The True Tale of Grandma Rathbone: An Odd Coincidence at Lincoln’s Birth and Death

Hello valued bistro customers,

My apologies for not having a fresh dish prepared just for the bistro today. I’ve been cooking up a couple, but I had to delay them because I was so busy sorting out an odd story about Lincoln, which I posted at my own blog:

I’ll have more good mental roughage for you next Monday. Until then, keep chewing!


Walter Was Right

Late in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, the Dude (Jeff Bridges) corrects Walter (John Goodman), informing him that the three German men threatening to hurt them are nihilists, not Nazis. Walter replies with typical profanity,

Nihilists! **** me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least its an ethos

Walter was right, and there’s some interesting recent social science research backing him up. As this article in Slate explains, Nazism seems to have spread fastest in those German communities with the greatest concentration of voluntary civic organizations – choral groups, athletic teams, associations of animal breeders, and so on. The stronger the bonds between individuals in a community, the easier it was for one of them to convince others to come along and join the Nazi party. (My own experience playing on a softball team during my year in Germany serves as counter-evidence, but of course this was well into the post-Nazi era and we literally could not even turn a double play, so there was no danger of us ever annexing the Sudetenland. But I digress.)

The point I take from this analysis is simple: social power is not good in and of itself, any more than electricity is. Power is the ability to effect change in the world. The more that power is used to good ends, the better. The more its used to bad ends, the worse. The gasoline that fuels your car when you drive your child to the emergency room is power used well. You can also gas up with the expressed intent to run someone else’s child down. That’s power used poorly.

This point is so simple that I could understand someone questioning why it’s worth bringing up. The answer is that I think we often forget it when we make a standard critique of our contemporary world. As the Slate piece notes, political scientist Robert Putnam’s 1995 book Bowling Alone has been only one of the most prominent attempts to argue that Americans have largely ceased to take part in voluntary civic organizations that build trust, form relationships bigger than circles of friends, and make it easier for people to assemble spontaneously to take on a common problem. That is a shame, if we really are getting worse at building these sorts of attachments. That sounds like a recipe for greater loneliness and isolation. But even if such relationships are good in themselves – and I think they are – they might be used for ill purposes as well as worthy ones.

So the next time you see someone who seems like a total loner – the kind of person who will never join a bowling league – it may seem counter-intuitive, yet it might be right to say, “Well, at least s/he probably isn’t likely to ever become a Nazi.” Nihilists aren’t suited for an ethos.


Brief Reflections on Turning 42

So I turned 42 today. It feels like I’m getting into the groove of this being over forty thing. Actually turning forty seemed like a novelty. Forty-one was just more of the same. But forty-two? I can see the pattern now.

There’s something so cocky about calling this “middle age,” as if the universe owed me a good forty more years. But they didn’t call it “The Thirty Years War” until the war was over. They didn’t finish year fifteen and say, “Well, we’re half done now.” Things end when they end and you don’t know when. One of our girls got her front teeth slightly loosened on a festival ride the other day and had to go get a late night X-ray. (She’s fine.) When her sister found out that she had to go to bed while her sister got to stay up late having fun at the dentist’s office, she said, “That’s not fair.” I laughed and said, “I don’t think that’s what that word means.” But I guess I’d feel a similarly misplaced sense of injustice if I discovered that I was closer to the end of my stay here on earth than to the middle. Maybe that’s a bad attitude. Back when he was only mildly insufferable, way back when he co-hosted ESPN’s “The Big Show” with Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann had a standard line when he had to report that a slightly injured baseball player was listed as “day-to-day”: “We’re all day-to-day.” So we are. Might as well face it.

I don’t honestly remember the event, but my first conscious experience of mortality must have been when my Great Grandfather Burt Thurman (“Mr. Burt”) decided he wanted to ride his horse one more time and got thrown. He lasted a little while in the hospital but the fall basically killed him. The whole family had been watching his ride, including me, just three years old. As they were getting ready to drive him to the hospital, I took it upon myself to cheer him up by saying, “Mr. Burt, a lot of people think it’s awfully funny, an old man like you falling off a horse.” They told me he laughed about it later, but he wasn’t very happy at the time. I like to think that I was just trying to give him a little perspective.

