by Paul Elie
from Georgetown University

On Child Abuse, Wise Words from Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson

Strange to say, but the Op Ed page is working like a MOOC these days.  Again and again lately, it has been the place where learning finds a point of entry into the news cycle – where philosophy, classical history, and literature are brought to bear on current affairs in a way that feels like wisdom.

Today the wise man is not Brooks, or Douthat, or Krugman, but Michael Eric Dyson, who is University Professor at Georgetown.  Truly, there is something worth learning in every paragraph of his compact essay — prompted by the arrest of Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson — about the role of physical punishment of children in African American culture.

Such as this:

Today, many black parents fear that a loose tongue or flash of temper could get their child killed by a trigger-happy cop. They would rather beat their offspring than bury them.

And this:

Many believers — including Mr. Peterson, a vocal Christian — have confused the correction of children’s behavior with corporal punishment. The word “discipline” comes from the Latin “discipuli,” which means student or disciple, suggesting a teacher-pupil relationship. Punishment comes from the Greek word “poine” and its Latin derivative “poena,” which mean revenge, and form the root words of pain, penalty and penitentiary.

The point of discipline is to transmit values to children. The purpose of punishment is to coerce compliance and secure control, and failing that, to inflict pain as a form of revenge, a realm the Bible says belongs to God alone.

I hadn’t known that Prof. Dyson is an ordained Baptist minister and that his doctorate is in religion.  I – and we – have a lot to learn from him.   

Walter Isaacson Returns to the Group

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Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators is here, and it is good – and it is on the nonfiction longlist for the National Book Awards.

I hope to post several pieces about the book, not least because its theme – the role of collaboration in innovation, and the role of technology in sponsoring such collaboration – runs right through Reinventing Bach.

Today – with the finished book fresh from the mail – I am thinking about its cover.  The bound proofs sported a plain white cover with the title and the author’s name in color against a field of dot-composed letters meant to suggest the early days of computing.  The finished book sports a cover, richly enfoiled, which incorporates photographs of some of the protagonists within a helix of sorts.   

It’s a significant change, and not just because of the foil.  It suggests the act of reinvention that the book spells for Isaacson – and suggests the challenge of representing the act of collaboration in the marketplace.

Isaacson – Jacob Silverman puts it sardonically in a Bookforum essay – is “America’s leading chronicler of Great Men.”  It’s true, but that doesn’t give anything like full credit to the man.  Isaacson learned physics to write Albert Einstein.  He learned about computers and Silicon Valley digital culture to write Steve Jobs.  For the new book, he boned up on the often recondite histories of the complex machines and mathematical operations that led to the personal computing revolution beginning in the late Seventies.

It’s impressive, and the fact of it conceals something else he has learned, or learned again: namely, the art of group portraiture.  Since he wrote The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made with Evan Thomas in the mid-Eighties, a vast – and innovative – body of group portraiture has emerged: R.W.B. Lewis’s The James Family and Rachel Cohen’s A Chance Meeting in literature, Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club in philosophy, David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street and my Bach book in music, and Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men and Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder in science.  In my view, this literature has been to biography what the iPod was to digital music: a game-changer.  It suggests that group portraiture is the way forward for the biographically inclined.  

It seems natural and necessary that Isaacson should tell the story of “the innovators” as one story.  (But if it was so natural, why didn’t anybody do it before him?)  And Isaacson’s return to group portraiture also suggests just how consequential the rise of group portraiture has been.  For many subjects, the group portrait is now the default option.  

It’s also significant because group portraits are generally harder to publish – harder to sell, that is – than straight biographies.  And that’s because our expectations for biography, like our expectations for innovation, have primed us to look to great individuals, rather than groups or people joined by what Edmund Wilson, quoting Melville, characterized as “the shock of recognition” that “runs the whole circle round.”  

Here’s hoping that, in the way of innovation, Isaacson’s group portrait calls forth others.   

ISIS: No Time Like Time Present

A friend of mine, never a football fan, started following the New York Jets at age thirty-five.  His wife was baffled, and concerned: “That’s like taking up smoking at thirty-five,” she told him.

Well, at age forty-nine years and one week I’ve decided to start following ISIS.

