Thoughts on Charlottesville

The David was also a very controversial monument in its day. The greatest explanation is that it is a rebuke of the Medici family and an assertion of the strength of the people in the face of tyranny. Where David represented the everyman, the underdog, and the slayer of the giant, the rich and empowered Medici could be tied to Goliath who was overpowered by the man with hidden strength and intelligence. A statue of Hercules was later erected to sit beside David outside the Medici palace as a message that brute strength rightfully rules

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This all started because someone decided to cave and attempt to erase history. History is not for us to love or hate, but to learn from in order that we not repeat the mistakes of the past. So that we be better, wiser, and more prosperous than our fathers before us. Attempting to erase the past will only erase truth as well as our capacity to grapple with it and become wiser in order that we not repeat it.

America is founded upon certain principles. These principles are what Lincoln called the “sheet anchor of American Republicanism”. These principles, although we neglect to recognize it, are our “philosophical cause”, as Lincoln put it. In other words, they brought all other thoughts of America into being. In regimes past, you see, citizens were not free to dispute certain individual principles publicly or politically: it was illegal and punishable by death to go against the word of the representative body or the crown. America’s proclamation that individuals had certain inalienable rights, such as that of speech and demonstration, put an end to this understanding of rule. The Declaration of Independence thereby reversed the role of government and governed and made the ruling body subject to the words and orders of the people rather than vice versa. Because this “philosophical cause” gave weight and expression to all other ideas about American democracy and representative justice, Lincoln understood this philosophical cause as “entwining itself more closely about the HUMAN heart”. In other words, Liberty was something that we could all agree on. I argue that this should therefore be our spring board for civil discourse: it should be understood that this is what we all have in common.

What gave way to the Charlottesville “riots” is a demon that has been brooding in the heart of America and in Americans. It is a spirit much too maniacal to be considered “partisan”, as many have called it. I understand this demon as a depreciation of our capacity to grasp this common understanding of a “philosophical cause” which results in a neglect of an understanding of the common dignity of man. What follows from this understanding of the dignity of man is a certain sense of civility requisite for civil discourse and real self-government.We have lost this understanding, as we have lost what brings it into being. In order to understand our own dignity and the dignity of our fellow man, we have to understand, As Madison once told us, that all men are not angels, else there would be no need of civil government in the first place.

Our forgetting that men cannot become angels has brought us to Charlottesville, or at least the events that led to Charlottesville: the tearing down of General Lee’s statue. Why do we want to tear down monuments? Simply because we believe that we are better than those of the past merely by our existing in a time set apart from that of theirs. Because they can no longer defend themselves we tear them down in order to exalt ourselves. We do not do the due diligence of learning from them, and in turn learning of ourselves and educating our children in matters of right or wrong in order that they may rise to the level of wisdom and equality for good self-government, but rather we hide them from the truth because often the truth elicits some ugliness. We want to destroy all that is flawed in the world so our children do not witness it and we no longer have to bear it. We do this all the while neglecting to understand that we ourselves are flawed and the logical consequence of our destruction of the past and its monuments is a decimation of ourselves.

As for the technicalities of the Charlottesville tragedy, those who were protesting the tearing down of Lee’s statue had gotten a legal permit to exercise their first amendment rights from the local government. They had followed the proper regulations in order to exercise legal rights. We may dislike them, but their rally was lawful. Contrary to their position, the word went out for a counter-protest to occur which included groups from a different side of the political spectrum. What should have happened is that these two groups should have been kept miles apart. I do not understand why any local law enforcement agency would allow these two groups close proximity.

I do not wish to criticize either group, wrong as I think they each are. We have gotten into the habit of criticizing groups of people in this country, and that is very wrong. If we are to understand Liberty in order that we foster it we must begin to judge individuals with the dignity due to individuals. We must begin to understand that demonizing our opponents as if they are packs of wolves has gotten us nowhere, that both parties have suffered greatly from the onslaught lain at their doors by their opposition, and that justice and self-government, liberty and the safeguarding of individuals rights, is not a zero sum game. If one group loses, then we all lose. If you cut your neighbor down, then your conscience and sense of dignity suffers.

So how are we to understand one another? I am always apprehensive to write about contemporary politics. It is too ugly and complex, and therefore I refrain from passing judgment all too quickly. As Lincoln once said, “Better to stay silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt”. I prefer beautiful things that lift people up to sad news that diminishes my respect for “this last best hope” for freedom.

So I turned to Moby Dick, as I always find myself doing.

“Men may seem detestable as joint stock companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such and grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence our divine equality!” 