About three years later I received my second exposure to death. Mom and I came home from school on a hot early June day and found our sheep dog Morton had strangled himself trying to get to his water. Mom ran inside. At the time I thought she was upset, but now I’m pretty sure she was running to call for help. In any case, the screen door slammed behind her and stuck, so I couldn’t get in. I had to stand there for what seemed like a long time right beside my dead dog. I didn’t like that.

But while I’m sad that Morton died so painfully and that Mr. Burt got hurt falling off his horse, I appreciate a little better now why we all have to move on. There’s a time to bloom and grow and a time to decay and fade, to make room for the next season’s blooms. I do like to imagine that every day in every way I’m getting better and better, but there’s increasing evidence that it isn’t so. If I’m improving at anything, it’s accepting that the roller coaster doesn’t only go up, and that most of the fun is in the coming down. So, as much as my planning counts for – which might not be much – I plan to be around for a lot more of this ride. But I may have already passed the peak. And that’s alright. Do not rage against the dimming of the light. Go gently in, and then sleep tight.


Hitting off the Tee in the Game of Reasons

One staple of Philosophy is that we human beings inhabit (at least) two worlds: the one in which events are determined by physical causes and the other in which actions are governed by reasons.

Wilfrid Sellars

Most books in pictures of professors like this are cardboard fakes from IKEA. Colleges and universities hand them out when faculty are hired.

The 20th century American Philosopher Wilfrid Sellars invented the phrase “The Game of Giving and Asking for Reasons” to describe aspects of the second world, and I’m adapting it here.

No, no. Wrong game. In the Game or Reasons you don’t win or die – you’re just right or wrong.

As I’ve mentioned in some other dishes here at the Bistro, there’s ample evidence that our reasoning doesn’t always function in our lives the way we like to think it does. We’d like to believe that our reasons are the causes of our behavior rather than just their after-the-fact rationalizations and excuses, but the evidence indicates that this is true only in certain controlled circumstances. Nevertheless, learning to play the Game of Reasons remains essential to our humanity in two respects: first, if we ever want to overcome our worst impulses – whatever they are – good reasoning will play a necessary role; and second, if we don’t want to overcome those impulses, but also don’t want to be blamed for acting on them, reasons will come in handy then too.

That’s why I’m always pleased to see my step-daughters hitting the ball off the reasoning tee. Here’s one of my favorite examples. Last fall A was sick and had to stay home while her twin sister B went to school. Around noon I needed to run some errands and took A with me. We stopped to get some cash and A said, “Look, it’s a McDonald’s.” I agreed that the building next to us was, indeed, a McDonald’s, and A continued by saying, “I sure would love some McNuggets right now.”

But I knew that didn’t tell the whole story. McNuggets, as you likely know, are sufficiently nasty by themselves. I can’t remember or find the exact account, so I hope I’m not making this up, but I seem to recall Anthony Bourdain – author of Kitchen Confidential author and star of shows such as No Reservations – being asked in an interview the strangest food he had ever eaten and answered “unwashed warthog anus.” (I’ll give you a second to reread that last phrase. Now let’s move on.) Oddly, the interviewer followed up by asking what was the most disgusting food he’d ever eaten, and without pausing Bourdain responded, “A McNugget.” The girls’ mother and I agree in principle, but on the rare occasions when we do take them to McDonald’s as a special treat they kick the gross factor up a notch by ordering vanilla ice cream cones and dipping the McNuggets in the ice cream. Keep in mind that these are people who mix virtually no foods. If we put vegetables in their eggs, they react like LL Cool J’s character in Toys. But this combination works for them. My arteries seize up in sympathy just watching this meal.

Fortunately, I had an answer. “Honey,” I said, because I talk that way, “I need to go to The Grange to get some hay and pellets for Turbo.” (And yes, we have a guinea pig named Turbo. Don’t judge us.) “That’s near the Chocolate Factory and I thought we could go there and pick out some candy for you and your sister.”

You don’t need a golden ticket.

