Together Alone

I have been joining in the morning and evening prayers from the garden of Canterbury Cathedral these past several months. Because this is the Internet, and we aren’t in person, it often seems that I am alone here. This could be my paper journal; who can say without a conversation. So yesterday I was surprised to find that many others have been joining in the prayers, when the computer at YouTube recommended that I view this clip from The Independent.

I have been far too wrapped up in asocial media these past four months. Everything there seems like a tempest in a teapot when I look out at the real world and engage with real people—and the real weeds growing in my own garden.

Think Before You Speak

My mother admonished me to think before I speak, and now sometimes I do. Sometimes I even think before I write, and take a breath, which was good advice I was given early in my career of sending professionally damaging e-mails. Before that though, the Senate confirmation hearings for Robert Bork and the presidential election campaign of Bill Clinton argued strongly that an ambitious man should avoid a public opinion or carefully construct a mask. Or, as Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Aaron Burr puts it, “Talk less. Smile more.”

But all that was before the Internet’s instant publishing platform let everyone’s hot takes wash over anyone daring to read the comments. No editor except myself will stop me, either from putting two spaces after a period or publishing an opinionated screed railing against the latest fad in the war against culture. The young, and those with no filter, properly took to this state of affairs like fish to water, which, as those of a certain age or with children know, led to warnings from the school principal to be more careful of one’s online activity than of one’s reputation in the cafeteria–because the Internet never forgets and a youthful indiscretion might harm one’s future.

Somehow all of this is forgotten in the current uproar over woke cancel culture, whatever that is, stifling debate and making it risky to say the wrong, i.e. unpopular, thing. One wouldn’t want to diminish one’s prospects now, would we?

The current flavor of public opinion differs from that enforced by Mrs. Grundy, but the enforcement is not at all dissimilar. Contracts for public school teachers contain morals clauses, for example, limiting their behavior outside of work, as one would not want to provide a poor example for children by public consumption of alcohol or by wearing a lewd dress, but the primary means of enforcement is a frown or tsk tsk. In some regions, while it may be illegal to fire someone explicitly for organizing a union, other excuses are found. Some have lost employment over racist remarks made outside the context of work, while others, notably James Bennet, have lost employment due to not doing their job–editing does involve reading, after all–which seems not all that different from any other time in history. Admittedly I have not had the audacity to enjoy video games while female or to appear in a Star Wars movie while black, nor have I given a speech on a college campus–though I have made many a stupid remark–but I think it’s still possible to distinguish between the harm caused by death threats and heckling. The signatories of Harper’s letter on justice and open debate are not stupid; to pretend that chilling effects are new is disingenuous. The difference is in who is affected. What appears to be even more different is how quickly the Internet lets everyone pile on, ad absurdum.

But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.

To a large extent public opinion works through shame and opprobrium, but carries a latent undercurrent of violence. It’s physically unsafe to ask the wrong questions or make unpopular opinions known. Recently this has involved driving automobiles into crowds, most notably in the 2017 incident in Charlottesville that killed Heather Heyer, or police rioting–or abstaining from suppressing rioting–in response to Black Lives Matter protests. These events are little different from 1970’s student strike and the killings at Kent State, Jackson State, and the Hard Hat Riot; or even the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X.; or, earlier, the West Virginia Mine Wars, the Red Scares I (1917-1920) and II (1947-1957), the Palmer Raids, and the Sedition Act of 1918; or, earlier still, Haymarket. The common thread is that the violence is, more often than not, on behalf of the status quo and established power.

Businesses offering a service to the general public, such as hotels, are, even though they are private businesses, required to offer accommodations to everyone. Bus companies, shippers, telephone companies, and railroadscommon carriers all–must do the same, for the same reason. In the United States, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, these accommodations were segregated, and not open to all. One counter-argument offered against the legal requirement of public accommodation was that discrimination is economically inefficient, that it is in the best economic interest of an Atlanta hotelier to let rooms to blacks as well as whites; in addition, because of this economic interest, public opinion, will, over time, change so that discrimination would no longer be popular, and that, thus, there is no need to require active de-segregation measures such as busing. That is, the choice of the public to boycott a discriminatory enterprise is sufficient to change behavior.

Well, that time of changed public opinion would appear to be here. The marketing departments of large corporations have noticed that certain images may have adverse effects on their branding, and adjusted their masks a tad. Ross Douthat and others suggest this has other, unspoken, advantages for the corporate consensus.

