Monday, April 24 “that’s what got me to face into the wind’s teeth”
Sometimes joy after grief awakens slowly, filled with stillness and soft footsteps. Sometimes joy after grief runs so hard it messes your hair and makes you giddy. Today’s poem is that 2nd kind of joy. Whenever I hear what William Carlos Williams pulled out of his magic poet’s bag, I cannot help repeating it. Try it for this Monday of Easter’s 2nd week, as final exams at the university peek over the horizon.
Have a blest week.
Today’s Post: The Manoeuvre
I saw the two starlings
coming in toward the wires
But at the last,
just before alighting, they
turned in the air together
and landed backwards!
that’s what got me —
to face into the wind’s teeth.
This little boy exploring a large stone egg got me wondering the way art does. Two artists here, the sculptor and the mom with the camera. So I emailed his mom back asking about the egg. She’s a close friend living in La Jolla, CA: “it’s a sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy, called “Three Cairns,” in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art; my son calls it the ‘egg rock.’”
I found an explanation on the website of the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation (http://dsmpublicartfoundation.org/public-art/three-cairns/). Just below is their great picture of the central cairn at the Des Moines Art Center. “Cairns,” Public Art tells us, are “stone structures [or markers] that identify a place of great importance. Their dry-stone construction represents an engineering feat as well as artistic creativity. The process of shaping and stacking the stones into a simple oval shape is challenging and intense. The form symbolizes fullness and ripeness, time and energy, loss and endurance.” The Foundation also tells us that this is the largest project in the Western Hemisphere by British artist Andy Goldsworthy.
The photo, by Doug Millar, shows the central cairn at home among Iowa grass and trees. Goldworthy’s placement of the two hollow-out stone frames isn’t random. One points toward New York, a matching cairn outside the Neugerger Museum of Art; the other points west to the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla and the cairn my friend’s son showed off for us. The limestone for each comes from long before its physical home was inhabited by people calling their place “Iowa.”
Lots going on here. Not one place but three, not three places but a continent, not one time but millennia, all crafted with the precise skills of a contemporary worker of stone. I like to imagine the work we do at the university like that. These are exam days, demanding precise thinking and some memory. But, our Mission Statement reminds our students, the point is not the exam or the grade; the point is a lifetime of their citizenship in a world that is vast and beloved of God.
While getting reacquainted with the Cairns, I opened a poem feed that lands in my inbox each day to find a gift from Emily Dickenson. Just below my signature, you will find Emily Dickenson’s 12 line poem about an unnamed bird. Which form of beauty opens me to deeper stillness this mid-April day in 2017, the trans-national sculpture of this poem from the 19th century? Answer? “yes.”
Looks like spring rains today, encouraging grass and flowers and trees to do their thing.
Have a blest day.
john st sj
p.s. Emily Dickenson
by Emily Dickinson
December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
Monday April 17
“Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
When I was a child, on what Catholics call “Holy Saturday,” the big deal was that the tight rules of Lent unwound themselves and you could eat candy again. In 1927, Cecil B DeMille released his silent-film blockbuster “The King of Kings.” Wikipedia describes DeMille’s treatment of Easter as follows: “On the third day, he rises from the dead as promised. To emphasize the importance of the resurrection, this scene from an otherwise black and white film is shot in color. Jesus goes to the Apostles and tells them to spread his message to the world. He tells them ‘I am with you always” as the scene shifts to a modern city to show that Jesus still watches over his followers.” Color film, a dazzling wonderment. I wasn’t there in 1927 but it’s easy to imagine that surprise burst of color and the anachronistic leap from the death of Jesus into a modern city, still two years away from 1929’s ‘Black Friday,’ as the media parallel of us kids getting to eat candy again. “Yippee! Jesus wins and our troubles are over.”
