On Authority and Democracy

In an essay called “Authority and American Usage,” David Foster Wallace argues that Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage establishes its author as an authority on American English. The cornerstone of this argument is Wallace’s analysis of two definitions of “authority”:

  1. The right and power to command, enforce laws, exact obedience, determine or judge/ A person or a group invested with this power.
  2. Power to influence or persuade resulting from knowledge or experience./An accepted source of expert information or advice.

To Wallace, Garner’s book embodies the second definition. Instead of “commanding” his readers to acknowledge his authority as if such respect is his “right” as a scholar of language, Garner “persuades” us by displaying sufficient “knowledge and experience” to be “accepted” as a “source of expert information or advice.” Wallace calls this is a “genius” accomplishment.

Why? In a linguistic era defined by intense disagreement over what the standards of usage should be, or if any should even exist, what Garner recognizes, to quote Wallace, is that, “‘authority’ is no longer something a lexicographer can just presume ex officio…That in the absence of unquestionable Authority in language, the reader must be moved or persuaded to grant its authority, freely and for what appear to be good reasons.” It is for this reason that Garner’s book is no mere language guide, but also, and more impressively, a work of persuasion. What it is not is a compilation of grammatical decrees. As Wallace points out, it is instead a piece of “Democratic rhetoric.”

The reason Wallace uses this particular term to describe Garner’s work is linked to the distinction he makes between our two definitions of “authority.” Let’s analyze that distinction a bit more. The key word in each definition is “power.” In the first, power guarantees authority: those with power make the rules, and like it or not, everyone else must step in line, or face the consequences. In the second, that relationship is reversed: a presumptive Authority must first convince the rest of us that he deserves to wield power. Let’s call the first definition, “Tyrannical Authority,” and the second, “Democratic Authority.”

Tyrannical Authority has dominated human social structures for much of recorded history, and it remains influential today. It is perhaps best illustrated in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Late in the play, Lear asks the blinded Gloucester, “Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?” Gloucester responds that he has, and Lear replies, “And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold/the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office.”

The essence of Tyrannical Authority is raw force — the snarling teeth of the dog, warning the beggar, obey or face the consequences. Citizens living in a system defined by Tyrannical Authority are told the same thing: either adhere to the dictates of the powerful, or risk punishment.

Why has such an inherently unequal system been tolerated for such a large percentage of history? Well, here are some advantageous facts about Tyrannical Authority. Humans crave order, and the easiest way to maintain order is by concentrating it in the hands of a few. This way the babbling, chaotic, interests of the many are subdued and order maintained through submission. Ideally, goes the logic of Tyrannical Authority, those few in possession of power and authority, “know what’s best” for the people, and are therefore well-suited for dominion over the people’s interests.

But one of Lear’s most significant realizations as an ex-king is that there are some major holes in this logic. Tyrannical Authority enables the “rascal beadle,” who, “lashing a whore,” should “strip [his] own back,” because, “[he] hotly lusts to use her in that kind/ For which [he] whipst her.” Clothed in the vestments of power, and unchecked by the people, such hypocritical, selfish, and poisonous leaders don’t have to follow the rules they themselves impose, and often, they don’t. When that happens, the idea that Tyrannical Authority can both maintain order, and promote the good of a society’s whole population, is upended.

Even so, for a long time, Tyrannical Authority was an accepted, and unalterable, fact of life. It was easier to live with its limitations than it was to confront the potentially grave disorder which might be invited by scrapping the system. But over time, a new philosophy of power and authority emerged from the libraries of Western Europe to influence the founders of a new world. This philosophy emphasized things like rights, and, the people. With the birth of the United States of America, Democratic Authority was welcomed into the modern world.

In the first paragraph of the first Federalist essay, Alexander Hamilton writes, “it seems to have been reserved for the people of this country … to decide the important question, whether societies… are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitution on accident and force.” Hamilton knew well that the history of his country was inextricably linked with this question: can Democratic Authority function as a superior system of government than that of Tyrannical Authority, or does the American experiment simply invite disorder?

For the last few centuries, history has responded to that question (despite myriad conflicts and imperfections), with a resounding, “Yes.”  This is due in large part to a value Wallace defines in his analysis of Garner’s book. This value is called the Democratic Spirit. “A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus sedulous respect for the convictions of others.”

A Dictionary of Modern American Usage is a work of “Democratic Rhetoric” because it is in this Democratic Spirit that it is written. Garner approaches the divisive issue of American language usage with both a strong belief in his own ideas and the capacity to acknowledge the perspective of his opponents.

This is not an easy thing to do. It takes great effort to simultaneously believe deeply in something and respect those who would challenge this belief.  But this is an effort Democracy requires. For Democratic Authority to function at all, we must allow for the contrary opinions of our fellow citizens.

Unfortunately, the 21st century’s “culture wars” are defined by obstinate refusal to encounter differing points of view with a “Democratic Spirit.” Instead, many citizens and leaders do just the opposite: Americans of all political perspectives spend too much time considering the issues of our time with the attitude, “my way, or no way at all.” This attitude is Tyrannical, for it asserts a desire to silence the diversity of opinions encouraged by Democracy, in favor of a system that would assert a single worldview on all of us. The so-called feeling of “powerlessness” touted by Trump voters and The Resistance alike, is really dissatisfaction with the system of shared power upon which Democratic Authority depends.

