The audio piece above details how these two men, an Evangelical Christian from a small town in eastern Kentucky and an Orthodox Jew raised in Queens, found each other and came to play together. Their recounting of the first time Skaggs visited Statman’s schul is a wonderful testimony to the power of music and its ability to bring people together, helping folks discover the absolute delight of other religious communities.
“Almost everyone is musical. Music is an actual bodily need. Another saying goes ‘If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well,’ but I disagree. Like Chesterton, I feel that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing even badly. Playing the piano is not something to be graded. Adults should take it up the moment they feel the need to play music. As a matter of course, children should be given lessons without pressure. Playing the piano should be an act without material value. It must be a road of discovery, a trackless territory, and never a means of showing off. The piano won’t serve the ego’s craving for recognition.”—
Transforming Journalism by Moving and Mobilizing Readers
by Krista Tippett, host
Two girls walk through the market in the Abushouk Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, home to nearly 55,000 people, near the North Darfur capital El Fasher. (photo: Ian Timberlake/AFP/Getty Images)
Nicholas Kristof has lived on four, and reported on six continents, including spending formative years based in China and Japan, before he took his place on the Op-Ed pages of the Times in the cathartic year of 2001. And as he tells us, he soon realized that opining, however brilliantly, left him preaching to the choir. People who already shared his perspective would cheer him on; those who didn’t would not take in what he had to say. The true power of his editorial platform, he realized, was its capacity to bring lesser-publicized events and ideas into the light.
He is credited, most famously perhaps, for bringing the unfolding genocide in Darfur to the world’s attention. But even that “success,” which brought him a second Pulitzer Prize, left Nicholas Kristof wondering and wanting. The world’s reaction to Darfur, in his mind, did not match the tragedy at hand or the moral responsibility it should have engendered. He wanted to understand the fact — as I’ve pondered with many guests on this program across the years — that horrific images and facts are as likely to paralyze and overwhelm as to mobilize us.
And so he started reading research on brain science and the biological basis for compassion, to explore what makes the difference between moral paralysis and compassionate mobilization. We are hard-wired as humans, it seems, to respond powerfully to a single individual’s story and face. But add a second face, and that response diminishes. Add facts, and multiply that story by hundreds or millions, and empathy withers altogether.
Nicholas Kristof reframed his journalistic approach accordingly. It is fascinating to hear him talk about this, and about his own enduring worries about its manipulative connotations. He works to balance the riveting story with the big picture. An empathetic response to a single human story, he’s also learned by way of science and his own experience, can become a portal to a larger awareness. Facts and context can then begin to play a meaningful supporting role.
In the early 2000s, I felt that Nicholas Kristof was simplistic about religion too. Granted, most Western journalists were on a new kind of learning curve with regard to religion. Over the years, I have been deeply impressed by his unusual willingness to learn in public — to admit that he did not understand something, to publish his surprise and self-reversals. He’s gained a very complex and contradictory view of religion as a force in the world — capable of nurturing the worst of violence and the best of care.
He also offers a penetrating view of the self-defeating liberal-conservative/secular-religious divide on global issues as in our domestic political life. He is one of the voices waking up the world to the global scourge of sex trafficking. He believes that this will ultimately galvanize the moral consciousness of this century as slavery galvanized the 19th century. But he is watching with dismay as, for now, the two most effective activists on this issue — liberal feminists and conservative Christians — cannot agree on a shared vocabulary for describing the problem, much less join their energies.
We spend a lot of words these days on the way journalism is changing — usually with an eye to the technological and financial pressures that are changing it. Nicholas Kristof embodies deep cultural shifts that are also transforming journalism as we have known it. His journalism is a new paradigm, I think, one I’m now grateful for. I’ll call it journalism as a humanitarian art. And I look forward to seeing how it continues to evolve.
“After a while, okay, you’ve worked twenty years or twenty-five years. Okay, so you’ve got this many grants, you’ve got this long a resume, you have these people that hate you, you have these people that love you, you’ve done this piece, that piece, this piece, that piece…and then you go to your grave. And what do you think you have—a piece of paper that tells you all the pieces you’ve done? So what? The only reason for doing it is that you might have the joy of discovery on a day-to-day level. The only reason for doing it is really that you love doing it. What it gets down to is: how do you want to spend your time on Earth?”—
Check out the friendly repartee we had with Nicholas Kristof this morning. When I first read his tweet, I’ll admit my heart sank a little bit. Krista’s journal reflecting on this week’s show "Journalism and Compassion" begins:
"I wasn’t always a fan of Nicholas Kristof’s columns in The New York Times. I’d found them at times simplistic — seeming to reduce the dramas of entire nations to individual stories of despair and/or hope. But I’ve discovered that there is an art and science to this approach. It was fascinating — and quite inspiring — to sit down and get inside his head on all of this.”
