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Revisiting James Baldwin

For the past month, I have been receiving Facebook posts with excerpts from the late American writer James Baldwin’s essays along with some striking photos. This got me remembering him from the 1960s, so I went back and reread his Collected Essays and found him marvelously up to date on our contemporary racial issues.

Here’s the result:

THE JEFFERSON BIBLE

One of the things that sets our teeth on edge these days is the assumption that we are citizens of a Christian nation – an assumption grounded on the idea that Christianity was the founding religion of America. But we are not and never were a Christian country in any established sense, the way Anglicanism is the state church of England, with the King as its (titular) head. This is perfectly clear in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which proposes freedom to choose your religion while prohibiting “the establishment of (state-sponsored) religion” in the new American democracy.

The principal doctrine influencing both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was enlightenment Deism, the concept that a “clock-maker God” created the universe but then stepped (way) back to let it run on its own, leaving human beings to reach our own philosophical conclusions and moral decisions through reason and observation.  

Although the founding fathers were baptized in various Protestant denominations and most attended church, early presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were self-declared Deists, or non-Christians.  Both were drawn to the concept of Unitarianism’s one God as opposed to Trinitarianism’s divine trio. They believed neither that Jesus was divine nor in miracles or the resurrection.  

George Washington attended the Anglican church but rejected its Trinitarian tenets by standing silent during the Apostle’s Creed and refusing to take communion.

The Apostle’s Creed  begins

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried…”  It always startled me that there was nothing in the creed about Jesus’s actual life; just that semicolon between his birth and his death.

It is what that semicolon avoids – the actual life and teachings of Jesus, that motivated Thomas Jefferson, who had also been brought up Anglican, to create his own version of the Bible.  Though he was often attacked politically as an atheist, he was a great admirer of Unitarian ideas (Unitarianism didn’t become an official denomination until after this death) and was friends with British Unitarian Joseph Priestley. In an 1803 letter to Priestley, Jefferson proposed a new “Christian System beginning with a review of the morals of the ancient philosophers, moving on to the ethics of the Jews, and concluding with the “principles of a pure deism taught by Jesus, “omitting the question of his deity.”

The first volume, titled The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, was completed in 1804, but no copies exist today.  The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, became the Jefferson Bible. which he completed in 1820 by (literally, with a penknife and glue) cutting and pasting from the four Gospels in four languages – Greek, Latin, French, and English versions of each verse together -including Jesus’s sayings and parables but omitting miracles and “the supernatural.”  The result was a scrapbook-like red leather folio that Jefferson kept for his personal devotions, being loath to publish it in his lifetime given the notoriety he knew it would stir up.

My friend Brian Schandevel loaned me a biography of the Jefferson Bible which tells the story about how this scrapbook got lost in Jefferson’s personal effects and was not officially published (by the U.S. Government Printing Office) until 1904, when multiple copies were distributed to all of the Senators and Representatives.  After that, well into the mid-Twentieth century, every Member of Congress was presented a copy after being sworn in.

So who was Jefferson’s Jesus?

As Jefferson puts it in an 1803 letter to his daughter “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself.  I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.”

Jefferson works his way consecutively through Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels, grouping precepts on one topic from all four together along with the parables, though with very little narration and minus anything he considers “supernatural.”

What struck me about Jefferson’s Bible:

  • Jesus is portrayed as a radical religious iconoclast breaking many of the traditional household rules and rituals which formed Jewish religion and society of his time. Theologian Marcus Borg describes this as a “purity system: in which “those who were carefully observant of the purity codes were ‘the pure,’ of course.  The worst of the nonobservant were ‘outcasts’ They included occupational groups such as tax collectors and perhaps shepherds. . .’The righteous’ were those who followed the purity system, and sinners’ were those who did not,” The Pharisees, observant Jews who enforced purity norms, became Jesus’s particular enemies. The Jefferson Bible is full of episodes were Jesus stirs up their ire and then has to escape arrest by leaving town in a hurry. 
  • The precepts and parables that Jefferson presents as Jesus’s basic teaching are startlingly compassionate and inclusive.  He welcomes all kinds of social outcasts– tax collectors, Samaritans, women (even loose and menstruating women), Gentiles, the poor and the uninfluential- within an ethic of compassion, inclusion, and diversity that would be utter anathema to today’s “Christian Nationalists.”  
  • Jesus is not God. He is a devoutly spiritual person in an intimate relationship with a loving deity who dwells within every one of us, an inward wisdom that is part of a transcendent divinity.  Borg would understand Jefferson’s Jesus is “The Jesus of History,” in contrast to the “Christ of Faith” who is divine in and of himself, a concept he understands as arising from the spiritual experiences of “Post-Easter” Christians.

There are several editions of The Jefferson Bible available today, including one from the Humanist Press, and another by the Unitarian Beacon Press. The latter has a preface by Unitarian minister Forrester Church, whose Congressman father, Senator Frank Church, gave him his swearing-in copy when he was ten years old. 

