Sunday, April 27, 2014

Myths ("11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative" by Paul Kengor)

No American president is more mythologized by modern politicians than Ronald Reagan, and as Paul Kengor points out in the introductory notes to his book on Reagan’s legacy, this is somewhat understandable. Popular in his time and considered by many to be one of America's greatest presidents, Reagan's presidency was preceded by immeasurable failure--LBJ's Vietnam policy, Nixon's corruption, Ford and Carter's electoral defeats--and followed by much of the same, including George H.W. Bush's failed reelection bid, Clinton's impeachment, and George W. Bush's disastrous policies and near historically low approval ratings. Reagan was elected to two terms, both times by historic margins, and oversaw huge economic growth while also remaining relatively free from scandal.*

However, this narrative, which is at the heart of Kengor's short volume, is one written not only by Reagan's millions of supporters, all of whom lived through the 80s with relative ease and never felt the sting of Reagan's actual policies, but by contemporary conservative Republicans hoping to capitalize on the president's mythologized legacy to gain higher office and enact sweeping legislation that is regressive, authoritarian, and far from anything Reagan himself ever signed into law. By outlining eleven "principles" that supposedly personify a modern conservative, Kengor has added to the fallacy that Reagan was anything other than a typical Republican whose policies benefited his political cronies while damaging the rest of the country for decades--and generations--to come.

1. Freedom

When Kengor writes of Reagan's commitment to freedom, his meaning is twofold: freedom from political leaders and ideological doctrines that enslaved millions and curtailed personal liberty, and freedom from the burdens of unnecessary taxation--that is, freedom for people to spend more of the money they earned by giving less to the government.

The first argument, which is less ludicrous than the second, is based primarily on Reagan's response to the Soviet Union's totalitarian control over its satellite states, especially Germany and Poland, where Communism had empowered ruthless dictatorships for decades. Kengor is correct when he asserts that Reagan was in the White House during the gradual collapse of not only the Soviet Union--which was dissolved in 1991, under Mikhail Gorbachev--and its dominance in Germany, which ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1990. However, the leap that many Republicans make--that Reagan and his policies were directly responsible for these events--is not only flawed but ignorant of events years in the making.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Journeys ("Grandma Gatewood's Walk" by Ben Montgomery)

A mile or so from my house is the Tuscobia, a 70-mile recreational trail that cuts through the western half of Northern Wisconsin. On its way, it passes through a half-dozen small towns, none more than a few hundred people in size, as well as the Chequamegon National Forest, a massive swathe of land that has largely been left to the animals, of which there are many. There is nothing spectacular about the trail besides the occasional railroad spike sticking out of the ground--no landmarks, no great natural landscapes, no fluctuations in terrain, its flatness bespeaking its former use--and yet, a few years ago, I began walking it. At first I covered only a few miles, making sure I turned back before it became too dark, or before my domesticated knees threatened to give out. As the summer progressed, however, the walks became longer, until I was covering 15 to 20 miles in a given day, all without water or food; my supplies consisted of a camera, which would go virtually unused, a baseball cap to block out the sun, and a few dollars in case I needed to stop at one of the few gas stations along the way. The entire experience, stretched out over one long summer, was nothing short of unpleasant, and at the last five miles I gave up:  the horse-flies were too vicious, the distance from home too far. To this day, I have no desire to go back and hike that final portion. The Tuscobia era of my life is, thankfully, closed.

And yet I persisted, forcing myself to cover one section after the next, for no reason other than to walk. I knew there would be nothing to see, no great scenes to photograph, no milestones to reach, but I kept on, driving out further and further, parking along narrow backroads and disappearing for hours at a time. (I never expected to walk the entire trail in one go, for the simple reason that there were no lodgings along the way.) The trail, used mainly for ATV riders in the summer and snowmobilers in the winter, isn't designed for hikers, and yet I found a strange comfort in those hours on the trail--a trail on which I could vanish without ever having to worry about being lost. In those long stretches of time away from people, phones, televisions, traffic, and other distractions, other refuges, I was able--forced--to not only push myself further but also think through my life as it was and could be. After all, when you're alone on a 70-mile trail that snakes its way through one of the least populated places in the country, you have a lot of time to think.

