Special Relationships

If I had another lifetime at my disposal, here’s a book I’d like to write.

Special Relationships: British Sages in America

A history of American infatuation with wise men from Great Britain, structured by changes in technology. In all cases the book trade is essential, but it forms alliances with other technologies: first the lecture tour, then (thanks especially to the Luce empire) the magazine, and finally television. It’s possible that radio would need a chapter, but at the moment my sense is that radio was always more important as a way for Brits to understand America, e.g. Alastair Cooke’s “Letter from America.”

General outline with key figures:

Part 1: The Age of the Lecture

  • Charles Dickens
  • Oscar Wilde
  • G. K. Chesterton

Part 2: The Age of the Magazine

  • C. S. Lewis
  • Arnold Toynbee

Part 3: The Age of Television

  • Kenneth Clark
  • J. Bronowski
  • James Burke

Afterword: The End of an Era

  • Christopher Hitchens


I made an interesting discovery yesterday. (I’m sure others have already noticed it, but the insight is new to me.) Many readers will know this famous passage from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”: 

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “n****r,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

I have taught this essay many, many times over the years, and I have always zeroed in on this passage as an excellent illustration of the use of imitative form. King wants his (largely white) readers to know what it feels like to wait … and wait … and wait … — so he makes those readers wait … and wait … and wait … for the conclusion of the 316-word sentence that’s at the heart of this paragraph.  

Here’s my discovery. Right now I’m teaching Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, and in the final chapter of that mesmerizing book he writes this, an account of his experience as an escaped slave in the North when the Fugitive Slave Act was in effect: 

I have been frequently asked how I felt when I found myself in a free State. I have never been able to answer the question with any satisfaction to myself. It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate. In writing to a dear friend, immediately after my arrival at New York, I said I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions. This state of mind, however, very soon subsided; and I was again seized with a feeling of great insecurity and loneliness. I was yet liable to be taken back, and subjected to all the tortures of slavery. This in itself was enough to damp the ardor of my enthusiasm. But the loneliness overcame me. There I was in the midst of thousands, and yet a perfect stranger; without home and without friends, in the midst of thousands of my own brethren — children of a common Father, and yet I dared not to unfold to any one of them my sad condition. I was afraid to speak to any one for fear of speaking to the wrong one, and thereby falling into the hands of money-loving kidnappers, whose business it was to lie in wait for the panting fugitive, as the ferocious beasts of the forest lie in wait for their prey. The motto which I adopted when I started from slavery was this — “Trust no man!” I saw in every white man an enemy, and in almost every colored man cause for distrust. It was a most painful situation; and, to understand it, one must needs experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances. Let him be a fugitive slave in a strange land — a land given up to be the hunting-ground for slaveholders — whose inhabitants are legalized kidnappers — where he is every moment subjected to the terrible liability of being seized upon by his fellowmen, as the hideous crocodile seizes upon his prey! — I say, let him place himself in my situation — without home or friends — without money or credit — wanting shelter, and no one to give it — wanting bread, and no money to buy it, — and at the same time let him feel that he is pursued by merciless men-hunters, and in total darkness as to what to do, where to go, or where to stay, — perfectly helpless both as to the means of defence and means of escape, — in the midst of plenty, yet suffering the terrible gnawings of hunger, — in the midst of houses, yet having no home, — among fellow-men, yet feeling as if in the midst of wild beasts, whose greediness to swallow up the trembling and half-famished fugitive is only equalled by that with which the monsters of the deep swallow up the helpless fish upon which they subsist, — I say, let him be placed in this most trying situation, — the situation in which I was placed, — then, and not till then, will he fully appreciate the hardships of, and know how to sympathize with, the toil-worn and whip-scarred fugitive slave. 

A brilliant paragraph ending with a 239-word sentence that does exactly what MLK’s still-longer sentence would do more than a century later. I can’t help but think that MLK had this passage from Douglass in mind, if only unconsciously. Where Douglass uses dashes MLK uses semicolons; where Douglass uses “let him” MLK uses “when” — but the strategy and the effect are the same: holding the reader at a point of tension that the writer will offer release from only when the point is well-made. (The ultimate example of this strategy is Wagner’s use of the Tristan chord, which he resolves after fours hours or so, but only a madman would take the business that far.) “Notice how tense you were as you were waiting for the conclusion to that sentence? Imagine that intensified and prolonged by a factor of ten thousand.”   

