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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.

Birmingham Eccentrics

When I came to Birmingham for the first time in 1958, I thought the local newpaper was named The Birmingham Eccentric because I met so many eccentrics in Birmingham.

First, there was my fiancé’s family. His father was a fan of the Grand Trunk railroad and rode it to work in Detroit, but his great passion was for buying oddball cars – Volkswagens, Citroens, and Peugots – before anyone ever heard of them.

On my first visit, however, I was met at Willow run in an all-American brand, an open top, 1932 De Soto touring car. It was a huge, heavy thing – useful, as I discovered my first Birmingham Christmas, for rescuing hapless drivers of more lightweight vehicles.  When it began to snow, I thought we would settle cozily around the fire.  This was not to be: we buttoned up in layers and went out to the De Soto.  My fiancé and his brother stood on the running boards, but I was assigned to sit on the hood to provide traction while we drove up and down big Beaver in the blizzard, pulling people out of the ditch.

Eccentricity ran in that family: the teetotalling great-grandfather had been an inventor of copper tubing devices, but when he learned, to his chagrin, that they were being used in whisky distillery, he sold the business and moved to Birmingham, where he founded his own religion. I inherited his notebooks with hand written chemical formulas down one side of the page and, upside down on the other, the tents of his oddball sect.

Did I mention that my mother-in-law dried her paper towels in the oven to use again and removed the yolks from hard-boiled eggs to feed to the squirrels? They dropped dead all from overdoses of choresterol, but maybe that was the point?

Then there was Fred the milkman, who stopped for long chats in the kitchen and knew everybody in the neighborhood. And the hermit who lived in the woods across the street. And the family friend, a quirky loner who never saw a doctor and smoked himself to death while his house fell down around him.

Birmingham eccentricity manifested itself in  dizzyingly idiosyncratic housing styles: stucco bungalows next to wooden Cape Cods, mid-century glass modern next to traditional brick ranches.   The houses  conformed, nevertheless, in being of the same size.  Tiny homes ran along certain streets, two and three bedrooms prevailed on others, while, one street over, they might run to four or five. You mostly found real mansions on streets of their own, mainly clustered near the Cranbrook Estate.

The town itself was nice, though the proprietors of the hardware and drugstore and corner market were (you guessed it) somewhat quirky. It was a perfectly ordinary place to shop- you could get an apron at Kresge’s, a modest outfit at Crowley’s, splurge on something fancier at Jacobson’s, and have a chat about books at the Birmingham Bookstore.

Recently, we had an interim minister at our church, and when I asked him if he had walked downtown he threw back his head and laughed  “that’s not a place for people to shop,” he explained.  Birmingham, it seems, has been turned into a high-end outdoor boutique, affordable only by the (very) rich.

I guess you can tell that I like variety and difference and that I find Birmingham’s monochrome population a serious drawback.  Historically segregated by zoning ordnances and redlining, it has been slow to attract a variety of residents.  That was why, when I read about the city’s new plan for multi-unit, affordable housing along our major boulevards, I posted in our neighborhood email about how excited I was at the diversity the new housing might foster.

This was not well received.  I learned that I belonged to the “cancel culture.” I had to ask around about what that meant: if it is monochromatic sameness in race and income I would like to see cancelled,, I plead guilty.  I was asked why I thought other (?) people might want to live among us (?). One woman was convinced that living in Birmingham constitutes the pot at the end of a meritocratic rainbow for which only the wealthy should aspire; she expected her own young relatives to live in Royal Oak until they earned the right to live here.

Fear not: though we are an endangered species, Birmingham still has its eccentrics. For example: this is me writing on a paper plate on my head:

Keep your eyes open- you might spot one coming out of the woodwork anywhere around town.  There are hoarders and hermits, quirky loners and cranks, off-the-grid artists, inventors and oddballs yet dwelling amongst us.

Consider the admirably persistent artist who rose at dawn for years and years to concoct beautiful assemblages of feathers and flowers and pine cones all along the path in Linden Park.  Just yesterday, I discovered that she inspired an apprentice, someone who had covered the top of a sawed off tree trunk with stones, little figures, and decorations with colorful baubles dangling over from an overarching branch.  And then, just a little way further down the path, I found a poem thoughtfully encased in plastic attached to a birdhouse, telling us all about the goldfinches in the park and how they warm out hearts.

