Monday, July 09, 2018

Roe isn’t just about women’s reproductive rights ...

Nancy Northup
of the Center for
Reproductive Rights
Nancy Northup's op-ed in today's Washington Post gives a good reason why even an abortion opponent ought to withhold support from President Trump's nominee to replace Antonin on the Supreme Court. (Trump is expected to announce the identity of his nominee later today from among four possibilities, all of whom are known to be anti-choice.) Northup, president and chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights, makes a convincing case that "everyone’s personal-liberty rights are on the line" with this nomination.

The reason is that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision (as upheld in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey) that held that the government cannot constitutionally interfere with individuals' personal-liberty rights is part of a long line of decisions which do not necessarily affect women's reproductive rights. Northup writes:

Just as Roe rested on past liberty decisions, it became the basis for future ones — including outside the area of women’s reproductive rights. The court cited Roe and Casey’s reasoning in a broad range of subsequent cases. Those include landmark decisions protecting liberty rights, as in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which held that the government cannot criminalize intimate sexual conduct between same-sex partners, and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry.

This line of precedent protects us all, and a post-Kennedy Supreme Court could not sever it without threatening to destroy our “realm of personal liberty.”

... In deciding Roe, the court looked to cases in the 1920s on the right of parents to educate their children according to their values and ideas, and the justices drew a line to landmark decisions affirming the right to use contraception and, in 1967’s Loving v. Virginia, the right to marry someone of a different race.

I agree with Northup, even though I am personally not all that happy with Roe-legalized abortion. I think reversing Roe and Casey would undermine too much settled personal-liberty law well outside the sphere of reproductive rights.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Breaking Faith

Todd Gitlin
In today's Washington Post cultural commentator Todd Gitlin says, "This was the most gutting month for liberals in half a century." Gitlin has been a voice for liberal activism for nearly 60 years, since his days as a student at Harvard when he was involved in protesting nuclear armaments.

In his Post article, he's once again rallying the troops of the left:

The challenge for a left that wants to win power is existential as well as strategic and tactical. If you were gobsmacked by Trump’s ascent, the question is whether you can, in the words of the civil rights anthem, “keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.” The prize is not won by wishing, however vehemently. The center is equally challenged: Can it cohabit with the left under a big tent?


Perhaps the evidence that national politics is rigged for the right reinforces the view that America was foredoomed from the days of the slave trade; that racism and nativism are unwavering, foundational, even insuperable; that Barack Obama’s kind of change cannot, in the end, be believed in; that efforts to win over the moderate are silly; that confrontational moves are the only ones that feel authentic. In an emergency, they will say, incrementalism and politics as usual are irrelevant. Be blunt and direct. Denounce the secretary of homeland security at a Mexican restaurant. Ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave.

I disagree. I'm not on board with that view for the reason that it characterizes American politics as being nothing more than a tug of war:

The political right pulls in its own direction as hard as it can. The left does the same in the opposite direction. Since Trump became president, the right has been dominant. Gitlin suggests the left can recoup if it adopts the motto, "Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize." Put slightly differently, the individuals of the American left just need to coordinate with one another more effectively as they tug on the rope.

David Brooks
But that presupposes what this current blog post rues: the idea that our culture is made up of nothing more than an array of "atomic" units, each of us a radically separate, individual person with no hard-and-fast commitments to any particular social institutions that are supposed to furnish the glue that holds us together. As New York Times opinion writer David Brooks tells us in "Anthony Kennedy and the Privatization of Meaning," in our present-day culture of what I'm calling "atomic individualism" we have broken faith with "communal patterns and shared cultural norms and certain enforced guardrails [that] help us restrain our desires and keep us free."

During my own young adulthood in the mid-to-late 1960s, I bought into the notion of atomic individualism without much thinking about it. It was easy. Given that I was against the Vietnam War, I adopted the attitude that each young man of my generation had the "right" to resist the draft. Millions of my male age peers had the same attitude. The idea that we ought to kowtow to the institutional basis of the draft — the Selective Service System, an arm of the U.S. government — was completely foreign to our way of thinking.

We who opposed the draft also supported, by and large, the idea that the government was correct to step in and promote civil rights for African Americans. We felt we could pick and choose. Strong government = civil rights enforcement, yes. Strong government = draft enforcement, no.

That worldview, taken at its most abstract, means that any institution that stands between us as individuals and that which we consider to be "true" — that people of color should be equal to whites, yes, but not that any of us ought to be subject to the military draft — is disposable. The sundry institutional components of the U.S. government are things we can, if we so desire, freely break faith with.

