Educating Ourselves about Violence

IMG_2992I’m at a loss to say whether Educated: A Memoir, Tara Westover’s highly-celebrated account of her escape from a fundamentalist, survivalist, home-schooled upbringing in Idaho to earn a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, is a good book. What I can say without hesitation is that it’s a disturbing book. It took me awhile to get through it, actually. I was reading it at night before I went to sleep. I had barely started it when I was overcome one morning by dizziness and nausea as I got out of bed. The feeling subsided as the day wore on, but it returned the next morning, and if anything, was even worse.

I don’t remember now how long it took me to figure out what the problem was, and I still can’t be certain that I was correct. I believe, however, that the problem was that I was reading Westover’s extended and graphic descriptions of serious head injuries just before going to sleep and hence planting the suggestion in my mind that I had suffered a similar injury.

Whether my guess was correct or not, the dizziness and nausea, disappeared when I stopped reading the book. I was afraid to pick it up again and didn’t for a long time.  I wouldn’t have picked it up again except that it was the selection of a reading group I was hoping to join. The thing is, there isn’t much to it but these extended, graphic descriptions of injuries. It is essentially a collection of such descriptions strung together with accounts of Westover’s physical and emotional abuse by various family members, and, toward the end, thin filaments of hope as she gradually extricates herself from a web of nightmarish familial relationships.

The book assaults the reader. I’ve never read anything like it before, and I hope never to read anything like it again. I couldn’t get through even a few pages without feeling as if I had been physically throttled, or worse. Here’s just a brief snippet of the one of the many descriptions of head injuries. The Westover family, at the father’s insistence, had set out after dinner on a twelve-hour drive from Arizona, where they had been visiting, back to their home in Idaho. It isn’t clear how the accident happened, as Westover had fallen asleep.

I looked around. Tyler had twisted his upper body so that he was practically climbing into the backseat, his eyes bulging as he took in every cut, every bruise, every pair of wide eyes. I could see his face but it didn’t look like his face. Blood gushed from his mouth and down his shirt. I closed my eyes, trying to forget the twisted angles of his bloodstained teeth. When I opened them again, it was to check everyone else. Richard was holding his head, a hand over each ear like he was trying to block out a noise. Audrey’s nose was strangely hooked and blood was streaming from it down her arm. Luke was shaking but I couldn’t see any blood. I had a gash on my forearm from where the seat’s frame had caught hold of me” (pp. 50-51.)

….

I don’t know how we got home, or when, … Once inside, I watched Tyler spit streams of crimson down the bathroom sink. His front teeth had smashed into the steering wheel and been displaced, so that they jutted backward toward the roof of his mouth.

Mother was laid on the sofa. She mumbled that the light hurt her eyes. We closed the blinds. She wanted to be in the basement, where there were no windows, so Dad carried her downstairs and I didn’t see her for several hours, not until that evening, when I used a dull flashlight to bring her dinner. When I saw her, I didn’t know her. Both eyes were a deep purple, so deep they looked black, and so swollen I couldn’t tell whether they were open or closed. She called me Audrey [Westover’s sister], even after I corrected her twice.

Mother didn’t come out of the basement for a week. Every day the swelling worsened, the black bruises turned blacker. Every night I was sure her face was as marked and deformed as it was possible for a face to be, but every morning it was somehow darker, more tumid. After a week, when the sun went down, we turned off the lights and Mother came upstairs. She looked as if she had two objects strapped to her forehead, large as apples, black as olives. (pp. 52-53).

There’s a lot more of this stuff. There’s a second car accident under almost identical circumstances, with equally serious injuries described at similar length and in similar detail.

Westover and her brothers are repeatedly injured in their capacity as employees of their father’s scrap metal business and their injuries are described at similar length and in similarly graphic detail. Westover’s father isn’t cavalier about occupational safety. That would be putting it too mildly. He is outright contemptuous of it. He seems, in fact, diabolically to court disaster.

One of Westover’s brothers, and then later, her father, accidentally sets himself on fire. We get extended graphic descriptions of both those injuries as well. Here is just a little snippet:

I don’t remember what I saw when I first looked at my father. I know that when Mother had removed the gauze that morning, she’d found that his ears were so burned, the skin so glutinous, they had fused to the syrupy tissue behind them. When I walked through the back door, the first thing I saw was Mother grasping a butter knife, which she was using to pry my father’s ears from his skull. I can still picture her gripping the knife, her eyes fixed, focused, but where my father should be, there’s an aperture in my memory. (p. 281.)

You think I’m exaggerating when I say the book is little more than such descriptions of injuries. I’m not. There are so many violent incidents in the book it’s impossible to keep track of them. There are car accidents, motorcycle accidents, falls, impalements, immolations, assaults. The variety of accidents and injuries staggers the imagination.

Westover’s father never carried any of the heavy pieces of metal that littered his scrap yard to a sorting bin. He just “chucked” them “with all the strength he had, from wherever he was standing” (71) … . He orders Westover into a bin of scrap iron that he’s about to dump in order that she can help to “settle it” — as he’s dumping it… ! There’s the “Shear” that Westover’s father acquired for cutting large pieces of scrap metal that was so obviously “lethal” that one of Westover’s brothers called it “a death machine”… . There’s the forklift and “old cheese pallet” that Westover’s father insists on using instead of a “man lift with a basket” (157)… .

The book is generally well written. But why write such a thing? Westover can’t possibly have wanted to relive those experiences. Did an editor put her up to larding the book with gore on the assumption that readers would like it? I was happy for her at the end after it was clear that the rest of her life was going to be better than the portion she had shared in her memoir. Yet I found the book as a whole deeply disturbing

Clearly, it resonates with many readers, however. It was a best seller and has catapulted its author to fame and fortune. It was nominated for numerous awards. The New York Times listed it as one of the ten best books of 2018. Time magazine named Westover one of the most influential people of 2019. President Obama included it in his summer reading list.

Part of the reason for the book’s success is undoubtedly that it dovetails so neatly with the liberal-elite world view. Young woman caught in a world of violence, racism, sexism, separatism and religious extremism, extricates herself from these evils through — education!

There isn’t much in the book, however, about Westover’s education, and what there is runs like a parallel narrative that rarely seems to connect in any meaningful way with the story of Westover’s violent and abusive childhood and adolescence. Westover’s story deserves telling. It could have been told, however, in much less graphic detail. A couple of extended descriptions of accidents would have sufficed. An account, for example, of the first car accident could have been followed by “…and then later, there was a second accident.” The fist burn description could have been followed by “…and then later my father also accidentally set himself on fire, only this time, the burns were even worse than those my brother had suffered.”

It is almost as disturbing to me as reading the book itself to realize that, based on the book’s success, the public clearly has a taste for such gore. Of course I’ve known Americans love violence. The whole world knows that. I had naively assumed, however, that intellectuals were in the minority of consumers of violent entertainment.

James Gilligan, a forensic psychiatrist and author of several excellent books on violence, writes in Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic that all the serial killers he has worked with were abused, either emotionally, or physically, or both, as children. This abuse was so severe, he argues, that their only defense was to deaden themselves emotionally. They feel very little. “This absence of feeling,” he writes, “is described consistently by murderers throughout the world and throughout history….Many murderers,” he explains, “find that the only way to feel alive, since they cannot feel anything emotionally, is to feel physical pain. So they attempt to induce such feelings by cutting or otherwise injuring their bodies” (p. 39).

