Voice of the Past: Nelson Mandela on Freedom Fighting

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, a man whose deeds earned him world acclaim, has gone to his reward.

Western civilization—European-American civilization— has produced remarkable things—the institutions that give peace and joy to a modern world. It has given the world an economic system that give billions a chance at a life without agony. It has given the world the rule of law and the blueprint to self-govern. It has also elevated human expression to unprecedented refinement, in music, theatre, film, architecture and dance.

Yet, those same institutions—as Aristotle pointed out—have their negative and corrupt sides. After all, Western colonialism, and the want of things, led the West to build Empire, and subjugate peoples who seemed different from them. And in South Africa, the worst of civilization was on display for much of the 20th century. Aparthied—the “Jim Crow Laws” of the African continent—kept a powerful colonial minority in power over an oppressed majority. Western civilization sometimes ignores the basic worth and dignity that each person has, while rather ironically, exalting the individual.

Nelson Mandela loved the gifts of the West, but hated the corruption. He had the audacity—the best use of the word—to call out that atrocity, and to risk his life to end it.

When people blithely ask in the West, what the big deal was about the gregarious man of peace from South Africa, one only need to read his statement before the court that was prepared to sentence him to death in 1963. Thomas Jefferson would have been proud. Unlike Jefferson however, Mandela was caught in the act of revolution. One can try to imagine what the American founders would have said in the dock if King George arrested them. We’ll never really know. But Mandela said:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

(Mother Jones magazine offers a more complete coverage of his trial here.)

The greatest challenge when winning freedom, of course, is keeping it. While Mandela sought freedom for his people, he also sought equality within the institutions of the Western world—a free democracy. He did not reject the institutions of Western civilization—he wanted equal opportunity under the law to access them. He was, after all, an educated man and lawyer by trade. He played by the rules, but the rules also were designed to keep him and people who looked like him, away.

He sincerely believed that people casting their vote—warts and all—was a superior mode of government. The West wrestles with the consequences of this concept daily. There are those in every race, in every civilization, who reject the notions of the rule of law, of peace, of integration and forgiveness. Those of us in the West are constantly in tension with the most extreme elements of our society, who seek to use the instruments of government to force their narrow agenda upon the rest of us. Mandela’s South Africa is not immune. After his release from his life sentence in prison, and as the Aparthied government was abandoned, Mandela was elected President of South Africa. And after his term, he stepped away from the presidency, like Washington, rather than serving for life. He did this to assure the peaceful transition of power, another lesson from Washington.

However, in doing so, he left his country in the hands of less capable men. And in so doing, South Africa does not function well—the rule of law is often ignored. Women are unsafe there—as South Africa remains atop the list of most rapes per capita. His dream of a race-blind democracy has eroded, with his political party unraveling into black nationalism and “pale males,” as the locals call the white Dutch minority. And the strong pre-Mandela economy is long gone. Some of those elements may have been worthy sacrifices to have a society where human worth and dignity were restored. But again, as Mandela said before his sentencing, he was for Western civilization and its institutions. I am not so sure his successors are.

Mandela is one of the few people in history worthy of the praise he received. Yes, conservatives saw him as a terrorist in his lifetime. So too was George Washington considered to be, in the eyes of the Tories. History has judged Mandela not as a terrorist against the status quo, but a freedom fighter. What is the difference? The difference is in the execution. Mandela preached peace in our time. May those sentiments expand beyond his time. 

Photo credit: [Duncan] / Foter.com / CC BY

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Voice of the Past: Oscar Wilde on Drollery

A Wilde time 3

In high school, I had a Lex Luthor. Most people have and do have one and know the type–the kid that was out to get your goat no matter. Sometimes the adversary was indeed a bit smarter than you. Like Lex however, the ego that came with the intellect was often his undoing.

Kitbash Lex Luthor

Later in life, Lex found his way into trolling on facebook, often making incredibly lethal remarks on the postings of my peers. However, the other day, I caught Lex engaging in vile plagiarism. He posted a quotation that looked a bit too familiar on his page, without attribution:

“Our Democracy is self-destructing because it abused the right of freedom and equality, because it taught it’s citizens to consider rudeness as a right, breaking the law as a freedom, audacity as equality, and anarchy as blissfulness.”

