Saturday, October 26, 2019

"Our Town"

This week, I had a chance to see Our Town, a 1940 film based on the play by Thornton Wilder.  It is a masterpiece.  Set in a small New Hampshire village, it follows the lives of several residents from 1901 through 1916, showing the intimate interconnectedness that defined our idea of community in those pre-technology days.  The fact that it is an old movie only adds to the feeling that we are genuinely travelling back in time.  
            The film has a unique narrative style.  One of the characters—called the Stage Manager in the original play—serves as our guide, speaking directly to the audience and, occasionally, even giving instructions to the crew.  He tells us a little about the town, introduces the characters and their situations, and notes the passage of time between scenes. 
            Beyond the structure, though, is the story, which follows several families and individuals in the town over the years.  The focus is on a young couple—played by William Holden and Martha Scott in her first film role. We meet them as high school sweethearts and follow them through the years as they court, marry, start a family, and face crises, the passing of the older generation, and other trials of life. 
            Wilder wrote that he used the methods of archaeology to write the play.  “An archaeologist’s eyes,” he wrote, “combine the view of the telescope with the view of the microscope.  He reconstructs the very distant with the help of the very small” (Wilder, Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, p. 657).  The central theme of the play, he noted, was: “What is the relation between the countless ‘unimportant’ details of our daily life, on the one hand, and the great perspectives of time, social history, and current religious ideas, on the other?  What is trivial and what is significant about any one person’s making a breakfast, engaging in a domestic quarrel, in a ‘love scene,’ in dying?” (ibid.)
            Today, almost 80 years after the film was released and more than a century after the action takes place, Wilder’s archaeological perspective rings even more true.  It is a peek into the world of a century ago, a sensitive imagining of life—both the wonders and tragedies—at its most personal.  
            Watch Our Town on You Tube at

Wilder, Thornton.  Collected plays and writings on theater.  New York: Library of America, 2007.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

A Lesson from Mary Oliver

I am reading Upstream, a collection of essays by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver, who died earlier this year.  She talks about some of her favorite poets, including Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe, but her main focus is on nature and our relation to it.  Just after Oliver’s death in January, Stephanie Burt wrote in The New Yorker (January 24, 2019) of Oliver’s long life in and around Cape Cod:
That environment gave rise to poem after poem and book after book (nearly thirty, all told) of secular psalms, inquiries into nature, and reasons to go on living. “What is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” 

            Oliver put it this way: “The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves—we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together.  We are each other’s destiny.”
            Mary Oliver is gone, but her message must continue to be heard.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Lesson of Benedict Arnold

I just finished reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution.  It is one of a series that Philbrick has written about the settlement of America by Europeans and the early years of the American Revolution.  The book goes into detail about military operations in Pennsylvania, New York, and the surrounding areas during the Revolution, what was happening in key communities, and the inter-personal relationships that shaped America’s fight for independence.  Philbrick’s insights into the personalities, skills, ambitions, and human strengths and weaknesses of our early military leaders and their impact on the Revolution are intriguing, but they took on new meaning reading about them as the Trump impeachment movement took shape over the past few weeks.
            Arnold has become the paragon of the ultimate traitor over the years.  However, he first achieved notoriety as a military leader under George Washington and as the hero of several major battles against the British.  But he was also a prideful man whose mistakes and personal animosities cost him leadership roles and the recognition that he felt was due him.  Congress passed over him for promotion and, at one point, he was court martialed for his actions.  At the same time, he entered into several shady business dealings in an attempt to recover the financial position that he held prior to the Revolution and to support his new wife, who came from a Loyalist family.  
            Ultimately, he turned traitor.  By the time Washington appointed him as commander of West Point—a strategically important site for the defense of New York and the mid-Atlantic states—Arnold had decided to sell information to the British.  When he was found out, he fled, eventually joining the British army to fight against his former compatriots.  After the war, he remained in Britain, except for a brief, unpopular, stay in Canada, and died in 1801.
            As Philbrick paints Arnold’s portrait, the traitor was driven not by ideals or feelings of patriotism to England, but by personal animosities, hurt ego, and, most immediately, the desire to make money.  Philbrick describes Washington’s reaction to learning of Arnold’s betrayal this way:
Being a republic, the country they were struggling to create was ruled not by a king or an emperor but by the mutual consent of the governed.  Arnold had betrayed not just Washington but every American citizen he had pledged to protect.  Since republics rely on the inherent virtue of the people, they are exceedingly fragile.  All it takes is one well-placed person to destroy everything.  Washington, his face betraying the sadness, anger, and shock of this most recent revelation turned to Lafayette and asked, “Whom can we trust now?”

