We Won’t Be Talking about Slavery: Public History by Bike

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A colleague of mine with a large fan base recently tweeted that his reason for getting a PhD was a love for writing and teaching. People will confess to almost anything on social media, even their worst afflictions. I, for one, sympathized. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder how a slight adjustment to this combination of loves might have led to an entirely different and more appealing life-path.

If one loved biking and teaching, for instance, one could lead bike tours in some historically rich city, like New Orleans. This is on my mind because I recently went on a half-day bike tour of New Orleans with my family, and we were taught quite a lot by our knowledgeable guide, John.

For instance: The French settled first near what is now called Bayou St. John. Soon they came to realize that the water, the air, and the mosquitoes were less of a problem a few miles away, where the Indians just happened to be living. That was where we were standing right now, John explained, the highest ground in the city of New Orleans, beside Saint Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. Yeah, John said, they forced the Indians off the prime real estate and just took it for themselves. Sad story, but there you go. With dismissing phrases and gestures like these, John seemed to suggest that there was a lot we could talk about that we weren’t going to talk about.

“We won’t be talking about slavery,” he added.

The comment struck me, and I understood it in several ways. Sometimes the light will dim in the eyes of my students in the US History survey, as if to say, “He’s going to talk about slavery again, kill me now.” All I can say is, I know, I know. The topic can bring you down.

This semester I’m teaching an upper level African American history course for undergraduates, and I’ve about had it with the topic myself. Trying to cover all my bases for a class on Nat Turner, I finally got around to watching “The Birth of a Nation,” the recent film by Nate Parker. In one early passage, Nat’s master is renting him out to preach obedience to the slaves on neighboring plantations. Here the film punches hard, depicting the cruel squalor and indignity whites forced on blacks in order to profit off them, their flesh and their lifeblood. “I’ve had enough,” I remember thinking.

John’s customers were folks on vacation. They weren’t looking for a heavy ordeal.

I read an article once by a guide who gave tours at a southern plantation, who had to deal regularly with a hostile contingent eager to argue whether slavery was as bad as everyone wanted you to think. “We won’t be talking about slavery,” made sense from this angle, too. John would want to nip that kind of controversy in the bud. He wouldn’t want to get into it with some idiot with an ax to grind. His job was to keep things upbeat and move us along.

John was a ropey, tall man, forty-ish, weathered, very slim, some cool tats, a notable haircut. Later I asked my kids what they remembered about him. My daughter described his earrings and polished nails. My son remembered his zip-up leather jacket and how quickly he spoke. Both liked him. I liked him, too, but also took a professional interest. We would bike for a while, and then he’d gather us somewhere and deliver a blast of information. Sometimes you have to talk fast when you’re on a schedule and trying to fit it all in. His talks were like my lectures, not delivered each time word-for-word but very well-practiced, all the same. He would state a point, a concept, fill in some detail, give an example or two, and then come back and restate the point. He was doing what I try to do, to usher a few bits of information through my students’ brains, from the short- to the long-term memory.

And doing a good job of it, too. There were a number of things I learned on the tour that I’m not likely to forget. The difference between a balcony, a gallery, and a veranda. The technology of an above ground tomb. The sixty years of French rule, the forty years of Spanish, before the Americans took charge. Grasping this rough chronology gave me a new appreciation of the city’s history. Something took root in that single century, something particular, that continues to bear fruit to this day.

In preparation for our trip, I had re-watched “Gumbo,” the first episode of Ken Burns’ documentary series, Jazz. Wynton Marsalis is one of the great voices in that series, articulating much about the music and the city that gave it birth. “Jazz music celebrates life, human life, the range of it, the absurdity of it, the ignorance of it, the greatness of it, the intelligence of it, the profundity of it–and it deals with it.”

I remembered this quote as we wheeled down the boulevards that serve as the borders between neighborhoods—“neutral ground,” John told us. It reminded me of David Simon’s HBO series, Tremé, about post-Katrina New Orleans. Simon’s argument in that series can be boiled down to the following: look what we almost lost; look what we’re still in danger of losing.

One of the members of our party, a Californian traveling with her husband, had Katrina on her mind. “Was this part flooded?” she would ask as we crossed from one neighborhood to another. John would answer without elaboration. Finally he said, with a touch of exasperation, “We’ve been here three hundred years—that was just one storm.” Katrina played such a role in one President’s political fortunes, and perhaps in the election of his successor, I wondered if the topic wasn’t another racially-charged minefield that required steering around.

And yet I began to notice that we weren’t always on neutral ground. Andrew Jackson may have won the battle of New Orleans, John admitted, but otherwise was “not a good guy.” Slavery would get a mention after all, as would the Trail of Tears. In the cemetery we visited, among the somber, rough and crooked tombs slowly baking their contents into ash was a castle-shaped mausoleum, built of polished stone, with wooden doors and stained-glass windows, and outfitted with climate-control. Our affable guide didn’t hide his disapproval. All it lacked, he suggested, was a disco ball.

Other remarks were dropped here and there, some choice commentary, let’s say, to go along with the facts. Interpretation wasn’t totally absent. It was just that things were carefully managed as to restrict it to a single source. In this, too, I recognized a kinsman. I have my captive audience. I like to deliver my point of view. And I tend to manage, at least most of the time, to avoid controversy or disagreement. But I’m not going to explore the matter further. Let’s keep things upbeat and move along.

A version of this essay appears at the Society for US Intellectual History blog

A New View of the Blue Marble: Bruno Latour’s Zone Critique

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The Blue Marble is a famous photograph of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft en route to the Moon at a distance of about 29,000 kilometres (18,000 mi). It shows Africa, Antarctica, and the Arabian Peninsula. Image credit: NASA.

