Latest Posts

All Men Are Created Equal, Except . . .

Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter in 1855 to Joshua F. Speed that became famous for the future president’s stand against the anti-immigration Know-Nothing Party.

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln and Speed met during the 1830s and remained friends even though their views differed on slavery. Speed grew up on a plantation and owned slaves. A turning point in Lincoln’s life that rekindled his interest in politics was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and opening the territories to slavery. It was in this context that the 1855 letter was written.

In referring to the nativist Know-Nothing Party—which came out of a secret society in the 1850s and was primarily anti-Catholic, xenophobic, and hostile to immigration—Lincoln used his letter to make his point of view very clear:

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. . . .Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.”

“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid” is a sentiment that many would find fitting in today’s political discourse. And the irony in the reference to the despotism of Russia “without the base alloy of hypocracy” comes through today, even with Lincoln’s archaic spellings.

A knowledge of history is one reason that I believe hope is grounded in memory. Author, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit notes that “We think of hope as looking forward, but . . . (if) you study history deeply, you realize that, to quote Patti Smith, ‘people have the power’. . . .(P)eople have often taken on things that seemed hopeless—freeing the slaves, getting women the vote—and achieved those things.”

Americans rejected the Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s, and recent 2018 polling found that a record-high number of Americans—75 percent—thought immigration was good for the country. Hope involves a sense of uncertainty and coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen, but we have memories that show us that good things—powerful things—can happen.

Hope takes work. But knowing history gives me hope that one day we will be able to remove both the “men” and the “except” to create the phrase, “All are created equal.”

More to come…

DJB

Obsessions

Obsessions come in all shapes and sizes. Some, let’s admit it, are just plain weird. Others can be transformative and life-changing. *

Upon opening a book of confessions to find a first chapter entitled “Spelling is for Weirdos,” I realized that I had found a writer—a self-styled comma queen, no less—with an infectious take on her chosen obsession. This particular confession—which I recently read after it was recommended by another writer—makes for a delightful romp and a good reminder that some obsessions are worth the effort.

Between You and Me

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

In describing the manual How to Sharpen Pencils as “one of the very few books worthy of the dual category “Humor/Reference,” Mary Norris, The New Yorker’s long-time copy editor, could have been discussing her own 2015 work—Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Norris makes sure there is plenty of humor to go along with the useful information on grammar throughout this engaging and educational work. Between You and Me chronicles an obsession of the best kind.

I’ve been on the lookout for books about clarity in writing since the 1980s, after serving on a gubernatorial study commission with Justice George Cochran, a retired member of the Virginia Supreme Court, and a friend from the Shenandoah Valley community of Staunton. Justice Cochran was reviewing my draft of our report and casually remarked that I “certainly must enjoy split infinitives” as I utilized them so often. I also recall that I dangled participles a little too frequently for his taste. Ouch!

Comma Queen Crown

In telling her story, Norris says she never set out to be a comma queen. Her first summer job was as a “toe checker” in a Cleveland swimming pool, on the lookout for athlete’s foot. That was followed by stints at the Cleveland Costume Company, as a milk truck driver (she had to drive standing up because it was difficult to reach the pedals when seated), and time packaging mozzarella on the night shift in a cheese factory. Suffice it to say that she brings unique perspectives to her position at The New Yorker and her obsessions with grammar.

Norris has not written a style manual, per se, but rather a memoir of a life lived with an obsession for clear writing. Her memories from The New Yorker and beyond are told with the wit of a natural-born storyteller. I am pretty confident that I’ve never laughed out loud when reading a book on grammar; yet, I did so more than once on the subway while devouring Between You and Me.

