Category Archives: culture

Statues With Limitations: Part Two


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Alexander Pope wrote “Monuments, like men, submit to fate.” 

Two days ago I began a series regarding the Confederate Monument Controversy. I was going to begin today’s article by going directly into what I think should be done with these monuments but think that a little bit more background and context is necessary. That context is best put in the difference between history and memory. History, is made by people because it has real world effects cannot be erased because for good or bad its effects always are with us. Memory on the other hand is often selective and tends toward sentimentally. Because of that, memory often leads to the preservation of things that provide us with a certain sense of comfort, things that buttress our innate sense of superiority. 

Statues and monuments themselves have to be taken in their historical context: especially what they meant to the people that erected them and the era in which they were constructed. From time immemorial people and nations have erected statues and monuments to dieties, empowers, kings, generals, and yes, even philosophers and historians. They have also sought to commemorate the lives of soldiers who died in various wars, in part to honor their dead as did the ancient Athenians at Kerameikos, but more often to build upon a sense of national myth and purpose, to link the sacrifices of yesterday’s leaders, or soldiers to their current generation’s political, social, and even spiritual urges.

Some religions like Judaism and Islam have traditionally frowned upon the erection of statues and images that represented their dieties, their saints, or their leaders, fearing that such images could lead to idolatry. There was even a constroversy in the Christian Church, the Iconoclast Controversy, which dealt with this matter which took more than a hundred years to resolve. 

In Western society, especially since the Romans there has been a conscious attempt by nations to built statues and monuments to their leaders and other men, as women seldom rated such honor, whether they actually deserved honor or not. As such there are monuments in prominent places to men with political, social, hereditary, or economic connections who when compared to their contemporaries, or others, before or after them, have done little to be heirs to such honor. This does not mean that they were necessarily bad people, or even unworthy of the honor of their time, but rather that they are undeserving of perpetual honor in the most public of locations, or in places unconnected with where they made their name. 

Cemeteries and museums are the best places for statues which have past their effective life in the public square. Removing them does nothing to harm history, nor does it write them out of history. I like how the Old Testament writers of the books of the Kings and Chronicles end their discussions of the kings of Israel and Judah. They note that these men’s lives and deeds, good and evil, are written about and where they were buried to be with their ancestors. An example of the is Jesus, one of the kings of Israel in the book of Second Kings: “Now the rest of the acts of Jehu, all that he did, and all his power, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel?”

Since the Jews of the Old Testament did not build statues to their leaders for fear of idolatry the ensured through the oral, and later the written tradition that these leaders, the good and the bad, were remembered for their work and contributions. The Islamic tradition is quite similar. 

The ancient Greeks, particularly those of Athens chose to use the cemetery as a place to remember their dead. In dedicating the Mount Auburn Cemetery during the Greek revival, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story noted: 

“The Greeks exhausted the resources of their exquisite art in adorning the habitations of the dead. They discouraged internments within the limits of their cities; and consigned their relics to shady groves, in the neighborhood of murmuring streams and merry fountains, close by the favorite resorts of those who were engaged in the study of philosophy and nature, and called them, with the elegant expressiveness of their own beautiful language, cemeteries or “places of repose.”

Cemeteries are always places where the dead can be honored or remembered, where their descendants can find comfort and even sense the presence of their departed ancestors. 

But the public square is another matter. Times change, governments and governmental types change. The statues that the early colonists of the British American colonies erected to King George III had no place in the new republic and were removed. Monuments to Josef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin where removed from their places of prominence in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania once those countries escaped Soviet domination. 

Statues in public places dedicated to specific individuals or events tend to have a shelf life which means that they regardless of who they are dedicated to need to be periodically re-examined to see if they should remain in their current place of honor or be moved to a different location. But the United States is a comparatively young country, our oldest monuments are likewise comparatively new, and many pale in comparison to those of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. In those areas multiple civilizations and empire have risen and fallen, massive monuments have been erected, toppled, or faded away. Many surviving monuments now are in museums, collections of antiquity representing fallen civilizations, or have been moved from places of honor and replaced by ones that more appropriately represent the national culture and experience. 

