The Disadvantages of Decency: A Conversation with James Carroll (Part 2)

Pt 2 pic of JC

Part two of my conversation with acclaimed author James Carroll, this time discussing how to fight back against Trump and the perils inherent in doing so, the shameful descent of the Republican Party, and the war for the soul of Christianity….


THE KING’S NECKTIE: Last time we were talking about anti-Semitism as the origin of racism, and the human impulse to categorize and dehumanize “the Other.” Given your long history in the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement during Vietnam, you had a surprising angle on that, in terms of fighting the current occupant of the Oval Office, who seems to have no trouble wading into those waters.

JAMES CARROLL: Well, the worst thing that could happen today is if Trump’s critics began to respond to him and his so-called base in a similar hierarchal way….as if, by definition, folks who believe in or vote for or still support Trump are biologically, intellectually, culturally condemned to a place of inferiority. That’s the conflict between the “elites,” so-called, and Trump’s base, so-called. If we allow that to become defined in absolute terms we would be basically repeating the same old structure of imagination that condemns the whole human species by insisting that it can properly be divided into people who are worthy and people who are not worthy.

It’s a kind of cultural conflict right now. It’s a culture war, kulturkampf, and we have to resist it.

The trick is to oppose with every fiber of our being those folks who embrace Trump and what he represents without demonizing them. We have to oppose them. We have to denounce them. We have to criticize them. We have to say exactly what Trump is doing, but also understand that this doesn’t make them humanly inferior to those of us who disagree with them.

TKN: But just to be the devil’s advocate for a minute—and I’m not advocating for the kind of divisiveness you’re warning against—but isn’t the distinction that when we have a political disagreement with Trump supporters it’s an intellectual or ideological one, not one that’s based on race or geography or anything other than a substantive, intellectual difference of opinion?

JC: Exactly right. That’s exactly what I’m saying. The cultural stereotype of “the redneck” is a version of racism. If you deplore the redneck as a cultural figure without any unpacking of who the “redneck” is, that’s rejecting a human being because of the category they belong to. And that’s what this whole thing is rooted in. It’s a mistake.

We have to be with each other with a kind of grounded commitment to our human equality. A democratic liberal is convinced that even his fiercest opponent has the right to disagree. The difference between democratic liberals and right wing conservatives is that liberals by definition are committed to the idea that conservatives have the right to their wrong-headed opinions. Conservatives don’t believe that about liberals, and that’s what makes them dangerous for a democratic polity, which is why they have to be opposed. But democratic liberalism carries within itself a kind of dangerous weakness which is that commitment to the rights of everybody to their own chosen positions, even if that means they choose Trump.

And our response can’t be expelling them the way Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain. Our response to them has to be political argument, not necessarily to change their mind—that may be impossible—but certainly to make sure that they don’t control the future of the political argument. We beat them at the polls. That’s why the integrity of the election is the key to democratic liberalism, and why it has to be protected.

Conservatives will take every chance they have to dismantle it because they effectively don’t believe in the rights of their opponents to have a voice in society. And we have to oppose that even while protecting their right to that position. It’s a very complicated thing. Democratic liberalism is always at risk when it’s in contest with the totalitarian structure of mind. And obviously Trump and his supporters are blatantly totalitarian in the way they think and speak and act politically, which is why they have to be opposed. But they can’t opposed on their own terms. If we do that, we lose, and they win.


TKN: Well I couldn’t agree with you more. And to your point about the legitimacy of our electoral system, it strikes me that when Republicans or conservatives or right wingers take these clearly anti-democratic steps—whether its gerrymandering, or voter suppression, or whatever—they’re not doing it in a mustache twirling way, they’re doing it with utter conviction and a sense of righteousness because they don’t believe what they’re doing is wrong. This is what you just said. They don’t recognize the rights of the opposition, so denying them a voice makes perfect sense. It fits with their worldview.

