Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Future perfect USASU perfect future

By then it will have been almost time for Independence Day. Whimper. No more bang.

Not long before the rising tides swamped Manhattan, there will have been a nation called the United States of America that no longer knew itself. Americans will have stopped catechising themselves with the Declaration of Independence, which will have been tamped once too often into a fireworks tube for wadding and sent aloft to shower its last smoldering remains onto the grounds of what used to be a state park but which will have become a tent city operated by a for-profit prison company called "Freedom Isn't Free" on behalf of bankrupted people with pre-existing conditions, where the sulphurous smell of the smoking Declaration will have delighted the nostrils of a 2-year-old chasing lightning bugs and listening to her pre-existing brain-tumored, insolvent grandfather rave about the Martian colony's revolt against the USA Space Usurpation: hadn't he seen it coming, he will have raved, because who didn't fucking know that going into a fiscal hole for imperial military adventurism is the root cause of all revolutions? But, he will have already known that, believed that, said that, long before his death throes, which will not have been long off at that point when he was sobbing: what could you expect from people who didn't even know that it used to be, once upon a time, right there in the D. of I. that government had a purpose! A higher calling, as it were! As it might have been! And what was it? What might it have been? "Can nobody tell me?" the grandfather will have sobbed at the sky as the smoldering bits will have showered down. "Chapter and verse! Tell me, slaves of the American Empire! What is the trinity of government?" And what answer will he have heard as his grand-daughter will have gone skittering around after the smoking paper hoping for lightning bugs? Rapid-fire silence behind the smoke. Nothing of securing rights, nothing of safety, nothing of happiness.

No more bang. Whimper. By then it will have been almost time for Independence Day.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Let Us Now Praise: Planxty Richard Martin

If you used a public library computer in northeast Tennessee for Internet access anytime between circa 1998 and 2008, you owe a debt of gratitude to Rick Martin, who made it all work by pulling cables and configuring routers and training librarians. Rick died suddenly of a heart attack a couple of days ago -- one day before his birthday.

I had gone for a walk earlier in the day, extra early so as to enjoy the cool damp before the sun had a chance to burn it away. But I'd been filled with a presentiment of the end of something. It didn't leave me all day long. My mind kept running through the thought, "What if today were the last day of your life?" We all have that thought, occasionally, but yesterday morning it was an unshakeable refrain that my wandering thoughts kept coming back to. Then later I found out via Facebook that Rick had died.

I'm not at all clairvoyant. The world seems to be full of loss these days, and I am on the downhill trajectory looking back, grasping at such straws as a cool, damp morning will give, so my morbidity is not any great surprise. But Rick's death adding a shocking coda to the gloomy refrain shook me. Coincidence is an article of faith with me. The chance overlapping and intersection of planes of human existence is what gives us the hallucinatory sensation of common destiny that undergirds "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

If you don't understand that sentiment, no matter. Rick -- the enthusiastically anti-religious Rick who read the Bible three times as a youth before seeking the essence of religion by immersing himself in music and reading -- would've given it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

Rick and I soldiered (peacefully) for Tennessee at the Watauga Regional Library of blessed memory. He and the other stellar line staff did the real work out in the hustings. In those days there had to be somebody to bring the Internet, just the way there had to be somebody to bring the bookmobile. The Internet access and network connection provided by the Region was actually given unique statutory existence as a virtual entity: the Northeast Tennessee Public Library. Rick would have been its face, bringing the manna from the heaven of cyberspace to the hills of northeast Tennessee.

But I didn't get to know the inner Rick all that much back then. It was Facebook where Rick flourished and where we became actual friends. There Rick (as I always knew him) was Richard, an intellectual/culture magazine editor manqué who allowed his indefatigable reading and listening to spill out on his Facebook wall to the delight of such friends as I, who had the feeling -- listening to or reading yet another of Richard's dispatches from his passions -- "Hey, as much as I follow Rick's posts, I really should be paying him a subscription fee."