We of my generation have quite selectively exercised our self-appointed options to break faith with not only particular governmental institutions but also "social institutions like family, schools that take morality seriously and a shared civic order," in the words of David Brooks. We have selectively dodged the "roles that define us — father, mother, neighbor, citizen and legislator." We have embraced the worldview that retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy summarized: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."

And that notion of radical individualism, all mediating institutions be damned, undergirds rightist thought, not just leftist. Thus does the conservatism of President Ronald Reagan mutate into that of President Donald Trump, according to whom the institutions that duly constitute our government in Washington, DC, have morphed into "the swamp."

Once you've selected which governmental institutions you don't reject, you wind up on one end or the other of the rope, in a neverending tug of war.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Ethnicity in America

Pat Buchanan
New York Times opinion writer Charles M. Blow, in "White Extinction Anxiety," talks about the racial views of longtime Republican stalwart Pat Buchanan. Buchanan says that we white Americans are poised to lose our very identity due to demographic trends which mean that the country will be majority-minority even sooner than experts used to think.

Buchanan has said, "You cannot stop these sentiments of people who want to live together with their own and they want their borders protected."

Buchanan's wrong. White people who "want to live together with their own" can instead learn to accommodate themselves to multiculturalism.

My own life is a case in point. I grew up as a racist. I'm no longer a racist.

I was born into the white American middle class in 1947. At that time, virtually no progress had been made in civil rights. I imbibed my parents' view that blacks were inferior to whites intellectually and morally.

I knew very few African Americans during my childhood. My family had a once-a-week "colored" maid, Frances. She was a nice enough person, but she could barely read and write.

My elementary school was all-white, but the janitor was a black man, Rev. Snowden. I assumed he was just a janitor because of his racial inferiority.

In the early 1960s the civil rights movement began to pick up steam. I was opposed to it. I thought racial integration was never going to work. I also thought all white people felt the same way.

In 1963 and 1964, I had a summer job in the mail room of the National Republican Congressional Committee. No non-whites worked at the NRCC. Our mail room was, however, occasionally visited by a young black man who was a message courier. One day, not knowing he was in another part of the room, I accidentally uttered the N-word in his presence. My co-workers shushed me. I was quite embarrassed at having hurt the courier's feelings by using a word that I usually never spoke. The next time he arrived in our mail room, I apologized ... and he accepted my apology. It may have been the first time I ever dealt with a black person as an actual human being.

When I was a freshman at Georgetown University in 1965, I let it drop to a new friend — a white man with whom I am still friends — that I thought blacks to be inferior to whites. My friend reamed me out for believing such a thing. It was the first time I ever knew that white people could truly accept "Negroes" (as African Americans were then called) as equals.

For quite a while from that time on, I was on the fence with regard to black equality and civil rights. But I was no longer an out-and-out racist. Looking back, I can't quite explain why I was shifting my views. I guess it may have been because I found I had very few white friends who were themselves out-and-out racists.

There came a time perhaps 20 years ago when my nearly all-white neighborhood turned multiethnic. My next door neighbors were black. Then, by about 10 years ago, my neighbors on the other side of my house were also a black family. I was at first scared that the neighborhood was going downhill. But that didn't happen. In fact, I found I got along well with my new black neighbors.

As time has marched on, I've come to know any number of black people ... and found that I like all of them.

You can't really like people unless you realize they are like you. Black people are not different from whites in any really important way. Oh, there are a great many differences between black cultural norms and white ones. But those differences are only superficial ones. Deep down, whites and blacks are just alike. The realizing of that fact was what has (gradually) made it possible for me to stop being a racist.

If that can happen to me, it can happen to anyone who is a white racist. It can even happen to Pat Buchanan.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Celebrating Our Differences

Andressa Maciel
Andressa Maciel is a black Brazilian woman whose return to a natural hairstyle has been, in her words, a "political act." She and a lot of other Brazilian women of color have stopped straightening their hair, says a recent article in The Washington Post. "Black Brazilians are ditching hair straighteners and white standards of beauty," the article's headline reads.

Black and brown Brazilians make up more than half Brazil’s population, the article says. Their dark-hued ancestors were brought to Brazil as slaves from Africa in past centuries. Upon their arrival in the New World, their heads were promptly shaved. Their situation undermined, the article tells us,

... any sense of ethnic belonging that those people could have carried in their relationship with their hair," said Amanda Braga, who wrote a book about the history of black beauty in Brazil.

