I Have Heard the Silence

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
And blood at the roots
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees...

The past sometimes seems like one mass grave, in which we have buried alike both our triumphs and our most shameful secrets. As Longfellow said in the poem I quoted not too many posts back, "Lives of great men all remind us..." There have been many great men and women throughout history, who made good decisions in the face of tremendous pressure and pain. There have been moments of joy, when daily trials were set aside for the serious task of celebration. In the everyday carnivals of human existence, we revel in life not in spite of, but because of our deep recognition of its brevity and the potential reach of darkness.

I have wondered recently, as I've listened to Billie Holliday's famous lamentation, "Strange Fruit," just what it is that we're seeking to accomplish when we dig in that grave of history and set before ourselves its most tragic victims. Say what you will about justice, but there is a point beyond which it becomes more complicated. Justice means something in the present to the living. I cannot deny that this is a space in which we can and should seek to break the cycles of oppression and to obtain justice for those who are suffering, whether directly or indirectly, at our hands. But what justice can there be for those who are dead or for those who are yet to come?

I think this is an essential part of being human: that we must, to borrow Wolterstorff's image, sit on humanity's mourning bench. It is not justice that brings us to this place. It is something humbler, but no less vital to our survival. It is our willingness to share not only in joy, but also in suffering.

I'm hesitant to draw on the image, but it seems that the power of Jesus's crucifixion was that if he were the son of God, it was not incumbent upon him to suffer, neither the sorrows nor the pain nor, in the end, the death of being human. But by humbling himself to share in that grief, he became both the promise and the fulfillment of the words he himself had spoken: Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

I am not Jewish or African-American or Vietnamese or from one of any number of colonized nations. My family is Swiss and German and maybe a little French going back for practically as far as we have last names to trace these stories by. We have not been subject to genocide, slavery, lynching, persecution, exclusion, or exile. I am, for all intents and purposes, untouched by the legacy of victimization that sought to dehumanize or annihilate groups deemed inferior. Quite the contrary, my white skin is a mark of participation in, if not the actual abuse, then the benefits wrested from their suffering.

But I hope that by sitting here on the mourning bench, dwelling on and grieving over their pain, acknowledging the injustice of all that has been done, that should never have been done whether remediable or no, I may (not to draw grandiose parallels between myself and the son of God) honor them and, in recognizing and respecting their humanity, perhaps reveal in them some small part of the dignity that was concealed in what we have done to them.

It is not enough, but Wolterstorff concedes this too. There are things that our words and our best intentions and our fiery proclamations and soberest policies cannot touch. For those moments, all we have to offer is our being present and open to the pain, sharing in this terrible, wonderful Eucharist, whereby we drink the blood and eat the flesh and somehow, limping our way toward grace, may yet be made whole.


A Word from the Collective Superego

In beginning: what we believe matters. It has consequences for how we behave and what we prioritize. That is not in question.

But there's this urban legend that someone is dirt if they don't have the right ideas. As if no one has ever changed their mind in the history of the world. As if you've never been wrong in your life.

I'm guilty of this kind of thinking too. But I try, when I'm being my better self, to disarm contempt and speak less from hate of the idea incarnate and more for love of the person or, failing that, the truth.

If you've treated everyone well and lived uprightly, I don't think history will care what your private convictions are. At least some of them were good enough that you've done your part to ensure that the world was a better place.

If you've been a crappy person but passionately defended beauty, truth, compassion, and justice, then I appreciate your attempts to spread those ideas, but you've got this all mixed up.

And I get it: half of our lives happen in a world made out of words - social media, text messaging, email - or abstract realities that we can't touch much less change - like the tv shows and movies that everyone is always telling me I should watch. So we get this notion that it's the abstract things that really matter.

"Please sir, can I see your ideology?" Not: "What's the last thing you did for someone that was reasonably selfless?"

People are often wrong. They believe things we can't sympathize with. They vote in ways we don't understand. But we're also complicated and redeemable. Some of us suck, but it isn't always the ones you'd expect. All of us suck some of the time, and that's why we have to have grace and humility: for ourselves and for each other.

I'm pretty sick of divisiveness and tragedies compounded by contempt, mischaracterization, and misunderstanding. It's possible to respect each other, even if we don't share the same beliefs. Maybe it's time we put our energies toward healing the rifts, rather than making them wider.