What Democracy demands of us then, is tolerance. This tolerance does not mean accepting the morally outrageous, or backing away from our strongly held beliefs. It does, however, mean tolerating the fact that our nation, and our government, is composed of many individuals who do not see the world from the same place we do. It means striving to speak to these individuals not with derisive, dismissive, hateful, language, but through “Democratic Rhetoric,” just like good old Bryan Garner in his treatise on language, or Martin Luther King in his speeches, or Alexander Hamilton in his essays. The day we can no longer do that, is the day we are no longer capable of “establishing good government through reflection and choice.” On that day, the last flame of the Enlightenment will be extinguished, and the world will fall into a new dark age of Tyrannical Authority.

 

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Lincoln’s Idealistic Realism Is Still Relevant

In a debate with Stephen A. Douglas in the fall of 1858, Abraham Lincoln identified the ideological conflict at the core of his nation’s struggle to come to terms with itself. In attacking Douglas’s ambivalence regarding the spread of slavery to new territories, Lincoln asserted that slavery was not only wrong, but anathema to America’s founding ideals.

His argument depended on two premises. The first was an interpretation of the Declaration of Independence that recognized the humanity of black people. If blacks were included in the phrase “all men are created equal,” then they could not be denied the “inalienable rights” defined by the Declaration. Because slavery did just that, it was, therefore, a violation of one of America’s founding principles.

Lincoln’s second premise rested on an understanding of history as an “eternal struggle between…right and wrong.” This vision of history was defined by a constant conflict between good ideas, and evil ones. This was genius because it allowed Lincoln to portray the good of Democracy in conflict with the evil of slavery. He compared the slaveholder to the King “who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor.” Both, Lincoln pointed out, operate in a “spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.”

By making such a comparison, Lincoln implicitly argued that slavery was preventing America from realizing her full democratic potential. As long as slavery continued to deny a segment of the population their basic human rights, then the American experiment in democracy would be plagued by hypocrisy.

Ever the strategic moderate, Lincoln did not argue for the immediate abolition of slavery, but rather for its containment. He thought that such a strategy might cause slavery to “some time, in some peaceful way, come to an end.” Basically, he hoped that simply limiting slavery’s influence might bring about its eventual extinction.

While such hope was ill-founded, the logic of Lincoln’s argument is compelling in its understanding of what X. Ibram Kendi has called the “dual and dueling history of racial progress and the simultaneous progress of racism…the anti-racist force of equality and the racist force of inequality marching forward, progressing in rhetoric, in tactics, in policies.” Kendi shares Lincoln’s vision of America’s racial history as an “eternal struggle.” On one side of this struggle, racists seek to spread ideas of inequality in order to maintain power, and on the other side, non-racists strive to build a country that more fully realizes the promises of its ideals.

Reprehensible though his views on ultimate racial equality may have been, Lincoln was a great contributor to the anti-racist side of this struggle. In seeking to limit the spread of slavery, he battled the racist ideas generated by Southern plantation owners and spread by Northern politicians like Douglas. He did so with a remarkable degree of success because of his ability to align our Democratic institutions with the anti-slavery cause.

Of course, the success of Lincoln’s arguments depended upon the relentlessness of such “radical” abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison, and even more importantly, on the courage of former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth– who broke their own chains and seized their humanity for themselves.

Still, he is worth remembering today, at a time when many profess to “Resist” continued racism in America. He proves that positive change is often best achieved not by those who dismiss our institutions as forces of oppression, but rather by those who work within those institutions to make them better. Such change may take a long time, and be quite painful, but it is better than no change at all. Thus, it is a much better investment than the self-serving cynicism too often doled out by Facebook activists.

Lincoln was an idealist who dreamed that by working through the American system, he could help the country more fully realize its most cherished ideals. At the same time, he was a realist who understood that incremental progress is better than no progress at all. If we are going to vanquish our contemporary manifestations of racist “rhetoric, tactics, and policies,” then we are going to need more people to be like Lincoln — idealistic realists with the courage and patience to believe in a system that might be flawed, but is also full of potential for improvement — even in the age of slavery, and even in the age of Trump.

Searching For “Answers” In Ruben Ostlund’s Timely Satire

Writing in National Review, Armond White proclaims, “The Square [directed by Ruben Ostlund] is probably the film of the year — though that’s not necessarily a good thing…It’s all symptom — no relief and certainly no answer.” The Square is, in his words, “a satire of the age,” and it neatly skewers a number of the problematic “symptoms” of 21st-century life. Among them, our propensity to be distracted by the cheap illusions of the propagandist.

The film’s central character is a Swedish museum curator named Christian who consults a pair of PR experts to promote a new exhibit called “The Square.” This exhibit is simply a small square in the sidewalk, defined by a border of LED lights, and a plaque which reads, “This square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries, we all share equal rights and obligations.”

The PR men (sharply dressed, neatly coiffed, in their twenties) are students of a particularly contemporary brand of propaganda. They argue that “The Square” is too “nice…really lacking any edge or conflict.”  Such uncontroversial fare has no chance at capturing the public’s short attention span. To solve the problem, they propose a ten-second promotional video depicting a crying baby being blown up while inside “The Square.” They reason that the video will be widely viewed and shared, and the talk it generates will cause people to flock to the exhibit. They are unconcerned by the fact that their video’s message opposes that of the exhibit.  

This approach reflects a commitment to the same brand of propaganda embraced by Russian trolls and con-artist politicians alike. These malignant tricksters utilize the tool of the internet to produce media that delivers a maximum shock, to a maximum number of people, in a minimal amount of time. Their goal is to drive society to such distraction that it becomes difficult to distinguish between real issues and mere sideshows. Unfortunately, in The Square, as well as in reality, it is a strategy that works.