Easter joy, though, may be more demanding than Lent’s fasting and both Lent and the Easter Season’s 40 days depend on a habit of paying attention to beauty side by side with the world’s violence and its burden of grief. The women and men who meet a risen Jesus in the gospels are in shock, incapacitated by what torture has done to the body of Jesus while he was executed. In shock with a level of grief that makes joy seem impossible. No one wanted to hear that Jesus rose; check out the handful of accounts of encounters with him. In every case, those women and men had to surrender their exhausted and battered hopes, had to begin to imagine that Jesus Risen called them into joy about the whole human condition, violence and beauty together.
Easter is a lot like Lent. It’s about a habit of paying attention to the whole world’s realities, trusting that out of the wounds and grief, you can risk delight and even playful humor. My fellow Jesuit, Justin Kelly, with whom I and our small group of Sunday worshipers celebrated Saturday’s Easter Vigil, reminded us, one might say, that The Resurrection is for grown-ups and their children, that we citizens of 2017 are asked to love the whole human package, to risk paying attention to beauty without avoiding the wounds. Justin reached into where I live when he ended his homily by reciting one of the great Easter poems of our tradition, Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “God’s Grandeur.” Lots of exquisite images, of a battered world and the improbable beauty of the world’s rebirth.
Best to read Hopkins when you are not in a hurry, the imagery is fine-tuned and then some.
This is day two of the Easter Season and the brilliant sun, crisp breezy air, leaves and flowers bursting. “Get used to beauty,” they seem to say, Risk it.
Have a blest week.
Today’s Post: “God’s Grandeur”
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Gerard Manley Hopkins 28 July 1844 – 8 June, 1889
p.s. I was ready to send out today’s post when I read an email from one of the Work Day/Hard time list’s 2285 members, a searing account by a passionate teacher to just how hard it is to find hope when you look around the world of the whole human condition. I am posting it without revealing the author’s name. What s/he wrote this morning just belongs in this post.
I just read the poem from Thursday and wanted to shout – but what about the parents who do appear to give up their children? I have a young man (19 years old) who is certified with ASD who spent Easter under a bridge. I’ve known him for 2 years and have never met a family member. Wednesday was the last time I saw him and I spent much time and many hours thinking and praying for his protection. He’s been homeless since February. He’s been following the rotating shelter that goes from church to church, but found it was moving too far away from school. When I saw him last, he asked if someone could bring him a sleeping bag – that would make the rock a little easier to deal with. What do you do when the picture in your head is a young person, dirty, hungry, and alone?
When I watch TV and the heart wrenching music and ad want me to care about a lost or abused puppy when I know teenagers who are lost and abused.
It’s hard to think about forcing a child to learn a foreign language or algebra II when they haven’t eaten a real meal in several days and they don’t have a bed to sleep in.
It’s hard to thoroughly enjoy feasting at Easter when the smell of the wood fire that kept a student warm the night before is still fresh in one’s memory.
The worst part is offering that teen a ride, let alone a warm bed and a roof, could put my job in jeopardy. I wail at the society that would apparently throw this child away.
Sometimes I feel it is easier to look globally and see the “big picture” then look really close at hand and see the details. I’m looking for the answers to the question, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, when we fight for the protection of the others, how can we be creating our own “refugees”?
Pope Francis, July 2013 on the island of Lampedusa spoke these words to a world just getting used to him as a new world figure. Francis chose this place of horrors at sea to call attention to the violence where refugees live.. Among other things, he said:
“Immigrants who died at sea, from that boat that, instead of being a way of hope was a way of death
. . . . . I felt that I ought to come here today to pray, (n.b., a few months since his election)
to make a gesture of closeness,
but also to reawaken our consciences so that what happened would not be repeated.
Not repeated, please!”
The Jesuit Gesu parish just north of our campus, entrances me each year as the rhythm of Holy Week invites us into this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday before exploding into Easter beauty. Tonight in church I looked around at friends with whom I have shared so much living. We welcomed each other again into our Holy Week rituals, alive with children and singing and stillness. We become, for a time and more than usual, a listening church. I read among us the commitments and the losses we have lived. Good Friday, tomorrow, asks that we stay close to the violent wounds, and violent wounding, which wear on us all. Good Friday is a day to “reawaken our consciences.”
