Categories
America Music

We Americans

This Fourth of July, the words that are echoing in my mind more than any others are the lyrics of “We Americans” by The Avett Brothers, from their recent album Closer Than Together. They beautifully capture the cognitive dissonance I feel about being an American, and even made me tear up the first time I heard them.

Here they are in full. Happy Fourth of July.

I grew up with reverence for the red white and blue
Spoke of God and liberty, reciting the pledge of allegiance
Learned love of country from my own family
Some shivered and prayed approaching the beaches of Normandy
The flag waves high and that’s how it should be
So many lives given and taken in the name of freedom
But the story’s complicated and hard to read
Pages of the book obscured or torn out completely

I am a son of Uncle Sam
And I struggle to understand the good and evil
But I’m doing the best I can
In a place built on stolen land with stolen people

Blood in the soil with the cotton and tobacco
Blood in the soil with the cotton and tobacco
Blood in the soil with the cotton and tobacco

A misnamed people and a kidnapped race
Laws may change but we can’t erase the scars of a nation
Of children devalued and disavowed
Displaced by greed and the arrogance of manifest destiny
Short-sighted to say it was a long time ago
Not even two lifetimes have past since the days of Lincoln
The sins of Andrew Jackson, the shame of Jim Crow
And time moves slow when the tragedies are beyond description

I am a son of Uncle Sam
And I struggle to understand the good and evil
But I’m doing the best I can
In a place built on stolen land with stolen people

We are more than the sum of our parts
All these broken homes and broken hearts
God will you keep us wherever we go
Will you forgive us for where we’ve been
We Americans

Blood on the table with the coffee and the sugar
Blood on the table with the coffee and the sugar
Blood on the table with the coffee and the sugar

I’ve been to every state, seen shore to shore
The still open wounds of the civil war
Watched blind hatred bounce back and forth
Seen vile prejudice both in the south and the north
And accountability is hard to impose
On ghosts of ancestors haunting the halls of our conscience
But the path of grace and goodwill is still here,
For those of us who may be considered among the living

I am a son of God and man
And I may never understand the good and evil
But I dearly love this land
Because of, and in spite of we the people

We are more than the sum of our parts
All these broken bones and broken hearts
God will you keep us wherever we go
Can you forgive us for where we’ve been
We Americans
We Americans

Love in our hearts with the pain and the memory
Love in our hearts with the pain and the memory
Love in our hearts with the pain and the memory

Categories
America Film History

Statues and Star Wars

In an email thread about the controversies surrounding the removal of statues, I suggested we relocate all statues to museums and use the space for parks and Little Free Libraries.

But that’s destroying history! First Amendment!

Statues aren’t history, as this Twitter thread by Elle Maruska articulates well:

Statues are mythology. Statues are hagiography. If you care about history as a discipline, as a way of analyzing the past, tear down every single statue.

Somehow, the history of Nazi Germany is available without statues of Hitler in every German square.

We can somehow still access the history of Mussolini’s rule without having statues of him in Rome.

We know about Ceaușescu without his stone visage glaring out over Bucharest.

Statues tell us about how we understand the present, not the reality of the past. Statues teach us nothing but who we find worth elevating into godhood. Statues are about the lies with think are worth believing in. Statues aren’t history.

The recent spate of statue removals run the gamut from coordinated (Theodore Roosevelt’s) to chaotic (Madison’s). But all of them share the same underlying sentiment, as articulated by Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi (the only good Star Wars movie):

Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.

The irony of this sentiment is Kylo spends the entire movie trying to actually kill connections to his past but still can’t fully shake them. (After all, the past isn’t past.) As James Whitbrook writes:

So maybe “Let the past die” needs to be paired with another great quote about legacies from The Last Jedi—something Yoda says to Luke, as they watch the glowing embers of the burning tree on Ahch-To: “We are what they grow beyond.”

Just as Rey learns and grows beyond what Luke and his failures can teach her—just as she steals away those ancient Jedi texts before they can be destroyed forever, to potentially build upon their ideas herself—so must Star Wars as a franchise if it’s going to keep adding more and more stories to its ever-growing saga. Respect its past, learn from it, and let it go and move on.

As a long-running franchise and “ever-growing saga” itself, America needs to take the best of its past and let go of the rest.

