The Rainbow and the Red, White, and Blue

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Most of the year, five big flags of the United States of America hang on the Dartmouth Street face of the 1895 McKim Building of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, fluttering above the inscribed names of great artists, poets, philosophers, musicians, mathematicians, and scientists. It was not always thus: the original design seems to have intended a single flagpole mounted above the center of the three main doors. At some later point, two more were mounted over each side door, and later still, another two on the third window sill in from each corner. 

But throughout this past June, the month named for Juno, Roman goddess of young adults, wedlock, and safe, legitimate childbirth, four six-striped Aurora-hued banners flanked a single national one there, even on Flag Day. 

June, as you may know, is designated — unofficially — Pride Month, when individuals and institutions both public and private signal their approval of and support for those who prefer sexual activity not of the natural and normal kind. The month seems to have been chosen, not because of its myth-etymology, however, but because of a thuggish police vice raid on 28 June 1969 upon the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village tavern owned by a crime syndicate and patronized by persons having the aforementioned inclinations, persons whom the syndicate were blackmailing and extorting, in some collusion with the aforementioned police. This raid sparked days of riots led by and for such persons, riots which, in that incendiary time, ignited similar combustions all over America.

The spontaneous soon hardened into the institutional: the first Gay Pride demonstration marches were held in major U. S. cities on the 28th of June, 1970; as colorful carnal parades, they have usually been held in that month ever since. But they are not restricted to the sixth month: you can find a helpful calendar right here. The term “gay” was at that time generic, applied to all manner of sexual experiment, but having become specific to male homosexuality, its earlier meaning is now represented by the vowel-deficient acronym LGBTQ+, the plus sign indicating an infinitely-expanding array of particular sexual personae (see “Pride Flags: A Guide,” below). The term “Pride” is here understood as the triumphant antonym to “Shame,” that is, the shameful feelings that some same-sex attracted people once might have or have had about their preferences, and the shameful treatment to which they have been subjected because of them.

Enters now one Gilbert Baker (1951-2017), a vexillologist by virtue of being an artisan in fabrics. Also an honorably-discharged serviceman and San Francisco drag queen. In 1978 Baker produced what has become truly iconic: the rainbow flag, instantly the ensign of the then-called “gay rights” movement. His insight was that the different colors represented the diversity and range of human experience as a beautiful spectrum, and his first flags thus had eight stripes, from hot pink to deep violet, each with its own Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 5.07.50 PMmeaning. In time, the stripes were reduced to six, omitting the pink and Isaac Newton’s trouble-some indigo. Actually, he made two flags: one with stripes alone, the other with a canton of blue and circles of white stars. The modified first one is now the icon, with the stripe order reversed, the red on top, violet at bottom.

After these first creations, Baker then styled himself “Busty Ross,” a cross-dressing homophile version of Betsy Ross, the upholsterer reputed to have made the first United States flag. For the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Baker and helpers stitched together a mile-long rainbow banner that was carried down Park Avenue in New York City, and in 2003, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his first flag, he made an even longer one that stretched 1.25 miles from Key West to to the Atlantic Ocean.

Baker had strong feelings about his flag and its importance as the emblem of a broad sexual-social movement. When his flag was accepted into the Museum of Modern Art, he said in an interview there on 17 June 2015, “It all goes back to the first moment of the first flag back in 1978 for me. Raising it up and seeing it there blowing in the wind for everyone to see. It completely astounded me that people just got it, in an instant like a bolt of lightening [sic]– that this was their flag. It belonged to all of us. It was the most thrilling moment of my life. Because I knew right then that this was the most important thing I would ever do – that my whole life was going to be about the Rainbow Flag.” Again, “The flag is an action – it’s more than just the cloth and the stripes. When a person puts the Rainbow Flag on his car or his house, they’re not just flying a flag. They’re taking action.”

To adapt a current phrase, Flags Matter. Baker understood. Flags are meaningful because they project personal identity into public view, an act necessary to forming and joining associations. Flags say, “This is what we stand for; we are together in this; this is us.” The flags we raise declare our belonging with others in worthy associations, and we thereby assert our own worth in those memberships. We can add other indices: clothing, bumper stickers, badges and pins, face paint and accessories. But Flags Matter. 

And national flags, being the signal of our highest-level civic loyalty, are very meaningful, especially in the United States. As the late Samuel P. Huntington wrote in his 2004 book Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, “Since the Civil War, Americans have been a flag-oriented people. The Stars and Stripes has the status of a religious icon and is a more central symbol of national identity for Americans than their flags are for peoples of other nations.” 