Fast forward to today. We read in the Post article that the brasileira Aline Bibiano was bullied as a child by her white classmates for her "bad" hair. Today, ten-year-old Ana Luiza, the daughter of Aparecida Jesus, likewise gets bullied in school for not conforming to white standards of female beauty in Brazil.

My concern here has to do with the bullying aspect of it. This article makes me realize that bullying is what happens when one group, call them the "power elite," seeks to disparage another group for being (a) "different" and (b) not part of the power elite.

I was on the receiving end of bullying when I was in junior high school. What was "different" about me was simply that I walked to and from school with a bunch of girls. It was supposedly not something any self-respecting boy of 12 or 13 was supposed to do.

To me today that seems a very minor difference, certainly not one that is as instantly obvious as having dark skin or kinky hair in a society in which white coloration or hair textures characterize the power elite. But we humans do seem to be ultra-sensitive to the ways in which others don't conform to our supposed norms.


The Beatles

Just a few years after I got bullied in 1959 or 1960 as a seventh or eighth grader, along came the Beatles. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr defied the norms of their day by growing their hair long. Strange as it may seem now, they got accused of effeminacy. Yet within a year or so, young American white men were likewise growing their hair long.

Black men such as Jimi Hendrix followed suit:

Jimi Hendrix

As did black women such as Diana Ross:

Diana Ross

By the 1970s, numerous young whites (female and male) were getting permanents that yielded an Afro look.

The old stigmas were gone. It had not only become OK for men to grow long hair, it was even OK for white girls and boys to sport curly or kinky hair. A number of of our cultural norms had been (at least temporarily) repealed.


What hadn't been repealed, though, was our human tendency to impose cultural norms in the first place, and to bully those who don't conform. Apparently, though, the norms that were still in force in Brazil in the 1960s and '70s concerning race, color, and hair type didn't change. This is why letting one's hair grow out naturally curly or kinky still carries a political message in today's Brazil.

I don't think we can change human nature. But we can alter how we express our intrinsic human nature:

  • We can cease to be slaves to our worst, most inhumane tendencies.
  • We can teach our children to celebrate, rather than malign, our differences.
  • We can stop bullying one another.

Monday, June 18, 2018

On Relationalism, Part II

Or, "Harmony of the Soul: Lessons from Dead Man Walking."

Profundity from John Kelly's column in a recent Washington Post, "An unnerving Father’s Day gift has left me pondering portraiture — and the soul":

We’ve all heard about people from primitive cultures who fear photography, certain it will steal the soul. But some modern people have felt that way, too. In his memoir, the 19th-century French photographer Félix Nadar wrote that writer Honoré de Balzac believed physical bodies were made of layers of ghostly images that were laid atop one another like thin skins.

Balzac, Nadar wrote, “concluded that every time someone had his photograph taken, one of the spectral layers was removed from the body and transferred to the photograph. Repeated exposures entailed the unavoidable loss of subsequent ghostly layers, that is, the very essence of life.”

Honoré de Balzac,
photo by Nadar
Ghostly layers of the body, peeled away by photographic portraiture? I think this recondite notion is really a metaphor for the layers of the human soul, not of the physical body. I think a photo can indeed transfer one of the laminae of the soul — again, speaking metaphorically — to a piece of paper or onto a web page.

In my earlier post "On Relationalism, Part I," I talked about my belief that the "stuff" of reality actually consists of a set of relationships and is not merely an aggregate of individual, separate entities that are only secondarily in relationship with one another.

I used the analogy of a seesaw:

A seesaw is only a seesaw when a plank is balanced on a fulcrum. Otherwise, it's just a plank lying by itself on the ground and, quite separately, some sort of "upright pointy thing."

Now let me add that a seesaw is only really a seesaw when the two children we see silhouetted in the picture are playing on it. The kids are an essential part of the seesaw relationship.

OK, I admit that all this is more than a bit recherché and abstruse. You ask, what's the point? I'll try to answer that question now. To do so, I'd like to talk about the movie Dead Man Walking. (The following constitutes a spoiler for the ending of the movie, so stop reading now if you don't want the outcome spoiled.)