On our travels through these confessions, we learn how Noah Webster—another obsessive individual—developed the first American dictionary from his home in New Haven, “where he bought the Benedict Arnold House (it was going cheap.)” Webster is a prominent feature in the “Spelling is for Weirdos” chapter, given his long history with spelling reform. Later in the book, Norris notes that much of what a copy editor does is subjective, such as with the issue of whether to use “that” or “which.” (It depends on what the writer means.) There is a kind and thoughtful story of experiencing a “pronoun transplant” when her brother transgendered to become her sister, making it clear “how deeply pronouns are embedded in our lives.” The book’s title is designed to remind her readers to write (and say) “between you and me” instead of what some assume is the more formal—and thus “obviously” correct—”between you and I.” Norris references an essay about this well-used solecism (and then tells the reader that, “‘Solecism’ is a fancy word for mistake; it refers especially to mistakes in usage that betray the user’s pomposity and ignorance.”) Later chapters are designed to discover “who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick?” (it wasn’t the author) and to recast the old joke as “A dash, a semicolon, and a colon walk into a bar.”

If you want to know how to handle profanity, then read the chapter “F*ck This Sh*t.” Be forewarned, Norris makes liberal use of expletives and euphemisms. If you’d rather not know, then skip over that chapter and turn to the delightful “Ballad of a Pencil Junkie.” Be forewarned here as well, however. You may end up heading to your local stationery or art supply store to buy your own box of Palomino Blackwing 602 pencils after you read the loving description provided by Norris. (Available at PlazaArt with convenient stores throughout the DMV** in Washington, Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville, Towson, and Fairfax—not to mention Nashville for my family members in Tennessee. Yes, I’m speaking from experience here.) And if you really go over the cliff, you may follow Norris out to the “Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Logan, Ohio,” where she writes, “Only a sign warning that the museum is under surveillance twenty-four hours a day kept me from dancing.”

Obsessions are often viewed as a sign of an unbalanced mind, and that may be true in many instances. In What Do You Think About in the Shower, I remind myself as much as my readers that we must be careful with what we let become critical to us. Between You and Me is the way Mary Norris demonstrates that there are some obsessions which are both delightful and worth the commitment.

Have a good week following your (well-considered) obsession.

More to come…

DJB

*Claire and I saw one of those weird obsessions on our cross-country trip in 2015, when we visited the world’s largest twine ball rolled by one person in Darwin, Minnesota. It was so worth it!

**District, Maryland, and Virginia

It Takes However Long It Takes

Infinite Baseball

“Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark” by Alva Noe

After his death, Stephen Jay Gould, the great paleontologist and scholar of evolutionary history, was still teaching about a subject he loved—through a posthumous book of essays about baseball. Gould and other famous scholars and writers—individuals such as historians David Halberstam and Doris Kearns Goodwin, novelist John Updike, financial journalist Michael Lewis, and New Yorker essayist Roger Angell—have all written with a special affinity for the game. Ken Burns found many of them for his 9-part PBS documentary Baseball. Yes, even poet Walt Whitman wrote about baseball in the mid-nineteenth century.

I’m here to report that we have a candidate for the 2019 addition to the “smart people write about baseball” library. Let’s see what it might tell us about baseball, and life.

Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark is a short and entertaining work written by Alva Noë, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a lifelong New York Mets fan. I went against my standing policy of rejecting books with jacket blurbs by George Will and took a flyer on this set of 33 essays, most of them repurposed from National Public Radio’s discontinued science blog 13:7:Cosmos and Culture.

Noë’s reflections from a lifetime of observing and thinking about baseball has led him to a number of thoughtful, not-always-convincing, but generally smart and witty opinions about the game. That’s no surprise. If there is a thread running through Infinite Baseball, it is that the on-field chatter and off-field debate are part and parcel of the same “practice.” The “limits of the game are not drawn, in any straightforward sense, around the field of play itself.” As a thinking exercise, one that “demands of its players that they seek, in their role as players, to fathom and articulate the game,” then thoughtful writing is baseball as well.

Scorebook

My personal story of the clinching game when the Washington Nationals won their first National League East Division championship.

