Monday, October 24, 2005

Taken to task ...

And now for another behind-the scenes glimpse in the life of a newspaper book review editor:

In my review yesterday of Caryl Phillips's novel Dancing in the Dark, based on the life of black entertainer Bert Williams, I had the temerity to write the following:

One would hope that an African American, reading this book, would feel compassion for its melancholy protagonist, trapped in a cultural double-bind. Any white American, reading it, ought to feel ashamed.

My colleague Michael Rozansky warned me that that final sentence might elicit some critical email. And so it did. I can't quote any of them -- there were five, I think -- because I don't have the writers' permission, but the gist of all of them seemed to be that the racism that existed in this country at the time was certainly deplorable but nothing that white Americans today need be ashamed of. I suggested to a couple of my correspondents that it would seem to me perfectly reasonable if a contemporary German felt ashamed over what happened in Germany during the Nazi era. So why shouldn't we be ashamed of our country's racism? I reminded another that the primary defintion of shame is "a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety." Accordingly, I think shame is an altogether appropriate emotional rsponse to certain things that have taken place in American society. Finally, I told all of them that I believed in a common human nature and a universal moral law and that decent people tend to find certain actions and attitudes shameful.
So far, none of my correspondents has written back.

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