A Rage in the Heart
Note: This post was originally published by my friends Scott Jordan Harris and Simon Mason at “Touching From a Distance,” a wonderful pop culture an entertainment blog based in the U.K.. If you love film, music, literature and theatre, TFAD is an excellent place to keep up to date on current events, news, and the occasional crunk poetry reading
Social intolerance, which wears many masks, has but one ultimate goal: the complete and utter removal of the dignity of its target. Practitioners pay no heed to the humanity of their victims, reducing them to the most base and offensive of stereotypes. The victims have little recourse against the attacks, for their anger and outrage is simply turned against them as further evidence of their lowered human state. In the minds of their attackers, this kind of perverse logic makes perfect sense. If ‘they’ were like ‘us’, the malefactors claim, ‘they’ would realize the insults were only words, and ‘didn’t really mean nothing’.
But words do mean something, and carry the power to trigger or perpetuate actions monstrous in both scale and effect. Strip away a man’s dignity, and you leave an open wound sensitive to the touch. He flinches from social contact and overreacts to disturbances others might consider minor. The mind twists, and perception shifts to a hypersensitive state in which every word uttered carries far more weight than context. Visions of vengeance rise, elaborate fantasies where the powerless hold sway over an army of enemies, forcing them to acknowledge a dignity barely disguised as a display of will. In the worst of conditions, some will act on these fantasies, aggravating the circumstances of their persecution and their lives.
Such is the case in Milos Forman’s film version of E.L. Doctorow’s book ‘Ragtime’.
Set initially in the early 1900s, the movie interlaces the lives of the famous and fictional to tell a distinctly American tale of a nation experiencing the pains of growth and self-discovery. One of the central stories concerns a young and successful black jazz musician named Coalhouse Walker Junior, played with fantastic intensity by Howard E. Rollins, Jr., whose skill at playing Ragtime has allowed him to climb the social ladder.
Or so he thinks.
One day, after a visit with his fiancée, who has just delivered his child, he is returning to New York is his splendid automobile when he is accosted by a group of Irish volunteers, led by racist chief Willie Conklin, outside a firehouse. They block his path with their wagons, and while he is off to seek assistance, one of them takes a shit on the fine leather seat of the car. When Walker returns with a cop, he is understandably outraged, yet the cop, played by a young Jeff Daniels, tries to defuse the situation by declaring it a harmless and un-provable prank. When Walker refuses to be placated, he is arrested. This initiates a chain of tragic events that ultimately leads to the death of Walker’s fiancée and his seizing control of the Morgan Library and threatening to blow it up if his demands are not met.
His demands are simple: the restoration of his prized automobile and that punishment be served to Willie Conklin, whom Walker now unfairly blames for his fiancé’s death. For Walker, both Conklin and the assault on the car have come to symbolize everything wrong with the America of his dreams, final obstacles to the promise of true freedom and equality found within the Constitution. His outrage at his treatment triggered the release of an innermost demon that, ironically, seeks to also destroy those very same ideals. Coalhouse Walker Junior, in his quest for his own personal brand of justice, has abandoned his ideals, and set himself outside the laws he wishes others would obey.
Towards the end of the movie Walker sits alone in the library, surrounded by the police and fully aware that his act of violence is about to be met with an equally furious, and violent, response. Walker sits and, after a moment, offers up a prayer that’s not so much a supplication to God as a primal cry from the soul.
‘Lord, why did you put such a rage in my heart?’
What’s particularly interesting about the quote is the implication that God, and not Coalhouse Walker Junior, or the people who persecuted him, is somehow responsible for his rage. While its true that Walker’s story is a particularly potent example of man’s inhumanity to man, Walker’s response was Walker’s alone, and had very little to do with divine intervention. He allowed his fate to be chosen for him, by becoming that which he beheld. No one will deny that Conklin was a beast, but his stupidity is based on simple fear and ignorance. He saw in Walker something he could never aspire to be, and he reacted with mindless malicious envy. Conklin is the epitome of an idiot that revels in idiocy, fully comfortable maintaining absolute ignorance. Walker – who knows he is a better man, knows he is a smarter man, knows he is a far more cultured man than Willie Conklin could ever hope to be – still allows his pride to fuel a rage that drops him right to Conklin’s level. He has become what he was expected to be, what Conklin wanted him to be, and he did it all of his own free will.
Such is the insidiousness of intolerance: the powerless use violence and hate as justification for more violence and hate. It is a literal death spiral, leading to the perpetuation of old wounds continually reopened. Times have certainly not changed since the early 1900s of Coalhouse Walker Junior. Progress has been made on many levels, to be sure, but in matters of race and class, the olds wounds and old fears persist. The poor and poorly educated feel pushed aside in a world where all the power they once possessed now belongs to someone else. Hackles are up, teeth are bared, and lines have been drawn in the sand. Unless something gives, somewhere in the middle, open conflict will erupt. When the strife is settled, a victor will emerge to hopefully bandage and heal the wounds of our culture. Let us hope that this victor has the humility and grace to realize that it is time for intolerance to die once and for all. Let him teach the lesson that he who allows himself to be consumed by a hate he seeks to vanquish will only become a greater victim.