Freedom in Structure

We all got up to weird pursuits during the pandemic, so I don’t think my sudden obsession with set forms in prose and poetry is all that eccentric? I lost so much that I used to delight in – long conversations with friends over coffee, dinner parties with fascinating interactions and goings on.  I find people mysterious and I like to come home and sit on my sofa to try to figure them out.  I am always puzzled why certain couples are together and love to ponder the conundrum of what attracts them to each other.

My friends developed some pretty odd lockdown hobbies. After crocheting like mad on her usual table runners and afghans, Alice took to crafting stranger and stranger beings – first a Bernie, then an elephant (orange, in Ganesha God style), and, finally, fuzzy rotund quasi-human beings squatting mysteriously on every service in her house.   Ruth developed a weird affinity for her houseplants, endowing them with names and personalities and engaging in intense inter-species discussions.  Cats and dogs suffered mental agonies in the hands of bored owners who refused to leave them to their own devices while insulting their existential felinity and doggedness by treating them (and dressing them!) like humans.

In this context, what I got into (besides sleeping with stuffed animals and bathing with my rubber ducky) wasn’t all that weird.

  I am a writer – in my youth of poetry, in my career of academic tomes, in retirement of novels, and presently of newspaper columns and features. Of necessity, I do a lot of reading, and as the pandemic wore on I became more and more focused on turns of phrase I stumbled across, until I decided to try some out for myself.

Antitheses, for but one example, are figures of speech based on words arranged in parallel structures that are opposite in meaning. 

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.”   C.S. Lewis

“The United States Right long ago rejected evidence-based policy in favor of policy-based evidence.” Paul Krugman

“I thought 50 years ago that I could make a big difference in the world. What I know now is that I will not let the world make a big difference in me.”    Nikki Giovanni

So inspired, here is an antithesis I thought up to explain my theology to my skeptical (atheist, recovering-Catholic) friends;   “My faith is not based on my certainty of presence but on my uncertainty of absence.”

There is something liberating about putting words into set forms.  It is related to the paradoxical freedom you experience in a group that acts according to agreed-upon rules of conduct.   That is why the rule of law (January 6, evening) is so much more appealing than the law of misrule (January 6, afternoon). Another antithesis!

Yonks ago, at the beginning of the second wave of the Feminist Movement, we National Organization for Women members followed all kinds of procedures and by-laws which, we insisted, left us more liberated than Women’s Liberation.   While they mocked us as “bourgeois” in our “structural tyranny,” we thought they were hampering themselves with their “tyranny of unstructuralism.”  (it seems I have been alert to antithesis longer than I thought).

I started my writing life as a poet – dubbed, at various times, “a Georgia poet,” “a Wisconsin poet,” and “a Feminist poet.” I swiftly realized, however, that writing poetry wouldn’t feed my family, though I could get a raise if I wrote a book. Like a lot of long ago pass times my friends took up during the pandemic – knitting, board games, crosswords, jigsaw puzzles – I suddenly wanted to write poetry again.

This time, it was metaphysical poetry in set forms.  The metaphysical part has to do with the unusually complex stuff I found myself enjoying in my pandemic reading – how linear time relates to synchronous time, what quasars and quantum strings are up to, how fractals and algorithms structure the universe.  The thing is, in the past several years I have felt a familiar fizzling in my brain, the same cracking electricity running up to the ends of my hair that I experienced during a similar intellectual surge when I was 14 years old.  At 84, of all things, I feel it all again, although I am perfectly well aware that it could all fizzle out like a damp squib any day now.

There are all kinds of set forms in poetry – Haiku of just 17 syllables, Sonnets of 14 lines in patterns of Octaves and Sestets, along with Tercets and Quatrains, Rondeaus and Villanelles. I chose this last form for the poem I am about to subject you too. It has five (three-line) Tercets rhyming aba,  ends with a (four-line) Quatrain, “and with the first line of the first tercet serving as the last line of the second and fourth tercets and the third line of the initial tercet serving as the last line of the third and fifth tercet, these 2 refrain lines following each other to constitute the last two lines of the closing quatrain.” (The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics – I thought you might want to know this).

Well, I didn’t exactly conform to all that, but it was fun to get as close as I could.  Metaphysically, the pandemic lockdown left me digging and delving toward a slightly less dim grasp of the universe than before – but ask me tomorrow, when I will probably have changed my mind:

          FRACTAL VILLANELLE
I find I am a fractal of the heart
Of everything, all paradigms aligned:
Not mine nor yours nor anything apart.

