Political pros and cons

Election Day was a long one for me, up at 4 a.m. in the cold moonlight to be a poll worker, rotating tasks that led to my 7:15 p.m. emptying of 746 machine-read paper ballots from the big black box under the reader machine. Home by 9 p.m. The box reminded me of the kind of trick box magicians employ to make somebody disappear, then re-appear. It had a lock that I got to open with a color-coded key, and a wire tab I got to cut with wire cutters, observers from both parties and six other county volunteers looking on.

There was no sleight of hand about the results for the rustic precinct in that firehouse out by House Mountain in western Virginia – 598 votes for Trump’s electors, 127 for Biden’s. America has a very parochial system of voting. It must be frustrating for Putin’s hackers, and makes the Robin Williams movie “Man of the Year” a fictional impossibility, that a big federal contract could be let out to an evil tech giant to handle all the votes.

Rockbridge Co. Volunteer Fire Station No. 4

So, we’ll watch things play out over the next few days, or weeks — that very local system, under our system of laws, not men. (Chief Justice Roberts began 2020 with a New Year’s resolution for the federal judiciary to judge without fear or favor, with honor and integrity. The Times reporter called it a rebuke to something President Trump had just said about “my” Supreme Court.)

People see things in their own ways. The morning after, based on the failure of voters to decisively repudiate Trump as the polls predicted, I realized that my view of Trump may be a lot more personal and eccentric than I had thought it was. I thought most people could recognize a bully and a swindler. But now I think maybe it’s something in my own past experiences, maybe a suppressed trauma.

To me, Trump is not a Hitler, or a racist, or stupid, or an evil person, or even a conservative. (I’ve increasingly come to appreciate principled conservatives over the last four years, and may have actually become more conservative politically in my dismay over the bullying and the con-game.) I’m sorry these ordinary labels seem too ordinary – bully and con artist. Maybe it’s something from my own unique past that shapes my perspective. Fraudulent salesman. Swayer of crowds. I know these types.

I can’t remember being bullied, but I see the type and back away. I would protect the bully’s victims the way Holden Caulfield, seeing phonies everywhere, imagines catching children in the rye before they fall off. That’s the compassion I feel for many Trump voters, for example the friendly people I helped vote yesterday, a surprising number who knew me even behind my mask. 

Somewhere long ago, I was in a roomful of friends who agreed to listen to a salesman pitch a pyramid scheme. The idea of the money to be made appealed to some, maybe most. Not to me. Even if it was real and legal. The salesman couldn’t believe (or so he said) that I rejected his basic premise – that it’s better for me to have more than I had. No, I thought, not on his terms.

In journalism, we learn to look for the swindle. George Greiff, in the class on reporting I audited at Georgia State, taught us the classic cons and hoaxes. Those are rare, but all politics and business employ the same techniques to a lesser degree. Business and politics work for the common good, I think, only to the extent that people have the common sense to know how much of the con to make allowances for. Why don’t Trump voters see that their man is pure con, with the unauthorized power of the ultimate bully? (I wish someone had written a comic novel that has him as its main character. What a great American novel that might have been!) Have they never been swindled? Bullied?

But the morning after is sobering. I realize mine may be a much smaller, more personal, more esoteric perspective than I assumed.  I wait patiently for the vote to be counted and for law to over-shadow our eccentric biases.

An incurable disease stalks the land. It is called democracy. The experts think they understand it, but then it tricks them. “It will just go away,” says the magician, our confidence man, and he might as well be talking about the rule of law and the facts of facts. “One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.” When it comes to this virus of democracy, I don’t think so.

Election Day sunset: House Mountain, across Route 60 West from Kerrs Creek fire station.

Originally published in “Like the Dew: A Progressive Journal of Culture and Politics”

It’s Nov. 11 now, eight days since the Election, and Trump is baselessly claiming voter fraud and getting his most loyal underlings, like the testy Mike Pompeo at State, to dig in for him. The New York Times has a report on this with the headline “Fighting Election Results, Trump Employs a New Weapon: The Government.” Here are comments on that Times story from the perspective I hold agree with, that it’s all about the swindle:

“His endgame is to monetize his power over his minions. If he can milk $100 from each of 100 million people he has $10 billion. Enough to bail him out of his failing core businesses and still be as rich as he claims to be.”

“He’s manufacturing leverage to negotiate as much legal immunity as possible, before agreeing to leave. He’ll laugh about this train wreck for years, as a win for him personally.”

“This isn’t about the President retaining power. This, as always, is about the President’s pockets. After his presidency is over, he needs a cash stream.”

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Privilege. . .or blessings?

White privilege. White fragility. White rage. White guilt. White supremacy. All of these contain a truth too deep for understanding outside a state of grace. When I read these words from “experts” who use their scientific or academic authority to identify one of these sins as a sociological or historical label, something seems profoundly missing. What’s missing is a grace that needs to be made visible as a sacrament. Something makes me want to see these authorities fall to their knees (metaphorically anyway) and confess this sin from their own hearts first. Only then can this powerful naming recover its spiritual dimension. At least give us the appearance of humility, or if coming from a place of personal injury, share that with us as an injured friend might.