When I say that his knowledge of rock music was encyclopedic, I mean that a Richard Martin Encyclopedia of Rock Music would have been one of those sources that a reference librarian could not have done without. How else to answer those recurring questions about the role of the oud in Bay Area psychedelic music in 1967? (Ironic? Who, me?) Just when you thought you'd come up with a question to stump him, Rick would come back at you with somebody's mother of invention from his bottomless grab-bag of ephemera where every obscurity was someone's necessity, and Rick was the curator.

Speaking of inventions, Rick was an appreciator of my solid-body electric lap dulcimer. And I don't think it was just for its musical qualities. A native of Rural Retreat, VA, with deep roots, Rick was the kind of Appalachian traditionalist who understood that pioneering is in the blood of Appalachia, and pioneering is something that can't be allowed to be shut off by tradition. To stand still is to die. The trick is to pioneer within a tradition, and pioneering meant blazing trails into the universe and bringing your findings back home like some Meriwether Lewis of the mind.

Rick was solidly both the insider and the outsider. He was a curmudgeon, and he admired other such curmudgeons as Frank Zappa and Lou Reed. But that's because they represented the same kind of independent solidity that he possessed. Nobody was going to tell Rick who he was or what he was, or get anywhere with any put-downs. Rick stood on a solid foundation against all the forces that grind people down and belittle them. It didn't matter who you were: if you struggled against the powers that be, or if you were weird and unacceptable because that's how society had labeled you, Rick was on your side, cheering you to hold on and hold out because that's how the people win against the oppressors. "The people are the inside of everything," he might say. "Stand strong. Don't let anybody take from you who you are."

I like to think that Rick is somewhere, reading this, and both giving his quiet chuckle and preparing to tell me how totally I missed the boat about him. Ah well, no matter. His conveyances -- his thoughts, opinions, and the things he sent me to read or listen to -- always weighed with me, because you just knew that that was his life: he put his all into the absorption of what he read and heard, and sometimes share some element of what it was that he liked or didn't like about these things. And it was this that had value, as if it were some kind of nourishment, some calorie of conviction, that would give substance to some things I felt the same way about, but did not "know" about in the same solid way Rick did.

He told me, for example, how he loved drone music -- and I as a bagpiper and dulcimer player had my own affinity -- but there was something about his interest that piqued exploration on my part. And when I came up with a musical artifact that I thought he would enjoy not just for its flatted seventh drone but for the use of an Appalachian lap dulcimer played oud-style, it was only possible to think about it as being a testament to him, something along the lines of what the blind Irish harper O'Carolan did when he dedicated tunes to a patron and called them "planxty." So that was my working filename for the tune, which in its final form became Melungeon Dervish. It happened again when he challenged me to "top" a German fellow playing three recorders at the same time. That time I followed through with a proper dedicatory name and used the tune for an Eastertide video composition.

Wherever it is that Rick is chuckling, he's probably also refusing my wish that he rest in peace with a wag of the finger: "On a trip like this one? Haven't you heard of the music of the spheres?"

Thus it might not be on Facebook (where the wall he built is nonetheless an enduring legacy), but if my experience the other morning is any indication, I haven't heard the last of Rick Martin. However, I sure will miss his generous, intelligent spirit filling the here-below with good stuff to read and listen to.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

How to know when you're drinking too much coffee

The first way to tell is that, after lunch, you will be overcome by sleepiness immediately following your dessert coffee. If you can take a nap right after drinking coffee, you might be drinking too much.

However, the best way is the second way, which is somehow to go ahead and cut back to the point that you don't drink coffee at all after 3 p.m., and the first night of the first day of that regimen you have a dream, which you realize you have not had in some time, but this is not only a dream, it is a prophecy on the order of the Biblical ones in which you go looking for the room where God teaches singing lessons.

