We have to instill dignity and reverence in everyday life. -A. Stoddard
Photograph by Justin Sullivan / Getty
The New Yorker
What are we doing here? When the air is red and the street lights are on at noon, we ask this question. When there are twenty-three major fires burning at once throughout California, and seventeen thousand firefighters battling them, we ask this question. When a firefighter dies in a blaze begun during a gender-reveal party, we ask this question. We ponder these questions on a smoke-tinged Friday, and on Saturday the sky is clear and we’re at the beach again. This is life in 2020 California.
It’s not right, any of this. The fact that it gets harder every year, that fires get more frequent, bigger, deadlier. The fact that we have to count on volunteers, and firefighters from Colorado, Texas, Mexico, Australia. The exorbitant expense.
There aren’t enough people, there aren’t enough planes and bulldozers and trucks.
There’s too much fire. We can’t keep living like this. More than anything, we can’t expect firefighters to live like this.
For the past forty years, Republicans have been seeking to starve, strangle, and sabotage the U.S. Postal Service, hoping to privatize one of the oldest and most important public goods in American history.Photograph by Dan Brouillette / Bloomberg / Getty
Annals of Communications
We Can’t Afford to Lose the Postal Service
Republican leaders have long tried to kill the U.S.P.S. Now the coronavirus is helping.
By Casey Cep
May 2, 2020
Being a rural letter carrier suits my mother, and it enabled her to provide for a family like ours: it is a union job with protections and benefits, insurance and vacation days, only modest raises but occasional overtime and reliable, transparent wages. It isn’t all wonderful; I was an adult before I noticed that the official vehicles she and her fellow-carriers drive do not have air-conditioning, and that her joints are already arthritic, her knees busted, her shoulders and back chronically sore, her gait wobbled by the wear and tear caused by hefting fifty-pound packages of dog food and forty-pound boxes of cat litter that are supposedly cheaper on Amazon than they are at the local store. Still, it is a better job than she thought she would ever have, and it allowed her to keep us in braces, allergy shots, X-rays, books, clothes, and movies. Eventually, it got her credit good enough to get us savings accounts and credit cards and loans.
My father, who is older and had been working longer than my mother had, was a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers; my mother joined the National Rural Letter Carriers’ union as soon as she was eligible. They knew that whatever they hoped for their children, they themselves would always be labor, not management. So we were a union family: my parents spent a few nights a year at local meetings, and if we went on vacation it was to wherever the annual union convention was held that year—usually the beach near where we lived, in Maryland, although one year we drove all the way to Maine. While we three watched the miracle that was cable television or played mini-golf with Dad, my mother put on her Sunday best and spent her days doing what I later learned a lot of other people’s parents did all the time: attend meetings. To me, my mother suddenly seemed like an executive.
Unions are the most powerful advocate people like my parents have. That power is one of the reasons that, although the U.S.P.S. is by far the most popular government agency, it is the one most often threatened with extinction. My mother is about to retire, and I worry that the agency she has spent her life serving will be retired soon, too. The coronavirus, which has decimated the global economy, has not spared the Postal Service—and while shipping and package volume are on the rise, standard and bulk mail have plummeted, leaving the U.S.P.S. with increasing deficits. But if the coronavirus kills the Postal Service, its death will have been hastened, as so many deaths are right now, by an underlying condition: for the past forty years, Republicans have been seeking to starve, strangle, and sabotage it, hoping to privatize one of the oldest and most important public goods in American history.
Before they declared their independence, the American colonists decided that they needed a better way to communicate with one another. In the summer of 1775, at the Second Continental Congress, they created the Postal Service and named Benjamin Franklin its first Postmaster General. Where before letters or packages had to be carried between inns and taverns or directly from house to house, now there was a way for Americans to safely, discreetly, and reliably correspond across long distances. After the Revolution, when Congress ratified the Articles of Confederation, legislators included the Post Office in the ninth of those articles, and later enshrined it in the first article of the Constitution.