Well, that’s us, isn’t it? That’s the U.S. Our culture is so bullying, so punitive, so insensitive, so inhumane, even for those in its upper echelon, it has reduced our capacity to feel. We use violent entertainment to shock ourselves into feeling something, anything, even fear and revulsion, just to reassure ourselves that we are alive and capable of feeling. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the success of Westover’s relentless horrific memoir.

Westover may be a great writer, but Educated is not a great book. There’s too little in it that is edifying and too much that’s profoundly disturbing. Westover was ultimately very lucky. If you persevere through the book, you’ll be happy for her. I can’t recommend you do that, though. My recommendation, contrary to President Obama’s, is that you don’t read the book at all.

If you have a taste for violent reading, read Gilligan, and in particular, his Preventing Violence (Prospects for Tomorrow). There’s plenty of gore there, but lots of humanity and wisdom as well. More importantly, while Westover’s book is an account of how one woman escaped from an intolerably violent environment, Gilligan’s books offer a way out for all of us from our intolerably violent culture.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the August 14, 2019 edition of the online political journal Counterpunch.)

 

On Biblical Inerrancy

Greek text of RomansThe United Methodist Church, one of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States , voted on voted on Tuesday, February 26th, to affirm its official stance that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Not all Methodists agree with this view, of course, as is detailed in an article on the vote in The New York Times. Many do, though, hence the outcome of the vote. And Methodists are not the only “Christians” who consider homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching. People who hold this view usually justify it by pointing to specific passages in the New Testament that appear to support it. The question is: Does the New Testament unequivocally condemn homosexuality?

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Bible is inerrant. What are the implications of that? That means, it would appear, that the Bible can’t be wrong in either descriptive or prescriptive terms. What does it mean, though, to be “right” in those terms? Is the primary purpose of historical narrative to present an accurate reconstruction of past events, or is it to guide readers, or listeners, to teach them something about human folly, human weakness and frailty, with the aim of making humanity’s future better than its past? Is an “accurate” historical narrative one that gets the facts right or one that presents them in a way that will be optimally instructive?

My concern here is not so much with the descriptive nature of biblical narrative as with its prescriptive nature. People who believe in biblical inerrancy often do so because they believe the Bible is God’s speaking directly to humanity and that that message contains rules for how we are to behave. Even if it were the case that the Bible was God speaking directly to humanity, it would not solve the problem of determining what God meant in a particular instance because all communication is meaningful as such only after it has been interpreted, and any interpretation undertaken by people who are assumed to be marred by sin is going to be problematic. “Love your neighbor” seems fairly uncomplicated and yet for some people that means forcing their neighbor to pull himself up by his own bootstraps, while for other people it means positively assisting their neighbor in his efforts to stand on his own.

The idea, however, that the Bible is God speaking directly to humanity is foolishness. God speaking directly would be God speaking directly and not to some specific people who are then tasked with recording the divine message and passing it on to the rest of humanity. The Bible is, by definition, God speaking indirectly to humanity through the agency of specific individuals (and many more individuals, it appears now, than was originally supposed). That, in itself, does not mean the Bible cannot be inerrant, but it does complicate the task of determining what God’s message is.

Add to this the fact that much, if not all of the Bible was undisputedly written long after the events it records and in many instances in a language other than that of its source. Jesus communicated with his followers in Aramaic, so even ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ώς σεαυτόν, let alone “love your neighbor as yourself,” are not Jesus’s original words. Imagine for yourself the potential for alteration that is unavoidably associated with the translation of a message from one language to another and then the passing down of that translation orally from one generation to another for thirty, forty, fifty, or even a hundred years before it is actually written down. Anyone who has ever played a game of “Telephone” knows how badly a message can be mangled even over the course of a single evening, to say nothing of a period that transcends a generation.

Add to that the fact that it is now clear, as Bart Ehrman and others have argued, that portions of the texts of the New Testament were not merely inadvertently changed when, of necessity, they were copied by hand, but deliberately changed to make them more unequivocally reflect evolving church doctrine. Such a practice might seem sinister at first, but it is merely a result of the fact that even the earliest copyists of the writings that eventually became the New Testament realized that the texts they had inherited were themselves interpretations, products of other human hands, inevitably marred by mistakes and misinterpretations that they, with their changes, endeavored to put right.

Paul is now widely believed by scholars not to have said that women shouldn’t preach, that that injunction appeared in a letter that he didn’t even write, but which was erroneously attributed to him. In fact, quite a number of writings that have traditionally been attributed to Paul are now widely believed not to have been written by Paul but by later adherents to the new Christian faith.

But assume, for the sake of argument, that we have the original texts of the New Testament in their pristine and unadulterated form. Even that would not relieve of us the burden of interpretation. Even that would not eliminate all possibility of error in our interpretations. Take, for example, Matthew 13:12: “For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Revised Standard Version).

To him who has what? What does that passage mean? Is it a reference to how wretched is humanity that it would so order itself that the rich get would get richer and the poor get poorer? That’s how Billie Holiday interpreted it. Does it refer to love, so that it means the more love a person has, the more love that person will receive? That’s how I used to like to think of that passage. It makes sense to me that loving people would tend to be more loved than those who were less loving.

But then one day I became curious and decided to find out what the Greek term was that was translated as “has” in that passage and learned to my surprise that among the many meanings of that term, ἔχω, listed in the online edition of the Liddell-Scott dictionary of ancient Greek, was “to possess mentally, understand.” So the passage might actually mean something like “to him who understands more understanding will be given,” etc.

That meaning actually fits best both with what appears to be the meaning of the preceding passage where Jesus talks about the importance of having “ears” to hear his message, as well as with the line that immediately precedes it (i.e., Matthew 13:11) where Jesus says to his disciples “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” That is, because they understand Jesus’s basic message, they will understand his individual parables and hence gain more understanding with each new parable.

Of course it is possible that the passage means all three of these things at once. That’s part of what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard referred to as “the genius of language,” that the same combination of words can have multiple meanings.

What, to pick a passage that is more apposite to the recent decision of the leaders of the United Methodist Church to continue to condemn homosexuality, is the meaning of Romans 1:26-27.

Therefore God gave them to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

The Oxford Annotated Bible says

[a]lthough widely read today as a reference to homosexuality, the language of ‘unnatural’ intercourse was more often used in Paul’s day to denote not the orientation of sexual desire but its immoderate indulgence, which was believed to weaken the body (the due penalty).

That makes sense because it sounds like the Greek position more generally, or at least the position of many Greek philosophers and Paul was an admirer of Greek philosophy. Passion, they believed, was suspect because it led to excess and excess is generally bad. Moderation, the Greeks believed, was to be aimed at in all things.

So what does the passage mean? Does it refer damningly to a lack of restraint? Does it mean that excessive indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh is “unnatural” and “shameless”? Does it mean such unrestrained physical passion is bad. Or does it mean only heterosexuality is pleasing to God?

