Children Will Listen

I didn’t realize until today, but Stephen Sondheim taught me the power stories have in our lives. I’ve been enjoying and learning from his music for the last two decades and my life is immeasurably better for it. I share stories with my children knowing that they will listen.

Thank you Stephen for writing and writing and writing and sharing it all with the world.

Thomas Jefferson

The New York City Council voted to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from the city council chambers. I feel ambivalent about it, but thought I might work out some thoughts in a post.

Art is a symbol. Symbols have power because they enable us to capture ideas and communicate them to others. Art in particular has power because it conveys information and emotion – a great deal of it. It compels us to feel and think. Good art compels us to feel and think different feelings and thoughts, leading to introspection and conversation, allowing us to learn about each other and ourselves. This is one reason I find “preachy art” so annoying. If the only conversation it promotes is, “I agree” or “I disagree,” then it has failed its purpose as art; it’s become propoganda (which has its place, but that’s a topic for another post).

By this criteria, it seems that the statue of Thomas Jefferson at issue is probably good art. It inspires feelings of patriotism and pride in some. It reminds some of Jefferson’s words that “all men are created equal.” Its creator crafted it to celebrate Jefferson’s efforts to establish religious freedom. For others, it reminds them of the blatant hypocrisy of so many of the founding fathers; that despite their rhetoric about freedom and equality, most of them owned slaves. It reminds some that for the majority of the time our constitutional government has existed, the rhetoric of freedom has coincided with unequal treatment – lawful and unlawful – of immigrants, Jews, Catholics, Irish, Black people, Native people, Hispanics, and more.

It is valuable for each of us to share what we see in art such as this. I think public art should reflect the ideals of the community as a whole. There will always be some people who are offended by a work of art. It seems every installation of public art draws protest. There will always be people who love art that offends the majority. These are public debates in which everyone deserves a voice. But eventually a decision has to be made and in our system of government, the majority should be making that decision.

Fortunately, because art is open to interpretation, the story we tell about art is just as important as the art itself. The statue of Thomas Jefferson is either a tribute to religious freedom or a symbol of white supremacy, depending on who tells the story. Its removal can be a story of iconoclasm and fear taking over our society or it can be a story of our continuing effort to better ourselves as a people and as a nation. We control the story we tell ourselves and each other. The stories that are told the most powerfully, the stories that inspire hope, the stories that advocate for good can win, but only if we tell them. If we spend our time repeating – out of fear – the stories the degrade and detract, then fear wins. This doesn’t require we never change what art we place in public spaces! But I think it is valuable to see if you can try to craft an inspiring story about whatever art is placed there, even if you preferred a different choice.

Perhaps we could avoid all this debate by getting rid of all the statues. My ancestors – both Mormon and, further back, Protestant – rejected the use of most art in public spaces. While I think they went too far – visiting Italy showed me how statues can be an expression of beauty and assist in worship – I have sympathy for their reasoning.

One of the early purveyors of the anti-art attitudes was Savonarola, a monk who preached in Renaissance Florence. Savonarola sought to rid the city of sin by burning all the vanities – priceless works of art and academia that Savonarola considered evidence of and encouragement to sin. Savonarola saw this art, particularly those pieces inspired by ancient Greeks and Romans, as corrupting and distracting from the work of God. He inspired gangs of young men to go around the city gathering these vanities to be burned in a public bonfire. His preaching was apparently persuasive and infectious. Few people were willing to publicly speak out or defy these efforts, including vaunted intellectuals and artists who were contemporaries of and mentors to Michelangelo.

The burning of the vanities was a tragedy, but we can recognize that Savonarola’s criticisms have a source. The Catholic Church of his time had lost its way, focused on maintaining the power of Rome and the clergy, rather than bringing Christ to the people and the people to Christ. His efforts, along with many other reformers, did push the Church to reevaluate it’s mission and how it was achieving it. Unfortunately, it acted too slowly and too late to prevent schism.