The story, perhaps a legend, goes something like this: a handful of photographs of the earth in space, supplied by the Apollo missions during the nineteen-sixties and early seventies, clarified for humankind the wholeness and lonely fragility of our planet. In an instant, all wars became civil wars, all fights fights between family, and the necessity of caring for our shared environment a shattering revelation.

Ritual re-tellings came last December in news articles commemorating the fifty-year anniversary of “Earthrise,” taken by the astronauts on Apollo 8.  The photo provided “a unifying expression of vulnerability,” said the story in The Washington Post. The photo became the environmental movement’s icon, the story in The New York Times reported, “a gift of perspective at the end of a dark year.” As iconic as “Earthrise” is “The Blue Marble,” taken by Apollo 17 in 1972, which has been called “the most environmental photograph ever taken.”

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This view of the rising Earth was captured by Apollo 8 astronauts on December 24, 1968 as they came from behind the Moon after the fourth nearside orbit. The photo is displayed here in its original orientation, though it is more commonly viewed with the lunar surface at the bottom of the photo. Image credit: NASA.

The story is often accompanied by some version of this flourish: Isn’t it ironic that these very images that made us newly reverent for the environment came from the space program, which the environmentalists of the time had disparaged? The unspoken message being, of course, good thing we didn’t listen to them! What I’m suggesting here is what if these photos–“Earthrise,” “The Blue Marble,” and their like, as exquisite as they are–didn’t mark change but continuity? What if what is celebrated as new perspective was actually the stubborn persistence of the old?

These questions are among several I took from viewing “Inside,” a recent lecture by Bruno Latour, available on Youtube. An October 2018 article in The New York Times Magazine alerted me to it, a piece by Ava Kofman about Latour, about his new book, Down To Earth, and about our particular post-truth moment. Latour attributes much of that moment to the fact that we find ourselves disoriented in time and space, due largely to a misleading cosmology. Images of the earth in space are only the most prominent example of an insistence on perceiving ourselves from outside the world. It is as if we’d actually lived Plato’s myth and exited the cave into an ether of pristine abstraction and objectivity. This perception of our home as a globe in space has paralleled our striving for universals in political life and the globalization of the economy.

As an alternative, Latour invites his audience to join him back inside “caveland,” where it’s dark, wet, complex, and confusing. The lecture is a collaboration with some artists and designers whose projected 3-D images surround Latour on the stage as he speaks, sometimes obscuring him completely. Watching and listening, I was reminded of the outdoor installations I saw last year at the AURORA exhibit in downtown Dallas, which I wrote about here on the blog. Latour and his collaborators, like the AURORA artists, seem to begin from the premise that we require radical reorientation to bring perception and experience into sync.

The cave image works as commentary on Western thought, but a cave, enclosed and underground, obscured more by an absence of light than by apparent complexity, isn’t really what Latour offers as an alternative to the image of the globe. Rather, he describes our home as a “critical zone,” a thin layer of sun-energized life atop the compressed remnants of the past. The critical zone consists of “nothing but the activity of the living.” It’s sensitive, fragile, far from equilibrium, and hard to know. Most of all, though, it’s relatively small and thin—”tiny, tiny, tiny,” “a varnish, really”—yet containing “everything we care for, everything we have ever encountered.”

The Apollo photos do capture something of this in the earth’s surface glow, a vibrancy indicating organization and life. Seeing this from outside, however, extracts us from it, Latour argues. We can’t represent home and be in it simultaneously. The critical zone is an attempt to overcome this paradox. By inverting the globe, flattening and refolding it “like a tart,” he and his collaborators place us inside a kind of whirlpool, a vortex of processes in the sunshine, some of those processes close and moving quickly, others moving more slowly and thus harder to detect. The systems theorist Gregory Bateson would likely have smiled on this conception of complexly interrelated circuits running transforms of meaning in varying spans of time.

On Christmas Day, 1968, the day after “Earthrise” was first published, poet and writer Archibald MacLeish offered an appreciation which was published on the front page of the Times. His brief column may indeed be the source of the “Earthrise” legend, or in any case, it’s first telling. “Men’s conception of themselves and each other has always depended on their notion of the earth,” he begins. He then employs a history of thought that, while not uncontested, is still in use today. First there was “the medieval notion,” which placed men at the center of the universe. Later there was “the nuclear notion,” which removed them from that center and made them “helpless victims in a senseless farce.” But now, with this photograph, we’d seen earth for the first time “from the depths of space,” “whole and beautiful and round and small.” Perhaps now a new notion of the earth, and of ourselves, was possible, and we could see ourselves “together, brothers on that that bright loveliness in the eternal cold.” Senselessness, might be exchanged for solidarity, presumably, and “man may at last become himself.”

Although shorn of patriarchal language and modernist despair, Latour’s scheme is formally similar. Instead of “medieval” and “nuclear,” Latour uses the terms “local” and “global.” Whereas MacLeish presents a linear march forward, one notion replacing the one before, Latour recognizes the local and the global as concurrent modes. The West’s current political situation is such that the universals of the global have been discredited and so are being abandoned for the walled-off assurances of the local. Meanwhile the denial of the climate crisis, a crucial intellectual component to this movement, allows the new localists to blame the failures of the global on those outside the walls. Latour’s critical zone is an attempt to “triangulate” the local and global in a different way–a way that faces climate deterioration full on.