I’m inclined to the former interpretation because a lack of restraint and excessive indulgence in almost anything tends to be self destructive. God’s creatures have a sacred duty to preserve and protect themselves. The main crime, according to Paul, of the people to whom Romans 1:26-27 refers was that they had turned away from God. They did not see themselves as God’s creatures. “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking” (Romans 1:21).

A creator that loves its creatures would not want them to engage in self-destructive behavior. By the same token, however, a creator that is defined as love would presumably approve of the love its creatures had for one another. It seems not only bizarrely arbitrary, but directly counter to what most people like to think of as the core message of Christianity that God would condemn love because it was directed at a purportedly inappropriate object. Such a view doesn’t seem divine. It seems, on the contrary, all too human.

Unfortunately, much of what goes by the name “love” is not genuine love, but actually the instrumentalizing of one person by another, the use of one person merely as a means to another person’s sensuous or egoistical gratification. But that sad practice has no direct relation to sexual orientation. It is as pervasive in heterosexual relationships as in every other purportedly loving relationship including those between friends, siblings, and even parents and children.

Of course it is possible that Paul really did mean to condemn homosexuality as such. Human beings throughout history have condemned certain things as “deviant” simply because they were not the norm. That is the origin of the pejorative connotations of “sinister,” a Latin word that simply means “left.” There was a time when purportedly good, God-fearing Christians believed left-handed people were in league with Lucifer.

Fortunately, few Christians believe that now. They abandoned that view, presumably, because someone actually thought about it a little and decided that it would be inconsistent with Jesus’s teachings to condemn people simply because they were different.

So if Paul actually meant to condemn homosexuality as such rather than simply to condemn unrestrained physical passion, that would appear to be a place where he erred in his understanding of Jesus’s teaching. We don’t have to assume that’s what he meant, though, at least not in that passage. It isn’t actually all that clear what he meant. We have to try to figure that out for ourselves.

Even for those who believe in biblical inerrancy, the Bible is very far from a comprehensive set of specific rules for how to live. Human existence is just too complex; novel situations are constantly springing up. No set of rules for how to live can cover every conceivable situation. What is needed in order to give human beings instruction in how to live are not specific rules, but general ones.

“Christian revelation was intended,” asserted John Stuart Mill way back in the nineteenth century (Utilitarianism, chapter 2) “to inform the hearts and minds of mankind with a spirit which should enable them to find for themselves what is right, and incline them to do it when found, rather than to tell them, except in a very general way, what it is.”

I’m inclined, sometimes, to think of Biblical inerrancy as consisting in the inexorable quality of scripture to reveal what lies deepest in people. My mother, whose parents were both ministers in the Assemblies of God church, once said that in her experience religion made good people better and bad people worse.

Don’t be quick to judge the meaning of scripture. Even if the truth is always there somewhere its substance is arguably rarely obvious. One must look deeply into any text in order to divine its true meaning and nowhere is this more true than with the Bible, hence James’s admonition that one must “persevere” when attempting to understand it (James 1:25). Even people who believe in biblical inerrancy must look long and hard into the “mirror” of the New Testament if they want to divine God’s message to humanity there.

So look long and hard into the mirror of what you assume to be God’s word. If what is reflected back to you is anger and condemnation, then look again. Look again and keep looking.

Persevere in your looking until what is reflected back to you is love.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the March 11, 2019 edition of Counterpunch under the title “On Biblical Inerrancy: Some Reflections for United Methodists and Other “Christians.”)

 

 

 

 

An Essay on Mourning

Dad's Calendar PageHuman beings are social creatures. Not only do they need companionship; they derive satisfaction from helping and supporting one another. Human beings, and indeed all mammals to some extent, are naturally nurturing creatures. They are drawn to protect the weak and the frail. Usually, this impulse to nurture finds fulfillment in the care parents take of their children. That’s the origin of the phenomenon of “empty-nest syndrome,” the feeling parents experience when their children first leave home, when there is no longer anyone for them to take care of, no one who needs their care.

This need to nurture, wherever it originally came from, was undoubtedly reinforced by natural selection. Human beings need a particularly extended period of parental care before they are able to survive on their own, much longer than is required by any other animal. Parents must care for their children for many years before those children have any hope of being able to care for themselves. This arguably creates an enormous debt on the part of children toward their parents. Of course, parents rarely expect to be repaid for the care they take of their children and most children rarely have an opportunity to do that.

I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to repay my father for at least some of the care he took of me when I was a child. My mother and sisters expressed concern for my father’s situation when we were all together for the last Thanksgiving my father hosted a few years ago. It seemed to them that my stepmother was already showing signs of dementia. I hadn’t noticed because I lived closer to my father than they did and saw my stepmother more frequently. They saw her only once or twice a year, if that often, so the changes in her behavior more obvious to them. I lived only a couple of hours away from my father, so I promised to visit as often as I could. For five or six years, I spent every other weekend with him.

I adored my father and throughout my entire adult life, I would bring him things I thought he would like, just like a small child who delights in sharing her discoveries with her parents. I always brought something with me on my visits. Often it was a loaf of bread from the Metropolitan Bakery, a local Philadelphia bakery. I’d brought him a loaf of this bread once, years before, because I knew he would like it. It was a heavy crusty loaf like French peasants eat, or used to eat. He was duly appreciative, so whenever possible, I would bring him one of these loaves.

I brought him other things as well. I was always on the lookout for things I thought he might need or like. I would bring him DVDs of televisions shows I thought he would enjoy, small kitchen utensils I found on my frequent trips to thrift stores, small glass pie plates because he said he never had enough of those, the Mason jars my commercially prepared spaghetti sauce came in because he used them for canning.

My father loved linguini with white clam sauce. Good chopped clams are increasingly hard to find. I had discovered a very good brand at the local food co-op, though, so I would bring him a couple of cans whenever I was able to get them. I would also sometimes bring him candy from Shane Confectionary, a local candy store that makes its own candy. He especially liked malted milk balls and chocolate covered cherries. I would also always bring a good bottle of red wine. Nothing terribly expensive because he was not a connoisseur. He had developed a taste for red wine, though, after he married my stepmother who was Swiss and always drank wine with dinner.

My father was a cook. He enjoyed frequent visits to the grocery store and followed food—and particularly produce prices—the way some people follow sports teams.

“Aldi has blackberries for $1.99 a pint!” he might announce when I arrived. So we would make a trek over to Aldi to buy blackberries. Usually, he bought his produce at Giant. Aldi was for more exotic things such as chocolate, musli, or European coffee and chocolate, things that would be expensive at Giant if they could be found there at all.

My father, like most retired people, was on a tight budget. It was one of the greatest pleasures of my visits to pay for his groceries. He had done so much for me when I was a child, had made so many sacrifices to give me the things I needed, and then later wanted. It was a joy to me to be able to do something for him that I knew made his life a little easier. In the beginning, he would protest that he wanted to pay himself. Later, though, after the pattern had been established, he would let me pay without protest.

I also helped him maintain his little fishpond, helped him to clean it and stock it with plants and fish. I got him little balls of barley straw to control the algae and would occasionally help him empty and scrub the sides of the pond, as well as clean the filter. I bought him fish and even a little frog we got as a tadpole from a local plant nursery. He would report sightings of this little frog to me in emails. I’d had a particular affection for frogs as a child, so he liked to update me on the little frog’s comings and goings.

