It is an article of faith that knowing the past can help explain aspects of the present. What are the origins of some of the most intractable problems we face as a country? What are the underpinnings of our strengths? The end of this year’s Supreme Court term brought two cases — Shelby County v. Holder and Fisher v. the University of Texas — that vividly illustrate the connections between the past and the present.
A dominant theme of the sesquicentennial observance of the Civil War identifies 1863 as its decisive military turning point. This interpretation echoes popular American culture over the past 75 years. Novelists William Faulkner and Michael Shaara, in Intruder in the Dust (1948) and The Killer Angels (1974), respectively, present the Battle of Gettysburg as the conflict’s riveting moment of truth. Ken Burns’ widely heralded documentary “The Civil War,” first aired on PBS in 1990 and rebroadcast frequently over the following years, devotes far more attention to Gettysburg than to any other battle. Innumerable columnists, from all parts of the ideological spectrum, have weighed in recently to identify Gettysburg as the pivotal moment of the war, and a special edition of National Geographic labels the battle “a fight that would last three days and turn the war’s tide.”
When I was a young girl, dragged by my enthusiastic parents to Civil War centenary events along the Kansas-Missouri border, the image of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” remained the reigning symbol of Civil War women.
I met Judy Carter, the comedian, at a women’s leadership conference in Omaha, Neb., last spring, where we were both speakers. She was there to be funny, and I was there to be serious. I liked Judy immediately because she pulled no punches.
“I’m excited to hear your talk,” she declared almost immediately after I introduced myself. “I’ve never heard a Muslim woman speak in public before. I guess I associate Muslim women with being silent and submissive.”
Come on, Judy, tell me how you really feel.
Column by Paula Kahumbu
Africa is facing an unprecedented crisis of elephant poaching that threatens to wipe out the species in a decade. As poachers gun down elephant matriarchs, and destroy their families, buyers of ivory in countries like China, Vietnam and Thailand purchase exquisite ivory carvings of their gods, and believe that they are somehow worshiping God. Don’t they know that their consumer habits are killing nature? Don’t they know that Nature is God?
The situation in China is particularly hazardous. The domestic markets for ivory in China are legal and sanctioned by the government, which denies the link between the illegal trade and the illegal killing of elephants. Yet studies conducted by National Geographic IFAW, the EIA, Save the Elephants and others reveal that over 86 percent of ivory being sold in shops in China is from illegal sources. The Chinese government says Africa is to blame and demands that African nations crack down on poaching.
“Where did we come from, and why are we here?” “Are we alone in the universe?” These are the grandiose questions that have intrigued humanity throughout the ages. Recent incredible advances in astronomy and physics are inspiring a fresh look at these questions.
This week at Chautauqua we’ve heard the astounding news from astronomer Natalie Batalha that thousands of planets outside of our own solar system have been detected over just the past few years, with their sizes implying that a significant number of stars in our galaxy have Earth-sized planets. Are many stars in our solar neighborhood harboring truly Earth-like planets, habitable or perhaps even inhabited? We don’t know, but for the first time in history we now see this as a question within reach, one we can investigate even within a few decades with the anticipated advances in technology.
Thanks to NASA’s Kobie Boykins we saw how the Mars rovers are showing how our own neighbor planet Mars was once a habitable world with rivers and lakes.
“The glory of God is most clearly seen in a human being fully alive.”
These words by St. Irenaeus in the Second Century sets the stage for the sermons that I am going to be preaching this coming week here at Chautauqua.
As we consider the theme for this week, “Our Elegant Universe,” I am going to make the case that human beings are the crown of God’s creation. The Bible tells us that we are created in the image of God. Human beings are intended to reflect the glory of our creator. But, despite this inspiring purpose for our lives, so many individuals in our society suffer from low self-esteem, depression and despair.
Living in the White House is magnificent, especially, as in my case, for a teenager. The opportunities to see and be a part of history are endless. I will always cherish that time and will always be grateful to the American people for the confidence they placed in Dad and our family during that turbulent time.
But there’s a difficult part of growing up in the White House that’s usually overlooked: the effect of criticisms — often harsh and relentless — of our dads and moms. I suspect presidential children from Sasha and Malia Obama to Lynda and Luci Johnson to Alice Roosevelt Longworth would say they were affected — many times significantly — by political attacks on their presidential dads. I certainly felt those criticisms, which were leveled not just against Dad, but also against Mom. However, Americans have recently experienced a re-examination of Dad’s presidency through the more dispassionate historical lens and that, in turn, has affected the impact of those earlier criticisms on me.
I am not a radical, but I lived through radical changes. Radical changes are exciting for the old and intoxicating for the young. I was lucky to be in Washington in the summer of 1963 when a quarter of a million black Americans marched for freedom and justice. I marched with them to the Lincoln Memorial and heard Martin Luther King uplifting them with his “I Have a Dream” speech, talking like an Old Testament prophet.
Also uplifting them were groups of young marchers carrying banners saying where they came from. The marchers from the really tough places — Birmingham, Ala., and Albany, Ga. — where the battles for civil rights had been raging, were very young, hardly more than children. In the toughest places, people with family responsibilities could not afford to take chances. From those places, only young people came. Most of them had never been away from their homes before. They had been fighting lonely battles. They had never known that they had so many friends. They looked like the hope of the future as they danced and sang their freedom songs with bright faces and sparkling eyes.
Guest column by Carlin Romano.
“America the Philosophical?” It sounds like “Canada the Exhibitionist” — a mental miscue. Everyone knows Americans don’t take philosophy seriously, don’t pay any attention to it and couldn’t name a contemporary academic philosopher if their passports depended on it. As historian Richard Hofstadter dryly observed in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, “In the United States the play of the mind is perhaps the only form of play that is not looked upon with the most tender indulgence.”
But if the title phenomenon of Hofstadter’s classic indeed boasts “a long, historical background,” the peculiar attitude directed at philosophy in America is more quizzical than hostile, closer to good-humored wariness than contempt. Philosophy doesn’t threaten or bother the practical on-the-go American. The American middle manager confronted with a devoted philosophy type is most likely to yank out the old cliché, “What are you going to do, open a philosophy store?” and leave it at that. If, of course, the information has been accurately downloaded. Tell your seatmate on a short-haul flight that you’re “in philosophy,” and the reply is likely to be: “Oh, that’s great. My niece is in psychology, too.”