Saturday, November 26, 2016

Having a Partisan Thanksgiving

I hope you've all had a happy and relaxing Thanksgiving. I was lucky to host this year, with both my wife's family and mine traveling here to scenic Ohio, and I was also the lucky cook. (I took over turkey and gravy a few years ago, but this was my first year doing the whole meal, and -- since people had traveled to see us -- also feeding the crew on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.) And I was lucky enough to avoid political arguments at the table, because no one in my family voted for Trump. But political arguments on Thanksgiving are not the end of the world. Thanksgiving, as a national holiday, is the direct result of political conflict, and it's a mistake for us to forget that.

So, a quick history lesson:

Everybody knows the story about the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation. And that's true, in the sense that the event really did take place. But that's not when Thanksgiving became a national or even a regular holiday. The Pilgrims didn't have another Thanksgiving the next November. And some people know the historical fact that Lincoln proclaimed the first regular, national Thanksgiving, although that fact tends to confuse people. How did this holiday get founded twice, first in 1621 and then in 1863? And how can it be that Thanksgiving's two original moments happen more than 240 years apart?

A quick google search will explain that Lincoln simply set a standard national date for Thanksgiving, which different states were celebrating on different days. And that is part of the story. But that makes it sound as if the whole country was already united behind Thanksgiving, which only the logistical problem of deciding when to have it. That's not true. (Think "things left to the states to decide" and "Lincoln" and you'll see where this story is going.)

The real truth is that Thanksgiving was originally part of America's cultural wars, and so was Christmas. We now think of those two holidays as part of a single season, but they used to be indirectly (and sometimes pretty directly) opposed to each other. Not everyone celebrated both, and the division between the holidays broke down on regional, religious, and ideological lines.

Thanksgiving is a New England thing. It was originally a regional holiday, celebrated by New Englanders. It's also, not to put too fine a point on it, a Puritan holiday, celebrated in the Northeast by Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and other churches with Puritan roots. Thanksgiving was especially valuable to these Puritan-leaning New Englanders because they did not celebrate Christmas. They actively despised Christmas as a lot of heathenish nonsense. Celebrating it, or even closing the store on December 25, went against their religious beliefs.

On the other hand, Christmas was widely celebrated in the South, which had been heavily settled by Anglicans who observed the traditional liturgical holidays. (New York was also a stronghold of Christmas, partly because of its old Dutch roots and partly because it was such an ethnic and religious melting pot.) But plenty of Southerners wanted nothing to do with Thanksgiving. They saw it as alien: a celebration of another region's culture and another denomination's beliefs. They were not wrong. A lot of Southerners also saw Thanksgiving as an abolitionist thing, and they weren't wrong about that either. The lead campaigner for Thanksgiving as a national holiday was the novelist Sarah Josepha Hale: a feminist Yankee abolitionist. Thanksgiving was against Southern values.

Christmas spread more or less nationwide in the 1840s and 1850s, although it did not become a legal federal holiday until 1870. But it was slowest to spread in New England and, although I don't want to overstate the case, there was at least some overlap between the people campaigning for Christmas in New England and the people campaigning for national unity and brotherhood, meaning appeasing Southerners on the slavery question. Thanksgiving spread out across the country as well, perhaps more slowly, because people kept moving west from New England to places like Michigan and Ohio and bringing Thanksgiving with them. So there was eventually an overlap where states celebrated both holidays, but Thanksgiving in November did not really spread in the South.

Thanksgiving, our holiday of national unity and togetherness, became a national holiday because the North won the war. Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving nine months after the Emancipation Proclamation. Sarah Josepha Hale was happy about both. American Thanksgiving was a victory for Northern abolitionist values.

We don't remember all of this story, because we don't like to remember it. Our country can never forget the Civil War, but we work very hard to forget the twenty or thirty years that led up to it. We like to talk about unity and civility and getting past partisan divisions. We don't like to remember that unity, civility, and compromise were key arguments for continuing to permit slavery. We forget that the opponents of slavery were called divisive and accused of tearing the country apart. If we remember that, we would have to remember that the Civil Rights Movement was accused of tearing the country apart, that Martin Luther King, Jr. was called a radical communist. We would have to remember that the people calling for unity and mutual understanding in the 1950s and early 1960s were calling for more sympathy for Southern segregationists and their feelings about their local traditions, that demands for justice were called unnecessarily confrontational.