It is inside a large brick building that could be a church or a university hall, and you are told -- by a trustworthy entity whose face is a kaleidoscope that keeps changing to the face of one or another of an old neighbor or friend -- that it is in one of the rooms off the band room, which is at the top of the steps, just like at Northside Jr. High, so you go up a stairway to the top, but the band room isn't up there (anymore?) so you go down a corridor and find a door that opens onto another stairway that looks like it is underneath the basement where you cowered once upon a time when you were dropped off at kindergarten on a holiday by your mother who didn't know the kindergarten was closed that day, except now the stairway looks onto a glassed-in, well-appointed mezzanine lounge well-stocked with butterfly-sling leather chairs, which looks so much like a lifeless MOMA design exhibit that something tells you no one uses these steps, ever, and no one ever has done, so it is just you going up past the glassed-in butterfly chairs, taking steps that have never been taken before in the lifetime of the universe, but there at the top of the steps is a door labeled "BAND," which you open to a room in which a couple of people are distributing red and gold pieces of blank paper that does not look like music, but you have no time to investigate because along the side of the room -- which goes on longways as will, like a country dance -- are alcoves with large, solid, wooden doors that look like they enclose chambers of power and influence, but which repeatedly, when you open them, reveal a small nook in which there is invariably some old man puttering away at an enthusiasm, one of whose is model trains and another of whose is feeling miscellaneous swatches of fabric, but on you go until you stand in front of the door to God and the singing lessons, though not with any great confidence because one of the paper-bearing band people has in the meantime commented with a knowing nod-and-a-wink that God often comes to the door "immodestly attired, if you know what I mean," which is where you wake up.

And that really is the best way to know you've been drinking too much coffee.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

When the skeleton in the closet isn't the elephant in the room: The Pentecost Pogrom of Erwin, TN

The approach to Erwin on eastbound I-26 is as attractive a drive as anyone could wish for. The Unaka chain of the Appalachians forms a dramatic and picturesque backdrop. The county seat of Unicoi County, one of the easternmost Tennessee counties that hugs the mountainous border with North Carolina, Erwin has a wealth of outdoor attractions in the vicinity: hiking the Appalachian Trail (Erwin is a favorite location for R&R for trail through-hikers), rafting the Nolichucky River that flows past it, exploring the trails at the relatively new Rocky Fork State Park. A small place with an interesting history, Erwin was for many years the headquarters of the Clinchfield Railroad that connected the coalfields of Virginia to the textile mills of South Carolina; it was the location of a significant Blue Ridge Pottery plant, with some of its workers housed in still-lived-in cottage-style homes designed by "Garden City" architects.

Erwin also has the misfortune of having hosted -- if that is how to say it -- a racial pogrom. 100 years ago this weekend -- May 19, 1918, on Pentecost Sunday -- an incident of some kind (local history says cards) enflamed a lynch mob that killed a black man, corralled the town's entire black population to watch the burning of his corpse, and threatened a similar fate to any blacks who did not leave the next day. Suffice it to say that the warning was heeded. With that, Erwin became a "sundown town" in which blacks were not permitted to live.

I drove over to Erwin this morning to look for evidence of any memory of the event.

"I heard about it growing up," said the librarian at the Erwin library, as she led me back into the local history room, an overstuffed room that looks like it might have been a ticket office back in the days when this was the train station.

Libraries often have files of newspaper clippings and other ephemera related to significant events in local history. The librarian unlocked a file cabinet for me and invited me to browse at my leisure, although she herself had only a vague awareness of the event and no knowledge of any information about it.

There was nothing about the pogrom in the clippings file. There was however a big, fat folder about the elephant, though: Mary, the renegade elephant who killed her circus handler in Kingsport, but, in order to be "executed," had to be brought to Erwin where there was railroad equipment big enough to hang her. That was in 1916, two years before the African-American purge, about which people know nothing. Mary, on the other hand ... Mary is the only thing many, many people know about Erwin.

The library has a very quiet cat who kept me company in the chair next to me while I didn't find what I was looking for.

I then walked over to the town newspaper office and bought the current newspaper (a weekly), which covered a couple of annual culinary celebrations elsewhere in the county: a ramp festival over in Flag Pond and a strawberry festival in Unicoi. There were stories about high school students racing solar-powered vehicles at Bristol Motor Speedway, a visit from a gubernatorial candidate, a fatal industrial accident at a tire plant, and an opinion columnist who allowed as how a front porch might be the key to an agreement between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un.

