Responding to Anger

Anger

Anger

Our recent national conversations too often seem soaked in anger. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t become angry.  It is a trait we all seem to share.  What differs is how we respond to anger:  our own and others.

Over the winter holiday, our family visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Last Friday, our divisional management team toured the Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit at the National Trust Historic Site Montpelier.  Both cultural institutions showcased the many ways a people oppressed have responded to anger held against them by others as well as that held inside themselves. While at Montpelier, I picked up Michael Eric Dyson’s book Tears We Cannot Stop, a powerful call for recognition and redemption which brims with this Baptist preacher’s righteous anger.

In her collection of essays No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters, Ursula K. Le Guin has a two-part piece on anger. The first half looks at public anger, while the second focuses on our private anger.  I thought of the first in the context of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and Dr. King’s nonviolent approach.  Dyson asserts — and King’s own writings demonstrate — that King’s teachings came from an anger against racism that never abated but which led to his life’s work against injustice.  Le Guin notes,

“Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger.  It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice….Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous.  Nursed for its own sake, valued as an end in itself, it loses its goal.  It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness.  Corrosive, it feeds off itself, destroying its host in the process.”

Mere Distinction of Colour

The Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit at James Madison’s Montpelier (photo credit: Montpelier Foundation)

Le Guin shifts from public anger, political anger, to a more personal experience.  And what she sees is troubling.

“…though I want to see myself as a woman of strong feeling but peaceable instincts, I have to realize how often anger fuels my acts and thoughts, how very often I indulge in anger….Certainly an outburst of anger can cleanse the soul and clear the air.  But anger nursed and nourished begins to act like anger suppressed: it begins to poison the air with vengefulness, spitefulness, distrust, breeding grudge and resentment, brooding endlessly over the causes of the grudge, the righteousness of the resentment.”

I think we have all seen this type of smoldering anger, and I would suggest it is what we are seeing in today’s national conversations.  Le Guin compares it to a weapon that we don’t know how to stop using.

“Perhaps the problem is this: when threatened, we pull out our weapon, anger.  Then the threat passes or evaporates.  But the weapon is still in our hand.  And weapons are seductive, even addictive; the promise to give us strength, security, dominance . . .

“Looking for positive sources or aspects of my own anger, I recognize one:  self-respect.  When slighted or patronized, I flare up in fury and attack, right then, right there.  I have no guilt about that.

“But then so often it turns out to have been a misunderstanding—the disrespect was not intended, or was mere clumsiness perceived as a slight.  And even if it was intended, so what?

“As my great-aunt Betsy said of a woman who snubbed her, ‘I pity her poor taste.’

“Mostly my anger is connected less with self-respect than with negatives: jealousy, hatred, fear….If I’m in an angry mood and aware of it, I can ask myself, So what is it you’re afraid of?  That gives me a place to look at my anger from.  Sometimes it helps get me into clearer air.”

That’s a lot to unpack and I recognize that much of the anger of the oppressed is the result of experiencing systemic discrimination, not mere slights over self-respect.  But with that caveat, this passage—and the entire essay—hit home with me.  Thinking about that dogged pursuit of justice in our public anger and the questioning of why we use anger as a weapon in our private lives are good places for me to reflect upon during this week when we celebrate the life of someone who moved beyond anger toward justice.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Of Love and Loss

It is a special mind that can take a sliver of historical fact and spin out an imaginative and totally unexpected tale of love and loss as intriguing and captivating as George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.

Lincoln in the Bardo

“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

In this at times perplexing yet ultimately satisfying novel, Saunders builds off the fact that in February 1862, just a year into the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie dies of typhoid fever.  It is known from contemporary accounts that the President went several evenings to stay in the crypt with his son’s body in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery.

Saunders takes that bit of knowledge and turns it into a rich story populated with dozens of spirits who reside in the Bardo, which is the Tibetan Buddhist name for a transition period between death and rebirth.  They are the primary narrators of Lincoln’s visit, which in Saunders’ telling occurs all in one night.  In the first half of the book, the supernatural narration goes on a bit too much, and some of it is superfluous to the story.  However, Lincoln’s grief, as seen by the spirits (especially those who inhabit him on occasion), is very real and brings the loss of his son…and all the other sons and daughters being killed as a result of the Civil War…into perspective.  Both President Lincoln and Willie, as well as the spirits, grapple with questions of love lost and how to move past that pain.