Sounds great, right? His toadies fawned over his wisdom, but not me. A simple web search of the the quote proved that he gleaned it from an ancient Greek philosopher, Isocrates.  Intriguingly, the quote is a mis-attribution. No matter, Lex expropriated it to burnish his own name.

Isocrates pushkin

Now, my inclination was toward humiliation, but my better nature took over. After all, in this analogy, I am Clark Kent, and well, Superman doesn’t use the tools of evil for good. I let it go. But I relate the story here. And that might have I said to Lex? As irony would have it, I would have employed Oscar Wilde, who famously said:

“Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.”

This of course raises a lovely analogy game for Lex:

If Quotation:Wit,

then Plagiarism::Asininity!

Lesson: Always quote your source material. Understand that you are borrowing their wit, not being witty yourself.

Oscar Wilde Statue, Dublin

Isocrates Photo credit: Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Lex Luthor Photo credit: shaun wong / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Oscar Wilde Photo credit: Foter.com / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Oscar Wilde in Dublin Photo Credit: Photo credit: anaxila / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Dealey Plaza

Looking up Elm Street, Dealey Plaza, Dallas

So much ink has been spilled over the events of November 22, 1963, that I can hardly add anything new here on this blog. After all, since the very day of President Kennedy’s horrific demise on the freeway entrance in Dallas, every pundit, hack, conspiracy theorist, celebrity and average Joe has engaged in this parlor game. If Caesar’s murder was for the ancients the great story of intrigue and regicide, JFK’s story in some ways in the modern parallel.

Kennedy’s murder gave birth to the American pastime of indulging conspiracy under every turn. From JFK to RFK, then Malcolm X to MLK, we do not experience a national event without some nutter spinning the most elaborate explanation. TWA-800 was bombed, they say. President Bush colluded with bin Laden to bring down the towers, they say. Elvis is alive they say. As David von Drehle highlights in this week’s TIME lead article, indeed, Dealey Plaza is a festering wound on the American spirit. Like Lady MacBeth, the blood stain is indelible. We can’t let the story go. Paraphrasing Cokie Roberts, Americans cannot believe that an event of such historical magnitude may in fact have been caused by such a small, weak little loser, like Lee Harvey Oswald, alone.

 

 

I have been to Dallas on two occasions, and took time to wander about Dealey Plaza—the scene of the crime. Dealey is the sort of tourist attraction that a city has to learn to live with. It is an embarrassment to a city. But to demolish it would be to rob future generations of understanding. Humans seemingly need these haunted places, to allow the scenery to engage the senses and create vivid impressions and understanding. After all, why would I want to visit such a ghastly place but to satisfy my own historical curiosity and to think through my own conspiracy theory?

When I was a kid, upon the 30th anniversary of these events, the news was full of Oliver Stone’s hagiography of the events—his film JFK. That effort was beautiful theater but not much more. (And a rather beautiful score by John Williams). Seen through the lens of 20 more years of history, I have a hard time indulging the wild collusion of forces (CIA, FBI, LBJ, Oil men, the military-industrial complex, the Cubans, the Mob, the Russians) that allegedly came together to off their greatest nemesis, a presidential playboy who was about as liberal as Reagan. Nah, Occam’s razor applies here. Occam said that among competing theories, the one with the least assumptions is most likely the truth. Americans have such little faith in their government to deliver the mail on time, let alone conspire to commit a coup d’état.

DealeyPlazaAbove

Dealey Plaza is a sad place, but not simply for being the site of the assassination. The plaza is a bit isolated from the downtown core. Developed as part of an urban renewal program, the plaza is really nothing more than a green space connecting the on-ramps of the highway to the downtown core. The architecture is a modernist version of Bernini’s great arms that hug St. Peter’s Square in Rome (though much more modest). The impression I get is that this space was to provide the motorist an interesting approach into the city. Perhaps in the 1950’s, when America was in-love with the automobile (and, the cars were works of art unlike the fiberglass heaps of today), an office worker might want to take their lunch outside, and watch the Bel-Airs and Corvettes drive by.