As a result, Forrester Church became a lifelong fan of that semicolon:   In the book “I encountered a savior who was born in the usual way and died in the usual way.  By Jefferson’s reading, it was Jesus’ unusual life on earth – made unusual by the simple eloquence of his teachings – that truly mattered.….I define religion as our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. Resurrection or no resurrection, Jesus triumphed over death: he lived in such a way that his life proved worth dying for.”

Homo Puppy

I have always assumed that human evolution was brutal, a matter of the survival of the fittest, with only the meanest and strongest among us getting to reproduce.   What do you know?  According to Rutger Bregman in Humankind: a Hopeful History,* it’s not that way at all.  Instead of evolving to be ferocious, we have evolved to be loveable.  Here is a useful outline of Bregman’s theory that we have evolved as Homo Puppy.  

  • “Our brains are smaller than those of some of our predecessors, our teeth and jaws are more childlike and partly because of that we have become great in cooperating: we have become hypersocial learning machines,
  • We are born to learn, connect and play and that makes us strong as a species.
  • The Homo Puppy has an antenna that is continuously tuned to others. We are good in connecting to other people and we enjoy doing it, consciously as well as subconsciously; emotions are leaking out of our bodies all the time, waiting to be picked up by the other puppies.
  • Our minds need contact in the same way as our bodies need food.”

Bregman prefers Rousseau’s theory that we were better off in “a state of nature” to Hobbes’ and Machiavelli’s belief in an existential human nastiness that is only kept in check by a thin veneer of “civilization.” He is skeptical “of the notion that human beings are inherently selfish, or worse, a plague upon the earth.  I’m skeptical when this notion is peddled as ‘realistic,’ and I’m skeptical that there’s no way out.”

He demonstrates the “way out” in historical examples when, instead of acting at our very worst in times of great danger, we act out of community-mindedness, kindness, and mutual cooperation.  Agreeing with Gustave Le Bon’s theory in The Psychology of the Masses that civilized behavior crumbles in the face of catastrophe, Hitler thought he bombing the hell out of their cities would easily undermine British morale.

However, the cooperative behavior of Londoners, accomplished in a mood of mutuality, courage and care for each other in the face of horrific danger, proved the opposite. Nevertheless, both Churchill and Eisenhower bought Le Bon’s argument, though their carpet-bombing of German cities produced the same result of deepening community ties, morale, and solidarity.   (And, then, consider Putin’s “ten-days-and-it’s-over” presumptions about Ukraine).

 William Golding, in his 1954 Lord of the Flies, adheres to belief in our propensity to social evil, a personal bias that Bregman refutes in telling what actually happened when six boarding-school boys survived on an island for a year in 1966: they cared for each other, invented fair rules for dividing up chores, and came up with reasonable punishments for misconduct while devising cooperative methods for hunting, fishing, and gathering fresh water.

 Humankind is structured on a series of similar examples that demonstrate how our puppy-like geniality (manifest in the evolution of our appealingly rounded eyes, our ability to make eye contact with each other, and the distinctly human tendency to blush with shame) result in a complex social wiring enhanced through our development of language and our delight in learning things from each other.

Bergman hypothesizes that their (puppyish) eagerness to trade with and even leave their bands to join others, enhanced by their curiosity and copycat propensities, are the reasons why our hunting and gathering ancestors prevailed.   Although Neanderthals had much bigger brains than ours, our social/linguistic skills and propensity for learning from each other may have been the key to how we lived through the onset of harsher climate conditions.

The problem with civilization is that it brought ownership, then rivalry over what was owned, and then misery for those who owned less or were cut out of owning anything.  Bregman finds operating on a hierarchical power/over rather than the community power/with basis tragically corruptive: People in power “literally act like someone with brain damage. Not only are they more impulsive, self-centered, reckless, arrogant and rude than average,” they cheat and are shameless and loose the capacity to blush. . .Power works like an anaesthetic that makes you insensate to other people” and see them “in a negative light.” 

When sociopathic autocrats call the shots, puppy-like communities can morph into ferocious packs.  By the time a regime’s propaganda machines have done their work on us, along with threats of torture and execution at the least appearance of dissent, it is no wonder that we do what we are told.  Bregman, however, sees the “just following orders” argument, as used at the Eichmann trials, as a short-sighted iteration of the veneer theory; he posits something more (tragically) puppy-like as the motivation which made high level Nazi officials devise, and then carry out, the precise, viciously evil workings of the Holocaust.

Bregman suggests that, though his psychopathic antisemitism was searingly evident, Hitler’s orders were actually so vague that officers like Eichmann chose to act within “a culture of one-upmanship in which increasingly radical Nazis devised increasingly radical measures to get in Hitler’s good graces.” In other words, years and years of the propaganda machine had brainwashed the German military into thinking that killing Jews was an act of personal virtue.  Bregman argues that Hannah Arendt’s understanding of “just obeying orders” has been misinterpreted:   she “was one of those rare philosophers who believe that most people, deep down, are decent. She argued that our need for love and friendship is more human than any inclination towards hate or violence. And when we do choose the path of evil, we feel compelled to hide behind lies and cliches that give us a semblance of virtue.  Eichmann was a prime example:  he’d convinced himself he’d done a good deed, something historic for which he’d be admired by future generations.” In other words, he was so eager to wag his tail for Hitler that he did profoundly evil things in order to please him.  Clearly, homo-puppyness does not always lead to a good outcome:  it can embroil us into a “negative spiral [that] can also factor into deeper societal evils like racism, gang rape, honor killings, support for terrorists and dictatorial regimes, even genocide.” And so, our evolution as tail-waggers has its dark side if we copycat ourselves into conformity with systems of injustice.