Dead Man Walking is the real-life story of a relationship that develops between a Catholic nun, Sister Helen Préjean (played by Susan Sarandon), and a convicted killer, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn). Poncelet is on death row in a Louisiana prison after a jury has found him guilty of involvement in the killing of a young couple who were engaging in private intimacies while parked in a car in the woods. The young woman was raped and then shot. Her boyfriend was shot to death.

Poncelet, desperate to escape death by lethal injection, has written to Sister Helen to get her help in obtaining a new trial. Sister Helen is not, at the outset, sure why she's agreed to see him at all. When she first visits him, she finds his personality reprehensible. She can't stand the man — and neither can we, the movie's audience.

Though Poncelet adamantly maintains his innocence of committing either murder or rape, she does not feel his tale of innocence matches his personality type. Yet she has a vague notion that her Christian duty means that she mustn't simply spurn him.

Over the course of the relationship between Sister Helen and Poncelet as it develops, she focuses mainly on the fact that he is refusing to own up to the horror of what he did. He, on the other hand, insists that he did nothing except, while under the influence of liquor and drugs, bend to the will of the other man involved in the rape-murder. He, Poncelet, claims he even tried to stop the other man from carrying out his heinous acts.

Sister Helen keeps on visiting Poncelet in prison. Meanwhile, she takes it upon herself to visit with the families of the dead young man and woman, to offer aid and succor. The boy's father meets with her — his wife has left him in the wake of the loss of their son — but refuses to give up his justifiable anger. The girl's parents prove to be even angrier.

Weeks and months go by. The lawyer whom Sister Helen has interested in the Poncelet case tries every available legal strategy to get Poncelet's conviction set aside. None of the strategies pay off. With the day of Poncelet's execution rapidly approaching, that man on death row gets Sister Helen to arrange for him to take a lie detector test. The test is inconclusive. Either Poncelet is lying, or the stress he is naturally under as his execution day approaches has kept him from responding conclusively on the polygraph.

Sister Helen feels intuitively that Poncelet is lying, as much to himself as to the rest of the world. Then the day of his execution arrives. As promised, Sister Helen comes to the prison to stand beside him. This is not because she thinks him innocent, but out of the Christian realization of "the example of Jesus who said that every person is worth more than their worst act."

With just minutes left to live, Matthew Poncelet finally unburdens himself to Sister Helen. He admits, as much to himself as to her or to God, that he was in fact the one who put the fatal bullet in the young victim's head, and that he also took part in the rape of the young woman just before the other perpetrator shot her. Poncelet is now what he never could have been before: truly sad about the pain he has caused the families of his victims. It is a scene in which Sister Helen, like the movie's audience, realizes that in his act of self-honesty and repentance, Matthew Poncelet has finally found God.

As Poncelet takes his final walk to the execution chamber, Sister Helen walks behind him while placing her hand on his shoulder, steadying him. She stills his fear by telling him, "Christ is here."


Diagrammatically, it is as if Sister Helen and Matthew Poncelet match up with the two individuals shown as children silhouetted on a seesaw in the illustration above. And the fulcrum between them is ... Jesus Christ. He is present in the finally fully truthful relationship the nun and the man have at last established within and between themselves at the eleventh hour of the man's appointed time on earth.

But keep in mind that Sister Helen's and Matthew Poncelet's relationship with one another was cemented well before he broke down and repented his acts to her at the eleventh hour ... and well before she arrived at the full self-knowledge by which to explain why she kept going back to the prison to visit Poncelet.

What was going on at that earlier stage of their relationship? I'd say the relationship was at that point one that had been established between two of the shallower layers of their respective psyches.

But neither person was yet being fully honest with themselves, or with each other. Yes, they were already bound together in a relationship that would eventually lead to full self-understanding and reciprocal honesty between them.

Just as David Brooks, in his op-ed piece "Personalism: The Philosophy We Need," tells us "people are always way more complicated than you think," Dead Man Walking tells us the same thing. We see two people, Sister Helen Préjean and Matthew Poncelet, who are as yet only in touch with at best an "outer" layer of their human soul. Yet the movie also winds up showing us the fullness of what every one of us truly is. It shows us, that is, the Christ within.


The many layers of a human soul are a prime example of what I'm calling relationalism. One way to visualize those layers in their relational complexity comes from the nature of musical chords.

A musical chord is a combination of notes being sounded together. The piano notes C, E, and G, played together, make up a C major triad. In general, a "triad" is any group of three notes played together. If you play the notes, not together, but in rapid succession, you have "arpeggiated" the chord.

