Friday, June 5, 2015
Monday, June 1, 2015
This past week, I finally visited the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's home in Tennessee, a place that I have wanted to visit for several decades. Jackson was the seventh President of the United States, serving two consecutive terms from 1828-1837.
The visit was a graphic reminder of the evil of slavery and of how US culture has changed dramatically during my lifetime. The Hermitage is a large and comfortable house for nineteenth century Tennessee, which for much of the century was frontier country. For example, on the ground floor, two parlors, the dining room, and two bedrooms each measured about four hundred square feet. Jackson slept in one of the bedrooms; his adopted son and the son's wife slept in the other bedroom. Jackson's relatively opulent lifestyle would have been impossible if he had to pay workers to staff the house, gardens, and plantation.
Slaves lived in cabins, fifteen or more people in a single room that might have four hundred square feet. Jackson's contemporaries saw him as a benevolent slave owner because he kept families together to his own financial detriment. Instead of keeping only the one hundred or so slaves that operating his one thousand acre plantation required, he had as many as one hundred and fifty because he did not like to sell children without their parents or to sell one partner of a couple without the other.
NB: Slaves could not legally marry. Black men in the US forming lifelong bonds with their partner at a substantially lower rate than do males of other races in the US is one tragic legacy of slavery in which slaves were treated as chattel rather than human beings.
When Union forces captured Nashville, most of Jackson's slaves fled to freedom in Nashville, preferring possible death or poverty to continued slavery. Jackson had died in 1848, a staunch supporter of the Union.
Descriptive materials explicitly characterized Jackson, the self-styled people's champion, as paternalistic. People (family, friends, soldiers, other politicians) who obeyed his wishes were graced with his favor. People who did not heed his wishes felt his wrath. In the case of slaves, this wrath sometimes included savage whippings or other punishments.
In many respects, what the Hermitage omitted communicated a clearer message about Jackson as a person than did the information that was available. Jackson preferred that people address him as General instead of President, even while serving his eight years in the White House. The interpretive material failed to explain this; I suspect that Jackson preferred the control that a General exercises over his/her army to the need to exercise persuasion inherent in the presidency. The interpretive material also glossed over details of Jackson's military exploits, conveniently ignoring his extreme brutality toward Native Americans and illegal invasion of Florida, then owned by the Spanish.
Jackson could inspire a fierce loyalty. One of his slaves, following emancipation at the end of the Civil War, stayed on at the plantation first as a tenant farmer and then, when the house was opened to the public, as a guide. This man bartered with the historical society that operated the Hermitage a piece of Jackson family furniture he had bought at auction for the right to be buried next to Jackson. On the man's tombstone, at his request, is carved "Uncle Alfred," with no surname. Alfred had taken Jackson's name as his own surname; "Uncle" was a term used by whites to refer to older black men. By the mid-twentieth century, both that usage of "Uncle" and the adoption of a former owner's surname had become offensive. Yet, like the tombstone with its carving, the evil effects of slavery remain deeply embedded in our culture, often in ways to which too many people are sadly oblivious.
One of the docents in the big house was black. Unfortunately, I did not have a good opportunity to ask her how she felt about working there. I have wondered what Jackson would have thought about it. Among the numerous visitors, I saw only one interracial couple and no other people of color. Jackson and slavery are both part of the American heritage. The depiction of slavery today was much more honest than what I experienced fifty years ago in visiting historical sites, e.g., the descriptive materials noted that there were no good slave owners because the term is an oxymoron since slavery is inherently evil.
On the other hand, the road to reconciliation and racial harmony stretches into the future. Jackson and his family were no more than six of one hundred and fifty-six people who lived at the Hermitage; the other one hundred and fifty people deserve a proportionate amount of attention and respect. Without the other one hundred and fifty, Jackson would most likely never have risen to military or political prominence, and the world might be a better place because thousands fewer would have experienced his brutality and premature death.
Ironically, Jackson's great military victory against the British at New Orleans, the event that catapulted him to national prominence, achieved nothing beyond the death of thousands of British soldiers (fewer than sixty US casualties) and boosting the morale of a young nation. Unbeknownst to any of the combatants on either side because news traveled so slowly, the War of 1812 had ended a month earlier, with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.
Since leaving the Hermitage, I've been wondering: what will my legacy be? Will future generations see my legacy as I desire? Or, with the help of hindsight, will they recognize evils that I do not see or prefer to ignore?
Monday, May 25, 2015
Last week before the movers arrived to pack and then to remove our household goods in the first phase of shipping things to Hawaii, I did some reminiscing. My partner and I, in almost forty-two years of life together, have made twenty-one moves. This will be our ninth transoceanic move. Our ten years in Raleigh were by far the longest that we have lived anywhere.
