A Monster Truck at a Demolition Derby

Custom-Ford-Monster-TruckWatching the Republican primary is like watching a Demolition Derby with sixteen beat-up cars and a slick, orange-topped, flame-throwing monster truck. Sure, the truck’s out of place; but there it is, crisscrossing the field in the middle of the figure-eight, its industrial size horn blaring—cutting off the usual noise from the other cars (candidates); its driver, our own beloved Donald Trump, in his red baseball cap neither slowing nor turning to avoid collisions. (BTW, is it still a “collision” if one vehicle simply rolls over and crushes the others, without losing speed?)

Every thirty feet or so, the flame thrower roars to life—Trump’s right hand ever-poised on the overhead controls. Wow! Only a minute into the event and he has effigies of undocumented immigrant families burning at the cardinal points of the track—north, south, east, and west. So much for the Latino vote. Well, maybe the Republicans can do without Hispanics this time around.

And over there, in front of the Trump helicopter, isn’t that an effigy of Megyn Kelly? They must be friends. Maybe they came togeth— Wait! What’s he doing with that flame thrower? Huh. Didn’t see that coming.

What did he just yell? “Bimbo?” And then “fat pig.” No way, not Megyn Kelly. She’s as skinny as a rail. She doesn’t have an ounce of fat on— Oh, the “fat pig” was directed at other women? So… I guess that will about do it for the women’s vote. It’s possible the Republicans don’t need the women’s vote either.

This is no ordinary Demolition Derby. Ooops! There goes the flame thrower again. Those look like burning effigies of little babies born right here in the United States. Are there any rules in Demolition Derby?

What’s that? I can’t hear you over the approving roar of the Republican crowd.

Struggling at Freedom’s Door

Freedom DoorI was so impressed this morning watching Charlie Rose’s interview of Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Mr. Stevenson is a leading voice against racial injustice in the United States. If you have a chance to see the Charlie Rose program online (http://sharetv.com/watch/969423), I would encourage you to watch it. Mr. Stevenson has also been a guest on The Daily Show (http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/d9wrvk/bryan-stevenson) and was featured on 60 Minutes (http://www.cbs.com/shows/60_minutes/video/). His TED talk has been rated one of the most evocative and successful in years (http://www.eji.org/node/614).

As much as I admire Mr. Stevenson’s passion and energy, and his insights into the mechanisms of historical memory (the lingering effects of white supremacy), I find myself feeling sorry for him, and for all who fight for equal justice for black Americans, native Americans, etc., the way he is doing it. …Continue Reading

A Lost Presidential Letter

My mother has an original letter written and signed by President Polk, in “Washington City,” on August 11, 1845. The letter, which I have transcribed below, is written to Polk’s friend and business agent in Columbia, Tennessee, Col. Robert Campbell, Jr. It is difficult to read—particularly the first paragraph. I would add nothing by commenting on it, so I won’t.

The envelope (which was not original to the letter) contains a notation that the president’s letter was confiscated by Union soldiers from the home of Col. Campbell during the Civil War.

I would like to convince my mother to donate this letter to an African-American historical museum. If anybody knows of a good candidate, please let me know at scottwyattauthor [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Washington City. 11th August 1845

My Dear Sir:

I am informed by Major Childup[?] of Murfreesborough that his mother had sent to your house a negro girl named Caroline for me, and that you were to take her to my plantation in Mississippi the next time you went down. This is all right, and I will be obliged to you to take her down. She has not been accustomed to a Southern climate and there may be danger of fever if she [?] into the field at this season of the year. I wish you therefore to direct the overseer to keep her in the house until frost. She is a seamstress and can assist in making of the negro clothing for winter.

When you go to my plantation I wish you to ascertain from the overseer what articles will be needed for next year, including cotton, [?], rope, salt etc., and give an order to Messrs. W. S. Prescott & Co. my commiss[ary?] merchants at New Orleans—to send them up to Troy as soon as my cotton is sold and before the water in the Yalobusha River falls in the spring. The proceeds of the balance of my crop after deducting the price of these articles and the overseer’s wages for this year for which you are authorized to draw, I will direct Pickett & Co. to pay over to uncle Wm. Polk to whom I am indebted. I [?] before I left home that I would probably apply the proceeds of this years crop to the increase of my fence on the plantation. Upon further reflection I think I had better pay off my debts before I buy any additional fences, and therefore I will direct it to be applied to the payment of my debt to uncle Wm. Polk.

You will therefore draw on Pickett & Co. only for the amount of the necessary plantation expenses—including [?] & rope, salt, etc. and overseers wages—after deducting from these the amount of Harry’s hire, which can be appropriated to this year’s expenses. I wish my cotton shipped as fast as it is ready to Pickett & Co. at New Orleans, who will be directed to meet your orders, and what to do with the balance.

I hope you will direct Mairs to be particular in attending to his stock, and to be sure to raise pork enough to supply the place. I find that this is no money-making business here, and therefore I must attend to my interests at my plantation. I hope you will write to me from the plantation concerning my interests there.

My friend Mr. [?] Singh has at my request kindly agreed to aid Mairs by his counsel and advice in your absence. You will of course see Mr. Singh when you [?] down.

I am very anxious to sell my property at Columbia. I own half the house & lot on which mother lives, and may own all at some future day. In that event I will have no use (sic) my house and lot which I left. If Hausten will not give the price I ask, ascertain if you can what he will give and inform me of it. Do not close any contract of sale of it, for a less price than I informed you in writing I would take—until you first inform me of any bid you may have, and get my consent. I wish you of course to keep an of (sic) of your trouble and expenses in attending to my business, and I will settle it with you.

The [?] Election is out but we have not had time to hear anything of the result. I am kept constantly and very much engaged in my official duties. Thus far my administration [?]quite as little opposition as I anticipated.

