Tag Archives: America

Losing Liberty

When the taste for physical pleasures in such a nation grows more speedily than education or the habit of liberty, a time occurs when men are carried away and lose self-control at the sight of the new possessions they are ready to grasp.

Casey Chalk quotes Tocqueville above in an article on digital minimalism and how we can reclaim our attention and improve our country.

Americans engage in self-congratulatory, pseudo-civic activism on social media simply by clicking the “like” and “share” buttons or changing their profile picture—activities that amount to little. “Men travel faster now,” observes a character in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, “but I do not know if they go to better things.”

Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison

I wanted to give you a thoughtful reaction to Ralph Ellison’s unfinished work, Juneteenth, at the appropriate time of the year, which is now, tomorrow being June 19, the day commemorating the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the States. But I couldn’t wade through it, only getting halfway. It’s a rambling novel that probably is best read in the company of well-read and thoughtful friends. Maybe, as you can tell from my recent posts, I’ve slouched away from that mindset.

“Ha, Bliss, so you remembered Eatmore, Old Poor John. Now that there was a great preacher. We did our circuit back there. Revivals and all. Don’t laugh at fools. Some are His. Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty. Which of Eatmore’s did you preach ’em, Bliss? Which text?”

Dreamily the Senator smiled. “They needed special food for special spirits, I preached them one of the most subtle and spirit-filled–one in which the Right Reverend Poor John Eatmore was most full of his ministerial eloquence: Give a Man Wood and He Will Learn to Make Fire . . . Eatmore’s most Promethean vision . . .” Hot here.

The story focuses on Senator Sunraider, quoted above, and the man speaking to him, a preacher and father figure named Hickman. In the beginning, Hickman and forty-three black men and women arrive in Washington hoping to meet with the senator for a few minutes, but he doesn’t give them that moment over the next two days. Then he is shot from the gallery while giving a speech.

I believe the rest of the novel is spent running memories through the Senator’s mind while Rev. Hickman is talking to him beside his hospital bed. Calling him Bliss, the name he’d given him as a child, Hickman remembers long sermons and revival meetings he did with the senator as a pre-teen. Bliss would be carried into meetings in a white coffin and wait for the right moment in Hickman’s preaching to rise up with his little, white Bible and preach with him in heart-tugging drama. It scared the boy and thrilled the crowd.

At another time of their lives, they went from town to town trying to sell the idea of a movie that showcased the town’s best qualities. Bliss was a young man then and naturally he discovered young women everywhere he went.

The reverberating tone in what I read points toward the senator, though himself a white man who has argued against black American equality in public life, understanding that his black heritage has formed him as a man and an American. No matter what he wants to believe, he has been shaped by black hands and black, American grassroot experiences.

In the introduction, John Callahan, who edited the draft that become this book, writes, “On many levels Juneteenth is a novel of liberation . . . Ellison, who took part in more than one ‘Juneteenth ramble’ as a boy in Oklahoma, speaks of false as well as true liberation and of the courage required to tell the difference. Even in the face of deepest betrayal, Hickman keeps his word to stand by Bliss, although the little boy is now contained within the frame of a man whose public words and deeds repudiate Hickman’s acts of kinship and fatherhood.”

It’s tough reading and maybe there are or should be better novels to capture this idea of liberty for all of us, but I’d sooner say I’m just not the right reader for this novel at this time.

Hard America, Soft America by Michael Barone

Talent pushed us toward Softness. Genius pushed us toward Hardness. John Dewey and the first progressive educators, the apparat of men and women who put together and extended the Social Security program, were people of talent who persistently and effectively Softened the Hard America of Theodore Dreiser.

I read an interview with Michael Barone in World magazine, focused on his latest book on party politics. I’ve wanted to learn more about the shifting history of U.S. political parties. It’s commonly said that Lincoln was a Republican, and the GOP has been holding a stained but righteous banner ever since, that Democrats don’t care for civil rights unless they can make political hay out of it (Bull Connor and his ilk were the ones opposing Martin Luther King way back when).

But it’s also common to hear that the parties have shifted, so I wanted to read a solid overview about some of that history. How America’s Political Parties Change (and How They Don’t) sounds like a good bet. I have yet to read yet, however, because my library system doesn’t have it. They had another book that was not about politics but about the character of our nation, which I put on hold many long, COVID-ridden weeks ago.

