The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I guess this book would have value to a reader unfamiliar with literature about slavery, from Frederick Douglas to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Roots to Beloved. This book might inform how the onslaught of Jim Crow crushed the hopes of freedom for former slaves. Whitehead does show the suffering of those held in bondage, their despair at any recourse including escape, and the terrible violence visited upon these American citizens that ended Reconstruction. The portrayal of the relentless efficacy of the oppressor’s reign led my mind to European and Asian extermination camps and ethnic cleansings of the Twentieth Century, similar to how Native Son evokes Dostoyevsky. Any reader must accept America’s equal place among nations as perpetrators of pain and death.

But Douglas, Harriet Beecher Stowe and other pre-Civil War writers succeeded in stirring their readers’ moral outrage at slavery’s evil. Then those who believed slavery ought to be abolished killed those who defended the institution in sufficient numbers to abolish it. Chattel slavery in the United States doesn’t exist, hasn’t existed for quite a while. Educating contemporary readers about slavery might involve reading these founding documents, rather than a new book.

To relate another tale of that suffering, with its cause long gone, must then serve other purposes. Some of these may not honor the sufferers. Feeding readers’ appetite for stories of degradation, even the thrill of the escape, might turn pages, but debase the memory of those actually whipped or terrorized. Rather than being called to witness, or hallow, or consecrate, the reader’s entertainment might distract from us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. Or if the story of suffering evokes only a reader’s pity for the afflicted and hatred for the perpetrators, these emotions might inhibit an embrace of our common humanity by distancing from both victim and tormentor.

A new book about an old horror might justify itself if it serves to heighten awareness of the agony that the assertion of white supremacy causes. A story that focused on the racism that pervades our present institutions would have enormous value. Police violence and mass incarceration of Eliza’s descendants urgently need another Douglas or Stowe.

I fear this new book doesn’t connect then to now in any useful way. Too easily a reader might assert that was then. We are not those people.

The book strives to link directly slave-times with what happened after the Union forces went home. Cora escapes from southern Georgia slavery, then travels through various experiences of her people in the decades after the violent demise of the new birth of freedom. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment did indeed dupe its Negro syphilis suffers into thinking they were being treated for their disease. White people did attempt a condescending “Negro uplift”. Remembrance of slavery, in museums and histories, did depict a diorama similar to the one Cora participated in.  There were counties in former Confederate states where white supremacists drove away all former slaves and their descendants. Lynchings were public spectacles. The separate-but-equal Rosewood settlement in Florida and others were indeed destroyed by resentful whites. Most of the old west, of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and the new states formed later, prohibited people of color from owning land, or even settling in their states. Eloquent speakers for the cause of liberation, from early organizers through Malcom X to Martin Luther King, were assassinated.

Conflating all these terrible occurrences into one person’s experience on her travels might suggest that all this happened in one lifetime. Events in the novel don’t unfold in any historical progression or development. Such a depiction severs history from time. History becomes a nightmare of misery without causation or choice. All events possessed the same psychic equivalence. This might be said to express the felt experience of a contemporary person of color as they contemplate the past. Whitehead’s story expresses trauma. Psychological experience becomes the memory of the past.

A work of art that seeks to do this might use such distortions of time and space to achieve its purposes. Whitehead didn’t consider he was writing history. But linking his story to historical occurrences might cause a reader familiar with the history to consider to what purpose was the bending of actual events in this fashion. Douglas and Stowe’s intentions in writing were quite clear. They wished their readers to be willing to kill or die to stop this evil. What is this new novel trying to do?

Whitehead’s novel seeks to replace one imagined past with another.  The events Cora participates in or witnesses become part of an origin story. This Is How We Got To Now. Continuous suffering and destruction push aside everything’s-okay-because-slavery’s-over. Cora travels deeper and deeper into doom. The reader gains little understanding of what forces produced terrible events at some times and places and not others. Cora’s travels show that evil white people cause inescapable suffering and death upon Africans and their descendants. No measures, despite the courage or resilience or intelligence of the sufferers or the few white people who seek to aid them ever matter in their human affairs. The future leads to the destruction of hopes. Only despair greets Cora. Such a story-telling in no way explains the triumphs of an oppressed people who continue to overcome. The writer might have called his story No Exit.

The novel confines Cora and her people as victims and nothing else. Viet Thanh Nuygen offers this critique of victimhood. Nuygen writes,

Being a victim also forecloses the chance to wield real power, which the majority is not inclined to grant the minority and the other, offering them instead victimization and voice, two doors into the same trap. Ethics forces us to examine the power that we wield and the harm we ourselves can do, the dilemma that when one acts or speaks, even in the service of ghosts, one can be victimizer and victim, guilty and innocent (quoted from his book, Nothing Ever Dies, Vietnam and the Memory of War, p. 196).

