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February 2017

Dignity & the Philosophy of Power

A-philip-randolph-9451623-1-402

As a paradigm of dignity, David Brooks selected A. Philip Randolph.  Brooks writes, "Confronted by humiliating racism, [his family] hewed to a code of moral refinement and gentlemanly conduct that jarred with their material circumstances."  About Randolph's father a biographer wrote that he was "guided by the values of civility, humility, and decency, inspired by religious and social service, and utterly devoted to the idea of dignity."

About Randolph, Brooks writes, "These qualities--his incorruptibility, his reticent formality, and above all his dignity--meant it was impossible to humiliate him.  His reactions and internal state were determined by himself, not by the racism or even by the adulation that later surrounded him."

What a stirring tribute.  I hope I sometimes embody that kind of dignity.

Randolph was a civil rights and labor leader and Brooks writes that "the chief challenges of Randolph's life were: how do you take imperfect people and organize them into a force for change?  How do you amass power while not being corrupted by power?"  These are excellent questions.

Yesterday I was reviewing an essay by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas on faith and politics in which we wrote, "The difficulty is that following a crucified Lord entails embodying a politics that cannot resort to coercion and violence; it is a politics of persuasion all the day down.  It is a tiring business that is slow and time-consuming, but then we, that is, Christians, believe that by redeeming time Christ has given us all the time we need to pursue peace."

Brooks draws on David L. Chappell's book A Stone of Hope, which I highly recommend, to discuss the two different civil rights movements.  He writes, "The first was northern and highly educated.  People in this group tended to have an optimistic view of history and human nature."  The other group was the "biblical prophetic tradition" and they thought the optimists practiced a form of idolatry.  Brooks again:

One consequence of this attitude was that the prophetic realists were much more aggressive.  They took it as a matter of course that given the sinful nature of man, people could not be altered merely by education, consciousness raising, and expanded opportunity.  It was wrong to put one's faith in historical processes, human institutions, or human goodness. . . Change comes through relentless pressure and coercion.

How did nonviolence work?  "Nonviolence allowed the biblical realists to aggressively expose the villainy of their foes, to make their enemies' sins work against them as they were exposed in ever more brutal forms."  We must not be fooled into thinking that nonviolence didn't mean exposing the sins of the opponents.

BayardRustinAug1963-LibraryOfCongress_crop

In this chapter Brooks also draws attention to Bayard Rustin, the gay man who contributed essential elements of the philosophy of nonviolence and organized the March on Washington.  He writes that Rustin viewed nonviolence as a form of discipline which would weed out our own moral corruptions.

Brooks also details the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr, though I believe the civil rights leaders moved beyond Niebuhrian realism to a more liberationist theology.  Nevertheless, this section on Niebuhr is informative for current religio-political movements of protest and resistance:

Niebuhr argued that, beset by his own sinful nature, man is a problem to himself.  Human actions take place in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension.  We simply can't understand the long chain of consequences arising from what we do, or even the origins of our own impulses.  Niebuhr argued against the easy conscience of modern man, against moral complacency on every front.  He reminded readers that we are never as virtuous as we think we are, and that our motives are never as pure as in our own accounting.

I admire the concluding paragraphs of this chapter:

The story of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin is the story of how flawed people wield power in a fallen world.  They shared a worldview based on an awareness of both social and personal sin, the idea that human life is shot through with veins of darkness.  They learned, Randolph instantly and Rustin  over a lifetime, to build an inner structure to contain the chaotic impulses within.  They learned that sinfulness is battled obliquely through self-giving, by directing life away from the worst tendencies.  They were extremely dignified in their bearing.  But this same sense made them aggressive in their outward strategy.  They knew that dramatic change, when it is necessary, rarely comes through sweet suasion.  Social sin requires a hammering down of the door by people who are simultaneously aware that they are unworthy to be so daring.

This is a philosophy of power, a philosophy of power for people who combine extreme conviction with extreme self-skepticism.

You can find the previous post in this series, on the magnanimity of George Marshall, here.


Neoliberalism

This piece in the Guardian explains the rise and dominance of Neoliberalism, how the failures of the philosophy are to blame for many current problems (including the rise of Trump), and how the left has developed no coherent alternative.

An excerpt:

So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.


A Failed Trump Administration

Catching up on my blogging after a weekend away. Here was  David Brooks's column last week in which he discussed the failure that already is the Trump administration and his worries that no one will bring it to a quick end.  He writes:

The likelihood is this: We’re going to have an administration that has morally and politically collapsed, without actually going away.

What does that look like?


“We felt like no one was listening.”

A very good article in the Omaha World-Herald explores why the small town of DeWitt, Nebraska, an area that has traditionally leaned more Democratic than the rest of the state, went for Trump 2-1.  Also revealed are the complex reactions to his first month in office, including worried thoughts from some who voted for him.

I also found this section revealing:

Yet like a lot of people in DeWitt, Kracke said he was totally turned off by politics. And news.

“I don’t watch TV, I don’t read newspapers. If it has anything to do with politics, on Facebook, I don’t even look at it. If you email me something on politics, I will not read it,” Kracke said.

