Old and new friends.
“Dignity? How can there be dignity if we care so little for the dignity of others?”
In December 1983, it was a common thing to speculate about how similar (and different) the world was from that anticipated (proposed?) by George Orwell’s classic dystopia, 1984.
A few days ago I picked up P.D. James’ 1992 novel for the first time in 15 or 20 years and was surprised to rediscover that the first entry in Theo’s diary was for this coming Friday:
Friday 1 January 2021 Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty-five years, two months and twelve days. . . .
I had forgotten that in The Children of Men (1992) the events all occur in 2021. The premise (no spoilers if you haven’t read it) is that human fertility declines so that no one is born after 1995. The implications are frightening, as the aging population comes to trade freedom for security (in the normal way) as it faces the coming disintegration of the social order.
Boris Johnson is not the Warden of England, and the disaster James speculated about is not upon us, but the cautions James weaves into this “hopeful dystopia” are ones we may benefit from in this, the age of the latest pandemic.
*I have no opinion about the 2006 movie, which (in any case) is set in 2027, not 2021.
Bob Woodward, Rage (2020) [link].
This is an intriguing book. The veteran (older than Mr. Trump, younger than Mr. Biden) investigative journalist for the Washington Post returns to the subject of his 2018 book: Fear: Trump in the White House. While I think he will always be best known for his work with Carl Bernstein on All the President’s Men (1974) and his collaboration with Scott Armstrong on The Brethren (1979), this book is well worth reading as a (generally) unsympathetic account of Mr. Trump’s presidency.
Of course, Woodward provides ample evidence of Mr. Trump’s personality quirks from the unpleasant to the unnerving (fascinating, but nothing much new here if you have been awake since 2016), but he deals at length with the major crises of the last four years—Comey, North Korea, the Mueller investigation, the impeachment, the Biden-Ukraine scandal, the pandemic—in such a way that the reader has to conclude that Mr. Trump has been a reasonably effective president despite his unpleasant and unsettling style.
Many of the early advisors come off well here, especially James Mattis, Rex Tillerson and Dan Coats, and (most surprisingly) Jared Kushner. Mr. Trump himself seems just as mean-spirited and impulsive as you thought, but also vaguely lucky in how things turn out—like a drunken driver who manages not to hit anything or anyone despite veering repeatedly onto the wrong side of the road.
Though Mr. Trump has been widely mocked for being so foolish as to be interviewed on tape so many times* for this book, the jury remains out on the political wisdom of that decision.
The book is not just about Mr. Trump. Because of the emphasis on personal interviews, Woodward is a major character in the book and often seems to be trying to persuade Mr. Trump to change his mind on points of policy or character. We learn nearly as much about Woodward’s clever technique as Mr. Trump’s rambling responses. Though Woodward writes of the April 5, 2020 interview “We were speaking past each other, almost from different universes,” , they seem to be very much from the same universe to me—the universe of accomplished men whose success has blinded them to the fundamental contingency of their lives.
Woodward bluntly writes
When his performance as president is taken in its entirety, I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job.
 Nevertheless, the portrait Woodward draws is strangely compelling.
*Woodward lists nineteen interviews, eighteen dated in the last ten months: 03/31/2016; 12/05/2019; 12/13/2019; 12/30/2019; 01/20/2020; 01/22/2020; 02/07/2020; 02/19/2020; 03/19/2020; 03/28/2020; 04/05/2020; 04/13/2020; 05/06/2020; 05/22/2020;06/03/2020; 06/19/2020; 06/22/2020; 07/08/2020; and 07/21/2020. 
My review of Alan Jacob’s Breaking Bread with the Dead (Penguin Press, 2020) is online at Englewood Review of Books and is reproduced below:
Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead:
A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind
(Penguin Press, 2020).
To read with intelligent charity.
Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading:
The Hermeneutics of Love (2001).
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.
C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,”
God in the Dock 217 (2014).
