The United States is going through one of the most turbulent periods it has seen in decades. Levels of racism and anti-semitism that have been unheard of in 50 years. Our electorate and our electors displaying a sense of isolationism and nationalism unseen since before World War 2, if not going back to the late 19th century. With this in mind, I have taken a look at some classics in the English language. I wanted to see what can be learned by revisiting those times so similar to today. Times of stress and uncertainty. Moments that inspired some of the most influential and inspiring short pieces in literature.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.”
In 1963, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was well into his life as a civil rights activists having already given some 8 years to this movement. He had been arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for nonviolent activism against unjust segregation laws. In response to criticism from fellow white clergymen that the civil rights movement should be fought in the courts and the ballot boxes, not in the street, Dr. King replied, “…there are some counties in which, even though Negros constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?”
With these words, written in the margins of a newspaper while in prison, Dr. King laid out his arguments for the justness of nonviolent protest. In a time of terrible turmoil and violence in American history, Dr. King was a bastion of peace. This was a peace that would not stand by as injustice flourished. “I would agree with St Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all” Dr. King informed his critics when they questioned his protests against the law. “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.” he chided, reminding them of their own obligations as men of conscience. He also reminded them that “…it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. …it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”
I have always held a special place in my beliefs and my heart for Dr. King. Part of that is due to the coincidence that we happen to share a birthday, but is primarily because of his strength of character and purpose. When others of his time either turned a blind eye to the wrongs that they had seen or experienced; or they lashed out in what might be considered a just rage against the forces rallied against them, Dr. King choose a different, better path. He chose to stand up to the wrong with peace and love. He decided not to fall to the depths of his opponents but attempt to raise both them and himself to better heights. He truly “…acted in faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”
“Nationalism is inseparable from the desire for power.”
In June of 1937, George Orwell returned from his volunteer service against Francisco Franco’s Fascists in Spain during their civil war to his home in the United Kingdom. He returned home because he was declared medically unfit for duty; being shot through the throat by a sniper’s bullet in April. The bullet barely missed severing his artery and the wound would likely exacerbate other medical issues latter in his life.
It was fortunate for Orwell that the bullet went straight through leaving a clean wound. Fortunate because he spent the subsequent several weeks hiding from communists. They had declared, unjustly and unfoundedly, that the group Orwell belonged to was secretly aligned with Franco. Many members, including its leader, were arrested and killed. Orwell and his wife had to lay low while there passports were sorted to avoid the same fate. His persecution by the communists did not end there. The communist party tried to discredit his novel The Road to Wigan Pier, requiring him to file a libel suit against them.
Orwell spent the next 8 years trying to get back in the fight against Nationalists, Fascists, and Stalinists. He tried diligently throughout World War 2 to be of service. Unable to serve in a combat role – due to health issues – he wrote. He spent the last 5 years of his life following the war, reminding the world with his literature of the dangers we had just been through.
George Orwell was a man who new nationalism and its caustic effect on society intimately. He understood nationalism has but one goal, its own continuation of power. As he stated in this short work; and can be seen in his masterpiece 1984, “A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist – that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating – but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs, and humiliations.” He also saw the far reaching fear of the other that nationalism creates. In his example, the terrible stigma of anti-semitism, “…anti-semitism is part of the larger problem of nationalism…”
Finally, he predicts the resurgence of the most insidious trait we have witnessed in the nationalist renaissance of the modern era. The tendency of nationalists to rewrite history for their own short term benefit. “One prod to the nerve of nationalism, and the intellectual decencies can vanish, the past can be altered and the plainest facts can be denied.” Completely disregarding facts or history the nationalist creates their own history to the detriment not only of their county but ultimately of themselves.
As we face the near term threat from a return of nationalism, even to the point of the U.S. President disregarding history to brand himself as one, we need to remember the lessons that cost us so dearly. The disregard for moral aptitude our grandfathers fought against. As Orwell himself so eloquently and plainly put it, “The emotional urges which are inescapable, should be able to exist side by side with an acceptance of reality. But this, I repeat, needs a moral effort…”
“Everything was dead, everything unreal. The dark mob was made up of stiff lay-figures.”
Now, adding a collection of fiction, regardless of the preeminence of its author and its own shortness, to this collection with Letter From Birmingham Jail and Notes on Nationalism may seem out of place. However, where the Letter reminds us of our conscience and soul, and the Notes our will and logic, the fiction of The Vigilante allows our imagination to move both our hearts and our minds. Lets us question what our own deeds might be and how we would feel if pressed to action.
John Steinbeck‘s work allows us to look at some of the darker episodes of our collective past not just as Americans, and not just as Westerners. The desire for collective justice, the fear of the other and the unknown, and the desire for connection beyond the casual are all universal traits. The three stories in the volume (the aforementioned and titular The Vigilante, The Snake, and The Chrysanthemums) each help us explore something dark in our collective conscience. The banality that a lynching can be once the excitement and distraction has worn off. The confusion, both of the intentions and hidden thoughts of the other of which you can’t rightly conceive. The small betrayal that finally lets you realize all that has hurt and injured you.
It is only through fiction we can feel the full weight of these actions. Hearing or reading inspiring words and seeing the impassioned arguments does not always reach the special place in our hearts, or minds, or souls in the way a well crafted fable can. If they did we wouldn’t need novels, movies and plays. Artists making political statements wouldn’t piss off conservatives and liberals so much.
Steinbeck was able to let us feel the depths of that despair or the chilling feeling of moral emptiness. In times when we have to question not just the intention, but the very veracity of the news, it is important to be able to reach into our own feelings and remember what we truly believe and what is really important. With these earlier works – written before the fame of the dust bowl stories of The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck helps us even now to question what we want our lives and our nation to be.