Thursday, August 17, 2017

On Complicity

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Luke 18:13

My father had surgery, several years ago, for a congenital hand malformation — he can correct me on this, but I think the disorder is called Dupuytren's contracture. It causes the hand to bend in upon itself, and surgery is the only real remedy for advanced cases. My father recovered well enough to go back to sea afterward.

Dupuytren’s contracture is not terribly common, but it’s not that rare, either. My father’s doctor told him that it was called the Viking disease, because it appears almost entirely in people of Viking descent.

Dad and I have both had our DNA analyzed by 23 and Me, and we don’t have that much Scandinavian blood, according to the ancestry report (although we do share ancestry with Niall of the Nine Hostages, so maybe we actually were kings of Ireland once). But Ireland was a land of shipwrecks and invasions, and the Vikings were all over the island, so at some point, some Viking took an Irish girl as his willing or unwilling partner.

I think about that a lot, as I think about my earliest maternal ancestor, a member of the relatively rare H13 haplogroup. Most living members of that haplogroup still live in a small pocket of the Caucasus Mountains, or around the Caspian Sea. But thousands of years ago, a girl child wandered — or was taken, or sold — west, and her descendants kept going.

Somewhere along the way, someone in my ancestry was forced into something that she did not want to do. And someone else in my ancestry did the forcing.

My mother’s family was from Charleston, South Carolina. Her parents met and married there in the 1930s, when my grandfather was a public defender and my grandmother wrote for the News & Courier. They were both Catholics of Irish descent, but my grandmother’s father, Henry Molony, had been a wealthy man, wiped out by the Depression.

Henry Molony was born in the U.S. in 1858. His father, John Molony, had come to Charleston from County Clare in 1845, and had kept a shop in Charleston until the war. John Molony owned no slaves. When the war came, he moved his store to Sumter, SC, and raised seven children. From what I can tell, he was not a Confederate. But one of his daughters married a Confederate veteran, and at least one of his sons — my great-grandfather, Henry — prospered in part by allying himself with the Democratic Party, which was not the Democratic Party as we know it today.

Henry Molony was an official of St. John’s Cathedral, a donor to many worthy causes, a founder of hospitals and a man of honor — but he was also, without a doubt, a man who apologized for the causes of the Confederacy and conspired to keep its memory bright. He left ten children, who have gone on to have hundreds of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of their own — my mother didn’t know all her cousins.

And every one of us — the hundreds, or even thousands — is a beneficiary of Henry Molony’s complicity.

Colonization was America’s original sin, but slavery was the foundational sin, and its repercussions still echo, 150 years after it was outlawed.

We’re not good at atonement, humans. We don’t like to admit we’ve done wrong. Adam and Eve, confronted with their first wrongdoing, lied about it. Lying is what distinguishes humans from other animals; it keeps us separate from God, separate from each other, separate from the real.

So here’s my point, at last: Charlottesville gives us all an opportunity to tell the truth. White Americans, and southerners in particular, are all complicit in some way. It doesn’t matter that we never held slaves ourselves. It doesn’t matter that our parents didn’t. It doesn’t even matter if our grandparents were public defenders (and I’ll say again, mine was). We had — and have — opportunities because somewhere along the way, somebody else suffered.

If we inherited the benefits, we inherited the obligations, too. It doesn’t matter if we’re not racists now. We can still do more. We can still make things better. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

On the return of "Twin Peaks"

We're four episodes in to the return of "Twin Peaks," and I'm locked in for the duration. I loved the first season of the original show, to the point of hosting a party for the second-season premiere, complete with cherry pie and dozens of doughnuts. I stuck with the second season through the silliness of the Miss Twin Peaks pageant, and Audrey Horne's icky romance with John Justice Wheeler, and Josie's disappearance into the drawer handle. I saw Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in the theater and didn't understand it at all, though it is a movie that improves with repeated viewings, maybe because the brain insists on imposing some kind of order on it.

The inevitable backlash has already begun, from fans of the original series who expected something different from David Lynch — or to be more accurate, expected anything. Four episodes in, Lynch is already making it clear that all expectations are contrary to his agenda.

With no expectations, I am experiencing the return of "Twin Peaks" as a gift from a wise friend I haven't seen in a while. Four episodes in, this is what I'm taking from it:

We get old.

We get lost.

We forget who we meant to be, and if we are very lucky, someone reminds us in a way that gives us time to do something about that.