The strength of the critical zone as a representation, as Latour himself admits, is that it foregrounds “processes and transformation.” That seems right. As a scholar trained in intellectual history exploring the environmental humanities, I’ve written numerous sentences over the years about the need to reorganize perception, to provide a new account of reality, a new imaginary, etc. So I applaud and admire the efforts of Latour and his collaborators to do just that.

This is especially impressive because I also often wonder, can this actually happen? Can epistemology be rebuilt from the ground up? Can we provide an answer to our current disorientation–an alternative notion, to use MacLeish’s word–that isn’t so strange as to disorient ourselves all the more? At times I wonder if it hasn’t already happened, and that the many attempts at articulation are merely part of the vast apparatus of habit catching up to minds and hearts. Annoying questions! The jury is still out. The jury’s always out–it’s almost never in, come to think of it, living inside the critical zone.

A version of this post appears at the Society for US Intellectual History blog.

Western myth and the cheerful stoicism of Buster Scruggs

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The Lavender Pit, Bisbee Arizona, 2018.

Driving into Bisbee, Arizona, last month, the first thing we saw was the old quarry. Coming in from the east, just before reaching Old Bisbee, you could pull into a lot, park, and peer through a chain-link fence into the enormous, red pit below. Earth-moving machines had raked and scalloped its walls. At the bottom was a pool of worrisome liquid, thick and red as–well, I’m not just being dramatic—it really looked like blood.

Bisbee was founded in 1880, a boom town near the border, where copper was mined. Like Butte, Montana, Bisbee is representative of industrial practice in the West in the decades after the Civil War. As the historian T. H. Watkins says in Stephen Ives’ documentary series, The West, “The mining industry, probably more than any other single industry, was designed specifically to get into the West, find what resources it had, dig them out, leave a wreck behind, get out, and move on someplace else.”

bisbee 17 movie posterNot all had moved on. The mine closed in 1975, and Bisbee has survived as a small, remote high desert town. The historic district seems to have resurrected itself as an artist colony and bohemian enclave, with make-do homes up the mountain side, vintage hotels, funky shops, galleries, and sites of tourism. It’s no ghost town, but it does seem to have a fascination with the ghosts of its past. Some of these ghosts may be the disappeared, the 1200 striking miners of 1917—mostly Mexican and Eastern European–who were gathered at gunpoint, packed into cattle cars, hauled off into the desert, and abandoned. Last year’s film, Bisbee ’17, part documentary, part reenactment, tells this story.

I thought about Bisbee, and the Watkins quote, when a week or so later, I watched the Coen brothers’ new film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Scruggs story is only the first of six separate narratives, taken from an imagined book of Western tales. The segment that made me think of Bisbee was the one with Tom Waits, called “All Gold Canyon.” It begins with scenes of an idyllic canyon glade, glowing in the sun, where flora and fauna go about their days in perfect homeostasis. Balance is disturbed by the arrival of an old prospector, played by Waits. He pauses in the stream to do a little panning and discovers a few specks of gold. Intrigued, he conducts a series of experiments, digging holes, panning the dirt, eyeing the specks, calculating. With slow deliberation, he is systematically determining the best spot to dig in earnest. Soon the glade has a pock-marked patch, as if diseased.

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Tom Waits as the prospector in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Much environmental philosophy stresses the need to be in relations with the world outside us, rather than to see it as dead matter to exploit as we wish. The old prospector does speak to “Mr. Pocket,” the vein of gold he is hunting, as if it were a living intelligence. I’m going to find you, Mr. Pocket. Sooner or later, I’ll track you down. The trust he places in his science proves sound. Eventually, he locates Mr. Pocket and reacts with a burst of maniacal laughter.

The idea of a lone prospector, talking to himself amidst the vastness of the American West, serves myth more than it does history. According to Ives’ The West, the westerners of the second half of the nineteenth century and after “were rugged individualists chiefly in their dreams. In real life they were likely to draw paychecks for digging in corporate mines, plowing corporate fields, or chasing corporate cattle.” This myth continues to support Western libertarianism, which tends to ignore the massive corporate and federal expenditures that have made collective living there viable.

Not that miners themselves aren’t rugged, tough individuals. Industrial mining requires brute strength and quick wits. It isn’t at all abstract. The point is to extract the ore; you can see it, you can weigh it, and you’re paid accordingly. One can appreciate how a miner would take pride in the job and be hesitant to give it up for paper pushing or the service industry.

These are the impressions I gathered, anyway, from the ancient miner who gave the Queen Copper Mine Tour in Bisbee. Leading us into the tunnels on rail cars, he told of how he’d gone into the mine right out of high school and stayed on through the years to its closing. Although he talked some about the history of the mind before his time and supplied some historical information, he didn’t mention the 1917 incident. Rather, he seemed to most want us to know what good money he’d made when he worked there, a base salary with a bonus tied to production. If I understood him correctly, he was pulling down well over a thousand a week, and that was in 1960s money.

He acknowledged the many dangers involved in the work but mostly to joke about it. Danger is best met with good humor. This stoicism in the face of hardship and death—long celebrated in Western myth –is one of the threads that ties the six stories of Buster Scruggs together. At times this stoicism is cheerful to the point of absurdity. Characters find themselves in dire straits: the savages are attacking, there’s a noose around your neck, a faster gun appears on the far end of Main Street. When conditions are boiled down to first principles, these heroes don’t flinch. Not only do they not flinch, they seem to lack the very capacity to flinch.

How do these myths function? On one level, the heroes are celebrated. On another, the principles are reinforced. Nature is red in tooth and claw; only the strong survive. If we didn’t manfully accept that fundamental reality, if we hid behind feminine sentimentality or “a pretense of humanitarianism,” as Theodore Roosevelt argued in his speech, “The Strenuous Life,” we might as well “leave the Apaches of Arizona to work out their own salvation.” Myths about the fundamental nature of reality have been used to justify all manner of deeds and behaviors.

