A Second Civil War?

Journalist Robin Wright composes a short, readable essay on the possibility that this country is headed for a second Civil War.

The consensus among the historians Wright consults is that, if we do have a war, it won’t be like the one from 150 years ago, but it will be rooted in the same clash of ideas which sparked the original conflict:  southern states which believe political self-determination of individual states should be paramount over any effort to impose the legislative will of a nationally-elected Congress.  Add to that central concern, though, this one:  the current clash between capitalism as an expression of individual choice (i.e., “free enterprise”) and capitalism in service to the state (i.e., “socialism,” and the collectivist bent of the contemporary Democratic Party).

David Blight, the historian from Yale, is correct when he says that the country never did fully accept the reforms that came out of the end of the Civil War, a state of affairs that I place at the feet of John Wilkes Booth, whose murder of President Lincoln robbed the country of its best hope to emerge whole out of Reconstruction.  I point out, however, that legal decisions like Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), which maintained the comfortable social illusion of “separate but equal” facilities for blacks all the way up to Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, KS (1954) didn’t help matters.  The pushback against the Obama presidency that Blight sees was rooted in an anger that a great leftward swing in governance and a great economic redistribution of wealth was being imposed on the entire country by a political party that simply did not have that great a mandate from the voting booth to attempt those things.

Similarly, the central argument of the Supreme Court in Plessy took much the same line:  that it was simply unwise to impose upon a significant portion of the population a law that they didn’t want, regardless of how “just” the imposition of that law might be (see especially U.S. 546-547, where the Court asserts that the Fourteenth Amendment “does not invest Congress with the power to legislate upon subjects that are within the domain of state legislation,”; U.S 550, where the Court concedes to the Louisiana legislature wide latitude in acting in accord with the “established usages, customs, and traditions of the people,”; and U.S. 551, where the Court follows the Court of Appeals of New York in People vs. Gallagher, “this end can neither be accomplished nor promoted by laws which conflict with the general sentiment of the community upon whom they are designed to operate” and later rejects the argument that legislation can overcome social prejudice).  The holding was that the protections of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments applied to political equality only.  Social equality was a matter to be left up to the states.  “Separate but equal” facilities in transportation, housing, and commerce were lawful under the Constitution.

These are the great points of contention.  Or, if you prefer the metaphor, these are the battle lines of a potential future conflict.  At present, I incline toward the view of Eric Foner.  Like him, I believe there are forces at work every day that minimize the conflicts and the damage we saw in Charlottesville.  It’s clear that, despite the violence from a group that is on the fringe of American society, we need to have a conversation among ourselves about the uses of our wealth, the proper limits of individual freedom, and the best kind of justice for our people; and we are going to have that conversation.  The only question–and it’s a big one–is, are we going to have that discussion as a civilized body politic, or are we going to have it with guns drawn, and with no more sense in our heads than our ancestors had a century and a half ago?



After The Fall

This, from the book editor of The Guardian, Robert McCrum, on the consequences of a stroke he suffered in 1995, and then a traumatizing fall three years ago.  Having fallen a multitude of times in my life, I can give earnest, experientially-based, and expert testimony that you will never read a more accurate description of what it’s like to fall than this one:

“The fall itself – my fall – occurred in an instant, but also in a kind of slo-mo. That old weakness on my left side, the residual deficit from my stroke’s paralysis, had long been a source of vulnerability, and now my worst fears from two decades were coming to pass. My first thought as I hit the kerb with my face was Tintin not Kierkegaard: “Oh, *@?%$*!” Then the menace kicked in: this was what people meant by “a fall”, an Anglo-Saxon word that’s as old as the hills, rooted deep in our past, and edged with fear.

It’s just a tumble to a child, or a pratfall to a clown, but falling is the curse of our later years, and a troubling one, too. The failure of the human frame, even in a fall, is a deep humiliation to our sense of ourselves. In the UK, per annum, about one in three people over the age of 65 will thereby break a leg, or a wrist, or, worst of all, a hip. That fall can be a gateway to incapacity and decrepitude: about 40% of these fallers will end up in a nursing home; 20% may never walk again.

In khaki shorts and scuffed trainers, it was not until I saw the blood splashed on the pavement as well as on my white T-shirt, and found its sinister metallic taste in my mouth, that I realised how badly I was bleeding from my head. Just a few days before my 61st birthday, here I was passing into a new world in which (as I lay full-length on the pavement) concerned passers-by were bending over me with “Are you all right?”, and a smiley young West Indian woman on a quad bike was phoning for an ambulance.”