Regardless, Savonarola’s mission failed. Destroying statues didn’t fix the hearts of people. Art can inspire and educate, but it is an expression of our ideas, not the wellspring. Stamping out offensive art may hide our sins, but it does not erase them.

We can see today’s Savonarolas as extremists and seek to “excommunicate” them, denying not just the expression of their claims, but also the substance. I fear that this will lead to further division. Instead, I think this is an opportunity to refocus our country and our ideals. We are not a nation of men, but of laws. We are not Thomas Jefferson’s country, but the country of the Declaration of Independence. He may have penned the words, but he was no god nor saint.

If we believe in our ideals, we need to recognize the ways we fall short of them. Too many people are left out of the prosperity of the nation. It is harder to be a mother, an immigrant, a Black person, a gay person. We may have passed the Civil Rights Act decades ago, but rooting racism and other bigotry out of our culture and institutions is an ongoing work. You can’t expect to overcome the culture and attitudes of centuries in only one generation.

Let’s not pull down all the statues and let’s certainly not destroy them. It would do far more to place tributes to the enslaved and colonized around (and perhaps above) the enslavers and colonizers. We would not be here without any of them, flawed as every single one of them were. We can pay tribute to all our ancestors, both by birth and by ideals. The greatest tribute to them, though, will go far beyond statues.

The greatest tribute will be continuing to put their ideas about equality into practice and perfecting the techniques and government they gave us. The founding fathers were not reactionaries seeking to preserve the old. They were revolutionaries looking to create something new and better than what came before. We should do the same, seeking to recognize the flaws in the institutions created by these flawed men and improve on them. That will honor them and benefit us far more than any statue.

A couple articles I found while writing this:

Thomas Jefferson Was More Than a Man of His Times – The Atlantic

Opinion | The Debate Over a Jefferson Statue Is Missing Some Surprising History – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Keep calm and be patient

I think that it’s true that this election is a big deal. It will have a major impact on the direction of U.S. policy for the next decade, at least. It will likely have a major impact on the shape of the Republican party. If Trump loses, Trumpism will (hopefully) collapse. If he wins, then it will likely have a longer life.

But we’re almost certainly not going to know the results tonight. Early counts will not be conclusive. Any early calls are unlikely to be correct, since there will be so many mail-in ballots to count. Some states will have fairly conclusive results to report tonight, but most won’t. Some states will take days and even weeks to count them all. If the race is close, that means it will take a while to know who wins.

Another factor will be legal challenges. President Trump and the Republican party have been filing many lawsuits to restrict the counting of ballots. Democrats have been defending those counts or filing their own lawsuits to expand the availability of ballots. The outcome of these lawsuits could affect the outcome in some states.

The final factor is how willing everyone is to accept the vote counts. President Trump questioned the accuracy of the vote count in the election he won. He’s been raising the specter of voter fraud for years, claiming that if he loses, it’s because Democrats cheated. Many of the other leaders of the party, however, have committed to a peaceful transfer of power. Trump is not the Republican party, as much as he would like to be.

My point is that we will know the winner, but it will take time. We all need to take a deep breath and be patient. And whatever happens, the future of this country is not in the hands of whoever gives his inaugural address on January 20. It is in our hands. It will be determined by how we treat our neighbors and by how we build (or tear down) our local communities. If we all commit to build rather than destroy, then no president can stop that.

Ye Shall Not Cast Him Out

For those of you who also suffered through The Scarlet Letter, you have my commiserations. I did not enjoy reading the book. Regardless, it’s a cultural touchstone and gives us a shorthand to talk about complex topics.

One such topic is America’s Puritan past, which heavily influences our dominate culture. The Puritans left us with a mixed legacy. They gave us an ideal to strive for – the idea that we could build a community that would be a city on a hill, a light to the world. But they also left us with a legacy of intolerance for those who do not fit neatly into whatever ideal we are seeking to achieve.

Continue reading “Ye Shall Not Cast Him Out”

Should we cancel Paul?