“Privilege,” to the audience that matters in these times, simply looks like what they call blessings, the gifts of God in daily life, family, jobs, meals around the kitchen table. To understand these things as “white privilege,” as an actual shame and a sin, requires seeing them as inherently unfair, unjust. And that requires a certain knowledge (a privileged knowledge, at that) and the grace of compassion and shame. It requires empathy for those who are denied the public goods that provide institutional support for those blessings: trust in a fair court system, in law, in the police, in having a decent job built on a good education. It’s not that those things should be taken away from anyone (fear interprets those words that way). It’s not that those things have always been available to white citizens, to the unlucky and the unprivileged. These things are blessings – they are how God would bless America, but not if they are denied unfairly, particularly if the withholding of these public goods is based on deformed ideas of race and a denial of the racism that has sickened America since 1619.

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Of pacifism and protest marches

News video of protest marches had turned into scenes of burning and late-night mayhem. We avoid most of that and watch movies. The other night, it was Ben-Hur, the 2016 version that takes liberties with the 1959 Charlton Heston version that had occupied my childhood’s imagination. I had forgotten those old scenes of galley slaves and the bloody chariot race. The scene of this newer version that snagged my adult imagination was different. It was of the carpenter, drawn to help the condemned Judah Ben-Hur as he lay heaped and wounded on the dusty road under his armed Roman captors. Defying the oppressor power of the Roman Empire in a way so different from the Jewish rebellion that Ben-Hur had failed to quell, this handsome carpenter offers him a bowl of water. Ben-Hur is brought back to consciousness and a look of awe when the carpenter asks him to “do the same.”

Pacifism doesn’t work. If you’ve thought about it with a little knowledge of history and the conflicts you’ve witnessed, you know it doesn’t work. But if you’ve thought about it as much as I have, it’s because the idea won’t leave you alone. It haunts you. I can let the meanness of a bully go, and I can walk away from a fight in courage, not cowardice. But these don’t cost me anything, nor do they have the effect of that carpenter on Ben-Hur or the Roman centurions.

“The hand laid kindly upon his shoulder awoke the unfortunate Judah,” wrote Lew Wallace in the original novel – a first edition from 1880 I somehow found among our books. “. . .and, looking up, he saw a face he never forgot—the face of a boy about his own age, shaded by locks of yellowish bright chestnut hair; a face lighted by dark-blue eyes, at the time so soft, so appealing, so full of love and holy purpose, that they had all the power of command and will.” Maybe this Jesus is a bit too Anglo-Saxon, as imagined by Wallace, a former Union general of the Civil War appointed governor of the New Mexican Territory. But the effect of bringing water to the thirsty, bringing the fullness of love to a stranger, a beaten criminal, in melting defiance of the armed Civil Law – it moves me.

A vast protest movement in cities across America has been sparked by the iPhone videos of policemen killing or wounding one Black citizen after another. It’s the same thing that triggered riots in Watts, Newark, Detroit and other cities in the late 1960s, and Los Angeles in 1991. But back then, it didn’t catch the public imagination as a real problem or anything that could be solved by sustained public attention. Black folks knew about it all along. Now, finally, it seemed that almost everybody was waking up to this problem.

Actually, pacifism does work. The face that Judah Ben-Hur couldn’t forget, the power of St. Paul’s command in Romans 12 (Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them) was used successfully in 1960 by thousands of black college students in Nashville. They were trained by the Fellowship of Reconciliation missionary James Lawson (who had studied Gandhian pacifism in India, and would be expelled from Vanderbilt for leading the student sit-in movement there). They marched silently, thousands of them. They went to jail willingly, singing. When arrested or cursed, they didn’t fight back. They stood as a silent force behind Diane Nash, their agreed-on spokesperson, when she asked the mayor if segregation was right or wrong. He had to answer as a man, not a politician. It’s wrong, he said. The protesters then broke their silence with a wild applause. Nashville became the first Southern city to end segregation at restaurants and soda fountains.

Upper left, USA Today staff writer Deborah Barfield Berry; upper right, activist Philomena Wantenge; below, Ernest “Rip” Patton.

A veteran of that student movement named Ernest “Rip” Patton has some sage advice for the leaders of today’s protest movement. He recommends a form of pacifism that is practical and democratic. In fact, it is how pacifism works in a democracy, as it did in the Nashville movement.

Patton appeared last week in a live online program on the First Amendment’s five rights (one of which is to “peaceably assemble”), sponsored by the Freedom Forum. The program involved a USA Today reporter asking questions of Patton and his young counterpart, Philomena Wantenge, the co-founder of a Washington D.C.-based  activist group called Freedom Fighters DC.

“Philomena,” Patton said, “I think you have to take charge and not with your phone or with your computer.” He said the key is to organize people face to face, people who believe the same things you believe. Be the leader, he said, but have a strong vice president who can help write press releases and deliver a clear unified message.

Patton was not one of the well-known leaders of the movement, like Diane Nash, C.T. Vivian, John Lewis and James Bevel. He is better known as a local jazz drummer. But when he speaks, it has the authority of a man who has lived the truth of that pacifist movement. “When the media comes to you, you are able to give them something written down.” Reporters are looking for that, not confused messages from dozens of people shouting their own opinions or slogans. “Have people on your committee who know you’re the out-front person.” That’s when you can approach a governor or congress person and make a difference.

Patton sounds like a kind grandfather who knows he was fortunate to have teachers who taught him the same lessons he is now passing on. “What we see now on TV is, you don’t always know who the front person is because the people who are with them are making all the noise.” And then the looters and the arsonists show up.

“You don’t need the noise.”