Dealey Plaza

Today, it is an exhaust-filled no-man’s land. Tourists meander through, taking photos for their own mememto mori. They stand on the pylon where Abraham Zapruder shot his film. They wander behind the dilapidated fence behind the grassy knoll—the place where the conspiracy types believe the real shooter took aim. They stand in the road, where an “X” tackily marks the spot of Kennedy’s death. They look up to the Texas School Book Depository and perhaps begin to think the Warren Commission had it right—from his sixth floor sniper’s next, Oswald had a clear vista toward the motorcade. They tour the Sixth Floor Museum and take in the official history.

reading the paper on JFK

On my two visits, much had not changed—the city was trying to raise funds to restore the plaza to its 1963 appearance. Hucksters sold tattered, acid-yellow newspaper souvenirs to the tourists, providing the barebones about the history and space. This cheapened what seems to be hallowed ground, much in the way the souvenir slingers crowd around Ford’s Theatre in Washington (the site of Lincoln’s assassination) or the underpass in Paris where Princess Diana met her end.

On that last note, touring the death places of the famous and powerful seems to be a universal human behavior. In Turkey, tourists stand in the room where the founder of the country, Ataturk, died in his Sultan-sized bed, some 70 years after the fact. Tourists still go to the place in the Forum Romani where Caesar was immolated 2000 years ago. Christians go to a church they believe to be the place of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus rose. Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, the site of his suicide, is paved over. Yet tourists still linger there.

DallasTrip_09Oct2010 122

Down the road from Dealey Plaza is the city’s official memorial to JFK, a modernist pile developed by the architect Phillip Johnson. Johnson, a friend of the Kennedy’s, designed the great outdoor space to be a cenotaph and temple to JFK–a place for quiet reflection in the bustling city. Locals raises money for the monument, but didn’t care much for the modernist memorial. Dallas conservatives—the sort that wished death upon Kennedy in private only to live in shock over their wish coming true—hated the monument as well. But what other memorial could pay tribute to Kennedy—the first master of television media, the telegenic president in full color who championed the arts (albeit at Jackie’s behest)? No exact sculpture would do, nor a Lincolnesque Greek temple. This memorial is a large, white box–a canvas by which the viewer can cast his own contemplative memories about the 35th president–with nothing but the open blue Texas heavens above. It is an awesome temple—a place that forgives Dealey Plaza a few blocks away.

DallasTrip_09Oct2010 123

Dallas has changed greatly since 1963. It is still a city about big money, but it is about other things too. My generation knows it as the city of the Dallas Cowboys, of the Dallas TV show (and its remake), of hipster beer spots and an enormous airport. Today marks the first time that the city has memorialized the event (aside from the memorial by Johnson), a city looking to move forward. City officials removed the tacky “x” from the road, cleaned up the plaza and kept the conspiracy theorists at bay.

The boomers obsess over the Kennedy era, as they quiz one another about where they were on that day. But 50 years on, the gloss is coming off of Camelot. Kennedy’s presidency can be critiqued with a critical eye. Kennedy’s philandering doesn’t go unnoticed. However, none of those transgressions ameliorate the “undignified end” that this president met in Dallas. We are the inheritors of those days—of increased security, restricted freedoms and armies of security that will prevent another November 22, 1963 from happening again. In many ways, Dealey Plaza is a memorial to the end of American innocence. 

President Kennedy (left), Texas Governor John Connally, and Jacqueline Kennedy, minutes before the president was shot.

Dealey Plaza Photo credit: StevenM_61 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

X Photo credit: martin_kalfatovic / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Dealey Aerial Photo credit: Foter.com / CC BY-SA

JFK Memorial Photo credit: brad_holt / Foter.com / CC BY

Memorial Pediment Photo credit: brad_holt / Foter.com / CC BY

Newspaper readers Photo credit: incendiarymind / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

 

Remembering the Armistice

lest we forget

There are those of us old enough to remember our great-grandfathers, who when pressed with a child’s questions about The Great War would talk in quiet and protected ways. They saved their stories for their fellow soldiers down at the American Legion or VFW, where they could drink hard liquor and tell each other about the horrors they witnessed in far away lands, at the hands of the first mechanized warfare. They were told it was the “War to End All Wars” but they must have known better. My great-grandfather, George Henry Krider, served in the First American Expeditionary Force that went to Europe in WWI. While I do not know his regiment or tour of duty, I do know that he was mustard gassed and barely survived. He had breathing problems all 85 years of his life.

