Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On Revolution by Hannah Arendt

In a constellation that poses the threat of total annihilation through war against the hope for the emancipation of all mankind through revolution--leading one people after the other in swift succession "to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them"--no cause is left but the most ancient one of all, the one, in fact, that from the beginning of our history has determined the very existence of politics, the cause of freedom versus tyranny.

Hannah Arendt starts her book discussing the dichotomy between mutually assured destruction (through nuclear fall out) on the one hand and liberty through revolution on the other.  This makes sense: she was writing in 1963 when the cold war promised a grave and threatening future.  But, the book is not about the cold war.

Rather, she moves backwards to compare two revolutions.  Those of you who know your Declaration of Independence well can probably guess one of the revolutions; the other is the French.  Why these?  She presents the two as distinct.  Thus, although the two revolutions are often understood as thematically similar, Arendt argues they are in fact very different.

And, although hailed as more important historically (I recall my sophomore year English teacher, teaching A Tale of Two Cities, exclaiming that We Think the American Revolution Was Important, But No, The French Revolution Is the One that Matters), Arendt argues that the French revolution was deficient, and should be seen as a revolution that failed.  This is because the French Revolution eventually abandoned its goal of maximizing liberty and instead focused on "social welfare."

In contrast, the American Revolution lead to the Constitution, which, for Arendt, creates a space of political engagement for every citizen.  Thus, the American Revolution was a success because the founding fathers focused on creating a political system which empowered every citizen; it is a system that values and accommodates collective action and political dialogue.

The problem with the French Revolution's turn to social welfare is that it fit into a Hegelian/Marxist political meta-narrative.  That is, the French Revolution set the precedent for revolutions that appealed to the concept of History as justification.  For Marx & Co. (e.g., Lenin, Mao), this provided a model for revolution at any cost, because History would vindicate the revolution--because History required the revolution.  Arendt's issue with this form of revolution is that it justifies atrocities under historical necessity.

In contrast, the American Revolution did not appeal to any kind of historical meta-narrative.  Rather, the framers were simply interested in liberating the people and ensuring they stayed free.

Arendt's writing can be dense.  I'll be honest: I'm afraid much of this book's meat was over my head.  However, as someone interested in the U.S. Constitution, Arendt offers a fascinating view of our history.  My intent is to come back to this book someday when I have more time for philosophical pursuits.  As an aside, I am obsessed with Arendt (this is the fourth book of hers I've read).  The Origins of Totalitarianism remains, for me, the most important analysis of World War II, fascism, and the holocaust.  Similarly, Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, is an extremely important book, both for its historical value and its musings on the existence of evil.  This book, too, stands out as an original and important work.

Recommended for anyone interested in political history, philosophy, and the American Revolution.

I'll close with one last quote from the book, not because it's particularly meaningful, but because it's hilarious:

To sound off with a cheerful "give me liberty or give me death" sort of argument in the face of the unprecedented and inconceivable potential destruction in nuclear warfare is not even hollow; it is downright ridiculous.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

She could no longer borrow from the future to help her through the present grief.  Tomorrow would bring its own trial with it, as would the next day, and yet the very same that was now so unutterably grievous to be be borne.  The days of the far-off future would toil onward; still with the same burden for her to take up and bear along with her, but never to fling down; for the accumulating days and added years would pile up their misery upon the heap of shame.  Throughout them all, giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of a woman's frailty and sinful passion.  Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast--at her, the child of honorable parents, at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, at her, who had once been innocent--as the figure, the body, the reality of sin.

A student that I deeply respect told me at the end of the year that she hadn't enjoyed reading The Scarlet Letter.  That's sadly typical, I think--even students who like reading don't often like to read Hawthorne, who is an accomplished stylist but also a ponderous and stuffy one.  I told her that I had felt the same way about it when I read it in high school, but it wasn't until I was an adult that I learned to appreciate it, when I realized just how profoundly weird it is.  The lurking Satan-allied witch Mrs. Hibbins, the comet shaped like an "A" in the sky, the destructive, yet difficult to describe force that Chillingworth exerts on Dimmesdale--it's all bizarre.  Of course, we live in a world where Hester Prynne's "A" has become the dominant image of social ostracism, but for those who can approach The Scarlet Letter fresh, it's am immensely rewarding book.  (And much better than The Marble Faun.)

