"Myself When I Am Real" Andy Dayton, associate web producer
"It was kind of like jazz." That’s what Nancy said when I asked her how Krista’s conversation with E. Ethelbert Miller went. Prior to the interview, Trent began paging through Miller’s second memoir, The 5th Inning, and seemed taken by the book’s honesty and willingness to acknowledge the darker corners of life. From the introduction:
"How do we cope with failure in life? How do we live when everyday we open our eyes to death? This memoir is about how I coped with failure and disappointment in career, marriage, and life. We fail as lovers, parents, and friends."
With this in mind, I sent an email to Chris suggesting he give Charles Mingus’ Mingus Plays Piano a listen when scoring the program’s soundtrack. The album has a contemplative and improvisational sound that I really enjoy — an enjoyment that’s enhanced knowing a bit of the story behind it. Appearing in the liner notes to the compilation, The Impulse Story, here’s an account from inside the studio when Mingus recorded the album:
"Somebody was playing the piano in there very hauntingly — very beautifully. Then it would stop, and start again. It didn’t sound like practicing. It sounded like somebody was just thinking on the piano. That’s the best way I could say it. I looked in the music room and it was pitch black. The lights weren’t on. So I went into Thiele’s office and said, ‘Who’s playing in there?’ ‘It’s Charlie Mingus. A very close friend of his died.’ I never knew who he was grieving over. But about a half-hour later Thiele said, ‘Charles, let’s go into a studio.’ That became Mingus Plays Piano.”
"Thinking on the piano." Replace notes with words and you might say that reading (and hearing) E. Ethelbert Miller can be a similar experience.
My suggestion didn’t make its way into the program. Miller dropped enough musical references during the interview to easily fill the program’s 50 minutes. But you can listen to the first track from the album — “Myself When I Am Real” — to get a taste of what “thinking on the piano” sounds like.
Artist Kara Walker installs her work “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (photo: Cameron Wittig/Walker Art Center)
I’ve heard E. Ethelbert Miller’s essays and short interviews on Weekend Edition Sunday and always learned something new. He has been at Howard University, first as an undergraduate, since it was a crucible of Black Power in the late 1960s. I’ve heard him observe political and cultural events — like the election of Barack Obama as president — through a fascinating lens, from that vantage point, and also from his vantage point as a poet, a “literary activist.” And I wondered what would happen if I sat down with him for a whole hour to explore the nexus of the political, the artistic, and the spiritual in the dramatic trajectory of black history over the last half century — a trajectory he has both been shaped by and has shaped.
The result is an unpredictable, playful, and challenging program. For starters, he is not eager to engage in a head-on discussion of Obama and race — the discussion many in our culture have both longed for, and not found a way to have, throughout his candidacy and now his presidency. For E. Ethelbert Miller, Obama’s election says interesting things about how white people in the U.S. have changed. He does not buy the language of a “post-racial society.” Yet he sees that both Barack and Michele Obama have made a lasting impact on global cultural associations between blackness, elegance, excellence, and beauty. And in the long run, he seems to feel, that may be more than enough, for now.
We hear the trumpet of Miles Davis and the saxophone of John Coltrane as Miller guides us in an entertaining, if not linear, way through the evolution of what he calls “blackness” in the last half century. His words and the sounds of this music join the poetry of Lucille Clifton "won’t you celebrate with me") and the prose of Buddhist novelist Charles Johnson and Muslim activist Malcolm X to evoke the eclectic range of influences that nourished the black consciousness that first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Our cultural memory has taken in some of these influences and forgotten much of the rest, though they have all continued to ferment in E. Ethelbert Miller’s being and in the diverse universe he inhabits.
He likes to imagine a healing role for African-American Muslims, for example, in the global encounter between Islam and the West in this century. He also suggests that, in this globalized world, the noun/adjective “African American” is too small. His own heritage is West Indian, and the term African American in fact obscures the far-flung immigrant story inside the story of race in the U.S. alone. But in using the word “blackness” — which culturally might seem a reversal — E. Ethelbert Miller is talking about much more than the color of one’s skin. He is talking about “the color of ideas.”
Also, I recommend reading Miller’s "My Language, My Imagination." It’s a beautiful essay based on a speech he delivered on the campus of Western Oregon University in 1998. It is a vivid, personal, concise, and energizing introduction to the turning points and inner dynamics of African-American life in our time. And it is terrific background for going on to read Miller’s memoirs — especially his first, Fathering Words — and his poetry.
African-American descendants of slaves ponder it, as do descendants of immigrants that arrived at Ellis Island. Expecting parents deliberate it, as does a bride going from maiden to married (or vice versa). Artists muse it, as do people with political or religious intentions. “It” being the meaning of the personal name — or the process of giving, taking, or receiving a name that we experience in multiple ways as giving definition, and sometimes control, to our individual identity.
I’ve been thinking about this since hearing Krista and E. Ethelbert Miller talk about the significance of naming in this week’s show. I appreciated both the weight and the humor in Miller’s description of the experience of naming his children. In his first memoir, Fathering Words, he writes about his own name change:
"…I changed my name my sophomore year at Howard. I reinvented myself. Maybe everything I am writing now is a continuation of that 1969 decision, like the Brown, Supreme Court decision of 1954. I was Gene to my parents, especially my father. I enrolled in college as Eugene E Miller, but like the legal blow against segregation, I became more social and outgoing under the name E. Ethelbert Miller.