We do marvelous things for Old Glory, even die for it. In Maine recently, the ninety-seven year old widow of a Pearl Harbor veteran called the fire department to help hoist her American flag on Flag Day in order to honor her late husband and the country he loved and served. An Iraq War veteran is right now pleading for the return of a U. S. flag that was stolen from him. It had been given to him by an Iraqi child. He later had to use it to bind a comrade’s wounds: it still had his long-dried bloodstains on it. Flags drape the coffins of our warriors killed in battle, and after the funerals they are folded and given to the loved ones of the honored dead. A woman shopping in a used goods store came upon one such flag, folded into a neat triangle and placed in a protective pouch with the fallen soldier’s name printed on the front. She found the man’s nephew in Indiana and delivered the flag to him, with great emotion; here’s her story.  An eighty-five year old woman has now quilted an American flag that she will send to President Trump, and an elderly Vietnam veteran has just publicly rebuked a selectman of Haddam, Connecticut, for kneeling during the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem. Such reports appear daily.

But every declaration of our belonging must have its corollary: there are Others, who do not belong with us. Every inclusion must have its exclusion. But the Others have their flags, too, in which they are or were exceedingly proud, for which they, too, might sacrifice and die. Why, look, here are several examples (Wikimedia Commons):

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While all flags have certain meaning for the people who rally beneath them, they mean something quite different for those who do not. Americans who seek the removal and elimination of the Confederate flag are saying, “That is a symbol of a time and place when human beings were enslaved in our country: we cannot allow it to be honored because it is not a part of our national identity.” Few would dare to display a Nazi flag in public now, just as few would burn an ISIS one in open view, perhaps from concern that some very religious and very brave young men with face masks and fake names might decapitate them or bomb them to smithereens. Enemies burn the American flag to express their wish for America’s destruction, and some flag-burning citizens do so as well, demonstrating, “I no longer belong to this nation: its values are no longer my values.” 

Huntington went on to warn of the dangerous recent rise and growth of both subnational and transnational identities in America. The former are tribal loyalties to local racial, cultural, linguistic, and gender groups which matter far more to their members than the national one, so much that they become inimical to the nation itself, especially if their members feel that the national identity does not include, represent, or protect their own subnational ones.  The latter he attributed to the active efforts of academic and global corporate elites, tenured radicals (Roger Kimball’s phrase) and Davos Men (his own coinage), to disparage a strong national American identity and thus to discourage allegiance to America. But this message did not reach or affect everyone: “This was not true of the American public, and a gap consequently emerged between the primacy of national identity for most Americans and the growth of transnational identities among the controllers of power, wealth, and knowledge in American society,” and he added the growth of subnational identities as equally perilous phenomena. Fourteen years afterWho Are We? was published, we can confidently say that this chasm has not closed.

To use Edmund Burke’s over-used phrase, we all belong to our “little platoons,” sub-national associations, some private, others public: our families, houses of worship, clubs and societies, cities and states, and some of these have their flags. Here in Massachusetts you will often see either the black-and-white POW-MIA flag or the Commonwealth flag flying beneath the U. S. one on the same flagpole; the latter also often flies, at a lower height, from an adjacent pole. There’s a city of Boston flag, too. Yes, we have many loyalties which necessarily overlap, and larger loyalties must contain lesser ones. But, as loyalties often make conflicting demands, we must ask: what is their proper hierarchy?

Flags being manifestations of our loyalties, the etiquette of flag display is meant to answer such questions. Here is the U. S. Flag Code 7 (e), pertinent to the BPL display: “The flag of the United States of America should be at the center and at the highest point of the group when a number of flags of States or localities or pennants of societies are grouped and displayed from staffs.” On the McKim Building facade throughout June, the U. S. flag is indeed central but is not “at the highest point of the group,” and it seems reasonable to ask if LGBTQ+ fans constitute a society. 

Niggling details, perhaps. But it seems, to your Idiot at least, that to displace national flags with rainbow flags is to elevate, deliberately, a very personal and very subnational interest over the national, “taking action,” as Gilbert Baker said. Mr Michael Colford, Director of Library Services, kindly informed me that the practice of hanging rainbow flags from the Library began in June of 2014, “and for civic reasons, since the starting point of the parade takes place right here in Copley Square.” Civic? Or personal?Screen Shot 2018-08-03 at 6.15.40 PM
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Mr David Leonard, tapped as interim president of the Boston Public Library in June of 2015 and named official president the following June, seems to be a nice guy and a good library boss. A scroll through his Twitter feed shows him to be a thoroughly progressive gentleman. In an  interview with WGBH, he indicated that his memory of difficulties he faced growing up gay in Dublin’s fair city, and the much more welcoming experience he had at Boston College, have added to his determination to make the BPL a safe and inclusive environment, “safe” and “inclusive” being keywords in our present sex-political mania. In his view, a library is not to be a merely passive repository of human knowledge in the search for truth but an active agent of “social change” in the leftward direction, the truth having already been learned, it would seem. During this year’s Pride Month, retweeting from the BPL, which he runs, Mr Leonard promoted books on LGBTQ+ issues, even for small children. Screen Shot 2018-07-12 at 7.50.39 AMAt the end of May in 2017, he retweeted from the BPL, which he runs, a demonstration for #teens on “the art of the drag,” and for #kids “Drag Queen Story Time.” Under the banner of social justice, he regards these issues as “civic” matters, a perspective that would justify using a very public edifice and position to advance personal socio-political interests, interests which, while shared with many, do not claim the devotion of the public at large. Many, in fact, might regard this as a usurpation of a public resource to enact sex-ideological agenda. 

