Saturday, October 22, 2011

America Is Partisan Politics!

We need background and context for understanding the Civil War. Much is found in Burr, by Gore Vidal, which I reviewed upstream. That novel takes place in the 1830's but looks back over the decades to the revolution and before. Vidal explained our political parties to that time, the so-called “first party” era of the U.S. America Aflame carries us further.

The beginnings were in British politics where “Whigs” were constutionalists, opposed to absolute monarchy. “Tories” favored the King. (Presbyterians and other dissenters were Whigs.) In the American Colonies in 1776 you were either a Tory (favoring England) or a Whig (favoring independence or revolution). After England was repelled, most Tories fled to Canada or England. (A lot of the early settlers of the upper Hudson River, where I now live, were Tories who fled to Canada. I am trying to find out how the property they abandoned was claimed and divided.)

In the 1780's and ‘90's, the original Whigs divided into “Federalists” and “anti-Federalists.” John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were Federalists, wanting a strong executive branch of government and a national bank to support business and bankers.

The “anti-Federalists” began calling themselves “Democratic-Republicans” or just “Republicans,” and were sometimes called whigs, jacobins, anarchists, and even disorganizers. They favored a strong legislature against the executive.

This was the party of Jefferson and Madison. By the time of Andrew Jackson, they were just “Democrats.” Are you confused yet? Whigs called Jackson "Jackass," and he took the symbol with pride. Thomas Nast, the political cartoonist, made it famous.

From Jackson’s presidency (1829-1837) onward we are in the “second party” era. Federalists disappeared as a party, and new “Whigs” formed to oppose Jackson, and to oppose the extension of slavery into the new territories of the west. Henry Clay and Daniel Webster were Whigs, as was Lincoln. Goldfield explains how the Republican stance against slavery was at root a pro-growth and pro-business view. Lincoln, after all, was a lawyer for the railroads, and made sure that the transcontinental rail lines were completed, even while the war raged.

It seems that the Republicans were happy for the support of Abolitionists, but that was their issue only insofar as slavery was a value that would inhibit industrial growth. The Republicans wanted Union and the end of slavery, and after the war they promoted the freedom and civil rights of former slaves in the South. So by the end of the Civil War Southerners wanted nothing to do with Republicans. In 1874 Nast drew a cartoon with a donkey in a lion’s skin, scaring the other animals in the zoo. The elephant was labeled “The Republican Vote,” and became the party’s symbol.

After the Civil War Southerners had enough of Democratic support of Negroes, and so the Democrats benefited from the South’s dislike of Lincoln’s Republicans. With slavery over, the Republicans pursued their commercial interests. It wasn’t until the 1972 election that Nixon successfully carried out a “Southern strategy” that brought the South into the Republican party. This was again mostly because of race, but now the Democrats defended the civil rights of African Americans. Today’s Democrats descend from Jefferson and the anti-Federalists, while the Republicans came out of the Federalist and Whig parties.

The history of these things is much messier than that, but that’s the best I can understand and explain it to this point. Please comment if you think you know more than I, and you probably do. Now I think I can talk about the mid 19th century with a bit more clarity. At some point I need to digress and talk about Presbyterians and Mormons (Oh, yeah), but I will try to remain focused.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

America the Tragic, Over and Over Again

I have spent the past 4 months slowly reading and digesting America Aflame, How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield. Eventually, I will get to that book here, but first I digress.

History has always been a passion of mine. I majored in history as an undergraduate. When I graduated my adviser counseled: “Now, with a dime and this degree, you can buy a cup of coffee.” (Coffee was a dime then.) I headed for the library and researched the stats on getting a Ph.D. in history.  Turned out that in 1961 there were more Ph.D.’s in history granted by the U of California at Davis, than were available positions for them in the entire U.S. I had a minor in Russian, too, but in '62 the State Dept. moved most of its financial aid in languages from Russian to Arabic.  Never say the State Dept. is not looking ahead.  Confession: I took the Foreign Service exam (on absolutely everything!) that year and got a 69 when 70 was passing. (Can't say I'm not honest in my memoirs.)

So I researched the question “What happens to history majors?” Sixty-five percent ended up in business. That was cool, so I worked on an M.B.A. for 3 semesters until I couldn’t handle the math. It didn't help that I was against the Viet Nam War in a mostly Republican environment.  (But my professor in business ethics and history was a retired Navy commander, who wrote me a positive reference for my application to be a conscientious objector.)