The imaginary tunnel system in the novel implies that only if a slave lived in a magical world would escape be possible. Otherwise Ridgeway and other slave-catchers achieve their objective of complete dominance. Yet America today, despite the racist blowhards, is far different than what Cora experienced. Still cruel, still racist, still fraught with much pain for the descendants of slaves, yet somehow those who remained and endured contributed much to the history and vitality of the culture of this country. Almost all African-Americans descend from people who lived their lives in places like Randall. They neither surrendered nor committed suicide. They suffered and kept on suffering but did not give up. They saw to it that the nightmare did not determine their lives or their future.

Cora and Caesar might have been escaping from Auschwitz, or the Gulag, or Ukraine during the Holodomor, or a re-education camp in Vietnam after the Great Patriotic War. There’s a universality to their danger, their travail, their defeats. A true historical mash-up would have had the underground railroad go to Ireland in the 1840’s; or China, where entire populations of cities and countrysides were massacred in their mid-19th Century civil war; or, what the heck, into Rwanda in the 1990s, where these two descendants of Africans escaping from southern Georgia might be slaughtered as despised Tutsis or Hutus. Such travels for Cora would have then invited the reader to contemplate the true mystery of human life contained in stories of suffering. Those that survive go on living as best they can. Then they pass on their hopes for a better life to the next generation. There’s much to admire in that, which might ennoble and empower, if the reader isn’t too distracted by feeling only pity for the victims, or despair that the suffering will never end.

"The Road to Unfreedom, Russia, Europe, America" by Timothy Snyder

Here’s the good and bad about the ugly.

The good:

From a lifetime of research into the human misery caused by European fascist or totalitarian governments in the Twentieth Century, Snyder in this book wishes to reflect and warn about the gathering storm in our own country. He makes a convincing case about the threat posed by Putin’s oligarchy and fascist-tendency Russia to American and European democracy. I like his notion that democracies are partly founded on the succession principle. In a state where political power transfers from one leader to another through voting, there is a separation between whatever ruler is in power and the state itself. There will always be another election, always a way to remove the current occupant. Rulers are serving their country for a specific time, not the other way around. Snyder contrasts that with fascist states, where power rests until death in the hands of a ruler. Predictable, clear and regular succession becomes impossible. Fascist rulers must use fantasy to deflect the nation from the reality of being-in-time.

Fascist rulers thus attempt to have their nation focus not on history, that is, the-stories-of-human-beings-immersed-in-time, but rather on the eternal nature of the state. Snyder terms this the politics-of-eternity. Snyder also considers how fascist leaders seek to deny the impact human beings and their institutions, laws and actions can have on the life and fate of a people and a country. Such leaders insist that the state and the leader’s power are an inevitable unfolding. Human beings can’t act to control what happens. Snyder terms this the politics of inevitability. He traces much of the impulse for Putin’s fascism to the vast inequality of the Russian kleptocracy. True democratic nations feel they can change, make laws that will address the ills of society. Life can get better. These nations and societies are far less unequal, in terms of income, access to health care, schooling, protections of modern states that derive from a lawful society. The corruption of Russia, with its murdering of journalists and political opponents, its disregard for the rule of law, requires a politics-of-eternity in order to maintain its hold on power.

Snyder outlines how Russia attempts to undermine the rule of law in the European community and the United States. He details Russia’s cyberwarfare attacks on democratic institutions in the West. Russia wishes to replace these institutions with fascist ones, that will support Russia’s imperial claims both to parts of Ukraine, and the notion of a Russian Eurasia ruled by autocrats. Snyder cites the reviving of the White Russian philosopher Ivan Illyn, now quoted by Putin and other powerful political figures in Russia, to show the deep intellectual underpinnings of the Russian idea of state. I had thought of Russia’s rulers as mere gangsters, out to rob an entire petro-state. Snyder shows how Russia attempts to export this idea of a state that Illyn articulated through his writings.  

