“. . . a pulse of thought, To memory of Him . . .” (Walt Whitman)

058

Abraham Lincoln, born February 12, 1809
“The proponents of states’ rights may have arguments, but they have lost their force, in courts as well as in the popular mind” (Garry Wills).

The Declaration of Independence was only the “proposition” that all men are created equal, not a statement of the reality of the time.

The 13th Amendment making slavery illegal was passed in Congress January 31, 1865, under President Lincoln and ratified December 6, 1865. The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal protection under the law by which Brown v. Board of Education and all of the cases declaring same-sex marriage un-Constitutional –and many other draconian laws–was ratified July 9, 1868. These two Amendments are Abraham Lincoln’s chief legacy, making real the possibility that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish.” Today is the day we should commemorate, not some arbitrary weekend designed for the moneyed interests in the United States to hold “President’s Day Sales.”

I quote Garry Wills at some length:

Lincoln did not argue law or history, as Daniel Webster had. He made history. He came not to 060present a theory but to impose a symbol, one tested in experience and appealing to national values, expressing emotional urgency in calm abstractions. He came to change the world, to effect an intellectual revolution. No other words could have done it. The miracle is that these words did. In his brief time before the crowd at Gettysburg he wove a spell that has not yet been broken—he called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma.

[Lincoln] not only presented the Declaration of Independence in a new light, as a matter of founding law, but put its central proposition, equality, in a newly favored position as a principle of the Constitution … What had been mere theory. . . —that the nation preceded the states, in time and importance—now became a lived reality of the American tradition. The results of this were seen almost at once. Up to the Civil War “the United States” was invariably a plural noun: “The United States are a free country.” After Gettysburg it became a singular: “The United States is a free country.” This was a result of the whole mode of thinking that Lincoln expressed in his acts as well as his words, making union not a mystical hope but a constitutional reality. When, at the end of the address, he referred to government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” he was not . . . just praising popular government . . . he was saying that America was a people accepting as its great assignment what was addressed in the Declaration. This people was “conceived” in 1776, was “brought forth” as an entity whose birth was datable (“four score and seven years” before) and placeable (“on this continent”), and was capable of receiving a “new birth of freedom.”

Thus Abraham Lincoln changed the way people thought about the Constitution …

The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit—as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as he did to correct the Constitution without overthrowing it … By accepting the Gettysburg Address, and its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America.

(This passage is from The Atlantic, November 23, 2011. It is abbreviated from pages 145-147 of Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. I discovered this book four years ago when I was teaching my seminar based on the rhetoric of three Presidential speeches. “The Gettysburg Address,” Roosevelt’s “A Date Which Will Live in Infamy,” and Ronald Reagan’s “Challenger” speech. The book is an extended discussion of Lincoln’s “rhetoric” at Gettysburg.)
gettysburgIn a rare image of President Lincoln at Gettysburg, he is shown hatless at the center of a crowd on the orators’ platform. (Library of Congress)

One of Walt Whitman’s five Lincoln poems:
“ABRAHAM LINCOLN (BORN FEB. 12, 1809).”
To-day from each and all, a breath of prayer, a
pulse of thought,
To memory of Him—to birth of Him.

sum link for other blog

“. . . the States were NOT strangers to each other; there was a bond of union already. . . ” (Daniel Webster)

We hold these truths to be self evident. . .

We hold these truths to be self evident. . .

Many semesters in teaching “discourse” at SMU, the opening subject matter of my classes was the Gettysburg Address. Everyone reading this knows, and nearly every student to whom I assigned it over the years knew who wrote it and vaguely (some more vaguely than others) why it was written.

The first lecture/discussion I led in those classes began with the question, “Can you finish this sentence in a way that most Americans would know? ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that. . .’” Always there were 1 or 2 students in a class of 15 who could not, but everyone else chimed in, “all men are created equal.”

Then I would ask where the sentence came from, and we usually had a difference of opinion about equally divided in the class. Half would say the Constitution, and half would timidly say the Declaration of Independence. Often one lonely student would insist that the words came from the Bible.