What might make a poem that can compel us to pay attention to the violent places in this world? This year for me Warsan Shire’s refugee poem helps me not to lose focus, the way strong poems do. One estimate sets the number of refugees who have had to leave home and walk the roads of the world at c. 60,000,000. I am proud of my brother Jesuit, Pope Francis, for bringing his gift of hospitality, and bring us who hear him speak, into very hard places. Warsan Shire’s poems, flint hard, unrelenting, reminds me of Francis and Francis reminds me of Warsan Shire.
Best to read her poem out loud, with pauses. An inner place of listening to restore our kindness with courage so we can continue to pay attention.
Have a blest day
Text # 3: – Warsan Shire, “Home”
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well.
your neighbours running faster
than you, the boy you went to school with who kissed you dizzy behind
the old tin factory is
holding a gun bigger than his body,
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one would leave home unless home chased you, fire under feet,
hot blood in your belly.
it’s not something you ever thought about doing, and so when you did –
you carried the anthem under your breath, waiting until the airport toilet
to tear up the passport and swallow,
each mouthful of paper making it clear that you would not be going back.
you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.
who would choose to spend days
and nights in the stomach of a truck
unless the miles traveled
meant something more than journey.
no one would choose to crawl under fences,
be beaten until your shadow leaves you,
raped, then drowned, forced to the bottom of
the boat because you are darker, be sold,
starved, shot at the border like a sick animal,
be pitied, lose your name, lose your family,
make a refugee camp a home for a year or two or ten,
stripped and searched, find prison everywhere
and if you survive and you are greeted on the other side
with go home blacks, refugees
dirty immigrants, asylum seekers
sucking our country dry of milk,
dark, with their hands out
smell strange, savage –
look what they’ve done to their own countries,
what will they do to ours?
the dirty looks in the street
softer than a limb torn off,
the indignity of everyday life
more tender than fourteen men who
look like your father, between
your legs, easier to swallow
than rubble, than your child’s body
in pieces – for now, forget about pride
your survival is more important.
i want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home tells you to
leave what you could not behind, even if it was human.
no one leaves home until home
is a damp voice in your ear saying
leave, run now, i don’t know what
Warsan Shire b. 1 August 1988
Wednesday, April 12
“Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows . . . ”
In traditional Catholic faith practice, Holy Week can take a lot of living up to. The intimate closeness, Jesus human and divine, comes close to the violence that wears the world all year long. But, this week pays particular attention to the collision of Christ and violence. I incline to treat the impulse for “living up to” this week as a distraction. Better, perhaps, to let the texts and music of these seven days knock on the door of my awareness now and then, surprising me in the middle of the plans and deadlines and the joys of kinship that make up a lot of daily life. And remind me that there lives beneath the ordinary stuff depths that open me to stark and delicate graces.
Rumi’s poem, “The Guest House,” explores this mystery of living a reality both ordinary and vast. Best to read the poem out loud. From a person still growing in this faith tradition, still learning to allow what runs deep to mingle with what hustles along on ordinary daily paths . . . . Have a blest week.
Today’s Post: “The Guest House”
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
April 6 – Easter Monday and Opening Day at the Ball Park
Opening Day in Motown = Ernie Harwell and The Song of Solomon.
Can’t say how good it feels to listen to Ernie Harwell. Here he is on a YouTube clip and in print from The Song of Solomon. Below that are Dan Holmes’ candidates for Ernie H’s 10 best catch phrases, concluding at # 10 with my favorite, “he just stood there like the house on the side of the road and watched that one go by.”
For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
Song of Solomon
Read on Tigers Opening Day for decades by Ernie Harwell
The popular Ernie Harwell was heard on the radio for sixty years, from 1943 to 2002. He spent 43 seasons as the voice of the Detroit Tigers.