Snyder writes with passion about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and how the West didn’t seem to understand the nature of Ukraine’s opposition to Russian cyber and military attacks. He blames the West for paying attention to what Putin said was happening in Ukraine, or at least giving much space in news accounts to Russian denials of military involvement, rather than what those in opposition to Putin and the Ukrainian kleptocracy said. He sees that the true democratic efforts of Ukraine were to join the Europe of law and democracy. That’s what motivated the protestors in Kyiv at the Maidan. They wished the prosperity of their country to be shared with far more equality than the oligarchs of Russia or Russian-supported Ukraine would permit. If Ukraine were part of the European order, then the people of Ukraine might have a chance for a nation of laws that would protect them and share the wealth. Snyder sees the Ukrainian-Russian war as the contest between the forces of democracy and fascism.

Putin understands how Syrian refugees flooding into Europe would destabilize the moderate liberal democratic coalitions in Germany, France, Great Britain. Russian conduct in the Syrian civil war has been meant to generate as many refugees as possible. This has indeed given rise to far-right political parties in those European countries, even the successful vote in the UK to leave the European Union. Snyder points out the psychosexual aspect of Putin’s fascism in the Russian leader’s homophobic pronouncements and legislation.

In these ways in his last chapter Snyder outlines the influence of Putin’s ideology and methods in the Trump presidential campaign. Russian state apparatus and its vast resources understood the fault lines of American’s society, particularly over racism and immigration, and perceived that cyber warfare would help candidate Trump. Snyder’s sources are mostly what I’ve already read in the The New York Times, Washington Post, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books or heard on Rachel Maddow or MSNBC. Assembling all of it together, within his framework of a contest between democracy/rule of law on one side and fascism on the other, does serve to highlight the dangers Trump poses.

I liked a lot his coupling of the parts of the US most affected by the opioid crisis with those areas voting for Trump. Snyder shows how much the vote for Trump reflected the undemocratic politics of despair.

The bad:

I both liked his talk of European nations binding together, after WWII and the loss of their overseas colonies, into a common economic unit, and found his notion a bit sketchy. Snyder asserts these nations weren’t ever really nation-states, without their colonies. Imperialism accounted for their power and identity as political entities. There seemed some truth to attributing mutual interest in the EU’s formation. But to say that this sceptered isle or the efforts of Joan of Arc weren’t expressions of nationalism or state-identity would seem to need far more of an explanation than he allows. The notion of a German identity does seem much more a late 19th and 20th Century construction, and perhaps the Italian one might coalesce in that time-frame. Poland and Ukraine do seem to be inventing their sense of their nationhood even as we speak. Imperialism and its demise does have a huge influence on the consciousness of all of Europe. Hitler treated the east as he understood the British treated India. But Snyder seems to be using a far more complicated idea to apply to current history than he allows for in his discussion.

It reads like a book written quickly, without enough care given to organization or development of ideas. Snyder needed a far better editor who might have corrected the times Snyder repeats himself. The writing goes from urgent and insistent to an undisciplined rant at times. It feels that Snyder’s great strength, his deep understanding of Twentieth Century European history, has also altered his perception of the present. He can’t get the bloodlands out of his vision of what might be happening in Europe and America right now. His anguish about what fascism has wrought generates his fear it might be happening again. His writing sometimes gets far away from the historian’s reasoned analysis.

Snyder stresses so many times how Putin plays Trump and the American electorate that I wanted to insist Donald is our boy, first and foremost. Trump’s long line of philosophical and political forebears, George Wallace, Charles Lindberg, et al., didn’t need an early 20th Century Russian philosopher to tell them how to advocate for the suppression of African-Americans or Jews. Fascism and Trump are as American as apple pie. In fact, in Hitler’s American Model, James Q. Whitman shows how the early Nazis visited the American South to learn how to develop legislation and policy for separating and denying citizenship to a target minority.

Snyder stresses so much either Putin or Trump’s disregard for the truth that the reader might consider lying a new element in our politics. President Truman insisted that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were military targets, necessary to defeating the Japanese enemy. Historians have shown that Truman knew these cities were inhabited by Japanese civilians and that Japan wanted to surrender. President Johnson insisted the Vietnam War was both winnable and necessary. The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick film demonstrate how Johnson knew the US couldn’t win and it didn’t matter to US interests. Lying is the apple pie of American politics.

Snyder talks about the politics of innocence, particularly in Russian discussions of the polluting of their country from the degenerate West. But I fear that he might have overstressed Russia’s contribution to our current struggle, making the US some sort of innocent, corrupted by the Russian menace. American lynch mobs asserted they were killing rapists far before Ivan Illyn was born. Trump is our native son.

Wakanda First: some thoughts on watching "Black Panther" March 6, 2018

I understand filmmakers didn’t make this one for me. Maybe I should probably just let others have their fun. Permit viewers to decide what significance the movie had for them. My European ancestry in particular might disqualify me from saying very much.  From the huge numbers who saw this film, I assume people delighted at the fantasy of power and accomplishment of the imagined African people of Wakanda.