But who can blame the Boston Library for using its public building in furtherance of this cause after our lecturing former Radical Professor in Chief lit the White Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 10.27.49 AMHouse up in prismatic colors upon the Obergefell decree, making of the people’s house a virtual rainbow flag? The very personal had indeed become the most highly political. Yes, an American flag was there, center and highest, but that, all too obviously, was not what “America should be very proud” of. 

But if love won, who lost, and what did they lose? One answer seems to be supplied by a Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 5.44.01 PMfrequent cartoon meme of the time.  Here’s one published by Pensacola News Journal editorial cartoonist Andy Marlette on the 4th of July, 2015. Careful reader, you will note that a flag of the Rebellion is replaced, not with the American flag, its only historically fitting replacement, especially on Independence Day, but with the LGBTQ+ rainbow. This sends two messages: Love (that is, Justice Kennedy’s sermon-cum-diktat defining marriage down to meaninglessness) has triumphed over Hate (that is, the presumed ignorance, intolerance, racism and bigotry of inbred, slack-jawed yokels, not only of our Southern states but throughout our land. It’s a very progressive message: we are getting better and better as a result of social activism during the Obama Dispensation. The other message is that, for persons of this view, the rainbow flag is now a truer sign of What America Is than Old Glory; for them, the subnational has succeeded to the national: we are more this than that, at least in June. For now. 

Symbols are manipulable: instead of physically replacing a flag, you can deface it. A “defaced” flag, by the way, is one which incorporates a given national or state emblem into that of, say, a colonial one, such as the flags of New Zealand or the British Virgin Islands, each with a Union Jack in its canton to indicate their origins as British colonies. Defacement can be of a more private character, sending a more private expression of identity. Here is a Confederate battle flag design with a rainbow background, as if to say that one can be both a proud Southerner and an LGBTQ+ Pride supporter. 

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And here is a commercially-available variant of Baker’s original second product, a United States flag defaced with roygbv stripes instead of the thirteen red and white ones. Screen Shot 2018-07-13 at 12.57.36 PMLoyalty to the little LGBTQ+ platoon is stitched to the field of fifty stars, indicating, I suppose, “I am an American and I am (or I support) LGBTQ+ in equal  measure.” It could also mean “America is an LGBTQ+ country.” But flag defacement’s legitimate purpose is to show the relationship between two nations with a common origin, not to invert or to combine subnational and national identities. 

Under the “La révolution dévore ses enfants” heading we may note a Protestant splintering of the LGBTQ+ movement into atomized factions, each with its own flag; non-binary trans-feminist and comic artist Xan offers a handy guide.Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 2.09.06 PM  

Please note her “Rainbow (Philadelphia 2017)” flag in the third row. It seems that persons in Philly of African or Hispanic descent within the LGBTQIA [sic] arc felt that they needed their own special stripes, one black, the other brown, to represent their particular ethnic identities. This proposal has not found wholehearted approval within LGBTQ+ ranks in the city of Brotherly Love. Or elsewhere.

You can see where all this is going, can’t you? Littler and littler platoons. Xan tells us that these are only “some of the more common flags you might see” at the Utah Pride Festival. But what’s curious to your Idiot is that both the original Baker flag and its stripped-down, now-iconic six-stripe version are each, in this scheme of things, just one flag out of many, neither one a superordinate standard under which each LGBTQ+ legion, cohort, and contubernium might muster. They all seem multa et varia disiecta, the opposite of any e pluribus unum.

Which brings us back to Samuel P. Huntington, who asked, provocatively, “Do we have any meaningful identity as a nation that transcends our subnational ethnic, religious, racial identities?” To which identities we may now add “sexual,” though I myself do not see why we need to do so. His answer is Yes, we have an identity of social and political beliefs: governance by consent of the governed; equality before the law; freedom to worship (or not) according to one’s conscience; freedom to speak, to write, and to associate; freedom to risk, to achieve and to fail; freedom to defend oneself, one’s family and home. As sign of these beliefs, of this common identity including all lesser identities, we have a flag. Long may it wave.