As we approach the first quarter millenium of our experiment as a republic it is a good time to look at what we have commemorated with monuments and make considered decisions about each of them, and not just Confederate monuments. Obviously many, especially those that deal with our founding as a nation and our founders need to stay, but others should be replaced, or removed to more appropriate venues, or in cases of monuments that memorialize the more shameful parts of our history, maybe leave them and place other monuments and markers to explain the historical context and promote history versus myth. Likewise if we decide to remove them, what replaces them should be well thought out. This actually goes beyond the monuments themselves but has all to do with history, historical preservation, and the narrative that a community wants to communicate about its history, its values, and yes, even its future, for those monuments for good or bad are part of what bind generations together. 

As no point do I think they should be destroyed, even those to men who were evil, or represented evil causes. It think in the cases of truly evil men that their statues should be placed in parks, at eye level with other statues like them. The process then allows people to view them not as exalted figures, but people with feet of clay. A number of Eastern European countries have done this with statues of Stalin, Lenin, and others from the Soviet era. 

The placement or monuments is of more importance than their existence, and their contexts matter. Honore De Balzac noted: “With monuments as with men, position means everything. 

So anyway, tomorrow I will wrap this up by dealing with the Confederate Monument Controversy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A River Runs Through It: A Lament for Huntington, West Virginia, the Heart of Trump’s America, Part One

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The Ohio River is one of America’s majestic rivers and for nearly two centuries has been one of the nation’s vital waterways. Over those years cities developed along it, cities that were at one time the center of much American industry and transportation. However, over the years many of those cities have lost their manufacturing centers and cities like Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Cincinnati, fell, but have begun to rise again. 

Yesterday we traveled to one of the cities That hasn’t rose again, Huntington, West Virginia, to spend a week with a dear friend. However, unlike those other cities, Huntington has not only not recovered, but continues to slide into the abyss. For years I held onto hope that Huntington and the Tri-State area of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio would come back, but today I realized that it won’t come back for the foreseeable future. No amount of fanatical belief in a political Messiah who promises to Make America Great Again is going to change that, the facts don’t support it and neither do the social, political, and economic culture that has developed over the past fifty years. 

For those that don’t know, Huntington, Cabell County, and adjoining Wayne County are my ancestral home in the United States. My family on both sides were early settlers in the area. In fact I was the first person in my immediate family born somewhere else, thanks to my parents I was a Navy brat and was born in California and raised on the West Coast. My family for the most part has either died off or moved away. I have a few cousins still in the area but haven’t seen any of them in years. 

In spite of that I have always considered Huntington a home away from home. We used to visit my grandparents and other relatives, all of who are now long gone. Some of my earliest and happiest memories were in Huntington. After I finished seminary and my Clinical Pastoral Education residency in 1995 I got my first post-residency hospital job there while serving in the National Guard and Army Reserve. Even then it was a place that I felt safe and wanted to live. Though I went back on active duty in the Navy in 1999 still considered it a place that I might actually want to retire. It is a beautiful area. 

Twenty something years later I no longer feel that way. We arrived in town early in the afternoon and after we unpacked the car I had to pick up a few things at a local grocery store. I know Huntington like the back of my hand, every area, every street, and while the street names and the geography of the city have not changed, the city has fundamentally changed and though I had seen it coming I never wanted to believe it. 

Huntington used to be the largest and wealthiest city in the state, but back in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, things began to change. The heavy industry began moving out, especially in the 1980s when those industries imploded. Likewise in the 1960s the city council and business people decided that they didn’t want Interstate 64 to go through the city because they were afraid that it would negatively effect the downtown businesses. The interstate went around town and the businesses including the state’s largest mall moved to Barboursville in Cabell County. Downtown died and despite efforts to revive it, it has not recovered. 

Bad economic decision after decision, including the rejection of a Toyota engine plant with thousands of really good paying jobs not far from town in the late 1990s have doomed the city. In the 1960s and 1970s the population was close to 90,000, now it is under 50,000. Many people moved into the surrounding areas, but those too are beginning to suffer from many of the issues effecting Huntington which remains the heart of the Tri-State metropolitan area. 

The city infrastructure is crumbling, the ancient storm drain system is failing leading to flooding in areas previously immune from it, and causing flood insurance premiums to skyrocket. Its schools are underfunded, the educational outcomes are poor, its economy is failing, and society beginning to collapse, the opiod crisis is just a symptom of a larger decay. 