The video is viewed millions of times, and Christian is asked to “step down” from his curator position. After that, he has to host a press conference addressing the controversy. The questions he fields are delivered more like arguments than inquiries. One reporter asks him, “Where is your solidarity with the voiceless and the vulnerable?” Another wants to discuss “free speech.” Both are capitalizing on the situation to elevate their own self-righteous opinions. Neither is interested in an objectively true depiction of the disgraced former curator.

What Ostlund offers us, then, is a startlingly accurate vision of a society totally corrupted by propaganda. Extremely isolated from one another, unable to focus for much longer than ten seconds, and easily distracted by any shocking image or statement, it is no surprise that members of such a society are easily manipulated. The media exacerbates the problem by embracing the very tactics of the propagandists.

This situation is in large part a “symptom” of the rise of social media. As Ostlund says in an interview for the Cannes Film Festival, “Some years ago [before the internet took off], press ethics would have prevented a newspaper or broadcaster from showing shocking, dubious or manipulated images. But as expenses and jobs were cut and journalists were overwhelmed, media has turned to increasingly sensational images. Now as long as a picture has explosive content, it doesn’t matter what the content is.”

But Armond White wants “answers,” arguing that The Square “reduces life to fear and apology.” Is that true? Does the film really bow helplessly before the issues it satirizes? Perhaps it doesn’t deliver quite the philosophical relief White wants, but neither does it “fall into the art-movie pit of self-congratulation.”

The film’s ending is ambiguous, but there is the possibility of personal redemption for Christian. His progress is at least partly due to a renewed relationship with Art. When he is a curator, he is seen introducing artists and attending museum functions, but not once does he actually engage with the Art in his museum. It is telling that in one of the last scenes of the movie, he actually takes his daughters to view an exhibit there. In doing so, he becomes more human, and thus more willing to reach out to people he shares society with. To say more would be to spoil too much plot.

So a message one might glean from The Square is that in order transcend the sound and fury generated by the propaganda which litters the internet, we should strive to engage with real artists, and ignore con-artists. This is because con-artists distort Truth, but real artists illuminate it. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of his relationship with Hip-Hop, “Art…must reflect the world in all its brutality and beauty.” Thus, it may be our best defense against those cheap conjurers who would destroy civilization by abolishing Truth.

Christian, though he makes many mistakes, is doing the right thing at the end of The Square. Ostlund’s film may not deliver the kind of unambiguous “relief” longed for by White, but it does point us in the right direction.

Thoughts on Democracy’s Dependence on “Norms”

In an article appearing last month in The New York Times Magazine, Emily Bazelon explores the repercussions of President Donald Trump’s violation of “norms,” which she defines as, “the customs and principles that guide everyone else.” According to Bazelon, these “norms” are “boundaries made of sand…they exist only as long as there’s a consensus, even unspoken, to preserve them.” In other words, “norms” are dependent on a collective recognition of their validity. She goes on to describe some “norms” ignored by President Trump, and wonders how we may respond (or not respond) to his transgressions. She concludes ominously, speculating about what will happen in the wake of a Trump presidency, but then writing, “At the moment, even the question itself seems like an act of collective faith that our norms of government — including the most precious ones — will hold at all.”

Bazelon is far from the first to observe democracy’s dependence on “norms.” Alexis De Toqueville preferred the term “mores.” He cites early Americans’ shared “mores” as the most important factor in preserving democracy in the turbulent years following the War of Independence. He argues that “encroachments of power” were unable to wrest agency from the hands of the people because the country was united by “circumstances, origin, education, and above all mores.”  

So what happens when that is no longer the case? We are not the homogenous nation we were when Toqueville observed us, and that is a good thing: our tremendous diversity makes our culture incredibly rich. But we are having a hard time communicating. Recent surveys show that Americans are increasingly unlikely to associate with people with different points of view. Instead, we attach ourselves to movements with a fervor that is often close minded and exclusionary. This state of affairs is ideal for a man like President Trump. He’s been allowed to break so many “norms” because as we become more and more divided against ourselves, we are unable to maintain Bazelon’s  “consensus to preserve” our guiding “customs and principles.”

In the years ahead, Americans of all political persuasions must be better at confronting opposing points of view.  We have to learn to communicate our differences more effectively if we are to preserve the democratic way of life we enjoy. Liberty does not require a population that agrees on everything. In fact, it fosters one that doesn’t. But what is necessary is a shared belief in certain core principles.  If we can’t accomplish that, our “most precious norms” will crumble, and so will we. If that happens, 21st century Americans will be writ in to the books only as so many self-destructive tribes, squabbling in the twilight of a once great nation.  

Once More to the Heights

Nostalgia is sneaky and unreliable.  An irresistible cocktail of happy memory and longing. Certainly nothing like a cold glass of sobering fact. Still, it’s impossible to resist from time to time.  I took a bus from Boston to New York this week for an interview. After the interview, I had several empty hours ahead of me, and decided to take a train back to the neighborhood where I lived while in high school: Brooklyn Heights. I didn’t begin my journey with any particular sense of importance. I just thought it would be nice to see the old neighborhood.

But when I got off the train at Clark Street, I was assaulted by nostalgia. I think it was the familiar, stale-urine, smell of the station that did it. When I got off the train, and breathed in that sent, I was immediately transported back in time. Like I said, nostalgia is sneaky and unreliable. Inebriated by an overzealous memory, my reality was altered: the station’s, dim, sterile lighting, the grime, and the fossilized gum, all were enchanted. Everything reminded me of moments in the past, and those moments were all happy. I decided to let myself go. I would indulge the feeling, and spend the afternoon in wistful contemplation of days gone by.