It was my job, as the child who saw my father most frequently, or at least who spent the longest stretches of time with him, to report on how he and my stepmother were doing. (My step-siblings lived even closer to my father than I did but their jobs did not allow them to spend the extended periods with him that I could.) I bought him his first cell phone and taught him how to use it, so my stepmother would be able to reach him when he was away from the house on short errands. I bought him his second and third cell phones as well, and paid his monthly cell bills. I reported to my siblings when I realized that he needed a new computer, then new hearing aids, and finally, a device that would amplify the sound of the television by sending the signal directly to his hearing aids. And I reported on my stepmother’s deteriorating condition as part of a collective effort to convince my father to move to a retirement community.

I would take my father to dinner at least one of the evenings I was there. In the beginning, when my husband was able to accompany me, we would take both my father and stepmother to their favorite restaurant. Later, after my stepmother refused to leave the house and my husband was often unable to accompany me on my visits, I would take my father to Red Robin. Red Robin was close, so my stepmother would not be alone for long. And my father liked their fish and chips. Neither of us had a huge appetite so we would split a single order.

It was during these dinners that my father began to tell me about his life. He’d not had a happy childhood, so he’d rarely talked about it. He’d spent the early part of his childhood in an orphanage, a place he referred to, on those rare occasions when did refer to it, as “the home.”

I think that was part of the reason these visits to my father meant so much to me. My mother used to refer to my father as a “poor little orphan boy.” That had apparently been one of the things that had attracted her to him. She wanted to take care of him, to give him a home and a family. He gave the impression of being a generally happy person and would often hum, or even sing, to himself. And yet there was something about him that seemed unreachable. It was as if he had carved out his own little private reality like children do who have no playmates. He would smile at you and talk to you from there, but he would never really come out of it or let anyone else into it, no matter how social or solicitous of others he became.

He told me at one of these Red Robin dinners that he, and his siblings, had been very lonely as children. They’d been separated from one another when they’d been taken to “the home” because the children were segregated by age. The adults there had been kind to him, he said, but there simply weren’t enough of them relative to the number of children. An older woman who worked there had once literally washed his mouth out with soap when he’d used language she thought inappropriate. And yet it was this same woman he later presented with a drawing he had done in school. That earlier violent exchange had been the closest thing he’d known to parental concern.

He was a positive person, just like I am, but there was something about him, some ineffable quality that made one suspect the positivity had been hard won, that made it seem a veneer over a deeper sadness, something that made people want to take care of him, to love him. It wasn’t that he craved affection. It was exactly the opposite. He seemed preternaturally emotionally independent. That can appear a strength. It isn’t natural, though. Human beings are social creatures. People need the love and affection of others and most people need it pretty conspicuously.

To be around my father was like being around a child who had learned to be content playing by himself. You were happy that he seemed content, and yet there was something heartbreaking in the realization that he had learned to make a friend of loneliness, learned it so well that he didn’t really know how to play with anyone else.

It meant more to me than I can say that I was able to spend that time with my father, to take care of him in something like the way he had taken care of me when I was a child. I wanted to make up for all the loneliness he had endured in his own childhood. I wanted to show him I appreciated how much he had done for me and how much I loved him for it, what a pleasure it was for me to be able to do something for him.

I think he appreciated what I was trying to communicate to him (we are alike, my father and I, in not speaking directly about emotional things), because he began to talk to me about his life. We became closer during that time and we had always been close, or as close, anyway, as he would allow anyone to be.

My father died a year ago today, as I write this.

My days feel empty now, purposeless. These feelings are less pronounced during the week, when I have my work and the love and support of my husband to preoccupy me. The weekends are difficult though. My husband doesn’t need my companionship or solicitude in the same way my father did, and I have no children. I cannot seem to cure myself of the habit of looking for things my father would like. I keep finding such things and, of course, every time I do, I remember with a sickening thud that there is now no one for me to give them to.

My father was still able to take care of himself when he died. He didn’t need me to bathe him, or dress him, or cook for him, or do any of the things that eventually need to be done for the elderly. I’d willingly have done those things, of course, but it was never necessary. If it had been, then at least I would be able to feel some relief that I am no longer be required to do physically demanding and occasionally even unpleasant tasks. I don’t feel any relief, though. Only loss, terrible, heart-rending loss.

I’m sure this feeling will diminish with time. Death is natural, and grieving generally has a natural course. That course can be longer or shorter, though, depending on the nature of the relationship between the bereaved and the one lost. Edward Myers writes in When Parents Die (Penguin, 1986) that “the conditions of economic or emotional dependency make a difference in what changes [a] death creates in your life” (p. 34). It is devastating, for example, to lose a spouse on whom one is financially as well as emotionally dependent, or to lose a child around whose care one’s life had revolved. “With a death of a parent, there are fewer tasks of role readjustment in life… [T]he shock of a parent’s death is therefore potentially less intense than the shock following a child’s or spouse’s death” (p. 34).

I’m sure that’s true. It make sense, anyway, on paper. Myers also writes, however, that

since you don’t simply cross a line into adulthood, leaving all your childhood experiences behind once and for all, you take some of the old attachment feelings with you. As a result, even a middle-aged son or daughter can feel strong attachment feelings for a parent. Thus the death of a parent can create an intense emotional reaction. (p. 33.)

The loss of a parent, writes Australian psychiatrist Beverly Raphael, “is essentially a double one—the loss of a parent who is around and known as an adult, but also the loss of the parent who loved and protected one during childhood” (as quoted in Myers, p. 33).

My father didn’t simply do all the things fathers normally do for their children, things such as teaching me, despite that I was a little girl, to play baseball, basketball and football, to fish, and to drive a car. He taught me how to catch snakes with a small forked stick stuck just behind their jaws. He taught me to pick blackberries and wild mushrooms, to hold a saw, to cook, etc., etc.

It was my father who insisted over the objections of my doctor that I be admitted immediately to the hospital when at around three or four years old, I appeared to be dying of a mysterious illness that a succession of doctors had been unable to diagnose. It was my father who rescued me when still as a small child I nearly drowned as a result of showing off in a swimming pool before I actually knew how to swim. It was my father who plucked the yellow jackets off me after I was swarmed by an entire hive on which I had accidentally stepped on a mushroom-hunting trip. It was my father who carried me to the doctor when I fell off a horse onto a barbed-wire fence. It was my father who used a large part of the money he made from selling his house to pay my college tuition and send me to Germany for my junior year abroad, and it was my father who drove me to Montreal for my dissertation defense.

I knew, of course, that my father was eventually going to die, and I tried to prepare myself because I knew his death would be hard for me. I was still unprepared, though, when it came and my grief seems undiminished even now a full year after his death. In the beginning, I think I was simply numb, numb like I was that day I fell off the horse and didn’t even realize I had cut my head because I had gone into some kind of shock. In the beginning I was numb and disoriented. Now the pain is acute. Now my weekends, my weekends that are my own again, my weekends that no longer involve a two-and-a-half hour drive at the end of which was the joy of my childhood, weigh on me so heavily that it is sometimes hard for me to breathe.