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Myrrha and Cinyras meet on Facebook

Tuesday 20 January 2015

A curious article appeared in a hipster magazine a week ago. Therein was reported the story of a Midwestern woman, barely legal (as the saying goes), in love with her own father, a love he claims to requite. Let us take the tale as true; if false, we will be relieved.

The back story is wretched. Eighteen years ago a young man and young woman went to their high school prom together. Later that night she conceived. They cohabited for a while but the young father abandoned the family and the mother suffered progressive emotional disorders. Grandparents assisted in rearing the baby. As she grew the father made intermittent attempts to see and spend time with her; he sent occasional presents and made brief visits, but her mother prevented any meaningful contact. The mother and father each engaged in serial failed relationships through the years. During a lonely and chaotic childhood the girl clung to an idea of her father. When she was seventeen he contacted her through Facebook. They began spending time together. She went to visit him where he was living with a girlfriend. There she gave up her virginity to him. They moved out of the girlfriend’s house and now room with a former lover of his, who is at ease with their relationship. So, it seems, are the girl’s paternal grandparents and her best friend. She says she has found her soulmate, a once-lost part of herself, and now feels complete. She paraded him at her own high school prom. Father and daughter are engaged, having sex, and planning their wedding, after which they will move to New Jersey where incest is not prosecuted. They look forward to having children together. She declares her ecstatic joy.

This ecstasy blinds her to the horror she is in and to the far greater horrors awaiting her. But we see and foresee them. Her father’s depredation and depravity are hidden from her. But not from us. Oedipus famously blinded himself upon recognizing the hideous truth of his incestuous love. This real-life case is worse than a scene from Chinatown. We pray that no children issue from this coupling. For her we are anguished, hoping that she can somehow escape sheer catastrophe. For the father there can be no pity.

In an ancient Semitic myth, adapted by the Greeks, a young princess, Myrrha, fell hopelessly in love with her father, Cinyras, the king. She detested even the thought of young suitors her age. She confessed her wicked desire to her nurse and confidante who was at first revolted, but when the princess seemed bent on suicide, the nurse facilitated a liaison (always, a nurse). She told the king of a young noblewoman, unnamed, who was mad with lust for him but out of shame wished to conceal her identity. He, flattered and eager, arranged with the nurse to bring the lady to his bed in the dark of night while the queen was away for some days at a religious festival. Each night the nurse led the princess into her father’s room where they enjoyed unbridled sex. On the last night the king, overcome by curiosity about his lover’s identity and looks, suddenly lit a lamp he had ready. As he beheld in horror his own child in his own bed, he drew his sword to kill her. She fled, he pursuing. She escaped and wandered, pregnant, for nine months to Arabia. At last, too weary to continue, she begged the gods for mercy. They in pity turned her into a myrrh tree, her tears becoming drops of fragrant resin. As the metamorphosis neared completion, the child was born, a boy. He smelled so sweetly that the goddess of sexual desire adopted him and saw to his rearing. When he was old enough she and he became lovers. He died horribly.

The laws of the gods are those things which three thousand generations of our kind have learned to be true. We cannot say just why they are true, but we know they are. We know, too, that fury and nemesis hound those who violate these laws. Even in Jersey.

The authoress of the New York article writes a “What It’s Like” feature on alternate lifestyles and sexual preferences. Bestiality, for example. Her reportage in this case is hip and cool, passing no judgment. Clinical jargon, however, betrays a will to accept. “Genetic sexual attraction” and “consensual incest” help us avert our stare from the truth of this freak show. And so does her citation of Keith Pullman, whose Full Marriage Equality blog encourages marital anarchy, especially between family members: “The global definition of marriage should be as follows: ‘The uniting of consenting individuals in a witnessed ceremony.'” That is, marriage is what any compact of adults (more or less) decide what it is for them. More precisely, people should be free to call whatever sexual relationships they have “marriage,” mutual consent and a witnessed ceremony the only requirements. At least Myrrha and Cinyras did not pretend it was marriage.

Samantha Allen in the Daily Beast quickly takes down this pseudo-science farce. She further faults Pullman for borrowing arguments used to qualify same-sex unions as marriage in order to claim the same status for incestuous and all other conceivable sexual relationships. But he has every reason to do so. Arguments and rhetoric of racial civil rights campaigns were and still are employed in demands to recognize same-sex unions as marriages, despite their inaptness. Warnings about unintended consequences of redefining marriage were not merely unheeded; the warners themselves were scourged, shunned, silenced. And now marriage redefiners grasp for arguments to prevent others from enjoying the fruits of their great achievement. They have left themselves none.

This pitiable young woman is a victim of their success.

 

But will you love me tomorrow?

Tuesday 13 January 2013

Is sex a lasting treasure, or just a moment’s pleasure?

A slight change to Carole King’s lyrics gets right to the point of her song and also of Conjugal Union. What Marriage Is and Why it Matters by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George.