How did it happen? Was it as quick as my grandmother changing my father’s last name from Williams to Miller when they came to America? A new identity, an escape as good as anything Houdini could do. The magic was first discovered in the lounge of Drew Hall. A number of us were thinking about running for student government as a ticket. I was selected to run for freshman class treasurer. It was obvious that no one had checked my poor math grades from elementary to high school. A consecutive record of failures with numbers that established a Ripken-like streak. The person handling my campaign was a young coed from Chicago. She had a nice afro and shape, and she was funny and smart. We sat on the floor in the lounge trying to come up with slogans for posters and we couldn’t. She asked about my middle name. Ethelbert, I told her, and she laughed. She came up with this silly expression about ‘Ethelbert Is Coming’ and soon made posters with an airplane, which struck me as stupid, but what did I know about politics. Many students found the expression funny and voted for me and I won.
So I was Eugene Ethelbert Miller after a few weeks away from the Bronx. But folks would call me Eugene until I ran for sophomore class president and decided to cast myself as a new politician. I had resigned from being freshman class treasurer because I refused to spend money on a class party and folks wanted to party and so they did so without me. Just as Richard Nixon became the new Nixon to some, I changed my name to E. Ethelbert Miller…”
In his first memoir, Miller also peppers in writings from his sister, Marie. A nurse, she shares her candid assessment of his name change:
"I thought the entire name change thing was as crazy as getting an afro, or wearing African clothes, or going to Africa. E. Ethelbert Miller, please! What was he getting into down in Washington? All that black stuff was crazy. I saw it on television. It didn’t have anything to do with my life. When you’re thinking about working in a hospital, all you see is red, the color of blood. Folks don’t have no time for race relations when they are sick or dying; and why didn’t my brother take an African name if he wanted to be so black and different? He could have been Kwame, or one of those principles associated with that thing called Kwanzaa. You know, he could have called himself Umoja or something like that."
I made the traditional choice of taking my husband’s name when I got married, primarily for practical reasons, but also because my maiden name reflected a history of family adoption, so I felt no innate connection to it. It didn’t take long for me to get used to it; in fact, I think the process of changing my social security card took longer. With my son, we chose a name that was simple, sounded regal (to us), and was connected to family heritage. I hope Owen will embrace it, though I’ll be prepared for the reality that he may amend it.
I wonder: What stories, choices, meanings are behind your names? In what ways and in what places do you find yourself pondering the meaning of your name and how it defines you?
I’m currently editing Kate’s interview with Omid Safi, which focuses on his recent book about memories and stories of Muhammad. During the conversation he says that if you ask most people a story about Christianity they can tell you about a prevailing idea or parable about Jesus; ask about Judaism and you’ll often hear something about Moses; inquire about Hinduism and Gandhi will come up or the idea of non-violence. But, if you ask them about the Prophet, they most likely will have no concrete idea or story.
Later on, he shares a wonderful story about the Prophet and the “naked embrace” of his wife when he’s questioning the veracity of his divine visions. A concrete story that humanizes Muhammad, to be sure, but also a tale about women and their influential role within Islamic thought.
In the quote above, Ms. Izzidien gives another concrete example of the Prophet through an interaction with his wife — but, this time, by weaving it into her delightful and light-hearted, but sincere, take on young Muslim women assuming the lead in courtship. A modern-day perspective worth noticing, and look for the produced interview with Omid Safi later next week!
As the newest addition to Speaking of Faith, my first task has been to prepare the show "No More Taking Sides" for rebroadcast in a couple of weeks. Listening to Ali say “Nobody want to be honest. Everybody want to be right,” reminded me of working in Gujarat when "state-sanctioned" violence, torture, and rape broke out across the state, primarily with Hindus attacking Muslims.
Although Hindu by birth, I was working there for a non-denominational organization. I was 20. Under 24-hour curfew, the media were saturated with images of brutality happening just down the street. More importantly, the dialogue of friends and colleagues concentrated on “us” versus “them.”
Recently, a friend read my personal narrative and asked, “Didn’t the Hindus realize the irony that came with attaching terms of violence to the Muslims?” Well no. Not the Hindus that took a side. They felt they were right and all Muslims were wrong. As for me, in addition to coping with the sheer force of violence, I was equally faced with a personal crisis — the Hindus I met believed I was part of “them,” but I just wanted to be human and I wanted the brutality to stop.
Robi and Ali’s story makes me imagine that organizations like Parents Circle - Family Forumcan break down the centuries of opposing sides that have persisted between Hindus and Muslims.
Arresting. From the Mail & Guardian, this difficult and disturbing set of images accompanied by an interview with Leon Botha, an artist and Progeria survivor. He is 24 years old. A Friday afternoon video *pause* in a day that leaves me reflective.
(Thanks to Boing Boing for their post leading me to this slideshow.)
“I tend to think that fictional characters are in some ways more real than biological human beings. Think of Victorian England. How many people from that era can you remember?. I would say that Sherlock Holmes is more real than the anonymous people who came and went and lived and died in east London. To be a fictional character like that is not such a bad fate.”—
Last week, we lost fiction writer J.D. Salinger and historian Howard Zinn. In the days after their deaths, I noticed Salinger quotes like this one from Catcher in the Rye peppering friends’ Facebook feeds:
"I don’t care if it’s a sad good-bye or a bad good-bye, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t, you feel even worse."
I haven’t read The Catcher in the Rye since high school, but that voice of Holden Caulfield’s is so recognizable and distinct — like someone I know really well but haven’t talked to in awhile. People have been posting RIP Howard Zinn tributes, but many don’t feature memorable quotes, which reminded me of Mary Doria Russell’s commentary about the enduring imprint of fictional characters.
What about you? Are there characters from beloved books whose imprint has stuck with you over time? Do you have quotes from these fictional friends to share?
“The problem was not a shortage of sincerity but an excess of zeal in which self-belief overrode objective judgment.”—
— —Jonathan Aitken, commenting in The Guardian on former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and his role in the lead-up to, and the aftermath of, the Iraq war. Aitken says that “once the Chilcot inquiry establishes the truth about Iraq, we should be quick not to judge, but to forgive.”