During the years of the Weimer Republic, Hitler had replaced the Rule of Law with a despotic antisemitism and diktats against dissent.  As a remedy, the nations that won World War II used the Nuremberg trials to establish international standards to prohibit crimes against humanity, including “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population.”

Shamefully, both the United States and the USSR left their ongoing crimes against humanity out of the new international formula: “The final version of the charter limited the tribunal’s jurisdiction over crimes against humanity to those committed as part of a war of aggression.” Both the United States—concerned that its “Jim Crow” system of racial segregation not be labeled a crime against humanity, and the Soviet Union, wanted to avoid giving an international court jurisdiction over a government’s treatment of its own citizens.”

The problem for Homo Sapiens today is that, if such self-interested, piecemeal compliance prevents out adhering to environmental covenants like the Paris Agreement, we may not be able to save the human race from global warming. In order to prevail, we will have to undertake an unnaturally swift evolutionary leap to a global homo-puppyhood that accepts the whole planet as our commons.  Is this too much to hope? Or will our devotion to charismatic dictators and their propaganda appeals to a narrow and destructive self-interest lead to a far more tragic outcome?

Here’s Rutger Bregman’s take: “There is no reason to be fatalistic about civil society. We can choose to organize our cities and states in new ways that will benefit everyone. The curse of civilization can be lifted. Will we manage to do so? Can we survive and thrive in the long run? Nobody knows.”   

*Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History.  Little Brown & Co: NY 2019

LET’S ALL BE INTELLECTUALS!

Review of Ward Farnsworth, The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook.  Boston: Godine, 2021

It is not very popular to be an intellectual in America today.  My husband and I, both college professors, were careful not to draw our neighbors’ attention to our status lest they hold back their friendship.  And now, country-wide distrust has been fired up by the idea that intellectuals inevitably condescend to ordinary people and that neither facts nor reasoning  are to be trusted.

The problem is, I become more and more intellectual as I get older.   Some years ago, having read Christopher Phillip’s Socrates Café about the discussions he holds in nursing homes, schools, prisons and public parks, I decided to solve my problem by convincing friends and neighbors that they were just as intellectual as I, and that it would be fun to have philosophical discussions with each other. 

In my Socrates Café, I make a firm distinction between an opinion and a thought, and I always insist that you can’t engage in thinking if you are opinionated. (see https://bit.ly/3jtmQ2b),  Most people are pleased to think things through, although I had to dissolve a Socrates Café at a senior center when, week after week, discussants refused to abandon their opinions about immigrants and people of color.

In Socrates, Farnsworth finds a perpetual questioner of “the commonplace. the acceptance of traditional opinions and current sentiments as an ultimate fact.” People feel good expressing their opinions in a pushy way, but it is precisely this kind of bold assertion that Socrates questions.  “Questions and answers are the sound of thought happening. An essay or lecture is usually the sound of a thought having happened.”

In asking one question after another Socrates is a skeptic, a word whose root means “inquiry” and which involves less of the modern “disdainfully doubtful” connotation than a person who “inquires without reaching a conclusion.  Skeptics don’t say ‘no’ to every claim, or indeed to any of them.  They just keep asking questions.  They want the truth, and are always trying to get closer to it, but they never reach a stopping point; they never find certainty. They have a dread of ‘rash assent’ and of thinking that you’re done thinking before you really are.”

I have noticed that people really like it when you question yourself in front of them: You can’t come across as intellectually condescending when you display skepticism about your own opinions!

When you apply the Socratic method to yourself, you arrive at a state of mind which Socrates calls Aporia.  “You realize that you’ve been pushing words around as if their meaning were obvious but that you don’t really understand.” Once you learn to do this, you can help other people get there, and that is why, pursued in a non-judgmental, non-interruptive manner, the Socratic method has a lot of promise for the hard-held opinions that endanger American democracy today

                                 *  *  *

Let’s give it a try with a guy who “doesn’t believe in facts”:

G(uy). Global Warming is a hoax made up by the democrats. It isn’t a fact – it’s propaganda.

