From “Reflections on American Violence” by Richard Hofstadter

I reread Richard Hofstadter’s remarkable essay “Reflections on American Violence” this morning. The essay was first published as “The Future of American Violence” in Harper’s in April of 1970 and as the introduction to American Violence: A Documentary History, a book edited by Hofstadter and Michael Wallace. You can read the whole thing at The Baffler. First three paragraphs:

The United States, it has been said, has a history but not a tradition of domestic violence. A history, because violence has been frequent, voluminous, almost commonplace in our past. But not precisely a tradition, for two reasons: First, our violence lacks both an ideological and a geographical center; it lacks cohesion; it has been too various, diffuse, and spontaneous to be forged into a single, sustained, inveterate hatred shared by entire social classes. Second, we have a remarkable lack of memory where violence is concerned and have left most of our excesses a part of our buried history. . . .

For historians violence is a difficult subject, diffuse and hard to cope with. It is committed by isolated individuals, by small groups, and by large mobs; it is directed against individuals and crowds alike; it is undertaken for a variety of purposes (and at times for no discernible rational purpose at all), and in a variety of ways ranging from assassinations and murders to lynchings, duels, brawls, feuds, and riots; it stems from criminal intent and from political idealism, from antagonisms that are entirely personal and from antagonisms of large social consequence. Hence it has been hard to conceive of violence as a subject at all. . . .

Today we are not only aware of our own violence; we are frightened by it. We are now quite ready to see that there is far more violence in our national heritage than our proud, sometimes smug, national self-image admits of. Our violence frightens us, as it frightens others, because in our singular position uncontrolled domestic violence coincides with unparalleled national power, and thus takes on a special significance for the world. It is not only shocking but dangerous for a primary world power to lose three of its most important and valuable public leaders within a few years, and with them to lose an immeasurable part of its political poise. Violence in Colombia or Guatemala is of life-or-death concern to Colombians and Guatemalans. Violence in the United States has become of life-or-death concern to everyone. It is, again, disturbing to many Americans that the recent outbreaks coincided with the most sustained economic boom we have ever had. Although the American creed has been built upon the efficacy of riches, it has now become alarmingly clear that some of our social discontents, instead of being relieved by prosperity, are exacerbated by it. Although Americans are richer than ever, they have not found a way to buy themselves out of trouble.

Read the rest of “Reflections on American Violence”

Strange Fruit

In cynical times, it’s far too easy to dismiss the value of the arts. But listen to Billie Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit.” When Holiday put Bronx high-school teacher Abel Meeropol‘s lyrics to music, she captured the bizarre pain and insanity of a legacy of lynching in the American South. Meeropol’s morbid lyrics juxtapose a “Pastoral scene of the gallant south” against the gruesome spectacle of a lynching. The “strange and bitter crop” of history–the hanging flesh of dead black men–is preserved forever in this sad and bitter elegy. Art–song and poetry–has a capability to tell an abstract truth in a way that the concrete annals of history cannot achieve.

“Strange Fruit”

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.