To get to Bisbee, we made the long drive to El Paso and then west along the border on I-10. The highway was abundant with border patrol vehicles. We passed through check points, saw officers operating sensors on poles. We saw the tent city outside Tornillo. The president was on the radio, arguing for his border wall, and threatening to shut down the government. It isn’t that he’s against immigration. He’s in favor of “merit” immigration, he explained. If you don’t have something valuable to trade, we have nothing for you, in other words.

It’s a policy that regards humanitarianism as a pretense, either to gain political advantage or to protect the weak from the brute fact that deep down, we’re all predators seeking the upper hand.

I thought about this policy of merit immigration when I watched another of the Western stories from the Coen brothers’ movie. This one, titled “Meal Ticket,” features an orator, a young man without arms and legs, whose impresario/handler takes him from town to town in a carny wagon. The orator specializes in Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Gettysburg Address, and the Cain and Abel story from the Bible. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Or is my brother a resource, from whom, through sharp dealing, I might extract a measure of gold? The films of the Coen brothers are often described as ironic, darkly comic, and misanthropic. Now critical seems a more apt word.

A version of this essay appears at The Society for US Intellectual History Blog.

Listening to the Artists for a Change

A few Saturdays ago, just after sunset, a sizable chunk of downtown Dallas was converted into a giant public outdoor art event. It was a biennial exhibition of installations combining light, sound, and video that goes by the name AURORA. Maybe the noise and anguish of the midterms had inhaled my attention, but it almost got by me. Then I happened to catch one of the curators being interviewed on the radio the day before. Her description of the exhibition’s theme intrigued me.

“Whether dystopian or utopian, sci-fi or retro-futuristic,” I later read in the program, the artists were aiming “to open a dialogue about how we collectively envision our Future Worlds.”

During the past few years, I’ve devoted a good deal of time to readings in environmental thought, mainly that of academics, scholars, and public intellectuals. At times I feel a kind of sameness setting in. Arguments tend to stall before a similar set of conundrums. A transformation of values is called for to readdress “our attitude toward the problem of physical reality.”[1] Yet our means for doing this seem of necessity to be based on old metaphors, faulty narratives, and obsolete modes of perception.

This was why the theme “Future Worlds” intrigued me. When it came to envisioning a radically different future, were the artists doing any better than all those writers of discursive prose?

We caught the streetcar downtown the next evening.

The first two installations we saw set the terms of the exhibition and offered answers to some of my questions. “Melting Memories,” by Refik Anadol, was a projection of light against a back wall of the city hall building. The image was of an enormous, shallow box, set on its side, so that viewers would look directly into it. Inside was a continually morphing topography of fluid, foamy sand. What governed its constant movement? Anadol had gathered “data on the neural mechanisms of cognitive control” from a machine that “measures brain wave activity” and somehow rendered it into an algorithm.[2] This wasn’t a record of something that had happened in the past. This was something that seemed to be happening in the moment. To be frank, it looked alive.

“Melting Memories” by Refik Anadol. Photo: https://www.facebook.com/dallasaurora/

Coming around city hall to the vast public plaza out front, we literally stepped into the second installation. It was another projection, this time not against a wall but across a rectangular portion of the plaza itself. This piece, called “Digital Icons,” was described as “a giant light carpet” made of many-colored icons, familiar from “the early days of the computer era.” These icons appeared and disappeared around our feet, creating new patterns as we walked across them, responding differently to each of our individual steps.

“Digital Icons” by Miguel Chevalier. Photo by Cole Chaney.

The patterns moved around our feet; the people moved within the rectangle. Outside the rectangle, crowds were moving, too–across the plaza, the green spaces, the sidewalks and streets, gathering at and moving away from the glowing obelisks that marked each installation. If you could claim a perch that was distant enough to take it all in, the shapes you saw would be constantly moving, like the glowing sand in the sandbox, which was based on brain waves, on thought.

I paused to take stock. What did these shapes have in common? Open-ended motion. Unpredictability. Asymmetry–they were absorbing but not conventionally beautiful. A number of films had come to mind. One from long ago, the famous Koyaanisqatsi, disrupted commonplace perspectives by playing with film speed and other visual devices. The more recent Mother! combined fable with a similar acceleration of narrative time. In Annihilation, also recent, an alien presence breaks down barriers between organs, organisms, and species. All the hard divisions we’ve come to depend on are compromised. A scientist’s journey to investigate becomes one not of conquering an enemy but of overcoming repugnance at what she finds.

In each of these examples, technology is used to appropriate a natural dynamic in order to make visible something formerly unseen. The most direct of AURORA’s installations was one by Fabian Knecht, called “Freisetzung (Release).” Again the city hall building was used, this time the roof, from which a dense white smoke was somehow being emitted. The smoke billowed “freely for some time before dissipating.” As it did so, it changed continually “in terms of orientation and color to the given atmospheric conditions.” Again, all the characteristics I’ve described were on display: the unpredictability, the asymmetry, the ability to mesmerize and soothe. I could have stared at the smoke for quite a long time, as around a campfire I’ve stared for hours at flames.

Freisetzung (Release) by Fabian Knectht. Photo by bPaperlytete.

The program had used the term “dystopian,” but so far, these installations were all heart. They imagined futures that we could be a part of, if we could overcome resistance, expand our notions of what’s beautiful and what’s lovable, like the scientist in Annihilation does. Where was the unassailable threat and dread we typically feel when thinking about technology, climate change, and contemplating the future?