I am Very Sincerely Your friend,

James K. Polk

Col. Robert Campbell, Jr.
Columbia
Tennessee

Before and After: The Impact of My Writing Groups

I’m a writing critique group junkie. I belong to three in the Seattle area, and wouldn’t mind finding a fourth. I love the people. Different personalities and life experiences, and a common passion for writing.

I find my work substantially improved by accepting a good deal of their advice. Writing well, for me, is a collaboration.

I thought it might be interesting to take what I wrote yesterday, for example—the start of a new scene in my up-coming Civil War-era novel (working title “Faraway Heights”)—and compare it with the same passage post-writing groups.

Here, then, is the “BEFORE.” (As soon as my writing group friends have had their say, I’ll post the “AFTER.”)

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APRIL 23, 1861

Belva was sure the drums practicing in the distance should have lifted her spirits. Wasn’t that the idea? She stepped off the train platform and made her way in small, measured steps down the grassy hillside to the street, holding her hat on top of her head to keep the wind from taking it. She couldn’t deny the crisp, martial effect of the unseen drums, but she had been dreading this day for a month. No bright sunshine, no half-expectant wind rustling the red, white, and blue bunting up and down the street—which she had seen hanging from windows and porch railings miles south of the Springfield station—could cheer her. Not where it mattered: inside, where her heart vacillated between a numb, counterfeit hopefulness and a paralyzing fear.

She held at bay a thought that had first entered her mind an hour earlier, when she entered the packed railroad car at Montgomery. She’d marveled at the excited chatter of a well-dressed crowd, at the brimming enthusiasm that actuated men in their forties and fifties—no doubt fathers and brothers of the soldiers-to-be—to speak and laugh a little too loud, and women to blush and smile and turn at once toward antics that, on a normal day, they would have found detestable and ill-mannered; and she thought: men and their wars.

What good would it do to dwell on that now? She wasn’t here for that, or herself. She was here for Thaddeus and Elliott.

She looked left and right at the crowds disembarking the black train cars. The women, like her, holding their hats in place. The men shaking collars and straightening the lapels of their frock coats, and setting sleeves aright. The coolness of the late morning, the promise of a sunny, warm day, the wind, the drums, the smell of the capitol city’s dusty streets—even the train’s whistle that momentarily startled Belva–lent the scene a propitious, providential air…

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What do you think? I’d love to hear your views. Because the “Comments” function on this website is temporarily out-of-order, please email me at: scottwyattauthor [at] gmail.com.

Toward the End of Ordinary

Three things happened yesterday: South Carolina removed the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia. The Pope delivered a blistering indictment of the lynch-pin of all capitalist systems: greed. And the Dalai Lama posted this message on Facebook:

“We are all the same as human beings, we all want to lead a happy life. We can think of every day as a new day. When we wake up we can remind ourselves: I need to be happy. I need to have warm feelings towards others. This builds self-confidence, honesty, transparency, which leads to trust. And trust is the basis of friendship. We are social animals and we need friends. This is a source of happiness I wish to share.”

I’m reminded that, in addition to being social animals, we live in moral frameworks and identify ourselves by virtue of our orientation within these frameworks. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes, “To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space, a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary.” C. Taylor, Sources of the Self, Harvard Press (1989).

Over millennia, our forebears have articulated a host of moral frameworks for themselves and posterity. (Think: animism, Buddhism, Confucianism, polytheism, the Homeric warrior ethic, racism, stoicism, hedonism, monotheism—Judaism, Islam, Christianity, nationalism, existentialism, rationalism, romanticism, individualism, scientism, capitalism, Marxism, new age spiritualism.) Fueled by pride in one or more these moral frameworks, groups have self-identified as “the chosen people,” “a superior race,” “first world people,” “the new world,” “enlightened,” “the greatest nation on earth,” “morally superior,” “modern,” “righteous,” “hard-work and deserving of a greater share,” etc.

These divisions, drawn in moral space for millennia, and as potentially demoralizing and lethal today as at any time in the past, are nevertheless being eroded. Slowly, yes, but at an ever-increasing rate. The seeds of their destruction were planted, in some cases, eons ago. Take, for example, the essential and much-ballyhooed capitalist creed: accumulate, and do not stop accumulating no matter how much you have relative to others, or in absolute terms. In a word: be greedy. Greed is good.

For the past three centuries, this orientation in moral space has flourished in spite of almost never-cited warnings from the Book of James:

“Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower…. Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence….”

Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, acknowledged in a sequel to The Wealth of Nations, that the drive to accumulate wealth is, at best, a “middling virtue.” In his remarks delivered in Bolivia yesterday, Pope Francis went much farther. He called the unfettered pursuit of money “the dung of the devil.”

Defenders of unfettered capitalism will argue, quite rightly, that greed has inspired entrepreneurs to innovate in order to capture greater market share and increase profits. This has raised the standard of living for tens of millions of us. They are silent or grumbling in the face of arguments that capitalism, left unregulated, creates obscene levels of economic inequality, including a class of workers indexed by economic forces to work below the poverty line.

Defenders of the Confederate flag cite its role in preserving Southern heritage, never mind its hurtful symbolism in the eyes of others. That debate is over.

Yesterday’s events typify the slow erosion of moral frameworks that divide people according to their differences—wealth, race, and the like. They suggest to me a direction of change, as well: toward an increased awareness by people everywhere of all that human beings have in common in spite of their differences, and a recognition (as modeled by the Dalai Lama in his Facebook post) that moral inspiration can come from such a holistic awareness renewed daily.

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What do you think? I’d love to hear your views. Because the “Comments” function on this website is temporarily out-of-order, please email me at: scottwyattauthor [at] gmail.com.