In humanity’s long evolutionary path to the present moment, we made one serious choice that has had an extraordinary impact on the vulnerability of our bodies.  We now stand on two legs, rather than move about on four.  We gave up the solid stability all quadripeds have in exchange for the ability to see and reach up into the distant leaves of a tree or to cast our eyes upon the horizon.

The cost of that exchange is at least two-fold.  Humans place extraordinary pressure on their hip bones–every hour, every day–just to stand in one place, let alone move.  When we fall–either because we slip, or because we’re hit by something–it’s a long way down, a distance not to be measured by the brain’s ability to record the space around us in the physical world, but rather by the distance we measure in the body itself, from cell to cell and muscle to muscle as it copes at every level down to the microscopic with the sudden, inexplicable, and potentially-fatal shift in the biological geometry by which we live.  In that geometry, both time and distance are measured in fractions of a second and an inch.  How quickly may a man or woman shift a foot to recover balance?  How far away is the brick wall of that building, and can my hand reach it in time?  We make these calculations and answer these questions every moment that we live, but a fall forces us to make them while under attack.  The surface below us and the air around us, coupled with the relentless pull of gravity itself, all work against the nearly-instantaneous body response of our millions of cells and hundreds of muscles as we fight to stay upright.  The response we offer comes as quickly as we can make it, but the surprise involved in using parts of our body that we weren’t expecting to use, and the strength we instantaneously use to slow our bodies down on their descent to the surface to prevent damage means that the event does indeed happen, as it appears to us, in slow motion.

In preparing for a vacation to New Orleans last October, I ordered a pair of Croakies, a thin piece of cloth with holes at either end that one can slip on to the frames of one’s eyeglasses to hold them firmly on the head:  good protection against the rigors of a walk and protection, too, against the consequences NOLA’s year-round heat.  The Croakies came on a rainy night about a week before my departure via Fed Ex in a big letter envelope.  I stepped out onto the porch to pick up the package, but also stepped onto the envelope itself.  Instantly, my body slid in the same direction as the envelope, yet the speed with which this happened must be described as slow motion.  I had stepped onto the envelope and knew that I had made a mistake in doing so (I said “Damn!” or “Shit!” or somesuch to myself, can’t remember), but there was no way to get off the envelope.  I was going–slowly and inevitably–down.  The only thing I could do was to turn to my left slightly, and lengthen my body–as if I were trying to stand up, even though I was actually horizontal, to spread my body out on the porch and allow as much of my body as possible to absorb the impact with the porch.  The glasses I happened to be wearing bounced off my head, open and unbroken, about six inches away.  My head remained upright, as I intended, and I sustained only very minor bruising to my left wrist and my right side.  My body as a whole, however, was traumatized by the shock for about the next three hours.  We call such people “shaken up,” and that’s what I was.  We spend a lifetime learning, mostly unconsciously, how not to fall.  It’s deeply unsettling to be reminded, either by accident or by the deliberate act of someone who means us harm, that we can and do fall, that our bodies can sustain injuries when such a thing happens.  It’s frightening to be told, by a force that means it, “You are mortal.  I will decide how much you will be hurt, and when.  Not you.”

For the disabled, falls are different.  The body’s built-in responses to falling are still there, but altered because of brain damage, broken limbs, or all manner of other conditions that must be accounted for in preparing the body to survive a descent.  Many of the disabled, especially those who can use crutches to get around, are taught from an early age how to fall.  If they are wearing leg braces, they are stood in front of a mirror, with a mat on the floor before them, until their legs give way in tiredness, and they fall.  They are taught to stretch their arms out and catch themselves, as if they were doing pushups.  They keep doing this drill day after day until their legs are much stronger and the act of catching themselves with their arms in a fall becomes almost second nature.

Such training is meant to make life on those crutches easier, and it does; but, even here, differences must be taken into account:  underarm crutches are usually made of wood, and they can be easily tossed aside as their wearers move at high velocities, trip, and fall toward the earth.  He who falls as the crutches go flying may curl his body up as he descends, thereby limiting the surface area that can be impacted by the ground.  You can see this happen as the disabled move among their friends on the playground, laughing and exploring their worlds, even using the crutches as faux weapons or, more practically, as extensions of their bodies, as they pull a needed object toward them.  The wooden crutches are cheap, and they are used most often by the very young who wish to move at high speed (much to their parents’ dismay) or by the non-disabled, as they recover from the trauma of a broken leg or ankle.

