Twain on the Primal Source of Our Government!

mark-twain-1I typically read a couple books at one time. When someone asks, How can you do that?, I always reply, “Well isn’t that what you did in college or high school? Didn’t we have to read multiple books at once?” Sure we did, and I guess the habit (or more accurately, my lack of focus) has stayed with me. Well right now I’m reading both a history book and a book of selected letters of Mark Twain.

Now, if you’ve read this blog you may have detected my affection for Twain. He is, in my view, one of the finest writers this soil has ever produced. His humor and charm hit you solidly between the eyes through that trademark prose.

Last night I read these words in the opening of a letter Mark Twain wrote to Frank Burrough. It brought a good laugh and as always contained a grain, if not a bushel, of truth.

My dear Burrough,

As you describe me I can picture myself as I was 22 years ago. The portrait is correct. You think I have grown some. Upon my word there was room for it. You have described a callow fool, a self sufficient ass, a mere human tumble-bug imagining that he is remodeling the world and is entirely capable of doing it right. Ignorance, intolerance, egotism, self-assertion, opaque perception, dense and pitiful chuckle-headedness—and an almost pathetic unconsciousness of it all. That is what I was at 19 and 20 and that is what the average Southerner is at 60 today. Northerners too of a certain grade. It is of children like this that voters are made. And such is the primal source of our government! A man hardly knows whether to swear or cry over it.

I should note, Mark and I are both southerners and neither of us take any offense to the self deprecating humor. And that’s largely because it’s painfully true…

Dunkirk

930At the last minute I decided to go see the movie Dunkirk. The movie is based on the mass evacuation (26 May to 4 June 1940) of British and French troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, during the opening stages of WWII.

Before the Russians and the yanks got involved, the German army was pretty much taking whatever they wanted and crushing all resistance. They were steam rolling the continent. The French and British armies, woefully unprepared to face Hitler’s military juggernaut, had been pummeled and forced to retreat to the beaches of Dunkirk and wait to be evacuated to England before the encircling German army killed or captured them.

This is a war story, so one should expect the typical motifs of war and warriors: sacrifice, endurance, honor, courage, fear. They’re all here in abundance and they give to the film, as such emotions do, a raw energy, mostly dark, but with the occasional piercings of light.

The tempo of the movie is fast—rightfully so when soldiers are cornered, beaten, tired, afraid and being constantly strafed by German airplanes. The movie is told through 4 perspectives.

There’s a British army private and his attempts to get off the beach anyway he can, even if it means using deceptiveness to cut in line to board a transport ship—from which he barely escapes after the ship is sunk by a German bomb just after departing. There’s the British Navy admiral, played perfectly by Kenneth Branagh, standing stoically at the end of a long pier, directing the orderly loading of troops onto transport ships, and refusing to leave until all the troops, British and French, are evacuated. There’s the British father and son, who join the thousands of other British civilians, using their personal boats and braving the bombs and machine guns of German planes, in order to help evacuate the British army stranded on the French beach just across the English Channel.

And then, lastly, there’s the British Spitfire pilot. He was my favorite character. Alone and running out of fuel, after having his two wing men shot down, instead of turning around and returning to base, he continues to engage the enemy, fighting until the last drop of fuel is gone. Leading up to this, there’s a defining scene in the movie where this British Spitfire pilot is staring at his gas gauge. He knows if he doesn’t turn around now, he can’t make it back to England. His face is covered by a flight helmet and mask so all you see is his eyes. And that’s all you need. In those eyes you see the brief moment of struggle, the thousand yard stare as his mind hovers between two loves and two duties, and then the decision, his eyes relax, and we see a man embracing his fate. He pushes the throttle forward to chase a German bomber in the distance. He’s not turning back. No. His countrymen are on that beach getting shot at and every man must do his duty.

If you’re looking for complex character development this isn’t your movie. At the opening of the movie you’re dropped into a quickly evolving situation and you’re carried along on a fast ride. The movie is more about action and scene than dialogue and personal connection. The emotional connection you get is from the pathetic spectacle of watching men fight for their lives against the odds. To survive is to win! A terrible sense of doom lingers over those beaches, and the only thing those soldiers have is their fighting spirit and the faith in their fellow countrymen to rescue them.

