Seeing the World in Black and White

On the last night of his life my father expressed regret about having fallen into the trap of seeing the world as black and white.  

“I think now how much richer my life would have been, and everybody’s around me, if I hadn’t seen the world as black and white,” he managed to say during that last conversation.  Black and white thinking is one of the easiest traps for people to fall into, especially people who strive to be moral.  

I once bought two subscriptions to Mother Jones magazine, one for me, one for my father.  Mother Jones was a now largely forgotten warrior for social justice.  The magazine is (or was, not sure if it still exists– but these days we can just ax google, here you go) dedicated to her spirit of principled resistance to the tyranny that most see as just the way things are.   Things we can’t do anything about.  

Things like little girls and boys in far off lands who unfortunately are ripped apart by the guided robot missiles we send in trying to blow up people who hate us.  We are very rich, you know, those of us who actually order the drone strikes, and these poor people, who are primitive and hateful, hate us for our freedom.  You know, good vs. evil, white vs. black, the kind of thing we just have to put out of mind, because thinking about it for more than the second it takes to say “yeah, OK” will only cause anguish we can do nothing about.  

Anyway, I knew my father would find the editorial take of Mother Jones to his liking.  He hated the reactionary turn our nation had taken, away from protecting the least among us, away from any social contract, international law, Justice, further and further from a commitment to human dignity.  He did like the magazine, we talked about the first issue, which we both perused with interest when it arrived.  

Toward the end of the year I asked him if he wanted me to renew his subscription.   He seemed momentarily sheepish.  Then he admitted he hadn’t been able to get himself to read it after that first issue.  I’d had exactly the same experience.  I renewed neither subscription, though both of us were pretty well-aligned with the views expressed in the periodical.  

Don’t know that this Mother Jones business is a good example of black and white, maybe it’s more the difficulty of dealing with nuance.  Or maybe the articles were just somewhat boring, or overly academic, or preaching to the choir too much, or shrill, or something.  Glancing at the on-line version now, which seems pretty good (though, to be honest, I had trouble getting through the whole linked article about Ted Cruz’s father), I really don’t recall why it was we both didn’t read it.  

I found myself thinking about this Black and White business the other day when Antonin Scalia finally shuffled off this mortal coil after decades of shaping American law to his often hateful views.  

Did Mr. Scalia, who was famous for highly intellectual, nuanced analyses of the law, and framing his views with a claimed fidelity to the Constitution he revered as a dead and immutable relic of inspired framers, see the world in black and white?  I think so. You could always tell where he was heading, which side he’d come down on.  I rarely agreed with him.  My father felt the same way.  Yet, here’s the kicker: everybody seems to agree, leaving aside his repugnant views on many subjects and the damage he did in many areas, he was a funny, engaging, brilliant, playful, likable guy.  

I have tried to say nothing bad about the man since he died, though while he lived I considered him a pretty evil bastard.  I recall in law school reading some of his incendiary prose and recoiling at what a vicious prick the guy was.  I was first struck by his casual monstrousness reading an influential case about how strictly racial quotas must be reviewed by courts.  His provocative reference to white plaintiffs, who in different Supreme Court cases had claimed that the preference given to Blacks under Affirmative Action had unjustly victimized them, momentarily sickened me in my chair when I read it.  

Scalia underscored his intolerance for any government scheme that did not place color-blind merit first with flames.  “When we depart from this American principle we play with fire, and much more than an occasional DeFunis, Johnson or Croson burns,” he wrote.  I read this as a sickening, sly and hateful reference to Blacks set on fire by the Ku Klux Klan over the decades when such things were winked at by the Law.  The harm to Blacks burned to death by racists pretty the much indistinguishable, in this playing with fire, from the harm to white college students and contractors disadvantaged by programs that gave preferential treatment to small numbers of Blacks in an attempt to remedy centuries of racism at law.  I remember thinking what a dangerous bastard a guy like Scalia is, with a lifetime appointment to an all-powerful court from which there is no appeal.

And yet, he was Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s best friend.  Early on in law school I’d heard a gifted comedian on the radio, addressing an appreciative group of young fascists at some law school, and had been so impressed by his wit, his quickness, his command of the facts and the law, how persuasively he quipped, that I stayed tuned to hear who this comic genius was.  I recall feeling confused to hear this great and convincing comedian and social critic was Justice Antonin Scalia.  I remember thinking: what the fuck?  It seemed inconceivable to me that this man, whose writings struck operatic chords of racism, homophobia and other shades of complete and crusty asshole moral tone-deafness, could come off as such a cool and charismatic guy.

But there we are, with one of our hardest projects as human beings– seeing the often confusing nuance of the world.   We want things to make sense, and they don’t.  Does it make sense that a funny, intelligent, sensitive, curious, engaging person is also vicious, enraged, intolerant, inflexible?   Strictly speaking, no.  You’d think that if someone can laugh appreciatively at the jokes the condemned comedian makes he would spare the guy’s life if he had the power to.  

“You’re very fucking funny, cabron, and I hope you’ll behave more shrewdly in the future, man, because you crack us all up.  OK, untie him now,” you would have the guy say.  And many in the audience who’d come for a good burning at the stake would be pissed off, come all this way for a good show and so forth, God damn it, nothing good ever happens to me… Others, of course, would feel their hearts swell to see this brilliant comedian spared the dictator’s wrath, a little sniff of real justice in an unjust world.

I think again about that wonderful biography of Mickey Mantle by Jane Leavy.  Every page presents all the evidence you need to love and admire the Mick or to want to kick him in the stomach.  It has been called the mark of the highest intellect– the ability to hold more than one truth in mind at the same time.  That is the thing I am striving for as I write these recollections, try to paint the living, three dimensional portrait of my brilliant, loving, hateful father.


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