As a society we are reconsidering our relationship to the past.
We wonder whether statues, schools and flags should be removed, renamed or redesigned because of their association with causes, people and history which we now find evil, embarrassing or repugnant. We wonder about the past.
It is always terribly hard to be sure exactly what happened, but it is easy to collect opinions.
Dieu a établi la prière pour communiquer
à ses ceatures la dignité de la causalité.
The Bible says Sennacherib’s campaign was foiled
By angels: in Herodotus it says, by mice—
Innumerably nibbling all one night they toiled
To eat away his bowstrings as warm wind eats ice.
But muscular archangels, I suggest, employed
Seven little jaws to labour at each slender string,
And by their aid, weak masters though they be, destroyed
The smiling-lipped Assyrian, cruel bearded king.
No stranger that omnipotence should choose to need
Small helps than great—no stranger if His action lingers
Till men have prayed, and suffers their weak prayers indeed
To move as very muscles in his delaying fingers,
Who, in His longanimity and love for our
Small dignities, enfeebles, for a time, His power.
C.S. Lewis, “Sonnet” (Oxford Magazine, May 14, 1936) [link]
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!
And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.
And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!
Lord Byron, “The Destruction of Sennacherib” [link].
The next king was the priest of Hephaestus whose name was Sethos. He despised and had no regard for the warrior Egyptians, thinking he would never need them; besides otherwise dishonoring them, he took away the chosen lands which had been given to them, twelve fields to each man, in the reign of former kings. So when presently king Sanacharib came against Egypt, with a great force of Arabians and Assyrians, the warrior Egyptians would not march against him.
The priest, in this quandary, went into the temple shrine and there before the god’s image bitterly lamented over what he expected to suffer. Sleep came on him while he was lamenting, and it seemed to him the god stood over him and told him to take heart, that he would come to no harm encountering the power of Arabia: “I shall send you champions,” said the god.
So he trusted the vision, and together with those Egyptians who would follow him camped at Pelusium, where the road comes into Egypt; and none of the warriors would go with him, but only merchants and craftsmen and traders. Their enemies came there, too, and during the night were overrun by a horde of field mice that gnawed quivers and bows and the handles of shields, with the result that many were killed fleeing unarmed the next day.
And to this day a stone statue of the Egyptian king stands in Hephaestus’ temple, with a mouse in his hand, and an inscription to this effect:
“Look at me, and believe.”
Herodotus, Histories, II, 141, 1-6 (tr. A.D. Godley) [link].
[The Lord says] “I will shield this city [Jerusalem] and rescue it for the sake of my reputation and because of my promise to David my servant.” That very night the Lord’s messenger went out and killed 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp. When they got up early the next morning, there were all the corpses. So King Sennacherib of Assyria broke camp and went on his way. He went home and stayed in Nineveh.
2 Kings 19:34-36
This is a good time for respectful, thoughtful, listening. It is probably worth seeking out voices which relate experiences and opinions which are a little foreign to us. (It is probably a good time for holding back on dramatic and absolute political conclusions, but that is another post.)
Appropriately for Father’s Day, Aaron Jones, “Two Fathers,” The Player’s Tribune (June 19, 2020) [link] is reflecting on his father and his fatherhood as he holds his two-month-old son:
My dad told me then (and many times after) that life isn’t fair, and that an African-American man has to work a little bit harder — and be a little bit nicer — in order to be treated like he should be treated all the time, like a normal human being.
It’s time for a change. You’re living life as a little boy, and you see things, and then you start to grow up, and then you have your own child, and you’re like, Hold on. I see why my dad was having these conversations with me. I see why he had a fear like that could be me one day, and he might get old without a son, or my son could grow up without a father.
Jones is properly and appropriately seeing the the events of the day in the context of what his son will see a dozen years from now.