This contention is best seen in Noë’s four essays of the importance of “scoring” a game. As one who takes an old-fashioned scorebook to the game, I was intrigued by his takes on the importance of scoring as key to the “forensic” nature of baseball as well as to the stories that make the game great. On the first point, Noë argues that keeping score is not just a look at what happened, but “sourcing praise and blame and interpreting the significance of what’s going on.” The outcome isn’t always as important as knowing who is responsible for what happens.

The forensic nature of the game makes more sense when tied to the realm of stories. Baseball, in Noë’s view, is “remarkably focused on not just storytelling, but also on finding ways to write the story down, very literally, on the scorecard. Baseball is, in this sense, historical and history making.”* I am a firm believer in the importance of figuring out the stories that help explain who we are and why we exist. We approach life best when we seek to fathom and articulate what it means to be alive.**

Noë puts forward challenging and intriguing points-of-view on topics that every fan would understand. For instance:

  • Performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), in Noë’s view, are not “cheating,” but should be seen as similar to having Tommy John surgery to prolong one’s pitching career through medical technology. He argues that if we monitored PEDs as we do surgery, the risk would not be as great for the players. Noë also suggests that alleged PED-using home run king Barry Bonds clearly belongs in the Hall of Fame, just as the Atlanta Braves’ John Smoltz became the first pitcher to enter the Hall following Tommy John surgery. Without the surgery, Smoltz would not have had a Hall of Fame career. Whether you agree or not, it does force one to reconsider the conflict we have about our nature as human beings.

 

  • Baseball is boring in part because you need the slowness to do all the thinking that’s required to play and understand the game well. Attempts to speed up play fundamentally attack the core of the game. On this point, Noë and I are in complete agreement. “A baseball game, like a good conversation, or a friendship, or a political controversy,” he notes, “has no fixed end. It takes however long it takes.” (Emphasis added.) In response to the commissioner’s push to speed up the game, Noë’s take is, “God save us from today’s ramped-up, fast-paced world! We need to slow down. We need to turn off. We need to unplug. We need to start things and not know when they are going to end. We need evenings at the ballpark, evenings spent out of time.”

 

  • While baseball is clearly a game full of statistics, it is almost impossible to compare players from different time periods (as many traditionalists like to do). All sorts of changes to the game had impacts that are almost never taken into account—from the 1920s introduction of new balls when the one in use gets scuffed (resulting immediately in more home runs by a player named Babe Ruth), to the integration of baseball in the 1950s (vastly improving the competition and level of play when individuals such as Willie Mays became big league ballplayers), to lowering the height of the pitching mound in 1969 (which benefitted the hitters who couldn’t touch Bob Gibson in 1968 as he hurled from the mound that was a full five inches higher). Noë isn’t arguing against cross-period comparisons, but he is making the point that in baseball—as in life—numbers never tell the whole story of human achievement. As you might expect, he is not a fan of the total immersion of sabermetrics into the game. While not dismissing the value of the new analytical tools, Noë adds, “Want to know what happened on the field? You’d better take a look, and give it some thought.”

Noë delves more deeply into the “cliché that baseball is a microcosm of life” by suggesting that the game is a social world and “exhibits the structural properties of social worlds.” It isn’t just the men on the diamond, but it is also the practice of trying to understand what the men on the diamond are doing “not only while they are doing it but also in the larger setting of the game’s past and future.” You need not only the players, umpires, coaches, and fans to engage with the game, but also to reflect on what happens, as we do in life. The best example is in the chapter, “No-hitters, Perfect Games, and the Meaning of Life.”

A no-hitter is special “because in baseball, as in life, we sometimes care less about what happens—who’s actually winning or losing—than about who is accountable.” (You can pitch a no-hitter and lose the game because of walks, errors, passed balls, hit batsmen, etc.) A perfect game, on the other hand, “is special because sometimes we are primarily about the outcomes.” No-hitters are primarily a pitcher’s accomplishment, while a perfect game is always a team accomplishment. Life is like that, in that we are always thinking about “what we do and what matters.”