For more than four decades Ernie Harwell was the man responsible for telling Tiger fans the good (or the bad) news. The Georgia-native was the play-by-play man on radio for the team from 1960 to 1991, and again for a decade from 1993 until his retirement at the age of 84 in 2002.
During his tenure in the broadcast booth, Harwell endeared himself to Tiger fans across Michigan with his rich, baritone voice, his simple broadcast style, and his heartwarming catch phrases. Many of his calls are the most famous in Detroit sports history. Who can forget “Listen to the bedlam at Tiger Stadium!!!” in 1984 when the Tigers won Game Five of the World Series to capture the World Series title. Or “There’s a base hit! … Kaline scores! … And McLain has his thirtieth win!” in 1968.
But while great calls like those are keystones to great moments and magical seasons with Ernie behind the microphone, there were also catch phrases that Harwell used year-in and year-out. Those phrases became a familiar trademark to a Harwell game and a Tiger broadcast.
I put together a list of my favorites. This list probably contains the most famous and popular Harwell catch phrases during his storied career.
#10. “Nothing across…”
This was a housekeeping phrase, it told the listener in shorthand that the team at bat had “no runs, no hits, no errors” from their action at the plate in the inning. Harwell would describe the final out and then say, “Nothing across for the Brewers in the third… Tigers still lead, 3-1.”
I always thought this was a standard baseball term, but I have listened for it since Harwell’s days and no other announcer (that I’ve heard) does this.
#9. “He kicks and deals…”
I must have heard this phrase tens of thousands of times. It’s a Harwell description of the pitcher kicking his leg up and delivering the pitch and it served perfectly to start the action of the next pitch and play. A classic phrase that was pure Harwell.
#8. “The Tigers are looking for some instant runs.”
When the Tigers were trailing late or by a lot, Ernie would use this one. He might also use it for the opposing team, as in “The Yankees will need some instant runs here to get back into this ballgame…”
#7. “That’s a strike! Mr. Kaiser said so.”
I remember this one vividly because it made me realize as a boy that umpires were real people. The premise goes like this: a pitch is called a strike and Ernie calls it, then he uses the ump’s name to add some emphasis. Kaiser was Ken Kaiser, a longtime American League umpire. It could have been Ron Luciano, or Don Denkinger, and so on. All umpires were always “Mr.” and Ernie would often sprinkle in their hometown too. “The gentleman from Nyack, New York [Marty Springstead] is calling balls and strikes this afternoon…”
#6. “One more out and it’ll be a Tiger victory.”
Ernie wasn’t much for jinxes. He didn’t believe that anything he said in the booth could impact the outcome on the field, and he’d gladly tell us how many outs we needed for a Detroit win. Or even a no-hitter. In 1984 when Jack Morris fired a no-hitter against the White Sox, Ernie drew criticism from some when he regularly used the phrase “no-hitter” late in the game and even counted down the outs. Baseball tradition states that the term “no-hitter” shouldn’t be used while a pitcher is pitching one, For Ernie, it was more important to describe the action and be accurate than to adhere to superstition.
#5. “It’s LOOOOOOONG GONE!”
This was Ernie’s signature home run call. Harwell probably most famously used this call in 1968 during the World Series when Jim Northrup hit a grand slam in Game Six against the Cardinals.
#4. “He’s out for excessive window shopping.”
Harwell seemed to have an endless string of phrases on the tip of his tongue. This one was used when a batter looked at a called third strike. It was a little more common than his other famous “called strike” call.
#3. “It’s two for the price of one.”
Ernie used this one when a double play was turned, and it’s a perfect phrase for what has happened. How many times did Harwell use this one while Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker were teamed in the middle of the infield for the Tigers? Possibly as many as 1,300 times — that’s how many double plays the duo turned for Detroit.
