Wednesday, March 21, 2007

In Search of a Sense of Place. February 28, 2007.


The airwaves brought unexpected classical music and cold to Washington in February. When I turned on the radio one morning to listen to the news on one of Washington’s many all-news stations, classical music came out of the speakers instead. I would not have been more surprised to hear a dinosaur.

The station had switched to an all-news format, amid much fanfare, three or four years ago. After a few minutes of music, the announcer declared the station to be the new all-classical WETA.. I had to read the news story the next day to discover that the board of this non-commercial station had decided to switch back after the city’s last classical station closed down a little while ago. Apparently even Washingtonians can gorge on too much news and the all-news format was not getting the support expected. Faced with the opportunity to be the only classical player in town, the board took it; making the switch literally overnight and without warning.

While this obviously could have been done more delicately, I am grateful for the switch. There is now classical music on the airwaves of the city designed by Pierre L’Enfant at the time of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; music that rhymes with the many pillars, domes and stately avenues of the nation’s capital.

“. . . it is an evil thing to reduce our capital, certainly America’s most beautiful city, to shabby mediocrity. Washington, alone among the nation’s cities, is a national possession.”

So wrote Roger Tory Peterson some fifty years ago. The famous ornithologist was worried about mediocrity in the realm of the natural environment, but mediocrity is tiresome wherever one finds it.

New York without the Metropolitan Opera would be a different city and a much poorer one, even if only a fraction of its citizens ever attend. I often listen to the live broadcasts from the Met and it is always a thrill. Live singers. Discrete microphones hanging from the rafters make the broadcast possible. The voices fill the opera house and they fill my living room. Live, living, breathing, sweating human beings make this wonderful sound, without benefit of notes in front of them, without benefit of the big microphone that pop music performers seem to have permanently attached to their hands and positioned in front of their mouths. Watching live opera is like watching an athletic contest in that one never knows how it is going to turn out. Will this new star be as good as her billing? Will the understudy, now that the great Luigi so-and-so is ill, rise to the occasion? One never knows until it happens.

A city should be a place where one can find the best and find it all over town. The Chicago Symphony played concerts in the city’s parks a few summers ago, parks all over town, not just in wealthy neighborhoods. Maestro Barenboim, born in Argentina, fluent in Spanish, made sure the Orchestra played in Hispanic neighborhoods as well, and introduced the programs himself. How differently did people look upon their neighborhood park the next day? What if professional athletes occasionally played in a public park? Could that possibly lead the voters, or a corporation looking for benevolence, to keep the asphalt and playing fields in better shape? One can imagine people saying, “Hey, keep this place lookin’ good. Kobe’s playin’ here next week and the LA Phil next month.”

Meanwhile, a storm that buried parts of the Northeast brushed the nation’s capital and left a few inches of snow. Rain fell upon the snow, which froze to an icy crust that one could walk or slide upon as ability permitted. As the cold persisted, I walked into my living room one morning to find that I had company: some four and twenty blackbirds warming themselves in the sun on my windowsill. Off they flew; coming back every now and then, only to leave again whenever I moved.

A walk around the neighborhood of the White House on a cold sunny day turned up dozens of squirrels frisking in Lafayette Park, more squirrels than people taking pictures in front of the iron fence of the Executive Mansion. A red-tailed hawk swooped in and sequestered itself in the top of a tree, feathers fluffed up against the cold, apparently uninterested in the squirrels. Didn’t move.

Anti-terrorism measures have closed Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic in front of the White House. The street in back is closed as well, not to mention the streets on either side, which were closed off long ago. The White House grounds thus essentially include the Old Executive Office Building, the Treasury Department and Lafayette Park, along with some adjacent statues and memorials. One can visit all them all without encountering moving automobiles. So I decided to walk the circle, circumambulate what has become the seat of government in this day of the powerful presidency. First I checked on my old friends, the General and the Secretary. Uncle Bill Sherman looked even more imposing upon his horse against the blue sky of a winter afternoon, the common man as cavalier.

I walked along the southern border of the White House and curved up towards the Old Executive Office building that flanks the White House to the east. South of this building, as south of Treasury, stands a monument, to the First Division, erected after World War I. The two monuments, to Sherman and to the First Division, show how much had changed in just sixty years. While the Civil War was fought essentially by state militias organized into armies, soldiers from all over America were mixed into the army for the First World War and all subsequent wars. This practice spreads the risk. It is less likely than a town or a county’s entire contribution can be wiped out in one engagement, which occasionally happened during the Civil War.

Veterans of the Army of the Tennessee erected the statue of their commanding officer. Veterans of the First Division erected a monument to every one of them. Their monument features a golden angel holding a flag atop a slender eighty-foot column of pink granite. An eagle rests atop the angel's flag; a plumed helmet crowns its head. Is it Michael, the Archangel? The guidebooks say she is Victory and the monument is based on Joseph-Louis Duc's July Column in Paris, which commemorates the dead of the 1830 revolution. It is well-sited just south of the Victorian baroque Old Executive Office Building, which has so many pillars under its mansard roofs and dormers that it looks like a French chateau on steroids.

The names of all the men of the First Division who died during the Great War (5,599 of them) appear on brass plaques on top of the base of the monument, listed by unit. To the west, an addition to the monument honors those who fell during World War II, listing all of their names as well; to the east, those who fell in Vietnam and during Operation Desert Storm. There is no mention of Korea because the First Division did not take part in that conflict.

In warm weather, beds of tulips, well-maintained, separate the new wings from the main monument and a flower bed in the shape of a numeral one, the symbol of the division, stretches south of the memorial, always planted with red flowers: The Big Red One. But snow covers all today.

It is too cold to linger long under the blue sky and golden Victory. I complete my circuit at the statue of Andrew Jackson in the middle of Lafayette Park, the first statue to make a permanent home in Washington, dedicated on January 8, 1853. Jackson’s contribution to the debate over national union is characteristically terse and immortalized on the base of his statue. General Jackson, hat raised in salute, rears forever on his steed above the words:


While ancient sacred and governmental sites (the two were the same then – are they really different now?) were surrounded and symbolically protected by stone lions and dragons and other mythical figures, the White House is surrounded mostly by representations of real people, historical figures.

If the President could just go out for a walk one day for inspiration, which presidents once did, but essentially can no longer, he would find monuments to two treasury secretaries (Gallatin and Hamilton) who believed in a strong federal government, to a general who made secession impossible, to the first unit organized to fight on the battlefields of France and to a populist Democrat who was ready to go to war to preserve the Union. These monuments are lessons in stone, bronze and gold leaf for anyone interested, especially a president.