About 338 thousand allied troops were evacuated from Dunkirk. Over a hundred thousand by citizens coming to the rescue with their own boats. The battle was a big defeat for the allies, and yet, for the British nation it was a defeat that served the needs of the moment. The French, beaten and battered, would ultimately surrender. But the British, led by Winston Churchill, would take from this defeat the spirited determination, the fearless resolve, to fight on regardless of the odds. (Ahhh, and unlike the French, it helped—a lot—that Britain is an island nation with a channel holding back the German invasion force.)

On a scale of 1 to 5, five being the best, I’d give Dunkirk a 3.5. It lacked in a few areas in my view but overall it was a good movie and I recommend it.

If you go see it, please come back and let me know what you think.

Heat and Light: Thomas Friedman on Opinion Writing

LightbulbThomas Friedman has won 3 Pulitzer Prizes for his journalism. He’s written 7 New York Times bestselling books, won numerous book awards, and his New York Times column is one of the most read in the English speaking world.

Friedman’s most recent best selling book is called Thank You for Being Late: An Optimists Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. The book is excellent and I highly recommend it. But for this post, I want to focus on a small section of the book where Friedman discusses the writing process. As a scribbler, I found this section especially interesting and I think you will too.

In the beginning of Thank You for Being Late, Friedman tells us about his chance meeting with Bojia, an Ethiopian gentlemen who worked at a parking garage in Bethesda, Maryland. Bojia happens to read Friedman’s column, and he also happens to have a blog about political and economic issues in Ethiopia. As part of a deal with Bojia, Friedman agrees to help Bojia manage his blog. The help comes in the form of two memos to Bojia in which Friedman describes how one goes about constructing a column (or blog post) and about what makes a column “work.”

Here is Friedman describing the advice he gave to Bojia:

When you are a columnist, or a blogger in Bojia’s case, your purpose is to influence or provoke a reaction and not just to inform—to argue for a certain perspective so compellingly that you persuade your readers to think or feel differently or more strongly or afresh about an issue.

That is why, I explained to Bojia, as a columnist, “I am either in the heating business or the lighting business.” Every column or blog has to either turn on a lightbulb in your reader’s head—illuminate an issue in a way that will inspire them to look at it anew—or stoke an emotion in your reader’s heart that prompts them to feel or act more intensely or differently about an issue. The ideal column does both.

But how do you go about generating heat or light? Where do opinions come from? I am sure every opinion writer would offer a different answer. My short one is that a column idea can spring from anywhere: a newspaper headline that strikes you as odd, a simple gesture by a stranger, the moving speech of a leader, the naive question of a child, the cruelty of a school shooter, the wrenching tale of a refugee. Everything and anything is raw fodder for creating heat or light. It all depends on the connections you make and insights you surface to buttress your opinion.

More broadly speaking though, I told Bohia, column writing is an act of chemistry—precisely because you must conjure it up yourself. A column doesn’t write itself the way a breaking news story does. A column has to be created.

The act of chemistry usually involves mixing three basic ingredients: your own values, priorities, and aspirations; how you think the biggest forces, the world’s biggest gears and pulley’s, are shaping events; and what you’ve learned about people and culture—how they react or don’t—when the big forces impact them.

When I say your own values, priorities, and aspirations, I mean the things that you care about most and aspire to see implemented most intensely. That value set helps you determine what is important and worth opining about, as well as what you will say. It is okay to change your mind as an opinion writer; what is not okay is to have no mind—to stand for nothing, or for everything, or only for easy and safe things. An opinion writer has to emerge from some framework of values that shapes his or her thinking about what should be supported or opposed. Are you a capitalist, a communist, a libertarian, a Keynesian, a conservative, a liberal, a neocon, or a Marxist?

When I refer to the world’s big gears and pulleys, I am talking about what I call “the Machine.” . . . To be an opinion writer, you also always need to be carrying around a working hypothesis of how you think the Machine works—because your basic goal is to take your values and push the Machine in their direction. If you don’t have a theory about how the Machine works, you’ll either push it in a direction that doesn’t accord with your beliefs or you won’t move it at all.

