Sunday, October 3, 2010
Epiphany in the Library
Last weekend, it was my birthday, and a friend took me to Abingdon, a two-hour drive from here. We stayed overnight at the historic Martha Washington Hotel, which dates back to the Civil War and has a reputation for being haunted.
After an oversized marguerita on the hotel verandah and a dinner of appetizers on the patio, we repaired to the library and were immediately transported to another century. The room was poorly lit: dim, low-hanging lights covered with small orange shades were suspended from the high ceiling above the tan leather sofa. A monstrously tall steel ladder leaned against rows of book shelves that stretched as high as the eye could see, and contained an interesting collection of volumes related to Southern history and literature.
My hand mysteriously gravitated towards a paperback called "The Strange Career of Jim Crow," by C. Vann Woodward. No sooner had I sat down, book in hand, next to my friend on the sofa, when a staff person appeared bearing a silver platter on which sat a bottle of port surrounded by six glasses. Yelping with excitement, we leapt up to try some, after which my friend said, "They're in here." "Who's in here?" I asked, baffled, as the library was empty, except for us. "The ghosts," she said. "They're behind the sofa, sitting in front of the fire place. I can feel them."
I'm not sure whether I even believe in ghosts, but since I was a little bit tipsy, I suggested inviting them over for a glass of port and a chat. My friend's eyes went wide. "You don't mess around with ghosts," she scolded, in her delicious Australian accent. She explained that she has been sensitive to ghostly presences ever since childhood.
"It's a man and a woman," she went on. "I'm sure of it." "Well," I giggled, "you've managed to narrow it down a lot. Good job!" Then she picked up a brochure from the low table in front of us and began reading out loud. The text turned out to describe the ghosts said to still be residing in the house--namely, a Civil War soldier who had been wounded and subsequently died there after being nursed--by a woman who also died, a short while later, of typhoid. "See," my friend said. "I told you." Once the talk of ghosts had receded (and I knew we weren't about to meet any), I opened the book on my lap and began to read a paragraph at random. That was when I had my epiphany about Barack Obama.
People who follow this blog will know that I write about Obama a lot. I study him, and the way he reacts to things. I have often wondered, for instance, how he withstands the hatred and vitriol and blatant racism that is relentlessly thrown at him every single day. Since it makes ME feel crazy, I have to wonder how, as the direct target, it makes HIM feel. Obama seems able to ignore the disrespect and endless ingratitude somehow--he just plods on irregardless, as if none of this were happening, much less to him. It's gotten to the point where people like Arianna Huffington (and some of her cohorts on Huffington Post) accuse him of being "conflict-averse." Are they right? I've sometimes wondered myself if this isn't a character flaw. But as I've said many times, Obama never takes the bait. He doesn't respond to disrespect; he doesn't get angry or attack back--causing some people to conclude that he is weak and insipid, "without a spine."
The mind, as Annie Dillard once wrote, is a marvelous monster. As I started to say, no sooner did I read the following paragraph--which I am about to share with you--from the book on my lap, my brain secreted, like goo, a profound insight that, at least for me, resolved the whole issue of Obama being conflict-averse once and for all:
"On 1 February [of 1960] four Negro college boys, freshmen at the Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina, asked politely for coffee at Woolworth's lunch counter and continued to sit in silent protest when refused. The 'sit-in,' nemesis of Jim, Crow [laws which mandated segregated public facilities], was born. In a week it spread to six other cities of the state, and by the end of the month to seven other Southern states. The self-discipline and fortitude of the youths, who silently bore abuse and insult, touched the white South's respect for courage." More than fifty years after that historic act, the former five-and-dime store became a Civil Rights Center and Museum.
All the major civil rights organizations were committed to the Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence, as prescribed by their leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. "We will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer," King told the whites, "and in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process."
What happened in the library was that I had a clear vision of Obama, sitting in solidarity with those youths at the lunch counter, calmly exercising "self-discipline and fortitude as they silently bore abuse and insult." The students didn't fight back, but it wasn't because they were "conflict-averse." In a moment of insight, I saw the lunch counter morph into the White House.
The next morning at breakfast in the hotel, while eating my sweet potato pancakes and bacon, I asked my friend if she would think I was a bad person if I went back and stole that book from the library. Not at all, she said. Before checking out, we went back into the library. I got momentarily distracted reading the op-ed pages in the Wall Street Journal, a copy of which was sitting on the table. (The bottle of port was gone.) I had already taken the book from the shelf, and it was lying next to me on the sofa.
