Ross Douthat, a very conservative Catholic, is persistently the most interesting of The NY Times’s stable of right wing columnists.
For me that’s because he frequently articulates perspectives that resonate to my experience, even if most of his desired remedies sound predictably retrograde.
Take, for instance, this reflection from August 6, 2019 on the recent carnage in El Paso & Dayton:
“I think Trump is deeply connected to what happened last weekend, deeply connected to both massacres. Not because his immigration rhetoric drove the El Paso shooter to mass murder in some direct and simple way; life and radicalism and violence are all more complicated than that.
But because Trump participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters, and having a participant as president makes the problem worse. The president’s bigoted rhetoric is obviously part of this. Marianne Williamson put it best, in the last Democratic debate: There really is a dark psychic force generated by Trump’s political approach, which from its birther beginnings has consistently encouraged and fed on a fevered and paranoid form of right-wing politics, and dissolved quarantines around toxic and dehumanizing ideas. And the possibility that Trump’s zest for demonization can feed a demonic element in the wider culture is something the many religious people who voted for the president should be especially willing to consider.”
One sunny day in April last year, I woke up in Selma Alabama, prepared to go to jail.
It was just for a friendly visit, though, with two new acquaintances: Andy Grace and Chip Brantley. I met up with them first, for a generous southern breakfast at Mr. Waffle, on Highland Avenue, with my pants cinched up tight: It’s The Law.
Andy and Chip teach journalism at the University of Alabama. They were working on a big podcast project about Selma intended for NPR. It’s about two civil rights murders there, and is now online, at their website, as “White Lies.”
In their research they found my books on Selma, and tracked me down, about an interview. Turns out, I was planning to visit Alabama before long, to be on a panel in Montgomery marking the 50th anniversary of Dr, King’s murder.
As a certified living fossil on the shelf of artifacts from a genuine piece of “history,”I’ve done a few such events. So I offered to make a side trip to Selma, and give them my personal guided tour with the interview.
That starts with the Selma jail. On the way we passed the compact corner memorial to James Reeb, a Boston Unitarian minister, who was attacked with two others in the heat of the movement, and died of a fractured skull the next day. Three men were tried for his murder, acquitted by an all-white jury; all are now dead.
But there was talk of a fourth man there, who evaded prosecution, and could be still alive. Chip and Andy were still in search of him.
I had no leads about that, so we moved on to the jail. It’s still where it was, though in 1965 it was part of City Hall. That’s moved, and the Police now have the whole building. High on the wall of the downstairs hallway is a photo of Wilson Baker, who arrested me. Later he became Sheriff, and word is he was a good one. Up on the second floor, the small cellblock remains.
Those yellow bars even now look solid enough to withstand the collapse of the whole block. Which may not be far off, the collapse that is; most of the buildings close by look empty, boarded up or just abandoned.
As a landmark of black liberation, I told Andy and Chip, Selma fifty-plus years later is a hot mess. The poverty rate is as high as it was then. More than a dozen payday loan shops, their vampiric essence camouflaged by bright colors, crouched along Broad and Highland, the two main business streets. The house where I rented a room in ‘65, a solid Black middle class dwelling then, stands empty, literally falling down, like so many others on that, the “historic” side of town. If there’s any money in that history, it looks like payday usury vacuumed it all up.
History is still plentiful in Selma, if ramshackle, but there’s only one spot of beauty I remember, and I discovered that late: less than a mile west of the Pettus Bridge stands the Live Oak Cemetery, often called the New Live Oak, though it goes back to the 1820s.
The big moss-draped trees, the greyed, crumbling, mostly Confederate headstones and slabs, the multi-colored lichen splotches on almost everything, all are classic, archetypal, undead Old South: Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, only in color.
New Live Oak has recently been made newer by construction of an elaborate memorial in honor of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
This is the work of a local Neo-confederate group, which won a long, acrimonious court fight with the Black-controlled city administration for control of an acre of land there.
Forrest had only a brief connection to Selma: he attempted to defend the city from surging Union forces shortly before Lee’s surrender in April 1865.
Even so, for true Neo-Confederates, Forrest is an immortal, an icon: a brilliant tactician, a relentless, fearsome fighter (biographers say he personally killed thirty Union soldiers in hand to hand combat) and a founder (and first Grand Wizard) of the original Ku Klux Klan.
There could hardly be a visage more discordant – or revealing — than that of Forrest, glowering east over General Pettus’s grave and toward the eponymous bridge which the courage of local blacks, and tagalongs like me, turned into a civil rights landmark. The local devotees of Forrest’s flock have struck back with billboards, and more solidly, with this shrine.