Moreover: Is there any book by a male writer in the history of American literature with a female protagonist as strong as Hester Prynne?  The letter on Hester's breast is meant to reduce her to a symbol, a warning sign--to make her a literary trope instead of a person.  Reading it now, I was struck by how that ostracism, by alienating Hester from her society, makes her a better person:

For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church.  The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free.  The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread.

Hawthorne is pretty down on Puritan society, and in part Hester's strength is a result of her alienation from it.  But comparing her with the Reverend Dimmesdale, her partner in crime, reveals just how strong she already is.  As he yearns to unite his public face with his private one, and undergo the kind of atonement that keeping his adultery secret has denied him, he withers into a sickly mess.  Many critics have noticed the flipping of gender roles here, and I think that's an important contrast even to today.  How many films and television shows have you seen just this year in which a principal female character, no matter how strong she otherwise may be, requires saving by another male figure?  Here, Dimmesdale clings to Hester when he can, so much that the rescue plot--their escape back to the Europe--is her plan, and it only fails because of his own weakness.

Ultimately, the symbol of the "A"--and the symbol of Hester--refuses to remain unchanged.  Her life of solitude and hard work causes some to interpret it as "able," and critics have subsumed many other "a" words into it as well.  (My favorite is "America.")  Hester herself is something of a Moby Dick--the symbol that keeps slipping in meaning.  But Moby Dick can do it because he is inscrutable, unconquerable; Hester can do it because she exerts ownership over herself in a way that Dimmesdale never could.  She refuses to be inscribed upon, to be turned into text, and in this way The Scarlet Letter is a powerful assertion of individualism against the community.

Here's Brent's review from earlier this year.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Real Talk for Real Teachers: Rafe Esquith

A former coworker posted this to Facebook:
"That was Mrs. D. She cared a lot. She tried. She worried. And then one day she just died...She was not an old woman. But she had taught for twenty-five years, and the frustrations and difficult days can wear down a classroom teacher. You pay a price for constantly dealing with mean children, apathetic parents, and the pressure that you must do better. I am not a doctor, but I shudder to imagine an autopsy that concluded "Death by teaching."

When I asked what book it came from, she said Real Talk for Real Teachers. Really, any teacher who is willing to admit that this job can literally kill you, is a teacher I'm willing to listen to. Rafe knows. He gets it. And of course, he should. Unlike so many people who tell teachers what to do when they've never taught or haven't taught in years, Rafe is still in the classroom at the same urban school teaching children of immigrants who are almost all Free and Reduced Lunch kids. When I taught at a similar school, I was the obnoxious teacher who, at every staff training, felt compelled to ask, "So where do you teach? Oh...well what did you used to teach? Ok...and how many of your kids were ELL?...Oh...well yeah, I can see why you wouldn't have that population at an exclusive private school..." I had no patience for the Pearson employee selling my school a reading program or for the AP trainer who had never taught ELL students in an AP class telling me how to run my classroom (okay, the AP trainer was actually great, but he would have been better if he had experience teaching my kind of students so he could help me improve).

I really really wish I had read this book when I was still at that school. I really needed to hear things like:

  • Having a bad day does not make you a bad teacher.
  • There are many well-meaning policy makers and bloggers demanding that teachers reach every child. But some children cannot be helped, even when a teacher is willing to sacrifice her life to do so...All students deserve to be given our best. Good teachers never give up on an individual. But please balance your efforts to help a child with the knowledge that you cannot, and should not, be responsible for solving all his problems.
Much of the book is this: real talk about things that education classes, staff development, and other teachers are reluctant to admit. Not because it's not true, but because admitting it makes it seem like it's okay to not try or it's okay to write off kids because of their circumstances - that's not the point of this book. Rafe has been in the classroom for OVER THIRTY YEARS in a country where 17% of teachers leave the profession every year (20% of teachers in schools like Rafe's) - it's just not sustainable. I'm sure Erin Gruwell (of Freedom Writer's fame) is a lovely woman, but she only taught for four years before leaving the classroom. I'd rather take advice from the teacher who has elementary students putting on an entire Shakespeare play every year, who takes kids on field trips to the opposite coast every year successfully, who prepares them for standardized testing while still giving them a PE period he has to teach himself, who is at school before and beyond his contract time every day AND every Saturday, yet who still says things like, "I still care deeply about doing a good job; I just don't have to kill myself to do it."

I have taught for five years and consider myself a good teacher - sometimes I'm even a great teacher - but I don't yet identify as a Master Teacher. Anyone who considers themselves anything less than a Master Teacher could take lessons from this book. In spite of the fact that Rafe teaches fifth grade and I teach high school and college English, I still feel like I learned strategies to use with my own students.