The Founders saw the Postal Service as an essential vehicle for other rights, especially the freedom of the press: one of the first postal laws set a special discounted rate for newspapers. But they also understood that a national post unifies a nation, allowing its citizens to stay connected and connecting them with their federal government. When Alexis de Tocqueville toured the young country several decades after its founding, he travelled partly by mail coach, noting in “Democracy in America” how “the mail, that great link between minds, today penetrates into the heart of the wilderness.”
But the mail didn’t just follow American settlers into the wilderness—it also led to the transformation of the frontier. The constitutional authority that created the Postal Service allowed for the construction of post roads to link faraway cities; eventually, these ran all the way from Florida to Maine. A few of those essential byways survive, some of them obvious in their names, like the Old Albany Post Road and the Boston Post Road. Later, that authority was interpreted more broadly to justify federal investment in railroads and highways. During its long history, the Postal Service has delivered the mail by pony express, mule train, float planes, ferry boats, motorcycles, skis, hovercrafts, and pneumatic tubes. There were only seventy-five post offices at the nation’s founding, but by the time the Civil War started there were more than twenty-eight thousand spread around the country.
Hägglund reminds us that King had studied Marx with care while a student, and that he told the Montgomery Advertiser, in 1956, that his favorite philosopher was Hegel. Toward the end of his life, King had begun to insist that society has to “question the capitalistic economy.” He called for what he described as “a revolution of values.” At a tape-recorded staff meeting for the Poor People’s Campaign in January, 1968, King appears to have asked for the recording to be stopped, so that he could talk candidly about the fact that, in the words of a witness, “he didn’t believe capitalism as it was constructed could meet the needs of poor people, and that what we might need to look at was a kind of socialism, but a democratic form of socialism.” King told the group that if anyone made that information public he would deny it.
Hägglund does his usual deconstructive reversal, and argues that King’s religiosity was really a committed secularism. At this point in the book, this looks less like a hermeneutic move than like an expected reality. We read the famous words of King’s last speech with new eyes, alert both to his secularism and to a burgeoning critique of capitalism that had to stay clandestine:
It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.
I finished “This Life” in a state of enlightened despair, with clearer vision and cloudier purpose—I was convinced, step by step, of the moral rectitude of Hägglund’s argument even as I struggled to imagine the political system that might institute his desired revaluation of value. As if aware of such faintheartedness, he ends the book with a beautiful examination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—in particular the celebrated last speech he gave, in Memphis. Hägglund reminds us that King had studied Marx with care while a student, and that he told the Montgomery Advertiser, in 1956, that his favorite philosopher was Hegel. Toward the end of his life, King had begun to insist that society has to “question the capitalistic economy.” He called for what he described as “a revolution of values.”
After the theory and the academic reversals and the grand proposals, Hägglund’s book ends, stirringly, with a grounded account of a man who died trying to use his precious time to change the precious time of oppressed people, aware that the full realization of his vision would likely involve a revaluation of value that could not yet be spoken in America. We still haven’t seen that system, and it’s hard to imagine it, but someone went up the mountain and looked out, and saw the promised land. And that land is in this life, not in another one. ♦
‘A profound, original, and accessible book that offers a new secular vision of how we can lead our lives. Ranging from fundamental existential questions to the most pressing social issues of our time, This Life shows why our commitment to freedom and democracy should lead us beyond both religion and capitalism.
In this groundbreaking book, the philosopher Martin Hägglund challenges our received notions of faith and freedom. The faith we need to cultivate, he argues, is not a religious faith in eternity but a secular faith devoted to our finite life together.
He shows that all spiritual questions of freedom are inseparable from economic and material conditions. What ultimately matters is how we treat one another in this life, and what we do with our time together.
Hägglund develops new existential and political principles while transforming our understanding of spiritual life. His critique of religion takes us to the heart of what it means to mourn our loved ones, be committed, and care about a sustainable world. His critique of capitalism demonstrates that we fail to sustain our democratic values because our lives depend on wage labor. In clear and pathbreaking terms, Hägglund explains why capitalism is inimical to our freedom, and why we should instead pursue a novel form of democratic socialism.
In developing his vision of an emancipated secular life, Hägglund engages with great philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel and Marx, literary writers from Dante to Proust and Knausgaard, political economists from Mill to Keynes and Hayek, and religious thinkers from Augustine to Kierkegaard and Martin Luther King, Jr. This Life gives us new access to our past—for the sake of a different future.’
The madness of the moment lies in looking at how this came to pass, at how many people had to give up on the idea of democracy for things to come to this.
Almost always, I bite my tongue. But, yes, he is that bad, and this is unprecedented, and these acts are impeachable, and, if it seems as though people have been clamoring for his impeachment since he took office, that’s only because he has behaved abominably since he took office. Is abomination impeachable? No. But the abuses of office of which the President now stands accused are the very definition of impeachable.
The madness lies in looking, honestly, at how this came to pass, at how many people had to give up on the idea of democracy for things to come to this. The sadness lies in the recognizing of the unlikelihood of anything getting much better anytime soon, what with the slush and the sleet and the coming storm. A farmer walks across a field, bracing against the wind. Hardness is what’s required to get through a political winter: determination, forbearance, sacrifice, not bitterness but a certain sternness.
A Circle expands forever
It covers all who wish to hold hands
And its size depends on each other
It is a vision of solidarity
It turns outwards to interact with the outside
And inward for self critique
A circle expands forever
It is a vision of accountability
It grows as the other is moved to grow
A circle must have a centre
But a single dot does not make a Circle
One tree does not make a forest
A circle, a vision of cooperation, mutuality and care
—Mercy Amba Oduyoye
Mercy Amba Oduyoye, “The Story of a Circle” (Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians), The Ecumenical Review, vol.53, no. 1 (January 2001), 97. Used with permission.
Fr. Richard Rohr, Center for Compassion & Contemplation
Affirming people’s potential is more important than reminding them of their brokenness.
The work of reconciliation should be valued over making judgments.
Gracious behavior is more important than right belief.
Inviting questions is more valuable than supplying answers.
Encouraging the personal search is more important than group uniformity.
Meeting actual needs is more important than maintaining institutions.
Peacemaking is more important than power.
We should care more about love and less about sex.
Life in this world is more important than the afterlife (Eternity is Gaia’s work anyway).
…but the angel, imperious,pointed over and over
to what was written on the page he held,
and would not held and kept insisting: read.
Then the man read, and when he did the angel bowed.
It was as if he had always been reading,
and now was able to obey and bring to pass.
Alexander Stoddard/Grace Notes:
’Any profound view of the world is mysticism.’ -Albert Schweitzer
Love the questions. The bigger the questions, the better. The mysteries of life have never been understood by any human so far and never will be. The little things that make you happy, the order you put into your corner of the universe, the joy you feel from these small rituals, are mysterious. You’re not crazy; you’re creative. It’s all right if you are teased. Who cares? You do these things for yourself.
A BIBLICAL ROUGH DRAFT
The New Yorker
By Bob Odenkirk
[Bob Odenkirk is a writer, a comedian, and an actor. He stars in the AMC television series “Better Call Saul.”]
‘Many do not know that the Bible was once a “living document,” passed orally from person to person, and from generation to generation, before finally being written down. Even the most well-known Biblical passages went through countless iterations before arriving at the final, perfect, logical, cohesive, and treasured versions we now hold dear.
Early written drafts of the Bible were the transcribed pontifications of travelling “storytellers,” who tromped from village to village in floppy sandals, swatting at flies, sipping beads of dew from the undersides of donkeys, and fighting dogs for scraps of raw meat. A close reading of the earliest known transcription of a popular excerpt from the Book of Matthew reveals that the “narrator” is suffering from low blood sugar. No doubt a syphilitic holy man dressed in desert rags, he searches in vain for just the right metaphor, a well-aimed zinger with which to make his point. The toil that the poor fellow suffers in so doing undercuts the very principle he is straining to illustrate.’
Springsteen has said that the show was inspired by an acoustic concert he performed in the East Room of the White House in late 2016, for around two hundred and fifty people, an earnest parting gift to the Obama family. The night was heavy on storytelling, which loosely mirrored the chronology of his memoir, itself a kind of ur-American story—a rise from nothing to very, very much. In the nineteen-seventies, at the birth of his career, Springsteen often performed with the E Street Band at small night clubs (such as the Bottom Line, then on West Fourth Street, or the Stone Pony, in Asbury Park, New Jersey), bolstering those concerts with gripping and colorful yarns that drew on memories of his childhood along the Jersey Shore—his parents, his home town, old loves.