Seed heads in whorls, and the intricate spread
Of mushroom rootlets do not spring from mind:
I find that they are fractals of the heart

Of all things. Ratios are where we start,
Alogorithmic in the womb, mathematically entwined
Not my geometry nor yours nor anything apart.

I find I am a fractal of the heart
In starling murmurations, patterned lines-
All swoops and dips and geometric arcs.

Did we spring from mystery? Some arcane art?
We can do the math, but never comprehend
How we became the fractals of a heart
Not yours nor mine nor anything apart.

Granular Politics: the Nitty-Gritty of Participatory Democracy

Dear Blog Subscribers,

After the riots on January 6, intended to stop our process of confirming Joe Biden’s election and assassinate our leaders, democracy prevailed. Like my previous columns on Making the Political Sausage for www.Impakter.com, This is my take on how it’s done. I am fortunate to have an excellent editor, Claude Forthomme, who has a wonderful way of coming up with videos to dig deeper into my subject!

Trump, the Republican Party and the Attack on the U.S.Capitol: An American Progressive’s view

Dear Blog Subscribers,

This is my blog version of an article that was published in Impakter.com this morning: : https://impakter.com/trump-republican-party-attack-capitol/ My wonderful editor Claude Forthomme has added some videos you might want to check out.

 A Review of Barack Obama, A Promised Land (New York: Random House, 2020) and  Carlos Lozada, What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020)

In the first months of the Trump presidency I wrote two columns for Impakter.com: “Trump Tyranny and the Politics of Resistance”  and “Trump and the Problem of Evil” .   The evil of the new regime, I postulated, derived from corporate greed underlying the Republican Party and its Libertarian adherents. In these last weeks of his presidency, however, corporations reeled in horror along with the rest of the nation as anarchistic Libertarians joined forces with white supremacist fascists to vandalize the Capitol of the United States, intent on stopping Senate certification Biden’s election.

The militant thugs who stormed our government, so reminiscent of Hitler’s Brown Shirts, were urged on by President Trump in a final confirmation of his nativistic and authoritarian tendencies.  There would have been no insurrection, however, without solid Republican Party support of their unstable and disorganized leader. Whatever clinical pathology he suffers from is less determinative of his fascism than Republican loyalty. As Paul Krugman chillingly puts it, there is nothing left of the Republican Party but blind loyalty and tribal ferocity: with 139 Republican members of the House of Representatives and 8 Senators still promulgating the lie that Biden lost the election when they reconvened after the riot, it is clear that Republican Party has “gone feral.”

Barack Obama On the Rise of Republican Obstructionism

In the midst of this turmoil, I have been trying to calm my soul by reading Barack Obama’s autobiography, A Promised Land. As you can imagine, it  comes from another country altogether – one where  a hard-working president assembles an experienced set of advisors and cabinet members to reach painstaking, thoroughly thought-through decisions. Given President Obama’s love for rooting about in the weeds of policy-making, I feared the book might prove excessively wonky, but he presents his personal experiences and reflections in his usual engagingly thoughtful style to make his autobiography a particularly interesting read in these difficult times.

Although the most “audaciously hopeful” of Presidents, Obama has been a lifelong adherent to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s insistence that we keep ourselves alert to the evils that stalk our world.  Obama picks up on what Trump and the Tea Party Republicans are up to from the start. “One thing was certain,” he reflects on their “birther” attempts to declare his presidency illegitimate with the lie that he wasn’t born in America: “a pretty big chunk of the American people, including some of the very folks I was trying to help, didn’t trust a word I said.”  Nor does Obama mince words about the racism underlying Trump’s birther lie: “for millions of Americans spooked by a Black Man in the White House, he promised an elixir for their racial anxiety.”  Moreover, “Promoting this story, a story that fed not trust but resentment – had come to define the modern Republican Party.”

President Obama’s “Promised Land” is governed by a sense of responsibility for all of its members in quest of a common good; this requires a “modern social contract” to meet such basic universal human needs as Social Security and Medicare: “We generally understood the advantages of a society that at least tried to offer a fair shake to everyone and build a floor beneath which nobody could sink.” 

