An unusual email arrived following upon a recent “friending” through the increasingly oldster Facebook network. An eighty-something retired minister I knew decades ago, contacted me along with several disparate clergypersons from various places and denominations, with a request.
It began with the originator of the email chain asking if we wanted to engage in a virtual book study – via email – of a book of Mike Royko’s collected works. Royko was a controversial columnist syndicated by a variety of Chicago papers, ending on the staff of the Tribune. I don’t know if newspapers out here carried his columns back in the day, but I do know Jimmy Breslin loved the guy. Apparently, the Tribune published an eBook of the Royko’s columns on the twentieth anniversary of this death.
The first person to reply, another long-retired minister, instead suggested that each person on the chain propose four books that we think “speak to the times in which we live.” The list so far proposed, reads like a who’s who of contemporary prognosticators of public policy: Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think by George Lakoff; How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt; The Soul of Americaby Jon Meacham; One Nation After Trumpby E.J. Dionne, Jr., Norman Omstein, and Thomas E. Mann; When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Futureby Abby Smith; How Democratic Is The American Constitution?by Robert Dahl; and The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Liesby Michael V. Haden. I stared at the list and, like Winnie the Pooh, thunk, thunk, thunk.
I have not read any of those books but I have read or heard reviews of each one. Without a doubt they are interesting and speak to our times, especially the political season we have been in for the past couple of years. But the times we are inbegan before the cruel and dangerous mess born of November 2016.
History textbooks love to parse human events into clear and precise epochs, as if there were single cause and effect relationships at work to orderly begin and end each chapter. I do not know where our current “times” began but it might have been as far back as WWI and the cultural phenomena born of that ugly and surreal tragedy. Likewise, the crucible of our current distemper may have been Auschwitz and Hiroshima, but they are clearly connected to WWI as well.
Knowing that the roots of this present retardation of justice and disfigurement of national character run deeper than an election cycle, I proposed different kinds of books: Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps by Richard Rohr (substance abuse and recovery); Jesus for Presidentby Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw (an ethic of anti-Christian privilege); Jesus: A Revolutionary Biographyby John Dominic Crossan (the truly revolutionary character of Jesus); Citizen: An American Lyricby Claudia Rankine (racism up close through poetry).
The afflictions of our times may be perpetuated and exacerbated by public personalities, technology, and unfettered access to legal and illegal pharmaceuticals and guns, but the woundedness of our national character runs deeper. Public policies matter, but so does therapy and spiritual wisdom and cleansing.
Lynn Kellar says
I am very interested in how your colleagues react to your reading suggestions. I agree with your assessment that this particular moment didn’t happen just because of the events of the last decade. Please keep us posted on what they and you decide if you feel do inclined .
Cam Miller says
So far just one comment, an appreciation for the different angle. We’ll see if the discussion unfolds.
Katie Simmons says
I recommend consideration of a documentary called Century of the Self which describes how self-actualization stemming from Freud and other 20th Century psychological theory was eventually co-opted by Reagan and Clinton as political strategy, and then devolved into “it’s all about me.”
The movie is available for free on YouTube and no where else (so I was told, due to a copyright issue that prevented commercial distribution). It’s lengthy, and can be watched in several segments. Well worth viewing -it has shaken up my framework for understanding current culture.
Cam Miller says
Thanks Katie, I’ll check it out. Both those politicians were grand manipulators of the national psyche.
Mark Preece says
First of all, thanks for mentioning Mike Royko! Reading him in the Chicago Daily News was a regular part of my growing up years.
As for historical causes, I think we’re still reaping what was sown in slavery. I’d inject race a little more directly into the conversation you’re having. Your group may be too woke to need this, but “waking up white” by Debby Irving can be a good conversation starter.
Finally– thanks, Cam, for your work in subversive preacher!
Cam Miller says
Good to hear from you, Mark. I pondered that as well, since “Citizen,” which is a deep dive into race and racism in America, is poetry. None of us is woken up enough not to need more, that’s for sure. Thanks.
Edwin Beck says
Hi Cam. I recently completed Meacham’s book: “THE SOUL OF AMERICA,” and though I cannot vouch for the other titles (you’ve) listed, his work is an excellent place to begin – especially if one’s reading time is limited by career and sleeping. His prose is the best there is in today’s market of popular non-fiction, and the perspective he provides readers allows (us) worriers to take a step back and reflect upon other domestic horror stories of the 20th Century. Meacham is a highly respected historian and has the poise and brilliance to more than “hold his own” as a TV personality on various programs – including “Morning Joe” and “Meet the Press.” Best regards – e2b2
Cam Miller says
Yes, I enjoy his presence on such shows a lot. Thanks Ed!
Lance Norton says
A few thoughts from Lance in Telluride, CO, concerning the character, plus and minus, of America.
It is America the beautiful, seashores, purple mountains, grand canons, waves of grain, electric power, antibiotics; only country to fight a major war to prolong slavery, allowed the Nazis and Japanese to create horror without lifting a finger until …, lies of Love Canal,
Current health care madness.
Can add your own to the list.
Although I have trouble still with an angry, genocidal creator, the loss of Christianity and it’s value system has left a vacuum that no amount of movies, video games, and social media can fill.
Civilization is always on a razors edge wise humans say .
We’ve got a leg and arm twisting in the air as we try to reset our balance.
Cam Miller says
Lance, thank you (I think) for that dark, poetic, and likely truer than true image.
andrew workum says
I find myself sorely conflicted by this dialogue. On one hand, I enjoy (?) reading contemporary books about our times and could recommend “born on third base” by Chuck Collins. However, when I do read them, I find that I get riled up wondering if we will survive the times we are in. My spouse and I have stopped watching the later night news programs (MSNBC) because we found ourselves so worked up, we could barely get to sleep plus it seemed to be the same thing over and over again. So to stay in touch with the feelings of the moment and to insure that I not get disconnected from what is spiritually important to me rather than focus on the secular, I might turn to “My Promised Land” by Ari Shavit and most anything by Thomas Merton or Henri Nowlin. What really concerns me about myself is that I always wanted to believe that anyone is doing the best they can at the moment; It is hard for me to hold on to that belief now.
Cam Miller says
I have been doing news “fasts” by reading only the NYT and listening to snippets of NPR. It is amazing how much it is possible to keep abreast of events with browsing just those two sources until ready and able to do a deeper dive. And I mean browsing, as in reading headlines, a few paragraphs of a story that has particular interest, or tuning in and out of NPR. What I’ve learned is what you know, that though the modern news media gets us the stories with speed, most news we need to know does not require the vast amount of repetition that exists to fill airtime – or reach those that tune in selectively. Human events unfold gradually and incrementally most of the time even though the news wants to keep it “BREAKING NEWS!”
As far as believing that everyone one is just trying to do their best in the moment, I would say that is mostly true but “their best” to those who are corrupt, narcissistic, or cruel is not what we would want – some people really do intend to do bad things, and will get away with whatever they can if it benefits them. But I have to believe you’ve known that forever and a day. The problem is, so many of them are in control right now.