But popular culture holds up a mirror to our country. The film’s popularity reflects what our society thinks and feels. Even odd ducks such as myself, a Vietnam War draft-resisting old geezer, might ask what the film reveals about our depiction of warriors and war machinery.

Black Panther seeks to evoke the excitement of those engaged in deadly combat and celebrate their prowess. We might thus place it alongside The Iliad, Beowulf, Star Wars and other contemporary accounts of heroes and battles. We delight in these tales, told around the hearth, the mead-hall, now the multiplex. Even American pacifist A.J. Muste relates how Civil War vets thrilled him as a youngster with their war stories.

Yet all those interred at Antietam, Verdun, Omaha Beach, Khe Sanh and Anbar Province, and the millions of civilians slaughtered, raped, and driven from their homes when armies let loose their terrible swift sword, demand we examine a popular portrayal of war-making. The sacrifice and suffering of actual people indicate how deeply war imbeds itself in human consciousness. Before we again send our loved ones to die, or kill other loved ones, before explosives from the air tear apart bodies and houses, we ought to inquire how our imaginative portrayals provide the psychic landscape for war.

Others who profess to have enjoyed this movie immensely seem able to compartmentalize the story’s science fiction aspects. That Wakanda possesses superior war-fighting and medical science strikes these viewers as quite cool, even wondrous. They regard the magical aspects of this imagined country as comeuppance to those who consider Africans incapable of such advanced technology. But such viewers then seem to leave it at that.

But let’s say this fantasy world existed. How are we to regard that some African people possessed an ability to ward off the ravages of colonialism, could have driven from the continent the British, the French, the German militaries, and didn’t do so? Could have crushed apartheid, Idi Amin, Joseph Kony, or the other home-grown butchers like Hutu Power, but instead hid their immense power? Wakanda’s little medicine balls might have prevented the vast spread of AIDS on their continent. Millions of Africans who have perished from malaria, typhus, and cholera might have lived long lives.

Wakanda becomes thus a metaphor for America’s response to African history.  Our country had the ability, both militarily and technologically, to accomplish many, if not most, of those good things for Africa listed above, but did not. Those fighting Hutu Power’s genocide in Rwanda begged President Clinton to bomb the single radio station broadcasting the directions to kill the Tutsi people. He was too busy fighting off impeachment to take notice. Clinton later apologized to the Rwandan survivors. (But who prevented his wife from winning her own election? I say the ghosts of all those who refused to accept his apology.) How are we to connect to this fantasy African country whose self-absorption reflects our own?

While many of us may be grieving the current fruits of our democracy at the national level, our country’s founders intended above all to ensure a clear line of succession. Wakanda’s civil war divided the people between those forces loyal to the deposed king, T’Chalia, and those who upheld as within their rules the successful challenge to the king’s power by the Oakland cousin Erik Killmonger.  Wakanda didn’t have courts or constitution where they might have settled the dispute. All they could do was kill each other, until those left standing could declare they were the political power. The 20th Century political philosopher Isaiah Berlin offers that the advantage of democracy lies in its potential to make politics less murderous. Does the film seek to harken us back to the War of the Roses? Democracy, despite its evident shortcomings, seems vastly preferable to a hereditary monarchy, yet we’re supposed to celebrate how advanced Wakanda society is?

Killmonger, in his brief hold on political power, attempted to implement a policy dreamed of by fighters against oppression at least since Nat Turner led his rebellion, if not 18th Century Irish rebels or the indigenous peoples of the Americas.  Killmonger wished to arm the wretched of the earth with Wakanda’s superior weapons. That may have led to more bloodshed and misery, but it is hard to blame those subjugated because they didn’t have an adequate military to defend themselves. Palestinians, Syrian rebels, Rohingya, even African-American young men in Ferguson, Missouri might view Killmonger’s efforts far differently than most American audiences. We may wish for a peaceful method of wealth transfer to those in want. After all, we already live in Wakanda.

How are we to understand the CIA agent, who prevents the Wakandan weapons from leaving by shooting down the transport planes? Particularly in light of another film, Charlie Wilson’s War, where we see that it was the CIA that armed the Afghan rebels against the Soviets? Our country helps out those who fight our enemies, but certainly not those who oppose those the US supports. An alliance between the CIA and Wakanda reflects a desire to support the existing structures of power.  