Sure, we’re journalists, but we always want to extend hospitality to guests of On Being. So, I reached out to him in the only way I knew how, with a bit of good humor. And, of course, the hardened journalist took this all in good stride, even acknowledging the bittersweet edge of his reporting.
But do listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with him about his journalism as a form of “humanitarian art.” It’ll give you lots to think about whether you’re a reader or a journalist.
Shia mourners splash water onto a tomb during a traditional burial ritual in Bahrain. (phoot: Al Jazeera English)
When a video of U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters became international headline news last month, national dialogue around the incident centered mostly on its impact on U.S.-brokered peace talks, the safety of military personnel in the region, and the military culture that some argue contributed to the dehumanizing act. Largely absent from mainstream news media coverage, however, was any meaningful attempt to understand how the global Muslim community viewed the desecration of the corpses.
It is indeed an important conversation to be had, particularly if there is any sincere interest in helping the latest and largest wave of U.S. troops that left Iraq in December transition back to civilian life. What is equally important, however, is a discussion around the recurring theme of desecrating the dead in a Muslim country.
In Islam, desecrating enemy corpses was forbidden by the Prophet Muhammad and is regarded today by practicing Muslims as a sin and a crime. The religion also rejects cremation as a proper rite for death as it is believed that the tailbone, which is thought to regenerate the complete human being on the Day of Resurrection, would be destroyed. Another interpretation within Islam condemns any desecration of a corpse on the premise that the resurrected body will appear as it did at the moment of death.
When one considers the funeral rites and regulations in Islam, from the process of washing the body — a step that in itself entails a very particular set of instructions — to the act of shrouding a corpse in white prior to interment, it becomes clear that the rituals associated with the transition between life and death are an integral part of the faith.
The most recent incident of depriving the dead Taliban fighters of that ritual could have been an opportunity to start a dialogue around Muslim religion and culture. Instead, most of the coverage further enabled the American public’s blindness toward the “other.” This disinclination to examine the global consequences of collective ignorance, which in this instance manifested as an indifference toward the desecration of Taliban corpses, only serves to exacerbate tensions between Americans and the broader Muslim world.
American news media have an obligation to offer comprehensive coverage and fine-grained contextualizing of events that the public is not always ready confront. To be sure, debates around whether the incident will prompt another wave of anti-American sentiment in the region, or whether military culture is to blame for the dehumanizing act, makes for good television and two-page spreads in print publications. But ultimately it’s cross-cultural and inter-religious dialogue that will help to avert similar future acts of dehumanization and diffuse tensions. Until the news media are willing to create the kind of broad narrative understanding of events that makes such dialogue possible, their tacit enabling of collective ignorance means that they will be complicit in any future acts of dehumanization.
Arezou Rezvani is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Her work appears on NBC Los Angeles and American Public Media’s Marketplace, where she explores themes related to business, religion, and foreign affairs. You can see more of her reporting at Spectrum.
“Michigan State University surveyed more than 700 employers seeking to hire recent college graduates. Nearly one-third said parents had submitted resumes on their child’s behalf, some without even informing the child. One-quarter reported hearing from parents urging the employer to hire their son or daughter for a position. Four percent of respondents reported that a parent actually showed up for the candidate’s job interview.”—
I don’t even know what to say about these finding. I see parents negotiating on the playground, but in the workplace for a 22-year-old college graduate? Oy.
Figure 1.1 February 1. 65 degrees in SE Ohio. Our minds shift to “April” “earth,” “skirts.” We check lawns for daffodils-in-the-making, our laundry remembering how to flap. No one checks the 10-day forecast. We don’t want to know.
Figure 1.2 On my way to play piano for a ballet class, I spot a sunflower the size of my palm on the sidewalk ahead. Escaped from a bouquet? I think, excited, Or a sign that spring’s settled in? I reach down to be its rescue—find out it’s plastic. The rest of my day feels the same.
Figure 1.3 A college town openly displays its secrets, especially when snow finally melts. Crushed green glass and leopard bikini briefs, abandoned; an open pizza box with a necklace inside; cigarette butts, the tail-ends of conversations never finished. This time of year, the ground can reflect us.
Figure 1.4 For seven weeks, I gently build up to two questions, give my poetry students hard homework: What does it mean to be a writer in a time of war?, What would you ask a soldier if you could ask anything? Only half the class shows up to answer. I come home and pull covers up over my head, just another bulb.
Figure 1.5 The full moon pulls out dreams like silk pajamas from open drawers. For weeks, my sleep’s been filled with characters in plain dress, actors in bonnets or suspenders pretending to be something they’re not. I am the one who calls them out, reveals their false identity. Exact accusations from these dreams: “Who’s your bishop?,” “What have you given up?,” “What’s your favorite cheese?” The question I get most often about my upbringing: “What makes you different from me?” Sometimes, it also feels like accusation.
