Thursday, April 28, 2011

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 - Taylor Branch

Part one of Taylor Branch's three-part magnum opus, Parting the Waters is a dramatic and in-depth retelling of the rise of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. Powerfully written, Branch's work brings the reader both to the front lines and into the back rooms of the years that would become the crucible of the American century. In Washington and globetrotting across the planet are Eisenhower, Robert and John Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon. Yet government, Branch allows us to see, is so much more than elected officials. Here we can hear the story of John Doar, a white country lawyer from Wisconsin, and all that would bring him to Jackson, Mississippi to represent the Justice Department and quell an incipient riot following the assassination of Medgar Evers. Or, Sheriff Laurie Pritchett, who would try to forestall integration for years in Albany, Georgia.

Across the picket lines we see the political baptism of not only the Fred Shuttleworths, Diane Nash Bevels and Ralph Abernathys, but also of hundreds of thousands of nameless black (and white) Americans who would walk, ride, march, sit-in and stand-up to demand equal rights and justice for all Americans, regardless of race. By taking a broad sweep, yet maintaining crucial details, Branch brings to life the struggle and strife, the joys and pains and sometimes the abject horrors of that were an everyday reality for men and women demanding their rights across the south.

And, of course, their is King. At its core the work examines the life and times and rise of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the March on Washington and perhaps the most famous speech ever given by an American. When, as a reader, you reach that day in August 1963, one feels the tension within King and the movement. Because Branch has pulled no punches in his depiction of the strengths and weaknesses, both of the man and the Civil Rights Movement, it is hard to not get swept along with the passion and emotion as he calls out to the "snow-capped Rockies of Colorado" and down to the sweltering injustices of Mississippi. One cannot but feel the bottom fall out as a bullet takes Medgar Ever on the very night that President Kennedy would finally stand up for Civil Rights legislation. And you cannot but be overcome with awe, joy and wonder when Rev. Charles Billups calls out to Bull Connor, "Turn on your hoses. Turn loose your dogs. We will stand here 'til we die!"

Gripping, beautiful and inspiring, Branch's first part makes me all the more excited to continue the journey, even if we know that it will end most unceremoniously one April day in Memphis.

The Natural Contract - Michel Serres

French philosopher of technology Michel Serres examines how humans have become a global force on the level of the ice caps or the atmosphere. Serres writes that this "equipotency" demands that our moral world now extend beyond the social sphere to the world of things. Given our still-evolving relationship to the sciences we exist in a world that is at once more known to us and more widely understood to possibly be contrary, because of our doing, to the continuance of the human prospect. With this in mind, what are the steps to take to re-imagine a relationship to the natural world that is not premised upon "mastery and possession?" By retracing the manner in which the social sphere has come together and is premised around contestations of law and knowledge, and the differing legacies antecedent to modernity, The Natural Contract is a short volume focusing on redrawing a world in which non-humans have a voice.
For Serres, this future is one that must be understood in the light of our relationships to reason and its extension, scientific knowledge. Of primary concern is the development of an objective morality in which the natural sciences claim total authority to speak within the realms of rights and morals. Tracing the historical relationships between emergent knowledges and civil society, Serres tells us that a tension between orthodoxy (law) and heterodoxy (novel knowledge) has and always will be a realm of judgment. This is a crucial notion because it allows us to understand that there is not now, nor can ever be, a complete settled-ness to the manner in which we construct the world. Rather, knowledge and law will continue to ebb and flow in relation to one another. Further, rather than casting these two as incommensurable opposites, Serres explores how reason, which, once again, is the backbone of science, rests on exactly the same foundation as law - that of judgment. When we see these two can operate in concert, a new pathway opens up for human society to explore a future in which judgment (the realm of the social) interacts with the natural world (the realm of knowledge). Clear and very concise, The Natural Contract is highly recommended for anyone who wishes to think more deeply concerning our relationships between one another and the world around us.