Then I drove a cab for nine months, taught school on the near west side of Chicago, and ended up in seminary because I kept getting drafted, and kept refusing induction. The rest is as they say, history.

BTW, I have a history project to work on this winter: I was a draft counselor in ‘69-‘71 in Chicago. I remember reading in the papers or hearing on TV news that the draft had broken down; that they were calling 500 and only 50 would show up. I want to check this out. It matched my experience: In ‘69 most of the guys who came in for counseling would want to know if they could be conscientious objectors. Starting in ‘70, guys were coming in saying, “I got this draft notice and didn’t go. What do I do now?”

I never see this issue addressed in history of the Viet Nam War era, and I think it is important. The war may have ended ultimately, because there was no more fodder for the war machine.

Well, we often get into these periods when people will say, “What can be said about the Viet Nam War, or Civil War, or any of our wars that’s new?”  Mistake.  My review upstream of The Given Day on the WWI era will illustrate this.

America Aflame speaks of the mid 19th century, but it informs our understanding of today. I did not realize how violent, how racist, how insensitive, how brutal, how forgetful, how unfair and how hypocritical our nation has been. More on this will follow.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sermon to the UU's -- "Joys of Secularism!"

I spent my whole career in the PC without having read or knowing about Lucretius. I checked Calvin’s Institutes and discovered that he had read Lucretius, but called him “filthy.”

But August 8 in The New Yorker was this article on Lucretius by Stephen Greenblatt, who has written a new book about him called Swerve. The story tells how The Nature of Things or The Way Things Are was lost during the dark ages, roughly 450-1200 c.e.  Or rather, these years were called “the dark ages” because books like this got lost! So it was a lost book rediscovered in 1417 by a monk, a copyist, Poggio of Florence in a monastery in Fulda, Germany.

His finding it set the world on a new course. The world swerved as explorers and scientists and politicians and other thinkers began to see the world in a new way and to re-make the world according to their imaginations. They began to face the world with excitement rather than terror, with possibility rather than imprisonment to traditions, not in spite of there being no eternal soul or afterlife, but because of it!

Within 200 years Lucretius was required reading for literate people.  As modern as Lucretius sounds, Greenblatt warns us that Lucretius was not our contemporary, but believed that the Earth revolved around the Sun and that worms generated from soil decay. But Isaac Newton read it and Lucretius gave him some new, big ideas.

A lot of peple in the midlands of England who were friends and/or related to each other read it: Joseph Priestly in England, a Unitarian minister and scientist had read it. He and Ben Franklin sailed on the same ship to the U.S. in 1794 and did experiments together, testing Lucretius on waterspouts!  They found that waterspouts come upward from the water and not down from the sky as Lucretius had observed.  Later, Priestly figured out that there were atoms in the air! I wonder where he got that idea.

Priestly and some friends and relatives formed the “Lunar Club,” to discuss science and philosophy. Richard Price, another Unitarian minister and philosopher read Lucretius. One was Josiah Wedgwood of pottery fame, who was a Unitarian and a grandfather of Charles Darwin. And Erasmus Darwin, another Grandfather of Charles was there,too. Matthew Boulton and James Watt of steam engine fame had read Lucretius and joined the group.  Thomas Jefferson, who said that Unitarianism was the quintessential American religion, owned 3 copies. [This was before Joseph Smith and the Mormons!]

We can imagine these early Unitarians, before they left Christian churches, reading Lucretius and wondering “Doesn’t this make more sense than some of the other stuff we were taught?”

As I have read some of this history I began to realize that there would be no America, no industrial revolution, no modern science, no modern world - no Unitarian-Universalism – without the rediscovery of Lucretius! This is the swerve that greenblatt writes about: what would have happened if this book by Lucretius had not been found, copied, and shared in the 15th and 16th centuries?

After reading about Lucretius, in the very next issue of the New Yorker, was another article that caught my eye on "Secularism and Its Discontents:" Is that all there is? Secularism is living without appeal to the supernatural or belief in supernatural agency. The author, James Wood, notes that most atheists and agnostics have spoken as if they sense the disappearance of God as a death or loss. Secularism results in “disenchantment” of the world, so that sadly there are no longer miracles and no more heaven to hope for. There is no more magic! [I will return to this.]

Books by atheists have traditionally been deconstuctive and negative. Older atheists often missed God and religion when they gave them up. Newer books have taken a different turn, accepting and celebrating the way things are and the way life is. Book titles include: Nothing to be frightened of,  A Secular Age: “the achievement of the secular world,” and Joy of Secularism, is a book of essays on the positive condition of life without a providential god or spirit. These are not primarily a denial of the world of spirit and religion but an affirmation of the world we’re living in now.