Figure 1.5a Last night, I was going to build a house on the edge of my grandpa’s farm—but in the dream, I didn’t recognize the land. I wake up frightened.
Figure 1.6 The wind stirs up more questions, allergies, afternoons under the quilts. How long can a Mennonite last without community?,Have the squirrels eaten all the daffodil bulbs?, Could my students spend a whole day in silence? Could I?, Who will shake our lives gently, tell us, ‘Shhhh—You’ve just been dreaming’?
Figure 1.7 Even Thoreau kept secrets hidden by the louder things he said, had his mother do his laundry. The wind blows our socks from the clothesline and into the woods. The president gives a speech. We forget what we’re funding. It’s too warm to care. I may never know what my students have learned from me.
Figure 1.8 Accepting the shape of one life takes practice. Remember asking for someone to help you trace the outline of your body on a sheet of torn-off paper? Did you recognize yourself as only border? I swear, just now, I smelled what the garden could be.
Becca J.R. Lachman is a poet, college writing instructor, and singer-songwriter living in Athens, Ohio. Her first book of poems, The Apple Speaks, investigates her Swiss Mennonite roots along with being an “AMK” (adult missionary kid), and is slated for release in April 2012.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Dear Folks: Do you accept poetry submissions specifically under the "Get Published" banner?
We most certainly do. We’ve received hundreds of poetry submissions in the past few months and have accepted a few of them. Publishing poetry is a subjective business when it comes to editorial discernment; and we’re a bit fussy about the types of poetry that appears on this blog and how it relates to our mission of asking the big questions at the center of human life and how we can find deeper meaning in them.
All the best and looking forward to reading your work, Trent Gilliss, senior editor
How a Freed Slave's Response to His Master Can Open History for Us
by David McGuire, guest contributor
As we begin Black History Month, here’s a letter from 1865 making the rounds. In it, Jourdan Anderson, a former slave, responds to his former master Colonel P.H. Anderson, who had written to invite him back to the plantation — this time, with pay.
“Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you.”
The calm and polite language is a brilliant juxtaposition to the raw anger and hurt we associate with such a shameful part of American history.
To my old Master, Colonel P. H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee.
Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant,
Wondering whether Anderson took up the colonel’s offer? Check out Jason Kottke’s research for the answer, as near as he can tell.
While researching the Chief Vann House in Chatsworth, Georgia, we happened upon these vivid images of bourbon barrels in the basement of the historic Cherokee plantation home. A hearty thanks to photographer John A. Lees, who was kind enough to permit us to use his photos in a slideshow for our recent show "Toward Living Memory" with Tiya Miles.
The barrels read “Sour Mash Bourbon Whisky 1787” vintage even at the turn of the 18th century.
The Wide Lens of History and the Conjoined Realities of Our Past
by Krista Tippett, host
I always read the MacArthur “genius” grant lists with great interest. They uncover people who are making great marks on the world in their chosen fields, but are usually out of the spotlight. This year the name that jumped out at me was Tiya Miles. I was intrigued with the description of her as a "public historian" illuminating the meaning of “ancestry and citizenship.” There was a personal connection for me, too, as the particular history she’s unearthed has resonance with the world of my childhood in Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory.
I grew up hearing a family legend about a Cherokee ancestor, though it was transmitted with little detail or enthusiasm. Tiya Miles’ African-American grandmother also had such a story, and she told it with pride. She had endless stories, and the vital link she made between past and present inspired her granddaughter. Tiya Miles took up the study of history. Then, as a graduate student, she stumbled upon the little-remembered history of some Native Americans, Cherokee landowners who held African-American slaves.
This is of course not merely a story about Cherokee people and black people but about all of us, all of our ancestors.
The Cherokee were deemed one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” by the American government of that era. Growing up on land first given to, then taken away from, these indigenous peoples, I never questioned the backhanded presumption in this label they were given. Now, in conversation with Tiya Miles, I learn that their honored status was earned and conferred in part because of their “civilized” behavior of holding slaves.
This memory is as tragically nonsensical as any in the institution of slavery — so hard to reckon with and make sense of, it seems, that it literally fell away. Tiya Miles’ curiosity was first captured by a footnote about what was described as the first Afro-Cherokee marriage. She doggedly pursued a nearly non-existent trail to discover that this “marriage” was between a middle-class Cherokee landowner in his 40s and a teenage slave girl he had bought or procured by force. He had five children by her. He later won their freedom, but he never made her free. In arguing for their children, in fact, he proclaimed publicly that he had “debased” himself by bringing them into the world through union with her.
Tiya Miles’ other ground-breaking research has unfolded across a number of years at the Chief Vann House in Georgia — a grand antebellum plantation owned by a wealthy Cherokee chief. She is a lover of old houses. She knew that slaves worked this plantation as every other. But when she went for a tour of the house and its history in the 1990s, no mention was made of these hundreds of human beings who yielded the abundance of that land. They had been forgotten, nearly erased from memory. Tiya Miles vowed to create a more ethical telling of their story.