Kristin Lucas’s “Sick Waves,” the only piece that explicitly mentioned climate change, fed the interpretation I was moving toward. This was a light projection, too, but otherwise unlike the other pieces I’ve described. A series of concentric circles were programmed to place the viewer inside the formation of an ocean wave: to build, to spin, to crash, and then to start all over again. Of course, no real wave is so uniformly repeatable. None have that kind of perfectly balanced precision. These waves were sick, like the present we’re trying to imagine ourselves out of.

“Sick Waves” by Kristin Lucas. For more information on this artist, http://ow.ly/FKuz50jhKu1

Later that week, I was back to reading discursive prose. In a section of his 2017 book, Out of the Wreckage, environmentalist-journalist George Monbiot challenges the notion that an individual’s political principles are arrived at by rational means. This may be important to historians and other writers of discursive prose, we who prize rational argument and who are understandably wary of those who don’t. Yet people don’t put their political selves together rationally, Monbiot argues. They look to the community around them, and they try to belong. This isn’t necessarily a negative. “If we perceive ourselves to belong to a community in which people work together, to improve their lives, and then neighborhood, to enjoy each other’s company and help each other, that perception is likely to shape our political self-image.” Such an image could take the quality of a contagion.

I wondered about the verbs Monbiot uses in this sentence: feel, believe, say, belong; work, improve, enjoy. I tried to imagine these actions and the thread between them as shape in movement. Aesthetic experience has a way of re-wiring the brain.

This essay also appears at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog

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[1] The phrase is physicist David Bohm’s, quoted in Best and Kellner, The Postmodern Turn (New York: Guilford Press, 1997), 215.

[2] Unattributed quotations come from the exhibition’s program, found at the event website: https://dallasaurora.com/

 

Arthur Koestler, #MeToo, and “the moral dilemma of judging others”

In connection to my ongoing research into systems thinking and ecological thought from the perspective of cultural and intellectual history, I read a lot of Arthur Koestler this summer. I read some about him, too. Koestler’s prose was good company. He had a gift for writing about ideas. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed spending much time with him in person.

yogi commissar coverOne essay I returned to more than once was “The Yogi and the Commissar” from 1942. It’s a good example of Koestler’s ability to capture concepts in figurative language. He begins by imagining a device able to break down the spectrum of “all possible human attitudes to life” into bands of light—a “sociological spectroscope,” he calls it. At one extreme end is the infra-red, represented in Koestler’s scheme by the Commissar. The Commissar is the ideologue, willing to take bold action, including “violence, ruse, treachery, and poison,” to achieve the goals his doctrine prescribes. Representing the opposite ultra-violet end of the spectrum is the Yogi. The Yogi’s highest value is his spiritual attachment to “an invisible navel cord” through which he is nourished by “the all-one.” The Yogi “believes that nothing can be improved by exterior organization and everything by the individual effort from within.”

I attempted to describe a similar change-from-without/change-from-within confrontation between radicals in the late sixties in my book, Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness. For illustration, I relied on Marat/Sade, Peter Weiss’s play of the period, but found many other contemporary attempts to express a similar argument. I’m almost certain I’d read “The Yogi and the Commissar” at some previous point, but by the time I got around to writing, I must have forgotten about it. How hard I worked to keep those sections light and swiftly moving! Koestler’s writing seems so effortless on the page that I can only shake my head in admiration.

If reading Koestler was easy, I was often made uneasy reading about him. Face to face, he could be competitive and overbearing. Sidney Hook said Koestler “could recite the truths of the multiplication table” in a way that made people angry. Then there was his treatment of women. Koestler was known for his “crude advances” and a “predatory belief that coercion added spice to sexual intercourse.” At least one woman accused him of rape. Certainly, Koestler had several long-term relationships, but he tended to organize the energies of the women who loved him in secretarial work to advance his literary cause. In his seventies, suffering from Parkinson’s and leukemia, Koestler committed suicide, and was joined in the act by his third wife Cynthia, who was healthy and fifty-five.

To sum up: When we turn Koestler’s spectroscope on his own sexual relations, we get a strong reading of infra-red. His ends justified his means, as they do for the Commissar.

scammell bookThe above impressions, as well as the quotes, are drawn from my reading of Michael Scammell’s 2009 biography. Scammell tells a good story, too. As for the rape charge, he doesn’t simply accept it at face value. He tries to place it in context; he airs a number of considerations. For instance: Koestler’s accuser did not speak immediately about the assault but waited for many decades to pass. She “seemed to have responded by pushing the incident to the back of her mind and accommodating herself to it.” Perhaps what Koestler did wouldn’t have been called rape then, Scammell suggests, but has only been described that way more recently. Koestler made no mention of the incident in his diary, though his diary was the place he regularly listed conquests. On the other hand, Koestler was drinking a good deal during this period, so it’s possible “he was so drunk he forgot all about it.” These considerations, read in light of the Kavanaugh scandal, land like punches to the gut.