When the pain gets very bad. I try to remind myself that death is natural, a part of life. “For everything,” it says in Ecclesiastes, “there is a season,…at time to be born and a time to die.” And then I remind myself, as well, of a strange incident that happened when I was staying in my father’s apartment just after his death. I’d stayed there, with my mother, to help clean out the apartment. Among my father’s things was a beautiful oak drop-front desk that he had made himself. My older sister, who lived in Tulsa, had claimed the desk, so we’d emptied it of its contents in preparation for shipping it to her.

I knew the desk was empty. I’d emptied it myself. I was suddenly seized, though, by the thought that there might be a secret compartment in it. I told my mother that desks of that sort had often had secret compartments, that perhaps dad had made one and that we should see if we could find one. I began removing the drawers and looking behind them. At first there was nothing, but then, I saw something behind one of the smaller drawers in the upper part of the desk. I couldn’t tell at first what it was, but then realized it was a small piece of paper stuck against the back of the desk. I pulled it out, with some effort, and discovered it was a calendar page.

It was a page from one of those little square page-a-day calendars. It had two dates on it, January 5/6, so it was clearly a weekend.

I stood staring at it for a few minutes before I showed it to my mother.

“That is the date of dad’s death” I said slowly as I watched her looking at it. “He died on January 6th.”

“Yes,” she answered, “and actually, he died between the 5th and the 6th because he died in the wee hours of the morning of the 6th.”

I don’t know what my mother made of this, but I took it as a sign that my father’s death came when it was supposed to come. That no matter how devastating it was for me, it had not been a huge, tragic cosmic mistake that he had died when he did.

When I remember that calendar page, it helps me to feel a little better. It’s as if my father, in saving that particular little calendar page, was planning ahead, was reaching into the future, to help me when he would no longer be there to help me as he done when I was a child.

(This essay originally appeared in the 24 January 2019 issue of the online political journal Counterpunch under the title “An Essay on Grief.” I changed the title here only because I have another essay with the title “On Grief” on this blog.)

Reading Plato in the Age of the Oligarchs

Sachs' Republic coverPlato has a bad reputation in many circles because his most famous work, the Republic, appears to defend all sorts of ideas that are unpalatable to most contemporary readers, ideas such as that people need to be protected from the truth, that large-scale censorship and even the deliberate dissemination of false and misleading information by governments is defensible as a means of ensuring order in a society. I believe, however, as I have argued elsewhere, that such a view of Plato is mistaken.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the positive value of a liberal arts education. I couldn’t agree more. There is much we could learn, for example, from Plato’s Republic. Despite the fact that it disparages what it calls “democracy,” the democracy it describes is not one that I believe would be recognizable as such to any Enlightenment thinker. More importantly for the purposes of the present reflections, the Republic takes nearly as dim a view of societies that value money above everything else. Such societies are generally referred to as “plutocracies,” which literally means “government by the wealthy.” Interestingly, however, Plato calls them “oligarchies” which means “government by the few,” because he believes that societies that value money above everything else will inevitably end up concentrating the wealth in the hands of a very small number of people.

I love teaching the Republic for many reasons. It is a beautiful and deeply moving book. One of the things that makes it such a joy to teach, though, is how it engages students. The city on which the book focuses is what Socrates calls an aristocracy, or “government by the best individuals.” Even this city, he acknowledges, however, in Book VIII, will inevitably succumb to a process of dissolution into a series of increasingly degenerate states, first to a timocracy, or “government in which love of honor is the ruling principle,” then to an oligarchy, which values money above everything else, from there to a democracy, which according to Socrates, values nothing at all except freedom from restraint, and finally, to a tyranny.

Students need no coaching in where to place the U.S. on this sad trajectory of political decline. They zero in on oligarchy every time, despite the fact that most of them have been raised to think of the U.S. as a democracy. Young people are a lot smarter than we tend to give them credit for being and they have little tolerance for people who value money above everything else.

I made an important discovery recently that relates to this issue, thanks to one of my students. It concerns a problem in several translations of the Republic, including Allan Bloom’s, which is considered by many scholars to be the best.

There is a personality type, asserts Socrates, that corresponds to each type of political regime. The oligarchical personality type, that is, the personality type that values money above everything else, appears to be just. He isn’t really just, though, according to Socrates. He simply needs to maintain a reputation for being just for the purposes of contractual relations, but he does this, Socrates explains, by

forcibly holding down bad desires, which are there, with some decent part of himself. He holds them down not by persuading them that they had “better not” nor by taming them with argument, but by necessity and fear. (554c7-d).

One of my students remarked that it was strange Socrates would say that the oligarchical man holds down his bad desires with some “decent” part of himself, but that despite that, he wasn’t really just, but only appeared to be just. The student wanted to know what the Greek term was that was translated as “decent.”

I looked it up. The Greek expression Plato uses in the passage where Socrates talks about how the the oligarchical man holds down his bad desires “with some decent part of himself” is ἐπιεικεῖ τινὶ έαυτοῦ. The relevant term is ἐπιεικεῖ. It means “fitting,” “meet,” or “suitable” according to Liddell-Scott, the standard dictionary for translating ancient Greek into contemporary English. It’s related to ὲπιείκεια, which means “reasonableness,” “fairness,” or “equity.”

My student was right, though, to point out that there was a problem with describing the part of the oligarchical man that holds down his bad desires as “decent.” Neither Bloom’s “decent part of himself” nor Shorey’s “better element in himself” coheres well with the point Socrates is making in the passage because the oligarchical man isn’t trying to be good. He isn’t genuinely virtuous, but only appears to be virtuous. He holds down his evil desires, according to Socrates, out of “fear,” not because he wants to be good, but because he is afraid that by giving in to those desires, he’ll get a bad reputation and no one will want to do business with him.

It isn’t any “decent” part, or “better element,” of the oligarchical man through which he restrains his evil desires. He has a desire to seem (δοκέω) just, not to be just. The desire to seem just isn’t actually a good desire. That is, it doesn’t have any positive moral worth, hence the reference to his “other evil desires” (my emphasis). Bloom omits the “other” (ἄλλας) when he refers to the oligarchical man’s holding down his “bad desires” (κακὰς ἐπιθυμίας). This omission encourages the view that there is something morally praiseworthy in the oligarchical man that is responsible for his good reputation. There isn’t.

Paul Shorey’s Loeb Classical Library version of the Republic translates this passage as “he, by some better element in himself forcibly keeps down other evil desires dwelling within.” It looks like Shorey was aware, however, that it isn’t actually anything morally positive, or “decent,” in the oligarchical man that holds down his “bad desires,” because he has a note in which he writes that “ἐπιεικεῖ is here used generally, and not in its special sense of ‘sweet reasonableness’.”

It appears ἐπιεικεῖ is being used here in the purely prudential sense of “fitting.” That is, the oligarchical man holds down some bad, or evil, desires in order more effectively to serve his evil desire to seem just. What holds down those other “evil desires” is whatever it is in him that is, in fact, capable of doing this. It isn’t some morally praiseworthy part of himself. So why have so many scholars chosen to translate it with English terms that have positive moral or ethical connotations? Such translations actually make the passage harder to understand.