She is keenly aware of the complexity, indeed the multitudinous slippery slopes, of setting out to tell a story — any story — more ethically. As an historian, she is nearly haunted by her knowledge that every story can be told differently from many different angles. Her approach is fresh and innovative — and the emerging field of public history is distinctive — in its insistence on setting stories this painful in a context that can hold both the hardest truths and the seeds of their own healing.
I love the idea of looking more deeply at history to find vital openings, new possibilities, for starting fresh in the present. In the history of this radio program, my conversations have revealed this possibility over and over again — from looking more closely at Charles Darwin in order to reframe the “science-religion” divide or how Kwame Anthony Appiah has looked at history to see the surprising ingredients that allow profound societal and moral change to happen. I take heart in Tiya Miles’ learned insistence that even the most painful and divisive history is about “conjoined realities” — and that a wide historical lens will always reveal human beings’ connections to each other as something more generous than the darkest moments of our past.
“Their goddess of love is a very fascinating and complex idea. She is in fact goddess of all the luxuries which are not essential to survival. She is the goddess of love which, unlike sex, is not essential to propagation. She is the muse of the arts. Now man can live without it but he doesn’t live very much as man without it. It is strange that one would have to go to an apparently primitive culture such as Haiti to find an understanding in such exalted terms of what the essential feminine – not female – feminine role might conceivably be – that of being everything which is human. Everything which is more than that which is necessary. Taken from this point of view, there is no reason in the world why women shouldn’t be artists. And very fine ones.”—
—Maya Deren (1917-1961) describing the Vodou spirit Erzulie.
The experimental filmmaker was the first person to win a Guggenheim Fellowship for film. She used her grant to travel to in Haiti during the 1940s, immersing herself in Vodou rituals. Her 1953 book Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti introduced many Western readers to the complexity and depth of Vodou for the first time.
Photo of Maya Deren by bswise (Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
Overcoming Islamophobia in U.S. Presidential Elections
by Muqtedar Khan, guest contributor
A Muslim man holds a protest sign on Pennsylvania Ave NW in front of the White House. (photo: M.V. Jantsen/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Islam has become an important part of American discourse leading up to the 2012 federal elections and candidates everywhere appear eager to take a position on Islam for political gain. Across the country, rising Islamophobia has made it difficult for some Muslims to build mosques and practice their faith, although their right to do so is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In the current race for the presidential nomination, some presidential candidates are invoking Islam and Muslims in a negative fashion in an attempt to bolster their popularity with populations they perceive to be suspicious of Muslims or Islam.
This is representative of recent trends. In 2010, some Republican Congressional candidates used the proposed Park 51 Muslim community centre, famously branded as the “ground-zero mosque”, and fear of sharia, the principles from which Islamic law is derived, to rally voters to their cause. And elected Congressional leaders, such as Peter King (R-NY), have used their committee appointments to argue that American Muslims are deeply radicalized, a fact repeatedly debunked by several surveys and reports.
However, there are others within the Republican Party who eschew this rhetoric, such as presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, as well as others like Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who appointed American Muslim Sohail Mohammed as a state judge despite much opposition.
When we think of Afghanistan, we often forget there was a medieval Jewry that is part of that region’s story. Hopefully, discovering a cache of ancient documents will unearth this rich history piece by piece.
The Hall of Fame baseball player is credited with being the first African American to play in the Major Leagues, debuting with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He not only excelled athletically and professionally in a segregated society but became a vocal advocate for civil rights reform in the United States.
~Susan Leem, associate producer
Photo of Jackie Robinson courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection (cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
"I would like someone to set up a website in which people could find political pen pals for civil, substantive conversations. For example, I am a liberal Christian Democrat who would like to ‘talk’ with a fundamentalist Christian Tea Party supporter. We would agree to stay engaged, to share sources, to treat each other with respect."
We’re curious about this possibility as well. One of the objectives of The Civil Conversaions Project was "beginning new conversations in families and communities." Maybe it could it function like a Match.com site, which, instead of pairing you with a romantic partner, would pair you with your political opposite — though the two need not be mutually exclusive of course! Many of us could get behind Ms. Peterson’s ground rules to “stay engaged, share sources, and treat each other with respect.”
How might we going about doing this? Have you experienced a positive “substantive conversation” in this kind of intentional manner? How would you design such a regular encounter or opportunity in everyday life?
About the image: A self-portrait of a woman with two titanium rods secured in place with long screws and other hardware who is looking for some “old school style pen pals” that “want to talk about the world, art, music, share ideas, etc.” and “connect with people” she “would normally never get a chance to meet.” (photo: Katie Dureault/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0 )