The city is still home to Marshall University but without it things would be much worse, as the University partners with business and the major medical centers. In fact if it wasn’t for the University, the medical school, and the hospitals there would be nothing here. Most of the industry including steel and chemical plants which used to supply auto manufacturers, make railroad cars, and other manufacturing goods are gone, and most of the derive industry jobs outside of medical care pay little more than subsistence wages and offer few or no benefits. The coal industry has downsized because the coal here is harder to get and thus more expensive than going elsewhere. Despite promises of bringing coal jobs back that is not going to happen. What is left of the coal industry in West Virginia, much of it owned by the state’s only billionaire and governor, Jim Justice,who by the way was a Republican and became a Democrat to run for governor in 2015, who just switched back to being a Trump Republican, is going high tech and not replacing miners. This is not because of environmental regulations but simply because the coal industry has already raped the state of the easily accessible coal, at a tremendous human and environmental cost. 


The city has some beautiful residential areas near Ritter Park which is a wonderful park that stretches for miles along Four Pole Creek. The homes through that area and in the hills that rise sharply above it are where the well off people live, the doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, corporate executives, and tenured university professors. But just a few blocks away people live in squalor. Boarded up homes and businesses, vacant lots, and barely habitable homes predominant what were once affluent middle class neighborhoods that I remember all too well. 

The once thriving downtown area is a shell of its former self. There have been a number of attempts to revive it, the latest being the very nice Pullman Square, but many businesses can’t make it there because people don’t have the money to spend. Even a Five Guys burger joint went out of business there, and I have never seen one of those places go belly up. 


The city is the poster city and epicenter for the opiod epidemic in this country. You cannot drive or walk down the streets without seeing someone with the wild-eyed or blank stare of an addict. Homeless people, often drug addicts, walk down the streets with their belongings, and sometimes their children in tow. It is quite sad to see. 

West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the country it is the seventh most poverty stricken state in the country. Most education ratings place the state in the bottom ten percent of the United States with one of the lowest success rates measured in educational attainment and earnings. It ranks 50th in life expectancy, it is second in obesity, and has the highest rate of opiod addiction and death in the country. I could go on but the drumbeat of negative statistics and outcomes gets too depressing after a while to go on about them. 

Until the past two decades the state was a reliable “blue state.” That didn’t mean the state was liberal in any sense, it was actually a lot like much of the American South which was reliably Democratic until Democrats began to support the civil rights movement, and other more progressive causes in the 1960s and afterwards. It stayed longer in the “Blue” column because most of its Democratic leaders such as Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller did not defect to the GOP like many leaders in the South who followed Storm Thurman and the Dixiecrats to the GOP. In fact many of the Democratic state office holders were solidly on the side of business and would be considered conservatives in any other state. But it was only after Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency that the state shifted to be almost solidly Republican, with all statewide offices with the exception of now endangered Democrat moderate Senator Joe Manchin being controlled by the GOP. 

In 2016 the state voted for Donald Trump with over 68% of the vote. Interestingly enough, West Virginia is one of the states that has benefited the most from the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Health Care Act, and since that legislation was enacted more people have access to healthcare, which if you look at the state’s health rankings is badly needed yet opposed by many Trump supporters. Last week a cheering crowd greeted the President at a campaign rally in downtown Huntington cheering “lock her up!” while jeering former FBI Director and now Special Prosecutor Robert Muller over the Russia investigation. In desparation many people here have pinned their hopes on a false savior, one who promises to Make America Great Again, but cannot deliver for their city. 

Socially it West Virginia is a fascinating state. There are strip clubs and pornography super centers littering the interstate highways and around the outskirts of town, yet the state is full of churches and socially one of the most conservative states when it comes to people’s religious views, especially when it comes to abortion or LGBTQ issues. Of course this is not unusual as the Bible Belt is also the the porn belt. But I digress, I got more into statistics than I intended but they provide a mosaic of what is going on in the state. 