You find this fan’s enthusiasm, leavened by the philosopher’s wit, throughout Infinite Baseball. There are plenty of gems to open your eyes and mind to new ways of looking at this endlessly fascinating game.

With two games at Nationals Park over this current homestand, I’m seeing a great week taking shape, no matter what else happens.

More to come…

DJB

*On this point, Noë is supported by none other than the esteemed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who regularly tells audiences that she learned to score Brooklyn Dodger games (then played in the afternoon) so that she could sit with her father each evening and retell the game while he relaxed after work. She said the storytelling sharpened her work as a historian. I heard this first-hand as my daughter and I were getting Goodwin’s autograph on Team of Rivals and I happened to mention that Claire was learning how to score baseball. Goodwin stopped, put down her pen, and talked with us for over a minute—holding up a long line—about the importance of that practice in her life. Claire, I should mention, is now an Oakland A’s fan, who attends multiple games with friends each season.

**My son Andrew and I experienced the importance of stories—both within and outside the game—in the baseball context last month. A game we attended at Nationals Park was delayed almost two hours by an unexpected thunderstorm. In spite of the inconvenience, we spent a delightful evening talking, over beers and popcorn, with two women—both season ticket holders—who easily topped 80 years of age. We spoke extensively about baseball, of course, but we also touched on everything from opera (they were interested as to why Andrew went to study in London) to talking parrots (one of the women had one, and she was amazed that he didn’t swear like a sailor, since that was her favorite method of communication). Fascinating, and definitely an evening spent out of time.

Wonder

Curacao Garden

Imagine living 99 years inspired by a sense of wonder.

Entering into the world as children, we began with the curiosity and amazement found at the heart of a wonder-filled life. Yet along our journeys, most step out of this sense of wonderment and instead become cautious, cynical, hardened, haughty or any number of other traits designed to protect our egos and allow us to function—or so we believe—in the adult world.

In taking that step, we too often lose a generous, more imaginative perspective.

Wonder came into my consciousness last week while I was in Charlottesville for the memorial service of a long-time friend, Anne Worrell. I met Anne soon after moving to Virginia in the early 1980s, and over the years I came to know her primarily as a historic preservationist, businesswoman, newspaper publisher, philanthropist, and convener extraordinaire. With her husband Gene she founded their first newspaper, the Virginia Tennessean, in Bristol, and together they grew the company to be one of the largest chains of small dailies in the country.

Anne, who passed away on August 1st at the age of 99, was an indispensable early supporter of the effort to save Thomas Jefferson’s retreat, Poplar Forest, and we served together on that board for a number of years. Anne was a trustee of the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, where I was the founding director; providing the organization with critical guidance and funding to tell the story of preservation’s economic impact in the Commonwealth, an effort which led to the highly successful state historic rehabilitation tax credits. And because of Anne’s ability to convene, each election cycle found all the candidates for governor, no matter their political party, in her office to discuss preservation policy. Anne was also generous in spirit, once offering us her house in Abingdon for an overnight stay when she learned we were planning a 12-hour drive to Tennessee with six-month-old twins. Anne was certainly a welcomed force in my world.

At the memorial service, her granddaughter spoke of the personal side of Anne’s life. I immediately recognized my friend when she described her grandmother as animated by a simple sense of wonder. “That’s wonderful!”—always spoken with exuberance and a smile—was one of Anne’s favorite phrases. We heard it often. Her family told stories about Anne’s writing for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, with a special focus on a trilogy of books featuring a pair of wrens that took up residence near her house. Living in a sense of wonder didn’t make Anne a Pollyanna. True to the early masters of the fairy tale genre, Anne wrote about the world as a difficult place; a place where a snake could come into the wren’s birdhouse and eat the eggs while the parents were gone. Yet amazingly, Mr. and Mrs. Wren always came back, working to build a better home and a better life. Anne conveyed life lessons built on her own experiences, for sure, but also based on her indomitable sense of wonder.