Hard America, Soft America by Michael Barone

Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation’s Future asks how a country that expects so little from its teenagers can send young men and women who are barely older into battlefields as hardened soldiers. The troops in Iraq, he says, were impressively well-trained and equipped to handle the dangers around them. How could American schools produce people like that?

He explores this idea over 150 pages, describing conditions in twentieth century America and how leaders acted and reacted to make life harder or easier on Their people. The quote above refers to life in Chicago as depicted in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. That was Hard America; eighteen year olds had to get a job and pay the rent or lose themselves in a gutter. There was little margin for idleness. It was arguably too hard. Men who made their fortunes building railroads and industries did so by grinding up men who had few choices. They paid their communities back with great philanthropy from which we still benefit today: medical research, libraries, and museums. “These men felt a responsibility to use a large part of their wealth to benefit their fellow citizens, but they wanted to maintain the Hardness of America, which they believed was responsible for the countries great economic growth and creativity.”

Barone describes hardening or softening of different segments in our society, the intent of these efforts, and whether they paid off. Hardening generally means accountability and potential for achievement, the hard work and risk that goes into the wheel of progress to make a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Softness means the lack of accountability, which may be the security to enjoy simple life but could also mean low standards and few achievements.

For example, at one point, economists believed three big players could drive the U.S. economy forward indefinitely. Business would do the work, Labor would oversee the prosperity of the workers, and Government would regulate and protect the field where all of this could take place. Competition? Who needs it? When the free market eventually found paths to American consumers, the big three were shocked (and slipping into bankruptcy).

With nationwide protests taking over our news channels, you may have seen images of George Romney at a civil rights march in Detroit in 1967. Barone touches on that time in his book; he was an intern with the mayor. Romney was governor of Michigan in July 1967 when Detroit suffered a week of riots. The local police couldn’t handle it, but the mayor feared the National Guard would make things worse. Romney and everyone with him were reluctant to call President Johnson for federal troops. What can of worms would be opened by inviting the U.S. military to handle local problems? So they tried the softer approach, just one act among many at a time when Americans all over the country “no longer felt morally justified in imposing hard penalties on crime.”

“But while the civil rights movement had sought to allow blacks into Hard America, the new public policies actually confined more Americans, black and non-black, into a Soft America where poverty and crime were chronic.”

Now we have much harder responses to crime and in some ways harsh reactions. We’ve condoned the brutal treatment and killing of civilians who have been merely accused minor offenses. The other day four officers stood on the edge of a lawn next to their cars, pistols drawn, confronting a pleading young man who had rolled through a traffic light. George Floyd was killed while being arrested for using a fake 20. Breonna Taylor was killed when officers raided the wrong apartment to conduct a warranted search at 12:30 a.m. These are serious problems, but perhaps more serious is the reluctance to reform from public officials.

Barone’s book shows that time and again methods for handling problems have unintended results, sometimes saving us from bad ideas, sometimes rolling in a new wave of grief.

A Threat to Justice Everywhere

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Justin Taylor offers context and organization to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote in the margins of the newspaper that published the open letter calling for “’an appeal for law and order and common sense,’ in dealing with racial problems in Alabama.”

Have Journalists Connected Dots that Do not Add Up?

Despite the connect-the-dots graphic in its other story, and despite the astonishing, emotion-laden editorial the paper also ran suggesting “We don’t need to read the Mueller report” because we know Trump is guilty, Baker at least began the work of preparing Times readers for a hard question: “Have journalists connected too many dots that do not really add up?”

. . .

There was never real gray area here. Either Trump is a compromised foreign agent, or he isn’t. If he isn’t, news outlets once again swallowed a massive disinformation campaign, only this error is many orders of magnitude more stupid than any in the recent past, WMD included. Honest reporters like ABC’s Terry Moran understand: Mueller coming back empty-handed on collusion means a “reckoning for the media.”

Of course, there won’t be such a reckoning. (There never is). But there should be. We broke every written and unwritten rule in pursuit of this story, starting with the prohibition on reporting things we can’t confirm.

From a chapter released today of Hate, Inc. by Matt Taibbi

Will the Real Frederick Douglass Please Stand?

Douglass’s story was unique among slave narratives of the period, not because it followed one man’s path from ignorant bondage to literate freedom, but because his depiction of this journey insisted, more than any other before or since, on the connection between literacy and wisdom, between man’s physical freedom and his liberty to think for himself. In Douglass we watch not only the liberation of an American slave, but also the formation of an American consciousness.