The Constitution, of course, in its original form says something quite different. All men are not created equal. For starters, a black man who happened to be a slave, by the calculation of the Constitution, was only 3/5ths of a person (Article 1, section 2). And women were not part of the political process. The equality of the Constitution is for free white males.

So where did this “all men are created equal” nonsense come from—and, more importantly, why do about half of the students (not a scientific sampling, to be sure) at a major exclusive/expensive university think the words are in the Constitution?

That so many Americans assume the phrase about equality is in the Constitution derives from the thinking of men like Daniel Webster and others before him.

At least as far back as the meeting of the first Congress, in 1774, [the states] had been in some measure, and for some national purposes, united together. Before the Confederation of 1781, they had declared independence jointly, and had carried on the war jointly, both by sea and land; and this not as separate States, but as one people. When, therefore, they formed that Confederation . . . the States were not strangers to each other; there was a bond of union already subsisting between them; they were associated, united States; and the object of the Confederation was to make a stronger and better bond of union.
(Webster, Daniel. “The Constitution Not a Compact between Sovereign States.” U.S. Senate, February 16, 1833. Web. Gutenberg.org).

The purpose of the Continental Congress in 1787 was to make a “more perfect union,” not to create one. We simply assume—or we would not celebrate this holiday—that the Declaration of Independence is the founding document of the nation.

A nation so conceived and so dedicated

A nation so conceived and so dedicated

[The Declaration of Independence] was “a declaration by the representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled”—“by the delegates of the good people of the colonies. . .” It was not an act done by the State governments . . . It was emphatically the act of the whole people of the united colonies. . . From the moment of the Declaration of Independence . . . the united colonies must be considered as being a nation de facto, having a general government over it, created and acting by the general consent of the people of all the colonies. (Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, Bk. II, Ch. 1, “The History of the Revolution,” pp 157-158).

Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, secured the concept of one nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and interpreted it for all time.

Abraham Lincoln, despite what some current “conservative” and “original intent” authors and film makers (Willmoore Kendall, Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, and Dinesh D’Sousa, for example) want us to believe, did not redefine the Constitution. He simply restated so that all Americans understood the founding principle of the nation—the nation that already existed on July 4, 1776—that “all men are created equal.”

The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit—as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution without overthrowing it. It is this correction of the spirit, this intellectual revolution, that makes attempts to go back beyond Lincoln to some earlier time so feckless . . . By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a [single] proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America.
(Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. Page 147.)

All children are not created equal.

All children are not created equal.

The Last Lecture in Highland Park

Joseph-Campbell-Quotes-1

May, 5, 2014
Southern Methodist University
MY LAST LECTURE
to the students in Discovery and Discourse 1313, Sections 27, 28, 29, and 30
Harold A. Knight, PhD

The academic year 1963-1964, was momentous in a way that few others have been since. The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated here in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Less than three months later, on February 9, 1964, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, their first live appearance in the United States.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy changed American politics forever, and the arrival of the Beatles changed American music—both popular and classical–forever. But my intention is not to talk about music or politics.

That academic year was also momentous because it was my first year in college. I left home late in August, boarding a bus at the Greyhound terminal in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, and riding three days to San Bernardino, California, where a station wagon (not an SUV!!!) from the University of Redlands was waiting to take me the twenty miles to Redlands.

I had been to California once on a family vacation in 1953, but I had never been to Redlands.

That back story is necessary for me to make sense of what I want to tell you. My choice of the University of Redlands was virtually the roll of the dice. I had been accepted other places, but my senior English teacher told me that I needed to go to Redlands because it was the farthest from Omaha.

Until that time, I had planned to enroll at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where I was guaranteed a full tuition scholarship because of my scores on statewide exams. I was going to major in English and concentrate in creative writing. I planned to take organ lessons on the side to progress in my favorite hobby.

But here’s what really happened. When I registered to take organ lessons at the University Of Redlands School Of Music, I had to audition to be assigned a teacher. I played the G major “Gigue” fugue by Bach from memory. Immediately the Chairman of the School of Music and head of the organ department offered me a scholarship to make up the difference between what I had already been given and full tuition if I would be an organ performance major. My ego could not refuse. And so I became a music major instead of a creative writing major.