“Salvation somehow seemed closer — yet we also knew that we could be killed at any moment. The goal was to hang on a little longer. … The fury of the Haitian earthquake, which has taken more than 200,000 lives, teaches us how cruel nature can be to man. The Holocaust, which destroyed a people, teaches us that nature, even in its cruelest moments, is benign in comparison with man when he loses his moral compass and his reason.”—
“…unfortunately, society does not generally invest enough in innovation—especially in areas where it would help the poor (who aren’t an attractive market) and where there isn’t an agreed-upon measure of excellence. In the U.S., that means we have not invested nearly what we should in innovation for education.”—
This brief commentary by Bill Gates’ nicely accentuates a point made by Jacqueline Novogratz for our show to be released this Thursday (via podcast). She sees an opportunity for social investors to take risks in these unattractive markets abroad that actually might serve as new models for how we operate here in the States.
Perhaps this experimental work is going on now in more places than many of us realize. It’s just not funded properly or recognized. More directly, I’m thinking of two recent conversations we’ve had with Adele Diamond and Mike Rose. Both are challenging the stagnation in the U.S. education system that Gates’ later mentions — Diamond couples scientific knowledge of the brain with observations of children in classroom settings; Rose pairs his decades of teaching and education at all levels with his conversations with folks in all parts of the country.
Are we really listening and paying attention to what’s going on in our backyard (including Canada)? And, how are we willing to give those ideas a fighting chance of going mainstream?
"Nou Met Led Me Nou La!" (We May Be Ugly, But We Are Here!)
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, whom we first interviewed for our program "Living Vodou," grew up in Haiti, a member of the country’s aristocratic elite of African descent. He studied political science in the U.S. and earned his Ph.D. in International Relations from American University. Unlike his well-known grandfather, Dantès Bellegarde, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith was first drawn to his homeland’s indigenous religion as a way to understand his cultural identity, and later became a oungan.
The professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee responds to our questions about Haiti’s history, the mass media’s reporting, and Vodou’s role in recovery:
I find myself wanting to hear about the context and perspective that only you can bring to the way Haiti is being viewed and discussed while the earthquake spotlight is on it. What are your thoughts?
I am running on adrenaline at this moment, often unthinking, unfeeling, “zombie-like.” I didn’t sleep for the first several days. A Haitian baby girl, 15 days old, was found alive and well after seven days. Half her life! What stamina shown by the buried, the undead, after one week after the cataclysm.
The UN says that it is the worst disaster it has faced, presumably in terms of actual death and refugees in a single country. It is the worst earthquake in Haitian history, in a country and in a geographic/geologic area that was literally created from fault lines and tectonic plates and volcanoes. When earthquakes occurred in the 19th century, Haiti picked itself up and rebuilt itself, without assistance from the outside world. We do acknowledge that we need it this time, and hope that Haiti will rebuild based on Haitian models, at the direction of Haitian governments, with all that Haiti has in terms of a reservoir of talent both inside and outside the country.
When you say that you hope Haiti will rebuild based on Haitian models, what do you mean? Are there certain examples you’re thinking of?
Haitian models abound in all fields, areas, and systems of life. The culture provides with indigenous models of development, as well as indigenous patterns of housing development, some predating European colonization of the island of Haiti (Hispaniola), e.g. Amerindian sources. The “Miami model” now found throughout the Caribbean insists on low houses, flat cement cement roofs, and the like, which do not accord with the environment.
Other more “settled cultures” have improvised upon their legacy, while Haiti has opted for a pale imitation of American standards all too often. In the same way that our art is distinctive and derived from our religion, our housing and our cities can also be creative and innovative within our own traditions and foundations. Hence, my call for all architects and engineers to come together to rebuild Port-au-Prince.
Port-au-Prince had eathquakes in the 1860s and 1950s. It was rebuilt. The second city of 500,000 inhabitants, Cap-Haïtien, was destroyed in 1842. It was rebuilt.
There’s been so much non-stop coverage of Haiti since the first earthquake devastated the country where you grew up. I saw a series of reports on one news channel and its website that featured a reporter standing outside of a Catholic church…
Haiti has always been “defined” as 60 percent Catholic, 40 percent Protestant, but 100 percent Vodou. This recognizes that the national religion is part of a worldview that belongs to all Haitians, and for which all Haitians should be proud. Typically, we can and do worship in churches, temples, and ounfos, realizing that it’s all about “spirit” and that all spiritual disciplines have access to the spiritual world.
Vodou is merely the culturally Haitian form of such worship. Haitian music, painting, oral literature — all systems inherently found in all cultures — have a Vodou foundation at its base. Much the same as the Judeo-Christian ethos suffuses all that is American, even those millions of Americans who are atheists.
…and the report would cut away to shots of Haitians worshiping while the correspondent continued to talk somewhat off-the-cuff. I thought, “Why aren’t they speaking to more people and featuring their voices on camera — even if they need interpreters?” What’s been missed in U.S. coverage of Haiti and its cultural/religious/spiritual moorings?
Much is missing from the American reportage by media. American media, all together now, refuse to mention that the first responders were more than 400 Cuban doctors doing good work in Haiti for several years. American media are not reporting that Venezuelan and Cuban help is being resisted by the U.S. when Cuba and Venezuela are very significant allies of Haiti for the past 200 years — for the past 100 years, depending on when these countries achieved independence.