It is all the best things of a good teachers' lounge: hilarious anecdotes, incredibly inspiring stories, some terribly sad ones, ideas that are workable in any classroom, and reminders of attitudes that I totally believe in yet occasionally forget to enact 100% of the time. 

When he describes the frustrations of trying to put together his first Shakespeare play (which involves after school and Saturday rehearsals), he quips "Naturally I faced the typical roadblocks teachers encounter when they try anything original, but eventually the school district was kind enough to allow me to stay after school and teach some of the students for free." It's this mix of realism with humor with brilliant teaching that makes this an excellent read for just before the start of a new school year.

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

"Nigger boy, what are you doing here?"

Marshall had been standing under the sweltering sun on the far end of the platform.  He had stomach pangs from hunger and he tried to make himself look small, but the white man had come straight toward him, eyes cold and firm, the gun on his hip in plain sight.

"Waiting for the train," Marshall told him.

The man eyed him up and down, suspicious of the suit.

"There's only one more train comes through here," the man told him, "and that's the four o'clock--you'd better be on it because the sun is never going down on a live nigger in this town."

His appetite gone, Marshall's eyes followed the man as he turned away.  "So I wrapped my constitutional rights in cellophane, tucked'em in my hip pocket...and caught the next train out of there," the lawyer recalled.

Gilbert King has done a great service by writing this book.  He captures an important moment in the legal fight for equal rights that gets overshadowed by Brown v. Board of Education and the end of Jim Crow laws: the struggle over executions of African-Americans in the south.

This book describes the Legal Defense Fund's defense, led by Thurgood Marshall, of the Groveland boys, four African-American men accused of raping a white woman, Norma Lee Padgett.  The story is one of racism, mob-violence, and perseverance.

After making her accusations of rape, three of the four men were arrested and taken to the jail.  A mob immediately formed and demanded that the rapists be released to them, so they could get "justice."  The sheriff, however, had already moved and hidden them at a nearby orange grove.  Realizing they wouldn't be able to lynch anyone, they went to the black section of town and started burning houses down and shooting into buildings.  The fourth Groveland boy was shot by a sheriff-organized posse.

At trial, the victim identified the perpetrators:

When [the prosecutor] asked Norma to "rise and point out" her rapists, she seemed first to take a few seconds to compose herself for the task as she directed her gaze toward the defendants.  She glanced steadily at each of them in turn before she stood up and straightened her dress.  She eyeballed the Groveland boys, then . . . Norma slowly raised an arm and extended her index finger, which, again in turn, she pointed at each of the defendants unhurriedly she drawled: "The nigger Shepherd . . . the nigger Irvin . . . the nigger Greenlee."

Hilariously, this photo from Barnes and Noble's
website has been photoshopped to remove
the bodies of Shepherd and Irvin.  Compare with below.
Two of the defendants received death sentences, the third received a life sentence.  On appeal, the two death sentences were reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.  But, here, the plot thickens.  While driving the two prisoners from the prison to the jail, where they would be retried, the sheriff shot both prisoners.  He claimed that both had tried to escape.  Unfortunately for the sheriff, one of the prisoners lived to claim otherwise.

The director of the Florida NAACP called for an indictment and full investigation of the shooting; he was rewarded with a Christmas day bomb that killed both him and his wife.

At trial, the remaining defendant again received the death penalty.  Appeals did not reverse this sentence, but eventually, on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to be sure of guilt, the governor commuted this sentence.

What makes this book special is that it's about far more than a trial.  King describes an exchange between defendant Shepherd and his LDF attorney, Franklin Williams:

"Mr. Williams," he said, "when the trial is over, be careful."

More words followed, most of them lost by the dazed attorney after he'd heard Shepherd say that someone was "going to get that nigger lawyer."

Where did he hear that? Williams needed to know.

"Willis McCall," Shepherd told him.  "Said he was going to get that nigger lawyer."

Willis McCall was the sheriff who would eventually shoot two of the defendants.  So, the book becomes about more than a broken justice system, but a book about a southern population wanting to maintain the pre-existing social order.  As King points out, many communities, like Groveland, were not accustomed to black attorneys talking back to judges and disagreeing with any white folk.