Nothing about a purge of black residents 100 years ago, though.

The day wasn't a total bust. The library in Johnson City had a book that was relevant: Buried in the Bitter Waters, a book about twelve such "racial cleansing" incidents as Erwin's written by Pulitzer-winning journalist Elliot Jaspin and published in 2007. Some previous reader had flagged the chapter about Erwin by dog-earing its first page. I left it that way. "Something in the Air," says the chapter title. On Pentecost Sunday, what would that be?

I feel sure that the feeling in Erwin is probably something along the lines of "why dredge up the unpleasant past?" But don't we commemorate bad things all the time? We make whole religions out of bad events. Disasters from war receive monumental treatment routinely (Pearl Harbor, 9/11). Even events for which the nation must accept blame -- think of the "Trail of Tears" -- are studied, remembered, and memorialized.

Ironically, Erwin itself has done this with the elephant Mary. Hanging an elephant is bizarre and weird and unpleasant. But Erwin thrives on that part of its history. If you go to the town site, you will see that you can "become an elephant artist." The town is having eight fiberglass elephants brought to downtown, and it is soliciting participants for their decoration. After being exhibited for a time, the painted elephants will be auctioned off, with a portion of the proceeds to go to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, TN, where "retired captive elephants" live out their dotage.

Now, imagine an entire nation putting that kind of thought and care into deriving some ethical or moral recompense for 350 years of slavery, racial apartheid, and the programmatic deprivation of the civil rights of African-Americans. That's a John Lennon-sized "imagine," I realize, but hey, Erwin, you could be the dreamer that starts the ball rolling.

Like what happened on Pentecost.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Found in translation: helping a town read its Tocqueville

I recently noticed in the Kingsport newspaper's local history column written by Vince Staten a story about Jean Nicaise, a Belgian who spent a year teaching in Kingsport in the late 50's. He recorded some home movie footage during his visit, and it has wound up on Youtube by way of the Belgian Archives and Museum of Literature.

But Nicaise also wrote a memoir in French, which includes some 60 pages describing his Kingsport experience. Vince allowed as how he was having to plug it in bit by bit into Google Translate for an English version, but he provided a link to the original -- also maintained by the same Belgian organization. I took a look at it and thought I might be able to save Vince some time and provide a translation that would be -- it is to be hoped -- more readable and more accurate than anything Translate would crunch out. I volunteered and Vince took me up on it.

He asked how I came to learn French, and the short answer was that it's in the family, what with my father's more settled side steeped in French-speaking Creole New Orleans. Torn from her French Quarter roots and re-settled in Chattanooga, my grandmother maintained her French connection with a weekly "salon" in her home at which only French was spoken. For her services to French language and culture, she was late in life awarded a "palme d'or" (gold medal) by the French government.

I now regret not going to those salons, but at the time I was a heedless teenager. What's more, an episode of antibiotic treatment as a very young child had left me hearing-impaired and oral-language-challenged, and I had a demoralizing chip on my shoulder about the fact that I was a lip-reader with a consonantal speech defect. I didn't realize at the time that the salon would've been an ideal way to practice lip-reading among French speakers. Instead, what did I do? I plugged away in a high school French class, listening to instructional language tapes that were incomprehensible to me -- because, duh, there was no lip-reading -- and completely walling off the idea that it was possible for me to understand spoken French.

But at the same time I loved foreign languages -- because of their music. My parents -- foot soldiers of the international folkie movement, armed with the records and songbooks of Oscar Brand and Theodore Bikel -- sang folksongs in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Hebrew, Russian, and even some in English. More formally, I sang German (Bach), Latin (Pergolesi), and macaronic Latin/middle English (Britten) in the Chattanooga Boys Choir. Rarely did I know what any of it meant. It didn't make any difference. It was music.

