Civility Is Not Passé

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As I leave behind the school year–we had our last day today, with a faculty meeting and luncheon–I feel some melancholy. It has been a lovely week: I helped administer oral examinations, took part in the diploma ceremony, went out for coffee with two colleagues, cleaned the surface of my desk (at school), took a bike ride, ate lots of sour cherries, and began preparing my Dallas lectures on Homer, Dante, and Melville.

But this week alone I ran into several writings and speeches claiming that civility does not bring about change, that heckling is necessary, and that if we are reverting to tribalism, well, we have always been tribal, whether we admitted it or not.

Such pieces imply that anyone calling for civility either lacks understanding or clings to power and privilege. Supposedly “civility” is the code for keeping things just as they are. I reject this proposition. Civility does not have to take the form of stiff politeness or euphemism. You can be strong, stubborn, outspoken, clear, and civil. To be civil is to recognize the limits of your knowledge, to listen to others even if you disagree with them, to build what you have in common, and to seek right action regarding your differences. In addition, it involves learning about the world so that you can speak and hear wisely. Above all, civility makes room for discernment. It allows you just enough time and pause to distinguish one situation from another.

Civility takes years of study and experience; it does not confine itself to social codes but instead allows for idiosyncrasy and exception. It is not fixed or perfect; it requires continual trial and error, introspection, observation.

Sometimes civility must be broken. Sometimes a protest needs full vehemence. But even then, one can keep civility close by. It will come in handy when things get out of hand.

Dismiss civility, and the whole purpose of protest comes apart. Why protest  at all, if not for the sake of a better life?  What life is there, if people cannot see or hear each other or themselves, if they cannot admit to being wrong? No, the modern air is full of shouting, shaming,  name-calling, disparaging, dismissing, and such–and there may be reason for them here and there–but such trends do not have the upper hand, the best plan, or the last say.

I took the photo in Szolnok a few weeks ago.

Wildflowers and Winds

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Above: wildflowers along the Zagyva. Below: the wind in the reeds in Besenyszög, where I rode the bike today. That was probably the last not-so-short bike ride until August.

And lily pads in Besenyszög.

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Yes, and a sunflower field, on the way home. Look at those clouds.

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And to top it all off, a bird I heard early this morning.

“I’ll deal with it upon my return”

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The recent days have been flying. I wandered around the Tiszavirág Fesztivál, went to Budapest for shul, began preparing my Dallas lectures (on Homer, Dante, and Melville), and sat on the panel of faculty administering the graduating seniors’ oral exams.

With my trip to the U.S. only four days away, I couldn’t help thinking of the Roches and their song “The Troubles” (“We’re going away to Ireland soon….”).

I first heard them live in the spring of 1982, at Toad’s Place in New Haven, at the insistence of a friend. He especially loved Maggie Roche, the one with the contralto voice. Maggie died in February 2017. Here’s a beautiful photo memorial of her with her song “Quitting Time” (a Roche favorite of mine):

It is strange to be on the brink of visiting my own country, which has been turning into something unrecognizable, though I suspect I’ll recognize it anyway. (Which is the return–the trip there or back? And what is going on over there?) Yet just as here, I see more than one tendency at once. Trump’s decision to separate detained immigrant parents from their children–and to place the children in detention centers around the U.S.–drew such strong rebuke that he had to backtrack. Not only that, but individuals and organizations are persisting in their protest and seeking ways to help the children and families. I have barely begun–I signed two petitions and made a small donation to the Florence Project–but have received a wealth of information on how to do more.

I have also read good critique of how Americans speak to each other (or not): not only how Democrats speak to Republicans and vice versa, but how people overall handle difference and discontent. After Maxine Waters called on people to harass and heckle Trump administration officials (telling them that “they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere”), many objected to her call (while others applauded her).

A few days before Waters’s speech, one of my friends and colleagues had already written a terrific post arguing that when we write others off, in political and other contexts, we harm them, ourselves, and the structures our lives. I won’t quote the piece here–I don’t think it is intended for public broadcast at this point–but I hope to return to it in the future.

