The Soul of America

“What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9-10

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

“History repeats itself.  So you might wanna pay attention.” Quavo

In an address to the Harvard University Class Day a few weeks ago, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie urged the Harvard Class of ’18, whether they were the leader or the one being led” to err on the side of truth,” and to “make literature their religion,” not just poetry and fiction but “narrative nonfiction as well.”  Sound advice, to my mind, despite the fact that elements of this ancient verity are, when brought to light, not always reassuring or uplifting.

However, to be provided detailed evidence that the depressing madness afoot in America today is nothing new, but simply history repeating itself, could be perceived as reassuring.  Racism, hatred of immigrants, and threats of tyranny have been with us since the origins of the nation itself.  But, so far, we have survived.

For me, the brilliance of The Soul of America, biographer-historian Jon Meacham’s most recent work, lies in his willingness, for the most part,  to set aside his personal assessment of the tragic crisis facing this country at the moment,  in order to allow its history to be brought to light for what it’s worth to anyone willing simply to read it.  This is evidenced by the divisions of the text. Between its Introduction of twenty pages or so,  and a “Conclusion” of about the same length, the author’s subjective assertions in the core two hundred pages or so, are scant, often only a sentence of transition or clarification.  The subtitle  “The Battle for Our Better Angels” comes from a passage in Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, in 1861.  Meacham generally steps aside and lets the facts speak for themselves.

As a teacher as well as a reasonably literate human being, I find the ability to think seriously about what is going on in the world around me a natural gift,  to be free to assess my role or contribution to that world, and what that means. My metaphysical dilemma!   So, it’s fair to say, by its subjects and organization, The Soul of America has relieved to a considerable degree my severe anxiety  and despair regarding my daily existence, as an American, over the past week or so.  A circumstance,  I am confident in asserting, shared by millions of other Americans these days.

Furthermore, one of the great joys of this world is finding a book that I have to put down in order to get some sleep, but can’t wait for the next span of time to return to it.

“Jon Meacham has done it again,” notes Tom Brokaw on a back cover note, “this time with a historically rich and gracefully written account of America’s long struggle with division in our immigrant nation and the heroic efforts to heal the wounds. It should be in every home and on every student’s desk.”

I have come away from it with the realization of how generally useless, as well as misleading, are most “politically correct”  history texts, particularly those designed for high school students.   Meacham has it all here – the characters, the major incidents, the issues, the seemingly eternal conflicts – without any sugar coating.

My admiration for Abigail Adams, introduced to me by David McCullough’s John Adams, is reaffirmed here, as is that of FDR and Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman.  However, I’ll never think of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in the same positive light as before.   Facts and the truths they reveal have their eternal merit, and I appreciate Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for emphasizing the point, even to those new Harvard graduates.


Shock and Awe: a Decade Plus Five

“Whatever is sought for can be caught, you know; whatever is neglected slips away.”

— Sophocles’ Creon in Oedipus Rex

Although a headline in this morning’s NY Times suggests the “Iraq War’s 10th Anniversary Is Barely Noted in Washington,” it was not overlooked by its editorial staff whose lead editorial, “Ten Years After,” notes that war “still haunts the United States” and presents the now familiar statistics — 4,500 Americans dead, 30,000 American wounded, perhaps 100,000 Iraqi casualties, and more than $2 trillion spent “which inflated the deficit”.  Although Vice President Dick Cheney’s name does not appear in the editorial, both President George W. Bush and Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense  are charged with “using the attacks on Sept. ll, 2001 to wage pre-emptive war against Saddam Hussein and a nuclear arsenal that did not exist.”  All this is, of course, very familiar to anyone who has not forgotten that war.  But midway in the editorial, after expanding on the proposed reasons for the war at the time, the writer rings a bell I’ve been longing to hear.

Yet, none of the Bush administration’s war architects have been called to account for their mistakes, and even now, many are invited to speak on policy issues as if they were not responsible for one of the worst strategic blunders in American foreign policy.”

Perhaps I’ve been reading too many of Sophocles’ plays, but over the past decade I’ve become increasingly inclined to view much of what can only be called the political decay of this country as evidence of a moral curse that hangs over this land that had its genesis with America’s fraudulent entry into that war.  Clarifying the actions of the prime movers of that war might go a long way toward lifting that curse.

A revisit to my journal of the early days of March, 2003 has been a revisit to my anger and anguish at the time. (I had visited my daughter and her family in Savannah during their famous St. Patrick’s Day celebration and was on my way back to CT.) Here are excerpts from a few entries:

March 17, 03, Monday St. Patrick's Day, Savannah

” . . . After the boys are down, Anna and I feel duty-bound to watch Bush’s speech to the nation rehashing his now familiar mantra re Iraq (this time a forty-eight hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussain) before the invasion that will begin before the week’s end.  I can’t recall a time when I’ve felt more isolated and more sad for the state of this misguided country.  It brings to mind those letters by the relatively isolated northerners and mid-westerners as the Civil War emerged as an inevitability.  Once again, this run-away train of a nation must run uncontrolled until it crashes: the essence of tragedy.  “Tis a pity it had to be that way, but it can’t be helped we can hear ourselves saying.”