JC: Exactly right. The Republican Party over the last generation has become a totalitarian movement geared to the denial of democratic rights to anybody who doesn’t share its platform. I don’t believe it was true before Reagan, maybe it was heading that way, but it wasn’t true in the era of Nelson Rockefeller, or before him, Dwight Eisenhower. But it’s true now.

And the good news in Trump is that that’s become blatantly clear. It’s no longer deniable. And it has to be as powerfully resisted as it can be. But as I said before, the totalitarian imagination has an advantage over the democratic liberal imagination because the democratic liberal imagination is by definition committed to the inclusion in the commonwealth even of those people who do not accept the basic necessary principles of commonwealth.

Everybody who is a citizen in this country has a right to be here and a right to participate alike, even people who belong to the Ku Klux Klan. That’s the essential notion of the Constitution, the absolute right to say what I’m absolutely opposed to. That’s what makes the Constitution so vulnerable, because it protects people who hate it. And it’s very clear—very clear—that the right wing in this country, and even so-called more “moderate” Republicans, hate the basic idea of this Constitution, and if God forbid there were a constitutional convention today you can kiss the Bill of Rights goodbye, except for the Second Amendment.

TKN: Which is ironic of course because the Right makes a fetish of its alleged love for the Constitution. I’m sure you’ve seen these kind of street theater things where provocateurs go out and show people the Bill of Rights as if it’s new legislation and overwhelmingly the man on the street says “Get this commie propaganda out of my face.”

JC: Right, right.

TKN: To me the most terrifying thing is that free speech is essential to that inclusive democracy you just described, and that is specifically under attack by Trump.

JC: The heart of free speech is the free press. The absolute heart of it. If there’s no free press then there’s no free speech. And he’s blatantly attacking the freedom of the press. But again, for me, it’s so much larger than Trump because he’s basically speaking out loud what Republican power structures have been kind of whispering to each other for a generation now. And in an odd and ironic way, if we survive this period, that will have been perhaps a service that Trump will have performed for us.

TKN: Yeah, I would like to believe that that will be the outcome. No credit to him; just inadvertently.

JC: Yeah, it would be nice, as you yourself like to say, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

TKN: (laughing) I think Hemingway said that, not me, but I’ll take it.


TKN: To go back to the issue of race for a moment, as you know, I grew up in the South because of being a military brat, like you, but I’m not a Southerner and I was very aware of not being a Southerner when I lived there. But that’s where I spent most of my childhood. So when I came up north to go to college I expected to find no racism whatsoever. This is 1981, when I was 17 years old, almost 18. And I was shocked at the amount of racism in the North. It’s almost….I’m not going to say it’s worse, it certainly isn’t worse, but it’s more insidious because in the South you’re forced to deal with the Other all the time. No matter how bad a racist you are, you have to deal with the Other. But up north there’s incredible segregation that foments a different sort of racism. So that was my experience as a kid, seeing that for the first time. I always think of that Randy Newman song “Rednecks” which is an indictment of Northern racism written from the perspective of an unreconstructed Southerner, and it’s right on the money.

JC: I grew up, as you did, as the son of a military man, but I spent a good bit of my childhood in Virginia, in suburban Washington, but in my youth that was still very much the Old South. I grew up in a radically segregated world—radically. The old world of separate schools and separate water fountains and separate benches in the bus stations. And when I moved to Boston, like you, I was astonished at the blatant character of white racism in Boston, where the School Committee was aggressively protecting segregated schools—white schools and black schools—which led to the court-imposed busing crisis in Boston, which was a nightmare to live through, a nightmare especially for African-Americans.

I was a bus monitor, one of a corps of volunteers who—representing the federal judge— rode the buses to report to the judge how the process was going. I saw up close what these black children were subjected to. It made me deeply ashamed, I have to say. Even having said that, I also learned not to exempt myself from the broad indictment of white culture because I have internalized in my DNA an element of so-called “white supremacy” that I have had to reckon with, confront, and work to purge from myself.