He and his buddies would ask us kids to sell the poppy boutonnieres that we rarely see nowadays. Those doughboys are now all long gone and the memory of their service wanes. In America, we tend to treat Veterans’ Day more as a celebration of Sparta and less as a day of extreme loss and sorrow. For our allies in the Great War, November 11–the Armistice Day–represents an end to the most violent war in their cultural memory. In England, where the poppy is worn to this day, whole towns saw no sons return from the battle. The scions of family names were cast to oblivion.

The British wear the poppy in honor of their forebearers. They also mourn the loss of all their sons in the maw of war. In particular are those artists–musicians and poets–whose pens were silenced in the battle. And it is from one particular pen that the poppy became a symbol of remembrance:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

Written by John McCrae in honor of a fallen comrade, the poem was highly popular. McCrae was a Canadian field physician, who died at the end of the war from pneumonia contracted in the field. The words were first used for to recruit soldiers for the cause, but have since returned to their more honest origin–of sorrow.

While the British and her Commonwealth Nations still honor their war dead in this way, to this day in Washington, DC, there is no memorial to hold a remembrance for our great-grandfathers and their fellow soldiers. Official America has forgotten this conflict. While Congress and others play politics in advance of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice (in 2018), each Veterans’ Day in my mind falls a bit hollow. This is a day to mourn, to remember, and to ask those veterans who survived the maelstrom to share, reflect and think not of the glory of battle but of the colossal tragedy. And since no one is alive from those days in 1918, it is left to those of us who succeed them to learn from the lessons of history, instead of allowing the vainglorious in places of power to repeat that history.

Voice of the Past: Jesus on Bragadoccios

Jesus-Christ-from-Hagia-Sophia

I rarely touch upon politics and religion on this blog, as I tend to rely upon Emily Post for my posture–that politics and religion are not fodder for polite conversation. And yet, those two subjects are well-worn sawhorses for me (just not through this medium).

Many Americans may not remember, but there was a time in our history when the blanket label “Christian” did not exist. In fact, most Christians would identify as Catholic or Protestant. Of the latter, the divisions would be more pronounced, such as Methodist, Baptist and Lutheran, among others. In the 21st Century, the non-denominational Christian tends to get an outsized presence in communities and politics because of the emphasis placed upon evangelicalism, taking St. Paul as a model. However, those more quiet denominations tend to focus less on praise and more on social justice issues–as described in the Sermon on the Mount.

Two main threads of Protestant (meaning non-Catholic) Christianity are those that focus on grace and social justice (as defined by the theologian Arminius, then John Wesley among others), and those that focus on evangelicalism (as defined by John Knox and John Calvin). Calvin’s influence is most palpable in non-denominational and Baptist theology. Arminius and Wesley can be found in Anglicanism and Methodism.

While each side of the schism can point to chapter and verse to justify their theology, I have always found that for mainline Protestants, that Jesus’s word on evangelical thinking must outweigh St. Paul, Knox and Calvin:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”

Matthew 6: 1-34.

The Oxford philosopher AN Whitehead said that “Religion is what a man does in his solitude”–another oblique way of stating the above passage. Given the implications of boasting too much about the blessings one may have received by coincidence, is it any wonder why Emily Post instructs not to speak of religion in mixed company? If not for only for practicing grace and manners, but also for the instruction of the Nazarene alone.

To All of My Friends...

Photo credit: Edal Anton Lefterov / Foter / CC BY-SA

Buddy Jesus Photo credit: Viewminder / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Voice of the Present: Dawkins on Being Lucky

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins has entered the global conscious as the 21st Century’s ur-atheist. His polemics against organized religion aside, he is also among the greatest living evolutionary biologists and science educators alive today. In his early works that focus on the evolution of species by natural selection, Dawkins has been able to explain complex theories in impeccable English prose. And in that voice, he has also found ways to offer solace and wonder to those who seek to ascribe meaning to life.

When it comes to our own fleeting existence, Dawkins is in awe of the statistical odds stacked against all of us:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Here is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than 100 million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, ‘the present century.’ The present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century’s being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. You are lucky to be alive and so am I.

