russia—the erstwhile “Evil Empire” in Ronald Reagan’s phrase—would have sparked a bipartisan effort to prosecute the offenders and restore trust in our democracy.

But the Republicans in Congress are too busy trying to take healthcare away from 20 million or more Americans so they can enact an unprecedented tax cut for billionaires. And they’re working under a strict deadline—they need to effect this massive transfer of wealth before the president who vowed to sign the bill has been removed from office.

If just three Republicans cling to their humanity and vote No, the bill will die. If not, millions of Americans will die. Possibly even me—so, yes, don’t expect me to be objective about this.

Wicked people not necessary

But I find Baldwin had the same thoughts in 1962 that I have today. To wit:

“…a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.”

I don’t want to co-opt Baldwin’s argument. He was writing about the scourges of racism and segregation; I’m thinking about the scourge of ultra-Conservative donors buying off key Congressional leaders. Paul Ryan just booked a donation from the Mercer family of about half a million dollars. Half. A. Million. Dollars. (I can’t find the citation for that, but here’s an article from The New Yorker about Robert Mercer.)

And I’m thinking about the scourge of ultra-partisanship—to the point that the Republicans blocked an effort to revoke Jared Kushner’s security clearance, even though we now have proof that he lied on his clearance application about meeting with a Kremlin-connected operative during the campaign.

Are these wicked people? That’s for God, not me, to judge. But they sure as hell seem spineless.

“I sometimes think, with despair, that Americans will swallow whole any political speech whatsoever…”

I despair about that too, Mr. Baldwin. Fifty-five years after you wrote those words, too little has changed. Will it ever?

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