The new Loeb Classical Library version of the Republic by Chris Emlyn-Jones and William Preddy has the oligarchical man using “some element of fairness within himself” to restrain his “other wrong desires.” That’s perhaps no worse than Shorey’s translation. Unfortunately, unlike Shorey, they fail to alert the reader to what is problematic in translating ἐπιεικεῖ with a morally positive expression such as “element of fairness,” so in that sense, the new Loeb Republic is a step backward.

Benjamin Jowett’s translation “has enforced virtue,” where Bloom has “decent part of himself” and that is actually better than either Bloom’s or either of the Loeb translations. The best translation of this passage, however, that I have found is, I believe, Joe Sachs’. Sachs has “quasi-decent constraint over himself” for ἐπιεικεῖ τινὶ έαυτοῦ. The qualification “quasi” is important because it makes clear, as none of the other translations does, that the constraint the oligarchical man exercises over himself only seems to be “decent.”

I haven’t used Sachs translation before, but I am going to consider using it the next time I teach the Republic. It may not be uniformly better than other translations, but it definitely seems deserving of a closer look.

It’s tempting to think that works that have already been translated many times probably don’t need to be translated anew. In fact, however, no translation is ever perfect. Language changes over time, and that translators have their own particular biases. It is therefore a good idea to re-translate important works at regular intervals, just to make sure that the language of the translation is keeping up with contemporary usage and that any bias that may have influenced earlier translations is corrected for.

Clearly Plato’s Republic deserves to be repeatedly re-translated. There is a great deal of wisdom in it, including insight into the moral bankruptcy, on both an individual and a collective level, of valuing money above everything else.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2018 issue of Counterpunch)

 

Reflections on “Reflections from a Hashtag”

I was sexually harassed by one of my professors in graduate school. He was the director of the graduate program and was known to host parties at his apartment for the graduate students. I assumed, when he invited me to his apartment for “dinner,” that the “dinner” in question was such an event.

I was wrong. I was the only guest for what had clearly been conceived as a romantic dinner. There was filet mignon wrapped in bacon and an excellent cabernet. I was surprised to find myself the object of such attentions, but I wasn’t frightened, not at first, anyway. The professor in question, let’s call him Professor H. (H. for “harasser”), was only a few years older than I was. We were both young and unattached. Unfortunately, though I was flattered by his interest, I didn’t reciprocate it. I tried to communicate this to him in a way that would minimize his hurt and embarrassment. He was a hard man to put off though. The evening ended, I kid you not, with his literally chasing me around the dining table. He kept moving uncomfortably close to me and I kept moving away, around and around the dining table until, finally, he seemed to get the point.

When he realized, or appeared to realize, anyway, that I was not simply playing hard-to-get, he told me that he appreciated my honesty and that what was most important to him was that we continued to have a positive professional relationship. And we did continue to have a positive professional relationship, at least for the next couple of weeks.

“Whew, dodged that bullet,” I thought to myself gratefully.

But then, things changed. He suddenly became openly hostile toward me. He would publicly disparage everything I said, both in class and outside of it. He once spent an entire class arguing to the other students present that a remark I had made in relation to what is known in philosophy as “personal identity theory” demonstrated beyond all doubt that I was an irredeemable idiot.

Professor H.’s behavior toward me became increasingly hostile as the weeks passed. Finally, the lone tenured woman in the department approached me privately and explained that she knew what was going on. She had been a victim of Professor H. herself. It was very important, she explained to me, that I complain to the chair of the department because Professor H. was disparaging me to other faculty to such an extent that I was in danger of losing my funding.

So I dutifully complained to the chair. I will never forget his first words.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” he said, “Professor H. has been warned about this.”

By that time, I knew Professor H. had a history. I just didn’t know how extensive it was. It seemed he used the graduate program as his personal dating pool. He’d started doing that, actually, even before he’d become the director of the graduate program. His behavior was so conspicuous that a group of graduate students had actually protested his appointment as director.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” the chair said. “You don’t want to make a formal complaint against him, though,” he continued, “because that would hurt his career.”

I’m not a vindictive person. It seemed to me that Professor H. was not really evil, but simply incredibly emotionally immature. I didn’t want to hurt his career (though in retrospect, I doubt very much that a formal complaint against him would have had that effect). I just wanted him to leave me alone. I wanted to have my work evaluated fairly. The chair said he would talk to Professor H., and I’m sure he did, because my funding was not revoked.

I never again enjoyed the favor, in an academic sense, I mean, of any of my professors. When I’d first arrived in the program, I’d been feted as if I were some kind of celebrity. All the professors welcomed me, commented favorably on my work, invited me to their homes, etc. Not after I had gone to the chair about Professor H., though. No one was openly hostile, the way Professor H. had been, but everyone was decidedly cool. I was grudgingly given passing grades (one of my papers from this period was later published, in the same form in which I had submitted it for a grade, and then reprinted both in English and in Chinese and Russian translations, in an anthology and a textbook). The same well-intentioned female professor again approached me privately, however, and explained to me that I should not solicit letters of recommendation from any of the faculty in my own program, that I would have to rely on what she knew was my growing list of professional contacts outside my program when it came time for me to look for a job.

Thanks to the practice of blind reviewing, which involves concealing the identity of the author of a scholarly paper when it is submitted to referees for judgment concerning whether it should be published, I was able to begin publishing scholarly articles while still a student and to build, gradually, a reputation that made it possible for me to obtain a Fulbright fellowship and then, finally, a tenure-track job.

It was a long, hard slog, though. The job market back then was no better than it is now. Philosophy is a notoriously sexist discipline and a job candidate, man or woman, who cannot present letters of recommendation from any of the faculty of their degree-granting institution is automatically thought of as suspect.

I labored mightily for years to become the best possible scholar, and amassed an impressive collection of publications, and yet I still regard it as something of a miracle that I was able to secure a tenure-track position, to get tenure, and finally, to be promoted to full “Professor.” I knew I would have to work as if my life depended on it, so I did. It seemed pointless to reflect on how unfair it was that I did not enjoy the patronage of a powerful professor that is more often than not the decisive factor in opening the door to a tenure-track position for a newly-minted Ph.D. in philosophy. That was my lot, so I tried to make the best of it.

I spent a great deal of time, however, trying to figure out how things could ever go so terribly wrong as they had for me. Why hadn’t Professor H. been read the riot act immediately after his first transgression? Why hadn’t the proverbial fear of God been placed in him by so that he would at least have been discreet, even if he’d been a victim of satyriasis and unable actually to stop himself?[1] Professor H. wasn’t the only professor in that department who abused his authority to initiate sexual liaisons with female graduate students. Not everyone did it, but many did, and those who didn’t, viewed the antics of the others as a spectator sport.

This all came rushing back to me when I read Jian Ghomeshi’s “Reflections from a Hashtag” in the New York Review of Books (October 11, 2018). Ghomeshi was a prominent Canadian broadcaster who lost his job and was publicly vilified after he was accused of sexual harassment and assault.

