Remembering my high school friendship with Will Craig

What is striking in the photos of Will on Facebook in the last few years is the joyful glint in his eye, with just a hint of mischievousness, a healthy dose of ego, and a large dose of humble warmth. It is precisely the same Will knew over three decades ago in high school. His presence was a joy. We really enjoyed each other’s company, and we laughed a lot. Adolescent laughter, not “adolescent humor”– that derogatory phrase used to by adults to describe bathroom humor, mean-spirited vulgarity, and the type of sex jokes made by those who know nothing about sexual relations. There might have been a few dirty jokes I suppose, but we were uncomfortable with vulgarity. What I remember is the unguarded laughter of happy teenagers. We were young men who, because we were provided with plenty of love from family, friends, and community, were able to set aside adolescent self-consciousness and just be. He was better at that than I was.

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(Will and I in 2008 or 2009)

We met in 8th grade when Will showed up at Grass Junior High and tried to find his way amidst the fairly tightly knit clusters of students who had known each other a long time. He seemed to have arrived from no where and it wasn’t quite clear whether he was “cool” or not. He wasn’t, at least by the Grass junior high definition. At the same time, after my brief pimpled assault on “cool” popularity, wearing Timberland top-siders and Benetton sweaters, I more-or-less stopped speaking to anyone in order to find myself again (my discovery of Bob Dylan and the fact that Bruce Springsteen and Prince were also poets around that time was probably related to this transition).

But I spoke to Will. Our friendship began around that time, and I remember attending one of the only “student appreciation days” that I went on (my talking out of turn had earned me enough demerits every semester of the rest of my junior high career to prevent my participation prior to my vow of silence). We went to Valley Fair and had a lot of childlike fun on the rides, but the only thing I remember is a brief moment where we successfully rode a ride with a couple pretty, popular girls, and were blessed with a little of their attentions.

Ladies men we were not. Too innocent and shy about the implications of romance, we were more comfortable on sports teams and church groups. Our humor lacked irony, but it filtered in via nerdy influences like the Bloom County comic strip and Monty Python. With our innocence (naivete) and adolescent intellectuality we were attracted to the emerging subversive humor of those cast as nerds in the junior high hierarchy.

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(Will and I pretending to be drunken idiots in 2009 or 2009)

We didn’t see much of each other in the summers, as I recall. Our summers were filled with Bible camps and family vacations. And I recall very little of our freshman year at Henry Sibley high school. It was a cold and dark building in the winter, a brutalist construction where none of the classrooms had windows. With joking seriousness we used to sit in the corner of the lunch room, where a ray of sunlight cut a narrow band across the table. We would lean over in exaggerated poses to absorb a few rays. I played football and Will ran cross-country. He liked Star Trek and I liked Star Wars. My family was vaguely Republican and his vaguely Democrat. Yet I drifted left and he right. Will may have joined the student council as a freshman or sophomore, and he was on the debate team for a while which consisted of drowning your opponent in facts spoken with the speed of the Federal Express man.

Will was ambitious and found some inspiration in Michael J. Fox’s “Alex P. Keaton” character on “Family Ties.” I recall in Freshman Economics, our teacher Dave Mooney (who went to my church), introduced a role playing game in which you were given a country with various natural resources and population and you could make choices about which industries to develop. Will came back within a week with a new and improved version in which you could develop a much wider range of industries, and progress towards becoming a nuclear superpower. Like I said, Will was ambitious.

My sophomore and junior years blend together into a joyful epoch, in those years when life is so intensely packed with events and bewildering growth. The other place that had sunlight was the hallway outside of some of the language and math classrooms. A nerdy little club gathered daily in that hallway after lunch and horsed around, meditating upon the vocabulary words we had to memorize by rote, and showing off various ways of using pressure and friction to climb and sit on the walls. We waited for the approach of the ancient but still perky teacher Bev Eckholm (who also went to my church…that’s the kind of place West St. Paul was in those days, everyone went to someone else’s church or synogogue…Islam prior to the Somali immigration was something in storybooks mainly.) Carl had wedged himself horizontally across the hall or doorway about four feet up. There was something absurdly funny in Mrs. Eckholm’s reaction, a Dalí-like Jerry Lewis absurdity, and in the miasma of American literature class while Mrs. Eckholm waxed erotically about Ernest Hemingway’s endurance, the picture of Carl and Eckholm’s reaction made me laugh again, and I could not stop laughing, until she sent me out of the room. And I still laugh as recall Will leading us in in a chant of “Sanguine: hopeful, cheerful, bloody.”

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(Will and Colin Klotzbach working on the Insider newspaper)

I think Will got his driver’s license before I did, I’m not all that sure how we got around. But Will being precocious as always got us down to the bohemian district of the West Bank of the University of Minnesota campus. We became regulars at a hippie vegan folk music joint called the Riverside Cafe, and we went to an art house cinema and watched weird movies like the phallic British horror movie the “Lair of the White Worm” or the indie tone poem “Baghdad Cafe” where Jack Palance was a creepy old guy who settles down with a black woman to run a cafe on a deserted desert highway, or “Powwow Highway” which was a breakthrough feature film about two American Indians on a road trip, a complacent mystic and a impatient militant. They take a wrong turn and end up at Devil’s Tower which is thereby reinscribed from alien landing site to spiritual pilgrimage site (and now that I think of, it thereby reinscribes who exactly the white aliens are who invaded and appropriated that site). We performed together as “The Hyper Happy Hippies”on the absurdist public access talk show by our proactively nerdy colleagues. The Jason Kessler and Mike Garland show featured weekly bits like monologues about Printed Paper Napkins and Muff the Wonder Dog which was a wig thrown unceremoniously on the floor, in irony so blatant that it defeated the purpose of irony.

Toward the end of our sophomore year Will hit upon his first political stroke of genius. He realized that no one was running for the communications committee on the student council. the lowliest of the elected positions. So he proposed we run, as unopposed sophomores. We won, and Will commenced to control the lines of public communication. We controlled the music played over the PA system between classes (like musical chairs, when the music ended, you needed to be in class), and played Bob Dylan, The English Beat, and Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side which got us called into the principal’s office. I was away that whole summer, working at a Christian summer camp, in an experience that turned me into a young man, mature in some ways beyond my years, and not quite sure how to proceed. I still knew nothing about girls or friendships. Over the summer, Will acquired the exclusive use of a new Macintosh computer, a fun publishing program called ComicWorks, and the administrative go-ahead to begin publishing a weekly alternative to the official student paper produced 2 or 4 times a year by the journalism class. On the first day of school, in August 1988, The Insider made its appearance under the headline “YUP”: ‘Is this the first day of class? Yup. Is this the first issue of the new Publicity Committee newspaper? Yup.”

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“The Insider” was sloppy and weird and ad-hoc, featuring creative writing, great cartoons by Colin Klotzbach, edited-down-to-nothing record reviews, mock polls where the joke was that sample sizes were 5 or 7, and a little bit of solid reporting when the situation called for it, and it did on several occasions. There was a mass walkout when a school levy referendum failed to pass. On the cover of the next issue, Will wrote:

“Mass hysteria set in when the first referendum failed. People ran around crying “What do we do?” We had heard at least 20 rumors about cuts by 4th hour. People asked us to stay up all night and write an “emergency issue” of the Insider that would compile all the rumors into a screaming mess of lies. We did not follow their advice. We set about obtaining the facts from those who know them. We interviewed teachers, administrators, the superintendent, and school board members, as well as student leaders. Both sides of the issue are represented. We have done our best to give you the facts, please do us the courtesy of reading them.”

A better statement of responsible journalism I have yet to find. Please note that responsible journalism not only entails good reporting but active reading, it’s a two-way street. Later that year a couple students vandalized the school and managed to set off the sprinklers which sprayed everything and managed to release some 20-year old asbestos into the air requiring the building to be shut down for the rest of the year. The whole student body shifted to Grass Junior High and shared the building with split shifts. The Insider appeared on the first day of class at the new location. All of this was Will’s initiative and drive.

Then he registered us to run for class president and vice president. In control of the press, and with a professional quality cartoonist, we got our message out and our caricatured images and won easily. This had been Will’s goal. But he also happened to have taken the ACT exam as a sophomore, and did well enough to get a mailing from the United World College, which he shared with me. I’m sure we talked about it more, but I wound up applying and he didn’t. I got in and he later blamed me for never giving him back his brochures! I think his ambition for student council president outweighed his desire to drop out of high school and join this unknown boarding school in New Mexico. Had he gone, I’m sure he would have made more of that privileged experience than I did.

I heard of my acceptance during the student council campaigns, and he told me not to tell anyone until after the campaign. In the meantime, we contacted a trusted ally in Tracy Hogan. We took her out to lunch at a discreet West Side diner and asked if she would be willing to take over the position of Vice President upon my vacating of the slot. She was agreeable and Will looked forward to a high impact presidency. When this became public, there was a predictable cry foul and Tracy was replaced by a nondescript good girl who made Will’s tenure unproductive and miserable. Meanwhile I dove into an exciting new place of high mountain adventures, sophisticated opinion, and worldly women. With my vast Insider experience, I found my way into a similar role there, editing a newspaper coup under the leadership of a Malaysian version of Will Craig I met there, a trade unionist rather than a Christian conservative, filled with fire and ambition, the same adolescent innocence, but in whom stridency took the place of Will’s warmth. I emerged two years later prepared for life among the elite, and got promptly lost.