One of the things that makes this novel work are the intriguing characters. An elderly cleric plays a primary role as an observer — and explainer — of what is happening in the Bardo and why it matters to the souls of all involved. The New York Times reviewer noted:

“…(the voices of the supernatural) gain emotional momentum as the book progresses. And they lend the story a choral dimension that turns Lincoln’s personal grief into a meditation on the losses suffered by the nation during the Civil War, and the more universal heartbreak that is part of the human condition.

The ghosts are a motley lot, reminiscent of the dispossessed and disenfranchised characters in Saunders’s short stories. They include a soldier, a murderer, a disgraced clerk, a rape victim, a hunter who’s killed more than 30 bears and hundreds of deer, an aggrieved scholar, a mother of three girls, a young man who tried to kill himself after the man he loved spurned his affections, and an older man who was struck in the head by a falling ceiling beam and died before he could consummate his marriage to his pretty young wife.  Together, these voices create a kind of portrait of an American community — not unlike the one in Edgar Lee Masters’s 1915 classic, “Spoon River Anthology,” which was set in a fictionalized version of a small Illinois town.”

The perspectives of these spirits and of President Lincoln shine through in Saunders’ hands.  This is an introspective work that I found well worth the reading.  Recommended.

More to come…
DJB

Respect is a Decision

No Time to Spare

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin

We are heading into a season when generations will mix together with more frequency than they may at other times of the year (around a dining table for a holiday meal, for instance.)  While we interact with people of a variety of ages at work, the differences in generations are often much wider when we move outside the office. I was thinking of the clashes that often arise during these gatherings as I was reading a new book of essays by the science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin entitled No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters

Le Guin is 88 and, in this delightful and insightful book, she is not shy about saying she is old.  In fact, don’t suggest otherwise.  As she notes, “Encouragement by denial, however well-meaning, backfires.  Fear is seldom wise and never kind.  Who is it you’re cheering up, anyhow?  Is it really the geezer?”

But what got me to thinking about relationships between generations, and the importance respect plays in all of our dealings with each other, is when Le Guin states that kids “who haven’t lived with geezers don’t know what they are.”  They don’t see you.  And if generations do encounter each other, it is often with indifference, distrust, and animosity.  This is where the importance of respect comes into play.

Le Guin writes that showing respect is a decision, not an opinion.

“Respect has often been overenforced and almost universally misplaced (the poor must respect the rich, all women must respect all men, etc.). But when applied in moderation and with judgment, the social requirement of respectful behavior to others, by repressing aggression and requiring self-control, makes room for understanding.  It creates a space where appreciation and affection can grow.

Opinion all too often leaves no room for anything but itself.

People whose society doesn’t teach them respect for childhood are lucky if they learn to understand, or value, or even like their own children. Children who aren’t taught respect for old age are likely to fear it, and to discover understanding and affection for old people only by luck, by chance.

I think the tradition of respecting age in itself has some justification.  Just coping with daily life, doing stuff that was always so easy you didn’t notice it, gets harder in old age, till it may take real courage to do it at all.  Old age generally involves pain and danger and inevitably ends in death.  The acceptance of that takes courage.  Courage deserves respect.”

Respect for others can be hard, and it is often easy to only respect those who share our interests and opinions.  But I like Le Guin’s suggestion that respect “creates a space where appreciation and affection can grow.”

Ursula Le Guin photo by Eileen Gunn

Ursula K. Le Guin photo by Eileen Gunn

I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, however you chose to celebrate.  If we’re lucky, we’ll have kids, geezers, and everything in between together over the next two weeks sharing times of understanding, appreciation, and, yes, even affection.

More to come…

DJB

Perspective

The Invention of Nature

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

How we look at the things around us—our mental viewing of the interrelation of a specific subject or its parts—is critical to shaping our point of view.  I just finished a fascinating book, Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature:  Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, that tells the story of how one visionary and now oft-forgotten German naturalist changed the way we see the natural world.  His perspective was radically different than his scientific contemporaries of the late 18th and early 19th century because he conceived of nature as a complex and interconnected global force.  A force that did not exist for humans alone. He came to this conclusion after extensive and exhaustive research, observation, travel, and scholarship before he reached the age of 33.