“When a well-known fellow broadcaster saw me with a twenty-something date at a film festival event in Toronto,” writes Jian Ghomeshi, who was then thirty-nine, “he left a voice mail saying, ‘Dude, you are the king!’ I basked in his praise,” Ghomeshi continues, “He’d never called me before and never mentioned my work; the real message was the women I was with were the true gauge of success” (p. 29).

That was the way Professor H. was viewed. He was “the king!” He eventually left the university in question and moved to another university where he continued to harass female students until one of them finally sued.

I haven’t mentioned Professor H.’s name because singling him out for blame is now pointless. You could figure out who he was, of course, if you wanted to do a little research. The purpose of my recounting these events, however, is to make clear that harassment and abuse of women is a systemic problem. It goes on for one very simple and straightforward reason: It is allowed to go on. This is partly because of what Ghomeshi correctly identifies as a “systemic culture of unhealthy masculinity” (p. 30) that leads many men not merely to derive pleasure from harassing and abusing women, but to derive pleasure from the spectacle of it.

There is more to the problem than that, though. There is what I call “the first-stone problem.” Ghomeshi writes that many male acquaintances furtively commiserated with him. “What happened to you,” they wrote, “could have been me.” People are naturally reluctant to point fingers at one another for fear of having fingers pointed back at them. Most people are not sexual predators, but there aren’t many people who don’t have something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of, something they don’t want paraded before the general public. This makes people naturally reluctant to call out the bad behavior of others.

“Professor H. didn’t mean to harass you,” the chair explained to me. “He didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable or threatened, or to coerce you into a sexual relationship.” (I’m paraphrasing now, of course, because the conversation took place many years ago and only his first words remain indelibly marked on my memory.) “He’s just emotionally immature. He reacts badly when things don’t go the way he wants them to.”

I think that was a pretty accurate depiction of Professor H.’s character. He wasn’t a bad guy. He just had an unfortunate habit of behaving badly, very badly under certain circumstances. Philosophers distinguish, however, between explanation and justification. Professor H.’s emotional immaturity explained his bad behavior, but it didn’t justify it. Bad behavior should never be tolerated just because the person engaging it isn’t normally a bad person. People need to be called on their behavior, and judgment about their character, reserved for a higher power. Unless, of course, they are being considered for a position of such authority that the question of their character, however ultimately undecidable, becomes crucially relevant.

People are so social that they tend to respond more or less appropriately to censure, even private censure, to say nothing of public censure, by someone in a position of authority. If people are called on their inappropriate behavior, unless they are serious sociopaths, they will usually, at least eventually, stop engaging in it.

Aristotle figured this out long ago (if Plato hadn’t actually figured it out before him). If you want people to behave in certain ways, he wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics (Books I and II), then the culture needs to reinforce that kind of behavior. And if there are ways you don’t want them to behave, then the culture needs to send a clear message to that effect as well.

We need, without exception, to hold individuals responsible for behaviors that violate norms of what we, as a culture, collectively feel is right. We are deluding ourselves, however, if we think that by targeting individuals in this way we are dealing effectively with what is clearly a systemic problem. It may give the impression we are doing something about the problem, but all the while, the problem waxes and thrives.

 

[1] Discretion is actually very important. One of the problems of the conspicuous abuse of authority to initiate sexual relationships with students is that it makes other students feel vulnerable. Not only does it create anxiety. It can lead students to think that they would be well advised to initiate such relationships themselves simply to make sure that they have a protector.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the 1 October 2018 issue of the online political journal Counterpunch.

On Speaking Small Truths to Power

Scan 4I inherited my father’s papers after his death. I’ve been going through them, slowly, in an attempt to put them into some kind of order. My father was a journalist for most of his professional life, so his papers consist mainly of old newspaper pieces, news articles, examples from a column he had for a while called Humble Pie, and then masses of editorials from late in his career when he had become an editorial writer.

I think my father always wanted to be an editorial writer. He had to work his way up to that, though. He actually began his journalistic career as a sports writer. I haven’t found any of those articles, but I did come across a mysterious letter from 1962 that referred to one of them. The letter was from the city clerk of the city of Madison, IL. “Your column in the March 19th issue of the Evening Journal,” it reads

left a profound effect upon the officials of the City of Madison, Illinois and all loyal Madison High Basketball fans. Newspapers are generally inclined, like so many of us, to soft pedal certain controversial issues. Such was not, however, the way in which your article was written. Its frankness, while it did not give Madison a victory against Belleville, certainly brought to light the handicap to which our team was subjected.

It is therefore with the utmost sincerity and humility that I, as City Clerk, extend to you on behalf of the City Officials and citizens of the City of Madison, Illinois a thank you for a fine job of honest reporting and impartial journalism.

Very truly yours,

Percy Lux

City Clerk

Madison, Illinois

What, I wondered could have prompted such a letter? What was the “controversial issue”? Articles on the sports page don’t generally have a “profound effect” on readers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate the article among my father’s papers. Fortunately, I had the date and the name of the newspaper in which it appeared, so, with the help of Debbie Ross and Teri Barnett, of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL, I was able to get a copy.

“The Illinois High School Association has been accused of high-handed and autocratic conduct many times,” my father’s article begins. “But its incredible blunder in assigning Fred Gibson of Centralia as one of the officials in the Granite City Sectional Tournament last week will long rank in the minds of many area basketball fans as the rankest kind of injustice to Madison High School.”

Let me set the scene. Madison High School’s basketball team was scheduled to face off against Belleville High School’s team in the Granite City Sectional, part of the first round of the Illinois State High School Basketball Championships. Centralia, which had long had one of the best high school basketball teams in Illinois, was favored win its sectional game and hence to face off against the winner of the Granite City Sectional. Centralia thus had an obvious interest in the outcome of the latter game. Madison was unbeaten, but Belleville was not. So they would naturally rather face Belleville than Madison, which means they must have hoped the long-shot Belleville would win.

Fred Gibson, the man referred to in my father’s article, was, again, from Centralia. Moreover, Gibson was known to be hard on the type of “aggressive, pressing defense” employed by Madison.

“Coaches of teams involved in tournament play,” my father wrote “each list a number of officials who might be assigned to work that tournament. As nearly as possible the IHSA tries to assign to a particular tournament the two officials who received the highest ranking.” Madison’s coach had understandably rated Gibson “as low as possible” on his list of officials for the Granite City Sectional. According to the article, the assistant to the executive secretary of the IHSA had assured the coach, Madison’s principal, and a Madison High School board member, that Gibson “would not work on any game involving Madison.”

Despite these assurances, however, Gibson was selected to officiate at the Granite City Sectional, the game that would determine who his own home team would face in the next round of the state high school basketball championship.

The game did not go well for Madison. Gibson, true to form, was hard on them, with the result that their all-stater Don Freeman was “out nearly half of the game.” Madison couldn’t overcome this handicap and eventually lost.

The reaction of Centralia’s players, when they received the news of Madison’s defeat, was reportedly euphoric. According to one observer “[t]hose kids cheered like they had won the state championship.” And, indeed, they did go on to beat Belleville in the next round of the tournament.

There is no accusation in the article of foul play on the part of Referee Gibson. The charge is rather that because of Gibson’s obvious conflict of interest, the IHSA had behaved badly in picking him to officiate that game.