Adherence to this idea depends upon a trust in government that Obama finds “difficult to sustain” in the face of the extreme economic inequity of American society. He is aware how Republican Party cultivates a useful demographic of working class whites filled with resentment and xenophobia  He worries about right wing use of the media, with Republican radio and tv shows, news outlets and leaders fostering the win/lose paradigm that white males without a college degree are being unfairly deprived by a “socialist, and “un-American” Democratic  Party that ignores their needs and is “far more concerned with the well-being of Blacks and Immigrants than with theirs.”

President Obama’s predictions are chilling:

“ …I found myself asking whether those impulses – of violence, reed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance, the all-too-human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and sense of insignificancy by subordinating others – were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain.”  

What Were We Thinking?

Assaulted for four long years by Trump’s attacks on every norm of civility and democratic process I cherish, not to mention the rule of law itself, I have not been a fan of books about the Trump administration.  Intrigued by Carlos Lozada’s promise of  “a reading of all the books of the Trump Presidency, ”  I couldn’t resist picking up his Pulitzer Prize winning What Were We Thinking? A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.

  

With many other progressives, I have been resisting like mad ever since Trump’s inauguration. Oddly, what I took away from Lozada’s compendium was not more horror at what we have been through but a critique of the way we have resisted. I found myself listing my own takeaways from Lozada’s takeaways: here are the questions I asked myself, and some of my (very tentative) proposals for progressives  (my personal analyses are in italics):

  Demonization is Undemocratic.    

“Aside from generalities about how Trump supporters may have voted for him out of a ‘depth of alienation,’ there is little effort in these (resistance) pages to understand, let alone reach out to, communities beyond the ones the (white liberals) themselves represent.”

“The resistance after Trump’s election worries endlessly about Trump’s America but betrays contempt for Trump’s Americans.”

 It is the contempt of the elite, college educated, mainly urban people for these others that has driven them, and keeps driving them, to believe Trump’s lies.   My solution: aim Biden/Democratic legislation directly at them, attending to their needs like jobs, stimulus money, health care, small business loans immediately; and be sure to let them know where these benefits come from.

There is “no room (in resistance ideology) for traditional conservatives or political moderates who may also want to stand up for their values in Trump’s America but find the president or his policies no less appalling…”

We have common needs and values: find out what these are, then work for bipartisan solutions. Develop more tolerance for compromise. 

“Simply because Trump’s moral compass is broken does not mean that yours unerringly points north.  There is a difference between being righteous and being right.”

One of the things Trump voters hate about us is our conviction that we are smart and right and they are dim-witted and immoral.  Honor our common humanity by showing them respect; follow Michelle Obama’s rule that “when they go low, we go high.

Liberal Progressives Need to Change the Way we Think

“I don’t think the urgency of our situation means that we cannot afford uncertainty.  I need to believe in the value of the doubt I now feel, in its ability to create a new space for the slowness of thought and conviction…”

Do not let the (ideological) perfect be the enemy of the (common) good.  Listen, don’t proclaim. Keep question marks in your conversations and replace intellectual arrogance with a tone of uncertainty or, at least, open-endedness.  This leads the door open for true interchange.

We take the shape of the institutions we are in.  “Popular culture compels us to ask ‘What do I want?’  Institutions urge a different query: ‘Given my role here, how should I act?’ … It is a question that combines personal responsibility with higher obligations, invoking conservative traditions that sycophants ignore, Never Trumpers forget, and pro-Trump intellectuals rationalize away…”

Institutions structure our thoughts and actions and embody our ideas; they form us. “The problem of institutions today is that rather than being formative, they have become performative, functioning as platforms for individual advancement rather than molds for individual improvement.” 

Reconsider the institutions (democratic elections, rule of law, division of power) we liberal progressives cherish, and work to keep these whole rather than going all revolutionary, making speeches about overthrowing everything. Revolution is too close to Libertarian anarchism to foster the common good.

Our Uneasy Future: We Are Not Evolving into Better People

“It’s a soothing vision – that today’s misdeeds will be overtaken by time, demography, and the eventual recognition of lasting traditions.  . . the arc of the moral universe may bend toward Justice, or it may snap back in our faces” in the form of a xenophobic backlash.

 “The mantra of inclusion is always being undermined by the mistrust and hatred of foreigners.”   

With many other progressives, I have assumed that as whites become a minority demographic in America – and this is coming soon, probably by 2040 – non-white voters will see to it that equity is established.  But the perennial and inherent xenophobia, along with the propensities for tyranny, brutality, suppression of opponents and outright cruelty that the Trump years demonstrated, are not going away with him.