What bliss to play the organ here.

University of Redlands Chapel: What bliss to play the organ here.

It might seem that I let others, authority figures, make important decisions for me. I don’t think I did so any more than 18-year-olds generally do. In 1963 I had no driving passion. I did not know—in terms I later learned from the great teacher of spirituality, Joseph Campbell—what my “bliss” was, much less how to follow it. By “bliss” Campbell meant that which fills one with joy and gives meaning and purpose to one’s life.

I want to read Joseph Campbell’s admonition.

“Follow your bliss.
If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

For much of my life I have not followed my bliss.

I have not followed a straight-forward path. My life has been mostly a great series of detours. In that academic year 1963-1964 I think it is fair to say I had no concept of a trajectory for my life. I had no idea what I wanted to be if I ever grew up.

I still don’t.

I do not regret any of the decisions I have made that led me to the place where I am now. I do—even though Charles Schwab says I should not—ask myself, “How did I get here?”

We all have to figure out how certain personal idiosyncrasies affect our decisions and our lives. Now is not the time to talk about mine, except to say that I’ve done pretty well considering some difficulties I’ve had to overcome—all centered in my brain. The particular demons of my life are Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Bipolar disorder, and alcoholism. That’s all I will say about that except that discovering and naming them so I could deal with them took too much of my energy until I was forty years old. In some ways I allowed them to keep me from discovering my bliss so I could follow it.

When I was twenty-nine years old, I finally made the decision to try to fulfill the promise of my undergraduate education and earn a PhD in Organ Literature at the University of Iowa. That meant quitting a well-paying but tedious job that I hated–how I hated it!–selling my house in Upland, California, and moving with my (late ex-) wife halfway across the country.

Shortly after I made the decision, I had a conversation with an uncle in which we talked about my pending move.
He asked me, “Do you mean you think you have the right to give up everything and move to Iowa so you can make a living doing what you want to do?” He had been stuck in a high-powered, enormously lucrative job that he hated his entire life and could not imagine chucking everything to follow what I thought at the time was my bliss.

I thought I could, and I did.

The convoluted story by which I ended up teaching First-year writing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas is too boring to tell here, except to say that it involved a seventeen-year sojourn in Boston—for which I am grateful—a story which began by my thinking that having found HIM, and I would be happy divorcing my wife and moving the rest of the way across the country to live with him.

It was neither the first nor the last time I made a life-changing decision based on my confusing fun, momentary happiness, and self-centeredness for my BLISS. My move to Dallas to be with my partner (not the HIM of my first move) was fortunately a rational decision that set me on a path much more likely to help me follow my bliss. I came to Dallas in 1994 both to be with my partner and to work on another PhD, this one finally in creative writing. I discovered after passing the comprehensive exams that I did not need a second PhD, but that work enabled my being hired to teach English at SMU.

When I moved to Dallas, I also found a position as music director at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmers Branch.

My partner died in 2004—five years after I began teaching at SMU. St. Paul Lutheran closed in 2010.

Today marks the end of my formal teaching career. My 3 PM class today will be my last at SMU.

I’m giving this lecture for a couple of reasons. The first is purely selfish. I believe that changes like the one I am making today need to be marked, to be celebrated, definitively. I need to put a period on this chapter of my life.
That’s not quite as self-centered as it may seem.

The second reason is to say something to you that you probably can’t really hear today, but that you may remember sometime along the path and know that you are not alone on that path.

Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.
Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.
Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.

I’m sure that for most of you, finding your bliss means making piles of money, or being famous, or both. Making piles of money is not a bad thing, but it cannot be your bliss. Your bliss has to be something that goes on in your head, and in the life of your emotions.

Money, even billions of dollars, cannot be your bliss.
Period.

I love Alice Walton—you know, owner with her siblings of Walmart. She is, according to Forbes Magazine, the eighth richest person in America, worth $33.5 billion. She’s taken a few millions of her dollars and created the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, a truly wondrous place with a breathtaking collection of American art—free and open to the public. And you can take pictures of the art—unlike all other museums.