As one becomes older and more confident in moving the body (and in learning how the body can move when it needs to), the choice of crutch may change to the Canadian model, with a cuff through which the wrist and hands fit.  Such crutches are often made of sturdy aluminum.  You won’t see those with temporarily-broken limbs wear these too often.  They are used, rather, by the permanently-disabled, who must become, perforce, professionals in their use.  The crutches do offer a comforting stability that wooden ones lack, and if one is knowledgeable about how to prevent a fall, they’re a fine choice for daily use.  But the threat of a fall is still there, and must be dealt with.  In a fall, the cuff will prevent the arm from moving.  The crutch cannot be thrown away.  Because this is so, the body cannot be curled up to absorb the impact.  The wearer must learn to fall with the crutch, fall as it falls, and she must take the cuts and bruises that cannot be avoided as a result.  The crutch’s  shaft and its reach can be a godsend in a slip, as it will seek and often find the support of the rough texture of a sidewalk, or that of the base of a building or a door frame–anything to give the wearer time enough to recover the body’s balance.  In a full-blown fall, though, the heavy metal shaft of a crutch can become an enemy, even if one has learned to fall with it.  Man or woman can fall on top of it, and sustain an unintended injury that way.  The inflexible cuff can be and often is bent out of shape or broken by the sudden, tremendous force of human strength applied to it as the wearer strives to stay upright.  Nothing’s more frustrated than the face of someone who possesses in an instant a shaft strong enough to be used as a cudgel but otherwise useless because the cuff has been bent too wide to fit the arm it was meant for or has been broken off.

A fall is the most basic reminder of the frailty of human flesh that there is.  As children, we don’t mind such falls because they bring us into immediate, intimate contact with the world we’re just beginning to know.  In a very real sense, we believe we belong down there.  The skinned knees or busted lips we might get out of such encounters are a price we are glad to pay because our injuries heal so quickly.  But as life goes on and our bodies age we learn, grimly, that our flesh heals far more slowly than it did in our youth.  Our bones may knit, but they don’t necessarily resume the shape they once had.  It hurts to take a blow we once laughed about on the playground.  Years may pass, and here and there we attend the funeral of a friend who has passed away.  We see him lying in state in his horizontal box, but some part of us may not quite grasp the reality of human mortality his corpse represents.  We lower him into the ground, and walk away.  Perhaps we will remember him, perhaps not, but we walk away, upright in body if not in spirit, and go about our business.

A fall, however, reminds us in the most intimate, brutal, terrifying way that we will share the fate of all frail flesh.  We will fall; we will be injured; we will die.  It is inevitable.  Nothing can prevent it.  Final contact with the ground, when it happens, will be a unique experience, as it has been all of our lives.  We all fall, but none of us falls in the same way.  Our hands, arms, and legs suffer the blow, but we twist and turn and strike the ground in ways no one else does.   We may smell our own blood or feel the scratch of a tree limb against our skin or we may not.  The only commonality to the experience is that we will all go through it.  And the frightening thing is–the thing that makes a fall traumatizing in the first place–we will know what the experience means when we have it.  Dust thou art, the Bible says, and unto dust thou shalt return.  But the Bible speaks of the dissolution of the body after death, and thereby misses the fundamental terror of dying itself–the unexpected stumble, and the rush of our hands and arms and legs and heart toward a horizontal fate.  It is the death we all die, maybe a dozen times in our lives, in practice for the last one.




A Little Life, A Little Space

Megan Morton offers us a glimpse (with pictures) inside the one-bedroom Manhattan apartment of novelist Hanya Yanagihara.  The headline touts that Ms. Yanagihara’s bookshelves contain 12,000 books.  Is that even possible in such a small space?  Anyway, it’s the kind of voyeurism I enjoy engaging in.  I want to see how writers live.  I want to see the spaces where they work.

My review of Ms. Yanagihara’s most famous novel is here.


Reading Ancient Texts

Here’s a fascinating–and too brief–article on how contemporary scholars are endeavoring to read a collection of palimpsests hundreds of years old that are housed in Saint Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Peninsula.

As is the case with all such palimpsests, the parchments have been scratched out and written over so many times that it is necessary to cast different wavelengths of light upon them in order to read the words that have been worn away.  It’s painstaking labor, with not a little detective work involved, but the payoff is increased understanding of over 6800 pages of text, involving the languages and cultures of the entire Middle East, going back, in some cases, a thousand years.

