Saturday, July 31, 2004

Life in the past lane

The cultural geographer David Lowenthal wrote in 1995,

For most of this and the previous century, the future was a bright and shining presence. Scientific progress, faith in social engineering, and impatience with tradition engendered countless cornucopian forecasts. The advances of technology, the visions of architects, and the dreams of science fiction had made such scenes familiar since the late 19th century. . . . These turn-of-the-century futuristic visions largely survived World War I and the Great Depression.

Indeed, they hung on longer than that in the form of fast and exotic cars! How nice to be looking at this essay ("The Forfeit of the Future") again when this site on "transportation futuristics" comes along (via, now noticed at slashdot).

Author of The Past is a Foreign Country, Lowenthal has thought a lot about our changing relationships to the past and the future.

Lived time is commonly dealt with in two lengths--a past recalled with pleasure or pain, and a future awaited with confidence or anxiety. As they age, individuals and institutions often engage in retrospect more than prospect, dwelling more on the past than on the future.

Culturally right now, we are like the old person. "Familiar faith in progress cedes to sour surmise that things were better than they now are or will be. Nostalgia for things past aligns with pessimism, if not dread, of what lies ahead."

Since the 1970s (speaking from one small lifetime) we have been awash in nostalgia. Something seemed to change about the same time decoupage and macrame came on the scene. These old new cars make me smile, sadly, to think about the future that never happened.

On air (and off)

I'm told I was on the radio Thursday! My couple of minutes of "summer reading" were aired on WUNC's "The State of Things." It was taped weeks ago. Frustrated by how shallow I was, I came home and wrote this. I felt better.

Summer reading

The most thought-provoking book I've read this summer is Reading Lolita in Tehran--the memoir of an Iranian literature professor trained in the United States, Azar Nafisi. She returns home to Tehran just in time for the Revolution. The image of the young women who come to her home, in secret, to study Western literature--the way they shed their dark robes to reveal their own colorful garb--is a wonderful symbol of their richly personal reactions to these novels as the political world around them closes in.

I read this book with my book club. We read nonfiction only. So it was an interesting conversation, the first time we had ever talked about novels. I found it oddly refreshing to think about the works of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, and James (to name a few) in the old-fashioned humanist way. Although I'm not sure that the way they read The Great Gatsby in Tehran was not political, I was struck by this passage:

It is said that the personal is the political. That is not true, of course. At the core of the fight for political rights is the desire to protect ourselves, to prevent the political from intruding on our individual lives. Personal and political are interdependent but not one and the same thing. The realm of the imagination is a bridge between them.

The final drama is the author's decision to leave, to come to the United States, a wrenching but liberating decision.

As I thought about this book later [after I blogged it on Eric's site], Nafisi's decison began to make me uneasy. What about her students and the others who lacked the luxury of her choice? I pulled down a book I'd never finished reading, by my friend Miriam Cooke, a Duke professor who has made a career of studying the literature of Islamic women trying their best to sustain a feminist culture, even to work actively for peace.

It may be a surprise that such a movement exists. But in Women Claim Islam, Cooke explores women's literature in certain Islamic cultures, the way these women are challenging the master narratives from within, from a position of staying put. This book came out just before September 11, which may make it something of an artifact. But still it's an insightful introduction to a world few of us here know about. And I'm not at all sure that the women she writes about would be happy to know that Nafisi has made an Audi commercial.

Closer to home, I'm finally getting around to Michael Eric Dyson's book on Martin Luther King, I May Not Get There With You. "King's career," Dyson argues, "with all of its flaws and failures, is simply the most faithful measure of American identity and national citizenship that we are likely to witness."

I continue to be amazed at the quality of work being done on the history and culture of the American South. I hope to get to In the Presence of Mine Enemies, by Ed Ayers, a civil war history based on meticulous research of two counties, similar in every way except for their orientation to the Mason-Dixon line. I want to read Jean Fagan Yellin's long-awaited biography of Harriet Jacobs, Edenton's most distinguished "slave girl."