Which isn’t the same as forgetting or destroying it. To me it means severing ties from two contrasting yet equally toxic and “bitter clinging” impulses: nostalgia, which insists the past was better than the present, and resentment, which only finds fault with it.

Let the past be only what we grow beyond.

Categories
America

America’s greatness is great

Alan Jacobs:

Yesterday my son, who works in the Chicago Loop, saw a woman on a bicycle get hit by a car. She wasn’t seriously injured, but she was knocked to the ground, dazed. He ran up to her to see if she was okay and pulled out his phone to call 911 — but she quickly, urgently said, “No! No! I can’t afford to go to the hospital!” And after taking a moment to gather herself, she got to her feet, picked up her damaged bike, and wobbled off.

And so my son stood there on the corner, surrounded by the glories of Chicago’s architecture, the superb expensive shops on the Magnificent Mile, the wealth that fairly pulsates from every building, and reflected, as one well might, on American Greatness.

I’m starting to see why Austin Kleon is a single-issue voter.

Categories
America Books

The Big Short in 3 quotes

1. “What needs to be remembered here,” he wrote the next day, after he’d done [the trade], “is that this is $100 million. That’s an insane amount of money. And it just gets thrown around like it’s three digits instead of nine.”

2. “In retrospect, their ignorance seems incredible—but, then, an entire financial system was premised on their not knowing, and paying them for this talent.”

3. “The ability of Wall Street traders to see themselves in their success and their management in their failure would later be echoed, when their firms, which disdained the need for government regulation in good times, insisted on being rescued by government in bad times. Success was individual achievement; failure was a social problem.”

— Michael Lewis, The Big Short

See also: “Move along, nothing to see here.”

Categories
America History

From defeat, not victory

In his book Washington’s Crossing, David Hackett Fisher writes about how the colonists responded to the dark days of the American Revolution in 1776:

This great revival grew from defeat, not from victory. The awakening was a response to a disaster. Doctor Benjamin Rush, who had a major role in the event, believed that this was the way a free republic would always work, and the American republic in particular. He thought it was a national habit of the American people (maybe all free people) not to deal with a difficult problem until it was nearly impossible. “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity,” Rush wrote. “We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed.”

Rush, a sort of honorary Founding Father and very distant relative of mine, was speaking to his present times but I think he also speaks to ours. I’ve said before that if we make it out of our current darkness alive, we’ll be better for it.

Categories
America Politics Presidents

Trump’s Razor

Trump is either hiding something so threatening to himself, or he’s criminally incompetent to be commander in chief. It is impossible yet to say which explanation for his behavior is true, but it seems highly likely that one of these scenarios explains Trump’s refusal to respond to Russia’s direct attack on our system — a quiescence that is simply unprecedented for any U.S. president in history. Russia is not our friend. It has acted in a hostile manner. And Trump keeps ignoring it all.

— Thomas Friedman

Trump’s Razor: when presented with competing hypothetical answers to the question of Trump’s behavior, one should select the one that makes the fewest assumptions.

Which means: Once you realize the possibility that Trump is deeply compromised, his behavior makes so much more sense.

And this, for me, is the root of our present crisis. Beneath the “America First” president totally uninterested in defending America’s democratic integrity, the businessman running a chaotic and vapid administration, the “deal maker” with no poker face whatsoever, the demagogue with no ideology but himself—beneath all that is a man in a (presently) invisible prison of his own making. Who also happens to be president of the United States.

Happy Presidents Day, everyone!

Categories
America Media Politics Technology

Ursula Le Guin on the ‘media golem’

A pox upon me for never having read Ursula Le Guin before she died last week. I’ll get right on that, as her reputation is high among many different kinds of readers.

Before diving into her novels, though, I encountered her blog (an 88 year old blogging!) on which last year she posted “Constructing the Golem”, pretty thoroughly diagnosing our political moment and offering advice for overcoming it:

When he does something weird (which he does constantly in order to keep media attention on him), look not at him but at the people whom his irresponsible acts or words affect — the Republicans who try to collaborate with him (like collaborating with a loose cannon), the Democrats and Government employees he bullies, the statesmen from friendly countries he offends, the ordinary people he uses, insults, and hurts. Look away from him, and at the people who are working desperately to save what they can save of our Republic and our hope of avoiding nuclear catastrophe. Look away from him, and at reality, and things begin to get back into proportion.

