Sunday, December 17, 2017

"Mr. President"

"Mr. President"

Kathleen Spaltro

(c) Copyright (2017).  All Rights Reserved.

"Always an honest Man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses." Thus Benjamin Franklin in 1783 characterized John Adams. Reading such a frank assessment by a contemporary restores our sense of the flesh-and-blood fallibility of great Americans. Over-idealization dulls our interest, but the idiosyncrasies of personality and character that create inner and interpersonal conflict intrigue us.

I first became aware of Adams's conflict with Franklin when I watched the superb HBO mini-series "John Adams." I consider this series the best historical dramatization American TV has ever produced; I had absolutely no interest in Adams before watching  the series, but it altered my attitude completely.

Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams star in a warts-and-all rendition of the American Revolution, its aftermath after the colonists' unlikely victory over the British with the help of the French, and Adams's career as reluctant revolutionary, ambassador, vice president to George Washington, president, and happy retiree to his farm outside Boston. He comes across as brilliant, incorruptible, vain, touchy, emotional, impulsive, usually dissatisfied and unhappy, but absolutely deeply in love with his mate—in a phrase, a lovable, if difficult, man of integrity.

The relationship between John and Abigail is fascinating. It touches me that their letters addressed each other as "My dearest friend." Their eldest son, John Quincy Adams, later president, also expressed an immense regard for his mother. Abigail Adams must have been extraordinary to have kept the devotion and respect of two such brilliant men of great integrity. To me, she seems like a Roman matron of the Roman Republic.

Despite his marital happiness, Adams felt recurrent unhappiness in his appointed and elective roles. By nature a passionate advocate,  he was simply not Machiavellian enough to relish politics or intrigue. In this, he was bested by his fellow revolutionary, betrayer, enemy, and friend reclaimed in old age, Thomas Jefferson. Ironically, Adams's perceptions of the untrustworthiness of human character ring truer than Jefferson's aspirational and idealistic views. Envisioning the American republic as "a government of laws and not of men," Adams sought to restrain the misuse of power.

He also disagreed with his friend's vision of the role of the United States in the world. As Gordon S. Wood explained, "Jefferson believed that the United States was a chosen nation with a special responsibility to spread democracy around the world. More than any other figure in our history Jefferson is responsible for the idea of American exceptionalism. Adams could not have disagreed more. Deeply versed in history, he said over and over that America had no special providence, no special role in history, that Americans were no different from other peoples, that the United States was just as susceptible to viciousness and corruption as any other nation. In this regard, at least, Jefferson’s vision has clearly won the day." But we would have had a happier past and present if we had heeded Adams.


More Machiavellian presidents than Adams include some of our greatest: Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. I count them as three of our six greatest presidents: Lincoln, Washington, FDR, TR, Eisenhower, and Truman. That does not mean that I idealize them or think them faultless but only that I recognize their mastery of the requirements of presidential leadership.

In the fourth episode of Ken Burns's splendid documentary "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," Teddy Roosevelt is dead at 60, burned out after having lived his 9 lives; FDR is battling polio, as well as resuming his political career as Governor of New York State and presidential candidate; and Eleanor (TR's niece as well as FDR's wife) is creating a separate life as her own person--a life that she fears losing as First Lady after FDR's landslide victory in 1932.

Both male Roosevelts determinedly fought for goals that they conceived to be good and that often were good. The series, however, reveals their shadow side as well—the tremendous egotism and ruthlessness that perhaps always accompany great leadership. TR seems extremely charismatic, very impressive, and yet incredibly insensitive—a man who was a stranger to introspection. Even though FDR idolized his cousin Ted as "the greatest man I ever knew," FDR was quite different. Perhaps no more introspective than TR, FDR seems nevertheless a more inward person--charming, devious, and cunning, determined to have his will and never crushed more than temporarily by defeat.


John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt could not have differed more in personality. But none of them approaches the level of mystery of Lincoln's enigmatic personality and character. So many portrayals of Lincoln in fiction, history, and biography have attempted to unriddle him for us.

Simultaneously ingenious, irritating, and impressive, George Saunders's recent experimental novel "Lincoln in the Bardo" glimpses Lincoln's human vulnerability and uncertainty as he grieves for his dead boy, Willie, and worries about conducting the Civil War:  "There was so much to do, he was not doing it well and, if done poorly, all would go to ruin. Perhaps in time (he told himself) it would get better, and might even be good again. He did not really believe it."

"Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House" by Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln's seamstress, "her only companion, except her children, in the days of her great sorrow," tantalizes with Keckley's intimate glimpses of Lincoln as a father and husband. Commenting "We are indifferent to those we do not love, and certainly the President was not indifferent to his wife. She often wounded him in unguarded moments, but calm reflection never failed to bring regret," Keckley contrasted the characters of Mary and Abraham in a simple anecdote.