The sexual revolution was a surrender of marriage to hedonism. This capitulation was justified by pronouncing marriage a failed institution, a repressive rapist regime, a worn-out construct that no longer fit modern reality. In its place, free love, shacking up, and open marriage, much more thrilling, more fulfilling. Murphy Brown required no redundant male parental unit to help raise her child. Swift and easy divorce spares us acknowledgment of our faults. Many Boomers boast of this transformation of the family, our liberation of ourselves and future generations from those shackles upon our happiness. We uncoupled sex from marriage. Marriage now is what we choose to call it, lasting as long as we feel satisfied in it or until we get a better offer.

But many others rue the social and political changes our generation wrought, changes whose damages we now must try to undo. Resources are needed for this. To understand the real nature and the good of marriage, to defend marriage from downward definition, to find principled, clear, and convincing reasons for the restoration of marriage, and to return meaning to sex, this book is indispensable.

Definition is the core problem. Expanding on What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Lee and George argue that marriage is a unique relationship: the comprehensive, exclusive, permanent, biologically sexual, social, emotional, and spiritual union of one man and one woman oriented toward procreation. Marriage cannot be defined in any other way. Other kinds of relationships share certain features with marriage (common residence, caring for children, mutual affection, sexual intercourse, etc.), but this does not qualify them as marriages. To extend the term to other relationships destroys its whole meaning.

The authors’ argument against including other associations such as same-sex partnerships and polyamorous arrangements in the term “marriage” is strictly logical and ethical. They acknowledge their personal religiosity but allow it no place in this presentation. They do not criticize same-sex preferences per se, but rationally show why homosexual sex acts cannot be naturally complete as necessary for marriage; only male-female sexual intercourse can be so. This is so because male-female sexual congress, as Lee and George repeat, is biologically oriented to the joint creation of new life and the rearing of children. This inescapable fact is the essence of the meaning of marriage. Opponents will attempt as an analogy that many man-woman couples cannot beget children but are still married. But this is to confuse what marriage does in particular cases with what marriage is in principle and in nature.

The authors demolish the legal arguments for considering same-sex and other kinds of relationships as marriages. They articulate how the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment have been wrongly interpreted by justices in same-sex “marriage” challenges and they show how there is no way for judges to avoid making arbitrary and unfair decisions when they attempt to broaden the definition of marriage.

Lee and George restrict themselves, properly, to narrow legal reasoning. I would have liked to see a refutation of the underlying assumption in most cases: that same-sex preference is equivalent to being of African descent and that to forbid “marriage equality” (a euphemism) is to deny a civil right. The “born this way” premise, that one’s sexual preferences are as congenital and unchangeable as one’s racial characteristics, is a foundation of sand. We will find no homosexual gene nor will a Laplander ever come out as a Nigerian. Comparison to the Loving v. Virginia case, which challenged anti-miscegenation laws, also fails the test of simple logic. Assume that same-sex preference is, like race, genetically determined. To be analogous to Loving, a same-sex attracted person would have to be denied and then claim legal right to marry a heterosexual person. This is of course absurd.

We have experimented with sex and marriage. We have tried to detach the meaning of one from the meaning of the other. This is no cause for self-congratulation. We have confused ourselves and are now passing that confusion on to our posterity.  Conjugal Union helps us — forces us — to admit the experiment’s failure and to do all we can to repair the damage it has caused.

 

 

Remember James Powell and Lt Thomas Gilligan?

Wednesday 7 January 2015

I’d been away for some time at the University of East Anglia (motto: “Do Different”)  where I spoke at a convention on the Role of the Village Idiot in Society.  It was a good meeting. We all came away with fresh energy and commitment to the practice of idiocy in our own villages. Upon my return to these shores, though, news of violence and turmoil over the deaths of two young men at police hands and of two young policemen assassinated by a vicious loser cast my thoughts back in time …

Boisterous teenaged boys are loitering on a city sidewalk one summer morning. They are of African descent, from other parts of the city. They are in this affluent white neighborhood to attend summer school at the junior high across the street. The superintendent of an apartment building, a man of Irish inclination, is hosing down the walk in front of his building. He tries to shoo the annoying youngsters away from the stoop. They ignore and then mock him. So he sprays them with water from his hose, scattering them into the street. Slurs and imprecations are hurled from either camp, then trashcan lids and bottles by the kids. Other newly-arriving teens now join the affray. At a flash point of temper, one of the latecomers chases the super into his building, where a brief altercation takes place out of view. As the youth exits he is seen by an armed off-duty much-decorated police lieutenant, also of the Irish style, who has just emerged from an electronics repair shop next door. The officer confronts the youth, showing his badge and gun. Three bullets, the second one mortal, boom from his sidearm. He claims that the adolescent had attacked him with a pocket knife (he displayed injuries on his arm as proof and such a knife was found near the curb). A police squadron arrives as several hundred highly distraught teens scream, shout, and assault them. With difficulty the school principal and cops restore order by afternoon.

