Friday, August 18, 2017
A couple days ago Baltimore removed four statues honoring Confederates in the middle of the night. Last night a statue of Supreme Court Justice Roger "Dred Scott Decision" Taney was removed from its perch on the State House lawn.
As a student of History, as a teacher of History, I sympathize with those who say that removing these statues is white-washing or scrubbing History from the public sphere. We should be cautious in deciding which historical figures to celebrate on our public lands, and should be judicious when it comes to removing those previously honored. But while I might sympathize with them, I totally disagree with their conclusion. These statues SHOULD be removed and placed in museums or in Confederate cemeteries or on private lands where individuals so inclined can maintain them for posterity.
We don't have statues celebrating John Wilkes Booth all over the place for a reason, after all. And if you celebrate Jackson and Lee and their ilk--men who fought valiantly for a racist, cruel, and feudal society--you might as well celebrate John Wilkes Booth, who fired the final shot of the Civil War, and who was just as virulent a racist and traitor as the others.
As a "white" man, I can choose which representatives of my "heritage" to honor, or who represents my idea or ideal "heritage" as a "white" man. I can honor John Brown, who yanked a family of slavers out of their beds and had his sons and other members of his Free Soil militia dismember them with broadswords. I can honor Jeffrey Dahmer or John Wayne Gacy or Charles Manson. I can honor Hitler or Stalin as part of my "white" heritage. I can honor racists who were on the wrong side of History and claim them as my "heritage." Or, I can honor those who fought against racism and for justice and equality. Or, as a "white" man, I can choose to honor and have as personal heroes members of ALL races--and I can say all races are human and therefore my humanity is no different from theirs, and my heritage is shared with those who are Black, Red, Yellow, Brown, etc.
Mayor Landrieu explains the history of these statues well--these were not monuments "honoring" brave men who were part of "white" heritage. They were propaganda designed to create a false past, part of a white-washing campaign to make bigotry and vile racism into "states' rights," to make the North the aggressors and the South heroic defenders of an honorable tradition. If you read the reasons for secession as announced by the Southern States, and if you read the documents created by the founders of the Confederacy, this bullshit falls apart right quick. But this propaganda was also directed at African Americans: we might have lost the conflict, but things ain't changed for y'all, and don't forget it!
Stop pretending otherwise. If you celebrate these "heroes," then you believe what they stood for, which is a hateful, violent, racist ideology. And yes, it's hard to accept that you are a hateful racist, or that you were taught something that is hateful and racist was honorable and just. But facts are facts. Removing these statues does not scrub our History, it stops celebrating criminality and treason. As a citizen you have the right to celebrate whomever you choose, and on your private property you can fly the stars and bars or a swastika or whatever other emblem you believe represents your heritage or ideology--but you can't force the rest of us to celebrate it.
And I write this as someone who can see why Lee and Jackson are regarded as heroes--it's hard not to admire the way they were able to defeat much larger and better-equipped Union forces again and again through pluck and ingenuity. And I understand that their ties were to their home State more than to the Union, and that each man had complexities and ambiguities as all do. But the side they fought for was morally repugnant, and remains so.
Stonewall Jackson's great-great grandsons agree: Video.
A final note: White Pride is often a code word for White Supremacy.
Sunday, July 16, 2017
I managed between September of last year and June of this to put together 280 consecutive days of either meditation, Tai Chi, or both. I tracked my data in an app called Insight Timer. It felt great, and helped me through some stressful times. But then the goal of extending my consecutive days streak became the point of meditation, rather than learning to control the mind and turn it to more disciplined pursuits. Once I saw that, I took an immediate break from data chasing and took a couple days off from meditation and Tai Chi. I wanted to re-set my goals for practice.
This short book is the right pick-me-up. I think I read about it in a review by Pema Chodron? It's really clear, unpretentious, easily relatable, clever...and practical. If you're considering starting a meditation practice, this would be a great foundation. If, on the other hand, you are hoping to deepen your practice or restart after stalling. you will find a great guide and mentor in Sakyong Mipham.
I want to add that Insight Timer in no way caused my obsession with mindfulness data--this is a realization I needed to make via work on myself, my motivations, my competitiveness, my manner of approaching goals. Insight Timer is useful in many ways, including reminder chimes, timers with a variety of bells and options, of course the ability to chart and track your data, and a journal/log. You can also link with others and see who meditated at the same time as you around the world (if that's your bag--these options are all optional).
Saturday, July 15, 2017
Love this short graphic history of the IWW and its radicalism, its struggle for justice for the oppressed, and its myriad accomplishments. Social Studies teachers take note that this has substantial usefulness if you teach economics, labor, civil rights, or race relations as part of your curriculum. I dreamed I read about Joe Hill last night--in cartoon form!
Had a nice conversation with a Lyft driver from Nigeria about politics in our home countries and about the immigrant experience in Trump's America. I told the driver about this novel, which focuses on the experiences of a half-Nigerian, half-German immigrant living and working as a psychiatrist in NY. The narrator sees the world mostly through a European lens, with European attitudes, tastes, and morals. He seems a nice sort, well-rounded and hard-working, intellectual and curious about the world. But he is unable to really connect with other immigrants, those living on the margins of Western societies. Though he is familiar with and a bit sympathetic to their reasons for radicalization, he is too inside his European self to really understand them. There are nods to Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Franz Fanon. Late in the book a childhood acquaintance confronts the narrator about a long-repressed crime. This crime serves as analogy for the West's imperial/colonial crimes and their repression on a societal level. A beautiful and sad work, quite substantial.
And speaking of beautiful and sad works--damn! Great portrayal of Lincoln's grief at the loss of his son. The manner of story-telling here is documentary style, with snippets from correspondence, diaries, newspaper reports, and also from the POV of denizens inhabiting a purgatory centered around the cemetery where young Lincoln is buried, and where Abe goes late at night in his despair. Like most of Saunders's fiction, the tragic is balanced by outrageous hilarity. A brisk and thoughtful work, clever in construction and much deeper than expected.
Dixon is an acquired taste, one I acquired back in the '90s when I read Frog. No other writer peels back the curtain on his process to this degree--the reader is plunged into the reminiscences, revisions, and constraints that went into the craft of the story. In fact the structure of his work often IS the story being written overtly on the page. Knowing his oeuvre quite well, I would place this in the middle tier of his novels. It's quite frustrating at times and at others is deeply sad or hilarious. What I like most about Dixon's fiction is his ability to show through that unique voice our own fussy self-revisions, repressions, and constraints--how we craft our own stories about ourselves and those we love. I remember him signing Frog for me at Borders back int he '90s, and correcting by hand with a blue marker two typos before returning it to me. Mind you, Frog is like 800 pages long and he flipped quickly to both spots and made the corrections. Something one of his narrators would do, or do do, or would think about doing and then not.
Chunks of a giant comet smashed into Earth 12,000 years ago, destroying an already advanced human civilization. A few survivors roam Earth teaching other peoples the lost knowledge, and encoding warnings about the calamity's return in sites like Gobleki Tepi and the Giza plateau. I like Hancock's books--because I, too, believe there have been previous civilizations here that were destroyed, and that the presumption we have achieved the heights of wisdom and knowledge and that all who came before are "primitive" is likely the sort of hubris that sank the Atlanteans. But I don't always buy Hancock's arguments or his reasoning--what is a speculative leap on one page becomes an accepted fact later. But: FUN!
Sometimes gorgeous and wise, sometimes cloying and silly--but always worth the journey.
Sunday, March 12, 2017
After a half-decade of precipitous decline in book learning, I'm back on track for a fifty-plus volume year. Of course fifty-plus volumes is about half what I used to read, but it beats the abominable and inexcusable past five years. But being a teacher is hard. The last thing I want to do after work is read!
