Tony Cunningham on “Vengeance”

prof-photoMany people were taken aback by Liam Neeson’s recent confession that forty years ago, he sought out some “black bastard” to pay dearly for the rape of a dear friend. He related the story during an interview about his new revenge flick, Cold Pursuit, a reboot of a Norwegian film, In Order of Disappearance (2014), where Stellan Skarsgard played a grieving father who systematically avenges his son’s murder.  Neeson plays the avenger role in Cold Pursuit, and it’s hardly a stretch since many of his film characters have made people pay, and audiences have loved watching him employ his “very particular set of skills.”

Let me put aside two elements of the confession for my purposes. Ignore the fact that just any unlucky black man would have sufficed as Neeson’s target. Likewise, ignore the fact that forty years on, he felt comfortable referring to his target during the interview as a “black bastard.” Both these things raise important questions. Why should an innocent man ever suffice for payback? And in telling the story now, why was it important to identify the assailant’s race, much less add the “bastard” part? However, let’s imagine that Neeson told a different story, one where he went looking for another white man, and not just any fellow, but the man who did the terrible deed he sought to avenge.

Generally, civilized people do not look kindly on revenge. They tend to see vengeance as a primitive urge that has no place in modern society. For one thing, revenge can sometimes inspire never-ending cycles of violence. Examples like the famous Hatfields and McCoys, where two families carried on a feud to make each other pay for almost thirty years in Kentucky and West Virginia, spring to mind with revenge. If you get me back, and then my people get you back, your people may feel the need to get my people back. And so it may go, on and on. When people take things into their own hands, the result can be utter chaos, with who did what to whom eventually being lost to us. All we’re left with may be damaged bodies and souls.

Even when there is no grave danger of payback getting out of hand or running afoul of who truly deserves punishment, many people decry revenge in favor of justice, and they may take pains to distinguish the two conceptually, not just in the practical terms of who deals out the requisite punishment. On one telling, justice is principled, while revenge is always personal. Think for a moment about statues of Lady Justice, the kind you see around law courts. She wears a blindfold, and she holds scales in one hand and a sword in the other. The scales represent the moral order, with injustices throwing the scales out of balance and crying for proper restoration by way of reasoned consideration of the evidence. The blindfold represents impartiality in the cause of restoring that sacred order. And the sword reminds us that the State reserves the power to judge and mete out punishment. On this telling, whenever one person wrongs another, the interest of justice is always fundamentally impersonal in the sense that society seeks to heal the rift in the moral universe—what matters is that things be put back right. The principle’s the thing. Should you wrong or harm me or those I love, justice makes no principled distinction between one victim and another. Good citizens should care about the wrong done to any citizen. Like Lady Justice, we should be blind to who is wronged since in the eyes of the law, we all matter, and we are all essentially the same.

Vengeance doesn’t feel this way, though it shares a key sensibility with justice. Both justice and vengeance concern people getting what’s coming to them. But whereas justice fixes on an impersonal principle, vengeance is deeply personal. In one of the oldest stories of vengeance in Western literature, Achilles kills Hector in single combat outside the walls of Troy after the Trojan prince slays Patroclus. In the moments before Achilles has his vengeance, Hector asks for a pact to allow the vanquished the requisite burial rites, but Achilles wants none of it.

“There are no binding oaths between men and lions—

wolves and lambs can enjoy no meeting of the minds—

they are all bent on hating each other to the death.

So with you and me. No love between us.  No truce

till one or the other falls…”

And then as he is dying, Hector asks again, offering an impressive ransom if Achilles will allow his Trojan people to bury him. Achilles spits on the appeal.

Beg no more, you fawning dog—begging me by my parents!

Would to go my rage, my fury would drive me now

to hack your flesh away and eat you raw—

such agonies you have caused me!  Ransom?

no man alive could keep the dog-packs off you,

not if they haul in ten, twenty times that ransom.” 

Clearly, Achilles has no interest in restoring some balance to the moral universe. He is not acting as any impartial man of high principle. At that moment, he is a raging beast and he hates Hector with every fiber of his being. After slaying him, Achilles lashes theBetter Angels corpse to the back of his chariot and drags it in front of horrified onlookers around the walls of the city. In his profound rage and grief, Achilles drags the body around Patroclus’ tomb for days. Each morning, Achilles awakes to see Hector’s body magically restored by the gods. His attempts to defile Hector’s body bring him no peace, and not simply because the gods protect the body.

And then the gods allow Priam, king of Troy, to steal his way into the Greek camp to beg for his son’s body. When Achilles sees him, he momentarily mistakes him for his own father, and the thought of Peleus soon to grieve for Achilles moves him and sets in motion a remarkable scene as Priam appeals to him as a father.  Achilles returns the body and gives Priam his word of honor that he shall have the required days for the proper funeral rites. The war will not begin again until the Trojans have duly honored Hector. And with this solemn promise, Achilles regains his humanity, leaving behind his all-consuming anger and hate to see his enemies as human beings, a grieving father and a dead son.

We should be very glad for Achilles’ return. When he wades through Trojan blood to kill Hector, he does not come to kill a flesh-and-blood human being like himself. He cannot see the world through Hector’s eyes or imagine the tears that his people will soon shed for him. Achilles is a raging beast come only to make Hector pay dearly. We shudder at the thought of such a fearsome creature, one who will stop at nothing to kill his adversary. This is as personal as it gets. Understandably, dispassionate justice looks like a saving grace next to Achilles’ rage.

In Ransom, David Malouf’s creative retelling of Priam coming to ransom his son, he creates a beautiful scene where Achilles sits with the body of Hector, cleaned and made ready for Priam to take home shortly.

He regards Hector’s body now, and the clean-limbed perfection of it, the splendor of the warrior who has won an honorable death, is no longer an affront.

The affection of the gods for a man whose end it was part of his own accomplished life to accomplish he can now take as an honour intended also to himself.  And that, he sees, is how it might have been from the start, and this the first, not the twelfth night.

What he feels in himself as a perfect order of body, heart, occasion, is the enactment, under the stars, in the very breath of the gods, of the true Achilles, the one he has come all this way to find.

He sits quietly in the contemplation of this.

As glad as we should be that Achilles finds his way back from the darkness of vengeance, we should also take care to understand that his darkness is the underside of love. His rage and wrath are driven by his profound love for Patroclus. Love is like that. Achilles’ anger isn’t pretty to witness, a sight no more bearable than witnessing the abyss of grief. And justice does well to spare us from doing the vengeful things for love that might just alter us permanently, unleashing forces from which we might never return if we were to indulge them. You might say that justice can mercifully spare us from ourselves because when we feel powerful urges to return bad for bad to those who wrong us and those we love, we experience the urges of loves that give our lives meaning and value. In denying or vilifying such urges, we deny elements of our humanity.

I understand Achilles all too well. At heart, the cry for vengeance is no more primitive than love itself. Life has mercifully spared me anything like Achilles’ fate, but I can imagine having loved ones taken from me or badly hurt, and if I do, I can’t imagine not feeling a deep need to give people what’s coming to them, just as I can’t imagine not mourning the loss or injury. Fortunate souls who have never suffered such things may find it tempting and comforting to imagine themselves above the urges of an Achilles or Liam Neeson as I have imagined him, but in that case, I would simply invite them to exercise their imagination a bit more.

 

2018 Retrospect: Person of the Year

banner Feb 2019

2018 was quite a year. In the spirit of Time magazine, the members of the Avon Hills Salon are kicking off 2019 with a look back, at persons of significance for the year past.  Time’s Person of the Year is usually living (though not, at time of publication, this year’s Jamal Kashoggi). We have chosen a mix of persons, some living and some dead, who wrote, said, or did something that made us think, helped us live, stood out or stood up to power. We hope you’ll enjoy the variety.