“Officials,” my father wrote, “like Caesar’s wife, must avoid the appearance of evil, and Gibson, a Centralia official, is not the proper man to assign to a tournament where Centralia has a consuming interest in the outcome of the tournament.”

High School basketball is to Illinois almost what high school football is to Texas. And nowhere, it appears, is it more important than at Centralia. “For nearly 70 years,” observes Robert Bittner in an article from 2004, “the Centralia Orphans have been the ‘winningest’ high school boys basketball team in the United States.” Predominantly-white Centralia had been on a more than 30-year-long winning streak by 1962 when it feared facing off against the more racially-mixed Madison. Fortunately for Centralia, the IHSA helped to ensure that those fears were not realized.

So what was the controversial issue? Was it simply that the IHSA may have been biased in favor of Centralia and may have allowed that bias to influence its selection of Gibson to officiate at the Granite City Sectional? Or could it have been even more sinister? Could the bias have stemmed from racial prejudice? I doubt there is anyone around anymore who could answer that question.

What is clear is that Madison felt cheated, and its city officials were moved that someone had the courage to make their case in print. They weren’t just moved. They were “profound[ly]” affected.

It is a small thing, a basketball game. It isn’t a small thing, though, to feel one has been cheated. Such feelings can fester for years, souring a person’s view of human nature and society. Enough such injustices, or perceived injustices, small though they may be, can eventually make it impossible for a person to be truly happy. People are profoundly social and cannot realize their full potential for happiness except as individual elements in a web of relationships that form a harmonious and mutually supportive community. A persistent lack of faith and trust in others makes for an unhappy life.

I think my father understood that, and that’s why he kept the letter from Madison’s City Officials. He went on to speak larger truths to larger powers and was often in trouble with his editors, first because of his involvement in the civil rights movement, and later because of his views on the conflict in the Middle East. I think he understood, however, that no injustice is so small that it doesn’t rankle, doesn’t pollute the psyche of its victim.

Who would have thought that an article about a high school basketball game could be so important?

 

(I would like to thank Debbie Ross and Teri Barnett of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL, both for helping me to locate my father’s article and for sending me a copy it. An earlier version of this article appeared in the 20 June 2018 issue of Counterpunch.)

Some Reflections on Mother’s Day

AlicePietyAndOneOfHerBabiesMy father said he had no memory of his mother, none that is, except for one very vague, shadowy memory of being held by a woman who was standing at a stove, cooking something. He was the third of what would eventually be five children. His mother was seventeen when he was born.

Alice Eugenia Farrar liked to write poetry. She never finished school, though, because she was forced to marry her teacher when she became pregnant by him. Her husband, Austin LeGrand Piety, protested in a letter to one of his children that he had not seduced her. He was twenty-seven when they married. She was fifteen.

Fifteen is too young, of course, to begin having children. Five children in rapid succession ruined her health. She contracted tuberculosis and was sent to the Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium when my father was still a toddler. Her husband was unable both to earn a living and take care of five children all by himself, so he deposited them in the Working Woman’s Home and Day Nursery in Little Rock. That was sometime in 1934 when my father was three years old.

As far as I can make out, he never saw his mother again. She had brief periods when her health improved, but she never fully recovered. She died of tuberculosis when my father was twelve. He told me several times that I looked like her, but that judgment must have been based on photographs rather than memory. We had a few photographs of her when I was a child. I didn’t know they were photos of her, though. I didn’t know who the subject was. They were just old photos of someone I didn’t know.

My father never talked about his mother when I was a child because he had no memories of her to share. I didn’t even know her name until I was in my thirties. It just never came up. She must have been a very good mother, though (an impressive accomplishment for someone who was herself still a child) because all her children turned out well. And by “well” I don’t mean they became successful professionals, though they did. I mean they were kind and caring people, sympathetic and empathetic with developed social consciences. Research has shown that the first two to three years in a child’s life are crucial to its development, more crucial, perhaps, than any subsequent years. A child who isn’t held enough, during this period, who isn’t nurtured and coddled enough, cooed over and talked to enough, will not develop normally in an emotional sense (see, for example, Hildyard and Wolfe, “Child neglect: developmental issues and outcomes”). I don’t mean to suggest that it is impossible for children who received insufficient attention in those crucial early years to develop into happy, well-adjusted adults. I don’t know that that is something anyone could ever know. What we do know, however, is that achievement is more difficult for them.

Alice Eugenia Farrar Piety must have been an extraordinary person. It is almost impossible now, however, to learn anything about her. There is no one alive anymore, so far as I know, who knew her when she was alive. Among my father’s papers, there is one heart-rending letter from her to her sister-in-law begging that her children not be put up for adoption.

There are also a couple of her poems. They’re unimpressive, though, compared to those of her more intellectually accomplished husband. But then, she was not allowed to become intellectually accomplished. An early pregnancy and subsequent poverty killed whatever dreams she may have had of that sort.

She doesn’t look poor in the photo at the beginning of this piece. She looks, in fact, very middle class, sitting in the backyard of a nice middle-class house, coddling a baby that her apparent age suggests she is looking after for someone else. She isn’t the child’s baby-sitter, though, she’s its mother. No one even knows anymore who the child in the photo is. The writing on the back reads simply “Alice with one of her babies.” The photo was likely taken early in her marriage, before her husband’s pay was cut in half, before he began to lose one job after another.

Scan 4The photo here, of my father and his two older brothers Philip (far left) and Louis (middle), gives a better idea of Alice’s material circumstances after her marriage and repeated pregnancies. One can just glimpse a portion of their house in the background.

James Agee wrote in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that the inability of the share croppers he studied to control how many children they had was one of the main reasons they were unable to work themselves up out of poverty. How many people, men as well as women, have been forced into marriages simply as a result of the fact that they could not control whether they would have children if they had sex? How much alcoholism, drug addiction, and child abuse can be traced back to unwanted pregnancies? How much violence more generally can be traced to anger at feeling trapped in a life over which one has no control?

My father was a life-long contributor to Planned Parenthood. He was a kind-hearted person with a soft spot for children. He didn’t like the idea of abortion, but he liked even less the idea of children being forced to become mothers, or worse, driven to acts that might end their own lives as well as those of their unborn children. Many people associate Planned Parenthood with abortion. Most Planned Parenthood clinics don’t provide abortion services, though, but only contraceptive services (see their website where they state that only “some” Planned Parenthood clinics provide abortion services), as well as more general healthcare services. (I received treatment for a bladder infection at a Planned Parenthood clinic when I was in graduate school.) Such services, my father thought, were essential to a humane and properly functioning society.

How many women’s lives have vanished, like Alice’s, because they became mothers too young?

My father was adamant about continuing his monthly contributions to Planned Parenthood, even when, late in retirement, he could ill afford them. I never asked him if this was in part because of his mother. It seems to me now, though, that she has to have been there, in the back of his mind, the shadowy figure, balancing his tiny form on her hip as she stood at the stove.

 

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the 11 May issue of Counterpunch. I had erroneously indicated that Alice’s age when she married was thirteen. That was what my father had told me. My cousin Timothy, one of Louis’ children corrected me, however. He calculated Alice’s age when she married based on her birthday on her gravestone and the year his father, the oldest child, was born.)