We like to tell ourselves a story about a united, harmonious nation, joined in consensus. That story is neither true nor healthy. Our history is one of repeated confrontations over core national principles, and maybe most importantly a history of confrontation over race. And, time and again, Americans who stand up for racial equality, for America's best republican-with-a-small-r traditions, are accused of incivility and divisiveness. Because the cardinal rule of American political etiquette, in 1856 and in 1956 and in 2016, is that it is divisive and uncivil to take non-whites' side against one's fellow white people. How can you be so unpleasant and make such trouble, when surely whatever this problem is can wait?

That's still the story today, when there are public calls to unify behind the most divisive political figure in modern history, a politician who only sees some Americans as real Americans. The call for "unity" is a call to accept that racist, tribal definition of America, to "unify" by excluding a third of our fellow citizens and to pretend that they are not "really" American. That isn't unity. And that isn't the America I celebrate.

But Thanksgiving is a reminder of one old, deep strand in the American spirit, a strand that has stood by unpopular principle and resisted wrongful power. That's the spirit of the Pilgrim Separatists at Plymouth, and the spirit of the New England abolitionists who followed after them, with a heavy helping of Revolutionary patriots in between. I am grateful for that American legacy, which we need today as much as we ever have.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Sunday, November 13, 2016

I'm Staying American. How About You?

Because I love my country, Tuesday's election broke my heart. My fellow Americans -- less than half of us, but still too many -- turned their backs on what is best in our country to elect a man who has no love and no understanding of the things that make America great: freedom and equality.

Somewhere between forty-seven and forty-eight percent of voters decided that they wanted a race-baiting authoritarian instead. Those voters turned out not to love the same country I do, not to love it for the reasons it is worth loving.

But I still believe in that America. I believe in the America of liberty, equality, and justice for all, the America that has not always lived up to its values but still always had them. I am not quitting on that country. I was raised to love it, and I will die believing in it.

If America is about white people hating brown people, you can have it. That version of America can go to hell, and will. Yes, I know our history of racist violence and plunder. I cannot deny it. But I have no allegiance to that history. The America I believe in, the America worth believing in, has always existed alongside that uglier vision. They are the wrestling sides of the American soul. I am not done wrestling. If we give up on our better angels, there's no country left for me to love.

For the last five nights and days, I have been asking myself what I am going to do now. And I still have no answer but Whatever I have to. The path forward is not yet clear, and I am not ready for everything I may need to do. I am not eager for any of it. This is not the fight I would have chosen.

But I have had it easy. I grew up lucky in a free country, in a generation that was not asked much. I was a sunshine patriot, born in the sun. I could praise the heroes of our past, the Franklins and the Lincolns and the Dr. Kings, without having to ask if I would have met their challenge. That isn't true anymore. I wish it were, but it's not.

Some generations are asked to go to Valley Forge: to stand by their country when the outlook is darkest. Some generations are chosen to stand up for the American experiment, to risk and suffer for it, to bear witness. We have now become one of those generations, and we are off to a sorry start.  But this, of all times, is not the time to quit. This is when America, the America we grew up loving, needs us most. The time for the sunshine patriot is gone. These are the times that try men's souls.

crossposted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

freedom for all under the law, equal protection and opportunity, and America dedicated to expanding

Monday, November 07, 2016

Vote for American Democracy. Vote Hillary.

This Tuesday, I want to ask you to vote for something bigger than a person. I ask you to vote for the future of our country. I ask you to vote, as an American, for our democratic republic and for the constitutional political system that has preserved us from civil violence for the past hundred and fifty years. I ask you to keep faith with the American experiment. The best and only way to do that this year is to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Vote for a country where we don't jail the loser of an election, or threaten to jail our political opponents.

Vote for a country where both parties agree to abide by our elections.