Will went to Carleton, the Ivy League quality liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota, and we began to drift out of touch. I visited him early one summer when I got home and his semester drew to a close. We attended a dance party, and in front of massive speakers we danced and blew out our ear drums until dawn. Neither of us ever touched drugs or alcohol. We didn’t need it. I drove home that morning shirtless in a spartan stick shift Jetta on highway 52 back to West St. Paul.

But I have a feeling that something went wrong for Will at Carleton. He was earnest and hard-working and right-leaning, and he found himself among smart pseudo hippies, and a campus culture that didn’t really have much of a place for his kind, and he found no group of wise-cracking nerds with whom he could dominate campus politics. He withdrew and drifted into a more strict and conservative Christianity than had presided in West St. Paul. And I drifted in and out of moral consciousness, depression, and parental clashes, undoing much of the maturity I had gained over the previous few years. I never quite recovered that maturity. And I didn’t see Will again for years.

I went to New York University for college, and stayed there for some years, after a brief stint at a Venezuelan agricultural college. Will took up work as an installer, salesman, and manager for high end electronic building installations. I was still in New York in 1996 when Will invited me to his wedding. He had met Collette at church, a pretty, practical, and sensitive young woman. I don’t recall what I was doing. I was in the midst of an MA degree and perhaps some summer jobs. And I guess I just didn’t have the time or money to attend the wedding, or even, I believe, respond. It didn’t strike me as that important. I could have and should have gone. Like I said, I was lost. Re-connecting with Will at that point would have done me a lot of good in the subsequent years. My joy in life waxed and waned easily, and his steadily solidified. I realize now that for 30 years I had hole in my heart, one of many perhaps, that was Will’s absence. We all grow apart so easily, we drift and get lost, and that is healthy. But to return to the anchors we had in the tempests of adolescence is a good way to get your bearings after exploring the seas of adulthood.

Some years later, I think it was not until after I had returned from three years if teaching in Africa, that I went over to Will and Cully’s house for dinner. It was a warm evening. Will served little filet mignons wrapped in bacon, from the grill. I took the whole visit as a courtesy, and perhaps I apologized for skipping their wedding. But I did not, even then, understand that it was an evening of forgiveness. And I didn’t see them again until I visited with my own bride a decade later, and we were received graciously. But I I still didn’t get it. And I never saw him again.

Will and Cully built a life together, they raised two handsome boys. They home schooled them and brought them on carefully planned field trips across the country. They got involved in a volunteer air force auxiliary which was I suppose related broadly to Will’s conservative patriotism. As with all things he took it very seriously and contributed to that civic-minded organization as well as his church and community. One boy went to Northwestern College of St. Paul, where Cully went to school, and studied to be a pastor, with the goal of serving as an army chaplain. The other went to Carleton college and studied computer science and Chinese, their proud smiling parents in picture after picture.

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(Will and his wife and sons in Civilian Air Patrol uniforms)

Will and Cully died last week in Highway 52, when a full dump truck failed to brake as it approached two stopped cars behind a semi-trailer signaling a left turn. The dump truck crushed them into the semi. The purpose of their drive was for a man and wife, who had raised two polished young men and sent them off to college, to go out on an afternoon date together to walk in the fall foliage along the Mississippi River.

Both sets of parents survived them and are in good health. The boys are on solid ground, they are both now older than Will and I were when we went our separate paths. They are surrounded by that proverbial cloud of witnesses who will love them and encourage them in their life journeys. I hope they will remember the mischievous glint of love in their father’s eye, filled with innocent, ethical, and ambitious joy.

Pop culture in review: “Jungle Fever,” “Stranger Things,” and “Once Upon a Tim e…In Hollywood”

This is just for fun, reflecting on some movies and TV shows I’ve watched lately. I’ll start with Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” which is a much more subtle movie than I remember. But it has very little to do with “Stranger Things” and “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” which are actually quite closely aligned aesthetically.

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I saw “Jungle Fever” sometime around the time it came out, either in the theater or on video just after I arrived in New York City for college. It was a part of my general acculturation to the city, which is an incredible experience for anyone fortunate enough to have the chance. My first time in New York was in 1989 or 1990, and Times Square was covered in posters for “Mo’ Better Blues” in that New York style of plastering rows and rows of the same poster creating this Warholian pattern of day-glo colors amidst the angular grays and noise of the city. By the time I returned in 1991, the specificity of the posters no longer caught my attention, they were just part of the texture of the city, so I suppose there were “Jungle Fever” posters too, but I don’t recall them.

New York in 1991 was still the New York of the 1970s and 80s. It was changing, and the change was perceptible to locals I imagine, but attitudes had not changed. This was still the “it ain’t Kansas” New York of muggings and graffiti and ghettos. Its rough surface full of foul smells and punchy people held a glorious shock value that screamed New York and brought to furious life all the associations an urban-curious Midwesterner could muster. I remember flying in and seeing the skyline for the first time, and wondering if everything Lou Reed said is true. New Yorkers rode on the subway standing, reading a paper, against the doors, eyes warily on the crowd and their pocketbook lodged in the corner where the door met the bench. In our orientation at the dorm a crusty cop told us that everyone could tell we were new around here, and here’s some survival advice…

Jungle Fever seemed to explain something about Al Sharpton and Bensonhurst and racial violence in New York’s self-contained world. New York was a place where another student in an honors program, who claimed himself as “Persian” asked me: “Hey Paul, you’re a pretty big guy, would you be willing to beat someone up for me? I’ll pay you.” I wasn’t in Minnesota anymore. I was just 20 years old, and a very green 20 at that. I was still a virgin literally and figuratively. Suffice to say, I didn’t really “get” Jungle Fever.

The movie, in my recollection, settled in as a solid Spike Lee movie, and a sensationalist take on interracial dating. It merged in my mind with Al Sharpton’s protests, Tawana Bradley and Yusuf Hawkins and some guy who stabbed Sharpton in Bensonhurst.

Re-watching it I saw something far less political, more subtle and more compassionate. Spike Lee reflects on family, which was and is touted as the cure to all social ills. The families in Jungle Fever are the source of social ills: their abuses and judgmentalism, and yet the escape from family is hardly the cure. His most proximate fear is for the child without family: the light-skinned child born of a long broken union, now a drug addict or a prostitute on the streets…and yet the child of the staid preacher’s family also suffers the same fate. Wesley Snipes’ overachieving and overlooked professional fears for the fate of his daughter who is threatened with a broken family because of his recklessness. And even his shattered marriage has a traumatized root in those who mocked his wife’s light skin. The awareness of skin color is a curse, yet ignorance of skin color is no cure.

Just as important to the movie is how humanely he treats the scandal at its core. Their attraction, its course, and its resolution are not sensationalized at all, except perhaps in certain elements of Spike Lee’s stylized style which comes with any of his movies, and which is such a turn-off to award committees. Their romance is openly acknowledged to take place amidst the “curiosity,” transgression, and exotic fantasy expressed by the openly racist trope of “jungle fever,” it is the generation of difference and its erotic overtones accomplished in American racism that feeds their attraction, and Lee handles those themes with a balanced hand, but more importantly a compassionate one. He judges neither of them, even while allowing for their sin and recklessness. At the very core of their relationship is the unfolding of real love, regardless of race, marriages, families, and children. The most painful moment is when Wesley Snipes’ character has to disavow that love for the sake of a bigger societal responsibility to reestablishing his marriage, and his wife’s tears in the closing scenes signal just how emotionally painful that will be. Race is just one small part of a story about the “malocclusions of love” to turn a relevant Gwendolyn Brooks phrase.

It is amidst all these families that we see that their sin, their recklessness is but one small collision amidst an infinity, and that, in fact, families are built upon such collisions. And Hollywood movies are built on such fantasies. It is not coincidental that the empty apartment that the protagonists share looks a lot like the one in “The Last Tango in Paris”. Spike Lee, like Quentin Tarantino works in the self-referential language of movies. And so does “Stranger Things” which famously reconstructs Spielberg’s suburban Edens pierced by supernatural forces.

Race doesn’t really seem to exist in the confectionary world of “Stranger Things”… so strange indeed. And yet, I recognize that place, at least the everyday world that seems to suffer no effects of the profound mind-boggling existential crisis borne by the parallel dimension that inhabits their Twilight Zone town. There is a token black family, but that phrase feels cruel here. Is it merely that cynical? The thing is, there were a thousand such suburbs in the early 1980s where a professional black family quietly moved in and fit in. Perhaps other parents kept them at a distance, perhaps they felt the scorn of property valuations. But few in that era and that place would be so uncouth as to heap that scorn upon the child. He fits in. There were kids like that in my junior high. Let him be, don’t scorn him as a token, nor his first romance as a “fever” of any kind other than the feverish impossibilities present in all first romances. Their social world is brightly lit and not quite realistic, but hasn’t the introverted world of junior high always been thus? That he and his sister are black in that era and in that place are the least of his problems, puberty beckons as a more immediate complication. The trials a young black man might face in such a circumstance will really only start around the time he gets a driver’s license.

“Stranger Things” was pure candy, and the first season went down in a delicious gluttonous gulp, leaving a sugar-rush high adamant for more, and no subsequent hit can quite match the first one. And the show got worse each season. The exquisite conceit of the “upside-down” and the psychic laboratory and the flowery monsters gave way in subsequent seasons to knock-off copies of the same, matched with borrowed clothes of cheap Hollywood monsters. And it is just as well, because by the last season the show’s clever unspoken conceit becomes undeniable and therefore all the most impressive that they kept it credibly hidden that whole time.