Kevin Williamson:

On Memorial Day, we remember those who took up arms because they thought their civilization represented something good and worth preserving. But we increasingly take up arms for the opposite reason: because we believe this society to be corrupt, failing, doomed. We half dread the possibility of breakdown and bloodshed — and are made half-giddy by it, too.

And that is a dangerous state of affairs. Americans don’t have a well-regulated militia — we don’t have a well-regulated anything.

you want it darker

Damon Linker:

We have stopped believing in reason’s power to persuade. The right thinks the critical social theories espoused by many on the left are both wrong and pernicious, but it doesn’t expect to be able to convince the left of this view. Hence the move to use raw political or legal power to suppress it. The left, meanwhile, thinks many of those who don’t share its premises are motivated by racism and other forms of bigotry that are in most cases untouchable by argument. Hence the move to use moral condemnation to get resisters excluded from social circles and cultural institutions in which they enjoy various forms of power and status.

These examples are themselves expressions of a broader trend we see all around us in our public life: the tendency to skip the work of attempting to change minds in favor of grabbing the power to control what’s permitted. The clearest, and oldest example, of this move is the appeal to judges to resolve disputes that resist resolution through democratic deliberation and consensus-building. Instead of the right trying (and likely failing) to convince the rest of the country that the New Deal is a bad idea, it seeks to get the Supreme Court to declare the New Deal unconstitutional. Instead of the left trying (and likely failing) to convince the rest of the country that abortion should be legal, it seeks to get the Supreme Court to declare abortion a constitutionally protected right.

I don’t think this is quite right. The problem is not that many Americans have lost faith in the power to persuade; the problem is that they have lost the desire to persuade. An argument that would win over those people is not an argument worth making. Sweet it is to have enemies, and passing sweet to get them dragged on Twitter. 

As I wrote a while back, this is the triumph of the Manichaean Party in American politics. The last thing that party wants is unity; unity is loathsome to them. So to them I can only say: You want it darker.

I’m not sorry that I wrote a book called How to Think. It was worth doing. But it now seems to me that a more urgent task – ideally for someone wiser than I – would be to write a book that answers this question: Why Think?

UPDATE: Kevin Williamson makes a decisive point: “I do not think the United States is headed toward a civil war — civil wars are too much work. But it does matter that the dominant American political fantasy of our time is a dream of civil war. The mass arrests dreamt up by Q and the massacres envisioned by its rivals may be exercises in wishful thinking, but what Americans are wishing for matters.” 

a time of reckoning

This essay by my dear friend James Davison Hunter is absolutely essential for our moment:

It is important to remember that times of crisis are always times of reckoning. Whether one admires [MLK] or agrees with his politics is not the question. In his day, public opinion was overwhelmingly against him, and even against today’s idealized and sanitized version of King, there are those who disparage the man and his achievements. The question, rather, is whether we have the requisite moral resources to reckon with our nation’s internal flaws and external challenges. King modeled a disposition, a voice, and a moral authority that could credibly compel such a reckoning in his own day, but in ways that made it possible for opponents to imagine a way forward together.

Although incomplete, his life and witness, his words and deeds, brought about constructive change in large measure because they were grounded in metaphysical and theological sources that transcended tribalized identities, prejudices, and shibboleths. King’s critique of America was radical, more radical than many today remember. But so too was his humanism. Dissent and solidarity were welded together — and could coexist precisely because they came from the same place. Both were rooted in an equally radical theological anthropology that demanded justice, refused ideological purity tests, and recognized the yearnings, fears, flaws, weaknesses, capacities, and aspirations that all human beings share — and, finally, obliged each of us to forgive our foes.

The particular moral resources that animated King and the clergy that surrounded him are certainly less available to us today. Their renewal is not impossible, but it is far from likely. But this only heightens the urgency of the question: What moral resources are available to us to come to terms with the crises we face?

That last question is the essential one. If you’re not meditating right now on your answer to it, you’re not serious about the challenge that faces us. James’s essay points us in the right direction. I am so grateful for his work and his witness.