But the most famous photograph of Alice is the mug shot taken one of the times she was arrested for drunk driving in Ft. Worth. I think I can say—being a drunk in recovery myself—with some authority that I doubt her billions have insured that she’s following her bliss.

Money, even billions of dollars, cannot be your bliss.

Poetry might be a good bliss to follow.
Or the symphonies of Mozart.
Or the music of the Beatles.
Or the eternal attempt to answer once for all whether or not JFFK’s assassination was a conspiracy.
Or building a robot that will give the blind their sight.
Or singing in the opera Fidelio.
Or finding the “God particle.”
Or living passionately with the love of your life for fifty years.
My bliss is partly reading weird stuff about strange subjects such as ORLAN, the role of American fundamentalist Christians in the shaping of the absurd US policy toward Israel and Palestine, or Abraham Lincoln’s speeches.
My bliss is playing the organ. (I have a pipe organ in my living room).
My bliss is trying to help college students discover something they might never have known if I hadn’t helped them along the way.

And that brings me to my real bliss.

My bliss is loving other people. I don’t know how to show it most of the time. I’ve really botched most of my relationships. I haven’t had a primary relationship for ten years—whatever that says. But in two weeks I’m going to have a retirement party, and thirty people will be there, most of whom will know only five or so of the others. And they are all people I love. Christians, Muslims, atheists. Intellectuals, scholars, plumbers, office administrators. Old people, young people.

You can do much worse than making your bliss simply trying to feel and think positively about everyone you meet. And being kind. Always being kind.

My long-distance cyber friend, the poet Michael Blumenthal, wrote a poem which I’m going to pass out to you when I finish. It’s called simply, “Be Kind.” Here’s a bit of it.

Abe and Me

Abe and Me

Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness and uncertainty of
its recompense. . . why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail?
. . . in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled. . .

By following my bliss I have learned something about poetry, and I know you have to know what a hedgehog is to understand this poem. Hedgehogs are furry little mammals who, when they are threatened, roll themselves up into little balls, and their fur becomes almost as prickly as a porcupine.

You will not find your bliss by rolling yourself into a ball and hurting anyone who tries to come too close.

Do you want to know why I love the work of Flannery O’Connor and ORLAN so much? O’Connor wrote stories about what happens when people become hedgehogs—or, conversely, when they refuse to become hedgehogs or learn not to be.

ORLAN has lived her life doing things that no sane person would do, we think. But she is the farthest thing from a hedgehog. She’s out there on the edge showing us how to be both narcissistic and totally transparent at the same time.

As all of you know, Don Siegel warned us, talking about his wonderfully bizarre little film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers,

People are pods. . . They have no feelings. They exist, breathe, sleep. To be a pod means that you have no passion, no anger, the spark has left you. . . of course, there’s a very strong case for being a pod. These pods, who get rid of pain, ill-health and mental disturbances are, in a sense, doing good. It happens to leave you in a very dull world but that, by the way, is the world that most of us live in.

It’s easy to be judgmental. Donald Stirling is a pod. Alice Walton is a pod.
Oh, come on. We all have the potential to be pods.
Just don’t.
Find your bliss.

That’s the best I can do—quote someone else. But I have only a few years left to find my bliss. I’m still trying to make sure, as Joseph Campbell said, that “the life [I] ought to be living is the one [I am] living.” If I can be on that path in my 70th year, I beg you to start now.

You’ve got only 50 years left to find your bliss.

“Be Kind,” by Michael Blumenthal
Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness and uncertainty of
its recompense, a bird may yet wander
into a bush before our very houses,
gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds
entirely equal to our own, still there’s
weather arriving from every direction,
the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty
may yet prove to be one, so why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail? Why not inundate
the particular world with minute particulars?
Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not
make it the happiest possible dust,
a detritus of blessedness? Surely
the hedgehog, furling and unfurling
into its spiked little ball, knows something
that, with gentle touch and unthreatening
tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked
witches of our childhood have died and,
from where they are buried, a great kindness
has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course,
in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws
to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses,
and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.

“. . . and God has a nasty temper when provoked . . .”

