Sunday, December 27, 2020

A citizen's comments about "These Truths" by Jill Lepore

Comments about These Truths:  A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore. © 2018.  

In The Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton asked:

It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

And rewording his question, Dr. Lepore asks:

Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit?  Is there any arrangement of government – any constitution – by which it’s possible for a people to rule themselves, justly and fairly, and as equals, through the exercise of judgment and care?  Or are their efforts, no matter their constitutions, fated to be corrupted, their judgment muddled by demagoguery, their reason abandoned for fury?  (page xiv)

The “truths” of the Declaration of Independence and of Lepore’s title are:

 three political ideas  - “these truths,” Thomas Jefferson called them – political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people.  (page xiv)

Lepore asks:  “Does American history prove these truths, or does it belie them?” (page xiv)

The main points I took from this book are:  

a) White supremacy screwed up our nation from the beginning. Even though slavery “officially” was ended, the effects are with us still.  White supremacy works directly counter to those three political ideas referenced in the Declaration of Independence, and it remains to be seen if this nation can overcome it.

b) It’s the fault of greedy folks and the competent lobbyists they hired that we didn’t get universal health care in the 20th century.  

c) As I suspected, income inequality and wealth inequality are a huge threat to democracy.

d) Political polling is bad for us.  

e) The internet has made our inequality worse.

Here’s the end of Lepore's epilogue, written after the 2016 election of Pres. Donald Trump, but, notably, before the 2020 election.

… Can a people govern themselves by reflection and choice? [Alexander] Hamilton had wanted to know, or are they fated to be ruled, forever, by accident and force, lashed by the violence of each wave of a surging sea?

The ship of state lurched and reeled.  Liberals, blown down by the slightest breeze, had neglected to trim the ship’s sails, leaving the canvas to flap and tear in a rising wind, the rigging flailing.  Huddled belowdecks, they had failed to plot a course, having lost sight of the horizon and their grasp on any compass. On deck, conservatives had pulled up the ship’s planking to make bonfires of rage: they had courted the popular will by demolishing the idea of truth itself, smashing the ship’s very mast.

It would fall to a new generation of Americans, reckoning what their forebears had wrought, to fathom the depths of the doom-black sea.  If they meant to repair the tattered ship, they would need to fell the most majestic pine in a deer-haunted forest and raise a new mast that could pierce the clouded sky.  With sharpened adzes, they would have to hew timbers of cedar and oak into planks, straight and true.  They would need to drive home nails with the untiring swing of might arms and, with needles held tenderly in nimble finders, stitch new sails out of the rugged canvas of their goodwill.  Knowing that heat and sparks and hammers and anvils are not enough, they would have to forge an anchor in the glowing fire of their ideals. And to steer that ship through wind and wave, they would need to learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art:  how to navigate by the stars.  (pp 786-787)

I think we have yet to find out if the ship of state will be repaired.  Certainly in Pennsylvania the fate of democracy is still threatened, as Republican legislators will seek to gerrymander judicial districts early in 2021; as Republican Congressional leaders from PA question the outcome of the very election they just won; as PA state Republican legislators signal that they wish to remove the recently-won ability for us to vote by mail, which they themselves voted for overwhelmingly.  

I am the first to say that in a two-party system, we need both parties to be viable and ultimately focused on good governance, rather than party power.  In our history, the Democratic Party is not faultless in veering away from good governance. But right now, the threat that I see in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania comes from the Republican Party seeking, in the face of an inability to win elections based on policy ideas and fine candidates, to hold onto power by whatever means they find, including destruction of democracy.

Pennsylvanians, pay close and special attention to this coming attempt to form judicial districts for state-wide judgeships.  Judges are not meant to have constituents.  This is an attempt by the Republican-heavy legislature (accomplished through gerrymandering) to seize more power for their party and take it away from citizens.  It’s going to be hard to fight this one and win, but I feel it is worthwhile to fight it.

What will we choose for our future?  Can we choose for our future, or is it too late?

First Lines: Nov-Dec 2020 edition

So many pages, so little time,
but at least some of them are footnotes.

My reading in the last two months of the year brought me a delicious moment:  the moment when you find out that the 900+ page book you have been reading for over a year is 35% footnotes.  Oh, delicious revelation, that I could finish reading this monumental tome!  