"Mr. Lincoln was fond of pets. He had two goats that knew the sound of his voice, and when he called them they would come bounding to his side. In the warm bright days, he and [his youngest son] Tad would sometimes play in the yard with these goats, for an hour at a time."

 " 'Well, come here and look at my two goats,' Lincoln invited her. 'I believe they are the kindest and best goats in the world. See how they sniff the clear air, and skip and play in the sunshine. Whew! what a jump,' he exclaimed as one of the goats made a lofty spring. 'Madam Elizabeth, did you ever before see such an active goat?' Musing a moment, he continued: 'He feeds on my bounty, and jumps with joy. Do you think we could call him a bounty-jumper? But I flatter the bounty-jumper. My goat is far above him. I would rather wear his horns and hairy coat through life, than demean myself to the level of the man who plunders the national treasury in the name of patriotism. The man who enlists into the service for a consideration, and deserts the moment he receives his money but to repeat the play, is bad enough; but the men who manipulate the grand machine and who simply make the bounty-jumper their agent in an outrageous fraud are far worse'."

"Mrs. Lincoln was not fond of pets, and she could not understand how Mr. Lincoln could take so much delight in his goats. After Willie’s death, she could not bear the sight of anything he loved, not even a flower. Costly bouquets were presented to her, but she turned from them with a shudder, and either placed them in a room where she could not see them, or threw them out of the window. She gave all of Willie’s toys—everything connected with him—away, as she said she could not look upon them without thinking of her poor dead boy, and to think of him, in his white shroud and cold grave, was maddening."

"I never in my life saw a more peculiarly constituted woman. Search the world over, and you will not find her counterpart. After Mr. Lincoln’s death, the goats that he loved so well were given away—I believe to Mrs. Lee, née Miss Blair, one of the few ladies with whom Mrs. Lincoln was on intimate terms in Washington."

This complex, strange, and gifted man who overindulged his beloved sons and enjoyed playing with their pet goats also challenged Congress most somberly in 1862, "Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.…We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth."

First appeared in The Woodstock Independent

Sunday, November 19, 2017



Kathleen Spaltro

Copyright (C) 2017.  All Rights Reserved.

The ducking stool, the stocks, the "stone of shame" on which insolvent debtors sat in my grandfather's Italian village—all of these public punishments shamed transgressors. So did shaving off women's hair, tarring and feathering, gossiping, sentencing to debtors' prison, shunning. One of society's most powerful weapons, shame attacks the worth of a person. It declares a person to have become unworthy of any regard by self or others. Attempting to enforce social mores, shame exerts our power over other people by rejecting any possibility of their being or becoming good. Judging selves rather than actions, we equate the person's self with the person's actions, and we subtract our respect as well as any hope for reconciliation. 

With us, truly, the quality of mercy is too often strained. While shame definitely has its usefulness, we often pointlessly misapply it. Sometimes, we should feel ashamed of how or why we have shamed other people. 

Misapplied Shame

Minor instances of misapplied shame include mocking spelling or pronunciation errors, which are utterly predictable in our very complex language, with its many exceptions to rules and its discrepancies between how words are spelled and how they are said. Misapplied shame includes despising excessive body weight, which shaming probably only reinforces and increases. Misapplied shame includes reacting to mistakes by attacking the person who erred, who now learns to expect failure, rather than helping the person to success by focusing on how to avoid errors. High expectations of excellent performance need not rely on either shame or  false praise, both of which mistakenly focus on the self rather than on the task. The shamed self is the reverse and the twin of the inflated self. Misapplied shame creates fear and aversion rather than spurs the person to excellence.

Some popular dramas have depicted more devastating and even more irrational applications of shame. The film "The Magdalen Sisters" alerted me to how, until 1996, 30,000 Irish girls who had given birth outside of wedlock, as well as raped women and so-called sluts, were sent to the Magdalen laundries, where, shamed as unchaste and tainted by lust,  these girls labored without recompense or the freedom to leave. "The Magdalen Sisters" film gave a deeply disturbing account of their financial exploitation and emotional abuse.

The most memorable subplot in "Downton Abbey"  involved the housemaid Ethel Parks, seduced and abandoned by a British major who had visited the house, fired because of her affair, pregnant, and then unemployable because she lacked a reference for good character. The desperate Ethel turned to prostitution as her only means to feed herself and her baby son. The shocked village turned its back on them both. However, three women had the good sense and compassion to intervene: Cousin Isobel Crawley, the nurse; Mrs. Patmore, the cook; and Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper. Thinking about Ethel's ostracism, I feel disgusted by the rampant unkindness of many but impressed by the humanity of a few.

Shame served no genuine moral purpose in any of these situations, for it merely fortified the moral vanity of the shamers, who sought to crush the shamed. Good, if fallible, people are not actually helped to be better people by having their selves judged to be unworthy. Using the metaphor of the Catholic Church's being a "field hospital" where self-admitted sinners help other sinners be the best people whom they can be, Pope Francis has moved the discussion of morals from the enforcement of rules and the infliction of shame to the extension of mercy. Francis's Church, the "field hospital," rather than judging people as unworthy, serves them in their hearts' need. 

Properly Applied Shame

Is shame ever properly applied to a valid moral purpose? Film executive Harvey Weinstein's public shaming is a case in point. Enumerating his many accusers, firing him, retracting his honors, making him an object of moral disgust—all of these shaming tactics bring to the fore the heinousness of his alleged sexual bullying. Shame is thereby transferred from his accusers (who may have remained silent out of shame as well as fear) to him.

However, Weinstein's public shaming also transfers shame from his fellow transgressors to him. The scapegoat, as in ancient Israel, is driven into the desert with the community's sins upon his head as a way of purging the community's guilt. But does this transfer of shame change longstanding abusive behaviors or actually serve as a way of masking their continuance? 

The behaviors of which Weinstein is accused are prevalent. Many kind and strong men, genuinely quite shocked, have become more aware of the pervasiveness of the sexual bullying and abuse of girls, boys, and women. The most effective deterrent to sexual abuse is the determination of decent men to make it extremely clear to abusers that decent men consider such behaviors contemptible and unmanly. In a word, the most effective deterrent is shame.

First published in The Woodstock Independent.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Freedom of Speech and H.L. Mencken

The Right to be Wrong

Kathleen Spaltro

(c) Copyright (2017).  All Rights Reserved.

Gore Vidal, like his friend-enemy Christopher Hitchens, was a poet of contempt. So was their great predecessor, the newspaper columnist and magazine editor H.L. Mencken. Declaring "I am strong in favor of liberty and I hate fraud,” Mencken championed freedom and exposed fraud with gusto and happy venom. The waterfall of Mencken's amazingly gorgeous, unbelievably vivid prose cascades over the sputtering reader. Because he attacked everybody and everything, I wonder how Mencken escaped being strung from a streetlamp.

Despite actual threats against his life, Mencken persisted in scorning what he named the Boobus americancus (yes, you and me). He declined to assent to the prevailing belief in democracy, terming it  "the worship of Jackals by Jackasses." If the governed are of poor quality, those who seek to govern are even worse: "A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground." Mencken advocated not being taken in by either prevailing orthodoxies or aspiring reformers: "The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, and intolerable."

Did Mencken's lifelong, bone-deep cynicism about his fellow citizens and their rulers cause him to despair? Far from despairing, Mencken feasted on what he saw as their inherent absurdity: "here, more than anywhere else I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly—the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries and extravagances—is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows."

The Uses of Cynicism

Certainly, Mencken's deep cynicism controlled his perceptions and judgments. He believed in freedom but not in people, in reason but not in "a geyser of pishposh." Judging the inaugural address delivered by President Warren G. Harding, Mencken crowed, "he writes the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash." Contemptuous of Harding, Mencken wrote not much more kindly of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. An admirer of Theodore Roosevelt, I nevertheless read with great interest and amusement Mencken's evisceration of TR in an "autopsy." He slightly preferred TR to Wilson, whom he deemed a charlatan and a cad. He preferred FDR to no one.

Why do I read these heresies? While I very often disagree with Mencken's assessments and assumptions, the bracing astringency of his prose forces me to think, to defend what I believe with better reasons, or even to change my mind. The resident cynic of the United States, our self-appointed and unofficial Scourgeon General,  Mencken served as our national scold. Although reading him feels like falling into a briar patch, he provides a useful antidote to our prevalent mental, moral, intellectual, and ideological flabbiness. After emerging from the sauna of his prose, his reader is then whipped with birches. Reading Mencken is good for the health of our brains.

Insulting? Certainly. Entertaining? Immensely. Useful? I believe so, especially given our proclivities toward passionate agreements with those who already agree with us and uncivil exchanges with those who dare to disagree. Although he asserted that few of us are capable of thinking, Mencken upheld freedom of thought and speech. I myself have felt sadly disturbed by how many Americans do not seem to appreciate the principle of freedom of speech.

Free to Disagree

I find it perplexing that so many people apparently restrict freedom of speech to those with whom they already agree. Respecting freedom of speech has absolutely nothing to do with agreeing with others' views. People have the right to be wrong. (Speech that evolves into overt actions, such as violence, is a different matter.) Too many of us, both left and right, fail to see that others have the right to voice their opinions, however "incorrect" these opinions may seem to us. Freedom of speech is an uncomfortable liberty. But it means nothing to be for freedom of speech or belief unless you defend the freedom of people whose beliefs and speech you deplore.

Protest by all means. Argue, certainly. But preventing a person with whom you disagree from speaking crosses a line. Inevitably, others will cross that line by keeping you from speaking your mind. Nothing protects your own freedom of speech unless that protection also extends to those with whom you disagree.

Moreover, there is no need for freedom of speech at all unless people disagree. The very basis for insisting on people's freedom to speak their minds consists of the reality of pervasive human disagreement. If people agreed, freedom of speech would be unnecessary.

first appeared in The Woodstock Independent

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked This Way Comes

(c) Copyright (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro

All Rights Reserved

Fargo ranks up there with my very favorite movies, with Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, and Steve Buscemi all giving great performances. The key to the film is in the scene when Chief of Police Marge Gunderson, driving back with the murderer she has captured, says, "So, that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money? There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it."

Everyone is capable of doing wrong, but relatively few people commit really evil actions, and the film contrasts many simple acts of kindness by good, if fallible, people with the self-absorbed's indifference to the grave harm they inflict. The snaggle-toothed, "funny-looking" gunman and his sleepwalking-except-when-murdering accomplice kill without remorse and seemingly without thought. For them, killing is a mere reflex.

Marge Gunderson "just doesn't understand it," and most good people really find it difficult to comprehend evil--not ordinary, everyday badness, but real evil. This incomprehension of evil is a major theme in Fargo, in Broadchurch, and certainly in Longford, which depicts the infamous "moors murderers," Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, during their prolonged imprisonments as they manipulate the kindly Lord Longford, who seeks to rehabilitate Myra Hindley. Does Longford ever really comprehend Myra Hindley's depravity? Is Longford correct or self-deluded in detecting her capacity for redemption?

Evildoers seem different in kind, not merely in degree. How would we respond to someone we had once known but then discovered was guilty of a really terrible crime? I was shocked to read in the newspaper about a man I had known who was later convicted of sexual abuse and procurement of child prostitutes, a disgusting crime. He didn't seem sorry, really, just sorry he was caught. What draws the line between ordinary badness and true evil? Perhaps the criteria include callousness, lack of remorse, unshakable self-absorption?

Shaken by the evil we sometimes encounter, we can retreat into corrosive and pervasive cynicism. Certainly, we must never forget the evil that human beings are capable of doing to one another. The appalling Armenian genocide, for instance, happened 100 years ago. But note that kind enemies saved the lives of some Armenians. Goodness always flowers in the sidewalk cracks. Goodness is as real as evil, only less powerful only too often.

Some characterizations of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird sneer at it as just a children's book. However, the genius of the story actually stems from its depiction of the central tragedy from the children's perspective. There is so much menace depicted--crazy neighbors, a rabid dog, cynically perjured testimony, the threat of lynching of an untried and innocent accused, attempted vindictive murder of children--yet the setting is a seemingly idyllic childhood in a small country town during the Great Depression, when neighbors look out for each other and children roam at will, even at night. Underneath all of the real innocence and pretended innocence lies all of this evil, yet while the good does not triumph exactly, it makes itself felt.

Gregory Peck's indelible performance in the film as Atticus Finch portrays the great moral courage needed to stand up against an unjust majority view. Atticus fails to secure the acquittal of Tom Robinson, and he is shaken by Bob Ewell's attempted murder of Atticus's children, yet he still stands fast as a symbol of what we would like to be and know we should be. His children learn to understand that, and so do we. The story would be far less effective if it were not a children's story.

However, the would-be lynchers and the jurors who disregard the impeccable logic of Atticus's defense of Tom Robinson, although not evil like Bob Ewell, are good people doing bad things, and they are part of the reason that evil can prevail as a norm of a society. Ordinary people become complicit in extreme societal evil when they forsake their moral obligation for the safety of not being different, of not challenging monstrous actions. Disturbed by the realization of the suffering inflicted by evil, we deceive ourselves by denying what we realize. We are capable of better, but we often do not do better.

Many decades ago, W.E.B. DuBois depicted the moral struggle of a good man choosing not to remain complicit in a great evil:  "The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I love to say: See this man. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln .… personally I revere him the more because up out of his contradictions and inconsistencies he fought his way to the pinnacles of earth and his fight was within as well as without …. I glory in that crucified humanity that can push itself up out of the mud of a miserable, dirty ancestry; who despite the clinging smirch of low tastes and shifty political methods, rose to be a great and good man and the noblest friend of the slave." 

first published in The Woodstock Independent