Author Richard Holmes has challenged the rigidity of current perspectives and boundaries between disciplines and ideologies, calling instead for a culture with a “sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe.” Anne possessed those qualities in abundance, often expressing herself through a sense of humor full of empathy and wisdom.

Anne’s life, along with considerations on the ways in which a broader sense of wonder could impact the world we live in, were on my mind the next day when I entered Takoma Bev. Co. for our standard Saturday morning family brunch. I was delighted to see our favorite employee at work, an outgoing and articulate young man who confronts each task with a smile and who even cleans up floor spills with unbridled exuberance. We began talking and—after seeing him and chatting briefly over several weeks—finally used this occasion to ask his name. “Wonder” he responded, “it means ‘last born’ in Ewe, and I was the last of seven children in my family.”

Once again, I was reminded to be present when serendipity strikes.

This Wonder is certainly old enough to have slipped the bonds of amazement and move to the more cynical traits we so often call upon as adults. But instead he was choosing to live out the broader understanding of the meaning of his name with a generous and imaginative perspective.

How we see the world about us is a choice to be made. We can change our perspectives, if we desire, with enough time and work. In considering how best to respond to the challenges of our times, I believe we would all benefit by gathering a simple sense of wonder to support a generous heart and an imaginative view of our life on this stage.

Rest in peace, Anne Worrell. Your sense of wonder still has a place in the world. Even in our local coffee shop.

More to come…

DJB

Installment #9 of The Gap Year Chronicles

Toni Morrison, R.I.P.

Toni Morrison movie poster

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” movie poster

Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize-winning author and arguably our First Lady of Letters, passed away last evening, August 5th, at the age of 88.

She left this earth as a new book of essays, The Source of Self-Regard, along with a recently released documentary entitled Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, introduced long-time fans and new readers alike to her towering intellect and broad vision. These works could not have come along at a better time.

Now that she has died, we will have to rely on the power of Morrison’s words; the clarity of her vision for social justice; the love of art, music, and literature that permeates the meditations in The Source of Self-Regard and the interviews in The Pieces I Am more than ever.

At the end of “Peril,” the very first offering in The Source of Self-Regard, Morrison makes the bold statement that, “A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.” And through 350 pages of speeches, essays, and meditations, she shows why.

There are 43 pieces in The Source of Self-Regard, and they cover a range of topics that are all timely in an age of disinformation, fake news, and a willing disregard for the power of language to bring empathy and healing. Speaking of the limitations of rage in an address delivered to Amnesty International entitled “The War on Error,” Morrison writes,

“Rage has limited uses and serious flaws. It cuts off reason and displaces constructive action with mindless theatre. Besides, absorbing the lies, untruths, both transparent and nuanced, of governments, their hypocrisy so polished it does not even care if it is revealed, can lead to a wearied and raveled mind.

We live in a world where justice equals vengeance. Where private profit drives public policy. Where the body of civil liberties, won cell by cell, bone by bone, by the brave and the dead withers in the searing heat of ‘all war, all the time,’ and, where facing eternal war, respect for, even interest in, humanitarian solutions can dwindle.”

In a beautiful eulogy to James Baldwin, Morrison wrote that the author “made American English honest — genuinely international….You stripped it of ease and false comfort and fake innocence and evasion and hypocrisy. And in place of deviousness was clarity; in place of soft, plump lies was a lean, targeted power….You replaced lumbering platitudes with an upright elegance.”

The same could be said of Morrison.

Both the book and film give us a chance to see a wise mind at work. In the documentary, the most illuminating insights come when Morrison is talking directly into the camera. In several of the essays she touches on the process she went through in writing her novels. It is fascinating reading for anyone who cares about how writing becomes wisdom. In reference to the writing of Beloved, the Nobel Laureate notes that her work with the historical books of slavery led her into a trap of confusing data with information and knowledge with hunches, so much so that overcoming her arrogance about how much she knew was her first obstacle.