(Because of my hearing, I have never understood sung song lyrics in my entire life -- even in English -- by themselves, without the help of printed lyrics. Imagine what a revelation it was when the Beatles printed their lyrics on the back of the jacket of the Sergeant Pepper album!)

When it came to the actual meaning of foreign languages, my first introduction was Latin in junior high school. Because Latin is a dead language, you don't learn it for the chitchat factor. That was my kind of language: printed in a book. You worked out the meaning like a puzzle, with a grammar guide and a dictionary. I went on to more of this kind of language learning in French in high school, Greek and French again in college, and finally to German, Spanish, and Italian in my first dream job in a library, where in the downtime waiting for "patrons" to approach me for assistance I was allowed by management to spend as much time with language learning as I wanted.

But it is French that I know best. Bear in mind that my "knowledge" is of a highly artificial kind, as it comes by way of its written rather than its spoken form. Nonetheless, there are so many printed learning tools -- and so many of them speech-oriented -- that it's possible to get some semblance of spoken nuance this way. Here are some examples from my experience:

  • I first saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail in Paris with French subtitles. I was grateful to the subtitles for helping me understand what the hell the Python boys were saying in my own native language, e.g. "ta mère était un hamster et ton père puait le sureau!" if you get my drift (plug it into Translate if you don't). I have always preferred subtitled foreign movies to English ones because I could follow the conversation better, thanks to the subtitles.
  • Also in Paris I stumbled upon one of my favorite books of all time, La méthode à Mimile: L'argot sans peine, by Alphonse Boudard and Luc Etienne. This book deserves a blog entry of its own. Argot is slang, of course, but it also carries with it more than a whiff of forbidden fruit, since it often derives from the insider language of the underworld. It's like the hip jive of jazzers, knowwhatimeanbro? In true language-guide style, the book is a series of dialogues in argot, with, on the facing page, the translation into standard, "correct" French. In general it gave me a glimpse into how oral French changes (simplifies, corrupts, enriches) the written language. It was my bible for a few weeks. I took it with me when I visited a friend of my grandmother's out in the Paris suburbs, a very proper if somewhat rigid gentleman who took one look at the book and was absolutely horrified that I would be defiling her memory by learning such trash. I was taken aback at this. But today, after years of reflection, I realize it was like going to a D.A.R. meeting and doing a book talk on something with the title I Moved on Her like a Bitch: How to Trump like a Motherfucker.
  • While in Paris I lived in a pension (boardinghouse) that, quite coincidentally, had once been the residence of the French lexicographer, Emile Littré. (The "coincidentally" became in my mind "providentially" and resulted in a novel whose title was the address of the place.) It also just happened to be right around the corner from L'Alliance Française, where I took a French class. In the French way of things, it is assumed that you will learn to converse on your own, and thus incorrectly, so you must be properly educated in the academic version (the King's English of French, or whatever). This involves a highly structured exercise called the dictée (dictation) in which the instructor reads out a passage and the students have to write it out. This played to my strengths of grammar and spelling, but at the same time it padded my conversational weakness, since the passage was read at least three times deliberately and with clear articulation, such as no conversation ever was in the history of the world. Thus I could be an ace at dictation in the classroom and a dunce at conversation out in the world.
These days I follow Catherine et Liliane on Twitter. These are brief, humorous sketches involving two middle-aged female friends (enacted, quite convincingly, by men) in a cafe or waiting in line for theatre tickets and having their say about "le buzz" of the day. Recently for example they were talking about how women needed to take over the job of leading governments because with men it all boils down to dissing each other about penis size, and this is dangerous in the age of nuclear weapons. Thankfully the Twitter feed automatically includes subtitles, which for me are absolutely essential, as without them Catherine and Liliane could just as easily be discussing the weather or soybean futures.