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Photo: Kyle Michael King

When I got above ground I inspected the shops in the old lobby of the ancient St. George Hotel.  I peered in the window of Han’s Market and thought I glimpsed the same guy that always manned the register when I would go there late on weeknights to buy candy, or on weekend mornings for Bacon, Egg, and Cheese sandwiches. The same old Indian man was selling newspapers in the tiny store right next to the turnstile.  The sushi place was locked and dark, and I became nervous, but was relieved by a sign on the door: the owners were just on vacation. They would be back next week.

Satisfied, I walked across the street to Clark’s Diner — a place much beloved in my family for their burgers and shakes. The old woman at the host stand silently gestured that I place my bag beneath the counter at the bar and said simply, “Find a seat by the window.” I felt as if I was being welcomed home. I settled down happily, watching the street outside, and listening to the conversations around me. The old woman to my left wanted her Omelette “loose, kind of like scrambled eggs.” A balding man behind me looked as if he got up every morning and did his best to look like Woody Allen.  He was discussing pedagogy with an earnest looking young woman.  I thought they must be teachers at St. Anns, the well regarded private school in the neighborhood.  When my waiter came, I ordered a black and white milkshake. I was thrilled when he didn’t ask me what that was.

Outside, a misty rain had begun to fall.  It was cold. The trees were still bare. But none of it seemed grim to me. The glimpsed warmth of a reading lamp and plush arm chair in the window of a brownstone’s basement apartment only heightened my sense of peaceful longing. I imagined an old man sitting there, watching the day pass before him. He’d be reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 slowly and deliberately, and would pause to look out the window at the trees and the houses as he read, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold/ When yellow leaves, or few, do hang/ upon those boughs which shake against the cold.” The quiet beauty of the Sonnet’s imagery would make the heartbreak of passing time almost bearable.

On Orange Street, I paused outside Plymouth Church.  Once presided over by the abolitionist (and brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe), Henry Ward Beecher, the church is a grand red brick building with white columns at the front. I walked up the steps, and tried the doors. I could hear an organist practicing inside, but all of three entrances were locked. I gave up, and looked one last time at the church before moving on. I’d only been inside once, and that was for my grandmother’s memorial service during my freshmen year of college. The service was on a brilliant day in late April. The sun shone through the leaves of the trees and brightly dappled the facade of the church and the brownstones around it. I remember some breeziness, and though the sun was warm, it was quite cool in the shade. It had felt unreal: the beauty of the day, and the celebration of a life I didn’t believe had ended. The next day I was on a plane back to school to confront reality in the comforting rhythm of morning classes, term papers, frat parties, and hungover Sundays.

On the way back to the subway I paused one more time. This time to read a sign detailing the neighborhood’s historical status. I felt old, and somewhat lame, but it seemed important. I learned, “Brooklyn Heights…is one of the most uniformly preserved 19th century residential historic districts in New York City.” It’s growth was accelerated in 1814, when Robert Fulton’s first steam powered ferry ran between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Today, the neighborhood, “retains its serene upper middle class atmosphere…It was the first historic district, designated in 1965.”

Those are the facts.  Perhaps they contribute to my nostalgia. Maybe I longed so much for the unreal, and unattainable, past because time travel seemed almost possible in the midst of all those “uniformly preserved” old houses and buildings. I can believe that. But it was more personal than that. History is more personal than that. Re-visiting a place once totally familiar, and realizing that the time I spent there is now beginning to feel distant and strange, forced me to confront the hard reality that the tide of time only goes out. Once a moment passes, it cannot be recaptured.

So why are we compelled to look back?  I believe we must understand the things that have happened to us in order to understand who we are. Our identity is defined by looking back. Fitzgerald was surely sober when he wrote that we are “boats against the  current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Time drags us along toward some unknown future, but our gazes are directed backwards, at the forever receding past. We remember, and we become ourselves. But Fitzgerald also knew, and Gatsby learns, that however much the past defines us, we cannot go back, “for it is already behind us.”

Nostalgia softens the blow by allowing us to pretend for awhile that we can go back. But one cannot live in that haze forever. Time is insistent: it must butt in, no matter how “ceaselessly” the past compels us.  I had to catch a bus, and that could not wait. So I hurried back to the Subway, and caught a train to Times Square. I found my bus, and got on. We pulled out just before sunset, and as Manhattan’s fierce outline receded on the western horizon, the sun broke through the clouds. I looked out my window and watched the sky brighten to a fierce orange. Everything glowed brilliantly, and in those last blazing moments before the inevitable darkness, I thought again of Sonnet 73:

In me thou seest the twilight of such day,

As after sunset fadeth in the west;

Which by and by the black night doth take away…

This thou perceivest which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.  

The “black night took away” another day, the skyline disappeared, and the bus rumbled into Connecticut.  I looked into the night, and resolved to obey Shakespeare’s imperative. I would strive to love all the beauty I encounter, until all that I have been, and all that I have known, is “sealed up in rest.” Back in Boston, I returned gratefully to the present.

Raft of Hope: Reflecting on Twain in Trump’s America

“A novel can be fashioned out of a raft of hope, perception, and entertainment, that might keep us afloat as we try to negotiate our nation’s vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal,” comments Ralph Ellison on the importance of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ellison knew as well anyone that great novels are reflections of the societies in which they take place, and in which they continue to be read.  They help us define ourselves by showing us where we come from, where we have been, and where we are going.  Of no American novel is this truer than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

It is a novel about the paradox any American interested in the truth must confront: racism in a country that prides itself on being the most equal and free democracy the globe has ever known. Obviously, anyone who broaches such a topic must embrace discomfort, and Twain does.  Huck’s narrative voice is so powerful not because of his dialect and grammar, but because he is so honestly American. It is as if the country’s tortured conscience were transcribed in the voice of a boy from the woods of Missouri. His inability to recognize Jim as a man, or to acknowledge the cruelty of Jim’s predicament, his carelessness, and his moral confusion are all embedded in the way we see white Americans confronting race to this day.