Q. How about in your personal life? Do you use facts there?

G. What do you mean?

Q. Well, just for an example, how did you decide on the best commute to work today?

G. I started with a map when I first got the job, but as I went on, I worked out some shortcuts to make it quicker

Q. What did the map tell you?

G. Which roads intersected, distances – things like that.

Q. How did you work out the shortcuts?

G. I found some side roads, and then tested the route with my watch.

Q. Were the roads on the map and the timing you worked out based on facts?

G. Yes, but those aren’t the made-up kind.

Q. So you trust some facts, but not others?

G. Obviously!

Q. How about weather reports – do you trust those?

G. They are pretty accurate most of the time.

Q. Who does those weather reports?

G. The news, tv shows

Q. Where do they get their facts.

G. They get them from meteorologists.

Q. So you trust the accuracy of weather reports because they are given by trained meteorologists?

G. Yes.

Q. Do you know where the reports on Global Warming come from?

G. Of course: the democrats – Biden and his elite east coast friends who look down at us and want to ruin our economy.

Q. Do you think the inftense new hurricanes, wildfires, deluges, droughts and heat waves are really happening?

G. Yes.

Q. Why?

G. I see them on TV and we had a whole week of really heavy rain ourselves  last spring.

Q. Was your house okay?

G.  Yes, though the porch floated away.

Q. So your direct observation tells you that those kinds of storms are facts?

G. Yes, but they are not caused by humans: that’s the hoax!

Q. (summarizing): Okay, I see where you are coming from: you trust maps and your own observations of the closest route to work – which means that you trust your own reasoning from obvious facts. You trust what Meteorologists report about weather because it lines up with the facts you see on TV and with your own experience.  On the other hand, you don’t trust what meteorologists and climate scientists tell you about the causes of Global Warming.   I am not sure how one set of facts that you trust differs from the set of facts you don’t trust?

                                             *  *  *

What do you think? Is it working? If not, why not?  And then what?  Do you think there is room for using the Socratic method in everyday life?

How to be Perfec: A Philosophical Journey

A Review of Michael Schur, How to be Perfec: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2022.

I took an Introduction to Philosophy in college – my father and my brother majored in it, and I wanted to see what it was about.   What it was about was boring. The teacher wasn’t particularly inspired and never engaged us in the philosophical issues she droned on about. Besides, at that age I didn’t really care about what Socrates or Aristotle, Kant or Bentham felt was so vitally important.

I didn’t see the point of establishing my ethics for everyday living because I hadn’t done a whole lot of everyday living. But now!  After a life filled with the vicissitudes (and joys) of marriage, parenthood, teaching, community organizing and political activism I know what I stand for, though I still struggle to avoid undercutting my integrity by failing to live up to it.

That’s where Michael Schur’s How to be Perfec: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question comes in. The fact that Schur is a tv comedy writer (Parks and Recreation) and is funny even when he is carrying on about categorical imperatives and existential anxiety convinced me to read the whole thing this summer, very slowly.

Here’s the kind of ethical conundrum that typically gets my moral knickers in a twist.   We have a community homeless shelter where I drop in with fresh fruit to supplement the hot lunches. I often chat with whoever has come off the streets that day: I have a rule for myself that if a guest wants to talk I will stop running all over town like a chicken with my head chopped off and take time for a conversation.

The other day I brought a bunch of grapes and stopped to greet a guy I often chat with, who was disconsolately slumped over his chair.  

“Lunch smells good,” I said.

“Would you sit down and eat it with me,” he asked.

He had been in the shelter all day with his mask below his nose, and I am at a high risk category for covid.  In order to break bread with him we would both have to take our masks off.

 “I am really sorry,” I said, “I have another errand.”

I chose between his good and my good, and I am still unhappy with myself about it. So is he: he has gone off me, no longer eager for my company.

That’s why I like Schur’s less than perfec (sic) take on the struggle to live up to our moral responsibilities: “Again, part of the project of this book is to help us accept failure – because, again, failure is the inevitable result of caring about morality and trying to be good people. I really don’t mean to argue for perfect living…because a) it’s impossible and b) I don’t even think it’s a good goal. Instead, I’m arguing that when we fail, in matters great or small, we just take a second to acknowledge our failure to ourselves, and try to remember that failure the next time we have a decision to make.”

He devotes the first eighty pages of his book to “various theories of how to be good people.” 

Deontology – Emmanuel Kant: Arrive at your rules for moral behavior through reasoning, as long as they work as well for others. My personal ethics told me to eat with the guy at the shelter, but, the very next day, I was joining my daughters and grandsons for our summer vacation.  Taking a risk on his behalf could in put me and my whole family at risk.  Or, my (Kantian) categorical imperative of being there when people ask me to was undercut because it might not work out well for others.

Utilitarianism – John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham: Make decisions that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number.  Take my monetary donations to that shelter: arguing from quantitative analysis, shouldn’t I donate to groups whose intent is to eradicate homelessness (and poverty) altogether?

Contractualism –  T.M. Scanlon (Author of What We Owe to Each Other):  Make ethical decisions based on what we need to do to live with other people.  What we owe each other is more qualitative and emotional than quantitative and mathematical, therefore “Living with other people” backs my choice to support “bricks and mortar” programs in my own neighborhood rather than distant charities.

Virtue Ethics – Aristotle: what are virtues? Which values do we want to live by, how to we find the golden mean in enacting them that is neither too little or too much? There are two aspects of Aristotle’s ethics that are the touchstone for my decision-making:  first, that life does not consist of ideas but of action; secondly, matching your acts to your values brings life’s greatest happiness; being at one with yourself brings you a sense of wholeness, true flourishing as a human being.

Existentialism – Sartre: don’t look for a meaning in life there isn’t any. There is no source outside of you where you can find moral values: you have to make your own choices (while being sure they are good for others too.)  Camus: Life is absurd; accept human absurdity and try to make good individual choices anyway.