No, I’m not becoming a radical Islamist, not throwing off the School of the Holy Ghost for the Islamic Brotherhood.  What I mean is that I am going to follow the war – if that’s what it is – against ISIS.  And that’s because I realize – feeling baffled, and concerned – that I’ve made it this far into adulthood without following, really following, any of the wars we’ve been involved in, and it doesn’t feel right.

The feeling that you are missing your own time may be an occupational hazard if you are a writer whose work is rooted, as mine is, in your sense of the strong press of the past on the present.

Whatever the reason, I’ve felt that missing-things feeling strongly these past few months.  Philip Seymour Hoffman: saw him onstage in True West, and in a few movies; saw him taking a late lunch at Union Square Cafe – but most of those forty-odd movies he made since we both left upstate New York in the mid-Eighties are still awaiting my attention on Netflix.  Robin Williams: weathered the Mork & Mindy craze in seventh grade, liked Good Morning Vietnam well enough, stayed up late with my father to watch Williams let it rip on The Tonight Show – but he was dead by his own hand without my recognizing him as a key figure of our time.

The Gulf War?  Saw Peter Arnett on CNN, but I was busy writing a graduate thesis.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after the World Trade Center was destroyed?  Finishing a book, raising young children, educating myself in Islam by reading Naipaul and Rushdie and other writers of the generation prior – reading twenty-year-old books of literary journalism like Naipaul’s Among the Believers for the first time.

Now the war on ISIS is upon us.  David Brooks, in a column characterizing Barack Obama – approvingly – as “The Reluctant Leader,” proposed pretty convincingly that the decision to act against ISIS is “the sternest test of Obama’s leadership skills since the early crises of his presidency.”

In other words, it’s an episode that I am likely to read about in a well-wrought book of armchair history found under the Christmas tree when I’m sixty-four.   So why not read about it, and understand it, now?  

It’s simplistic to think that the our age is more present-oriented than past ages were.  The recent past suggests otherwise.  Evelyn Waugh wrote a novel about the run-up to World War II while on leave during the war itself, and the novel was published, buffed to a high sheen, in 1946.  It was Brideshead Revisited.  George Orwell, a few months later, put together a novel about grim postwar culture.  It was 1948; he transposed the last two digits of the date and called the novel Nineteen Eighty-four.

That’s why I’ve decided to start following ISIS: It’s time to try to understand the present from the point of view of the present — for once.   

Ted Cruz, Heal Thyself

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In the latest of a string of strong Times columns Ross Douthat gives three reasons why “The Middle East’s Friendless Christians” are friendless.

One, American liberals think of Christianity as a tool of white male hegemony, not as a persecuted religion.  (One-point-five: Islam-vs.-Christianity is generally overshadowed by Islam-vs.-Israel.)  Two, Christians in the Middle East are scattered geographically, and there is no strategic imperative for their survival.  Three, the Christian right in the U.S., when forced to choose between support for Israel and support for Christians who often differ with Israel, invariably chooses Israel.

I think there is a fourth reason, just as important – and pertinent for our understanding of religion in America, too.

It’s this: As many of the people who consider themselves the arbiters of authentic Christianity in America reckon such things, many of the Christians of the Middle East aren’t authentic Christians.

It’s always hazardous to generalize, but in Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere, to be a Christian is to belong to a social group with a culture that has endured for nearly two thousand years. Christian affiliation is akin to family or clan affiliation; it involves property, where one lives, what languages one speaks, whom one considers for marriage, and how one has been distinguished historically from people of other social groups.  And being a Christian in the Middle East means making political accommodation with people (the Assads in Syria, for example) whose sense of the world doesn’t make anything like a neat match with yours.   

It takes nothing away from the heroically steadfast Christians of the Middle East to say that in many respects their Christianity is what conservative Protestants and theocon Catholics have long disdained as “cultural Christianity.” And it shouldn’t surprise us that culture warriors who hammer home the point that Christian belief must finally be understood as nothing more or less than a personal decision for Christ made afresh by each individual in every generation, and that a person whose belief is largely cultural is no believer at all – it shouldn’t be any surprise that those culture warriors won’t go to war for people that wouldn’t pass muster in their own salvation armies.