Of course, the story wouldn’t be important, or even any good, if the real potency of its message didn’t come from Jim.  Jim is an infamously difficult character because of his depiction through the racist eyes of Huck. However, for any good reader, the difference between what Huck sees, and who Jim actually is, is striking.  Jim is more clever than superstitious, more a smooth salesman than a gullible buffoon. Most importantly he is a man who has been subjected to the inhuman indignities of slavery, while Huck is a comparably privileged boy. Consider the stakes for each character if they are discovered and returned to Missouri: Huck would be welcomed back into a community that cares for him, calls him a “poor lost sheep,” and wants to “sivilize” him.  Jim would be forcibly returned to slavery, and then sold down the river for 800 dollars.

This difference in circumstances is illuminated when Huck and Jim are reunited after being separated in a heavy fog. From Huck’s perspective, the experience is terrifying. Once he realizes that he is alone in a canoe as Jim disappears into the fog on the raft, he feels, “so sick and scared I couldn’t budge for most a half a minute it seemed to me.” His spirits continue to drop as he feels more and more isolated: “If you think it ain’t dismal and lonesome out in a fog that way by yourself in the night, you try it once – you’ll see.”

But once the fog lifts, and he finds Jim sleeping on the raft, that feeling of despair departs, and he almost instinctively decides to prank Jim.  He lays down, and when Jim wakes up, he pretends that he is just rising after having fallen asleep after a night of peaceful conversation on the raft.  He tries to convince Jim that the harrowing events they both experienced must have been a dream, and at first, Jim seems to believe him. However, when Jim is confronted with the damage done to the raft, his response is breathtaking. Huck asks him how interprets the “leaves, rubbish, and the smashed oar,” and he replies,

What do dey stand for? I’s gwyne to tell you.  When I got all wore out wid work, en wid callin for you, en went  to sleep, my heart wuz mos’ broke bekase you wuz los’, en I didn’ k’yer no’ mo’ what become er me en de raf’.  En when I wake up en fine you back ag’in, all safe en soun’, de tears come, en I could ‘a’ got down on my knees en kiss yo’ foot, I’s so thankful.  En all you wuz thinkin’ ‘bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truk dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de heads er dey fren’s en makes em ashamed.

 

This moment is so vital because Jim is directly addressing Huck’s racism, explaining the inhumanity of it, and calling it what it is: “trash.”  It is trash to treat a man like a foolish pet, and people who elevate themselves by putting “dirt on de heads er dey fren’s” are trash.  In this beautiful moment of subversion Jim rebels, and upends Huck’s deeply ingrained reality. Suddenly, Huck is the one who has been dreaming, and Jim who is wide awake. For the first time Huck looks at Jim and sees a human being, and then he is intensely guilty. He “feels so mean I could almost kissed his foot to get him to take it back.”  It takes him “fifteen minutes to go humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I weren’t never sorry for it afterward, neither.  I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way.”  Huck too, is rebelling. He chooses to treat Jim like a man, rather than a “nigger,” and in doing so breaks the rules of his society.  

For both characters, it is a moment of courage that conveys precisely what Ellison means when he describes the novel as a “raft of hope” that can aid us as we make sense of the complicated narrative of American history. Huck’s understanding of reality is shattered by Jim’s outburst, and he adjusts.  His reaction is an example of what must happen when  the empowered are confronted with the voices of the oppressed if our country is going to move in the direction of Ellison’s “democratic ideal.”  

And that brings us to the kind of reflections a responsible reader must have when applying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the contemporary scene.  Our current President is the kind of dangerously blundering con man Twain himself may have dreamed up. He and his cronies are masters of subversion, they tell us lies, and use their power to play cruel tricks on all of us. Their America is a nightmare of fearful distrust, violence, and oppression.   They think our country is unwelcoming and bigoted, unwilling and unable to help those who need us.  But let’s all remember Huck, and listen to the voices of the oppressed rather than those of the powerful.  And let’s remember Jim, too, and call the behavior of President Trump, Steve Bannon, and all the rest what it is: trash.

“Increased Devotion”
Will Save a Suicidal Nation

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On Tuesday, Nov. 15, a week after Donald Trump won the election, students from NYU Tisch School of the Arts protested in the center of Washington Square Park. They performed in protest an interpretive dance, taking turns to display anti-Trump sentiment on colored stock paper, while the rest swirled emotionally at the audience.  The photographer captured the energy and rhythm of the dancers in stark contrast silhouetted on the stone.  New York City, November 2016, Kyle Michael King.

Early in 1838, a twenty eight year old Abraham Lincoln spoke at the Young Man’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois on “the perpetuation of our political institutions.” Lincoln’s words that day have been cited by many over the past year. Lincoln recognized the potential for grave danger inherent to our system of self-government. He said: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” That prediction has echoed in my mind in the weeks following the election of Donald Trump.

What symptoms did Lincoln attribute to a country on the brink of suicide? Citing recent lynchings in St. Louis and Mississippi, he warned his listeners of an “ill-omen amongst us.”  He meant an “increasing disregard for the law which pervades the country.” He knew that such “disregard” had the capacity to undermine the pillars of order established by our founding fathers, and lead to a society ruled not by the “sober judgement of the courts,” but rather by the “wild and furious passions of…the worse than savage mobs.” Lincoln argued that in such a society scenes of unspeakable violence could become, “too familiar, to attract anything more, than an idle remark.”