Books of 2017

2017 was an excellent year, in terms of reading material. Themes included: solid book club selections, an ongoing interest in the ethical and psychological aspects of a culture in war as manifested in World War II, reading everything Sebald ever wrote, and as many of the books on this list of works dealing with race and ethnicity in America as I could access. With regard to fiction, my primary interest was in reading books by authors of other cultures, especially African and Asian, although I obviously did not confine myself solely to that - and happily so, as Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior was perhaps one of the most enjoyable books I read this year.

The book that totally stumped me (and toward which I hold a small grudge), was Naguib Mahfouz's The Mirage. I reiterate that if anyone can explain to me who the protagonist sees at the very end, I will be very grateful to you, because I have no idea and couldn't be bothered to figure it out. On the other hand, I was utterly delighted by the magical absurdity of The Master and Margarita, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who has enjoyed the 19th century Russians and might appreciate their somewhat more modern counterpart. The Underground Railroad was a subtler variation on the style of The Master and Margarita, using fantastical elements to bring into focus a much more serious and pervasive reality (and was so good that I got a copy for one of my sisters for Christmas).

Just Mercy was deep and heavy, but not without hope or a willingness to challenge stereotypes: perhaps the best kind of medicine for these divided days. Meanwhile, The Color of Law and White Rage were a burning challenge to ideas of helplessness and refusal to take responsibility for the systematic oppression of specific groups of people. On the subject of divided days and timely reading, American Nations was an eye-opening explanation of one way of understanding political and social divides through the cultural heritages of different U.S. regions (and might be a good place to start before reading Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land, which fell a little flat for me, but which I appreciated nonetheless, especially for its portrayal of the individual nuances that arise at the intersection of the personal and political, but also for some of its challenges to liberal/coastal ways of characterizing that world).

Book that made me cry the hardest: The Book Thieves. I've read so many books at this point surrounding World War II, though not a great many about the Holocaust. As a lover of books, I have always felt as though my collection were somehow a manifestation of my interests, goals, and desires taken shape in the world. Add to that the historically unique and incomparably precious nature of the books and collections involved, and I found this account devastating. As though it were not enough to destroy the physical bodies of the Jews (and political dissidents, but primarily here Jewish communities), but further, the conditioned, specific, cherished means of communicating their culture to another generation, if it might survive, were dismantled, dispersed, looted, disrespected, and in some cases, destroyed. If you wish to systematically obliterate not persons, but a people, this is the means by which you would do it. It feels heartless to say that in the face of the statistics on millions of lives struck down, I have little emotional response, and yet the loss of so many books touched the note of grief; but it somehow brought the enormity of the Holocaust home to me in a way that those numbers couldn't. (Although I will say that some of the later parts of Austerlitz were similarly affecting.)

Finally, the poetic essays of Mary Oliver, the stripped down, yet astonishing beauty of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, and, my forever favorite, the "fiction" of W.G. Sebald struck some lovely notes in the midst of an often (mentally or literally) heavy reading load (e.g. The Origins of Totalitarianism, which I've already gone into in other posts and therefore will not revisit here).

In the past, I think I've tended just to post the list without any comments, but beyond simple self-aggrandizement, I would love for this to open up conversations with other people about books they may be interested in reading or what they've thought of some of the items on the list, or to inspire someone to read something new. So please, consider this an invitation to ask or comment!

2017 (in order of completion):