Vote for a country where no major candidate casts doubt on the fairness of our elections.

Vote for a country where the politics stop at the water's edge, and no party accepts or tolerates interference from a foreign power.

Vote for a country where we have a full and functioning Supreme Court, and where no party damages our democratic government just to keep the other party from having its turn to make appointments.

Vote for a country where the President does not order our military to kill unarmed women and children.

Vote for a country where we do not shut down the government or threaten to default on the national debt because one party lost a fair vote about something they wanted.

Vote for a party where no eligible voter is turned away from the polls, and no voter is intimidated while waiting to vote.

Vote for a country where the President does not threaten freedom of the press.

Vote for a country where we solve our disagreements through rules that we have agreed on beforehand, the rules of politics, law, and civil order, rather than through force. Vote for a country where we make deals and live by them rather than shooting at each other or throwing each other in jail.

If "making deals" sounds corrupt or dirty to you, remember that the alternative is lawlessness and despotism. The choice is not between compromise and idealism. The choice is between compromise and tyranny. It is the rule of law or the rule of force.

And if tearing up the system sounds like a good idea to you, remember that the system we're talking about -- peaceful transfer of power, freedom of the press, parties abiding by elections -- is the system put in place by George Washington and the Framers of the Constitution.

This year, one candidate is running to be President inside George Washington's system. The other is running to make himself something like a king, with powers that Washington did not want any president to have and that the other Founders would not trust even to Washington: the power to jail opponents, the power to shut down newspapers. It is not clear our democracy can survive that.

Don't take my word for it. Take Donald Trump's. He has said he wants to throw his opponent in prison. He is campaigning on that. He has promised to order our soldiers to kill women and children, promised to authorize torture, promised to "open up the libel laws" so he could close down newspapers and news channels. And he has openly said that he will not agree to accept the results of the election if he does not win. He is not running against Hillary Clinton. He is running against the American Republic.

Hillary Clinton is a compromising politician, which makes her unpopular with some people. But I ask you to vote for an American who solves conflicts through compromise and politics, within the bounds of the Constitution. I ask you to vote for a negotiator. I ask you to vote for a deal-maker. I ask you to vote for four more years of Americans at peace with one another in our own country.

I ask you, above all, to vote for the possibility of another election like this one, to give yourself another chance to vote in 2020, and 2024, and for the long hopeful future of our beautiful country. I ask you to vote for politics and for politicians, for democracy in all its messy, mundane, compromised glory. I ask you to vote for the Constitution of the United States of America, and to vote for Hillary Clinton, who will guard that Constitution for all her days in office and pass that sacred charge along, as Washington and Adams and Jefferson did, to her duly elected successor.

I ask you to keep the faith with all the Americans who have gone before us, believing in our democratic Republic, and to keep faith with all the Americans yet to come. Let the American Experiment go forward, and may it last forever.

cross-posted from (and all comments welcome at) Dagblog

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Dylan's Nobel and the State of American Literature

I was very pleased when Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize today. But I understand a number of people were not. Almost immediately upon the announcement my social media stream was full of disgruntled poets complaining that Dylan should not be eligible for the prize. (The silver lining was that one of the talented poets I know was immediately pushing back on this.) And by mid-afternoon the websites of major periodicals were full of think pieces, ready for tomorrow's print editions, about why Dylan should not have won.

So Friday morning America's newspapers will be filled with these editorials about how our fellow American Dylan does not deserve this prize. That will be a change from most years, when those same newspapers have no earthly idea whether or not the new Nobel laureate should have won, because even the editor of the books page does not really know who the new Nobel laureate is.

Do you see the connection? This year, the Nobel committee gave the prize to a figure with global stature and an international audience. That is not the only benchmark of merit, obviously, and I have always been glad that the Nobel sometimes elevates lesser-known writers. But to say that fame should not matter at all, in the terms of a global literary prize, is absurd.

Let's be clear: the idea that a songwriter is not a writer is transparently false and historically ignorant. By that standard Homer would not be eligible for the Nobel Prize. The Prize does not specify particular genres. It says only "in the field of literature" and the definition of literature changes over time. The novel was once a despised junk form, as was live theater before it, and the migration of low genres to high places will always continue. The real complaint is that a popular artist won. The horror!