Democrats put up the monument to Albert Gallatin in front of the Teasury Building in 1947, some twenty years after the statue to Hamilton, whom they considered a Republican. Gallatin, the longest-serving treasury secretary (1801 – 1814), criticized Hamilton throughout his tenure, then maintained many of his policies for the next thirteen years. He resigned in order to negotiate an end to the War of 1812. Hamilton himself made many decisions and many compromises, including the one that brought the capital to the banks of the Potomac, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, in return for some southern states paying off the war debts of some northern states.

General Sherman ordered one disastrous frontal assault during his march south, at Kennesaw Mountain. He never made that mistake again, capturing Atlanta by repeatedly outflanking his opponents. Every name printed on the monument to the First Division reminds us of the cost of war. President Jackson may have prevented civil war in 1833 by ordering warships to Charleston, South Carolina, which had passed an ordinance of nullification. He said, "The Constitution ...forms a government not a league.... To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union is to say that the United States is not a nation.”

Threats. War. Compromise. Preserving a nation. Leadership. The stuff of government. How does a president put it all together? A study of history is essential.

All over Washington this month, life goes on an usual, amidst whatever gaiety people can muster during winter; during war. Every morning we hear more news of bombings, IEDs, suicide bombings, Americans killed, Iraqis killed. We try to ignore it and talk about something else.

This month’s best read has been Tournament of Shadows: The Great game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia, by Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac. A most apposite section begins with the appointment of George Eden, the second Baron Auckland, as Governor-General of the British East India Company, making him, in effect , the ruler of India, in 1835. He installed himself at Simla, in the hill country north of Delhi. There he began to receive reports of threats to the empire by distant Russia. After conquering the Caucasus, Russian armies were pushing eastward and Russian operatives were probing the desert grasslands from Oxiana to Chinese Tartary. Russia’s eventual goal was believed to be India, which could be invaded through Afghanistan or Persia. Auckland pondered this threat for a few years, not knowing what do, until a key advisor, Sir John McNaughten, Secretary of the Political and Secret Department - I’m not making this up – convinced him that a dramatic countermove was necessary.

MacNaughten had had small experience in the give and take of diplomacy and politics, having lived too long in a world of agents’ reports and confidential dossiers. Nonetheless, he convinced the Governor-General that an unprovoked invasion of Afghanistan would somehow impart luster to the reign of Britannia’s new Queen and foil the knavish designs of the Russian Tsar.

The authors conclude: “Auckland had at last made a decision, and once dear ‘G’ was set on a course, as his sister put it, it was impossible ‘to get out of his Lordship’s head what had been put into it.’ We are permitted to imagine him at Simla, indulging an after-dinner cigar on the verandah of Auckland House, gazing meditatively at the deodar-decked Himalayas, persuading himself he was walking with Destiny. In reality, he had sentenced tens of thousands to death in a pointless and dishonorable war.”

The British sent enough troops to Afghanistan in 1839 to conquer it, but not control it. They were expelled with staggering losses a few years later. The end result was the same emir controlling the country that they had kicked out. They did not return until forty years later, when they essentially repeated the same mistake, but with slightly better results. Throughout this time, the debate at Simla and in London was between those who favored a forward, proactive strategy and those who reasoned: “If the Russians want Afghanistan, let them have it. If we control the mountain passes, they will never get to India. Besides, Afghanistan is impossibly far from their bases of supply and they will never tame that hostile population.” The proactive school won out. The British did maintain influence over Afghanistan, sort of, but at horrific cost.

Sometimes proaction works and is worth the cost. Most Americans now think that Jackson’s proaction was wise and that Lincoln’s was worth the cost. There would be no United States without them. We do not yet know how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will turn out, or the wider war on terrorism, or if it even makes sense to call it a war. The lessons of history, in books and in monuments dotted all over Washington, command our attention.

Copyright, 2007
Richard Allen Hyde

In Search of a Sense of Place. February 2, 2007.

RAH from Washington

A flash of gray-brown against a gunmetal afternoon sky. Whatever it was beat through bare branches on enormous wings and came to rest in a large tree across 15th Street from the Bureau of Printing and Engraving.

I had just walked out of the Holocaust Museum, where I was attending an academic conference on the great culture war between fascism and communism in Europe between the world wars. A couple of the morning presenters were pretty good, but the literary critics were front and center for the afternoon. After a paper full of words like ‘transgressive,’ ‘essentialist,’ ‘inversions,’ ‘subversive’ and so on, and on, I had had enough. As I headed for the exit, I remembered the comment of someone who dropped out of Yale’s English Ph.D. Program: “It’s become the place where language goes to die.”

I stepped out the west entrance into the damp cold and commented on the weather to the security guard, who said that he didn’t mind it and liked being outside. After several hours in a lecture hall, I felt the same way. I looked up at the horizon and was following the path of a Northwest Airlines jet coming down the Potomac towards National Airport when this other pair of wings caught my eye. They were so big I would not have been much more surprised to see a dinosaur. I ran across 15th Street to the tall tree where the bird landed and stood underneath, studying it for a good long while as it peered into the distance, brown back, downy off-white breast feathers fluffed up against the cold, dark gray-brown head – not an owl – large, curved beak, looking down occasionally, then at the horizon again, perching there majestically, like royalty. It took me a few minutes to compute what I was seeing, huge chocolate brown wings mottled with white during flight, a bird far too big to be a hawk or even an osprey: a Golden Eagle.

As the eagle sat up there, silently, I kept hearing a long, high-pitched note. I circled around the tree and found a gray squirrel motionless and upside down against the dark gray bark, giving out this whistle at regular intervals. I had never heard a squirrel carrying on like this. He was not scolding, as they often, do, tail twitching, head bobbing. He was stock still. Had he seen the eagle? The eagle could not see the squirrel. Was he warning any of his furry friends who might be around?

Finally I told the squirrel not to move and headed north across the Mall to get the subway at Metro Center, walking by one of my favorite Washington statues on the way: General William Tecumseh Sherman. One of my great-grandfathers, Hiram Young, served under Sherman, in the 88th Indiana Infantry. After the war Grandpa moved to Cloud County, Kansas, bought a 160 acre farm and raised a family of seven, four sons and three daughters, including my grandmother Mabel. There he took an active role in local politics and subscribed to several newspapers. This we know because his diary somehow found its way into the Journal of the Kansas State Historical Society to be published in 1946 under the title of “A Hoosier in Kansas.”

General Sherman is hatless in this statue, atop his steed that does not rear up on its hind legs, as so many do, but simply stands with grim determination. Horse and rider both face north atop a massive base that is tall enough to cause even professional basketball players to look up. Northwards stands the south entrance of the Treasury Building, graced by a statue of Alexander Hamilton. They make an odd pair, the aristocratic first Secretary of the Treasury and the dishevelled General from the Midwest. But there they are, two believers in a strong federal government, regarding each other for all eternity.