*Noreen Herzfeld


nick-hayesA Good Year for Putin

Nick Hayes

Person of the Year: Vladimir Putin

Person of the year for 2018?  Vladimir Putin, of course.

A year ago, The Atlantic kicked off the new year in its January/February 2018 issue with an in-depth article by Julia Joffee on “What Putin Really Wants.”  If The Atlantic had run a follow-up story looking back at 2018 from Putin’s perspective, the lead would probably read, “2018: The Year Putin Got What He Wanted.”  Let’s suggest a few items that would have been on Putin’s 2018 to-do list.

First of all, in Putin’s mind the personal is always political.   Putin had a grudge to settle with the Obama administration.   In 2016, the Panama Papers were leaked documenting and spreading the “dirt” on the illicit wealth of the Kremlin insiders and Putin hidden in off-shore banks.   Putin took it as a personal attack by the Obama administration and was determined to retaliate.

Secondly, he had wanted a new way to assert Russia’s influence in international politics.  He found it in the successful launch of a new weapon:  hacking.  The continuing controversy and discord over the Mueller investigation adds further evidence that Putin had been right to gamble that hacking American computers could throw confusion and discord into the U.S. election and tilt it in favor of the Kremlin’s choice.  According to Joffee, Putin had “. . . pulled off one of the greatest acts of political sabotage in modern history, turning American democracy against itself.”  In the process, Putin acquired a bit of what the Russians call “blat,” or a bit of leverage with the American president. Google the media coverage of the joint press conferences by Putin and Trump last July in Helsinki.  Now, imagine that you are Putin watching the nervous and fawning American president.  What would you think?

Third, self-congratulations would be in order. You would think that your investment in cultivating Trump was paying off very nicely.  Putin’s international agenda did stall a bit in 2018.  The Kremlin intended to do to the eastern Ukraine what it had done to the Crimea. Moscow appears to have settled for a long-term stalemate. Although Trump offered little help for Putin’s agenda in Ukraine, the American president more than made up for that oversight in his policies toward Syria.  His announcement that he would pull out the U.S. forces in Syria left its future in the hands of Putin and his protégé Bashar-al Assad.

Fourth, legislative achievements have never been high on Putin’s to-do list.  This past fall, he did float a pension reform that would have raised the retirement age by five years. In the face of widespread popular protests, Putin blinked.  He reduced the proposed increase in retirement age for women, but not for men and has subsequently slow-walked the proposal. Putin did score a legislative victory on another issue dearer to the heart of his base.  This past January, Russia’s Justice Ministry acted on an earlier proposal from Putin to decriminalize bribery and corruption in certain “exceptional circumstances.”  Nether Putin nor the Justice Ministry has offered an explanation or a more precise definition of what is meant by “exceptional circumstances.”

Finally, what about Putin’s grudge against the Obama administration over the Panama Papers?  Putin’s payback came in the hacking and interference in the American election.


Tony-Cunningham

The Professional

Tony Cunningham

Person of the Year: Robert Mueller

I’m a philosopher by trade.  Good philosophers think carefully about things that matter, and by necessity, they doubt their own thoughts and answers.  The point of philosophical inquiry isn’t to arrive at tidy conclusions, but rather, to track the messy truth, and doubt is a philosopher’s best friend.  As I tell my students, thoughtful uncertainty beats thoughtless certainty every time.  If you are pursuing anything but the obvious, complexity and vagueness are inevitable.  The answers you seek may elude you forever, and progress is generally marked by inching toward a better, but imperfect rendering of the world, not the whole story laid bare, once and for all time.  Intellectual humility is a prerequisite for any philosopher.  You must become comfortable with not knowing; believing you have everything figured out gets in the way of truly figuring things out.

Donald Trump makes a mockery of philosophy.  He doesn’t read or study or deliberate at all, much less devotedly.  He insists that he knows more than thoughtful people who have read, studied, and deliberated.  As he sees it, his “gut” feelings track the answers to complex questions that should be entirely beyond him.  To call him a Sophist, the skilled orators that Socrates criticized for persuading people with slick appeals to emotion, rather than with reasoned argument, is unfair to the Sophists.  Trump vacillates, exaggerates, and lies shamelessly at every turn.  He is all will and no reason, the anti-philosopher in the flesh.

Robert Mueller, head of the Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference in theMueller pic.jpeg 2016 election, is basically everything Trump isn’t, and as such, he is my “Person of the Year.”  Since we do not know the results of the inquiry, the selection may seem premature.  Perhaps they will not amount to anything beyond the indictments, verdicts, and guilty pleas obtained so far.  However, the conclusion is less important to my choice than the character of the man and his inquiry.  Mueller and his team have worked methodically, leaking nothing and saying little.  They have met Trump’s incessant whining about a “witch hunt” and “12 angry Democrats” with stony silence.  No matter what they might deliver, they have plugged away tirelessly, relying on reason and the evidence, not the gut feelings of ignorance.  The Mueller inquiry has been a breath of fresh air for America so far as reasoned inquiry goes.

Ultimately, the Mueller investigation reflects the man, someone entirely unlike Trump.  Like Trump, Robert Swan Mueller was born into wealth.  But whereas Trump escaped Vietnam with convenient bone spurs, Mueller volunteered.  Indeed, he had to persist to serve as a Marine.  Inspired by a Princeton classmate killed in the war, a knee injury rendered Mueller ineligible at first, but he healed enough by the following year to enroll in Officer Candidate School.  After his unit’s first major battle, his reputation was sealed with his soldiers—“The minute the shit hit the fan, he was there.  He performed remarkably.  After that night, there were a lot of guys who would’ve walked through walls for him.” Around the same time, Trump went to work for his father.  He later joked that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in the New York dating scene was his “personal Vietnam.”  Robert Mueller never speaks about the war.

Robert Mueller’s entire life has been about professionalism in the very best sense of the word.  The work—whether commanding a unit in Vietnam, directing the F.B.I., or heading the Russia investigation—has never been about him.  He has set the highest standards, demanding the best of himself and those who work with and for him.  In Trump’s world of vapid reality television, Mueller would be boring—all content and no show.  At a time when we are captive to a president who is all show and no content, Robert Mueller is a nothing less than a gift to the nation, a merciful reminder that reasoned inquiry and faithful service are not dead.  Thank goodness for Robert Mueller and his kind.


banner-of-staffDo the Work

Louis Johnston

People of the Year: Joan, John, Judy, Mona, and Pam

 Do the Work! That’s the title of a book to which I turn whenever I’m frustrated with a project. The cover shows a drawing by Vincent Van Gogh. He called it Man With a Hoe:

Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, regarding this drawing and a group of similar sketches, “there are things that are worth doing one’s best for, either because they gain approval or because, just the opposite, they have their own raison d’être. Blessed is he who has found his work, says Carlyle, and that’s absolutely true.” He went on, “And as for me, when I say that I want to make figures from the people for the people, then it goes without saying that the course of events will influence me only indirectly, that is to the extent that my work is made harder or easier, but making the drawings themselves is my main preoccupation.”

Doing our best work makes possible two key principles of economics: Specialization and trade. Specialization involves finding a task at which a person, group of people, or even nation is relatively good at and then focusing on doing that job well. Trade comes into the picture when two people, groups of people, or nations exchange the goods and services they produce with one another.

Yet, I too often take for granted the people who do their work day in, day out, week after week, and make it possible for me to specialize and do my best work. I implicitly trust that they will be there. That’s the missing ingredient when economists and other discuss trade: that we must trust one another to do what they have agreed to do. If they do not, then the entire edifice crumbles.