Georgetown’s Tom Farr and Tim Shah – colleagues of mine at the Berkley Center – are among those who are tirelessly making the case for those people without losing sight of the subtleties on both sides.  Here are Tom’s notes toward "a wise and effective U.S. International Religious Freedom policy," delivered before Sub-Committees of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs last week. 

So are the friends of the Community of Sant’Egidio, who have been active in Syria of late.  

And so was Pope Francis, in his way, when he witnessed the marriages of twenty couples in Rome yesterday.  In marrying at least one couple who had lived together and raised a child “out of wedlock” (as the culture warriors still put it), he recognized that Italy’s much-derided cultural Christianity is still real and worth engaging with.   

The photograph shows a church in Aleppo after the bombs hit.  

Our Kind of Spirituals, No. 50: Matt Haimovitz, “The Star-Spangled Banner” 

Two hundred years ago – September 14, 2014 — Francis Scott Key composed “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” the song we now know as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Eighty-three years ago, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was declared the national anthem.

Forty-five years ago, Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner” with a Stratocaster and a wall of Marshall amplifiers during the Festival of Peace & Music near Woodstock, New York.

Twelve years ago, the cellist Matt Haimovitz played “The Star-Spangled Banner” – Jimi Hendrix’s version – live at CBGB.  The story is told in Reinventing Bach. Haimovitz studied with Yo-Yo Ma, enrolled at Harvard, and then dropped out of college and the classical-music recital circuit at once. The gig at CBGB – in October 2002 – was just one gig in a tour of nightclubs, cafes and restaurants in support of a self-financed CD. He played three of Bach’s cello suites, a recent piece by a living composer, and a four-string acoustic reduction of the Hendrix anthem from Woodstock — rendering feedback, string bends, dive-bomb runs, and discordura, and interpolating a few bars of “Taps.”  The Wall Street Journal's critic griped that he couldn't hear the cello over the clinking bottles.

Three years ago, Haimovitz played the Hendrixian “Star-Spangled Banner” at Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street

O say, can you hear …

Pro Bono Football

Spousal abuse, physical abuse of children, head injuries beyond numbering, ubiquitous brain damage: Has there ever been a worse week for football?  

No, there hasn’t been.   So there has never been a better weekend to read extraordinary writing about football.

How about this pocket history of the penalty flag:

The younger of my father’s two brothers had the same names I have, first and last. He was my Uncle Jack. He was executive secretary of the Youngstown Y and later sold industrial lubricants to the steel industry, but on weekends he was a football official. It was Uncle Jack who threw the first flag in big-time football. Ordinarily a field judge or head linesman, he was in this instance refereeing a game at Ohio State. Officials used to carry wee horns strapped to their wrists. On observing an infraction—anywhere on the scale from offside to unnecessary roughness—they blew the horns, and that was their penalty signal for more than fifty years. Uncle Jack had been there, blown that, and in Ohio Stadium he had experienced louder, more continuous dins than he ever would in any steel plant. Much of the time, no one on the field could hear the wee horns. At the suggestion of his friend Dwight Beede, the coach of Youngstown College, Uncle Jack took a red-and-white bandanna to Columbus and, instead of blowing the horn, whipped the bandanna out of his pocket and dropped it on the ground. The idea had arisen here and there across the years, but now its time had come. John Griffith, the conference commissioner, instructed all Big Ten officials to show up at all Big Ten games with flags in their pockets the following week.

That’s John McPhee, from “Phi Beta Football,” his composition (as he calls them) about his enchantment with football in his student days – the latest piece of his personal history.  Amazing that this writer who has written about other people’s lives for fifty years with great amplitude and sympathy also has a personal story rich enough to include a century-long engagement with football:

My father played football at Oberlin, class of 1917, notably in a game won by Ohio State 128–0.”