My friend excused herself for a minute and went outside. When she came back, she was merrily waving the book at me (I hadn't even realized she'd taken it), chiming "Happy Birthday, Suzi!" She had just gone outside to negotiate its purchase with the front desk clerk. Then she said, "You were going to steal it, Suzi. I couldn't let you turn yourself into a criminal--not on your birthday anyway." It could well be the most extraordinary birthday present I ever got.
A few days later, back in Blacksburg, I found myself reading "Tea and Crackers," an article in Rolling Stone magazine about Tea Partiers, written by Matt Taibbi. The author traveled around the country interviewing random people at their rallies. At one fundraising event in northern Kentucky for Libertarian Rand Paul, Taibbi struck up a conversation with a retired judge who was introducing the candidate at the event. Taibbi asked him what he thinks about Paul's position on the Civil Rights Act. Rand Paul has called the Act unconstitutional and believes it should be repealed, because it exemplifies an unacceptable government intrusion into the private realm. "Well, hell," the judge replies, "if it's your restaurant, you're putting up the money, you should be able to do what you want. I tell you, every time he [Paul] says something like that, in Kentucky he goes up 20 points in the polls. With Kentucky voters, it's not a problem."
In Lexington, Taibbi posed the same question to a local Tea Party organizer. "You as a private-property owner have the right to refuse service for whatever reason you feel will better your business," she replies, comparing the Civil Rights Act to onerous anti-smoking laws. "If you're for small government, you're for small government."
"You look into the eyes of these people when you talk to them and they genuinely don't see what the problem is," Taibbi writes. "It's no use explaining that while nobody likes the idea of having to get the government to tell restaurant owners how to act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the tool Americans were forced to use to end a monstrous system of apartheid that for 100 years was the shame of the entire Western world. But all that history is not real to Tea Partiers; what's real to them is the implication in your question that they're racists, and to them that is the outrage, and it's an outrage that binds them together. They want desperately to believe in the one-size-fits-all, no-government theology of Rand Paul because it's so easy to understand. At times, their desire to withdraw from the brutally complex global economic system that is an irrevocable fact of our modern life and get back to a simpler world that no longer exists is so intense, it breaks your heart."
This is from an article from the October 15, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone, now available on newsstands. In the same issue, Jann S. Wenner interviews Barack Obama, asking him:
"How do you feel about the fact that day after day, there's this really destructive attack on whatever you propose? Does that bother you? Has it shocked you?"
"I don't think it's a shock.," he replies. "I had served in the United States Senate; I had seen how the filibuster had become a routine tool to slow things down, as opposed to what it used to be, which was a selective tool — although often a very destructive one, because it was typically targeted at civil rights and the aspirations of African-Americans who were trying to be freed up from Jim Crow. But I'd been in the Senate long enough to know that the machinery there was breaking down.
"What I was surprised somewhat by, and disappointed by, although I've got to give some grudging admiration for just how effective it's been, was the degree to which [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell was able to keep his caucus together on a lot of issues. Eventually, we were able to wear them down, so that we were able to finally get really important laws passed, some of which haven't gotten a lot of attention — the credit-card reform bill, or the anti-tobacco legislation, or preventing housing and mortgage fraud. We'd be able to pick off two or three Republicans who wanted to do the right thing.
"But the delays, the cloture votes, the unprecedented obstruction that has taken place in the Senate took its toll. Even if you eventually got something done, it would take so long and it would be so contentious, that it sent a message to the public that "Gosh, Obama said he was going to come in and change Washington, and it's exactly the same, it's more contentious than ever." Everything just seems to drag on — even what should be routine activities, like appointments, aren't happening. So it created an atmosphere in which a public that is already very skeptical of government, but was maybe feeling hopeful right after my election, felt deflated and sort of felt, "We're just seeing more of the same."
Readers, have no doubt: Woolworth's lunch counter is still very much alive within the confines of even the newly decorated Oval Office. If these Republican/Tea Partiers manage to win in November, they will do their best to repeal everything ever authored by Obama. And more.
You think it can't happen? I'm with Marie Burns, a reader who comments regularly on op-ed pieces in the New York Times. She recently wrote: "Just yesterday I read that 41% of Americans can't name the Vice President of the United States. But somehow a bunch of them have positive proof President Obama was born in Kenya & is plotting to impose Islamic law on the nation. I'm not laughing anymore. I'm alarmed."
"Me, too," says Virgil. "It's a humanity problem. I'm putting the date on my calendar and reserving a seat at the lunch counter in advance: my way of expressing the virtues of beauty, clarity, and strength without embellishment.