My people of the year are the men and women who get up every day and do what needs to be done on our campuses. Clean our buildings. Make our food and clean up after us. Keep the lights on, the heat flowing, and the water running. Supervise our student workers, get the copy machine fixed when it inevitably breaks down, print out our exams.

Mona Gruber and Joan Volkers take care of the Main Building for all of us who work there. I’m constantly amazed how they can keep everything together in the middle of a building-wide renovation but they do it. They clean the bathrooms; mop, sweep, and vacuum the floors, empty the trash, and do dozens of other tasks that I don’t even know about. Thank you, Mona and Joan.

I eat lunch 3-4 times per week at Gorecki. I love the pizza, and Pam Marchand is there almost every day running the station, making pies, baking them, slicing them, and just as important she is chatting with both fellow workers and diners. I’ve overheard her helping out a rookie behind the counter or encouraging another worker when they’ve made a mistake. Thank you, Pam.

When I’m done with lunch, John Holland and the crew in the dish room wash all of the plates, glasses, silverware, and everything else we who have eaten lunch generate day after day after day. I look forward to seeing John and saying hello as he is usually finishing lunch when I come in. Students, staff, and faculty eat thousands of meals and yet we can always count on clean plates, clean glasses, and clean silverware. Thank you, John.

I’ve worked with Judy Shank since we were both over in Simons Hall at St John’s. I know that if I need something (a quiz printed, an errand run) she’ll not only do it but do it well. She’s now the Economics Department staff person but I still think of her as my guardian angel, always looking out for me. Thank you, Judy.

I’ve only mentioned five people but there are dozens more who do the work. I hope all of them know how much I appreciate what they do and how much all the work that all of the staff at our colleges do makes it possible for faculty like me to specialize in what (we hope) we do well. People like them, who show up every day and get the job done, should be awarded Person of the Year every year.


jim-read

It Can’t Happen Here?

Jim Read

Person of the Year: Sinclair Lewis

My selection for Person of the Year 2018 is the American novelist Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951). He was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1930). His first great novel, Main Street, was modeled on his home town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, in western Stearns County.

Sinclair LewisBut it is not for these reasons that I have selected him for Person of the Year. It is for his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, which depicts a fascist takeover of the United States. In the novel a folksy demagogue, Buzz Windrip, skillfully exploits economic distress, racial and religious prejudice, and xenophobia to win the presidency, whose powers he quickly employs to declare a national emergency, put members of Congress under house arrest, violently suppress all opposition, and establish himself as dictator.

The title of the book comes from the claim made by several characters early in the novel, despite the warning signs, that a fascist dictatorship was impossible in the United States. “Nonsense! That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen!” But it does happen, with lightning swiftness. Most ordinary citizens make no attempt to stand up for the Constitution whose virtues they had been ritually praising. Soon many of the same characters who once claimed a fascist dictatorship was impossible in the United States now treat it as an accomplished fact about which nothing can be done.

The most interesting and unsettling part of the story is the secret of Buzz Windrip’s appeal to ordinary Americans, the “Forgotten Men” as he calls them. “Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man…But he was the Common Man twenty-times-magnified by his oratory, so that while the other Commoners could understand his every purpose, which was exactly the same as their own, they saw him towering among them, and they raised hands to him in worship.”

His economic promises were ridiculous and full of contradictions but nevertheless appealed to people in financial distress. The wealth of the country would be redistributed so that everyone got $5000 off the bat, but property rights would be respected and everyone would come out ahead. “He had thoroughly tested (but unspecified) plans to make wages very high and the prices of everything produced by these same highly paid workers very low.” By cutting off all foreign trade and producing everything at home, “even coffee, cocoa, and rubber,” Americans would “keep all our dollars at home,” generating a large enough balance of trade to finance the $5000 promised to every family.

Of course once Buzz Windrip is in power, the $5000 doesn’t come. The results instead are enormous profits for a few large politically-connected corporations and enormously increased misery for nearly everyone else. But Windrip cleverly pins the blame on blacks, who are targeted for re-enslavement, and Jews, who are targeted for annihilation. This plot turn would seem obviously based on Hitler’s “Final Solution” – except that It Can’t Happen Here was published in 1935, long before most people had any idea what was to come.

The novel’s conclusion leaves unresolved the question of whether fascism could permanently defeat democracy in the United States. Buzz Windrip eventually falls victim to an internal coup, but fascist rule continues under new leadership. There is an underground resistance movement promising to restore democracy, but the novel promises only that the resistance will continue, not that it will succeed.

Is democracy threatened in the United States today? This is an intriguing question to pose in the wake of a long and still-unresolved political crisis engineered by a president who in effect said to Congress, “Do as I command, or I will shut this country down.” It is encouraging that at least some congressional leaders still take their constitutional responsibilities seriously. But what are the attitudes of the wider American public?

A special September 2018 issue of The Atlantic (published before the shutdown crisis) posed the question, Is Democracy Dying? Among the eye-opening details reported in the feature was that in an August 2017 survey, more than half of the Republicans said they would support postponing the 2020 elections if President Trump claimed this was necessary to prevent the (supposed) threat of undocumented immigrants voting.

Political theorist Yascha Mounk in The People vs. Democracy: Why our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It (2018) argues that both in the United States and in Europe, democracy is in process of “deconsolidating.” By “deconsolidation” Mounk does not mean that democracy will necessarily be overthrown (though he considers that a real possibility) but that in the U.S. and western Europe the once-overwhelming consensus across the political spectrum in favor of maintaining a democratic system has evaporated. It now has open opponents as well as advocates. Democracy has gone from being remarkable stable in the United States to increasingly unstable; it has ceased to be the only game in town.

Mounk reports some disturbing survey evidence, especially among younger voters. “In 1995, 34 percent of young Americans aged 18-24 felt that a political system with a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress or elections was either good or very good. By 2011, 44 percent of young Americans felt the same way.” Similar upward trends are evident among Americans who say they favor military rule. From 1995 to 2011 the number of Americans who say they favor military rule increased from one in 16 to one in six. Among young, wealthy Americans the percentage who say they favor military rule had increased to 35 percent by 2011. (Mounk, pp. 108-112). These surveys were taken well before Donald Trump became a presidential candidate.

So these are my reasons for selecting Sinclair Lewis as Person of the Year. I am not saying that the death of democracy will happen here, only that it can happen here. There are many things we as citizens can and should do to restore our democracy to health and reverse the trend toward authoritarian politics. But simply insisting that “it can’t happen here” won’t do the trick.


noreen-herzfeldWhere Have All the Niebuhr’s Gone?

Noreen Herzfeld

Person of the Year: Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr did not shy away from hard truths.  Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York (1928-1960), Niebuhr was for the mid-twentieth century something we very much lack today—a theologian and public intellectual who was a conscience for his time, and, oddly enough, for ours.

NiehbauerIn his Gifford Lectures, The Nature and Destiny of Man, he notes that human beings, standing “at the juncture of nature and spirit,” tend to overestimate themselves, falling into the dual trap of pride and an overreaching will-to-power.  While an individual may overcome this temptation, nations rarely do: “Sinful pride and idolatrous pretention are an inevitable concomitant of large political groups.”  Niebuhr described modern nationalism as a “daemonic” force that would be the inevitable ruin of nations that espoused it.  Of course, he was thinking of Hitler and Mussolini at the time.

But not entirely.  In 1937, Niebuhr wrote a prescient piece for the American Scholar Niehbuhr 2.pngentitled, “Pawns for Fascism—Our Lower Middle Class” in which he envisioned the forces that could bring down American democracy.  Niebuhr writes that should our civilization fail, “the chief contributory cause of its failure will lie in the demonic force latent in the lives of all the good little people, so touching in their personal rectitude and individual discipline, who serve us in the shops, who till our soil and who perform all functions in our social mechanism with the exception of industrial labor.”  He believes the lower middle class to be the most “politically inept” of all classes.  These voters embrace the social conservatism and individualism of the Right, yet fail to recognize that their position is not the same as that of the wealthy politicians whom they elect, not seeing “the gulf between property as social power and property as minimal social security.”