The Players Tribune has been focusing on statements of black athletes recently, and if you follow sports you may well find that these stories of people you sort of “know” are useful in broadening your experience. Yesterday’s piece by Kevin-Prince Boateng, “To My White Brothers and Sisters” is also worth your time [link].
Making the obvious (but important) point that the slogans don’t always communicate the same way to different people, Nathaniel Rakich, “How Americans Feel About ‘Defund the Police,'” FiveThirtyEight (June 19, 2020) [link]:
“Defund the police.” In the last several weeks, this slogan has entered the mainstream amid nationwide protests against police violence.
However, there’s some disagreement about what exactly the slogan means. Some activists actually do want to disband police departments entirely, while others argue that police budgets should be radically decreased, but not brought down to zero. But even among those who want to abolish the police, some say they want to do so over time.
But while the slogan is suddenly everywhere, so far it doesn’t poll well. Four polls conducted in the past two weeks found that Americans opposed the “defund the police” movement or “defunding police departments” 58 percent to 31 percent, on average.
In FiveThirtyEight world, these initial statements are supported and explored with polling data.
And from Tony Evans’ 2015 book Oneness Embraced 17-18:
While this tension can also be seen in many other ways, either through swastikas painted on synagogues or Hispanics marching against the concern of racial profiling and the passage of immigration legislation, it is the black/white relationship that has set the bar of racial division the highest. Given the length and volatile history of this divide, if we can ever get this right, we will have developed a template for addressing wherever else this evil shows up in the culture. The church will have established a model on how to biblically address issues such as those found in the current tension arising out of the influx of both legal and illegal immigrants to America, among other things. The church will have put forth biblical and theological answers that have pragmatic manifestations above and beyond mere social and political dialogue about the situation.
Alan Jacobs, again, with a nicely captured piece of worldly wisdom completely at odds with orthodox Christian belief:
“[M]etaphysical capitalism”: I am a commodity owned solely by myself; I may do with this property whatever I want and call it whatever I want; any suggestion that my rights over myself are limited in any way I regard as an intolerable tyranny. I am what I say I am. I am my own. As a Christian I do not and cannot believe this. My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.
“last word on critical theory,” Snakes and Ladders (June 17, 2020) [link]. There’s more here, and you can follow Jacob’s interior links, but this is an immediately important concept that is relevant in many political, social and personal contexts. “You are not your own.” 1 Cor. 6:19-20. Let us strive to live as Christ’s δουλοι.
Stephen L. Carter, “Are the George Floyd Protests Different?” Bloomberg News (June 4, 2020) [link]”
Is it different this time? That’s the question on so many lips as furious protesters march through streets all across the U.S. and major cities impose curfews. We ask because we’ve seen this movie before — explosions of activism that seem for an instant to herald a tectonic shift in the nation’s self-understanding, only to turn out to be the distant fading trumpets of a movement in retreat.
But what if this is an actual uprising? A revolution? Not in the silly way the words are sometimes used, as synonyms for “really big demonstrations” — but an actual uprising, the sort of thing that over history has toppled regimes?
That’s the question, but you need to read the entire piece to see what Mr. Carter thinks.
W.H. Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book, 87 (1970), quoted in Ian Sansom, September 1, 1939: Biography of a Poem 224 (2019)*:
By all means let a poet, if he wants to, write engagé poems, protesting against this or that political evil or social injustice. But let him remember this. The only person who will benefit from them is himself; they will enhance his literary reputation among those who feel as he does. The evil or injustice, however, will remain exactly what it would have been if he had kept his mouth shut.
Matters aren’t solved by words, spoken or written, it is true; but matters are not normally solved by silence, either.