10:00 Atlanta Airport, 18 March, Tuesday
“It has already begun — at least so far as CNN now: war as entertainment!  Complete with, of course, the standard variety of commercials and soundbites. (Sharing e-mail messages: one for; one against = information!)  One hears it as one enters the terminal — the talking heads.

“I await the feigned whining that is certain to begin when the first tragic encounters are announced.  All casualties will become instant heroes and the ‘enemy’ will be further demonized.  The bully on the school yard who is outraged when his innocent frail victim actually fights back. — (I have just heard reported the instructions – via leaflets – for Iraqi troops – when read to surrender – should leave their weapons and return to their barracks since ‘the allied forces didn’t wish to be burdened or slowed down by a mass of prisoners.”  No doubt they will be outraged if they (the surrenderees) fail to follow the designated instructions.

“My God; this is arrogant madness! And it has only just begun.  There must be an obvious invasion soon, else television schedules will be thrown off.

“The concerted attempts to further demonize the French is a perfect example.  I’m astounded by how quickly the propaganda released by the White House/Pentagon sources finds its way on to the television news as undisputed truth.  The news media becomes generally the enemy of truth and fairness.  All so anger-producing and depressing and sad!”

19 March 03, Wednesday   Bloomfiel

“War enthusiasm in full swing — all being promoted as honorable and easy — there and back in a couple of weeks.  One hardly knows what to hope for!  Somehow, a quick ‘success’ would, as Twain would have put it, ‘only encourages ’em.’  They’re a dangerous bunch who have brought along a duped mass (71% now support war, according to yesterday’s news, a factor I’d like to think results from slightly manipulated questioning).”

24 March ’03 Monday

“War has grown into its grim reality — from its opening days of bombing from afar and streams of armored vehicles speeding unrestrained through the desert north of Kuwait.  We in America watch it (selectively) via television. — Last night and this morning we see the first dead and serious casualties and the first American prisoners of war — a new sight for TV audiences — The realities — the inevitable tragedies and general horrors that are war’s essence.  And this is only the beginning, both there and here at home where the anti-war protesters have already begun to be designated as the real displaced enemy.  This will become, as it did during the Vietnam War, a more seriously divisive issue among ordinary folks in the days ahead.  The inevitable damage this action will create will gradually be revealed in the weeks and months ahead — and lurking not so silently in the shadows: North Korea and most of the other Arab countries.  I suspect fifty years from now we will look back on this the way the British did before us.  No doubt, for the US government presently in power, democracy means the right for the people of occupied countries like Iraq to vote/elect only approved candidates.  See Iran of the past thirty-five years or so.”

On a side page opposite my journal entry dated Tuesday 18 March 03 I find I copied the following lines from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus:

                                                          ” . . . to the gods alone

                                 Is given immunity from eld and death;

                                 But nothing else escapes all-ruinous time.

                                 Earth’s might decays, the might of men decays,

                                 Honour grows old, dishonor flourishes,

                                 There is no constancy ‘twixt friend and friend,

                                 Or city and city; be it soon or late

                                  Sweet turns to bitter, hate once more to love.

                                  If now ’tis sunshine betwixt Thebes and thee

                                  And not a cloud, Time in his endless course

                                  Gives birth to endless days and nights, wherein

                                  The merest nothing shall suffice to cut

                                  With serried spears your bonds of amity.”

                                     — Oedipus to Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus

MO to Most: Reflections on the Passing of My Only Sister

Neva Maureen Woodiel Shireman

I never knew her as “Mo,” as she has so fondly been remembered for years by other family members and friends in Arkansas County and afterward in Fayetteville AR where she lived and taught and played tennis for decades, and now that she’s left us, by those of us who gathered in Fayetteville last Tuesday for a gathering just to remember her and to clarify how much all of our lives were enriched by her presence over the years.

We did what we could, the few of us invited to express in some way our love for her and the significance of her presence among us, and we did so, struggling as we were naturally inclined, to deliver our message through even more natural tears, brought on by simple remembrance.

Her son John’s almost heroic introduction and conclusion for those of us who in some way spoke or performed in an effort to express the sentiments of the hundreds of friends and admirers present.   The music of David Starr and Ben Harris that she loved and admired so much, my and her neice Kay Woodiel’s comments, as well as Paul Woodiel and Robin Zeh’s performance of Swedish folk tunes, were simple attempts to reflect the feelings of those present by reflecting  a degree of assurance.

Like so many among us, I somehow continue to expect to have a text from her any day.

On my way home yesterday, at about 40,000 feet somewhere over the Carolinas heading north from Atlanta I found myself, like others perhaps about to reach the 81 mark,  reading Marcus Cicero – first century BCE – (as I have for a while)  on my IPad, a piece called “On Friendship and Old Age” from which I share the following:

“The course of life is fixed, and nature admits of its being run but in one way, and only once; and to each part of our life there is something specially seasonable; so that the feebleness of children, as well as the high spirit of youth, the soberness of maturer years, and the ripe wisdom of old age — all have a certain natural advantage which should be secured in its proper season.”

     Of these observations, I choose to associate myself, as I believe Maureen would, with “the soberness of maturer years,” a perfect point from which to reflect on my memories of “Mo” to my dying day.