The “upside-down” does not exist, not merely in our “real world” but even in their “Stranger” world. The “stranger things” are entirely in the realm of puberty and its parallel dimensions of childhood and adulthood and the incomprehensible world in between. All of the supernatural elements of the show are revealed, in a self-conscious and deliberate way, to be nothing but the projections of the fertile imagination of early adolescence, a predominantly male . There is a reason why the gateway to the “upside-down” was broken open by a pubescent girl. There is a reason why it pulsates in such a pornographic vulvular manner. It is the projection of male fear and fantasy, of a 12-year old whose best knowledge of such things comes from magazines hidden in someone’s father’s closet. And there is a reason why grown men attack it with such ferocity and find such terrors upon crossing its threshold. When, in the final season, the gateway is under assault, it is revealed as rape by bad guys with a giant bionic dildo. The storyline of “Stranger Things” is about the entrance into adolescence, and the way the world seems to take on another magical dimension with the emergence of sexual awareness. Thus the main “girl” of the show is herself magical, all-knowing, and indestructible.

So, this conceit only expands as the seasons pass. By the end we have infused their entire social world with a heroic fantasy, where the mall is not merely the space for a consumer’s coming-of-age, but also an epic Cold War battle. In the end, we are reminded that conspiracies are rarely actual glimpses into secret intrigues, but are almost always paranoid or self-aggrandizing or merely necessary fantasies that make the banality of life bearable.

So, as the series ends with the cataclysm at the mall, the irony of the whole show is that the newspaper headline that it was just a disastrous fire that took the lives of several people is not the “cover-up” that is implied in the structure of the show, but rather the sign of the conspiratorial fantasy that has been the whole premise of “Stranger Things” from the beginning. The “stranger things” are not monsters from another dimension…but 13-year old girls, who for all practical purposes might as well be.

So, I turn now to one more subtly signaled fantasy. As with “Stranger Things,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” never really winks to tell the audience that the whole story is premised upon a fantasy. Well he does wink, once, in the title itself. “Once Upon a Time” just as reliably as his old “Pulp Fiction,” signals both the fairy tale that it is, that all Hollywood movies are, and signals his total immersion in that fantasy world by recalling the great Sergio Leone films “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Once Upon a Time in New York.” Then he reinforces this hint that he is presenting something that is entirely a fantasy by practically exclaiming “IN HOLLYWOOD” …. Get it???

Italian cinema is given prominent billing in Tarantino’s film, and we are reminded that Sergio Leone’s break-through spaghetti westerns were built upon the monumental male fantasy of Clint Eastwood as “the man with no name,” who was thereby proposed as a universal male archetype. Tarantino plays upon this by presenting the stuntman as another “man with no name” in this case the particular wet dream of manliness, Brad Pitt.

In Tarantino’s insular world of Hollywood fantasy, we never are allowed to forget that the actors exist in a strange dimension of continual reincarnation. If Clint Eastwood himself appeared in the movie, as a hospital nurse or a movie exec, we would be disallowed from ever even considering that he was not also the archetypical man with no name, always and forever. That character shapes our experience of Clint Eastwood in every single one of his movies. Likewise Brad Pitt is always and forever the projected millennial male fantasy that he played in “Fight Club.” He is never not that projection, and he is that projection here again. Brad Pitt’s character in the film (whatever his name was) does not exist. He is merely a fantastical psychic projection of Leanardo DiCaprio’s character, a character, we should note, who shares not a little of DiCaprio’s own real life fate. DiCaprio shows again that he is a magnificent actor, and it is the complex conceit of him acting as an actor acting as a cowboy that perfectly captures the hall of mirrors (prominently figured in the closing episodes of “Stranger Things”) that Hollywood is.

It is within this conceit of psychically projected fantasy upon fantasy that the racism of Tarantino’s film resides. It is both acknowledged and indulged, it is both there and not there. The “white man with no name”, the “stuntman” accomplishes illusions of grandeur, superhuman feats of make-believe where no one is ever really hurt and no one ever really dies. Brad Pitt winks at us in a “Fight Club” type line, “don’t let the Mexicans see you crying.” By the same token, in Tarantino’s projection of a fading movie star’s projection of the manliness that he only ever played as an actor, that was only ever accomplished through the magic of film, in that fantasy world the “white stuntman without a name” is allowed to defeat Bruce Li, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar may protest that Bruce Li was the real thing, a real martial arts expert who could not be defeated by a sloppy white guy fighter not unlike Philo Beddoe (the previous generation’s “Fight Club” hero played by Clint Eastwood himself). But then we slap ourselves on the head and realize that, in the end, Bruce Li was nothing but a movie fantasy himself. Yes, he may have been a competitive martial arts fighter, and Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed in “Rocky”) was once a professional football player, but once they are on a silver screen, they are no longer anything but dreams.

And yes, Kareem Abdul Jabbar was once one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived, and probably the most thoughtful, but in enter the dragon he plays just another version of the character he played in “Airplane”, a winking reminder that we are in a dream where such people are constantly reincarnated, never fully shedding the aggregated “Mr. Potatohead” fantasy that is every Hollywood star. So his critique of the pregnant racism in the scene where Brad Pitt throws Bruce Li into a car is both fully accurate and at once deconstructed in Tarantino’s conceit, and never absent. Nor for that matter, the sexism, which receives the same winking and violent treatment. And thereby history, wink wink, is defeated. Charles Manson never kills Polanski’s neophyte wife, and so Polanski’s sodomizing assault on a 13-year old, perhaps also never subsequently happened…in Hollywood.

Tarantino’s cannot deconstruct racism, sexism, ageism out of Hollywood’s existence with cleverness. Indeed there is a lesson here. We cannot by winking, by acknowledging, by calling out racism thereby escape our own participation in all of these ills. Indeed the performances, whether of winking, knowing innocence or self-righteous accusation can only perpetuate the conceits of fantasy. And the stickiness of this conundrum makes Spike Lee’s accomplishment in “Jungle Fever” all the more impressive. He reminds us precisely of our post-modern condition of inextricable participation in precisely the injustices that we protest, and illuminates the ways in which society is pregnant with incompatible possibilities.

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Do You Think I Came to Bring Peace on Earth?

Luke 12:49-56

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three.”

This statement is not about physical violence. The targets of the anger expressed in this statement are precisely those who would take this passage out of context and use it as a justification for violence. But it is about the human potential for violence, and the violence that accompanies the destruction of a social order and its replacement by another. Even if such a transition is accomplished without violent conquest or revolution, the human potential for violence–the way that violence emerges not merely as attack on enemies but as expression of confusion and uncertainty–remains, and Jesus here acknowledges that this tragic potential always accompanies his words in the earthly realm, even his calls to love.

This chapter opens with a description of a rude and unruly crowd: “a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another.” Jesus is with his disciples and speaks to them. The desperate crowd punching each other to hear one of his magical words, some no doubt sent by the Pharisee priests and told to listen and report any scandalous thing he might say. They wanted something they could use to call him out, something they could use the way we latch on to the words of a politician or a movie star and make a big show out of how insulted we are by their scandalous words, and how this proves that such-and-such celebrity is a racist or a homophobe or a liberal elite or a traitor to his country. They were desperate to rend their garments and show everyone how holy they were by how insulted they were by blasphemy.

In the previous chapter Jesus tore into the holier-than-thou Pharisees for their hypocrisies, for burdening people with a judgmental religion full of meaningless ritual and sacrifice. Jesus had been preaching the day before, and a Pharisee priest invited him to a meal, seeking, I suppose, to talk him down a little, make friends, and get him to preach their message and become part of their power structure. Jesus copped a rock star pose, he walked in, looking them in the eye, and reclined onto one elbow at the table on the floor, and very deliberately had not even washed his hands, let alone done any of the ritual washing that the Pharisees were so uptight about. Entertained by their horror, Jesus launched right into them: “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” So the Pharisees then began to show up at all his events and ask him questions to trip him up, to embarrass him, to bait him into saying something that would offend the crowds so that they could mark him as a blasphemer.

So, the next day Jesus is with his followers surrounded by this unruly crowd, and is telling a series of meandering stories and admonitions. His mood is gentle one moment and annoyed the next. And then it turns downright violent. “I come to bring fire on the earth, and I wish it were already kindled.” In his angry mood, annoyed by the petty questions of the desperate crowd, he want to light the world on fire. He says he’s frustrated by a higher calling, as he awaits what he calls here “my baptism.” He’s already been baptized by John, and we should remember that John said that “I baptize with water but the one who comes after me will baptize with fire.” So that seems to be the reference here. And Jesus then clarifies what he means by “fire on earth,” in stark and surprising terms. “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

For those who look to Jesus for precisely that high-minded dream of “peace on earth,” Jesus here is cruel in his mockery of them. For those war-mongers who like to defend all manner of atrocities and attacks as defenses of religion, they find here their justification.

So, what in the world? What is this all about? Why would Jesus say such a thing? Clearly he is trying to upset the self-centered crowd, who are asking him stupid things like, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” It is because of this attitude that Jesus tells the crowd that his teachings can only bring division. And that is his message for us today as well. It is, at its core, a message that has been with us since Cain and Abel. When we treat religion and ethics as a mere legal dispute to be won or lost, then we have no place in God’s kingdom. Such were the Pharisees, and if his preaching against them, then it had to bring war of some kind. The alliance of the Pharisees and the Jewish royal house was more or less the same as that between the Saudi royal family and the legalistic Wahhabi preachers who provide their profligate lifestyle with theological cover. And a large segment of “Conservative Christian” theologians today bend towards this same habit, where theology is not a means of guiding the faithful towards the mysteries of God, but rather of guiding them towards enslavement rather than servitude.