Niebuhr could be talking about our society today.  He describes what modern writers have dubbed “the precariat,” a failing middle class who “are least able to find themselves amidst the complexities of a technical civilization and the perplexities of . . . change.”   They are “ignorant of the cause of, and confused about the ways of escape from, [their] social difficulties.”  They seethe with “a profound resentment, which is the more bitter for its failure to articulate itself clearly,” and thus, are easy prey to “the economic creed of the demagogue”, “virulent racism”, and “patriotic passion.”  Niebuhr warns that, in an economic downturn, lower middle-class grievance will “undoubtedly express itself in fascistic or semi-fascistic terms…. It may well become the decisive factor in our political life.”

Niebuhr writes: “It is too early to prophesy, and much too early to write, the tragic social history of our era.”  That was eighty years ago.  Today we see much of what he foresaw.  Niebuhr does not prescribe a solution.  He saw the world as broken by human sinfulness and democracy as “a proximate solution to insoluble problems.”  He does, however, point out that “history is filled with many achievements and constructions which ‘have their day and cease to be.’”  In other words, no matter how complicated or broken our current situation seems, this too shall pass.

Reinhold Niebuhr remains popular today, quoted by political figures (Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, James Comey) and pundits (David Brooks, Andrew Bacevich) alike.  He has been described as “one of the last two indisputable public intellectuals in the United States.”  Which raises the question, “Where are the Niebuhrs of today?”   Niebuhr rose to prominence in the 1930s after the publication of Moral Man and Immoral Society and became the “go to” theologian during and after WWII for a media searching for understanding of our civilization’s turmoil.

There are plenty of smart and articulate theologians out there today.  Unfortunately, we do not hear them in the clamor of today’s media, which all too often take the easy way out, elevating evangelicals, such as Jerry Falwell or Franklin Graham, who are willing to give their American audience the simplistic answers they want to hear, and to do so in a soundbite.  Yet, if we had the likes of Niebuhr today, would we listen?  Or has our attention been too fragmented by technology, and too jaded by a media that looks for the extremes that make for a good fight?

Nick Hayes on: Brezhnev’s Winter

This year my preoccupation with finishing a book, “Looking for Leningrad,” has consumed my energy and time for writing.  Thus, I have held back from posting on my usual topics and themes. To take your mind off the “banality” of politics in the Trump era I am sending out this short excerpt from my “Looking for Leningrad.” Take it as a seasonal story set in Moscow’s coldest winter on record.  I apologize in advance that the excerpt contains some Soviet jargon that would not be familiar to you.  MGU, for example, refers to Moscow State University.  Ostankino refers to the State Committee on Radio and Television.    Both figure prominently in “Looking for Leningrad” from its first to last chapter.

Here are a few reminiscences on Moscow in the winter 1978-1979 . . .

Statue of Brezhnev; photo by author

 

Winter came early that year.  A cold front arrived in Moscow in mid-October about the same time historians remember it had arrived in 1812 to welcome Napoleon to Moscow. The unexpectedly cold temperatures prompted me to lower the ear flaps on my Russian fur cap, a shlapa.  A nosey babushka on the street focused a disapproving eye on me.  “Young man,” she chided, “it’s too early for that.   If you pull down your ear flaps now, what will you do in December and January.” By mid-December, I conceded she had a point. I had committed my defense against winter too early.

Temperatures plummeted that December.  The weather reporting on Ostankino television became increasingly vague and incomplete. The tongue-tied weather reporting on state television untethered tongues on the street.  Rumors spoke of an unprecedented cold wave sweeping westward from Siberia to Moscow cold enough to make even Siberians shiver.  New Year’s Day confirmed the rumors.  The temperature reached minus-40, a record low for the city of Moscow and the point where Celsius and Fahrenheit temperatures converge.

My immediate impulse was to embrace the coming of a legendary Russian winter’s cold wave.  I would play a latter day Zhivago at Varykino in his Siberian drama.   Besides, I had already taken cover.   The AP correspondent, Bart Reppert had graciously invited my family to apartment sit at his place. He and his wife were leaving Moscow for a holiday vacation at cross country ski resort in Finland. The setting was perfect.   Reppert lived in one of the “German” or “foreigner’s suburbs” in Moscow where the Kremlin quarantined western diplomats, businessmen, and journalists. His apartment was in a complex on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, the indekc svyazi or zip code of Moscow’s elite.

Indoor playtime had exhausted its ability to entertain my sons.   The Soviet toys made of a hard and easily breakable plastic had never captured their fancy.   The hand-carved wooden folk toys appealed only to their father’s fantasies about re-creating the things of traditional Russia.  The wooden bear on a small handheld paddle had moving arms that a child could flap up and down but never received the call to play and joined a few matryoshka dolls on a shelf where they formed a sad colony of unwanted Christmas toys. My sons, a toddler and a three-year-old, did not suffer boredom lightly. I could not convert them into accepting my idea of a perfect Russian day reading Chekhov or jotting fragments of wisdom in a notebook. In years to come, I imagined there would be Ph.D. students who would rescue my notebook from the archives and weave its fragments into dissertations or monographs.

Stalin had left Moscow with a unique heating system.  From a central heating plant, the system pumped hot water through a vast subterranean matrix of generators, boilers, massive pipes and relay stations that pumped steam heat into the city’s buildings. Inefficiency plagued the system. Occasionally, the pipelines showed themselves.  Like a whale coming up for air, the pipelines would rise from the ground for a short stretch and then dive back to their underground world.  Even in the coldest winter months you could easily track the routes of the pipelines.  Heat lost from the cause of heating Moscow warmed the ground above the pipeline and enabled grass to grow.  A meter or two wide, linear green zones marked the trail of the heating pipes throughout the city.

Stalin’s system dated from the 1930s and had avoided any major breakdowns until this winter.  As temperatures descended and stayed at record lows pipes burst and left large sections of Moscow without heat.   A chaotic internal migration within the city ensued as Muscovites fled frozen apartment complexes in search of a friend’s warm couch in an as yet unaffected district of the city.  Our temporary quarters on Kutuzovskii Prospekt held out. However, Reppert’s return from Finland forced us to take shelter elsewhere.  MGU and its environs had succumbed to the collapse of the heating system throughout its section of the city.  Finally, the U.S. Embassy’s resident Lutheran minister showed some pity and invited us to stay at his apartment in another of Moscow’s “foreigner’s suburbs.”

The celebration for that New Year’s Eve might have led you to believe that the new year, 1979 would be the year of Brezhnev.  Anticipation was building.  In the fall, Brezhnev published a three-volume set of memoirs.  Known as the Brezhnev Trilogy, the memoirs consisted of three volumes – The Little Land, Resurrection, and The Virgin Lands.  The three books chronicle the life of Brezhnev from a humble childhood in Ukraine, to his alleged military leadership in “The Great Patriotic War,” and the Soviet development agriculture in Central Asia.

Of all the attempts at creating leader cults in Russian history, the promotion of Brezhnev stands out as the most ludicrous and cruel. By 1978, Russians knew that the Soviet leader showed signs of senility. His slurred speech struggled to deliver the simplest public pronouncements. On his best days, he still looked like an old guy with a hangover.