Philomena Wantenge said she had to agree with Mr. Patton on some things. “I think people just haven’t communicated what they’re marching for.” She speaks fast, about three times faster than Patton, in trying to explain maybe even to herself where the movement is at now.

“Defunding the police is my biggest thing,” she says, but she admits that it’s not clear to many what that means or what direction the movement should take to create change. She says there needs to be a conversation within the movement regarding a collective focus or direction. She doesn’t use Patton’s word “organize,” or pick up on the idea of a well-defined and well-trained group letting a single spokesperson deliver the message.

It’s important to keep the momentum so the movement doesn’t die, she said. “Defund the police” is a phrase that provides some of that momentum. “Saying it makes it easier to grasp,” she said. A lot of white liberal Democrats say the movement should be more careful with using words like “defund.” Words are important, Philomena acknowledged, but in this case, “defund the police” gives powerful words to the movement (never mind how powerful for the Trump re-election campaign) because “we created them, we made them trendy.” Protesters said them over and over, from D.C. to Nashville to Portland. It gives a feeling of a collective, she said.

The power of pacifism is its radical rejection of violence in the face of violence. The Nashville movement protected that message with sergeants-at-arms, Patton said. These sentinels enforced silence when it was time for someone like Diane Nash to speak. The sergeants-at-arms also made it clear that the group had nothing to do with any burning and looting, should outsiders be involved in that. The silent march to confront the mayor was in response to the firebombing of the house of one of the movement’s leaders.

“Now just think if we had been looting and burning because our leader’s house had been firebombed.”

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Journalism’s values nested deep in a liberal arts culture

[I wrote this in October, 2019, as I began my three-year phased retirement. It might be useful for anyone interested in the position I now leave open for a new hire.]

In 2003, I couldn’t believe my good fortune in landing a tenure-track position in the journalism department at Washington and Lee. After 26 years in newspapers and magazines with nourishing breaks for a master’s from Brown, a year at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow, and a Ph.D. from UNC-Chapel Hill, I suddenly found myself among other seasoned journalists who were as intellectually and academically engaged as I. The “intellectual and academic” part made us outliers in the honorable but not particularly “learned” profession of newsgathering.  Meanwhile, the “seasoned” news-gathering part made us outliers in a liberal arts college as fine as W&L. It seemed a wonderful miracle of mongrelization.

W&L Colonnade, the famous face of the campus

Department head Ham Smith, near retirement after 30 years at W&L, had been an acting public affairs director at WGBH in Boston and an editor at the Richmond News-Leader for six years. He had a master’s degree in political science from Boston University. Brian Richardson, who would replace Ham as department head, was well-seasoned as a metro newspaper reporter and editor in Florida (he drew on that experience in his textbook, The Process of Writing News, published in 2007 and still used in our classes). He was a Phi Beta Kappa and ODK graduate of W&L with a Ph.D. from the University of Florida. The next department head, Pam Luecke, had arrived the year before me, having edited a Pulitzer-winning team at the Hartford Courant and been an editor at Kentucky’s two top newspapers, in Louisville and Lexington. Pam had been a philosophy major at Carleton, a Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University, and master’s degree graduate from the Medill journalism school at Northwestern. She created the Reynolds business journalism chair and program at W&L.

I arrived with another newcomer, Ed Wasserman, who brought to the esteemed Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at W&L a flair for intellectual engagement that spread the department’s profile nationwide through his biweekly syndicated column. With degrees from Yale, the London School of Economics and the Sorbonne, Ed was also a consummate news professional and newsroom manager. After 10 years at W&L, he left to be dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley.

The department I joined also had a strong commitment to journalism law and journalism ethics, requiring separate courses in both, as it does today. Before I arrived, these were taught by professors with less journalism experience than Brian or Pam, or none at all, but a solid academic foundation. Lou Hodges, a tenured religion professor who had created an “Ethics in the Professions” program, eventually settled in the journalism department to be one of the country’s pioneers of journalism ethics. He brought the endowed Knight Foundation chair of ethics to W&L. The j-law professor, John Jennings, another W&L graduate, had earned his Ph.D. at Stanford (the famous Wilbur Schram was on his committee) and had taught at the University of Texas.

An outdoor class in my JOUR101, Intro to Mass Media

This rare blend of deep journalism background and solid academic grounding marked a long period for this historic department, from the mid-70s to today. My first 10 years here saw little change in the faculty. Then a series of retirements began. The replacements fit the mold of the department’s culture and standards from the mid-70s, though probably higher in the professional empyrean than ever. We hired some of the most respected journalists in their particular fields, passionate teachers with publications aimed at the professional or textbook markets, though only one of these mid-career hires, Pam’s replacement as Reynolds chair of business journalism, had a Ph.D., after many years in the profession.

The department is in a period of transition, building for a future that will inevitably be different from the last 25 years. In the news and marketing worlds, the ever-deepening effects of digital and social media have undermined the standard business models. As Matt Stoller put it in a recent New York Times op-ed, “The signaling functions of news brands and the cultural barriers meant to guard against distorting effects of advertising have broken down.” A dysfunctional information ecosystem is filling the gaps. This may be the “Watergate” story of our age, a battle for credible truth and verifiable facts to launch a new generation of journalists. This may be as much a philosophical and “civil sphere” battle as one for crusading journalists. Future “mass communicators” will need the underlying values of a liberal arts education as much as they need the professional skills that our department blends with those values. The practices of journalism and strategic communication themselves will always be a form of applied liberal arts in American life. But their future role in renewing a healthy democracy is in play.

Prof. Alecia Swasy and WaPo editor Marty Baron

The department’s future, like its recent past, is being built on a blend of professional orientation and scholarship. But the admixture looks different today, as it should. Three important goals are being articulated in ways that are voiced differently than they were 25 years ago. One is diversity. The first female on the department’s faculty, a Ph.D. with prior experience in both journalism and public relations, is now in phased retirement. The department has achieved gender diversity, age diversity, and an international-ethnic diversity in its faculty, but has never had a black American tenure-track professor.

The second goal is to have scholars with a research agenda. The academic grounding of the department’s faculty in the last 25 years has been solid enough, but that aspect has been secondary to professors’ professional standards and values. “Fly the flag,” Brian Richardson would always say about our attending academic conferences. Earlier, one long-time department head, Ron MacDonald, had been an influential figure in broadcast journalism but had no advanced degree. Before him, O.W. (Tom) Riegel was an international pioneer in documentary and propaganda studies, but had no higher degree than a master’s. Academic expectations have risen steadily. Two faculty members who combine years of professional practice with Ph.D.s – one being me – are now the first in the department’s history to face retirement without becoming full professors, having been turned down by the Advisory Committee three years ago. Our two youngest recent hires have been new-minted Ph.D.’s with strong research agendas but less, or little, professional experience.

But the third goal is still professional experience and standing. It is this goal that I want to talk about here, lest it be misunderstood as merely an “old” thing or a “weight” on a scale pan that the other two goals can balance out in compensation.

With Judy Woodruff in a DC event

W&L is credited with being where journalism education began. Actually, the program established in 1869 was a scholarship designed to attract young printer’s devils to a liberal education, combining tuition at the college with an apprenticeship under Lexington printer Col. John J. Lafferty. It didn’t last, and no student’s name is on record as getting the scholarship. But in the 1920s, publishers of Southern newspapers established a journalism foundation at W&L to honor their idea of Lee as a Southern icon as well as a visionary for journalism as an academic branch of practical knowledge. This became the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. So, from the start, it was funded and shaped by the news business. That business is changing dramatically, along with its technology and its relationship with consumers of news and information.

Meanwhile, over the past century, American journalism education has developed a multitude of communication studies by borrowing methodologies from the sciences, sociology and the humanities to gain a respectable home at research universities. The news business has always felt somewhat remote, or quietly superior, to this academic side of journalism and mass media studies. News outlets appreciated the practical training for their new hires from undergraduate and master’s programs, but had little use for or awareness of the higher-level theories and research being done in the Ph.D. programs. (The Freedom Forum Fellowship that put me in a fast-track Ph.D. program at UNC was a small, short-lived effort of former Gannett editors to add a Ph.D. to award-winning journalists and speed them into the classroom.)

In academic status, communication studies will never measure up to the disciplines they have borrowed from. And against the research universities where communication studies carry some weight, Washington and Lee will never be competitive. Our value, recognized nationally, is in our teaching of professional practice while meeting the more balanced and high standards of a top-tier liberal arts college.

Washington and Lee has a rare treasure, being the only highly selective liberal arts college with an accredited journalism program and one with professors who excelled in the business and remain connected to it. Within the past 12 months, reporters and editors from the Washington Post and the New York Times have visited with tales of holding Trump accountable, and have been debriefed at campus dinners. Our students majoring in journalism or strategic communication must get academic credit for summer internships in those businesses. The faculty may need more connections with the strategic communication professions to help students in this relatively new major, but our rich connections with news continue to give our students a shining reputation with business journals, major newspapers and broadcast news outlets. Our standard for journalism majors, by tradition, has been that they will have the skills and self-confidence to begin reporting news from their first day on the job.

Knight chair in ethics Aly Colon visits my JOUR201 class

Journalism is a wayward profession, almost as improvisational as jazz because of its historic role in America’s democratic experiment and the freedom implied in the First Amendment. But at W&L, the useful aspects of its energies and skepticism as a way of knowing combine, sometimes powerfully, with the ideal of learning as an inherent good. Cardinal Newman’s “Idea of a University” makes the distinction between the inherent good of knowledge and the usefulness of practical skills. Those skills, he says, are more easily and quickly acquired by the liberally educated. He calls liberal knowledge an acquired illumination, “a habit, a personal possession, and inward endowment.” In my experience, journalism feels like that as well.

Here, that inward “illumination” comes from the values and practices of journalism tested within a culture of global thinking and the liberal arts. This alchemy cannot happen without the solid connection with professional practice the department has always had.

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Boxing up antebellum ancestors

We hear every day that Americans must confront “400 years of racism.” But what does that mean? How do we find the access points to this story in its nearly countless and changing contexts? History is not a scoresheet; it is a land both foreign and familiar. It lives in us even as it can seem so far away. — David W. Blight, Yale historian, in the NYT 7/18, 2020

We are packing in a pandemic. I’m emptying rooms in the 1892 house where we have lived for 17 years, in the town where Robert E. Lee and most of Stonewall Jackson lie buried. (Jackson’s amputated left arm remained back in Chancellorsville.) The books that we nest into boxes, those little coffins, remind me of that land “both foreign and familiar,” the history of race in America.

I see our great-grandmother Mary Smith Cumming’s history of Augusta, and slip it into a box. I see the book “Tokens of Affection: The Letters of a Planter’s Daughter in the Old South,” edited by Carol Bleser and published in 1995 by UGA Press, and I’m drawn into reading through it again. These are letters that Maria (pronounced MaRIE-a) Bryan wrote to our great-great-great grandmother, her older sister Julia Bryan Cumming, in the 1820s through the 1840s.

