On Forgetting Old Students

Jude looks up his old teacher Philottson

Jude looks up his old teacher Philottson


Classes begin today and I will am certain to undergo an embarrassment that occurs every semester: I will fail to remember the names of certain former students, including students that I taught last semester.

It’s become so predictable that I now warn my classes that it will happen. “Just give me a couple of hints and you will come flooding back to me,” I tell them. Sometimes the hint I need is the essay that they wrote for me, which I can often remember in meticulous detail. Faces and names, unfortunately, are a different matter.

Therefore, I found myself empathizing with Phillotson, Jude’s old teacher in the Thomas Hardy novel, when Jude looks him up years later. Jude only had a few night classes with this teacher, yet Phillotson lit a divine spark within the boy. Here’s the scene of their separation:

“I shan’t forget you, Jude,” he said, smiling, as the cart moved off. “Be a good boy, remember; and be kind to animals and birds, and read all you can. And if ever you come to Christminster remember you hunt me out for old acquaintance’ sake.”

And now here’s their encounter some 20 or so years later when Jude does in fact hunt him out:

“I don’t remember you in the least,” said the school-master thoughtfully. “You were one of my pupils, you say? Yes, no doubt; but they number so many thousands by this time of my life, and have naturally changed so much, that I remember very few except the quite recent ones.”

“It was out at Marygreen,” said Jude, wishing he had not come.

“Yes. I was there a short time.” 

Jude and Phillotson go on to become adult friends and then rivals, but the old teacher can never fully appreciate how large he loomed in Jude’s young life.

But that’s okay. Teaching is such a hit and miss operation that we never know who we are touching and who escapes unscathed. Teachers are a bit like Queequag in Moby Dick, who constructs the coffin that eventually, as a life buoy, saves Ishmael. We don’t know what impact our teaching will have—it sometimes feels like we are throwing a box randomly into the sea—but it means everything to the person who grasps hold of it.

What we can do is make every effort to reach out to our students. Then, regardless of whether we remember them or not, we won’t be surprised to learn that we made a difference in their lives.

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When Christianity Becomes a Money Cult

The Money Cult

Spiritual Sunday

Last week I listened to a fascinating Sam Seder interview (on The Majority Report) with Chris Lehmann, author of a new work entitled The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (2016). In his book Lehmann seeks to explain how it is that certain Christian denominations are embracing capitalism and singing the praises of wealthy people such as Donald Trump, despite Jesus’s admonitions about the money changers, the eye of the needle, the rich man in hell, “render unto Caesar,” “the last shall be first,” etc.

Among other things, Lehman has an explanation for the apparent hypocrisy that enrages Howard Nemerov in his poem “Boom!” It’s not hypocrisy, he says, but something more complicated, albeit still disturbing.

Lehmann sees himself building on the work on Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which he says needs updating and revising in light of how “prosperity theology” has flourished in America. Weber believed that 17th century Calvinists, with their belief in predestination, strove for material success to reassure themselves that they were amongst the elect and not the damned. This isn’t logical—if one’s fate is already decided, one can’t alter it—but it makes psychological sense. It’s human nature to want to tilt the playing field.

In his groundbreaking Rise of the Novel (1957), Ian Watt made a powerful case that Puritan uncertainty led to the British novel. Figures like Daniel Defoe scrutinized their lives meticulously for signs that they were amongst the elect, and their detailed journals morphed into novels. Think of Robinson Crusoe, for instance, whose constant fears about damnation lead to intense self-examination and incessant work. The result is a transformed island.

The old view of the American Puritans—that their faith declined with the material success of the republic—is wrong, Lehman says. Instead of American religion becoming secularized, he asserts that “the market was sanctified.” This continues on today and America remains a very religious nation. Even though church attendance has declined in the mainline denominations, the pews are full in the giant megachurches that preach a “theology of abundance.”

In these churches, the “frank celebration of wealth” has become a spiritual virtue. Those who attend these churches are charged to envision their “materially striving selves” as “their better spiritual selves.”

Lehmann says that this tendency has always present in certain strains of American Christianity. He particularly singles out Mormonism and American Gnosticism. The latter, which Harold Bloom has described as America’s major contribution to Christianity, preaches “a highly distilled and militantly individualistic version of the solitary Puritan encounter with the divine.” Seeing the individual soul as “tragically marooned in an alien and fallen created world,” American Gnostics

elevate themselves above the grubby demands of merely social existence, preferring to project their cosmic identities into a drama of redemption beyond history, in which they are reunited with the true, transcendent, and hidden God who authored their heroic destiny.

Lehmann notes that such a vision leads easily to “the Narcissistic Personality” and self-infatuation and allows “all manner of cultural evasions of unpleasant facts, from the cult of the redeemer nation to the smiling assurances of the prosperity gospel.” He describes the results as a money cult:

What sets the Money Cult apart is how closely the content of this potent American offshoot of Protestant faith now mirrors so many of the baseline assumptions of consumer capitalism. In this curious vision of a world turned upside down, America’s long-standing quest for the purified and restored version of true primitive Christian worship has produced the hulking megachurch and the spectacle-driven piety of the televangelist age. The social ethic of the New Testament–under which the poor were the true heirs to the planet, and early Christians held all property in common–has morphed into the prosperity gospel, which deems worldly success a direct sign of divine favor, and translates the ministry of Jesus into a battery of business stratagems and motivational slogans.


Today’s meritocrats insist with their own religious fervor that material reward gravitates naturally, by dint of a self-evidently benign spiritual force, to the most deserving most talented, and best-educated class of achievers, who have stayed faithfully attuned to the market’s higher dictates.

So Nemerov was responding to something deep in the American psyche after reading an Associated Press article about President Eisenhower’s pastor linking wealth and spirituality. I love where the poet compares backyard barbecues to burnt offerings and wonder whether he has in mind Jeremiah 6:20: “Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me” (6:20). After all, he sounds at times like he’s channeling the prophet:


By Howard Nemerov


Atlantic City, June 23, 1957 (AP) –President Eisenhower’s pastor said tonight that Americans are living in a period of “unprecedented religious activity” caused partially by paid vacations, the eight-hour day and modern conveniences.”

These fruits of material progress,” said the Rev. Edward L. R. Elson of the National Presbyterian Church, Washington, “have provided the leisure, the energy, and the means for a level of human and spiritual values never before reached.”

Here at the Vespasian-Carlton, it’s just one
religious activity after another: the sky
is constantly being crossed by cruciform
airplanes, in which nobody disbelieves
for a second, and the tide, the tide
of spiritual progress and prosperity
miraculously keeps rising, to a level
never before attained. The churches are full,
the beaches are full, and the filling-stations
are full, God’s great ocean is full
of paid vacationers praying an eight-hour day
to the human spiritual values, the fruits,
the leisure, the energy, and the means, Lord,
the means for the level, the unprecedented level,
and the modern conveniences, which also are full.
Never before, O Lord, have the prayers and praises
from belfry and phonebooth, from ballpark and barbecue
the sacrifices, so endlessly ascended.

It was not thus when Job in Palestine
sat in the dust and cried, cried bitterly;
When Damien kissed the lepers on their wounds
it was not thus; it was not thus
when Francis worked a fourteen-hour day
strictly for the birds; when Dante took
a week’s vacation without pay and it rained
part of the time, O Lord, it was not thus.

But now the gears mesh and the tires burn
and the ice chatters in the shaker and the priest
in the pulpit, and Thy Name, O Lord,
is kept before the public, while the fruits
ripen and religion booms and the level rises
and every modern convenience runneth over,
that it may never be with us as it hath been
with Athens and Karnak and Nagasaki,
nor Thy sun for one instant refrain from shining
on the rainbow Buick by the breezeway
or the Chris Craft with the uplift life raft;
that we may continue to be the just folks we are,
plain people with ordinary superliners and
disposable diaperliners, people of the stop’n’shop
‘n’pray as you go, of hotel, motel, boatel,
the humble pilgrims of no deposit no return
and please adjust thy clothing, who will give to Thee,
if Thee will keep us going, our annual
Miss Universe, for Thy Name’s Sake, Amen.

Are you feeling as spiritually clogged as I am by this accumulation of material things and in need of some purifying fire. I turn again for aid to Dinah Morris, the preacher from George Eliot’s Adam Bede that I quoted last week. I didn’t get into the tough love part of her sermon in that post but, with Lehmann and Nemerov showing how we are twisting the Gospel, I feel the need for it now. Dinah, earnest soul that she is, has none of Nemerov’s cosmopolitan irony but gives the message to us straight:

“See!” she exclaimed, turning to the left, with her eyes fixed on a point above the heads of the people. “See where our blessed Lord stands and weeps and stretches out his arms towards you. Hear what he says: ‘How often would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!’…and ye would not,” she repeated, in a tone of pleading reproach, turning her eyes on the people again. “See the print of the nails on his dear hands and feet. It is your sins that made them! Ah! How pale and worn he looks! He has gone through all that great agony in the garden, when his soul was exceeding sorrowful even unto death, and the great drops of sweat fell like blood to the ground. They spat upon him and buffeted him, they scourged him, they mocked him, they laid the heavy cross on his bruised shoulders. Then they nailed him up. Ah, what pain! His lips are parched with thirst, and they mock him still in this great agony; yet with those parched lips he prays for them, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Then a horror of great darkness fell upon him, and he felt what sinners feel when they are for ever shut out from God. That was the last drop in the cup of bitterness. ‘My God, my God!’ he cries, ‘why hast Thou forsaken me?’

“All this he bore for you! For you—and you never think of him; for you—and you turn your backs on him; you don’t care what he has gone through for you. Yet he is not weary of toiling for you: he has risen from the dead, he is praying for you at the right hand of God—’Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And he is upon this earth too; he is among us; he is there close to you now; I see his wounded body and his look of love.”

Then, focusing on the jewelry worn by one of her women listeners, she launches into an attack on vanity and consumption:

“Ah, poor blind child!” Dinah went on, “think if it should happen to you as it once happened to a servant of God in the days of her vanity. SHE thought of her lace caps and saved all her money to buy ’em; she thought nothing about how she might get a clean heart and a right spirit—she only wanted to have better lace than other girls. And one day when she put her new cap on and looked in the glass, she saw a bleeding Face crowned with thorns. That face is looking at you now”—here Dinah pointed to a spot close in front of Bessy—”Ah, tear off those follies! Cast them away from you, as if they were stinging adders. They ARE stinging you—they are poisoning your soul—they are dragging you down into a dark bottomless pit, where you will sink for ever, and for ever, and for ever, further away from light and God.”

Unlike the proponents of prosperity theology, Dinah does not see poverty as evidence that we are spiritual failures:

“Dear friends,” she said at last, “brothers and sisters, whom I love as those for whom my Lord has died, believe me, I know what this great blessedness is; and because I know it, I want you to have it too. I am poor, like you: I have to get my living with my hands; but no lord nor lady can be so happy as me, if they haven’t got the love of God in their souls. Think what it is—not to hate anything but sin; to be full of love to every creature; to be frightened at nothing; to be sure that all things will turn to good; not to mind pain, because it is our Father’s will; to know that nothing—no, not if the earth was to be burnt up, or the waters come and drown us—nothing could part us from God who loves us, and who fills our souls with peace and joy, because we are sure that whatever he wills is holy, just, and good.

“Dear friends, come and take this blessedness; it is offered to you; it is the good news that Jesus came to preach to the poor. It is not like the riches of this world, so that the more one gets the less the rest can have. God is without end; his love is without end—”

     Its streams the whole creation reach,
     So plenteous is the store;
     Enough for all, enough for each,
     Enough for evermore.

Riches are finite, God’s love in infinite. We need to remember that.

Further thought: I’ve written more positively about American Gnosticism in a previous post about Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver, both of whom I see working within the tradition. As with most traditions, there is a light and a dark side.

I remember my dissertation advisor, J. Paul Hunter, warning about the dark side–the danger of solipsism–when he talked about Robinson Crusoe. When Crusoe thinks that earthquakes are sent from God to deliver a message to him, he is putting himself at the center of the universe. It’s interesting how Crusoe doesn’t seem to need other people whereas, in real life, a man stranded on a desert island by himself for 18 years would go mad. In America’s case, too much focus on the self  undermines the community.

Posted in Defoe (Daniel), Eliot (George), Nemerov (Howard) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Walmart Practices a Tom Sawyer Economy

Norman Rockwell, "Tom Sawyer"

Norman Rockwell, “Tom Sawyer”


Thanks to Tom Sullivan over at the Hullabaloo blog, I have a new way of seeing Walmart’s business practices. Because of the way the retail giant gets taxpayers to support its workforce, it can be described as practicing a “Tom Sawyer economy.” I have in mind, of course, the famous scene where Tom gets the other boys to whitewash his fence for him.

Sullivan quotes a Forbes article on how Walmart gets society to cover its costs:

Walmart’s low-wage workers cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing, according to a report published to coincide with Tax Day, April 15.

Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of 400 national and state-level progressive groups, made this estimate using data from a 2013 study by Democratic Staff of the U.S. Committee on Education and the Workforce.

“The study estimated the cost to Wisconsin’s taxpayers of Walmart’s low wages and benefits, which often force workers to rely on various public assistance programs,” reads the report, available in full here.

“It found that a single Walmart Supercenter cost taxpayers between $904,542 and $1.75 million per year, or between $3,015 and $5,815 on average for each of 300 workers.”

Sullivan notes that Walmart has also externalized the cost of theft prevention. It has an out-of-control theft problem, but rather than hire more people to watch over its items, it relies on the police. As a result, police forces around Wamarts often find themselves pushed to the limits. Shannon Pettypiece of Bloomberg Business Week told NPR about her interviews with various police forces:

“The constant calls from Walmart are just draining,” says Bill Ferguson, a police captain in Port Richey, Fla. “They recognize the problem and refuse to do anything about it.”

Pettypiece added,

Walmart says they’re trying to do things like put more employees at the door. They’ve been trying to invest in theft prevention technology, devices they can put on merchandise or more, you know, visible security monitors. The police complaint is that they’re not moving fast enough, and they’re not moving far enough.

And I talked to one retail analyst who thinks Walmart needs to add an extra quarter million part-time employees in its stores to really have the employee presence out on the floor that would deter theft. And for Walmart, that’s going to cost them billions of dollars to fix this problem like some people would like to see.

If this is a Tom Sawyer economy and Walmart is Tom, then we taxpayers are Ben Rogers and the other suckers. Ben is the first to see Tom at work and is astounded at what he sees:

“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth—stepped back to note the effect—added a touch here and there—criticized the effect again—Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

Tom considered, was about to consent; but he altered his mind:

“No—no—I reckon it wouldn’t hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly’s awful particular about this fence—right here on the street, you know—but if it was the back fence I wouldn’t mind and she wouldn’t. Yes, she’s awful particular about this fence; it’s got to be done very careful; I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it’s got to be done.”

“No—is that so? Oh come, now—lemme just try. Only just a little—I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”

“Ben, I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly—well, Jim wanted to do it, but she wouldn’t let him; Sid wanted to do it, and she wouldn’t let Sid. Now don’t you see how I’m fixed? If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it—”

“Oh, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say—I’ll give you the core of my apple.”