The emphasis was not on water or food, but on landing 12,000 American soldiers in Haiti. Why so many soldiers? Please explain. Haitians are refusing to oblige American reporters who insist that Haiti will have “riots” and that Haitians “loot.” Is it because Haitians are black? The same arguments were made about New Orleans during Katrina. Racism always remains true to itself. When will that stop, coming from people who are genuine in their desire to help, but remain racist nonetheless. Please stop!
As someone whose personal history represents the many layers of Haitian cultural, political, and religious identity, how are these events impacting you personally?
I have lost nine members of my extended family. Cousins of my generation have all survived, but their five homes have collapsed. One cousin in her mid-60s is sleeping in her car with her gravely ill husband. I have yet, as of today, been unable to call. News is intermittent. I am distressed and distraught.
I remember Port-au-Prince in the late 1940s and 1950s — une ville jardin, a garden city with abundant greenery and water, a small population of 150,000. I am well-born and come from a well-connected family whose story parallels Haitian history over the last two centuries. Every corpse is mine; every body is mine. Their spirit fuses with mine and that of all Haitians. Spirits live beyond death — and before birth. The dead are not dead, but alive in new dimensions. I gain solace from that ancestral thought.
That sentiment — “the dead are not dead” — reminds me of a line from Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti: “The future stems from the past, so life and death become one in the same.” Could you say more about the Vodou understanding of spirit and energy and not wasting the wisdom of one’s ancestors? And how might this Vodou worldview inform a Haitian approach to rebuilding the country?
The Gede family of spirits protect the cemetery, and also protect new life in a never-ending chain. The Gede love children, reminiscent of the relationship one often finds between grandparents and grandchildren. One’s past predicts tendencies for certain outcomes, yet, through the exercise of free will, one can transcend one’s limits.
In traditional African thought, as in most spiritual systems, reincarnation is taken for granted, though attenuated in Haiti by the impact of Christianity. Hence the lack of a heaven and a hell, yet alone a purgatory or, in pre-John Paul II times, a limbo. Souls are nearer than we realize, and their interaction with the “living,” generally beneficent. No energy goes a-wasting in a close universe!
The way one interacts with fellow beings on the planet is far more significant (and rewarding) than the way one might interact with the spirit world or with God for that matter. At critical points in our lives’ journeys, God shall not ask about our beliefs or treatment of “It,” but how we have managed our relationships with humans and other facets of nature alike.
In what ways are you seeing your local community and, perhaps, larger Haitian-American community coming together during these times?
Haiti was in the process of reinventing itself politically, socially, culturally. Now Haiti has to reinvent itself physically as well. Out of tremendous pain, rays of hope. We rebuilt after past earthquakes, after hurricanes. We are spared the scourge of volcanic eruptions; our sister English and French colonies in the Caribbean, Monserrat and Martinique, did not escape volcanoes that are at the foundations of our countries.
The Haitian diaspora, more than a million strong, will come to the rescue. This signal event forces us to come into action. “L’Union Fait la Force" ("Union Makes Strength"), the national motto of Haiti must be practiced or else the international community will dictate the terms of Haiti’s "recovery." And worse will follow!
As a Vodou priest, how has the spirit world been present during the aftermath?
Haiti needs all its ancestral spirits, now more than ever. Praise the Lwa.
You began this interview by sharing the remarkable story of a 15-day-old baby surviving the quake. How do stories like this inform your notions of the human spirit? Of what Haiti’s future might hold and look like?
Her spirit is strong, and I would hope that she was spared to produce great things in her lifetime. This is one of many miracles we have been fortunate to witness over the last 12 days! That girl, name unknown, has proven as resilient as Haiti herself.
Who might have predicted that Haiti would have survived 206 years when faced by the opprobrium of the Western powers? In defiance, we cry out, “nou met led me nou la (we may be ugly, but we are here)!”
I’m not a narcissist. But Clay Shirky thinks I should be.
The media critic recently posted a controversy-mongering blog titled “A Rant About Women,” the premise being that women would do well to act more like men — stand up for themselves more and do what it takes to get ahead, even if it means being a “pompous blowhard”:
[Women] are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.
Reading Shirky’s rant certainly doesn’t surprise from a gender standpoint. Most women have heard it our whole lives: Be more like men, even if said men are glorifying and rewarding reprehensible behavior.
What gives me pause is that Shirky, like so many of our “thought leaders,” isn’t leading at all, rather, willingly following the cultural trend of less substance and more self-aggrandizement, less selflessness and more LOOK AT ME HEY OVER HERE. So because that’s the way our culture is heading, we should equip ourselves to be better narcissists? As if we needed any help in that arena.
I see this less as a gender issue, though that is undoubtedly a factor, and more as a dangerous societal shift. We should be challenging a system that exalts arrogant self-promotion and “being discovered” over the actual work of making things better. Instead, Shirky critiques the behavior of people (not just women) who refuse to kowtow to this path of least resistance. Anna North at Jezebelsaid it well:
Shirky writes, “in an ideal future, self-promotion will be a skill that produces disproportionate rewards, and if skill at self-promotion remains disproportionately male, those rewards will as well. This isn’t because of oppression, it’s because of freedom.” Shirky has an idealistic view of self-promotion — he also thinks it’s a marker of a variety of other skills, about which I’m very skeptical (see above). Others take a dimmer view: it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and women had better transform themselves into better dog-eaters. This “change-yourself-to-fit-in” advice has been given to pretty much every marginalized group over the years …
Those who are marginalized by a system are often those best able to see its flaws, and teaching those people just to work around their marginalization is a great way to keep them quiet, and to keep anything from ever changing. Let’s not fall for it.
This “self promotion equals greater rewards” system is not a future we should embrace willingly. In fact, it’s a pretty dismal picture of humanity where navel gazing and notoriety inform our fundamental identities.
