Not quite quiet

Mistaking the glue stick for ChapStick wasn’t all bad.

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The suburb of God

“Ye are the light of the world. A suburb that is set on an hill cannot be hid.” — Matthew 5:14

“For unto you is born this day in the suburb of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” — Luke 2:11

“By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a suburb which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” — Hebrews 11:8-11

“And I John saw the holy suburb, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” — Revelation 21:2

Two-ness

The storms that started south of Roanoke continued until soon after the big thunderclap around 2:00 this morning. We had been asleep for about four hours at Betty’s when it woke me up.

Nashville got seven inches of rain. Columbia got less, but enough wind to knock down power lines. Some of them and their poles occupied the right lane of a road we took from the spur to Betty’s. Police were blocking off lots of flooded roads.

What a walk! This morning I played the student of the vernacular landscape, a term John Stilgoe credits to John Brinckerhoff Jackson to mean the landscape “made and used by most people most of the time.”1 Stilgoe says anyone can do it:

“Unorganized, unafraid of mishap and getting lost, often appearing ignorant especially in front of locals, the few do what anyone can do—move along slowly, look, listen, think, and try to learn later about what turned up.”2

Or maybe it’s not so easy. Austen Allen quotes Stilgoe: “With care, inquirers can understand the landscape conjurings of others, but only rarely can they escape, even momentarily, the contemporary mindset.”3

Homogeneity is democracy’s cul-de-sac. It’s the dead end of the French Revolution with its concept of “le peuple,” which, as Hannah Arendt points out, carries “the connotation of a multiheaded monster, a mass that moves as one body and acts as though possessed by one will . . .”4

“It never ceases to surprise me how easy it is to leave the hybridity of the city and enter into all-white spaces, the homogeneity of which, as far as I can tell, causes no discomfort to the whites in them.” — Julius in Teju Cole’s Open City

White space is rarely public space in the United States. But much Black space is public space. “Let me be clear from the outset. We didn’t do this neighborhood to ourselves.” — Jean Luck Godard in John Edgar Wideman’s Fanon.

Sarah Daleiden wonders if “a Black landscape” is “a place that supports neighbors to focus on the civic so we can walk toward freedom from racism and the inequities and trauma it can trigger and produce in any of us.”5

Black landscapes can’t afford homogeneity. “All Americans can learn from people who have had to look at themselves with a two-ness,” Walter Hood says, reflecting on Du Bois’s famous term. “People should see that they themselves, and landscapes, have multiplicities: we should be moving through space that constantly reminds us that women are equal, that we owe responsibility to natives who were here beforehand, that Black hands built our landscape.”6

Landscape, as much as anything, “signifies how we personally come to something, to a place.”7

[Thank you, Bethany, for Black Landscapes Matter, edited by Walter Hood and Grace Mitchell Tada, University of Virginia Press, 2020.]

  1. Stilgoe, John R. What Is Landscape? (p. 211). MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Id. at 213.
  3. Allen, Austen. “Site of the Unseen: The Racial Gaming of American Landscapes.” Black Landscapes Matter, Walter Hood and Grace Mitchell Tada, Eds., Virginia, 2020, page 102.
  4. Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. Penguin Classics, Penguin Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, page 84.
  5. Daleiden, Sara. “The Beerline Trail: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.” Black Landscapes Matter, Walter Hood and Grace Mitchell Tada, Eds., Virginia, 2020, page 154.
  6. Walter Hood. Afterword. Black Landscapes Matter, Walter Hood and Grace Mitchell Tada, Eds., Virginia, 2020, page 175.
  7. Allen, supra, page 129.

Shakespeare

If you visit our kitchen, you’d see a small painting that accompanies what purports to be a quotation from Shakespeare. But it’s not Shakespeare; it’s a modern sentiment that the Internet has put in Shakespeare’s mouth.

My dear friend who painted it believes the words are Shakespeare’s, just as I believe the words in Deuteronomy, written during an Israelite monarchy centuries after the fact, are Moses’s.