Sound familiar? How many horrifying deaths on American soil have garnered no more than an “idle remark” in the past year alone?  Too many to list.

With the election of a man whose campaign was based on stoking the fires of distrust and hatred, those symptoms have progressed to a critical point. Lincoln knew that “the attachment of the people” is “the strongest bulwark of any government.” By choosing Donald Trump, a man with no governmental experience, and a swaggering disregard for the laws of the land, the American people are expressing a great lack of attachment to their government. And now we are witnessing the disorder of a nation alienated from its government: “The lawless in spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and…become absolutely unrestrained. Having ever regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation.” David Duke, an open white supremacist, and a former leader of the KKK, tweeted, “This is one of the most exciting nights of my life,” on election night.

Lincoln’s speech does more than foresee the conditions of a country that elects a man like Trump.  It also foresees Trump himself.  Lincoln said that a “great danger” the American people would one day need to fend off was the ascent of an ambitious leader who longs so much for “Distinction…he would set boldly to the task of pulling down” the beliefs and institutions upon which our country is founded, and for which we have so much reason to be proud. Trump’s rhetoric of fear is surely doing just that.

So how do we respond? How do we preserve the America for which so many have given so much to create and maintain? How can we save this suicidal nation? Lincoln advises us in his Lyceum Address to stifle “passion,” and instead turn to “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason…general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws.” Of course he is right, and a rehabilitation of those long-neglected values would be good for us. Blinding passion, declining moral standards, and a widespread disdain for the order imposed by law all played a role in the rise of Trump.

But the Gettysburg Address offers the greatest bulwark against despair in these times. At Gettysburg, Lincoln reminded us to do the one thing nearly all Americans can agree to do: honor our fallen soldiers.  He asks us to consider what our veterans risk their lives and die defending, and then,

Take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government by the people, of the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

There are many reasons Donald Trump represents a grave threat to all that is good about America, but he cannot destroy our country unless we let ourselves be destroyed. The recent election results may look a whole lot like “suicide,” but the American people have more fight in them that: if we can “take increased devotion” to stand both publicly and privately for what is right, then we will outlast this darkness, and America will live on.

“Increased Devotion” Will Save a Suicidal Nation

“The Truths We Keep Coming Back To”: Our National Identity Crises and the Enduring Wisdom of Robert Frost

Our country is in the midst of an identity crises.  The current choices for president represent very different ideas of what it means to be American. Hillary Clinton could be our first female president, and her election would confirm an America that is becoming more open and fair to women. But, as a lifelong politician, she’s also a deeply entrenched member of “the system” that many Americans blame for our problems.  Donald Trump capitalizes on that cynicism to pander to an America that is both hateful and and scared. His very nomination indicates that a significant portion of our country is racist, sexist, violent, and cowardly. But distrust and fear are not confined to the hateful fringes that have rallied around Trump: the popularity of Bernie Sanders, as well as the unprecedented attention paid to Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, proves that impatience with the status quo is widespread. The passion with which the American people are engaged in the fates of their chosen candidates is tremendous, and is indicative of a dangerously polarized society. This is a disturbing situation, and answers are hard to come by, but I find a great deal of wisdom in the poetry of Robert Frost.

I admit, it’s quite a transition from the contemporary political scene to the work of the long dead poet laureate from New England. But Frost is still relevant today because of his  remarkable skill at observing small moments in life or in nature, and then expanding to surprise his readers with blasts of incredible universal wisdom. He is also uniquely American, and his commentary on our country and its history continues to instruct.  I find this particularly true of his 1915 poem, “The Black Cottage.”

That poem is structured around the reminiscence of a local preacher as he recalls the old widow who once occupied an abandoned cottage in his town.  Through his memory of her beliefs, he expounds on the definition of truth. This preacher believes that most of the ideas we typically recognize as true are deeply colored by popular opinion. He yearns to transcend such a transitory brand of truth, and to grasp those truths that are eternal.  

His monologue really takes off when he begins discussing the widow’s reaction to the death of her husband in the Civil War.  He argues that for her, the war “wasn’t just to keep the states together,/Nor just to free the slaves…She wouldn’t have believed those ends enough/To have given outright for them all she gave.”  To the old widow in the black cottage, the loss of her husband in war is not justified by the union of the states or the emancipation of slaves. For her, the only adequate defense of the war is that it was fought to prove “all men are created equal.”  

The preacher marvels at the widow’s innocent belief in absolute equality, and remembers her “quaint phrases- so removed/From the world’s view to-day of such things.” However, he then goes on to ponder the famous principle himself:  

That’s a hard mystery of Jefferson’s.

What did he mean? Of course the easy way

Is to decide it simply isn’t true.

It may not be. I heard a fellow say so.

But never mind, the Welshman got it planted

Where it will trouble us a thousand years.

Each age will have to reconsider it.

I’ve quoted this passage at length because it accesses the dilemma at the core of the present election: what is America’s identity in this “age”?  How are we “reconsidering” Jefferson’s words now? And to return to my original question, where can we really find the truth?

Jacob, Sewanee, TN, 2014 by Kyle Michael King

Jacob, Sewanee, TN, 2014 by Kyle Michael King

The answers in the Preacher’s musings are ambiguous. He ponders the widow’s antiquated beliefs and asks, “why abandon a belief merely because it ceases to be true?/Cling to it long enough and not a doubt/It will turn true again.” His point is that as the tides of time run in and out, so do popular conceptions of truth: “Most of the change we think we see in life is due to truths being in and out of favor.”  This idea makes reality a slippery thing. When the accepted truth depends on the popular opinion of a moment; it becomes hard to determine those truths that always were, and always will be, true. The Preacher recognizes that frustration, and longs to become, “monarch of a desert land/ I could devote and dedicate forever to the truths we keep coming back and back to.”  He dreams of taking eternal truth away with him to a remote land and protecting it so that it may not be corrupted by other human beings.

