February 11, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
Letters of Note: ‘ …never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.’
February 11, 2012
In 1861, as the American Civil War broke out, a 32-year-old lawyer named Sullivan Ballou left his wife of five years and two sons at home, and joined the war effort as a major in the Union Army. On July 14th of that year, well aware that particularly perilous times were approaching, he wrote but didn’t send the following beautiful letter to his wife, and warned her of the dangers he faced. Just a week later, he was killed in the First Battle of Bull Run along with 93 of his men. The letter was later found amongst his belongings and then delivered to his widow.
Sarah was 24 when Sullivan died. She never remarried, and passed away at 80 years of age. She is buried alongside her husband in Providence, Rhode Island.
July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington
My very dear Sarah,
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more. Our movements may be of a few days’ duration and full of pleasure – and it may be of some conflict and death to me. “Not my will, but thine, O God be done.” If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my Country, I am ready.
I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and burns unresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar – that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortunes of this world to shield you and your children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the Spirit-land and hover near you, while you buffet the storm, with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more….
February 11, 2012
According to a new report issued by the Department of Education, Secretary Arne Duncan wants to reboot civic education and upgrade it for the twenty-first century. The future of democracy depends on it, he argues. But the key to improving civic education today is not to make it more like a video game or a summer camp, as Duncan wants to do. It’s to equip students with the tools to sort out the political life unfolding around them. The problem today is not merely that students don’t “know enough” facts. It’s that they lack the basis for forming and holding opinions. And without opinions—ultimately, opinions about the common good—politics will always seem a distant chore best left to others.
Good citizens do things: they speak out, they vote, they volunteer, they organize. But to do those things well, citizens need to know things. Civic action requires civic knowledge.
This might seem so elemental as to need no defense. After all, an ignorant citizenry is easily manipulated by propaganda and the seductions of flattering and over-promising politicians. Only when citizens are knowledgeable are they empowered to resist the self-serving machinations of ambitious elites and act in their own interests. Only a knowledgeable citizenry can preserve its freedoms.
This is why the persistent evidence of citizen ignorance is so hair-raising. Surveys show that almost half of Americans, for instance, think the phrase, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” appears in the United States Constitution (actually, it is from The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels). Speaking of Communists, almost half of Americans believe that Communist Party members cannot run for president. Three-quarters of the population think the Constitution guarantees a high school education.
Before we jump too quickly to the conclusion that citizens are ignorant about basic Constitutional facts, we should consider whether surveys might be crude and ultimately misleading measures of what citizens know. After all, Marx’s pithy definition of justice captures a truth larger than communism. And any “card-carrying member” of the Communist Party would, practically speaking, be ineligible for high office simply because the public would summarily reject such a candidate.
As for an education guarantee, in fact all citizens are required (by the states) to be educated, and there are firm restrictions on the employment of children. So practically speaking, we have something akin to an education guarantee. Besides, the specific phrases and various articles of the Constitution are not much read outside of law schools and the federal courts, and it might be understandable if good citizens, in the hurly-burly of daily life, mistake a few specifics.
But when we turn away from these questions to questions about current events, the evidence of widespread ignorance is sometimes so plain that it cannot be explained away. To offer just a couple of examples, an astonishing 80 percent of the public cannot name either of their state’s senators. Just after the 2004 presidential election, 58 percent of Americans had heard little or nothing about the USA Patriot Act, which gave the federal government new surveillance powers to fight terrorism and had been the subject of many months of debate and discussion.
Most can name the judge on The People’s Court and the judges on American Idol— even if they cannot name the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. And many people can name all five members of the animated Simpsons family, even if they cannot name more than one of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. People are not stupid—only ignorant about politics.
The sorry state of civic knowledge tells us something about the meaning of citizenship in contemporary America. Knowledge is almost always connected with action: we learn by doing, and we learn for the sake of doing. By contrast, the kind of factual knowledge tested in surveys is memorized propositional knowledge, disconnected from the activities of both citizenship and daily life. In the course of ordinary events, citizens are not called upon to name the three branches of government, or the five liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment.
What citizens are asked to do is (on occasion) to vote. They may, of course, do more—they may petition, organize, demonstrate, or run for office. But these activities are not what most citizens characteristically do. For most, who juggle the demands of jobs and hobbies and friends, the activity of citizenship begins and ends with voting. And voting, important though it is, does not seem important enough or demanding enough to motivate most citizens to become knowledgeable about politics.
For most, the act of citizenship begins and ends with voting.
Many have long hoped that the franchise alone would activate the full powers of citizens and stimulate them to become intimately informed about public issues. But these hopes have never been realized. Voting simply does not seem to be enough to motivate citizens in general to become informed. One school of political science called “rational choice” has argued that it is irrational for citizens to vote, since the individual payoff of voting depends on that person’s vote changing the outcome of the election, and the probability of that, in a large electorate, is virtually nil. This theory, of course, overlooks the fact that for many, voting has symbolic and expressive importance—it can be fun, and it is also a duty.
But perhaps the theory captures something true about voting at the same time: one individual’s vote by itself is not very powerful, and the instrumental importance of voting is slight. So it would make sense if many voters did not bother to become terribly well-informed.
Citizenship can ask for more, and when it does, it teaches more. Take, for instance, the civic education that former Supreme Court Justice David Souter received as a boy while accompanying his parents to the annual town meeting in Weare, New Hampshire. On Souter’s telling, the meeting’s moderator taught the young would-be justice about the essence of fairness, not with definitions or lectures, but through the fairness with which he conducted the meeting. Souter also learned something about federalism. Watching the adults of the town make decisions about roads and schools and local public buildings, he grasped, even before he could explain it, the idea that some things were reserved for towns, some for states, and some for the nation.
“Because I and other kids my age who went to the town meeting had these experiences simply by sitting there, watching what was done and listening to what was said,” Souter says, “by the time we got to the ninth grade and actually took a required formal course in civics, it wasn’t all that hard to catch on to what was being taught.”….
February 11, 2012
Early in Katherine Boo’s unforgettable book, a boy from Annawadi, a Mumbai slum, rushes into his makeshift school, bleeding. The classroom is nothing more than a single room in a neighbor’s hut, but it is the only place he can go for medical attention after being hit by a car. No sooner has the teacher begun treating his wound than his mother surges into the hut, wielding a large piece of scrap metal and screaming: “No car will kill you! No god will save you! You went in the road, roaming loose like that, and now you will die at my hands!” After receiving a beating, the boy is rescued by his teacher. Prior to departing, his mother threatens to “break his legs and pour kerosene on his face.” For this boy, an injury could mean financial catastrophe. “If the driver had hurt you worse, how would I have paid the doctor?” the mother asks her son while striking him. “Do I have one rupee to spend to save your life?”
More than one hundred pages later, a Mumbai garbage-sorter takes the witness stand to defend the honor of his dead wife. A trial is being held to determine whether the defendant beat, and drove to suicide by self-immolation, the woman everyone in Annawadi calls The One Leg. After an argument with her neighbors, she poured cooking fuel over her head and lit a match; her face and hair exploded in flames. The reader has long since known that the deceased—a vindictive woman whose life was full of pathos and bitterness—performed this act for other reasons. But her widowed husband is desperate to deny the idea that his wife had been depressed, let alone suicidal. As proof, he offers up the observation that when their two-year-old daughter drowned in a pail, her death did nothing to shake his wife’s composure.
Boo’s book, which traces the lives of a dozen or so characters in Annawadi between 2007 and 2010, so accustoms the reader to scenes such as this that the widower’s testimony does not quite register, at least initially. None of the witnesses at the trial are reported as reacting to what would generally be considered a damning appraisal of a dead woman’s character. (Unlike those in the court, we have reason to suspect that The One Leg killed her own daughter.) But what does it mean for a husband to state proudly that his wife had not been affected by the death of their child? What does it mean, in a separate incident, for a boy to lose his hand in a plastic shredder and shed tears not from the pain but from the fear of losing his job?
As these unspeakable incidents pile up and feed off one another, Boo, who spent significant time in Annawadi, makes no effort to assist her readers in making judgments. Characters drift in and out of the book, only gradually revealing themselves. Their actions, however vicious or shortsighted, are rendered comprehensible by the wellsprings of motivation to be found within their own words, and by the depth of Boo’s descriptions. Although she never precisely explains how people could reach a state where the death of a child is neither noteworthy nor tragic, her reporting allows for us to reach our own conclusions. Boo’s presence is skillfully invisible, so that the reader recalls her only when wondering, admiringly, how she was able to document the extraordinary story that she tells.
That story is cinematic in its scope, and in the manner by which it builds to several hinge moments while moving back and forward in time. But that is where any similarity between Beyond the Beautiful Forevers and Slumdog Millionaire, the most famous depiction of Indian slum existence, ends. Danny Boyle’s movie extravagantly presented the “slumdog” life of its central character as frequently horrific but ultimately (and literally) rewarding: his terrible experiences allowed him to prosper on a game show. It was a kind of television theodicy. Despite its subtitle, by contrast, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers is not a hopeful book, and its despair is anything but cathartic. “Among the poor, there was no doubt that instability fostered ingenuity,” Boo writes, “but over time the lack of a link between effort and result could become debilitating. ‘We try so many things,’ as one Annawadian girl put it, ‘but the world doesn’t move in our favor.’”
The fates of the Annawadians are shaped by their relationships and ambition and fortitude; but these people have no prospects, and only the most narrow and local and difficult horizons. They cannot, in the girl’s words, make the world move. The independence of their actions and the sharpness of their personalities do not amount to anything like historical agency. And their vitality never distracts the reader from the crushing sense that poverty has prevented them from becoming independent actors.
IN THE IDEA OF POVERTY, Gertrude Himmelfarb divided writing about her subject into two categories. There were works about “solutions”: “policies, reforms, laws, institutions, administrative agencies”; and works about “problems.” “The emphasis here,” Himmelfarb wrote, “is on the economic, technological, social, demographic, urban, and other conditions which helped determine the nature and incidence of poverty at any particular time and place.” Himmelfarb’s sections on Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham highlighted ameliorative measures and institutional reform. But she also spent considerable time exploring writers such as Charles Booth and Henry Mayhew, who wrote about English poverty with a focus on the realities of an impoverished existence.
Booth began his seventeen-volume effort, Life and Labour of the People in London, in 1889. His work is studded with facts and figures—some of them controversial and disputed—that aimed to identify and to classify those living in poverty. Booth’s account suffered from a particularly Victorian condescension, but his aim was noble: he wanted to focus attention on the needy, the helpless, those who required assistance, and he was an inspiration to, among others, Clement Attlee, the British prime minister most responsible for implementing a welfare state after World War II. Mayhew’s book, London Labour and the London Poor, was written several decades before Booth’s study; it is teeming with categorizations and lists (on the first page, street people are placed into one of six groups), and there is an almost scientific focus on the details of daily life. Mayhew charts the different ways thieves break into houses, and he provides a glossary of terms used by “costermongers” (fruit-sellers). No tidbit is too small or uninteresting.
Indian depictions of poverty (at least those available in English) tend to conform to Himmelfarb’s paradigm. On the problem side, Arundhati Roy and P. Sainath are more concerned with who is to blame for poverty or how existing power structures cause or entrench misery. Both are opinionated and sometimes angry, and both tend to focus more on rural areas, where most Indians live, which is generally the norm in Indian studies. Sainath’s ire rarely obscures his reporting, but it is difficult to ignore his presence.
The exception is Amartya Sen, who has broken new ground in the analysis of poverty, and in lucid social-scientific prose. His writing on famines, for example, demonstrated how institutional mechanisms can distort the distribution of food supplies. At the same time, his analysis of welfare and poverty has combined economics and philosophy in the service of evaluating the individual “capabilities” of human beings. It is largely due to his efforts, to his “capabilities approach,” that we now have the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which carries the measure of human “development” beyond simple utilitarian calculations and into the realm of the freedom to function in society. In his work with Jean Drèze, Sen has stressed the importance of education and health outcomes—rather than simply GDP—in the evaluation of a country’s progress.
Katherine Boo departs from these forebears. Her book certainly belongs in the “problems” literature—solutions are not really canvassed. But this is not a book about what causes poverty or social ruin; it is a book about poverty and social ruin. Boo wants to know, and to convey, how poverty is lived. She uses almost no statistics; nor are there lists or categorizations. The history of Mumbai is barely sketched at all. Where Mayhew would frequently define things as odd or disturbing, Boo rarely makes judgments about her characters. Years ago she did distinguished work at The Washington Post, where she expertly detailed the frightening conditions in the capital’s group homes for the mentally ill. But in that series, and in other recent American works on poverty (Jason DeParle’s splendid book on welfare reform, for example), statistics tend to mix with observation and reportage, and history and politics and social policy tend to play a role in the story. The great American exception to these trends was certainly James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which might be the closest comparison to what Boo is attempting, although Agee inserted himself into the book and showed an interest in classification.
Boo’s crucial strength is an empathetic imagination. Her book has the closely observed and artfully constructed quality of high fiction and film. (There were pages that reminded me of Satyajit Ray.) It is worth recalling that Mayhew wrote many scenes that mirrored Dickens’s stories, and showed an interest in character that would not have embarrassed Thackeray or George Eliot. In this way he was Boo’s precursor in the “problems” tradition: sometimes journalism succeeds by reading like a novel…