Jesus condemns that order, which had cost his friend John his head, very literally. Jesus proclaims the end of that order. That is the fire, and it will not be peaceful. (Many years later, centuries, millennia in fact, James Baldwin took note of what the end of an order means by quoting an another iteration of this same symbolic phrase. “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, but the fire next time.”) And Jesus knows full well that if the Pharisaical order collapses, so does the delicate balance of indirect rule in Roman Palestine. Within a generation Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans and the temple destroyed.

The hypocrisy, at its most literal, was simply this: The Pharisees preached purity. But Roman food, Roman vessels, Roman soldiers were not pure in this ritual sense, and people tried to avoid Roman things and interactions, and the Pharisees defended the corrupt alliance of the royal family with Roman authorities. And then washed their hands in public view depending of the ritual of sanctity while the money lenders and tax collectors enriched themselves at the Roman manger.

And it should go without saying, but needs to be said this Pharisaical age today in America, the hypocrisy of which Jesus speaks is not, in the end, the specific details of ancient Palestinian politics or pre-talmudic treatises, but of the congenital hypocrisy of the human soul, its vulnerability to corruption. It is not about Pharisees or Jews or Romans, but about the original separation from God, the premature knowledge of good and evil, and the inability to act upon that knowledge. As Paul later put it, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” The sword that Jesus brings is the one that divides the soul from itself, the one that destroys the Pharisaical order within each one of us, the hypocritical construction of the self. In its place Jesus offers a grace that can only happen via the confession that destroys all respectability. The confession is not a price, but simply a prerequisite. It must happen for grace to be possible, because grace happens through an interaction with God. It is free gift, but must be accepted as such, and any exchange that happens prior to confession is a transaction rather than a gift. It bears a price that turns the gift into a commodity and the price is never sufficient for the gift of life. For the Pharisees, Jerusalem is destroyed and abominated. For the followers of Jesus, Jerusalem is established anew as permanent community of all who believe, not the city on the ground, but the city of God. And when even Rome is destroyed, the City of God lives.

Zecharia and His Vision of Old Men and Children

This is a quick comment, on a Sunday afternoon, on the Prophet Zechariah. The Old Testament reading this morning came from Zechariah, a minor prophet of the Old Testament whose memorializers helpfully cited a clear historical timeframe for his prophecy in the first few years of the reign of the Persian king Darius, whose father had freed the Israelites from their captivity in Babylon.

Zechariah calls for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and I was moved by the most humble aspect of his vision for a renewed city: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city will be filled with boys and girls playing there.” This strikes me as the core vision of any peaceful society. A place where old people and children fill the streets with wisdom and life, living in community and security. These vulnerable ones of society walk and run in the streets without fear, nor do their parents and children fret over their safety. It is a society in which paranoia has been shunted to the shadows, and the hard tasks of securing the city are accomplished quietly with dignity and mercy.

“This is what the LORD Almighty says: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of the people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?” Such a simple vision, for a people who had faced two generations of conflict and exile and who moved back into an orphaned city where a lack of government had lefts its streets to be ruled by bandits and gangs, where old men and children feared to walk through the narrow streets. So, to those who had come to accept that life of insecurity, a place where children run free and old men and women chat amiably into the night, this is a miracle. And, as with all such social miracles, we have first to imagine it, or allow God to imagine it for us. What is so endearing here is the humane vision that is imagined. Not a rousing conquest, but a community at peace with itself and its neighbors.

In such a community, rather than the enforcement of a politicized holy truth, there is just the joy of that most basic of human needs: community. “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.” That is all, people will come and believe for the simple desire that their elderly might sit in peace with their friends, and children may run freely and rambunctiously through the streets.

One pauses at this vision, a vision which the United States has accomplished at least at certain times and certain places. And I’m not saying it every accomplished it for everyone, or accomplished it justly. But it accomplished it in certain times and certain places. And even poor children, even minority children, in certain times and certain places could run the streets in joy. Amidst all the violence and injustices, we should not forget that we can accomplish this. And here we are also reminded that whenever someone refers to the “Jews” in the Bible, they are referring to the readers of the scripture, and today, for us Christians that means us. We are the audience to whom the Bible writers speak. When they speak to the Jews, for better or worse, they speak to us.

And here, we might be reminded, that when immigrants come to our borders, airports, and crossings, they are saying to us: “Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.” That is what they are saying. And for that we might want to accord them the holiest welcome we are capable of.

Zechariah then goes on to some poetic visions, and here that same vision of the most humble of all conquests, is repeated in more metaphorical terms. “See your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

It is even a vision that cannot be fully understood by his audience. This is, of course, a key passage of the Old Testament, testifying to Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. His was the conquest, a conquest played out in his humiliation and public execution…betrayed by the “Jews”, which is to say, betrayed by us. That is the cruelty of human society, and it starts with the inability to see the glory in humility, the glory in a city of old men and women and children in the streets, and a king riding on a donkey through those very streets, with children skipping beside him.

The LORD, voiced by Zechariah the prophet, continues: “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nation. His rule will extend from sea to sea.”

Listen: he will take the warhorses from Jerusalem. That very place that he promises to restore. That very place where the old men and women and the children will roam the streets without fear. That is the place who will be stripped of their warhorses, whose battle bows will be broken. We have to return again to His earlier words: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of the people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?” God can accomplish all things, including a joyful city of safety and life, bereft of battlements.

Later we have visions of war, visions of rebellion against leaders who are compared to bad shepherds. Visions in which God miraculously protects Jerusalem from Assyria and Egypt.

In contrast to that vision of what will be necessary of the bad shepherds, Zechariah contrasts them with a good shepherd. God told him “Shepherd the flock marked for slaughter.” Zechariah says, “So I shepherded the flock marked for slaughter, particularly the oppressed of the flock. In one month I got rid of the three shepherds.”

He got rid of the three bad shepherds, the ones who took the best of the flock, the ones who took only those destined for their profit in wool and not those marked for slaughter, the ones who promised great conquest and doomed Jerusalem to unending battles. And those flocks, upon finding themselves under the guidance of this gentle Zechariah, he tells us “
They detested me, and I grew weary of them.” In frustration he cries out an oath, a curse, “I will not be your shepherd. Let the dying die, and the perishing perish. Let those who are left eat one another’s flesh.”

It is a very human reaction to rejection. And it highlights all the more what it means when we call Jesus the Good Shepherd, for He accomplished what Zechariah prophesied, a Jerusalem of peace, a king on the donkey. And yet, Jesus was also rejected by those whom he came to save. In the same way they detested him. But he did not reject them, he did not curse them. Instead he died for them.

Zechariah goes on, and it is only in retrospect that we recognize that he prophesying not of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, but of Judas, the impatient one, who upon facing rejection, cursed his flock. Zechariah says, “I told them, ‘If you think it best give me my pay; but if not keep it.’ So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.”

And the LORD then is fully of fury against him: the one who came as a good shepherd, and cast out the bad shepherds, but who, when his flock curses him, he curses them back. The LORD then says: “Woe to the worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock! May the sword strike his arm and his right eye. May his arm be completely withered, his right eye totally blinded!”

And at that point, he says “Awake, sword against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me! Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones.” A fearful vision of vengeance for a small minded people. And again we have the story of the Passion foretold, and the scattering of the disciples.

There is no way we would understand this vision in and of itself. But in retrospect we see that when the prophecy is that “I will bend Judah as I bend my bow and fill it with Ephraim. I will rouse your sons, Zion, against your sons, Greece, and make you like a warrior’s sword.” Here, we can only understand the metaphor. That the bow is Judah, and the sons are the arrows. They go, like arrows, metaphorically, into Greece in the Great Commission. They are the first missionaries, arrows not of destruction but of good news. Arrows not to kill, but to pierce the heart in its metaphorical sense, pierce it with the words of love.

That is the meaning I take from this. The conquest proclaimed by the man on the donkey is not one of arrows and warhorses, but of words and love.

Re-Hashing the “Baby Cold Outside” Debate…Please don’t bring this up during Christmas

Below is a Facebook post I wrote three years ago in response to people “reassessing” their entire opinion of David Bowie because it was publicized that a former groupie had written about a sexual encounter with him when she was underage. I’d like to write something new and original today for Christmas, but because this silly issue has now made the New York Times, and inspired an expletive-laden response from the Pogues’ Shane MacGowan that I’m dying to read, I am writing up this quick preface to an old Facebook post. MacGowan’s song “Fairy Tale of New York” is under fire because one of the low-life characters whose conversation forms the song uses the most prominent anti-gay slur to rhyme with maggot in a line that is a tumble of loving insults. It’s a bad word. I’ll leave it at that, as does he. But he makes the argument that songs tell stories and the characters should speak in credible voices (thus also the “Gentleman Soldier” who is anything but a gentleman, and the drug-addicted protagonist of “Old Main Drag” who takes a “swift one up the rump” for some “cheap pills”, and so he goes through life: “I’ve been spat on and shat on and raped and abused, I know I am dying, but I wish could back, for some money to take me from the old main drag.” It is a portrait of despondency and abuse, and rightly vulgar as it bears witness to human tragedy and the class-based structure of its abuse. His “Fairy Tale of New York” takes a couple characters not far removed from that victim of the Old Main Drag and allows them a moment of celebration for an ancient holiday that combines multiple religious traditions into one moment where we can believe in some sort of salvation from the tragedies and abuses of this world, and for many that will be an expletive-laden exclamation of rare joy.