Frank Bruni argues that public shaming, while viscerally satisfying, fails miserably as a strategy. “It’s possible that public shaming will have no effect on voters’ feelings and decisions, which are largely baked in by now,” he writes. “But it’s also possible that public shaming intensifies an ambient ugliness that sours more Trump skeptics than Trump adherents, who clearly made peace with ugliness a while back. And those adherents, nursing a ludicrous sense of persecution, could turn out in greater numbers this November as a result.”

I would go even further. If any of us cannot treat a human being decently–whoever that person might be–then all our protest comes to nothing. Treating a person decently does not mean kowtowing or conceding. You can disagree fervently with someone, make that disagreement known, and still retain respect. Take that respect away, and you may not find it again; it falls out of language, out of the general way of thinking. People feel more and more justified in putting others down, writing them off, describing them as “toxic,” and hiding in their own rarified views and groups.

But we have not disappeared down the toxic tunnel. Many people have been calling for greater respect in speech, whether for strategic, ethical, or existential reasons. Respect is not a formality or embellishment; it requires perceiving and listening to another person. It also requires speaking up; you show no respect if you hide what you think and want. When our own president does not set an example of respect–when he tears respect apart day after day–there is all the more reason to repair and uphold it.

“Respect” seems insufficient as a word–too pat, too easy, overused–until one looks at its root. It derives from the Latin respectus, “the act of looking back at someone”; thus it carries the connotation of thinking again, not jumping to conclusions, not presuming to know who another is. In that sense, it is indeed the right word, or one of many. I am encouraged by the renewed respect for respect itself.

I took the photo at the Tiszavirág Fesztivál. The title of the post is a quote from the Roches’ “The Troubles.” Suzzy Roche would often say it near the beginning of the song, in performances but not on the album.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

The Bounty of Self-Doubt

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I depend on self-doubt for survival and prosperity. I don’t refer here to existential doubt, which does me little good, except as a starting point. (As a starting point, it has bounty of its own.) I mean the kind where I question my words and actions.

For survival, this allows me to recognize where I am going wrong and make corrections. For prosperity, it allows me to consider possibilities, to look further into questions, to find more in a person, book, or other entity than I have seen before.

The other day a baby kitten came meowing up to me, right outside my apartment building. Then he ran up to someone else who was buzzing one of the apartments. He seemed to know the building and to want to be let in–but his scrawniness and ticks suggested that he lived outdoors.

I had a thought of adopting him. I brought him upstairs, gave him water (which he drank avidly), and let him relax in Minnaloushe’s crate. After a while, I brought him out.

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Minnaloushe seemed relaxed at first, but then she let out a long hiss. I remembered that something similar had happened five and a half years ago when I adopted Aengus. It took Minnaloushe a little while to understand what was going on, but when she did, she wasn’t happy. I held the little kitten on my lap, and he purred and purred; Minnaloushe gazed off into the abstract distance, thinking, “here we go again.” (I have no idea what she was thinking.)

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I didn’t want to put Minnaloushe through this again–especially now, when I am about to leave for the U.S. for a month. It wouldn’t be fair to her or to the cat-sitter to introduce her to a kitten in my absence. Also, the kitty would need a medical exam first;  he might well be sick.

So I brought him back outside. A woman sitting out on the bench told me that he was known to people here–that he had a sibling, and that he was safe near the building. He retreated into the shade of a plant; I comforted myself with the thought that I had brought him back home.

But later I began questioning myself. Couldn’t I have brought him to the vet–to give him shots, have his ticks removed, etc.? Granted, I leave in ten days–but I could explain that to the vet, and we could figure out the best plan. So I will keep an eye out for him; if I see him again, that is what I will do.

In none of this, even the questioning, do I feel that I “did the right thing”; instead, the questioning pulled me out of self-satisfaction. Rarely is it possible to do the right thing completely. Imperfections come up everywhere. Nor is doubt always constructive; you can doubt your way into a tizzy, like the Underground Man. But doubt combined with searching can result in a reasonably good idea, at least something worth trying out.

How does this differ from “growth mindset,” a concept I criticize? I find that the division between growth and fixed mindsets oversimplifies reality. Even in questioning myself here, I stayed within limits. There are courses of action I didn’t consider, even afterward. That isn’t because I am deficient in “growth mindset”; rather, some options were outside of reasonable range for me, and others held no appeal. In much of we do, we combine limit and possibility; the combination allows us to bring actions to completion while still thinking beyond them.

