Books on a plane

Next week, the team I am on at Automattic is meeting up in Tel-Aviv to attend the NetSci X conference. There is so much to be excited about — the opportunity to spend 10 days with colleagues, the interesting talks on network theory and analysis, the opportunity to visit the holy sites of the Bahá’í faith and soak up the spiritual energy, the gift of spending days in some of humanity’s most ancient cities, and then the magic of the unexpected.

I am looking forward to experiencing and blogging about those adventures. I want to take time to discuss one of my favorite things to do on long plane rides — reading books that I have long had on my list and rarely get the chance to dive into.

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There is a Lonely Planet travel guide to Israel (maybe better for pre-travel reading? My colleague has hooked it up!), the memoir Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret who I’d enjoyed listening to on Fresh Air, Blood at the Root an analysis of one Georgia town’s painfully recent struggle with its history of racism, The Attention Merchants on the impacts of the behavioral advertising models that dominate the Internet, and Weapons of Math Destruction which I’d started but not finished. I have laid them out on the table tonight and thinking today about which one or two to take with me.

Usually it happens that a fellow traveler feels compelled to share something and I am all there to listen. On a journey back from Vancouver, a fellow traveller shared beautiful and haunting pictures she and her husband made of the botanical gardens around Vancouver.

I want to be open to all that can happen on this journey. But it is great to have books on the plane to share the ride.

Granted

It seems that my last post set sparked a lot of questions in my mind about the Civil War era, it’s impact on my family, the repercussions upon Georgia, and how it is still being grappled with to this day.

There is a lot that I am still unpacking but I’ll start simple. For some reason I have been fascinated by Ulysses S. Grant since since sometime in grade school: at some point in the fifth grade I had written a play about a family of newly freed slaves encountering him on their way to a new existence in the north.

I encountered a biography, Grant by Jean Edward Smith which was fascinating in laying out many of the details of the Civil War I’d forgotten. He has a great story-telling style that seemed to make the intrigue of the early days of the Civil War jump out, and brought to life the way in which life in the 19th century seemed to straddle the complexities of a long ago time with our own.

I read a few chapters of it before returning it to the library, and then shortly a long awaited biography American Ulysses came out. Prescient. I vowed to complete this one end to end. As the politics of the 2016 US presidential election came to their head, I was reminded time and again, how far and how little progress the US has made confronting what I would simply call White supremacy. Several insights began to stand out as I continued reading the book.

  • One conclusion that one comes to is that the relative low ranking of Grant in terms of presidents seems in part due to the revisionist US history that unfolded after Reconstruction was abandoned. That is, objectively Grant stands out as an equal to LBJ and his predecessors as an aggressive advocate of civil and human rights. Yet after his time in office, the country effectively began to turn a blind eye to the racial violence and dis-enfranchisement of African Americans ( and Native Americans, and ethnic minorities ) that would envelop the South for a hundred years. I think the historians bought into this narrative.
  • The degree to which he evolved as a thinker on race and equality seems unparalleled in politics. These kinds of evolutions are certainly rare in US politics, the closest thing that I can think of in this evolution would be Robert Kennedy’s evolution from a critic of the 1960’s Civil Rights in his time as Attorney General to being an unqualified advocate at the time of his assassination.
  • Andrew Johnson’s impeachment seems to have really arisen over his refusal to enforce any of the Civil Rights measures passed in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. This biography argues effectively that (Andrew) Johnson didn’t have any interest in African Americans having voting rights . To quote Johnson “to grant the privileges of citizenship to blacks would show prejudice against whites.” We still seem to be having the same zero sum game issues in 2016.
  • It is amazing to note his development of and unflinching support of the 14th and 15th amendments. To quote: “I will not hesitate to exhaust the powers thus vest for the purpose of securing to all citizens of the United States the peaceful enjoyment of the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution and laws.”
  • Grant’s development of a real relationship with Mexico in dealings with Benito Juarez and Matias Romero — again remarkable for the “manifest destiny” era — again have lessons for today. I’m having a hard time conceptualizing how Grant would react to a fellow American Republican president building a wall to separate the two countries.

In sum the book was an odyssey of hope. The journey of a man who evolved from being indifferent to slavery to one of the architects of a multi-racial society is dramatic and pulled off with great story telling on White‘s part. Especially insightful and compelling are White’s narrative of the how Grant confronted the Ku Klux Klan. The gem of this story is how Grant pulled in an ex-Confederate from Georgia, Amos Akerman, who would champion civil rights as U.S. attorney general and as a lawyer in Georgia when he left the cabinet.

There is a quote, though antiquated, that White pulls out that seems to sum up what a real politics could be “Treat the negro as a citizen and a voter, as he is and must remain, and soon parties will be divided, not on the color line, but on principle. Then we shall have no complaint of sectional interference.” In essence when we are all free to express our voice, not threatened with removal or invisibility by our identity but included by our humanness, then governance can enter a civil space.

The way the book dealt with the fine details as well as the broad historical context is amazing. I appreciated his understanding of Grant as an introvert who was able to provide critical leadership to a country divided.

Finally it seems to me that it is another testament to Dr King’s quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” When I first heard that quote, I’d no idea that it would take so long. I am learning patience.