This one was frequently preceded by “bounding ball” which was what Ernie called a groundball to the infield.
#2. “A man from Hamtramck will go home with that one.”
Most fans will pick this phrase as their favorite. The city of “Hamtramck” in this phrase could be replaced with any Michigan town. Ernie used it occasionally (maybe every few games, not every game) when a ball was hit into the stands. We were supposed to believe that Ernie knew what town the fan was from (the fan who got the foul ball.) Of course he didn’t, but we were delighted to hear him mention a Michigan city, town, or village. Harwell must have had an atlas, or he studied the U.S. map, because he would also use this phrase in road games, as he did during a broadcast of a game when Detroit was visiting the Mariners in Seattle: “A man from Walla Walla will take that one home…”
#1. “He stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched that one go by.”
As a boy, Ernie Harwell had a speech impediment. To help him become a better speaker, his teachers had him recite poetry and read aloud. As a result, young Ernie Harwell became an avid reader and lover of poetry. One of his favorite poems was “House By the Side of the Road” by Sam Walter Foss, written in 1898. Shortly after his broadcast career began in the 1940s, Ernie used that phrase to describe a batter who took a called third strike. It usually went like this:
“Striiike three… Mattingly is out… He stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched that one go by…” Ernie’s inflection on this (emphasis on “He stood there”) was wonderful.
Did I miss your favorite? Tell me your memories of Ernie and his famous catch phrases below in the comments section. Here’s a clip with a few of the phrases I mention above.
Famed author Ta-Nehisi Coates to speak Tuesday in Detroit Julie Hinds, Detroit Free Press Pop Culture Critic
Published 6:49 p.m. ET April 3, 2017
Like a literary superhero, Ta-Nehisi Coates is able to leap the huge stylistic divide between the intellectual commentary and mass-market comic books in a single bound.
He won a National Book Award in 2015 for “Between the World and Me,” a best seller called “required reading” by Toni Morrison. He’s the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, and he’s the man called “the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States” by the New York Observer.
Last year, the new “Black Panther” comics series he wrote was an immediate hit. The first issue sold a whopping 300,000 copies. The director of the upcoming “Black Panther” movie, Ryan Coogler, has said he has been influences by the vivid writing of Coates.
You can see Coates in person when the acclaimed author appears at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the University of Detroit Mercy. He will be speaking at an event sponsored by several offices of the college, Blac Detroit magazine and the Michigan Chronicle.
The visit came about through the friendship between Coates and Roy Finkenbine, a UDM history professor. Coates, a national correspondent for Atlantic magazine, phoned Finkenbine while he was researching a 2014 article that became the George Polk Award-winning essay “The Case for Reparations.”
In the piece, Coates wound up citing Finkenbine, who specializes in the topics of slavery, abolition, the Civil War and the Underground Railroad and also chairs the Michigan Freedom Trail Commission.
The two men have stayed in touch and corresponded by phone and e-mail. This week will be the first time they meet in person.
Finkenbine describes the Coates appearance as a signature occasion for the college. “The last time we probably had somebody of this intellectual importance speaking in Calihan Hall was Robert Frost in 1962. It doesn’t come along that often. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; take advantage of it,” he said in a UDM story on the event.
In a Monday interview with the Free Press, Finkenbine said, “(Coates) has been talked about, and I certainly agree with that, (as) the most original and important thinker on race today in America. He’s not only increasingly well-known, but I think he’s provoking a lot of Americans … to think more deeply and talk about the issue of race.”
UDM had a “phenomenal student and faculty conversation” last week spurred by “Between the World and Me,” according to Finkenbine. The standing-room-only gathering held in advance of the Coates appearance is part of discussions that will continue after Tuesday’s lecture, according to Finkenbine.
The book “Between the World and Me” (which is also the title of Coates’ UDM talk) is written as a letter to the author’s teen son. It has been described as his precise, multilayered, bracingly honest thoughts on what it means to be black in America.