I hope this kitty fares well, and I hope to see him again so that I can take him to the vet.

 

I took the first photo at the farmers’ market in Szolnok and the second photo at home. The third photo (of Minnaloushe) is from a week ago; it doesn’t quite convey the “here we go again” look, but it comes close.

Dances and Departures

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On Sunday the rabbi and I went to the glorious Dancing on the Square, performed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra–with special guests on cymbalom and violin–and schoolchildren, Roma and non-Roma, from all over Hungary. The seating area outside Saint Stephen’s Basilica was packed; the performance filled the air with good things, from music to tolerance to joy. There will be an online broadcast tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. Central European Summer time (12:30 p.m. EST); it will be available over the following two days.

I decided, close to the last minute,  to spend the night in Budpest (at the wonderful Baross Hotel) and then, in the morning, take a day trip to Subotica, Serbia. It all worked out–a long day, but worthwhile down to the second.

Staying at the Baross (where I stayed last September,  during my preparatory visit to Hungary) allowed me to ride the glass elevator.

The train ride to Subotica took four hours; about 30 minutes were spent at the border, where “border police” boarded to check passports. I had to show my residence permit as well (because it was clear that I had been in Hungary for a while); once I showed it, the officers had no more questions.

Subotica is unlike any border city I have visited before. Not only are street signs in several languages (Serbia, Croatian, Hungarian, English), but you sense the old presence of Serbian and Hungarian cultures. Bunjevci were once a majority here. In many ways Subotica looks like a Hungarian city–but the Secessionist (Art Nouveau) architecture is especially prominent and colorful. Overall the city showed crumbling elegance: shady parks, towering churches, long terraces of cafes and shops, a famous theater, and some falling apart here and there.

 

 

I wanted to see the synagogue (which reopened in March, after a detailed restoration); having no map, I walked around in circles for a couple of hours before overhearing a couple heading to the tourist information office. I walked along with them, benefited from their sense of direction (they found the office), and received a map. From here I found the way.

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The synagogue, designed in the 1890s and built in 1902, is one of the great Art Nouveau monuments of Subotica. Outside, the Holocaust memorial reads, in five languages, “In memory of 4000 Jewish citizens with whom we lived and built Subotica. They perished in the fascist death camps during the World War II. — Citizens of Subotica, July 10, 1994.”

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After this, I headed back to the train station; the trip home took seven hours, since it involved going back to Budapest and heading from there, on a different train, to Szolnok. In the later part of the trip, the wind and mist rolled through the windows; the train grew emptier, and I thought back slowly on the day.

Bicycling on Shabbat?

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Students sometimes ask me questions about Judaism; while happy to answer, I recognize that my words will be incomplete and sometimes incorrect. Recently a student asked whether I ride my bicycle on Shabbat. I said yes and added that this was not prohibited. I later questioned the second part of my answer, looked into it, and found out that it is indeed prohibited in Orthodox Judaism and, for the most part, in Conservative Judaism as well. But the matter is complicated; there have been many disagreements over the centuries.

I continue to ride my bike on Shabbat (when I am not in Budapest), simply because it is a source of joy and because if I relegate it (along with other non-Shabbat things) to Sunday, I end up with great anxiety and pressure. At the end of my life, when I look back, I don’t think I will be sorry; there are worse ills than going out on the bike and enjoying nature.

I am nowhere near perfect in my observance, but I take the questions and traditions seriously. Also, I am still young in my Judaism; while Jewish by birth (on my mother’s side, and thus by Jewish law), I started practicing it just over five years ago. I expect that my practices and views will change over time. Maybe I will become stricter, maybe less so; in any case I hope to have more understanding.

Biking is prohibited on Shabbat (under Orthodox and Conservative Judaism) for several reasons. First of all, it is considered a form of carrying. Carrying is permitted on Shabbat only within an eruv (an enclosed private area, often an enclosed Jewish community) and then only when the particular thing being carried is not forbidden. It is permissible, for instance, to push a stroller on Shabbat within an eruv, but not outside. The bicycle, not being one of those permitted things, may not be transported even within the eruv.