Andrew Peterson gave the (virtual?) commencement address at his daughter’s (virtual?) graduation. “The Certainty of Time in Uncertain Times,” The Rabbit Room (June 8, 2020) [link]:
Six months ago things (for me, at least) were kind of chugging along, and no one had ever heard of COVID-19. But in a flash, everything changed. Now our history has a new dividing line: before Coronavirus and after Coronavirus, kind of like 9/11. I used to have a pretty good idea what was coming, but now I haven’t a clue, from one day to the next. I watch the news with a desperate hope that they’ll tell us this pandemic is going to be over in a week, that systemic racism is finally banished from our hearts and our nation, that the world, at last, is at peace. I long for it. Everything feels so crazy that I just want to make some soup and get a blankie and let John Krasinski to tell me some good news.
But to say that these times are uncertain implies that the time before was certain. Graduates, these times aren’t any less certain than a year ago or 100 or 1,000 years ago. The times have always been uncertain.
This is, of course reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ “Learning in War-Time,” from The Weight of Glory (1949) (“The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”).
Adrian Brandon has done a series of portraits in which the subject is sketched in pencil, but the portrait is only partially finished in color:
This series is dedicated to the many black people that were robbed of their lives at the hands of the police. In addition to using markers and pencil, I use time as a medium to define how long each portrait is colored in. 1 year of life = 1 minute of color. Tamir Rice was 12 when he was murdered, so I colored his portrait for 12 minutes. . . .
“Stolen,” adrianbrandon.com [link]. The artist helps us see these subjects as lives cut short. (The short video of the coloring of Marzues Scott is fascinating as an art lesson as well.)
Gary Sheffield describes two encounters with the police in “Do You Believe Me Now?” The Player’s Tribune (June 12, 2020) [link]. It is important, I think, for us to hear these stories from people we know personally, but many of us we “know” and have “relationships with” athletes and actors whom we have followed for years. Their experiences are worth listening to, and are all too consistent with what we hear from our friends. Sheffield writes:
The unfortunate reality is that my stories aren’t unique. They’re not special or extraordinary, and neither am I. What happened to George Floyd could have easily — and far too often — happened to me or others.
What has made George Floyd’s death a defining moment in this country — what distinguishes it from countless others who were murdered and remain anonymous — was that this otherwise desensitized country actually saw it happen.
Listen, weep, wait to respond.
It has been a while, but these links from the last week are worth your time:
A brief reflection on crowd-sourcing our attention spans—Alan Jacobs, “not so much,” Snakes and Ladders (June 7, 2020) [link]:
Human beings have overwhelmingly powerful cravings for novelty and unanimity. We want new problems to face, because we’re tired of the old ones: they bore us, and remind us of our failures to solve them. And, especially in times of stress, we crave environments in which dissent is silenced and even mere difference is erased. We call that “solidarity,” but it‘s more like an instinctual bullying. You must attend to the thing I am attending to. I despise both of those tendencies.
A sobering comment on how evenhanded uncertainty can be sacrificed on the altar of tribalism—Yuval Levin, “Tribalism comes for Pandemic Science,” American Enterprise Institute (June 5, 2020) [link]:
The virus has demanded a lot from our country, and Americans have been willing to make great sacrifices to address it. But to defeat it, we will also need to be willing to temper our powerful inclination to polarize and tribalize, and we will need to demand more of political leaders, of public health experts, and of ourselves. Success in the coming months depends on our ability to build up habits of humility — and those would serve us well far beyond this crisis too.
A powerful spoken poem about unresolved racial violence—Propaganda, “Again,” The Rabbit Room (June 1, 2020) [link]:
Las night another black man was murdered . . . . again . . . .
Christopher Beha, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts (Tin House Books 2020).
The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is the total number of hits batsmen, wild pitches, balks and errors by a pitcher, per nine innings.
Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2003).
Baseball, math, crime, and faith in New York City! What could go wrong? Beha follows his two earlier novels with a beautifully written narrative about a wealthy family and those who intersect their lives.