What to come back as

What to come back as

Yesterday driving up Lemmon Avenue in Dallas home from my exercise at the Landry Fitness Center at Baylor Hospital (I walk in the “therapy” pool—one hour, ten minutes each of six different styles of walking), I heard Krys Boyd on “Think” on KERA say to the writer she was interviewing, “Since human beings can logically expect to live seventy years . . .” I have no idea how that sentence ended. I was too stunned to listen further.

Logically expect to live 70 years! I’ve been here for 69 of the 70. Is it time for me to be preparing to shuffle off this mortal coil?

I memorized Hamlet’s soliloquy (as did every other smart-ass high school kid when I was 18—now they don’t even know what Hamlet is, either as in theater or as a small town nestled in a valley in Vermont). I think I’m afraid even to read it now.

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.”

What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil? Well, none. It would be nice to think I will have mind enough left to dream after I’ve shuffled off, but I doubt it. I really must talk to my neurologist about his concept of the “after life.”

A theory floated around a few years ago that a certain list of life events is almost certain to cause depression: the death of a parent, the breakup of a relationship, the change of (or loss of) a job, moving from one city to another. I think retirement should be in there because it is not, strictly speaking, the loss of a job.

When my Grandfather Knight died and we had the obligatory “hours,” I walked through the parlor of the funeral home where his body was in place for “viewing” at the moment my uncle (my mother’s brother) said to my father, “Well, Glenn, we’re the older generation now.” Both of them were younger (my dad by six years and my uncle by ten or twelve) than I am now. I guess I’ve been part of the “older generation” since my dad died two and a half years ago.

As I have written here before, in the past decade, I have experienced the death of both parents—I had the unfathomable gift of being with each of them when they died—the death of my partner (we assumed we’d trundle off into old age together), and the death of my brother-in-law. I now have the certain knowledge of the date of retirement (May 15), the possibility of moving—to somewhere that will insure my not being alone in my dotage, unresolved issues with how to have a relationship, and the falling apart of my body (three surgeries—minor, I suppose—last year, and a “trigger finger” on my right hand that is obviously going to need repair sometime soon. I think I have every right to be depressed.

Last summer while I was on crutches from the repair work on my hip (100% successful, thank whatever part of the cosmos we’re comfortable thanking), the university moved several of our faculty offices from one building to another. Since then I have worked in—and had student conferences in—an office that looks pretty much the way it did when the movers left. Remember, I was on crutches and could hardly hang pictures on the wall, much less arrange books on shelves. Books I never use, by the way.

So the question is, now that I have—let’s see, exactly 41 days of class left before I’m put out to pasture, what’s the use of bothering? Old Abe may just have to stay on the floor.

On the other hand, the students will probably be more comfortable when they come for their conferences if the place looks somewhat normal. Or will they? Would a student even notice Abe on the floor? Do they even know who Abe was these days? Oh, the imponderables of teaching. I know that during semesters that the Gettysburg Address has been part of our study, I knew the quickest way to amaze my students was to recite the Address from memory. And then to name all of the Presidents in order. . .  Jackson Van Buren Harrison Tyler Polk Taylor Fillmore Pierce Buchanan Lincoln. . .

I know lots of pretty useless stuff. And I can do lots of pretty useless things. And I own a lot of unnecessary crap—mostly books and a pipe organ.

What dreams will come when I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil?

You have forty-nine days between
death and rebirth if you’re a Buddhist.
Even the smallest soul could swim
the English Channel in that time.
. .

I wish I’d thought of that. See, this is what happens when you get to be part of the older generation. I put a picture of some men wearing suits like the ones my father wore when I was born and long enough after that so I remember them on my Facebook page and asked my friends who remember those suits to send me a message. Only two did.

I had hoped to find a group of us old folks to talk together about—about anything that comes to mind. I know things come to my mind that never used to, and I’d just like to know if that happens to everyone when they’re the older generation. I know Maxine Kumin thinks about things differently. Damn! I wish I could think the way she does. What fun we could have.

Abe will just have to wait.

Abe will just have to wait.

All those things like parental dying and jobs ending and moving around may be depressing for the younger generation, but for us, those in the older generation, they are, well, they’re just the way things are. Go, Maxine! (I don’t know how old she was when she wrote this poem, but she’s 89 and still part of the older generation.)