When I worked with Bob Funk, founder and director of the Jesus Seminar, he wanted to finish a little book he was writing called, A Credible Jesus, so that he could write a negative book on “the incredible Christ.”  I was one who talked him out of it.  It was time to move from deconstruction to construction of a new story. And Don Cupitt of England, who has written 40 books over 50 years, has moved step by step to an increasingly positive view of affirming life in a disinterested universe, even crediting Christianity with paving the way for secularism today, in books titled On the Meaning of the West and A New Great Story.

If you have read any Harry Potter you know about “Muggles.” These are ordinary and dreary people who don’t believe in magic! Of course there truly is no more magic, but JK Rowling would have us enjoy the ride through a magical alternative universe. But we aren’t muggles unless we fail to see the magic in everyday life and the wonders of the cosmos!

Secular (non religious) explanations of the world (modern physics, astronomy, evolution) have not made the world less wondrous, and have not undermined the validity or the authority of our wonderment. We take pleasure from the flight of a bird, and understanding how it flies and how it evolved does not detract from this pleasure. These things as they are, are magic to us! And there is no less mystery in the universe.

What Lucretius said, combined with the essence of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, and the Jesus wisdom tradition, is made simple and understandable in the affirmations of the UUA. These are moving and can fill the human spirit because they affirm life and fairness and caring and peace. The last one especially makes me think of Lucretius: “We respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

And so I am helping you in your interim period without a minister guide – The theory of interim ministry in most churches is that this is a time for “rethinking and renewing denominational ties.” So Celebrate your history and traditions, knowing that you stand on the shoulders of giants.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Way Things Are, or Lucretius, Part Deux

Nature has no tyrants over her,
but always acts of her own will; she has
no part of any godhead whatsoever.

Which of the gods is strong enough
to hold the reins of absolute profundity.
Who can be immanent in every time,
in every place – to cloud the world in dark.
Who sends the lightning’s blast
even at his own temples?
And in wrath, lets fly the bolts
that pass the guilty by
and murder undeserving innocents?

Death is nothing to us,
has no relevance to our condition,
knowing that the mind is mortal.
We may be reassured that in our death
we have no cause for fear, we cannot be
wretched in nonexistence.
No one, when body and soul are lost in sleep,
finds oneself missing, or conducts a search
for his identity.

So we must think of death as being nothing,
as less than sleep, or less than nothing, even,
since our array of matter never stirs
to reassemble,
once the chill of death has taken over.
Life’s a gift to no man only a loan to him.
Earth’s our mother, also our common grave.
And so Earth is receiving loss and gain forever.

What we do not have
seems better than everything else in all the world,
but should we get it, we want something else.
Our gaping thirst for life is never quenched.

The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
serene, content with little.
There’s enough of this possession always.
The rich man’s blessed life.  What vanity!

Fear of the gods crept into human hearts,
imposing over all the world dread awe
of holy, groves, altars, and images.

One more thing you can’t believe:
that the gods dwell somewhere
in hallowed places in our universe.
Not so: gods’ natures are
far from our touch, therefore, being intangible,
they cannot touch us either.
The gods had no need to plan this world.
This world of ours was not prepared for us
by any god.  Too much is wrong with it.

People in wonderment
watched how the season’s variable rounds
followed an order they could not discern,
so they evasively assumed the gods
must be responsible; that all things went
at their caprice.

They gave them homes in heaven
since that was where the moon and the sun,
clouds, rain, snow, winds, thunderbolts,
and hail all had their residence.
What sorry creatures!
Unhappy race of people, to grant the gods
so much and add bitter vindictiveness.

Ah, no. In true devotion lies the power
To look at all things with a peaceful mind.
Even those who have learned the lesson well
that gods lead lives supremely free of care,
may wonder, now and then, by what intent
this thing or that can happen.
This wonderment leads to confusion,
leads them to regress to obsolete religious awe.

Shut out all such stuff, I tell you,
Stop having thoughts unworthy of the gods,
Alien to their serenity.
An ignoramus never understands
What causes things on earth or above,
and so he thinks the gods must be responsible.

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, then, not by sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.
[illustration from The New Yorker]

Friday, October 14, 2011

Before Jesus there was Lucretius

I am speaking at the local UUA congregation this Sunday. My topic will be "Joys of Secularism!" The text will be The Nature of Things by Lucretius, written about 60 b.c.e. I am using the Rolfe Humphreys translation, entitled The Way Things Are. The book or essay is a 7500 line poem.