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What I read this year

Here’s what I read this year, alphabetized by last name:

  • Genesis, translated by Robert Alter
  • Exodus, translated by Robert Alter
  • Leviticus, translated by Robert Alter
  • Jonah, translated by Robert Alter
  • On Revolution by Hanna Arendt (third read)
  • Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson (second read)
  • The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
  • The Great Influenza by John M. Barry
  • The Italian Renaissance by Kenneth R. Bartlett (lecture series)
  • Frederick Douglas: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
  • The God We Never Knew by Marcus J. Borg
  • St. Thomas Aquinas by G. K. Chesterton
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle
  • Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes what We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer l. Eberhardt
  • Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison
  • Sovereignty: God, State, and Self by Jean Bethke Elshtain
  • Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
  • The Limits of History by Constantin Fasolt
  • The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution by Eric Foner
  • Radical Prayer: Love in Action by Matthew Fox (lecture series) (second listen)
  • The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama
  • Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies
  • Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb
  • Colonial Capitalism and the Dilemmas of Liberalism by Onur Ulas Ince
  • The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas by Peter Kreeft (lecture series)
  • The Platonic Tradition by Peter Kreeft
  • Change the Story: Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth by David C. Lorten
  • One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic: A History of the Church in the Middle Ages by Thomas F. Madden (lecture series)
  • The Principles of Representative Government by Bernard Manin
  • The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer
  • The Wine-Dark Sea by Patrick O’Brian (fifth read)
  • The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O’Brian (fifth read)
  • The Thirteen-Gun Salute by Patrick O’Brian (fifth read)
  • The Letter of Marque by Patrick O’Brian (fifth read)
  • The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian (fifth read)
  • How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (two reads)
  • The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker
  • Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times by David S. Reynolds
  • God and the World of Signs: Trinity, Evolution, and the Metaphysical Semiotics of C.S. Pierce by Andrew Robinson
  • Traces of the Trinity: Signs, Sacraments, and Sharing God’s Life by Andrew Robinson
  • An Introduction to Greek Philosophy by David Roochnik (lecture series)
  • College (Un)Bound by Jeffrey J. Selingo
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare (fourth and fifth reads)
  • A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit
  • Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit
  • Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World by Clive Thompson
  • Phenomenology: The Basics by Dan Zahavi
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Have you never read?

They were indignant and asked him, ‘Do you hear what they are saying?’ Jesus answered, ‘I do. Have you never read the text, “You have made children and babes at the breast sound your praise aloud”?’ – Matthew 21:15 – 16, REB

What haven’t I read this year? This year I never read Rhinoceros. I’ve thought about it — not about reading it, I mean.

But this year I read Matthew Fox’s account of reading Thomas Merton reading Rhinoceros. Within minutes of reading it, I ordered Merton‘s Raids of the Unspeakable. I have now read Thomas Merton reading Rhinoceros for myself.

They [the Samaritans] told the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard him ourselves.’ – John 4:42, REB

While we read John’s account of the Samaritans’ account.

Jesus wasn’t suggesting — he wasn’t even understood then and there, I don’t think, as suggesting – that his fellow rabbis had not read this or any the other texts he referred to. He was, though, implicitly challenging their notion of reading. Reading a book is no accomplishment, much less a credential.

Reading, in fact, may reduce me. In Bachelard’s poetics, for instance, “the joy of reading appears to be the reflection of the joy of writing, as though the reader were the writer’s ghost.”1 I’m becoming my authors’ mirrors.

Maybe my writers are like the Old Testament’s heroes of faith, of whom the writer of Hebrews says, “only with us should they reach perfection” (Hebrews 11:40, REB). Is that what they see in me, and is that why they published? Are they watching me now?

And have you never read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler — the novelist Silas Flannery watching through a spyglass a woman in a deck chair who is, in turn, reading his book?

Paul’s best stuff, he said, were his readers: “you are our epistles, known and read of all men.” Many writers are busy revising me.

To feel how impossible it is to finish a book, one must be read at least as much as one reads. John Climacus taught me that: “When you find satisfaction or compunction in a certain word of your prayer, stop at that point.”

So while reading a book may not be an accomplishment, reading a book may also be no small accomplishment. As Flannery says, “it is only through the confining act of writing that the immensity of the nonwritten becomes legible.” But this nonwritten stays nonwritten. It surfaces only through “the uncertainties of spellings, the occasional lapses, oversights, unchecked leaps of the word and the pen.”2 Do you hear what they are saying?

If you’ve finished If on a Winter’s Night, of course, you never finished ten books.

I’ve never actually read Climacus. Henri Nouwen quotes him, though, in a short book on meditation that I’ve read a dozen times, the last a dozen years ago.3

I won’t list most of the books I read from this year. But here are the books that were bad enough for me to finish:

  • 1 Samuel translated by Robert Alter
  • Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson
  • Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination by Joyce Appleby
  • The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt
  • On Revolution by Hannah Arendt (3rd & 4th readings)
  • Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (2nd reading)
  • Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger
  • The Modern Political Tradition: Hobbes to Habernas by Lawrence Cahoone (2nd) (lecture series)
  • Metahuman by Deepak Chopra
  • The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark
  • Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (3rd & 4th readings)
  • Absalom, Abaslom! by William Faulkner (3rd reading)
  • The Wild Palms by William Faulkner (2nd reading)
  • Churches in the Modern State by John Neville Figgis
  • Radical Prayer: Love in Action by Matthew Fox (lecture series)
  • Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? by Robert Kuttner
  • The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2nd & 3rd readings)
  • The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of Western Political Thought by Eric Nelson
  • The Prince by Niccolio Machiavelli (2nd reading)
  • Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • H.M.S. Surprise  by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • The Ionian Mission by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • The Maritius Command by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Centuryby J. G. A. Pocock
  • Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.
  • The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr
  • Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down by Laura A. Sandefer
  • The Grammarians by Kathleen Schine
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare (2nd reading)
  • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (37th reading)
  • The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution by Ganesh Sitaraman
  • Prayer and Worship by Douglas Steere (4th reading)
  • Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Writing Across contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Blake Yancey
  • Medical Medium: Liver Rescue by Anthony William

This coming year, I’ll be thinking about Rhinoceros a lot.

  1. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 11.
  2. Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 178.
  3. Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 81.

On the wing

After drinking her smoothie, Bethany said, “I must make haste.”

“Do you have a recipe for haste,” I asked, “or do you just wing it?”

She paused. “I usually just wing it.” And she left.

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Southern (gothic) liberals

Can I trust my governor after his medical-school yearbook features him in blackface?

Can I trust Atticus after Go Set a Watchman?

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Republicanism and redistribution

Today’s plan by Elizabeth Warren is more republican orthodoxy. She wants to keep private equity firms from looting and destroying U.S. corporations.

I first read about private equity firms in Robert Kuttner’s book, published last year, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?:

Invariably, a private-equity takeover means an even deeper squeeze on worker wages, benefits, and job security. The truly nefarious aspect of the private-equity business model is that windfall profits are typically extracted in advance, so that when the actual operating company falters, the equity partners experience very little loss, if any. The model turns on its head the usual incentives to operate a business prudently and to view workers as long-term assets. Private-equity partners accomplish this trick by borrowing heavily against a newly acquired company, paying themselves an exorbitant “special dividend,” as well as management fees, that together typically far exceed the actual equity they have invested in the company. Then then move to aggressively cut costs. If they succeed, they often sell the stripped-down company to someone else. if they cut too deeply, they’ve already made their fortune up front, and they can use bankruptcy either to shut down the operation or to shed its debts and restructure it.

As an example, Kuttner gives Bain Capital’s takeover of KB Toys in 2000. Bain sent KB into bankruptcy, shedding 10,000 jobs but raking in a 360 percent gain on its investment.1

If you want some background for most of Warren’s policies, read Kuttner’s book as well as Ganesh Sitaraman’s 2017 book The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution. Sitaraman, the book’s back flap reports, is a law professor as well as Warren’s former policy director and senior counsel. It was Middle-Class Constitution that tipped me off to Warren’s republican roots.

By “republican roots,” I don’t mean that Warren was a Republican, though she was. And by “republican” (lower-case “r”), I don’t refer to a party but to someone who supports a republican form of government, as opposed particularly to a monarchy. The republican-monarchist debate was big in England during the seventeenth century and big here around the time of our revolution. We should debate it anew: our president wants a monarchy, and he’s trying to tear down what’s left of republicanism.

England’s seventeenth century brought the republican theorist behind Sitaraman’s title. James Harrington’s 1656 book Commonwealth of Oceana describes what Sitaraman calls a “middle-class constitution.” Harrington’s idea is based on the balanced constitution of Aristotle and Polybius — the one, the few, and the many — except that the balance isn’t simply the short-term avoidance of the ancients’ frequent civil wars between the haves (“the few” in the ancient constitutions) and the have-nots (“the many”). His insight was the constitutional potential inherent in the “middle people” (our middle class) who were unknown to the ancients.