This paradox--of disappearing to find oneself--has made the simple act of walking a serious object of study and reflection, advocated by men and women for centuries. Henry David Thoreau wrote a heavily reprinted essay on the subject, philosophizing that walking fulfills man's inner need to reconnect with and rejoin nature--a need that modern society has done its best to suffocate away, to excise and devalue. Similarly, the world's greatest thinkers--Rousseau, Nietzsche, Kant, Rimbaud--all took to walking for their own individual purposes, though each would remark on how beneficial the experience was, not only to them personally but to mankind entirely. Others have transformed walking into a symbolic experience--an exercise in strength, protest, and reform. Gandhi walked to the waters for equality, just as civil rights activists walked to Montgomery for rights, the third time joined by Martin Luther King himself, and always under the threat of violence. Men and women have walked across countries, up the world's highest  mountain, across the planet's coldest and emptiest continent, into the hearts of forgotten empires, down caves that were refuges for our ancestors, and even across the surface of the moon. And with every walk, marked into dirt and soil and dust by the feet and shoes of average people, our world has become a better place--more knowledgeable, more aware, more connected.

Sometimes, however, a great walk occurs by accident, simply because the path is somewhere to be when there's nowhere else to go. In 1955, a grandmother from Ohio named Emma Gatewood made her way south to George where, with few provisions and no guide, she began to walk the Appalachian Trail, a 2,168-mile path that crossed through 14 states and had only ever been walked from start to finish--uninterrupted, in one season--by a half-dozen others before her, at most, and all of them men. At age 67, she was an unlikely candidate for such an adventure; wearing only Keds on her feet and with scant supplies--some raisins for food, a blanket, a raincoat, an extra pair of glasses, money and identification--she was also impossibly optimistic about her chances. At the time, the Appalachian Trail was in sorry disrepair. Virtually ignored by the federal government, not to mention state agencies, the trail was tended at intervals by local groups and volunteers, all of whom worked without recognition or pay to preserve what they viewed as a national treasure. Had it not been for their dedication, hikers like Emma Gatewood could never have made the months-long trek; and had it not been for hikers like Emma Gatewood--and especially Emma Gatewood--the trail itself may have faded into obscurity, reclaimed by the very wilderness the path was created to embrace.

What makes the story of Emma Gatewood--dubbed Grandma Gatewood by writers at the time--so enthralling, especially when written out by Ben Montgomery, is that the accounts of her Appalachian walk are interspersed with stories of the world Emma Gatewood left behind, if only temporarily. She had been a dutiful wife and mother, the kind of woman--a turn-of-the-century housewife--who labored 20 hours a day making sure her children were fed, her husband was taken care of, the house was clean, the pantry was well-stocked, and the farm ran smoothly while the men were out working the fields and tending to the cattle. She could butcher and fry a hog single-handedly, wrote poetry, never complained about the tribulations of farm life, and kept connected to her family through detailed letters, even when they spread across the country. But her husband was abusive, often beating her until she was no longer recognizable. At times she would want to leave, but her husband watched her obsessively, and she didn't want to leave without the children, whom he never struck but had no problems being violent in front of. Plus, this was an era when women were still expected to submit in certain parts of the country, and where a beaten wife's story didn't matter when the husband was friends with the law. It was a secret she carried with her, even after they separated and she was given control over the farm and custody of the children--an unheard-of judgment for a woman in the early twentieth century. Still, decades later, when the newspapers learned of her solitary walk and caught up with her to ask her questions--she was always available to journalists, even though they slowed her down--she would tell them she was a widow, that her husband was dead, and she'd say nothing more. She didn't like to talk about herself all that much, brushing off their condescending surprise that she would embark on something so difficult and at her advanced age, and she especially didn't want to tell them that her husband was still alive somewhere, though she didn't particularly care where.

As Montgomery's book approaches its close, the two halves of Gatewood's life--her past, her present, all written in honest, beautiful prose--converge into the story of a woman who did something on her own, even when all of the evidence and much of the popular opinion, as unspoken as it may have been, said she wouldn't or couldn't. In fact, she would return to the trail twice more, each time for no other reason than because it was there and because there was nothing stopping her, not anymore. Later, she would walk the Oregon Trail, a 2,000-mile trek from Missouri to Portland, though the treeless roadways meant the sun beat down on her for months, merciless. And yet she prevailed there, too. She would be given credit for pioneering the practice of "ultra-light hiking," in which a hiker carries as little as possible--though she did so out of expedience, practicality, and an overriding trust in her fellow people, most of whom did all they could to help out this old, soft-spoken women on her journey. They fed her, gave her a place to sleep--in one case, she eschewed a bed for a chair on the family's front porch--and returned her to the place where she'd been picked up, guaranteeing that she did not miss a single step of the trail. What these kind-hearted samaritans didn't realize--what they couldn't have realized at the time--was that her mission transcended the mountainous path she would eventually conquer. As is the case with most people, Emma Gatewood was on two journeys:  one she walked publicly, and one she walked privately, on her own and for only herself.