To Shirky’s credit, I think it’s a fair point that we need to stand up for our work and make our voices heard (not just women, but especially women). But I think it’s unproductive, not to mention morally suspect, to do so because we hope to “get famous five years from now.” And I can’t believe that the loudest blowhards in the room are the ones doing the real work of changing the world. They’re too busy talking about the work — or themselves — to actually get down to doing it. Why should we emulate their behavior?
As North said in her response: “’The squeaky wheel gets the grease’ is a s**tty way to run a world.”
She’s right. So how do we cut through the clamor of self-promotion and elevate the people and voices that are doing the often-thankless work of making the world better?
Ms. Hinck is a multimedia journalist and editor living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. You can read her blog Brain Popcorn and follow her on Twitter.
Reconciling "Intrusive Paternalism" and "Soft Power"
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
"This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story."
Last Friday, Krista sent around David Brooks’ recent editorial on the disaster in Haiti. As the quote above suggests, he discusses the connection between the scale of damage in Haiti and the nation’s “poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.”
One of the many questions the situation in Haiti raises is how those in wealthier nations can help prevent this sort of catastrophe in the future. Brooks provides his own diagnosis on effective foreign aid, based on a few domestic examples:
In [the U.S.], we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.
These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.
It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.
As I read this, I couldn’t help but hear Binyavanga Wainaina’s voice in the back of my mind, whom Krista spoke to in our program "The Ethics of Aid: One Kenyan’s Perspective." Wainaina is a Kenyan writer who has often been a vocal critic of foreign aid:
A lot of people arrive in Africa to assume that it’s a blank empty space and their goodwill and desire and guilt will fix it. And that to me is not any different from the first people who arrived and colonized us. This power, this power to help, is just about as dangerous as hard power, because very often it arrives with a kind of zeal that is assuming ‘I will do it. I will solve it for you. I will fix it for you,’ and it rides roughshod over your own best efforts.
I find Brooks’ call for “intrusive paternalism” hard to reconcile with Wainaina’s warnings about the “soft power” of foreign aid. But, the question still remains — what can we do to help prevent another Haiti?
One possible answer to that question comes from next week’s guest, Jacqueline Novogratz, who speaks of an approach to foreign aid that uses “a hard head and a soft heart.” She’s the CEO and founder of the Acumen Fund, which aims to combine the economic accountability of venture capital with the human-centric concerns of traditional philanthropy — an approach that is innovative, but also comes with its own questions.
“…I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”—
—from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (translation by M.D. Herter Norton), which was cited by Jacqueline Novogratz in her interview with Krista for next week’s program, “A Different Kind of Capitalism.”
The vital work of our talented colleagues at American RadioWorks (ARW) is on my mind for a number of reasons. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I’m reminded of their 2008 documentary, "King’s Last March." I thought I knew a lot about the celebrated civil rights leader, but this program offers insight into his person that I haven’t heard elsewhere. It explores why a more pessimistic King chose a path of “deeper difficulty and greater risk” in his last year of life, and includes both familiar and lesser-known archival audio (check out Trent’s reflection from a few years ago for an audio example). There are many ways to reflect on the legacy of King. For me, one way is to have a better understanding of who he really was at various points in his life. This doc does that very well.
Also, as we continue to receive many thoughtful stories in response to our show with Mike Rose about the meaning of intelligence, I’m reminded of ARW’s more recent offering "Workplace U." It’s not a university but a movement to merge workplace and classroom that may offer low-income workers more opportunity for success than traditional educational models. There’s some real-world examples here that compliment Mike Rose’s perspective.
I know I sound overly promotional here, but I would not mention these programs if I didn’t think you would find them compelling, meaningful, and complementary to some of the topics we’ve presented in the past year. They are part of the best of documentary journalism.
Brazil army officials issued a statement saying many followers of the Voodoo religion would not accept the dead being touched until all of their rituals were concluded. Some experts on the faith validated the claim while others rejected it.
Voodoo, a mix of African religions and Roman Catholicism, is central to Haitian life and is widely observed in some form. The religion often has been wrongly associated with black magic or sorcery, leaving a lingering stereotype against its followers.
But suggestions that survivors are stacking corpses outside Port-au-Prince hospitals because they are waiting for a Voodoo ceremony is inaccurate, said Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, an expert on Haitian Voodoo, also spelled Vodou, in the department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"None of what the Brazilian authorities say makes any sense," Bellegarde-Smith said in a Thursday e-mail. "They are absolutely wrong! Most Haitians, though they believe in Vodou, are devoted Catholics or Protestants."
Ms. Tippett: When something like that happens that was so catastrophic, so many people died, you know, this question is raised of this magnitude of suffering and this “where is God?” question. And somehow this Jelle de Boer, he talked about how with a long view of time and nature, that plate tectonics are what restore life over time. He said life is directly dependent on these geological processes, that we don’t know that other planets have this type of plate tectonics or these extensive oceans and that’s probably why there may not be life there. He said here we are, lucky. “We’re lucky because of these processes where the plates separate and crack and where they run over each and crack and as a consequence of that magmas form at deep levels in the earth. They are brought to the surface and they bring not only nutrients but also water and that is the essence of life.” I mean, it’s this long view of life.
Mr. Le Pichon: Yes. This is perfectly true, but if, for example, I look at controversy between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire immediately after the Lisbon earthquake. Voltaire said, “How can that be a good God that is letting these hundreds of thousands of people being killed by the earthquake?” and so on. And the answer of Rousseau was, “Look, God created them as people living in the forest and so on and if they had still been living in the forest instead of building huge buildings in which they lived, there would have been barely anybody killed.”