Or: just don’t look.

He is entirely a creature of the media. He is a media golem. If you take the camera and mike off him, if you take your attention off him, nothing is left — mud.

Oh, would that it were so simple. He is the president, and the office of the presidency is unable to be ignored no matter who occupies its office. This is the present conundrum.

Nicholas Carr, incisive as always, speaks to this in an essay at Politico. He first zooms in on the president’s Twitter addiction:

Thanks to Twitter, the national conversation is now yoked to the vagaries of Trump’s mind. Politics has been subsumed by psychology. Twitter’s formal qualities as an informational medium—its immediacy and ephemerality, its vast reach, its lack of filters—mirror and reinforce the impulsiveness, solipsism, and grandiosity that define Trump’s personality and presidency and, by extension, the times. Banal yet mesmerizing, the president’s Twitter stream distills our strange cultural moment—the moment the noise became the signal.

…and then zooms out on its larger implications:

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the nation and its institutions have become a sort of drug-delivery system engineered to feed the compulsions of a single, unusual man. And given what we know about the way media technologies shape society, a bigger question looms: Are we stuck here for good?

Dear lord I hope not.

A president’s pronouncements will always be news, but they don’t have to grab headlines the way Trump’s tweets routinely do. The messages’ enduring power to seize attention and shape debate springs from a deeper source. It reflects the polarized state of the country and its politics. Among both the president’s fans and his foes, the tweets provoke extreme reactions, which serve to reinforce each side’s confidence in the righteousness of its cause. We listen so intently to Trump’s tweets because they tell us what we want to hear about the political brand we’ve chosen. In a perverse way, they serve as the rallying cries of two opposed and warring tribes.

And when you’re stuck between these two warring tribes, you don’t even get to enjoy the psychological benefits from tribalism. You just witness the carnage and wonder which side you’d rather see lose.

Categories
America Books History Music Nature Review

Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era

Got Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era as an unexpected Christmas gift from my dad. Given our shared appreciation for and history in the Northwoods of Wisconsin (though not in lumberjacking or songcatching unfortunately), this was a delightful read. It’s partly a reprint of Franz Rickaby’s 1926 collection Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy and partly essays about Rickaby himself, folk songs of the lumberjack era in the late 19th and early 20th century Upper Midwest, and the tradition of capturing that folklore. Over 60 songs are included, with introductory notes, full lyrics, and even music notations.

The editors’ sources and bibliography were fun to explore for related books and albums of regional folk songs. Favorites include Northwoods Songs and Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946. (I’m also eager to track down Finnish American Songs and Tunes, from Mines, Lumber Camps, and Workers’ Halls and, just for kicks, the albums Down Home Dairyland by James Leary and A Finnish American Christmas by Koivun Kaiku.)

What was really fun to read was Rickaby’s original introductory text. People don’t write like this anymore:

Meanwhile, the shanty-boy came into his own. Up and down and across the country he roamed—here today, there tomorrow; chopping, skidding, rolling, hauling, driving great logs that the snarling saws might be fed. The free life called him, the thunder of falling majesties intoxicated him. Amid this stately presence, along these avenues of “endless upward reaches,” he rudely trampled the whiteness of the earth. His axe bit deep as it shouted, and his saw-blade sang in the brittle air. The soft aroma of the woods at peace sharpened to an acrid redolence, acute, insistent—the cry of wounded pine. The great crests trembled, tottered, and thundered to the earth in a blinding swirl of needles and snow-dust, and the sun and sky at last looked in. The conqueror shouted as the proud tops came crashing down, though the places made vacant and bare meant nothing to him. Long hours of hard labor, simple fare, and primitive accommodations hardened him; the constant presence of danger rendered him resourceful, self-reliant, agile. It was as if the physical strength and bold vitality, the regal aloofness of the fallen giants, flowed in full tide into him and he thus came to know neither weariness nor fear. Neither Life nor Death was his master. He loved, hated, worked, played, earned, spent, fought, and sang—and even in his singing was a law unto himself.