Some argue, though, that if it allows a person to fulfill a mitzvah, such as leading a service or reading Torah, then it may be used for that purpose alone, even outside the eruv. Conservative Judaism permits driving to synagogue (and only synagogue) on Shabbat (see the 1950 “Responsum on the Sabbath“); some Conservative communities extend this to biking and see the latter as less problematic than the former.

There are other (more tenuous) reasons why riding a bicycle is forbidden on Shabbat. First, it is forbidden to fix things on Shabbat, and a bicycle might break on route, leaving you in a position of wanting to fix it. Second, bicycle riding is considered a weekday activity, and weekday activities are to be avoided. Third, when on a bicycle, you might find yourself leaving the eruv–whether intentionally or by mistake–or even the tehum, the 2000 cubits beyond the town’s last house. You are less likely to do this on foot. Fourth, the bike tires might make marks in the dirt, thereby violating the prohibition against plowing on Shabbat. Finally–and this comes up in many discussions–bicycle riding should be discouraged on Shabbat because many communities consider it wrong and will be upset to see it happening. Some Orthodox communities are uneasy about bikes in general.

Part of me says, “This has no bearing on you; if you want to ride your bike, ride your bike! It brings you joy and rest, and you aren’t Orthodox anyhow!” Another part admires the precision and care of these considerations, a welcome contrast to a culture of “whatever.” It is possible, I think, to combine the independence and the precision: to follow my judgment while learning more about these questions and their intricacies.

The questions are far from settled. On the website of the Judaic Seminar (a project of the Sephardic Institute in Midwood, Brooklyn), I found a fascinating argument, by Rabbi Moshe Shamah, that bicycle riding should be permitted on those holidays when it is permitted to carry–that is, when the primary objection to bicycle riding does not apply. (Riding on Shabbat is still out of the question here.)

First of all, Rabbi Shamah quotes the Ben Ish Hai, who says that we should not make additional gezerot (enactments, prohibitions) but should rely on the ones already set down in Talmud. The arguments against bicycle riding (on days when carrying is permitted) are innovations and should be avoided for this reason. Therefore it should be permissible to ride the bicycle within the eruv on Shabbat and other holidays, even for recreation.

From there, Rabbi Shamah makes the case that there are reasons to permit bicycle riding on holidays when carrying is allowed. One is that young people in Orthodox communities should not be made to feel that they are doing something wrong when they are not.

The many teenagers and young adults who inevitably will ride their bicycles on Yom Tob should not feel they are doing an issur [something prohibitedDS] when they are not. Some of them feel they cannot help but ride their bicycles on Yom Tob and, psychologically, thinking that they are doing an issur may prompt them to doing a true issur. `If I’m already doing a sin, what difference does it make if I commit another one?’. It’s a terrible way of looking at things, but unfortunately too common.

Also, by not heaping new restrictions and rules onto existing ones, rabbis in an Orthodox community can protect the people from Conservative enticement:

Our rabbis also worked long and hard to prevent the Conservative Movement from making inroads in our community. A major aspect of their success these past two generations has been their policy of not indiscriminately prohibiting what is basically permitted in areas that would make our people vulnerable to non-Orthodox enticement. Bicycle riding on Yom Tob falls into this category.

Finally, one should avoid an overly restrictive approach to Judaism, as this can turn many people away:

In our generation we have witnessed a miraculous renewal of interest in Judaism….However, we often encounter a somewhat questionable by-product of this renewed vigor, namely, halachic enthusiasm which breeds halachic competitiveness. This frequently results in an overly restrictive, inaccurate version of Judaism replete with unfounded halachic stringencies which may ironically deter others from seeking entrance into the majestic world of Torah Judaism. Often the `pleasant ways of the Torah’ seem to have become difficult to bear as a result of stringencies superimposed upon the truly pleasant ways of Torah Judaism.

These considerations apply not only to Orthodox Judaism but to other branches of Judaism and, more generally, to other religions. How do you maintain the integrity of a tradition while opening yourself to new possibilities and lessons?  Rabbi Shamah sympathizes with young people and with those who feel overwhelmed by the rules. Yes, he sees Conservatives as a threat, partly because they offer, relative to Orthodoxy, a less encumbered approach to Jewish law, an approach that he would like to emulate in part.