Springsteen has described “Springsteen on Broadway” as “a solidified piece of work,” a show in the old-fashioned sense. It is performed on piano, guitar, and harmonica, and Springsteen—arguably one of the most energetic and effective bandleaders in all of rock and roll—is alone, save for a glass of ice water and a brief appearance by his wife and musical partner, Patti Scialfa…
Our reactions to political commentaries are often cerebral—we argue, we grasp for evidence, we espouse, we agree, we get angry. He’s trying, instead, to reach the parts of us that are not so close. Springsteen’s mission has always been to be a useful conduit—to reflect or articulate something back at us. But he is a model, too, and “Springsteen on Broadway” contains suggestions on how to age: admit your flaws and inconsistencies, your put-ons, your masks, your fears and humiliations. Make room for them. Find freedom in the revelation. Let it lead to more art.
How do we live with the fact that the world we knew is going and, in some cases, already gone?” by Jon Mooallem:
The future we’ve been warned about is beginning to saturate the present. We tend to imagine climate change as a destroyer. But it also traffics in disruption, disarray: increasingly frequent and more powerful storms and droughts; heightened flooding; expanded ranges of pests turning forests into fuel for wildfires; stretches of inhospitable heat. So many facets of our existence — agriculture, transportation, cities and the architecture they spawned — were designed to suit specific environments. Now they are being slowly transplanted into different, more volatile ones, without ever actually moving.
And in case that wasn’t enough, from the same issue
Climate change is altering the environment in ways that increase the potential for viruses like Zika,” by Maryn McKenna:
The unpredictable weather patterns stimulated by climate change affect infectious diseases, as well as chronic ones. Warmer weather encourages food-borne organisms like salmonella to multiply more rapidly, and warmer seas foster the growth of bacteria like Vibrio that make oysters unsafe to eat. Spikes in heat and humidity have less visible effects, too, changing the numbers and distribution of the insect intermediaries that carry diseases to people.
Rosaries confiscated from undocumented migrants by US border patrol agents.
“Tom Kiefer was a Customs and Border Protection janitor for almost four years before he took a good look inside the trash. Every day at work—at the C.B.P. processing center in Ajo, Arizona, less than fifty miles from the border with Mexico—he would throw away bags full of items confiscated from undocumented migrants apprehended in the desert. One day in 2007, he was rummaging through these bags looking for packaged food, which he’d received permission to donate to a local pantry. In the process, he also noticed toothbrushes, rosaries, pocket Bibles, water bottles, keys, shoelaces, razors, mix CDs, condoms, contraceptive pills, sunglasses, keys: a vibrant, startling testament to the lives of those who had been detained or deported. Without telling anyone, Kiefer began collecting the items, stashing them in sorted piles in the garages of friends. “I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he told me recently. “But I knew there was something to be done.”
Inside a stunned White House, the President considers his legacy and America’s future
How did he speak with his two daughters about the election results, about the post-election reports of racial incidents? “What I say to them is that people are complicated,” Obama told me. “Societies and cultures are really complicated. . . . This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop. . . . You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.”
There is no denying the depths of Obama’s humbling. He fully grasps the nature of the bigotry and the nihilism that Trump has espoused in the name of working-class empowerment. Obama’s way is to keep cool while insisting on, and embodying, a faith in institutions.
In the new media universe:
I have complete confidence in the American people—that if I can have a conversation with them they’ll choose what’s right. At an emotional level, they want to do the right thing if they have the information.” And yet in an age of filter bubbles and social-media silos, he knew, the “information” that reached people was increasingly shaped by what they wanted to be true. And that was no longer in his hands or anyone else’s.
Those closest to Obama at the White House say that he copes by quietly, sarcastically deflating the attacks—like letting the air out of a balloon slowly, one said, the better not to make too much noise. He never loses his capacity to be the scholar of his own predicament, a gently quizzical ethnographer of his own country, of its best and worst qualities. In private, Michelle Obama gives clearer voice to the frustrations, and, not least, to a concern about the racism that is apparent to them both. In public—in one of the most memorable speeches of the campaign—she spoke out ferociously against Trump’s misogyny.
Obama does not believe in the simplistic form of American exceptionalism which insists that Americans are more talented and virtuous than everyone else, that they are blessed by a patriotic God with a special mission. America is a country that was established on the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers and improved upon not merely by legislation but also by social movements: this, to Obama, is the real nature of its exceptionalism. Last year, at the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, he stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, and defined American exceptionalism as embodied by its heroes, its freedom fighters: Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, John Lewis, the “gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York”; its Tuskegee Airmen and Navajo code-talkers, its 9/11 volunteers and G.I.s, and its immigrants—Holocaust survivors, Lost Boys of Sudan, and the “hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande.”
Obama had no appetite for superseding the Twenty-second Amendment. “I said no, because, look, at some point you lose touch,” he recounted. “By being in this room. At some point, you get worn down. At some point, you start getting into bad habits. I told her, ‘We’re playing on house money here. We weren’t supposed to be here. For us to have had this opportunity and to be able to make this much change, as much as we wish that we could have gotten everything done, it’s remarkable.’ ”
Obama dismissed the notion that the Republicans had captured the issue of inequality. “The Republicans don’t care about that issue,” he said. “There’s no pretense that anything that they’re putting forward, any congressional proposals that are going to come forward, will reduce inequality. . . . What I do concern myself with, and the Democratic Party is going to have to concern itself with, is the fact that the confluence of globalization and technology is making the gap between rich and poor, the mismatch in power between capital and labor, greater all the time. And that’s true globally.
“The prescription that some offer, which is stop trade, reduce global integration, I don’t think is going to work,” he went on. “If that’s not going to work, then we’re going to have to redesign the social compact in some fairly fundamental ways over the next twenty years. And I know how to build a bridge to that new social compact. It begins with all the things we’ve talked about in the past—early-childhood education, continuous learning, job training, a basic social safety net, expanding the earned-income tax credit, investments in infrastructure—which, by definition, aren’t shipped overseas. All of those things accelerate growth, give you more of a runway. But at some point, when the problem is not just Uber but driverless Uber, when radiologists are losing their jobs to A.I., then we’re going to have to figure out how do we maintain a cohesive society and a cohesive democracy in which productivity and wealth generation are not automatically linked to how many hours you put in, where the links between production and distribution are broken, in some sense. Because I can sit in my office, do a bunch of stuff, send it out over the Internet, and suddenly I just made a couple of million bucks, and the person who’s looking after my kid while I’m doing that has no leverage to get paid more than ten bucks an hour.”
“I’ll be fifty-five when I leave”—he knocked on a wooden end table—“assuming that I get a couple more decades of good health, at least, then I think both Michelle and I are interested in creating platforms that train, empower, network, boost the next generation of leadership. And I think that, whatever shape my Presidential center takes, I’m less interested in a building and campaign posters and Michelle’s dresses, although I think it’s fair to say that Michelle’s dresses will be the biggest draw by a huge margin. But what we’ll be most interested in is programming that helps the next Michelle Obama or the next Barack Obama, who right now is sitting out there and has no idea how to make their ideals live, isn’t quite sure what to do—to give them resources and ways to think about social change.”
He seemed to be returning to the days when he was a community organizer in the Atgeld Gardens housing project, on the South Side of Chicago. “The thing that I have always been convinced of,” he said, “the running thread through my career, has been this notion that when ordinary people get engaged, pay attention, learn about the forces that affect their lives and are able to join up with others, good stuff happens.”
American instinct has never been to find isolation in opposite corners. It is to find strength in our common creed, to forge unity from our great diversity, to sustain that strength and unity even when it is hard.
“It’s the example of the single most diverse institution in our country—soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coastguardsmen who represent every corner of our country, every shade of humanity, immigrant and native-born, Christian, Muslim, Jew, and nonbeliever alike, all forged into common service.” His sober cadences gave resonance to words that could have been rote. So did the awareness that just seventy days remained of his Presidency.