“Well, here—No, Ben, now don’t. I’m afeard—”

“I’ll give you all of it!”

Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart. And while the late steamer Big Missouri worked and sweated in the sun, the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash. By the time Ben was fagged out, Tom had traded the next chance to Billy Fisher for a kite, in good repair; and when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to swing it with—and so on, and so on, hour after hour. And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth. He had besides the things before mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar—but no dog—the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.

Come to think of it, this captures how, time and again, many state and local governments give corporations large tax breaks to locate there. The companies devour the apple and pocket the goodies as we whitewash their fence–which is to say, construct infrastructure, provide services, and staff schools. They show little gratitude for these amenities, however, and depart as soon as they find a sweeter deal elsewhere. We, meanwhile, are left with weather-beaten boards and unemployed whitewashers.

Of course, we could force companies to pay their way and to return the tax monies if they up and leave. Guess which of our two political parties would like to see that happen.

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Welcome Class of 2020 (and Others)

The tower of Michel de Montaigne

The tower of Michel de Montaigne

Letter to an Entering College Class:

As you prepare to enter into the classes, the residence hall life and social life, the activities, the sports teams, and the other opportunities that St. Mary’s College of Maryland offers, it’s useful to look at the university ideal and why colleges are set up as they are.

I could go back to Plato’s Academy, founded 2500 years ago, but I’m going to focus instead on the chateau of Michel de Montaigne, the 17th century French writer famous for his reflective essays. Montaigne was an active military man, but at a certain point he retired from the service and withdrew into a tower that housed his library. While there he reflected upon the world, writing essays about everything from revenge to sexual impotence to his cat. His “essais,” loosely translated as “attempts,” changed the way we see writing.

The idea of college as a safe place to reflect upon the world continues today. In our case, college is a bucolic retreat, a school set in a beautiful natural setting where one can escape from what William Wordsworth described as “the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world.” We seek to offer you a congenial space where you can engage in higher order thinking.

But that being said, it is also true that the so-called “real world,” with all its problems, can’t be entirely shut out. This invariably comes as a shock to us. After all, weren’t we promised a safe space?

Fortunately, St. Mary’s offers you intellectual tools for understanding what the world is as it is. In your history classes you will study instances of conflict throughout the ages.  In your psychology classes you will study why people behave the way they do. In your sociology and anthropology classes you will study why societies are constructed as they are. In your biology classes you will study genetic imperatives. In your Cultural Perspectives classes you will study how cultures very different from your own operate.       

And that’s not all. In “the St. Mary’s Way” we have a code that calls upon us to respect and listen—really listen—to each other.

To be sure, we don’t always live up to our ideals. After all, we ourselves come from this real world and bring with us many of its anxieties, fears, insecurities, and prejudices. That’s only to be expected. But because we have these ideals, we have a framework for working through our issues.

Someone who speaks powerfully to this matter is Lucille Clifton, whose poems you have undoubtedly seen as you’ve walked around campus. Lucille, as we all called her, taught at St. Mary’s for almost twenty years, and she has long been one of America’s most beloved poets. This is in large part because she sympathizes with people going through tough times. Clifton has poems that help large women feel better about their big hips, abuse victims better about their bodies, and women in general feel better about biologically induced mood swings. People of color experiencing racist attacks have found solace in Lucille’s poetry, and she has also helped us experience the perspective of autistic children. Lucille’s poems have appeared on California billboards and New York subway trains to sustain people.

Lucille understood that honest conversations, difficult though they are, in the end make us better able to create a world that will honor us all. Once we step beyond our fear and our anger, we begin to see the full potential of each human being. At that point, we can begin looking for ways to support him or her.

St. Mary’s can’t entirely build a Montaigne tower to protect you from this world. Even though we have a requirement—Experiencing the Liberal Arts in the World—that is designed to alert you to how you can apply your training to the outside world, and even though we have an active Career Center to help you transition into that world, ultimately there will be shocks along the way. The world is a challenging environment.

Our role is to give you the tools you need to develop your own ways of understanding it and finding your way through it. You will “learn how to learn,” and we will also provide opportunities for you to practice what you are learning in a variety of situations, whether in a class, a student organization, or just a casual lunchroom conversation. If you add these to your life’s toolkit, you’ll be okay.

Posted in Clifton (Lucille), Montaigne (Michel de), Wordsworth (William) | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Teachers, Don’t Nip Their Buds

Vincent van Gogh, "The Schoolboy (Camille Roulin)," 1888

Vincent van Gogh, “The Schoolboy (Camille Roulin),” 1888


The children and teachers in our Maryland county public schools started school yesterday so here’s a William Blake poem to mark the occasion. Think of it as a protest against bad schooling rather than against all schooling. After all, education at its best taps into our natural love of learning and enlivens rather than deadens. A good teacher is worth his or her weight in gold.

Blake, however, saw many M’Choakumchilds (to borrow the figure from Dickens’s Hard Times), which is why he inveighs against people and systems that nip young buds before they can blossom. “The Schoolboy” appears in Songs of Experience and shares themes with “The Chimney Sweeper” (“They clothed me in the clothes of death,/And taught me to sing the notes of woe”) and “The Garden of Love” (“And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, /And binding with briars my joys and desires”). The image of the bird in the case, meanwhile, shows up in “Proverbs of Hell”: “A Robin Redbreast in a Cage/Puts all Heaven in a Rage.”

May all of us who are teachers keep our eyes on the prize–which is to nourish young people.

The Schoolboy

By William Blake

I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me:
O what sweet company!

But to go to school in a summer morn, —
O it drives all joy away!
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.

Ah then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning’s bower,
Worn through with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring!

O father and mother if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care’s dismay, —

How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?

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Lochte, White Privilege, & the Giving Tree

The Giving Tree


I’ve never liked Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, where a tree takes masochistic delight in her lifelong devotion to a boy who, when he becomes a man, exploits her and ultimately reduces her to a stump. A classic enabler, she is “happy” regardless of what he does to her. Having read the story meant that I could appreciate a recent Alexandra Petri column in The Washington Post. Petri sees a version of the man in Ryan Lochte, the American gold medal swimmer who played to the hilt the role of the ugly American in the Brazil Olympics. She also applies the story to Brock Turner.

As you probably know, Lochte vandalized a gas station bathroom, which drew the attention of the police. He later claimed that he had been robbed at gunpoint, but the story fell apart fairly quickly and something resembling the truth came out. Brazil, which is fighting against Western stereotypes, was offended, and the whole affair left a stain on what was otherwise a stellar U.S. performance in this year’s games.

For his part, Turner sexually assaulted an unconscious woman but received a six month sentence because the judge felt sorry for him. Many observed that he would have received a harsher sentence had he been poor or a person of color.

Petri titles her column “Ryan Lochte and the Privilege Tree.” In her version of the parable, Lochte commits one outrage after another but is always protected by his privilege. She makes clear how, if he were black, he would not receive such a tolerant reception. Here’s a sampling. The gun incident, of course, is an allusion to Tamir Rice, the Cleveland 12-year-old who was shot by police while playing with a toy gun:

One day the boy was hungry. “Tree,” said the boy, “I am hungry.”

“I know what to do,” the tree said. “Go to the corner store and steal some candy and run back here to me.”

And the boy did. He filled his pockets with candy and ran back to the tree as quickly as he could. The man who owned the store chased after him, but when he saw the boy beneath his tree he shrugged and said, “Boys will be boys.” And there were no consequences, and the tree protected him, and the theft did not go on his permanent record. (For, after all, he was just a boy.)

The boy grew older. “Tree,” said the boy one day, “I am bored.”

“I know what to do,” the tree said. “Pluck one of my branches and carve it into a toy gun and wave it around. That will amuse you.”

And the boy did. And the tree sheltered him under its thick leafy canopy of privilege and everyone who saw him shrugged and said, “Boys will be boys.” And there were no consequences, and the tree protected him, and no one even thought to telephone the police. (For, after all, he was just a boy.)

Petri’s story concludes with the ending of white privilege, which forces Lochte to face up to consequences:

And the boy grew very old and so did the tree. One day the boy heard his tree creaking in the wind.

“What is the matter, tree?” the boy asked. “Are you all right?”

“No,” the tree said, and shivered. “I am not. Trees like me should be for children, not grown men. Look.” And the tree pointed, and the boy saw for the first time that there were not many trees like his still standing. “I ought to have been cut down long ago.”

“Cut down?” the boy asked, and for the first time in his life the boy was frightened. “But then what will happen to me if I do something wrong?”

The tree shrugged. “The same thing that happens to everyone else,” it said. And the tree groaned and fell.

And the boy saw that the world was not quite so wonderful when you could not shelter anywhere better than a Reasonable Doubt Shrub (which is nice, but nothing like a Privilege Tree). And the boy saw that it was not he who was wonderful, but his tree, which had protected him for so long, without his realizing it. And the boy, at last, grew up.

Some say.

I believe that Trumpism and the rise of the extreme right are, above all, the result of a white temper tantrum over the browning of America. Petri points out that white privilege may not be around too much longer to protect those who have long taken advantage of it.

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Our Stoned Girls and Boys

The Opioid Epidemic


Like many Americans, I have been dismayed by reports of the opioid epidemic that is breaking out across the country, often in rural areas. As the Department of Health and Human Services reports,

More people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any year on record. The majority of drug overdose deaths (more than six out of ten) involve an opioid. And since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin) nearly quadrupled. From 2000 to 2014 nearly half a million people died from drug overdoses. 78 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

It’s hard to believe that the situation is worse even than it was in the early 1990s, when the problem was associated with urban communities. At the time, Lucille Clifton wrote a couple of powerful poems about how drugs were taking over the lives of young black men and women.

Clifton is appalled at how a people that survived slavery and Jim Crow segregation would fall prey to opiates. Both “memo” and “white lady” play with that irony.

In “memo,” addressed to famed Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer (who founded the Mississippi Peace and Freedom Party), she contrasts images of rock solidity (“a wall in the hall of justice,” “a brick building a Mississippi/building freedom/into a party”) with images of cold and inert rocks (“stoned girls and boys”):


               to fannie lou hamer

fannie for this
you never walked
miles through the mud
to register the vote
not for this
fannie did you stand
a wall in the hall
of justice not for these
stoned girls and boys
were you a brick
building a Mississippi
building freedom
into a party not
this party fannie
where they lie eyes
cold and round as death
doing to us what even
slavery couldn’t

In “white lady,” meanwhile, Clifton invokes segregated society’s deepest taboo—young black men desiring white women—to describe the seductive lure of cocaine. This attraction, she says, will chain our sons “in the basement of the big house” (prison) while walking “our daughters out into the streets” (as prostitutes looking for a fix).

A deeply committed mother, Clifton says she is willing to do anything and pay any price to get these children back. African Americans have paid and paid, the way that free Blacks in slave times would sometimes buy their relatives, yet still find that they owe more. The poet wonders if the debt will ever be cleared:

white lady

(a street name for cocaine)

wants my son
wants my niece
wants josie’s daughter
holds them hard
and close as slavery
what will it cost
to keep our children
what will it cost
to buy them back.

white lady
says i want you
let me be your lover
run me through your
feel me smell me taste me
love me
nobody understands you like
white lady

white lady
you have chained our sons
in the basement
of the big house

white lady
you have walked our daughters
out into the streets

white lady
what do we have to pay
to repossess our children

white lady
what do we have to owe
to own our own at last

Today it isn’t only African Americans who are asking this question.

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Kranz & Muriel Spark on Insulting the Aged

Young lady or old woman?

Young lady or old woman?


My novelist friend Rachel Kranz is currently visiting me, which means that we are having long conversations about the impact of literature on readers’ lives. Rachel, who in addition to being a writer is a 61-year-old poker player, alerted me to her latest post on her Adventures in Poker blog about what it means to be addressed as “young lady” at the poker table.

The post, Rachel says, was inspired by a passage from Muriel Spark’s lacerating novel Memento Mori, which centers on a group of elderly women confined to a government nursing home in postwar England.  You can predict how Rachel feels about the “young lady” appellation once you know the plot of the book. Miss Taylor, a dignified and intelligent woman who can’t live on her own any longer because of her health problems, must submit to the humiliating routine of the home, in which every patient is called “Granny” rather than the more dignified “Miss” or “Mrs.” Just because they are called “Granny,” however, doesn’t mean that the patients are accorded special respect. Instead, they are treated like children, called “girl,” and patronizingly told how young they look:

I share Rachel’s post below but first here’s a passage from Memento Mori to give you a taste of the indignities that the patients undergo:

A year ago, when admitted to the ward, she had suffered misery when addressed as Granny Taylor, and she thought she would rather die in a ditch than be kept alive under such conditions. But she was a woman practiced in restraint; she never displayed her resentment. The lacerating familiarity of the nurses’ treatment merged in with her arthritis, and she bore them both as long as she could without complaint. Then she was forced to cry out with pain during a long haunted night when the dim ward lamp made the beds into grey-white lumps like terrible bundles of laundry which muttered and snored occasionally. A nurse brought an injection.

            “You’ll be better now, Granny Taylor.”

            “Thank you, nurse.”

            “Turn over, Granny, that’s a good girl.”

            “Very well, nurse.”

            The arthritic pain subsided, leaving the pain of desolate humiliation, so that she wished rather to endure the physical nagging again. . . .

            Miss Taylor spent much time considering her position. The doctor’s “Well, how’s Granny Taylor this morning? Have you been making your last will and test—“ would falter when he saw her eyes, the intelligence. She could not help hating these visits and the nurses giving her a hair-do, telling her she looked like sixteen. . .

And now for Rachel’s post:

Young Lady and the Cool Kids: Insults Disguised as Pleasantries

By Rachel Kranz

Travel back in time a few weeks with me…

“Hello, young lady!” the dealer sings out to me.

He’s an elegant African-American man, probably in his early sixties, who approaches our table with a flair that makes me think of New Orleans—theatrical, authoritative, assured, a practiced friendliness that insists nevertheless on dignity, respect, and zero doubt about who is in charge of the table.

I am a white woman of 61, in my usual tournament getup—disheveled, despite my best attempts at looking classy and put-together, with what’s supposed to be a perky short haircut, a clingy blouse under a loose open shirt (“Yes, I have boobs, but we don’t have to make a big deal of it”), and the kind of energy that gets me through 14-hour tournament days and often causes people to assume I’m ten to fifteen years younger.  Which makes me at least 46—that is, somewhere between middle-aged and old.

“Neither young nor a lady,” I sing back with my most charming smile—my standard rejoinder, and one that usually gets the knowing laugh I am going for.

Usually, too, the dealer acknowledges my request so I can stop talking about sexual politics and concentrate on my game.

Not this time.  “I have to call you something,” he insists, smiling broadly.

“Why not Rachel?” I suggest, my smile equally broad.  “That’s my name.”

“But I’ve got all these people to take care of,” he says, somehow managing to start the shuffle while gesturing dramatically to my eight colleagues.  “I’ll never remember that.”

“‘Hey you?’” I offer.  “‘Gorgeous’?  Just, ‘lady’?”

He shakes his head.  “That’s not polite,” he insists.  Clearly, this is now a power struggle—okay. Big guns coming.

“Look,” I say.  “You know how some people don’t like to be called ‘boy’?  Well, that’s how I feel about ‘young lady.’”

He keeps smiling while dramatically turning his face away from me and pretending to smoke a cigarette:  “Whew!  Wow.  Okay.  Whew.” 

One of the young men at the table looks at me—I think, belligerently, but after both he and the dealer have left, the table tells me he wasn’t being hostile, just confused.

“So what do you want to be called?” the young man asks, belligerently-or-genuinely-depending-on-your-perspective.  “Old lady?”


Two more minutes of political education and we are finally back to the game.  The problem is, if I don’t say anything, “young lady” continues.  If I do say something, it becomes a thing—though usually not this much of a thing.  Either way, as my former coach would point out, it’s energy that belongs on poker, not politics.  What sucks about being a woman of my age at the table is that my gender and age make me by definition an outsider—someone who doesn’t belong, who maybe even can’t belong.  The cool kids are all young, mainly white, almost all guys.  The women among them are often dating cool guys; a lot of the guys are friends with each other.  At the very least, they’re potential partners, potential friends, roommates, study partners.  And then there’s me.

Don’t bring out the violins just yet.  I’m enormously lucky to have the resources to show up at these tables, to study with a coach, to travel to Vegas and Florida and Barcelona.  I’m an outsider in most things I do—the lefty who writes novels, the theater artist who plays poker, the gadfly, the arguer, the nudge. That’s a Yiddish word, pronounced noodge, and I suppose the quickest definition I can give you is Allen Kessler—someone who keeps seeing problems that other people miss, deny, or would prefer to ignore and who won’t let up until some kind of solution is found.  Yeah, we’re annoying—but if you like that 250-500 level, you can thank Allen, and if you like votes for women, gay marriage, the 40-hour work week, or integrated drinking fountains, you can thank all the nudges throughout history who kept saying, “I don’t agree,” “No, you can’t,” and “Neither young nor a lady.”

Or so I would like to believe.  Of course, I don’t do it for “the cause”—I do it because “young lady” burrows right into my skin and stays there like some smiling, infectious tick, swelling with my stolen blood until finally I have to grab a lighted candle and burn the damn thing off.  For someone my age, “young lady” means, “Young is good and old is bad, so out of politeness, we’ll pretend you’re young even though you’re obviously old.” It means, “You’re so old and ugly and asexual, we’re going to elaborately ignore it by talking to you as we would a 12-year-old.”  It means, “You don’t belong here, so we’re going to jokingly act as though you do.  Don’t you appreciate that?  Or would we rather call you what you are—old lady?”

am old, obviously, if by old you mean 61, as opposed to 41 or 31 or 21.  It’s only when “old” is a dirty word—unattractive, senile, set in your ways—that it becomes an insult.  “Young lady” hurts because you can’t imagine it being used to indicate a drop-dead gorgeous woman of any age, let alone a woman of any presence or authority.  Angela Bassett is three years younger than I am.  Can you imagine calling her “young lady”? Jessica Lange is six years older—who would ever call her “young lady?” Meryl Streep? Susan Sarandon? Grace Jones?

If I stretch my imagination, I can just barely imagine a sexy, playful version of “young lady”—just barely—but most of the time, it’s an insult disguised as a pleasantry.  As this particular dealer pointed out, he was actually older than me (at least, he said he was), but I’ve been called “young lady” by guys in their twenties or thirties, which is even more insulting, an even clearer statement that I’m completely disqualified from ordinary social circles—no longer cool, interesting, sexual, or even normal, but rather someone who has to be treated with the kind of condescension and fake friendliness normally reserved for children.

Guys, if you’re still with me, try this.  Think of some quality about yourself that you believe makes you unattractive or undateable to your preferred gender.  Is it your height?  Your weight?  Your bank balance?  Your equipment? Which quality seems to disqualify you from being one of the cool kids, the attractive people, the desirable ones?

Now invent a nickname that zeroes in on that quality—by insisting on its “flattering” opposite.  Giant?  Hardbody?  Tycoon?  Magic Mike?  Pick the most humiliating term you can—the one that means, “This is all we see about you, and all we’re ever going to see.  And once we see it, that’s it.  You’re permanently undateable, uninteresting, and uncool.”

Now imagine, say, one dealer in ten using this nickname every time he comes to the table.  And nobody says anything, nobody says, “Oh, no, this is one terrific, sexy guy—this is one fierce player—this is somebody hot and interesting and fun.” No one is shocked, because they see you that way too.

Well, that’s how I feel about “young lady.”  Hey, I’ve never been one of the cool kids, and I’m probably not about to start now.  But I can at least refuse the name that says, “You are the opposite of cool.”  I can hope that by refusing that name, someone takes a step back—maybe at the table, maybe at home—and says, “Huh.  Maybe there’s another way of seeing—another set of categories—another possibility.” I can demand a name that affirms the truth I know: that my vitality, my sexuality, my presence have become not weaker with age, but stronger.  Neither young nor a lady—that’s me.

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Finding God within Our Hearts

Dinah Morris in "Adam Bede"

Dinah Morris in “Adam Bede”

Spiritual Sunday

 I reread George Eliot’s Adam Bede this past summer for the first time in decades and fell in love again with the itinerant Methodist preacher Dinah Morris. I share today her sermon on the Hayslope village green, which we watch through the eyes of a stranger.

It’s particularly interesting to read Dinah’s sermon at a time when church attendance in the United States is dramatically dropping. I don’t know if this is because people are turned off by the politicization of religion, as this Salon article argues, or for some other reason, but I find it sad that people are losing access to the spiritual nourishment that religion can provide. We need people like Dinah to help us get back in touch with the divine. Here’s the first half of Dinah’s sermon:

“A sweet woman,” the stranger said to himself, “but surely nature never meant her for a preacher.”

Perhaps he was one of those who think that nature has theatrical properties and, with the considerate view of facilitating art and psychology, “makes up,” her characters, so that there may be no mistake about them. But Dinah began to speak.

“Dear friends,” she said in a clear but not loud voice “let us pray for a blessing.”

She closed her eyes, and hanging her head down a little continued in the same moderate tone, as if speaking to some one quite near her: “Savior of sinners! When a poor woman laden with sins, went out to the well to draw water, she found Thee sitting at the well. She knew Thee not; she had not sought Thee; her mind was dark; her life was unholy. But Thou didst speak to her, Thou didst teach her, Thou didst show her that her life lay open before Thee, and yet Thou wast ready to give her that blessing which she had never sought. Jesus, Thou art in the midst of us, and Thou knowest all men: if there is any here like that poor woman—if their minds are dark, their lives unholy—if they have come out not seeking Thee, not desiring to be taught; deal with them according to the free mercy which Thou didst show to her. Speak to them, Lord, open their ears to my message, bring their sins to their minds, and make them thirst for that salvation which Thou art ready to give.

“Lord, Thou art with Thy people still: they see Thee in the night-watches, and their hearts burn within them as Thou talkest with them by the way. And Thou art near to those who have not known Thee: open their eyes that they may see Thee—see Thee weeping over them, and saying ‘Ye will not come unto me that ye might have life’—see Thee hanging on the cross and saying, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’—see Thee as Thou wilt come again in Thy glory to judge them at the last. Amen.”

Dinah opened her eyes again and paused, looking at the group of villagers, who were now gathered rather more closely on her right hand.

“Dear friends,” she began, raising her voice a little, “you have all of you been to church, and I think you must have heard the clergyman read these words: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.’ Jesus Christ spoke those words—he said he came TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. I don’t know whether you ever thought about those words much, but I will tell you when I remember first hearing them. It was on just such a sort of evening as this, when I was a little girl, and my aunt as brought me up took me to hear a good man preach out of doors, just as we are here. I remember his face well: he was a very old man, and had very long white hair; his voice was very soft and beautiful, not like any voice I had ever heard before. I was a little girl and scarcely knew anything, and this old man seemed to me such a different sort of a man from anybody I had ever seen before that I thought he had perhaps come down from the sky to preach to us, and I said, ‘Aunt, will he go back to the sky to-night, like the picture in the Bible?’

“That man of God was Mr. Wesley, who spent his life in doing what our blessed Lord did—preaching the Gospel to the poor—and he entered into his rest eight years ago. I came to know more about him years after, but I was a foolish thoughtless child then, and I remembered only one thing he told us in his sermon. He told us as ‘Gospel’ meant ‘good news.’ The Gospel, you know, is what the Bible tells us about God.

“Think of that now! Jesus Christ did really come down from heaven, as I, like a silly child, thought Mr. Wesley did; and what he came down for was to tell good news about God to the poor. Why, you and me, dear friends, are poor. We have been brought up in poor cottages and have been reared on oatcake, and lived coarse; and we haven’t been to school much, nor read books, and we don’t know much about anything but what happens just round us. We are just the sort of people that want to hear good news. For when anybody’s well off, they don’t much mind about hearing news from distant parts; but if a poor man or woman’s in trouble and has hard work to make out a living, they like to have a letter to tell ’em they’ve got a friend as will help ’em. To be sure, we can’t help knowing something about God, even if we’ve never heard the Gospel, the good news that our Saviour brought us. For we know everything comes from God: don’t you say almost every day, ‘This and that will happen, please God,’ and ‘We shall begin to cut the grass soon, please God to send us a little more sunshine’? We know very well we are altogether in the hands of God. We didn’t bring ourselves into the world, we can’t keep ourselves alive while we’re sleeping; the daylight, and the wind, and the corn, and the cows to give us milk—everything we have comes from God. And he gave us our souls and put love between parents and children, and husband and wife. But is that as much as we want to know about God? We see he is great and mighty, and can do what he will: we are lost, as if we was struggling in great waters, when we try to think of him.

“But perhaps doubts come into your mind like this: Can God take much notice of us poor people? Perhaps he only made the world for the great and the wise and the rich. It doesn’t cost him much to give us our little handful of victual and bit of clothing; but how do we know he cares for us any more than we care for the worms and things in the garden, so as we rear our carrots and onions? Will God take care of us when we die? And has he any comfort for us when we are lame and sick and helpless? Perhaps, too, he is angry with us; else why does the blight come, and the bad harvests, and the fever, and all sorts of pain and trouble? For our life is full of trouble, and if God sends us good, he seems to send bad too. How is it? How is it?

“Ah, dear friends, we are in sad want of good news about God; and what does other good news signify if we haven’t that? For everything else comes to an end, and when we die we leave it all. But God lasts when everything else is gone. What shall we do if he is not our friend?”

Then Dinah told how the good news had been brought, and how the mind of God towards the poor had been made manifest in the life of Jesus, dwelling on its lowliness and its acts of mercy.

“So you see, dear friends,” she went on, “Jesus spent his time almost all in doing good to poor people; he preached out of doors to them, and he made friends of poor workmen, and taught them and took pains with them. Not but what he did good to the rich too, for he was full of love to all men, only he saw as the poor were more in want of his help. So he cured the lame and the sick and the blind, and he worked miracles to feed the hungry because, he said, he was sorry for them; and he was very kind to the little children and comforted those who had lost their friends; and he spoke very tenderly to poor sinners that were sorry for their sins.

“Ah, wouldn’t you love such a man if you saw him—if he were here in this village? What a kind heart he must have! What a friend he would be to go to in trouble! How pleasant it must be to be taught by him.

“Well, dear friends, who WAS this man? Was he only a good man—a very good man, and no more—like our dear Mr. Wesley, who has been taken from us?…He was the Son of God—’in the image of the Father,’ the Bible says; that means, just like God, who is the beginning and end of all things—the God we want to know about. So then, all the love that Jesus showed to the poor is the same love that God has for us. We can understand what Jesus felt, because he came in a body like ours and spoke words such as we speak to each other. We were afraid to think what God was before—the God who made the world and the sky and the thunder and lightning. We could never see him; we could only see the things he had made; and some of these things was very terrible, so as we might well tremble when we thought of him. But our blessed Savior has showed us what God is in a way us poor ignorant people can understand; he has showed us what God’s heart is, what are his feelings towards us.


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Selling Your Child on Idealism



Here’s a poem to give you an end-of-the-week jolt. Parents will recognize the speaker’s dilemma: we want to nurture our children’s idealism, even though we ourselves know there are reasons to worry. I love the concluding analogy, which casts the parent as a fast talking realtor.

Good Bones

By Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

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Jon Stewart Resembled Jonathan Swift

Jon Stewart


It’s been just over a year since Jon Stewart left the Daily Show and I find myself still needing him. It hasn’t helped that Stephen Colbert left Comedy Central soon afterwards, and Gary Trudeau now writes Doonesbury only on Sundays. The talented Larry Wilmore, meanwhile, has just been fired, and Trevor Noah hasn’t yet shown than he can replace Stewart. While John Oliver and Samantha Bee are wonderful, they can’t make up for that daily dose of comic sanity that I had become dependent on.

I once wrote that John Stewart was our Jonathan Swift, a high compliment as I consider Swift to be the greatest satirist ever to write. When Stewart delivered his penultimate show, on August 5, 2015, I thought that he sounded very much like Lemuel Gulliver looking back at the impact of Gulliver’s Travels.

 For nostalgia’s sake, watch the piece here. Stewart looks at a series of headlines written about his shows over the years, all of them using the word “eviscerate.” As in “Jon Stewart eviscerates CNN” or “eviscerates Fox pundits” or “eviscerates anti-immigration protesters” or “eviscerates the Bush family.” “I feel like what we’ve built here is a monument to evisceration,” Stewart says.

Then he goes back to check whether, as a result of his satire, his targets are still “walking around with a belly full of viscera.” He appears shocked and amazed that it is business as usual with all those he has attacked. His satire appears to have made no difference.

I once wrote in another post–this one about right wing talk show host Laura Ingraham that the greatest satirists are not afraid to go after themselves. (I wrote this to disagree with someone who saw Ingraham as a Swift.) Great satirists realize that satire threatens to make them “holier than thou,” and both Swift and Stewart–but not Ingraham–go after the pride of the satirist. Swift said that his satiric pen started spewing venom whenever he encountered someone puffed up by pride, and he would sometimes identify himself as the culprit.

So in memory of Stewart, here is Swift—or rather Gulliver—expressing shock and amazement that Gulliver’s Travels hasn’t accomplished all that his publisher promised it would accomplish:

I do, in the next place, complain of my own great want of judgment, in being prevailed upon by the entreaties and false reasoning of you and some others, very much against my own opinion, to suffer my travels to be published.  Pray bring to your mind how often I desired you to consider, when you insisted on the motive of public good, that the Yahoos were a species of animals utterly incapable of amendment by precept or example: and so it has proved; for, instead of seeing a full stop put to all abuses and corruptions, at least in this little island, as I had reason to expect; behold, after above six months warning, I cannot learn that my book has produced one single effect according to my intentions.  I desired you would let me know, by a letter, when party and faction were extinguished; judges learned and upright; pleaders honest and modest, with some tincture of common sense, and Smithfield blazing with pyramids of law books; the young nobility’s education entirely changed; the physicians banished; the female Yahoos abounding in virtue, honour, truth, and good sense; courts and levees of great ministers thoroughly weeded and swept; wit, merit, and learning rewarded; all disgracers of the press in prose and verse condemned to eat nothing but their own cotton, and quench their thirst with their own ink.  These, and a thousand other reformations, I firmly counted upon by your encouragement; as indeed they were plainly deducible from the precepts delivered in my book.  And it must be owned, that seven months were a sufficient time to correct every vice and folly to which Yahoos are subject, if their natures had been capable of the least disposition to virtue or wisdom.  