A few paragraphs ago I pointed to history as a tool for teaching our children so that they may “rise to the level of equality requisite for self-government”. Although a peculiar phrase, I used it intentionally. I used it with my students just as my mentor Peter Schramm used it with myself and my fellow Ashbrooks. Melville and Peter could agree on this, I like to think: we are all born with a certain sense of dignity, being human and naturally free. We have great capacity and all the gifts that “radiate without end from God”; however, it is so very easy to slip up, to lose our privilege of practicing those rights which our forefathers have secured for us. I use the phrase “rising to the level of equality” because it is so easy to lose the privileges that come with the dignity that we are born with. Rising to equality means becoming strong and wise enough to make prudent choices that bolster our ability to practice freedom rather than making the choices that detract from the proper use of our freedom. Abuses of power and imprudent governance makes freedom falter just as we make the choice to limit our freedom when we commit injustices such as murder or theft. Although we like to believe that our natural dignity entitles us to certain privileges and freedoms, history teaches us otherwise. Millions of people before us have made mistakes in governing themselves and have lost the prosperity that their forebearers had worked so diligently to pass down. Although we like to believe freedom is promised, human history speaks to us of a perpetual endeavor not only to reach freedom, but to keep it. Benjamin Franklin famously declared that the founders had given us “A Republic, if you can keep it”. What Franklin, a student of history and a world traveller, understood was that it was much more difficult to keep the rights that our founding secured for us than it was to sign a document declaring that those rights were just.

But notice what Melville proscribes for the keeping of dignity. He claims that it is proprietous for good men to throw their “costliest robes” over the valor ruined. Although it is our impulse to rebuke the unjust, to point fingers and prove to the world that we are right when others are in the wrong, where has this gotten us? I hope and pray that we understand that it takes a community of robe throwers for men to rise to the level of equality and wisdom necessary to promote justice and the good. I pray that one day we will be wise enough to understand the blessings of union and the future felicity that compromise and selflessness have in store for those who can endure the pain of refraining from telling the entire world that they are right and the other side is wrong. I can promise you, that the world will not listen however loud you may proclaim.

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This statue of Lincoln was found vandalized on August 16th, in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy. Let us not fight fire with fire. 

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Hands and Hearts

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is the only book in which the author writes what cannot be written. The book is highly experiential, arguably to the point of superfluity. Among my students, the whaling chapters are those which push them to give up the fight. For myself, my first copy of Moby Dick was burnt upon Ishmael’s description of the Italian paintings of Christ wherein the narrator claims that they are most accurate because they capture the “hermaphroditical” character of the Son. Melville even went so far as to write to Nathaniel Hawthorne that he had composed “a wicked book and (felt) spotless as a lamb” having written it. My argument is that Melville writes in such a way in order to accomplish what no author had yet, or has since, been able to accomplish: he not only makes his reader think about God, but he affords his reader the opportunity to experience God. Thereby, Melville is able to moderate the American soul in hopes that it may make use of the vast freedom that so quickly can dissolve into wayward discontent. His book becomes a symphonic experience through which you, reader, like Ishmael are plunged into the deep waters of baptism and forced to fight your way back to faith, experiencing a metaphorical resurrection. As we read the American epic we find that we are all Ishmaels searching to find something all the while knowing not what.

 

Everyone is familiar with the false opening lines “Call me Ishmael” (I say false because there are two important “chapters” preceding the “loomings” chapter). However, few understand the significance of “Call me Ishmael” just as they do not attempt to make sense of the title “loomings” which is of layered importance. The Biblical Ishmael is said to be a man “with his hand against all men”. How American is he? I see in him every political campaign to which I’ve ever contributed, and I see in him the faces of all of the students I’ve ever taught. As Americans our independent and enterprising natures are manifested in this fellow who will befriend us along this journey. He is an orphan and a wanderer, a son begat with no true mother, and one searching for some ounce of feeling all the while wandering off the path that he most needs to tread. Just as Tocqueville describes Americans full of restlessness and characterized by individualism, Melville creates an American working through his restlessness and grappling with his individualism.

 

The title “Loomings” is doubly important: first, it recalls the feeling that “looms” over Ishmael, and second it refers to the first step in the process of God’s weaving of Ishmael’s fate upon his loom. The feeling of having his hand against all other men makes Ishmael feel as if he must either walk into the street and “deliberately knock their hats off”, or commit suicide. Luckily for us, he chooses water as his “substitute for pistol and ball”. What we will learn alongside him throughout this journey is that love of his fellow man must displace this looming feeling of grief and loneliness. Only through knowing and appreciating others will Ishmael come by a feeling of self-love and appreciation. This communion with his fellow man will be a thread in the tapestry woven upon God’s loom throughout the tortured journey of the Pequod. Ishmael will find later that God is that weaver who “weaves and is deafened by his weaving”. Initially angered with God for his deafness, Ishmael reasons towards that thought which Ahab never does: that perhaps the reason that man can’t hear God isn’t because God is not speaking, but rather the word of God is drowned out as we place our word at the center of the universe, contemptuously displacing His plans for us with our own wandering desires.