In the Park, by Maxine Kumin

You have forty-nine days between
death and rebirth if you’re a Buddhist.
Even the smallest soul could swim
the English Channel in that time
or climb, like a ten-month-old child,
every step of the Washington Monument
to travel across, up, down, over or through
–you won’t know till you get there which to do.

He laid on me for a few seconds
said Roscoe Black, who lived to tell
about his skirmish with a grizzly bear
in Glacier Park. 
He laid on me not doing anything.
I could feel his heart beating against my heart.

Never mind lie and lay, the whole world
confuses them.  For Roscoe Black you might say
all forty-nine days flew by.

I was raised on the Old Testament.
In it God talks to Moses, Noah,
Samuel, and they answer.
People confer with angels.  Certain
animals converse with humans.
It’s a simple world, full of crossovers.
Heaven’s an airy Somewhere, and God
has a nasty temper when provoked,
but if there’s a Hell, little is made of it.
No longtailed Devil, no eternal fire,
and no choosing what to come back as. 

When the grizzly bear appears, he lies/lays down
on atheist and zealot.  In the pitch-dark
each of us waits for him in Glacier Park.

“. . . fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it. . . “

That my left shoulder is healing and my arm in a sling may be what some of my friends would say is, ‘God doing for me what I cannot do for myself’ – that is, I must  listen to others instead of publishing my unruly palaver.

Here, then, are two of my favorite Thanksgiving texts. The first one ought to read. The second, one will take joy in having read.
__________________

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

HD_LincolnA8Nov1863zc.previewThe year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

______________________

Be Kind 1324405259_md
by Michael Blumenthal

Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness  and uncertainty of
its recompense, a bird may yet  wander
into a bush before our very houses,
gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds
entirely equal to our own, still there’s
weather arriving from every direction,
the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty
may yet prove to be one,  so why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail? Why not inundate
the particular world with minute particulars?
Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not
make it the happiest possible dust,
a detritus of blessedness? Surely
the hedgehog, furling and unfurling
into its spiked little ball, knows something
that, with gentle touch and unthreatening
tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked
witches of our childhood have died and,
from where they are buried, a great kindness
has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course,
in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws
to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses,
and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.
1

. . . little desire to recall a time. . .

Abolitionist and Cotton Mill Manager?

Abolitionist and Cotton Mill Manager?

Last night I saw the film “Twelve Years a Slave.” The film will likely be awarded Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture of the year honors from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

But the film will not win in the category it most deserves: the best unflinching look at the United States economy and culture then and now.

Henry Kemble Oliver (1800-1885) was a Salem, MA, church musician, educator, and politician. In the 1840s he was one of the civilian overseers of the US Military Academy at West Point. He was appointed to this position because of his leadership in the citizen militia of Salem, whose “exercises” on the Salem Common he describes in his memoirs (which I have transcribed).

In his memoirs he describes his detestation of another of the overseers, a gentleman from Georgia who owned slaves. Oliver brings his full New England Unitarian righteousness to bear on his refusal to share a meal with this man.

In 1849, Oliver moved from his home on fashionable Federal Street in Salem to the gritty industrial city of Lawrence, where he had been hired as manager of the newly opened Atlantic Cotton Mill. He was organist at the Unitarian Church of Lawrence and Chairman of the Lawrence School Board.

Oliver was a Massachusetts abolitionist. He was elected as the Republican Treasurer of the Commonwealth in 1860. He was so devoted to the anti-slavery cause and to the Union that, while he was treasurer, in order for Massachusetts to meet the payroll for its militia fighting in the south, he loaned the Commonwealth money from his substantial private fortune.

Few Americans, both then and now, would make the connection that his wealth from the Atlantic Cotton Mill was a direct result of slavery, from cotton produced in the South by slavery. It is not an exaggeration to say this devoted Christian Republican abolitionist public servant was directly complicit in slavery.

Oliver (for whom I have enormous respect and who is the subject of my PhD dissertation) was part of an economic system that, after Emancipation, created for the economically disadvantaged working class another kind of virtual slavery to which we seem to be reverting today.