And King presents the Groveland case, and its important to the white citizens of Groveland, as being less about the guilt of the defendants and more about the need to put African-Americans in their place.  That is, the Groveland boys needed to be executed so that African-Americans would remember that they belonged to a lower social order.

In this regard, the NAACP's participation, through the LDF, in fighting the death penalty makes more sense: by arbitrarily executing black Americans, society condoned the idea that the lives of black Americans were less valuable than that of white Americans.  This principle, of course, is unacceptable.

The book reminds me of words from Justice Marshall's opinion in Furman:

At a time in our history when the streets of the Nation's cities inspire fear and despair, rather than pride and hope, it is difficult to maintain objectivity and concern for our fellow citizens.  But the measure of a country's greatness is its ability to retain compassion in time of crisis.  No nation in the recorded history of man has a greater tradition of revering justice and fair treatment for all its citizens in times of turmoil, confusion, and tension than ours.  This is a country which stands tallest in troubled times, a country that clings to fundamental principles, cherishes its constitutional heritage, and rejects simple solutions that compromise the values that lie at the roots of our democratic system.

Flag outside the NAACP Offices.
It's noteworthy to me that Marshall, in writing this opinion and (obviously) many others had actual experience defending death cases at the trial and appellate level.  Thus, his opinions benefited from the wisdom gained from the front lines of cases like the Groveland Four.  Our current line up of justices lack such experience; would they, I wonder, come to the same rulings if they had some?

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

The round moon cakes and round doorways, the round tables of graduated sizes that fit one roundness inside another, round windows and rice bowls--these talismans had lost their power to warn this family of the law: a family must be whole, faithfully keeping the descent line by having sons to feed the old and the dead, who in turn look after the family.  The villagers came to show my aunt and her lover-in-hiding a broken house.  The villagers were speeding up the circling of events because she was too shortsighted to see that her infidelity had already harmed the village, that waves of consequences would return unpredictably, sometimes in disguises, as now, to hurt her.  This roundness had to be made coin-sized so that she would see its circumference: punish her at the birth of her baby.

Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior is, like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried a set of interconnected stories, and also a book I'm supposed to teach in my eleventh-grade American Lit class this year.  They are similar, too, in the way that they say all plots are either "a fish out of water" or "a stranger comes to town."  That old canard is really too clever by half: whether you're the fish or the stranger depends on your perspective.  O'Brien's soldiers are all fish, in a world that they fear and cannot understand, but the characters of Kingston's memoir are strangers, grappling with the transition from China to America over many generations.

Kingston structures the stories in a way that is both chronological and relational: The first story, "No Name Woman," is about a Chinese aunt who committed suicide whom Kingston never met, the next about her mother and father, and so on until the final story, about Kingston's own experiences as a Chinese-American in California.  "No Name Woman" is the most famous, I think, because it's the only one I had read before.  It's a remarkable story, about a woman whose house is destroyed by her neighbors in a small Chinese town because she has become pregnant out of wedlock.  The baby is a product of rape, but no one knows this, and it wouldn't matter; the instability of the family and community that a fatherless child represents is, for the villagers, reason enough to enact a harsh punishment.  When the woman drowns herself and her baby, Kingston remains equivocal:

Carrying the baby to the well shows loving.  Otherwise abandon it.  Turn its face into the mud.  Mothers who love their children take them along.  It was probably a girl; there is some hope of forgiveness for boys.

What impresses me about Woman Warrior is its complexity.  We are horrified by the actions of the villagers in "No Name Woman," and Kingston doesn't ask us to excuse them, but she does ask us to understand them in a way that is difficult.  It also enables her to depict such an act of cruelty as deeply ingrained within rural Chinese culture, and at the same time write a story like "At the Western Palace," which depicts the tragic consequences when that culture is lost or abandoned.  In that story, Kingston's aunt (this time on her mother's side) comes to America after decades of separation from her husband, who immigrated long ago.  But her husband is married to another woman, and in California, the rights she would have as a "first wife" over her rival are not, cannot be honored.  There's some great humor in this story, mostly Kingston's mother's absurd encouragements to her sister--she imagines her walking in the husbands house, and declaring the children he had with his second wife to be her own, as would have been in the case, it seems in China--but the depiction of this aunt, for whom there really is no place in this new existence, is deeply sad.

About half of my students are East Asian, and most of these are Chinese-American, many from first-generation families.  I'm a little bit fearful to read this book with them--am I supposed to educate them on the finer points of Chinese culture?--but excited to see how they connect with these stories.