Luzerne County: History of the People and Culture - Dr. Paul J. Zbick
Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept - Slavoj Zizek
Just Mercy - Bryan Stevenson
Eichmann and the Holocaust - Hannah Arendt
A Brief History of the Crimean War - Alexis Toubetzkoy
One Summer: America, 1927 - Bill Bryson
On Violence - Hannah Arendt
Austerlitz - W.G. Sebald
A Book of Common Prayer - Joan Didion
Journeys of a German in England in 1782 - C.P. Moritz
The Road to Little Dribbling - Bill Bryson
Upstream - Mary Oliver
The Old Ways - Robert MacFarlane
Havana: A Subtropical Delirium - Mark Kurlansky
Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer - Charles Marsh
The Purity of Vengeance - Jussi Adler-Olsen
The Utopia of Rules - David Graeber
The Absent One - Jussi Adler-Olsen
Strangers in Their Own Land - Arlie Russell Hochschild
The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead
The Road to Wigan Pier - George Orwell
Small Wonders - Barbara Kingsolver
Nine Parts of Desire - Geraldine Brooks
The Bean Trees - Barbara Kingsolver
The Greater Trumps - Charles Williams
African Philosophy: New and Traditional Perspectives - Ed. Lee M. Brown
The New Jim Crow - Michelle Alexander
Death of a King - Tavis Smiley
Utopia for Realists - Rutger Bregman
Hero of the Empire - Candice Millard
Fire Shut Up in My Bones - Charles M. Blow
Germans Into Nazis - Peter Fritsche
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America - Colin Woodard
Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust - Nathanael West
Ways of Dying - Zakes Mda
Flight Behavior - Barbara Kingsolver
The Return of Don Quixote - G. K. Chesterton
Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge - Erica Armstrong Dunbar
The Two Cultures - C.P. Snow
Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
Science & Government - C.P. Snow
They Can't Kill Us All - Wesley Lowery
The Mirage - Naguib Mahfouz
On the Road to Babadag - Andrzej Stasiuk
Train to Pakistan - Khushwant Singh
The Book Thieves - Anders Rydell
The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson
Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich - Norman Ohler
The Turn of the Screen and Other Stories - Henry James
The Origins of Totalitarianism - Hannah Arendt
White Rage - Carol Anderson
The Trouble with Reality - Brooke Gladstone
Tears We Cannot Stop - Michael Eric Dyson
Hannah Arendt: An Introduction - John McGowan
The Snow Leopard - Peter Mathiessen
The Door - Magda Szabo
A Paradise Built in Hell - Rebecca Solnit
The Color of Law - Richard Rothstein
A Lesson Before Dying - Ernest J. Gaines
Castle in the Air - Diana Wynne Jones
The Emigrants - W.G. Sebald


The Lantern Waste

"Let us then be up and doing
With a heart for any fate..."

There's a triumphant, stirring theme that wends its way through Longfellow's "Psalm of Life." I've skipped right to the end, because those were the lines that first came to mind. But I could have just as easily rattled off the first stanza - "Tell me not, in mournful numbers, / Life is but an empty dream!-- / For the soul is dead that slumbers, / And things are not what they seem" - or the second - "Life is real! Life is earnest! / And the grave is not its goal; / Dust thou art, to dust returnest, / Was not spoken of the soul."

I've been finding brilliant red leaves in the drifts of dead brown lately. Metaphorically, that is, since autumn is coming slowly to Pennsylvania. I mean that by keeping my ears open, by listening around the edges of the negativity, I've been hearing some things and meeting some people who are doing the kinds of things that give me... dare I say it? A little hope.

I was listening to an interview with Rebecca Solnit in which she talked about communities rising from the ashes of disasters, and I jotted down a thought.

The future belongs to the hopeful, who have the strength to see through the present reality to a possible world built not in spite of, but because of the tireless, daily work of flawed human beings who are, though aware of their shortcomings, nonetheless willing to try.

That's not to say that everything will turn out alright, not tomorrow and not ever. We have no guarantees. There's a darker side, too, because while some of us may hope for beautiful things, others hope for destruction. A contorted hope, perhaps, but there even so. For example, I've been reading about Germany in the Zwischenkriegszeit, the period between the two wars. Here is a "community," or at least a great mass of people, who rose up amidst the ashes of an angry, hurting nation, and they built something, realized a hope, but it was a twisted hope that gave birth to a dark world.

Yet it could have been otherwise.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt writes of how the elite were brought within the mass of the totalitarian movements, that they despised the hypocrisies of bourgeois morality, and while they perhaps saw through the propaganda and the demagoguery, in their bitterness they wanted nothing short of complete destruction.

I have to admit that I have expressed similar sentiments: that sometimes I think it would be easier if the whole thing would just burn. If we cannot repair the mounting harms against each other, against the earth, then why not just let it all go before the remote justice of the meteor?

But there's something (forgive me, Rick) a little cowardly or even perhaps lazy in that sentiment. The elites may have been correct in identifying the rotten core behind the living face of society, but their willingness to commit an even greater crime hardly improved the situation.