Carol Bleser, who died in 2013, was considered a trailblazing southern historian specializing in 19th century southern women before, during and after the Civil War. She was very impressed by the 167 letters of Maria’s saved by Julia and carefully transcribed much later by Julia’s great-grandson, John Shaw Billings, who was the second in command at Time-Life in New York in the 1950s. Maria’s father, Joseph Bryan, was a prosperous slaveholding planter in Hancock County, Ga. Carol Bleser, of course, looked for cultural codes in the letters, evidence of attitudes toward race, slavery and the politics of the time.

She found in the letters a rich sensitivity to the social relations and European-rooted culture of the upper class that Maria belonged to. Her father had ventured to Georgia from his native Connecticut. He raised his children in the Presbyterian discipline of his Yankee roots, establishing a Mt. Zion Academy with two New York scholars, the Beman brothers, one of whom went on to become the first president of Oglethorpe University. Maria read romance novels and the multi-volume biography of William Wilberforce, the great British abolitionist. She lived in New Orleans with her first husband, William Harford of Augusta, vacationed at Saratoga Springs in a hotel with President Van Buren and Secretary of State John Forsyth, and was thankful she bore no children (enjoyed “the happiness of conjugal relations” without “so dear a price” as childbirth).

Maria was served by house servants – her father’s property. Her letters are full of references to the lives of slaves around her, a slave courtship, marriages and families, and the death of some of her favorite servants. But her only comment on the institution of slavery, with all that personal writing, comes at age 19 when she describes her horror at the bloody and swelled face of her personal servant, Jenny, after she was beat by an overseer. “Oh how great an evil is slavery,” she writes to Julia. This was a common sentiment among the well-educated in those days, before the defense of slavery became strident, intellectual, biblical and intractably associated with secession. How great an evil. . .reminds me of what some of us say about fossil fuels as we enjoy its benefits, or about police brutality as we tolerate or support a militarized police force that serves as a wall protecting white areas through tactical force in black inner cities.

I don’t know what Julia thought about slavery. But her life changed when she left her father’s plantation and settled with her husband Henry Cumming in the cosmopolitan life of Augusta. I have a large portrait of Henry Cumming. It’s wrapped and sitting among boxes in the hot front room. This house has always reminded me in a foggy sort of way of Granny and Granddaddy’s house at 2231 Cumming Road. Packing up, it feels like I’m wading into the soul of our memories here, but also saying goodbye to other ghosts: goodbye to Daddy’s childhood in Augusta, and to the world of these letters, the lost wealth in Hancock County. I imagine Carol Bleser finding the forgotten graves and foundations of the Bryan plantation lost among briars and snakes in one of the poorest black counties in Georgia. And against that image, I feel her excitement poring over these letters, discovering and preserving a fantastic world in a book, where she trusted that history lasts longer than in graves or monuments. She dedicated the book to her granddaughter Caroline, who by strange coincidence is the daughter of one of Libby’s childhood friends from McLean, Liz Plummer.

Henry was considered one of the ablest lawyers in the state. He grew rich, mostly, the way New Englanders grew rich, with investment in a cotton mill and practicing law for a railroad bank. Slavery was entwined in that wealth in the ways it was with New England wealth, indirectly. Henry was a Europeanist (he had spent nearly 10 years in Europe in a Grand Tour and diplomatic assignment under President Monroe). All five of his sons fought for the Confederacy. Three were seriously wounded, one three times, another imprisoned three times, and the third left dead as a prisoner of war. The fourth died in 1872 after a relapse of pneumonia contracted during the war. Only Joseph Bryan Cumming, “the Major,” our great-great grandfather, survived “relatively unscathed,” Carol Bleser writes. A daughter, Emily Cumming, married a decent son of the powerful and truly odious pro-slavery senator from South Carolina, James Henry “Cotton is King” Hammond. Henry Cumming had a problem with depression. He shot himself in 1866, leaving a handsome estate to Julia and the Major.

What do you do with Confederates in the attic? What do I do with all these books of history, with family stories, as I move out and into another future? It haunts me, not as guilt but just a condition, a nature. I feel all these blood streams coming together through marriage after marriage, preserved in letters, generation after generation, some published, some better left in boxes unread.

Photograph of three of Henry and Julia Cumming’s sons: Joseph Bryan, William Thomas and Julien
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Accountability, 50 years after Kerner

While the world has change in a lot of ways since the turn of the 21st century, the two big changes of this spring crystalized things with particular force. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed social inequity and the video of George Floyd’s killing from a police stranglehold has inspired protests that accelerate the Black Lives Matter movement across the world.

Pilgrimage for Racial Justice, Staunton, Va., outside Allen Chapel AME Church, Aug. 17, 2019.

When the ideas of the Enlightenment – of equal rights and popular sovereignty – crystalized into revolutionary action, Wordsworth famously noted “bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, to be young was very heaven.” This seems such a moment in history. The dogma of white supremacy is flickering into public consciousness around the digital images of anti-Black police brutality. Every institution and every individual within those institutions must find their own larger accountability in the glow of this consciousness, depending on the ethics and public good of each. My accountability is as a journalism teacher and practitioner (at least formerly) and scholar of news media.

The most powerful news organizations have been blind, at best, to their own white perspectives and race stereotypes. At the same time, the dissenting forms of the minority press have been dismissed or ignored, contrary to the mainstream press’s espoused commitment to the First Amendment. One example of this blindness: A news service dedicated to covering the impact of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation ruling of 1954 carefully framed its coverage as “balanced” (its all-male board included both pro-integration and pro-segregation editors, including two Black men) and dismissed criticism of having no black reporters on the grounds that it considered an “objective” reporter’s race irrelevant.

The news profession began to recognize the problems with this view in the 1960s, with the recognition of black agency in the Civil Rights Movement. The perspectives of non-mainstream identities and experiences began to be valued, at least in principle. But changes in hiring and promotion were glacial. Then came the long-hot summers of the mid-sixties, and the 1968 report of The National Commission of Civil Disturbances. Chapter 15 is on “The News Media and the Disturbances.”

While the commission found that the number one problem was police behavior in black communities, it excoriated the news media for its homogenous take on what makes news. “The press has too long basked in the white world,” the commission wrote. If it looked outside the white world at all, it was with white men’s eyes and perspective. “That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now.”

The commission found coverage of the destruction in places like Detroit and Newark to be solid enough – thorough, but not sensationalizing. What was lacking, according to the commission, was an analysis of root causes. News coverage, by instinct, favors events and conflict over “conditions.” Carolyn Martindale’s 1986 study, The White Press and Black America, notes that the “plight” of black America didn’t qualify as news until the systemic oppression was dye-traced by Movement events – usually a strategic nonviolent provocation of police violence. Police violence (e.g. Birmingham) “surfaced” the unseen oppression of the ages.

The Kerner report’s cry for change in the American media to “begin now” occurred more than 50 years ago. It may sound hackneyed to say, once again, “The time is now.” But it is so. Recent long-form journalism and books have made the argument for reparations and spotlighted the history of white supremacy, such as David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy and Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Today, the dramatic explosion of Black Lives Matter inspires this journalism professor to say it again – it’s time. I am looking to be held accountable.

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Saint Walker Percy, M.D.

I won’t ask what books you’d recommend for reading now, in this pandemic lockdown.

The director of Washington & Lee’s alumni education office did that, thinking of all those alums sheltering in place. He asked the faculty what book would help pass the time if you were marooned on an island. The response began with a few emails, then became a torrent. We faculty members couldn’t limit ourselves to one book, and we couldn’t resist adding commentary.

When the number of responses reached 65, Rob Fure, the instigator, cut it off, made an attractive PDF file and sent that off to W&L alumni in this time of plague. (The Plague of Albert Camus was named by a French professor and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez had two recommenders.)

I put in a plug for a book I happened to be reading by Chris Hedges, The Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009) and a novel by Larry Wright, The End of October, although I haven’t read it. It’s about a pandemic, a well-reported fiction so disconcertingly recent that I knew about it from the recent attention it was getting. Being in the journalism department, I thought I should plug works by journalists. (They are two good ones, both of whom I happened to have encountered years ago through mutual friends. But I digress).

Percy let

Really, the writer who I think is perfect for these times is Walker Percy. Percy was a calm, end-of-the-world sort, sheltering in place down in Covington, La., next to a bayou, knocking back Bourbon neat and wondering “How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, And What One Has to Do With the Other,” the subtitle of thought-pieces he collected in The Message in the Bottle. Who finds or sends a message in a bottle but a Robinson Crusoe, an island castaway?

Percy was a doctor, a pathologist, and might have become a psychiatrist but gave it up for writing. Writing and wondering. (I have this photo of him leaning back in a wicker chair on his porch, framed with a handwritten letter from him to somebody. He’s crossed out the “M.D.” on his stationery, but the handwriting is as distinctly sloppy as any doctor’s.)

I’ve been thinking about how exciting it must be now to be one of the hundreds of scientists around the world working on this pandemic problem. So many disciplines have so much work to do, no time to waste. Collecting and crunching epidemiological data. Analyzing genetic assays. Testing therapies. Puzzling over the odd symptoms, like strokes and blood clots in young patients. These are the kinds of puzzles that Percy loved, and put into his novels. They’re metaphors of the problem of being human, but also interesting in their own nature. Problems like this put us in the position of Robinson Crusoe, marooned on our island of Self and of Earth. I’m going to transcribe here a big fat paragraph from near the beginning of Percy’s novel The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), because it describes the kind of researcher who, I hope, is on the case of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

For example, a physician I once knew—not a famous professor or even a very successful internist, but a natural diagnostician, one of those rare birds who sees things out of the corner of his eye, so to speak, and gets a hunch—was going about his practice in New Orleans. He noticed a couple of things most of us would have missed. He had two patients in the same neighborhood with moderate fever, enlarged lymph nodes, especially in the inguinal region. One afternoon as he took his leave through the kitchen of a great house in the Garden District—in those days one still made house calls!—the black cook whom he knew muttered something like: “I sho wish he wouldn’t be putting out that poison where the chirren can get holt of it.” Now most physicians would not even listen or, if they did, would not be curious and would leave with a pleasantry to humor old what’s-her-name. But a good physician or a lucky physician might prick up his ears. There was something about that inguinal node—“Poison? Poison for what? Rats?” “I mean rats.” “You got rats?” “I mean. Look here.” There in the garbage can, sure enough, a very dead rat with a drop of blood hanging like a ruby from its nose. The physician went his way, musing. Something nagged at the back of his head. Halfway down St. Charles, click, a connection was made. He parked, went to a pay phone, called the patient’s father. “Did you put out rat poison in your house?” No, he had not. Is Anne okay? “She’ll be fine but get her to Touro for a test.” At the hospital he aspirated the suspicious inguinal node. Most doctors would have diagnosed mononucleosis, made jokes with the young lady about the kissing disease—So you’re just back from Ole Miss, what do you expect, ha ha. He took the specimen to the lab and told the technician to make a smear and stain with carbol-fuchsin. He took one look. There they were, sure enough, the little bipolar dumbbells of Pasteurella pestis. The plague does in fact turn up from time to time in New Orleans, the nation’s largest port. It’s no big deal nowadays, caught in time. A massive shot of antibiotics and Anne went home.

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Nuclear family breakdown

Our streets are quiet, houses hiding their sequestered stories. Single joggers, without running mates, claim the middle of the road. There are no real church services or huddlings at the local brew-pub. My classrooms are locked and dark, a packet of Lysol wipes left abandoned from the sudden exit a month ago.

This looks like a parody of what American life did to us in its heyday. We are each alone, or stuck in our nuclear family units. The victory and wealth that followed World War II, as David Brooks wrote about it in the Atlantic last month, brought to an end the 10,000-year reign of the Extended Family. We didn’t need to keep our children living with us when they grew up, or to keep our parents around when they retired. Ambition and the interstate scattered us far and wide. Now, with the coronavirus forcing us to practice social distancing and sheltering in place, it looks like a mockery of independence and individualism. We’re isolated – for the common good.

But the magic of digital technology is calling us to reconnect with the extended family. Thanks to Zoom, we become live video images reconnecting around our kitchen tables and on porches,Cumming clan Screen Shot 2020-03-31 at 4.16.52 PM brothers and sisters together, the generations reunited. (Even in the severely locked down nursing-care facilities, we send digital greetings or talk through the “window” of the internet). It seems a natural response to this natural disaster.

I have been Zooming almost daily with my older brother in Nashville, my younger brother in Black Mountain, N.C., and our sister in Decatur. Their children, in other places as far away as Oregon, sometimes join us. We talk about anything, or nothing much, but always enjoying this time together. And we talk about that. “This is so great,” we say, loving each other as perfectly as ever, it seems.

We’ve come around, past the grief and turmoil of our mother dying three and a half years ago at 90. And there’s a recent grief. We extend the powerful intimacy we had around the ICU bed of Bryan’s wife Holly at the end of February, when she passed away with a pneumonia that was not Covid-19 but taught us the very medical support that would soon be needed for thousands more across the land. Bryan is alone now but not lonely, it seems, as he is creatively putting together the beautiful images and songs that Holly left us. She smiles radiantly for us in so many photographs that he loads onto his social media platforms, technical wonders that are mere maps of the real relationships he has with us and Holly’s kinfolk, with his fellow musicians and with his house-church family.

We three brothers and sister share what we know or don’t know about Covid-19, stories from the news or from the view we have where we are, in four contiguous Southern states. We become our own little news program, producers and reporters broadcasting to themselves. Walter recommends good movies. Bryan teaches me the guitar licks that begin “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” Anne tells about how happy the horses seem as she tends them out at Little Creek Farm, the location of the therapeutic riding program she started there. The program is in hiatus, the horses needing only daily feeding and maintenance. “They are so happy they don’t have to work.”

Screen Shot 2020-04-18 at 1.42.31 PMYesterday, the three of us in this house Zoomed with our son Daniel in Austin and our son William on his farm in Fancy Gap, Va. It was a first Zoom for William, Alyssa and little Avis, the nearly 2-year-old darling star of Alyssa’s Facebook art-photography. We are a family again, and what an amazing threesome – Dan, Will and Sarah Rose. They are so different from one another and yet so bonded together. I loved hearing Daniel and William talk about their work – Daniel is making plastic ventilator masks with a 3-D printer for what sounds like a start-up business, and William showed us his invented “woodstones” cut with his electric miter saw, another possible start-up. It feels like the old form of extended family – where work too was connected with the home and farm and we were all there across the generations.





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Plague Notes

There’s a new kind of balance now between the local and the not-local. Global news is of dread interest to all, reliable and scary – “cases near 2 million” – but we are just as interested in what’s happening on our own block or in our town.

selfie on Brewbaker field

Junie and me, on spring-green Brewbaker Field, behind our sequestering house in Lexington.

We all have stories to tell. No one’s story is average or insignificant. (On National Public Radio, random ordinary people’s voices carry dignity and weight alongside the president’s news conferences and reporters reporting from Paris or Rome.) Collectively these individual stories make up the numbers, the statistics. (At least 580,878 people in the U.S. have tested positive, according to the NYTimes database. More than 23,000, about 4%, have died.) But each one wants to be told, in Zoom meetings between siblings or among college classes scattered across the land. Those stories are our lessons for the day, and for the time to come.

Things are turned on their head. Positive is bad, and a false negative is the last thing we want in our test results. Being stuck at home is a journey, an adventure with an uncertain destination that will bring us home when we can set out into the world again.

The common good, that elusive abstraction of academics like Michael Sandel, is temporarily visible to the non-elite, like dust motes you can see in a stroke of sunlight. Everybody must play nice. Everybody has public obligations, and everybody carries an inner truth of privacy rights, behind their mask or within their prison homes or literal prisons.