            I finished Valiant Ambition on the day Congress decided to open impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump for encouraging a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 U.S. Presidential election.  The evidence was plain that Trump had asked the President of Ukraine for a “favor”—to investigate the son of his main rival in the upcoming election.  In the process, we learned that Trump had also told the Russians that he had no problem with their interference in the 2016 election.  
            As our country steels itself for the upcoming impeachment investigation, let us not forget the lesson of Benedict Arnold.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

A Nation of Immigrants: A Lesson from Nathaniel Philbrick

I am reading Valiant Ambition, the third book in Nathaniel Philbrick’s history of the American Revolution, subtitled, “George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution.”  It gave me a reminder of why the lessons of history are so important in guiding our actions and attitudes in the present. 
In Valiant Ambition, Philbrick writes about the battle of Brandywine, in southeastern Pennsylvania.  “After the Battle of Brandywine,” he writes, “a British officer listed the nationality of the rebel prisoners,” adding:
If this list is any indication, most of the soldiers in Washington’s army had been born not in America but in England, Ireland, and Germany, with only 82 of the 315 prisoners (approximately 25 percent) listed as native born.  This meant that while the vast majority of the country’s citizens stayed at home, the War for Independence was being waged, in large part, by newly arrived immigrants.  Those native-born Americans who by mid-1777 were serving in the army tended to be either African-Americans, Native Americans, or what one historian has called “free white men on the move” . . . (p. 187).

He adds further that these soldiers “did not have the education and social standing of the zealous patriots who had served during the early years of the Revolution, but they would become the battle-hardened backbone of the Continental army” (ibid.).
            Today, almost 250 years later, it is good to be reminded that we have always been a nation of immigrants—immigrants who feel deeply the value of our liberty and are willing to fight to achieve and to sustain it.  

Philbrick, Nathaniel.  Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

A Hot Dog Memory

Today would have been the 75th birthday of my brother, Dave Gregg, who died last month.  When we were kids, my mother celebrated Dave's birthday with a hot dog roast.  Friends and family would gather around a camp fire in our back yard.  It marked the end of summer for us and the beginning of the school year.  Good memories.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Thoughts on Gun Control--Again

On March 23, 2018, shortly after the Parkland massacre, I posted the following item about gun control.  Sadly, it is time to post it again.

On Saturday, I hope to join the local walk for gun control inspired by the students in Parkland, Florida.  In preparation, here are some thoughts on what a reasonable gun control policy might look like.  First, a reminder of the second amendment to the U.S Constitution.  It reads: 
A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Automatic Weapons
            Automatic weapons—the AR15s and weapons like them, along with bump stocks and other devices that allow a gun to fire as if it were automatic—are weapons of war and should not be available to individuals.  These are not weapons of individual protection and have no value to hunters.  Since the Constitution encourages states to establish a “well-regulated militia,”  automatic weapons and related devices, to the extent that they are needed at all, should be maintained in a well-protected armory, so that they are available to the militia in emergencies.  However, they should not be available for individuals to purchase in sporting goods stores, gun shows, or anywhere else.
Other Weapons
            The situation is different for hunting rifles and pistols, given the long tradition of hunting in many American communities and concerns for home safety.  Here, we can learn from the experience of states to control motor vehicles and drivers:
  • States should conduct background checks on all individuals seeking to own or use fire arms. 
  • Owners and users of weapons should be tested on their ability to safely use the weapons and, having passed the test, should be licensed.  Just as some states have separate licensing to drive motorcycles, cars, and certain trucks, states should require separate licenses for hunting rifles, pistols, and other weapons.  User licenses should be renewed annually. 
  • Fire arms ownership should be registered and that registration should be renewed annually, as is done with motor vehicle ownership.
  • Owners should be held legally responsible for any deaths or property destruction caused by fire arms that they own.  States should require owners to maintain insurance on their weapons, just as is the case with automobiles.
  • Owners should be required to report missing/stolen weapons to the local police within 24 hours of discovering that they are missing.
  • There should be adequate penalties for possession of unregistered weapons and for unlicensed use of weapons.
            The infrastructure to administer these requirements already exists in the Department of Motor Vehicles in most states.  It should be relatively easy to add these requirements and support the work through registration and license fees.
            Over the years, the process of registration and licensing around motor vehicles has become accepted as a part of daily life in America.  The driver’s exam and first license are seen by many as a rite of passage.  There’s no reason to assume that the same would not happen when similar requirements are tied to fire arms.  Since it is unlikely that Americans will give up their guns, we need this basic regulation to help protect citizens.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Promoting Social Investment

I serve on the Board of a small nonprofit organization.  This past week, during an executive committee meeting, the Chair noted a disturbing trend in our funding.  The new federal income tax law gives individuals a much higher standard deduction.  As a result, he noted, individuals are less likely to make donations to nonprofit organizations, since that donation is less likely to be used as a tax deduction. The result?  Nonprofits and charities that depend on individual contributions are starting to suffer.
It is intriguing to explore the implications.  On one hand, increasing the standard deduction would seem to promise individual taxpayers an easier and more equitable way to support their government.  A standard deduction simplifies taxes for the majority of Americans.  Only the well-off would want or need to itemize deductions.
But there is another lens through which to view this. A larger standard deduction greatly reduces the incentive for average citizens to donate money to nonprofit social services agencies—from the local library to food banks to the cancer society and other health research and service agencies to museums, and so forth. And, of course, to social rights advocacy groups and other social advocacy groups.  This serves to weaken the impact of these organizations in the community,  It also serves to weaken citizen  investment—that is to say, citizen’s moral investment—and active involvement in social organizations.  That, in turn, weakens the viability of community and, ultimately, democracy, which depends on citizen involvement in society.
Here’s a thought:  Why not keep the standard deduction, but also allow citizens to claim a percentage of that amount as additional deductions for the taxpayer’s contributions to community-based nonprofit organizations?  This would encourage citizen participation in social causes.