I sometimes imagine them speaking:

Afternoon, Mr. Secretary.


You know I’m just an old soldier. I hate politics and politicians. Always have. But it seems like this current batch is even worse than usual. Did you imagine that strong chief executive you favored ever getting involved in a war in Mesopotamia?

Frankly, no. But the President must be free to conduct foreign policy and at times must act decisively. Congress is not capable of it.

But what if the President makes a big mistake?

Well, a country stands or falls with its leadership. I envisioned a conservative presidency, conservative in every sense of the term: cautious, preservationist, moderate, conciliatory, not like King George at his worst. Now this situation in Mesopotamia – they call it Iraq now – well, I don’t know what to think.

What would your Commander-in-Chief have done?

I don’t think His Excellency President Washington would have us where we are now, but then again, a man like him might not enter politics now.

These folks in the White House thought it would be like marching through Georgia. They forgot that when I went through Georgia, I did not have to hold the territory. After the war, we did not have the stomach to garrison it. We got sick of fighting a bunch of Goddamned terrorists that the state governments should have taken care of themselves and let them run their states more or less the way they did before the war. It was a shame. We offered generous surrender terms and most of our adversaries – Lee, Johnston, Forrest – accepted them and behaved honorably. General Lee said “Go home, plant a crop and obey the law.” Now that’s about the best speech I’ve ever heard. That devil Forrest was even clearer. Listen to this: “You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be and will be magnanimous.” Not bad, huh?

I didn’t know the devil had it in him. But didn’t he found the Ku Klux Klan?

Actually no. The Klan adopted him as one of their leaders, but he never led. It’s not clear that he ever joined. You know, retired generals are often called upon to say this and that and receive honorary titles, degrees, and other such foolery, often from dubious characters and organizations. Believe me, it gets tiresome.

I can imagine. Speaking of marching through Georgia, or Iraq, it took a different kind of marching to conclude our own Civil War, by that remarkable Dr. King and many others. It was a great speech he gave that summer afternoon, to the first really big crowd we ever saw down here.

We’ve seen greater crowds many times since that summer of 1963, but that was the best speech, Biblical, Shakespearean. President Lincoln would have been proud.

Frankly, I was surprised by the moral force of a populist campaign. It just goes to show that we designed a pretty good government. A strong federal government eventually did what it and only it could do: guarantee the rights of a minority.

I tip my cap to the Founding Fathers, and to the Reverend King. Is there anyone like him over there in Mesopotamia, or Arabia? A Mandela? A de Klerk?

I haven’t the foggiest idea. There must be somebody. The hotheads get all the attention. I cannot understand the appeal of terrorism. Losing in war to a more powerful and magnanimous enemy is no disgrace. Murdering innocents is.

As I’ve said before, war is hell; but at least a war comes to an end. Right now we’ve just kicked a hornet’s nest.

This current wave of terrorism will end, eventually. The Barbary pirates finally quit. Terrorists eventually get tired; they turn on themselves and self-destruct. The blood on their own hands starts to stink. A better future eventually becomes more appealing than carrying the grudges of the past.

I look forward to the day.

I left them to their conversation as the afternoon darkened towards evening.

What makes Washington, or any place, distinct? What do we mean when we say to a friend or to ourselves, “Ah, that place. Yes, I know that place”? Surely it means that we have spent some time there, spoken with people there and have some idea of what makes that place unique. Knowing a place may conjure up memories of what we did there, what we ate, where and with whom; conversations, faces of people, expressions, buildings, the way the air feels, what animals live there, what happened there.

For one day in January, this was Washington: Some lectures, a winter afternoon, a great bird, two statues of famous Washingtonians, an uneventful subway ride to Northwest Washington, a walk up the hill through an old wooded neighborhood to my apartment above the Cathedral. There were countless other stories that day, about the House and the Senate, the President, the candidates for president, the new mayor, various dignitaries coming and going. But I feel like the luckiest guy in town, for on that day I know that a Golden Eagle flew into downtown Washington. For the rest of my life, I will remember Washington as the place where I saw my first Golden Eagle.

Copyright 2007
Richard Allen Hyde

In Search of a Sense of Place. January 4, 2006.

Washington: The Ford Funeral

January 4, 2007

The slow, muffled tolling of the largest bell at the National Cathedral told me that the procession of cars bearing the body of Gerald R. Ford, the 38th President of the United States, was slowly working its way up St. Alban’s hill to the Cathedral steps, the highest point of land in the city of Washington.

Memorial services, it goes without saying, are solemn occasions, opportunities to reflect not only on the life of the dear departed, but on the lives of others departed, perhaps more dear to one personally, and on ones own life. During this funeral I thought back to the services for my parents and, surprisingly forcefully, to the days of mourning for President Kennedy. My parents were alive and vibrant then; I was in junior high school. When the band struck up “Hail to the Chief” before the casket entered the west entrance to the Cathedral, I burst into tears. I almost always do when I hear that jaunty fanfare. Somewhere in my mind, John F. Kennedy is always president; it is always that clear day, much like this one, when his little son John saluted the casket as it went by and the bugler missed a note while playing taps in the cold air.

Since President Ford lived vigorously and happily to the age of 93, today’s proceedings are solemn, but not tinged with tragedy. Much is made by commentators that Gerald Ford was an ordinary, plain-spoken man from the Midwest who made his own coffee and was not much changed by the presidency. His openness made him popular among the press corps, but he was not liked by editorial cartoonists because he was difficult to draw. After President Nixon’s skijump nose and permabeard, Ford was impossibly plain.

Others point out that he was not really ordinary. He was a great football player in his day, a day when top college players went to law school or entered business rather than the NFL. He was one of the top people in his class at Yale Law School. Perhaps his ordinariness is what people remember of him because he succeeded three extraordinary presidents at a time when Americans wanted desperately to return to something like normal.

President Kennedy was extraordinarily eloquent. His assassination was the first event in a series of national traumas. President Johnson was extraordinarily effective at passing legislation and led the country ably during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. Then he led the country into a disastrous war. President Nixon was also extraordinarily effective at first, then turned out to be extraordinarily suspicious and reactive, to the point of paranoia; and criminally, fatally vindictive.

After all this, we desperately yearned for the ordinary. It took him a while to find his feet in the position and he had to fight the beginning of the Reagan revolution to win the nomination of his party, but his team finally meshed and he campaigned extremely well in October of 1976. If the election had taken place a week later, or any number of other things had or had not happened, he probably would have won. What sort of president would he have made had he won the office in his own right?