None of this dissuaded the Kremlin.  The press proclaimed Brezhnev a literary genius.  Within a week of the publication of his memoirs, he received the Soviet Union’s highest award for literature, the Lenin Prize.  On New Year’s Eve, the media could not contain itself.   Soviet Television devoted the entirety of its popular music and variety show, The Little Blue Light, to a homage to Leonid Ilych.  Celebrities from popular culture gushed with praise for the leader.  Representing Moscow’s American comrades, the American singer, Dean Reed, the “Red Elvis,” appeared in a TV message from East Berlin.   Brezhnev’s favorite actor, Vyacheslav Tikhonov put in a cameo appearance and made a special announcement. There would be an adaptation of the trilogy for the stage, Tikhonov announced, and he would play the lead.  The hosts interviewed literary critics and professors who elucidated the finer points of Brezhnev’s masterpiece. The program built up to its highlight moments before midnight. Brezhnev appeared in a televised message giving his best wishes to the Soviet people for the year ahead.

Soviet TV did not have to worry about anything like the Nielson’s Ratings.  Just in case, Ostankino tried a trick to guarantee something of an audience.   Soviet TV preceded the broadcast of the Brezhnev special with the broadcast of what truly is a Soviet era masterpiece – the film by Eldar Ryazonnov, The Irony of Fate (1976).  Its popularity survived the Soviet Union and remains a classic of Russian cinema.

As it turned out, 1979 was not the year of Brezhnev. Soviet troops had launched their invasion of Afghanistan at the end of December 1978.  Rumors and leaks from within the Kremlin inner circle describe an inebriated Brezhnev at the time of the decision to invade Afghanistan.

An overstock of unsold copies of the Brezhnev Trilogy remained unsold and untouched in Moscow’s shops for another decade.  In 1988, the Soviet authorities rounded up all the remaining copies and turned the winner of the Lenin Prize – The Little Land, Resurrection, and The Virgin Lands – into waste pulp. An irony of fate, the Russians would say.

Black Friday to Cyber Monday: On Climate Change, Computers, and Our Embodied Selves

noreen-herzfeldOn Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, the Trump administration issued a massive new report on climate change, the National Climate Assessment, compiled by thirteen federal agencies.  The report clearly states that climate change is an intensifying danger, not just to the landscape of the US, as evinced by the recent Camp Fire in California, but also to our overall economy and infrastructure.  Donald Trump’s assessment of the report was blunt: “I don’t believe it.”

While Trump might be an outlier, I fear he is not.  My reasoning is connected to another post-Thanksgiving tradition, Cyber Monday.  Cyber Monday represents the trend away from physically shopping at “brick and mortar” stores toward shopping on-line.  With computer technology many activities that once took place in real space now take place in the bodiless world of cyberspace:  we communicate via messenger and text, we shop, bank and do research on the internet, we amuse ourselves with video games and streamed videos.  We project our minds across vast distances or into fictional realms and have experiences in those places that form us as persons.  In cyberspace we don’t need bodies; we conceive of ourselves as pure mind.  Silicon Valley types speculate that computers could bring us the ultimate “biohack”—to live without any “wetware” at all by uploading our minds to the computer.

Noreen article

Camp Fire burning in California.

Of course, this last option is still only a dream, despite predictions by futurists such as Ray Kurzweil that we will be able to upload our minds into computers by 2045.  Kurzweil writes:

“Up until now, our mortality was tied to the longevity of our hardware.  When the hardware crashed, that was it.  For many of our forebears, the hardware gradually deteriorated before it disintegrated . . . As we cross the divide to instantiate ourselves into our computational technology, our identity will be based on our evolving mind file.  We will be software, not hardware . . . As software, our mortality will no longer be dependent on the survival of the computing circuitry . . . [as] we periodically port ourselves to the latest, evermore capable “personal” computer . . . Our immortality will be a matter of being sufficiently careful to make frequent backups.”

Well, not quite yet.  We are embodied creatures.  In a recent interview with Christianity Today editor Douglas Estes, I make a case for our remaining embodied creatures, at least so long as we wish to remain human.  Yet, as Estes notes, while “movement toward cyborg (cybernetic organism) applications sounds like a leap into dystopian science fiction, Businessman Elon Musk aims to connect the brain to computers, and one neurologist was even willing to hack his own brain to further research on human speech, hoping to one day attain life extension itself.”

I doubt that we need fear such a future, for several reasons.  Here is a part of my response:

technology-784046_1920

One reason it’s not going to work is due to the complexity of the brain and the entire human being. There are projects to map the connectome of the brain. The idea is that if we can do the human genome, then why can’t we do the connectome? But the connectome of the brain is much more complex than the human genome. We have billions of neurons, and each of those neurons can possibly be connected to thousands of other neurons. Plus, these connections are plastic; they change. We kill neurons off, we grow new neurons, we reconnect, we end connections that are not being used, and we build new connections in other places. Plus, we’re now finding out that we’ve got an awful lot of neurons in our gut as well. There’s a strong connection between the brain and the gut, and it’s not one way—brain to gut; gut to brain is connected as well.

You can find the entire interview, “Your Brain in Not a Computer,” at https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/november-web-only/cybernetics.html

What I do fear is that our movement toward the on-line world, epitomized by the move from Black Friday to Cyber Monday, deadens us to our surroundings by making the natural world less salient to our everyday lives.  As Richard Louv writes in Last Child in the Woods, “Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”  I hope the National Climate Assessment will help us all to recognize our embeddedness in both our body and the nature that surrounds us and awake to such a passion.  I fear, however, that, like our president, too few of us will look away from our screens to do so.

Looking for Leningrad My Russian Life

nick-hayesFor the past eight years, the task of turning a lifetime of memories, boxes of notebooks, and recollected conversations into a memoir of my life and times in the onetime Soviet Union and Russia has preoccupied my thoughts and writing.  This fall this labor of the mind and heart will finally see publication under the title “Looking for Leningrad My Russian Life (Nodin Press).

Here’s a sample.  The unseemly relationship of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump has aroused considerable interest in the operations of the Russian intelligence services.  Americans have added a Russian word to their vocabulary, “kompromat’.  You might enjoy this story of my first encounter with “kompromat’.”  The excerpt comes from chapter three of “Looking for Leningrad.”  The story takes place in Moscow in the fall 1978. . .

“Spooks”

Architecture plays politics.  On the campus grounds of Moscow State University, the architecture was still fighting the 1950s and 1960s battles between Stalinism and reform.  Stalin’s proxy in this war was the jewel in the crown of his seven “wedding cake” sky-scrapers, Moscow State University.

Moscow State University grey

Moscow State University in its Glory Days

It towered over the grounds dwarfing and intimidating the new buildings that had rolled out in the 1960s and 1970s.

The “Humanitarian Faculty Building No. 1,” or, as it was known by its acronym, “GUMFAK,” embodied in glass and concrete the glum modernism of the Soviet 1960s in architecture.

Gumfak

Humanitarian Faculty Building No. 1 or GUMFAK

 

It rose sluggishly in a rectangular twelve stories with an extension on its mezzanine, a horizontal counter-point to the singularly vertical design of the main building. The critics and savants of Soviet architecture ignored GUMFAK until quite recently when two scholars of Soviet modernism saw in the building   “the spirit of the period during which the first human spaceflight and the 1980 Olympics took place.” They saw GUMFAK as “a modern building whose appearance and atmosphere were deigned to fight cultural and pedagogical inertia.” Stalinist architecture delighted in a certain socialist baroque and overly indulged in ornamentation.  GUMFAK made a virtue out of its barren interior or so its scholars claimed: “Bare interiors allowed students to appreciate the thoughts of their generation’s intellectual idols more clearly, while recreation areas facilitated productive discussions with teachers.”   During my year there, an under-stocked “buffet” with an expresso machine that never worked passed for GUMFAK’s recreational space.  I never saw a student in a discussion there with anyone.