Conclusion: Our Job in the Face of Continuing Toxicity

The fear and the greed and the violence to human dignity that we have witnessed in the last four years have always been with us in America, in the persistence of economic inequality and in our brutal history of enslavement and genocide.  Many American whites, including progressives, still act under white supremacy’s assumption that white culture is American culture.

The miracle of constitutional democracy is that it has enabled us to broaden our founders’ narrow concept of citizenship to include men and women of every race and ethnicity and gender identity.  It was their firm grasp of the human evil that will always seek to undermine the common good that led them to embrace a balance of power and a rule of law  in a Constitution sufficiently flexible to protect us from the powers of tyranny.

The riot at the United States Capitol reminds us how fragile democratic institutions are and how much attention we must devote to preserve them.  Biden won and we took back the senate because legions of us, from oldsters phoning and texting to Georgia teenagers pounding the pavements, put our sweat into it.  Our victory was not achieved by mere intellectual adherence to our ideas but by hours and hours of phone calls and texts and plain old door knocking, not to mention endlessly tedious meetings and committee deliberations.

 Life, as Aristotle puts it, does not consist in ideas but in actions.  Keeping ourselves alert to social evil and our eyes on the prize – that promised land of the common good – the only way forward for us is the nitty-gritty slog of engaged democracy.

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.

Pandemic Autumn

In the spring, I still had a sense of humor.  I could write comic pieces about how my mask frightened the neighbors because I looked like a burglar. Now the weather is cool again, and the same outfit seems sad rather than funny.

Autumn has always been my favorite time of year – back to school, fresh writing projects, activist tasks that refresh my spirits and lead to meeting all kinds of new people.   In the fall, even the “familiar strangers” of my daily encounters – sales clerks and grocery baggers, pharmacists and librarians – respond with more than their usual verve in the interactions I have always cherished.

Now it is all deliveries to my porch or the brief, unsatisfactory encounters of curb pickups.

My state of Michigan has managed Covid 19 very well, and I have not caught it, but a gang of white militiamen who are furious about masks, social distancing, and (especially) bar closures laid plans to kidnap our governor.  Our terrifyingly dictatorial President caught the virus, but, far from being sidelined, he has lurched back into the last weeks of his campaign with spooky intensity, wearing a superman undershirt.

There is dread in our world.  There is dread for our world.

There are sleepless nights.  There are tearful mornings. There are long, lonely stretches as the afternoon dark comes early.

A November without Thanksgiving and a winter without Christmas are upon us. We plan to gather around the Zoom hearth and eat our solitary feasts with some (remote) semblance of festivity.  I do feel rather clever to have purchased two electric lap robes for the porch, so that I can still have friends over for a chat.

My neighbors have been more neighborly than before the pandemic: they buy me groceries, swap extra supplies, go for walks and sit on the porch.   My friendship groups offer heartwarming support on Zoom, and I deeply cherish long phone calls with my dearest old friends.  

But we are dying – two of us are gone now (dear Rheba just a few weeks ago) and though I have a good, solid philosophy of mortality  along the lines of “What a life! What a lark,” it doesn’t keep timor mortis from my door every time I have a fever or feel a bit flu-ish.

My father was quite a recluse, as is one of my grandsons; I worry that being shut in so long might turn me into an agoraphobic.   I am unused to company:  last Saturday, with two real people coming over (distanced walk/with masks, distanced porch-sit/with masks) plus a densely populated Zoom meeting, I freaked out and crawled under my bed.

I have always talked to myself, but now I am talking to people who aren’t there.  When dear Rheba died (as Mozart played in a Canadian hospice where she was given an injection to the heart – what verve! what courage!) I fell right over keening, like a ululting Arabian widow.   Then her last words (filled in on the “motto” line of her Canadian end of life form) got through to me –

“Disturb the universe!  Rejoice!”

– So I got to my feet and brought her along on my household chores, chatting all about them with her.

This morning I had a long discussion with the bathroom spider about where he planned to secrete himself while I took my shower.

I bet I am not the only senior citizen arguing with her stuffed animal about who will sleep where in my bed.

I say good morning to the squirrel and to the nuthatch, and goodnight to the moon and the stars and to my picture of the Dalai Lama.

Tenzin Gyatso – 14th Dalai Lama

He is just my age and has this enormously engaging grin; he seems to find everything funny.