Coates continues to have an impact with his work for Atlantic. His January/February issue story, “My President Was Black,” explored the the meaning of President Barack Obama’s time in office. It generated buzz in cultural circles and on TV when Coates was a guest on NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
This image released by Marvel Comics shows the cover of the “Black Panther,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates’ lifelong love of comic books made him jump at the chance to write Marvel’s Black Panther, one of the first comic books heroes of color. His 11-book series is currently on sale. (Marvel Comics via AP) (Photo: AP)
Debuting this month is Coates’ latest project for Marvel, “Black Panther & the Crew,” which follows Black Panther, the king of a fictional African nation called Wakanda, and a team of black superheroes. Coates is cowriting the series with poet Yona Harvey.
Coates told the New York Times that he wants his work to be seen in some ways as a cohesive whole. “What I want people to feel ultimately is that this is part of the entire oeuvre that I put together. I don’t want it to be ‘Ta-Nehisi Coates just took a break and did comics.’ It is not a break for me.”
The “Black Panther” movie slated for 2018 isn’t being written by Coates, but its director, Ryan Coogler (“Creed”), told vulture.com that Coates’ interpretation of Black Panther has influenced his image of the character and work on the new comic book series. The film will star Chadwick Boseman in the title role and Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan and Danai Gurira.
Coates often gets attention for the difficult issues he addresses. In March, at a Harvard conference called Universities and Slavery: Bound By History, he drew a warm reception with his thoughts on how colleges must approach their own legacy with slavery.
“I think every single one of these universities needs to make reparations,” Coates said according to the Huffington Post. “I don’t know how you conduct research that shows that your very existence is rooted in a great crime, and just say well, shrug — and maybe at best say ‘I’m sorry’— and you walk away.”
What will Coates talk about in Detroit? Something that should and will pack an auditorium, it’s safe to say.
Monday April 3, 2017 – “there are birds here” Jamaal May
Ta-Nehisi Coates on campus tomorrow: 5:00 pm for a group of invited students in intimate conversation, 6:30 in our field house for a wider public gathering. Gathering with what expectations? To listen to a man whose voice, written or spoken, awakens hope that paying attention in hard times matters. To listen to a man whose voice requires attention in the present tense, requires the courage to pay attention. I am thrilled that I can be there listening.
To prepare, I turned to Detroit poet, Jamaal May, a Detroit voice that awakens hope that paying attention in hard times matters, whose voice requires attention in the present tense, requires the courage to pay attention. Every poem does best when read aloud, with pauses. Today’s, perhaps, especially so by the 3rd or 4th reading.
For Detroit There are birds here,
so many birds here
is what I was trying to say
when they said those birds were metaphors
for what is trapped
and buildings. No.
The birds are here
to root around for bread
the girl’s hands tear
and toss like confetti. No,
I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton,
I said confetti, and no
not the confetti
a tank can make of a building.
I mean the confetti
a boy can’t stop smiling about
and no his smile isn’t much
like a skeleton at all. And no
his neighborhood is not like a war zone.
I am trying to say
is as tattered and feathered
as anything else,
as shadow pierced by sun
and light parted
by shadow-dance as anything else,
but they won’t stop saying
how lovely the ruins,
how ruined the lovely
children must be in that birdless city.
Friday, March 31, 2017 “we need the humanities more than ever to counter nationalism and demagoguery.”
I happened upon Nicholas Kristof’s March 30 column about the importance of art and the humanities. In the process, he’s written a strong explanation for why the “Work Day in a Hard Time” poetry list exists and appears (mostly) M-W-Fr each week.
At the head of our Archive Blog appears the List’s Mission Statement, written in September 2013 when our city was awash in dire predictions of Detroit’s impending collapse and the US Congress awash in venomous partisan divides. A tough time too on our Detroit campuses. It’s worth repeating here on this Friday for a post without a new poem.
So what if President Trump wants to deport Big Bird?