Today I came home in a sense to a place that is no longer home. Since we have been military nomads for some 36 years, West Virginia is still my home of record for the military. When I went back on active duty in the Navy in 1999 it was our intention to return. I can’t do that now. Today, for the first time in my life I did not feel safe on the streets of Huntington. The poverty is the least of my concerns, and it’s certainly not a racial issue because Cabell County is 91% white. I’ve been poor and lived in crime ridden ghettos that were heavily black and Hispanic, but I hate to say I felt safer in those places than I did today. 


Please don’t take this essay wrong. It is not a polemic by any means, it is a way to process my grief for a city and state that is not going to be great again anytime soon. People can shout Make America Great Again all they want, but fervor and fanaticism do not change facts. I do wish that it was different, but people here are doing what they have been doing since the Robber Barons, Coal Kings, and Lumber Lords raped the state of its natural resources, destroyed the encronment, and for all practical purposes enslaved the people in “company towns.” 

Huntington’s crisis didn’t happen overnight, it is the product of decades of poor leadership by politicians of both parties, business leaders, and yes, even citizens and now many are putting their trust in a false savior who despite his words and their fervor will not change the course of their city or state. 

I think that today after I do my run and walk through Ritter Park, that I will be out taking pictures, not just of the nice areas like I usually do here, the riverfront and Ritter Park, but the blighted areas. I will post them as a photo essay as part two of this either tomorrow or Thursday. 

Until then,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Lying and the Loss of Moral Authority

Friends of Padre Steve’s world,

The careless abandon with which the Trump administration, not to mention others of various political or ideological persuasions treat truth is having a corrosive effect on our society. The danger is that the moral corrosion will seep into every institution and every individual before anyone really figures out what is going on, and thereby depriving us of the ability to differentiate between truth and falsehood, right and wrong; in effect to deprive us of the means by which we take our moral bearings. Hannah Arendt described this phenomena well:

“the result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth, and truth be defamed as lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed.”

We have to be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood is essential to our humanity and to the functioning of a political system that is based on individuals who act rationally. That is one of the brilliant aspects of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is that the founders, being products of the Enlightenment understood human nature far better than many of us do today. They certainly were not perfect and they were often contradictory in the application of their ideals to the world that they lived in, but they believed that humanity should progress, and that government should be a part of that progress.

Within that was the understanding that the ideal government should be about the virtue of governing truthfully. Thomas Jefferson probably said it best: “The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.” This is certainly something that has not been practiced much in our history, and the foibles of people in power, be they in government, business, or religion, demonstrate that honesty, to quote Billy Joel, “is such a lonely word.”

However, our founders and many others before us understood the poisonous effects of continual lies on the body politic. They understood that government based on lies cannot survive, nor can societies where people erase the line between truth and falsehood. One only has to study the disastrous history of totalitarian regimes, where truth is suppressed, and lies so rampant that they can are believed. William Shirer wrote of his years reporting in Nazi Germany:

“It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda…”  

I am disturbed by the blatant use of lies, half-truths, distortions, “alternative facts” and “alternative truths” by the Trump administration. Likewise I am disturbed by the actions of some Trump opponents who deliberately spread lies to further their opposition. Stooping to the methods of your opponent is never a good means of a movement to achieve its end, for if it does succeed in overcoming or overthrowing the regime that it opposes, it will end the end be no better. Likewise, it will have squandered its integrity, and lost the trust of people, and with it, its moral authority.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Abandon Facts and Abandon Freedom: Contending Against Alternative Truth, Facts, and History

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

I wrote a review of Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century on Tuesday and today I wanted to follow up on one of the key points made by Dr. Snyder in that work. Snyder wrote: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis to do so. If nothing is truth, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”  I have been worried about that since the election campaign where Snyder noted that seventy-eight percent of the claims and statements made by President Trump on the election trail were demonstrably false.

As Snyder noted the falsehoods came so fast that they were overwhelming. The assertions were presented as if they were the truth, as if they were fact, creating as Kellyanne Conway said, a world of “alternate facts” and “alternative truths.” Of course there are no such thing as “alternative facts” or “alternative truths” when it comes to the reality that we know. There may be arguments about things that we cannot fully observe or understand, such as the ultimate issues of whether there is a God or not, and if so what is true about him, her, or it; likewise there are things that change the way that we see the world such as when scientists make new discoveries.