One cannot look for a better guide through Douglass than Blighthimself a master orator and one of Yale’s last great lecturerswho is equally attuned to the beauty of Douglass’s language and the depth of his thought. Blight seeks to balance “the narrative of his life with analyses of his evolving mind, to give his ideas a central place in his unforgettable story.”

Steps Toward Healing Wounds of Jim Crow

Social justice is an unwelcome term in some circles, calling to mind political opportunism and race baiting. Many other people use the term to describe what Christians should understand (and should have understood for centuries) as properly loving your neighbor. Author and professor Anthony Bradley says maybe we need to lay aside social justice in favor of transitional justice, the kind of measures taken in response a state that has ignored proper judicial measures for a long time.

In fairness, America did attempt to redress issues with voting, housing, employment, and the like. The blind fallacy, however, was the belief that we could change a few federal laws and move on. But we moved on without addressing the need to foster peace and reconciliation between whites and blacks, especially in the South and large urban areas. We moved on without dealing with the post-traumatic stress of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. We moved on without holding people and institutions accountable for massive amounts of person-to-person and structural injustice.

He offers seven principles for America to use in healing the wounds we still feel, urging us not to skip to the application before building the foundation. Here’s #2.

It is quite unbelievable that African Americans were not given formal opportunities to recount, on record, exactly what happened during Jim Crow. A truth commission would allow us to hear the truth about Jim Crow. We need to gather firsthand accounts while we still can. Without getting the truth on record, we run the risk of exaggerations of history on both sides. It would be safe to say, as a result, that the average American under the age of fifty cannot explain the details of what life was like for blacks during Jim Crow. Individual states still have opportunities to establish Jim Crow truth and reconciliation commissions.

And from #3.

Recognizing survivors of Jim Crow as suffering real harm, including economic harm, would have allowed us to contextualize both their trauma and struggles with agency in the years that followed. Instead, America largely chose a “let’s just move on and not talk about the past” approach with a few one-size-fits-all federal legal remedies, which ultimately failed to deliver much of what they promised by the time we reached the 1980s.

What America Loves Most: Ice Cream

When you think of American wealth, what evidence comes to mind? If it’s not on your list already, jot this one down: the abundance of ice cream.

In Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati: The Definitive Guide, authors Robin and Carolyn Weir explore the history of ice cream and how it was a dessert of luxury 200 years ago. In Colonial America, a pint of ice cream could have cost a week’s wages.

In 1921, The Soda Fountain, a monthly trade magazine to the soda industry, published an article touting “Ice Cream as Americanization Aid,” declaring that serving ice cream to [immigrants] on Ellis Island would help them acquire “a taste for the characteristic American dish even before they set foot in the streets of New York.” This would not only help new immigrants assimilate to the American “standard of living,” but it would also inculcate American values: “Who could imagine a man who is genuinely fond of ice cream becoming a Bolshevik?

I can’t say what results any field tests of this idea might have been produced, but it came at a time when America was starting to crank ice cream as if it would churn up a great, big, beautiful tomorrow.

During Prohibition [1920-1933], ice cream parlors filled some of the void left by closed bars, and brewers, including Yuengling and Anheuser-Busch, re-opened their operations as ice cream factories. The Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers could not have been happier — members reportedly sang a chorus at their conventions that went, “[Father] brings a brick of ice cream home instead of beer!”

(via Prufrock News)

Was Honor the Big Reason for the American Revolution?

The Art of Manliness has an audio interview with a history professor who’s written a book that has me repeatedly wondering if he’s right. Craig Bruce Smith is an Assistant Professor of History and the Director of the History Program at William Woods University. He’s written American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals During the Revolutionary Era. He says that while taxation, military aggression, and other oppressive treatment from King George and his empire did lead the colonists into a revolutionary war, the impetus behind our leaders’ call to arms was to defend their honor and that this idea matured over the lives of our founders to the point of pledging their sacred honor to the defend their independence.

In this vein, Yale’s Joanne Freeman wrote on the themes applied in the Burr-Hamilton duel. James Bowman reviews Freeman’s book, Affairs of Honor.

Among the Founding Fathers, she tells us, “Honour” was used interchangeably with “reputation” but it meant “reputation with a moral dimension and an élite cast”. It was, moreover, “the core of a man’s identity, his sense of self, his manhood”, which is why even in those relatively enlightened times it not infrequently involved men in single, and lethal, combat over real or imagined slights.

