James Baldwin, Ignorance Allied with Power, and the Importance of Poets and Children

September 21, 2019


In the United States of America, we’re fortunate American powers—those pale, corporate men who believe in the almighty accumulation of wealth and acquiring monstrous power and not much else—treat children and poets as inconsequential, some innocuous foolishness by those without leverage if they ever think of them at all.  Powerful authoritarian men might still consider swatting and killing a bee in their presence but never notice a butterfly. In many parts of the world, throughout human history, poets have been among the first to be persecuted for good reason. Children are often the first to suffer under such rule. Poets and philosophers—those deep thinkers—were recognized for the danger they presented to the status quo. When you begin to question, as William Butler Yeats wrote, “things fall apart.”


Our democratic republic presents some special challenges, as poet, novelist, thinker James Baldwin wrote, “It is very nearly impossible to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.” While independence from England was sought and valued in 1776, truly independent thinking has always been feared by the political powers in this country. Thinking leads to questioning which may lead to trying to change what is unjust. Once you have power, you do not give it up. And for all of the propaganda put out by American corporations and their tightly controlled messaging to keep the masses in line, we have anything but a just system. Turning to black American writer Baldwin again: “It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”


The times in which we are living under the Trump regime is the epitome of Baldwin’s statement: “Ignorance allied with power” defines this illegitimate Presidency. Trump’s ignorance of history, science, culture, and fact are astounding. Yet, he has survived and thrived in our American landscape because he understood one thing: hate. If he could ride that wave of hatred for others, he would land at the helm of our fragile, disintegrating, quasi-democracy. After Trump has shown the effectiveness of using hate, nearly as well as Hitler once did, it is hard to imagine other American leaders not following suit.


The fact that more people have not written about Trump’s comingling of ignorance and power demonstrates how absolute power effectively silences critics, as Trump and his minions in the Republican Party have done. Everything from calling news organizations “fake news” every single day he has corruptly held office to deconstructing government departments with access to scientific information, Trump has discovered that America and Americans were ripe for such a takeover. We likely have been all along, but we’ve never had such an amoral, corrupt to the core, petty, ignorant man in our highest office.


This is where the brave poets and writers and children come to the fore. It may well become as dangerous to be a poet in America as in China or Russia or many other parts of the autocratic world. Until then, we raise our pens, head for our keyboards, take to the streets, like little Greta Thunberg, who helped start a world-wide movement to bring greater attention to the climate crisis, and make our voices—subversive to the powers—heard. Coming back to James Baldwin for articulation: “it is also absolutely true that safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace.”

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