Frank Doyle is a baseball writer turned political columnist turned pariah whose career may be jump started by a magazine profile written by Sam Waxworth, wunderkind baseball statistician turned political prognosticator turned writer about all things that succumb to numerical analysis. Frank’s wife, Kit, is on the back end of a lucrative career in investment banking. Their adult children (Eddie and Margot) are largely directionless, but in interesting ways. Eddie has wandered into and out of the military, Margot has wandered into and out of graduate school in poetry. There is a rich collection of secondary characters who alternately stress and soothe the Doyles and Waxworth.
Beha’s characters have to deal with the central question of the novel: “What would you change if you knew it was all going to end?” For some of them the question is prospective—”What choices do I have going forward?” For some of them the question is retrospective—”What can I change about the choices I have made in the past?”
For all, like pitchers, they grapple with their tendency to self-destructive acts.
Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020).*
No one ever thinks they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven 106 (2014).
Emily St. John Mandel made our wait pay off, as she has matched her brilliant 2014 fourth novel with an equally brilliant 2020 followup. Although The Glass Hotel is superficially different than the post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, the two novels clearly come from the same pen.
Mandel again weaves chronology and biography to form a pattern which does not become quite distinct until the last pages. This time the fragile narrative winds through the lives of at least ten major and perhaps another thirty minor characters, but with fewer chronological jump-shifts. (Two characters even reappear from Station Eleven, though the two novels cannot quite share the same timeline.) These characters range from the owner and employees of the Hotel Caiette; to the staff and executives of a Wall Street investment company; to the executives and crew of a shipping concern. There are more than a few musicians, artists and addicts.
No spoilers, here, but the many characters glide into and out of “the kingdom of money,” in which the subjects carry themselves with “with the tedious confidence of all people with money, the breezy assumption that no serious harm could come” to them. P. 44. In the kingdom of money, it becomes all too possible for the servants to become invisible. (“[F]or him coffee appearing out of thin air was so commonplace an occurrence it didn’t merit acknowledgement.” P. 70.)
But for Vincent no one ever becomes invisible, and she enters and exits the kingdom with a high degree of intentionality and clarity, even when her decisions may later prove wrong. At one point she thinks I’m paying a price for this life, . . . but the price is reasonable. P. 65. She may have miscalculated, but she was not naïve.
Other characters are not so self-aware, and Mandel describes their predicaments with her typical crystalline prose:
A revelation earned only in hindsight: beauty can have a corrosive effect on character. It is possible to coast for some years on no more than a few polished lines and a dazzling smile, and those years are formative. (p. 95)
It’s possible to both know and not know something,” he said later [and] he spoke for several of us, actually, several who’d been thinking a great deal about that doubleness, that knowing and not knowing, being honorable and not being honorable, knowing you’re not a good person but trying to be a good person regardless around the margins of the bad. (p. 168).
“If we are to be honest with ourselves,” [he] said, “who among us has never made a mistake?” But this was an error, [she] saw that immediately. . . . Could [he] see the error, too? Impossible to tell. . . . He’d made a mistake but he pressed on with the story, like a boy following a dwindling trail into the woods at nightfall. . . . (pp. 216-17)
Mandel’s characters don’t always live in reality, or they flinch from reality’s glare, and so delude themselves to survive.
This is not a perfect book, and Mandel, a Canadian, stumbles over some minor technical American legal points (FBI investigators are “agents” not “detectives”; the attorneys in the trial she describes would have been federal, not state prosecutors), but her sense of the relevant psychology is perfectly lucid—the lines crossed are evident to her characters only on reflection:
He left the office in a daze, but by the time he reached the corner, he realized he couldn’t pretend to be shocked, . . . , because he was already complicit, he was already on the inside, and had been for some time. “You already knew this.,” he heard himself murmuring, speaking aloud. “There are no surprises here. You know what you are.” (p. 192)
Mandel, like Vincent, plays with light and shadows, creating a precise recording of necessarily imprecise subjects—victims who are perpetrators, innocents who choose guilty actions, insightful people who are blind. In the end, the ghosts are all real, but the dreams are nothing but delusions.
*This review originally appeared online in The Englewood Review of Books [link].