I plan to work on that.

Political Sausage in Pandemic Times

Dear Blog Subscribers,

Back in February 2019 (in what seems now another century!) I posted a blog on Making Political Sausage –  how to get real political work done. Now, in these difficult times not only of pandemic but economic and racial turmoil, individuals feel more helpless than ever. 

They are right:  individuals can’t do anything; they need to join things.  Starting at this point that I made in my previous blog, I go more deeply into how we can strengthen ourselves during these difficult pandemic times by joining like-minded groups.

But we are in a pandemic!  This is no time to join things!

Think again, and  tip toe into the world of tech.  Your smartphone and your screen can exponentially strengthen your political outreach, and any organization you choose to join has a well set up program to help you.

Here’s my update, and I hope it makes you feel less helpless!

The Covid Stoic, and How to Become One

If ever there was a time for figuring out what our philosophy of life is, it is now, when our job and household routines are stood on their heads and  the economy is in free fall, all because a tiny little virus is rampaging through the world, leaving people deathly ill and many dying, all around us.

My Socrates Café is still going during the pandemic – albeit on Zoom – everyone as eager as ever to engage in spirited discussions about “what is the truth,” “how do we form values in a free thinking society,” “are there practical ways to become open-minded,” “are being alone and lonely the same or different,” and “where does the universe end –  what is it, anyway?”

Sometime in the dark of our nights, most of us have asked ourselves “what is this all about?  Is Covid 19 a random happening? Is everything on earth mere chaos, whirling about every which way without rhyme or reason?”

It is a good time to get out pencil and paper to review our personal philosophies.

I have been thinking a lot about Stoicism lately.  I once devised a questionnaire for both my high school and college reunions where I asked them to make a list of the worst things that had happened in their lives and then to write down the quality of character that got them through.  We had survived divorces, deaths of husbands, suicides of children,  cancer, and the general mayhem of life by calling up a quality we called “grit” or “stiff upper lip” or “keeping going.”

I knew my classmates well enough to realize they were not just shoving aside the bad things that happened to them. They survived through a quality much deeper than denial: an inner balance or equanimity they described as facing up to their tragedy,  “seeing things through to the end,” and then ” bouncing back.” Equanimity is a stalwart presence of mind, an inner strength that enables us to endure all things while staying heart-whole.

You don’t get that way from taking your world as a random collection of atoms bouncing around chaotically: my classmates were living by  an idea about how human beings should behave that, in the world of philosophy, is best expressed in Stoicism.  My father had been a student of philosophy at Columbia University, and one of the books he kept with him was The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. When my seas of anxiety rose and stormed during my thirties I bought a copy, and became very fond of that beleaguered Emperor, jotting down his rules of life while surrounded by wild tribes of Germans at his outpost on the Danube, his empire ravaged by plague, flood and constant war.

Marcus, who became Roman Emperor in 161CE,  was a Stoic  This ancient Greek way of life takes the things we can’t control – our health, random catastrophes, the contradictions and setbacks of economies and careers – and separates them from what we can control.  Looking at these realities squarely, you develop an inner balance and the apply your chosen  values to a course of action.

Stoic philosophers were quite scientific, using their reason to study nature, which included human nature.  Like America’s founders, they sought truths that were reasonable and “self-evident” and then worked out principles to apply them.  In an age when personal satisfaction or “self-actualization” is a paramount value, it is hard to grasp that both classical and enlightenment thinkers took “the good” as a social rather than an individual aspiration. Or, as Marcus Aurelius puts it, “The mind of the universe is social.”

Begin each day  “by telling yourself today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness….”

How did he figure that out?  It is really very simple – try it yourself:

1. What do I think is good?

2. What do I think is evil?

I am serious: in a few short sentences or single words, write down your answers.

“Are you distracted by outward cares,” asks Marcus. “Then allow yourself a space of quiet, wherein you can add to your knowledge of the Good and learn to curb your restlessness. Guard also against another kind of error: the folly of those who weary their days in much business, but lack any aim on which their whole effort, say, their whole thought, is focused.”