The first eulogy of the day, by the first President Bush, was the most impressive and the most apt. He showed an eloquence and ease with public speaking beyond what I remember. “A Norman Rockwell painting come to life” sums up President Ford quite well. Henry Kissinger was his usual didactic self and Tom Brokaw a personable story-teller, as one would expect. The current President Bush never looked more dignified than when he slowly walked Betty Ford up the aisle. His remarks were sensible and well-delivered. As one who did not vote for him, I must say that today he did very well as head of state and leader of the nation.

What then can the lowly (comparatively) church rector say after four celebrities, including two Presidents of the United States, have had their turn? At least the rector of a church in Palm Desert, a vast retirement community, has the advantage of experience. The Rev. Robert Certain undoubtedly has done a lot of memorial services and his performance showed it. Since the eulogy had already been done, he gave a brief and simple sermon focused on the resurrection. As a pastor he comforted the family with the assurance that the dear departed had led a good life and now enjoys eternal life with all the company of heaven. And he delivered this message with great conviction. While the public men spoke to the nation, the pastor spoke to the family. This division of labor seemed just right. Then there was more music, some sturdy, uplifting hymns, the filing out into the bright sunshine, the departure of the motorcade.

I found it an altogether stirring occasion. Perhaps most stirring was the sight of all three past presidents sitting together. It is after all, civil society that binds us together. None of these men or their wives, or Nancy Reagan, are compelled by law to attend these events. Their voluntary solidarity sets an example for all of us. The dignity of the presidency and the continuity of our nation depend on these acts of civility. Surprising friendships have been struck up by former presidents in recent years: Ford and Carter; more surprisingly Bush and Clinton, vanquished and victor in each case clearly enjoying common projects and each other’s company.

Finally, from Andrews Air Force base, there was the liftoff of Air Force One bearing the casket and family to Grand Rapids. Nothing says goodbye so well as an airplane taking off. Like so many residents of sunny retirement communities, Gerald Ford chose to be buried back home, where he grew up, in the middle of the country, the heartland.

Copyright 2007
Richard Allen Hyde

In Search of a Sense of Place. January 2, 2006.

California and Washington, DC.

Today’s missive begins during the first week of December in a little coffee outpost, under the same roof with a bank and a real estate office, in the Sonoma Valley that serves Flying Goat Coffee, roasted up the road in Healdsburg. The thick and chocolaty espresso leaves several rings in the cup as I take the final sip. If you want good coffee, wine, beer, and food, Northern California is the place to come. Prince Charles, on his recent visit to the United States, attended some official functions in New York and Washington, then made a bee-line for western Marin County to enjoy the fruits of organic agriculture, including, I am sure, some great cheeses like Cowgirl and Humbolt Fog, washed down with a few bottles of the local claret. Reports suggest that he happily would have skipped his time in New York and Washington and come straight here.

California, like most places, is in reality a multitude of places and certainly contains more multitudes than any other place that is not self-governing. (Whether California is governed at all remains an interesting question.) There is, as already noted, culinary California, as well as surfer’s California, urban California, skier’s California, rural California, northern and southern California and so on, on and on. And, of course, there is a dark side, even to sunny California.

A recent San Francisco Chronicle features an article about an undertaker in Oakland who is sick and tired of doing funerals for teenagers. At some 250 homicides in 2006, Oakland has already superseded last year’s total by over 100. Many of these are teenage gang members, or teens who have somehow run afoul of gang members. I have trouble believing what my eyes are telling me as I read this gruesome story, although I have read stories like it before and know that it is true.

How can there be a gang problem out here where the weather is so nice and the land is so beautiful? Sure New York or Chicago has gangs. Winter in those cities is positively awful. Everyone in town needs prozac, or something like it, by March. I remember the album cover of Chicago: The Blues: Today, the great Vanguard three-record set that came out in 1965. The cover was a photograph shot from an elevated platform, the overhanging sky a dull gray. The elevated platform was gray. The smoke curling up from a chimney was gray. The snow between the el tracks was gray. The only color (a sort of dirty orange) in the photograph came from a warning sign next to the tracks. There was perhaps the faintest trace of tan in the walls of the housing projects some hundred yards distant. No other photograph reminds me so powerfully of winter in Chicago.

I drove a taxi in Chicago in the summer of 1971. I drove all over the city, from good neighborhoods to bad. It was not difficult to tell the difference. Turn the corner into a bad neighborhood in Chicago in those days and instinct immediately took over. My fellow cabbies all agreed that one got out immediately, in defiance of any and all traffic regulations. I have not driven all over Oakland or Los Angeles, but I cannot imagine that any neighborhoods there today look so bad. According to everything I have read, they don’t. Yet the crime rate is horrendous. I suppose it is not so surprising that sprawling, big city Los Angeles would have a gang problem, but I have heard of gangs operating up north here in Santa Rosa and in the eastern suburbs of the Bay Area like Pleasanton and Walnut Creek, places that look far too nice and wealthy to have any problems at all. Why?

At this point I remember that one of the important events in my intellectual life took place on another day when the New York Times was sold out and I bought the Los Angeles Times instead, back in 1990. The headline in the People section read, "The People Prof: What Do Yuppies, Gangs Share? Walter Goldschmidt Knows." What they have in common, according to the article, is the need for recognition by their peers; the need to belong to some society, however small. When the Los Angeles Police Department announced a war on gangs, Goldschmidt, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at UCLA, predicted its failure. Crime rose in the year of the Department's war. Goldschmidt explained that police action only led to greater cohesion on the part of gang members. Gangs form because teenagers perceive the dominant culture as being against them, or as simply not caring about them enough to provide adequate opportunity. So they drop out of school and join gangs, where they at least feel that they belong. When attacked, gang members pull together like the members of any club worth belonging to.

The obvious question then is: Are the schools in these places that bad? Are they offering so little? If so, why? And is it just the schools? How about the parents, the wider community, society?

Whatever the cause of gangs (and they have been with us a long time, in the old world and the new), there are certainly some trends in contemporary life that many people find disturbing and these trends are writ particularly large in California.

This autumn’s reading has included a particularly good book about California from the Sonoma County Library entitled Fault Line: Searching for the Spirit of a State along the San Andreas, by Thurston Clarke. The author took six months or so to travel the San Andreas Fault from Shelter Cove and Point Arena in the north to the Salton Sea in the south, where the fault fractures into Mexico. He has a wonderful eye for people and places, for the human community and the natural. Here he is on three human communities:

“The same issue of the Hollister Free Lance inviting the public to an open house at the new $7.8 million county jail also announced that San Benito County’s supervisors had decided to save $100,000 a year by closing the library. (Hollister sits astride the San Andreas some fifty miles south of San Jose.) While jails were essential and mandated by the state, parks and the library were ‘at the end of the county food chain,’ one functionary explained. No explanation was given why this rather paltry sum, the cost of one low-end tract house, had not been offered by the developers surrounding Hollister with ‘exclusive residential communities’ and promising ‘all the comforts of a “modern California community.’

. . . I walked through some model homes (in Palmdale, north and east of Los Angeles) in developments near the fault, three-to-four bedroom houses between $115,000 and $128,500 (in 1996). Every model I saw, regardless of size or price, had elaborate bathrooms called “spas,” and at least two places for watching television. Even the largest models lacked a living room large enough to accommodate six people in any degree of comfort. Instead, there were many small places where family members could escape one another. These were called the “bonus room,” “family room,” “media niche,” “entertainment niche,” “nook,” den,” or more honestly, the “retreat.” They ensured that when parents returned exhausted from their two-hour commute, they did not have to share a room, television, or computer with their kids. They indicated that life in Palmdale was a dark, indoor one for adults who left home five days a week before sunrise, returned after dark, and slept late on weekends to recover. . . .

. . . Cathedral City is a working-class town sandwiched between Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage (on the eastern edge of greater Los Angeles). It is where people who guard agates and groom greens live in modest tracts and trailer parks alongside Social Security retirees. The middle school resembled a self-storage warehouse and the modular classrooms in back could have fallen off any container ship. Teachers at the meeting told me it was new but already overcrowded, having increased from 900 to 1,200 students in three years. Students had to pay for their own sports and the district could not afford after-school activities. Many kids went home to empty houses and played video games or joined gangs.”

There is a lot more to this book, but Clarke is at his best in presenting this nightmarish image of a society where the forces of coherence are failing. Yet how could any civil society possibly keep pace with the growth of California?

Population has outraced civil society here from the beginning of European settlement. California contained 25,000 Europeans (both Yankees and Californios) in 1848, along with a native population estimated to be anywhere from 15,000 to ten times that. Thanks to the gold rush, the European population hit 250,000 a scant three years later. By that time, California had entered the Union without ever being a territory. It went from being part of Mexico to being a state in about two years. The flood has not subsided or even leveled off since. The population hit 1,500,000 in 1900 and more than doubled every twenty years thereafter until 1960, when it had more than 15,000,000. It then took forty years to double again and is around thirty-six million.

Crime is up in other American cities as well. Other parts of America breed alienation in heartless housing tracts both urban and suburban. Are these problems really different or worse in California? Sometimes I think so, but I have no proof. Garrison Keillor writes of his native state (and mine), Minnesota:

“The state was settled by no-nonsense socialists from Germany and Sweden and Norway who unpacked their trunks and planted corn and set about organizing schools; churches; libraries; lodges; societies and benevolent associations; brotherhoods and sisterhoods, and raised their children to Mind Your Manners, Be Useful, Pay Attention, Make Something of Yourself . . . “

Did folks like this not come to California? In fact, they did, in greater ethnic diversity, but they did. They wrote a progressive constitution. They built a great public school system, libraries, civic institutions, the works. I think the short story of California is that these institutions simply have been overwhelmed by the tidal waves of growth. Yet the California dream continues to draw people and there are certainly places where the dream is doing spectacularly well.

One of these for me has always been the Esalen Institute perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean some thirty miles south of Monterey. I have spent a lot of time there, with no time ever being more wonderful than around the winter solstice. Watching the sun sink into the ocean while soaking in the famous mineral baths of a winter evening is particularly special. Following it with dinner and a couple glasses of wine is to feel like one has been transported to the abode of the gods. After a few days there with a good group of people, everyone has been soaked and massaged, stimulated yet relaxed, noticed and appreciated. Joy, the most important fruit of the Holy Spirit, is everywhere in evidence.

I was there a couple weeks ago for a Yoga seminar, taught by a spiritual anarchist from New Zealand (more on that some other time). One member of my group happened to be a winemaker from Napa.

Did this nice man bring a few bottles of the good stuff to share?

He did. Oooooh yes he did, this Saint Gregory of Napa. Yes. Yes.

Two luscious, fruity, smooth, drinkable red wines, both of which fairly leaped out of the bottle into the glass and hurled themselves gleefully down the throat, dancing and singing all the way. Big, dopey smiles formed on our faces as we looked at one another. We felt unbelievably clever, warm, blessed. Someone said something; or maybe no one said anything. I forget. We started laughing. We couldn’t stop.

Now I am back in Washington; in winter, a very mild winter without a trace of snow, but winter it is, with darkness and dampness and the funeral for President Ford taking place across the street from my apartment. I was on the Mall a few nights ago when the motorcade stopped at the World War II Memorial: a long line of police motorcycles lit up with red, white and blue lights, followed by a dozen or so dark sedans, a limousine with two American flags and a hearse bearing the presidential seal. This is what brings me back to Washington time and again. History seems far away in California, but here in Washington, it is close enough to touch.

Joan Didion has written about this: “One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in 1970, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it.”

In Washington, in 2007, we know that history has bloodied our land, and we have bloodied other lands as well, as we celebrate this president who brought the Vietnam War to an end. We cannot help wondering who will bring the Iraq War to an end, and how, and when. We await, as ever, the prince of peace.

In Search of a Sense of Place. November 1, 2006.


Autumn comes slowly in the nation’s capital. This is a southern city, below the Mason-Dixon line, which runs between Pennsylvania and Maryland. Look at the maps in the newspaper and you will see that the bands marking peak foliage slowly shift southeast through New England and the Middle Atlantic states. The city of Washington is low-lying and near the ocean, further moderating temperatures, particularly at night. The leaves turn and fall in the Maryland suburbs north and west much sooner than they do in the city itself, particularly the parts along the river, which is a tidal estuary at this point.

As I remember from my years in Hanover, New Hampshire, a bunny frost could happen by Labor Day. A killing frost was likely by September 15th. Better get those tomatoes in whether they are ripe or not; bring in the last of the lettuce and basil, too. Peak foliage comes in early October, makes a spectacular blaze of color and is suddenly over. By the end of October the trees are bare.

Down here in Washington, there has been no killing frost; no powerful rainstorm either, no all-day wind and rain that drives the leaves from the trees. The leaves have changed color oh-so-slowly, creating a carpet beneath my eighth-floor windows of a dozen shades of red, yellow, orange and even green. The weather has been generally warm, so warm that on November 1st I took myself and bicycle on a ride along the Potomac clad in shorts and T-shirt, stopping for a long afternoon at Arlington National Cemetery.

Autumn is a solemn time of year and cemeteries are solemn places, none more solemn than this enormous expanse on the banks of the Potomac. No one of my generation can forget the burial of President Kennedy here on a cold, sunny afternoon in late November, or of Robert Kennedy just a few short years later. We have no equivalent of Buckingham Palace, but we can watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers on a splendid hilltop site at Arlington.

I joined several hundred junior high school students this still and warm afternoon to watch a guard-change and wreath-laying. The soldier in dress blues was in the middle of his service when I arrived: twenty-one steps to the north, a pause of twenty-one seconds facing towards the tomb and the auspicious east, a pause during which birds chirp, lawnmowers buzz, jets float down from the north along the Potomac to land at National Airport, and, suddenly, unmistakably, three distant bursts of gunfire disturb the stillness. Then he resumes his march, now to the south, comes to attention, twenty-one more seconds, then north again; again and again, until relieved.

Relief comes in the form of another blue-clad soldier led by the same tall, lanky African-American sergeant I have seen perform this role several times before. Before the new soldier takes his turn, the ritual inspection of his weapon must take place. The rifle – or is it a carbine? – and bayonet look clean enough to perform surgery; nonetheless the inspection proceeds in several hundred precise movements. Like clockwork figures the soldiers flip the weapon, poke gloved fingers into it, glide immaculately white-gloved hands along it, spin it, open it, look it up and down, and, at the precise moment of transfer from private to sergeant, the weapon seems so rise upwards into his hands as if jerked by wires.

Since there was to be a wreath-laying, the sergeant addressed the spectators. I had never heard him speak before. In a voice loud, sonorous and precise, he asked us spectators to rise. We did. Twice two students from the different junior high schools came forward with him to present the wreaths, all in very precise, formal steps, as the sergeant instructed. He asked all uniformed military present to salute and the rest of us to place our hands over our hearts. Thus we all became not just spectators but participants in the solemn ritual that honors the sacrifice of those who came before us.

We, the living, remember and honor you, whoever you were, those known and unknown, the great officers and the common soldiers and sailors who gave and preserved for us these United States. Long after we are gone, others will stand where we stand and remember, in the same solemn ritual. Right now, as we witness this solemn precision, we are certain that the United States of America will last forever. Forever and forever will we and our descendents remember Bunker Hill and Gettysburg and the World Wars, our parents and our grandparents, and the more recent events that have made us who we are.

Thinking thus I wandered off, along rodeways named for generals, past endless white gravestones until I saw, a few hundred yards ahead, the black vehicles and uniformed attendants that mark an interment ceremony. I walked to within a hundred yards and paused, not wishing to disturb the mourners. A full military band stood on a low rise above them, along with an honor guard of about fifty. To my right stood seven soldiers with an officer, weapons at the ready. I could make out Air Force wings on the cobalt blue uniforms.

The band played “The God of Abraham Praise,” one of my favorite hymns and an indicator, I think, that this American hero being laid to rest is a Jew. At the conclusion of the hymn, upon orders, the soldiers fired in perfect unison. Again. Again.

I could feel the force of the blasts in my ribcage. The sound echoed over the hills and into the distance. Could any sound be more powerful more solemn, more final?

Wind stirred the leaves. Sounds of distant traffic and the buzz of lawnmowers came faintly to my ears.

The band played another hymn, which I did not recognize. Six soldiers, with a flurry of white-gloved movements, folded the flag over the burial site and with great solemnity handed it to an officer, who, with the same solemnity walked over to the widow, knelt and presented the flag. Then another flag was presented. And another. Where did all the flags come from? I was too far away to tell.

The band tucked their instruments under their arms. The honor guard and firing squad shouldered their weapons and slowly marched off, leaving the clergyman, a rabbi, I suppose (he wore no liturgical garments) to conduct the rest of the ceremony. I slowly retired, retrieved my bicycle from the rack and pedaled home in the last rays of the sun.

I had seen what I had come to see: the performance of solemn ceremony in time of war. There are burials at Arlington all the time, somewhere around ten per day. But now, and for several years now, about 100 per month are for soldiers on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. These losses are like a slow drip, drip upon the nation’s consciousness, more than a World Trade Center’s worth of young men and women from all over the country.

When will it ever stop?

In Search of a Sense of Place. October 23, 2007.


I begin this week’s column at the CafĂ© Mozart, my favorite place for coffee in Washington, near the corner of H St. and New York Avenue.

I sit at one of four tiny tables in the window while the man at the cash register comes over behind the deli case to make me a double espresso. He serves it to me in an elegant, golden-edged china cup-and-saucer. The piping hot coffee fills the cup and is thick enough to chew.

I arrived here feeling just dimly aware that I was even alive after a breakfast function at the National Press Club where breakfast consisted of not-very-fresh pastries and coffee that was barely recognizable as such. Now, after a few sips, I am ready to conceptualize the beginning of something like The Decline and Fall of American Civilization. If I had a copy of Principia Mathematica in front of me, I’m sure that I could easily read it with comprehension inside of an hour or so.

Instead I turn my thoughts to recent events and my location in the city of Washington this morning. This six-corner intersection (13th Street comes in here, too) used to be known as Herald Square, after the headquarters of the now-defunct Washington Times-Herald. Abraham Lincoln hitched his horse here, across the street at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, or so the brass plate on the hitching post says, which still stands in front of the church, at the edge of the small triangular park dotted by large trees under which several dark-clad homeless men while away the day.

The Washington Post was around back in the middle of the last century, but it was not the city’s leading paper. Everyone who was anyone read the Times-Herald and cared a great deal about what the editor, Cissy Patterson, said in it. Unfavorable mention in the paper was most embarrassing; not being on the invite list for her parties was like being in Siberia.

The talk all over Washington, reverberating like tremors of an earthquake that just won’t stop, is of the impending election. That the House of Representatives will change parties is a foregone conclusion. The future of the Senate is still unclear.

I continue to watch Eyes on the Prize and would be happy to watch all fourteen or sixteen hours’ worth. Unfortunately, my local PBS station seems to have ended its showing with episode three, which focuses on the push for voting rights and the march across the Pettus Bridge outside of Selma, Alabama.

The juxtaposition of images from the now-distant 60s with our current decade (Whatever it is -- The zeroes? The aughts?) is strangely apt. In the 60s we watched the country tear itself apart on television. The decade that began with such confidence turned in the twinkling of an eye into a decade of despair. In American Visions, his great history of American art, Australian critic Robert Hughes called 1968 America’s annus horribilis. The years surrounding it were not much better.

The difference now is that it is a Republican Party and President who have led us into an unpopular war. Half of the Democratic Party was in open revolt against its own President, who was elected by a landslide. The current Republican Party is showing its stresses and strains, but no open revolt.

The Iraq War is also more limited; so is television coverage; fragmented, too. One could easily say: The 60s: the Decade Created by Television. Now, in postmodern fashion, there are many televisions. The national schism is not quite so obvious.

At the crossing of the Pettus Bridge, back in the winter of 1965, the television cameras caught all: the thin line of marchers, the waiting Alabama State Troopers, their charge, the clubbing, the tear gas; all ended up on the evening news. Throughout the years of the Civil Rights Movement, the cameras and microphones were there: showing the riots at lunch counters, the fire hoses turned on unarmed children, the eloquent speeches by Martin Luther King and other preachers. Eyes on the Prize shows it all again.

It also shows the conflict between the young preachers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the even younger organizers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. After the careful, measured, Biblical rhetoric of King came the aggressive, wise-cracking of Stokely Carmichael and others who got their fifteen minutes of fame, and then some.

A few days after Carmichael used the "Black Power" slogan at the "Meredith March Against Fear", he reportedly told King, "Martin, I deliberately decided to raise this issue on the march in order to give it a national forum and force you to take a stand for Black Power." (See Bearing the Cross (1986), by David Garrow.)

King responded, "I have been used before. One more time won't hurt."

Both men were after Black political power, but defined it differently and had different strategies for getting it. King was always aware of national and world opinion, knowing that American Blacks, especially in the south, had no hope unless helped by outsiders, somewhat like the American colonies had no hope for independence from Britain without the help of France.

When President Lyndon Johnson proposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and concluded his speech by saying “We SHALL Overcome.” Tears came to King’s eyes, for he knew that victory was at hand, or as much victory as could be hoped for. He knew that the ballot box would not yield instant results, but it would, with time, yield lasting results. Stokely and others like him never seemed to care about this. The Voting Rights Bill passed in the summer of 1965. If it had not passed then, it might never have passed at all. After the congressional elections of 1966, there were certainly not enough votes to pass it. By 1969, under President Nixon, it would have quietly died.

By 1971, Stokeley, Eldrige Cleaver and H. Rap Brown had held their press conferences, published their books, scared whitey, and either left for Africa or gone to jail. Eldrige Cleaver eventually returned, became a Mormon and joined the Republican Party, in exactly which order, I do not know. As the Greeks used to say, “Whom the gods would destroy, they first drive mad.” The glare of media attention must be the most maddening and addictive intoxicant ever invented. Fortunately the Voting Rights Act was not repealed and the federal bureaucracy made sure that Blacks could vote. They did.

When the next Congress convenes, especially if present trends continue, we will see Black Power. There will be Black committee chairmen in the House of Representatives in Washington and in state houses all over the country. There will be hundreds of Black state representatives and senators; some of them will be Republicans.

What about the worst fears of white folks? That with Black political power, there would be Black demagoguery, inflammatory rhetoric, corruption and calls for retribution? Well, there has been some of all that, but if there is racial competition for demagoguery and corruption, I submit that white folks are winning by a large margin. Whom does the Black community have to compete with Rush Limbaugh, Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff?

The controversial Representative Cynthia McKinney lost in the primary election this August to a more sober-minded opponent. Rush says weirder stuff than she did, everyday, to millions of white folks happy to believe the worst. Representative Jefferson was caught with $100,000 in cold unexplained cash, but Jack Abramoff pled guilty to defrauding Indian tribal clients of millions of dollars, conspiring to bribe members of Congress and evading taxes. Several members of Congress are going down with him. No question who’s winning the sleaze contest.

Black Power is here and it is good for America. Perhaps the Sixties gave birth to healthy offspring after all. It might even be the new birth of freedom Abraham Lincoln promised us a long time ago.

In Search of a Sense of Place. October 15, 2006.

In Search of a Sense of Place
October 15, 2006

PBS started re-showing Eyes on the Prize a few weeks ago. I missed it when the program was first shown in the mid-eighties and then again in the ninties. Must have been when I did not have a television. Looking now in 2006 at this documentary of events from forty and fifty years ago, it is obvious that many things have changed. Security officers for the great 1963 march on Washington carried cutting edge technology to communicate with each other: walkie-talkies. The things looked like enormous toys that probably didn’t even work. People smoked cigarettes everywhere, indoors, outdoors, at lunch counters, in jail. Automobiles were fenderous behemoths.

In addition to archival footage, there are interviews with former activists, quite young during the sixties, middle-aged then and perhaps dead now, for all I know: Andrew Young and several very articulate and occasionally very funny young guys. Also some touching clips from two Black women who were little girls at the time. But the people who made the greatest impression on me were the white racists speaking from old black and white footage: George Wallace, Bull Connor and a couple of others. Their defiance, their seething resentment, their characterization of civil rights activists as “outside agitators, inspired by foreign ideologies, un-American, haters of America, ungrateful, etc.” all seemed so dated, yet weirdly contemporary.

It seemed that I had heard this rhetoric before, more recently. How could this be? How could this hateful rhetoric from forty or fifty tears ago seem so contemporary?

Then I had it: George Wallace and Ross Barnet have simply died and been reincarnated as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and, even more weirdly, Ann Coulter. They have their own television network and book deals.

The quotations of the week come from the Sunday New York Times. A first section story featured a race between incumbent Republican Curt Weldon and Democrat Joe Sestak in suburban Philadelphia. Ann St. Clair, who is heading up Republicans for Sestak, is quoted as saying “that she and her husband grew disenchanted with their party when they lived abroad in the last several years and watched the nation’s reputation deteriorate.” “I came home and felt like I didn’t recognize my party,” she said.

In the book review section, Henry Kissinger reviewed a biography of Dean Acheson, concluding with a quotation that could well be an open memo to this Republican Party:

“Americans must limit themselves to ‘limited objectives’ and work in congress with others, for an essential part of American power is the ‘ability to evoke support from others – an ability quite as important as the capacity to compel.’”

Meanwhile, fall comes late in Washington. I remember peak color in Vermont and New Hampshire coming in the first or second week of October. Here the leaves have just started to turn. After several muggy, rainy days, a front finally moved through this morning. It will get down to around forty tonight and the lights of the city beneath my windows will twinkle in the cool, clear air. I live on the top floor of my building, which sits just off of Saint Alban’s Hill, the highest point of land in the city at 400 feet or so. The only building higher than mine is the National Cathedral. I look across at its spires as I write. Right now, at 6 o’clock Friday afternoon, the clouds move along quite quickly and I feel as if I am their companion in the darkening blue sky.

Planes taking off from National Airport emerge from behind the front towers of the cathedral and head west towards the setting sun. Downhill and east of the cathedral, the marble and limestone government buildings glow white, then pink, then gray as the speeding clouds block and then reveal the light from the sun. The trees that form a canopy above Cleveland Park are still green with just a suggestion of the color to come.

In Search of a Sense of Place, October 8, 2006

In Search of a Sense of Place
October 8, 2006

I have decided to write an occasional column on life in Washington. I will write about political life in this world capital, of course, but I will also focus on what is happening at street level. What is the fingertip feel of the city? What is the air like, the light? What creatures dwell here with us humans? What goes on here that goes otherwise unnoticed? What makes this capital and eastern city different from other cities and regions of the US? What do the public buildings and monuments tell us about our country, our history and our future?

I first saw them while I was pedaling south on the bike path that runs along Rock Creek and its companion parkway. I was west of the creek and parkway and a little north of the M Street Bridge. At this point the creek was below me and to the left, in a shallow valley. I noticed a sudden blur of gray. I turned and slowed down. Then another one, distinct this time: a great blue heron swooping just above the creek, flying in the rather ungainly but graceful manner of great blues. I stopped and stared as the bird lumbered around the bend, apparently oblivious to the nearby traffic.

I forgot about it. Then I stopped to do some yoga near the Washington monument a few days later, stretching before the long ride home along the Capital Crescent Trail. I was in the head-down part of a salute to the sun when, upside-down, I saw them again, wheeling in the blue sky above Constitution Avenue at 17th Street. I let myself down so I could watch. One flew off elsewhere, but the other made its leisurely way south past the Washington Monument. What welcome wildness in the middle of the city.

Meanwhile scandal has rocked the nation’s capital and the party in power. Randy Cunningham and Tom DeLay resigned a while ago because of financial improprieties. The war in Iraq is not going well. Around 2,000 people are shot and blown up there a month, including many Americans. All this has made it a bad year for Republicans. Yet the party seemed poised for a comeback a week or so ago. Then Mark Foley resigned after the sexually explicit emails went public.

This, for the moment, appears to be the biggest jolt of the earthquake, the big one that comes after the little ones and finally knocks the trembling house to the ground.

How come so many Americans care more, apparently, about a sex scandal in which no has died, and in which, as far as we can tell, no one has even had sex, than they do about serious financial shenanigans and a miscarried war that kills a lot of people day in and day out?

Perhaps it is because most American do not know much about the innermost workings of government and the calculations of foreign policy. They give their representatives and their president, especially in time of war or crisis, wide latitude to use their judgment and govern. Come election day, no matter what happens, most socio-cultural conservatives will vote for their fellow socio-cultural conservatives, as will socio-cultural liberals. This year, whatever the outcome, will be no exception to this rule. If the Republicans lose the House and Senate, the nation-wide shift in vote totals will be less than ten percentage points, probably less than five. Nonetheless, the Foley scandal is deeply disturbing, even to those people who will vote as they usually do. Why?

Sex, unlike budgeting on a national scale and the conduct of foreign policy, is something that everyone knows about. We all have sex, one way or another. Our understanding of sex directly affects our daily lives. People die in Iraq. Congressmen resign or even go to jail. Direct, tangible effect for most people: None.

But is there anyone alive who has never received unwanted sexual attention? Maybe somebody. From powerful people in superior positions whom we expected to model appropriate behavior? Hopefully more people, but what would we do or have done in such circumstances? The threat to young, vulnerable people is just too creepily imaginable.

When wondering thus about the human condition, especially about the baffling intermixture of public and private malfeasance, it behooves one to consult a higher authority. My higher authority in such matters is usually the Blessed Saint Reinhold of New York.

In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr writes:

“If selfishness is the destruction of life’s harmony by the self’s attempt to center life around itself, sensuality would seem to be the destruction of harmony within the self, by the self’s undue identification with and devotion to particular impulses and desires within itself. The sins of sensuality, as expressed for instance in sexual license, gluttony, extravagance, drunkenness and abandonment to various forms of physical desire, have always been subject to a sharper and readier social disapproval than the more basic sin of self-love. Very frequently the judge, who condemns the profligate, has achieved the eminence in church or state from which he judges his dissolute brethren, by the force of a selfish ambition which must be judged more grievously sinful than the sins of the culprit. . . . The reason for this aberration is obviously the fact that sensuality is a more apparent and discernible form of anarchy than selfishness.”
- Chapter 8, Section III

People are pressured to do things all the time. We are called upon to donate money to various causes, to make purchases, to get yet another credit card, to buy that credit card protection plan. Our superiors order us to work on projects we think ill-advised and onerous. Sometimes we just say no. Sometimes we cough up the money or knuckle under and do the work. Yet the self remains intact and life goes on. Life involves compromises and mistakes. No one is perfect. We can cancel the credit card, stop payment on the check, avoid that store next time, resign.

Sexual predation, on the other hand, threatens the very core of oneself and thereby our social contact with one another. We live in an aggressively boisterous commercial and political society. The rough and tumble of advertising and marketing, of argument and counter-argument, are just facts of life. When it comes to finding a life partner or a sexual partner, adults are free to play by any set of rules they wish.

Niebuhr continues: “The fact that upon the purely instinctive basis both the self and the other are involved in sexual passion makes it possible for spirit to use the natural stuff of sex for both the assertion of the ego and the flight of the ego into another. The sexual act thus becomes, in human life, a drama in which the domination of one life over the desires of another and the self-abnegation of the same life in favor of another are in bewildering conflict, and also in baffling intermixture. Furthermore these corruptions are complexly interlaced and compounded with a creative discovery of self through its giving of itself to another.”

Hurt feelings are an inevitable part of the quest for love. Yet through conscious and mature sexual relationship, find ourselves, while through unconscious and immature sexaul relationship, we lose ourselves. Inequalities of power make many a relationship problematic. There is consensus in our society, however, and there should be, that children should be sheltered from the worst of this jostling. They are more vulnerable; they do not really have selves yet. People who wield power over children must meet a very high standard.

From here the questions just keep coming: How lasting is the damage? Can an unwelcome encounter while young set a bad pattern of behavior for years to come? What if Mark Foley had hit on young women instead of young men? Would the public reaction be different? While Foley promptly resigned, Gerry Studds, a Democrat, years ago simply said that his relationship with a male page was consensual. Although censured by the House, both sides of the aisle, he was re-elected. Is this fair?

Fair or not, the Republican Party has proclaimed itself the party of personal morality. The Republicans impeached President Clinton for having sex – or something - with an adult. “The judgment you give is the judgment you will get,” as the Galilean carpenter said long ago.

If a higher standard is being applied, it is being applied by the very voters whom the Republicans have assiduously courted, voters who may have less tolerance for this kind of anarchy than they have for anarchy on the streets of Baghdad.