“What I needed was imagination to shore up the facts, the data, and not be overwhelmed by them. Imagination that personalized information, made it intimate, but didn’t offer itself as a substitute. If imagination could be depended on for that, then there was a possibility of knowledge. Wisdom, of course, I would leave alone, and rely on the readers to produce that.”

Relying on her readers as active participants in her writing reflects the sentiments put forth by author Rebecca Solnit, who once said, “The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates, the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.” In a perceptive essay entitled, “Invisible Ink: Reading the Writing and Writing the Reading,” Morrison points to the fact that the text and the reader have another party involved in interpretation — the author.

“What I could not clearly articulate (in an earlier essay) was the way in which a reader participates in the text — not how she interprets it, but how she helps to write it. (Very much like singing: there are the lyrics, the score, and then the performance — which is the individual’s contribution to the piece.)

Invisible ink is what lies under, between, outside the lines, hidden until the right reader discovers it….The reader who is ‘made for’ the book is the one attuned to the invisible ink….

Withdrawing metaphor and simile is just as important as choosing them. Leading sentences can be written to contain buried information that completes, invades, or manipulates the reading. The unwritten is as significant as the written. And the gaps that are deliberate, and deliberately seductive, when filled by the ‘right’ reader, produce the text in its entirety and attest to its living life. . . .

Clearly, the opening sentence of Paradise is a blatant example of invisible ink. ‘They shot the white girl first, and then took their time with the rest.'”

There is so much to stimulate and challenge the reader in both this masterful book and the timely documentary. The sweeping search for truth is formidable and worth the effort. Because, as Morrison notes in her meditation on memory,

“…the crucial distinction for me is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the distinction between fact and truth. Because facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.”

Toni Morrison, rest in peace.

More to come…

DJB

The Search for Wise Leaders

Is it possible to find wise leaders in this era dominated by 30-second soundbites, cable news demands for conflict, twitter-length pronouncements that take the place of rational discourse, and increasingly short — or nonexistent — attention spans?

I began thinking anew about wisdom after hearing the Rev. Emily Griffin speak a few weeks ago on how those who are wise stay afloat in a figurative sea of rising waters. Those thoughts were carried forward in one new book that has been on my nightstand, along with another I’ve returned to in recent months. Both included perspectives on wisdom, insight, and discernment. Making the link between wisdom and leadership followed later as — with increasing frustration — I watched two nights of the Democratic presidential debates on CNN at the end of July.

First, consider how we know that someone is wise. The writers I have been reading suggest that wisdom includes meaningful self-knowledge as well as an important outward-facing impact.

Defining wisdom as “knowledge translated into action,” Emily struck a chord and helped begin my walk down this path. We all know people who are full of information and who have an answer for everything. But are these people wise? Emily’s thoughts about the fruit of wisdom being in the “works of our hands” suggest perhaps not:

“. . . wisdom is less about mastering floods of information; it’s more about riding the waves so they don’t drown or paralyze us. . . . Wisdom is what helps us to set direction and move together to get there.

But it’s not all about knowing the terrain in advance. Wisdom also helps us to handle new situations that we’ve neither predicted nor prepared for. . . . Wisdom isn’t about intellectual feats of strength; it has to do with what we learn from our elders and from our own experience — and how that comes out in the works of our hands, in the ways we treat each other, in our capacity to respond with calm and grace when anger and judgment are so much easier.”

Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, in a 1992 lecture entitled The Source of Self-Regard, speaks to the confusion between information and wisdom:

“In all of our education, whether it’s in institutions or not, in homes or streets or wherever, whether it’s scholarly or whether it’s experiential, there is a kind of a progression. We move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. And separating one from the other, being able to distinguish among and between them, that is, knowing the limitations and the danger of exercising one without the others, while respecting each category of intelligence, is generally what serious education is about. And if we agree that purposeful progression exists, then you will see… that it’s easy, and it’s seductive, to assume that data is really knowledge. Or that information is, indeed, wisdom. Or that knowledge can exist without data. And how easy, and how effortlessly, one can parade and disguise itself as another. And how quickly we can forget that wisdom without knowledge, wisdom without any data, is just a hunch.”