Emma Gatewood (c) Wikipedia

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Stuck ("High Crime Area" by Joyce Carol Oates)

A book of short stories is very much like a box of assorted chocolates:  you approach with a singular expectation that is inherently impossible to satisfy. You won't be satisifed by every single piece of chocolate, and not every individual story will capture your interest or attention. Quite often, the box is populated by strange off-flavors, just as the pages are clouded by the shadows of what could have been:  stories that are too experimental, too short, too "tell," stories that are what other authors would consider throwaway pieces, not good enough, not fit for publication. There is no avoiding these two inevitabilities, and should the overall composition of each lean towards the unpalatable, even slightly, it ruins the entire experience. In fact, in the last 25 years, there have been a half-dozen writers at most who could sustain an entire collection--William Gay, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sherman Alexie, Alice Munro, George Saunders, and Judy Budnitz being a few. Each put forward collections that were thorough, consistent, entertaining, engaging, and worthy of the hours--even days--that they required, that they insisted. At the end, our time had not been wasted, and even the most frivolous of literary apples--for there are always stunted saplings among the trees--hadn't managed to spoil the batch.

Over the last quarter-century alone, Joyce Carol Oates has published almost 20 collections of short fiction. The very definition of prolific--she also writes novels, nonfiction, criticism, poetry, drama, children's and young adult literature, and erotica at an exhausting pace--Oates is also one of the most anthologized writers working today, and for good reason:  she is as much a writer as she is an anthropologist of a romanticized and fictional America, and her forte--the prize of her studies, as it were--is the effect of chaos when introduced into an otherwise untroubled world. Take a contented suburban family, slide something unexpected beneath their door--or over their phone, or inside a darkened bedroom--and watch as they struggle to control what is uncontrollable, all the while revealing every slick insecurity and prejudice they may been keeping subdued for years. Her stories are studies in patience, each page a speck of dirt being wiped away from the windows, until at last we're an audience on the front lawn, assembled for the final, climactic act...and all of it illuminated by 32-watt footlights and choreographed along fresh vacuum-lines in the carpeting.

The problem is that, as with most writers, her best work was published earlier in her career--in this case, more than forty years ago: "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" from 1966, "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again" from 1969, and "The Lady With the Pet Dog" from 1972. Each of these is frequently reprinted and, in their day, were momentous works; today, featured alongside works by her well-inspired successors, Oates' fiction seems somewhat dated, though her skill at understanding the psyche of her characters remains unsurpassed. But that leaves us with hundreds of other stories that have been printed in the years since--a wide-ranging assortment that is destined to be forgotten ten years after Oates has passed away, rendering 99% of her literary legacy all but irrelevant. Even when compared to the surviving, in-print works of the other writers of her generation--Raymond Carver, Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo--the ratio seems completely lopsided. This might seem unavoidable given her output, but that is less of a reason and more of an excuse. In truth, Oates lackluster writing is the result of a writer who seems to have spent the last three decades refusing to compromise on any aspect of her craft, even after the world around her has moved on.

High Crime Area, her most recent collection, is a prime example of this problem. Comprised of eight separate works, each based around the theme of "darkness and dread," the heart of the book is "The Rescuer," a 100-page novella about a graduate student who is emotionally blackmailed by her distant parents into caring for a drug-abusing, HIV-infected brother living an hour away. Both siblings are academically-minded, their interests lying in ancient and indecipherable texts--a metaphor for their shared inability to translate and understand any aspect of their own lives, much less the old papers in front of them--but they are both weak and thoughtless, and in very little time the narrator has begun to compromise her ethics and common sense. By the end of the story she is no better than her brother, a internal devolution personified by the dragging of a dead body across town. The suggestion is clear:  they are both sick, they are both polluted, and now they are trapped in the ghettoized city in which they share "our apartment."