The next morning, professional activists show up to organize and agitate, holding the death yet another case of epidemic police brutality. Protest and demonstration dissolve into mêlée, mayhem, malice, and every manner of mischief. It recalls a simile from Vergil:

     Ac veluti magno in populo cum saepe coorta est
     seditio, saevitque animis ignobile volgus,
     iamque faces et saxa volant—furor arma ministrat —

And just as when, often in a great multitude, an insurrection has arisen,
and the nameless mob grows wild in its passions,
and now torches and rocks fly — their rage supplies them weapons —

Tactical police troops are called in who bludgeon protestors and who in turn are pelted with brickbats and Molotov cocktails. Firing warning shots, they run out of ammunition; a fresh shipment is delivered by armored truck mounted with machine guns. The battle blazes for a week, leaving one other person dead, hundreds sent to hospitals, and property damage of one million dollars. At trial later, eye-witness accounts are Rashomon-like. It is learned that the young man was familiar to authorities and had brought two knives to school that morning. The lieutenant is acquitted of all charges. In half a dozen other cities similar riots erupt in solidarity. Thus begin almost ten years of summer riots across the United States.

Those events were fifty years ago, beginning Thursday 16 July 1964 in Yorktown on the Upper East Side, flowing north to Harlem, then over the river to Brooklyn. That very same day, as it happened, Barry Goldwater accepted the Republican party’s nomination as its presidential candidate in San Francisco. Out in Flushing Meadows, Queens, the New York World’s Fair was well underway, “Peace Through Understanding” its motto. And it was Freedom Summer. Lyndon Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act only two weeks earlier. Not one month had yet passed since Ku Klux Klan brutes murdered three young voting rights organizers down in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It was a very hot summer.

The human mind cannot take in or make sense of the chaos of real experience; only the divine can do that. The human mind’s efficiency is to sort that chaos into recognizable and memorable patterns of action, scripts for later reference. It makes symbols, analogies, and metaphors to give meaning to these patterns, to teach and to learn lessons from them, to make them portable through place and time. Such action patterns (or “narratives,” to use a current term) we call myths, stories which, while not factually true in each real detail, nonetheless convey knowledge. They are packets of meaning, stored and shared.

From such real cases as the one related above, as from those of Rodney King, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, and far too many others, a structured myth emerges: a young black person, usually male, usually between fifteen and thirty years of age, is engaged in some criminal activity of minor or grievous degree. A policeman, usually male, always white, attempts to check the activity or arrest the malefactor. The young black person resists the policeman’s authority, sometimes violently. The policeman responds, sometimes excessively. Almost always the policeman shoots a pistol at the young black person, who dies. Or it could be a severe beating. An immediate local display of outrage is taken over by persons who see in any one such particular event further proof of a general wrong or injustice and who arouse the passions of the multitude. Protest marches and demonstrations ensue, sometimes exciting more malevolent behavior. As in every good story, some initial harm or loss is suffered, followed by a complex working-out of the damage and a restoration of the normal state of things. But it is sometimes tragic, for undue suffering is often visited upon those who don’t deserve it. There is a brief journalistic apotheosis of the dead. At some point a ceremony is staged, rather like a tragic chorus. Important personages speak and attempt to teach lessons larger than the actual disturbance. People calm down, sadder and wiser. Before long it all happens again.

James Bowman, acute critic of journalism and man of Honor, writing recently in The New Criterion (Jan 2015, 68) about the media representation of the Brown and Garner deaths, expressed this distinction between chaotic reality and organizing mythology as one between content (facts) and context (the story or narrative): “It was enough that the victims were black and the policemen white for the whole matter to default to the classic paradigm on which the racial grievance industry has thrived for years, of white authority figures brutally exercising an illegitimate power over oppressed blacks.”

That “classic paradigm” is of course one version of this particular myth. There is another: the miscreants themselves, by their poor upbringing and consequent antisocial or illegal behavior, attracted due police attention to themselves and then either resisted or acted out against the arresting authority; the brave and dutiful policeman was mortally imperiled and resorted at last to legitimate use of lethal force; this one incident neither proves nor fits into a pattern of general injustice; it does prove the valor of — and the need for — police in protecting society from outlawry.

Neither story is wholly true, neither wholly false. But each is a meaningful distillation of complex and disturbing events. And the meaning intensifies with each iteration of events. With each fresh addition, with every retelling, the Tale acquires greater verisimilitude, greater power. Some people associate around this version, others around that one. We all belong to the species homo mythopoeticus. We cannot escape our own myth-making because that is very much who we are. It should not surprise, therefore, that journalists, no matter their professed standards of objectivity, also associate with one or the other version: it makes sense to them, it represents reality. Yet we are not at the mercy and whim of our inclinations. Nor must we fall victim to falsehood. We can with humility accept our ignorance of all the truth of any one thing. We must therefore recognize the danger of accepting any one story without acknowledging that some of the truth might lie in another telling of it.