TKN: We all have that in us, but many people are unwilling to recognize it. When I talk to Trump supporters—and even just Trump sympathizers, let’s call them—except for that Bannonite / Charlottesville contingent that openly embraces the swastika and the white hood, the worst thing you could say to one of these people is “You’re a racist”….or more politely, “Don’t you think there’s a racial component to your hostility to Barack Obama?” They get so offended. It’s like you insulted their mother.

JC: But that’s personal racism. The racism that is most insidious is systemic racism: the ways in which the structures of our economy, and our politics, are still ordered to protect white supremacy. One of the most blatant manifestations of that is “elite education,” where people of color are still vastly under represented. There are high achieving people of color in elite education, but they continue to be exceptional and they function as a way in which the powers that be in the culture of elite education can salute themselves for not being racist. But that’s the pinnacle of the racist culture in American life. And so a lot of resentment against the so-called elites is right on.

One of the things that’s interesting of course is the white resentment of the “elites” has become so violent and so self-justifying and so nihilistic, while resentment of the elites on the part of African-Americans and other people of color has never led to the embrace of a nihilist like Trump. So that’s instructive, that where whites with a grievance embrace a figure like Trump, the other story in America is that African-Americans and the other people of color have embraced figures like Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, cultural figures like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and more recently Ta-Nehisi Coates. Who speaks the grievances of African-Americans? It’s never been a hateful, fearmongering, deceitful character like Trump. That’s a creation of white grievance and should cause all of us who are associated as whites to ask why is this and where is it coming from.

TKN: Well I can’t remember who said it—it might have been Richard Pryor, and he said it in a joking way but it was really true—if you’re a poor white person you’ve really got no excuse. You’ve got no one to blame for your failures because your people haven’t been kept down over centuries. So if you can’t make it in this culture with all of the advantages of being white, no wonder you’re mad. Now that’s flippant for sure, and there’s all kinds of class and economic factors in play, but it might be a part of the resentment you’re talking about.

The other ironic thing is, as you say, despite the systemic discrimination in our society favoring white people, that’s the very thing that the conservative movement denies. They deny it completely and in fact say it’s the opposite. Which is batshit crazy.

JC: Yeah, and that’s a good example of the totalitarian deceitfulness of the conservative movement: the blatant denial of what’s obviously true.


TKN: We interviewed Martin Amis for “The Last Laugh” (Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary about what’s off limits for comedy, starting from the premise of the Holocaust as the ultimate taboo topic for humor). One of the things he said to us was that anti-Semitism is unique in that it’s only form of racism where the object of the bigotry is simultaneously treated as subhuman and superhuman. As bad as racism against African-Americans is, nobody ever says African-Americans rule the world at the same time.

JC: Right, and the classic example where that comes down to earth is how Jews can be hated both for being revolutionary communists and for being capitalists, the capitalist international cabal that controls the world economy. So they’re both Karl Marx and the Rothschilds all at once.

TKN: So how is it that there are so many prominent Jews in this administration—Mnuchin, Kushner, Gary Cohn, Stephen Miller—and yet there is this undeniable anti-Semitism in that same organization? How do those guys co-exist alongside the Steve Bannon/Breibart faction—even though Bannon’s gone, but he’s still an influence—and in the case of Miller, not just co-exist with it, but be an active, passionate champion of that mindset? To me, Miller is the most odious of them all, although it’s a pretty tight horse race there. Mnuchin’s in the running for sure.

JC: It’s a mystery. I’d love to ask any one of them. It’s a mystery. But you know, people can be blind to the real meaning of their situations. And I think a Jewish person who’s part of the Trump team is blind to the real meaning, to what it is to be part of that team. That’s all I can say. It’s a mystery.

TKN: There was a New Yorker piece I read recently about norms, and how they change, and it started with an anecdote about seeing a swastika spraypainted in Brooklyn right after the election. And the author’s point was that the swastika was backwards. So it was clear that the person who painted it didn’t even understand the tradition they were trafficking in, but was sort of experimenting with it because they felt emboldened. It was like Trump lifted the lid off the sewer.