Timothy Tyson's Blood Done Sign My Name is a book I haven't been able to put down, the beautifully told story of a racial murder in Oxford, N.C. in 1970. This is a story about memory as much as history, "a story of a nation torn apart," he writes; and

[t]he cheerful and cherished lies we tell ourselves about those years--that the black freedom moement was largely a nonviolent call on America's conscience, which America answered, to cite the most glaring fiction--do little to repair the breach. There are many things we never learned about the civil rights struggle, and many things we have tried hard to forget.

"The truth will set us free, so the Bible says, and my own experience bears witness," Tyson writes.

To bear witness: reminding me of another book I want to finish, Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Haven Kimmel's riff on Revelation is a tour de force. But I keep thinking about the essay set in New York on All Saints Day, 2001. The writer happens into a church, an Episcopal church, where the priest in careful steps compares the wound in the middle of the city to the wounds of ancient Rome and then turns to the concept of martyrs. The men who flew the planes were not martyrs, he insists. Martyrs don't kill. They are killed. "Names are dangerous," he cautions. The root meaning of "martyr" is "witness." Now it is we who are left to bear witness. We, who have "witnessed too much."

Going native in North Carolina

At long last! An audio web site where recent immigrants to the Old North State can learn the correct pronunciation of all 100 of North Carolina's counties. This can be critical if you are, for example, a university administrator whose job involves assuring the movers and shakers of the state that you are one of 'em.

The party's over

The Convention is adjourned. The Democrats pulled all the stops short of the Energizer Bunny to get their liberal base mobilized while playing blunty and strategically to the middle. After all of those soldiers, I shudder to think about New York! I wonder if even the GOP's platform will be sturdy enough for all of their firepower.

Throughout the week I keep looking for reactions the article in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine about the future of the Democratic party, about its challenge from the New Democrat Network. In a thoughtful post on this and related articles, Daniel Drezner quotes from the heart the Times' piece:

In March of this year, [venture capitalist Andy] Rappaport convened a meeting of wealthy Democrats at a Silicon Valley hotel so that they, too, could see Stein's presentation [Rob Stein is an operative for the New Democrat Network]. Similar gatherings were already under way in Washington and New York, where the meetings included two of the most generous billionaires in the Democratic universe -- the financier George Soros and Peter Lewis, an Ohio insurance tycoon -- as well as Soros's son and Lewis's son. On the East Coast, the participants had begun referring to themselves as the Phoenix Group, as in rising from the ashes; Rappaport called his gathering the Band of Progressives. More recently, companion groups have come together in Boston and Los Angeles.

What makes these meetings remarkable is that while everyone attending them wants John Kerry to win in November, they are focused well beyond the 2004 election. The plan is to gather investors from each city -- perhaps in one big meeting early next year -- and create a kind of venture-capital pipeline that would funnel money into a new political movement, working independently of the existing Democratic establishment. The dollar figure for investment being tossed around in private conversations is $100 million.

For the ideological donors... the new era seemed quite promising. McCain-Feingold left untouched and unregulated a vehicle that had been little used on the national level up to that point: the 527. And last fall and winter, the surprising success of Howard Dean's campaign convinced a lot of wealthy liberals that a new ideological movement could be nurtured outside the constraints of the Democratic Party. By controlling 527's, donors believed, they could determine, to a greater extent than ever before, the message and the strategy of a Democratic presidential campaign. ''This is like post-Yugoslavia,'' Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, told me. ''We used to have a strongman called the party. After McCain-Feingold, we dissolved the power of Tito.''

Having financed projects in the former Communist bloc, Soros understood the opportunitites that political tumult can create. He and the more reclusive Peter Lewis began by contributing about $10 million each to America Coming Together (ACT), the largest of the new 527's, which was designed to do street-level organizing for the election; the donations enabled ACT to expand its canvassing campaign from five critical swing states to 17. ''I used 527's because they were there to be used,'' Soros said bluntly during a conversation in his Manhattan office.

Soros's and Lewis's donations made it possible for longtime leaders of Democratic interest groups to do something they had never done in the modern era: work together. Now the insular factions have begun to form alliances. The founders of ACT included Ellen Malcolm and Carl Pope, the heads of Emily's List and the Sierra Club respectively, Andy Stern from the service employees' union and Steve Rosenthal, the former political director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. Suddenly, because they no longer had to compete with one another for contributions -- and because they had such a galvanizing villain in Bush -- the leaders of the party's most powerful adjunct groups were able to look beyond the more limited interests of their own membership....

It is, perhaps, futile to try to predict what the Democratic Party -- or much of anything in politics, for that matter -- will look like in 2008 or 2012. Terry McAuliffe, the party's chairman and one of the best fund-raisers in its history, says the party's continuing relevance in American life is assured, no matter how many rich donors establish their own competing groups or how many factions vie for dominance. With a new high-tech headquarters, $60 million in the bank and 170 million names in a voter database, McAuliffe said, the old party apparatus isn't going anywhere. ''In 30 years, the institution of the Democratic National Committee will be stronger than it has ever been,'' he said with characteristic bluster.

And yet implicit in Dean's prediction are two possible outcomes worth considering, if only because they lend themselves to historical precedent. The first is that the new class of Democratic investors could conceivably end up skewing the party ideologically for years to come. A lot of the political venture capitalists were strong supporters of Dean in the primaries, in the fervent belief that his campaign -- which became, in effect, a classic liberal crusade, in the Jerry Brown mold, only with more money -- was leading the party back in the right direction. Although several donors described themselves to me as ''pragmatic'' in their worldview, the moderate Kerry seemed to elicit in them all the passion of an insurance actuary (Soros labeled him ''acceptable''), and they manifested a pointed distaste for Clintonism as a political philosophy. The way they look at it, centrist Democrats spent a decade appeasing Republicans while the right solidified its occupation of American government. The donors see themselves as the emerging liberal resistance, champions of activist government at home and multilateral cooperation abroad.

There is, of course, a striking disconnect between the lives of these new Democratic investors and those of the party's bedrock voters: laborers, racial minorities and immigrants, many of whose faith in sweeping social programs has been badly shaken and who tend to be more culturally conservative than the well-off citizens of New York and Silicon Valley. But if the multimillionaires harbor even the slightest doubts about their qualifications for solving social and geopolitical ills, they don't express it.

It's very possible that this is the beginning of the end of the Democratic Party. History teaches us that parties come and go. Or maybe not. Maybe it is a radical reinvention. Either way, it's disheartening to see the "bedrock [un-monied] voters" left behind, especially when you think about the motivation for this move. The motivation is that the Republicans have already done it. The Republican Party has already sold out to the highest bidders. But somehow, that doesn't strike at the core of what it is to be a Republican in the way that this move seems almost a betrayal of the real Democratic base. The New Democrat Network's agenda is dedicated to "hope and progress," but at what price to representative democracy?

Thursday, July 29, 2004

"Hear this soldier."

Wesley Clark's speech was just terrific.

I'm uncomfortable with all the pro-war (err, pro-soldier) rhetoric, but maybe it's what it takes. I loved what Michael Moore said (thanks, Dan) about how Democrats always have to soften their war criticism with "But I support the troops." Of course you support the troops, Moore said. The troops are our country's underclass, of course you are there for them, you're the only ones that are there for them.

"Sir NCSU" just isn't as catchy

A correspondent wonders why John Edwards, with college degrees from North Carolina State and UNC-Chapel Hill, rocked out of the Fleet Center to a tune evoking the name of that small private university not far up the road from either.

I don't know, maybe the lyrics had something to do with it.

Zoned in Boston.

How truly sad. It's more like a quarrantine zone. (The sign saying "Marshall Not Impartial" is aimed at the Chief Judge of the Mass. Supreme Judicial Court, author of the same-sex marriage decision--now under attack for "colluding with homosexuals.")

Standing tall

This (via The Morning News) is very cool.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

That's the way it was

As Eric predicted, the NY Times ombudsman's admission of the paper's liberal bias got a lot of bloggers rocking. Such a "dog bites man" thesis, it got me to thinking about the premise behind it, about the presumption that objectivity is the great (if rarely achieved) goal of journalism.

In journalism, objectivity comes and goes. In the last century it got the wind knocked out of it in the era of Vietnam and Watergate. I would date it to roughly when Walter Cronkite quit signing off with "That's the way it is."