I really got into it and summarized it in two pages. I left out all the stuff on the senses, including preferred positions for sexual intercourse, which scholars say doesn't differ much from what other classic writers said. And I left out the lengthy and depressing ending on the plague in Athens and how people die and their bodies decay. But I am guessing that the rest of what he wrote will surprise many readers. Here is part I:

You may think you are entering
the ABC’s of godlessness. Not so.
The opposite is true. Too many times
Religion mothers crime and wickedness.
I try to loose people’s spirit from the ties,
tight-knotted, which religion binds around them.

Our staring-point shall be this principle:
Nothing at all is ever born from nothing by the gods’ will.
Ah, but people’s minds are frightened
because they see, on earth and in the heaven,
many events whose causes are to them
impossible to fix; so, they suppose
the will of the gods is the reason.
But we shall perceive with greater clarity
how things are caused,
and no “gods’ will” about it.

Our second axiom is this, that nature
resolves each object to its basic atoms
but does not ever utterly destroy it.
Solid and everlasting; these we call
seeds of things, firstlings, atoms,
and in them lies The sum of all created things.

All perish, all, and in one flick of time
nothing be left but desert, chaos, darkness.
If you know this,
it only takes a very little trouble
to learn the pattern of the way things are.

These lessons brighten each other,
no dark night will keep you pathless,
astray, from ultimate vision and light,
but all things are illumined
in each other’s radiance.

Sweetness lies
in watching evils you yourself are free from.
We do not need so much
for bodily comfort, only loss of pain.

I grant you, luxuries are very pleasant,
but nature does not really care if houses
lack golden statues in the halls, young men
holding out fiery torches in their hands
to light the all-night revels.
Much poorer people are every bit as happy.  

Why do you hesitate, why doubt that reason
alone has absolute power?
Our life is spent in shadows,
and it suffers in the dark.
Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
must be dispelled, then, not by sunshine’s rays,
not by those shining arrows of the light,
but by insight into nature, and a scheme
of systematic contemplation.

We can see all things flowing away with time,
while the sum of things Is constantly renewed;
all creatures live in symbiosis.
There is no center or bottom to the universe,
space is infinite, unlimited,
reaching beyond all bounds, in all directions.

Some people do not know how matter works.
They think that nature needs
the will of the gods to fit the seasons of the year
so nicely to human needs.

To be sure, we breed to keep the race alive,
but to think that gods
have organized all things for our sake
is nothing but a lot of foolishness.
The nature of the world just could not be
a product of the god’s’ devising; no,
there are too many things the matter with it.
Two thirds of it is too hot or too cold.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

More Choo Choo History

After another hour of watching Southern Pacific, British, Russian, and Chinese trains on YouTube, I found a picture of the train station in Sioux City! I searched on Ebay, where there are always postcards of everything, and there was this postcard:

The station was located at Second and Jackson Streets. Carol remembers her Dad showing her a roundhouse in that part of town, but I now remember it was only a turntable behind the station for turning the engines around. The tower must be 8 stories tall. There were 4,6, or 8 tracks under the “shed” in back of the station for boarding. (There must be a word for “getting off” a train – “de-boarding?)

I found another roundhouse in Sioux City, too. This Chicago/Northwestern structure had 36 bays! Many photos (copyrighted) may be seen at Siouxland Railroads in Google Books. The photo on p. 121 says that the roundhouses were razed in 1950, but on p. 38 is a photo of them in the 1953 flood, which explains why I can remember them.

When I lived in Chicago, a popular book was Lost Chicago, with photos of all the buildings and other structures that had been gone for some time. (See Lost Chicago in Google Books.) Mostly, these things disappear and we think little of it. We tend to think that what exists now is better than what existed in the past. And since it is out of sight it is out of mind. The rail industry was in decline before WWII and declined rapidly afterward. Many people say they hate to see the old ways go, but they went because we found something better, in this case, the automobile, the tractor trailer, and the interstate highway, . Still, many of us will go out of our way to see, hear, and ride on a train pulled by a steam engine.

The sermon today reminds us that steam engines are about power and spirit. Afficionados of trains use the phrase “live steam” to describe the source of power. These behemoths come to “life” when fired up. Another “lost structure” on Second St. was the “steam plant,” a huge city utility that produced steam that was piped to all of the downtown buildings (about a square mile). I guess they are all on their own now, as are we all, in our increasingly fragmented and individualistic society.