“Because you haven’t lived.”
– a friend on why writing was not coming easily for me
Thursday, as I walked the aisles, a kid asked an odd question: had I any lead? He raised his mechanical pencil and, by way of explanation, clicked it vainly.
I walked to my cart. When I returned, I held before him the same pencil, down to its bright, green plastic barrel — a Pentel Twist-Erase Click 0.7, PD 277. He reached for it, but I opened it and instead gave him two leads. He opened his, too, smiling.
I asked him, as the class finished its freewrite, if he had found that the eraser retracted into the barrel as he rubbed it against the paper, but he didn’t know. There hadn’t been much to erase.
I’m writing this post with a black version of the same pencil — my home version, perhaps no older than my student’s. I hope I don’t lose it. I want to find out if its eraser, once you have to start twisting it out, retracts with use, too. If it doesn’t, then my school one may be an aberration and I’ve found my pencil.
Photo “Palimpsest” by waterboard. Used by permission.
Beth’s beautiful post at Cassandra Pages inspired me to photograph my place setting before we dug in tonight. It’s not as beautiful, but I wanted to show my solidarity (ha!) with holiday patterns.
One more picture from my week with a screened porch.
Our new climate, the paper says, will silence many songbirds. In a lifetime or two, all we’ll hear are hawks and crows. Crows and hawks are all I heard, anyway, having lost my high-frequency hearing long ago to rock and roll. Though it may have been the rifle range at summer camp. Or, a decade later, the hard enterprise of my hometown’s shipyard.
It’s a strong habit, not hearing, and my new hearing aids alone are not enough. My audiologist says I’ll catch myself saying, “What?” when a moment’s reflection might have allowed my brain to process sounds into comprehension.
What does it all mean? The leaves now rustle. The house settles and my knees creak. A scarlet tanager sings from a wood’s high catafalque.
While we were biking in Assateague Island’s woods, my friend pointed out an indigo bunting. We also saw lots of willets among the sandpipers and gulls when we got off our bikes and walked a stretch of quiet ocean beach.
My friend and his wife got me more interested in birds. I resurrected my bird apps and bought my first bird book. Hearing and identifying bird songs intrigues me more than identifying birds by sight. I’m glad the apps and the book include snatches of song and other sounds made by many of the more common birds.
We also saw lots of snowy egrets. I didn’t have my camera along, so I’ve included a shot I took earlier this year.
Biking around Assateague Island, some friends and I saw a couple of Delmarva Fox Squirrels. They’re longer and more gray than the gray squirrels that overrun the rest of Virginia. Those gray squirrels are really kind of a brown you’d associate with the plumage of many bird species’ young. The Delmarva squirrels also don’t get all frenetic. It’s like they’re content to live their life on island time.
Speaking of adjusting for island life, the house in the picture below traded in its chimney for an osprey nest.
I think I could get used to island life, too.
We stayed this week in something like a bungalow. Three bedrooms, two set inside the roof without even the headroom dormers would afford. A single bath for the five of us. And the best part Victoria and I didn’t discover until the second day – a screened porch, just outside the kitchen window.
I’m not sure I lived the past this house suggested. Chincoteague Island’s dignified, modest homes just off the bay reminded me of Hilton Village, a World War I-era planned community that surrounds the Episcopal church we attended when I was a kid. My parents and I leapfrogged Hilton when I was not yet two, moving from a downriver apartment to Brandon Heights, an uptown development with bigger houses, where my siblings were born.
Everything was not a block from the tidal James – the apartment, the church, the house in Brandon Heights, and the house we moved to in Riverside even farther from downtown Newport News when I was six, the house my parents still live in today. It doesn’t take much to wade in again. The slam of a screen door, or the cry of a gull.
I live out essentially two notions of slow reading. One focuses meditatively over a verse’s or small passage’s phrasing. The other digs into an entire book through marginalia and multiple reads. One is meditation and the other is study, though, happily, the lines blur.
Over the past seven months, I’ve tried both kinds of close reading on the latest Kindle Paperwhite. Each morning I’m reading a psalm, or part of a psalm, depending on its length and how things are going, from an unfamiliar translation. I’ve also tried to wear out two larger Kindle books. In the process, I typed 178 margin notes in one Kindle book and 452 margin notes in the other. (I love marginalia: my best writing is in my margin notes.) This post reflects on my experience of close reading these three texts on the Kindle.
By the way, the psalms translation is Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. The first of the two larger books is Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, and the second is Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies.
While I was reading Niebuhr’s book on my Kindle, I was also alternately “reading” it by listening to an unabridged recording of it on my phone’s Audible app. I’d stop this performance on occasion to record notes, and a transcribed version of my recorded notes would collect along with my typed margin notes when the phone’s app synced.
I wasn’t reading these books just to test the Kindle, of course. But I was curious, as I went along, to see how close reading on a Kindle stacked up against close reading a physical book. I also wondered what a well-lived-in Kindle book would feel like. Here’s what I’ve discovered in terms of both function and feel.
1. Typing margin notes on a Kindle is slow, but that’s not all bad. More ideas sometimes occurred to me as I used a single finger to press the tiny keys at the bottom of my Kindle. In a way it was more tactile than writing notes with a pen in a paper book. I found that I reflected more on what I was writing.
2. With 452 margin notes in Open Society, I need a way to search them. The search function on the Kindle and on the computer’s Kindle app doesn’t search my marginalia; it searches only the book’s text. To search my notes, I log into kindle.amazon.com on my laptop and click “Your Highlights.”
3. The “Your Highlights” page produces my few thousand notes on a single, slowly loading page. To search the page, I type Command-F, as I’d type to find something on any web page. Amazon hasn’t developed a serious research tool for Kindle yet, though any search function beats searching for marginalia in paper books, of course.