Yet in two respects, this move was easier than many of our prior moves. First, we have digitized most of the material items (photos, mementoes, etc.) that are important to us. The digital format allows multiple copies (e.g., one with the shipment, another with us) and thus reduces the risk that we will bereft of the items that help us remember who we are and from whence we have come.
Second, I find that I now place less value on things. Perhaps this is a function of age, recognizing that when I perish (as, ultimately, everything does), I will have little or no control over what happens to my former possessions. I can specify in a will who inherits what, but I cannot dictate what the inheritor does with her/his new possessions. Perhaps my increased detachment from things is a function of having watched most of the prior generation die and family members disposing of once cherished and now superfluous items. Perhaps my increased detachment reflects a deeper spirituality: people and relationships, not things are of real importance.
Philosophers often dislike multiple reasons, arguing that multiple reasons can result in over determining the cause of an event. Nevertheless, I like multiple reasons. I find life messy and think that people act for multiple, often overlapping if poorly aligned reasons.
Today is Memorial Day. We too quickly forget those who fought and died in the nation's armed forces. Sometimes we want to forget, recognizing that the war ended badly or was unjust, e.g., the Vietnam War and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Other times, we forget because those who knew and loved the deceased have themselves died. This is true with respect to most WWI and WWII veterans, two wars that probably altered the course of history.
Most Americans value Memorial Day primarily because it provides a long, three-day weekend for vacations, social gatherings, and sporting events. The diminishing number of families from whom someone currently serves (or is still alive but once served) in the military seems likely to further sever any link between Memorial Day and honoring the sacrifice of those who died in service of their nation.
War is evil. Unfortunately, war is very occasionally an unavoidable evil to prevent the triumph of injustice. Stopping the spread of fascism and ending slavery exemplify the potential of war to stop a greater evil. But the horrendous toll of death, injury, and other sacrifices in WWII and the Civil War poignantly underscore war's horrific cost. Leaders who wish to commit the nation to fight too frequently minimize war's costs in lives and treasure.
So, on Memorial Day, let us remember those who fought and died. And let us renew our commitment to ensuring that nations never fight unless there is no viable alternative path to justice, and then to fight only when victory is possible. Unlike household possessions that can be digitized or replaced, each human is irreplaceable. Remembering is our best option for not repeating past mistakes caused by glorifying war or misperceiving war as the preferred, perhaps only, solution to problems that are actually intractable or not ours to solve.
Labels: Memorial Day
Friday, May 15, 2015
In prior Ethical Musings' posts, I have remarked that nothing remains constant. Everything changes, although sometimes the pace of change is so slow that the casual observer mistakenly believes that no change is occurring. For example, the rate at which most rocks change would lead one to believe that the rock was unchanging when in fact the forces of gravity, electro-magnetism, and perhaps wind and water are slowly altering the rock. Alternatively, other things change at an almost stupefying pace, e.g., some internet content and much of contemporary culture.
Ethical Musings is changing. I'm moving from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Honolulu, Hawaii. Next week, my partner and I vacate the house in which we have lived for the last decade. We will embark on almost four months of travels that will see us visiting family and friends in the southeastern U.S., spending time with friends in England, making our first sojourn in Vienna (Austria), enjoying a month in Florence (Italy), and then driving across Canada before flying from Los Angeles to Honolulu at the end of August. My blog posts will most likely become somewhat infrequent during those months.
If past travels are indicative, my travels will alter my views, at least subtly and perhaps substantially. Having spent three to four months of each year in the last decade traveling, I can confirm that travel broadens one's perspective (it can also broaden one's waistline in the absence of unrelenting personal discipline with respect to drink, food, and exercise!). Parochial attitudes and values reflect a small-mindedness incompatible with our rapidly globalizing world.
Community used to consist of the people who lived nearby. Community now consists of people whose lives intersect with our own, regardless of geographic location. Ethical Musings' readers form such a community with readers literally from around the planet. Common concerns bring us into community without homogenizing either our ideas or lives. I'm thankful that in relocating from the east coast of the U.S. to a Pacific island the Ethical Musings' community will come with me.
I'm moving because my partner and I believe that we will enjoy a more abundant life in Honolulu. The weather is great year-round. The island is truly multicultural, with no race or ethnic group comprising a majority of the population. Life in Hawaii is intimately connected to sea and land, but in Honolulu is also urban, i.e., capturing what we think is the best of both rural and urban life.
In beginning this new chapter of my life, I again experience a change. Even for the most sedentary and greatest lovers of routine, life invariably consists of chapters. The first chapter is being an infant; the second being a toddler … the last is one's death. In between, most of us are privileged to have several chapters. In this chapter, I have focused on reading, thinking, writing, and traveling. In my next chapter, I anticipate less traveling, less writing, and more active engagement, though I have no good idea of what that will look like.
What is the present chapter of your life? What would you like the next chapter to be like?