Rocky Bleier’s Fighting Back arrived the other day, and it’s as good as I remembered.  What I hadn’t remembered is the Catholic dimension of the book, which is as real and true and tough as the book’s treatment of football and the war in Vietnam and the agonies of rehabilitation.  Here is Rocky, struck and wounded in both legs on August 20, 1969, raising a battlefield prayer to the God he grew up to worship at Xavier High School in Appleton, Wisconsin, and the University of Notre Dame:

Dear Lord, get me out of here, if You can.  I’m not going to bullshit You.  I’d like to say that if You get me out of here alive and okay, I’ll dedicate my life to you and become a priest.  I can’t do that, because I know that’s not what I’ll do …

What I will do is this: I’ll give you my life … to do with whatever You will.  Here it is.  I’m not going to complain if things go wrong.  If things go good, I’ll share my success with everybody around me.  Here it is …

I wonder whether John McPhee has read Fighting Back.  And I wonder whether the twenty years we Catholics have spent dealing with sexual abuse by priests and cover-up  by the church leadership can provide any insight to the NFL as it tries to deal with abuse of many kinds. 

9/12 Memorial

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Surveys say religious practices are getting more informal, and my guess is that our habits of memorializing are getting more informal too.

I know mine are.  Yesterday, for example, the official 9/11 memorial events taking place in New York and Washington seemed a million miles from the Brooklyn workspace I was sitting in – and seemed, to me, a million miles from the patch of earth and the slice of time where more than 3000 people died as the World Trade Center was destroyed.

But less formal memorials narrowed the gap.  Without any hullabaloo WQXR’s Q2 channel streamed Steve Reich’s piece WTC 9/11 – so that I happened onto it and grew absorbed, disquieted, stimulated – and was brought back through memory to that patch of earth and slice of time as I answered email and wrote the piece about fantasy literature for this site.

Then last night, I was parking the car on a quiet street of brownstones in Fort Greene, and there in the sky was the vertical double band of light that is the aptest and most cherished 9/11 memorial — so distinct that I thought to rush home and bring our children down to the street to see it.

And then the ten o’clock local television news, banal as it was in its recitation of memorial pageantry, brought back those days in September 2001 when for all sorts of reasons local news was the most constant source of information about the disaster that had happened all around us.

Was happening all around us. This is why the informal memorials feel more apt than the formal ones: because for so many of us, and perhaps especially for those of us who were in New York City in those days, what we call “9/11” didn’t happen on the morning of Tuesday, September 11.  It happened — as it happens in David Friend’s extraordinary book — for a week or more.   It happened that night, when the air filled with acrid toxins; the next morning, when handmade signs seeking news of the missing went up; the next night, when the sun set on a city still lit up by searchlights and sirens; that Friday morning, when rain drenched the city, brutally stripping the faces of the lost from phone booths and light poles once and for all; that Sunday evening, when radio stations like WNYC first sought to turn away from live coverage of the attacks and toward arts programs – programs that were, it turned out, the first memorials.

I hope that vertical double band of light is in the sky again tonight.   

Heads on Poles

In the departures area of O.A. Tambo airport in Johannesburg after several weeks in South Africa, I caught up with the Times via smartphone in anticipation of our return – and felt I was returning not so much to New York or the U.S. of A. as to the United Kingdom of Fantasy.

Fantasy literature (don’t need to tell you this) is everywhere just now, and there it was in two bracing books pieces.  James Parker, answering the question of which book begs to be made into a movie, proposed Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, on the grounds that the book – sung-spoken in “futuristic-backward pig-iron English, blasted into poetic-phonetic lumps by the nuclear catastrophe that took place 2,000 years before” – ticks all the boxes Hollywood executives like to see ticked before they green-light a movie:

… Campfire smell, wet canvas, bows and arrows, heads on poles; a hero like a stoned and bardic Holden Caulfield; a fast-moving story that has Riddley “roading” all over rainy, smoky England in the company of a sacred mutant and a pack of wild dogs. What’s not to film?

Meanwhile, Lev Grossman, whose third book in the Magicians trilogy was just hitting the bestseller list, explained his 40-something turn toward fantasy and away from literary fiction:

When I was a kid, fantasy felt like a marginal thing, a subculture, but now it was everywhere: the “Harry Potter” books, the “Lord of the Rings” movies, the “His Dark Materials” trilogy, “Eragon,” “Twilight,” and on and on. People craved it. We — as a whole, as a culture — seemed to be getting more interested in the kinds of questions fantasy deals with: questions about history, and about our connection to the natural world, and about power, how to find it in yourself, how to master it, what to do with it.