But I can turn my back on Forrest; then it’s no wonder I linger there. Andy and Chip did too; pictures of them at New Live Oak are on NPR’s publicity webpage for “White Lies.”
From there we headed for another burial ground, about 25 miles northwest near Marion.
This one, the Heard Cemetery, lacked the allure of Live Oak: no venerable trees, only secondary growth; no stone wall, no fence, no sign; it lay exposed, within gunshot range but easy to miss, along Alabama Highway 14. It was much smaller, with only a scattering of markers, and a single sizable headstone.
That marker was our goal; and despite lacking the amenities of the genteel Dixie death cult, the Heard graveyard enclosed what Chip and Andy most wanted to visit, the resting place of Jimmie Lee Jackson.
Here I knew a little something. I had been part of the funeral cortege which carried his coffin here from the church in town, behind his family and Dr. King, through the rain.
I knew about how his killer also got away with killing another young black man a year later, then walked free for more than four decades. And how Jackson’s family finally caught a brief glimpse of justice; heard a rumor of it, topped a thin, crumbled slice of it with the curdled margarine of old grief.
I had also visited the cemetery a year or two earlier, and could point out the dozen or so places where the granite had been nicked and gouged by bullets. It still stands, but within gunshot range is not hyperbole. (An earlier blog post on the shooting of Jackson is here.)
From there we soon wrapped up the interview, and I headed off to Montgomery.
I admit I soon mostly forgot about the project; several such interviews have wound up on disks or as transcripts on some obscure library shelf, waiting to enlighten, or bore, a stray grad student or two. Other such relics have been of use to me, though, and I do not despise them.
But now, more than a year later, the podcast is done and out. And amid all the recorded palaver, I turn up for a cameo in Episode Five, describing — well, that’s enough of a spoiler. They uncovered history I knew nothing about in solving their cold case; let them tell you that part of the story. . . .
If you blog about Quakers long enough, you get asked a lot of questions — including some surprises.
Like the one that came in a few days ago, from the Clerk of a meeting located east of the Mississippi. The Clerk wrote that in an after-meeting discussion, a Friend asked what the Meeting would do if an active shooter appeared there. Did I have any ideas?
Five days a week, my grandson who lives nearby walks down the street to the school bus. Our town has homicides, too many. But mass shootings? Not in my six-plus years here.
Not yet, deo gratias.
(They could say something like that in Virginia Beach, Virginia, until last week.)
So I’m no expert on this subject, and hope never to become one. But such is the sick society we live in, that any of us could become a personal “expert” in it, or a victim, any day. So after pondering the inquiry, I figured I’d do what I could.
The Clerk did have one idea. He vaguely remembered a painting seen in childhood, of a meetinghouse in the woods, in colonial times, filled with plain dress Quakers, sitting quietly as a group of armed Indians came through the door.
Supposedly there was a story that went with it, that the Indians had meant to slaughter whites, and had done so in other similar places. But the warriors were so moved by their pious placidity, and disarmingly Friendly demeanor, that they dropped their murderous plans and let them be.
This Memorial Day, I’m setting aside my Quaker pacifism (briefly), to remember one of the most unique and valiant war veterans I know of.
Yeah, I’m talking about U.S. Army veteran Harriet Tubman.
Besides all her amazing exploits in the antebellum Underground Railroad (working very frequently with purportedly nonviolent Quakers), Tubman was no pacifist. And when the war broke out, she was eager to help the Union forces win it. After working with wounded soldiers, she also served as a scout and a spy behind enemy lines.
But she got her big chance after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863.
May 24 was (Authentic) Religious Liberty Day (at least it was here), but the Administration has some strange ideas about how to mark it. Like: turn it upside down & inside out.
That day it releaseda proposed federal rule that would deny transgender persons many of the medical benefits and legal protections they gained in the Obama years. The proposal is one more chapter in the continuing drive to roll back just about everything the previous administration achieved or initiated. (Full text of the proposed rule is here.)
In 1988 I wrote a substantial essay laying out my views about abortion, and describing how they had evolved over time. The piece also considered the increasing parallels, both rhetorical and political, between this struggle and the Civil War.
Thirty-plus years later, despite some continuing evolution and updates, much of the piece still seems relevant, not least the potential for civil strife.
(Author’s note from 1998 reprint: Many of the policy issues described in this essay still seem timely more than a decade later. Further, the personal journey it describes was an important part of my life, one not to be denied or concealed. It is also necessary background to the civil war scenarios that will also surface. . . . A much shortened version of the piece was published in The New Republic.)