I had an epistrophe! Or Lincoln did, I guess, in his Gettysburg Address, but I amplified it.
I’ve been searching for a foundation for modern American democracy that tries to solve problems out of expediency with piecemeal legislation. Such a government would be aware of how such legislation might fit into more strident political systems, but it would be confident enough in its own philosophical foundation to not be overly concerned about it. It would have enough self-knowledge – enough philosophical bottom, if you will – to distinguish itself from oligarchies, plutocracies, autocracies, and socialist states. It would have enough internal coherence to project a kind of moderation that seeks compromise but isn’t defined by it. It wouldn’t be easily caricatured as a worried peacemaker, a candidate for an Al-Anon program, brought up in a family of raging political alcoholics. Instead, this philosophy’s moderation would be as principled as the extremes’ philosophies, but its principles would be better.
My way of thinking about the elements of such a moderate philosophy of democracy is Lincoln’s famous epistrophe from the Gettysburg Address: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” I use these three different prepositions to outline the parameters of an American political philosophy of moderation.
“Of the people,” I think, requires a philosophy that understands government as being part of the people, an expression of the people and proof of its ability to govern itself. The left-wing, anti-government creeds of the French Revolution and of Marxism, now unwittingly co-opted in part by much of the American Right, is a fantasy never realized by any Western nation. Both the French Revolution and Marxism envisaged a state in which government would become unnecessary. I think that’s heaven on earth – the state, as Madison might have put it, when men become angels. Even when a particular government is the enemy, as we claimed the English crown was in 1776, government itself is not inherently an enemy. The government, as Pogo might have put it, is us.
One can see the impulse to associate the people and the government most strongly in New England’s early approach to government. Colin Woodard in his book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America summarizes it here:
Yankees would come to have faith in government to a degree incomprehensible to people of the other American nations. Government, New Englanders believed from the beginning, could defend the public good from the selfish machinations of moneyed interests. It could enforce morals through the prohibition or regulation of undesirable activities. It could create a better society through public spending on infrastructure and schools. (Kindle Locations 999-1004)
I assign “of the people” to an understanding of government as a positive, collective activity, as an authoritative expression of the community.
“By the people” seems to accept a distinction between the government and the people not suggested by “of the people.” “By the people” requires a responsive government perhaps most thoroughly expressed by the antifederalists. Their concern about the size of the federal government, their insistence on a written bill of rights, and their desire for term limits reflect a belief in a personal government. The antifederalists of the 1780’s wanted to look at the federal government and see servants doing the people’s will. “By the people,” understood in this light, hates the inhuman and unresponsive bureaucracy associated with big government. It hates the idea of lobbyists and of any person or organization having purchased a special place in the government. It hates “crony capitalism,” for instance, a controversy that made the front page of today’s Washington Post. The antifederalists before them feared that the new Constitution “did not manage to secure the government against the danger of minority faction – tyranny by one man, or a few men, of enterprise, ambition, and wealth,” as Charles R. Kessler put it in his brilliant introduction to the Signet Classic edition of The Federalist Papers. The Tea Party – a kind of small-government, populist movement – may come closest today to my version of “by the people.”
“For the people” may, on the surface, seem diametrically opposed to my version of “by the people.” Instead of following “by the people”’s focus on a merely responsive government, “for the people” focuses foremost on a responsible government. This emphasis is perhaps most thoroughly expressed by the federalists of the 1780’s. Kessler first made this distinction between responsive and responsible government to sharpen an analysis of the federalist-antifederalist debate during the ratification years. He summarizes it in his introduction to the The Federalist Papers:
If republican government is to be responsible, it must be responsive to the people and answerable to their will. But if it is to be responsible in the more positive sense, it must go beyond mere responsiveness and be able to serve the people’s true interests or their reasonable will, even if this course of conduct is not immediately popular. (xxii)
The federalists believed that not every expression of the people’s will amounted to their reasonable will. Jefferson expresses it this way: “Independence can be trusted nowhere but in the people in mass. They are inherently independent of all but moral law.” Jefferson’s “moral law” is synonymous with “natural law,” an egalitarian version of classical natural law that Locke more than anyone made accessible to the Framers. The qualification of the people’s will by “moral law” and “natural law” means that the parameters of the popular will was restricted by reason. Edward J. Erler, in his introduction to Harry V. Jaffa’s Storm Over the Constitution, expresses it this way: “In egalitarian natural right, consent necessarily takes precedence. It is the task of constitutional government – and the rule of law – to insure that consent is not merely the expression of the people’s will but of their rationality” (xxiv). Of course, Martin Luther King’s appeal to these concepts of reason and natural law allowed him to justify his actions in Birmingham. He and his followers, he claimed, were justified in violating an unjust law.
The emphasis I find in “for the people” on a government’s responsibility therefore protects a minority from the majority’s tyranny, a chief concern of James Madison in drafting the Constitution. A government “for the people,” then, protects all of its people, even those who frustrate the majority’s will. It may pass legislation to protect the rights of certain minorities or to expand the participation by certain classes of people in the nation’s government and society.
There are certain overlaps. “Of the people” and “by the people” both emphasize a popular government and eschew moneyed interests. “By the people” and “for the people” both emphasize individual rights. “For the people” and “of the people” both emphasize the natural authority of government.
A moderate philosophy of democracy would legitimize the three impulses I define with the Gettysburg Address’s epistrophe, and it would seek to balance each impulse with the other two. Because “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as I’ve amplified each, stand in some opposition to one another, no political party alone could champion the entire philosophy. But such a philosophy might permit us to talk to one another, and even to learn from one another, again.
I’ve found writings involving what might be considered building blocks for some principled, moderate, democratic philosophies, and I hope to blog about them sometime soon.