A pondered this proposal for a moment as I pulled out onto Gilman Boulevard and said, “Well, if you think about it, I still have candy left over from last year’s Halloween and this year’s is coming up again soon. I don’t really need any more candy. I’d rather have the McNuggets.”

Well argued, I thought to myself. But I had an ace up my sleeve. “That makes sense, honey. But I know you’ll want ice cream with your McNuggets, and I don’t know a good way to get ice cream home for your sister.”

Again A thought this over as I continued on toward The Grange and the Chocolate Factory. “Well,” she said, “we don’t have to tell her.” 

“That’s true,” I responded, doing my very best not to laugh, “but I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Think about if the situation were reversed and your sister got to go to McDonald’s and you didn’t, and we didn’t tell you. I don’t think you’d like that very much if you ever found out.”

We crossed the last major street before our destination and I thought I had won. Then A played her last card. “One time last summer J (our neighbor) gave us all candy bars, except for T (her son), and she told us not to tell him.” I looked in the rear view mirror. A looked back at me calmly. She didn’t yet know the phrase, “So there’s precedent,” but I could tell she got the concept. I turned around. We went to McDonald’s. It was as gross as ever, watching that deep fried breading dip into the sugary white goo. And I knew that I was rewarding problematic behavior. No amount of explaining exactly why I turned the car around would convince the Dopamine receptors in A’s brain – which at that very moment were marinating in all that oily, bready goo – that it was reasoning I meant to reward, and not duplicityBut I decided it didn’t matter. As usual, what was most important to me was that we were playing together – and one of my favorite games. We would work later on playing the Game of Reasons right. Right then, I was just so happy watching her take a smooth swing and make contact.

Photo credit: Cynthia Freeland, Bantam, Boehm’s.

War is Never Civil

It begins today: the 150th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. My post on the 50 Greatest Names in the Civil War will appear at The Weeklings this Thursday, in honor of the conclusion of both the last major southern invasion of the North and the surrender of the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg. Come check it out.

Far from being civil, the war was distinctly cruel (though, as The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out numerous times, the preceding centuries had been as cruel or crueler to the slaves who did so much to build this country). One theory I’ve come across – and am sorry I can’t source – suggests that it was so unrelenting in large part because both sides were democracies. This goes against the grain of much contemporary political theory, which holds that democracies tend to work out their differences with each other by more peaceful means. There may be something to the latter idea, but the flip side is that when they do go to war, governments of, by, and for the people do so with a vengeance. This makes sense if you think about the fact that if a government that accurately reflects the will of its people decides to fight, those people are probably willing to suffer great hardship to see the struggle to its successful conclusion. When absolute rulers went to war in the late medieval and early modern periods, they could typically only rely on the loyalty of their vassals and their hired mercenaries, which seldom lasted past a few successful battles and one failed one. That’s part of why partisans on both sides of the American Civil War assumed that their war would be over soon. They assumed that after a few battles demonstrated which side had won, the other side would give up. But this was a different sort of conflict. Majorities in both the North and the South valued the cause they were fighting for enough to risk  their loved ones, their households, and their sanity. There are few if any clearer instances in the country’s history of people making sacrifices on behalf of something greater than themselves. Nor have we ever been exposed to such sustained horror.

I said something to Chef Robert once about not quite knowing why I was so interested in the Civil War, and he responded, “You’re from the South. Of course you’re interested in the Civil War.” And that’s fair. I’m not just from the South, I’m from Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace. And the county Lincoln was born in supposedly only gave him three votes in the 1860 election. (That may be an exaggeration, but he couldn’t have gotten many tallies.) Kentucky, like every border South state except for Virginia, stayed in the Union, but its allegiance was strained, as evidenced by the fact that it was Lincoln’s worst state in his 1864 reelection. By a margin about roughly 70% to 30%, Kentucky voters went for the Democratic candidate, former general George B. McClellan, who promised a return to a more limited war, restoring the Union without emancipating the slaves. They hadn’t given up the hope for a country that had ceased to exist and could never be again.

Trying to understand this perspective has led me down various paths through the endless woods that is the scholarship on the Civil War era. Recently I’ve been reading about the Whig party, and have run across a few surprising insights there. I had underestimated how early and how thoroughly slavery had begun to split the sections. I had thought that the Whigs started out fairly unified on economic issues – they were the “liberal” party, supporting higher taxes (in the form of tariffs), infrastructure projects (mainly roads and canals, and later railroads), and national institutions (particularly banks) – but fell apart in the 1850s over the expansion of slavery. But in fact, the Southern and Northern wings of the party were at odds from the beginning. At its midpoint, the devastating election of 1844, the Whig’s great champion Henry Clay struggled and failed to keep both portions happy, never finding a position on the annexation of Texas and the consequent expansion of slave territory that satisfied southerners without alienating increasingly abolitionist states such as New York. Had slavery not been an issue in that contest, the Whigs would likely have won, and many of the nationalizing projects that the Republicans ended up passing after so many southern representatives and senators departed Congress in the 1860s might have gone through much earlier, and American history might have progressed entirely differently. But it always had been an issue, and couldn’t help being one. What had brought the Whigs together was opposition to the allegedly monarchical tendencies of President Andrew Jackson. But this was a flimsy basis for a coalition, tying together as it did those who wanted a weaker executive and a stronger nation with those who wanted a weaker executive and more independent states – most of all, so that the United States would never be sufficiently powerful to abolish slavery. There’s a great early Simpsons episode when Apu is applying for citizenship. When his interviewer asks him what caused the Civil War, Apu begins a long dissertation on the complex economic and social forces that had increasingly divided the two sections over decades, and the interviewer interrupts and tells him, “Just say ‘slavery.'” It’s funny, but maybe for the wrong reason. The deeper I dig on the Civil War, the more I find slavery at the bottom. It’s been called America’s original sin, and I’m inclined to agree.

The other finding that’s surprised me is how much the political parties of the era were explicitly founded in opposition to particular groups. The best example of this is the American party, also known as the Know-Nothings. The Whig party did fall apart in the early 1850s, largely because the southern wing thought the northern part was too abolitionist, even though abolitionist voters in the North thought the Whigs were too pro-slavery – because of their affiliation with the party’s southern wing. The Republicans – a distinctly anti-slavery and almost entirely Northern party – were the ultimate beneficiaries of this collapse, but that wasn’t inevitable. The Americans, their main rival, won many state-level elections in both the North and the South. Like the Whigs, they tried to avoid questions about slavery. But rather than stressing economic issues, they instead focused on opposing immigration and immigrants – particularly Catholics. The Democratic party was splitting on sectional lines at this point too. The electoral weight leaned toward Illinois’s Stephen A. Douglas and his principle of popular sovereignty – the right of each state to decide whether or not it would have slavery. This was almost surely the median position of the country’s voting population as a whole, but by this point it had become anathema not just to abolitionists but to the pro-slavery faction as well. When Douglas and his platform won out at the 1860 Democratic national convention, the bulk of the southern delegates walked out and held a separate convention to select their own candidate, which ultimately handed the Presidency to Lincoln. And so, during this period pretty much the only party with claim to a truly national constituency was the Americans. Or to put this another way: the fight over slavery so divided the South and the North that the only thing a significant section of the electorate across both regions could agree on was how much they distrusted Catholic immigrants.

It’s a problem of collective action. For a nation to be more than a loose collection of individuals, we need a cause greater than our solitary self-interest. But as Machiavelli knew, fear is the easiest group motivator. Most white southerners were so scared of slave revolts that it led them to try to destroy the country. Northern Republicans were scared of the spread of slavery and the loss of the West for expansion by free-soil whites. Americans were scared of all the Irish and Germans they thought were taking their jobs and spreading crime. These were all ideals strong enough to bring parties together. And I find that scarier than I find it inspiring.

And yet, and yet. Our ancestors did fight that war. And they did end slavery. It’s sad that that’s what it took. It’s sadder still that the further struggle to overcome the legacy of slavery lasted another century and more. But today I suggest that we celebrate even the country’s imperfect triumphs, along with its never-ending effort to deliver a “new birth of freedom.