In his 1942 essay, Koestler denied any smooth blending somewhere in between the ultra-violet Yogi and the infra-red Commissar. “Apparently the two elements do not mix”; all that “has been achieved so far are various forms of motley compromise.” Two decades later, however, when he brought his intellectual concerns to the sciences and to metaphysics, Koestler allowed himself to imagine a less motley merger. This becomes explicit in The Ghost in the Machine (1968), the last book of a trilogy that includes The Sleepwalkers (1959) and The Act of Creation (1964). Applied not merely to human behavior but to the nature of things in general, the attitudes of the Yogi and the Commissar become opposing “tendencies” or “potentials,” one integrative and the other self-assertive. At certain levels of systemic organization, where entities function as both part and whole, the integrative and the self-assertive occupy the same space, embroiled in “dynamic equilibrium.” Koestler belongs in a tradition of thinkers who sought a grounding for individual and public morality in a synthesis of nature and culture and who strived to describe the living world as a moral environment where the choices of individuals make a difference.

ghost in the machineA passage comes in The Ghost in the Machine where Koestler raises “the moral dilemma of judging others.” He has developed an argument in which “the self-assertive, hunger-rage-fear-rape” emotions constrict “freedom of choice.” The loss of freedom in Commissar-like behaviors involve “the subjective feeling of acting under a compulsion.” “How am I to know,” Koestler asks, “whether or to what extent [a person’s] responsibility was diminished when he acted as he did, and whether he could ‘help it’?”

Was he thinking his own behavior here? And if so, was it merely an excuse, a self-serving dodge, or did it have an element of truth?

In Ronan Farrow’s reporting–a year ago, now–we find indications of compulsion in the actions of Harvey Weinstein. After one of his victims went to the police and subsequently wore a wire, Weinstein’s behaviors subsided, a former employee explained. “But he couldn’t help it,” she went on to say. “A few months later, he was back at it.” Donald Trump, too, is often described as having no impulse control. These men see themselves as absolute sovereigns of their worlds; they have severed “the invisible navel cord,” their connection to a larger relevance; they have ignored the pushbacks in their environment for so long that it’s now a habit they can’t break. The paradoxical outcome is a lack of control. Thenceforth, they can’t help but be destructive and vile.

As for “the moral dilemma of judging others,” I understand Koestler’s question, but I’m not sure it’s a useful one. Taking a systems perspective blurs boundaries, including those between self and environment, between us and them, between victim and victimizer, but it doesn’t follow that matters of justice be abandoned or that victimizers be let off the hook. Given time, I suppose, individual cases can be contemplated with scholarly dispassion, as Michael Scammell did with Koestler himself. As for now, it would probably be safer for everyone that the power addict’s power be removed.

A version of this post was published at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog.

True Grit at Fifty: American Exceptionalism Interrogated

wayne and darby in true gritBy 1968 John Wayne was as politically polarizing a figure as he would probably ever be. In June of that year, he released his Vietnam movie, The Green Berets. He was a vocal supporter of the war, and the film had been made with the full cooperation of the Department of Defense. It presented the US mission in Vietnam as a stand for freedom and justice and blamed America’s difficulties there on a sapping of nerve perpetrated by an unpatriotic press corps. That message might have played less divisively a year earlier, before the Tet Offensive, before Lyndon Johnson’s announcement he would not run again. Screenings drew antiwar protests; reviewers pilloried the film. “The Green Berets became the focus of a divided America,” writes J. Hoberman in The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties. “LBJ’s abdication left Wayne the lone authority figure standing.”

Nineteen sixty-eight was also the year Charles Portis’s novel, True Grit, was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and then released in book form. A movie version came out the following year, starring John Wayne in the role of Rooster Cogburn. As Rooster, Wayne projected no less self-regard than he had as the super-competent, fighting Marine Colonel he’d played in The Green Berets. In other ways, however, Wayne in the Rooster Cogburn role was somewhat reduced: fat, drunk, and with an eye-patch. Wayne embraced the role, was embraced in it, and it came to represent the last phase of his career.

One can’t talk about True Grit in its times without talking about John Wayne, but it’s in the manner of clearing brush from the path. Wayne’s cultural and professional stature shaped the film, focused the story on himself, and thus shaped the way people understood it, especially if they never got around to reading the book. So we need to move Wayne and the film out of the way. True Grit the novel isn’t Rooster Cogburn’s story. It belongs to its narrator, Mattie Ross.

“I was just fourteen years old,” goes the novel’s second sentence, “when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in the street in Fort Smith, Arkansas and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.” The year is never named, but a history buff with basic math skills can figure it out—1878. Fifty years have passed since the murder, Hoover has been elected president, and a fully grown Mattie is looking back on how, at fourteen, she hired a U.S. marshal (Rooster) to track the killer into Indian territory, to catch him and exact her revenge. Her supreme confidence in the righteousness of her cause burns even brighter than does Wayne’s and his cohort for the cause in Vietnam. Mattie’s mission, too, is one of justice in the territory, as it were, in the wild.

It may seem absurd to read True Grit as a Vietnam novel. Certainly none of the reviewers blurbed on my copy of the 1969 paperback made that association. They didn’t see the book as divisive, in the way so many events and other cultural items of the period, such as The Green Berets, were divisive. On the contrary, True Grit “should be enjoyed by people of all ages” said the Cleveland Plain Dealer; it was a pleasure “regardless of age, sex, class, color or country of origin” (Newsday); it spoke “to every American who can read” (The Washington Post). If Vietnam and everything else was dividing Americans, here was a book that could bring them together. That commentary itself is a commentary on the times.

Even so, if we broaden the focus a little, we can find a more significant connection in the book’s themes. Explanations for the Vietnam War and other of the United States’ brutal foreign adventures are typically found in a complex of ideas—religious, philosophical, political, economic. According to these ideas, not only providence but a certain economic ruthlessness entitle America to assert its will. So it is with Mattie Ross, with her cause and with her character. In this way, True Grit can be credibly read as a critique of American Exceptionalism at the very time when American Exceptionalism was under a bright lamp of interrogation.