How should we understand Killmonger’s demise at the hands of the restored monarch? The dying man says he prefers not to live in prison. Why was that the only option for a defeated challenger to the throne? Was Killmonger hearing the chants of “lock her up?” Couldn’t the king have articulated something about “binding up our nation’s wounds?” Couldn’t there be some tasks he might be convinced to do, in the now-awakened Wakanda, or in Oakland, or Chicago or Baltimore? Or even help dispense little balls to revive Michael Brown, and all the others? By the end, Wakandan foreign policy seems to echo the Gates Foundation. To go from utopia to mere American philanthropic practice serves to protect the established order. Buying an apartment building or two in Oakland really won’t do much to solve the severe housing shortage for poor people of color in the Bay Area.

While there might be some point to seeing women armed to the teeth, the film doesn’t show them being very effective fighters. They win a few bouts with their adversaries. But mostly the men overcome them. Killmonger takes on a bevy of the female palace guard and sends them flying through the air. The civil war battle ends with the other male-dominated Wakandan tribe, that had initially refused to be part of the battle of succession, imposing a cease fire. By the time of the charge of the rhino, stopped by the angry wife, the battle is over. A woman may walk us through the technology lab. She demonstrates the terrific battle armor. Is she the scientist or the communications director? It was the Wakandan men who were in charge of making the decisions throughout the ages, as shown by the brief scene of T’Chalia’s father and male ancestors. The women, even the soldiers, had beautiful costumes, befitting their status as ornamentation not as equals.

Vibranium, that magical substance found deep in the Wakandan earth, produces uniquely powerful guns and armor. Weapons makers around the world desired this substance. Most American viewers have lost sight of how delighted Truman and American warmakers were, when they understood they, and they alone in 1945, possessed a single bomb that could destroy one city. We’ve seen this movie before.

Isn’t this film a recruitment film for boys and girls to imagine being part of a military power? Isn’t it a recruitment tool for the US Armed Forces?

Black Panther thus emerges as a conservative film. It upholds patriarchy, tribe, monarchy, Wakanda First. It glorifies war. The warriors fought as they always have, for territory, for political power, for their vision of what their government ought to do. Black Panther celebrates the Masters of War. Portraying all that in a movie isn’t going to help us figure out how to get along in a post-tribal world.

 

TESTIMONY CONCERNING TESTING FOR CREDIT

In The New York Times for Feb. 5, 2015, Andrew Hacker offered this: I'll give you my definition of education: 17 years of sustained sitting." He was challenging the importance of teaching math to high school students. 

He ignores how math might be considered an abstract form of human reasoning, crucial to much of our intellectual development. Math introduces young people to a life of the mind. 

So did the courses I taught in AP and grade level English. I've recently published a book, in two volumes, asserting, as I demonstrated in my classes, that young people can engage with intellectual matters during this time in their lives. 

The State Board of Education for DC is now considering allowing students to test out of any high school class, and receive credit towards graduation, as if they have actually taken the course.  Here is what I said at the hearing on this proposed measure: 

In my 17 years of teaching AP and grade level English in DC, I thought a great deal about the process of educating young people in high school. I’ve written a book, in two volumes, about this topic. I am here to tell you two things from my experience in the classroom. One: it does not have to be a waste of time for young people to be in a high school class. Two: any test can’t really measure what a student knows of a subject in the humanities.

It is quite possible to engage actively and meaningfully with high school students about real ideas. Genuine education can happen. That’s what I did in my classroom. That’s the premise of my two volumes. Young people are vulnerable, curious, eager to know about themselves and the world around them. We educators ought not to disregard this precious time in their lives.

This is an opportunity to teach them, not put them in front of a computer and take a test, or do a project, in lieu of a classroom experience over months. In a well-taught course, they would engage with the literature or history or government or art familiar to the educated adults we call teachers. They ought then to discuss what they’re learning with their fellow students. Students need practice encountering new ideas, and articulating their own, either verbally or in their written work.

They need to encounter, over the course of a semester or a year, with what citizenship means, what love may require of them, what work is worth doing, what kindness involves, why someone would willingly starve to write a poem, paint a picture.  This is the time in the life of young people when they can begin to consider how other people who came before them contended with humanity’s problems.

 As a teacher, I sought for my students to read Romeo and Juliet and then cry at the end. Or read about the agony that is Haiti, or police brutality in America, or understand the interminable mendacity of those in authority. In these studies, they may find for themselves a lifetime of work and devotion.

Tests can’t measure this process of real understanding of the world. Or themselves.  Only a class, stretching over a semester or a year, can engage young people in this manner. 