The complaint is that a famous pop artist won something that "rightfully" belongs to more "serious" artists. But that complaint only masks the real problem. The real problem, for American poetry and all of American literature, is why none of the "serious" artists has a broad popular following.

The truth is that there is not a single living American poet who is a serious contender for the Nobel Prize. I wish that were not so, but it is. That is not meant as an insult to any of wonderful poets who are working today, or to the talented poets among my friends, or to my friends' accomplished mentors. Those poets are wonderful. A few are unsung national treasures. But they are, nonetheless, mostly unsung, and not one is a legitimate national figure, let alone an international figure. I saw someone today, in a serious publication, negatively comparing Dylan to Richard Wilbur. Now, Richard Wilbur is a gifted artist who deserves respect, but to say that he is a global figure in real contention for the Nobel Prize is simply delusional. If I could put an American poet up for the prize I would nominate Ferlinghetti, but I do not for a second expect that Ferlinghetti will win. No living American poet has that kind of international stature.

This is not because the individual poets lack talent or dedication. It is because American poetry, with its institutions and ambitions and professional culture, has turned away from wider relevance. No American poet is even attempting to write for a broad national audience today, and a young poet who attempted it would be considered a hack. More importantly, there is no infrastructure in place for an American poet to write for the general public. But if you ignore for the wider public for decades on end, it will ignore you back and then forget about you completely.

And, lest we forget, the Nobel Prizes are specifically intended for those who have done "the greatest benefit for mankind" and the Prize in Literature specifies "the person who in the field of literature the most outstanding work in the ideal direction." The "ideal direction" part clearly specifies some attempt at public uplift, which has not been part of American poetry's general ambitions for some time now. "The Times Are A-Changing" does display that ambition, pretty clearly, even if many working poets would find that corny. The finding-it-corny part, actually, is the heart of the problem. I get it, poets, I get it. You don't want to be Carl Sandburg. Congratulations: you're not.

Now, I have also seen a number of complaints by and on behalf of novelists and fiction writers, with whom I still strongly identify despite the long lapse of my artistic practice. But to them, too, I say: be honest. There may be, and I would say that there are, a handful of American novelists who are plausible candidates for the Nobel. But they are merely plausible, and perhaps even dark horses. If Oates or Pynchon or DeLillo or Roth won I would be happy, but I would never say that I had expected it all along. And I recognize that many people would have said, "Hmm. Okay." My own favorite for the prize is Le Guin, who would surely be a controversial winner in her own right, and who has done her work in a despised popular field. There are a few people who could win the Nobel, but no one who is an overwhelming favorite. None of them are culturally central in that way. Toni Morrison? Sure. But she's won already. There are other Americans whom I would like to see win, but none of them can say that they were robbed if they don't. None of them, much as I love them, are owed that prize.

But it's important to ask why not. It is not about lack of literary gifts. Nobody could ever say that Pynchon or Oates does not have enough talent. And some of this is audiences turning away from the written word to various electronic media. I know that. But American fiction has also lost part of its claim on the public arena by relinquishing that claim. Are we even trying to write the Great American Novel anymore? Maybe. But I'm not so sure. I worry that American fiction has ceded something of its public ambitions. If we don't have a Tolstoy among us, it is partly because, of course, the conditions are not there to create a Tolstoy may not exist any more, but also because American letters, not simply the writers themselves but the agents and editors and teachers and critics, have lost interest in producing one. I would like our ambitions to be greater and our horizons wider.

Forgive me if this post has been negative. It was prompted by a wave of public grumbling and complaining, of the kind I like least: the claim that an artist does not deserve something. To say that Dylan does not deserve this prize is ungenerous and small-minded, because many more artists deserve than get. To say that someone else was owed the prize instead is vainglorious and delusional, because no artist is ever owed anything but the chance to make art. And the worst trap for any artist, or any artist's backer, is to complain about what someone else has achieved, when the answer -- the only answer -- is to try to become better. Talking about taking something away from Dylan is petty and mean. We should talk about making our "serious" literature more serious.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Hillary Clinton and the First Wives' Club

So, Camp Trump has decided, again, that the smart thing to do is to go after Hillary Clinton because her husband was unfaithful to her. When you're facing an opponent who has had trouble being taken as human and sympathetic, what better way to go?