 I used Schur’s philosophical categories to sort out the basis for my life choices.  I have come to consider the universe fundamentally moral, so I go with Kant.   Utilitarianism leaves me (emotionally) chilled; though I have to admit that basing your charitable giving on algorithmically sorted data and quantitative accounting makes plenty of (rational) sense.  

In choosing my actions I have never been a loner, but always join in the social contracts of the organizations where I volunteer: there is my (Unitarian) church’s covenant to principles, for example, and the stated rules that the Citizens’ Climate Lobby adheres to. And there is our United States Constitution and our Rule of Law, about which I am passionate.  

As for Existentialism – when I fell into it during the (mercifully few) depressions I suffered, existential anxiety and a sense that life held no meaning whatsoever  undermined my entire (Kantian/Contractual/Aristotelian)  process of moral reasoning to leave me disastrously adrift on life’s tumultuous seas, without a rudder.   

One of the truly lovely things about living (as often as possible) by integrity is that your ethics have a way of making themselves available at a (non-deliberative) second’s notice. A moment suddenly arrives when I realize that I must stand up for my values, right then and right there. Trembling all over, I get up on my feet to speak my piece for what I think is right and good, and experience what Aristotle described as true human flourishing – a great and all-pervading feeling, a warm bolt of complete happiness that rises from the tips of my toes and shoots up my spine to the top of my head as, once again, I head for good trouble.

Scientific Animism

I have long been a foe of either/or thinking, a logic that takes binaries as inevitably oppositional, with no compromise possible. I much prefer both/and solutions whereby opposites merge to form brand new syntheses.

We have begun to hear talk about the inherent rights of other-than-human beings in nature, including the lands’ right to sue humans for our abuses and depletions. While this is sometimes taken as a new concept it is actually a very old one, basic not only in the animism of all of our ancient ancestors who saw nature as ensouled or animated in-and-of-itself, but in present-day Native Americans’ traditional principles setting forth the duty of human beings to the natural beings that sustain us.

My sit-out-by-the-river-and-read-slowly book this summer was Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. I found myself right at home with her synthesis of science and animism as complementary tools for approaching the seemingly intractable problems we are experiencing as we try to achieve sustainability on our threatened, beloved planet. Home in autumn, here is my article just published in Impakter.com:

The Tyranny of Merit and the Dilemma of the Disinherited

I wrote this article earlier this month just before the Anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre was widely publicized:   Meritocracy: The Tyranny of Merit and the Dilemma of the Disinherited  – Impakter

A reader asked me “how can Black people be disinherited if they didn’t have anything in the first place?” This denies the long record of Black achievement since Emancipation, even in the face of Jim Crow and (now) White Supremacist constraints. The “talented tenth,” as the college-educated Black professional class used to call itself, made significant progress under Reconstruction policies enacted for their advancement: “Black Wall Street,” the Tulsa neighborhood that was destroyed while hundreds of African Americans were massacred, was a well-off urban community chockablock with businesses, banks, and substantial homes – all Black owned and Black administered. That was why it was so offensive to white people.

This morning I came across a review called “Upwardly Minded” in which Lawrence Otis Graham looks at how Elizabeth Dowling Taylor describes historic Black mobility in The Original Black Elite: Daniel Murray and the Story of a Forgotten Era: “Dowling Taylor recounts the rise of African-Americans during the time of Reconstruction and their fall during the subsequent decades, when legislation was advanced in order to again segregate, impoverish and humiliate a population that many whites believed had gained too much.” (italics mine). The point is, the minute Reconstruction policies provided opportunities, Black citizens like Daniel Murray took advantage of them and advanced significantly. Then, as now, Black achievement stirred racial animus and gave rise to the laws and intimidations – especially the hundreds of hideous lynchings-of the Jim Crow era.

White Supremacists have not changed their minds in all these years. Now they are attacking CRT (Critical Race Theory) using the term as a dog whistle to rally around banning the history of the Reconstruction era, along with the slavery that preceded it, from American educational curricula. Besides their fierce need to see somebody else’s face than theirs “at the bottom of the well” (see my Impakter article, they seem to be afraid that, as a “majority minority ” Black citizens will treat whites the way we whites have treated them. This ignores African American culture’s powerfully pragmatic non-violent ethic and the paradigm shift from power/over to power/with (or, from either/or to both/ and) impacting our quest for the common good in the multi-racial America of the 21st century.

One effective way to familiarize students with Black history is to teach Black literature. After never being assigned any works by Black writers during my entire education at Smith College (B.A. English), The University of Wisconsin (M.A., English), and Columbia University (Ph.D, Comparative Literature), it was a heady experience to be introduced to excellent but marginalized poems, novels, and plays while teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta, an historically Black college for women.

How you include African American materials in standard courses must be carefully considered: first, a teacher needs thorough scholarly grounding in the material. Secondly, syllabuses must be constructed to “Mainstream” content.  You want to avoid the condescension of “wagging the tail,” by sticking your one Black example like an afterthought at the end of your syllabus; nor do you want to “mix and stir” by plopping it in without comparative analysis. You need to avoid the “just like us!” attitude of facile inclusion, privileging Euro-American aspects as normative by praising the similarities between marginalized materials and the traditional canon. In order to avoid modelling racial superiority and racial ignorance you want to intersperse the previously marginalized materials throughout and in dialogue with other course offerings – I taught Winnebago cosmological myths , for example alongside the Book of Genesis; or you could let Frederick Douglas dialogue with Henry David Thoreau by teaching the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas: and “Civil Disobedience” side by side.

I asked my students at the University of Wisconsin, who were almost entirely white, to figure out what strengths of character Vyry drew upon in Margaret Walkers’s Jubilee, how Indigo survived racial and other life obstacles in Ntozake Shange’s Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo and why Pecola in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was beaten down by her life circumstances.

Students come out of reading such literature with empathy for the characters and a grasp of what life has been like for African-Americans over the generations.

Review of Patrik Svensson, The Book of Eels

Riddle me this: What is only a few millimeters long with a transparent body like a gossamer willow leaf, is born in the Sargasso Sea and then floats for three years on the Gulf Stream  until it reaches Europe or America?

Here’s another:  What sea creatures does Rachel Carson describe as looking like “thin glass rods, shorter than a finger”?

Wikepedia Commons

The first is the larval stage of eel development; the second the Glass Eel metamorphosis when they arrive in the estuaries of Europe and America after being borne for as much as three years along ocean currents.  They move up fresh water rivers to become Yellow Eels, a phase which can last thirty or forty years.  Then, in their final or Silver Eel phase, they bulk up with muscle and fat and develop reproductive organs in preparation for their return to the Sargasso Sea.    

Patrick Svensson’s The Book of Eels (New York: HarperCollins 2019) translated from Swedish by Agnes Broomé) is a delightfully engaging volume including scientific details about the European eel (Anguilla Anguilla ), a history of eel science,  eel  gastronomy,  autobiographical chapters about eel fishing with his father, anthropological takes on historic Swedish fishing communities, and an analysis of Rachel Carson’s role in nature writing and environmental action. 

Starting with Aristotle and including a fresh take on Freud’s years of eel research in Trieste, Svensson surveys the hundreds of years that it took scientists to determine the Sargasso Sea as the point of origin.  Even so, no scientist has ever demonstrated where eels go once they arrive and what they do in the depths of the ocean (reproduction is merely a logical assumption from the appearance of the larval eels).  Not a single mature Silver Eel in the reproductive phase has ever been found there.

Svensson’s autobiographical chapters recount the tender (though reserved) bonding between his father and himself on their life-long eeling forays.

My own encounters with eels did not bring me closer to my mother.  Fond of roasted eel, she sent me out to wrestle with the Silver Eels heading out into the Atlantic. I fished for those thrashing horrors, alive with muscle and resistance. from the dock with my drop line, hoping for a flounder or even a blowfish (we ignored their fierce faces and feasted on their tails) instead.  I dreaded finding an eel on my line because they didn’t drown in air like ordinary fish, but kept throwing themselves about on the dock, living breathing nightmares until, consumed by dread and remorse, I bashed them over the head with a hammer.

When I complained, my father came out from behind his pipe and newspaper long enough to explain that eels breathe air while slithering overland; Svensson describes them braiding themselves into balls and rolling over mud flats, breathing for those few minutes. They hibernate by burrowing down in the mud for the winter.   That is why Aristotle, one of the first to analyze eels scientifically, thought they were born through some process of mud metamorphosis. 

The Patuxet caught hibernating eels by wriggling their toes in the mud, a technique, Svensson informs us, that Tisquantum (Squanto) taught the Pilgrims after their first terrible winter.  As my mother’s family were from Plymouth, I have wondered if her appetite for eels derived from that historical tutelage.

Though he recognizes that Rachel Carson’s anthropomorphizing the eel  in Under the Sea-Wind is heretical to her scientific duty as an objective marine biologist, he admires the  leap of imagination she takes to arouse her reader’s sympathy: she “let the eel be an eel, but also something we can to some degree identify with” until it still  “a mystery, but no longer a complete stranger.”  In letting eels tell their own story, she “did manage to reach a kind of understanding that really shouldn’t be possible. Not through reductionism or empiricism or even science’s traditional belief in truth as it appears under the microscope, but by having faith in an ability that may in fact be unique to humans: imagination.”  It is by means of this heretical blending of science and story-telling that Carson galvanized a whole environmental movement.

Glenn Wolff and Jerry Dennis, A Walk in the Animal Kingdom: Essays on Animals Wild and Tame

Svensson finds the eel as so utterly distant from human comprehension as to become a metaphysical conundrum.  He rejects Decartes’ assertions that only humans possess souls and  that all other creatures are automata. He disagrees with the proposition that animals have no consciousness.   Defying scientific empiricism, he apprehends the eel’s place in the complex particularity of nature as a metaphysical conundrum, defining metaphysics as “not necessarily concerned with God” but with the “whole of reality, . . a branch of philosophy that is concerned with what exists outside, or beyond, objective nature, beyond what we can observe and describe with the help of our senses.”  He raises such questions as

  • What is time to the Silver Eel in the ocean depths beneath the Sargasso Sea?  
  • Does time possess a different duration at the bottom of the sea?   
  • Is time the same or different for the eel in each phase of its life?
  • What about bats, whose world consists entirely of echoes and is, therefore, “clearly in a completely different state of consciousness from a human”?  

Svensson entrances us with the eel’s life cycle only to horrify us with the extinction he foresees for the very species he has taught us to admire. Like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,  the joy in nature evoked in us by The Book of Eels  resolves into anticipatory grief.  Is this an intentional ploy to stir us to environmental activism?  This seems to have been the case for Rachel Carson, who went before Congress with a testimony that led to the eventual banning of DDT.  

But Svensson  has no hope for the eel’s future.  Though the European Union has proposed rules to sustain fisheries, fishing communities fail to comply with them. When he adds shifts in ocean currents caused by global warming to his gloomy predictions, there seems nothing left but the eel’s extinction.

I am a perennially hopeful person, so after finishing The Book of Eels I wondered if eel conservation efforts were really going as badly as Svensson indicates.  I  found some (small) comfort in a few items:

  • In Europe), there is indeed reluctance on the part of European Fisheries to comply with new regulations, and also an uptick in eel smuggling.  The Ecologist reports, however,  that in the twelve years since the European Commission proposed its eel conservation program some progress has been achieved.

“In 2007, the political decision to protect the eel was taken in Brussels; in 2009, the  very first (silver) eels began to be protected; in 2011 (two years of ocean migrations later), the first positive effect occurred.       Since 2011, the thirty-year decline in recruitment of young eel from the ocean halted, turning into a slight increase.”  

Svensson disagrees with this conclusion on the basis that the European Union ban only applies for three months of the year and not to the Glass Eel:  at 2017 rates of compliance, the eel population will continue to decline and, he insists, inevitably become extinct.

“It will take a long time to achieve the full recovery,” the Ecologist article concludes. “The level of protection for the eel is not yet as good as we intended to achieve. Overall, however, the trend is as positive as could have been expected.”

  • What about  Glass Eels?

 The Sustainable Eel Group,  a Europe-wide conservation and science-led organization working  to accelerate the eel’s recovery, reports success in removing  barriers to migration. Norfolk’s Fritton Lake, where businesses and eel sustainability groups have given “the critically endangered European Eel hope for the future,” is an example:  

”Fritton Lake is ideal habitat for eels. It is connected to the sea just south of Great Yarmouth. However, the previous tidal sluice, to keep sea water out, was also stopping baby eels getting in from the sea and adult eels getting out. The new sluice will let baby eels in, to grow in Fritton Lake to become adults, which will then get out again to breed. The eels will grow there for between 5 and 20 years before migrating back to sea to spawn.”

In Cornwall,  similarly,  eel passes have been  built around obstructions: more than 100 juvenile eels travelled 3,000km from the Sargasso Sea before being counted at the Environment Agency’s Brownshill Staunch eel pass, downstream of St Ives.

  • As a final note of hope, significant numbers of Eels have been restored to the Susquehanna river in America, where fish biologists of the Susquehanna River Commission catch eels at a dam that obstructs their route and then transport them upstream.

“The captured eels were measured, counted and shipped north where they were released into Deer Creek and Conestoga Creek. Over the next eight years, fish and wildlife would capture, transport and release more than 800,000 eels into the Susquehanna River or its tributaries….in total, close to a million eels have been re-introduced into the river since the program began. The American Eel is back.”           

In looking through the reviews, I see that conservationists are taking a deep interest in The Book of Eels.  Maybe Svensson’s simultaneously raising our joy in nature only to send us crashing into despair over eel apocalypse will shock us into action, with as significant an impact on the eel as Carson’s DDT studies had on the Osprey?

 I live in hope.

SATURDAY MORNING WITH COFFEE AND THE NEW YORKER

When I sat down to read the cartoon issue of the New Yorker with my nice, hot cup of strong coffee one Saturday late in December, I found an article by my favorite prose writer about my favorite cartoonist. Adam Gopnik is wonderful at what used to be called a “turn of phrase,” like describing a reference book he likes as “an atypically larksome encyclopedia.” He is also good at juggling ideas in a way that gets right in amongst us:

“People who don’t want high speed rail are not just indifferent to fast trains. They are offended by fast trains . . . these things give too much pleasure to those they hate. They would rather have exhaust and noise and traffic jams, if such things sufficiently annoy liberals.”

Here he is on the difficulties cartoonist Roz Chast experienced when she cared for her aging parents until their deaths, which she chronicled in her best-selling Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant. She found herself “caught in a permanent meta-cycle of well-meant gestures, torn between compassion and exasperation, having to be kind when you just want to be gone.”

And on the Brooklyn of Chast’s childhood: “the world of the receding New York middle class: scuffed-up apartments, grimy walls, round-shouldered men perched n ratty armchairs and frizzy-haired women in old-fashioned skirts…marked by a shared stigmata of anxiety about the eyes.”

Gopnik’s take on Chast’s “Sad Buildings in Brooklyn” took me straight into a bittersweet but gentle nostalgia for the tiny Manhattan apartment where I grew up in the 1940s. It was filled with cigarette smoke, presided over by neurotic parents, with soot-encrusted sills at every window, in a dimly lit wartime neighborhood that was in every way distinctly pre-Big Apple.

Chast’s characters have escaped her sad Brooklyn for what Gopnik describes as “a kind of timeless Upper West Side of the mind,” her preferred New York neighborhood which became mine as well. I have found a place to stay in a brownstone apartment on West 81st Street and when I gaze into the windows of tiny apartments chockablock with books and dust and people having intense conversations amid take out boxes from Zabar’s, I feel poignant regret at my midwestern exile from a life I might have lived.

It seems miraculous that Chast’s sad Brooklyn buildings not only failed to overwhelm the little girl with their grimness and miasma of anxiety, but provided her with the settings and characters that gave her a successful career and a wonderful life. The key, I think, is immersing yourself in the sad oddities that life doles out, working through and with them rather than complaining about  and pretending they didn’t happen. We are all broken in some way; the trick is to fill our cracks with whatever gold we can glean to create our uniquely idiosyncratic wholeness.

As we get older, silliness becomes an existential necessity. The trick is to stay silly, be silly, and find silly things to do. These days, I am knitting mice and then knitting little sweaters and skirts for them to wear; Roz Chast has learned to play a turquoise ukulele and performs (at the Carlisle, yet!) in band called the Uklear Meltdown.

Inside Two Bubbles: Some Thoughts on Jonathan Coe’s Middle England

  On the night after the first Trump Impeachment Hearing, I picked up Jonathan Coe’s 2018 Middle England. It is a really good read – well written, with engaging characters, and a fascinating account of England right now. I was startled by the realization that England and America are going through strikingly similar crisis.

In Coe’s England neither Conservatives nor Labour have figured out how to deal with Brexit, which they voted in by referendum in June, 2016. Parliament is so consumed by the issue that nothing else is getting done. People are locked into Leave or Remain positions that have broken friendships and family ties. The country is full of anger, not only about Brexit but against immigrants and non-whites, giving rise to violent attacks. The nation’s mood of surly, punitive xenophobia seems to have been fueled before the Brexit vote by bitterly divisive social media traceable, in part, to the Russians.

In the United States, neither Democrats nor Republicans have figured out how to get bills through Congress in the face of violent differences about President Donald Trump, elected in November, 2016. Families are estranged by Pro- and Anti-Trump convictions, locked into positions over his campaign against immigrants and non-whites. Hate crimes against African Americans, Muslims, Jews, and immigrants have occurred every few months since his election; the xenophobic rage that fueled them was promulgated during the election campaign, much of it coming from Russian misinformation fed into social media.

Even I, who consider myself as rational as anyone, found my head spinning during Republican attacks on the distinguished diplomats at the Impeachment Hearing as they testified about Trump’s pressure on the President of Ukraine to give him dirt on the Biden family (along with proof that the Ukrainians, rather than the Russians, were responsible for the 2016 electoral interference). The Republicans worded their accusations with such forceful illogic that they aborted my thinking process and went straight to my (appalled) gut:

“Well what’s the deal,” one sneered, “they got their arms without doing the investigation, didn’t they?”

Legally, an attempted crime is still a crime: if you assault someone you go to jail, even if you don’t actually kill or wound him. And that’s the actual truth.

The impressively dignified and professional  Ambassador to Ukraine, the target of screeds of invective, gave the best possible response; she just sat there and smiled, as we would like anyone to do, in the face of total nonsense.

But no, not anyone. In Russia, fake information has long been employed to reinforce a dictator’s appeal. The New York Times cites Peter Pomerantsev’s “This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality,” about the “transgressive thrill in strong leaders thumbing their nose at the facts.” While Pomerantsev is writing about how the Russians feel about Putin, there are plenty of Americans who just adore the way Trump stands up in front of thousands of people and tells one lie after another.

In the interest of a balanced view I have made several attempts to get myself inside the Republican bubble. I tried to watch Fox News, but its spins left me nauseous. Then, at my gym, I found a treadmill with a Fox screen just to my left and MSNBC blaring away on my right, enabling me to juggle both bubbles simultaneously. They were discussing the July 25 telephone conversation between Presidents Zelensky and Trump, with Fox twisting Trump’s ask to investigate corruption in general, while MSNBC insisted it was about Vice President Biden and his son.

Each side was rendering its viewpoint in an entirely believable manner. It was easy to see how, as the New York Times puts it, “a loss of shared facts can be corrosive for rational discourse.”

As for me, I find what is happening to words and to reason, and to truth itself, profoundly disheartening.

Jonathan Coe’s newspaperman character, Doug, meets every few months with his source, Nigel, who is a spokesperson for Prime Minister David Cameron.

“We’re going to win an overall majority,” declares Nigel. “We’re confident of that. That’s what the opinion polls are telling us.”

“But you just said you don’t trust opinion polls.”

“We don’t trust most people’s opinion polls. But we do commission our own. Which we trust.”

*New York: Knopf, 2018