Most of the time, in these past two months, it was a struggle to concentrate on reading anything at all.  It’s normal to cry (isn’t it?), twenty-three days after your mother died; during a pandemic with cases of virus on the rise; when you haven’t seen your grown daughter and her fiancĂ© in 11 months; when the election you risked your life for, by processing in-person voters during that pandemic, is questioned all across the nation and even in your own county.  

Some days I carry on with work and household tasks, without a care in the world.  But on other days, doing anything feels like walking through a pit of wet sand.  On those days, tasks can be accomplished, but only with enormous effort.  This seems to be the nature of my particular cross-section of personal and civic grief.  Reading has been alternately a joy and a chore.

Here are the first lines of the eight books that I managed to finish reading in November and December.

Book 1
Opening the Polls
Check Materials
Use the checklist below to confirm you have all items needed to open the polls.

Book 2
This morning, Papa call me inside the parlor.  
He was sitting inside the sofa with no cushion and looking at me.  Papa have this way of looking me one kind.  

Book 3  
Christmas is the most important season of our existence. We spend at least one month out of each year of our lives under the spell of the planet’s most widely celebrated holiday.

Book 4
I was in a coffee shop looking through the want ads when I read, “Macy’s Herald Square, the largest store in the world, has big opportunities for outgoing, fun-loving people of all shapes and sizes who want more than just a holiday job!  Working as an elf in Macy’s SantaLand means being at the center of the excitement…”

Book 5
The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous.

Book 6
The librarian and her mule spotted it at the same time.  The creature’s ears shot up, and it came to a stop so sudden its front hooves skidded out, the pannier slipping off, spilling out the librarian’s books. 

Book 7
Chapter 1: An Elephant, a Funeral, and More Bad News
Monday March 11, 1897
As the hail bounced on the carriage roof, Mink suddenly wondered whether she ought to buy mourning knickers.

Book 8
Introduction: The Question Stated
The course of history is unpredictable, as irregular as the weather, as errant as affection, nations rising and falling by whim and chance, battered by violence, corrupted by greed, seized by tyrants, raided by rogues, addled by demagogues.  

The titles and authors revealed:

Book 1
Allegheny County Election Officer Handbook, for General Election 2020, by Allegheny County Elections Division

Book 2
The Girl with the Louding Voice, by Abi Dare  © 2020.  About a teenaged girl in Nigeria.  Read for book club.  Trigger warning: sexual violence and modern-day slavery.  I thought it was a story well told.

Book 3
Santa Claus: A Biography, by Gerry Bowler  © 2005
A congenial review of how the figure of Santa Claus got to be so prominent in our culture.  But the last chapter degrades into a diatribe a la “war on Christmas” which I found distasteful.   

By the way, I take issue with this book’s opening thesis statement.  The “Christmas season” is only as important as an individual chooses to make it.  Viscerally, I prefer the season of autumn.  The holidays I prefer are Thanksgiving and Advent.  But the book club likes to read a book focused on the winter holidays, and it’s damned hard to find good books for adults about winter holidays.    

Book 4
“SantaLand Diaries”, in the collection Holidays on Ice, by David Sedaris
I finished this essay-memoir, which I found to be quite amusing.  The next two selections in the collection were horrifying to me, so I didn’t finish the entire book.  

Book 5
The Masque of the Red Death, by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1842.
This was just weird.  I can’t even name what genre of literature this is.  I had to read it when my brother began ominously referencing walking through rooms of different colors, just so I would know what he was talking about.  This story, or allegory, or whatever it is, is highly relevant today.  I recommend it.
You can find it for free here at The Project Gutenberg.  It's about 8 pages long.

Book 6
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson. © 2019.     
A novel about the “Blue people” of Kentucky.  These people have a congenital blood defect which makes their skin blue.  The book takes place during the Great Depression in Kentucky.  The Blue people are discriminated against, just as Black people are.  A doctor discovers a remedy that renders the skin ‘white’, but only temporarily.   Once again, book club leads me to learn something I knew nothing about.  The style of writing was okay.

Book 7
The Pigeon Pie Mystery by Julia Stuart.
A light-hearted mystery to finish out the year.  I was not paying too much attention to the details of the mystery, but found the characters and scenes very amusing.

Book 8
These Truths:  A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore. © 2018.  
I first started reading this in late 2018. It took me two years to finish, but finish I did!  This book is 900+ pages.  It was not until I got near the end that I found out that fully 35% of the book is footnotes and bibliography!   That said, it is still 787 pages of reading material, but worth reading.

I will put my comments about it in this separate post.

What about you?  What are you reading?