There are qualities to "The Rescuer" that should make it better than what it is. When Oates writes of the protagonist's studies, her relationship with her professor, even the books she reads, she does so with an assuredness that leaks into the vocabulary and renders each passage thick and unreadable. Similarly, when she introduces the men and women with whom her brother is entangled, their dialogue is annotated with apostrophes and heavy with slang, also to the point of unreadability--an indication of their lack of education and refinement, even morals. (The professor, revealed only in flashbacks, speaks in clear, succinct sentences--the language of an educated man, it is suggested.) And yet these two dichotomous parts of the narrator's life are one in the same:  the professor's role is that of a predator, and he looks to the narrator for validation and control, using his influence over her to get his way; just as the character of Leander, a pitbull-wielding drug-dealer, is a predator, lusting openly after her--even raping her--and inviting in other women to steal her money under the guise of friendship. The differences here are ones of color--the professor is white, Leander is not--and of perception, with the narrator believing herself safe in a world where others look and act just like her, despite the fact that predatorial relationships do not care about race, language, or location. This unrealized fact renders her a fool and dooms her to life beside her brother--a sinner who cannot escape the Inferno.

Had "The Rescuer" been written by the Oates of the 1960s and 70s, it would be an admirable, even groundbreaking look at how fear and prejudice affect the way we perceive others and plot our lives, and written in an era of civil unrest on top of that. Now, with its characters drawn from some otherworldly source and Oates half-committed to the whole idea, her company of men and women come off as stereotypes. The same happens in many of the other stories contained herein--in "Lorelei," about a prostitute who seems to believe in destiny, in "The Home at Craigmillnar," about an orderly who seeks vengeance for his family, in "High," about an old widow who uses drugs to dull the shame and irrelevance of old age--and by the time we finish the final story, we've seen Oates trudge out one tired literary trope after another, introducing nothing new. And it's that final story, the titular story, that her self-condemnation is fulfilled. Told from the point of view of a college professor--like Oates--whose heavy criticism has offended almost every one of her adult-education students, the story follows her on a particular night, when she is followed by a young black man while walking to her car. She fears for her safety and, at the same time, worries that this fear brands her as a racist. Eventually, the tension is relieved when she discovers he's an old student, though the closing lines leave his intentions unclear; instead, we see the story for what it is--the paranoia and fear of a white woman when encountering an unknown and refusing to change, even if it means living a life that is less.

Instead of engaging in controversial ideas with a modern attitude and abandoning these old cliches, Oates is happy to drive the same tired highways over and over again, unwilling to seek out an exit to carry her far away from a place no longer able to support her. She has compromised her own skills, holding steadfast to what is comfortable and familiar--and safe--while ignoring the wilderness in the distance, someplace far from the false promises of academia and the false hopes of rundown neighborhoods. In this way she becomes just like her characters:  an intelligent, kind figure in need of being rescued.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Tradition ("An Idea Whose Time Has Come" by Todd Purdum)

In its published form, the rules and procedures of Congress--rendered as the Senate Manual and the House Rules and Manual--are voluminous, each coming in at just under 1500 pages.* On its surface, this fact might be explained away by the relative size and responsibilities of the legislative branch, which, after all, must oversee the world's largest military, largest economy, and third largest population. In truth, however, these 3,000 collective pages are a labyrinthine, almost unreadable series of motions, requirements, guidelines, steps, and exceptions that reduce what is supposed to be a model of democratic governance to something akin to a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, in which the legislature's own rules prevent it from fulfilling its sole responsibility:  to do the most good for the greatest number of its people. In the right hands, these rules are a tool to accomplish just that goal; in the wrong hands, however, they become a weapon against justice, equality, and the very freedoms embodied in our Constitution. And nowhere in our nation's history is this disparity more clearly seen than the fight for civil rights, which began during the presidency of John F. Kennedy and ended--if it ever truly did end--with Lyndon Johnson.

Congress of the 1960s was an institution in turmoil, its members--almost all of them white men--embodying the complicated feelings of their constituents and, in essence, the country as a whole. There were those from the Deep South, where segregation and bigotry were fully ingrained, who defined any attempts at correcting the deep inequality between white and black as, ironically enough, government intrusion and oppression. There were those in the North who spoke of compassion and humanity, much to the chagrin of their colleagues from below the Mason-Dixon, but who often flinched when the time came to translate their attitudes into action; after all, words were cheap and forgettable, but votes were preserved in record, and anyone aspiring to higher office back then often needed the votes of the South--and the support of their representatives--to gain that office. There were those who were confused and unsure if they should err on the side of tradition or take steps towards change. The country was in the midst of social upheaval; the news was dominated by stories of peaceful protests, illegal arrests, violent counter-attacks, bombings, and riots, and it seemed as though any change, however warranted, would be little more than another fuel-soaked piece of timber on the fire.

