Malcolm X: A Man for Our Times

Malcolm X

With the death of George Floyd at that hands (or rather knee) of a Minneapolis police officer and the protests that followed, I found myself wanting to try to understand the perspective of those who don’t share my white privilege. I thought back to the days of civil rights marches and protests in the 1960s. Growing up, I had learned about the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I also learned, but only in passing, about a man named Malcolm X.

What a learned in school about Martin Luther King, Jr. was only the headlines version, but I’ve heard much of his “I Have a Dream Speech” and read his “Letter from a Birmhamham Jail”. The only thing I learned about Malcolm X was that he was an angry Muslim that rather than believing in non-violence advocated for violent resistance. So in the midst of protests that occasionally turned violent, I decided to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X was a complex and dynamic man who isn’t done justice by the simplistic view of him that I had before I read this book. He grew up poor with only an eighth grade formal education. After the eighth grade he moved from the Lansing, MI area to Boston. There he live with his half sister and started work as a shoe shiner. Later he moved to Harlem where he used and sold drugs. He was eventually caught and incarcerated for these crimes and served ten years.

While in prison, Malcolm X spent most of his time either in the prison library or reading in his cell. He always sought to learn and grow. He also converted to the Nation of Islam. After leaving prison, he preached around the country, opening new temples (later called mosques). It was during this time that he rose to public prominence for his views. He was opposed to integration, feeling that the white man was the problem and that the black man needed to take pride in himself and to support and nurture his fellows. His speeches were fiery, and he never shied away from telling it like he saw it. It was during this time in his life that he gained the reputation as an angry, violent man.

Eventually Malcolm X had a falling out and a parting of the ways with the founder and leader of the Nation of Islam. In the process of this severance of ties, Malcolm made a pilgrimage to Mecca that change him profoundly. On this journey he had seen Muslims of all colors and nationalities live and worship as one during the Hajj. When he returned from this trip, he no longer saw the white man personally as his enemy. Instead he took the racist actions of men as his opposition. Unfortunately, no one in the media or public life seemed willing to acknowledge his growth. They still associated him with his days as a minister in the Nation of Islam. And while he was still in the process of redirecting his life in this new direction, he was assassinated.

For me, Malcolm X represents what we need today for civil rights. The 1960s led to institutional and legal changes required to move us further toward a more just and fair society. But now we need to face the hard facts of changing the culture itself. That’s the change that Malcolm X was trying to effect when his life was cut short. He wasn’t willing to wait any longer for justice for his people. The Black Lives Matter movement embraces that spirit. We’ve removed the overt racism that existed in our laws. Now we need to remove it from where it is embedded in our institutions.

For me the lesson of Malcolm X’s life is that we are always capable of learning and growing. The challenge is often that those around us aren’t willing to accept the changes that we go through. In Mecca, Malcolm X was able to see the humanity in everyone and that softened his heart but not his resolve. That’s what is missing in our politics today. Our politics is strong on resolve but lacks the heart of compassion and understanding. I hope that we can all embrace those qualities and work to embody them just as Malcolm X strove to in the last two years of his life.

A Hurried and Uninspired Memoir

Partisanship and the controversy surrounding John Bolton are not the reason I was interested in his memoir The Room Where It Happened. I am no Trump fan and am a registered independent voter. My interest lay in why he chose not to testify in the House impeachment proceedings and his experience working for the President. Since this was such a timely subject given the election in November, I decided to read it. I only made it through the first two chapters.

As you might expect, the book is very partizan, sharing the author’s very conservative perspective. This in itself does not bother me but rather intrigues me. I like to understand where people are coming from. I find that as a society we are too quick to pigeon hole someone in a box and then dismiss what they have to say. I’m interested in ideas more than party. As a result, I wanted to know what Bolton thought and how he advised the President. Unfortunately, I found the writing to be excessively detailed and overly flamboyant with too much name dropping.

The first two chapters that I read feel like he barely fleshed out his calendar based on his notes and memories. It doesn’t have the polish or introspection that is the hallmark of the modern memoir. He likes to repeatedly name the politically connected that he met or spoke with. An example of the excessive detail is that every time (yes, every time) he refers to the desk in the Oval Office he calls it the Resolute desk. That is a pertinent detail… the first time he mentions it. It just gets old and absurd after that.

It is clear from the author’s experience that President Trump was woefully unprepared practically and by disposition to act as president in the modern way. That way is to be someone who relies on his cabinet to bring him advice from which he makes informed decisions. Rather, he relies on family, friends, and his own seat of the pants judgment. Some may argue that this might have worked for him as a businessman, but it is certainly no way to govern. John Bolton was never happy with the chaos and haphazard antics of the Trump administration, eventually resigning.

After the first two chapters, I skimmed the rest of the book to see if it was going to continue in the same vein of subpar literature. It did. But I still wanted to know the author’s thoughts on the impeachment and his reasons for not testifying. This is in the final chapter of the book. I read that before laying the book aside.

Bolton’s opinion of the impeachment proceedings was that they were politically weaponized by both sides. He feels this was a dangerous precedent and a misuse of the Constitution. Interestingly, he feels that if the Democrats in the House had taken their time and broadened the scope of the investigation, they may have succeeded. According to the author, there is plenty of proof that the president regularly acted in his own personal interest or in the interest of his own re-election rather than in the best interests of the country.

As for why he didn’t testify, he anticipated having a similar experience to Charlie Kupperman’s. He was subpoenaed by the House of Representatives to testify in the impeachment proceedings. This resulted in the White House and the President ordering him to invoke “testimonial immunity”. Rather than choose which side to listen to, Kupperman filed suit in federal court for advice. Before receiving that advice, the House withdrew the subpoena leaving the court without jurisdiction. No decision was given. By that time, the House had passed the impeachment proceedings on to the Senate. John Bolton decided at that time that he would testify, if called. The Senate never called any witnesses and Trump was acquitted as expected. Given Bolton’s view of the process itself and his desire to hew closely to the Constitution, this makes sense.

In the end the overwhelming detail in this book and the author’s apparent need to brag about all the people he knows and is connected with render this memoir nearly unreadable. It seems that the author suffered from exactly what he accused the House Democrats of. He was in too much of a hurry to give the work the attention it deserved.