Wednesday, July 23, 2014

At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968

The final years of the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were years of almost, of in-between. Take what the mass of America knows about Dr. King, about the timeline of his life, and it likely reads from the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56), to varying civil rights protests across the South, perhaps in Selma, Alabama, St. Augustine, Florida, and Albany, Georgia, and then on to 1963 with his Letter from a Birmingham Jail and the March on Washington. History in the American consciousness tends to marginalize King after his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Rather, the assassination of President Kennedy, followed by President Johnson's Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation, and then the slow unfurling of the Vietnam War, often overshadow King's final years of witness to the transformative power of nonviolence. In a society so riven by, and focused upon violence, both at home and abroad, King's steadfast devotion to nonviolence struck many as antiquated, adequate for the initial stages of protest for rights, but unable to secure the true place of equal citizenship for black Americans. While white America might imagine that legislation in the 1960s put an end to the Civil Rights Movement, that the fierce urgency of the moment became subsumed to the clear advancement of blacks and other minority groups, this gloss ignores the continued, illegal, segregation in the North and South, and efforts and yearnings of Dr. King and other civil rights advocates well into the late 1960s (and beyond).

For it was after the early successes of civil rights that the issues and messages of the time become more difficult to understand. To most modern Americans, denying people the right to public services and accommodations, to the right to vote, to sit where they want to on buses,  to swim in the local swimming pool, seem like the absurdities of a bygone day. These are tangible, measurable, visible disparities between two Americas that can be pointed to and commented upon through the most cursory of glances; inequalities fit for a grade school lesson. Yet the Civil Rights Movement did not end with the Voting Rights Act, nor with the death of Dr. King and the slow undoing of Resurrection City in the Washington D.C. summer rains of 1968. Taylor Branch's final installment of his three part history of the Civil Rights Movement traces the last years of Kings life, after the limited success of voting rights and first official steps in Washington, the South, and some northern cities. Kings final years - when he maintained a firm commitment to equal rights, while broadening that concept to encompass not just the ballot and the bus, but the right of each person for self-determination, freedom from economic fear, and violent repression - these are years less easy to recount. King propounded a broader critique of American society, not only as unchristian, but as unworthy of the country's founding principles. These principles, he believed, must encompass not simply the positive freedoms of property and suffrage, but also include freedoms from the unexplored, darker side of the public sphere. Freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom from violence. These freedoms are at once more illusory and, for so many Americans, more embedded in the root of living an American life. King sought out these roots, to grab them where they were most deeply nurtured and rip out the foundations of injustice that so many of us take for granted.

Taylor Branch's final volume is surely the most difficult to absorb and appreciate for its contemporary relevance. The birth of the Civil Rights Movement and its early victories are, in a sense, an easier story to tell. Such stories relate a history of an awakened consciousness, of battles won and lost, of people who stood for and stood against the overlooked among us. Between peaceful protests and violent actions, freedom and oppression contested, hopes and fears - from both sides of the fence - faced-off and a narrative emerges. The final years of Dr. King's life are more difficult to grasp because the very contradictions he faced are many of the contradictions and shortcomings present still. The Civil Rights Movement as recounted in grade school history has a tidy narrative arc, with certain lessons about the past. More difficult by far are the latter years of the movement, or the beginnings of another phase and struggle, a battle which is still being joined today. Those latter years remain embodied in the American present. Though King's life was cut short by an assassin's bullet, we cannot forget that the lessons of his final years are of vast importance for us all. King sought to address the foundations of inequality in America, and bring to light the struggle which characterizes the lives of so many. This is a more difficult story to tell because it remains a story still enacted. King's struggle remains our own.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Thucydides and the Science of History - Charles Norris Cochrane

The notion that there could be a scientific study of any phenomena rests upon two primary underlying assumptions: that a relationship of unity and diversity occurs within existence, and that this relationship can, at diverse times, be understood by the human interpretive element. The Greeks of Classical Athens began the first comprehensive attempt to understand the relationship between unity and diversity in a manner that we might recognize, at the very least, as proto-scientific. While this is most popularly understood as early philosophy and mathematics, many of what we would recognize as the core academic disciplines can be traced to the teachers of Classical Greece, and their animated pursuit of differing pathways of knowledge.

