Author: James Livingston

Throwing Your Voice

I’ve felt the urge to play out recently, well, duh, precisely because I can’t.  I was trying to get into an online/virtual open mic up the street, at Lenox Coffee on 129th, but it kept postponing a reopening, so I complained to my brother Andy about it, and, in view of our recent cover of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” we decided I should convene an open mic via Zoom.  I invited him and an old friend of his, Johnny Omand; two old academic friends of mine who happen to be wonderful musicians, Charlie McGovern of William & Mary, Barry Shank of Ohio State; and two new friends from Facebook–never met ‘em in person–Anne Moriarty and Kerry Candaele. Three weeks ago we met for the first time, minus Kerry, but plus Shari Shank, who sings like an angel, and a good time was had by all.  A week ago, we met again with a depleted crew, but with the addition of Billy Knoblauch, of Finlandia University, another wonderful musician I know via academe.  The revelation of the evening was Charlie’s performance of “Everything is Free” by the Holmes Brothers–not just the excellent guitar, we’re all used to that, but the voice.  I had never heard him sing before, and I was just knocked out.  I wrote excitedly to my brother, saying “Wow, Charlie can sing!” Andy responded by saying...

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Showerman Gets the Blues

Fans of Showerman** know what he knows, that cleanliness is next to Godliness, and not as if He’s your next-door neighbor to be called upon when a shortage of flour is discovered mid-recipe, while cooking, nor when a shortage of intelligence is discovered mid-life, while listening to NPR as you run out of flour, no, cleanliness is, for Showerman, just about every goddamn thing, from Alpha to Omega 3, and all the good fats in between, some of which, he is told, can be squeezed from fish, cooked or cured. Now, Showerman believes in the blues as the place where the pentatonic scale, the root of African and Celtic music, met on the desolate soulscape of the American South, Faulkner’s home field, where enslaved Africans and Scots-Irish immigrants congregated and found common aural ground, inventing a music that, in time, became the soundtrack of liberation. But Showerman does not believe in the blues up his ass, which is what he recently discovered upon entering the temple, which, as fans, or, if you will, disciples, will know, is the bathroom, where the tools of cleanliness, personal hygiene as it is called in this narrow space, are stored, and where, most importantly, the ritual of the shower is performed. Showerman cannot describe this ritual in detail (see: Showerman, Season. 1, Episode 3), but he can explain how it was disrupted, detained,...

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Tear What Down?

Why not tear down the monuments of the slaveholders who made the American Revolution, viz., Washington, Jefferson, and Madison?  For me, a guy who teaches history for a living, the question boils down to this: what was that revolution about?  It’s a good question on this fateful eve of the 4th of July, when the republic created by the revolution is endangered by features–failures–of its own design. If Gerald Horne and his minions are right to answer that it was actually a counter-revolution meant to preserve slavery, or if their “progressive” antecedents** are right to answer that the American Thermidor came between 1787 and 1789, when conservative nationalists put the republican lid called the Constitution on the democratic radicalism of the 1760s, 70s, and 80s, why then there might be a point in celebrating independence–but in mourning what followed, and in taking bids on rebuilding the Mall. Except that bestride this “progressive” narrative we find the imposing figure of Thomas Jefferson, the slaveholder who lamented slavery as Charles Bukowski the alcoholic lamented alcohol, also the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, which claimed that “all men are created equal,” then again the man who wrote the Northwest Ordinance of 1785 and 1789, which barred slavery from territories north of the Ohio River and which in 1865 became the legal/rhetorical groundwork of the 13th Amendment–but a man who played...

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James Livingston Responds to James Oakes**

My old friend Jim Oakes protests too much.  I’m not going to bother with a point-by-point refutation of the charges he levels against me, because that would bore him, you, and me.  But let me say emphatically that he’s plainly misreading me when he invokes “Livingston’s hostility to unions,” thus portraying me as an enemy of the most basic working-class organizations, and, by implication, an enemy of the people. That’s a cheap shot, Professor Oakes.  I wrote that, like socialism itself, unions have no predictable political valence.  This is an empirically verifiable fact, not a theoretical pronouncement, as witness social democracy vs. Soviet-style communism, or the Teamsters as against, say, the UAW. The form of Oakes’s argument determines its content.  He portrays me as a pointy-headed academic with no grounding in the empirical realities of our straitened time, something like those PMC types both he and Adolph Reed ridicule as unconscious traitors to the multi-racial, working-class majority. Oakes writes: “Reed is discussing the empirical realities of black political life and history.  Livingston responds by looking at an intellectual tradition.”  Does he mean that intellectual tradition is not an empirical reality that powerfully informs and animates current debates on the past, present, and future of black life?  Does he mean that ideas are not themselves material realities, forces of production in their own right–as in the political expectations that come...

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James Oakes replies to James Livingston on Race, Class, Capitalism

James Oakes is Distinguished Professor of History at the CUNY Grad Center.  Among his many books are three pathbreaking works: The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (1982); The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (2008); and Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the US, 1861-1865 (2012). ___________ Jim Livingston and I agree that we need a class politics of redistribution that has room for the politics of racial justice (and, we would also agree, gender equality).  Unlike me, Jim thinks identity-based antiracist politics can achieve that synthesis and that Adolph Reed’s politics are “class reductionist” (Reed’s denial to the contrary notwithstanding), whereas I think Reed’s politics encompass racial justice by definition.  Antiracism, by contrast, is not intrinsically redistributionist, which is precisely what it is daily proving itself so attractive to corporate interests. Reed no more believes that class is a blunt sociological category than does Livingston believe that race is a blunt sociological category—even though it sounds as though he does all through his essay.  Of course class is a relation grounded in struggle.  I learned that decades ago, not from Adam Przeworski but from E. P. Thompson and all those brilliant British Marxists.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t speak of a “working class” with interests that are distinct from, say, the Professional Managerial Class.  And this...

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