Remembering Russell Baker

Russell Baker at his Leesburg, Virginia, home in 2012. (Photo by Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

I thought about it more than a couple of times, but I never went to visit him. He lived not too far from me. But I felt his privacy was more important than me wanting a picture with Mr. Baker. By the time I’d come to admire Russell Baker’s work he’d long since been out of the public eye and it had been over a decade or more since Baker published a book. I guess I felt the likely-hood of Baker having fans show up at his door was pretty darn low. In fact, very few people I knew had heard of him. So maybe he’d welcome the reminder that there were still many great admirers of his masterly pen. But still, it didn’t feel right and I wasn’t about to bother him in his retirement.

I discovered the writings of Russell Baker, I’m guessing, about 15 or so years ago. I was reading another book called Clear and Simple as the Truth, written by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner. That book was a fascinating analysis of style in writing and instruction in how you develop a particular style of writing they called Classic Style. It was a style I’d recognized and admired in the writings of authors like Mark Twain and John Keegan.

Thomas and Turner had provided examples of Classic Style in their book, but there weren’t any examples (as I recall) of more recent biographies or autobiographies written in Classic Style. So I emailed Mark Turner and asked him if he would recommend some authors and titles. Turner emailed me back a small list. I don’t recall any of the others on the list, but Russell Baker was one of the names Turner provided. And so I picked up a Copy of Baker’s 1983 pulitzer prize winning memoir Growing Up.

The memoir is a lovely and hauntingly moving story of Baker’s “growing up” years during the Depression era. It’s a story that began to take root in Baker’s mind many years later while he was visiting his dying mother at the hospital. Senility had taken hold of her mind. As he sat looking at this woman who’d made him so much of what he was, he began thinking about the distance between them and about her life and what went into the making of her and him:

Sitting at her bedside, forever out of touch with her, I wondered about my own children, and children in general, and about the disconnections between children and parents that prevent them from knowing each other. Children rarely want to know who their parents were before they were parents, and when age finally stirs their curiosity there is no parent left to tell them.

The above paragraph is underlined in my copy. I’ve had similar thoughts floating around in my mind about my parents over the years, and as a veteran parent myself, I’ve wondered if one day my boys might experience this same curiosity about me and my wife before it’s too late to know. Most children don’t experience this deep curiosity about their parents; not because they don’t care, but more from the fact that life is too busy and the past is, well, past.

But like Baker, I think exploring and understanding the past and where we came from is a form of connecting (or reconnecting) with those people and things and events that shaped us for better or worse. I’m one of those who still stops the car, when back home visiting, to take pictures of the homes I grew up in and some of the other memorable places of my childhood and teenage years. Nostalgia is the rust of memory it’s been said, and I’ve always had a good bit of the rust. I started this blog in partial hope of leaving behind for my kids something of myself beyond what little material things I might pass on, so that one day, maybe, if my kids become interested in their dad’s personal history this blog might be of some help.

“We all come from the past,” Baker wrote, “and children ought to know what it was that went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud.”

Baker wrote a sequel to Growing Up called The Good Times (1989). Baker began his career as a reporter in Baltimore and achieved his fame, and his first pulitzer prize, writing his observer column (1962 – 1998) for the New York Times. He published about a half-a-dozen or so other books…all of which I have a copy of with underlinings throughout.

Russell Baker passed away at his home in Leesburg, Virginia, on January 21st. He was 93.

Should Congress forgo being paid during a government shutdown?

Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla) is co-sponsoring legislation that would make all members of congress forgo their pay checks during a government shutdown. Please note that government shutdowns are now used as a legislative bargaining tool. It seems very irresponsible, reckless, and cruel to me, but that’s where we’re at in this country right now.

On the surface the forgo pay legislation seems like a very fair idea. In theory, this legislation should ensure all members of congress are feeling the same pains and pressures as those government workers not getting paid or those citizens losing services during a government shutdown. In theory that seems very fair. But that’s not how this will work in practice. All members of Congress will not face the same personal effects of not getting paid.

For members of congress like Rick Scott it’s easy to be for this legislation because he’s worth $232 million dollars. He had the ability to use $64 million dollars of his own wealth to get himself elected to a job that pays $172,000 a year. Think about that. So he and his fellow millionaires in congress (a sizable group) don’t need their salary at all. It’s pocket change to them.

But what about those members of congress who do?—who like the vast and overwhelming majority of Americans do need their salary to survive? These members, who’s lives and daily concerns are much closer to the average American’s, without their salary, may start to feel personal pressures about legislation and the need to make concessions that rich members of congress don’t and never will feel. So why should wealthy members of congress, regardless of party, have yet another (among the so many already) method of influence over legislation and legislators that favors wealthy interests? At the national level our government is already a well entrenched business plutocracy. Shouldn’t we be trying to weaken this, not strengthen it?

In the millionaire’s club one doesn’t care about the piddly little salary the government pays you, one cares about power—again, Rick Scott was able to spend $64 million dollars of his own money on his own Senate election and not because he wanted or needed that congressional salary, I can assure you. So why, I ask, should we give an already powerful group another legislative tool of power and influence?

I don’t think we should.