The kind of place the Preacher envisions could not contain a myriad of opinions because truth immediately becomes distorted when it’s exchanged among thousands and thousands of clamoring voices. It would have to be place “No one would covet or think it worth/ The pains of conquering to force change on.”  But America is in fact the polar opposite of the Preacher’s “desert land.”  America is no undesirable “desert land.” The history of our country is one of conquest and change, and our discourse is a maddening whirlwind in which it is remarkably easy to lose touch with the truth. And that brings me back to where I began: this election, and the dangerously polarized state of the American people.

America is a democratic experiment, and that means that we welcome those truth-distorting voices Frost’s Preacher is tempted to shun.  In our democracy a cacophony of voices peddle differing “truths” to a population longing to throw itself passionately behind something indisputably noble and right.  The problem so gracefully captured by Frost is that it is hard to capture any trace of the eternal in such a raucous chorus. One danger before us in this election is the apparent willingness of the American people to throw themselves behind political candidates, and then behave as if they believe that they are not only tendering their votes, but their very souls. This is why we live in such a partisan age: because for some reason Americans believe that a political platform not only represents a candidate’s opinion on how to best address the problems of our nation, but also a viable religion founded upon eternal truth. That simply isn’t the case.  

Having said that, I must add that I’m by no means discouraging political activism. I love living in a country so full of passionate people. Some of the people I admire most in my life have committed themselves to enacting positive change through the medium of politics. I just think that at the moment there is a dangerous capacity on both sides of the political spectrum to value party or candidate above all else, and to dismiss those with differing opinions.  That kind of zealotry causes disdain, deep resentment, and anger, all of which have been on full display for this entire election season. We would live in a more civil and unified country if we understood politics in a more utilitarian way, and sought eternal truth elsewhere. In doing so we may engage in a more productive national conversation.

And in that spirit I have one more thing to say: it may be wrong to parade any political candidate as a paragon of eternal truth, but it is certainly not wrong to acknowledge the fact that one of our choices is the demon spawn of the Father of Lies himself.  There is no need to go over Donald Trump’s multiple offenses. It is enough to simply say he is an enemy to truth. So I’m with her not because I believe Hillary Clinton is perfect. She shouldn’t have to be.  I think she has the experience and grit to maintain stability in the society in which I live, and I’d be proud of an America that possessed the open-mindedness to elect a female Commander and Chief. I’ll vote for Hillary, condemn Trump, and seek those “truths we keep coming back to” outside the realm of politics.

What is Patriotism?: Colin Kaepernick and American Ideals

This week Colin Kaepernick, the embattled quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, caused a stir by refusing to stand for the playing of the national anthem.  When asked to explain himself Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a country that oppresses black people and people of color.  There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”  Obviously, he’s now at the center of social media hurricane.  On one side, 49ers fans post videos of themselves burning his jersey, and Kaepernick is vilified. On the other, he is presented as a hero of the black lives matter movement. The whole thing adds up to a tremendous argument over the meaning of the national anthem, and ultimately, what it means to be a “patriotic American.”  

So what does the Star Spangled Banner actually mean? What does it represent, and what do Americans think when they hear it?  Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan speaks for many when he says it’s about “giving thanks” for the “opportunity that we have to play a great game is through the men and women that serve our country… [the national anthem] is an opportunity…just to show respect.”  In other words, not to stand for the anthem is to lack gratitude for your rights as an American. But it is more complicated than that.  Kaepernick himself argues that by not standing for the anthem he’s actually a crusader for American values: “This country stands for liberty, justice, and freedom for all, and that’s not happening right now.”

Ryan’s recognition of the armed forces is admirable, and we should all be grateful to those who serve our country in the military. However, Kaepernick’s determination to acknowledge inequality is also commendable. What good does it do if a young man dies overseas in the name of our American rights, but another young man dies right here because his rights aren’t respected? This is where it gets difficult for people on both sides of the argument: it is possible to be both grateful for our troops and our country, and supportive of Colin Kaepernick’s efforts to point out our country’s flaws.

The adjective “patriotic” is complicated. It’s often used to describe people who are stubbornly oblivious in their determination to support America regardless of the situation, and inverted to “unpatriotic” to condemn those who point out her flaws. But devotion to one’s country should be comprised of both steadfast loyalty, and an honest capacity to assess aspects of our nation that must be improved.  Above all, our patriotism should be manifested in a way of life that respects everyone’s right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. So for anyone who is  truly “patriotic,” Kaepernick’s right to protest unfairness in our justice system is unquestionable.

The controversy is a microcosm of the current moment in American discourse.  Everyone is angry, and a dominant theme of everyone’s argument is that we are in serious decline.  Kaepernick is representative of a large segment of the population that has lost all faith in the justice of America’s crime and punishment system.  Meanwhile, his detractors say that his protest is just another example of a spoiled athlete acting up.  In short, nobody thinks things are “great.”  But that’s a large part of the problem.  The pervasive cynicism of American discourse is cyclical: something happens, everyone argues about it, and then something worse happens.

But what if instead we sought reasons to be optimistic?  In his most recent column David Brooks argues that “If you really want to make people tough… make them committed to some worldview that puts today’s temporary pain in the context of a larger hope.”  He implores us to become “enchanted” even though “we live in an age when it’s considered sophisticated to be disenchanted.”  So let’s try it with Kaepernick. Isn’t his protest in a way an illustration of the beauty of America?  He’s taking advantage of his freedom in order to bring attention to a flaw in our country that he finds inexcusable: the very blatant profiling of young black men that leads again and again to their unnecessary deaths at the hands of police officers.