Crime and Punishment and Irrational Man, a film by Woody Allen (This essay discusses the film in its entirety. It thus contains spoilers.)

The commentary and criticism I’ve read about Allen’s film, Irrational Man, make some mention of Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, but don’t really seem to connect to how closely Allen imitates the arc of that Russian 19th Century novel with his tale of a contemporary American murderer. If observers miss that similarity, then the film’s departure from Dostoyevsky loses its significance. We miss, I believe, what Allen is saying about our world today.

Like the novel’s killer, Raskolnikov, Allen’s Abe Lucas reveals himself to be a troubled soul. He’s despairing, dysfunctional, impulsively suicidal. Both killers form their motive for murder from overhearing strangers talk of a person who may have treated others badly. The desire to rid the world of these particular perpetrators of human suffering seizes their imaginations.

While the particulars of the actual murders diverge, with Raskolnikov using an axe (so unnecessarily bloody and involved), Lucas poisons his victim (so clean and contemporary, like lethal injection). Both are planned, deliberate affairs. The storytellers depict the murders with chilling clarity.

Neither tells anyone about their crime. Initially, the two men exhibit different reactions. Raskolnikov breaks down. He’s nursed back to health over months by his devoted friend. Lucas’ deed liberates him. He can write again. His love interest now offers, “he’s an animal” in bed. He resists at first the advances of a student, but then succumbs to her. All seems well with our modern murderer.

Yet both become hunted men. They seek to evade being captured and held accountable. Here the stories begin to diverge, which points to a different point I believe Allen wishes to make about his view of our current world.

Raskolnikov’s love, Sonya, becomes aware of his crime, seeks to convince him to turn himself in. He responds with a seemingly rational motive for the murder, asserting, “I killed a louse.” She screams at him, “A human being is not a louse!” She and the detective who pursues him succeed eventually in persuading Raskolnikov to confess. He’s sent to prison, where Sonya visits him frequently. The reader has a sense, at the end of the novel, that her love will prevail in helping him fully feel the remorse for his crime.

Dostoyevsky’s novel thus becomes an examination of someone developing a true moral conscience. The detective, in one of his conversations with Raskolnikov, claims “…you’ll decide to embrace suffering… Because suffering … is a great thing…. There is an idea in suffering.” There’s much hope in this portrait of a criminal who slowly, painfully, allows himself to feel sorrow for taking the life of another human being. The worst sinner can achieve redemption.

Lucas’ student lover, Jill, reacts in horror when he acknowledges that he killed. In contrast with Raskolnikov’s lover Sonya, she isn’t able to engage Lucas towards any remorse. All he wishes to do is escape. The film ends with him trying to kill her. She fights him off. he slips and falls into the elevator shaft he had prepared for her death and silence. 

KREON, OUR LEADER

Here’s the thoughts that occurred to me, after watching the Anne Carson translation of Antigone[i] performed at the Kennedy Center recently.

The bodies of the 9/11 hijackers were carefully separated from the wreckage of the twin towers. They were interred in a different graveyard from remains of all those others who perished at their hands.

There was an African-American member of John Brown’s raid who was executed a week after Brown. While Brown’s body was returned to his widow, for burial at their farm in New York State, the body of the African-American man was interred near the execution place, then dug up by medical students, to be used as a cadaver for dissection. At the time, similar to ancient Greece, this was believed to endanger the soul’s ability to rise on judgment day, since it would not be whole.

Thus Kreon’s edict, exercising sovereignty over the bodies of defeated enemies, abides in our history. We, too, make distinctions about the bodies of our enemies compared to those we wish to honor. Most productions of the play, as well as readings of Antigone, focus on his misogyny or the irrationality of his edict regarding the dishonoring of the dead body of the invader Polyneikes. Kreon, though, having just survived the onslaught, felt, as any political leader might, that he needed to exercise his authority, to show that he was indeed the strong leader his people needed in the troubled times after the attack.

Keep in mind George W’s approval rating reached 80% after 9/11.

Kreon, in his argument with his son Haimon, stresses the issue was anarchy or order. Given the number of Iraqis and Afganis who had been murdered and tortured in the war on terror, we Americans are hardly in a position to find fault with Kreon’s perspective. Jeb Bush’s recent comment about his brother’s actions as president, “He kept us safe,” might serve as a line from the chorus of this ancient Greek play.

Kreon was quite correct in observing that if Antigone’s defiance prevailed, “he would be the woman.” That is, his weakness would have been there for all to see. This would have created the danger of another invasion of Thebes. Isn’t that what the Republican critique of Obama stresses, that he has shown weakness, thus encouraging the terrorists, Putin, China? Obama tolerates drone strikes that kill people at a wedding party, or in a hospital, because he believes he doesn’t have a choice. He must appear to be strong.