SPQR is a tidy and engaging exploration of current scholarship about Roman history from its beginnings to its fall. Of course doing all this in one volume means one gets a SKETCHY history, but Beard knows what she's about, and her focus on a few key themes (such as the foundational myths of the Roman state and their resonance and recurrence and use by the powerful) keeps the volume from bogging down or seeming too light. I enjoyed it immensely.
A passionate, heavily documented, and well-argued case for the re-establishment of John Brown as more than just a fanatical curiosity in US History. At times there's a bit TOO MUCH hagiography, as in the chapter about poetry and music which seems to claim that John Brown was the topic of every poem ever written...but I agree that his impact on the fabric of America cannot be understated, and that he was purposefully diminished by a century of haters in order to make him appear a crazed terrorist and no more for a reason.
Brown's raid terrified the South and inflamed their passionate fear-mongering of Northern aggressors, and his martyrdom was latched onto by propagandists in the North who created a myth and a series of patriotic and religious songs about Brown's scaffold equating to the Crucifix. It was his speeches and correspondence between capture and hanging which made him a substantial man of letters, words that inflamed the Transcendentalists to memorialize him, and which laid the groundwork for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Brown believed more ardently than 95% of his fellow Abolitionists in the humanity of black folk, and their equality, and that God hated slavery. He also knew it would require tons of blood to cleanse it from America. It has yet to be cleansed.
H,P. Lovecraft imagined bizarre and bleak alternate realities which have captured the imaginations of introvert nerds for decades. I include myself in that category, though I must admit that since adolescence has passed I find much of his stuff completely unendurable. But the impact he had on my imagination lingers, despite the fact that I learned later he was an irascible racist and would likely have found Hitler's Final Solution quite satisfying had he lived to know about it.
So this "novel" (actually a series of interconnected novellas) sets a family of African Americans in a Lovecraft Mythos tale, replete with a wizard family, subterranean chambers in New England, inbred small town communities harboring ancient lore, etc, etc. Of course the complications of racism and racial intolerance and violence against persons of color are the TRUE horrors in this story, as the heroes and heroines of the tale are more than a match for their white wizard opponents and the many eldritch terrors they encounter. Lovecraft Country is not on a par with Junot Diaz's stuff, but is in the same vein--kind of Chabon-ish in tone and humor and delight in mining a vein of pop culture and fleshing it out with social commentary.
Stories without exception of a very high quality. Bobbie Ann Mason, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O'Connor---Gaitskill belongs right up there. Includes the source story for that kind of crappy "Secretary" movie, which isn't nearly as funny and sad as it should have been,
Sunday, January 22, 2017
A couple years back I read an interesting article in Harper's about some dude who was using ancient Greek tragedies to help soldiers with PTSD and addicts and communities of color following tragedies.
Last night we had the opportunity to see one here in Baltimore. Antigone in Ferguson was necessary medicine for a community still suffering following the Uprising. Paul Giamatti went deep and when I used the restroom at the end of the show he was in there bawling following his powerhouse performance. The discussion afterward was potent and honest, though a few speakers took too much time tooting their own horns. The panelists were wise and compassionate (even towards a poor young soul whose heart was in the right place but whose exasperation and "exhaustion" at having these conversations over and over was handled with care). And local activists and artists like Sonja Sohn and Adam Jackson and Kwame Rose and D. Watkins were in-house.
(sidenote: When we left the auditorium Rose and Sohn were outside. I thanked Mr. Rose for opening eloquently for Bernie Sanders at a rally at Royal Farm Arena last year, and Sohn yelled "Yes, if it had been Bernie we wouldn't be dealing with ANY of this BULLSHIT." We'd met Sohn at a Heather Mizeur event at Black Olive 2 years back).
What we need in the US is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, much like South Africa had after Apartheid. We need to bare our souls and concerns and guilts and fears in public, focused on ways to heal--otherwise we'll continue refighting the same battles. Because it is unlikely our dysfunctional public institutions will give us the opportunity to air grievances and mea culpas, the arts can help. Kudos to Bryan Doerries and his team for bringing Antigone in Ferguson to B'more.