On reading Montaigne

Thursday 11 September 2014

This piece originally appeared as part of the Revisiting the Classics series of the National Association of Scholars on Wednesday 10 September 2014.

Imagine an amber autumn afternoon a few miles north of the Dordogne in Aquitania. You are at the base of the south tower of an ancient château; through an old stone arch a parterre radiates outward. To the west and east, thick woods. You look southward onto vineyards heavy laden. Beyond the village, chalky hills slope to the river. You recall Grigson’s “Montaigne’s Tower”:

Was it really here, in this tiled room
In this tower that Montaigne wrote?
I hope that it was so. Never was there
A place better for recalling, I would say —
For being benign and wise, for loving
In words. I see him back a chair
Across these tiles, and stand and stretch, and then
Descend this newel stair, and going
Slowly as if arthritically outside.
He looks down, with feeling he sees again
How exceedingly sweet is this meadowed
Small valley below and how half-reddening
Vines in such a light cast straight
Black bars of shadow in row after row.

On a table there, a garnet Bergerac, a pitcher of water and fresh glasses, a plate of truffles, some foie gras; on a board, a tome d’Aquitaine beside a crunchy bâtard. Your host greets you and takes the other chair. It is easy to imagine him. He has already told you so much about himself—and seems to know you so well—that you fear there will be nothing to say. But he loves conversation more than all things. Four and a half centuries do not come between you as the smooth hours glide away.

This tower is not of ivory but of natural stone. Montaigne, who could have spent his life in turreted ease, served as Mayor of Bordeaux twice (once staying on the job during a plague) and was a courtier of kings and dukes, his advice valued highly for its dispassionate perspicacity. He knew the world very well. The death of his friend Étienne de La Boétie, when Montaigne was thirty, caused him to dedicate the rest of his life to self-examination. His library and study in the upper floors of the tower (the ground floor was a family chapel for Mass) were his observation post. It was his own Delphic temple, emblazoned, in a way, with those two Apolline maxims: Know Yourself and No Excess. The beams and rafters of his study were decorated with apothegms and dicta memoranda in Latin and Greek. You can still read them there.

The most frequent adjective we would apply to Michel Eyquem de Montaigne as he appears in his Essais is “modern,” often accompanied by an adverb such as “remarkably” or “surprisingly.” These additives reveal our own self-regard, as if it were sheer miracle that a sixteenth-century man could mount so intellectually high as to attain our Olympic thoughts. No, self-congratulation is not among the reasons to read Montaigne. Disabusing ourselves of our conceit, our easy moral satisfaction, our intellectual laziness—that is why we go to his tower, so to speak. Montaigne gives us hundreds of pages of reasons to set self-assurance aside. All done with courtesy, wit, and style. Does he seem wonderfully “modern,” then? Perhaps it is because he himself, in his piercing vision of mankind, created a great part of our own modernity.

But modern how? We cannot answer that question unless we consider the world into which Montaigne was born. Western Europe generally was emerging from what we call the Middle Ages. A New World was being explored. The cultural movement called the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation were provoking revolutionary thoughts and acts as well as harsh responses to them. Inquisitions were expected. The coldest part of the Little Ice Age coincided with Montaigne’s life, and while he wrote the Wars of Religion were roiling France: torture, hangings, and beheadings were frequent if not common. Islamic jihadists would feel quite at home in that world. We can easily see why Montaigne retired to his tower, there to commune with the Muses.

One particular instance of his modernity can be seen in his observations of the religious and political extremism of his age, many of which can easily be applied to twentieth and twenty-first century attempts to recreate society by discarding custom and usage and forcibly, violently, imposing a totalitarian plan upon whole peoples. Anticipating the French Revolution and Burke by two centuries, Montaigne observed that “It is very easy to generate in a people a contempt for their ancient observances: no man ever attempted it without succeeding. But many have come to grief in their attempt to establish a better state of things in place of what they have destroyed.” As George Homans once noted, “They who shake the foundations of a state are liable to be the first involved in its downfall” would be well understood by Robespierre and Trotsky, among others.

Montaigne’s skepticism about the limits of human knowledge appears in his criticism of our blind obedience to customs. And yet he warns that the obliteration of our customs to further one particular ideology or another always entails very great social and political hazards:

“They who have bent [religion] to the left hand, they who have bent it to the right, they who            call it black, they who call it white, employ it so alike for their violent and ambitious undertakings, progress so equally in riot and injustice, that they make us doubt and unable to believe in the diversity of opinions they profess, in a matter on which depends the rule and conduct of our life.”