Bowman has written a book on the history of honor and its ties to morality and manners.

Solzhenitsyn: Speaking the Truth as a Friend

Jeff Groom summarizes the great Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s speech to Harvard forty years ago today in this article along with a video of the whole: 40 Years Ago Today: When Solzhenitsyn Schooled Harvard.

“Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of,” Solzhenitsyn said, “everybody strives toward further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames.”

Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and in such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the debased sense of the word which has come into being during those same decades. (In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to this end imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to carefully conceal such feelings. This active and tense competition comes to dominate all human thought and does not in the least open a way to free spiritual development.)

Groom writes, “In the pre-modern worldview that ended with the Renaissance, mankind was inherently evil and had to be made better. But following these harsh times, he noted, ‘we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal.’”

Comparing King and Coates

Scott Allen compares what he sees of the diverging worldviews of Martin Luther King and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The former advocated for a biblical application of justice and neighborly love; the latter appears to see only power.

The civil rights movement that King led had a clear agenda: End Jim Crow and bring about a change in America whereby people would be judged not by skin color but by character. It succeeded overwhelmingly, garnering support from people of all ethnicities. It led to the passage of the famous Civil Rights Act of 1964 and to the greatest period of equality and harmony between races that the nation had ever known.

Coates is very muted about the positive changes that King brought about. He prefers to paint race relations in America circa 2018 as little changed from America in 1850 or 1950. He puts forward no real positive agenda for improved race relations. Rich Lowry comments that his writing “feels nihilistic because there is no positive program to leaven the despair.”

How the Land Shaped America

Mark Helprin describes how the concept of America was shaped in part by its land.

For without understanding nature’s metaphors of infinity, man looms far larger in his own eyes than he would in their insistent presence, and, as history shows, comes to believe not only that he is the measure of all things but the maker and judge of life, death, and everything in between. . . .

Man reacts in the presence of limitlessness. He is buoyed immensely on tides of freedom.

“The ’70s was such a different era.”

Isaac Chotiner interviewed a man who wrote a lot about today’s most prominent villain Harvey Weinstein but not about his actions as a sexual predator.

“The book was not about Harvey per se,” Peter Biskind told him. “It was about the explosion of independent film in the ’90s.”

But Chotiner pressed him on whether he’d heard stories of Weinstein’s (or other people’s) aggressive immorality.

“There was a lot of free sex in the ’70s,” Biskind said. “This was the era of free love, so everybody was stoned all the time. . . . There was a general feeling in the ’70s, and I think it has always been true in Hollywood, all the way back to silent pictures, that rules don’t apply to them, which was the name of Beatty’s last movie. It’s the air they breathe. They are not constrained by civilian morality, put it that way.”

Were the ’70s really as debauched as all that? Ross Douthat thinks so. Continue reading “The ’70s was such a different era.”

Tragic anniversary

I feel that I ought to post something about the 9-11 anniversary. But I really don’t want to.

The day makes me sad. And not just (though certainly in part) for the loss of innocent lives on that black day 16 years ago.

I’m sad because, for a short time, we thought we were all united as a nation again. “This,” some of us hoped, “will be the event that will turn America back to its founding faith (secular and sacred).”

But that did not happen. It didn’t happen because of one – essentially racist – conviction held by the Left today. That conviction is that only white people possess moral agency (the ability to choose and decide issues of right and wrong). For leftists, brown people and black people cannot act as moral agents. They are like children, or animals. Their sins are always really the fault of white people.

Because of that belief, we have failed to meet the challenge of 9-11. Our enemies hoped to frighten us into compliance. And, as far as I can see, they have succeeded.

I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

Discovering Early American Serials

Early American Serialized Novels is a project dedicated to publishing novels serialized in US newspapers and magazines from the 1780s to the 1820s. The project grows out of a graduate seminar on early American literature and the digital humanities at Idaho State University.

I have a heart for early America, though perhaps not enough patience, so an ongoing project like this appeals to me. They have seven stories now. The hosts explain the context in which these tales first appeared.

Novel installments were often printed without predetermined knowledge of how many weeks or months would be devoted to the story, thus requiring authors to adapt accordingly. In addition, readers were never assured that the novels would reach a resolution and therefore became accustomed to complex, dissonant texts in which narrative suspension was a defining feature.

(via Prufrock News)