The most important conclusion being reached from the archival work is this:

“Some of the palimpsests that the team has recovered, however, suggest the tensions between Islam and Christianity were not always so fraught, and highlight the role the monastery played as a meeting point for the faiths. “We are recovering the history of the monastery from a time when there are almost no historical records,” says Father Justin Sinaites, a Texan who has been the librarian at Saint Catherine’s for the past 10 years and is charged with protecting its parchments. Many of the texts indicate an exchange of ideas and literature between the faiths, with early translations of Christian scriptures and liturgies into Arabic appearing in the palimpsests.”

Steven Runciman’s long and magnificent History of the Crusades supports the view that Islam and Christianity were, at the outset, more tolerant of each other’s faith than their descendants have been hundreds of years later.  Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads goes just as far in writing the history of the cultural interactions between the two while diminishing as much as possible the pro-Western biases found in many accounts of that history.


The Important Things Of Life

Singer Glen Campbell died yesterday of Alzheimer’s disease.  In my mind, he’s still the handsome, fresh-faced thirty-something guy who came to fame in the recording studios of the 1970s and variety TV shows like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  He was married three times and had a brief, tabloid-tempestuous relationship with another country singer, Tanya Tucker, in the early 1980s, but both soon moved beyond it, and beyond Hollywood, into real life.

The obituaries all mentioned that Campbell was most famous for the song “Rhinestone Cowboy,” a throwaway song that purports, in Hollywood fashion, to tell us how shallow people and things are out there, while in reality telling us nothing–exactly the kind of song the music industry makes its living on.

But there are singers, like Glen Campbell, and songwriters, like Jimmy Webb, who were capable of saying much more to us than what can be hinted in beneath the sewn-on glitz of a fancy coat, a pair of boots, or a cowboy hat.  Every once in a while, such writers will pen a song that does what country music does at its best:  get to the truth in two minutes flat, and make us remember it.

The song of which I speak is “Wichita Lineman,” a ballad in the old style, which places a man we all used to know–a working man–in his proper setting, yet shows us as clear as can be the life he lives under his skin:

“I am a lineman for the county / and I drive the main road

Searchin’ in the sun for another overload.

I hear you singin’ in the wire, / I can hear you through the whine

And the Wichita lineman is still on the line.

I know I need a small vacation / But it don’t look like rain

And if it snows that stretch down south

Won’t ever stand the strain.

And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time

And the Wichita Lineman / is still on the line.”

A woman is the current that runs through every man’s life.  She is in everything that he does, every gesture, every thought, every memory.  Everything that animates him comes from her.

Some women will ask, “Then why doesn’t he say so?”

The answer is, he can’t.  There are no words, really, to express our good fortune.  No song lyric can capture it; no poem can reveal it–not in the way she deserves to hear.

What men are left with is an almost inexpressible idea.  We carry it around with us like a weight, a kind of burden, as paradoxical as that sounds, but the thought of carrying it scares us to death.  We can’t share it with the one we love because we don’t understand it ourselves.  Our only recourse is to duck, to shy away emotionally from the very love we know we’ve been given.  Instead, we throw ourselves into work, hoping that she will see, somehow, through that work, how much we love her.  We flit frantically, from one task to the next, avoiding the thought, avoiding the longing, avoiding the person we need the most.  You can hear the avoidance in Campbell’s voice, too.  He speeds up as he sings the non sequiters “But it don’t look like rain / And if it snows that stretch down south / Won’t ever stand the strain,” inventing any reason to stay away.

These three lines express as well as any love song ever has the relentless tension we all feel between working and loving, the two most important things in life.  We are, all of us, bound as if by rope to this tension, but the lineman breaks free from the strain for just a moment, and says what we all wish we could say:

“And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time.”

Will she whom he loves see him as he is?  Will she see the love he has for her?  Who knows?  He certainly doesn’t know.  As puzzling as his choice may be to understand, because he doesn’t know, his only recourse is, not to go to her, but to keep working, still put himself on the line.

In today’s life you could, of course, pull up a YouTube video of Campbell’s song, complete with the lyrics and images of electric company linemen high above us in their catchers, going about their work.  But you’d miss the point.  Every man is out on that line, no matter where he is, no matter what work he’s doing.  Women are watching us, too.  They are in our lives, claiming a piece of us, and wanting to know that they have a piece, but many of them also know the meaning of the work we do.  It’s not much, but it’s enough, for a woman who looks.