And when I say people and culture, I mean how different peoples and cultures are affected by the Machine when it moves and how they, in turn, affect the Machine when they react. Ultimately columns are about people—the crazy things they say, do, hate, and hope for. . . .

I argued to Bojia that the most effect columns emerge from mixing and rubbing these three ingredients together: you can’t be an effective opinion writer without a set of values that informs what you’re advocating. . . . You also can’t have an effective column without some “take” on the biggest forces shaping the world in which we live and how to influence them. . . . [It] is very difficult to persuade people to do something if you can’t connect the dots for them in a convincing way—why this action will produce this result, because this is how the gears and pulleys of the Machine work. And, finally, I told Bojia, you’ll never have an opinion column that works unless it is inspired and informed by real people. It can’t just be the advocacy of abstract principles.

When you put your value set together with your analysis of how the Machine works and your understanding of how it is affecting people and culture in different contexts, you have a worldview that you can then apply to all kinds of situation to produce your opinions. Just as a data scientist needs an algorithm to cut through all the unstructured data and all the noise to see the relevant patterns, an opinion writer needs a worldview to create heat and light.

I read this section of Friedman’s book over and over again because it’s a nicely articulated description of what goes into making a good columnist, writer, or blogger. As you can see from this post I took note! It definitely caused me to rethink my own writing and what goes into my opinions. If you’re opining, and that’s what most scribblers do, then here you have the secret chemistry spelled out for you by one of the very best.

School and the Development of Moral Identities

I ran across an interesting piece in the Atlantic. Paul Barnwell, an English teacher in Kentucky, argues that too much time in school (primary and secondary) is spent on pure academics and not much is given to allowing students to develop a moral identity.

Barnwell’s concern was peaked after he initiated a discussion involving a moral dilemma:

A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?

The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.

Hmmm. If we assume that “other people were badly harmed” means others were physically harmed, I’m shocked Barnwell’s entire class was “unequivocally unconcerned” and wouldn’t say anything to the police. Yeah, that might have been hypothetical but sheesh. I mean where is Barnwell teaching? Tough crowd! That’s definitely a moment of clarity for a teacher.

Anyway, the bigger point that Barnwell took from this was how the students seemed more drawn to these moral discussions:

We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters…

(Italics added)

Well first I’d say I don’t think it’s just high school kids who’re “more engaged” by moral questions, just watch a group of adults at election time! Let’s just say you don’t know people as well as you think you do.

Anyway, our moral identities are a large part of who we are. And of course ethics is politics writ large. So a challenge to our moral world view (or our politics) is a challenge to our personal identity, and that can be very personal to some people. And that’s largely why schools tend to avoid ethical discussions, because it can offend some students which can lead to parents showing up at the school complaining “My kid doesn’t go to school for that!”

However, while these moral discussions may offend some parents, they’re usually very interesting to the students. Whether you’re a student or an adult you get passionate about what we believe, and being passionate is good. It reminds us we’re alive. It stirs our sense of connection to something larger than ourselves. I think most people crave that. Educators should capitalize on that and guide their students to explore their value systems and the connections they have with others. It’s not about imposing a view, it’s about exposing the student to the views of others. Empathy is how we expand our moral imagination.

One of the central reasons for an education is to free the mind. By doing so we free the individual from the tyranny of manipulation. The motto for the Enlightenment, coined by Immanuel Kant, was Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!” That, at least, is how I see the goal of education. Provide students with the tools and then let them decide how to use that knowledge in their own life.

There is nothing wrong with teaching moral courage, honesty, and the acceptance of others. The vast majority of parents agree with this. The trick is how you go about it. Barnewell’s thoughts are you “expose students to tough (moral) issues in the context of academic work—not imposing values, but simply exploring them.”

The idea is to draw students into various perspectives and let them explore them. This can be done with various disciplines. For example, Barnwell uses his HS biology teacher who challenged his class to think about their consumer choices and how these affect the ecosystem and the environment. The question doesn’t impose a value or ask students to adopt one, but challenges students to think through the various connections and consequences of their individual decisions. The student can decide what this means to them. As they think, as they see, so they feel.