We are grateful, so grateful, for the companions we managed to keep along the journey, who are often not the people we’d have expected to stand with us.

The mysteries are more baffling because we (okay, I) have gotten to an age at which we think we’ve seen a lot, and we think we know things.

We understand that the universe is neither friendly nor hostile to us. It simply is, around us and within us. And it favors entropy.

Once we notice that entropy, we cannot stop noticing it — except we have to stop noticing it, or else we would never be able to get anything done. It’s the paradox of not being able to get halfway out of a chair, then halfway again, then halfway again. Eventually we must pretend some order is possible, and those moments when we remember otherwise are disorienting, even paralyzing.

It’s an absurd life we’re living, in an absurd world, in an absurd universe. The order we impose upon it is skin deep, and fragile.

These are the central truths of “Twin Peaks.” They strike me as the central truths of life on this planet.

They're working for me so far.

Friday, January 20, 2017

On being wrong, and the benefit of the doubt

Good morning, Americans. Good morning, world.

Today the United States follows one of the most important rituals of our government, the peaceful transfer of executive power from one individual to another. If you know me at all, you know that the recipient of this power is not the person I supported. I'm out of town today, and won't watch the ceremony.

But I'm still an American. And I'm still alive. And the distinguishing feature of Americans, if we have one, is optimism. We live in a country whose relatively short history is a narrative of improvements. In the United States, things get better. Oh, we might have temporary setbacks, we might have conflicts and disagreements and even tragedy — but things get better. More people move here. More businesses start. More people work. People live longer, live better, have more stuff. The poorest people in the United States still — mostly — have electricity, running water, refrigerators and televisions. We take all that for granted, and quite a lot of us never have occasion to learn just how rare and new it is, in human experience.

This expectation of endless improvement is what's brought us here, today, as a man with no political experience, whose financial obligations we do not know, will stand next to his third wife and promise to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. He ran on a campaign that told Americans we were miserable, and that he could fix that. And he won, at least in part, because those of us who aren't miserable didn't believe the ones who said they were.

He says he'll make America great again. Nobody ever pressed him on the question of why and how America isn't great now. Over the last few months, I have asked people who've told me Barack Obama is the worst president in history: okay, I hear you, but tell me how? Show me. Are you homeless? Did you lose your job, your family, your dreams? Yes, entire industries have disappeared in the past 25 years, and more industries will go the same way in the next ten. Show me, tell me, how President Obama was responsible for that, and how he should have fixed it. What did he do wrong? How did he hurt you?

Nobody's given me a good answer. The one substantive response I've gotten is the increase in the national debt under the Obama administration. I'll concede that, for people who agree that government spending shouldn't be used to spur the economy. The problem is finding anyone serious who agrees with that statement. If you want to argue with me, go right ahead. I'll check back with you after Congress passes President Trump's infrastructure bill.

What worries me most about the incoming Administration — and a lot of things worry me — is that this is a group of people who measure success in terms of dollars, and don't understand any other measures of success. "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" becomes "I'm rich, so I must be smart." If you believe that the richest people you know are also the smartest, it's not in my power to convince you otherwise. But that is not my own measure of success.

Let's go back to this idea of improvement, of the United States being a country that improves over time. How does anything or anyone improve? By doing new things, trying new things. Does everyone get new things right the first time? Are all new things equally valuable or productive? Of course not. How do we choose the right improvements, how do we derive the greatest benefits? By making mistakes. By being wrong. By acknowledging the error, and going back to figure out how we make it right.

We have a new President who seems incapable of admitting error. If he cannot admit mistakes, he cannot correct them. He doesn't apologize because he's never done anything wrong. He can't acknowledge that his actions might harm others as they benefit him. If you can't do these things, you can't learn. You can't improve. The whole effort is self-defeating.

Some people are saying that we need to give this new President a chance, that he deserves our support for the sake of the office he holds, and that we owe him the benefit of the doubt. I'll agree with that — paradoxically — if he tells us that he knows he's going to mess up. If he expects to make mistakes, and welcomes the opportunity to learn from them. If he's willing to apologize to the people who get hurt along the way. This seems unlikely, since he's a 70-year-old man whose life has not yet taught him how to do that.

If he can't, and he won't, the American people will have to learn these lessons for themselves. We'll have to recognize our mistake, learn from it, and figure out how to do it right the next time.