With all this, then, I do think I have the background to do justice to this memoir, and that is what is uppermost in my mind--doing justice to the author, Jean Nicaise, who in his Kingsport pages wants to get at a larger meaning behind his own experience. This larger meaning is the United States of America. Thus a discussion of the history of Kingsport, the tiny pioneer village on the Holston reborn as a planned industrial city, where the hospital can undergo an orderly expansion on land set aside for the purpose, becomes grist for an extended reverie on the qualities of America vis-a-vis the Old World, and how those qualities, unchallenged by a sense of peerless over-confidence, might lead the country into such missteps as the Iraq invasion of 2003. (Nicaise writes looking back and freely mixes in comments about events that took place in more recent years.)

It's hard not to think of the French nobleman de Tocqueville, whose memoir of travels in late 1830's America has convinced many American readers that he knew us better than we knew (or know) ourselves. Whether this will be the case with Nicaise and Kingsport remains to be seen. I just hope that I can help make him understood to readers of English while at the same time introducing some flavors of the Gallic language that might be, as it were, found in translation. The ear, after all, doesn't discern "sense" from "scents." The nose, on the other hand ...

If you want to get a whiff, here you go. Three installations so far. Many more to come!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Shake n Bakespeare

One of the advantages of living in northeast Tennessee is the proximity of Abingdon, VA, the home of the Commonwealth's professional theatre company, Barter Theatre. Every play I've ever attended there has been well worth seeing.

Last night I went there to see Shakespeare's Richard III.  Not surprisingly, another success. No doubt it helped that I had a front row seat in the smaller theatre, Barter II, and the action was "in the round," so that I was immersed in the action (indeed, at one point in the play the hunchback soon-to-be-king with the wild boar tattoo on his right tricep shook my hand).

But that was really just a small part of it. The production itself was a miracle of economy. The play's cast is large, but Barter pulled it off with a grand total of eight actors, each of whom enacted multiple roles, in some cases five or six, counting minor characters. One, for example, played Margaret of Anjou (widow of Henry VI), one of the nephews in the Tower, Elizabeth of York, a contract assassin, an executioner, a soldier, and I'm sure I'm leaving something out, which I can't feel bad about because the program itself resorted to "etc." when listing the parts played by these actors. They literally wore different hats -- a simple change in headgear was the most common device for effecting the change in character. The only person with a single role was the actor playing Richard.

Another daring (I felt) approach of the production was that, of the eight actors, six were female. Richard and his vanquisher Richmond (Henry (Tudor) VII) were men. All of the other roles in this well-populated dramatis personae were played by women. While this doesn't take as much liberty with the play as those productions that transfer the setting to another place or time (and about which I'm somewhat meh), at the same time it felt somewhat more fundamental, being a partial reversal of the well-known Shakespearean all-male convention. It had me wishing that Barter had gone all the way and presented the play with an all-female cast. How might that have set off some ripples of suggestive thought in this day of toxic masculinity!

So the Barter upheld its part of the deal in its usual fresh and creative way. With this particular play, the only problem I have is with the playwright. Not with the poetry or the plotting or any of that -- the play dazzles from the very first line: "This is the winter of our discontent." But it is altogether such an ahistorical piece of flimsy Tudor propaganda that it is really quite laughable. And you don't have to know much history for this to be the case. All you have to know, really, is that the good guy who comes out on top at the end -- Richmond (Henry Tudor) is the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth, the monarch when the play was written. Once you realize that, the whole thing comes across as a bashed-up piece of folderol to curry favor.

Richard is a self-avowed villain from the very beginning, so embittered at being a hunchback that he seeks only to destroy those unlucky enough to be within his orbit. Along the way there is much self-conscious wit and jest, and it is to be supposed that Richard is able to seduce the audience in the same way he seduces Lady Anne Neville, whose spitting contempt of him (not only does his appearance fill her with revulsion, but her father and her husband were killed by his hand) is transformed into a pledge to marry him in the space of less than ten minutes. I was not convinced, and it wasn't the fault of the actor who played Richard. I'm not convinced by professional wrestling either. Or superhero comics with their mirror-image rotten-to-the-core bad guys.