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Le Pichon: So it’s the way man has chosen to live that is creating that. At the present time we have, for example, half of the mega-poles, there’s more than 10 million people who are close to plate boundaries. And we have chosen to put them there. When I was an associate professor in Tokyo University, it was at the time of the Kobe earthquake. They had a big discussion about should we move Tokyo? You know, it’s a very dangerous place.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Le Pichon: It was a very serious discussion. Should we move it to the west? It’s true, they put it in one of the most dangerous places that is. That is the challenge of humanity. We are now 6 billion and a half people, and clearly without science and technology we cannot live anymore. I mean, science and technology is essential. But at the same time, we have chosen certain ways of life in which we did not have time yet to test our reaction to the environment, and we have this problem to deal with — how are we going to tackle the problem of completely new implementations which are not environment tested? That’s one of the big challenges of the future.
No one has ever accused me of being fashion-forward. Neither will I ever willingly join a conversation on the relative merits of mascara brands. Nonetheless, I was completely entertained by Courtney Wilder's essay on Sightings about a blog that enjoins women clergy to navigate the occasionally fine line between professional dress and excessive *hot-ness* as church leaders.
A couple years back I got a letter from an apparently very attractive aspirant to the ministry who raved on and on about how she was just TOO PRETTY to be accepted as a clergyperson and that was why she had failed in her various attempts to achieve ordained status.
At the time I thought to myself, “Chickie here has a lot of serious issues, and being ‘too pretty’ may indeed be one of them, but let’s file this thought away for further reflection until I hear from a more grounded person about the reality of being too beautiful for ministry.”
And lo, that time has come, pigeons. While I know of several movie-star handsome men in the clergy whose Hotness does not seem to prevent them from being taken seriously, I have now collected several stories of female clergy being taken aside by male superiors and told that their beauty or sexiness is “distracting” and a serious problem.
What shall we call this? Sexism. Plain and simple. If a man is distracted by his completely appropriately-dressed female minister’s beauty and sexiness, that’s his gadnapped problem. The Biblical name for that problem is lust, I do believe. The cultural name for it is objectification. I say “Work on it with your spiritual director, Senior Pastor Horndog.”
As I’ve listened to all the noise around intelligence- gathering and airport security in response to the attempted Christmas Day terrorist act, Ed Husain’s voice has been ringing in my ears. Not that we don’t need to think about intelligence and security — we do — but do we spend a corresponding amount of energy and planning on how to prevent a viral terrorist mindset that is a feature of our time?
That’s the world Ed Husain knows, and narrowly escaped from. Al Qaeda, he says, is not the real enemy the West and most Muslims in the world have in common. Here’s what he means by that:
"… It must be said that al-Qaeda is just a name. It’s really a mindset that we must be tackling — a literalist, rejectionist, Islamist worldview. And not necessarily al-Qaeda as an organization because that can become defunct, but those ideas still remain. So it’s not a war on terror as the American government has gone out of its way to suggest, but it’s actually a battle of ideas."
We’re putting Ed Husain’s introduction to that battle of ideas on the air again this week. His insights have never felt more relevant, illuminating, and prescient.
Manifestations of the Living Earth Trent Gilliss, online editor
"Why, then, turn to a God who seems to be absent at best and vindictive at worst? Haitians don’t have other options. The country has a long legacy of repression and exploitation; international peacekeepers come and go; the earth no longer provides food; jobs almost don’t exist. Perhaps a God who hides is better than nothing."
The closing paragraph from Pooja Bhatia’s op-ed in today’s NYT courses with the pain of helplessness and suffering brought about by the recent earthquake that decimated this small island country. Bhatia’s questioning of God’s possible vindictive participation, or His absence, in nature’s destruction of human lives is a classic theological question.
Displaced Haitians gather on Place Boyer in Petion-Ville to spend the night. (photo: Frederic Dupoux/Getty Images)
Five years ago, the massive tsunamis that killed thousands of people, and displaced thousands more living in the low-lying areas of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans had struck. This question of “Where was God?” was being asked by many. We attempted to get at this issue with our show on the morality of nature — by looking at the history of seismic activity and its impacts through the field of Earth Sciences.
To this day, Jelle de Boer’s account of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 sticks with me, particularly his assessment of the aftereffects of the event and the musical tradition of fado. You can hear the show in the audio player above (or download here). Obviously, we can’t answer the theodicy question. But, hopefully, these scientific perspectives can both challenge and illuminate such religious questions as you read the latest news in Haiti.
Wonderful reactions to our show on the meaning of intelligence with Mike Rose. Here’s a line from his book Why School?, which didn’t make it into my interview or the script, but that I love:
We are driven — as surely as we are driven to survive — to find meaning in our lives, to interpret what befalls us, the events that swirl around us, the people who cross our paths, the objects and rhythms of the natural world. We do this instinctively; it is essential to being human. So we do it with or without education. But we are getting educated all the time, of course: by family, community, teachers, pals, bullies, and saints.
I’ve been on a bit of a trajectory of realization about that process — of being educated in not-so-obvious places — through my conversation this past fall with Adele Diamond, and now Mike Rose. They’ve given me a whole new appreciation for aspects of my experience that I had always characterized as on the sidelines of my education — debate teams and theater productions and choirs that kept me thinking and creative even as I was woefully under-challenged by schools in a small town in Oklahoma where advanced classes in everything were cut to keep up the football budget.
I’ve told myself that I had a failed primary and secondary educational experience. Now I can glorify joyful and energizing possibilities that did come my way with the word “education.” Adele Diamond even gives me scientific language to explain the fact that debate and drama quite legitimately gave me the tools to “learn how to learn” and to use what I learn into the present.
I’m also watching my children’s education with new eyes in ways that surprise me. I’m grasping why my daughter’s two years in a Waldorf School were so fundamentally transformative. Waldorf’s focus on storytelling, drama, handiwork, and music could come prescribed from the new science that Adele is part of. But I’m even appreciating my son’s touch football games where so much negotiation and strategizing goes on alongside the physical.