 

Surprisingly early in the novel Captain Ahab symbolically nails his doubloon to the mainmast of the ship as a bribe for his crew to follow Moby Dick. Ahab proceeds to explain that his path is “laid upon Iron rails” as he rhetorically overpowers Starbuck in front of the crew. Ishmael remarks “my shouts went up with theirs because of the dread in my soul”. How often are we all damned to chasing cursed Job’s whale to the ends of the earth for no reason but our own looming loneliness? Melville really calls into question, in this instance, the extent to which man really desires to exercise rational judgment. At least for Ishmael, the easiest way out of loneliness is to succumb peer pressure; nevertheless, his coping mechanism proves a hollow one. It is not until about 200 pages later, when we have almost forgotten about the soft despotism that plagues the crew, that the spell over Ishmael is broken and his loneliness truly subsides.

 

Only in the “Squeeze of the Hand” chapter when Ishmael is kneading spermacetti with his fellow voyagers can he remark “I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it… while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.” The result: Ishmael “lowers, nay shifts, all expectations of attainable felicity” from philosophy to the home, the bed, the wife, and the hearth. He even remarks that on that day he saw “angels all with their hands in a jar of spermaceti”. Rather than trying to focus on his tortured fate and all that lacks sense, Ishmael begins to find pleasure in those small graces that we so often overlook. Only through this lens can Ishmael finally begin to make sense of his relationship with God. He must first see light in order to see darkness. For Ishmael, friendship makes good all the vices of his fellow man and cloaks all of the darkness of the world: it is akin to the forgiveness that God has given man when he sends his son to die on the cross rendering our sins moot in the respect to salvation. All that is necessary to gain this blessing is for Ishmael to turn his hands away from his fellow man, and use those hands to work with his fellow man instead of against him.

 

Thus goes the baptism of Ishmael’s hand in a jar of spermaceti. Melville wishes to make stark the distinction between baptism of the body and baptism of the soul; however, he understands that the physical baptism is necessary to make possible the spiritual baptism. The purification of the soul is harder than the baptism of the body because it is an active pursuit rather than a passive one. And, as no man is worthy of the mantle of the Son of God, each man’s discipleship will be riddled with tests and failures. Ishmael’s is no different. However, by the end of the book Ishmael is no longer Ishmael: he is no longer the biblical orphan with his hand against all other men, but rather he is claimed by the wayward ship “the Rachel” who weeps for her lost children. However, he cannot be claimed by the Rachel until he has been plunged into the deep in pursuit of Moby Dick, losing all of his comrades, and only surviving by attaching himself to Queequeg’s coffin. He thereby becomes a “loose-fish”, and he thereby suffers the same fate as Ahab. However, Ishmael turns the fate of Ahab inside out: where Ahab was claimed by the darkness as he was loosened, Ishmael is claimed by God. The epilogue (which was not included in the first edition of the novel due to a huge twist of fate, but that is a story for another time) begins with the first instance in which Ishmael accurately quotes the bible: “And I alone   am escaped to tell thee”. Melville thereby draws a parallel between the old, wayward Ishmael, and the new Ishmael. He thus renders his great novel digestible from another perspective for the reader’s second read: the perspective of Job. In short, through realizing who Ishmael is by the end of the novel, we are able to better understand his perspective throughout the journey by placing it in view of all of his suffering. 

America, and especially American kids, is experiencing an identity crisis. Moby Dick may be the book that my students most hate, but it is the book they most need. Today we are too quick to teach our children to be “nice”, but we do so at the expense of affording our kids the opportunity to explore the complexities of their souls. I hope that my students begin to hate Moby Dick the work, just as Ahab hates Moby Dick the whale. I hope that they burn their first copy just as I did- because this will mean that the book has touched them. This will mean that the book has pushed them intellectually and made them uncomfortable. After all, Ishmael must be made uncomfortable in order to come about change, in order to grow, and finally in order to come about a resurrection and a renewal of his faith. The way in which I gauge my success or failure while teaching Moby Dick is to evaluate how my students are working through their hate: whether or not they are taking it seriously. Soon they will no longer be children, and soon they will have to grapple with their souls as they roam free. The better part of “being nice” is not a continuous set of accommodating gestures, but rather it is the ability to rule the hatred in their souls that Ahab feels combined with the longing that Ishmael feels to contemplate the blackness in the world which seems to overrun all light. In short, what Moby Dick attempts to do is make sense of the erotic hatred within us all to which Ahab falls, and to reign in the false path that reason may take if we become an Ishmael rationalizing the darkness and its seeming consumption of the light. If our kids can do this, then they can learn how to rule themselves in a much more substantial way than they can by being nice at all costs. If we can teach them this, then we will not have to teach them to “be nice”, for they will be happy and they will be just.