History as an Antidote to Folly

Age of Folly

Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy by Lewis Lapham

Kurt Vonnegut has called him America’s greatest satirist, while others suggest he was born of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken.  Lewis Lapham—editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine, founding editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, and the object of those accolades—is a writer of great eloquence and “lethal wit.”  I was delighted to see that some of the best of Lapham’s essays from the past twenty-five years have now been collected into a new work, Age of Folly:  America Abandons Its Democracy.

This is both a wonderful and important book. Lapham surveys the past twenty-five years to make the case that America’s imperial impulses have shaken our democratic principles.  You can agree or disagree with his premise, but his arguments are lucid, thoughtful, and often challenging.

In the very first essay, from 1990, Lapham states his case succinctly and directly.

“If the American system of government at present seems so patently at odds with its constitutional hopes and purposes, it is not because the practice of democracy no longer serves the interests of the presiding oligarchy (which it never did), but because the promise of democracy no longer inspires or exalts the citizenry lucky enough to have been born under its star.  It isn’t so much that liberty stands at bay but, rather, that it has fallen into disuse, regarded as insufficient by both its enemies and its nominal friends.  What is the use of free expression to people so frightened of the future that they prefer the comforts of the authoritative lie?”

Lapham also explores the change in our concepts of public and private and its affect on our society, noting that “the familiar story (democracy smothered by oligarchy) has often been told”  but that

“…it is nowhere better illustrated than by the reversal over the past half century of the meaning within the words ‘public’ and ‘private.’  In the 1950s the word ‘public’ connoted an inherent good (public health, public school, public service, public spirit); ‘private’ was a synonym for selfishness and greed (plutocrats in top hats, pigs at troughs).  The connotations traded places in the 1980s. ‘Private’ now implies all things bright and beautiful (private trainer, private school, private plane), ‘public’ becomes a synonym for all things ugly and dangerous (public housing, public welfare, public toilet).”

This book was published prior to Donald Trump’s election as president, but Lapham sees it coming and is not surprised.

There are many themes addressed throughout Age of Folly.  But to make his overall case, Lapham turns to history, calling it an “antidote to folly.”

That theme runs throughout the book, but is summed up in the final essay, dating from 2014 and entitled “The World in Time.”  This essay begins with a quote from Cicero—“Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child”—and then discusses Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s last word on the reading and writing of history.  “It is useful to remember” he quotes Schlesinger,

“…that history is to the nation as memory is to the individual.  As persons deprived of memory become disoriented and lost, not knowing where they have been or where they are going, so a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future.”

Just as we have tried at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (where I work) to tell the full American story and break out of the mold of house museums preserved in amber, Lapham notes that history is “constant writing and rewriting, as opposed to a museum-quality sculpture in milk-white marble….History is not what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago; it is a story about what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago.  The stories change, as do the sight lines available to the tellers of the tales.”  In this particular essay, Lapham looks at the writings of Tom Paine, one of two founding fathers he especially admires (the other being Roger Williams), because Paine’s writings are “like the sound of water in the desert” in these days. They speak not to the rich and privileged, but to the common man.  Paine uses memorable aphorisms such as “The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark” and “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”

Lapham closes this essay, and this book, by noting that “None of us dies in the country in which he or she was born.”  History is made every day.  Our country changes.  It always has.  It always will.

“Sensing the approach of maybe something terrible…the guardians at the gate look for salvation to technologies as yet undreamed of by man or machine.  My guess is that they are looking in the wrong direction.  An acquaintance with history doesn’t pay the rent or predict the outcome of a November election, but it is the fund of energy and hope that makes possible the revolt against what G.K. Chesterton once called ‘the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.’”

History as an antidote to folly.  As we challenge ourselves to hear, understand, and honor the full American story, this rings true.

Highly recommended.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

We Shine a Light on the Past to Live more Abundantly Now

This week at the National Trust, we are preparing to host the 2017 PastForward national preservation conference in Chicago.  Long-time colleagues and new friends who care about the past and the places that bring that past into the present will gather from all across the country.  I suspect that we’ll share thoughts that challenge the conventional wisdom, offer support for a broader understanding of the American story, and come away with a new appreciation for the work that takes place by preservationists and by those who don’t (yet) identify as preservationists.

Why do these people gathering this week in Chicago care about the past?  And what’s with that name, PastForward?

In a recent conversation that included Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed, (The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family), journalist and author Krista Tippett summed up the answer to those questions with her opening line:  “In life, in families, we shine a light on the past to live more abundantly now.”

