27 January 2007

Of King & Country

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

As I mentioned elsewhere, I was recently in Atlanta – and I will come back, later, to address some Atlanta-specific details. First, though, I think it is important to talk about Martin Luther King, Jr., whose influence on our nation is difficult to overstate.

While there, we visited both The King Center and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. Founded by King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, in 1968, the King Center was underwhelming – shockingly so. Walking in, one has the feel of being ... nowhere, really; you stand in the lobby of an unremarkable brick structure, with a security desk to one side, the entrance to a store on the other, and a set of stairs straight ahead. Once upstairs, the exhibits had the feel of a small-town museum from many decades ago, with a series of panel displays of small photographs and small-print text, located on two sides of the main room, and a selection of items (e.g., clothing, personal bible, etc.) in cases in the center of the room. Additional “galleries” on Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks were equally thin, and in the former case particularly, lacking any detailed information to help visitors connect the ideas (and history) of Gandhi with the ideas and history of King.

In as much as the King Center also has other business – creating and supporting programs on nonviolence, community service, etc. – housed in a different building, it might seem like this is only one small facet of a larger operation. However, once a visitor has crossed the street to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site and seen the exhibition there, it is an obvious intellectual leap to think: perhaps the King Center should close this extremely anemic and uninspired display and do something different. (And while they’re at it, they might consider sprucing up the building itself: there are stains on the ceiling, the carpet visually dates to an era long-gone, and the overall feel is one of disrepair.) The whole effect does not seem fitting to one of the greatest citizen-leaders this nation has known.

By contrast, the National Historic Site has an exhibition up (I believe it is called “Freedom Ride,” but the web site provides little information about what is on display) that is what it should be: engagingly detailed, making use of archival footage and sound clips, videos of contemporary interviews, large photographs, and lots of great quotes from King. One of the strongest elements of this installation is that it seeks to unite the different strands of King’s thinking and writing, showing how (for example) he believed his nonviolent campaign for civil rights related to a campaign for (and support of) anti-poverty initiatives under President Johnson’s administration, and then how King felt he had a moral obligation to oppose the war in Vietnam – and how and why this anti-war stance connected to these other areas.

It was here that I found a quote that seems quite relevant today, as we head towards the fourth year of war in Iraq, and as domestic issues become crunched by the demands of this catastrophic foreign war. In a speech called “Beyond Vietnam,” given in New York on 4 April 1967 (a year to the day before he was assassinated), King said:

“Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

The same certainly seems true in the United States almost forty years later: that President Bush’s war in Iraq is a drain on our resources – on our citizens, on our finances, on our creative power, and on our psyche – in a way that affects everything about our government’s ability to think clearly about the important challenges America faces, from civil liberties issues to social security and educational infrastructure problems. Finances aside, it can often feel like our national balance sheet is tilting heavily, that our weaknesses and problems outweigh our ability to address them, particularly as politicians get bogged down in faux-philosophical debates that they use to support their inaction or efforts not to do something. This is why, at the end of a rainy-day visit there – genuinely cold, unpleasant weather – the single best thing about a visit to the Historic Site is that it reminds the visitor of one of King’s most important messages: the value of hope and the opportunity for change. It is worth it, just for that.

(Please note: a PDF of the full text of the speech quoted is available here. The quote used in the exhibition does not include the first or last sentence quoted above. I have shown these here because they are in the original text, and they add useful context that the exhibition provided in a different way.)

25 January 2007

R.I.P. Ryszard

Globe-trotting Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski has died at 74, after a life exploring parts of the world -- and the people who inhabit them -- that most of us can barely imagine. A good obituary is available from the Washington Post.

As almost every obit has noted, Kapuscinski's reporting, and his subsequent books, helped to connect the narrow subjects on which he wrote to the broader issues of human relationships, governments and their citizens, and the complications therein. To me, Kapuscinski always managed to capture something so essential that his writings remained relevant for looking at current affairs even decades after his original reporting. You can read two other items about Kapuscinski here and here.

18 January 2007

Alma, Tell Us

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I don’t write much about my alma mater, perhaps because college is so ... well, a lot longer ago than yesterday and, in any case, there is only so much I really say about it in contemporary terms. Most who know me know that I loved my time at Hampshire College, and I believe strongly that for the right student it offers an unparalleled experience. So I give as I can – time, as an alumni admissions associate, and money – but try not to keep myself bound only to a nostalgic view of my experiences there. Things do change.