"If we abstract from thick conceptions of courage that a culture may put forward in a particular historical period - whether martial valor or counting coups or maintaining a stiff upper lip or being true to one's conscience - and ask in the most general terms what it is about courage that makes it a human excellence, the answer, I think, is the capacity for living well with the risks that inevitably attend human existence. [...] In different times, in different cultures, there may be different risks; but as long as we are alive and human we will have to tolerate and take risks. The courageous person is someone who is excellent at taking those risks. That is why courage counts as a virtue: it is an excellent way of inhabiting and embracing our finite erotic** nature." {Radical Hope, Jonathan Lear}

Hope is mere wishful thinking without courage, and courage is that virtue which does not back down in the face of the awful, the unimaginable. Courage keeps someone working toward the world they want to see by living, insofar as it is possible, as if that world were already the way things are. (This, by the way, is why the end cannot justify the means: we can never rise to the ideal if we live down to our present poverty.) But to do so is, of course, to take a great many risks. To live openly trans is to be subject to a social and too often physical violence. To simply be black or female is, as we've been so recently reminded, to live with consistent threats to our every attempt to assert agency in a world built out of entrenched hierarchies of power.

And these are my red leaves, made all the more visible against the backdrop of current events: that there are still courageous, hopeful people, finding practical ways to live the reality of a better world. Perhaps if we fix our sights on those beacons, we'll find our way back home.

** For anyone wondering what the hell that's supposed to mean: "By erotic I follow a basically Platonic conception that, in our finite condition of lack, we reach out to the world in yearning, longing, admiration, and desire for that which (however mistakenly) we take to be valuable, beautiful, and good."


The Other Half

When you think that you know exactly what you believe or, worse still, that you know everything you need to know: stop. Find someone who disagrees with you, but who can coherently explain their beliefs through the use of reason. Or who can explain how they feel without resorting to hate-filled rhetoric. And just listen to them.

This is something I've had to do recently, and no, in case you were wondering, it isn't easy. I don't know what the past two years have been, aside from intensely polarizing, but what they felt like was a constriction, with every passing headline, Onion-like real life moment, and political debate drawing tighter around me until I could barely breathe.

When it's us vs. them, we lose half the world. Am I the only person who is grieved by this?

I don't want to miss out on so much that's good and true and beautiful. Because, newsflash, "we," whoever we are, don't have the monopoly on those things. My brother and I will (probably) never see eye to eye ideologically, but today is his birthday, and when I called him he and my dad were helping to distribute food at a food bank. That's something that's good and true, and I wouldn't have it if I were to shun him in the face of our differences.

I've been thinking about this ever since I listened to Glenn Greenwald's interview with Tucker Carlson on the podcast Intercepted (you can find it here at Glenn Greenwald on the New Cold War or via iTunes). Carlson is precisely the sort of person that I'm told I should never listen to - and he absolutely has said things that make me cringe, just to be clear - but he's also not a completely unintelligent asshat speaking solely to fill silence. He said one thing that I keep coming back to because I've rarely heard it put quite so well in conversation*:

"The law of unintended consequences is never gonna be repealed. Like, you don’t know. You think you know what’s gonna happen when you do something, but you really don’t. And so, humility is a prerequisite for wise decision-making. And whenever you have people telling you — people like Max Boot, for example — we know exactly what’s gonna happen when we do this, that’s a tipoff that these are very unwise people who shouldn’t have power."

And I appreciated his ability to articulate exactly why people might feel threatened by immigration:

"And I’ve seen this exact thing happen there [rural Maine], where Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Services or some group that thinks it’s doing good moves refugees into a depressed community and then leaves. And it’s massively disruptive for the people who live there. Massively. And nobody cares. [...]  I feel like the middle of the country is just a dumping ground for refugees. And the point of it, of course, is to make the people facilitating it feel virtuous, and then they never deal with the consequence. So, what about the people who live there?"

The point isn't so much that I'm ultimately going to share Carlson's views. But he makes some solid criticisms that starry-eyed liberals and progressives like myself would do well to heed. Refugee resettlement en masse does tax local infrastructure initially and can be daunting when you've had a homogenous culture for over a hundred years. I'm still stubbornly stuck on the belief that we should welcome people in as long as they need a safe place to flee to, and to hell with the consequences, but I can see how we could be wiser in our procedures and gentler in our rhetoric.

Maybe it doesn't matter much what I, one individual, actually think about any one political issue, at the end of the day (I don't believe this, but maybe). But it goes back to that first quote from the interview, that humility is a prerequisite of wise decision-making. I would take it a step further and say that humility is a prerequisite of wise life-making. You can't consistently make good decisions, build sound relationships, and navigate all the perils and pitfalls of life if you're closed to wise counsel, headstrong, and rigid in your ideas and beliefs. If your beliefs are sound, they will only be sharpened by coming in contact with opposing views and the hard facts of reality. If they are not, then you will fall less painfully: the humble stay close to the earth, rather than building themselves tall soapboxes with no steps to descend by.