I think that’s a great summation of why so many of us will gather this week at PastForward.  William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  In that same spirit, I am of the belief that preservation isn’t about the past.  It’s about the continuum of past, present, and future. And we shine a light on all aspects of our past in order to understand “so many paradoxes and so many dilemmas”—to use a phrase by Gordon-Reed—that exist in our country and in ourselves.

Past Forward 2017

PastForward 2017 in Chicago

That’s what I hope we can bring “forward” this week:  an approach to understanding the past that helps us live more abundantly today.  And if you cannot be with us in Chicago, please be sure to check out the live-streaming of several of the TrustLive sessions (think TED talks for preservation with some amazing speakers).

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

Complicity in a Shared Work of the Imagination

Clayborn Temple

Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Steve Jones)

Last week I had the privilege of launching the National Trust’s National Treasure campaign for Clayborn Temple, a landmark in the history of the Civil Rights movement.  It was here where Memphis sanitation workers gathered in 1968 and decided to go on strike, marching with their “I Am a Man” signs that became a potent symbol for all that is at stake in the fight for equal justice.  Clayborn Temple was where the leadership of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. transformed the strike from a local labor dispute into a national issue, effectively tying the sanitation workers’ cause with the national issues of economic justice and racism. It was to Memphis and Clayborn Temple that Dr. King was returning when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet.

To be in that sacred space with more than 150 Memphis residents, young African American poets and musicians, revered spiritual leaders who walked with the sanitation workers, preservationists of all ages, and current members of the workers’ union was an honor and a reminder of how the story of Clayborn Temple could be ripped from this weekend’s headlines.  We are still addressing the issues those sanitation workers and their supporters faced almost fifty years ago.  Preservation, remember, is not only about the past, but is also about today and the future.

It just so happened that I was reading a new book while traveling to and from Memphis.  Lewis Lapham’s Age of Folly:  America Abandons Its Democracy, covering America from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the 2016 election, has much to digest and ponder.  I’ll return to it more fully at some point in the future to explore Lapham’s contention that an acquaintance with history can serve as folly’s antidote.  But one of the opening essays related so closely to what had happened at Clayborn Temple that I quoted from it while in Memphis.

This 1992 essay is entitled Who and What Is American?  In response to the false construction that the American people share a common code of moral behavior and subscribe to identical theories of the true, the good, and the beautiful, Lapham writes,

The American equation rests on the habit of holding our fellow citizens in thoughtful regard not because they are exceptional (or famous, or beautiful, or rich) but simply because they are our fellow citizens.  If we abandon the sense of mutual respect, we abandon the premise as well as the machinery of the American enterprise.

I Am a Man.

What joins the Americans one to another is not a common nationality, language, race, or ancestry (all of which testify to the burdens of the past) but rather their complicity in a shared work of the imagination.  My love of country follows from my love of its freedoms, not from my pride in its fleets or its armies or its gross national product.  Construed as a means and not an end, the Constitution stands as the premise for a narrative rather than a plan for an invasion or a monument.  The narrative was always plural—not one story but many stories….

If we indulge ourselves with evasions and the pleasures of telling lies, we speak to our fears and our weaknesses instead of to our courage and our strength.  We can speak plainly about our differences only if we know and value what we hold in common. (Emphasis mine)

I Am A Man

Sanitation Workers in March 1968 outside Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Ernest C. Withers/Withers Family Trust)

So much of the story at Clayborn Temple points to what it means to be American, and who gets to decide.  When we were there to celebrate that space and its rebirth last week, I felt we were doing the “shared work of the imagination” that is required if we are to ensure that our faith in the republic does not—to use another of Lapham’s memorable phrases—“degenerate from the strength of a conviction into the weakness of a sentiment.”

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter

The Revenge of Analog

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter by David Sax

I recently finished David Sax’s new book The Revenge of Analog:  Real Things and Why They MatterAppropriately, I bought my hard-back copy in that most analog of places—Portland, Oregon’s Powell’s City of Books—the nation’s largest independent bookstore.

Sax, a business journalist from Canada, posits that “while digital technology has certainly made life easier, the analog technologies of old can make life more rich and substantial.”  He argues that in today’s digital world, analog is making a surprising comeback.  What are those analog technologies?  Notebooks and paper.  Vinyl records.  Film.  Board games.  (Vintage Game Night at the Woodrow Wilson House, anyone?) He also looks at the comeback of analog “ideas” in areas such as printing, retailing, and education.

Some of Sax’s examples strike me as first-world games of the highly educated. However, as I thought about the tactile nature of the pages as I read, I realized that he had an important point about the impact of real things in our lives. About two years ago I stopped purchasing e-books and have returned to buying books to read during my commute to-and-from work each day. (Sax quotes a twelfth-century Judaic scholar in saying, “Make books your treasure and bookshelves your gardens of delight.”)  We still subscribe to the New York Times home edition, in part, because my 24-year-old son wants to do the Times crossword puzzle with paper and ink (his grandfather would be proud) and Candice enjoys reading from a “real” newspaper.  One commentator noted that analog technologies such as newspapers allow us to have a feeling of finishing a task, whereas digital news feeds and links never seem to end.

At the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where I work, we are all about real things. Real places. And why they matter.

I’ve even had a revelation about my move to a paperless office, which I made two years ago.  Frankly, I’m not sure it has made me more productive. In discussing the revenge of analog in digital companies, Sax writes:

“One of the great promises of the information age was that advancements in communication technology would result in increased productivity.  Studies have shown that has not occurred, but most people don’t need academic data to realize this.  They simply need to look at the e-mails piling up in their inbox, at the texts pinging away on their phone…to understand that any technology built with the promise of productivity has the real potential to deliver an inverse result.

What some technology companies have done in response to this is limit technology itself.  At Percolate, a New York (software) company…(they) banned all digital devices from company meetings.  Noah Brier, Percolate’s cofounder and CEO, said the rule arose because he consistently sat in meetings where one person spoke and everyone else pretended to listen while they responded to emails or texted.  Not only was this rude, but the distraction increased the length of meetings drastically.  Once Percolate banned devices, the results were instantaneous. ‘It just makes it so people are actually paying attention.  Meetings are shorter and more useful.’”

Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, notes in a review that Sax quoted a time-management expert as saying, “’You can waste time with all kinds of stuff, but the digital world provides a lot of opportunity to waste a lot of time.’ A notebook’s selling point is that you can’t use it to look up stock futures or to swipe right or to play solitaire. It concentrates, not dissipates, the mind. What if Picasso had had Snapchat? What if Hemingway had spent half the afternoon writing Yelp reviews of his favorite bars?”

You may notice that I’ve begun showing up at some meetings without my computer in tow, and with a simple notebook and pen. (I haven’t made the complete break, I have to admit.) A retreat exercise helped drive the points about attention and productivity home for me, and started my shift even before reading Sax’s book.  We don’t have to be Luddites, but I like to think about how the “real places” we work to save in our communities can remind us how rich and substantial a better balance with technology can have in many different aspects of our lives.

Journals

I’ve always loved journals – my journal from my Rome sabbatical on the right and my current journal on the left, with my tools of the trade. Very analog!

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Attitudes Aren’t Taught, They’re Caught

Mary Dixie and George Brown

My grandparents: Mary Dixie Bearden Brown and George Alma Brown

Attitudes are important in so many aspects of work and life.  Some people complain because there are thorns on roses, while others praise thorns for having roses among them. My grandmother, who I quote frequently, use to say that “Some folks are born in the objective mood.”  Grandmother did not have a lot of patience with people who were always complaining and objecting to what others did.  Both she and my Grandfather—and their son, my father—always had a positive outlook and attitude toward people.

In David McCullough’s The American Spirit, he speaks of the impact our attitudes have on others.  “Everyone who’s ever lived,” he notes, “has been affected, changed, shaped, helped, or hindered by others.”  He then quotes Margaret McFarland, a professor of child psychology, who says that “attitudes aren’t taught, they’re caught.”  Speaking of teachers, McCullough notes that “if the teacher has enthusiasm for the subject at hand, the student catches that.”  McFarland adds, “Show them what you love.”

Last week I spent time at three of the National Trust’s New York-area historic sites—The Glass House, Lyndhurst, and Kykuit.  All three have seen recent increases in important metrics like attendance, revenue, grants, programming, and media mentions. The evolution of those three sites toward more relevance with their local communities and the nation at large was the subject of a discussion with our trustees.  I would suggest that one of the most important changes that has taken place at each of these landmarks is that of attitude. Given a forward-looking vision and the permission to bring new ideas to the forefront, the staff and volunteer enthusiasm for “showing what you love” comes through in spades at each of these special places.  Our trustees and guests saw that on display all weekend.

Each of us can be a teacher.  And each of us can help others catch an enthusiastic attitude about the things we love.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

To Learn Something New (About Old Places), Bring in New Partners with Different Perspectives

Cooper-Molera Garden

Garden View at Cooper Molera prior to the beginning of rehabilitation (credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation)

At the National Trust for Historic Places, where I work, we believe that historic sites are fundamentally places of intersection. When we allow them to share their stories, historic sites are dynamic spaces where past, present, and future meet in a variety of ways.  One very important way they intersect is with community.