And at least “Fairy Tale of New York” IS a Christmas Song….”Baby It’s Cold Outside” is NOT, and is also not offensive in any way shape or form…if one is willing to pause for a moment and think about the 1940s cultural context in which it functions…and even then IT IS NOT an endorsement of date rape drugs… gosh… Only a willful misreading of the song, its ironies and flirtations and anxieties, can lead one to take offense. I’m probably rarely in agreement with William Shatner on anything, but here his response “you’ll be clutching your pearls” over rap is right on target in its quotation of a line meant to shame old biddies of the 1940s in a tizzy over jazz.

Anyway, here’s the unedited three-year old Facebook post, enjoy 🙂 … (that would be a sadistic grin)…and Merry Christmas

Hijacked by our own Creation

This is a quick post, because often I don’t post at all because I’m intimidated by what it will take to write the intended essay. I would love to write an essay about all the old songs we sing in church, (most of) which are a sort of greatest hits of the last 500 years of European and American religious music. Songs like “Wake Awake for Night is Flying” are so profound both lyrically and musically, and I would like to comment on that, and perhaps by the end of this essay I’ll have at least one thing to say about that.

But this is just a thought that came to me while listening to NPR commentary on the Brexit travails, it is not directly related, but it is clear that our own current political problems are closely related to the refusal to acknowledge realities that is represented in the “to be or not to be” Brexit deliberations. It strikes me that, here in America, we are hijacked by the success of our own political system. We are justly proud of our Constitution and its checks and balances and its longevity, and it takes a good bit of work just to keep its ideals functioning, and there is the (by-design) dynamic of power swinging between different branches of government as each branch games the system to seek its own interests. And this design builds directly on the Adam Smithian era in British political-economic philosophy, and the idea that clockwork structures can be put in place that function in balance with an innate selfish drive in humans that can then give the machine its motive force.

It is quite a machine, and a side effect of its (again by design) conflictual functioning is that we are also in a constant state of conflicted anger, as the political fortunes of our own ideas and representatives rise and fall. And the ugliness of our political firmament is part-and-parcel of its design and its dependence on our worst instincts in a continual quest to find an institutional expression of our best instincts. By that measure it is a crazy contradictory system.

And this is all well and good as far as I’m concerned, American politics is bound to be ugly because of the assumptions about human nature that are at the root of the system. And what is beautiful about American politics is its rare ability to rise above that human selfishness and greed and accomplish good things on behalf of the society as a whole. In a profoundly Pauline way we acknowledge our sinful nature and then are blessed with political stability and peace by some power of grace beyond ourselves, or in a secular sense, we bind ourselves in a patriotic belief to the constitution and we abide unhappily by its rules and are granted an arena of non-violent war for control of the most powerful state on earth. By that measure it is humbling.

So, it works, in its own patterns of fits and starts. But, I do have the sense that we have been hijacked by its success. At minimum we take its stability for granted, and we increasingly confront the Constitution in a spirit of constipated legalism. We bicker over every word and every clause, and use every opportunity to question its most evident meanings, and we abuse its ambiguities for the narrowest of interests. As noted before in this blog: we “litigate” elections now, rather than holding them. Everything has become a lawsuit awash in technicalities.

This “litigation” mode is happening at the level of consciousness, and that is why I call it a hijacking: the pilot seats of our very selves have been occupied by ways of being in the world that our conscious selves would recognize as dysfunctional. This “self-hijacking” is of our own creation: our dependence on a legal document to construct and defend the legal order of our society has a self-referential, circular quality to its logic that, if untouched by other forms of consciousness, consumes itself like the ancient symbol of the snake eating its own tail.

But there is another level that this hijacking takes place, and that is in the Constitution’s concept of time. The Constitution created 2, 4, and 6-year terms for various elected offices, and state constitutions have split the difference with 3 year governorships and the like. But this leaves certain types of issues completely beyond the horizon of politics: the national debt, immigration, climate change and the environment more broadly. These issues, and others, have effects and processes that occur over the course of people’s lifetimes. The political system, as structured, cannot address these issues, as the whole motive force of self-interest that lies at the base of the system cannot address issues that transcend self-interest merely by their timeframe.

While self-interest is the motive force of the clockwork Constitutional concept, citizen behavior and voting patterns need not be bound by self interest. What is perhaps the greatest insight is that, on occasion, people can conceive of their self-interest in transcendent ways, so that their self-interest lies with the society as a whole, and can take on issues beyond immediate interests. So, by that measure, when society can be sufficiently mobilized, it can conceive of policies that transcend individual interests: civil rights, environmental legislation, etc.

Such mobilization has to depend on a level of consciousness that is bigger than Constitutional electoral politics. There has to be a level of philosophical sophistication in the society to achieve this. And it cannot be a mere elite philosophical orientation, it cannot be a PhD-level debate because that could not be inclusive of the whole society. The restrictions of a PhD level debate is not a question of mere “intelligence” and an assumption of who may or may not be able to participate in such a debate. The debate itself is political (as with the climate science debate today) and for that reason never quite amenable to mere reason. Any philosophical debate at that level will be vulnerable to class inequalities and biases, and that is the accusation made in numerous high-level policy debates today, and partisans have so thoroughly confounded (strategically so) class biases and political interests that they are nearly impossible to untangle now.

It is a deeper philosophical transcendence that is needed, that is not merely about policy or even conceptions of how the world works. I’m not quite sure where that transcendence can exist in a democratic society. Once upon a time, and perhaps even now, this could be conceived in the most literal sense of “civil religion” which is to say the old mainstream Protestantism of the George HW Bush type and his like, expandable to modern Catholicism. But, for obvious reasons, this cannot be sufficient to a diverse society. And yet, religion has a stronger emotional claim on eternity than science does. Science can only foresee some end to the Big Bang expansion of the universe, either in a cold fizzle or an explosive contraction that may happen on a time scale far beyond the life of the planet.

Religion envisions an eternity that is also immediate and present. We can pray and talk to a figure conceived as eternal, we can imagine our own entrance into an eternal state upon death, we can feel the presence of an eternal spirit pulsating within a short-lived body. This intimate concept of eternity is present in all (most, one cannot be sure) religions, and it most likely marks the core utility of religion as a societal concept. It not only legitimates politics, but it also conceives of transcendent political goals without which no political system can function, including our own.

We can only suppose that societal consciousness is directly related to moral consciousness, and it is at that level that temporal political systems, especially ones with such a short time-scale as ours, can make decisions for future generations. The mere invocation of “our children” will rarely be enough to over come the temporal tragedy of the commons in which all political systems are trapped.

Perhaps the Constitution by itself provides a sufficient scripture for a civil religion, but I doubt it for the reasons above. It can only be worshipped or litigated, and probably not both at the same time. Even less can it inspire the awe of mystery that accounts for the human humility necessary for societal achievement. But then again, the mystery of its contradictory functioning may sufficient after all, and thus we worship not the document but its gloriously messy effects.

I should end there, but let me give this illustration based on some meditation on the basic human decency of George HW Bush, despite his prejudices, shortcomings, and tolerance dirty (destructive) electoral tricks. His record will bear him out as a pretty positive force in American politics, at least as President. Anyway, I don’t mean to turn off those who would criticize him or those who would venerate him even more highly. My point is just this: is it conceivable in any way that Michael Dukakis would have handled the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union better than George HW Bush? And by that same token, is it conceivable in any way that George HW Bush would have been subject to the sort of wide-ranging investigation of a sitting president by a special prosecutor for trivial personal shortcomings, and thereby provide the precedent for a similar investigation of a sitting president for possible treason?

Democracy is messy, and sometimes its worst moments are in fact the seeds of its best.

What does Christianity do with Vulnerability and a Celebration of Sexuality? Part I and II

Part I

The day in Bo began a long and didactic discussion of the future of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sierra Leone, attended by bishops of various countries and pastors who are now administrators of churchwide bodies. The day ended with a celebration of the fertile energies of adolescent bodies. They dared the adults to join them, and protect them, on their joyful and dangerous journey through life. It was a celebration, ultimately, of trust.

As a scholar of African History, I know something about these traditions. I have a sense of the sacred nature of these dances that celebrate fertility. But it was nonetheless shocking to see them performed by church youth before an audience of Lutheran Bishops.

The Lutheran church in Sierra Leone is thirty years old, and ten of those years, as stated by several attendees who lived through the 1990s, were scarred by a civil war, marked by deliberate brutalities that were intended to upset the normal moral order. For them, it was a lost decade, and the church and the country stuck in a societal adolescence. It is a land that habitually, and daringly, casts from its consciousness the continual traumas that have haunted it for 400 years. The slave trade took five thousand people a year for during the century before Freetown was established as a British settlement for liberated slaves. Slave ships were captured at sea, the captives unloaded here, and slavery became a shared memory.  The traumas lurk somewhere in the magical region that Pierre Bourdieu called “the Realm of the Undisputed.” 