“Fantasy wasn’t just growing, it was changing, too …” he explained, and as he read deeply in recent fantasy literature he realized that he too was changing.

I was starting to realize what on some level I must have known all along: Fantasy was offering me something I needed, something I couldn’t get anywhere else, not even from literary fiction. That’s when I stopped reading fantasy and started writing it.

Well, The Magician’s Land didn’t just hit the list: it topped the list, going to number one.  Grossman, by his own account, has found his voice and his calling, and the immediate popular acclaim for his trilogy (and several thousand customer reviews on Amazon) is evidence difficult to refute.   

But why is fantasy literature seemingly everywhere just now?  Grossman (in Rolling Stone) has a theory.  So do A.O. Scott (in the Times Magazine) and James Wood (in The New Yorker).  So do I – and our grand world-theories about fantasy literature will the subject of my next post.



This Is Not a Painting of Chairs

Our society’s model for the museum visit is All You Can Eat: you pay some portion of the exorbitant suggestion admission fee – now $25 at the Metropolitan Museum, I think – and then blast through the rooms, gorging on masterpieces, and wind up in the gift shop feeling stuffed, even sick.

It doesn’t have to happen that way.  With a free hour in Washington the other day, I popped into the Phillips Collection, near Dupont Circle, where admission to the current exhibit is $5 with a university ID and the permanent collection is pay-what-you-wish.

The current exhibit was of American work from the collection.  In an hour, I saw everything – well, everything except the Rothkos, which are hung (displayed is the wrong word, and so is exhibited) in a room where only three people are allowed at one time.  I saw everything – but I looked, really looked, at something like a dozen paintings, and no more. That way, I could hope to see them, really see them.

And I gave full attention to just one painting: Ben Shahn’s Still Music, from 1948.  There’s so much to see in it: the counterpoint between the soft washes of color and the firm line of the drawing; the several lines of horizontal movement (stand shelves, chair seats, chair hinges, stand bases) running over and along the intermittent vertical lines of the stands, like notation running across the bar lines of a piece of music; the tremendous energy of the painting working against the plain truth that the chairs and stands are empty. Here the music, made in this place for a certain passage of time, has gone wherever it is that live music goes.

The philosopher of art Richard Wollheim liked to spend an entire day at the National Gallery in London considering a single painting.  I could have spent a full day with Still Music.

Failing that, I now come up from the Metro at Dupont Circle relishing the knowledge that although the exhibit is over, the Shahn painting is part of the permanent collection — so is still in permanent residence nearby.   

Not to Be Missed: Dennis Ross & Associates on Peace

Is there a book that lays open the inner workings of diplomacy better than Dennis Ross’s The Missing Peace does?  If there is – and I doubt there is – well, Dennis read it and learned from it as he pursued peace in the Middle East and then wrote his wise and comprehensive and deeply affecting book.

I had the privilege of working with Dennis on The Missing Peace while an editor with FSG, and one of the perks of the job was the chance to ask him questions and listen to him speak candidly about events in the Middle East more or less as they were happening.  Now Dennis — officially, Ambassador Ross – is a Georgetown professor (officially, Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy), and this School of Foreign Service event features him speaking in the same candid way with former Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams (himself now a Georgetown professor), in a dialogue moderated by former School of Foreign Service dean and MacArthur foundation chief Robert Gallucci (himself still a Georgetown distinguished professor).  There will be more diplomatic expertise in the room than anywhere in the Middle East – or anywhere in the world, for that matter.

At one point pre-publication, when it was pointed out that The Missing Peace, drawn from the the late-night notes Dennis kept at the end of each day’s negotiations, was likely to be quite a long book, it was suggested that one way to trim the text would be to reduce sharply the sections devoted to “the Syrian track” and to the role of Syria in the puzzle of Middle East peace.  Dennis immediately and strenuously – and fortunately of all of us – objected; and ten years later the importance of Syria is glaringly apparent.  He knew it all along, as he knows so many things.