A friend once read the novel on my recommendation and half-dismissed it as mere fable. He couldn’t get past the fact that a fourteen-year-old girl would be permitted along on the hunt. “That would never happen,” he said. But to reject this plot point is to underappreciate who Matte is. She bullies Rooster into taking her with him, just as she bullies everyone who gets in her way. A good deal of the book’s humor comes from the fact that Mattie doesn’t realize what an insufferable hard-ass she is. Rather, she sees her way as the way of things, which she constantly justifies, sometimes with platitudes of the Protestant work ethic, sometimes outright with verses of scripture, but mostly with the logic of the market.

“When I have bought and paid for something I will have my way,” Mattie tells Rooster. “Why do you think I am paying you if not to have my way?”

The authority of money and the authority of scripture: Max Weber made that connection a long time ago in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. For a more contemporary take, I read William E. Connolly’s 2010 essay, “The Evangelical-Capitalist Resonance Machine.” There Connolly describes a self-perpetuating “assemblage” of “cowboy marketeers” and Left Behind series enthusiasts. What energizes this assemblage, he wants to know, what makes it so angry and so drawn to retributional violence? Connolly attributes these characteristics to the displaced venting of existential resentment. One side resents the future, that it requires a check on present-day greed; the other side resents those whose alternative faiths saddle their own with uncertainty. These anxieties reverberate, their “electrical charges resonate back and forth,” so that

its participants identify similar targets of hatred and marginalization, such as gay marriage, women who seek equal status in work, family and business; secularists, atheists, devotees of Islamic faith, and African American residents of the inner city who do not appreciate the abstract beauty of cowboy capitalism.

Evidence of what Connolly was talking about can be found in our current president’s obsession with strength and his eagerness to express it through cruelty. A certain segment of the population was looking for someone to deal with immigrants, uppity women and people of color as John Wayne would a desperado in the territory. They were looking, as Mattie was, for someone with grit, so as not to dilute with mercy the righteousness of their revenge.

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in the 2010 film version of True Grit.

But these are harsh readings of Portis’s novel and probably not the best ones. They fit better other fictional characters we’ve come to know: Captain Ahab, Noah Cross, Mr. Potter, Daniel Plainview. We despise these characters, and rightly so. In contrast, Mattie Ross has our sympathy and even our affection. The “I will have my way” line quoted above comes during a contentious argument over whether she and Rooster will join forces with the Texas Ranger who is also tracking Tom Chaney for another crime, and whether Chaney will be taken alive. Mattie is adamant, insisting on exactly the revenge that she’s paying for. “You are young,” Rooster tells her. “It is time you learned you cannot have your way in every little particular. Other people have got their interests.” Mattie reports this dialogue but pays it no heed. The reader chuckles. Rooster’s assessment is very accurate, indeed.

Both film versions of True Grit have much to recommend them. Neither do justice to the book. Neither find it possible to dramatize Portis’s heart-breaking handful of final paragraphs. This is where the reader grasps the true price Mattie paid for her revenge, and that it was bigger than the one she reckoned. Now in her sixties, she’s a rich and powerful business woman, a personage in her community, with a finger in many pies. She’s also bitter and loveless, a character people fear but make fun of behind her back.

They say I love nothing but money and the Presbyterian Church and that is why I never married. They think everybody is dying to get married. It is true that I love my church and my bank. What is wrong with that?

To answer Mattie’s question, nothing is wrong with that, not on the face of it. But again, in these final paragraphs, Mattie reveals something she doesn’t herself see. She never learned what she needed to learn about other people’s interests, and that makes Portis’s great comic novel a great American tragedy.

This essay also appears at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog.

Beto Watch

crowd beto from behind at openingWe were walking, my wife and I, from our parking space to the door of the Beto O’Rourke campaign office in south Dallas on the evening of its official opening celebration. Beto, running to unseat Ted Cruz in the US Senate, was scheduled to appear. Even before we got to the door, we could see a crowd of people around it and more like us converging from their own parking spaces. Coming up alongside us was Daniel, who I recognized from numerous other political events.

I recognized him, in fact, from that first meeting of the Indivisible chapter that had formed in the central Dallas neighborhood where I live not long after the 2016 election. The Unitarian church offered a space, and about forty people had gathered, all of us still shell-shocked and raw. People were standing up, speaking out, expressing their pain and dismay. “But what can we do?” was the predominant message. Daniel made one of those speeches.

After that first meeting, I committed to becoming credentialed to register voters. Daniel was the other person who showed up at the county office for training. In the following weeks, on several Saturday mornings, we set up registration tables in libraries. At the university where I teach, I let folks know I could register them, and I got a handful of takers. All told, I probably signed up a couple of dozen. Although the weekly news kept bruises fresh, I let the business of life take precedence, and my interest in the nuts-and-bolts part of the work waned.  At first I was showing up at everything, then about half of everything, and then being too busy became an acceptable private excuse.

Daniel followed a different trajectory. I’d read in a Facebook post that he was racking up the registrations. Greeting him there on the way to the Beto office opening, I asked how many he’d filed.

“Six hundred,” he said, and then added, “This year.”

What?! I remembered those mornings in the entranceway of the local branch, people ignoring us, hardly anyone stopping by. He must have figured it out. I asked him, “What’s the secret?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Last night there was a line of people waiting to get into the Bomb Factory to see a show. I got twelve.”

Daniel was diligent. Also maybe it had gotten a little easier. The three of us threaded through the crowd at the door and into a large room packed tight with people. Beto had not yet arrived. People were waiting as, up on the stage, a local Rolling Stones cover band was playing “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” The guitarist was an old bandmate of mine. He’d been at that first Indivisible meeting, too, as had his wife, whose activism ever since had been Daniel-like in its intensity. In fact, as I looked around I noticed several, sprinkled here and there, who’d been at those first few Indivisible chapter meetings, when hope was in such short supply. Now they were outnumbered fifty or sixty to one, and hope was running in a current, lifting us all a few inches off the ground.