About ten days ago, I visited Cooper-Molera, one of our National Trust historic sites where delight and enjoyment are at the heart of our community intersections.  Cooper-Molera is a two and one-half acre property in the heart of downtown Monterey, California’s historic commercial district. There we are implementing a new model that combines commercial uses and interpretation in creative ways.  We will have a bakery, restaurant, and event center in adaptively used historic buildings operating in collaboration with museum uses in one of the adobe residences to reinvigorate the site, sustain it financially and engage audiences that might never visit a historic site or house museum. Those are the people we should all want to meet at this intersection.

We call this a shared use model for historic sites, because the commercial, for profit, museum, and nonprofit entities all share the same space and support each other.  This shared use model itself is an intersection with the local community, developed through intense engagement with local preservationists and long-time supporters of the site and with unexpected partners including a for-profit developer and community institutions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Rehab at Cooper-Molera

Rehabilitation and New Construction underway at Cooper-Molera

 

Rendering of Cooper-Molera as a shared use site

Rendering of Cooper-Molera as a shared use site

There is a great story that emerged from one of our recent conversations with a group of Latino leaders in Monterey.  The “Cooper” in Cooper-Molera was an American sea captain, John Cooper, who moved to Monterey when it was part of Mexico and developed a robust business as a trader and merchant.  In the past, we would have focused almost exclusively on his story and we were surprised when this focus group of Latino leaders said we should focus on it again as one of the main stories we tell.  But they had a different spin on it.

John Cooper, they reminded us, immigrated from the US to Mexico when he came to Monterey and he did so without papers—as an undocumented immigrant.  He came in search of economic prosperity, he converted to Catholicism and married a woman named Encarnación Vallejo, who was the sister of General Mariano Vallejo, arguably the most powerful man in Mexico at the time.  He and Encarnaciόn had children and in 1830, John Cooper became a naturalized citizen of Mexico. We’ve been telling this story for years, but never framed this way.  Our focus group urged us to tell this old story in a new way that would highlight its ironies in the current political climate, focus on the central role of Encarnaciόn de Vallejo Cooper, and allow Latino audiences multiple ways to see themselves in the history of this place.

As is true in so many aspects of life, we never fail to learn something new—in this case about old places—when we bring in partners with different perspectives.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

There is Nothing Like Paradox to Take the Scum Off Your Mind

Paradox

Paradox (photo credit: Brett Jordan from Byrdseed.com)

I’ve long been fascinated with paradox and its place in our understanding of the world around us.  When I recently heard historian Patty Limerick quote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as saying, “There is nothing like paradox to take the scum off your mind,” I sat up and paid attention.  That’s a more earthy way of phrasing the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote which I’ve often used:  “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Paradox is hard, but writer Anne Lamott asserts that “all truth is paradox.”  Life is a beautiful gift. At the same time it can be impossibly difficult. As the old Albert King blues song puts it, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

To keep from having to keep two opposing ideas in our head at the same time, we often find ourselves moving toward certainty.  Theologian Paul Tillich has described this challenge in the spiritual realm by saying that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.  Many of us are drawn to stories or perspectives or processes that provide us with a false sense of the truth.  Certainty—such as a historical narrative that fits our world view without accounting for a variety of perspectives or inconvenient facts—doesn’t force us to grapple with the paradox that is at the heart of so much in our lives.

Over my recent vacation, I listened to several podcasts and one in particular stuck with me.  It was a rebroadcast on “Freakonomics” of an interview with retiring Harvard President (and historian) Drew Gilpin Faust. One of her comments was noteworthy for its connection to the work my colleagues and I do at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and, I believe, to this question of paradox.  She said,

“Part of why I love history is it takes it outside ourselves and, at its best, enables us to look through other people’s eyes. That enables us to understand what’s contingent about our choices and our existence. We need to do that in our own time as well. We need to bridge beyond ourselves and take advantage of stories to serve as a road to other people, as a pathway to being able to look at the world through their eyes and to understand where they’re coming from, why they might differ with us on matters of policies or practice and have the stories empower us to be more than simply locked within our own selves. That seems to me an important part of what stories can do for us now.”

Understanding the rich, complex, layered stories that are told by the places we work to save at my organization—the National Trust for Historic Preservation—is hard.  That work of understanding often involves the consideration of opposing views.  But then we know that paradox is hard.

Embrace the paradox.

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB