Burgess Owens, W.E.B. Dubois, and the Arrogant Do-Gooder

Burgess Owens is an American of African descent who distinguished himself as a professional football player in his youth and, more lately, has achieved prominence for resisting the statist plantation where black people are supposed to spend their lives. He’s an extraordinary man from an extraordinary family. I’ve often wondered how a people who suffered so much from the institution of slavery could deliver themselves so willingly to the patronizing clutches of a Big Government machine promising to do every little thing for them. Believe it or not, several of the old folks who had been born into slavery and were interviewed by WPA social workers in the Thirties recited the mantra, “Things were better in slavery days.” That is, if their owners were reasonably humane, they had housing, clothing, food, medicine… all the essentials provided for them by Master. (A lot of these interviews are available now as free Kindle downloads.)

Owens doesn’t want any magnanimous patron making “life decisions” on his behalf. He feels the way I do about the government rushing in to look after me in my old age: bug off! I would give my life a thousand times to save my son… and my government expects me to rob him of his future because I was too stupid and shiftless to save for my last days?

I do wish Owens might have hooked up with a competent editor in writing Liberalism, or How to a Turn Good Men into Whiners, Weenies, and Wimps… but the editorial “corrections” made by publishing houses nowadays are worse than no editing at all. (I discovered that the hard way.) If you’ll pardon all the brackets and ellipsis points, however, here’s an extremely interesting passage from the end of ch. 9:

It is easy to conclude that for young DuBois, due to his liberal teaching and indoctrination at Harvard and [the] University of Berlin, … both evolution and eugenics had become core tenets of his belief system.  These tenets he would later apply to the “lesser evolved” masses of his race and the “crème de la crème” intellectuals, the Talented Tenth.  As documented by Broderick, DuBois, at 25 years old, would take stock in [sic] his future.  In his diary he would speculate [about] his place in the modern world.  His comments seem to allude to a perception of self as a potential Savior of his race.

“I am glad I am living, I rejoice as a strong man to run a race, and I am strong—is it egotism, … [this] assurance—or is it the silent call of the world spirit that makes me feel that I am royal and that beneath my scepter a world of kings shall bow?  The hot dark blood of that black forefather born king of men—is beating at my heart and I know that I am either a genius or a fool….  This I do know: be the truth what it may I will seek it on [the] pure assumption that it is worth seeking—and Heaven nor Hell, God not Devil shall turn me from my purpose till I die.”

The quoted phrases in the first paragraph were actually used by W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the NAACP. What this passage reveals with shocking clarity is the immense hubris of the man who was the self-appointed Moses (or Jesus) of his race, and who esteemed nine-tenths of his “tribe” too stupid to be capable of finding their own way. The same arrogant attitude is shared by every progressive “do-gooder” on the current scene. If only you could see what’s really in their hearts, the contempt in which they hold you and me… to them, we are mere children. And since we’re not children at all, we are “as if” children—which is to say, idiots.

Real Faith and Fake Faith

I lately ran across an Arthur C. Clarke short story titled “The Star”. I suppose if you can accept space travel to the far reaches of the universe as plausible, you can also accept that a Jesuit priest would participate in the mission—though the latter seems the more challenging proposition. Clarke had to put the narration in the priest’s mouth, no doubt, in order to make his indictment of religion flow from someone who once numbered among the most faithful. Our narrator has just discovered the pitiful remnants of a once thriving culture, parallel to Earth’s highest human civilizations in its art, social order, and sophistication. Its leaders had apparently deposited the essential works and creations of a long history—or some commemorative record of them—on a Pluto-like planet shortly before their solar system’s central star vaporized all traces of life. Now the Jesuit, no longer a believer, cannot imagine how any god worthy of the name would allow an entire higher life form to vanish into nothingness, and to no end whatever.

I’ve heard objections to faith like this all my life. What disturbs me most is that a person might harbor them who really is a priest or minister—for I can’t in good conscience accuse Clarke of manufacturing this character just to deliver his atheistic message more powerfully. There are truly “believers” of this caliber who refuse to accept that God would ever allow the U.S. to be irradiated by a hail of nuclear missiles—or even (let’s keep it all natural) that God would ever allow the Yellowstone caldera to revive and become a super-volcano, its next eruption exterminating much of central North America’s population. The same people are deeply challenged when someone they love happens to die of natural causes, leaving them no one to blame but God himself… whom, in “punishment”, they may declare not to exist.

We might as well have no faith at all if we believe that having it is somehow an assurance against material tragedy or disaster. An entire planet’s being wiped out in a supernova is really no different from an individual’s being suddenly snuffed out in his sleep by a stroke. Even though his life’s “great work”—a novel written, a bridge built, a new water-filtration system invented—is not wiped out along with him in the latter case, everything we do will eventually vanish from these present dimensions. The purpose is all in the trying: somehow or other, in my opinion, that’s the measure of our souls. We’re all on a desert island, if you will, where we will never be found. We can turn wild and rape and kill… or we can build houses and carve instruments and domesticate birds, though no trace of our activity will remain within a century.

Not on the island, at any rate: but if you have faith, then you view the island merely as a small portal to an infinitely vaster reality. It is through that entry, and not on this side of it, that things will make ultimate sense. And if you do not have faith… then see if you can swing the heaviest club and get everyone to kneel to you. Your bones will be bleached just as white as theirs in a few short years.

The really pitiful ones, I repeat, are those who think they have faith, yet make it completely dependent upon a ship’s arriving at the island tomorrow… or the next day.

The Lessons of Working Up an Honest Sweat

Lately, I have been struggling to put up any new posts or to spend much time polishing what does get up. The reason is that the revision of a book I finished a year ago has sucked me in. Once I begin a project like this one, I can’t juggle very much else at the same time. I acquire a kind of vision of where the work should be going, and I need for my mind to cling closely to that vision as I wade through all the chapters that stray hither and yon from it. I can’t simply give the thing an hour’s attention one day and half an hour’s two days later: I have to maintain focus.

Before I start making myself sound like Michel de Montaigne, I should confess that the work in question is about baseball swings as taken a century ago with very different bats. Most people would find that admission a big let-down… “Oh! I thought maybe you were writing about the possibility of preserving our humanity as Artificial Intelligence absorbs more and more of our mental function.” I would scarcely redeem myself before such a commentator if I added that no book whatever exists on the subject, that casual references to yesteryear’s hitting techniques are ludicrously imprecise and inept, and that my crazy dream is eventually to teach some of what I’ve learned through research and experimentation to young people who’ve been told that they’re too small to play the game.

For, yes, there’s a kind of mission involved in this project. I watched my son get nudged aside and passed over for the better part of two decades as he tried to advance and improve in the game he so loved, all because of his size. It ticked me off. It still does, in retrospect. And so I started learning about hitting, and learning more… all of it too late to do him any good, of course; but one of the morals of my study is indeed that much of this sport depends on technique rather than size, and that it seems otherwise only because the professional gurus no longer know the old techniques.

I will add in this forum, though, that yet further and broader lessons might be gleaned from my work. One is that life generally is a terrain occupied by mutually supporting groups of “specialists” who understand nothing beyond their microscopic sphere of expertise—and who often don’t understand that, either, but unite to conceal their ignorance before a dazed public of “uninitiated outsiders”. I can say this confidently, because I have made myself an expert on the subject of yesteryear’s hitting in the game of baseball—and yet much of what I wrote about year ago in the book’s first version is utter crap. My satisfaction in how much I’ve learned lately is more or less neutralized by my chagrin at how wrong I got it all just a few months ago. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we should always remember that we don’t know what we don’t know.

Another lesson is that we forget our culture’s past at our own considerable risk. The assumption has been made in hitting instruction that the oldtimers were comical amateurs who practiced their art about the same way that the Wright brothers practiced flying. You don’t really think that Wilbur and Orville could teach you anything about your Cessna, do you? Probably not, in terms of handling the controls… but maybe they could tell you something about the fear of the unknown or about how to keep a cool head in a crisis.

Finally (just because I need to get on with it today), I have learned that a boy needs to try his hand at something physical, and that a man needs to retain that interest in the active. As politically incorrect as it is to say, boys are in more trouble than girls today because the insulated, safety-net society is more damaging to them. They need to undertake, to initiate… and that means that they must come to know failure well and learn to attack a resistant problem from a different angle. Baseball offers all sorts of opportunity to earn an advanced degree in failure: it breaks you heart. But it can also, for that very reason, teach you how to put a heart back together again.

As for grown men, they—we—need to get out from behind our keyboards once in a while and swing a bat, throw a ball, bail some hay, drive some nails (not with a pneumatic nail-gun, please)… they need to do something other than vegetate with their “ideas”. I’m convinced that quality of thought actually deteriorates as physical contact with the world of hard labor is lost. Indeed, almost all of our political and existential dilemmas in the West are owed somewhat to our losing touch with basic reality. When I was still trying to be a “scholar”, many moons ago, I wrote a little piece about a 2,500-year-old fragment of Sappho’s where she compares a woman getting married rather late in life to an apple that has grown high on the tree, out of reach of the pickers. I pointed out that these are the best fruit because they get so much sun: they grow the largest and taste the sweetest. Any ancient Greek hearing Sappho’s poem would have known that… but the great “scholar” who reviewed my piece could only sniff and turn up his nose because I hadn’t indicated another poet from whom Sappho might have borrowed the image. She borrowed it from life, stupid!

Thank God—and baseball—that my son hasn’t grown up to be a “scholar”!

The Lights Dim on Boyhood’s Last Hour

For Mother’s Day, I can’t do better than post the photo that I took with my iPad on Friday night. My son was excused from attending his college graduation on Saturday so that he could represent CCU in a tournament. That tourney was a story unto itself, and I’ll tell it later; but as the field cleared at 9:30 on Friday evening and the groundskeeper warned us that he would shortly kill the lights, I realized that I needed a shot with whatever device I could operate.

The result was worse than amateurish. The two light towers obscured the figures in the middle–and I was too dumb to see it happening. On the other hand… upon reflection, I really love this photo. God must have smiled on my incompetence, because I couldn’t have created anything half so wistful if I’d tried. Think of it. This young man has lived for baseball since he was a six-year-old boy–and when he takes off his uniform tonight, he’ll never put on another. His sainted mom has collected some of her gray hairs from being dragged all over the lower forty-eight to tournaments… and now, as the lights await the final switch, she has cheered her boy’s last pitches. Yes, the faces are cast in a shadow–as they should be. They and all the hundreds of other figures who played on and cheered around those many green fields (did I write hundreds? no, thousands!) are slipping away into the mystical Land of Youth. They will not revisit our world again, or only as ghosts or in dreams.

The game did not go well, either for our team or for my boy, in particular. Balls just barely fell in or rolled through that might have been snatched and turned to outs with a little more luck or skill. That, too, was entirely appropriate. Baseball is a cruel game. It always finds a way to break your heart. Like life, its ultimate lessons are those of failures and missed opportunities. So why grieve that we shall have no such heartache ever again? I don’t know. Maybe because to live free of failure at last, safely out of its reach, is to have no life at all.

So the final lights are out, for the final time. Goodbye, my little boy–my big boy! I wish I’d been smart enough to teach you more about the game, and sooner… for I, too, failed. Oh, the man I see in that uniform is a great success: I’m not ignoring or diminishing that. But… my boy is gone! Just let me grieve his passing now and then, when I see a ghost.