“The fact that warfare, raiding, and the knowledge that bodies could become commodities in exchange for wealth formed part of the every day conditions of life for over four centuries was surely insidious in itself. Terror had become a taken-for-granted aspect of the environment in which people’s lives unfolded.” (Shaw, 41)

For anyone interested in understanding this Middle Earthen kingdom where magic is still alive, I would start wiith Mariane Ferme’s “The Underneath of Things.” Read that first, and then go on to Paul Richards’ “Fighting for the Rain Forest,” and finally William Reno’s “Corruption and State Politics in Sierra Leone.” There may be some newer books out there as well, but, if you really want a challenge, read Rosalind Shaw’s “Memories of the Slave Trade,” whence the quotes that populate this essay come.

In a long discussion of Sierra Leone’s unstable history with men and women who lived through the war, one also recommended Ayi Kwei Armah’s barbed novel of postcolonial ennui in Ghana, “The Beautyful Ones are not yet Born.” It tells the tale of a  particular tragedy that has never quite been conquered in West Africa, and is more accessible than Syl Cheney-Coker’s magical journey through Sierra Leone in “The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar.”  In the meantime a new millennium has presented a more optimistic societal canvas than has been present for a long, long time. Sierra Leone’s new, democratically elected president is making his first tour upcountry since taking office, and is following close on our heels. His advance security people are present everywhere, just below the level of consciousness. They represent a widening governmental commitment to competence in a nation where a generation of the civil servants, professors, and businesspeople fled into exile, and a new world had to be built by the young. At the sprawling hotel where we are staying, it was only the jolt at breakfast of the scantily clad young women, who inevitably accompany all advance presidential guards, that brought their presence to my notice. One must keep in mind that in Africa, and this is particularly true in Sierra Leone, you are living in a society where 50% of the population is under age 15, and a great number of them are vulnerable where families and infrastructures were decimated, where social norms came under fire, where jobs are few. They seek protection.

At the center of the Crossroads, you get all the messages you are looking for. However big a thing is, it is to the center that it has to come.  All these roads, they have meanings.  If something is hidden, the road will tell you in the center. (Pa Yemba, quoted in Shaw, 92)

The road from Freetown to Bo is new and smooth and well marked. Parts of it pass through primordial landscapes whose modernity is marked only by the absence of of the towering trees that once lorded over the coastal rainforest. Human settlement has slashed and burned all but the palm trees that still cast their storybook shadows over the verdant hills. Elsewhere the roadsides jostle with bikes and motorbikes, pedestrians and goats. As elsewhere in Africa, all share the same narrow public space, and accidents do happen, but are here considered exceptions to God’s tender mercies and the respect for each other during the fleeting moments when viable public infrastructures are there to be shared.

We stop at a crossroads to wait for another car in our little caravan. American bluesman Robert Johnson sang of magical happenings at the crossroads, of devils on Greyhounds, and hellhounds on the trail. He conjured the magic of the crossroads from sinews of cultural memory that his ancestors brought from the Western coast of Africa. A Temne diviner in Sierra Leone explained to Rosalind Shaw that “The spirits come to the Crossroads.”

As Americans, we should know this, in blood-scented junctions along the Mississippi Delta and Ferguson, Missouri. As Americans, we should also recognize these African adolescents in the songs of Chuck Berry and the Dixie Cups, of Beyonce and the Black Eyed Peas. American culture does not exist without Africans and the traumas that brought them here.

“Well I’m all grown up. I ain’t a baby no more. And I can do the things, I couldn’t do before. Well I can go downtown, and I can shimmy all night, and he wants to kiss, I can say well that’s alright. And I can fall in love, and marry by and by, because I’m all grown up, and that’s the reason why.” (The Dixie Cups)

You want to warn them. You want to build a wall around them. You want to turn back the clock until they shrink back into a child’s body where their innocence is evident and their vulnerability sparks the instinct to protect them. But they are telling you that you have to let them go. The dance is telling you that it is their sexuality that drives them into the world. The dance is telling you that their mastery of their bodies signals their mastery of the world and all its cruelties, of which they know almost nothing. Adolescence is one of those magical crossroads filled with all the possibilities of life and all its attendant dangers.

At the crossroads on the road to Bo, a young woman, a teenager with soft shoulders and round cheeks approached the window with a basket of the fullest, ripest pineapples you’ve ever seen. She lingered at the window, hoping for a sale, her eyes as sweet as a shy child when asked what they want for Christmas. And when we waved her off, telling her we weren’t buying, she turned away with that same heart-breaking smile and not a trace of disappointment. It struck me that this girl, impoverished as she is, selling fruit by the roadside on a Friday, has everything she needs. Somehow, even on that chaotic corner, the African village, that ancient and most durable institution, has nurtured her in body, mind, and spirit. She is altogether healthy, her immediate needs of food, shelter, and love are present in sufficient abundance. What is missing, clearly, is the chance to do something more with her life, to train her capabilities and channel her generosity of spirit into something more productive. But what struck me is that the humble abundance that her family and village have given her offer only the thinnest layer of protection.

What struck me was not her poverty, but her vulnerability. On that day, you’d be hard pressed to find a more well-adjusted American teenager. But the American teenager, the middle-class ones at least, are cocooned in layer upon layer of institutionalized protection: security cameras and police, medical insurance and hospitals, food safety regulations and drug controls, a trillion dollar military and drones, trigger warnings and conflict free zones. This girl stood at the crossroads with pineapples on her head. And ghosts flew around her: ebola victims, child soldiers on meth, slave raiders with cutlasses and nets and crushed consciences. I can only imagine, and hope, that the ghosts protect her like the village does, as one of their own. If more restless ghosts still roam the land, they are not seen. But one can only imagine that they lie in wait to inhabit their human hosts and take their revenge.

“Landscapes bear traces of violent histories in different ways. One is through the suffusion of a place by the lingering presence of past violence and suffering: haunted houses, pools, forests, and stretches of road that were sites of murder, raids, drownings or, car accidents.” (Shaw, 46)

Just before we set out for Bo, we stopped into the Freetown neighborhood of John Thorpe. As with many areas here, a place is named in a feudal sort of way after some long lost occupant who carries an English name because once upon a time the land was ruled by people who had been liberated from slave ships and settled in this colony, converted to Christianity, and named after Englishmen. It was a shallow conquest, and a largely forgotten one, but it meant that traumatic memories of enslavement were planted upon the new society like the Magna Carta.

In John Thorpe the major industry is a sand pit, and heavily laden trucks of sand grind their way up and down the cratered dirt roads. In the cruel and uncaring manner of all plagues, the Ebola outbreak of 2014 hit John Thorpe particularly hard. The virus struck down 182 in the small community, and only nine survived. The Lutheran church worked in its own small way among the international armies of doctors and scientists who descended upon the country in their blue hazmat suits. The Lutherans helped organize community members to bring food to those in quarantine who had no one else to care for them. They found homes for the feared orphans who threatened everyone they met with the possibility that they might be possessed by the infectious ghost of their parents. They found places in school for them. They built some outhouses to stanch the spread of cholera.

It is a warm culture. People crowd in close, they embrace, they shake hands, and this all contributes mightily to the psychological well-being of children and youth, and all those who have avoided or buried the scars of other traumas. And it was those touches and embraces and clasped hands that were most missed when Ebola hit. You see Ebola does not simply infect the individual through the most minute droplet of blood, spit, or semen. Ebola devastates an entire community when all the normal acts of affection are deadly and even healthy people must be regarded with suspicion, and you fear to admit that you found blood dripping from your ears, or eyes, or anus.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote effectively of its human impact in “The Masque of the Red Death,” a horror animated by his fertile imagination and a shred of newsprint. For American readers it was a gothic thrill, and a metaphor for social anxieties and he madness of mobs. For the residents of John Thorpe it was a lived reality, another trauma whose departure was a cause for joy that overwhelmed the memory of the horrors. So they celebrated their survival with us. They thanked us for more than we ever possibly gave them. There are the politics of gratitude, and I know how those politics work, but there is also the ritual of gratitude as a moral act.

And the children performed a small, and underprepared play that dramatized their experience of death and hazmat suits. They fit in some ill-articulated medical terms about the disease and its vectors, but mostly they acted out a generic and reassuring portrayal of familial norms. A husband came home from work and an obedient wife served him and called the children to him as he warned them about the disease stalking the land. The crowd laughed when the skinny husband put an arm around his play-acted wife who, as girls do, had already matured beyond his comprehension. The comedy derived from an irony that pitted the mismatched children against a patriarchal order. And the crowd laughed when another skinny boy in an ill-fitting hazmat suit came to examine the dying husband while his wife cried on the floor. The crowd clicked supportively when the children warned their mother not to touch the dying husband because he might have the disease. And the crowd was possibly quietest when the wife scolded her children for their presumptuous warning in the face of parental authority. What did they know about Ebola anyways? They said they learned about it in school.

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What struck me first were the conventions of patriarchal family life portrayed, and the incorporation of the hazmat-suited ghost into that comforting vision of home. Patriarchal perhaps, and one could quickly spiral into all sorts of implications and abuses to be blamed upon patriarchal presumptions. But here this conventional family was an imagined ideal, a reassuring norm a father and mother and three children living in comforting order. As anyone who has worked with children in schools or camps, they like structure. They imagined structure, a family with a salaried father and a mother with time for her children, and a daily ritual of school. They imagined an American sitcom, and all the conventional comforts it could offer. And the reality that surrounds them offers very few of those comforts, and among the families around them, in John Thorpe, the stay-at-home mother and the salaried father and the three well-mannered children in school might be more rare than they’d like, in the wakes of wars and Ebola.