Indeed the successor ideology seems particularly adaptable (as DiAngelo’s career attests) to the corporate world, where it promises a framework for regulating an increasingly diverse work force that conveniently emphasizes psychology and identity rather than a class solidarity that might threaten the corporate bottom line.

Ross Douthat, “The Tom Cotton Op-Ed and the Cultural Revolution,”
The New York Times, June 12, 2020

I’d sign that Harper’s letter; no one asked: not sure why they didn’t. It would be nice if we could have reasonable conversations in good faith. I’d like that, especially if we could have them in person, perhaps around a campfire or over dinner. The idea of a secluded, quiet place for discussion has been a dream since Socrates corrupted the youth in Athens’s agora. The privileges and immunities of the autonomous university provide a framework for that. It’s not a coincidence that such a life is sheltered, cloistered, away from the rough-and-tumble cannibalism, as it were, of the polis.

Or at least of Twitter.


Should We Talk About the Government?

Every budget is a document of priorities filled with moral and ethical decisions. Every budget is the result of political wrangling over who and what matters. Who has the power, who keeps the power, who loses, who benefits, and who does not.

For my entire adult life political discussions, at least what passes for those in the media, have concerned various aspects of some imaginary culture war and who is ahead in the Legislative or Judicial or Executive standings. No one cares who’s on first, unless you’re a betting man.

Let’s talk about money again. Let’s talk about the purpose of society. Let’s talk about how we the people want to promote the general welfare. We cannot have either justice, or liberty, or domestic tranquility if we do not.


A Song of Grit

What are our guiding precepts? By which lamp do we light our way?

Langston Hughes asked a simple question in 1951.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Langston Hughes, “Harlem” (1951)

The founding myths of this country are not of twins suckled by a wolf, nor of a magic sword held in wait for the true king, nor of a God leading his people out of slavery, but of, on the one hand, a religious sect fleeing persecution and, on the other, rampant commercial speculation and exploitation of a vast, empty continent, beginning again with a compromise: a declaration of independence and a war for, of all things, Liberty. We are old enough now, 244 by some reckonings, 413 by others, that we could find the clear-eyed courage to face the past, and the present. We are old enough to comprehend that Santa Claus does not fly around delivering the newest plastic parcel from Mattel; we can certainly see the chasm between ideals and practice.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 

The Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776)

Other minds have left their voices for us to hear. One such is Frederick Douglass who, in 1852, addressed the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, presumably a sympathetic audience, on the subject of the Fourth of July. It is stern stuff.

The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever!

Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (July 5, 1852)

And then there was a war, a strange one where the losers on the field won the peace. As is the way in politics, power shifts over time. Somewhat.

But look, there is a seed.

that all men are created equal

And invariably there remains a struggle over oppressive power. The downtrodden do not often win, not wholly, but they struggle, sculpting the rock splinter and chip. So that Hughes could send up a plaintive cry,

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.

Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again” (1935)

Whom is he asking? We, the people.

That the present demand for justice could be considered borderline treasonous, if not positively un-American, indicts those of us who let our comfort blind us to the suffering of the afflicted.

It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work,

Abraham Lincoln, address at Gettysburg, Pa., November, 1863

to pick up our tools, lend whatever we may, to the task. Lend our voices to the song.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Walt Whitman, “I Hear America Singing” (1860)
Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” (1949)

July 5, 2020

A hot humid morning
haze filling the valley like gunsmoke
gunpowder’s smoke
of the fireworks

I woke mid night, restless
the quiet heavy cessation
of hostilities
waiting
The weather: haze, and unhealthy air quality

This Land is My Land

1981, bouncing along in the back of a shag-carpeted Chevy van barreling down the highway, windows down, Neil Diamond on the 8-track, singing as loud as we can:

Got a dream they’ve come to share!

I love this land, my country and the people in it. Just walking along the hills I would sing full-throated “America the Beautiful,” “This Land is Your Land,” “This is My Song,” “God Bless America,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Be Kind to Your Web-Footed Friends.” Sometimes I was a strange child.

I love this land, my country and the people in it–and sometimes I don’t. I hate that devotion to our country and respect for its flag, even the simple act of standing, has come to stand for so much less than “liberty and justice for all.” Now, it’s a gang sign for white supremacy and fascist violence, carrying a Bible and waving a flag.

I’ve long despised how patriotism is co-opted by a certain kind of nationalist: My country, right or wrong. America, love it or leave it–as if they had more right to it than I who say all are created equal; who hold that among these certain inalienable rights are life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; who would form this more perfect union to establish justice and promote the general welfare, with liberty and justice for all.