But in neither case do these examples posit that there are alternative truth, there are things like God that cannot be proven, and there is a universe that we do not fully understand, but those have nothing to do with people who flagrantly lie about things that are commonly known and claim that the lies are the truth. Such claims are cynical and designed to ensure that those in power cannot be challenged, and when deployed by demagogues in a society in which fear has become an overriding factor, can be frighteningly effective. Thus when the President says “I alone can fix it” or “I am your voice” those who have lost the ability to think critically and who have surrendered to the unending mantras of the demagogue do not question them, they are not matters of reason, they are matters of faith.

Throughout the campaign Trump and his campaign surrogates not only twisted truth, but lied so many times that fact checkers could hardly keep up with their untruths. After the election, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes told Diane Rehm of NRP: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” she continued, “Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.” The biggest problem in this interview was that Ms. Hughes lied and twisted what happened to fit the Trump campaign narrative that truth did not matter. The fact was that then candidate Trump’s tweets were devoid of fact and the criticism of them was based on fact.

I have written about how some people and parties present myths as truth, twisting history to meet their craven desire for power and control. This appeal to myth was the genus of the President’s campaign slogan “Make America great again.” Such slogans are the instruments by which demagogues in every place and time have used to not only gain power, but to convince people to do things that in normal times they would never consider doing. They are distortions of history that blind their followers to real truth, even worse, they compel people to never learn history and thus accept the lies as truth with all too often fatal consequences. Snyder calls this “the politics of eternity” which “performs a masquerade of history… It is concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts. Its mood is a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous.” To the politicians who like the President rely on them, the past is “a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, all of them equally distant from the present, all of them equally accessible for manipulation. Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some mortal enemy upon the purity of the nation.” These are the basis for things like the Myth of the Lost Cause, and the Noble South, and the Stab in the Back.

This is dangerous distortion of history. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But I think that Howard Zinn said it the best:

“History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history–while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance–might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”

I cannot help but think that the rapidity of the lies, the incessant attacks on the institutions of our country’s democracy, and the rights established in the Constitution by the President, people in his administration, and his supporters, especially those in the Breitbart universe of alternative media, are nothing but an attempt to delegitimize those institutions in order to gain total control and establish some kind of authoritarian and totalitarian state. The deluge of lies and distortions practiced by this administration and so many others who have taken power after being legally elected or appointed is designed to ensure that people no longer believe in truth. Hannah Arendt wrote: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction ( i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false ( i.e ., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

That is the very danger that we face today because many people, especially the President’s most stalwart and sometime violent defenders, as well as his enablers in Congress do not care, and others are so confused and distracted by the tactics of denial and deflection coming from the administration that they are growing weary. Polls show that many people are quite alright with limiting freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the role of the courts and other institutions designed to check executive power, and have no problem with limiting the rights of groups that they have identified as their enemy, and even limitations placed on their own freedom if it serves to absolve them of responsibility for things that they are too uncomfortable to deal with. The British military historian and theorist B.H. Liddell-Hart observed:

“We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.”

Believe me I desperately want to be wrong about this, but my study of history tells me that I am not. Thus I believe that every claim of the President and the administration must be questioned and its veracity determined, before it is accepted as truth. The time has come when we cannot simply wait to see what happens and give this administration the benefit of the doubt. Immediately after the election I was prepared to do that, but the actions of the President and his advisors have demonstrated to me that this is no longer an option. I will of course remain true to my oath under the Constitution, I will still respect the office of the Presidency, but I will always stand for the Constitution and defend those rights, and the institutions that are established by it.

Truth: historical, scientific, and verifiable is not our enemy. However, lies, and distortions, and the trampling of truth under the guise of “alternative truth,” “alternative fact,” and “alternative history” is the moral enemy of our republic and its democratic institutions. Thus truth must be upheld and fought for at all costs, because once you have sacrificed truth on the altar of political expediency you pave the way for freedom to be sacrificed.