My program for the year began with an intensive course in Russian in GUMFAK. The lessons succeeded in moving my Russian from the unintelligible to the merely ungrammatical. There I also picked up my monthly stipend.  The first time a generous apparatchik over-paid me.  I had a day or two to enjoy the self-esteem of a stipend of twice that distributed to my American colleagues.  However, a very nervous Russian clerk accosted me after my Russian class and somewhat frantically explained the error.  He seemed both relieved and surprised when I pulled out my wallet and handed him the rubles. Of course, the resolution of the problem would not be that easy.  I spent another hour or two filling out forms.

My first professional contact came in a telephone call to my dormitory blok.  My advisor and host, Dr. Sergei Kokushkin, requested that I meet with him the following day at his office in GUMFAK.  I arrived early. The waiting room featured a cheerless hospitality. A few unwelcoming chairs, like gloomy waiters in a Soviet restaurant, hinted that I should look elsewhere if I wanted to be comfortable.  A blonde, attractive receptionist had not raised her head and eyes from her desk when I entered the office. She reluctantly acknowledged my presence and tersely asked, “Chto Vy?” or “What’s with you?”  “Dr. Kokushkin is expecting you,” she said in reply to my awkward introduction.  Gesturing toward a chair, she continued, “Please sit down.  Sergei Sergeivich will see you in a minute.”  She had exhausted her interest in me. The promised minute turned into five, ten and more.  I had not even rated the customary offer of tea.

The entrance door opened.  A young man, about my age, entered, politely greeted the receptionist by her name and patronymic and turned toward me. “Are you American?” he asked.   He spoke a seamless American English. My reply, “Da, ya Amerikanits” brought out a touch of excitement to him.  “Ah, that is good,” he said, “Perhaps, you could help me.”  He continued, “I am writing a dissertation on the Puritans in American history.”  My reply was disingenuous.  “Unfortunately, you have met the wrong type of American,” I injected.  “I am a Catholic and know very little about the Puritans.”  “Catholic!” he said. His eyes widened.  “I, too, am Catholic.”  His name was Andrei.  He joked that my name, Nick would make me popular in Russia.

Russian Catholics are a rarity. I showed off a bit of my knowledge of nationalities in the Soviet Union.  I asked if he was Polish, Lithuanian or one of those Uniate Ukrainians for whom we prayed in my parochial school during Captive Nations Week.  No, he was very much a Russian.   There was a small community of Russian Catholics in Moscow. Perhaps I would like to meet them?

I took the bait like a crappie on the Minnesota fishing opener.  My imagination was already showing images of my Moscow bylines on the front page of the New York Times.  We agreed to meet again.  Only a week or two into my year in Russia, I made what would be the first of a long line of meetings with Russians at an agreed upon time on the platform of a metro station.  Metro Universitet.

He added one last request. He complained about the difficulty of obtaining any books in Russia on the Puritans.  Would it be possible, he wondered, that I could obtain for him some of the writings of Cotton Mather?  It didn’t cross my mind to wonder why my new Russian friend would be interested in the man behind the Salem Witch Trials.  A bit too eager to play my new role as the American voice of the Soviet underground, I assured him that I would be able to easily pick up a book or two of Mather’s writing.  I dismissed a pesky warning in my head that reminded me of my orientation meeting with the U.S. Consulate staff.  Soviet law strictly forbade the distribution of foreign religious materials.

The receptionist interrupted this fraternization between Catholics:  “Dr. Kokushkin will meet you now.” She opened the door and ceremoniously waved her hand in the direction of a well-dressed and rather handsome Kokushkin.  He rose from his chair at the apex of an apparatchik’s typical “T” shaped table.  The motion of his hand said that I should pick my place at the table.  A new protocol faced me.  Do I sit directly across from my distinguished host or somewhere more appropriate to my status at the lower end of the “T?” I split the difference and sat at a chair a place or two removed from Kokushkin.  His welcome included a few references to my family, my work and home in Texas and so liberated me from the always awkward task of explaining myself to a stranger.  Kokushkin then pointed toward a colleague who was joining us for our meeting.  The colleague politely said hello.  This would be his only contribution to the conversation.  It was my first encounter with this Soviet custom.  Any professional appointment or conversation usually included an extraneous colleague who offered a perfunctory greeting and thereafter tended to smile inanely and volunteered nothing to the conversation.

I side-stepped through a few sentences on my research project.  The blank expression on Kokushkin’s face remained unmoved as I dropped the banned names of the philosophers of “national bolshevism” from the 1920s and nervously said the name, “Stalin” once.  Sergei Sergeivich may have been honestly ignorant of my topic or wanted to conceal his discomfort. Our silent colleague at the meeting jotted down something in a pocket notebook.

Our meeting was brief, courteous and unproductive.   I had better things to do.  I pulled my diary out of my pocket.  Years later, when I learned that Kokushkin specialized in the history of the Constitution of the USSR, I wondered why would anyone actually study that?

A few days later, Andrei was waiting for me on the metro station platform at the appointed time. The station lacked the heroic murals of the older metro stations that that decorated the walls with scenes from the glorious history of the USSR. The walls of Kiev station, for example glistened with mosaics offering images of the bonds of friendship between the Russians and Ukrainians.  By contrast, Metro Universitet offered a refreshing lack of hyperbole and embellishment. The pink granite walls kept their silence and left you alone as you bustled through the station.

In Moscow, you do not start up a conversation just anywhere. At Andrei’s suggestion, we left the metro station for one of Moscow’s “ice cream cafes.”  This one stood on nearby Lomonosovskii Prospect.  The eighteenth century scientist, Lomonosov was the namesake of Moscow State University. His name on the street offered the only evidence that this was a university neighborhood. If you were looking for a bookstore, forget this neighborhood and go to “Dom Knigi” (The House of Books) in the center of Moscow.  On a good day, the cafe offered ice cream, cookies, tea, and brandy.  Andrei and I had happened upon on a not-so-good day.  This was a tea only conversation.  Andrei had a “vocation.”  He was determined to become a Catholic priest.   He dreamed of enrolling in the newly re-opened Catholic seminary in Lithuania. After ordination, he would return to Moscow and minister to Russian Catholics. He belonged to a “secret circle” of Catholics who met on Sunday evenings at the Catholic Cathedral.

The next Sunday evening, I followed his directions to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Holy Virgin Mary.  Erected in 1911, the neo-Gothic Cathedral occupied a piece of prime real estate in Moscow on the Garden Ring Road. The neo-gothic Cathedral was collapsing due to a near century of neglect, vandalism, and structural collapse.  This island of Catholicism in Orthodox Russia had enjoyed only a few years of peace until the 1917 Revolution unleashed two decades of harassment and persecution. Stalin’s regime closed the church in 1938, stripped it of its sacred art, and converted into a warehouse and offices. The church’s altar and organ had not too mysteriously disappeared in 1938.  During the war, Soviet authorities viewed the Cathedral as a collaborator with the Germans.   They demolished two of the church’s four towers on the grounds that the spires served as markers directing the Luftwaffe to targets in Moscow’s center.  The main tower collapsed in the 1950s.  A fire scorched the walls and brought down a few of its buttresses. The official re-opening and re-consecration of the church would have to wait until Gorbachev’s time.  In the 1970s, an unofficial re-opening had proceeded in discretely defiant increments.  By the time Andrei drew me to the scene in 1978, survivors and descendants of the parish had reclaimed a corner of the church with a few pews, a make-shift altar and a crucifix rescued from the rubble.  The metaphor of the resurrection of the crucifix was not lost on the congregation.