Instead they pledge allegiance to what? A flag they disrespect by flying it in the dark, in the rain, tied to the back of their shiny, new Ford? To bullying? To endless consumption? To so much winning? They’ve turned the American flag by their misuse of it into a symbol of their proud hate. They turned the anthem into a celebration of murder by their insistence on unthinking obedience: let us purge all who have the audacity to insist we are guilty! Rah! Rah! Go team! Or are they the true Americans, who with their behavior confirm what critics and historians note, that this Republic was made only for a few manly white men, and they would keep it that way?

So much easier to hate. So much easier to recite a civic prayer by rote without hearing the words. So much easier to relax by the pool waiting for the ceremonial burning of the hot dogs than it is to listen to 1,321 words written in June of 1776:

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Listen.

Reflect.

Understand the causes of their dissatisfaction with England. Understand the arguments made. Perhaps seek to understand that these were men not gods, afflicted with all the hypocrisy, the greed, the insolence, the frustration with limits on their licentiousness, and other sins that have afflicted mankind through the ages. Understand their common understanding. Understand the challenge. Understand the burdens placed on their descendants by words chosen, written, and widely read.

And ask, is the country you love one where you don’t matter; where your life is worth nothing because are a poor man–and you most likely are poor–; where your only use is to die, to labor for nothing other than the fading pleasures of the flesh?

Or is it a promise that you too may live, you too may be free, you too may pursue happiness?

I should leave? GTFO.

Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face

Heather C. McGhee notes (as heard on the radio) that racism has a cost for everyone.


Let me tell two stories from my time in local government. One involves an easement for a walking trail. One involves a pool.

The Town of Beekman began construction on a walking trail between the town parks, which went speedily enough as long as the trail was within the right-of-way along a town road, but construction stalled once the town needed to seek permission from adjacent property owners and other government entities. The two largest landowners along the proposed route were the Dalton Farm Homeowners Association and the Dutchess County Water and Wastewater Authority. The water authority punted: the town could cross their property, as long as the HOA agreed to an easement to continue the trail along the county road. So the highway department marked the county’s right-of-way, and the trail committee marked a route for the trail, and we walked the proposed route. We then solicited comment from the residents of Dalton Farm along the route. None of the comments were in favor of the trail. They all expressed concerns over strangers using the trail, people from out of town peeking in their back yards, and thieves breaking into homes in the dead of night. The Dalton Farm board tabled the idea of an easement, and the town’s trail still leads nowhere.

Dalton Farm owns a swimming pool and is required by its bylaws to maintain it in satisfactory condition for the use of the residents. Each year we contracted with a pool management company to clean, maintain, and staff the pool. After some years of trouble with late openings and the lifeguards—the pool company hired young women from Eastern European countries who could not always speak English well and so had trouble with the part of the job that involved communication with swimmers—the association board began looking at alternatives. Several alternatives were considered. The two I put forth, neither of which was accepted, were to hire local lifeguards to staff the pool, much as the Town of Beekman does, or to have the pool unguarded and unstaffed. The board decided to hire a security company to check identification—for slightly less expense than the pool management company—in order to prevent the wrong people from using the pool. The wrong people were those from outside of the association, non-residents, or who owed payments to the association. If memory serves, one of the board members suggested that people “from Poughkeepsie” might try to use the pool. Some years and a couple hundred thousand dollars later, the security company’s services were no longer required because it was found that one of the guards had placed video cameras in the rest rooms. The association now hires promising young persons of good character from the neighborhood to check the pool’s pH and guest identification.

“From Poughkeepsie” means “black” and “poor.”

Beekman is 15 miles, 30 minutes from Poughkeepsie.

No one is coming here from there to use any of the amenities we build. And if they did, so what?

The only people not from here who might are our neighbors, whom we see each week at school or the grocery store or church, with whom we play baseball and soccer. The people who use the pool are our children. The people who would use the trail are us: we would walk our dogs there; we would ride our bicycles there.

But we let our fear and prejudice lead us to make the stupidest decisions.

Frankly, I don’t understand why the response to “police must not kill people” has reflexively been to make excuses rather than “OK.” Heck, my youngest even knows to say “OK” when he means “No.”

You Kiss Your Mama with that Mouth?