Atlantic Mill, 50 years later--the source of the cotton?

Atlantic Mill, 50 years later–the source of the cotton?

The Atlantic Cotton Mill not only depended on slavery for its raw materials, but also created a class of workers—mostly young women from farms of New England—who were underpaid and had almost no freedom of movement once they were trapped in the industrial system. The economic destruction of the culture of small farms and small businesses during the expansion of industrialism in the 1840s was ameliorated somewhat by the relocation of farm girls (and others, of course) to the mill cities to work and send wages home to their families—work in the factories that were dependent on slavery for their means of production.

We don’t want to think about this even though at this juncture we are trapped in an economic reality that is beginning to resemble that era so closely that it is (or ought to be) frightening (1). However,

Polls show that a majority of Americans identify issues other than slavery—states’ rights, the tariff, etc.—as the [Civil] war’s fundamental cause. Yet contemporaries had little doubt that slavery lay at the root of the conflict, as Lincoln put it in his Second Inaugural Address, and the Emancipation was its most profound outcome. . .  Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declared that the “cornerstone” [of the Confederacy] . . . was the principle that “slavery, subordination to the superior race” was the “natural and moral condition” of black Americans” (2).

We don’t want to think about this. It is too overwhelming to consider that the industrial revolution that made our country into THE economic power in the world was made possible by slavery. We all, it seems to me, left, right, or middle have

. . . little desire to recall a time when. . . the Federal Government actually promoted racial equality. . . [and] nostalgia for the Confederacy survives in the Tea Party and broader right-wing circles. . . a gap remains between historical scholarship and popular understandings of history. . . When Charleston, South Carolina, marked the anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, the city was bedecked with Confederate flags, and the commemoration made no mention of slavery. . . (3)

I would say Foner is wrong about one thing. The nostalgia does not survive in “right-wing circles” but throughout American society. If enough of us were opposed to the disadvantage of huge numbers of people through the unconscionable, horrifying gap—becoming a chasm that it’s difficult to imagine will ever again be bridged—between the top 1% of the wealthy and the rest of us, the absurd distribution of wealth would end.

"the natural and moral condition"

“the natural and moral condition”

We can blithely believe in economic opportunity, and the American Dream, and all of that nonsense, but it has become a nightmare. Alice Walton (my favorite wealthy person—yes! we do have a right to judge her and her ilk because, by every philosophical or spiritual measure we have, their wealth is unjust) has her billions while, for example, you and I pay for her employees’ health care because she won’t provide insurance for them.

Twelve Days a Slave, while it portrays a monstrous kind of physical captivity that none of us can imagine and a historical reality that none of us can honestly say we relate to, may be a cautionary tale. Are we in process of returning to a time when “subordination to the superior race,” that is, the atrociously and immorally wealthy, is seen as the “natural and moral condition” of those at the lowest levels of economic life?

Are you about to move up to the 1 percent, to become truly wealthy?

If anyone I know personally has done so in the last 20 years, they are keeping it a close secret.
_________
(1) Post, Charles. “Social-Property Relations, Class-Conflict And The Origins Of The US Civil War: Towards A New Social Interpretation.” Historical Materialism 19.4 (2011): 129-168.
(2) Foner, Eric. “The Civil War In ‘Postracial’ America.” Nation 293.15 (2011): 24-26.
(3) ibid.

Let’s amend the Constitution

I propose a 28th Amendment to the Constitution reading:


“Neither Congress nor any State Legislature shall pass any law limiting any person’s right to be free from violence at the hands of those who bear arms.”

A book I know well says, “We will not regret the past, nor wish to close the door on it.” I have tried for years to come to terms with that concept. To make it part of my self-perception. Internalizing the idea is pretty difficult for me because much in my past I wish had been otherwise than it was.

I know, I know. Everyone can say that—and would if she were being unabashedly honest. But whether wishing it were not so is the same as regretting, I’ll let keener minds than mine decide. My distinction is that I can regret only those choices I made consciously and willingly, while I can wish experiences over which I had little or no control had not happened.