We now have a niche media market to suit every information consumer, the media (the abundance of it) driving the message (the abundance of them). The cultural studies revolution (which grew out of the political upheaval of the 60s), emphasizing the "situatedness" of every story, also helped break down the notion of objectivity. The vibrancy of the blogosphere shows that this trend is accelerating. (Whether the establishment media feels threatened by political bloggers is a lively subject of debate (via instapundit), at least among political bloggers.)

I thought I remembered from ancient-day journalism classes that the "modern" (20th c.) notion of journalistic objectivity was the creation of Walter Lippman. This, it turns out, is not precisely so, though what he did do is even more interesting.

In Public Opinion (1922), writes James Fallows in Breaking the News (1996), Lippman

used the experience of censorship and information-control during [World War I] as the starting point for an argument that the nature of democracy had fundamentally changed. Modern civilization, with its vast scale and great technological advances, had become too complex to be governed by old-style mass democracy, Lippman said. The intricacies of science, economics, diplomacy, the law, and a dozen other areas were so refined and specialized that no ordinary citizen could possibly keep up with them. Government based on informed consent by a fully participating public was simply no longer feasible. Events were too diverse and unfathomable. The possibility of manipulating the news and images was too great, as the handling of war news had shown. The only hope for effective modern government lay in cultivating a group of well-trained experts, who would manage the country's journalism as well as its governmental affairs. The newspapers and magazines produced by these experts would lay out conclusions for the public to follow, but no one should expect the public to play more than a passive, spectator's role.

That is to say, Lippman invented the "media elite."

By now the evidence is strong that this particular kind of journalism became itself part of the power structure that it was supposed to critique. Even at the time, Lippman had a formidable critic: John Dewey. Dewey (according to Fallows)

argued that a healthy process of democratic self-government was at least as important as an efficient result. Indeed, he said that unless citizens were actively engaged in the large decisions any society had to make, the results of those decisions would inevitably be flawed.

Therefore, Dewey contended, those in charge of both the government and the press had a responsibility to figure out how to engage the entire public in the decisions that would affect them all in the long run. If the public was confused, alienated, pessimistic, or hostile to government, that was only partly the public's fault.

Dewey felt that "democracy was too fundamental a value to abandon" (writes Fallows) "simply because technology was moving fast."

Over time, Dewey has been gaining ground, as shown by the renewed interest in "community journalism" and the newer practice of "civic journalism." Dewey would certainly understand the "anger" from "the public's sense that it is not engaged in politics, public life, or the discusison that goes on in the press" (Fallows).

I recommend "Rethinking Objective Journalism," by Brent Cunningham of the Columbia Journalism Review, for further reading. He asks journalists not to abandon objectivity but to do a better job at it:

Journalists (and journalism) must acknowledge, humbly and publicly, that what we do is far more subjective and far less detached than the aura of objectivity implies--and the public wants to believe. If we stop claiming to be mere objective observers, it will not end the charges of bias but will allow us to defend what we do from a more realistic, less hypocritical position.

Secondly, we need to free (and encourage) reporters to develop expertise and to use it to sort through competing claims, identify and explain the underlying assumptions of those claims, and make judgments about what readers and viewers need to know to understand what is happening.

More of this kind of journalism would mean less of the "sloppy" kind that irritates a lot of us, including Ruby.

Meanwhile Cunningham notes that in 1996 the Society of Professional Journalists "dropped 'objectivity' from its ethics code. It also changed 'the truth' to simply 'truth.'"

UPDATE: Interesting thoughts on objectivity at the DNC by David Weinberger at

At least it wasn't a blonde bombshell

It was probably just a cross-cultural misunderstanding. A United Airlines plane had just taken off from Sydney to LA when a note was found in the bathroom with the initials B.O.B. Thinking this was SOS for "bomb on board," the pilot took them back to Sydney. No bomb was found.

In Australia, B.O.B. often means "best on board," for "the most attractive passenger."

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Poetic justice

In a sweet victory for civil liberties in the public schools (a concept under deep suspicion since the Supreme Court's Hazelwood opinion undermined Tinker v. Des Moines), the California Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of a 15-year-old high school student for writing a "dark" and "disturbing" poem.

The case attracted the attention of a who's who of writers, including Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, Harlan Ellison, the poet George Garrett, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the PEN American Center, and others. They signed on to the ACLU's amicus brief, which must have been great fun to write.

“At the heart of this case is the First Amendment right of any young person to explore the whole range of his emotions and experiences, and write about disturbing subject matter without fear that he will be punished should his work be misinterpreted,” said Ann Brick, attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.

To illustrate that poetry and prose, which explore the darker side of humanity, is a recurring theme in literature that is entitled to the highest level of First Amendment protection, the brief cites William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Eminem’s recording of “Criminal.”

The brief also cited Horace, Henry Adams, James Wright, and Helen Vendler. William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity was an inspired choice. The crux of the ACLU's argument, which carried the day, is that poetry is too "inherently ambiguous" to constitute, on its own, a threat. Two cheers, or maybe three in this case, for strategic ambiguity.

UPDATE: You'll find the text of the poem, and more commentary, at this 9th Circuit criminal law blog.

Monday, July 26, 2004

I protest

I don't care how many judges uphold it, "free speech zone" is an oxymoron.

The missing message

Nowhere in the profile of John Kerry in the 7/26 New Yorker, or anywhere else lately for that matter, is a mention of his erstwhile slogan, "Let America be America again," from the 1938 poem by Langston Hughes. Too radical I guess, especially after William F. Buckley got ahold of it (a Washington Post columnist rightly notes that it's pretty strange for Buckley's "bizarre column" to link Hughes with George Washington Carver).

With a surprising lack of attention to Hughes' poem itself, Buckley points out that African Americans had little cause to celebrate America's past in 1938. Hughes knew this, of course. Like James Baldwin with his call at the conclusion of The Fire Next Time for us to "achieve our country," he is asking, with some irony, for America to be true "again" to itself, to the values in its founding documents (to "be the dream it used to be"). The Constitution is powerful stuff, as our greatest African American thinkers insistently remind us.

But just in case the reader doesn't get it, Hughes is actually quite specific:
O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

In the current issue of Chapel Hill's own The Sun magazine is a wonderful essay by Howard Zinn on "the role of artists in a time of war." He quotes from another poem by Langston Hughes:

My dear girl,
You really haven't been a virgin for so long.
It's ludicrous to keep up the pretext.
You're terribly involved in world assignations
And everybody knows it.
You've slept with all the big powers
In military uniforms,
And you've taken the sweet life
Of all the little brown fellows
In loincloths and cotton trousers.
When they've resisted,
You've yelled, "Rape,"
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Being one of the world's big vampires,
Why don't you come on out and say so
Like Japan, and England, and France,
And all the other nymphomaniacs of power
Who've long since dropped their
Smoke screens of innocence
To sit frankly on a bed of bombs?

Zinn concludes,
It has always been a special fascination to me that black people, who you might assume would be most concerned, and maybe solely concerned, with the very serious issues of slavery and racism, should also be conscious of what the United States is doing to people--often people of color--in other parts of the world.

Sunday, July 25, 2004


Although there are only some 45 credentialed bloggers (including Dave Barry) at the Democratic convention, I am gobsmacked at the amount of information coming out of Boston. (As it should be, I ran smack into "gobsmack" for the first time--at least that I really noticed--in a comment by a British poster. It happened to be in response to Lessig's bold challenge to O'Reilly.)

A good bet is the DNC site of, which belongs to Jessamyn West. Her web sites find their home among fellow-defenders of the public sphere at

This is a bad time to be without cable TV, especially if you're old enough to remember when the conventions were so full of drama that they preempted the soap operas. On the other hand, my biggest memory of the Democratic event of four years ago was learning that even the "Wow!" that Joseph Lieberman's wife Hadassah said when she walked out onto the stage was scripted.

UPDATE 7/26: A very nice story in the Times today about the credentialed and the credentialing, featuring comments by Jessamyn West and others. It starts and ends with a focus on Jeralyn Merrit of TalkLeft. See her post for a run-down of other major print media attention the blogers are already getting.

They bugged the wrong guy

Harry Zirlin, a naturalist with a thing for beetles, moved from Queens to Scarsdale where the field is more fertile. On a routine trip to the woods in Dec. 2002, he was taken at gunpoint by the police, thrown to the ground and handcuffed. Do you have a knife? he was asked. "Absolutely, I have a knife. . . . I use it for prying bark off dead logs."

Zirlin is also a lawyer. With help from the ACLU and others, he filed a federal suit for unlawful arrest and illegal search and seizure. He awaits his day in court. "He figures if the Fourth Amendment doesn't mean much for him, it probably doesn't mean much for anyone."

Saturday, July 24, 2004

This is self-indulgent feminism.

The Pentagon is issuing "stop loss" orders on troops, rather like Martha Stewart dealing with her stock broker. With no political will for the draft, Rumsfeld assures that "We're perfectly capable of increasing the incentives and inducements to attract people into the armed services." For example, anyone in uniform can get free cosmetic surgery.

Mario Moncada, an Army private who was recently treated for losing the vision in one eye in Iraq, said that he knows several female soldiers who have received free breast enlargements: “We’re out there risking our lives. We deserve benefits like that.”

Four hundred and ninety-six breast enlargements and 61 liposuctions in 2000-03. A Navy JAG had her whole face redone, about $100,000 worth of surgery.

But there is a catch. The work is done by military doctors in training, for "the surgeons have to have somone to practice on." Maybe this makes it all morally neutral.

Friday, July 23, 2004

"Self-indulgent" feminism?

Oh great. The Dallas News (a far-flung correspondent informs) spills ink excerpting Barbara Ehrenreich's commencement speech this spring at Barnard. I don't understand how someone who gets so much so right can be so wrong. She looks at Pfc. Lynndie England's pictures at Abu Ghraib and says, "a certain kind of feminism . . . of feminist naivete . . . died" for her with those images.

It was a kind of feminism that saw men as the perpetual perpetrators, women as the perpetual victims, and male sexual violence against women as the root of all injustice.

Out of this theory, in Ehrenreich's understanding, came something deeply troubling: "the assumption, implicit or stated outright, that women were morally superior to men."

This seems to be a bad misunderstanding of Carol Gilligan or more likely it's Catherine MacKinnon and/or Andrea Dworkin straight up.

The conclusion, the new revelation, that Ehrenreich brings us, is that "We need a kind of woman who doesn't want to be one of the boys when the boys are acting like sadists or fools. And we need a kind of woman who isn't trying to assimilate, but to infiltrate and subvert the institutions she goes into."

There is nothing new here. Adrienne Rich said it better 25 years ago in a commencement speech at Smith College. (For that matter, Virginia Woolf said it even earlier when in Three Guineas she proposed an "outsiders society.") Rich urged these young women to resist "female tokenism": "the false power which masculine society offers to a few women, on condition that they use it to maintain things as they are, and that they essentially 'think like men.'"

Women will never change any profession unless they "refuse to be made into token insiders, unless they zealously preserve the outsider's view and the outsider's consciousness," Rich says. "For no woman is really an insider in the institutions fathered by masculine consciousness."

There's nothing here about the moral superiority of women (nor in Virginia Woolf, who was too worldly wise to go for that). Rather, it's remarkably similar to a certain male "outsider's" call for a radical revolution of values. It has to do with maintaining critical distance.

Meanwhile today's news brings an Army report concluding that the "abuses" at Abu Ghraib were not systemic (a very different picture from the one outlined by Gen. Taguba and, separately, by the Red Cross). Just a few bad apples, after all.


Five years ago today, a great American died. The nation was still in convulsions over the death of another great American. This is an essay that I wrote for the Gilmer Mirror at the time.

Maybe it's because we were in Paris when it happened. It didn't seem real, coming at me in a language I half understand. "La mort" had "frappee" JFK "encore," screamed a special edition I at first mistook for a tabloid dredging up a sordid new angle on an old story.

It would still seem a little unreal, this latest Kennedy death, were it not for the American media's determination to hammer it home.

The nonstop coverage of every move the Kennedy family was making, or had ever made, upstaged another notable death. Frank M. Johnson Jr., retired Alabama federal judge, died on July 23, one day after the ashes of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and sister-in-law were committed to the very waters where his Piper Saragota had gone down.

If you don't remember Judge Johnson by name, it may be thanks to George Wallace's success in demonizing him as an "integratin', carpetbaggin', scalawaggin', baldfaced liar." Gov. Wallace's nemesis, he decided every major Alabama civil rights case for 20 years, from Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on the bus through Martin Luther King Jr.'s march to Selma to the integration of the Alabama state police force.

Judge Johnson was no carpetbagger. Like a number of the federal judges who desegregated the South, he was an Eisenhower Republican with local roots. He hailed from Winston County--the "Free State of Winston," it was called, for its refusal to join with the rest of Alabama as a Confederate state (it actually claimed a position of neutrality).

A point that's easy to forget when talking about the law is the difference between the work of trial judges and that of appellate judges. It's one thing for the Supreme Court to make its abstract pronouncements, far removed from the facts. It's quite another to be the judge who has to look angry litigants in the eye and then, when the day is done and the decision made, has to live in community with them.

Frank Johnson was well aware of the difficulties of his role. He knew that an opinion that is neither understood nor supported by the people it most affects is not worth much: that is to say, he knew the difference between law and politics. Thus he took care not just with what he decided but also with how he said it.

The Rosa Parks case, for example, involved the tearful testimony of a progression of poor black women, many of them young, all telling how hurt they had been by the social system that kept them at the back of the bus.

The written opinion Johnson helped to craft in this case could have incorporated their testimony as a means of emotional appeal. But this was 1956. Sensing that the sympathies of his majority white audience were not likely to be aroused by these stories regardless of how moving, he chose instead to concentrate on the rule of law and the constitutional requirements of equal treatment.

No matter how persuasively written, his decisions were tough to swallow in the Middle District of Alabama. Yet he always believed he was doing only what the Constitution demanded. And that could cut both ways, sometimes at once. When, in 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality organized the Freedom Rides to test a Supreme Court decision challenging Jim Crow laws segregating interstate bus riders throughout the South, the Ku Klux Klan retorted with violent attacks.

In Judge Johnson's court, the Klan was slapped with an injunction. But so was CORE, for entering into the stream of interstate commerce as "non-bona fide passengers"--in other words, for being outside agitators.

His sense of fairness plus his commitment to the principles of Brown v. Board of Education attracted the attention of the Justice Department under Robert F. Kennedy. It was no accident that so many important civil rights cases were brought in his court.

Judge Johnson's style is legendary. He didn't raise his voice. He didn't wear a robe or bang a gavel. He enforced his authority simply by looking hard across the top of his half-glasses "like he was aiming down a rifle barrel," in the words of one lawyer.

My favorite story involves Attorney General Kennedy. He had come down from Washington to argue one particularly high-profile case. He rose to speak. But the judge wouldn't let him get started. "Are you a member of this court?" he asked. He wanted to know whether Kennedy had filled out the paperwork by which members of the local bar give permission to outside lawyers to argue their cases for them.

Not having done so, Kennedy could only respond that since he was attorney general of the United States, he assumed he needed no permission to appear in any federal court. He could make no such assumption, Judge Johnson informed him, and so the startled and unprepared lawyer sitting next to Kennedy had to make the argument.

You could dismiss this gesture as high-handed. But it is of a piece with Judge Johnson's philosophy of keeping matters within local determination. He never favored busing, to give another example, because of the damage he feared it would do to neighborhoods.

Over time, Judge Johnson remained a hero to the extended Kennedy family. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. went to Alabama in 1977 planning to write a senior honors thesis on George Wallace. Within a month he switched to Frank Johnson. "I was awestruck," he said. "Here was a man who utterly vindicated my family's central notion that a single man can make a difference."

A biography of the judge, Taming the Storm, by Jack Bass (1993), was edited for Doubleday by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at her special request.

It's easy to compare the deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Frank M. Johnson Jr. Like the simultaneous deaths of Lady Diana and Mother Teresa, the juxtaposition brings into focus troublesome questions about the nature of fame and the way we value public lives.

