Book Review

Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine

while we seek relief in schadenfreude over self-esteem, the world will never be fixed

Written November 15th, just before lunchtime.

I’m still on a fucking train on this tour of Canada to the east of where I live.

This post won’t be long as there’s a dining car on this train (lol) and my lover and I have an imminent dinner reservation. There are lots of old men travelling on their own pretending they’re James Bond and lots of middle aged couples talking about James Bond (I overheard one couple doing this at breakfast but I’m extrapolating outwards as obviously I’m thinking about James Bond because who else eats in dining carts on trains?).

Anyway, for me to give a lengthy response to Claudia Rankine’s intense, articulate and (unfortunately) forever prescient writing would be to ignore a key factor of her work. I am, of course, white, as you can see many pictures of me all over this site, showing my sick metamorphosis from gorgeous floppy-haired party boy to fat bald sluglike mess of a nothing who’s had a few books published (to minor acclaim and major apathy) who has also been diagnosed with a personality disorder.

Rankine’s latest book (I think – tho maybe she has published something since, this is from 2020 and the final draft postdates the beginning of the pandemic as there are a couple of pages close to the text’s end that – briefly – explore the racialised inequities in the disproportionate morbidity rates between Black people and white people in the US as a result of COVID-19 (which was certainly the case too in Canada, where I live, and in the UK, where I was cursed to be born)) is about whiteness, is about privilege, is about the need for radical rethinking from the majority of people and how-

///

Ok, I went to lunch in the dining car and now I am back with time to waste.

I spoke about the book with my lover and I’ll present my comments in bulletpoint form and then I will move on to read something lighter.

I basically talked myself into disliking Just Us, which was not how I felt earlier today when I finished reading.

I think it’s great, excellent, of course, but like pretty much every book about inequality I’ve ever read except for Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s As We Have Always Done there is a conspicuous and unignorable (for me) absence of any sense of anger required to force through the radical, progressive, restructuring of society that is the only way to ensure the fundamental changes the world needs for its ecological survival and its sociological development. There will never be universal comfort under capitalism.

Below, my thoughts on Just Us:

  • It’s a very Democrat book, there’s a real unwillingness to explore the failings of institutions, rather than individuals involved in them;
  • There’s a tenuousness about discussing the failures of the Obama administration – there’s a little bit there (of course), but it’s always couched in a certain kind of language that implies it’s a sensitive or even taboo subject, which is one of the main reasons why the (currently) ongoing Biden administration is turning out to be such a shitshow: because progressive Democrats never accepted or digested why the American system of government is utterly unsuitable for creating change;
  • All of the “white people” who are featured are very privileged people, and there isn’t much of an exploration (or acknowledgement) of why so many poor white people consistently vote against their own personal best interests when there is the opportunity to vote for the increased (or certainly not decreased) suffering of others;
  • This returns me to the line of argument in DH Lawrence’s Apocalypse, which is that any society that encourages a presentation of joy as only available if suffering is visited on others (the heaven/hell paradox) is utterly morally bankrupt and needs revolution, not reformation. We each live little lives and while we are taught to rely on schadenfreude over self-esteem to bolster our own malaise, the world will never be fixed. There is always someone suffering more than us, or differently to us, whoever we are in the world, and until that becomes something which the majority of people are sickened by, rather than buoyed by, nothing will ever change.

Buuuuut-

Yes.

It’s difficult to critique something like this without feeling somewhat beyond the pale – especially because my critique of it 100% comes across as personalised, and I know it’s a stereotype of white “liberals” to cry out “but *white* about class?”, and that’s kinda what it feels like I’m doing here, but am I?

What I’m intending to critique is an entire approach which has continually proven to achieve nothing, which Rankine also (tbf) begins to do towards the book’s conclusion, but much like the reference to COVID, this feels tacked on, an addition, an attempt to contemporise a text whose other references are decades old.

There is no hope expressed in Just Us for a removal or decrease of white privilege, there is a – very fair – criticism of the inconsistent and functionally useless ways in which the rich white people Rankine regularly hangs out with try to make themselves feel better for being racist.

There is a gap between this conclusion and any real prospect of change: if we acknowledge that white guilt fixes nothing, but simultaneously understand that improved widespread understanding of the realities of racism is important, then without a direct call for revolution isn’t it kind of implying that, well, the status quo is the best reality that’s possible so… eurgh… we should… do… nothing?

Revolution, not reformation, is what the world needs. Hopelessness is not the way out of capital’s world, but nor is politeness or politesse.

What am I doing in my life to aid in the violent overthrow of our white supremacist, capitalistic, patriarchal world order? Nothing, because I don’t know what to do, and I really need to accept that I’m not going to find that information, that rallying cry, in a mass-produced paperback book of essays published by a middle aged, middle class professor at an Ivy League college.

What even is this blog, jesus christ?


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