The real problem for me with this play, however, is that I know that Richard's villainy is based on a number of egregious falsehoods. According to the play, Richard is responsible not only for the deaths of Anne Neville's father and husband, but also Anne herself (so he can then marry the sister of the princes), Henry VI, and Richard's brother Clarence. None of this is remotely true. And I doubt that Shakespeare's reliance on previously-published chronicles can entirely shelter him from blame. When you're trying to impress the queen by blackening the memory of the dynastic bete noire, no amount of tar is too much.

The real history is so much more interesting and full of the kind of human drama that Shakespeare supposedly reveled in. One of dramatic high points in the play is Richard's own mother's diatribe against him. To invite this kind of maternal scornful bitterness is a sure sign of Richard's unforgiveable rottenness, and Barter's actress delivered her lines with spine-tingling verisimilitude. But. Bad history. Richard's mother was in fact his champion. She even went to the extent of engineering doubts about her older son Edward IV's legitimacy because he'd pissed her off so bad for marrying beneath him. Let that sink in. She allowed it to be put about that she was an adulteress whose illegitimate child became king. Why did she do this? In order to strengthen the case for Richard's succession after the death of the then-supposed bastard Edward IV. Now that would've been a play worthy of a Shakespeare.

Instead we get an English Titus Andronicus without all the killing happening on stage. A little transcendence, but not much. Chalk it up to a journeyman's trials: Richard III was an early play, written not much later than the toga slasher Titus Andronicus. It is unfortunate for Richard's reputation that he was played false by the greatest playwright in history.

Perhaps, though, it bodes well for our immediate future if there is to be a future Shakespeare inspired by the events of our own age. The future play (enacted entirely by women, of course) will be about a villain who comes to power over a trail of dead bodies. It will be presented as historical, but the history will be as fake as Richard III. The title of the play will be Hillary I. Lucky for us! And I thought she was dead in the water after 2016.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Surrendering to the Lost Cause

The other night I attended a panel discussion about "Confederate memorialization" at a large public university in northeast Tennessee. The four panelists were professors in the fields of history, sociology, religion/public art, and political science. I looked forward to a substantive discussion. Publicity for the event promised that, beyond the history of Confederate memorialization, speakers would "address … social, political and philosophical issues at stake in recent debates around the country regarding the presence of such monuments in the public square." Suitably academic titles were given for each of the speakers' presentations, e.g. "Contesting Southern Symbolism: Beyond the Either/Or of Hate or Heritage."

I came away disappointed. There was little in the way of discussion among the panelists. After each of them gave a quarter-hour presentation, the event was turned over to "questions" from the audience. These questions were largely opportunities for members of the audience -- mostly older white men like myself -- to share their own wisdom on the subject.

Wisdom, such as it was: "Robert E. Lee was a noble man who simply could not fight against his state." And the professors evaded whatever responsibility they might have had to uphold the lamp of learning by collectively nodding their heads, when they did not make matters worse by obfuscation (the sociologist introducing the datum that the African slave trade delivered only a relatively modest number of Africans to North America as compared with the other shores in the hemisphere), indifference (the political scientist showing predictable poll numbers parsing the political views on the subject of the statues and drawing the shoulder-shrugging conclusion that reconciliation won't happen), and outright, head-scratching oversimplification (the sociologist concluding that the memorials were meant to honor the dead, nothing more and nothing less). 

It was almost as if the professors felt themselves to be in a cage with lions that they must be careful not to arouse. Weighty titles aside, their initial presentations were themselves superficial, generic, and anodyne. I knew the event was in trouble when the audience was treated to an explanation about "signifiers" and "signified." Nope, I thought, they're not going to probe this issue. Granted, some of their points might have been subtly aimed over the heads of their audience -- as when the public art scholar insinuated a symbolic meaning to Lee's equestrian persona -- but if so, no one was driving them home.

Only once was there any indication among the professors that the issue had any flesh and blood, and that was when the historian -- finally, after wasting his chance to do so in his initial presentation -- had a testy reaction to one of the sociologist's Confederate-friendly special pleadings by saying that the erection of most of the memorials coincided with the Jim Crow era. It was not so much too late as far too little.