Among these varying disciplinary developments, History, as we would recognize it - being an arena of study which goes beyond chronicling, accounting, or mythology - is usually traced to the writings of Herodotus, the so called "Father of History." Though his recounting of the Greco-Persian War bears the seeds of what has become modern-day history, it would take another generation, and another war, for Thucydides to create what Charles Norris Cochrane calls a truly materialist history. While Herodotus often related the fantastic, amazing, and surely fanciful in his histories of the Greek Mediterranean, he who goes looking for those beasts and gods, divine causes and mythical actors in Thucydides will be truly disappointed. Hoping that his history of the Peloponnesian War could be a "possession for all time" Thucydides sought to relate the causes, and fighting of, the war as he understood it to be, so that he could contribute not only to the memory of it, but provide a service to the future. In attempting to develop a kind of political science within his history, Thucydides turned to experience as the only guide for us to understand what has been and what will be. Inasmuch as men and the world contain similarities across time and space, Thucydides' work serves as one of the earliest explorations of human action as the sole evidence for a better understanding of people as people. Not relying upon some first principle, or illusory other realm of explanation makes his work, as Cochrane argues, an attempt at developing a scientific approach to history.

While great historians like Gibbon and Herodotus (or lesser ones like Marx) relied upon principles of recursion, cycles, or recurrent dialectics, to explain historical patterns, Thucydides (and later historians such as Machiavelli) sought the development of theoretics solely in the world of the sensible. That this approach to history requires explicit differentiation may strike many as surprising. Certainly Toynbee ("history is just one damned thing after another") might contest that any other approach constitutes history proper, yet such philosophic or social scientific-inspired history plays a not inconsequential role in the contemporary academic field. This is not to argue that Thucydides, Toynbee, or Machiavelli are value-neutral, far from it. Rather, an explicit acquaintance with the presuppositions which color our histories are as inescapable as those which color all other sciences. While we may not be able to predict and replicate in history as, say, a physicist or mathematician can, post-Darwinian science has broadened our horizon of the sciences. Rather than prediction, explanation becomes more the guiding principle of scientific investigation. Here we are on Thucydides' home-ground, and commonalities across arenas of knowledge can be fruitfully pursued. As conceptions of the sciences broaden, enfolding numerous scales of human experience and expression, the lessons of history and the sciences crosspollinate, to form, in concert, a more complete accounting of the world and the human element within it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

The interweaving of the Joad family's move to California with the transformative agrarian revolution across rural America gives the trials of one, albeit fictional, family a sense of weight and impact. Even created details can convey human experience and the human condition; sometimes little else can. The thrust and impact of Steinbeck's work is deepened as we recognize that his story is simply one among countless others. The toll that the Dust Bowl and industrialization would wreck on the American farmer can, to this day, still only be guessed at. The human cost in lives uprooted, compromised, marginalized, and lost, can never be fully reconciled. It was not so long ago that the prospects of the Joad family were the prospect for hundreds of thousands of Americans - such prospects pervade our world more than we might care to admit.

In creating such a stark and unforgiving portrait of American dispossession, migration, and conflict, the Joads and Preacher Casey have come to transcend the pages to enter a part of the vast American consciousness. Along with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Captain Ahab, Jay Gatsby, Atticus Finch, Sal Paradise, and Hester Prynne, these people invade our thoughts and ourselves. Perhaps they are more accurately termed specters: dogging our foot-steps and receding around the unexplored roadway ahead. More than many captains of industry, politicians, war heroes, or social movements, to some extent these created lives shape the very form of our consciousness. Without mass, without tangible reality themselves, they are at once everywhere and nowhere. Perhaps this is what Casey and Tom meant when they wondered if everybody is just one big soul. How else can we explain the passage, the connection, between the lives of others and ourselves? That these people have been read about and cared for, and that they are still with us today, may prove the greatest evidence yet devised for the existence of common threads across the human experience. This commonality folds time; acquainting us not only with our neighbors, but with our predecessors and descendants. The Dust Bowl and the migration have not ended. Surely they have been transformed into something else, but they persist. Both a possession and foundation for each of us.