So until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Seven Days Until Pitchers and Catchers Report: Patriots Win Super Bowl

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

My friends there are only seven days until pitchers and catchers report and life really begins again, for this my friends is the true harbinger of spring. If you like me need to keep track a link is provided below, but I digress…

http://whendopitchersandcatchersreport.com/

But anyway, in a world of so much uncertainty and woe, baseball is what helps keep me sane, or at least some semblance of sane. As Sharon Olds said back in 1987 “Baseball is reassuring. It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.” Since Donald Trump now has access to our nation’s nuclear weapons, this is a very important thing to me.

But truthfully I am thanking whatever deity may be out there baseball is coming back, even though it is just spring training. You see for me, that is comforting because baseball is more than a game to me. I agree with George Will, the vociferous conservative critic of President Trump, “Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.”

By the way speaking of games I watched one last night, the New England Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons in overtime at a magnificent and inspiring concert starring Lady Gaga.

Have a great night,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Neither Safe, nor Politic, nor Popular: The Call of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

martin luther king jr

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

On a weekend where we honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we saw our President-Elect stoop to a Twitter tirade against Representative John Lewis, a true hero of the Civil Rights movement because Lewis dared to question his legitimacy. A true statesman would have either ignored it or simply making the comment that Lewis is entitled to his opinion. But our President-Elect has incapable of such behavior. When he was at Liberty University last year on Martin Luther King Day, he only mentioned Dr. King in regard to the fact that he had set a record for attendance at Liberty.

Even longstanding conservatives bastions in Congress who have worked with Mr. Lewis, and conservative media titans were  shocked by President-Trump’s action and many rightly commented that the only person that Donald Trump has not attacked is Vladimir Putin.

Like a lot of people it seems it seems that our soon to be President seeks to marginalize Dr. King’s life and work by simply relegating him to the pages of history. The attitude of such people seems to be that maybe Dr. King may important in his day, but that we have advanced to the point that we don’t need to see beyond the King of history, but the President-Elect seems not even to care about that. It is a sad spectacle where the man who was elected to be all of our President dismisses such an important man in our history.

So now more than ever it is important for all Americans remember and act upon the legacy of Dr. King.

Dr. King was a man of tremendous personal courage. Nearly every day of his public ministry and advocacy for the rights of African Americans and the poor his life was in danger. Of course he, like so many other men who throughout history understood that those that champion the cause of justice and peace must ask hard questions. They must engage in hard thinking. They must challenge their own beliefs as well as those that they come in contact, and they must do so from the least safe place to do so, the place of conscience which commands us to do what is right.

In 1968 Dr. King said something that should make us all look in the mirror and ask who we really are and what we represent. He noted how cowardice, expediency and vanity all vie with conscience. He said:

“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.” 

If you look closely at what Dr. King said one can almost see every political, business or religious leader make decisions about things which matter to people, but without facing the demands of conscience.

It would be easy just to say this of many of our leaders, especially the President-Elect, however, it is also true of most of us as well. I hate to admit it is regardless of our protestations most of us follow the demands of cowardice, expediency or vanity rather than conscience. We do it not because we are bad people, but because we fear the potential negative consequences of doing the right thing, we count the cost and decide we cannot pay it.

Every time we make these decisions not to do the right thing, but to shrink in cowardice, and appeal to the cold calculations of being politic, or choosing to go with what is popular, something in us dies.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and martyr wrote about the results of such equivocation from prison:

“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?”

But to follow the demands of conscience requires us to think, and think critically. Too often we simply do things or support causes because we are comfortable with the ideas, and because we do not want to face inconvenient or uncomfortable ideas. We do not like to be challenged. I think that is why there is such a great appeal to often ignorant loud mouthed politicians, pundits and preachers, the Unholy Trinity, to do our thinking for us. The pundits, preachers and politicians often appeal to the must base human instincts to turn citizens against each other, or to drive up support for their ideology. Such ideas are made more destructive when they appear as “memes” on social media, attached to pictures which are designed to invoke an emotional response of anger, hatred and resentment at person or group being demonized. In following them we can become unthinking fanatics, convinced of our rightness without ever examining what we believe to see if it really true.