If the C of the C major chord C-E-G is the lowest note that you play, the chord is in "root position." The "root" of the C major chord is, unsurprisingly, C. The C major chord C-E-G is in root position if the lowest note that is being sounded is C — no matter whether you arpeggiate the chord or not.

Suppose you move the note C up one octave on the piano keyboard. Now the C major triad can be played as E-G-C rather than C-E-G. E-G-C is the "first inversion" of the C major triad C-E-G. It has E as the lowest note that is being sounded. It sounds noticeably different from C-E-G ... and yet the ear can also tell it's the same C major chord.

The same is true of the "second inversion" of the C major triad, G-C-E. The second inversion is achieved by moving both C and E up an octave, making G the lowest note that is being sounded. The ear somehow "knows" that G-C-E, E-G-C, and C-E-G are all in some way the "same" chord, even when different notes of the chord are the lowest sounded notes. And this is true whether the notes of the chord are sounded at exactly the same time or are arpeggiated in rapid succession.

I'd like to extend the analogy, now, by saying that root-position triads and their first and second inversions are all equally "legitimate." G-C-E, E-G-C, and C-E-G are all, if put in terms of music theory, equally harmonious. They all have just as good a place in the grand scheme of things.

The real question is, indeed, one of harmony. When the notes are in proper harmony, the music is sweet. When the many layers of the human personality are in harmony with one another, the soul is sweet.

That, I think, is what it means to find the Christ within: to experience the harmony that comes when the various layers of our psyche are all in perfect accord with one another.

Matthew Poncelet found that perfect accord just before he was put to death by lethal injection. And in finding out why she needed to be there, walking behind him, consoling him, Sister Helen likewise found the Christ within her own soul.

The analogy between musical harmony and soul harmony explains why every human is "different, yet the same." We are all, in so many ways, different. Some of us are men, some women. Some of us are laborers, some lawyers. Some of is are conservatives, some liberals. Yet, just as G-C-E, E-G-C, and C-E-G are all equally harmonious versions of the C major triad, all of us have an equal potential for establishing our soul harmony, the Christ within.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

On Relationalism, Part I

David Brooks
My favorite op-ed writer, David Brooks of The New York Times, believes we have run off the tracks. In the Donald Trump era, our politics has gotten downright depraved. What's Mr. Brooks' solution? Hint: It's not just to keep lambasting Trump, his supporters, his policies, his personal behavior, etc.

In "Personalism: The Philosophy We Need," Mr. Brooks talks about a philosophical movement that tells us "people are always way more complicated than you think." That's why stereotyping, even of Trump and his supporters, is always bound to come up short. It's just a shorthand we all tend to use, but it doesn't really represent who any of us is. "We talk in shorthand about 'Trump voters' or 'social justice warriors,' but when you actually meet people they defy categories. Someone might be a Latina lesbian who loves the N.R.A. or a socialist Mormon cowboy from Arizona."

Personalism was advocated by the likes of the Polish cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyła. We know him better by his later name, Pope (now Saint) John Paul II. The big idea here, writes Brooks, "is a philosophic tendency built on the infinite uniqueness and depth of each person. Over the years people like Walt Whitman, Martin Luther King, William James, Peter Maurin and Wojtyla ... have called themselves personalists."

I'm not 100% convinced by the personalist outlook, but I do believe it's worth considering. One reason I'm not totally convinced is that personalism draws a bright line between humans and animals. Brooks: "Personalism starts by drawing a line between humans and other animals. Your dog is great, but there is a depth, complexity and superabundance to each human personality that gives each person unique, infinite dignity."

(I seem to recall overhearing my cats saying to one another, "Our human servant is great, but there is a depth, complexity and superabundance to each feline personality that gives each cat unique, infinite dignity.")

OK, maybe that's a stretch. But I'm not so sure that biological evolution has made individuals of our species unique in having souls.

Anyway, I admit that the personalism advocated by David Brooks definitely makes a good jumping off point for our indeed treating one another as possessing "infinite uniqueness and depth."


Yet I'd prefer shifting it over to something I'll call "relationalism." Relationalism is the idea that the world is not, as we usually think, made up first and foremost of hard-and-fast physical entities and then, only secondarily, the relationships these entities may establish among themselves.

Carlo Rovelli
I take this idea from, among other sources, an episode of Krista Tippett's National Public Radio podcast "On Being." The episode is "All Reality Is Interaction," and it's an interview with physicist Carlo Rovelli. Rovelli, author of the 2016 bestseller Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, says, "We don't understand the world as made by stones — by things. We understand the world made by kisses, or things like kisses: happenings."