Paul holding coats during Stephen’s stoning

The first we hear of Paul in Acts, he held the coats for the men who stoned Stephen. Shortly after this account, he is recorded dragging men and women off to prison for believing in Christ. Eventually, he is given permission to seek out Christians in Damascus.

After a vision, losing his sight, then miraculously having it returned to him, Paul does a complete 180. From that moment on, he teaches everyone he meets of Christ. A significant portion of the New Testament was written by him. A great deal of Christian thought can be traced to his writings.

Continue reading “Should we cancel Paul?”

What do you do?

I dread this question.

Well, that’s a little strong. I don’t like this question. I avoid asking it and I don’t really like when others ask me.

Why? Because it’s hard to answer. The expectation is that I say one thing – my career. I often go with the easiest answer – I’m a lawyer. Most people don’t really want to hear the full answer: I studied law so I do some work in the area, but I also take care of the kids and house and I’m spending more time writing also; you may also be wondering how we provide for ourselves, and my wife is the full-time breadwinner and she’s an engineer.

There’s also residual guilt from growing up in a culture that teaches the man must be the full-time breadwinner, so I want to provide the context that my wife finds her work more fulfilling and engaging than I did and she had better opportunities and I also think it’s important that a parent is at home and…well, it could get long and full of details few people want to know.

But does that mean it’s a bad question? No, I just need to work on my answer.

So, what do I do?

I’m a father. I know, I know, it doesn’t really answer your question. You could see I’m a dad from the toys around the house, the cheerios in my hand, the kids running around. But I list it first because, to me, it is the most important thing. I’m willing to sacrifice career for it because my family has the blessing of being able to be a one-income household. I also think that it should be more acceptable, and more expected, that fathers sacrifice for their families. It’s far too common for us to accept and expect women to sacrifice career goals for family while men are expected to sacrifice family for careers. If we seek more balance, our workplaces and our homes will be all the better for it.

I am a lawyer. I became a lawyer because I believe in the importance and value of law to our society. I believe that society is better off with lawyers – people who dedicate their careers to understanding the rules of society and using those rules to keep things running relatively smoothly. I do some work for local clients to, hopefully, improve their lives a little. I will also probably write about legal things in this blog because these are the kinds of things I think about. Though I’m not in love with the little details of the law. I like the big picture stuff, policy-level stuff. I did a lot better at Constitutional Law than Civil Procedure (though I did learn from Civ Pro why the “due process of law” – how we interpret it – matters).

I am a writer. I write for lots of reasons. I want to tell stories because stories help us understand our world and ourselves better. I want to ask questions because questions lead us to better ideas. I want to discuss ideas because it is fascinating and fun to explore how ideas connect and relate to each other. I want to get things out of my head because I am in a better place mentally and emotionally when I have time to write.

One final note, because this relates to why I didn’t become a writer from the outset of my adult life. I want to write a little defense of those who dedicate their lives to “entertainment.” These storytellers are important to society. I’m broadening storyteller here to include not just authors, but also screenwriters, directors, actors, singers, maybe even painters and video game programmers and more. Some people rag on these professions because they aren’t doing “valuable work.” They couldn’t possibly provide any valuable input for society.

I beg to differ. First, if society didn’t value their work, then why do we spend so much money on it? Second, they’re just people. Some of them, particularly the most visible, are wealthy and some act badly. But that has less to do with them being in entertainment and more to do with them being people. Finally, storytellers, in trying to tell stories, seek to understand people. They may not understand all the complex interactions of law, economics, foreign policy, etc., but I think we should be grateful when these people who we accuse of being self-centered use their platform to speak on behalf of others. Even if we don’t agree with what they advocate, telling someone they shouldn’t engage in trying to improve society is the wrong approach.

Storytellers also, in trying to perfect their craft, learn truths about the world that go deeper than the creeds of religion and politics. That doesn’t mean everything they say is true, just that we should see if there is something we can learn from them. I’m not arguing for the worship of celebrity, just that we shouldn’t discount an opinion because it came from a storyteller.