In her 2016 book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living Krista Tippett also speaks to the idea of translating knowledge into action. She notes that one of the qualities of wisdom “is about joining inner life with our outer presence in the world. The litmus test of wisdom is the imprint it makes on the world around it.”

I have certainly known individuals who take the wisdom of their inner life and use it to shape a better world. I suspect you do as well. As we are facing critical decisions about what type of country we expect to be, however, our political and media culture seem hard-pressed to develop and sustain a process to help us choose a wise leader.

Lincoln Douglas Debate

Lincoln Douglas Debates commemorative stamp from 1958 (Credit: U.S. Government, Post Office Department – U.S. Post Office Hi-res scan of postage stamp by Gwillhickers., Public Domain)

When Abraham Lincoln and Senator Stephen A. Douglas debated in 1858, largely on the question of expansion of slavery into the territories, one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate spoke for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30-minute rejoinder. The candidates alternated speaking first. Although Lincoln lost that race in the legislature (after winning a plurality of the votes), his fame rose because of the wisdom that came through the coverage of the original debates and a publication of the texts from those events. In the 1860 presidential election that mattered, the people clearly had some sense of the wisdom that could lead the country through its most existential crisis to date.

However, facing another crisis of our democracy, we’ve had four “debates” that asked for 60-, 30-, and 15-second responses (and a “show of hands” in the first set of  debates) to complicated questions that will not be decided in less than two minutes. Critical issues, such as Russia’s attacks on our democracy and the response of American enablers to those attacks, were not even covered. Instead, what we saw was politics as reality TV. James Poniewozik, the New York Times media critic, noted that “Each night of the debate began with a hyperdramatic clip reel suited to an ‘Amazing Race’ finale, giving candidates thumbnail descriptions and setting up the night’s story arcs.”

We elected one unqualified reality TV star by not taking wisdom seriously. A key question going forward is, can we get past the idea that politics is a reality show? Hank Stuever, the Washington Post TV critic, answers with, “Not if CNN has anything to do with it.”*

“CNN’s format facilitated a frenetic game of human darts, with questions designed to goad the jabbing. It was a never-ending two-night competition of lightning rounds, in 30- and 15-second rebuttals to one-minute answers. . . . (It) never quite achieved the mood of actual discourse.

Instead, we were watching CNN make television — pieces and bites and clips of which it can repurpose into more programming fodder . . .”

I suspect that there are candidates for president (and many other offices across the country) who have the ability to be wise leaders, to help us “handle new situations that we’ve neither predicted nor prepared for.” But will we demand that our political parties and the media give us the opportunity to find them? In the press for a new type of political coverage, I believe we have to support those conversations and forums that give us the chance to weigh, over time, the wisdom of the candidates. Conversely, we have to take our eyes and ears away from those platforms that simply want to turn our politics into another version of The Bachelorette. Unfortunately, we find it hard to devote the time, focus, and energy to dig deep into the reality behind the campaign and media marketing. It is so much easier to jump to websites and click on stories with headlines that reinforce our beliefs but don’t tell us anything of substance. We have information but not knowledge or wisdom.

One final, and perhaps hopeful note: the text Emily uses from the Book of Proverbs, found in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament, defines Wisdom as a “she” who exists at the dawn of creation. That helps us, as Emily notes, to “sense the fullness of what it means to be created in the image of God.” No endorsements here . . . just something to think about in interesting times.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*Stuever also had an insightful comment about the misuse of the beautiful and historic Fox Theatre in Detroit, a resplendent space that I’ve been privileged to visit. He noted: “Even the set for the debate in Detroit’s Fox Theatre, which CNN boasts took 100 people eight days to build (using 25 cameras, 500-plus lights and 40,000 pounds of equipment), seemed like a vulgar example of what we’ve turned our politics into. It overwhelmed the sturdy and ornate authenticity of the palatial 5,000-seat theater, which was constructed in 1928 and built to last. CNN’s frantic impermanence insulted the structure’s beauty.” I would add, that impermanence also insulted our wisdom.

The NFL Season Begins Anew. Heaven Help Us.

Late yesterday afternoon I was watching a bit of ESPN. Suddenly, the excitement level of the announcers’ voices rose significantly as they began talking about “THE FIRST NFL PRE-SEASON GAME OF THE YEAR” scheduled for later that evening. On August 1st.

Doesn’t this thing ever go away? Heaven help us.

We’re in the midst of a baseball pennant race where, with two months to go, 17 teams are either division leaders or within four games of the two wild-card slots in each league and thus have a legitimate chance at making the playoffs. Teams are going on improbable streaks (I’m looking at you, New York Mets and San Francisco Giants). Strong teams (Houston) just made themselves better with deadline trades, while other teams (New York Yankees and Washington Nationals) left their fans disappointed by their lack of imagination and just plain guts in filling in their weaknesses.

Suffice it to say, there’s a lot to watch (and talk about) around baseball.

But noooo. We have to hear about pro football ad infinitum. Well, I’m (still) sick of it.

NFL Brain Diagram

NFL Brain Diagram via SportsPickle.com

Over the past four years I’ve posted four Super Bowl rants to give you my take on what’s wrong with this $10 billion nonprofit (seriously). I started after Super Bowl 48, and continued with Super Bowl Rants II, III, and IV. To spare you from having to read all the reasons in detail, I’ll give you the Cliff Notes version of what’s wrong with today’s NFL*:

  • Those stupid Roman numerals. How pretentious can any sport be that lists its championship game by Roman numerals?
  • The NFL is a non-profit. (No, seriously.)
  • The militarization of football by FOX. I would prefer to watch my sports without being shown countless patriotic scenes, troops in Afghanistan, more renditions of God Bless America than anyone should have to listen to in a lifetime (are you paying attention Major League Baseball?), military flyovers for everything from preseason games to Super Bowls, and so much more. Enough already! It’s a damn game, not some statement on the American psyche and national manhood. (Sorry. I went off on that one a little bit.)
  • Concussions. 2015’s Super Bowl (#49) was hailed by many as the “best Super Bowl ever.” What did it feature? One confirmed concussion, and one probable concussion that the Patriots covered up. (The Onion had a telling headline: Super Bowl Confetti Made Entirely From Shredded Concussion Studies.) A horrendous arm injury by one player. Oh, and a fight in the end zone on the next to last play. Yep, that about sums up the NFL these days. (Sorry again. I also have a personal thing about concussions.)
  • It’s the damn Patriots. Again. These guys always seem to find their way back to the Super Bowl. Is there anyone more insufferable in sports than Bill Belichick/Tom Brady? (Wait, I’ll answer that. Maybe Coach K. But that’s another post. And I know that Belichick and Brady are actually two people, but I’ve grouped them as one because they synch their grating to perfection.)**
  •  And finally, the easiest reason of all not to watch the NFL: Daniel Snyder.

Okay. Just had to get that off my chest. Suffice it to say, I did not watch the NFL “Hall of Fame” preseason kickoff game last evening (where, as one announcer put it, “no one good will be allowed on the field”) and I won’t watch whatever Super Bowl comes around in February.

Take your family, friends, and loved ones to the ballpark. Buy them some peanuts and Cracker Jacks (and perhaps a local IPA and a “half smoke all the way” from Ben’s Chili Bowl if you are at Nationals Park.) Relax. Its summer, and that means its baseball season.

More to come…

DJB

*I’ve provided 14 specific reasons if you want to go down this rabbit hole with me. Just click on the links.

**I have a good friend from Boston who went to school with Belichick, and this reason always gives him heartburn. He calls the Patriots his “dirty little pleasure.” Other than this slight character flaw, my friend is a terrific guy.