The difference between Despair And Fear – Is like the One Between the instant of a Wreck And when the Wreck has been –
The Mind is smooth – no Motion Contented as the Eye Upon the Forehead of a Bust – That knows – it cannot see-
Biographers note that Emily Dickinson, who died on this date in 1886, was most productive in the first half of the 1860s. Secluded within the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts (except when tending the flower garden), she turned out hundreds of poems, mostly short, striking, often astonishing — but unnoticed by the outside world; her fame came after her death, which was likely okay with her. Continue reading Emily Dickinson: An Epitaph for Today→
A friend was on the line, demanding “WTF?? (What’s This, Friend?), about your senior North Carolina US Senator, Richard Burr, and his subpoena for DJ Junior??” (Normally Burr is a reliable rightwing Republican vote.)
Good question. So I consulted my (maybe) reliable intel speculator and here’s an excerpt from what came back, tied to the leg of a carrier pigeon, from he who will be dubbed 007:
From Politico’s report:
“Burr has been a complex figure in the long-running investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. He’s skipped events with Trump to maintain the appearance of neutrality, yet also was cited in the Mueller report for apparently briefing White House officials on the FBI’s Russia probe. Burr reportedly helped the administration knock down stories about links between the Trump campaign and Russia, yet also maintained unity on his committee while the House Intelligence panel self-destructed amid partisan acrimony.”
At one level, I very much empathize with Adria Gulizia’s concern for what I would call “theological inclusiveness.” The widespread ignorance, apathy & avoidance of theology/Bible in “liberal” meetings I have known have become personally very burdensome.
Yet there is another side to this story, one not easy to see from the Philadelphia orbit. But if one actually steps out of that enclosed space, some very different aspects appear.
To summarize: outside the “Phillysphere” and the Northeast, five U.S. yearly meetings have split apart in the last 20 years, with one of the five, 320 years old, blowing up/melting down & disappearing completely. Where I live, in the Pretty Deep South, the fallout, like debris from a plane that exploded in midair, is still falling around us.
And what was the cause of this fivefold schism? Well, one could point the finger in several directions, but in the foreground of all five was that which Gulizia’s piece calls for, namely: “theological diversity.”
I know some of this from direct experience. Many were the interrogations such “diversity” produced, not of me but my whole meeting: Start with the Bible: Did we have the right view of it? And the true notion of its authority? Next, were we “Christ-centered”? No, they meant, not that way, but this way, really, truly? Or enough? And with the authentic formulation? Oh, and had we adopted (& enforced) the correct church authority structure?
And lots more. (In our area, the ordeal went on for three-plus years. And truly, there’s nothing quite like being called a tool of the Anti-Christ by someone who really means it.)
So we’re hearing some complaints about sniping back & forth between “theists” and “non-theists in some liberal Friends meetings. I have some thoughts on that. Kind of a long read . . . .
Let me work up to them with a story, going back to the turn of the years 1990 into 1991. I was working for the Post Office, as a Mailhander, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. I mainly shuffled bundles and sacks of mail back and forth across the floor of a facility about a quarter of a mile long. It processed several million pieces of mail every day. In those years, I had real calluses on my hands, and a lot fewer pounds around the middle.
I was also surrounded by veterans there, mostly from the Vietnam era, who had preference in Post Office hiring. We weren’t very familiar with the phrase PTSD then, but it was all around me. I felt a lot of solidarity with them, though I didn’t know how to express it. I was an Anti-Vietnam veteran, had protested one way and another all through those years, and bore my own set of scars from it.
November & December at the Post Office were always hectic: Christmas meant a continuing flood of packages, mandatory overtime, and running us off our feet. But the year 1990 brought a big additional burden of stress: the buildup to the First Gulf War, what’s known as Desert Storm, was in full swing.
I’m starting these reflections with a war story, not because I like war stories, but as part of my own grappling with the fact that when I look back over my 76 years, my life as an American and a Quaker has been dominated by war.
Big wars, punctuated by smaller and more secret wars, and then periods of tension and preparations for more war. I’m not sure that many Americans, and Quakers, really take adequate account of that over-arching reality: any American my age and younger has lived in a militarized, war-making country all our lives. And that reality doesn’t appear to be changing much today.
Anyway, I remember when the Gulf War buildup started, in late summer 1990, when the first president George Bush learned that Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, next door. My memory of Bush is that he was riding in the presidential golf cart, and pulled it to a stop where some news cameras were clustered, and said, “This will not stand. This will not stand.” (Actually, an old video shows him saying that after stepping out of the presidential helicopter. At least I got the words right.)