Google, Tech, and Diversity

The diversity problem at Google, which I highlighted in a post three years ago, isn’t going away.  Here’s a backgrounder from Fortune on the current flap, and you can–and should–read my original post on the subject.  It’s long, but worthwhile.

My views have not changed over the last three years.  There is money being thrown at the problem; there are programs to encourage women to get into tech and stay there.  Flexible hours, daycare, and family leave are all available now in the workplace to a degree that was unthinkable even ten years ago.  (Google itself, 70% male, has such services.) These developments are good; I laud them.  But I am stubborn enough and knowledgeable enough about how the world works to say that the burden of getting into tech and staying in is going to be mostly up to women themselves.  Lawsuits like the one Ellen Pao filed three years ago (she lost it) might be helpful in calling attention to the problem, but they also reveal that those filing them are often, like Pao, thin-skinned, irritating, self-entitled brats with whom nobody wants to work.  The workplace is and always will be a rough place.  “Niceness” cannot be legislated, in Silicon Valley or elsewhere.  Attempts to do so will fail.

Google has data on the people it has hired and has considered hiring.  Until recently, it has not made that data public, so it has been hard to determine if the relative lack of women in the company derives from a lack of qualified candidates or from the simple refusal of a male-dominated culture to hire them.  From the outside, the latter appears to be the case.  It also appears to be the case, though, that few inside Google even know why hiring women can be a good thing.  Firing James Damore, who wrote the original ten-page memo in which he called Google’s women-only training sessions “discrimination,” does not demonstrate that Google knows why.  It demonstrates that, at present, the corporation is incapable of having the discussion everybody outside the company thinks they ought to be having.  I highlighted two of the biggest benefits of hiring women in the STEM fields just yesterday.  That fewer women than men might be available right now is a given.  Full correction of the imbalance will not happen until curricula and the attitudes of those who teach that curricula are changed at all levels of education, and that will take several years of planning outside the classroom and teacherly encouragement inside it.

The issue of sexual harassment is another matter.  Nobody–no woman, no man–should have to put up with that nonsense.  And to deny a woman legitimate advancement because she won’t put out, won’t sleep with the boss, won’t do whatever, is wrong, and legal action is often the only recourse to punish it and to eliminate it.

But understand this, and understand it well:  America, and Western culture as a whole, is entering a period of social change.  We don’t believe in marriage any more, at least not lengthy ones.  The mating urge, however, will remain with us until the human race is no more or until it’s genetically programmed out of us.  James Michener once said that the most important thing college students do at college is find out whom to marry.  Even when marriage is not necessarily the goal, that quest is being transferred into the workplace, as we all know, and it is not going to go away.  On the contrary, our problems are likely to increase, not decrease, as couples opt less for marriage and more for casual relationships.  Lawsuits can handle malicious damage done to someone’s career because of harassment, but the other stuff–the flirting, the uncomfortable jokes, the inappropriate gifts–can’t be legislated away, either.  It has to be handled privately, and it is so handled, every day.

Nonetheless, I believe that, over the long term, the current flap over diversity could be a good thing for all of us.  If it gets more women into tech, that’s good.  If it forces universities to look at the curriculum they offer in the sciences, that’s good; because the core reality of work in technology is, you have to actually know how to do things in order to succeed.  That used to be the mission of universities:  to teach students how to do things that would help them (and their country) succeed.  The mission has changed in the liberal arts:  the liberal arts now teach us only how to feel, a talent that depends entirely upon the recipient for its usefulness.  The standard is higher, much more rigorous in the sciences.  They don’t really care how you feel about coding; they care whether you can do it.  It doesn’t matter whether you like the study of histology in med school; it matters what you know about it, and how you can apply it.  Math is genderless; so is engineering; so is architecture. If a woman builds a building, odds are that more women will walk through its front door (and the odds are that door will actually work, too).   If the current initiatives ultimately spur a change in the goals of the liberal arts within our colleges toward a renewed emphasis on verifiable knowledge and demonstrable skills, we will all benefit.  The more we can teach our students how to do things, the better the opportunities we will have to teach them the thought processes that lie behind that ability to do, and the more interested our students (and professors) are likely to be in learning more, with fewer opportunities (and less willingness) to engage in fruitless activities like sexual harassment.