I like to write, and even when I'm pressed for time or a topic, I try to make the posts that appear here both focused and fun to read. Enough of that work is aspirational, but some of it is self-defense. I'd like to be able to come back to this site in a few years and not cringe.
I've always been fond of good writing, whether in prose or in music. There's so much that can be done with the English language, something that Greil Marcus pointed out in the introduction to Dead Elvis, in which he wrote:
No one knows how to explain the grace in Lincoln's Second Inaugural address. No one knows how to explain the unholy power of the chapter in Moby-Dick called "The Whiteness of the Whale", the chapter that makes you wish that you too were on the ship, on the hunt.
By a small set of coincidences, I found myself earlier this week re-reading Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail". Written 50 years ago this past April, the letter on one level serves as Dr. King's response to "A call for unity" made by eight white Alabama clergyman who had criticized protests led and aided by King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Throughout his letter, King addresses the criticisms leveled by his fellow clergyman, but he knows his audience is elsewhere. His language returns time and again to offer a set of parallels that underscore why nonviolent resistance is needed:
It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather "nonviolently" in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: "The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason."
King's precise use of language, astounding in its creation (he was denied anything to write on for much of the time he was held, leading him to compose the letter on scraps of newspapers that were ferried out by lawyers), reaches a clear conclusion about the judgements King respects:
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
Our affair with language is not uniquely American; beauty in expression precedes and embraces Shakespeare. Still, America does stir the pot more often than some, as Thomas Paine illustrated in The American Crisis, written as winter started in December 1776:
THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.
Not all great words are etched in stone, as is the case with the Second Inaugural. But they do get etched in minds and sometimes hearts. Despite the current and evident weaknesses of this business of publishing, that's why I still work within its walls.