So, when looking into the issue of bicycling on Shabbat, I found much more than answers. I found a rabbi grappling not only with this particular question, but with the question of how to honor laws, humans, understanding–and, encompassing all of these, an essence that we only glimpse, in word, thought, and action, throughout our lives.

I took the photo in Szolnok on Friday.

Knowing and Not Knowing a Country

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Some people have suggested that my next book will be about my time in Hungary. I think that’s likely, but if so, it will differ from books that claim to reveal a country from the inside. Instead, it will explore the very difficulty of getting to know a country, even when you live and teach there, even when you undertake to learn the language, even (I believe) after you have been there a few years. The difficulty is the great part of it; if I could learn all about a country in a few months, I probably wouldn’t bother; I’d look for something more challenging to do.

When trying to speak more Hungarian, people tend to react in one of two ways. Some express amazement when I so much as put a sentence together. Other people ask, “Why do you even bother? Hungarian is difficult, and surely you can find enough people who speak English.” Yes, it’s a difficult language, but I insist on meeting the difficulty. I seek out situations where I am surrounded by Hungarian (for long stretches, without translation). Then I can focus on listening and figuring out as much as possible. The brain does lots of work in the background, too; when I surround myself with the language, I start recognizing patterns and words.

The difficulty of learning a language, of getting to know a country, is all the more reason for doing it. It’s difficult because it shows the limitations of your own knowledge and speech. For a long time you simply feel clumsy, unable to say what you want to say, unable to understand what others are saying. Then, over time, the big clumsiness melts away and an awkward semi-fluency sets in. Then slowly the fluency grows and the awkwardness diminishes; and now you start to appreciate the things that one language can express and the other cannot. You read literature in the new language, without much use of a dictionary. You try making jokes. Even this has a tentative quality–but the tentativeness also sharpens the ear. Something similar can be said for getting to know a country; as you learn more, you keep your conclusions more and more in check and become more alert to your surroundings. (I say “you,” but the truth of this may vary from person to person, place to place, and time to time.)

In that spirit, here’s a recording of a bird I heard the other night. At first I thought it was a mockingbird, but I don’t think there are mockingbirds here. It might have been a starling or Eurasian jay. And here, below, is a video of an unknown bird I saw take flight. I thought it was a stork, but since it was completely white, it may have been an egret instead.

As for the photo at the top, I took it in Békés on June 5. The river is the Körös.

Ice Cream, Rain, and Shakespeare

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We had been looking forward to this for a week, my tenth-grade students and I. We had planned to walk to the Zagyva Cukrászda for an ice cream cone during our last lesson of the year. We had even agreed to meet fifteen minutes early so that we would have enough time. When the hour arrived, the rain could not melt away our plan. We went forth with the umbrellas we had, just barely enough to cover everyone, almost. As we splashed through puddles along the Zagyva, a long line of schoolchildren in colorful rain capes streamed by us on bikes, along with a few adults.

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We made our way to the ice cream place, bought ice creams, and stood for a little while under a couple of rooves.

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The rain slowed down; as we walked back to school, just a drop or two fell our way, and the wind started to blow. Later the sun came out onto the rooftops. But the rain has already earned honor: it was the obstacle that got in no one’s way. This outing would have been an adventure even in the sun, but the rain made it more so.

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Earlier in the day, two ninth-grade students asked me for more videos from the Shakespeare event. Here they are in succession. The first is from the dress rehearsal; the second and third, from the performance.

So the year comes to an end with ice cream, rain, and Shakespeare.

Why the “Next Big Idea Club” Is a Bad Idea

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I recently learned that Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Daniel Pink, and Adam Grant have started a book club called the “Next Big Idea Club,” whose goal is to draw attention to new books that are “Groundbreaking, Science-Based, and Life-Changing (Actionable).” The book selections come with “video e-courses” that “highlight key concepts” (in case readers can’t figure them out for themselves), written course materials, exclusive author interviews, and an invite-only Facebook group.

In other words, the club leaders emphasize books that appear to have not only scientific basis, but clear takeaways–immediate applications to life–and then take the additional step of distilling those takeaways for the readers, thus affirming that the books should be put into action right away rather than thought upon, questioned, disputed.