A friend recently passed along a link to a YouTube video from Hampshire that certainly did bring back a few memories of one kind or another – and it sent me off on a small search, after I decided to put “Hampshire College” into YouTube’s search engine. There were a total of 84 hits; I cannot tell you if that amounts to a lot of college videos or not many at all, but it is enough to occupy the senses for a little while. Among other things, there are videos of band performances (I thought this group sounded quite good, although the video itself doesn’t offer much to look at), works by individual artists, and clips produced by students with particular academic interests. All of these certainly give some sense of the school and its charming peculiarities (like the idea that the shed by the tennis courts, or the greenhouse, should serve as live music venues – who knew!).

Of particular interest and enjoyment, however, are the videos by some of the student groups (self-proclaimed or official? This is a distinction often blurred at Hampshire, and so much the better). So, “SCREWY,” or the Society for the Creative REalization of a Weirder You, has a few items up, including one video that is sure to evoke “hippie freak show!” reactions from some – but which is, in its own way, charming. (You may not want to go to school with a roving band of people-huggers, but at least you know what to look forward to.) Likewise, a group called “Circus Folk Unite!” has posted some interesting videos of their work, including this one called Quintessence • Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Circus. If nothing else, these reflect the kind of creativity, energy, and enthusiasm of the students.

I have mentioned to a few friends how happy I am that I went to school before these technologies existed; it certainly saved me from having to make the kinds of decisions today’s graduates face. Sites like YouTube pose a different challenge for colleges, however, in their very public, off-book portrayal of the school and its students. For Hampshire specifically, it seems to me that the college should evaluate and consider embracing some of these videos; in the right forum, they could be very effective recruiting tools. On the College’s web page describing “Student Life,” Hampshire says (in part):

Balancing respect for the individual with responsibility to the community is the essence of student life at Hampshire. Beyond their differences in geographical background, Hampshire students vary significantly in political outlook, intellectual and recreational interests, and career aspirations. There is no "typical" Hampshire student: What unites this diverse and lively community of individuals is a strong commitment to learning and a desire to determine the course of one's own education.

That all sounds true enough – but is also likely quite similar to what many liberal arts schools say about themselves and their students. By tapping into this (otherwise underground) “stream” of videos and student-driven experiences, Hampshire College might be able to animate, literally (and selectively, of course), the idea that there are no “typical” students and what that means for the creative, intelligent students out there who would thrive in such an environment.

15 January 2007

More Coming Soon

More coming soon.

But in the meantime, I'll leave you with one thought:

Why does President Bush always sound like English is not his native language? I am not talking about his accent, or the Southern verbal tics that have (over time) somehow made “nuculur” an acceptable alternative pronunciation of “nuclear.” No, I am talking about his enunciation (or his challenges therewith), and his very awkward flow and timing when reading perfectly average sentences from a teleprompter.

Our president sounds like a 3rd grader, still learning to read, and in these instances listening to and watching him undermines the credibility he seeks (desperately) to project. For a presidency in which appearance is everything (think of that “Mission Accomplished” banner), it is all the more ironic.

10 January 2007

Bush: In the details

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

At 9pm tonight, President George W. Bush will address the United States to, presumably, explain his (evolving) plans for the thus-far elusive victory in Iraq. Interestingly, TV Guide's online listings give a little bit of insight into the President's speech: if users place a mouse over a particular TV listing, the system provides a quick summary of the program. Presumably, this information is provided by the networks themselves -- and if so, let's look at what some of the biggest networks each say about tonight's speech:

  • ABC's blurb: "President Bush outlines his plans for Iraq." Wow, minimalism par excellence, but hardly likely to attract audiences -- and they don't mention a news anchor.

  • CBS's blurb says: "President George W. Bush talks about his plan for Iraq. Katie Couric anchors coverage." Straightforward, if brief -- and the anchor note is presumably intended to encourage particular viewers to choose CBS.

  • CNN writes: "President George W. Bush unveils his revised strategy for the Iraq War, which is expected to include an increase in the number of U.S. troops serving in Iraq." Well, good old CNN comes through in the clinch, with adequate detail that reflects the key issue of the speech (and the moment).

  • FOX notes: "Coverage of President Bush's address on the Iraq War. Shepard Smith reports." You might expect more from the President's unofficial news mouthpiece, no?

  • NBC summarizes thusly: "President George W. Bush discusses the Iraq War. Brian Williams anchors coverage." Similar to CBS in mentioning the anchor, but "discusses the Iraq war" seems to elide the presumable point of the speech, namely, the President's plans.

  • PBS' NYC affiliate WNET's blurb: "President George W. Bush unveils his revised strategy for the Iraq War, which is expected to include an increase in the number of U.S. troops serving in Iraq." Hmmm, that looks suspiciously like the CNN blurb. Either way, at least it notes the key details.
Compare these one or two line descriptions to the 4+ lines for entertainment programs, the dramas and sitcoms that generate the most interest from audiences. What does any of this mean? I suspect that, to some degree, it just reflects our country's general disinterest in such speeches and the events that surround them -- and the networks' collective sense that there's more money to be made in programs with advertising (absent from Presidential addresses, at least thus far) then in mere policy-setting politics.