Of course HS English and History teachers have the advantage in this task. There’s nothing like literature and the stories of human beings to frame moral questions and stir our moral imagination. Those of us who love the humanities have always known this was why a liberal arts education is so important for the maintenance of a just and free society.

The Calvert Cliffs at Brownie’s Beach

After paying a modest fee we headed up the path, loaded up with beach bags, cooler, towels, chairs, and water float. Brownie’s Beach is a small beach (part of Bay Front Park) on the southern end of the town of Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. We live down the road from the town.

The walk from the small parking lot is not over sand or through dunes but along a blacktop path through a thick of woods. All along the path are educational plaques naming particular flora. The only other sign which attracts notice (I paused briefly) is a warning sign nailed to a tree. There are cliffs near by so “by order of the town council” you’re told not to enter the “cliff area.” Directly under the warning sign is a well worn path leading toward the cliff area revealing just what people think about the town council’s order.

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Warning Sign

As we approached the beach area we could hear the faint sound of boat motors off in the distance and the muted voices of fellow beach goers. The thick canopy of trees had dimmed the sun light, and along with the surrounding thick woods, marsh and brush, it had made the path feel almost like an entry point between two worlds. Walking behind my youngest son and his friend, I snapped the following picture of them about to emerge from the entry path.

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The beach area is a slim strip of sea sand and the various accretions from the eroding cliffs—shale, sandstone, clay, and fallen trees. Dropping our bags and looking south we see parts of the rock face of Calvert Cliffs. The Cliffs start at Brownie’s Beach and extend about 25 miles south, ending in the Drum Point area of Calvert County. The cliffs at Brownie’s Beach are at the lower end in height. They get much higher (130 feet in some places) as you head south. (See this search stack of photos.)

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The mind is definitely a mysterious thing…it’s also an associative thing. So, to be candid, my immediate thoughts weren’t of the beauties of nature (those were a close second) but were actually, oddly enough, of Julius Caesar and his Roman invasion fleet as it approached the Dover Cliffs off the coast of southern England in 55 BC. Though the White Cliffs of Dover are far more imposing, I couldn’t help but wonder what the sight of the Calvert bluffs might have meant to the various minds observing them from sea for the first time over the centuries.

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The nature lover sees bleached rock, a sandy beach, green trees and the natural beauty of it all. The scientist sees geological formations, tectonics, and flora. The historical mind sees the beauty and the science but with the added dimension of how geography has played a big part in the course of human history. I’m not a scientist or historian, but having read a small library of history, especially classical history, has obviously stamped my associative mind. So my imagination tends to randomly dart across time, historical events, and the scenes of famous characters.

The boys and I started walking down the beach toward the cliffs. This beach, and all up and down the Calvert Cliffs, is well known for its fossils. It’s a paleontological heaven. One of the first people I talked to was a young lady, who appeared to be a college student, hunting for fossils in the surf. In particular, there are a lot of fossilized shark teeth along these beaches that in some cases belong to sharks from hundreds. My wife and I have friends who’s home fireplace was inlaid with hundreds of shark teeth collected from the Calvert Cliff’s beaches. My friend’s house was located (they’ve since sold it) in a community along these cliffs, called, appropriately enough, Scientist Cliffs. It’s a beautiful community where all the homes have a log cabin exterior.

The water along Brownie’s Beach is surprisingly clear for Chesapeake Bay water. You can see the rippled sandy bottom and schools of fish swimming by. The water is not deep in this area either, making it good for younger kids and for those just wanting to enjoy wading in the water. I can also report that Brownie’s Beach is rarely ever crowded. A big plus.

Typically, here in the east, the summer ritual of beach going involves trips to the large beaches along the Atlantic coast line, with large expansive beach areas, dunes, and the touristy beach town near by. Well you won’t get that here. Here you get a slim beach, calm shallow waters, the soothing sounds of a sea shore, no crowds, and the beautiful view of the Calvert Cliffs.

This trip to the Brownie’s Beach took place on Sunday, July 2, 2017.