We’re struggling with terrorism, refugees, addiction, and grizzlies besieging schools. Isn’t it snobbish to fuss over Trump’s plans to eliminate all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?
Let me argue the reverse: Perhaps Trump’s election is actually a reminder that we need the humanities more than ever to counter nationalism and demagoguery.
Civilization is built not just on microchips, but also on arts, ideas and the humanities. And the arts are a bargain: The N.E.A. budget is $148 million a year, or less than 0.004 percent of the federal budget. The per-capita cost for Americans is roughly the cost of a postage stamp.
The humanities may seem squishy and irrelevant. We have a new president who doesn’t read books and who celebrates raw power. It would be easy to interpret Trump as proof of the irrelevance of the humanities.
Yet the humanities are far more powerful than most people believe. The world has been transformed over the last 250 years by what might be called a revolution of empathy driven by the humanities. Previously, almost everyone (except Quakers) accepted slavery and even genocide. Thomas Jefferson justified the “extermination” of Native Americans; whippings continued in American prisons in the 20th century; and at least 15,000 people turned up to watch the last public hanging in the United States, in 1936.
What tamed us was, in part, books. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” famously contributed to the abolitionist movement, and “Black Beauty” helped change the way we treat animals. Steven Pinker of Harvard argues that a surge of literacy and an explosion of reading — novels in particular — “contributed to the humanitarian revolution,” by helping people see other viewpoints. There is also modern experimental evidence that reading literary fiction promotes empathy.
The humanities have even reshaped our diet. In 1971, a few philosophy students, including an Australian named Peter Singer, gathered on a street in Oxford, England, to protest the sale of eggs from hens raised in small cages. This was an unknown issue back then, and passers-by smiled at the students’ idealism but told them they’d never change the food industry..naïve? Today, keeping hens in small cages is illegal in Britain, in the rest of the European Union and in parts of the United States. McDonald’s, Burger King, General Mills and Walmart are all moving toward exclusively cage-free eggs, because consumers demanded it.
Singer, now a Princeton University professor, is a wisp of a man who defeated an agribusiness army with the power of his ideas and the muscle of the humanities. (Singer has a terrific recent book, “Ethics in the Real World,” that wrestles with how much we should donate to charity, and whether wearing a $10,000 watch is a sign of good taste, or of shallow narcissism.)
In short, the humanities encourage us to reflect on what is important, to set priorities. For example, do we get more value as taxpayers from Big Bird and art or music programs, or from the roughly $30 million Trump’s trips to his Mar-a-Lago golf resort will cost us when he’s tallied nine visits in office (he’s already more than halfway there)? That’s also more than the cost of salaries and expenses to run the National Endowment for the Humanities, not including the grants it hands out.
Do we get more value from billions of dollars spent on deportations? Or from tiny sums to support art therapy for wounded veterans?
Then there’s our favorite bird. The Onion humor website reported: “Gaunt, Hollow-Eyed Big Bird Enters Sixth Day Of Hunger Strike Against Proposed Trump Budget.” In fact, Big Bird will survive, but some local public television stations will close without federal support — meaning that children in some parts of the country may not be able to see “Sesame Street” on their local channel.
In 2017, with the world a mess, I’d say we need not only drones but also Big Bird, and poetry and philosophy. Indeed, our new defense secretary, Jim Mattis, apparently shares that view: He carried Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” to Iraq with him.
It’d be nice to see Mattis drop off “Meditations” for the new commander in chief. And maybe present the first lady a copy of “Lysistrata.”
Look, I know it sounds elitist to hail the humanities. But I’ve seen people die for ideas. At Tiananmen Square in China in 1989, I watched protesters sacrifice their lives for democracy. In Congo, I saw a tiny Polish nun stand up to a warlord because of her faith and values.
The humanities do not immunize a society from cruelty and overreaction; early-20th-century Germany proves that. But on balance, the arts humanize us and promote empathy. We need that now more than ever.