This is not thinking when we follow the lead of such people, regardless of their ideology. In doing so we give up our right and responsibility to think for ourselves and ask the hard questions. Eric Hoffer noted how ideology blinds us:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

Dr. King’s words spoken in 1963 are equally true today:

“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

I hope that in 2017 we may we find in Dr. King’s words inspiration to be people of character and conscience. But to do so we must start doing the hard thinking that allows us to follow the demands of conscience and not cowardice. We must do the hard thinking that places justice over popularity and the hard thinking which exposes the emptiness of brazen political calculation embodied in the easy answers and half-baked solutions of the Unholy Trinity.

Sadly, I don’t think that most people want to do this type of thinking, our materialistic culture does not value it. As a result I fully expect we give up our rights as a people to a few oligarchs who throw a few small breaks our way while they expand their control, power and wealth. It’s a bad formula and we all suffer for it.

In spite of that it is time to stop asking if things are safe, politic, popular, or expedient and do the hard work and thinking that conscience demands. If we don’t we deserve what we get. I’m sure that Dr. King would agree.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Dan Sickles Part Four: The Pariah

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am taking a break over this Thanksgiving weekend and am re-posting some articles from my Gettysburg text dealing with a man that I consider one of the most fascinating , salacious, scandalous, heroic, and incredible figures ever to grace and disgrace American history, Congressman, and Civil War General Daniel E. Sickles.

I hope that you enjoy,

Peace

Padre Steve+

dan-sickle-teresa-key

 

After a brief absence, Sickles returned to Congress and to Teresa, who was now even a worse social pariah than her husband. After the murder and for the duration of the trial, Teresa remained at one of the family homes in the New York countryside under the care of her parents. She followed the trial and occasionally wrote to Dan in jail, and over time he began to write back. Teresa was thrilled with the verdict and she honestly believed that the marriage and her reputation could be rehabilitated, and that she could be restored to a normal wife. The normal family values system of the time would have now involved Sickles divorcing his tarnished wife. That would have been “the predictable and conservative course.” [1] But despite his own continuing excursions into infidelity and his rage over hers, Sickles still loved her, and could not fathom divorcing her. His father George and Teresa’s father Antonio “were stricken with the same delusion as Teresa – that reconciliation would be tolerated by society.” [2]

Had the recently celebrated Congressman done divorced Teresa, his political career, while crippled, might have resumed its previous upward trajectory. But the ever unpredictable Dan Sickles “shocked everyone by forgiving Teresa and resuming their former relationship.” [3]

It was a characteristic of the time, and in some place even today in that maintained the belief that an adulterous wife knew no forgiveness, and Sickles “put himself beyond the pale by the simple act of forgiving his wife and restoring her to his bosom.” [4] Murder could be forgiven, a man’s indiscretions as well, but forgiving an adulterous women, especially a wife and mother was unforgivable. All the better people had already assigned the appropriate scarlet letter to the fallen woman, and they were shocked into paroxysms of moral outrage when Sickles apparently forgave her transgression.” [5] Sickles action was totally “out of kilter with an age that neatly divided women into “saintly mothers,” “pure virgins,” and “fallen women.” [6] Frankly the action was shocking to New York and Washington society, and both Dan and Teresa paid the price, but the price paid by Teresa would be greater, and ultimately contribute to her death, a death that occurred far too early.

Sickles was flailed in the papers, the New York Dispatch noted “His warmest personal and political friends bitterly denounce his course.” While the Sunday Courier wrote, “His political aspirations, his career in life, once so full of encouraging brightness, and his business prospects, have all been blasted by this act.” [7]

The Sunday Mercury put their condemnation published a biting bit of poetry lampooning both Dan and Teresa:

Hail matchless pair! United once again, In newborn bliss forget your bygone pain…

What the world may say, “with hands all red Yon bridegroom steals to a dishonored bed”

And friends, estranged, exclaim on every side: “Behold! Adultery couched with Homicide! [8]

Even long time friends were like James Topham Brady who had defended him at his trial were livid. Interestingly enough it was Sickles old foe Horace Greeley who “flew in the face of convention by commending Sickles for his forgiveness.” [9] But Greeley was an exception, and in the face of the critics sent a letter to the New York Herald in which he fired a broadside:

“Referring to the forgiveness which my sense of duty and my feelings impelled me to extend to an earring and repentant wife… I am prepared to defend what I have done before the only tribunal I recognize as having the slightest claim to jurisdiction over the subject – my own conscience and the bar of Heaven. I am not aware of any statute or code of morals which makes it infamous to forgive a woman… And I cannot allow even all the world combined to dictate to me the repudiation of my wife, when I think it right to forgive her and restore her to my confidence and protection. If I have ever failed to comprehend the utterly desolate position of an offending though penitent woman – the hopeless future, with its dark possibilities of danger, to which she is proscribed as an outcast – I can now see plainly in the in the almost universal howl of denunciation with which she is followed to my threshold…” [10]

Dan Sickles the sinner had struck back at his Pharisaical accusers with the aplomb of Christ himself, who had forgiven the adulteress woman, but it did little to change public perception. Teresa would always be the adulteress, abandoned by friends and scorned by society at large. Dan, who even with the scandal of the Key murder behind him and who would have been forgiven had he denounced and divorced his wife, was now a pariah, even among his peers and colleagues. Mary Boykin Chesnut, wife of a renowned senator, and prolific diarist from South Carolina “sat in the House gallery one day and saw Sickles deliberately, and totally ostracized. He was sitting all alone, like Catiline, every other member careful not to come near him – “left to himself as if he had the smallpox.” [11] When Chesnut asked a friend why he was shunned, the friend noted that the murder of Key “was all right… It was because he condoned his wife’s profligacy and took her back… Unsavory subject.” [12]

But for Teresa it was worse. She was “socially exiled, shunned even by humble neighbors, compelled to keep the house by day or face the sneers and hoots of such street trash as recognized her, cut off from her cherished riding and walking, coped up with a loving but over emotional mother, a penurious, egocentric father, Teresa, torn between grief for the dead, contrition for the living, began to fail…” [13] Despite his defense of her and officially taking her back, he spent little time with her and she never again accompanied him in any of his assignments, in the military, or after the war. But his policy of leaving her behind was not due to cruelty or neglect, as Dan and Teresa were “merely accepting an accomplished social fact, knowing Teresa would forever be an outcast and forever be an outcast and would be exposed to endless snubs and torment were she be so rash as to essay a new entrance into society.” [14] In his own way Dan loved her, but neither could change the attitude of a society where Puritanical morality still reigned, and the granddaughter of Giacomo Casanova’s friend could never be forgiven, and whose relationship with her husband would always be haunted by the ghost of Barton Key. Nothing could change that, and soon Teresa lost the will to live though she was not even twenty-five years old. “Sleepless, she took refuge in opiates….She sank slowly from frailty to invalidism.” [15] She contracted tuberculosis, and though she attempted to maintain her household she suffered from severe depression, and again took up her family’s Catholic faith. Catholic rosaries, missals, holy cards, and other items filled her bedroom. Eventually, she died unexpectedly in January of 1867, with most people thinking that she would yet recover. She was only thirty-one years old. Dan, now serving as military governor in South Carolina was stunned. Her pallbearers include James Topham Brady, and four U.S. Army generals including Sickles former comrade Alfred Pleasanton and his Gettysburg aide Henry Tremain. In death she finally found a measure of public sympathy, the funeral Mass was attended by many mourners, and as Sickles and his now teenage daughter Laura followed Teresa’s casket out of the church, “His feelings now broke forth and he wept, and the large congregation rushed tumultuously from the building after him, testifying to the hold he held on their hearts, and the extent to which they shared his affliction.” [16] In light of the prevailing morality of the day can wonder if most of the mourners had more sympathy for Sickles than his now dead wife. Unlike the adulteress of the Gospels, Teresa Sickles had no one to

Notes

[1] Ibid. Sears Controversies and Commanders p.200

[2] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.202

[3] Ibid. Wilson and Clair They Also Served p.100

[4] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.152

[5] Ibid. Sears Controversies and Commanders p.200

[6] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.136

[7] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.72

[8] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.203

[9] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.73

[10] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.74

[11] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p. 152 Catiline was a counsel of Ancient Rome is best known for two attempts to overthrow the Roman Republic in 62 BC. His plot was exposed before the Senate by Cicero and he is famously depicted in Cesare Macari’s painting sitting alone in with his head down as Cicero denounces him before the Senate.

[12] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.20

[13] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.136

[14] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.282

[15] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.137

[16] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.329

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