“In that sense, reading history is like expanding your memory further back in time”

…I was not completely fooling myself in believing that history has something to teach us all, even though it is impossible to know at the moment of learning just what that something might be. Self-conscious attempts to teach or preach relevance in history are therefore unnecessary, because the connection between then and now is embedded in the enterprise, fated to emerge in the future in unforeseeable ways. In that sense, reading history is like expanding your memory further back in time, and the more history your learn, the larger the memory bank you can draw on when life takes a turn for which you are otherwise unprepared.

— Joseph J. Ellis, American Dialogue

In Our Scientific Age, Progress is Inevitable even if not Permanent

I have a friend, we’ll call him Sam, who doesn’t care for the term “progress.” It’s odd when you think about it, but in his case it has a lot to do with politics. The term is too close to the term “progressive,” which in Sam’s mind, I suspect, is what describes all that he finds wrong in the world.

Obviously Sam is for progress (the core idea of a progressivism) if it means a better iPhone for him or medication he might need, or some other technological or medical advancement that improves personal utility or happiness. Airplanes are a nice way to travel fast, and vaccines keep Sam from losing half his family to outbreaks of small pox or some other deadly virus. Surely this is “progress” Sam can appreciate?

But this is complicated, I realize. It would be fair to say that those, like Sam, who are against, or uncomfortable with, the term (or idea) of progress are mostly referring to progress on the moral plane, not the technological…or the economical, i.e. getting rich. Because, naturally, we’re not against a concept or idea when it benefits us personally. My dad, a fine father and successful conservative businessman, once told me he was a conservative in every aspect except sex. For that personal policy position, he was “a raging liberal.” But’s it’s hard, if impossible, to separate the natural connection between scientific, economic, and technological progress from its connection to social progress. They go together. It’s a mindset. Something that seems lost on my friend Sam.

With the Age of Enlightenment came the scientific mind—along with an outbreak of the democratic spirit (American and French Revolutions for example) and the idea of human progress in the West. Keep this in mind. The scientific mind is the mind of learning, of analysis, of capturing nature’s power (physical and social) in order to harness it for socially useful ends. The natural state of a scientific mind is agnostic (Greek for “I don’t know”) when it comes to a proposition about understanding (or commenting on) something the scientific mind has not seen valid evidence for. While not perfect, we know that the best knowledge we can have, the most certain, is that derived from scientific experimentation and research. So naturally such a successful frame of mind becomes adopted by people and societies that wish to improve their lives. Because it works!

At the heart of education in Western society is a scientific view of the world. That doesn’t mean science will answer all questions of meaning, it can’t. It does mean, however, that people will feel more empowered by their own observation and experience to question authority in matters across the spectrum of human knowledge…and that naturally includes social matters. And so if you connect the dots, as our scientific knowledge has rapidly advanced in the West, so has social change….or the push for greater social “progress.” As scientific knowledge has advanced rapidly in the modern age, so has the push for social progress. In the West, these two ideas go together…along with our greater living standards, economic wealth, and way of life we cherish. It’s hard to have one, it seems, without encouraging the other.

This resistance to the march of time and the social—progressive—change it brings has much to do with the fear of change and a desire to hang on to the past—the love of old times and ways of doing things and ancestor worship in general. In some ways, those with stiffly conservative minds are certain that our fathers and our Founding Fathers knew better than we—and in some ways they did!

Being a man who knows you can learn a lot from studying history and biography, I can sympathize with this way of thinking. You do learn something very important from history: It’s called wisdom. If you read a lot of history and biography (but most people don’t) you notice general patterns in the march of societies and people’s lives that generally tend to repeat themselves, though not exactly, over and over throughout history and life. Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Well, that nicely sum up what you learn from reading a lot of history: a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement.

So let me say that one of history’s great lessons, one of its central laws, is the inevitability of change. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You can never step in the same river twice.” The river, with its steady flow, is changing constantly. And so it is with the flow of time and human social history. The concept of social progress is indeed a relatively new concept in human history, I’ll give critics of social progress that, but it’s an “inevitable” part of change given the endless flow of time and the yearnings of the human spirit.

I will conclude by saying that while change is inevitable, progress is not. I mean that while progress may come about—and naturally has in America—that doesn’t mean it will continue. History tells us that empires fall and societies collapse. Americans face a serious crisis because of massive levels of inequality and a declining middle-class. It’s not lost on the informed observer of history that the era in-which inequality was at its lowest and the greatest middle-class in the world was created and thriving in America was a period (1945 – 1975) that was largely the result of “progressive era” inspired policies. An era, I remind you, that conservatives are nostalgic about as the good ole days. Funny how short memories are.

The Gifts of Humility

Civilization is weak and precarious, and life, ever stronger and more savage, always comes out on top. Self-assertion is natural, gratifying, erotically charged, whereas self-denial is anything but. Of all the animals, the human variety may be the most difficult to tame. And this is precisely why humility is so important. Through it we can learn how to tolerate ourselves and others, and make ourselves a touch less abominable. For good or ill, it is the best tool we have to tame the beasts that we are.

There is nothing shocking about this. If anything, it is one of the most banal — or should I say humble? — philosophical ideas. From the Buddha to the Sufi masters to Schopenhauer to Bergson and Weil, mystics and philosophers, East and West, have not in essence said anything else. If hearing it again does shock us, it is only because we have, perhaps like never before, become so blindly, erotically entangled in the race of life that we have even forgotten that we have eyes to see.

—Costica Bradatan, The Gifts of Humility