The Cathedral had never made it into the age of electricity. Soviet era campaigns for “electrification” had passed it by. A few candles now provided a bit of light.   Andrei’s group comprised a handful of elderly women, a few dislocated Poles and Lithuanians, some lost exiles from France and a small flock of unbaptized crows perched on a pile of rubble. The priest, a Lithuanian did not risk a confrontation with the Soviet authorities by saying a Mass. He began with an obvious and somewhat theatrical Sign of the Cross using two fingers in the Catholic style. The priest kept his homily to a whisper mentioning the woeful state of the Cathedral, a few references to the New Testament, and an abbreviated selection of prayers from the Ordinary of the Mass. Playing on a metaphor from John 10:1-21, the priest described the Catholic Church as the Good Shepherd that had come back to Russia in search of its lost sheep.  The Church risked great peril as it sought its lost sheep not only in Russia but in the Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania.  The priest called on his Faithful to pray for Russian vocations to the priesthood and for the restoration of the Cathedral. He then led this humble gathering of the Faithful in reciting the Nicene Creed with stress added to its profession of belief in “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” The priest gave the congregation his blessing and sent us off to go in peace.

The parishioners approached the altar, crossed themselves before the crucifix and hastily disappeared into the darkness beyond the candles’ light.   Andrei, however, approached the priest, pointed to me and led the priest over to meet me.  He spoke English.  He had relatives in Chicago.  We exchanged pleasantries. I accepted his invitation to come again next Sunday evening.

I remembered that I had heard something about the Cathedral before. In the late 1970s, the Cathedral gained some recognition by association.  The poet, actor and singer, Vladimir Vysotsky lived across the street from the Cathedral and had lent his name to the cause of its restoration.  His sympathy for the humbled Catholic Cathedral was his wife’s cause, the French actress, Marina Vlady.  Vysotsky was not the type of guy to venerate the purity of the Blessed Virgin.  Besides, the Russian Orthodox Church did not subscribe to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  A healthy skepticism and irreverence for the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception” in one of his poems circulated in samizdat and magnitizat at the time.  Under the title “A Poem about the Carpenter Joseph, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit, and the Immaculate Conception,” Vysotsky wrote . . .

I came home from work,

Put my awl on the wall,

Suddenly someone flits out the window

From my wife, from the bed!

I, of course, ask, “Who is it?”

And she answered, “It is the Holy Spirit!”

. . .

He will be born, but I know

That he ain’t no Jesus Christ.”

Vysotsky’s cynicism is infectious.  As I left the cathedral, Muscovites sped in their Ladas along the Garden Ring Road, busily pursuing the promised wonder of a Soviet future and disinterested in the old story on the side of the road of a violated and abused cathedral.  I looked back. Now empty, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception receded into the shadows of the Moscow night like an apparition from a distinctively Soviet form of hell.  The Soviet gulag took on many forms and shapes.  The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was a prisoner in the one reserved for suspect churches, monasteries, and sacred architecture.  My new friend, Andrei, was far, far closer to the Kremlin, than to Rome.

Tony Cunningham on “All Will & No Reason”

prof-photoAs a boy growing up in New York City, I loved baseball debates.  I was a Red Sox fan, and all my friends liked the Yankees.  There were some unspoken rules to our debates.  We had our vested interests.  I certainly wanted Jim Rice to top Reggie Jackson, just as my friends wanted Thurman Munson to prevail over Carlton Fisk.  We were anything but disinterested.  However, we understood that there was no sense debating unless we considered reasonable arguments.  I loved Carl Yastrzemski, but by the 70s, I couldn’t depict him as the baseball god he was in 1967.  If you were going to engage in baseball debates, you had to consider evidence seriously.  You couldn’t just make silly stuff up.

Every so often, somebody would break the rules.  Usually, it was some boy beyond my circle of friends, someone new to the debate routine.  Sometimes an adversary so loved a player that it was psychologically impossible for him to give an inch in a debate.  No matter what statistics you brought to bear, he was not going to admit that his favorite player was the lesser.  In such a case, the debate was really a test of loyalty, akin to arguing about whose mother was better.  You could say whatever you pleased, but this boy wasn’t going to throw his favorite player (or his mother) under the bus.  End of story.  Such love could be understood, tiresome as it surely was for debate purposes.

On rare occasions, I’d run across a different adversary, a far more exasperating one, someone who made a complete mockery of debate.  This opponent was determined to concede nothing about anything.  The point wasn’t just to stand up for a beloved player, but rather, to “win” at all costs.  Such a boy could take two and two to make five without blinking an eye.  His player might hit four homers to my player’s forty, but in his eyes, this fact wouldn’t make any difference whatsoever.  Such boys transformed the exercise into a test of pure will, one where reason had no place.  The real point—the only point—was victory.  It didn’t matter how it was won.  Good evidence and sound arguments?  Any willful boy determined to win at all costs had to be careful not to let appeals to evidence and reason find a way inside the walls of his indomitable will.  After all, give an inch, and you might find yourself giving a foot.  And then you might lose, nightmare of nightmares.

Effectively, Donald Trump is this willful boy, so I feel like I’ve known him all my life.  His stubborn refusal to accept the revised death toll from Hurricane Maria and his claim that Democrats cooked up false numbers to make him “look as bad as possible” are nothing other than childish attempts to shout the loudest and bang his fist boldly on the table.  The man is all will, and no reason.  Concessions, retractions, apologies, and admissions of mistakes are all indisputable signs of constitutional weakness in Donald Trump’s book.  Why would a winner ever admit to being wrong?  When people ask you to put two and two together, give them five if it suits your interests, and once given, never take it back.  If tomorrow you feel like six instead of five, just change your answer.  An iron will rules.

In my childhood, I never knew what to do with such boys.  But having learned my “lesson,” one of the first things I impress upon my students these days is that any good inquiry aims at figuring out what is the case, not at corroborating what you’d like to be so.  As I tell them, if you are to be a serious inquirer—the only kind worth being—you must be willing to accept bad news.  The world, for all your fervent desires, may not turn out as you’d like, and if not, you must beware of fudging things to produce the answer you desire.  For instance, anyone familiar with the empirical evidence of climate change knows that humanity’s prospects look bleak, especially if we continue with our current path.  Responsible scientists and citizens hate this answer, but their preferences are beside the point.  After all, I didn’t like it when I finally came around as a child to the judgment that I would never fly under my own power, but my disappointment didn’t make the conclusion any less true.

Another thing I impress upon my students is that I no longer care much for debates.  Of course, the adversarial system can serve a useful purpose in collecting support for conflicting points of view.  In the ideal, the best evidence and arguments rise to the top, just like cream.  However, debates suffer for the truth when willful people want to win more than they wish to see the truth rise.  There are many ways of “winning” a debate.  You can lie.  You can entertain.  You can appeal to prejudices.  You can intimidate.  You can confuse people.  You can change the subject.  Basically, you can alter the enterprise from an honest attempt to figure out what is the case by making it into a winner-take-all contest of sheer will.  This is the embodiment of Trump, and his triumph of will over reason is a terminal cancer for any democracy worth its salt.

One last thing I like to tell my students is that we are all wrong, most of the time.  Try as we may, we’re destined to get all sorts of things wrong, even if just a little bit wrong.  So long as we pursue complex questions, our reach will always exceed our grasp.  But if we come to the task with the requisite humility, duly cognizant that we might just be wrong, we are far likelier to get things right in the end.  On the other hand, if we substitute sheer will for reason, like Donald Trump, then we’re just making silly stuff up.

Derek Larson on “What I Did on My Summer Vacation”

If I were assigned the classic “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” topic for a back-to-school essay this fall the focus would be on an eight-day road trip my family took from Atlanta to Dallas in July. The ostensible purpose of the trip was to mark my 50th birthday and to see to the last of the fifty states I had never visited, but the real motive was to experience a bit of the rural South and to explore some of the iconic sites associated with the Civil Rights movement and the history of Black liberation in America.