Alexander von Humboldt’s visit to the inactive volcano Chimborazo in the Andes, made during a five-year journey to South America at the beginning of the 19th century, led him to take all this knowledge and this new point of view and express it in one drawing:  his Naturgemälde (which Wulf describes as an untranslatable German term than can mean a “painting of nature” but which also implies a sense of unity or wholeness.)  That new perspective—and the scores of books he wrote over his 89 years—led Humboldt to become the most famous scientist of his age, influencing individuals as wide ranging as Goethe, Wordsworth, Thomas Jefferson, Darwin, Thoreau, the artist Ernst Haeckel, and the environmentalists John Muir, and Rachel Carson.  On the 100th anniversary of  his birth in 1869, celebrations were held all across the globe, including in most major U.S. cities. (25,000 gathered in New York City alone and President Grant led the celebration in Philadelphia.) Humboldt is honored with more place names around the world than any other individual in history.  Little did I know until I looked it up that little Humboldt, Tennessee—near my hometown—was named for a German naturalist whose work predated and in many ways envisioned Darwin’s theory of evolution, identified man-made climate change as a serious issue, and called for environmental protection decades before John Muir.

Naturgemalde

Alexander von Humboldt’s Naturgemalde

Humboldt embraced observation.  It changed his perspective and he was able to change the world.  When he died, a contemporary called him “the greatest man since the Deluge.”

This story about observation and perspective reminded me of a wonderful line in the Holly Morris film The Babushkas of ChernobylHolly was a TrustLive speaker at our recent PastForward conference in Chicago, where she told the story of these babushkas (or grandmothers) who came back to their homes following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and have now outlived their contemporaries who were evacuated.  There is one scene where one of the ladies (and I’m paraphrasing here) said, “When some people come to a puddle, all they see is the puddle.  Others look down and just see themselves.  And others look down and see the sky.”  I love that line.  My perspective is that when you can see beyond the problem (the puddle) or yourself, you can see the world, its connections, and its possibilities.

How we observe our world and how we choose to connect the parts of what we see is so important to every part of our lives.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Telling the Full Story

The Half Has Never Been Told

“The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward E. Baptist

For whatever reason, I’ve been plowing through books this fall.  Perhaps that is what a great deal of time on planes and trains does for one’s reading habits.  In any event, this has been my first chance to stop and reflect on these recent readings for the blog, so I’m seizing the moment.

One of the two I’ve included here is a very important work, significantly moving the scholarship forward in its field.  The other is a small, family story that nonetheless captures the heart as it tells of a charming, privileged woman who struggled to live as a lesbian in the South of the jazz age.  Both, now a couple of years old, are recommended.

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told:  Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is a troubling and ultimately persuasive 2014 book by historian Edward E. Baptist.  In this ambitious work, Baptist sets out to to demonstrate, in great detail, that slavery was not the pre-modern institution on the verge of extinction with paternalistic slave-owners as claimed by so many historians and southern apologists alike.  Instead, in the eight decades prior to the Civil War, slavery expanded into a continental cotton empire that “drove the evolution and modernization of the United States.”  Baptist writes that “the 3.2 million people enslaved in the United States had a market value of $1.3 billion in 1850—one-fifth of the nation’s wealth and almost equal to the entire gross national product.”  This empire and wealth, Baptists asserts, was the reason the U.S. grew into a modern industrial and capitalist economy.

Cotton Fields

A View of the Cotton Empire

While some of Baptist’s techniques (such as naming chapters for different parts of the body) are not successful in and of themselves, the work as a whole is very persuasive and unsettling.  He describes a system that is very efficient at sorting out slaves to get those who are most productive, and the brutality that made that efficiency possible.  Not one to mince words, Baptist names the violence that led to increased productivity “the whipping machine.”  When, in the 1830s, the term “fancy girl” began to appear in descriptions of young women who fetched high prices because of their physical attractiveness, Baptist writes that “Slavery’s frontier was a white man’s sexual playground.” His clear writing and extensive documentation takes the reader into the many horrors of the slave system in the United States. To Baptist, this was out-and-out torture.  However,

“Perhaps one unspoken reason why many have been so reluctant to apply the term ‘torture’ to slavery is that even though they denied slavery’s economic dynamism, they knew that slavery on the cotton frontier made a lot of product.  No one was willing, in other words, to admit that they lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture.”