In other words, all these people are still walking around with bellies full of viscera. Oh, where have you gone, Jon? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

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Is Your City Dying? Bring in Poets

House Poem, House Permutation, Pittsburgh-Burma House, and Jazz House

House Poem, House Permutation, Pittsburgh-Burma House, & Jazz House


A few weeks ago I stumbled across an article about how the arts, including literature, are resurrecting decaying cities. It makes sense to me but it came as a surprise to The Atlantic’s James Fallows, who spent three years with his wife visiting and revisiting cities with interesting stories:

I am a philistine, who has not really cared about the state of the arts. Give me research centers and “makerspaces” with 3‑D printers, plus a factory or two, and I’ll tell you how I feel about a town. Perhaps the topic on which I’ve most changed my mind through our travels concerns the civic importance of local arts, and the energy being devoted to them across the country.

Pittsburg has seen one of the most impressive comebacks, and writers have played a role in that. Here’s Fallows’s account:

The arts initiative that struck us in Pittsburgh was bottom-up and frugally operated, rather than a big foundation project. It is known as the City of Asylum project, and its goal is to revive a run-down area of Pittsburgh and make it a haven for persecuted writers from the rest of the world. In the 1990s Henry Reese, the founder of local telemarketing and coupon-book firms, and his wife, an artist named Diane Samuels, became interested in the cause of oppressed novelists, poets, and journalists. By 2004, they had organized and opened the only independently funded U.S. branch of the City of Asylum movement, which was already strong in Europe. (There are two other such cities in the United States, but they are run by universities; Pittsburgh’s is on its own.) They put up some of their own money, and ran fund-raisers and recruited donors for more, so they could buy a series of rowhouses in the once-seedy Mexican War Streets district of Pittsburgh (the streets are named for battles and generals from that war) for their writers and artists to stay for periods of months or years.

One of the first was a long-imprisoned dissident poet from China. He decided to turn his house into public art, covering it with poems in large Chinese characters. A Burmese writer and her family came, and painted the exterior of their house with landscapes and “dreamscapes.” Strolling down the streets is like being in a graffiti-covered part of town, but one where the style, palette, and theme vary building by building, and the decorations have been done carefully and proudly rather than on the fly. The program has steadily expanded, still locally funded; in the past decade more than 250 poets, writers, musicians, and artists from around the world have put on public performances in Pittsburgh. They have, through the arts, enhanced the city’s international reputation and, more important, given it an expanded conception of itself. Plus, the Mexican War Streets district has become a tourist draw.

Fallows concludes his article with a prediction that the arts will pull us out of our national malaise, just as the country emerged successfully from an era of gross inequality over a century ago:

When the national mood after the first Gilded Age favored reform, possibilities that had been tested, refined, and made to work in various “laboratories of democracy” were at hand. After our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. When it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in places we never would have suspected, by people who would never join forces in the national capital. But their projects, the progress they have made, and their goals are more congruent than even they would ever imagine. Until the country’s mood does change, the people who have been reweaving the national fabric will be more effective if they realize how many other people are working toward the same end.

Here’s empirical evidence that literature and the other arts, intangible though they are, have what people desperately need.


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Trump as Melville’s Confidence Man



 One of the most memorable lines for me from the National Democratic Convention was New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg saying about Donald Trump, “I am from New York and I know a con when I see one.” Since then, I’ve been reading Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man to see if it will give me insights into the nature of Trump’s con.

I’ll be turning to the novel a number of times during this election season, but let me start with this. Melville helps explain why, as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times puts it, “One persistent narrative in American politics is that Hillary Clinton is a slippery, compulsive liar while Donald Trump is a gutsy truth-teller.” In a recent NBC poll, only 11% of voters chose to describe Clinton as “honest and trustworthy” (as opposed to 16% for Trump).

Even the idea that Clinton and Trump are in the same category Kristof finds to be preposterous. “If deception were a sport,” he writes, “Trump would be the Olympic gold medalist; Clinton would be an honorable mention at her local Y.”

A study by Politifact of presidential candidates since 2007 bears Kristof out. Clinton is second only to Obama in truthfulness, finishing ahead of Jeb Bush and Bernie Sanders. Trump, on the other hand, leads everyone in lying, even Michele Bachman and Ted Cruz. One of the characters in The Confidence Man explains why we may find ourselves surprised by Hillary’s high rating.

Melville’s novel is about a flimflam artist who boards a steamboat and dons a series of disguises to bamboozle the passengers. At one point he goes to work on the ship’s barber, who has put a “No Trust” sign—meaning no credit—in his window. The confidence man convinces him to start trusting people, after which he wriggles out of paying for his shave.

The barber helps us understand how Trump makes his lies compelling, even getting at the way the Trump’s flamboyant hair gives him confidence. (The barber also gets at Trump’s underlying insecurity–without such hair, the barber says, a man is shamefaced and fearful.) We also learn why Clinton’s careful word choices damage her as much as Trump’s “pants on fire” “four Pinocchios” fabrications. Responding to the question, “how does the mere handling of the outside of men’s heads lead you to distrust the inside of their hearts?”, the barber replies,

[C]an one be forever dealing in macassar oil, hair dyes, cosmetics, false moustaches, wigs, and toupees, and still believe that men are wholly what they look to be? What think you, sir, are a thoughtful barber’s reflections, when, behind a careful curtain, he shaves the thin, dead stubble off a head, and then dismisses it to the world, radiant in curling auburn? To contrast the shamefaced air behind the curtain, the fearful looking forward to being possibly discovered there by a prying acquaintance, with the cheerful assurance and challenging pride with which the same man steps cheerful assurance and challenging pride with which the same man steps forth again, a gay deception, into the street, while some honest, shock-headed fellow humbly gives him the wall!

And then the passage that explains Clinton’s problem:

 Ah, sir, they may talk of the courage of truth, but my trade teaches me that truth sometimes is sheepish. Lies, lies, sir, brave lies are the lions!”

So there you have it: Trump tells brave lies whereas Hillary engages in sheepish equivocations.

The follow-up passage has relevance to the Trump campaign as well. When the confidence man accuses the barber of participating in a fraud, the man replies, “”Ah, sir, I must live.”

This sounds very much like the ghostwriter who wrote Trump’s The Art of the Deal and now, according to Jane Mayer’s remarkable New Yorker article, is wracked with guilt. Like the barber, he says that he did it because he had bills to pay:

Around the time Trump made his offer, [Tony] Schwartz’s wife, Deborah Pines, became pregnant with their second daughter, and he worried that the family wouldn’t fit into their Manhattan apartment, whose mortgage was already too high. “I was overly worried about money,” Schwartz said. “I thought money would keep me safe and secure—or that was my rationalization.”

What happens when we dance with a professional confidence man? We get conned. Why are we surprised?

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On Walls: A Letter to the Incoming Class

The tower of Michel de Montaigne

The tower of Michel de Montaigne


I’ve been asked to write an essay for the in-coming St. Mary’s College of Maryland class about “the importance of intentionally promoting civil discourse and the free exchange of ideas in these challenging times.” During orientation, students will be divided up into groups and asked to devise a short list of principles they’d like to have guide campus conversations and exchanges, including on social media. This essay is meant to serve as a spur.

I’ll be polishing this as it need sharpening. I’ve drawn on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and the poetry of Lucille Clifton

 On Walls: A Letter to the Incoming Class

If you’ve paid any attention to America’s political developments over the past year, you know that there’s been a lot of talk about walls. GOP nominee Donald Trump has proposed both a literal wall to keep out Central American immigrants and a bureaucratic wall to keep out Muslim immigrants. Unfortunately, the wall talk hasn’t stayed confined to the political sphere but has been seeping into high schools and colleges. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof talks about the following incident in his hometown high school in Forest Grove, Oregon:

But in the middle of a physics class at the high school one day this spring, a group of white students suddenly began jeering at their Latino classmates and chanting: “Build a wall! Build a wall!”

The same white students had earlier chanted “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Soon afterward, a student hung a homemade banner in the school reading, “Build a Wall,” prompting Latinos at area schools to stage a walkout.

This essay is not only about about Donald Trump, however, because it is not only rightwing conservatives who construct walls. Whenever people prematurely judge others and refuse to enter into dialogue with them, walls go up. If the right is often guilty of stereotyping, the left is often guilty of stereotyping the stereotypers. Another New York Times columnist, David Brooks, has accused the Left of “moral preening,” asserting their moral superiority by labeling others as racist, sexist, or homophobic. Those who smugly believe that they are right and others are wrong have also set up walls.

It’s worth recalling that the primary purpose of walls is to keep us safe, and safety has a special meaning in higher education. Students must believe that they inhabit a safe space where they are free to explore ideas, relationships, identity issues, and the like. Walls have long been associated with higher learning. In 1571 Michel de Montaigne renovated and redecorated a special tower, which housed his library and into which he withdrew to pioneer a new literary form, the reflective essay. A number of ancient colleges were surrounded by walls and today, to choose one example, Columbia University has walls that separate it from the rest of Manhattan. The “ivy league” colleges owe that moniker to the ivy that climbed up the walls of colleges like Harvard and Princeton.

Sometimes, as in the case of St. Mary’s, there’s not a literal wall but the idea is the same: students need a bucolic retreat to retire to in order to explore ideas. It can seem like a violation of the very spirit of a college when the world’s fractious battles intrude. Shouldn’t we do everything to keep that fractiousness at bay?

But colleges, of course, are made up of people who come from this other world. In fact, if we work too hard to keep that world out, we don’t prepare ourselves to face it. If we admit only those people who get along because they resemble each other, and if we suppress any differences in the name of harmony, the walled enclosure can become a trap. You will hear a lot about the “St. Mary’s Way” and “St. Mary’s nice,” but if the Way and the niceness are maintained only by pushing under disagreement, there can be no exploration. Worse yet, a university education threatens to become irrelevant.

The key is to develop a community where people can have disagreements while respecting each other. We need healthy interchanges in college and, if we practice having them in college, there’s a good chance they’ll transfer to the society at large.

Two literary authors who explore these issues are the 18th century novelist Daniel Defoe and the 20th century poet Lucille Clifton, whose poetry we see posted around campus.

Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is one of the great works about walls. Crusoe, of course, is shipwrecked on a desert island, and the first thing he does once he establishes himself on the island is build a fortress. His walls become more and more elaborate, even though there is nothing on the island itself that can harm him.

Then, however, there is a development that is a version of what you will be experiencing as you move into your residence halls: Crusoe gets a roommate.

This is how it happens. Crusoe discovers that his island is a place where cannibals sometimes come to kill and eat their victims. Crusoe saves one of these cannibals and names him Friday. Although Friday is deeply grateful for the rescue, Crusoe initially doesn’t trust him and retreats behind a wall. Here’s the description.

I made a little tent for him in the vacant place between my two fortifications, in the inside of the last, and in the outside of the first.  As there was a door or entrance there into my cave, I made a formal framed door-case, and a door to it, of boards, and set it up in the passage, a little within the entrance; and, causing the door to open in the inside, I barred it up in the night, taking in my ladders, too; so that Friday could no way come at me in the inside of my innermost wall, without making so much noise in getting over that it must needs awaken me; for my first wall had now a complete roof over it of long poles, covering all my tent, and leaning up to the side of the hill; which was again laid across with smaller sticks, instead of laths, and then thatched over a great thickness with the rice-straw, which was strong, like reeds; and at the hole or place which was left to go in or out by the ladder I had placed a kind of trap-door, which, if it had been attempted on the outside, would not have opened at all, but would have fallen down and made a great noise—as to weapons, I took them all into my side every night. 

Eventually Crusoe overcomes his prejudices and decides to trust Friday, taking him into inner sanctum. To be sure, by 21st century standards there’s still a lot to be desired. Crusoe thinks that he is morally superior to this cannibal, even though he himself has been a slave trader. He is oblivious to the fact, so anthropologists tell us, that Friday would have come from a culture as complex as his own. Yet because Crusoe and Friday develop their relationship, there is a possibility for growth. At one point Friday even manages to shake Crusoe’s confidence in some of his Christian beliefs. Once you start opening yourself to people who are different from you, all kinds of things are possible.

The other author I look at, Lucille Clifton, taught at St. Mary’s for a dozen or so years and was one of America’s most beloved poets.

Lucille was intensely aware of the walls that discrimination sets up and she called them out whenever she saw them. She was fond of saying that her job was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable—which is to say, using the language of walls, to comfort those who felt shut out by walls and to render uncomfortable those who were ensconced safely behind walls.

Sometimes in her poetry she calls out whites who want for students of color not to make them uncomfortable:

as if when i choose words
i must choose those
that they can live with

At other times, such as in “wishes for sons,” she utters a wish fulfillment for men who fail to sympathize with menstruating women:

i wish them cramps.
i wish them a strange town
and the last tampon.
i wish them no 7-11.

i wish them one week early
and wearing a white skirt.
i wish them one week late.

But she doesn’t only limit herself to whites and to men. There are any number of Clifton poems where she calls out the whole human race, including herself. In one poem she speaks up for cockroaches and worried about her own desire to have them dead:

cruelty. don’t talk to me about cruelty
or what i am capable of.

when i wanted the roaches dead i wanted them dead
and i killed them. i took a broom to their country

and smashed and sliced without warning
without stopping and i smiled all the time i was doing it.

it was a holocaust of roaches, bodies,
parts of bodies, red all over the ground.

i didn’t ask their names.
they had no names worth knowing.

now i watch myself whenever i enter a room.
i never know what i might do.

Lucille was essentially arguing for a true liberal arts experience: step out of your own perspective and into that of others. If you are walling yourself off from people–or insects–unlike yourself, then you are limiting your understanding. St. Mary’s offers you the challenge of facing up to your discomfort, seeking to understand the reasons for it, and moving beyond it.

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Wander Slowly through the Forest

Vincent Van Gogh, "Trees and Undergrowth"

Vincent Van Gogh, “Trees and Undergrowth”

Spiritual Sunday

I leave my mother and wife tomorrow to return to Maryland to begin teaching again. In addition to these important people in my life, I will miss my mother’s 17 acres of mountaintop forest, which border a lake and are within sight of the bluff.

In “Leaves and Blossoms along the Way,” Mary Oliver reminds me that, if I can’t continue living in Sewanee, Tennessee, I can “at least dream of it.” “All important ideas,” Oliver, writes, “must include the trees, the mountains, and the rivers.”

Oliver’s poem, like much of her poetry, veers between the sensual and the spiritual, the visible and the invisible, the explainable and the ineffable, that which can be said and that which can’t. Oliver tells us to open ourselves to “God or the gods,” to listen for “the words that will never leave God’s mouth,” to linger in the wind and the rain and to wander slowly through forests,

To open ourselves to that which is beyond ourselves, the starting point for Oliver is the perceiving, sensing, experiencing self.

Leaves and Blossoms along the Way

By Mary Oliver

If you’re John Muir you want trees to
live among. If you’re Emily, a garden
will do.
Try to find the right place for yourself.
If you can’t find it, at least dream of it.

When one is alone and lonely, the body
gladly lingers in the wind or the rain,
or splashes into the cold river, or
pushes through the ice-crusted snow.  

Anything that touches.                      


God, or the gods, are invisible, quite
understandable. But holiness is visible,


Some words will never leave God’s mouth,
no matter how hard you listen.                     


In all the works of Beethoven,
you will not find a single lie.

All important ideas must include the trees,
the mountains, and the rivers.                      


To understand many things you must reach out
of your own condition.                  


For how many years did I wander slowly
through the forest. What wonder and
glory I would have missed had I ever been
in a hurry!                    


Beauty can both shout and whisper, and still
it explains nothing.                      


The point is, you’re you, and that’s for keeps.

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U.S. Police, Tear Down These Walls

L. A. Celebration Theater, "Women of Brewster Place"

Los Angeles Celebration Theater, “Women of Brewster Place”


The largest city in my state just got a harsh but well deserved reprimand from the Justice Department. As an article in Vox sums up their report, “The Baltimore Police Department is a complete and utter disaster.” In today’s post I look at a work, Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place (1982), that touches on the problem and then offers up, through a character’s dream, a vision that we can aspire to.

Let’s look first at the situation in Baltimore. It appears that Freddy Gray, who was picked up for no reason and who then died as the result of a “rough ride” in a police van, is only the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a summation of the Justice Department’s report:

Baltimore police stop people for essentially no reason, particularly black residents. They are far too quick to use force. Charges are often dropped due to a lack of merit for any prosecution. Cops regularly violate people’s rights, including those protected by the First Amendment and Fourth Amendment. And virtually everyone is aware of these types of problems — officials within and outside the police department, members of the community, and even police union representatives acknowledge the desperate need for reform.

The Justice Department is also clear in where the blame lies: This is not the story of a few bad apples in the police department; these are systemic issues propagated by leadership, poor guidance, shoddy training, and essentially no accountability to speak of — and these issues go back to at least the 1990s, when city leaders in Baltimore stated “zero tolerance” anti-crime policies.

The article adds that the Justice Department is also investigating more than two dozen other police departments. This in addition to the scathing reports it has already issued regarding Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri.

My personal acquaintance with Baltimore brings the situation home to me. The tension between the police and Baltimore’s black inhabitants goes back to the days of segregation and segregated neighborhoods. Today you can still see the divides. Rev. William Boyd, a former St. Mary’s student who lived with us and helped us raise our children, is now a pastor at the New Elizabeth Baptist Church in an African American neighborhood near the Pimlico Race Track. To visit him, we travel through an upscale Jewish neighborhood with neatly manicured loans and beautiful synagogues. Then, after crossing a single street, it’s as though we have left Technicolor Oz and entered black and white Kansas. There are old row houses, bars on the windows of the businesses, and trash on the sidewalks.

Looking at these racially separated neighborhoods, I’ve wanted to say, as Ronald Reagan did in another context, “tear down this wall.” Naylor’s novel is about an actual wall.

The Women of Brewster Place takes place in an urban neighborhood fronting a street that, years before, has been closed off from the main thoroughfare years thanks to some shady deals. It is occupied first by Italian immigrants and then by African Americans.

While Brewster Place has its own vibrant culture and features several strong African American women, it is also beset by black-on-black crime. The wall seems to trap both criminals and victims. In a horrific finale, a gentle lesbian is gang raped by boys raised in the neighborhood. Her blood splatters on the wall.

The novel manages to end on a hopeful note, however. Mattie, who is essentially the matriarch of Brewster Place, has a dream of a block party erupting into an attack on the wall.

I’ll quote from that powerful passage in a moment, but first, to help explain Baltimore’s continuing problems, it’s worth quoting from a Vox article that appeared a year ago about the findings of Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander:

Alexander and his colleagues found a terrible trap that affected the lives of Baltimore’s poor black people, but not its poor white people. According to their study, poor black kids and poor white kids used drugs and committed crimes at roughly similar rates — if anything, there was a bit more drug use among the white children in the sample. But poor black kids were much more likely than poor white kids to be arrested. And once they were arrested, a criminal record was a much bigger hindrance to a poor black man getting a job than it was for a poor white man.

At the same time, due to their income composition, demographics, location, and so on, black neighborhoods had a lot more crime than white neighborhoods. And so, even putting aside any issues of racially biased policing, they were policed more intensely.

This created, in essence, a trap that closed in on poor black kids. Their neighborhoods had more crime, and so they were policed more heavily. That meant that even though they didn’t commit any more crime than poor white kids, they were arrested more often. And when they got arrested, it was harder for them to get a job after prison than it was for a white kid who got arrested, so it became that much more likely they would turn to illegal ways of making money, which meant more crime in the neighborhoods, which meant more aggressive policing, which meant more black kids getting arrested, which meant more young black men held back by criminal records, and so on.

Now for Mattie’s dream, which occurs the night before a block party designed to raise funds to pay for lawyers that will pressure the landlords to undertake basic improvements. When the residents see the blood on the wall, they attack it with everything they have:

Women flung themselves against the wall, chipping away at it with knives, plastic forks, spiked shoe heels, and even bare hands, the water pouring under their chins, plastering their blouses and dresses against their breasts and into the cracks of their hips. The bricks piled up behind them and were matched and relayed out of Brewster Place past overturned tables, scattered coins, and crushed wads of dollar bills. They came back with chairs and barbecue grills and smashed them into the wall. The “Today Brewster—Tomorrow America” banner had been beaten into long strands of red and gold that clung to the wet arms and faces of the women.

And further on:

The blunt-edged whoop of the police sirens could be heard ramming through the traffic on its way to Brewster Place. Theresa flung her umbrella away so she could have both hands free to help the other women who were now bringing her bricks. Suddenly, the rain exploded around their feet in a fresh downpour, and the cold waters beat on the top of their heads—almost in perfect unison with the beating of their hearts.

The chapter doesn’t end with the dreamed attack, however, but with a party, indicating that it’s better to be positive than negative. Mattie wakes up and, although the wall is still there, she is greeted by the first sunshine in a week. Although Naylor’s book appeared two years before Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” campaign, Naylor’s vision is very much in that spirit:

“It’s just like a miracle,” Mattie opened her window, “to think it stopped raining today of all days.”

The sun was shining on everything. Kiswana’s gold earrings, the broken glass out on the avenue, the municipal buildings downtown—even on the stormy clouds that had formed on the horizon and were silently moving toward Brewster Place.

Etta came out on the stop and looked up at Mattie in the window.

“Woman, you still in bed? Don’t you know what day it is? We’re gonna have a party.”

With the Justice Department’s reports, is there a chance that some day we’ll be partying? As the Vox article reports, “To remedy these issues, federal officials plan to set up a ‘consent decree’ in which they would oversee reforms at the Baltimore Police Department with the cooperation of local officials.”

Pray that it stops raining.

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Novels with Waterfalls and Secret Caves

Illus. from "The Scotch Twins"

Illus. from “The Scotch Twins”


The summer, which I’ve spent with my mother in my childhood home in the Southern Cumberland Mountains (in Tennessee), is rapidly coming to an end. Most of the time I’ve been reading, writing and playing tennis, but occasionally I revisit childhood books and childhood haunts. Sometimes the two of them come together, as when I visit the cave behind a waterfall on the property adjoining my mother’s 17 acres.

That’s because the cave and waterfall remind me of one in The Scotch Twins, written by Lucy Fitch Perkins in 1919. My father grew up with the “Twins” series and passed his love of them on to me. There are 26 in all and my parents own 15 or so of them, including The Cave Twins, The Dutch Twins, The Japanese Twins, and The Twins of the War of 1812. (Thankfully they don’t own The Pickininny Twins.) Because of the waterfall, The Scotch Twins was always my favorite.

Unfortunately, the Sewanee waterfall is nothing like the one in the book. The cave isn’t very deep, nor is it hidden. Nevertheless, when I was a child, I imagined myself as the twins having adventures in it. Here’s the passage where one of them and their new friend Alan discover it:

Alan popped out of sight again behind the fall, and Jean, following closely in his wake, was just in time to catch sight of his legs as he dived into a hole opening into the rocky wall. The cliff from which the water plunged overhung the rocks below in such a way that she could pass behind the veil of water without getting wet at all.

Into this mysterious opening behind the fall Jean followed her leader, and found herself climbing a narrow dry channel through which the stream had once forced its way. It was a hard, rough scramble up a narrow passage worn by the water and through holes almost too small to squeeze through, but at last she saw Alan’s heels just disappearing over the edge of a jutting rock and knew they were coming out into daylight again. An instant later Alan’s head appeared in the opening, his hand reached down to help her up, and with one last effort she came out upon an open ledge and looked about her.

She could not help an exclamation of delight at what she saw. The rock was so high that they could look out over the treetops clear to the slope where the little gray house stood. The waterfall, plunging from a still higher level, made a barrier on one side of them, and on the other side the cliff rose, a sheer wall of rock. Between the wall of water and the wall of rock there was a cave extending into the solid rock for a distance of about twenty feet. There was absolutely no way of reaching this fastness except through the hidden stair, and one might wander for years through the forest and never see it at all.

“Oh,” exclaimed Jean, “it’s wonderful! How Jock will love this place! Don’t you believe this very cave was used by Rob Roy and his men?” and Alan, swelling with pride to think he had found it all himself, said yes, he was sure of it.

It’s interesting that Alan and Jean are themselves imagining themselves in a novel, namely Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy. Thus does the literary imagination make the world a much more exciting and mysterious place.

It’s worth mentioning one other literary cave-behind-a-waterfall that also entered into my play. Can you name it? (I’ve left out the names to make it a challenge.) Here’s the description:

With green scarves the two guards now bound up [their] eyes and drew their hoods down almost to their mouths; then quickly they took each one by the hand and went on their way. All that F___ and S____ knew of this last mile of the road they learned from guessing in the dark. After a little they found that they were on a path descending steeply; soon it grew so narrow that they went in single file, brushing a stony wall on either side; their guards steered them from behind with hands laid firmly on their shoulders. Now and again they came to rough places and were lifted from their feet for a while, and then set down again. Always the noise of the running water was on their right hand, and it grew nearer and louder. At length they were halted. Quickly Mablung and Damrod turned them about, several times, and they lost all sense of direction. They climbed upwards a little: it seemed cold and the noise of the stream had become faint. Then they were picked up and carried down, down many steps, and round a corner. Suddenly they heard the water again, loud now, rushing and splashing. All round them it seemed, and they felt a fine rain on their hands and cheeks. At last they were set on their feet once more. For a moment they stood so, half fearful, blindfold, not knowing where they were; and no one spoke.

Then came the voice of F_____ close behind. `Let them see! ‘ he said. The scarves were removed and their hoods drawn back, and they blinked and gasped.

They stood on a wet floor of polished stone, the doorstep, as it were, of a rough-hewn gate of rock opening dark behind them. But in front a thin veil of water was hung, so near that Frodo could have put an outstretched arm into it. It faced westward. The level shafts of the setting sun behind beat upon it, and the red light was broken into many flickering beams of ever-changing colour. It was as if they stood at the window of some elven-tower, curtained with threaded jewels of silver and gold, and ruby, sapphire and amethyst, all kindled with an unconsuming fire.

Yes, it appears in Tolkien’s The Two Towers.

Looking back, I realize that my appreciation of nature owes a lot to the books that I read. Which puts another slant on Wordsworth advice, in “The Tables Turned,”

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books; 
Or surely you’ll grow double: 
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks; 
Why all this toil and trouble? 

The sun above the mountain’s head, 
A freshening lustre mellow 
Through all the long green fields has spread, 
His first sweet evening yellow. 

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife: 
Come, hear the woodland linnet, 
How sweet his music! on my life, 
There’s more of wisdom in it. 

How about “both/and” rather than “either/or”?

Posted in Perkins (Lucy Fitch), Tolkien (J.R.R.), Wordsworth (William) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Trollope & Trump’s Congressional Enablers

House of Commons

House of Commons in the early 19th century


In recent weeks the two GOP leaders, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have come under criticism for their continued support of a candidate who stokes racial, ethnic, and gender resentment by saying one outrageous thing after another. Unfortunately, rather than taking principled stands, they have been behaving like the politician Sir Timothy Beeswax in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels.

Before turning to Trollope’s Beeswax, let’s look at our own malleable-as-beeswax politicians. Although Ryan accused Donald Trump of “textbook racism” for attacking a Latino judge who will be ruling on suits against Trump “University,” he still said that Trump’s policy positions trump any other considerations:

“I disavow these comments — I regret those comments that he made,” Mr. Ryan said. “I think that should be absolutely disavowed. It’s absolutely unacceptable. But do I believe that Hillary Clinton is the answer? No, I do not.”

“I believe that we have more common ground on the policy issues of the day and we have more likelihood of getting our policies enacted with him than with her.”

McConnell has taken a similar stand and I focus on him because he is particularly Beeswaxian. First, note how the ends justify the means in McConnell’s Republican National Convention speech, as reported by the Washington Post:

McConnell’s argument here has become a familiar one: Trump is a Republican, so let’s vote for him. It’s an extension of what skeptical-yet-out-of-options Republicans have been saying since Trump clinched the nomination in May: He’s not what we wanted, but he’s better than Hillary Clinton.

This is nothing new for McConnell. It has long been clear that he only cares about his party winning and himself presiding over the Senate. Early in 2008, before the president had even been sworn in, he devised an all-out obstructionist strategy where Obama would be checked in everything he attempted, including measures previously proposed by Republicans:

Before the health care fight, before the economic stimulus package, before President Obama even took office, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, had a strategy for his party: use his extensive knowledge of Senate procedure to slow things down, take advantage of the difficulties Democrats would have in governing and deny Democrats any Republican support on big legislation.

As a result, the last three Congresses have been the least productive in the history of the United States, and it appears that nothing will change for the remainder of President Obama’s term. Just last week McConnell boasted of having subverted the president’s constitutional prerogative to appoint Supreme Court justices:

One of my proudest moments was when I looked at Barack Obama in the eye and I said, “Mr. President, you will not fill this Supreme Court vacancy.”

Sir Timothy Beeswax shows up in Prime Minister but he is described most thoroughly in The Duke’s Children (1879). A member of the Conservatives, his goal has always been to be “the first man in the House of Commons.” The well-being of his country is secondary:

This plan [being the first man] he had all but gained,—and it must be acknowledged that he had been moved by a grand and manly ambition. But there were drawbacks to the utility and beauty of Sir Timothy’s character as a statesman. He had no idea as to the necessity or non-necessity of any measure whatever in reference to the well-being of the country. It may, indeed, be said that all such ideas were to him absurd, and the fact that they should be held by his friends and supporters was an inconvenience.

Beeswax loves Parliament because that institution, more than any other, serves his ambition of becoming “the cream of the cream.” Only as “chief of the strongest party” does Sir Timothy get to bestow favors and snub rivals:

Parliament was a club so eligible in its nature that all Englishmen wished to belong to it. They who succeeded were acknowledged to be the cream of the land. They who dominated in it were the cream of the cream. Those two who were elected to be the chiefs of the two parties had more of cream in their composition than any others. But he who could be the chief of the strongest party, and who therefore, in accordance with the prevailing arrangements of the country, should have the power of making dukes, and bestowing garters and appointing bishops, he who by attaining the first seat should achieve the right of snubbing all before him, whether friends or foes, he, according to the feelings of Sir Timothy, would have gained an Elysium of creaminess not to be found in any other position on the earth’s surface. No man was more warmly attached to parliamentary government than Sir Timothy Beeswax; but I do not think that he ever cared much for legislation.

Beeswax and McConnell are alike in that their thorough understanding of their institution makes them appear as conjurers:

[Beeswax] had studied the ways of Members. Parliamentary practice had become familiar to him. He had shown himself to be ready at all hours to fight the battle of the party he had joined. And no man knew so well as did Sir Timothy how to elevate a simple legislative attempt into a good faction fight. He had so mastered his tricks of conjuring that no one could get to the bottom of them, and had assumed a look of preternatural gravity which made many young Members think that Sir Timothy was born to be a king of men.

In our cynical age, we may think that all politicians are Mitch McConnells, but I do not think this is actually the case. In any event, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the ideal towards which politicians should aspire, which is voiced by the Duke of Omnium in a letter to his son when the latter is elected to Parliament. The Duke, a Liberal, was once Prime Minister and is the quintessential example of a principled politician. He writes,

I would have you always remember the purport for which there is a Parliament elected in this happy and free country. It is not that some men may shine there, that some may acquire power, or that all may plume themselves on being the elect of the nation. It often appears to me that some members of Parliament so regard their success in life,—as the fellows of our colleges do too often, thinking that their fellowships were awarded for their comfort and not for the furtherance of any object as education or religion. I have known gentlemen who have felt that in becoming members of Parliament they had achieved an object for themselves instead of thinking that they had put themselves in the way of achieving something for others. A member of Parliament should feel himself to be the servant of his country,—and like every other servant, he should serve. If this be distasteful to a man he need not go into Parliament. If the harness gall him he need not wear it. But if he takes the trappings, then he should draw the coach. You are there as the guardian of your fellow-countrymen,—that they may be safe, that they may be prosperous, that they may be well governed and lightly burdened,—above all that they may be free. If you cannot feel this to be your duty, you should not be there at all.

It shouldn’t take the prospect of electing an unstable demagogue to remind our elected leaders that service to country is foremost. In past crises, American politicians have demonstrated that they could rise above party concerns, and Republican Senator Susan Collins has just declared that she will not be voting for Donald Trump. Will other Republicans, including McConnell and Ryan, follow suit?


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On Trump’s Cheap Nuclear Bomb Talk



A year ago I posted a Carolyn Forché poem to commemorate the 70th anniversary of our dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 8). The post was lost in a transition to a new storage cloud so I’m running it again today. After all, the reminder seems even more relevant now, what with Donald Trump speaking in favor of nuclear proliferation (for Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia) and asking a foreign policy expert why we can’t use nuclear weapons if we have them.

On a more positive note, it appears that the deal to keep Iran from developing a nuclear bomb is holding so far. According to National Public Radio,

By most accounts, Iran has complied with its nuclear obligations under the deal. According to the State Department, Iran has put 19,000 centrifuges in storage and under international scrutiny. It has shipped out 98 percent of its low-enriched uranium. It has also opened up nuclear facilities to international inspectors.

Forché’s poem is an account of a visit she made to Hiroshima with a survivor. Its power lies in its narrative simplicity and in the matter of fact way it reminds us that people die horrific deaths when we bomb. I learned about it from Nation article on poems about nuclear warfare:

The Garden of Shukkei-En

By Carolyn Forché

By way of a vanished bridge we cross this river
as a cloud of lifted snow would ascend a mountain.

She has always been afraid to come here.

It is the river she most 
remembers, the living
and the dead both crying for help.

A world that allowed neither tears nor lamentation.

The matsu trees brush her hair as she passes
beneath them, as do the shining strands of barbed wire.

Where this lake is, there was a lake,
where these black pine grow, there grew black pine.

Where there is no teahouse I see a wooden teahouse
and the corpses of those who slept in it.

On the opposite bank of the Ota, a weeping willow
etches its memory of their faces into the water.

Where light touches the face, the character for heart is written.

She strokes a burnt trunk wrapped in straw:
I was weak and my skin hung from my fingertips like cloth

Do you think for a moment we were human beings to them?

She comes to the stone angel holding paper cranes.
Not an angel, but a woman where she once had been,
who walks through the garden Shukkei-en
calling the carp to the surface by clapping her hands.

Do Americans think of us?

So she began as we squatted over the toilets:
If you want, I’ll tell you, but nothing I say will be enough.

We tried to dress our burns with vegetable oil.

Her hair is the white froth of rice rising up kettlesides, her mind also.
In the postwar years she thought deeply about how to live.

The common greeting dozo-yiroshku is please take care of me.
All hibakusha still alive were children then.

A cemetery seen from the air is a child’s city.

I don’t like this particular red flower because
it reminds me of a woman’s brain crushed under a roof.

Perhaps my language is too precise, and therefore difficult to understand?

We have not, all these years, felt what you call happiness.
But at times, with good fortune, we experience something close.
As our life resembles life, and this garden the garden.
And in the silence surrounding what happened to us

it is the bell to awaken God that we’ve heard ringing. 

To hold on to our humanity, we must listen constantly for that bell–even in the midst of a contentious election season.


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Literature as a Public Event

Wihelm Amberg, "Reading from Goethe's Werther"

Wihelm Amberg, “Reading from Goethe’s Werther”


I’ve talked in the past about the final assignment I give my students in my Theories of the Reader senior seminar. They are to choose a work of literature that became a public event and figure out what this tells them about the text-reader dynamic.

To this end, they are to find documents—reviews, letters, diary entries, newspaper accounts, fan fiction, literary responses, etc.—that provide insight into how and why readers responded as they did. They will need to scrutinize these documents, contextualize them, and construct a framework which explains the back and forth between work and reader.

To walk them through the process, I will be teaching Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. We will look at the initial rejections of the manuscript, the changes that Hardy made to get it accepted for serial publication, the changes he made for the novel, his decision to add the provocative subtitle (A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented), the negative reviews, and Hardy’s response to those reviews. We’ll also look at a recent novel, Lily King’s The English Teacher, in which an English teacher has a fraught relationship with Tess for reasons that eventually become clear. Comparing and contrasting Victorian and contemporary responses will be revealing. In some ways, sexual assault and the issue of consent haven’t changed that much.

For today’s post, I compile a list of examples that I will give them so that they see what I have in mind. Sometimes a work is an event because it stirs up a group of readers, sometimes because it stirs up one very important reader (someone who has power and/or influence). Note that the interaction may occur when the book originally appeared or at some later period, maybe even centuries later.

Please feel free to send in suggestions. I will add any good ones to the list. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

–Why did the Earl of Essex pay for a special Globe performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II on the eve of his rebellion against Queen Elizabeth—and why did she, in turn, order a performance of the same play on the eve of his execution?

–Why did John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, write poems about Charles II that periodically got him exiled from court? Why did Charles keep bringing Wilmot back?

–Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock was written to reconcile two warring Catholic families? Why didn’t it work?

–Why did parents hate Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones when it came out and why did young people love it, to the extent that they named their lap dogs Tom and Sophia and bought fans and screens illustrated with scenes from the novel.

–Similarly, why did parents hate and young people love Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. And what are we to make of reports of young people committing suicide with copies of the novel in their pocket?

–Why was Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads such a sensation when it appeared?

–Why were 19th century readers shocked when they discovered that Wuthering Heights was written by a woman?

–What role did Uncle Tom’s Cabin play towards (in the words of Lincoln) “start[ing] this great war”?

–Why were charges of immorality brought against Flaubert’s Madame Bovary?

–Why would Oxford students link arms and stride defiantly through campus reciting the poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne.

–Why was The Picture of Dorian Gray accused of corrupting young people (and why did certain of these young people have the novel all but memorized).

–Why did President Teddy Roosevelt fall in love with the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson?

–Why did Suffragettes champion Jane Eyre.

 –Why have such novels as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved been banned from various public schools?

–What does the Jane Austen boom of the late 20th and early 21st century tell us about the ourselves?

As I say, send in your own suggestions and I’ll share them here and with my students.

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Powerful Stories Change Lives

Peter Frederick Rothermel, "Thou Art the Man"

Peter Frederick Rothermel, “Thou Art the Man”

Spiritual Sunday

Earlier this summer I had an interchange with a friend and retired Episcopalian rector, John Morrow, about the power of Biblical stories. John made a point very similar to one made by Sir Philip Sidney in his 1579 tract Defense of Poesy.

On why stories make such an impact upon us, John wrote,

I have always been fascinated by the oral tradition for it is essential to grasp what it really is if we are to understand how the Bible came to be.  We of the 21st century have great difficulty really understanding it. There is less and less reason to retain information and stories for we simply can “look them up” and refresh our already packed memory bank.  

In times past, however, travelers looking for refuge at night often would bring stories of other worlds, fascinating places, and exciting experiences.  Families would gather together and sit enchanted by every word.  When asked about the accuracy of the stories in the Bible, I often remind people that, in another age, minds were not cluttered with so much extraneous information. Therefore a story would be indelibly burned into one’s memory. Because facts would be retained with uncanny accuracy, sharing the stories would be expected and facts unchallenged. 

John wrote that, at a recent Diocesan Convention, presiding Bishop Michael Curry recounted several stories about Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites and then told the attendees, “There is salvation in these stories! You can see it, you can feel it! The story matters! We don’t forget stories that tell us of love and salvation!”

I would add that it doesn’t matter whether the Exodus stories, which would have occurred roughly 2500 years ago and were written down hundreds of years later, were factual. Indeed, archaeologists find no evidence of a mass migration from Egypt. Nevertheless, the Book of Exodus contains the truth that Bishop Curry describes, what author Tim O’Brien would call “story truth” over and against “happening truth.”

Sidney examines the Prophet Nathan’s use of “poetical invention” to shame King David after the affair of Uriah the Hittite and his wife Bathsheba.

The incident, as you may know, represents the low point of David’s kingship. After impregnating Uriah’s wife, David has Uriah positioned on the front line of battle so that he will be killed. The plan works and David marries Bathsheba. Enter Nathan, who tells a story:

But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD, and the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

One can see how Nathan has thoroughly trapped David in the drama of the greedy rich man, at which point he pulls the trigger:

Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.

David acknowledges the fault, telling Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

Sidney is defending poetical invention against the Puritan Stephen Gosson, who regards stories as entertaining lies. Sidney counters by reflecting on Nathan’s use of a gripping drama about someone he has made up. The “austere admonitions” of moral philosophy, Sidney says, would not be half as effective because the guilty party would resist them. Poetry is a different matter, serving up unpalatable truths in a beguiling way that helps the medicine go down:

[E]ven those hard-hearted evil men who think virtue a school-name…and therefore despise the austere admonitions of the philosopher, and feel not the inward reason they stand upon, yet will be content to be delighted, which is all the good-fellow poet seemeth to promise; and so steal to see the form of goodness—which seen, they cannot but love—ere themselves be aware, as if they took a medicine of cherries.

This, Sidney says, is what happens with David:

[W]hen the holy David had so far forsaken God as to confirm adultery with murder, when he [Nathan] was to do the tenderest office of a friend, in laying his own shame before his eyes,—sent by God to call again so chosen a servant, how doth he it but by telling of a man whose beloved lamb was ungratefully taken from his bosom? The application most divinely true, but the discourse itself feigned [fictional]; which made David…as in a glass to see his own filthiness, as that heavenly Psalm of Mercy well testifieth.

It is to David’s credit that the story brings him to self-knowledge. Great literature promises such wisdom, but too often, as Jonathan Swift says about satire, it functions as “a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”

I’ve noticed the acuteness of Sidney’s observation in my own reading. A prescriptive moral that I would instinctively resist becomes more compelling if I discover it myself when reflecting upon the themes of a story that has engaged me. I become a David in such instances.

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Palestinian Poet Compared to Hitler

Mahmoud Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish


For the final assignment in my upcoming Theories of the Reader class, I will have my students choose a literary work that became an “event” and figure out how and why it did so. Often an event involves controversies that a work aroused or continues to arouse. Examples include 18th century German parents attacking Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, 19th century audience members rioting during the premiere of Victor Hugo’s play The Battle of Hernani, and Republican Jesse Helms’s complaining about Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” in 1966, which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago.

A couple of weeks ago The New York Times alerted me to one such an event. Apparently Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s ultranationalist defense minister, compared the Palestinians’ national poet to Hitler.

Here’s what happened:

The controversy erupted after Army Radio, which has been under pressure from right-wing politicians to broadcast more patriotic programming, aired a show about the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, a revered figure among Palestinians whose work is a staple of school curriculums and is showcased at a signature museum in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The Defense Ministry issued a statement on Thursday saying that Mr. Lieberman had excoriated the commander of the radio station over the show. The statement said that “according to this same logic,” it would be possible to “glorify during a broadcast the literary marvels of Mein Kampf,” Hitler’s autobiography.

The story sent me to the internet to find poems by and information about Darwish. According to Poetry Foundation, Darwish was born in 1941 in Galilee in a village that was occupied and later razed by the Israeli army so that the original inhabitants couldn’t return. Because they had fled, Darwish and his family missed the official Israeli census and were considered “internal refugees” or “present-absent aliens.” In the 1960s Darwish was repeatedly imprisoned for traveling around Israel without a permit.

Looking at some of Darwish’s poems, one can see why someone like Lieberman would see him as a threat. In Darwish’s vision, the Palestinians have such an intimate relationship with the land that anyone else appears as an intruder. While there is anger behind the poems, there is also a quiet dignity. He does not advocate violence, which makes it particularly difficult to dismiss him.

According to the New York Times article, one Darwish passage in particular can be found chalked on walls and in other places: “We have on this land that which makes life worth living.” Here’s the poem:

On This Land

By Mahmoud Darwish 

He said, “We have on this land
That which makes life worth living,
We have on this land
All of that which makes life worth living,
April’s hesitation
The aroma of bread at dawn,
A woman’s beseeching of men
The writings of Aeschylus,
Love’s beginning,
Moss on a stone,
Mothers standing on a flute’s thread,
And the invaders’ fear of memories.

We have on this land
that which makes life worth living,
A lady leaving forty behind
With all of her apricots,
The hour of sunlight in prison,
Clouds imitating a flock of creatures,
A crowd’s applause for those who face their own erasure
with a smile
and the tyrant’s fear of songs.
We have on this land
All of that which makes life worth living.

On this land,
the lady of our land,
mother of all beginnings
Mother of all ends.
She was called Palestine
Her name later became Palestine
My lady
Because you are my lady,
I have all of that makes life worth living

Former prime minister Yitshak Shamir once said, of another Darwish poem, that it is “an example of the Palestinians’ unwillingness to live alongside Jews.” As Darwish would consider Shamir one of the tyrants, one can understand why the prime minister would see things this way. It must be admitted that Jewish longing for a homeland is no less powerful than Palestinian longing. Both have produced strong lyric poetry.

If peace is ever to come, some accommodation must be reached between these conflicting visions. Poetry can play a role in that it allows people to see into the mind of the Other. It’s difficult to demonize a Palestinian rhapsodizing about the aroma of bread at dawn.

The invocation of Hitler is an attempt to trigger Israelis’ fear receptors so that they will not acknowledge the humanity of the Palestinians. As Darwish notes, the Liebermans of the world fear memories and they fear songs.

I conclude with a Darwish observation on the power of poetry, quoted in the Jewish newpaper Haaretz:

I believe in the power of poetry, which gives me reasons to look ahead and identify a glint of light. Poetry can be a real bastard. It distorts. It has the power to transform the unreal into the real, and the real into the imaginary. It has the power to build a world that is at odds with the world in which we live. I see poetry as spiritual medicine … I have no other tool with which to find meaning for my life or for the life of my nation … I built with words a homeland for my nation and for myself.

Lieberman ironically confirms Darwish’s words. He too believes in poetry’s power, and he does not like it.

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And on Her Stomach Was a Scar!

Ludwig Bemelman, "Madeline"

Ludwig Bemelmans, “Madeline”


Yesterday I spent the day in a hospital as Julia had her gall bladder removed. The operation was successful, and when she showed me her scars, I flashed back on one of my favorite books from my childhood. I had my parents read it to me so many times that I had it memorized.

Ludwig Bemelmans’s “Madeline” is about a little girl in a convent school who comes down with appendicitis and has to be rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night. While the “twelve little girls” at the school do everything in “two straight lines,” Madeline is a rebel and often does her own thing:

[T]he smallest one
was Madeline.
She was not afraid
of mice-
she loved winter,
snow, and ice.

To the tiger in the zoo
Madeline just said,

and nobody knew so well
how to frighten Miss Clavel.

Contracting appendicitis is another ways that Madeline stands out, although in this case it undermines her self-sufficiency:

In the middle of one night
Miss Clavel turned on the light
and said, “Something is not right!”

Little Madeline sat in bed,
cried and cried; her eyes were red.

And soon after Dr. Cohn
came, he rushed out to the phone
and he dialed: DANton-ten-six-
“Nurse,” he said, “it’s an appendix!”

As a child, I remember being fascinated by Madeline’s bed and by her hospital room:

Madeline soon ate and drank.
On her bed there was a crank,
and a crank on the ceiling had the habit
of sometimes looking like a rabbit.

Today’s hospital beds, I can report, have electronic cranks and a host of other features. In the standardized and anodyne hospital rooms, however, there are no interesting ceiling cracks.

What most stood out to me as a child, however, is the moment when Madeline shows off her scar. All eyes are on her:

One nice morning Miss Clavel said–
“Isn’t this a fine-
day to visit

read a sign outside her door.
Tiptoeing with solemn face,
with some flowers and a vase,

in they walked and then said, “Ahhh,”
when they saw the toys and candy
and the dollhouse from Papa.

But the biggest surprise by far–
on her stomach
was a scar!

According to my mother, my two-year-old self was delighted by that final stanza and I would excitedly announce, “On her tomach was a car.” I must have been excited, even though I didn’t know what scars were, that Madeline had triumphantly overcome adversity and everyone was admiring her for doing so.

Well, Julia has three scars, held together by super glue (which apparently they now use in place of stitches). She too has triumphantly overcome diversity.

Julia travels to Atlanta next week to begin taking care of our three granddaughters and will have to be very careful about lifting and straining. Like Madeline’s classmates, I suspect that Esmé and Etta will be fascinated by the scars. Unlike those classmates, however, I doubt if they will long to have scars of their own:

In the middle of the night
Miss Clavel turned on her light
and said, “Something is not right!”
And afraid of disaster
Miss Clavel ran fast and faster,
and she said, “Please children do-
tell me what is troubling you?”

And all the little girls cried, “Boohoo,
we want to have our appendix out too!”

Did I love the book because it captures both a child’s restless nights and the need for assurance that adults will be there if things go wrong? Whatever the case, I remember being comforted by Miss Clavel’s final reassurance:

“Good night, little girls!
Thank the lord you are well!
And now go to sleep!”
said Miss Clavel.
And she turned out the light–
and closed the door–
and that’s all there is–
there isn’t any more.

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Is Trump Running a Red Queen Race?

John Tenniel, "Through the Looking Glass"

John Tenniel, “Through the Looking Glass”


Other than Shakespeare’s plays, to capture contemporary politics I’ve turned most frequently to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. Who else but the foremost nonsense writer of the 19th century could do justice to what the United States has been experiencing in recent years. Now respected political scientist Jonathan Bernstein of Bloomberg View has alerted me to another applicable passage. Donald Trump, he says, is involved in a “Red Queen Race”:

My feeling at this point is that Trump earlier this year was able to escape his Red Queen Race — in which he had to do more and more outrageous things in order to maintain the same (very large) share of media attention. He escaped it because CNN, in particular, decided to milk the Trump Show the way that it milked the missing airplane. As long as that lasted, Trump only had to stay outrageous, not constantly ratchet up. However, it’s harder for the media to ignore long-standing norms of fairness in the general election. Which means the Red Queen Race is back.

 In Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, Alice at one point finds herself running alongside the Red Queen. They race along for about ten minutes with the wind whistling in their ears, only to discover that they are still under the same tree. Alice is confused:

Alice looked round her in great surprise. “Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!”

“Of course it is,” said the Queen, “what would you have it?”

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

From attacking Gold Star parents to contending that Russia has not invaded the Ukraine to kicking a baby out of a campaign event, Trump has certainly managed to stay atop the news cycle over the past few days. (I don’t recall hearing anything about Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine recently other than they are out there campaigning somewhere in the Midwest.) If making outrageous statements is a version of keeping pace, it appears that Trump is running twice as fast as anyone ever has, and he is certainly getting somewhere else.

Whether that somewhere else is where he wants to be is another question.


Previous posts applying Lewis Carroll posts to U.S. Politics

Lewis Carroll Describes the Caucus Races 

Rubio and Cruz as Tweedledum and Tweedledee

Donald Rumsfeld through the Looking Glass

Scandal? Nothing but a Pack of Cards

Medicare Politics and Gullible Oysters

Romney and Ryan’s Gently Smiling Jaws

The Cheshire Cat and Romney’s Off-Putting Laugh

Mitt Romney and Looking Glass Politics

The Presidential Candidates in Wonderland

Rightwing Rewrites Reality

Tweedledum, Tweedledee, and Medi(s)care

Believing 6 Impossibilities before Breakfast

It’s Been a Mad Tea Party

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Butler’s 1998 Sci-Fi Novel Predicted Trump

Parable of the Talents


 My novelist friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to this Huffington Post article about science fiction novelist Octavia Butler all but predicting, in 1998, the rise of Donald Trump.

An African American author raised in poverty, Butler is noted for her depictions of a dystopian future. In The Parable of the Seed, scarcity is tearing apart the United States. In the sequel, The Parable of the Talents, there is a religious-political leader—he’s the head of the “Christian America Church”–who promises to “make America great again.” (Yes, you heard that right.) When Evangelical white supremacist groups commit acts of terror and murder, he only mildly criticizes them. After all, there wouldn’t be unrest if everyone became a Christian and joined his party. Here’s the narrator reflecting upon a recent massacre:

I couldn’t help wondering, though, whether these people, with their crosses, had some connection with my current least favorite presidential candidate, Texas Senator Andrew Steele Jarret. It sounds like the sort of thing his people might do—a revival of something nasty out of the past. Did the Ku Klux Klan wear crosses—as well as burn them? The Nazis wore the swastika, which is a kind of cross, but I don’t think they wore it on their chests. There were crosses all over the place during the Inquisition and before that, during the Crusades. So now we have another group that uses crosses and slaughters people.

Trump has received a number of endorsements from white supremacists, including David Duke, and he regularly retweets white supremacist messages. In one case, he borrowed, and then defended using, a white supremacist image of a star of David surrounded by money. The antiSemitic association of Jews with big money was used to label Clinton as “the most corrupt candidate ever.”

Like Trump, Jarret longs for a time when whites and Christians reigned supreme:

Jarret’s people could be behind it. Jarret insists on being a throwback to some earlier, “simpler” time. Now does not suit him. Religious tolerance does not suit him. The current state of the country does not suit him. He wants to take us all back to some magical time when everyone believed in the same God, worshipped him in the same way, and understood that their safety in the universe depended on completing the same religious rituals and stomping anyone who was different There was never such a time in this country.

Many of Jarret’s supporters, like Trump’s, are fact resistant and therefore particularly susceptible to emotional manipulation:

But these days when more than half the people in the country can’t read at all, history is just one more vast unknown to them. Jarret supporters have been known, now and then, to form mobs and burn people at the stake for being witches. Witches! In 2032! A witch, in their view, tends to be a Moslem, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or, in some parts of the country, a Mormon, a Jehovah’s Witness, or even a Catholic. A witch may also be an atheist, a “cultist,” or a well-to-do eccentric. Well-to-do eccentrics often have no protectors or much that’s worth stealing. And “cultist” is a great catchall term for anyone who fits into no other large category, and yet doesn’t quite match Jarret’s version of Christianity. Jarret’s people have been known to beat or drive out Unitarians, for goodness’ sake. Jarret condemns the burnings, but does so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear. As for the beatings, the tarring and feathering, and the destruction of “heathen houses of devil-worship,” he has a simple answer: “Join us! Our doors are open to every nationality, every race! Leave your sinful past behind, and become one of us. Help us to make America great again.” He’s had notable success with this carrot-and-stick approach. Join us and thrive, or whatever happens to you as a result of your own sinful stubbornness is your problem.

 A version of what Butler’s narrator says about Jarret’s opponent could also have been said about a number of Trump’s GOP opponents. Some (although not me) also say it about Hillary Clinton:

His opponent Vice President Edward Jay Smith calls him a demagogue, a rabble-rouser, and a hypocrite. Smith is right, of course, but Smith is such a tired, gray shadow of a man. Jarret, on the other hand, is a big, handsome, black-haired man with deep, clear blue eyes that seduce people and hold them. He has a voice that’s a whole-body experience, the way my father’s was. In fact, I’m sorry to say, Jarret was once a Baptist minister like my father. But he left the Baptists behind years ago to begin his own “Christian America” denomination. He no longer preaches regular CA sermons at CA churches or on the nets, but he’s still recognized as head of the church.

In accounting for Jarret’s appel, the narrator helps us understand why it doesn’t matter if Trump contradicts himself from one moment to the next regarding policy:

It seems inevitable that people who can’t read are going to lean more toward judging candidates on the way they look and sound than on what they claim they stand for. Even people who can read and are educated are apt to pay more attention to good looks and seductive lies than they should. And no doubt the new picture ballots on the nets will give Jarret an even greater advantage.

Good novelists know the society they are writing about. Butler’s African American perspective bolsters her insights. The dystopia that she predicts for 2032 may occur even sooner if we elect Trump as our president.

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Chelsea’s Books and Female Ambition

Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet

Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet


I write today on two books mentioned by Chelsea Clinton when she introduced her mother at the Democratic National Convention last Thursday—Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (or at any rate the A&E mini-series). I’m thinking that both books had to have spoken to Clinton family concerns about female ambition.

An Atlantic article by Spencer Kornhaber casts some light on why Chelsea would have been drawn to Wrinkle. First, here’s Chelsea:

I remember one week talking incessantly about a book that had captured my imagination, A Wrinkle in Time. Only after my parents had listened to me would they then talk about what they were working on, education, healthcare, what was consuming their days and keeping them up at night.

Kornhaber observes,

It is quite, yes, ordinary that teenage Chelsea might have been smitten with Madeleine L’Engle’s 1963 book, a young-adult fiction touchstone. But it’s possible to read greater significance into the mention of this particular young-adult-fiction touchstone on the night when her mother became the first female major-party presidential candidate.

Bookish girls tend to mark phases of their lives by periods of intense literary character identification,” wrote Pamela Paul in a 2012 New York Times column. “For those who came of age any time during the past half-century, the most startling transformation occurred upon reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery Medal-winning classic, A Wrinkle in Time. … It was under L’Engle’s influence that we willed ourselves to be like Meg Murry, the awkward girl who suffered through flyaway hair, braces, and glasses but who was also and to a much greater degree concerned with the extent of her own intelligence, the whereabouts of her missing scientist father, the looming threat of conformity and, ultimately, the fate of the universe.”

Kornhaber then connects the dots:

The parallels between Meg Murry and adolescent Chelsea Clinton are obvious from that quote alone, right down to the description of braces and unruly hair. As Lindsay Lowe noted for The Atlantic in 2013, Meg is an introverted, brainy heroine rather than a spunky, hotheaded one, a distinction that likely appeals to both Clinton women. And Meg, like Chelsea, is the daughter of two very high-powered parents—a spacetime-hopping astrophysicist dad and a microbiologist mother who eventually wins a Nobel Prize. There are extra-textual comparisons to be made, too: L’Engle once said that the novel was originally rejected by dozens of publishers, partly for the reason that it “had a female protagonist in a science-fiction book, and that wasn’t done”—a gender barrier of a different sort than the one broken last night.

I think there may be another factor as well. In the novel, Meg must rescue her father from becoming engulfed in his work, with a similar fate threatening her genius younger brother. Given how politics took over her father’s life, perhaps Chelsea instinctively wanted to talk to her parents about Wrinkle because she wanted to get him back. Ultimately Meg’s love triumphs and she saves her brother. It’s a powerful story but not, by 1970s feminist standards, an endorsement of breaking through the glass ceiling.

The fascination with Pride and Prejudice interests me for what it says about Hillary. As we learned from her husband last week, there was an extended courtship which also involves the rejection of a marriage proposal (two actually). But maybe more significantly, Elizabeth needs to marry this man if she is to step into her political potential. In her case, female power involves becoming mistress of Pemberley and patroness of a village.

My novelist friend Rachel Kranz sees Pride and Prejudice doing real damage by conveying that a smart woman like Elizabeth must aspire, above all, to marriage. And it is true that when Bill Clinton resorted to reverse psychology and suggested that Hillary not marry him but instead run for office, she replied, “Who would vote for me?” Was there a danger that Pride and Prejudice, seen in the 1990s, would confirm the image that women should aspire to be the wives of governors and presidents and not to the positions themselves? Is this another version of Meg aspiring to save her scientist father and brother rather than become a scientist herself?