But what stayed with me was the laughter, the healing laughter, the recognition that when people experience real trauma, as opposed to all the hyperventilated traumas Americans subject themselves to every day, that laughter is healing. And that in America we have largely lost the ability to laugh at ourselves, to laugh at our fears, to laugh at our bodily functions. The only laughter we have left, at least in our public discourse, is laughing at each other in scorn. They laughed at themselves, at the way they had been afraid when the plague stalked them, and they laughed at the differences between ideals and reality.

They laughed because they had survived.

See Part II below…


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Unfinished draft: Political Posts, Civic War, and the Perils of Purge Categories

I started working on this a week ago, and with more important life events interfering, the whole thing ran out of gas. I’m going to try to compose a more succinct comment on these events as they illuminate the state of the nation…but this post just has to come to an unfinished end… I’ll get around to purge categories at some future time.

As the breathless news coverage about the hearings on the sexual assault allegations against the supreme court nominee takes a partial rest this Sunday morning, I realize how much we miss when we fixate so thoroughly upon the politics of scandal. The New York Times featured a number of excellent articles, as usual, this morning that floated up to the top because the headlines were not quite so thoroughly saturated with the question of whether the supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford.

There was a tsunami-earthquake in Indonesia, and the stories mirror other coverage of natural disasters. There is an excellent and frightening piece of reporting on the slide of the party of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s ANC, into mafioso corruption, with politicians being killed for squeezing in on someone’s turf, or for exposing corruption. And, in a blessed piece of balance, an all-in-all heartwarming story about the plight of baobob trees in Senegal, which are losing ground to new development and climate change, but remain beloved in that peaceful country. And then there is a story from the US that stands as a stark reminder of both the dangers of our fixation on scandal, and the background cause for that fixation. Thousands of detained migrant children at the Texas border are being moved under cover of night to a bigger detention facility, in which they are housed in canvas bunkhouses like low-security prisoners, with no school and minimal recreational facilities. The cruelty of that story is closer to the core of the actual politics at stake during the Trump presidency, and a more humane solution will probably will require a president and congress controlled by the Democratic Party.

The Republican Party is philosophically lost, inundated by the lies its leaders have been telling to themselves and to the American people for years, and the Kavanaugh hearings represent some sort of dramatization of that, among other things. But the handling of that scandal represents a profound moral danger to the Democrats as well, and to the #metoo movement itself. We, as a nation, are engaged in what I’m going to call civic warfare, where political ends justify means that will come back to haunt them.

This morning I ran across a viral video on Facebook, that intercut scenes of the movie Pulp Fiction of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing relating to the sexual assault allegation. I decided, with some reluctance to share it, so I wrote a long and (you’ll have to believe) eloquent comment as a lead-in, and then pressed share. The post immediately disappeared, never to be seen again. And I begin to wonder about Facebook’s algorithms, that a long thoughtful post is censored, while every emotional, tendentious, and exploitative outburst is given high visibility… You should understand that I don’t actually believe Facebook censored my post. I’m sure the post took me a long time to write on my phone and as a result the page refreshed or something and the post was just lost somewhere in the no-man’s land where tweets reside between the phone and the cloud. I won’t be able to reconstruct it, but some of those thoughts will emerge in this essay. But, first take a look at the Pulp Fiction/Kavanaugh Hearing video, it’s pretty funny, a few vulgarities, but avoids the over-the-top violence of the scene. It is a funny and vulgar response to a sad and vulgar week.

The video is funny because it builds upon the sly and subversive humor of Tarantino’s script and Samuel L.Jackson’s incomparable ability to bring this particular character to life. We encounter a black man who knows that he is generally smarter than most people he meets, and yet has the humility to work within an organization, respect his boss, and acknowledge the occasional encounter with someone who might be even smarter than him. We encounter this black man, like so many, in a confrontation with a bunch of bratty suburban kids who are neither smarter than him nor better qualified, and yet in the broader society they are accounted as his social superiors, and function in the straight world that he is excluded from, for his crimes, his relations, but mostly his color. Those bratty kids just had the misfortune to wander into his world. In this funny and fictional criminal world, not so far removed from the tragedies of the real world, the protective cocoon of the social structure that protects and upholds those white kids unravels and racial hierarchies fold into other hierarchies enforced by more localized violence. To turn that fictional lens upon the Kavanaugh hearing is very revealing, and that is the basis of its humor. And we need humor, we need humor, and we’re in danger of losing all humor except the humor that mocks an enemy.

Somebody assaulted Dr. Blasey Ford 30 years ago, and she’s sure it was Brett Kavanaugh. In my mere phrasing here, I have already broken ranks. In refusing to say unequivocally that I believe her, I stand condemned in eyes of Democrats of covering up an attempted rape, and complicity in the loss of the Supreme Court as a source of balanced judgment. In refusing to support the nominee as a consequence of that doubt, I stand condemned by a morally bankrupt Republican party of something akin to treason in their blasphemous reversal of Jesus’ injunction to his disciples to refuse condemnation of a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus said, “if they are not against us they are for us”; but the Republicans cynically reverse Jesus’ words and say “if you are not for us, you are against us.” What is troubling is that it is not just the post-Iraq Republicans that have absorbed this Manichean logic, but all of us. We Americans are now engaged in a mostly-nonviolent internal war, a civic war fought at the level of rhetoric, image, and loyalty. The Manichean logic then reinforces another unfortunate conceptualization of politics also produced initially as a result of Republican corruption, which is that of “litigating elections” rather than campaigning for electoral office. I will return to these themes later, and their consequences. But first we have to think about

Christine Blasey Ford bears a traumatic memory of a sexual assault in the early 1980s, with Brett Kavanaugh’s face and name emblazoned upon it. Newspapers have dissected the shreds of evidence that have been made public, and the FBI will now investigate, mainly through forensic interviews. It is unlikely that anything more substantial than her memory of the incident will be found. And that implies that we are faced with a choice to either believe her, or dismiss her entirely. But let me propose that it is neither morally nor philosophically incompatible to both believe her and yet question whether the evidence available about the sexual assault is sufficient to uphold the political assault upon the supreme court nominee. In the narrow specifics of the case at hand, we must, as moral citizens and fair-minded people, bear in mind the question: what if the person who assaulted Dr. Blasey Ford was not Brett Kavanaugh? What if she mis-remembered the incident? What then is our moral duty here?

But of course, it is never about narrow specifics. First and foremost this incident arises in the midst of the #metoo movement, and its effort to fundamentally change the culture of impunity in regards to sexual harassment by highlighting accusations, prompting investigations, and shaming perpetrators. The Democrats are riding the #metoo movement because, by and large, they are seen as more sympathetic and likely to support the movement, and thereby also be supported by it. But Democrats are also taking revenge for the Republican obstruction of Barack Obama’s supreme court nominee, for whom they refused to allow a hearing. They seek to delay the nomination process until after the midterm election in November and thereby gain a measure of control over the choice of nominee. And in this regard, they also are “litigating” rather than electioneering, litigating instead of governing.

Use of this term “litigating the election” is one I hear more and more often, usually from conservative pundits on TV and radio. The term may have emerged from the 2000 presidential election which was “litigated” by Al Gore to demand a re-count in Florida after a razor-thin margin of victory for George Bush. But, this use of the term referred more exclusively to post-electoral litigation in regards to discrepancies, misconduct, recounts and the like. The more general use of the term to refer to what used to be called “campaigning” seems to be a case of semantic slippage, where the habitual use of the word “litigate”, fueled perhaps by a particular rhetorical power attached to the word among lawyers and legal junkies, bled into a new connotation in relation to elections. It is an interesting semantic shift, as it signals a fundamental shift in the concept of elections, and more broadly, political process.

As generally understood, American democracy functions via a continual rhythm of elections for local, state, and national offices. The elections are contested by candidates who express particular ideas and plans, and lay claim to the loyalties of different segments of the population. An election is held, votes are tallied, and a winner is declared, barring allegations of misconduct. The winner then represents the entire electorate in the designated office or representative body. The winner will ideally act in concert with the views and attitudes of the majority of the constituency, and in some cases will seek to make the best decision on their behalf when a new or complex issue arises. In some cases the winner will use the prorogatives of the office for a more direct benefit for him/herself or for the benefit of a particular group of supporters. At some point such behavior can be labeled morally and legally as corruption.

In the American system we have odds and ends of petty corruption, of crass abuse of office for personal gain, but illegal corruption is not that common. Far more common is a more systemic corruption of how the increasingly expensive proposition of campaigning becomes dependent on donors who seek particular outcomes. In some cases these outcomes take the form of laws that are evidently corrupt in the way that they immediately benefit the political donor. In other cases the laws reflect a broader ideological position that is of more indirect benefit to particular donors.

But there is another level to this that can’t quite be called corruption in a direct sense. There are donors who are true believers in certain ideological approaches and certain legal philosophies. They donate heavily to achieve ideological goals, not for self-conscious personal gain, but for what they perceive to be the good of the society. Debates over “net neutrality”, abortion, deregulation, free speech, and many others fall under this definition. But just because the donors seek no direct personal gain does not mean that the effect of their activity does not corrupt the system. In other words, there is an element of process here, and of the dangers deriving from the ability of a certain class of wealthy people to shape the choices of elected representatives so profoundly. What has happened is that a class of politicians has emerged, predominantly lawyers by training, who act in a manner more closely akin to a hired attorney working on behalf of a client than an elected representative acting on behalf of an electorate.