Writing about the book in the New York Times, Pulitzer prize winning historian Eric Foner says,

“It is hardly a secret that slavery is deeply embedded in our nation’s history. But many Americans still see it as essentially a footnote, an exception to a dominant narrative of the expansion of liberty on this continent. If the various elements of ‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ are not entirely pulled together, its underlying argument is persuasive: Slavery was essential to American development and, indeed, to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.”

To understand the many challenges we face today as a nation, one could do much worse than to add Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told to your nightstand reading pile.

Irrepressible

“Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham” by Emily Bingham

A much-less ambitious work, Emily Bingham’s Irrepressible:  The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham is nonetheless a worthy read.  I learned of this book while meeting the author in her home in Louisville.  (Full disclosure, I have known and worked with Emily’s mother Edie on preservation projects for decades.)

Henrietta was Emily’s great-aunt, and was born into Southern privilege at the beginning of the 20th century.  As the author notes in the prologue, “The surest way to make a child curious about an ancestor is never to discuss her.”  It wasn’t until Emily and her husband named their newborn daughter for her great-aunt did family members come forward with stories of embarrassment, but also remembrances and photographs—especially of the early Henrietta—that spoke of a remarkable, unconventional, and ultimately tragic life lived by someone who dared to push the norms of Southern (certainly) and even American life.

Henrietta’s story really begins when—at age twelve—her mother dies in a horrific train and automobile accident that she witnesses.  Three years later her father marries the richest woman in America, the widow of Henry M. Flagler, the Standard Oil baron and Palm Beach developer, who—as explained by the New York Times reviewer—”promptly died under murky, Michael Jacksonesque circumstances involving a shady doctor and copious narcotics. ‘Bing’ later bought The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times, jump-starting the family’s media empire.”

Emily Bingham then unfolds a story of a woman of enormous wealth who “spent much of her twenties and thirties ripping through the Jazz Age like a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.”

“There were parties, music, great quantities of alcohol, and, on both sides of the Atlantic, lovers—lots of them, men and women, but far more women than men.  In Henrietta’s time that took courage.  Later there would be mental breakdowns, scandals, and a decline no one talked about.”

Sometimes it is hard to keep up with Henrietta’s affairs recounted in Irrepressible, but it is clear that while she had some famous male lovers, including the producer and actor John Houseman, she loved women far more — the tennis star Helen Jacobs (described as the Martina Navratilova of the 1930s), her Smith professor Mina Kirstein, the painter Dora Carrington, and the actress Hope Williams.  While she did serve, essentially, as her father’s social secretary when he was ambassador to the United Kingdom in F.D.R.’s first term, Henrietta lived quite independently and well on her father’s money.

The early flings are interesting prelude to the long affair with Jacobs.  One gets the sense that in today’s world, Henrietta Bingham and Jacobs would have settled down and lived normal—for wealthy and famous individuals—lives.  But that wasn’t possible in the South, especially after World War II and the coming of the repressive McCarthy era.  So Henrietta turned even more to alcohol to push away the world which would not let her love the person (or people) she clearly cared for the most.

Having grown up in the South, I have seen older gays and lesbians who have struggled—with varying degrees of success—through the challenges of navigating Southern mores about sexuality, religion, family, propriety, hierarchy, judgement, and gender in an age before Civil Rights and sexual freedoms.  It is a very sad story that was all too familiar for beloved professors, musicians, offspring of the town’s patriarchs, and more.  So while Henrietta Bingham did not, in the end, change much in her world, the way that world ultimately changed her is a story worth hearing. When we force people to live according to our precepts, judging them to satisfy our interpretations of values, both those who are repressed and those who administer the acceptable code of conduct, suffer in the end.

More to come…

DJB

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

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