Letter from Birmingham Jail

I read Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail every year around this time, but I was struck by its truth and eloquence and importance even more this year, in this age of Trump. I wonder if the President has ever considered just and unjust laws or read Augustine or Aquinas. Has he ever concerned himself with the underlying causes of oppression in America? Would he scoff at the notion of creative extremism? All we know of late is that he's obsessed with cable news, that he questions U.S. policy on immigration from "shithole countries," and that he pigeonholes staff based on ethnicity. I urge you to read MLK's letter in full -- this excerpt is one of my favorites:

"We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity."

The First White President

A very powerful essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates. An excerpt:

"The American tragedy now being wrought is larger than most imagine and will not end with Trump. In recent times, whiteness as an overt political tactic has been restrained by a kind of cordiality that held that its overt invocation would scare off 'moderate' whites. This has proved to be only half true at best. Trump’s legacy will be exposing the patina of decency for what it is and revealing just how much a demagogue can get away with. It does not take much to imagine another politician, wiser in the ways of Washington and better schooled in the methodology of governance—and now liberated from the pretense of antiracist civility—doing a much more effective job than Trump… The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president—and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it."

The State of Things

From Harper's Weekly, last week: "U.S. president Donald Trump, who was once implicated alongside a Saudi arms dealer in a scheme to avoid paying sales taxes at a Manhattan jewelry store, visited Saudi Arabia, where he ate steak with ketchup, participated in a sword dance, and announced plans to sell the country more than $110 billion in U.S. arms. Trump then visited Israel, where he said in a meeting in Jerusalem that he had 'just got back from the Middle East,' canceled a speech before Israel's parliament because he didn't want to be heckled, and visited and signed the guestbook of the country's Holocaust museum. 'SO AMAZING + WILL NEVER FORGET!' wrote Trump, whose administration once omitted mention of Jewish people in a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Trump visited Belgium, where he reportedly ate 'lots of' chocolates and then complained he did not have a positive impression of the European Union because it took him two and a half years to get a license to open up a golf course in Ireland."

American Names

From Philip Roth in The New Yorker:

"A Newark Jew—why not? But an American Jew? A Jewish American? For my generation of native-born—whose omnipresent childhood spectacle was the U.S.A.’s shifting fortunes in a prolonged global war against totalitarian evil and who came of age and matured, as high-school and college students, during the remarkable makeover of the postwar decade and the alarming onset of the Cold War—for us no such self-limiting label could ever seem commensurate with our experience of growing up altogether consciously as Americans, with all that that means, for good and for ill. After all, one is not always in raptures over this country and its prowess at nurturing, in its own distinctive manner, unsurpassable callousness, matchless greed, small-minded sectarianism, and a gruesome infatuation with firearms. The list of the country at its most malign could go on, but my point is this: I have never conceived of myself for the length of a single sentence as an American Jewish or Jewish American writer, any more than I imagine Dreiser and Hemingway and Cheever thought of themselves while at work as American Christian or Christian American or just plain Christian writers. As a novelist, I think of myself, and have from the beginning, as a free American and—though I am hardly unaware of the general prejudice that persisted here against my kind till not that long ago—as irrefutably American, fastened throughout my life to the American moment, under the spell of the country’s past, partaking of its drama and destiny, and writing in the rich native tongue by which I am possessed."

Dead Metaphor

From The New Yorker on J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy:

"It’s true that, by criticizing 'hillbilly culture,' 'Hillbilly Elegy' reverses the racial polarity in our debate about poverty; it’s also true that, by arguing that the problems of the white working class are partly 'cultural,' the book strikes a blow against Trumpism. And yet it would be wrong to see Vance’s book as yet another entry in our endless argument about whether this or that group’s poverty is caused by 'economic' or 'cultural' factors. 'Hillbilly Elegy' sees the 'economics vs. culture' divide as a dead metaphor—a form of manipulation rather than explanation more likely to conceal the truth than to reveal it. The book is an understated howl of protest against the racialized blame game that has, for decades, powered American politics and confounded our attempts to talk about poverty."

I'm not sure I understand why so many think this book is so significant (e.g. "You will not read a more important book about America this year." --Economist; "Never before have I read a memoir so powerful, and so necessary." --Reihan Salam), nor, on the other hand, do I understand the fierce criticism it has received. Thoughts? A review may be forthcoming.

"Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome. . .

Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

-Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus

Gettysburg Address

I was reminded yesterday via twitter that Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, arguably the greatest and most consequential speech in American history, 153 years ago on November 19, 1863. As I read it again I was overwhelmed with sadness; I think I hardly have to say why (though I will soon, at length). But I also felt a glimmer of hope, because maybe those of us who believe in the great American project will work harder than ever before to ensure that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

-Emma Lazarus

(Poem engraved in bronze and mounted inside
the lower level of the Statue of Liberty
)

America The Marvelous

I heartily enjoyed this article, and how timely a week before I leave for old Europe. As my friend aptly commented, "Europeans tend to forget they have their own Honey Boo Boos. It's not all Proust over there." Here's an excerpt:

"Stupid, stupid. Americans are stupid. America is stupid. A stupid, stupid country made stupid by stupid, stupid people." I particularly remember that because of the nine stupids. It was said over a dinner table by a professional woman, a clever, clever, clever woman. Hardback-educated, bespokely traveled, liberally humane, worked in the arts. I can't remember specifically why she said it, what evidence of New World idiocy triggered the trope. Nor do I remember what the reaction was, but I don't need to remember. It would have been a nodded and muttered agreement. Even from me. I've heard this cock crow so often I don't even feel guilt for not wringing its neck.

Among the educated, enlightened, expensive middle classes of Europe, this is a received wisdom. A given. Stronger in some countries like France, less so somewhere like Germany, but overall the Old World patronizes America for being a big, dumb, fat, belligerent child. The intellectuals, the movers and the makers and the creators, the dinner-party establishments of people who count, are united in the belief - no, the knowledge - that Americans are stupid, crass, ignorant, soul-less, naïve oafs without attention, irony, or intellect. These same people will use every comforting, clever, and ingenious American invention, will demand America's medicine, wear its clothes, eat its food, drink its drink, go to its cinema, love its music, thank God for its expertise in a hundred disciplines, and will all adore New York. More than that, more shaming and hypocritical than that, these are people who collectively owe their nations' and their personal freedom to American intervention and protection in wars, both hot and cold. Who, whether they credit it or not, also owe their concepts of freedom, equality, and civil rights in no small part to America. Of course, they will also sign collective letters accusing America of being a Fascist, totalitarian, racist state.

Enough. Enough, enough, enough of this convivial rant, this collectively confirming bigotry. The nasty laugh of little togetherness, or Euro-liberal insecurity. It's embarrassing, infectious, and belittling. Look at that European snapshot of America. It is so unlike the country I have known for 30 years. Not just a caricature but a travesty, an invention. Even on the most cursory observation, the intellectual European view of the New World is a homemade, Old World effigy that suits some internal purpose. The belittling, the discounting, the mocking of Americans is not about them at all. It's about us, back here on the ancient, classical, civilized Continent. Well, how stupid can America actually be? On the international list of the world's best universities, 14 of the top 20 are American. Four are British. Of the top 100, only 4 are French, and Heidelberg is one of 4 that creeps in for the Germans. America has won 338 Nobel Prizes. The U.K., 119. France, 59. America has more Nobel Prizes than Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia combined. Of course, Nobel Prizes aren't everything, and America's aren't all for inventing Prozac or refining oil. It has 22 Peace Prizes, 12 for literature. (T. S. Eliot is shared with the Brits.)

And are Americans emotionally dim, naïve, irony-free? Do you imagine the society that produced Dorothy Parker and Lenny Bruce doesn't understand irony? It was an American who said that political satire died when they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger. It's not irony that America lacks; it's cynicism. In Europe, that arid sneer out of which nothing is grown or made is often mistaken for the creative scalpel of irony.

America is Europe's finest invention."

The Candidate

At Continental Gate 26 I realized that Mitt must be going to Michigan too. I watched him approach with a little coterie of admirers trailing behind; the college guys who were conversing with the aide, and two middle-aged men who looked like computer programmers. The latter two were fawning all over him, pledging their support for the election while simultaneously holding out cameras at arms length, trying in vain to capture their heads with some part of his body.

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