 Years ago, I was flying back from a carefree vacation in England to my frantic life as a commuting professor, gazing down upon icebergs sparkling on the Greenland sea,  with my tattered copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations  in my hands.  In response to his request to “make your rules of life brief, yet so as to embrace the fundamentals,”  I worked out my (mid-career) principles on the facing page.  For my “Good,” I took “enlightenment,” the reasoned perception of truth; in that literature resounded with “great clarity” I would use it to lead my students to the service of truth in their lives.  I took “oligarchies” as my Evil, and so determined to do my best for “the greatest good of the greatest number.” I resolved to quell the inner turmoil roiled up by academic nastiness by “not taking things personally,” and I would follow Marcus’ advice to withdraw into “the little field of self” when things felt overwhelming.

Your turn: on the basis of your list of What is Good and What is Evil, write down some principles by which you intend to achieve Stoic equanimity in these perilous times.

1.

2.

3.

How did it come out?  Would you like to share your findings in the comment section?  For further ideas about how to apply Stoicism to your life, you might want to check out www.dailystoic.com.

Is Stoicism too strenuously selfless? You might consider Cynicism, a classical philosophy based on the idea that people only pursue their self-interest and that adhering to social norms is ridiculous.  Nor will your life as a Cynic be entirely taken up with sneering – the word derives from “Dog” and you will get to lead a relaxing dog’s life doing your own thing – like chasing your tail and lying around in the sun all day long.

Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist (Little Toller Books: Dorset, 2020).*

In a time when species are declining, oceans are rising, and our whole planet is threatened by global warming, authors who celebrate their joy in nature are sometimes accused of a sentimental nostalgia that fosters retreat from rather than actions against an ever grimmer environmental reality. What is the point of taking pleasure in rivers and forests when we have doomed them all in our greed and folly? Nature writers just fiddle above the flames while Mother Earth burns all around them.

Irish nature writer Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist brings his readers to the side of joy.  Weaving the minute particulars of feather and lichen, otter and tadpole into a lyrically  precise prose, his joy in nature is emotionally empowering in both a personal and a political sense. 

McAnulty’s observations combine scientific detail with personal engagement.  He is sitting near the sea on some “Silurian hornfels…the result of colliding continents and marine life recovering from extinction,” when some baby wrens hop up to him. As he hears them “drowning each other out with attention-grabbing chirps,” he muses that “this is the sound of our ancestors too, waves in one ear, wren siblings in the other. A two-track stereo. The sound of natural things that influence very other thing, whether we know it or not.”

Is this sense that human beings are woven into a web of natural being, (into “something far more deeply interfused” as Wordsworth put it, or  like Thoreau’s idea of nature as “not of myself, but in myself”)  mere romantic nostalgia for a natural abundance that we have destroyed?

On the contrary, the concept that human beings and nature  interact in mutually beneficial  interdependence is at the heart of contemporary environmental philosophies like Ecosophy and Deep Ecology, which are based on the Gaia Hypothesis that everything on the planet strives for balance in a complex synchronistic network.

McAnulty reaches his conclusions not by philosophical speculation but by direct experience. On a trip to Scotland to collect Goshawk data, for example, he notes that “Dave asked me to hold one of the birds, and as I bring it close to my chest its body heat illuminates me. I start to fill with something visceral. This is who I am. This is who we all could be. I am not like these birds but neither am I separate from them. Perhaps it’s a feeling of love, or a longing. I don’t know for certain. it is a rare feeling, a sensation that most of my life (full of school and homework) doesn’t have the space for. The goshawk wriggles. I settle it down and look into its eyes again – as it grows older the baby-blue eyes will change, become a bright and deep amber….”

Astonishingly, Dara McAnulty  is only 16 years old: he wrote The Diary of a Young Naturalist about the how nature saved him when he was 14 and  suffering from  depression over being viciously bulled for his autism.  Observing the smallest details of the world around him provided a mind-grounding solace, an anchor to still the thrashing waves of “brain chaos,” “pain thrusting” stabs of “quick transitions,” all the “inner torments” and “liquid panic” of  his condition.

“I consolidate myself by thinking, and thinking whilst intensely watching the flight patterns of dragonflies or starlings is explosive or mind-blowing. Who knows where watching sparrows will lead?”

Where it has led this courageous young naturalist, in spite of his paralytic nervousness around people, is to the discovery that when he stands in front of a bullhorn at a School Climate Strike or a microphone on radio or television, he can speak as eloquently as he writes on behalf of the earth and her creatures.

*The Diary of a Young Naturalist will be published in the U.S. by Milkwood Books next spring, but it is readily available to U.S. readers from Blackwell’s (www.Blackwells.co.uk ).  Cover art by Larry Falls.