In other words, while both works endorse female power in ways that were progressive for their time, neither pushes fully against social constraints. That makes Hillary’s decision to run for president all the more remarkable. She not only has had to break through the glass ceiling but also through literary narratives.

It remains to be seen whether American voters can break through their own narratives and elect her president. Given the alternative, pray hard.

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Implore His Aid, in His Decisions Rest

Eric Enstrom, "Grace"

Eric Enstrom, “Grace”

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Old Testament reading, the familiar passage from Ecclesiastes, has given me an excuse to go back and read an important poem that it inspired. I last read Samuel Johnson’s “Vanity of Human Wishes” before I discovered Christianity—back in the 1980s—and today find it to be a much different poem. It now seems more hopeful.

First of all, here’s today’s reading (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23):

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

Johnson’s poem is too long to summarize in its entirety, but I’ll share some of the highlights. It begins by noting how “Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate” trap humans in their snares. Even the “Knowing and the Bold,” for instance, fall prey to “the gen’ral Massacre of Gold”:

But scarce observed the Knowing and the Bold,
Fall in the gen’ral Massacre of Gold;
Wide-wasting Pest! that rages unconfined,
And crowds with Crimes the Records of Mankind,
For Gold his Sword the Hireling Ruffian draws,
For Gold the hireling Judge distorts the Laws;
Wealth heaped on Wealth, nor Truth nor Safety buys,
The Dangers gather as the Treasures rise.

Do we beseech the heavens to grant us fame and celebrity? Well, that just sets us up for worries, hatred, and insult:

Few know the toiling Statesman’s Fear or Care,
Th’ insidious Rival and the gaping Heir…

Unnumber’d Suppliants crowd Preferment’s Gate,
Athirst for Wealth, and burning to be great;
Delusive Fortune hears th’ incessant Call,
They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall.
On ev’ry Stage the Foes of Peace attend,
Hate dogs their Flight, and Insult mocks their End.

Citing various historical examples, Johnson goes on to show the disappointment that comes from a range of successes, from scholarly achievement to military conquest. Then he shifts to a longing closer to home: our desire to live a long life. This also proves to be vanity. “Life protracted,” Johnson soberly tells us, “is protracted Woe” because we lose our ability to enjoy sensual pleasures, we suffer aches and pains, and we sometimes succumb to dementia:

Enlarge my Life with Multitude of Days,
In Health, in Sickness, thus the Suppliant prays;
Hides from himself his State, and shuns to know,
That Life protracted is protracted Woe.
Time hovers o’er, impatient to destroy,
And shuts up all the Passages of Joy:
In vain their Gifts the bounteous Seasons pour,
The Fruit autumnal, and the Vernal Flow’r,
With listless Eyes the Dotard views the Store,
He views, and wonders that they please no more…


Unnumber’d Maladies each Joint invade,
Lay Siege to Life and press the dire Blockade…
From Marlb’rough’s Eyes the Streams of Dotage flow,
And Swift expires a Driv’ler and a Show.

The images of  a demented general, the Duke of Malborough, and of Jonathan Swift are especially unsettling. Johnson had a love-hate relationship with Swift, in part because of Swift’s madness following a stroke. Johnson feared that he himself might some day be wheeled out to be shown to curious visitors, as Swift was by his servants.

Even if we have a good old age, however, Johnson warns that all is still vanity. That’s because a long life just sets us up to witness our loved ones die:

Yet ev’n on this [peaceful old age] her Load Misfortune flings,
To press the weary Minutes flagging Wings:
New Sorrow rises as the Day returns,
A Sister sickens, or a Daughter mourns.
Now Kindred Merit fills the sable Bier,
Now lacerated Friendship claims a Tear.
Year chases Year, Decay pursues Decay,
Still drops some Joy from with’ring Life away;

The list continues. Do you long to be beautiful? Well, first you have rivals and then you have regrets. And so on.

To this point, both Ecclesiastes and Johnson’s poem are awfully grim. Fortunately, we can turn to prayer, advice that means more to me than when I first read the poem. Johnson concludes the poem by asserting that, if we send petitions to Heaven, it will not be in vain. Or at least, it won’t be in vain if we leave it up to God to figure out how to answer.

Johnson tells us that we must not dictate how we wish our prayers to be answered but “leave to Heav’n the Measure and the Choice.” With a strong sense of God’s presence, Johnson says, pray for a healthful mind, for obedience, for acceptance of God’s will (“a Will resigned”) , for love, for patience, and for faith. If we do so, we will come to see death as “kind Nature’s Signal of Retreat,” our minds will be calmed, and we will find happiness:

                                          Petitions yet remain,
Which Heav’n may hear, nor deem Religion vain.
Still raise for Good the supplicating Voice,
But leave to Heav’n the Measure and the Choice…
Implore his Aid, in his Decisions rest,
Secure whate’er he gives, he gives the best.
Yet with the Sense of sacred Presence prest,
When strong Devotion fills thy glowing Breast,
Pour forth thy Fervors for a healthful Mind,
Obedient Passions, and a Will resigned;
For Love, which scarce collective Man can fill;
For Patience sov’reign o’er transmuted Ill;
For Faith, that panting for a happier Seat,
Thinks Death kind Nature’s Signal of Retreat:
These Goods for Man the Laws of Heav’n ordain,
These Goods he grants, who grants the Pow’r to gain;
With these celestial Wisdom calms the Mind,
And makes the Happiness she does not find.

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Wishing Hillary Godspeed

Obama Clinton


 So it will be Hillary vs. the Donald battling it out in “the arena” (to quote the president quoting Teddy Roosevelt). As much as I, a dyed-in-the-wood Democrat, loved the various speeches from the former presidents and the vice-president, part of me couldn’t help feeling that we were watching a father—or a series of fathers—giving the bride away. Maybe the image came to mind because I’ve been reading Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and was struck by Sue Bridehead’s objection to such a patriarchal practice:

I have been looking at the marriage service in the prayer-book, and it seems to me very humiliating that a giver-away should be required at all. According to the ceremony as there printed, my bridegroom chooses me of his own will and pleasure; but I don’t choose him. Somebody gives me to him, like a she-ass or she-goat, or any other domestic animal.

Then again, it’s not just any men giving Hillary their blessing but men who have been running the most powerful country on earth. They know up close what she will be facing. It’s as though she’s the rookie in the room—okay, a highly qualified rookie—and the veterans are giving her their blessing.

So the other passage that comes to mind is the conclusion of James Baldwin’s short story “Sunny’s Blues.” Sunny’s band knows how frightening it is for Sunny to return to music after being jailed for heroin possession, and they gathering around him to support him. They at first play music that allows him to rediscover the piano and then gently push him into the deep water of the blues. As the narrator puts it,

Creole wasn’t trying any longer to get Sonny in the water. He was wishing him Godspeed.

So that’s a better way to see Wednesday night: people who had faced the awesome responsibility of serving as president of the United States wishing the most recent applicant Godspeed.

Previous posts on Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton as Emma Woodhouse

Was T. S. Eliot a Key to Hillary’s Success

Hillary and the Pressure To Be a Cool Girl

Limbaugh’s Hillary-Ratched Comparison

Trump’s Game of Thrones Invasion 

Bernie is Peter Pan, Hillary Is Wendy

The “V” Word: Casting Hillary as Duessa

Hillary Before the Judges Is Like Tolstoy’s Pierre 

Lucille Clifton, Ralph Ellison Help Explain Whitesplaining

Prospero and the Presidential Primaries 

Cruz as Beowulf? Try Grendel 

Oedipal Blindness in Benghazi 

Hillary Will Be Cast as a Witch

Rebelling against Big Nurse’s Nanny State

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We Shall Not Look Upon His Like Again



Watching the president’s amazing speech last night, I pass along a Hamlet passage that someone tweeted. Hamlet says it about his father but it may be even truer of Barack Obama:

I saw him once; he was a goodly king.

He was a man, take him for all in all,

I shall not look upon his like again.

But I shall not yet say, “Good night, sweet prince.” I suspect he’ll do something significant with his post-presidency as well.

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Like Citizen Kane, Trump Lacks Substance

Donald Trump


Continuing with yesterday’s reflection on Donald Trump’s favorite movie, I want to explore exactly why Trump likes Citizen Kane. Is it because it’s about another narcissist and he revels in the fact that cinema’s most famous movie is about someone like himself? Or is it because he recognizes within Kane his own rosebud longing? Does he recognize in another his own poetic soul, buried deep beneath psychic wounds.

Having just read Jane Mayer’s remarkable New Yorker interview with Tony Schwartz, ghostwriter of Trump’s Art of the Deal, I suspect that the first answer is closer to the truth. I don’t detect any poetry within Trump, perhaps because it was beaten out of him. Fred Trump demanded that he be tough, and Trump appears to have an Oedipal relationship with his father, building towers and financial empires to prove that he is the bigger man.

In the film, it is Kane’s mother, not his father, who insists that he become bigger than life. She all but sells him to the banker Thatcher, modeled on J. P. Morgan, so that one day he’ll be famous. Kane takes his anger out against the deal, and specifically Thatcher, through perpetual rebellion. Later in life, when Thatcher bails him out of bankruptcy (as Fred at one point bailed out Donald), he tells Thatcher that his dream in life was to become “everything you hate.” Maybe Donald responds to that conflict in the film.

Or maybe Trump sees a kindred entertainer in the film. Kane, as a yellow journalist, values entertainment over the facts. To sell newspapers, he works to involve the United States in an unjust war (the Spanish American War), and his dictum that the size of the headline trumps facts pretty much sums up Trump. Kane is a flamboyant personality, and the film contrasts him with the faceless reporters who are meant to stand in for Henry Luce’s Time-Life Magazine Empire. Luce’s journalism, especially Time, had no by-lines so that the stories would appear more factual. That’s why the reporter in the film and the figures previewing the newsreel are all in shadow.

To cast the contrast in modern day terms, it’s as though Kane is editing The New York Post or The National Inquirer whereas the News on the March newsreel that lays out his life is The New York Times. Welles may be nostalgic for an earlier personality-driven journalism over the faceless media empire that appears to be replacing it, but Time-Life had higher truth standards than William Randolph Hearst’s Sun newspapers.

Once entertainment trumps truth, however, Kane is king, and the dynamism of Welles’s character helps us understand why today’s media is riveted by Trump. Politicians who major goal is to be effective public servants—let’s start with Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton—appear low energy in contrast. They may know that substantive change occurs through slow, steady, and unglamorous work, but try getting people to tune in to that story..

In the end Welles, even while he dismembers Kane, is nostalgic for his glamour, and that glamour, in the end, is probably what draws Trump to the film. The people I want running my country, however, are those who will do thankless work in the trenches. They are the ones who will make government serve us. They are the ones we must vote for in November.

Further thought: Following Hillary’s acceptance speech, a number of people noted the contrast between her use of the word “we” with Trump’s use of the word “I.” William Saletan of Slate, for instance, noted,

This contrast—Trump’s “I” against Clinton’s “we”—is the fundamental choice in the 2016 election. Until Clinton spoke, I had dismissed her convention theme, “Stronger Together,” as a cliché. I don’t anymore. It fits the candidates and the moment. Trump wants the election to be a contest between two people. He’s the charismatic figure, the entertainer, the brash CEO. Clinton rejects that framework. She’s not running against him for the same job. She’s challenging his view of what the job is. Her vision of the job—humbler, less autocratic, more collaborative—is better. It’s more effective. It’s more American.

Kane’s friend Jed Leland observes a false note after Kane takes over a newspaper with the intent of becoming a crusading journalist. Kane’s “Declaration of Principles,” to be printed on the front page of the first issue, captures their early idealism. However, it also contains a touch of Trumpian self-absorption that will ultimately lead Kane to violate these principles and blow up the friendship:

Kane (quoting from his Declaration): “I’ll provide the people of this city with a daily paper that will tell all the news honestly. I will also provide them–“
Leland: That’s the second sentence you’ve started with “I”–
Kane: People are going to know who’s responsible. And they’re going to get the news–the true news–quickly and simply and entertainingly. And no special interests will be allowed to interfere with the truth of that news. [Writing and reading again] “I will also provide them with a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and human beings–Signed–Charles Foster Kane.”

And one other thought: Kane, like Trump and narcissists generally, believes he can remake reality. The fact that Susan Alexander is not a good singer, relayed to him by Susan’s music teacher, don’t sway Kane, and he builds an opera house to showcase her “talent.” It’s a good symbol of those current politicians–most famously Karl Rove–who refuse to acknowledge a “reality based community” (say, scientific evidence of climate change). Here’s from The New York Times interview with Rove by Ron Susskind:

The aide [Rove] said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

With a President Trump, we can expect more of the same.

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Donald Trump as Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane


Last past May we learned that Donald Trump’s favorite movie is Citizen Kane. After the Republican’s National Convention last week, I’m wondering whether he isn’t actually using the film for campaign ideas.

Consider the following speech that Kane gives when he is on the verge—or so it seems at the moment—of being elected governor of New York over “Boss” Jim Gettys. With a smug little self-satisfied smile and with an enormous picture of himself towering over him, Kane says,

But here’s one promise I’ll make, and Boss Jim Gettys knows I’ll keep it. My first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W. Gettys.

In Trump’s case, the target is “crooked Hillary,” and there were references during convention speeches to Hillary in an orange jump suit, to Hillary behind bars, to Hillary “locked up.” We learn from Boss Gettys that Kane has been conducting a similar campaign:

Hillary buttonWell, Mr. Kane, if I owned a newspaper and if I didn’t like the way somebody was doing things, some politician, say—I’d fight him with everything I had, only I wouldn’t show him in a convict suit with stripes, so his children could see the picture in the paper, or his mother.

It so turns out that Gettys has leverage over Kane, which is knowledge of his extramarital affair with Susan Alexander. That’s a difference between now and 1941, when Citizen Kane was made. Today, even three marriages aren’t enough to keep the Christian right from supporting Trump.

The movie exposes Kane’s supposed concern for the working man. While he runs as a populist, his friend Jed Leland points out that he’s really all out for himself. Here’s Leland after Kane’s defeat:

You talk about the people as though you owned them. As though they belong to you. As long as I can remember, you’ve talked about giving the people their rights as if you could make them a present of liberty, as a reward for services rendered.

And further on:

[The working man is] turning into something called organized labor. You’re not going to like that one little bit when you find out it means your workingman expects something at his right and not your gift. Charlie, when your precious underprivileged really get together—oh, boy, that’s going to add up to something bigger than your privilege, and then I don’t know what you’ll do. Sail away to a desert island, probably, and lord it over the monkeys.

And finally:

You don’t care about anything except you. You just want to persuade people that you love them so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms.

To which the narcissistic Kane says,

A toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows, his own.

By the end of his life, Kane is hobnobbing with fascists, just as Trump is saying favorable things about autocrats like Putin and Saddam Hussein. He dies in an empty mausoleum that reflects the emptiness of his soul.

Posted in Welles (Orson) | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment


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