This is a scientist talking. "Things like kisses": they are interactions among "stones." They involve interrelationships.

One way I can visualize this is to think about musical scales. DO-RE-MI-FA-SOL-LA-TI-DO is how we represent any of the major scales. There are also minor scales, slightly different, but most of the music we hear, sing, and hum is in one of the major scales. Here is a list of the various notes on a piano that DO can represent:

  • C
  • C sharp or D flat
  • D
  • D sharp or E flat
  • E
  • F
  • F sharp or G flat
  • G
  • G sharp or A flat
  • A
  • A sharp or B flat
  • B

You can sing any DO-RE-MI-FA-SOL-LA-TI-DO song using any of these piano notes as DO. It all depends on what your most comfortable vocal range is. Whatever note you choose as DO, your audience's ears will automatically figure out which other notes are being used as which stations in a DO-RE-MI-FA-SOL-LA-TI-DO major scale.

That's because of what musicians call "intervals." For example, the interval between the DO tone and the RE tone is called a "whole-tone interval," as is that between RE and MI. But that between MI and FA is just a "half-tone interval," as is that between TI and DO. The ear automatically takes into account where in the musical scale the two half-tone intervals fall, and in so doing the ear just naturally figures out which note is DO, the "tonic" of the major scale.

In fact, the ear does not need its possessor to have studied music theory or to have learned any of its terminology, to be able to do this. It just naturally has this ability. And because it just happens to have it means that the intervals between the notes of the DO-RE-MI-FA-SOL-LA-TI-DO are what the scale is actually made of.

Most of the adjacent notes, such as DO and RE, represent whole-tone intervals, as I say. But the MI-FA interval and the TI-DO interval are both half-tone intervals. It is the positioning of the two half-tone intervals in the scale that tips off the ear that the scale is major and not minor. The individual piano notes assigned to DO, RE, MI, FA, SOL, LA, TI, and DO are therefore of secondary importance. That's my whole point here.

To prove this to yourself, try singing as song like "I've Been Working on the Railroad." Then try singing it in a higher or lower key — which is the same thing as assigning a different note as DO. For example, if you first sing the song in the key of C major, you are accordingly assigning the piano note C as DO. If you then raise the song to the key of D major, then the piano note D becomes DO. Yet — and here's the important thing — your audience will immediately know that you are singing exactly the same tune: "I've Been Working on the Railroad."

This works because it is the intervals' interrelationships that count, not the individual notes or pitches themselves. It is these interrelationships that make the melody identifiable.

This little exercise in singing a well-known tune in different keys illustrates the principle underlying the philosophy I'm calling "relationalism." This philosophy is somewhat different from "personalism," in that in personalism it is the individual entity that is the irreducible constituent of our experience.

The irreducible constituent in personalism is accordingly not the relationships. But the relationalism I'm proposing has it that the relationships human individuals establish among themselves or with other worldly entities — such as animals — are the real stuff of our lives.

In brief: I'm saying relationships are primary ... not individual persons, animals, or other worldly entities.


Another example of relationalism is the seesaw:

It's basically a plank balanced upon a fulcrum. Think of what a seesaw would be without a fulcrum in the middle. Basically, it would be just a plank lying on the ground.

Or, think about what a fulcrum would be without the plank. Actually, I don't know what we would call it, perhaps an "upright pointy thing." It's a fulcrum only when there's a plank balanced upon the upright pointy thing.

So it's the relationship between the plank and the fulcrum that constitutes the entity we call a seesaw.

The plank, in turn, is made of wood. It came from a tree. That tree was once made of biological cells. Those cells of the living tree once, before the tree was cut down, had various important interrelationships among themselves. Again, it's only when the cells — or, at a lower level, the constituent atoms of the "stuff" that living cells are made of — are in the proper relationship that there's a thing that we speak of as a tree.

If we squint our philosophical eyes and look at the atoms, the cells, the tree, the plank, the fulcrum, or the seesaw in just the right way, we can see that the relationships, and not the entities that make up the constituent "stuff" of the individual entity, that are primary here. This is what the philosophy I call relationalism is all about.


And don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that relationalism doesn't — as, obviously, does personalism— affirm "the infinite uniqueness and depth of each person." It does. Just as one rendition of "I've Been Working on the Railroad," or any one particular instance of a seesaw, is uniquely distinguishable from every other rendition, every individual set of interrelationships among the constituents of a particular human body is uniquely distinguishable from every other.