Whether for the rich or the poor, the un-evolving spiky little virus is the same. All are vulnerable, even if our protections vary. Humanity is the same. The variance that we created is visible now, the guilty gulf between the richly housed and the homeless, the Hamptons and the refugee camps.


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On Atlanta’s northern border

[Published in website “Like the Dew,” October 6, 2019.]

Fifty years after my graduation from North Fulton High School, the pages of my 1969 “Hi-Ways” yearbook fill gaps in my mind better than any real memories. I look at my senior picture, a boy I barely recall with dark eyebrows and blond hair where I have little now. Next to me, in alphabetical order, is Ed Davenport. I didn’t know him.


Me. . . .and Ed Davenport, in 1969 yearbook.

But I do know that he was the first African-American to graduate from North Fulton in its long history as one of Atlanta’s best public high schools. (I also know, from my research in Southern literature, that the poet James Dickey and writer Flannery O’Connor both went there for at least one year in the 1930s – at the same time!)

The Class of ’69 recently held a 50th anniversary reunion. We met in a crowded bar scene in Brookhaven on a Friday night, had a Saturday tour of the handsome Depression-era school, now occupied by the private Atlanta International School, and met that night in a Hyatt-Regency ballroom just inside the Perimeter.

Something protected us in those years, being at that school at that time in history. We were covered by a gauzy veil, guarded against the Sixties except for the good music. We were oblivious, indifferent to the times and the changes going on. We held on to a good past, and a decent public education, up until the changes couldn’t be avoided. Then we graduated, and dispersed into the maelstrom.

My debate partner went the farthest for college, to Dartmouth, and now practices law in Atlanta. One top student became the U.S. Ambassador to Panama. Another became the first Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, adopting the role that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. created to clean up the Hudson River. The “Artful Dodger” to my “Oliver” in our senior play became the singer-band leader of the best blues band in Georgia, The League of Decency.

In the crowded ballroom Saturday night, I saw Ed Davenport. He was sitting at a small table with his Filipina wife, Dina, talking to another classmate. When my chance came, I sat at his table and we began to talk.

But how do I get his story? I didn’t know him 50 years ago. Across the civil rights history that I study more deeply the further I get from high school – the history we somehow didn’t see beyond our high school gauze – how could I interview him as if he were the embodiment of that history? It didn’t seem decent. But this was a happy enough greeting. Dina laughed a lot, and made me sign my senior picture in his yearbook. I thought of an opening.Ed Davenport and e

“I actually studied this in grad school,” I told him, gently shifting to the sensitive subject of race. “We think of this one big history of the civil rights movement, with the usual heroes.” But really, I said, there are thousands of civil rights histories, most of them untold.

The first big wedge was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, aimed not at voting rights or grownup discrimination but at children in schools. That’s why every Southern state, every school district, and eventually every public school had its own civil rights story. We know about James Meredith at Ole Miss, and Ruby Bridges walking to school in New Orleans in that famous Norman Rockwell painting. But there are thousands of other “firsts.” And here was one, one of the last – oddly enough, 15 years after the Brown decision. Ed Davenport began to open up, and I began taking notes.

Did he live in Buckhead, a solidly white community that lost its battle against being annexed to Atlanta in 1950? No – he lived in Grove Park, about eight miles away in the west end of the city. He was getting in fights at West Fulton High, a previously all-white school in the middle of its troubled transition into an all-black school. Ed’s mother told the principal she wanted him out of that school.

The principal suggested more solidly black schools like Harper or Frederick Douglass. No, she demanded, he needs to go to North Fulton. But how did she know about the Buckhead mystique?

“My grandmama lived there, in Piney Grove,” Ed Davenport said. She’s buried there now, in a weed-slung graveyard that is the remnant of Piney Grove. Like the other small 19th century black communities squeezed out of Buckhead during the Jim Crow years, Piney Grove has disappeared. One of the streets used to be named for his grandmother’s family, West, he said. Her property was gobbled up for Georgia 400 and Piney Grove Baptist Church has been replaced by high-end canyons of condominiums.

Ed came to North Fulton as a junior. How did he get to school each day, from the other end of Atlanta? “I was 16, so I bought me a car.” What kind? A 1955 Chevrolet. How much did it cost? “I think it was $250,” he said.

Browsing through the yearbook, I asked about his teachers. “They were . . .mean!” he said. That was true, I thought, for some of them. Mean old maids from an older era, but dedicated. One of those that he remembered was Miss Plaster, a tough English teacher. Her meanness toward Ed Davenport had a particular edge to it. He remembers her asking him, when he came into class a little late, “What are you doing at this school?”

He went to the principal, Mr. Bryce, about Miss Plaster. In the mold of his mother’s example, he demanded that the principal get him out of Miss Plaster’s class. It worked.

“Mr. Chesna, he was a great guy,” Ed said. Joseph L. Chesna was white, or course – all of the teachers were white. But he wasn’t someone you would have if you were college-prep. He was the wood shop teacher.

We exchanged business cards, Ed and I. His card had the crisp Delta airline logo, his name and title, “Edward E. Davenport Sr., Base Maintenance Technician, RETIRED.” He lives in the exurban city of Douglasville. He and his wife enjoy the benefit of deep-discount Delta flights to other countries.

Soon, they will be flying to the Philippines to visit her family. Her family is not wealthy, he said, but when he visits them, they treat him like someone very special, a prince, an American. “That feels good.”

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