Kindred Spirits: Studs Terkel and Mike Rose Colleen Scheck, senior producer
In our program with Mike Rose, we are asking you to share your memories of school — moments when your mind came to life in a new way and shaped who you are in terms of becoming, longing, hope, and possibility. One of the memories that came up for me as we produced this program was reading Studs Terkel’s American Dreams: Lost and Found in a college sociology class.
That book inspired me, in the same way I feel inspired by Mike Rose, to consider the meaning of intelligence, to look below the radar and across lines of race, class, and occupation for what’s real, and to grasp how the reality of American lives often defies stereotypes I may attach to them. It also influenced my a love of storytelling, of oral history — Studs style — and an appreciation for the beauty that can be found in matters and people our culture often considers “average.”
So, it was fun for me to discover an interview that Studs Terkel did with Mike Rose in 1996 for Studs’ radio program out of Chicago. It’s classic Studs — filled with curiosity, passion, and his signature chatter. They wander through Rose’s book, Possible Lives, highlighting the public school teachers that Rose chronicled in four years traveling across the U.S. There’s a kindred spirit in their work, and even though it’s over a decade old, I found their conversation about imaginative educators defying the odds still very inspiring for today.
A dear friend of mine has been suffering serious depression for several weeks, and I’ve been struggling with feelings of powerlessness over her pain. Mental illness, of which I have had my own personal experience, still comes with stigma, and creates fear.
My friend seems to be getting better and today I sent her this poem by Galway Kinnell, which has given me much solace over the years. “Wait, for now.” the poem instructs us. “Distrust everything if you have to./ But trust the hours. Haven’t they/ carried you everywhere up until now?”
As we listened to the rough version of this week’s show with Mike Rose, the idea came up to drop one of the readings, which describes working in a restaurant from the server’s point of view and what it takes to be a good waitress. Sure, the reading was evocative, but we realized that since Mike spoke with such detail in our interview about his mother’s waitressing career, we might have the makings for a little sound montage. What would happen if we cut his descriptions up a bit and added some found sound of a working diner to layer in?
Fortunately for us, our studios are located two blocks from a classic American diner: Mickey’s Dining Car. A last-minute lunch was arranged and we were off to get chocolate malts and collect sounds.
When I am out looking for ambient sound for a piece, I try to think in layers, much in the same way a composer would approach a blank sheet of staff paper, and I get as many elements as possible. I know I’m going to need a foundation, something to provide continuity and serve as a base on which to add accents.
In this case, it was simply burgers frying and the din of (hopefully) unintelligible conversations. Short sections of this audio were looped to establish a steady, continuous sense of the location. With that layer in place, I added our interview clips and searched for accents from the location recording that could help support his points — things our waitress said, plates clattering, or the the ringing of the old-time cash register.
All of this seemed to work fairly well, but we also needed a bridge to take us in and out of that location. The solution came from my music choice for the original reading — the fifth movement from Bach’s Partita No. 5. Weaving in this music helped create the sense of a dance and melded well with Mike Rose’s descriptions, which, to me, really illustrated the marriage of precision and creativity that is present in those who excel at restaurant service.
+ LISTEN (here is a bit of the raw audio I recorded at Mickey’s Diner) + LISTEN (and here is the finished piece from the show).
This week’s program "Approaching Prayer" is on my list of SOF classics. It’s a busy program: three interviews, readings and poetry, chants and music, biblical stories and Rilke quotes.
I love Anoushka Shankar’s description of Hinduism’s connection to nature and how prayer is about sound as much as words. I appreciate Stephen Mitchell’s story of how encountering the Book of Job was a “spiritual riddle” for him — a form of prayer. And I’m drawn to Roberta Bondi’s generous philosophy of prayer: "However we are, however we think we ought to be in prayer, the fact is we just need to show up and do the best we can do. It’s like being in a family."
This program always makes me reflect on what I consider prayer to be in my life. I’m reminded this time of the pocket prayers I keep in my wallet — the Irish Blessing (my heritage) and the Serenity Prayer (authored by Niebuhr, popularized in addiction recovery programs, cherished by me for its simple, versatile message to consider what is and isn’t in my control on a daily basis):
My guess is many of you have pocket “prayers” that you keep with you — hanging on a wall, stapled in a hall; tattooed on your chest, knitted within a crest; stuck to the bumper of a car, in restroom of a bar; on a church, or a yurt; whatever shape to which it may convert.
We’d love to see them and know how they reflect creative and generous approaches to prayer. You can submit your images a couple of ways:
Saw this over the weekend in the London Times and thought it was worth sharing for those of you who missed it.
Quite some time ago, we chose Marc Chagall's "La Crucifixion Blanche" (1938) as the lead image for our program, “The Jewish Roots of the Christian Story” with our guest, Joel Marcus. “White Crucifixion” is the first in a series of Chagall’s major crucifixion paintings in which he focused on the persecution of his fellow Jews by Hitler and the Nazis through depictions of Jesus dying on the cross and his essential Jewish nature. (Ziva Amishai-Maisels’ exploration of Chagall’s painting is a good starting point for better understanding the nuanced detail and subtle narrative devices used in “White Crucifixion.”)
Chagall’s series has been pretty thoroughly documented and well-catalogued — until October of last year.
A previously unknown 1945 gouache painted by the French-Russian artist while living in New York surfaced in a recent auction in Paris. Keeping it on the down-low, the London Jewish Museum of Art purchased “Apocalypse in Lilac, Capriccio” for the relatively paltry sum of 30,000 euros, about $43,000. The small museum kept it quiet so that major museums and other collectors wouldn’t bid up the price.