And there lies about a third of the problem. I have no issue with the idea of a book club, no matter who leads it, when it involves selecting books that one loves (or finds especially interesting) and bringing them to the club members. But books deserve time and rumination; instead of being translated immediately into “actionable” takeaways, they should take up residence in the mind for a while. It is the dialogue (an approximate term) between author and reader that makes for memorable reading. The books that influence me the most have nothing immediately “actionable” about them; rather, they get me to think, they provoke me to return to the pages.

So that’s the first problem: the emphasis on the “actionable.” The second lies in the so-called scientific basis. Some of these books may well have strong scientific grounding. But science involves dogged and keen questioning–so the most scientific books will likely have the most uncertainties. With some exceptions, they will be the ones least conducive to takeaways. For a book to be both scientific and actionable at once, the scientific aspect may have to undergo simplification. The book club leaders, apparently, hasten the process of simplification by handing summaries and key points to the readers. This not only reduces the science itself but discourages scientific thinking.

The third problem lies in the priority given to “groundbreaking” books. We often don’t know right away whether a new book is groundbreaking; it takes time to put it in proper context and observe its influence and effects. Sometimes a seemingly new idea has many unknown antecedents; sometimes a seemingly grand solution fails to pan out. Rather than look for “groundbreaking” books, I would seek books that demonstrate intellect, probing, and wit: books that allow the reader to reconsider previous assumptions without latching on to false certainties.

The book club itself is nothing new; Gladwell appears to have been running it in some form for years. Kathryn Schulz wrote of his “Big Idea Club” in 2011 (in New York Magazine):

Big Idea books have been around for a long time; see The Communist Manifesto. But the Big Idea Book Club … is a recent phenomenon. Its accidental founder and president in apparent perpetuity is Malcolm Gladwell. Its membership, like the membership of most powerful groups, is largely male. Its combined sales are stratospheric; whatever these books are hawking, we can’t stop buying it.

And then, toward the end of the article:

There is no rule, process, peer group, leader, or best seller that can absolve us of the responsibility of thinking our way through life on our own two feet. What irks me most about this infinite parade of gigundo solutions isn’t their glibness or even the borderline theology (of some) and borderline Babbitry (of others) involved in promising audiences easy, happy, profitable ideas. Nope. What irks me is that when you rigidly apply grand theories to everybody, sooner or later everybody feels like nobody, whether you’re in Communist Belgrade or the local DMV. There is a reason we call such systems soul-crushing: They ignore or annihilate individual difference and inner life.

There you have it. Some ideas are big by nature, some medium-sized, some small. It would be folly to avoid an idea on account of its size. But it is dangerous to pursue or herald an idea because it is big. The bigness should give some pause. Do we really have room in this idea? Does it hold enough truth? Or has it been swept in, like so many others, only to drift out again later?

Some of the club’s selections may well be worth reading. Of the twenty that Adam Grant listed for 2018, I would be most likely to read Melissa Dahl’s Cringeworthy. I probably would not get to it until 2020 or later; I have many books waiting and generally like to read slowly. In any case, if I do read this book, it will be to consider the ideas and stories, not to apply them directly to my life. In books, it is the indirect applications–the use of words, the gestures of wisdom–that influence my life the most. The big idea? I take it in stride.

I have criticized the American emphasis on the Big Idea many times, in many places. (See, for instance, “The Folly of the Big Idea: How a Liberal Arts Education Puts Fads in Perspective,” American Educator, Winter 2012-2013). But I now come upon a new point: no matter what the size of an idea, I expect to be able to consider it in my own terms, on my own time–and not to accept someone else’s summaries or rush it into action.

Well, then, don’t join the club! someone might retort. No one is making you join. True, true, but that’s a moot point; I don’t join book clubs in general. Through my teaching, I have many opportunities to read with others; outside of work and projects, my time for reading is so scarce that I like to choose books on my own, often old books that I have read years ago or that I have been wanting to read for years. No, my own non-membership is not the point here. Rather, I argue and long for a different kind of reading: a kind that allows for liberty of thought, judges an idea by its merits, delights in verbal courage, and suspends summary and action.