So if you find you "get" personalism and don't "get" relationalism, then by all means take the former to heart and ignore the latter.

But if you feel drawn to relationalism, if not so much to personalism, there's nothing wrong with that, either.


Martin Buber
In fact, look back at certain ideas Mr. Brooks incorporates into "Personalism: The Philosophy We Need." Specifically, the ideas of "I-Thou" and "I-It." These ideas come from Martin Buber's 1923 book I and Thou.

The Wikipedia article on Buber's book says:

Buber's main proposition is that we may address existence in two ways:
  • The attitude of the "I" towards an "It", towards an object that is separate in itself, which we either use or experience.
  • The attitude of the "I" towards "Thou", in a relationship in which the other is not separated by discrete bounds.
One of the major themes of the book [Wikipedia continues] is that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships. In Buber's view, all of our relationships bring us ultimately into relationship with God, who is the Eternal Thou.

Wow! Buber's book and the ideas which it expresses are super-abstruse. There's no getting around that. In fact, I first tried to read Buber's book when I took a "Philosophy of Man" course at Georgetown University back in 1965 or '66. Though it was assigned reading, I got a little way into the book and gave up. I had no idea what the man was talking about!

Decades later, I came back to the book and found I could at last grasp it. Still and all — just as Mr. Brooks alludes to when he says that "to see each other person in his or her full depth ... is astonishingly hard to do" — I freely admit I still fail what I might call the "Buber test" about 99% of the time.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Remembering RFK

Fifty years ago today, on June 5, 1968, Senator Robert Francis Kennedy was shot and mortally wounded. He died in the hospital the next day, June 6.

Robert F. Kennedy on the campaign trail in 1968

RFK had just won the June 4 California Democratic presidential primary when the fatal shots were fired. He was running for president as an anti-Vietnam War candidate. By the year 1968, then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson, also a Democrat, had been escalating the Vietnam War since 1964, a year after he'd taken office in 1963.

LBJ had been our sitting vice president when RFK's brother, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. LBJ had won the presidency in his own right in 1964, in a landslide over Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, then had begun ramping up the War in Vietnam ... and then, a few months earlier in 1968, had surprised the world by declining to run again. LBJ had said, in announcing that he would not seek reelection, that the antiwar sentiment that was starting to boil over in our country demanded that he focus laser-like on finding a way to end the Vietnam conflict honorably and victoriously.

In the California primary on June 4, RFK was pitted against another Democratic senator, Eugene McCarthy, who had announced his antiwar candidacy on November 30, 1967, well before Kennedy had done so on March 16, 1968. LBJ's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, was not on the California ballot, but Humphrey was actively running in several states as an opponent to both Kennedy and McCarthy. Humphrey was not a declared antiwar candidate. He was supporting President Johnson's Vietnam War policy at that point.

In the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary that had been held on March 12, 1968, McCarthy had nearly defeated President Johnson, who, as the incumbent chief executive, had been considered a shoo-in.

Four days later, Robert Kennedy announced he too was running for president as an antiwar Democrat.


I met Senator Robert F. Kennedy in the fall of 1967 at Hickory Hill, his family residence in McLean, Virginia.

Hickory Hill

I was a student at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. I was living off campus, at my parents' house in Bethesda, Maryland. My college friend Bob Moore had been hired to tutor Robert and Ethel Kennedy's oldest boy, Joe, in French. When Ethel asked Bob to tutor the next-older Kennedy boy, Bobby Jr., in geometry, Bob referred Mrs. Kennedy to me. Ethel gave me the job.

I could drive from Bethesda to Hickory Hill in about 20 minutes. But the first evening on which I was due at the Kennedy house at 6 pm, somebody ran a stop sign and hit my car. No one was hurt, but it made me late for my first encounter with the Kennedy clan.

No matter. I just knocked sheepishly on the front door, upon finally arriving, and was admitted by the oldest of the Kennedy children, Kathleen. Ethel, when I met with her, comprehended my excuse for being late and never mentioned it again. She was truly one of the nicest, most gracious, and least pretentious ladies I have ever met.

I began tutoring Bobby Jr. right away. There were two evening tutoring sessions each week, plus one Saturday afternoon session. In the middle of each of the evening sessions, I would sit at the Kennedys' dining room table and have dinner along with all of the older children. Ethel would sit at the head of the table, as the Senator was usually not home from Capitol Hill by that time.