We live on a planet that is all but perfect for our kind of life: not too warm and not too cold, basking in kindly sunshine, softly watered; a gently spinning, green and gold harvest-festival of a planet. Yes, and alas, there are deserts and slums; there is starvation and racking misery to be found. But take a look at the competition. Compared with most planets this is paradise, and parts of Earth are still paradise by any standards. What are the odds that a planet picked at random will have these complaisant properties? Even the most optimistic calculation will put it at less than one in a million.

Imagine a spaceship full of sleeping explorers, deep-frozen would-be colonists of some distant world. Perhaps the ship is on a forlorn mission to save the species before an unstoppable comet, like the one that killed the dinosaurs, hits the home planet. The voyagers go into the deep-freeze soberly reckoning the odds against their spaceship’s ever chancing upon a planet friendly to life. If one in a million planets is suitable at best, and it takes centuries to travel from each star to the next, the spaceship is pathetically unlikely to find a tolerable, let alone safe, haven for its sleeping cargo.

But imagine that the ship’s robot pilot turns out to be unthinkably lucky. After millions of years the ship does find a planet capable of sustaining life: a planet of equable temperature, bathed in warm starshine, refreshed by oxygen and water. The passengers, Rip van Winkles, wake stumbling into the light. After a million years of sleep, here is a whole new fertile globe, a lush planet of warm pastures, sparkling streams and waterfalls, a world bountiful with creatures, darting through alien green felicity. Our travellers walk entranced, stupefied, unable to believe their unaccustomed senses or their luck.

As I said, the story asks for too much luck; it would never happen. And yet, isn’t it what has happened to each one of us? We have woken after hundreds of millions of years asleep, defying astronomical odds. Admittedly we didn’t arrive by spaceship, we arrived by being born, and we didn’t burst conscious into the world but accumulated awareness gradually through babyhood. The fact that we gradually apprehend our world, rather than suddenly discovering it, should not subtract from its wonder.”

–From Unweaving the Rainbow

In my darkest moments, when thinking of those I have lost over the years, I have found comfort in this passage. We are lucky. And we continue to be lucky.

Richard Dawkins with LEGO minifig likeness (instagram)

Photo credit: mrccos / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Mini Dawkins Photo credit: xeni / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Voice of the Past: Ben Franklin on Moving

Ben Franklin

I am slowly returning to my blog, having spent more time than I thought possible moving 600 miles from the east coast of the US to the Midwest. I join the ranks of many movers whose personal effects have been savaged by a large, green and yellow moving company Christened with the name of the Puritan’s flagship to Plymouth.  As the only recourse after hours of browbeating by stentorian customer service representatives is either a. alcohol or b. a Zen-like piece of mind, I have to choose the latter if I desire to not die of stress.

I should have remembered my Poor Richard’s Almanack before heading out on this adventure, for Ben Franklin offers sagely advice for the modern migrating American:

“I never saw an oft removed Tree,

Nor yet an oft removed Family,

That throve so well, as those that settled be.

And again, Three Removes are as bad as a Fire.”

–Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1758. 

Franklin had an axe to grind with the Puritans too, it seems. After all, Ben left Boston in his youth to make in his own way in the world. In Ben’s estimation, after my 14th remove in 33 years, I should be contented by the fact that I could have had a pile of cinders instead of crates of possessions. When Ben made the move from Boston to Philly, he arrived with only the clothes on his back (a minimalist!):

“I have been the more particular in this description of my journey, and shall be so of my first entry into that city, that you may in your mind compare such unlikely beginnings with the figure I have since made there. I was in my working dress…I was dirty from my journey; my pockets were stuff’d out with shirts and stockings, and I knew no soul nor where to look for lodging. I was fatigued with travelling, rowing, and want of rest, I was very hungry; and my whole stock of cash consisted of a Dutch dollar, and about a shilling in copper.”

–Autobiography of Ben Franklin, 1785.

Another piece of advice, unheeded in my most recent caravan. So, dear migrant, should you ever yearn to move from place to place, take Ben’s advice.

Pack lightly.

Ben Franklin Boombox

Franklin Photo credit: Angela Rutherford / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
Beatbox  Photo credit: Lulu Hoeller / Foter / CC BY