And yet, Rickaby acknowledges the excesses of the Lumberjack Era:

The lumber industry still moves on. In the East, the North, the South, and the far West the trees still fall; for men must still have lumber, even more than ever. But it is now a cold and calculated process, with careful emphasis on selection, salvage, and by-product. The riot of wasteful harvest is no more: the unexpected vision of impending want, of imminent ugly barrenness, has quenched the thrill of destruction. The nation, having allowed the candle to be burned at both ends, tardily awakes to the necessity of conservation, a sort of cold gray “morning after.” Such a morning has its good and holy uses; but whatever forms of exultation may finally come of it, it must be noted that song is not one of its immediate possessions.

He marks the turn of the century, once the lumber business was industrialized along with everything else, as the turning point for lumberjack songs as well:

It was evident that some grim chance was taking place, killing the song in the hearts of workers, not only in the forests, but abroad in the world as well. Instead of singing, they read or talked or plotted; or if they did sing, the song was no longer of themselves. The complexion of the shanty crews changed. Where once had been the free-moving wit, the clear ringing voice of the Irishman, the Scotsman, the French-Canadian, there appeared in greater numbers the stolid Indian, the quiet, slow-moving, more purposeful Scandinavian.

Rickaby identifies three traits most common to “bona-fide singers of shanty-song”:

  1. “Intense application to the matter at hand”, meaning they were very focused on singing, sometimes even closing their eyes;
  2. A willingness to sing;
  3. A habit of dropping to a speaking voice on the last words of a song, sometimes “talking” the entire last line to indicate the song is finished.

Besides those commonalities, every rendition of every song could be slightly different depending on who sang it and how he made it his own. I look forward to trying to make some of these old folk songs my own too.

Categories
America Books Design

Man’s Search for Responsibility

Finally got around to reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. In one part he talks about a hypothetical “Statue of Responsibility”:

Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.

Clever, I thought when I read it. But when I was researching Frankl after reading the book, I learned the Statue of Responsibility is (becoming) a real thing:

I like how it flips Liberty’s arm motif. There isn’t a permanent site for it yet, but I hope it comes together.

Some other quotes from the book I enjoyed:

  • “For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”
  • “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.”
  • “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”
  • Prisoners looking at sunset: “How beautiful the world could be.”
  • “Self-actualization is possible only possible as a side effect of self-transcendence.”
Categories
America Music Politics

Our National Anthem?

As national anthems go, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is strange. It’s hard to sing, it uses antiquated language, and it doesn’t have its nation’s name in it. Though there are several good alternatives (my pick would be “America the Beautiful” sung by the Schuyler Sisters in perpetuity), the Banner is still here, so we must contend with it.

It’s worth reading the lyrics because when you sing a song over and over, the words lose meaning and the ritual becomes rote. Let’s look at the last four lines:

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Two points can be made out of this. The first is that not only did the flag survive the bombardment, but its survival was made evident by the bombardment itself. Such a metaphor is especially relevant in present times, and it gives me hope that our nation so conceived and so dedicated can endure its great testing. (And I’m not talkin’ about Colin Kaepernick.)

The second is that it ends with a question. In my one year of high school choir, the director pointed out before we began rehearsing the anthem for a performance that this feature is unique among national anthems, and that’s what makes it so important. That it ends with a question doesn’t come through in the musical rendition, which finishes on a triumphantly resolute note. That question symbolizes America: a nation as an unresolved ideal rather than a declarative statement. A nation with the gall to conclude its musical theme song on an ambivalent note.

Because of this, I fully support those who wish to kneel during the anthem. Kneeling is the perfect symbolic gesture given the intent of Kaepernick’s original protest, which was to draw attention to police brutality. It’s peaceful but effective, participatory but not derogatory. Being halfway down could symbolize the historic and ongoing subjugation of African Americans, whether through mass incarceration or disproportionate police brutality. Or, as Kaepernick’s fellow kneeler Eric Reid wrote, “like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

Since NFL teams weren’t even on the field for the anthem until 2009, when the Department of Defense and National Guard began paying the NFL (with taxpayer money) to have ostentatious flag ceremonies before games (!!!), I’m not going to get worked up about coercing displays of patriotism at sporting events, and the traditional “Don’t Tread On Me” crowd should understand why.