Along the way we visited dozens of historic sites and museums, ate barbeque and okra, avoided sweet tea whenever possible, and talked endlessly about history. At most stops we were met with diverse crowds of other visitors eager to learn more about the historic roots of racial oppression in our society and the generations of resistance required to improve the lives of people of color in America.  Among the places we visited were numerous locations along the recently-established U.S. National Civil Rights Trail, managed by the National Park Service and spanning 14 states with over 100 sites, many of them justifiably famous—or infamous –for their roles in the battle for racial justice and equality in the 20th century. All were familiar to us from textbooks and movies, but experiencing these places in person—and in the context of a broader conversation about civil rights and justice –made each day a memorable experience.

Rosa Parks/Montgomery Bus Boycott Marker, Montgomery, AL

In Montgomery, Alabama, we visited the bus stop where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the most effective large-scale acts of resistance against segregation in the Jim Crow South. In Little Rock Arkansas, we walked the steps of the public high school pro-segregation whites tried to prevent Black students from attending 1957.

Little Rock Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas

In the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education court decision schools were ordered to desegregate but white opposition was strong in many locations. Little Rock Central High School, still operating as a public school today, was named a National Historic Site due in part to the response to the Little Rock Nine, a group of Black teenagers who arrived for the first day of classes in September of 1959 but were turned back at the doors by armed members of the Arkansas National Guard acting under orders from the Governor. Ultimately the children were admitted, three weeks later, under the protection of the 101st Airborne unit of the U.S. Army, who were ordered by President Eisenhower to enforce the law over the opposition of Governor Orval Faubus.

The Ebenezer Baptist Church and Pulpit, Atlanta along with the Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King tomb, King Center, Atlanta

In Atlanta, we sat quietly in the pews of at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached and across the street from his tomb at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. As recordings of MLK’s sermons played, the spirit of the church—now managed by the National Park Service –came alive. The entire neighborhood surrounding the church, a hub of the historic Black community in Atlanta, has been designated the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park by the National Park Service, and is maintained now as it appeared when King lived there.

Medgar Evers home, Jackson, Mississippi

In Jackson, Mississippi we drove through residential neighborhoods to find the modest 1950s ranch home where NAACP leader Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway in June of 1963. A WWII veteran and father, as Field Secretary for the NAACP Evers challenged illegal segregation at the University of Mississippi and worked across the state in campaigns for voting rights and equal access. His murderer was tried three times; all-white juries failed to convict twice in the 1960s but a retrial in 1994 finally led to conviction. Evers was widely viewed as a martyr for the cause of racial justice and his murder helped raise awareness of the struggle outside the segregated South.

16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama and Statue recognizing the bombing victims, Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham

In Birmingham, Alabama, we saw the 16th Street Baptist Church where terrorist bombers detonated 15 sticks of dynamite in September 1963, killing four little girls as the children were preparing for services. The adjacent museum, operated by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, places the attack in the broader context of Birmingham’s long history of racial discrimination and violence. The city-owned Kelly Ingram Park across the street uses art and opportunities for reflection to promote healing and justice.

In Selma, Alabama, we walked across the notorious Edmund Pettus Bridge, where peaceful civil rights protesters were attacked by armed police on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, as they attempted to march to the capital in Montgomery to advocate for voting rights. The 2014 movie Selma told the story in remarkable detail, but walking across the bridge on a hot July day took on an ominous feel soon after cresting the arc, where the marchers would have first seen the armed, angry white mob awaiting them on the opposite side.

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama

The most informative and emotionally taxing of all the places we visited, however, was not part of the formal Civil Rights history trail: it was the newly-constructed National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

Exterior of memorial pavilion, National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama

Sculpture representing enslaved people, National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Dedicated earlier this year, the site colloquially known as “the National Lynching Memorial” gives voice to the nearly 4,400 Americans murdered in acts of racially-motivated terrorism between 1877-1950. The accompanying museum documents the history of racial oppression and violence from the Colonial period to the present, placing the lynchings in the broader context of racial violence that remains part of American culture to this day.

Markers listing victims of racial murder by U.S. county, National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Markers listing lynching victims, suspended overhead, National Memorial for Peace and Justice

The memorial presents a haunting multi-acre pavilion though which visitors walk by hundreds of hanging steel boxes marked with the names of victims and the counties in which lynchings have been documented.The sloped design of the memorial is such that these markers are at face level initially, and as one walks through they are eventually suspended far overhead, symbolically raised and hung from above as lynching victims themselves were.

Memorial to lynching victims in St. Louis County, Minnesota; it is hoped this steel marker will eventually be relocated to a site near Duluth where the murders took place in 1920

Outside, a matching set of steel boxes—now clearly representing coffins –lay on the ground in rows, waiting to be removed and placed on display in the counties where the victims they mark were murdered. Though none have yet been removed, advocates are already working to establish related memorials in every U.S. county where a lynching has been documented. Eventually, it is hoped, the outdoor portion of the memorial will be emptied as these markers “go home” to the counties where the victims were killed to serve as reminders of the local role in this violent history.

The final element of the memorial is a quiet reflection space with a series of benches across from a wall-sized fountain on which the following is inscribed: “Thousands of African Americans are unknown victims of racial terror lynchings whose deaths cannot be documented, many whose names will never be known. They are honored here.” The scale and scope of the monument gives these victims voice, and present a deeply moving memorial to this very dark chapter in our history.

At these and other sites along the Civil Rights Trail we were struck by the sheer courage of those who risked their lives to stand up for freedom and justice, not just leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers, but the thousands of Americans who spoke out, alone or in crowds, against injustice, violence, and hatred. While the cumulative impact of visiting these many places in a relative short time was emotionally overwhelming, it was also deeply inspiring. At The Legacy Museum—the companion to the Memorial established by the Equal Justice Initiative –exhibits made the connections between the history of slavery, racial terror and murder, and our contemporary struggles with justice abundantly clear. The final exhibits in the gallery there are not about the trans-Atlantic slave trade or the Civil War, but rather are reflections on the violence, both direct and indirect, done to Americans of color every day in our unequal and unjust society. The choice of the word “legacy” in naming the museum was indeed apt.


Toward the end of our journey we visited two somber places that weren’t directly linked to the Civil Rights movement but prompted more reflection on peace and justice: the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. The first of course reminded us of the long history of violence aimed at the innocent by cowards seeking to impose their will on others; the children killed in the Murrah Building in 1995 were part of a tragic legacy that spans centuries, just like the four little girls killed in Birmingham in 1963. In Dallas we visited the former Texas School Book Depository, now a museum, the site from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired upon President Kennedy’s motorcade just two months after the Birmingham bombing. There we saw a temporary exhibit of photographs illustrating the lives and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, both assassinated in the late spring of 1968, and featuring many of the sites we had visited on the way from Georgia to Texas.

Our summer road trip was sparked by my desire to visit the last few states I had not seen before, as a way to mark my 50th birthday and to continue the family tradition of exploring history together that started with my parents in the 1960s. A half-century is a long time in human terms, more than half a lifespan. Double it and you’re talking about a different world, a century of progress stripped away. Halve it and it’s still more than a generation’s span; time enough to experience great change. What remains constant on any scale are two things this summer vacation brought to the fore: the horrific impacts of hatred and violence between Americans and the enduring and inspiring power of hope to overcome them both.

So “what I did on my summer vacation” was take a 1,800 mile family road trip across nine states to visit a bunch of museums. But it was so much more than that: humbling, enraging, tearful, electrifying, and inspiring. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a modern civil rights organization based in Montgomery, asks visitors to its museum what they will do to promote justice after their visit. It’s a very good question. What I did on my summer vacation was to try to learn more about the struggle for justice in America, to help my teenage children better understand our history, and to spend some time thinking about just that: what can I—can we –do to create a more just society?