But the better comparison may be with Johnson's son. Frank and Ruth Johnson had only one child, an adopted boy named Johnny. Johnny suffered with his parents through a cross burning, numerous bomb threats and many more subtle forms of ostracism. (The home of the judge's mother, a widow then still known as Mrs. Frank M. Johnson Sr., was bombed by someone who paid too little attention to detail. It narrowly missed killing her.)

Johnny developed mental instabilities and spent years in and out of institutions. No one can say he would not have suffered mental illness in any event, but those who knew him were certain that being the son of the most hated judge in Alabama took its toll. In 1975, at age 28, he went into his father's study and shot himself in the mouth.

Like John Kennedy, Johnny Johnson had a romance with flying. He took the lessons and learned the right moves. His application for a pilot's license was turned down, though, because of his history of mental hospitalization. When Johnny died, a family friend, a pilot who had flown with him, took the ashes up and scattered them over the Alabama River.

"Being born to fame is not like earning it," writes John Updike in his tribute to John Kennedy. "You have to create your own worth in other coin, you have to escape history's shadow and get, as they say, a life." John Kennedy, in Updike's view, was on his way to reaching escape velocity. The story of Johnny Johnson suggests that the chances are greater if the fame you are born to is the kind that already soars above the ground, where shadows are easier to dodge.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Is Martha Stewart Living?

So Martha Stewart plans to write a book--indeed, she has been keeping diaries right along. "There's no how-to book about this," she said. Will she follow it up with one on the proper prison manners for white-color criminals? Actually Susan McDougal has already done that, and more, in her Whitewater memoir The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk. (It is very bad manners to reach for your food rather than ask for it to be passed.)

A free speech expert was on the radio this afternoon defending Stewart's right to write, against suggestions that she would be "profiting from her own crime." Something about a statute, probably unconstitutional, that keeps criminals from writing about their cases? I didn't catch it all.

I haven't given Martha Stewart much thought since my small wedding, where I confess that her advice on bouquets was invaluable. But I do think Melinda Ruley has her quite summed up:
Martha was the perfect rug merchant: She told the American public what it wanted and then she sold it to them. Like any successful mogul, she created--or at least tweaked--the desire in order to fill it. In the end, though, she handed out her favors at the back door. Pocketed the money and washed her hands. She could hide her maneuvers well enough on camera, and in the slick pages of a magazine, but in the crude light of a public courtroom her true colors emerged. And they weren't celadon or pomegranate.

There's a great line in Joan Didion's essay on self respect that says, "to give formal dinners in a rain forest would be pointless did not the candlelight flickering on the liana call forth deeper, stronger disciplines, values instilled long before." Stewart had the flickering candles--dipped them herself, in fact--but there was none of the rest. In the end, she was just another material girl, a rug merchant whose finest fabrics showed themselves, upon closer inspection, to be threadbare and soiled.

UPDATE: How Appealing has a link to the radio show I heard: it was Julie Hilden of FindLaw on NPR's "Day to Day": "Can jailhouse scribes profit from their crimes?"

Till Kingdom come

This morning, at the request of friend and neighbor Dr. Tim Thomas, I gave a speech to the Chapel Hill "Golden K" Kiwanis chapter. (You have to be age 60 to join, and the average age is over 80.)

I talked from my perspective as a Town Council member on the debate about whether to rename Airport Road for Martin Luther King, Jr. For a long time I have been persuaded that we should do this. But after almost coming to a vote on the question in May, the council instead decided to form another study committee. The committee will be established in September. I don't know how long it will meet, but I do know that it needs to have a firm end date. I'll work to make sure that both the time frame and the committee's charge are clearly defined.

I gave a different version of this talk to the Community Church of Chapel Hill on Sunday, to an audience that included long-time local civil rights activists. It was better received there than it was this morning. "Everything was fine" between the races, said a Golden K, until "they" had to ask for this.

That's not exactly how I would put it.

From the differences in reception and perception, it's obvious that we have a lot to talk about on the subject of race in this community. This is about more than "a strip of pavement."

Welcome to GreeneSpace

After a fun run at guest-blogging for Eric Muller, I've decided to join the fray. GreeneSpace will proceed at Greene's pace. Mileage (mine and yours) may vary. Enjoy.