And, now, after all these years in hiding, the painting will be displayed in London this coming week. What a treasure for the public to behold.
(“White Crucifixion” courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago, a gift of Alfred S. Alschuler)
“All things have a home: the bird has a nest, the fox has a hole, the bee has a hive. A soul without prayer is a soul without a home…Such a home is prayer. Continuity, permanence, intimacy, authenticity, earnestness are its attributes. For the soul, home is where prayer is…How marvelous is my home. I enter as a supplicant and emerge as a witness; I enter as a stranger and emerge as next of kin. I may enter spiritually shapeless, inwardly disfigured, and emerge wholly changed.”—
— from the essay “On Prayer” by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Joseph Coen, a listener in Valley Stream, New York, wrote to us with a similar version of this Heschel quote. Coen first encountered Heschel’s words on a prayer card he received at a retreat, and they continue to speak to him years later. For me, Heschel’s reflections on prayer resonated with our New Year’s weekend broadcast, "Approaching Prayer" featuring musician Anoushka Shankar, writer/translator Stephen Mitchell, and religion scholar Roberta Bondi.
Tony Blair, David Harris, and Rick Warren at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2008.
We’ve all read the stories about how the economic collapse has left no institution or business untouched. Rick Warren, a close friend of business management and leadership guru Peter Drucker, and his Saddleback Church of 22,000 members are no exception.
A couple of days before the end of 2009, Warren sent an "urgent letter" to his church members trying to raise $900,000 before the end of the calendar year:
"With 10% of our church family out of work due to the recession, our expenses in caring for our community in 2009 rose dramatically while our income stagnated. Still, with wise management, we’ve stayed close to our budget all year. Then… this last weekend the bottom dropped out.
On the last weekend of 2009, our total offerings were less than half of what we normally receive - leaving us $900,000 in the red for the year, unless you help make up the difference today and tomorrow.”
I rather enjoyed this observation and the additive notion of our brains growing older and not just simply deteriorating. And, by regularly jarring our brains with a “disorienting dilemma” (which I hope we accomplish with the many voices on SOF), we can probe and add to that depth and interconnectedness of knowledge.
“I saw it as a sign from God that this was the right thing to do.”— —Urban Meyer, head coach of the University of Florida football team, on his 18-year-old daughter’s jubilant reaction (“I get my daddy back!”) when he told their family on Christmas day that he is stepping down from his position.
My father has Alzheimer’s disease. I am losing him in inches and pieces. It hurts. He is my hero and my mentor, and now I help him remember how to put on his clothes every morning.
My father has Alzheimer’s disease. There is a powerful genetic component to the disease, and I share a lot of my father’s risk factors, including bad triglycerides, a viral infection, and elevated cholesterol unaffected by diet. The odds are frighteningly high that I will someday get Alzheimer’s too. In 25 or 30 years, when it comes for me, maybe there will be a cure — but I can’t count on that.
My dad taught me how to learn from everything I see, no matter how hard it was. He was a professor of Human Anatomy and Physiology, and told me once that he was present when his mother died. He held her hand and told her how much he loved her. As she died, he catalogued her body’s shutdown, comparing it to what he’d read — because he was a scientist.
And so, now, I am learning from my father. It’s what he taught me to do. And what he’s teaching me now — his last lesson for me — is what it means to live with Alzheimer’s, and by extension, what I can do to get ready.
First, I am getting new hobbies. My dad is an intellectual. All his hobbies were brain hobbies — reading, chess, poker, bridge. Now he can’t follow them. He recognizes his beloved chess pieces, but he doesn’t remember how to play. Reading is too slow and too hard to be enjoyable, and he can’t play cards at all. He has no way to keep busy. So I’m learning hobbies that use my hands. I spend more time drawing, and I’m learning to knit. I want to teach my hands, so that when my mind can’t do it, my fingers still can.
Second, I’m living my life as fully as possible. Dad got knocked out of his game too soon, but he had achieved enough for a long, long life. The work he loved, and the impact he had on his students — it was more than most people do in their lives. His contribution to our world does not fall short, even if he ran out of time. I am trying to do the same thing — to give as much as I can to the people around me, to work and think and create and contribute as much as I possibly can, in case my time ends early.
The most important thing I’ve learned from my father: love. My father built his life around the people he cared about. Me, my mom, and my brother were the center of his world. For his birthday, he’d tell us to get things for ourselves because he liked seeing us happy — and he actually meant it. But we weren’t the only ones he loved. He loved the students he taught, he loved his friends, and he loved our extended family — both his own and my mother’s.
Now, with so little left of him, my father still has his love. Seeing his wife, his children, and his grandson brings him joy. He can sit just watching my son read a book. Simply living with his family, my dad can find happiness.
The people he cared about through his life still remember my father. We get postcards, letters, the occasional package. And he is still finding new people to care about; he hasn’t lost his love for people. He likes it when we have guests over. He still flirts with all my female friends. He loves his aide and the omelets she makes him every morning.
I have never loved people like my dad did. He had patience and affection for everyone — for people who told boring stories repeatedly, for people I thought were stupid, for people who were afraid of everything, for people totally full of themselves or so shy they could hardly talk. Dad loved people I could barely stand to talk to. He used to ask me to show patience, tolerance, compassion — and I’d promise to try — with no real sincerity.
So now I am trying to learn my biggest lesson from my dad, the lesson I am trying to live every single day. I’m finding people to love; I’m finding things to love in people. I am trying to love people like my dad always did. I am building my capacity for love now, so it can sustain me later.
And if, in the end, like my father, there is nothing left of me but my love, that won’t be a tragedy. It will be my victory.