Maybe Texas, I let myself think, was going to have its blue wave, after all.

god save texasLawrence Wright’s book, God Save Texas, came out last spring, and I read it not long after with great pleasure. Wright is a staff writer for The New Yorker. He won a Pulitzer for his book on 9-11, The Looming Tower. A baby boomer, Wright grew up in Dallas and has lived in Austin since 1980. In this latest book, he covers all the important aspects of his home state– its cities, its regions, its history and music– but his main topic is politics. Texas politics have always had a “burlesque side,” Wright acknowledges, a “recurrent crop of crackpots and ideologues,” and now it’s as bad as it’s ever been. The problem is that the state’s size renders it especially influential. “Texas has nurtured an immature political culture that has done terrible damage to the state and to the nation,” Wright believes.

Whether it’s because of this influence or despite it—that’s unclear—but Texas is not all that different politically from the great middle bulk of the nation these days. In the 2016 election, Wright points out, its party margins mirrored those of Ohio. When he looked at vote distribution, “it was hard to see where Texas ended and the rest of the country began.” Yet the state’s right wing zealotry is misleading, Wright argues. It isn’t representative of “the actual political demography of the state.”

I took heart at this, but is it mere apologetics? Wright doesn’t downplay the bad in Texas. The state ranks near the bottom in education achievement and spending per student. It’s near the bottom, too, in upkeep and condition of its infrastructure. For a state that that “is projected to double in population in thirty years, Texas has done little to prepare itself,” says Wright. “The refusal to face these challenges head-on seems to me not only imprudent but decidedly un-Texan.”

Un-Texan? That’s what I mean by apologetics. How will non-Texans take that last sentence, I wonder? Hiking one evening this summer in a park in Quebec, my wife and I got turned around, and a couple from Montreal helped us. We walked along with them for a while until the conversation turned to where we were from. My wife told the truth before I could stop her, and the couple sped along pretty quickly after that. Part of being a Texan is never being sure just how much contempt those outside the state hold for us, whether it’s more than we think they do or less.

I’ve been an apologist for Texas culture at times in my life. It was always a strain, but I gave it up completely about the time George W. Bush became president. To be honest, I’ve had a hard time feeling at home here with the ascendency of the current state leadership, who, it’s often remarked, make W. look Lincolnesque in comparison. W. and I reside in the same city, and once in a while I hear of sightings, all of which betray a grudging fondness. The smirk and the swagger have evaporated. The man now exudes humility, I’m told. Characteristic of this is the fact that he’s content to devote himself to painting without pretending to have any talent for it. Oh, I’m sure I could generate some of the old scorn with only a few reminders, but there’s so much more to be concerned about now.

Waiting for Beto, the crowd continued to grow, and the AC wasn’t up to the challenge. The bald pate of the man in front of me ran sweat in rivulets. Seven-by-five handouts were going around, slick cardstock, printed in full color, with photos and platform points of special interest to south Dallas. Immediately they were everywhere flapping, employed as fans. As The Stoners played “Satisfaction,” Beto came into the room through a rear door. A local hopeful introduced him, and he took the stage.

Self-effacing and affable, warming up to make his pitch, the candidate made a big deal about the band. “You know if this Senate thing doesn’t work out,” he said, “I might ask if the Stoners need a fifth member.” There were a few laughs, some clapping, but the comment was not well received overall. In this climate, this close to the election, people didn’t want to contemplate a loss.

“It’ll work out!” someone yelled.

“Ted Cruz can be the fifth member!” another shouted.

beto speaking at openingWhat was Beto like? What did he do and say? I won’t belabor this much further. You can get a look at him and hear him speak in any number of settings—the video links on Youtube are legion. His answer to a town hall question about kneeling during the anthem has recently gone viral, for whatever that’s worth. This was my third time to see him live, however. The first time was on a corner at a march in support of immigrants, before many knew who he was. The second time was well into the race, in the Texas Theater, the old movie house where they arrested Oswald, and there was a line down the block to get in. So how did this third time compare?

He led with his more radical positions—the ones listed on the 7-by-5 card: ending the school-to-prison pipeline; legalizing marijuana and expunging the records of those formerly jailed for the offense; a living wage and health care for all. His voice was hoarse, and yet he spoke with more volume. This may be a matter of calibration. The election is not that far away.

I’ll end with a passage from Wright, one where he demonstrates his attention to history.

Texas leads the nation in Latino population growth. Latinos account for more than half the 2.7 million new Texans since 2010. Every Democrat in Texas believes that if Hispanics voted at the same rate in Texas as they do in California, the state would already be blue. ‘The difference between Texas and California is the labor movement,’ Garnet Coleman, a Houston member of the Texas House of Representatives, told me. In the 1960s, Cesar Chavez began organizing the California farmworkers into a union, which didn’t happen in Texas, a right-to-work state. ‘Labor unions create a culture of voting and political participation,’ Coleman observed. In Texas politics, Coleman believes, ‘everything is about race. It’s veiled as public policy, but it encourages people to believe that their tax dollars are going to support lazy black and brown people.’ Political views have become more entrenched because of redistricting, and yet the demographic majority in Texas is far more progressive than its representatives. Coleman predicts a showdown. ‘This is the battle about the future of the country, based on a new majority, and we have to have this out.’

We left the Beto event feeling part of the new majority. The people in that room are ready to have it out.