And of course, because I am a human being with a functioning brain stem, I wondered, "How does a serial adulterer on his third marriage go after a woman for having been cheated on?" Only this week did I realize the question was really, "How do THREE serial adulterers on their third marriages go after a woman for having been cheated on?" Because it's Trump, Gingrich, and Giuliani, with their nine marriages between them, harping on the disqualifying vice of having a husband betray you.

Then it became clear: these men hate and fear Hillary Clinton exactly because she is a first wife. She reminds them of their own abandoned first wives, whom they hate and fear. And, because they scapegoat those wives, blaming the women they betrayed and abandoned for their own betrayal and abandonment, it seems only logical to them, as the night follows the day, that Bill's behavior is all Hillary Clinton's fault.

Don't believe me? Here's a notorious tweet from Frank Lutz (a Republican), highlighting a text sent to him by a Republican Congressman:

What's striking about that, first, is that the Unknown Republican Congressman does not distinguish between his wife and his mother: both "bitchy" old women who make him feel anxious about his own authority. What's even more striking, on reflection, is that the Unknown Republican does not like his wife or his mother. He thinks of them both as bitches. I myself happen to be fond of both my mother and my spouse and have never had the least trouble telling them apart. But maybe I'm just some liberal.

Trump, Gingrich, and Giuliani are counting on the electorate as a whole seeing things the way they do, on a pretty primal psychological level. They are counting on everyone else's hostility to first wives, to female authority figures, to mothers. That seems like a mistake. Part of what they are banking on is what Josh Marshall talks about as dominance and aggression, where the victims you mistreat are shamed for being weak enough to abuse. The thinking here is that Secretary/Senator Clinton is weak and contemptible because she let Bill cheat on her. But this leaves out the part where Hillary can routinely outdo all three of these chuckleheads. Note, for example, that Rudy Giuliani somehow never managed to become Senator for New York. Newt Gingrich hasn't won an election in twenty years. And Trump's last debate involved Hillary Clinton slapping him all around the room. If they're trying to brand her as a loser, they should really check their own resumes.

But it's deeper than that. Men like Trump and his spittle-flying monkeys hate their first wives because they fear them. Those men, and I am using that term loosely, don't have the confidence or security to deal with strong, accomplished partners their own age. So they run to younger, weaker, partners who are easier to push around. Guys like Trump, Gingrich, and Giuliani couldn't even feel confident dealing with their second wives, and ran to a third.

 (In related news, they also traded in for overtly sexier partners, but this may be because the men's libido is waning as they age and they need much more stimulation than they used to. Libido isn't masculinity, but Trump thinks it is, and it's not clear he still has the libido for a sexy older woman. Don't let the Slovenian model fool you: tweetmeister Trump isn't doing anything important in bed at 3 am.)

This is not alpha male behavior. It's a desperate imitation of alpha male behavior, getting a series of younger and more easily controlled wives as "trophies" of the personal confidence they badly lack. Bill Clinton, for whom confidence has never been the big problem, has no problem dating a major world leader. He clearly enjoys it. His ego is not only strong enough to let his wife be the boss sometimes, but to let her be the boss of the free world for four to eight years.  Bill Clinton does not seem intimidated by that possibility in the least. But it obviously makes Trump's testicles shrink in fear, just like it makes Gingrich's and Giuliani's. Their response to Hillary Clinton is terrified rage.

Trump is banking on the rest of the country feeling the same primal fear and hatred that he feels when a strong woman is speaking. And he's partly right. There are a lot of little men out there. The bad news for Trump is that the men who are most like him are losers.

[This post has been updated to remove a poorly-thought-through jibe at Trump's testosterone levels, in response to a persuasive complaint from a commenter.]

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog