Friday, July 17, 2015

I is for Inequality

The official Vermont historical site marker describing the 1864 St. Albans Raid
This photograph, and the others accompanying this post, are copyrighted to Kristin O. Lord, 2015.

I. A Somewhat Idiosyncratic Overview of Quaker Structural Inequality

Inevitably, Friends are drawn back to equality as one of our core testimonies. In many ways we walk the walk. Unprogrammed Meetings lack ordained and paid clergy; programmed Meetings have a more egalitarian relationship between the pastor and the other members of the group. Decisions are made by the sense of the Meeting; one of the many features of Quaker business practice is that the absence of voting is intended to ensure that a larger or more powerful faction of Friends does not by itself carry the day. On the whole, Friends have a powerful tradition and an excellent contemporary reputation for gender equality and for speaking out on a broad range of social inequities.

Friends have never claimed, however, that the decision-making process of Meeting for Worship for Business treats all participants equally, or even all members equally. We have the concept of “weightiness.” Despite the hackneyed aside that we will all become “weightier” after the Meeting potluck, the concept corresponds loosely to the ancient Roman idea of gravitas, with spiritual depth substituting for political experience. “Weightiness” is a certain je ne sais quois of spiritual understanding, practical knowledge, and an ability to apply that knowledge to the subject at hand. Inevitably, Friends are “weighty” in some areas and not in others. Especially in areas of policy and theology, people can and do become aggrieved if their views are not taken seriously, for whatever reason. Like other entities, Quaker Meetings and organizations can become ossified and resistant to new ideas. A newcomer may have a great deal of insight into a dynamic which has bedeviled old-timers for years, by virtue of having no prior vested interest. Will Friends listen to the newcomer? Maybe. Why or why not?

Despite our reputation, we Quakers have not always dealt with inequality effectively, whether in the broader society or our own midst. John Woolman’s patient intercession with slaveholders in the mid-Atlantic states was the single biggest factor behind the decision of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to make slave ownership grounds for disownment (rescinding of membership) in 1776. (For those unfamiliar with Woolman, his “weight” in the matter arose from a moral concern, which he first wrestled with as a lawyer being asked to draft wills.) Friends were also active in the Underground Railroad later on, but not all Quakers were on board with the abolitionist movement. See, inter alia, the sobering article by Elizabeth Moger (Quaker History 92.2 [2003]) about the case in nineteenth-century Vermont of the Robinsons of Rokeby and Charles Marriott. In terms of the composition of our Religious Society, until around the time of the US Civil War Quakers in both Britain and North America routinely “read out” (removed from membership) those with the temerity to marry non-members who did not join Friends. The British political economist David Ricardo ended up estranged from his own family of origin by choosing the religion of his Quaker wife, but most Friends in that period who married outsiders were let in again later, if at all, after a humiliating confession. Barry Levy, in his study Quakers and the American Family (Oxford, 1988), concluded that those who were so punished were disproportionately the less well off. In other words, the “weighty” Friends of this period prioritized the prosperity and theological and social uniformity of the Quaker family at the expense of the ability of a number of their young people to remain Friends as adults. (Why did the less well off Quakers not marry Friends in the same position? Some did, but impecunious Quakers were perceived as more attractive marriage partners in the broader community and thus had a far better selection of mates there.) The piano which my Quaker husband and I play in the living room was also verboten in that period, but it pales in significance as a human rights issue, as important as it is to our well-being.

II. Inequality redux: An American Quaker Classicist takes another look at the Confederacy and its afterlife

A month ago, June 17, 2015, nine of my fellow Americans were targeted for murder at a prayer service at an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Charleston, South Carolina, simply because they were African Americans. The church itself is one of America’s most famous, in part because Denmark Vesey, one of its founders, was executed after being implicated in a slave revolt in 1822. The alleged gunman in the 2015 massacre was a supporter of white supremacist organizations and their iconography. This iconography included, but was not limited to, the Confederate battle flag.

I had been already been thinking of the Confederacy this May when I went to St. Albans, Vermont to renew my passport. St. Albans is an old railroad terminus, a quiet county seat about twelve miles south of the Canadian border. Technically a city, it is the size of many Vermont communities classified as towns. “St. Albans” is also the answer to the trivia question, “What is the northernmost point of land engagement in the American Civil War?”  The episode forms part of the middle-school history curriculum in Vermont, and many of us who grew up there remember learning about it. On October 19, 1864, 22 Confederate soldiers crossed over to Vermont from what is now Quebec, shot up the town, robbed three banks, and slipped back over the border. There they were captured by the British authorities who governed Canada at that time. The Americans requested extradition but were turned down because the men were soldiers obeying orders. The soldiers were then released. The British did, however, return to the banks the money they had retrieved.

The TD Bank in St. Albans, Vermont, May, 2015 (photograph ©Kristin O. Lord).
The only one of the three banks robbed at the time of the raid which is still used as such today, it is now ironically a US subsidiary of the Canadian company TD-Canada Trust ("TD" stands for "Toronto Dominion").

From a British and Canadian perspective, the St. Albans raid is a reminder of the uncomfortable truth that both the British and the French unofficially favored the Confederates, in large part because cheap Southern cotton fueled their industrial sectors. It is a credit to the local Canadians that the St. Albans episode left a sour taste in their mouths and that many did not wish to become involved further.

Perhaps because we had and still have family living all over the United States, when I was growing up I heard relatively little at home about the Civil War per se. My father, who has seen far too many battlefields in his own life (even one is too many), has had no desire to visit Gettysburg. Even my maternal grandmother, who bristled at the sight of a Confederate battle flag in one of my school textbooks, took pains to remind her friends that those of her relatives who had moved to a state in the South as a result of a corporate transfer, lived in a jurisdiction that was as American as her native Pennsylvania and her beloved Vermont. This is not as easy a conclusion as it sounds. She was born a mere 25 years after the war ended, and I was to learn much later (last year, in fact),  her paternal grandfather had fought as a Union soldier from Pennsylvania and lived to tell about it for many years thereafter. (As far as I know, this particular great-great grandfather  is the only one of my ancestors to have been involved in that conflict; the readers of this post who are wondering if their own antecedents fought on the Union side can check the schedule of Union civil war veterans and widows in the 1890 census if those relatives were alive at that time.)

St. Albans, Vermont, Civil War Memorial, May 2015 (©Kristin O. Lord)
Erected in 1940, this monument is one of an unusually large number of war memorials in the municipal square.

I was born nearly a century after the Civil War began. The belief of my parents and extended family that the Civil War was long since over was reinforced by the pacifism of some of my mother’s “side” and eventually by my own convictions. Although we had no wish to revisit the Civil War, none of us, including or perhaps especially those transplanted to the South, had any love for the values of the Confederacy. The reasons were slavery and its Jim Crow successor. (One of my earliest childhood memories is my confusion at being dragged away from a public water fountain and then a public toilet in the South when I was about three; knowing my family, the labels on the fountain and toilet could have been either “black” or “white.”) In this sense the conclusions of historians have caught up with the “bred in the bone” beliefs of many Vermonters handed down through oral tradition about the primacy of slavery. When I was in high school, our American history books typically claimed that broader economic factors, of which slavery was the perhaps the biggest single constituent part, were the main cause of the Civil War. More recently, Edward E. Baptist and Edward Ball, along with many other scholars, have shown that convincingly that maintaining slavery, and even expanding it is possible, was not only the driver of the Southern economy but the primary reason the Southern states took up arms. There is also convincing evidence that slavery is the reason that attitudes toward African Americans on the part of many white Southerners did not eventually converge with those of their Northern counterparts (Harvard Working Paper of Acharya, Blackwell, and Sen 2013).

With the exception of my daughter, who was adopted from China, my family and I are all primarily of Northern European descent. It is a fair assumption that my immediate and most of my extended family have always thought “slavery” upon viewing the Confederate battle flag. Being a member of an unprogrammed Quaker Meeting in the North has only reinforced those convictions. When I have traveled in the South, it has taken every ounce of civility I have had not to make impolite comments about that banner or about other Confederate flags and memorials.  My only regret about seeing the battle flag taken down from the South Carolina capitol grounds and elsewhere is that the blood of so many innocent people was shed before people finally did it. (The fact that those people had to be of European or south Asian extraction, despite the splendid eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney by our President, Barack Obama, and despite the fact that Pinckney was also a fellow South Carolina state senator, says precisely what it seems to say about the balance of power in the USA.)

When the issue of the Confederate battle flag came up again this year, I decided to contact the local flag merchants where I now live in Ontario. This was not my first attempt. A couple of times in the past I had spoken with people selling flags; at least one of those occasions involved people setting up a stall at work. Those previous sellers were Canadians who were stocking the item primarily because it was popular at NASCAR races, or because they knew people (undoubtedly white people) who wanted it “for cultural reasons.” My objections were met with puzzlement. This time, however, it was different. The business I visited in June —also in Canada— said that they had never carried flags that were not officially used by existing political entities. (They had no US state flags.) They immediately understood and agreed with my objections to the Confederate flag. A second nearby business initially stocked virtually every North American flag imaginable, including the Confederate one, via its website but removed all traces of the Confederacy immediately once events in Charleston made them aware of the problem. This occurred before I was able to arrange to speak with the owners about it.

Strangely enough, speaking with the owners of the one flag business a few weeks ago did not bring me the sense of righteous pleasure that I had anticipated. I usually approach these types of situations with calm assurance, but as soon as I heard my Vermont accent coming out of my mouth, I might have been speaking through dried (Quaker?) oatmeal. I peered out the door at my car, which is one of those kinds of vehicles that shrieks “tree-hugger” and not NASCAR. It hit me that I was hardly in the position of those making a wrenching decision to give up flying a cherished family heirloom; rather, I was every bit the descendant of a victorious soldier lording it over those people who look a lot like me but whose economy, once at least as prosperous as that of my own part of the country, had never fully recovered from the time of their great-great grandparents to their own. While the economies of both Britain and North America —including Northern and Southern states alike— had become rich before the Civil War as the bloody profits of slavery had circled through, the North was the beneficiary after the Civil War from the foundation laid previously. To this day, most of us white Americans outside the Old South (and well-heeled Brits and Canadians) reap the benefits, with interest. (See Edward E. Baptist, cited above, on this point.)

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer has a phrase for the spiritual analogue of what I had done when I spoke with the flag merchant. It is called “cheap grace.” The hard part of discipleship is giving up what one loves —at its extreme, even life itself— to act morally. If I were to give a profane analogy instead, I could quote the Roman poet Ovid at Amores 1.8.43: casta est, quam nemo rogavit, “chaste is she whom no one has asked.”

III. A preliminary and very partial reading of Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee, with an attempt to avoid the most egregious spoiler alerts

By coincidence, Harper Lee’s recently rediscovered novel, Go Set a Watchman, has just been published against the backdrop of the discussion of how white Southerners —and ultimately Northerners as well— feel and act toward their fellow Americans of African descent. Once I felt confident that Lee had not been bamboozled into publishing it —or perhaps even before —let’s admit it— as curiosity was getting the better of me— I was determined to purchase a copy on the day it was made available.

As a Classicist, I have as much of an advantage in approaching the differences between Watchman and Mockingbird as I do in my personal life when proclaiming that Confederate flags should be relegated to museums. In both cases my preconceived notions work in my favor. Ancient Greek writers were not bound by the type of unified book series that has won such adherence in modern literature, although the modern idea of a sequel or prequel was familiar to the ancient Greeks (Aeschylus’ Oresteia sequence is the only extant example of a trilogy in tragedy, but others are known to have existed). I not been able to determine at this point, and may never know, whether Harper Lee herself ever studied Greek, but Americans of her generation with her academic background usually had at least a smattering of Latin and were familiar with the way Classical mythology worked. That Lee took Latin in school is also highly likely given the name Atticus for her male protagonist in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Atticus in Roman antiquity was the self-given agnomen (nickname) of the Roman politician Cicero’s dearest friend, T. Pomponius Atticus. The word means “Athenian” (i.e., “Attic” or “of Attica”), and Cicero’s friend chose it because he spent most of his adult life in Greece.

Greek myths, a rough approximation of a story line that is as well known and iconic as the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird, are quite flexible in how they are told. To be sure, Ajax must fall on his sword and Agamemnon cannot survive his return home from the Trojan War, but within such parameters myths themselves have many local variations, and writers draw on those variations —either different authors seeing the same myth in different ways, or the same writer using elements of the same story at a different time. Thus the all-too-clever but ultimately sympathetic Odysseus of the oral tradition that developed into the Odyssey becomes the unlikeable con artist of Sophocles’ play Philoctetes. Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles all have their own extant “takes” on the characterization of Electra and Orestes, and their own approaches to the evidence (or the lack thereof) that they are siblings. Heracles receives even more divergent treatment, whether in tragedy, satyr play, or lyric poetry — different in personality, behavior, and wives.

For this reason I was not disturbed by the news that leaked out about the discontinuity in Lee’s portrayal of Atticus Finch in the two novels. After all, the Atticus in Watchman could not be any more disreputable than Odysseus in Sophocles’ Philoctetes (he turned out to be much less so). In terms of the perceived quality of the works, Classical scholarship provides some help here as well. Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (ca. 429 BCE) may be compared with To Kill a Mockingbird in its place in the literary canon. If we wanted to remove Oedipus the King from its perch, the philosopher and literary critic Aristotle is always there yanking it back. However, canons by nature present problems. In this instance, if Oedipus the King epitomizes the successful Greek tragedy, what do we make of the other plays in Sophocles’ Theban cycle? They tell different parts of the Oedipus story and contain some inconsistencies. Antigone, perhaps written ca. 442 BCE, presents less of an issue because of a smaller overlap in content and because of its own centrality in the canon, but Sophocles’ last play, Oedipus at Colonus, written shortly before his death in 406/5 at the age of ninety, is a different matter. It has far less action than Oedipus the King, more philosophy, and is the longest extant Greek tragedy. To the extent that Oedipus at Colonus has a dramatic reversal (peripeteia), essential to the Aristotelian concept of the best form of tragedy, it is in the anticipated result of Oedipus’s curse of his sons Eteocles and Polyneices for disloyalty. Not everyone likes the particular features of Oedipus at Colonus, great though it is. In the end, though, regardless of whether a reader or theatergoer likes Oedipus at Colonus, the three tragedies are viewed as independent works.

There is perhaps more of a gap in the finished product between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman than between Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus (some, including the author of this post, would argue that there is little discrepancy in quality between the two tragedies); a better comparison for Go Set a Watchman might be Sophocles’ earliest productions or the more episodic Euripidean plays like Andromache, although unfortunately Sophocles’ first pieces are not extant. Nonetheless, the degree of discrepancy in subject matter is similar to the approach Harper Lee and Sophocles take to their subject matter over time, and Go Set a Watchman is an ambitious and thoughtful work of significant literary merit. (cf. the initial review in the Guardian, which seems to me to have the best understanding of the newly published novel of the ones I have seen so far.) And what a tale Watchman tells! It is unnerving, to be sure, but it is valuable precisely for the reason that it wrenches people out of their comfort zones and compels them to examine their own biases. For those who miss the other Atticus Finch, writing about Atticus from a different angle in Watchman does not make that Lee’s portrayal of him in Mockingbird any less endearing; they are different books with their own meanings.

Watchman’s audacious approach to form and content is better suited to 2015 than the late 1950’s. It is a book for our time and one which we need, quite frankly, in the light of the Charleston church massacre, the continuing attacks of arson on churches with primarily African American congregations, and the inability of many American police forces to refrain from assaulting and killing people of color who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Recent critical methodologies such as post-structuralism and narratology are useful in unpacking Lee’s approach to form, and scholars can now bring contemporary theories of cultural analysis, including gender studies and postcolonialism, to bear on the content. Looked at via the lens of recent critical advances, a first reading of Watchman suggests that the awkward literary analogies and the occasional flatfooted transition and description illuminate correspondingly awkward liminal states in the character of Jean Louise Finch as the book proceeds.  An immediate example is the second paragraph on the first page. Likewise, Lee’s complex and occasionally disjointed use of form and narrative techniques in different parts of Watchman underline Jean Louise’s sense of disconnection from the various parts of life in Maycomb, as well as the inability of different groups in the community to connect with each other, or —at least in some cases— their public personas and their behavior behind closed doors. If the analytical perspectives I have outlined here have any merit, critics and scholars can debate the degree to which Lee’s approach is successful.

The voice of Jean Louise Finch in Go Set A Watchman is that of a young white Southern woman with inherited money and impeccably cut clothes. It does not tell the story of the African Americans of Maycomb to any significant degree, but it is specific on the reason for the breakdown in the relationship between Jean Louise and Calpurnia, the Black woman who had been the housekeeper and mother figure in the home headed by the widowed Atticus in Mockingbird. The rupture is just what Lee says it is: Jean Louise’s intrinsic category weakness as a white woman in her place and time. Although Jean Louise tries to make it otherwise, there is nothing she can do about it. Given that the book is focused on the character of Jean Louise Finch, the novel cannot see far beyond the same barrier, and for the same reasons.

Although the characters in Go Set a Watchman are primarily white Southerners from the 1950’s, I regret to say that some of the characters in the book reminded me of Quaker weaknesses when it comes to equality, including my own. Oh, we are not Klansmen —don’t worry about that. Most of us unprogrammed Friends resemble, in socioeconomic status or aspiration, Jean Louise in Watchman, or Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Reluctantly, we admit to our weaknesses —often in the past tense— as a way of overcoming them. Few would confess to being like Henry (“Hank”) Clinton, the gifted striver who chooses to go along with racist views and actions out of financial expediency and who lashes out at people that have the luxury of a financial cushion to take unpopular stands. (There is that “cheap grace” issue again, although Lee does not call it that.) Alas, in our Friendly circles more of us make the unpleasant compromises than we would like to admit. Perhaps we are those people. (No, of course we aren’t — how could we be? We have all read Faith and Practice.)

Most crucially, as in To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, there are few Calpurnias amongst unprogrammed Friends in North America. Most of us “white” Friends know that this is wrong, but most of us do not spend several hours a week trying to rectify it. Are we afraid that our concepts of “weightiness” (a.k.a., entrenched power structures) would have to change? As we might say if we were honest, “We don’t have time to get into this.” At out best, we may try to stop clutching our purses and briefcases when a  Black male walks down the street (or, alternatively, we clutch our bags equally in the presence of every stranger), but we mutter, to no person in particular, that it is time to move on. We are always moving on, to a destination that is not always clear, at least not to me.

The American dialogue about the legacy of slavery is only beginning to become honest and open, even among people of the same ethnic and regional background. After the Charleston church shootings, I phoned one of my relatives down South and mentioned the Union soldier who was our mutual ancestor. This relative, the only one of my generation to have actually been born “down there,” is a culturally sophisticated professional a couple of years my senior. It was this person who was able to confirm a few years ago that I was not simply retelling my mother’s account of the water fountain episode in my childhood (my mother, who is no longer living, did not remember the event in any case). I was able to describe the rather imposing exterior of the building, which I have not seen since I was thirteen, and my relative explained in some detail why we would have been there that day. In our most recent conversation, after I remarked that our great-grandfather had fought on the Union side, I heard the reply, “I didn’t know that. Thanks for telling me,” followed by words in a familiar half-Vermont, half-Southern inflection, “I could not say that at work around here (with my white colleagues).” It has been 150 years since the end of the Civil War. I have spoken more frankly with Germans about World War II.  

St. Albans, Vermont, Federal Building and Custom House, photograph May 2015 (©Kristin O. Lord).
Built during the Great Depression with Federal funds,
the interior vestibule (not shown) is lined with slabs of Vermont marble.
For the lilacs in front, cf. Walt Whitman’s elegy
on the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”

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