“And to resist the encroachment of an innovation which forces its way by violence is a dangerous obligation and inequality for one who, everywhere and in all things, holds himself in check and bound by rules; it places him at a disadvantage when faced with one who assumes all freedom to act, who regards everything as lawful that will serve his own designs and whose only law is to follow up his own advantage.”

Montaigne corrects our unthinking habit of reducing the complexities of life to simple As versus Bs. We might find his thinking inefficient, meandering, maddeningly inconsistent. But that is precisely what we have to learn from him. You will find no isms here, no rational plan of life, but life as it is, faced fearlessly and described in detail, yet without navel-gazing. As Oakeshott said in his own essay on Hobbes, “It will be remembered that the brilliant and informal genius of Montaigne had perceived that our most certain knowledge is what we know about ourselves, and had made of this a philosophy of introspection.” For Montaigne, freedom and truth are the paramount concerns of our life; we must be ready to sacrifice any and all of our cherished opinions for their sake. And the whole purpose of education is to prepare us and give us the means to do just that:

“I, who make no other profession, find in myself such infinite depth and variety, that what I have learned bears no other fruit than to make me realize how much I still have to learn. To my weakness, so often perceived, I owe my inclination to coolness in my opinions and any hatred for that aggressiveness and quarrelsome arrogance that believes and trusts wholly in itself, a mortal enemy of discipline and truth.”

It well serves the purpose of this present series of essays by the NAS that Montaigne’s modernity is itself a product of antiquity. The ease and readiness with which he calls forth examples from ancient Greek and Latin authors in every genre is astonishing. The past provided him the means both to deal with the world of his own time and yet to see beyond it; his comprehensive view of human life and society approaches universality. The very notion of essays on old books that still and always matter is possible chiefly because of Montaigne’s Essais. To write an essay about them is almost too meta. To read his books is to learn how to examine your own life. Anyone just approaching Montaigne will benefit from Barzun’s masterful chapter in From Dawn to Decadence (pp. 133-140). Hilary Masters has a collection of essays, In Montaigne’s Tower. And Sarah Bakewell has recently put out her How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I haven’t read these last two—yet. But Montaigne himself I shall always read.

A bucket o’ blood for BDS

Friday 5 September 2014

I once taught at Ohio University in Athens in the southeastern corner of the state. I still have friends there and cherish the memories of my time among them. Hence my annoyance at Ms Megan Marzec who is enrolled at that institution and is the current student body president. This past Tuesday, in response to a challenge made to her by OU President Roderick McDavis to dump a bucket of ice water on herself in the current ALS fund-raising fad, Ms Marzec instead spilled a bucket of tomato juice, red paint, and water over her head in a ridiculous Carrie-style scene.

She filmed herself — of course! In the video, on behalf of her fellow students (she says), she calls upon the President McDavis and OU to divest from all its associations with Israel, and she declares that she does this in the name of the Palestinian victims of Israeli genocide and occupation. The closing credits: “Free Palestine.”

Perhaps her drenching was done in that grand tradition of the Berrigan boys and their Plowshares Movement? More likely in solidarity with the Islamic State thug who poured a bucket of — presumably real (human?) — blood on himself in late August, in mockery of the ALS ice-water challenge in the US and elsewhere. His gagging at the end suggests that the fluid was probably not some good vodka and tomato juice. But at least Megan had the courage to show her face and state her name (even if out of narcissism), unlike our masked and alias-bearing or anonymous jihadi weasels.

Excreta collided instantly with the ventilator blades. In a meeting the next day, the OU student senate denounced Marzec for claiming that her repulsive grand-standing was done on behalf of the student body. The student group Bobcats for Israel gave her a hard rhetorical whipping. The Society of Alumni and Friends of the University condemned her exploitive deed. Unpleasant e-mails and tweets poured down on Megan, a great big barrel of outrage, one might say. People are out for her metaphorical blood, demanding her impeachment or resignation. Poor Megan cried out for her rights to freedom of speech, somehow forgetting that other people have theirs, too and damned well intend to use them — on her. She shut down her Facebook and has since gone dark. Read more here and here.

What an appalling spectacle. And I think that is a good word for it. Megan Marzec seems a troubled young person and desperate for attention. She’s an art major, I hear. I’m sure we’ll see her “work” in some chic gallery soon, perhaps precious antique vases filled with blood, urine, semen, gastric juices, vomit, which vases Ms Marzec will then smash, splattering their liquid contents all over the patrons in the name of some cherished liberal and progressive cause du jour. And if things keep going as they have in the last fifty years, I expect she’ll get a prestigious endowed chair in ” … Studies” at an elite university. Call that a rose-tinted view.