07 January 2007

Of Bondage, Art, & Literature

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

If you read encyclopedia or other discursive entries on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage, a lot of what you will find are details on and an analysis of the degree to which the tale of the book’s main character, Philip Carey, is autobiographical. This all seems logical, given the many details connecting the author and his protagonist, e.g. (to name just a few): Maugham lived in Whitestable, Carey in Blackstable; Maugham studied medicine, as does Carey; and Maugham had a physical disability (a speech impediment) that had no impact on his mental acuity but affected his acceptance by some of his peers, as Carey’s clubfoot does.

Ninety-three years after the book was written, I find a few other elements of greater interest. First of all, there is Philip Carey’s engagement with art: Philip goes off to study painting when in his early-twenties, which would put him at about 1900 – and in Paris, in a small art school, the Impressionists are much-discussed by Philip and his friends. Here in the 21st century, works of art by the Impressionists are generally considered staid (if revered) masterworks; exhibitions of paintings by Monet, Renoir, and others attract large public audiences but, relative to the shock-factor of contemporary art, the Impressionists may be considered as conservative as they are (by comparison) old. For Maugham, writing the book in 1914, one might also have assumed that the Impressionists would have become old-school already. Whatever the reality for the author, Maugham casts Philip Carey back in time quite successfully – and it is one of the great joys of this book to read of Philip’s art school experiences, to follow the characters’ arguments about the merits of Impressionism, and to feel the shock that this (now-staid) artistic movement must once have provided to the world.

It is in art school that Philip begins to learn a lot about himself as an adult, in a world of other adults, surrounded by people for whom failure has multiple meanings – financial, artistic, personal, and impersonal. This is more than la vie de Bohème, it is the beginnings of his understanding of how he fits into the world, constructing the philosophical blocks that Philip would carry with him through much of his life. After leaving Paris, as he contemplates medical school, Philip visits his wretched uncle, his legal and financial guardian, and reflects on his Parisian experiences, noting that the “thing then was to discover what one was and one’s system of philosophy would devise itself. It seemed to Philip that there were three things to find out: man’s relation to the world he lives in, man’s relation with the men among whom he lives, and finally man’s relation to himself.” (P. 262 in my 1991 Bantam Classics edition)

As much as the Paris interlude is interesting, it is the life that awaits Philip, and the reader, that is so much more engaging. This is in no small part because of the precision and exquisite construction of Maugham’s depiction of his protagonist’s London life. The story until now has been one of adolescence, but this seems to disappear when Philip enters medical school – and falls hopelessly in love, into a kind of bondage that (in its essence) is something most of us have probably experienced. Moreover, any fan of medical dramas on television will recognize the scenes of Philip conducting his rounds and encountering all sorts of people and ailments, and here, too, it is fascinating to read a story written so long ago that, nonetheless, feels so familiar.

In London – learning medicine, enduring poverty, drawing on his (limited) artistic skills once again, and facing up (and down) a love that has brought him only ruin – Philip continues to try to piece together the elements of this confusing world. Maugham has taken Philip, and us, on a thrilling journey, making both character and reader feel that what we desire most may alternately and variably be considered as happiness, art, success, love, and respect. But at a moment of heightened misery, when things look quite bleak, Philip gains some insight:

“Philip thought that in throwing over the desire for happiness he was casting aside the last of his illusions. His life had seemed horrible when it was measured by its happiness, but now he seemed to gather strength as he realised that it might be measured by something else. Happiness mattered as little as pain. They came in, both of them, as all the other details of his life came in, to the elaboration of the design. He seemed for an instant to stand above the accidents of his existence, and he felt that they could not affect him again as they had done before. Whatever happened to him now would be one more motive to add to the complexity of the pattern, and when the end approached he would rejoice in its completion. It would be a work of art, and it would be none the less beautiful because he alone knew of its existence, and with his death it would at once cease to be.” (P. 542)

To me, this summarizes the beauty of Maugham’s novel, both for the clarity of his language and for his philosophical and artistic insight. We live in a culture that seeks, endlessly, to prioritize and fetishize, to identify the thing from which our present should derive its meaning and to grab onto the thing without which our present would be meaningless. This process provides, indeed guarantees, its own kind of emptiness, a constant searching that rarely permits true reflection, let alone acceptance or, in the end, happiness. It may or may not have been strongly autobiographical, but Of Human Bondage (as its title suggests) has elements of a biography of humanity. Which is why, ninety-three years later, as much as our world may have changed, this book remains so fresh, so relevant, and so enjoyable.