Instead, he prefers the company of his barbershop quartet and his cattle.

“That’s what keeps me sane,” he said. “Life is too short to be arguing with people.”

That’s also how Gibbs feels. The CEO of Waldo Genetics, a storied hog operation founded by her great-grandfather, said she treasures relationships in her local community. And as a self-described “nonpolitical person,” she laments the harsh debates. If only people could hash out their political differences politely, she said, they might come to understand opposing points of view.

I generally aim to be a well-informed person and to read much about politics and current affairs, including differing perspectives.  I'm bothered by people who pride themselves in being uninformed but still taking strong positions.


Protest

Protest

Ella Wheeler Wilcox


To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.



Magnanimous

George-Marshall

David Brooks writes, 

[George] Marshall lived in the world of airplanes and the nuclear bomb, but in many ways he was formed by the moral traditions of classical Greece and Rome.  His moral make-up owed something to Homer, to the classical emphasis on courage and honor.  It owed something to the Stoics, with their emphasis on moral discipline.  But particularly later in life it also owed something to the ancient Athenian Pericles, who embodied the style of leadership that we call magnanimity, or great-souled.

The magnanimous leader is called upon by his very nature to perform some great benefit to his people.  He holds himself to a higher standard and makes himself into a public institution.  Magnanimity can only really be expressed in public or political life.

But George Marshall didn't start out that way, he achieve magnanimity over a lifetime of self-mastery, as Brooks narrates it.  He was not particularly brilliant as a child but exerted great effort to achieve his success.  He writes, "His rise in the ranks of life would not come from his natural talent.  It would come from grinding, the dogged plod, and self-discipline."

Marshall's character was formed in the military, first at the Virginia Military Institute and then in the U. S. Army.  Brooks writes that VMI was not a great academic institution but that it existed in a "moral culture that brought together several ancient traditions: a chivalric devotion to service and courtesy, a stoic commitment to emotional self-control, and a classical devotion to honor."

In the Army, Marshall became an Organization Man, sublimating his own ego and ambition to the institution.  His career was not stellar, often being passed over for promotions.  Some of that may have come from his aloofness, an inability to form close friendships being the downside of his devotion to duty.

But he was admired for his administrative abilities and finally was in the right place at the right time and became Army Chief of Staff who then successfully led the Army through the Second World War, though he never had a battlefield command.  When he became Chief of Staff he purged the officer ranks of incompetent men and radically reformed the institution, as only an institutional man could have, which prepared the Army for the coming war.

After his retirement he was routinely called upon to serve in new capacities, including two posts in the Cabinet at Secretary of State and then Defense.  He was, of course, the architect of the Marshall Plan.  Brooks writes that all his post-Army service was out of his sense of duty and obligation to the nation, when what he really desired was to finally have a private life.

The previous post in this series, one on Dorothy Day, is here.


6 tasks for Christians struggling with Trump

On Ministry Matters a post that gives a concise summary of  Ministry Matters™ | 6 tasks for Christians struggling with Trump 6 tasks for Christians struggling with Trump.

 

 


A Tale of Love and Darkness

A Tale of Love and DarknessA Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My response to this memoir written by the great Israeli novelist is complicated. Huge sections of this very long book are five stars in quality, while other sections, not so much. 538 pages to cover mostly childhood and adolescence is simply too much. The book could have used some good editing, particularly because it often repeats a detail, sometimes more than once.

Oz's writing is rich with detail, beautiful descriptions of physical objects and scenes and compelling characters fully drawn. Here is a brief snippet:

"The bird sang with wonderment, awe, gratitude, exaltation, as though no night had ever ended before, as if this morning was the very first morning in the universe and its light was a wondrous light the like of which had never before burst forth and traversed the wide expanse of darkness."


The setting is dramatic--his childhood in Jerusalem before statehood, growing up among people who fled pogroms and the Holocaust, with cultural roots in both European peasantry and European intellectual life. He lives through the War of Independence when the family's basement apartment was filled with a dozen other people taking refuge from the shelling. His family and their friends are a who's-who of Israeli literary and political life. Included are amazing snapshots of, among others, Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin, in memorable scenes. Prime Minister Ben Gurion calls an adolescent Amos into his office and lectures him on the interpretation of Spinoza. As a child, Amos bursts into laughter during a speech of Begin's, embarrassing his grandfather.

Three large themes connect the disparate stories--Amos' love of books inherited from his father (the descriptions of books and libraries are the most beautiful passages in the memoir) and how literature shapes his life, Amos' disenchantment with his family's conservative politics which leads him to join the Left, and the complex relationships of family, particularly the relationships between Amos, his depressed mother, and his frustrated father.

A few weeks ago as I wrote my church column about Our Times and how we don't get to choose them, this memoir was resonating with me.  The members of his family had good lives in Europe which they had to leave.  They suffered.  The endured war and poverty and loss of status.  The memoir was a powerful reminder of how little is in our control and how much we in America have taken for granted of the tranquility of our lives.

A compelling volume, filled with delights, which I shall enjoy and return to for years to come.

View all my reviews