One evening, I found Bobby Jr. too distracted to focus on geometry. He told me his father had given each of his older children the task of memorizing one verse of the Tennyson poem "Charge of the Light Brigade." Each child was to recite his or her verse at the dinner table that evening, with the Senator present and looking on. Bobby was nervous about it.

It was that evening that I first met the Senator. No glad-handing politician, he was gracious and yet reserved toward me. I liked him. I thought he looked different that he did in the mostly black-and-white photos and TV coverage I was accustomed to seeing — somewhat fairer of hair and ruddier of complexion.

After dinner, the Senator and his older kids included me in a vigorous game of touch football on the grass of Hickory Hill. Senator Kennedy played the game hard, but at the same time — owing to the sizes of his children — not too roughly.

(Was it that evening, or a different one, on which daughter Courtney's rabbit got loose on the grounds, and everyone had to pour out of the house in order to find and retrieve it? Possibly. Yes, the rabbit was soon retrieved.)

It was on that evening when at 9 p.m. — or was it 8 p.m.? — Bobby Jr. interrupted our tutoring session to join with the other older kids in their parents' bedroom for prayers. Bobby told me that whenever the Senator was home in time, the entire family unfailingly said prayers together at that moment in the day.


In the fall of '67, it was impossible to guess that Senator Robert F. Kennedy would run for president and would have any chance at garnering the Democratic nomination the following year ... much less as an antiwar candidate. It was impossible to imagine that he might even want to run.

Saying that his grief was profound when his older brother, President John F. Kennedy, was gunned down in Dallas in November 1963 doesn't do RFK's reaction justice. RFK had been JFK's attorney general and closest confidant. None of JFK's advisors had been more important during the Cuban missile crisis in helping the president in finding — and then implementing — a solution that would avoid nuclear war and yet not hand the Soviet Union a diplomatic victory.

Few of the president's advisors had played as significant a role in the Kennedy administration as Robert Kennedy did with respect to civil rights. In September 1962, Attorney General Kennedy sent U.S. marshals to Oxford, Mississippi, to enforce a federal court order allowing the admittance of the first African-American student, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi. The situation was a nail-biter. After bloody riots and a tense standoff, Meredith was finally admitted.

RFK with James Meredith

But the political fallout from that incident was scary for Democrats. The party historically depended on support in the white-dominated Deep South. By becoming ever more staunch on civil rights, JFK risked losing his re-election bid in 1964. RFK, who had been JFK's campaign manager in 1960, knew this full well.


Following JFK's assassination, the remainder of the 1960s ramped up to become a truly tumultuous time. LBJ's electoral landslide in 1964 convinced him that he'd be able to do great things as president. And indeed he did, becoming responsible for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His Great Society and War on Poverty initiatives augured huge changes in an unashamedly progressive direction that would rival what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, LBJ's role model, had done in the 1930s.

Yet the wheels quickly came off LBJ's cart. His committing large numbers of U.S. forces to fighting on the ground in South Vietnam, along with his bombing of North Vietnam, failed to bring the communists to the peace table as LBJ had hoped. By 1968, American public opinion was turning conspicuously against the war, following what our citizens perceived as the communists' victory during their surprise Tet offensive beginning in January.

This was the political climate which brought Senator Robert F. Kennedy into the 1968 presidential race. Opposition of numerous young Americans to the war had grown noticeably even before Tet, which is why Senator McCarthy's candidacy in November 1967 was able to gain such traction with them.

Before the shooting of RFK on June 5, 1968, came the assassination of America's greatest civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., on April 4. King's assassination traumatized not just African Americans, but all of us in general. On the campaign trail in Indianapolis, Indiana, Kennedy had this to say on the night of King's slaying:

RFK's speech was given extemporaneously, without notes. That the city of Indianapolis turned out to be unlike the many American cities with large African American populations that erupted in riots on the next day may have been due to RFK's solicitude, so movingly expressed.

It is for reasons like this that I believe Robert F. Kennedy could well have become the Democratic nominee, had he not been slain, could well have been elected president over Richard Nixon, could well have united the country in a way no other politician would have been able to do. Given his ability to think flexibly and pragmatically, I think he could well have found an honorable way for us to exit the Vietnam War long before Saigon actually fell on April 29-30, 1975. American history would have been, oh, so different if RFK had not been slain.

(Those of you who want to learn more about RFK can read Larry Tye's excellent biography, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon.)