Kaepernick’s act of defiance constitutes a small moment in the long history of African Americans’ efforts to claim this country as their own.  In 1863 Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Philadelphia urging fellow blacks to enlist in the Union Army.  He said, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.”  This brings us back to our theme of “patriotism.”  The battle fought by Douglass during the Civil War is the same one being fought today: the right of African Americans to fully enjoy the rights of “citizenship in the United States.”  And that is an extremely “patriotic” battle.  It is a battle based on the assertion made in our Declaration of Independence that everyone deserves “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and is thus a battle in accordance with the purest of American ideals.  So let’s put Kaepernick’s protest “in the context of a larger hope.”  Let’s realize that he is acting not out of a desire to embarrass America, but rather out of a desire to make America better, out of a desire to see our country realize the promises made by our most sacred doctrines.  Let’s be “dedicated to the great task” assigned to us by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address:

we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

To live truly by these words we must consider honestly what Kaepernick’s protest stands for.  We must take him seriously when he says, ““This country stands for liberty, justice, and freedom for all, and that’s not happening right now.”  It is our birthright as Americans to strive for a country that really does stand for those things, and we should be willing to work together on the aspects of our society that fall short. We have been given more than the opportunity to “play a great game.” We’ve been given the opportunity to live in a great country.  We should believe in that opportunity, and dream of a society that matches the ideals established by our founders. That’s what being “patriotic” really means.  

Thoughts on Race in America

I am reluctant to comment publicly on race in my country, and that is part of the problem.  I should have more courage, but when I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed, and see the anger and madness coming from all quarters, I feel that whatever I say will be cut to pieces.  I am scared because truly, the tale of our country as told by many of the loudest voices on social media, and in our politics, is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  But I can no longer be silent. Recent events compel me to speak.

Race has always been the great snake lurking in our Eden.  The most vital paradox at the core of American history is the fact that when Jefferson penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” he was himself a slaveholder.  The current turmoil is a natural consequence of that paradox, and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t understand history.  Imagine the effects of some alien nation landing on our shores, hunting us down as if we were beasts, loading us on to ships so claustrophobic that most of us died, and then putting those of us who survived the journey to hard labor. Imagine having to tell that story about your ancestors instead of the one about your great great grandmother who left the ould sod with only the clothes on her back. The slaves left their “ould sod” naked and in chains. Having imagined that, try saying, “Slavery ended 153 years ago, and you should get over it.” A century and a half isn’t even really that long of time. As Marlowe says in The Heart of Darkness, time “is like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker.”  White Americans should count ourselves lucky to have been treated with such compassion by the emancipated progeny of the slaves.  

In fact that is the key word: compassion.  It is our only way forward if we want no more bloodshed. There are some who would dismiss such a statement as weak.  Others would scoff at such a seemingly simple answer to such a complex problem. The kind of compassion I’m talking about is actually incredibly powerful, and while it may seem simple, I would argue that it is actually radical and profound. True compassion requires us to stare into the abyss of human suffering, and having done that, still love humanity. That is what you’ll learn if you actually read the words of Jesus Christ.  Again and again he repeats the message I find most succinctly conveyed in these words from the Gospel according to Luke: “Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, forgive, and you will be forgiven.” In the face of suffering we should not rush to “judge” or to “condemn,” but rather to “forgive.” In other words, we should turn to love instead of hate.

Such words are pretty, but they are hard. Try watching the videos of unarmed black men being shot by white police officers.  Or try thinking of the families of the five Dallas officers killed by a black sniper.  The most immediate emotions are anger, sadness, and fear.  But those deaths also happened because of anger, sadness, and fear. Those emotions are the seeds of hatred, and in the wake of this tragic week our nation stands divided because of them. The evidence is in my Facebook newsfeed. There are so many loud voices in our country rushing to embrace hatred.  What we must do instead, as hard as it is, is reach out to each other with understanding, forgiveness and love.  

I acknowledge that such a path is easier for me than for many because I am a privileged white man, and have less to be angry about than many.  Having said that, I’m still convinced that anger is wrong and takes us nowhere. All I can do is ask forgiveness, and strive to love as fully as I can.  To whomever is reading this: I love you, and I forgive you. I hope you pass it on.  

One more thing.  At the moment I am discussing my country’s most significant blemish, but the fact is that I love America.  It is a country founded on more pure ideals than any other country in the history of the world. Obviously that doesn’t make it perfect, and obviously it isn’t easy when the reality doesn’t exactly live up to the ideals, but isn’t it exciting to participate in such a high minded experiment?  I think it is.  I particularly think it is when I am exposed to America’s most precious gift: her diversity.  Isn’t it wonderful that the “progeny of slaves” I mentioned earlier have contributed so much to the culture that enslaved their ancestors?  Shouldn’t we proudly acknowledge the American musical tradition stretching from Mississippi John Hurt to Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé?  Isn’t it beautiful that those artists respond to oppression not only by utilizing the great American tradition of free speech, but by doing so in songs that consistently awe us?  We should be proud of songs like “Formation” and “Alright” for a myriad of reasons, and one of those reasons should be because they are American songs.  America’s greatest gift isn’t her mountains or her prairies, but rather her people. We are blessed by the fact that our shores contain such a variety of different people and experiences. If we can respect each other enough to listen to one another’s experiences with compassion and love, then we will emerge from this time of tragedy stronger than before.