Regardless, the forces pushing for civil rights had the majority--slight to be sure, but nonetheless mathematically sound. Unfortunately, they did not have the rules and procedures on their side. Instead, the minority pushing back against change was led by a series of men who, for better or worse, used the rules to their advantage, and a massive bill that should've taken weeks to reach a vote and achieve passage instead took more than a year, during which time one president was assassinated, another assumed office, hundreds of subversive amendments were proposed, and millions of Americans continued to live as second-class citizens, the victims of a prejudicial society that stood defiant and strong in the face of impending change. As was the case in decades past, and as it has been in the years since, Congress once again found itself two steps behind the march of progress, and had it not been for a small cadre of elected officials--a bipartisan group of politicians, many of whom put their own political careers on the line to fight for civil rights--there may never have been a bill at all, at least nothing compared to the wide-ranging act that even today is a landmark in American history.

Which is the true story behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As years passed and focus shifted to the roles played by Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., those who labored behind the scenes--sometimes to the point of illness and exhaustion--largely vanished from the textbook history of civil rights, which is a travesty. Because, in order to understand how change happens, we must understand the men and women who make those changes. While civil rights activists braved fire-hoses, dogs, and gunfire to push for equality in their own hometowns, block by dangerous city block, senators and congressmen worked through the grinding machinations of their own government...a  strange, almost  surreal  instance  of  opposites--white and black, powerful and powerless, the one and the many, the elected and the appointed, the establishment and the grassroots--battling the very same institutional roadblocks, often put in place by the very same people, albeit in widely different forms. The latter fought these roadblocks with their words and their feet and their ideas, often for no recognition and at the end of a gun, while the former fought them with motions and procedures, threatened by little more than a gavel and the op-ed pages of their hometown newspapers. And yet without one there could not have been the other, each pressing forward towards victory.

While Martin Luther King Jr. rallied his supporters and met with elected officials, Congressman Charles Halleck of Indiana worked to keep his Republican colleagues assembled behind the bill, which often threatened to shake Congress apart. Halleck did this even as the people of his district, which was almost entirely white, expressed displeasure with the entire bill, often in racist terms. Within five years of the bill becoming law, Martin Luther King would be dead, the victim of an assassination, and Halleck would retired from office after being summarily removed from his leadership position by the very same colleagues who once stood behind him. Around the same time, Halleck's counterpart in the Senate, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, died of poor health; having pushed himself to the point of exhausting trying to crate a bill that could pass the Senate without obstruction or fillibuster, he was able to garner even more support without sacrificing the bill's strength--a noble and almost impossible feat for even the most seasoned politician. (Fifty years later, the senator occupying Dirksen's seat--Barack Obama, an African-American--would be elected president,  personifying the very clear moral purpose of the Civil Rights Act.) There were others, of course--William McCulloch, the soft-spoken Ohioan whose demand for a solid, unaltered bill ensured that its most necessary parts would not be "bargained away," is perhaps the great unsung hero of civil rights--and together they stand as a choir of unassuming and forgotten voices that rose above the chaos to lead the nation, just as they were elected to do.

Most if not all of the congressional rules used in the 1960s remain to this day. And today, much like the era of Kennedy and Johnson, our country faces a growing divide between what we believe and what our laws say we believe. A clear majority of Americans believe in same-sex marriage; Congress, however, remains two steps behind. The Supreme Court gutted important sections of the Civil Rights Act in 2013, making it easier for state governments to keep segments of the population from voting, having fair representation, or living free of discrimination. Americans agree wholeheartedly in the rights protected by the 50-year-old legislation and want those protections maintained; Congress remains two steps behind. Americans believe women should be paid the same as men for the same work, but Congress remains two steps behind. Americans believe in funding early education, supporting the social safety net, providing easy and fair steps towards immigrant naturalization, guaranteeing some form of health care to the sick and poor...and in every instance, Congress remains two steps behind. The rules are the same, and the men and women who wield them speak much like their predecessors did a half-century ago, but the true heroes--those who will stand with the oppressed and fight for progress, regardless of how it will affect their careers, their reputations--are surprisingly hard to find. Perhaps they wish to fade into history like the men of 1964, unrecognized but effective. Or perhaps, unlike those long-overlooked men, they have seen the crusade marching ahead of them and decided that making up those two steps is not worth the effort.

*The Senate Manual can be downloaded here, and the manual for the House--which is officially titled Constitution, Jefferson's Manual, and Rules of the House of Representatives--can be downloaded here.