But that was it: One small spark of historical context floated up into the vast ether of opinion and vanished.

For what it's worth, the handful of African-American students in the audience at the beginning of the session drifted away early, so that when one of the many Lee-apologists (who, to his credit, invoked the accomplishments of the Civil Rights era) made a gestural appeal to them, they were already gone. They'd probably already read the handwriting on the wall that said, "there's a lot more to this story, but we sure aren't going to talk about it."

And that's my beef. We need to talk about it. The whole story. Not just the story of Lee the virtuous man who couldn't fight against his state. It's not a bad story, such as it is, but it's far from the only one. Here are some things that the scholars might have used to broaden the discourse:

  • Winfield Scott and George Thomas were Virginia-born generals who stayed with the Union. Where are the Virginia statues to these native sons, attesting to the virtue of loyalty to one's nation? It's not like Virginia doesn't care about the nation, e.g. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, etc., ad nauseam.
  • And if Lee was only about Virginia, what is the purpose of having statues of him throughout the South?
  • A panelist with some sense of responsibility to the subject might have indicated at least a nodding awareness of places that have actually removed such statues, like New Orleans, whose mayor Mitch Landrieu has just published a book on the subject. What was the process? What lessons are to be learned?
  • Another sad lack was the panel's seeming unawareness of the South African process of public reconciliation over apartheid. Does the US need something like that? Maybe, maybe not. But we can arrive at no consensus if we don't even talk about it.
  • There is also the question, "Who governs the public square?" These monuments are public property. Who owns them, and how do these owners determine their future? There was brief mention -- I believe by the religion/public art scholar -- of the way in which some states in the South have tied the hands of localities in pursuing relocation; that would have been an excellent topic to delve into. What should the options be? When is it truly erasing history, and when not? (My own opinion is informed by the presence, cheek by jowl with Lee Circle in New Orleans, of the Confederate Memorial Hall, a museum of which an ancestor of mine was the curator at its founding. To think that moving a statue of Lee erased history when right across the street is the freaking official museum of the freaking Confederacy is freaking laughable.)
  • Mostly, though, there was a missed opportunity to demonstrate to the audience how our own personal opinions must not be allowed to silence the voices of the past. And the voices that are most relevant to this subject are the voices of the women -- in particular the United Daughters of the Confederacy -- who dedicated their social lives to the construction of these memorials. Were they motivated solely by a desire to memorialize the fallen? To say so is an egregious over-simplification. We must not only say they believed in the Lost Cause doctrine, but we need the opportunity to hear them articulate that doctrine in their own words. We must hear them say that the Cause expressly included slavery as the institution best designed to govern Africans and their descendants, and we must hear them say that, since the Northern victory destroyed the South's slave-based culture, at least -- and at last -- the United States could come together over the belief that the nation is the dominion of the white race, that African-Americans are incapable of citizenship, and that the South should be left to its own devices to keep African-American in the subject state to which they were best suited by nature, and thank the Lord for the Ku Klux Klan, "the very flower of Southern manhood," for rescuing the South from the horrors of African-American citizenship. That is what our ancestors believed, and that is the doctrine that Confederate statues were erected to glorify. No amount of obfuscation or wishing it away can contradict that. If anyone wants to talk about erasing history, let's talk about our craven unwillingness to hear our own ancestors' opinions in their own voices. This is not pointing fingers of blame so much as it is to understand that there was in fact, one upon a time, a nationwide reconciliation over this subject, except it was a white one, and it excluded blacks.

If we do not allow those voices to be heard in the context of a discussion of the statues that the UDC erected, then we will be unable to perceive that it is not just Robert E. Lee the individual that all those marble horses carry, but the full weight of history as it has come down to us. America is still overborne by that weight, and it deserves a public opportunity to be reconciled with it in order to be free of the burden and also to be able to face the future with greater confidence that the unity expressed in e pluribus unum finally applies to all citizens regardless of race. It does no good for scholars to abdicate their responsibility to this public good.