Kreon’s son and his wife both scorn him, not understanding the impossible circumstances he finds himself in. They express their fury and helplessness by taking their own lives. Should we blame Kreon for their deaths? The chorus seems to, talking at the end of the play about wisdom.

But couldn’t we see the chorus as culpable in what happens to Antigone and all the rest? They didn’t demur from Kreon’s edict, or intercede on behalf of Antigone throughout the whole play. They wanted to be kept safe is all. Then they found fault with their leader’s actions. I think we can say, given his cautious performance in office, that Obama was free to criticize the Iraq War because he wasn’t in the Senate when they voted on it. Had he been there, he’d have done what Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and all the rest felt they had to do: support a hugely popular president as he called for war. It didn’t work out so well for Kreon or George, so we can blame them afterwards.

We might then view Kreon’s anguish at the end, not so much a consequence of his poor judgment, as what occurs when the split becomes too great between the burdens of office and the feelings of a human being. Nobody, not the chorus, not his son or his wife, not the pundit Teiresias, understood he had to be the tough guy. Given the recently thwarted attack, he didn’t perceive any other option, if he wished to be the leader. The play thus becomes equally his tragedy, as Antigone’s. Or, perhaps, ultimately, it is ours. We place impossible demands on our leaders, then abandon them when they make a mistake.

Everyone in the play who dies, Antigone, Haimon, Eurydike, does so at their own hand. This ought to be understood as the ultimate expression of the powerless seeking power. They wished to be in charge of something, if not in the world, then, over their own lives. They felt helpless to change Kreon’s edict. Kreon felt helpless to alter it.

How many people would be alive today, if we Americans learned to live with our insecurity and helplessness?

[i] Synopsis: As the play opens, Kreon and his city Thebes have just survived and beaten back an invasion led by Antigone’s brother, Polyneikes. He and her other brother, Etocles, who remained loyal, killed each other in a duel. Kreon ordered Etocles to be buried with full honors, and for the body of Polyneikes to remain unburied. Antigone defies Kreon’s edict, wishing to provide her brother with passage to the underworld, which, her culture believed, would be blocked if he were not buried. He sentences her to death. His son, Haimon, who intended to marry Antigone, kills himself in frustration at his father, as does Kreon’s wife, Eurydike. By the time Kreon realizes he’s overreached, and goes to free Antigone from the cave he’s walled her in, she has also taken her own life. The play ends with him feeling wretched and regretful.

 

THE BAD OLD DAYS

We wait for the other shoe to drop. College kids, movie goers, Bible study congregants, first graders, co-workers, Planned Parenthood patients. Next? A matter of time.

What shall we do until the news arrives?

We could curse those who insist safe means more weapons rather than none. Denouncing such fools might help us pass the time for five minutes. Ten tops, if we know someone with a gun and proud of it.

After that, we might hope it happens somewhere else, to people we don’t know. But it doesn’t offer much comfort to consider ourselves less selfish than gun manufacturers.

We could search for humor in the spectrum of astrophysics. No light escapes from the black hole our country inhabits in this blip of space-time. “To change, we will need the entire city of Newark, New Jersey to vanish all at once,” Gore Vidal said about the too-slow-moving-environmental catastrophe. We might thus take solace in realizing that the deranged or the jihadists or the racists so far lack the ability for collective action.

 We didn’t lose enough of our citizens in World War II, says Tony Judt. Could we come to our senses without a bellyful of death? Other nations whose gun control laws we envy lost a significant percentage of their populations in the 20th Century’s wars. Our military’s deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan indicate the US may have even a bigger belly than those other combatants. Twain has Tom Sawyer say, at the end of Huck’s story, that he’d wade neck deep in blood for the adventure of it. By 1865 he had, don’t you know. Now, no matter how much white people hate black people, or holler about “States rights”, they don’t want to go back to those bloody days again. Will we only change our gun laws if we lose millions?

We could wallow in despair. That’s always fun. Who’s not in favor of the moral license provided by convincing ourselves nothing can be done? This would, however, separate us from the civil rights workers, suffragettes, abolitionists, union organizers, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Andrei Sakharov, Vaclav Havel, Harvey Milk, whose felt experience of living mainly involved getting kicked in the ass. The shame of being separated from all those we admire does cut down on the pleasure of giving up.

So what to do? We believe that by our actions our country has the capacity to change, despite the futility of all we have done so far. That’s why it is faith. If we could demonstrate, by reason, logic or evidence that we are improving, that would be science. Faith means we are asserting something to be true even though we can’t prove it. It is a challenge we place upon both ourselves and the world. We hold these truths to be self-evident when in fact humanity had built over millennia their social, economic and political systems in direct contradiction of these truths. Those few guys imposed on a contrary universe their notion of equality. We’re still a long way from its actualization. But we affirm this faith every day.

How to endure this terrible time? “Imagine your country changing,” writes Adrienne Rich. We express our faith with our vision of telling the young, years from now, these were the bad old days. 

Hope of the World

This thought occurs to me after conversations recently with several young, middle-class, American women, and after reading Laura Hankin’s novel, The Summertime Girls. I would like you to see these people as the hope of the world.

Shame debilitates. Makes people conceal themselves, deny connection to their power, disassociate themselves from others. I’ve heard more than one young woman use the word privilege as if it were a curse or a handicap. They wish to conceal how fortunate they have been, with loving parents, comfortable upbringings, great educations. As they engage with human suffering, they feel much shame at their relative position. Their isolation encapsulates them.

Oppression damages people. Pain renders people myopic. The agony may over time lead to profound insight, but along the way comes a focus on self that makes it quite difficult to regard others who may also suffer. The rage that stems from being mistreated, or the despair that arises when there seems to be nothing that can be done about it, inhibit compassion for others. Pain makes it difficult to see past its end. Revenge excludes other perceptions. Oppression assaults the psyche, making people doubt their intellect, their beauty, their worth as human beings. The twisted timber of humanity comes about because so many people experience the cruelty and dehumanization meted out by their fellow humans.

Those who wish to end oppression seek a fulcrum to effect change. They struggle to get more people on their side, or inspire those who already are. Some little lady, as Lincoln termed Harriet Beecher Stowe, writes a book, and the tiny American abolitionist movement gained half of a nation. Harvey Milk says “Come out!” and oppression that had existed towards his people for hundreds if not thousands of years in Abrahamic-religious civilizations retreats enormously. How many more Vietnamese would have perished had the war planners been able to avoid dealing with the horror broadcasted on the nightly news? The problem of change becomes an optical endeavor. Transformation becomes possible once everyone sees what only a few had viewed clearly.

Young middle class women exist in both worlds, that of the privileged and the oppressed. The recent movie The Suffragette brought back to me that women who wished to vote were despised and beaten in the time of my grandparents. Young women don’t need that reminder. They feel in their bones they have escaped restricted lives. I often thought of the teenage women in my high school as people newly liberated. Their over-booked, over-achieving young lives demonstrated the power of unleashed, previously-thwarted ambition. Title IX might have put the weight of the federal government on the side of women playing sports. But then young women rushed through. They have done so throughout our society, in academe, politics, law, medicine, art.

These young people possess huge capacity in our world. Their parents and their wealth shielded them from much of the damage sexism might have meted out. They have gained for themselves profound and powerful educations. Their position in society endows them with enormous social capital. Think who their cell phones allow them to contact. This new position combines with the development since tribal times of a language of feeling, a different perspective on human relationships and the value of life. All these may now be applied to a far wider world, particularly in the realm of human conflict.

I would wish for all of us, especially these young women themselves, to understand that their very privilege presents a precious opportunity to make things right in the world. Oppression hasn’t damaged them too badly, yet they are quite aware of its power. They possess the ability to empathize, to connect with the suffering of others. Their ambition now turns towards others who suffer. Their male compatriots may share some of this potential for change in the world, but too many of them are still bound up with their own sense of loss of position to regard the pain all around them.

In Laura Hankin’s novel, The Summertime Girls, two former childhood friends meet after a post-college year apart. Beth has returned from a time at a medical clinic in Haiti. Over the course of the story, the reader understands her feelings of helplessness and grief as she holds a dying boy in her lap. She feels shame for her privilege to get on an airplane and escape the agony of that poor child and his country. Yet it was her courage and compassion which led her there. By the end of the book she is gaining a sense of her path in life, building on this terrible experience. The reader not only wishes her well, but hopes she, and all her people, understand and use their vast power to help others.

I would wish for middle class women to embrace who they are, and kick a lot of ass.

Let me end with a thought from a Brecht poem. ... All those who have thought about the bad state of things refuse to appeal to the compassion of one group of people for another. But the compassion of the oppressed for the oppressed is indispensable. It is the world’s one hope. Bertolt Brecht, “The World’s One Hope”