I took the photo in Szeged in May.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

Is There a Human Project?

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It is the season of cherries and ice cream, of ducklings and Scarce Copper butterflies (I think that’s the type in the picture above), of wrapping up the school year and saying goodbye for the summer. Also, the book is almost in press; the last corrections have been made, and I must now think about the release in the fall. While doing this, I find myself questioning certain phrases in the book. At one point I mention the human project. Is there a human project? Or is this yet another phrase that has lost meaning over time?

It exists but abounds with contradictions, oppositions, anomalies, impossibilities. Drawing partially on George Kateb’s Human Dignity, I would define the human project, in part, as our ongoing assumption (and abdication) of responsibility as stewards of nature, including our own. Humans alone have the capacity to act as stewards–or not. Acting as steward involves recognizing what one has done, or can do, to help or harm oneself and others–and who these others are, and why it matters. In this recognition, humans have advanced somewhat, in some ways, over time. Certain things that we recognize as wrong, such as slavery, were accepted not long ago.

Last week I introduced my eleventh-grade students to the song “Amazing Grace,” which a few already knew. I thought it was important for American civilization, especially since we were now touching on religion. I did not know the origins of the song (having missed the Broadway musical and the movie and forgotten a good bit of history); when I read about it, I heard it in a new way.

It was composed by the English Anglican minister John Newton (1725-1807), who, prior to his Christian conversion, had been forced into the slave trade. He had rebelled so often aboard the ships–not on behalf of the slaves, but on his own behalf–that he had undergone lashings, demotions, and finally slavery, when the crew left him in West Africa with a slave dealer. He was finally rescued and brought back to England; during the voyage, he had a spiritual conversion. Slowly, over time, this conversion brought him to abhor the slave trade. This did not happen linearly; he returned to the slave trade, fell ill, and underwent a new conversion. He continued in the trade a few more years, and then in 1754 renounced it completely.

His tract Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, written in 1788, thirty-four years after he abandoned the business, repudiates the enslavement and trafficking of humans. It begins:

The nature and effects of that unhappy and disgraceful branch of commerce, which has long been maintained on the Coast of Africa, with the sole, and professed design of purchasing our fellow-creatures, in order to supply our West-India islands and the American colonies, when they were ours, with Slaves; is now generally understood. So much light has been thrown upon the subject, by many able pens; and so many respectable persons have already engaged to use their utmost influence, for the suppression of a traffic, which contradicts the feelings of humanity; that it is hoped, this stain of our National character will soon be wiped out.

If I attempt, after what has been done, to throw my mite into the public stock of information, it is less from an apprehension that my interference is necessary, than from a conviction that silence, at such a time, and on such an occasion, would, in me, be criminal. If my testimony should not be necessary, or serviceable, yet, perhaps, I am bound, in conscience, to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent, or repair, the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessary.

I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was, once, an active instrument, in a business at which my heart now shudders.

Hearing those undertones in “Amazing Grace” (although the hymn preceded the tract by two decades or so), I understand the song not as a paean to the born-again experience but as the author’s recognition of profound error. To see that one has been terribly wrong and to change one’s life accordingly: this allows for something of a human project. For by writing what he saw and learned, Newton allowed others to see it too.

I don’t want to be glib about this. Looking at the picture below, I would say that ducks do a bit better with their projects than humans; they lead their little ones, which grow up to have little ones of their own. But ducks also kill ducklings that they do not recognize–and suffer no qualms of conscience, as far as I know. It is not that we humans do so well with our conscience–we continue to do things that we repudiate or simply fail to question–but our conscience also matures, not only through experience in the world, but through encounters with books, speeches, music, plays. In listening to something, we come to take ourselves in measure. Or at least we may. To the extent that we do, we participate in a human project.

I ask myself why I didn’t notice the Broadway musical Amazing Grace, which would have taught me something, even fleetingly, about John Newton. I think I unthinkingly ignored it because of the title. I had heard the song sung mockingly so many times that I had absorbed the mockery. That reminds me to be less sure of my mockeries, especially borrowed ones. Mockery has a place in writing–there would be little satire without it–but it must be informed. In this case mine, though never overt, was also ignorant until now.

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I made a few revisions to this piece after posting it.