Many years ago, as a young man in my early teens, what convinced me of the falseness of Christianity was the behavior of the Church and people who called themselves Christian. I could not reconcile the teachings of the Bible as I understood it with all the death perpetrated by a Church corrupted by worldly power. I could not reconcile Constantine, the Arian Controversy, the Great Schism, the Crusades, the Inquisition, battles between the Pope in Rome and the Pope in Avignon, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation wars of religion, the splintering of Protestant sects over exactly how poorly to mistreat others. I could not reconcile the obvious contortions the Church went through to excuse slavery and the attendant ills of segregation and apartheid, to inspire pogroms and ignore the Holocaust. I could not reconcile its apparent insistence on seeing others as less than human. I could not reconcile Bob Jones University’s not permitting my father to study math. I could not reconcile Jim and Tammy Faye fleecing devout old ladies of their last penny. I could not reconcile Pat Robertson preaching hate. I could not reconcile Jerry Falwell’s expensive suits and expansive corpulence. I could not reconcile the claim to absolute Truth with the daily practice of lies.

And so I did not join our local church, despite not seeing, personally, any of these problems among its members. And so, skeptically, expressed no opinion on matters of belief. Does God exist? Who knows? Does it matter? And yet kept certain ideals of behavior.

To this day, a knot of rage gnaws at me when the coterie of thieves surrounding Donald Trump includes fawning pastors of Mammon posing as servants of God. The rage is stoked when Trump beats his way through the crowd to stand sternly frowning in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church holding a Bible he hasn’t read and whose teachings are anathema to him. The rage burns hot as those who claim the Bible’s every word is literally true find it in their hearts to joyously exclaim over abuses of power, who give their time and money to help usher in the Second Coming, who welcome the trials and tribulations–of others–even though Jesus says explicitly that no one knows the day or the hour. The rage boils over when those who purport to uphold the tradition of the Church mock those who emphasize mercy–as if love and mercy were not the entire point of the Gospel.

Under the rage is sadness for all those for whom this is the example of the Church.

I’m just a poor preacher’s kid from Virginia and not some fancy-suited televangelist, celebrity priest, or professional theologian. Others are finer Biblical scholars. I don’t have a national pulpit or a famous byline. But it seems to me that if someone can’t get the basic order of instructions right, even in simplified form, perhaps their opinion should carry no weight.

If you can’t not be an asshole, if you can’t not support assholes, try not claiming to follow Christ.

WWJD?

The execution of Jesus Christ was political murder by the klepto class, done with the force of the state, because he demanded lovingkindness, justice, mercy, and the forgiveness of debts.

You may have been pre-occupied with other things this Easter season, like all the rest of us this year, and couldn’t make it to church, or refresh your memory of the story. Perhaps you were caught up in thoughts of plastic eggs, or perhaps you attend a church which likes to pass over where Jesus says, “Love one another,” so that the teaching can get straight to the important part about obedience–which skips the whole point of the law to focus instead on enforcement and punishment, pain and suffering. However, the story tells us why he was killed, not just why he died.

We like to think that Jesus was outside the mainstream of his society, and he was, much as Mr. Rogers was outside the mainstream of ours, but he was grounded in and closely in line with Jewish tradition. One might even call him a fundamentalist. And in that tradition he took exception to the abuse of authority.

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. [emphasis mine]

Mark 11:15-18 (NIV)

There might have been a riot, and then where would they be?

So perhaps it’s not surprising to find that a number of the voices calling, not for an examination of their souls but for the violent imposition of Law and Order–by which they mean Power and Obedience–are those same voices who, given every opportunity to do so, insist that God teaches us that it is vastly more important to obey rather than to care, to exploit rather than nurture. It is they who, seemingly in all cases, put the interests of the powerful above the meek, despite every evidence to the contrary from the text.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8 (ESV)

Nor is it surprising to find widespread outrage at yet another blatant murder by agents of the state. Because, believe it or not, most people think thou shalt not kill.

Caring for others is not some grand conspiracy by deviants, anarchists, and Marxists. It is the very minimum that your mother expects of you.

Budgets are Statements of Values

[A]usterity remains a political choice. … Beneath the narrow debates about how debts can be repaid reverberate larger, as yet unresolved questions about what kind of society we want to have, about who will pay for certain kinds of social provisions and whether we will have them at all. At the end of the day, these are inescapably political questions, not accounting ones.

This week’s book is Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, by Kim Phillips-Fein (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017) 📚. Seems like it may be appropriate for the current financial climate.

Leading Questions

No. 2 Son, 12, has always been curious about how things work. He’s currently fascinated by computer operating systems. Yesterday he asked which was the worst version of Windows.

Which led me to talk about how difficult it was to get people to upgrade from Windows95, tools that are good enough, planned obsolescence, creation of demand for useless things, tailfins on cars, fast fashion, and the insanity of an economic system that relies on creating wants and cannot satisfy needs.

Good times!