A certain role reversal takes place, whereby the attorney navigates the political system on behalf of the client rather than a politician navigating the legal system on behalf of an electorate. And this reversal gives birth to the concept of “litigating an election.” In this concept, the goal of the politician is still to win the election, but the conceptual basis of the campaign and the victory derives from the goal of accomplishing a task for the client, rather than representation of the electorate. Thus, in this concept, all the tactics of the high-stakes courtroom become legitimate in electoral politics. There is something slightly different at work here than old-fashioned corruption and dirty politics. In past times there may still have been politicians “on the take”, working on behalf of clients, but they did so via their success at campaigning, and their actions were self-consciously corrupt. In the new circumstance, the seeping of litigation strategy into political strategy masks the corruption with the entire set of ethical concepts that govern attorney-client relationships. The attorney’s task is to represent the clients interests, not in a corrupt manner, but in a manner governed by the particular ethics of the adversarial legal system.

We should note that the adversarial legal system, and the contested election are separate traditions. Even though they may have some shared philosophical roots, they are not congruent and they each have separate histories. The conflation of these two traditions is dangerous to democracy. What we see emerging is the legitimation of the idea that elections are not won or lost by mere majority of votes, but that elections are merely a procedural barrier to be overcome by a variety of litigation strategies that range from gerrymandering, delay tactics, voter suppression, legislative manipulation, emotional appeals, and campaign contributions. And, more importantly, that these tactics are all legitimate under the conceptual framework of litigation rather than electoral politics.

It is within this framework that much of the Republican obstruction to Barack Obama’s presidency occurred. Any number of congressional and senatorial elections were “litigated” not on the basis of evident fraud or misconduct, but merely on the basis of technicalities (the timing of elections of Al Franken and Scott Brown come to mind) in order to gain minute advantages in congressional balances of power. The de riguer use of the filibuster and other delay tactics in the Senate are also direct consequences of the “litigation” concept of politics. Their expanding use makes perfect sense in a government dominated by attorneys acting on behalf of clients rather than representatives governing on behalf of an electorate. And, in this sense, the refusal to consider Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, was a perfectly reasonable delay tactic. At the time of its implementation by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the outcome of the tactic was uncertain as the presidential election remained an open field. As a Hillary Clinton victory looked increasingly likely, it seemed that the tactic would amount to little, since she would presumably nominate her own ideologically-attuned nominee. But McConnell, the good lawyer, stuck to the strategy and was rewarded with the Trump victory. In many ways it was McConnell’s strategy that made it possible for many Republicans to hold their noses and vote for Trump, because regardless of his flaws, he would get them seats on the Supreme Court.

McConnell proceeded with the tactics of a lawyer, but we still have to account for his electoral victories. And this requires a delve into another aspect of our current political formation, which is the civic war alluded to earlier.

It may not be coincidental that the litigation concept of elections has been reinforced by the civic war concept of citizen participation. At some point in the mid-2000s I saw Bill O’Reilly giving his “talking points” at the end of his show, and I found it disturbing. As a historian I had been through presidential records, and knew that White House staffers often prepared “talking points” for the president when he was to meet face-to-face with someone. The rationale was that the president was not up on all the details and progress with a particular country or interest group, so they prepared some basic goals to keep in mind during a free form conversation in order to make progress on long-standing issues. Bill O’Reilly was mobilizing his audience for a very different reason. He was mobilizing them not as a thinking citizenry, but as his agents, to shift public opinion on issues.

What was notable was the mobilization of soldiers for a culture war and not the enhancement of citizens of a democracy. His effort signaled the presence of the civic war, which just so happens to be an effective support structure for the litigation approach to politics. His goal was to swing friendly members of the jury.

What has happened is that we have all, or many of us anyway, been drafted as soldiers in the civic war rather than citizens of the democratic civitas. This is why our approach to truth becomes increasingly politicized. In every conversation we conceive ourselves to be fighting a larger battle rather than seeking a democratic consensus. This is evident in a variety of Republican hypocrisies and denialism from climate change to immigration policy to the national debt. But, any visit to the liberal-leaning realms of Facebook finds a similar group mentality, where certain patterns of outrage emerge through a complex psycho-political process: there is an element of compunction whereby a pattern of peer-pressure urges you to chime in on certain issues, usually with supportive outrage. A questioning of the outrage draws disbelief, mockery, and more outrage. You feel compelled to agree with the general tone for these reasons, but also for the broader reason of being supportive of the general effort. You tell yourself that you generally agree with the motives and desires of your friends, and that they will feel actual hurt if you don’t show support for the cause. In many cases their posts are structured as a cry for support amidst the trauma caused by various events on the public stage. And I do not question the authenticity of the trauma. But I do wonder if it is a product, in part, of the civic war and the nature of engagement.

The civic war, to the extent that you are deploying your outrage and talking points in personal interactions and pseudo-personal online interactions, is intimate. It happens inside our private bubbles. It happens in the space where social reality is generated. To attack and to be attacked happens within that intimate arena. One’s sense of self is at stake, and one’s status among peers. And so the level of outrage is defensive of self,

Duke Ellington on the Western Front

Reading the liner notes, listening to the 1973 release of “The Ellington Suites”, a compilation of Ellington’s late career pieces, more formal than his 1920s big band jazz, they are jazzy and contemplative, and I am reminded again of the alternative future that jazz presented us in the mid-20th century. They are regal tributes to a life well-lived. He was granted the privilege of crossing racial lines, a high-yellow ambassador from the underworld.

Jazz had proved its worth among the great musical forms of history, African Americans had constructed their own high culture to promenade the red carpets next to the baroques and lutes and yayues of the world. It was a moment before the civil rights movement, and in many ways the cause of it. But because it came before it marked a hard earned achievement indeed, as were the civil rights. And because of the success of those two movements and the parallel infantilization of American culture, the tiresome offense we all take at all the little insults of life impoverishes us.

Ellington could well afford to be magnanimous, the old lion had earned it, and he wore a few scars from his rise, as did so many men of that more unforgiving age. And because the age was unforgiving, they could be forgiving. He had the wherewithal to build beauty about him, a beauty that kept the lynchings at bay and allowed the construction of a new world within. In that ramparted courtyard, it was never a matter of arguing over affirmative action and the constant doubts such action inspires. It was never a matter of obtuse claims about slavery and redlining. It was never a matter of police brutality and doin’ what I gotta do to get by. It was about all of those things, and none of them, because they could only serve as first causes and not excuses. They could only serve to do what all historical tragedies do in the long run. They serve as pedestals of the spirit.

In that moment African American culture, a young culture by any measure in that it was a new creation built out of the severed limbs that were scattered across the New World when they emptied out the ships. It said that Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein upon reading the narrative of a freed slave who encountered a distrustful world with a consciousness built of scraps and pieces rotted from disuse from the many corpses that lay between Africa and Alabama. It was a young culture, but not so infertile as Frankenstein. The pieces were human and full of real life and whole children who, in the brothels and shantytowns where jazz was born, were unafraid of life itself.

That life was cruel, they never doubted. And that was their freedom. And it was that knowledge that bound them to the rest of the unwashed humanity who splashed upon American shores from the vast cruel world. They and jazz came of age in the 20th century, when the scales dropped from the eyes of the aristocratic world that had always taken the peasants for granted. The wars flaunted their evisceration of all those hypocrisies. And jazz found its home among the cubists and the crushed. Nothing’s quiet on the 116th Street Front.

With jazz there was no longer any need to carry around the fear that the slavers were right. Duke had a lot of slaver blood in his veins, but Parker didn’t, Miles didn’t, Strayhorn didn’t, at least not visibly. And maybe they bore a little more visible bitterness because of it, because of the scar that color becomes in a society that cringes over it. Jazz didn’t cringe for color. Its bantering genius was also its barricade, just like the ones that had protected Beethoven and Bonaparte. We live here now, with the polka playing Germans and dirty Jews discovering disorder in the universe. We’re all peasants here now, and in America’s crass rush for monopolization, the ruling class didn’t even bother to impress upon the proletariat its culture. Bebop and billy clubs in bocca al lupo. Good luck to all that and a hard drink of liquor.

There was no law, no court, no lawmaker, no president who had to rule upon jazz, no surly cop who resented the respect required of him when the law came to defy his demons. With jazz, slavery was not so much to be regretted as gutted. Like a fertile corpse, slavery nourished the new growth. Much as Yeats and Joyce took root in the famine. The nitpicking over legal arrangements and bitchy slights were yet to come, and inevitable though they were, they are, in them we forget that the Duke discovered beauty and forgiveness.

In that world of jazz Duke Ellington was a prince like any other. He played for the Queen at her cousin’s house in Leeds who he beguiled with his droopy eyes and virile years. When was the last time your band toured our isles? Ah your majesty, in 1933, many years before you were born… while she cast her eyes aside, her belly all a-flutter, and for her he wrote Sunset and the Mocking Bird and the Single Petal of a Rose. She had laid out a banquet for him, and he parried her favor.

The University of Wisconsin held another festival for him, and he recalled the cold years when he rode the circus train to Milwaukee and served as a novelty act at a polka festival. He did not dwell upon the indignities that all entertainers face. They pander to cruel crowds, not the ones who throw tomatoes, no, at least they are paying attention, it is the gross inattention and appetites of those who pay for wedding decorations that leave the most bitter taste. He saw past all the indignities of pecking orders and peasant infelicities to hear German jazz in the adorable childishness of the polka beat. And just as he wrote the Queen a suite, so he did for Yank Yankovic.

We can never again quite capture the dignity of mid-century jazz, the stoic virtue of dancing a ballet upon the fields of the Western Front.