JC: It’s true. The way I think of it is that there’s a bug in the software of Western culture. Just as so many of us are totally ignorant of what the software on which we depend consists of, God forbid there should be a bug in it, and how we should deal with it. It’s that deeply impended in the life we live. There’s a bug in the software of Western culture and it just pops up on our screens without our knowing where it came from, what it means, what it’s doing, how to deal with it. And the swastika is a manifestation of it, and so are other things. The N-word is a manifestation of it. The ways in which women can be blatantly treated as sex objects and reduced to their sexuality, that’s a manifestation of it.

Another way to think about it is that there’s a corrupted gene in our DNA and it’s way deep in our makeup as a people. We have a kind of cancer that hasn’t maybe shown symptoms yet, but every once in a while there’s a mole on our skin. Well, the swastika that that person drew is like a mole on our skin. And if you biopsy it you find out that there’s a vast amount of cancer in the body politic.

That’s why these manifestations need to be addressed and taken seriously. Just because the most important manifestation in Charlottesville last August was anti-black white supremacy doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take very serious note of the anti-Semitic tropes that were instinctively embraced by those protestors. What is that telling us? It’s not true that Jews as a group are at risk for genocide in the United States of America, but Jews as a group are always, always in a place of vulnerability as long as the culture that came of Christendom hasn’t reckoned with the sources of anti-Jewish instinct, anti- Jewish beliefs, and anti-Jewish racial assumptions.

And that problem is very deep and still living and it’s alive in every Christian church, every Holy Week when the sacred Gospel texts are read and Jesus is once again portrayed as a victim of the “murdering Jews” quote unquote, instead of the Romans who are actually the people who murdered him. In the Christian imagination it’s the Jews and that’s still true. There’s the kernel of the problem right there.

The most powerful manifestation of the poison in Christianity today are those evangelicals who have explicitly embraced Trump. And there’s something perverse about that, but they’re not the first Christians to be perverse and they won’t be the last. And you know, we Catholics know something about that too.

TKN: It almost feels like if you take the question of why Christianity became the most prevalent religion on the face of the earth, it almost sounds like it was because it provided this perfect vehicle for hatred of Jewish people.

JC: Well, that’s part of the story. The other much more important part of the story is the good news. I mean there is good news. We’re talking about the sin of Christianity here. It’s an original sin and it’s ongoing. But Christianity would never have survived much less thrived if that’s all it was. Much more important is the way in which the Christian message, beginning with Jesus himself, building on his Jewish tradition going back to Exodus, gave suffering people a way of making meaning out of their suffering.

What is the meaning of human suffering? And that problem is at the heart of human experience. Christianity offered an answer. Not that suffering could be made meaningful or good in any way, but that when we suffer we don’t suffer alone. The good news is simple and it’s that when you suffer God suffers with you.

And it’s a beautiful story. And that’s why in ancient Rome the people who embraced the story of Jesus were slaves, the lower classes. The amazing thing is not that Jesus was raised from the dead in three days. The amazing thing is that the message of Jesus spread across the Roman Empire in three decades. Before social media, before mass media, before there were easy and potent methods of communication. In the lifetime of people who knew Jesus personally, the Jesus movement took off in Rome itself, a vast distance from this obscure backwater in Palestine where he lived and died as a nobody. How did this nobody from Galilee who was probably illiterate, impoverished, how did his message change the world? It wasn’t because it was demonic or anti-Jewish. It spread because it was something beautiful and powerful, which is why I’m a Christian, why I’m still a Catholic, why I’m spending as much energy as I do trying to help this tradition change and be worthy of its founder, who was a Jew by the way. And if Christians hadn’t forgotten that, the history of the last 2000 years would be very different.


Website, including bibliography: James

Selected recent New Yorker articles by James Carroll:

Pope Francis Is the Anti-Trump

What Trump Doesn’t Understand About Anti-Semitism

Daniel Berrigan, My Dangerous Friend

The True Nature of John McCain’s Heroism 

Who Am I To Judge?

Transcription: Sherry Alwell /

Photo (originally published in the New York Times): Bob Richman, from “Constantine’s Sword”




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