James Harrington

Harrington had two principal insights, according to Sitaraman. First, “If inequality between rich and poor created strife, relative economic equality should eliminate internal conflicts, create a stable government, and guarantee freedom.” Political freedom, as Hannah Arendt points out in On Revolution, was the express purpose of both the American and French revolutions. Both revolutions started with liberation from monarchy, but only the American one ended with what would be a longstanding republican constitution. The French Revolution was taken over by the destitute, and the purpose of the revolution’s “relative economic equality” wasn’t to guarantee freedom but to guarantee bread.

The success of the American Revolution relative to the French one would not have surprised Harrington. The economic inequality in France fed the revolution, but in the long run it starved freedom. Napoleon was as much of an absolute ruler as Louis XVI before him.

Warren’s policies don’t set out to create a revolution in the French tradition or otherwise, but to restore us to our current revolution, which began in 1776. Her economic policies have a political end (“political” still in the larger sense: republican vs. monarchical government) — republican freedom.2

Harrington’s second insight, Sitaraman continues, was that “if the balance of property changed, the political system would change as well.” We’ve lived through Harrington’s insight in reverse since the mid-1970s: our middle class has shrunk and the rich have gotten far richer; consequently, we’ve become (as  Jimmy Carter pointed out) an oligarchy. Our political system has changed for the worse.

Harrington’s plan for addressing the economic inequities of his day was enacting agrarian laws, which would cap real estate ownership by annual yields and end primogeniture in favor of equal distribution to the children of large fortunes.3 Our situation is too complicated to be addressed by agrarian laws, as Warren’s plan today attests.

Before Harrington and the Hebrew Revival that influenced him, republican theory concerning property was much like today’s classical liberal theory: defend property rights with almost no exceptions. But Harrington’s then-new republican theory, which came as the threat of a republican form of government was being realized in England, changed republican orthodoxy. Harvard Professor Eric Nelson points out Harrington’s influence on Montesquieu’s and Jefferson’s views on the limits of private ownership:

It is a measure of Harrington’s extraordinary influence that, from 1660 onwards, agrarian laws would remain permanently at the center of republican political thought. Writers from Montesquieu to Rousseau, and from Jefferson to Tocqueville, would regard it as axiomatic that republics ought to legislate limits on private ownership in order to realize a particular vision of civic life.4

Montesquieu explicitly states his fear that economic inequality would sink a republic: “Inequality would enter at the point not protected by the laws, and the republic will be lost.”5  Sitaraman summarizes Montesquieu’s proposed solutions:

The answer Montesquieu suggested, was to “regulate to this end dowries, gifts, inheritances, testaments, in sum, all the kinds of contracts.” Passing on wealth to others in an unregulated fashion would “disturb the disposition of the fundamental laws.” After a long discussion of innovative methods for regulating the transfers and concentration of wealth, Montesquieu recognized a practical reality: “Although in a democracy real equality is the soul of the state, still this equality is so difficult to establish that an extreme precision in this regard would not always be suitable.” He therefore suggested establishing outer bounds of wealth and then passing laws that will “equalize inequalities” thorough “burdens they impose on the rich and the relief they afford to the poor.”6

A mid-1880s letter from Jefferson to Madison addresses the mass unemployment Jefferson was observing in France at the time. Here’s the more theoretical part of the letter: 

I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.

Jefferson here seems to propose the end of primogeniture with regard to inheritance, an indexed property tax rate, and the grant of small parcels of land. But he leaves a qualified door open for other ideas (“legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind”), and he says that the unemployment of those who wish to be employed is a sign that “the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.”

Jefferson’s concern for what America could do to avoid the kind of economic disparity he saw on the streets of Paris should be ours, too. It’s certainly Warren’s concern. Her concern for economic fairness, I believe, is not borne chiefly out of compassion but out of statesmanship.

Our heritage of Atlantic republicanism, therefore, has always been anchored in an awareness of how economic disparity can undermine a republic. Republicans who fail to share that concern are republicans in name only.

  1. Robert Kuttner, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, at 111.
  2. Ganesh Sitaraman, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, at 53 – 55.
  3. Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, at 79.
  4. Nelson, supra, at 86.
  5. Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, at 5.5 (45).
  6. Sitaraman, supra, at 57 – 58.