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Frederick Douglass on the Wisdom of the Minority and the Real Meaning of Solidarity

“There are times in the experience of almost every community… when… the appointed leaders… exert their powers of mind to complicate, mystify, entangle and obscure the simple truth… to mislead the popular mind, and to corrupt the public heart, — then the humblest may stand forth… opposing… the torrent of evil.”

Frederick Douglass on the Wisdom of the Minority and the Real Meaning of Solidarity

“Truth always rests with the minority,” the lonely and ostracized Kierkegaard fumed in his journal in 1850, “because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.”

Across the Atlantic, another visionary of uncommon lucidity and countercultural courage was arriving at the same conclusion by a very different path, making it his life’s work to awaken a young and conflicted nation to this difficult, necessary truth of maturation. That same year, the thirty-two-year-old Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) declaimed in a powerful anti-slavery speech, included in his indispensable Selected Speeches and Writings (public library):

There are times in the experience of almost every community, when even the humblest member thereof may properly presume to teach — when the wise and great ones, the appointed leaders of the people, exert their powers of mind to complicate, mystify, entangle and obscure the simple truth — when they exert the noblest gifts which heaven has vouchsafed to man to mislead the popular mind, and to corrupt the public heart, — then the humblest may stand forth and be excused for opposing even his weakness to the torrent of evil.

Early in his career as a novice itinerant speaker for William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery activism movement, Douglass had been especially impressed, in both senses of the word, by the example of the white women who so concertedly opposed the torrent of evil — women who taught him the true meaning of solidarity by paying the price of severe ostracism to play a central role in the movement’s recruiting, fundraising, and organizing; women who set aside their own suffrage to take up the cause of abolition and in consequence were not enfranchised as full citizens of their own country until almost half a century after black men got the right to vote; women one of whom Douglass would eventually fall in love with and marry.

Frederick Douglass

In a letter to a friend, penned in the same era as his contemporary Margaret Fuller was laying the foundation of American feminism while advocating for prison reform and black voting rights under her animating ethos that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble,” Douglass reported on a series of antislavery rallies across Pennsylvania, where he and his fellow Garrisonians were met with hostility. With a swell of gratitude to the handful of local supporters who had stood up to the majority of their own community to attend and support the meetings — a living testament to Albert Camus’s insistence that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present” and to James Baldwin’s exhortation that “we must dare to [take it] upon ourselves to become the majority by changing the moral climate [for] it is upon this majority that the life of any nation really depends” — Douglass wrote:

Our few friends in that place, who are not the sort to be discouraged… filled me with admiration, as I viewed them occupying their noble position; a few women, almost alone in a community of thousands, asserting truths and living out principles at once hated and feared by almost the entire community; and doing all this with a composure and serenity of soul which would well compare with the most experienced champion and standard bearer of our cause, Friend Garrison himself. Heaven bless them, and continue them strength to withstand all trials through which their principles may call them to pass.

Decades later, from the hard-earned platform of a long and far-reaching life, he would revisit the subject in his final autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (public library):

When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, woman will occupy a large space in its pages, for the cause of the slave has been peculiarly woman’s cause.

[…]

Observing woman’s agency, devotion and efficiency in pleading the cause of the slave, gratitude for this high service early moved me to give favorable attention to the subject of what is called “Woman’s Rights” and caused me to be denominated a woman’s-rights-man. I am glad to say I have never been ashamed to be thus designated.

Complement with James Baldwin on resisting the mindless majority and Octavia Butler on how (not) to choose our leaders, then revisit this lovely illustrated celebration of Douglass’s friendship with Susan B. Anthony and the little-known, colossal role astronomy played in his activism.

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13-Year-Old Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Prejudice, Its Antidote, and the Five Documents That Shaped Humanity

“No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again… There can be a happy world… when men create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance.”

13-Year-Old Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Prejudice, Its Antidote, and the Five Documents That Shaped Humanity

“Society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1940s as she grappled with Jewishness, the immigrant identity, and the refugee plight for belonging. In the same era, a young girl who would grow into another woman of titanic consequence to political thought and the advancement of justice took up the subject of prejudice, its antidote, and the pillars of human dignity in her middle school newspaper, of which she was the editor.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (March 15, 1933–September 18, 2020) had barely cusped from childhood to adolescence when she watched in awe as her greatest role model — Eleanor Roosevelt, with her floral dresses and her “spine as stiff as the steel girder of a skyscraper” — was appointed chairperson of the newly established United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

Ruth Bader as a child.

There is no overestimating the quickening of mind, the stir of soul, the immense swell of inspired idealism, which great role models can spark in the young. At a time when the world was reckoning with the savaging fusion of grief and shame in the wake of its most inhumane war, at an age when the human animal gets its first taste of that most dangerous and self-destructive substance of the spirit — cynicism — the thirteen-year-old future Supreme Court Justice chose the courage of idealism over the cowardice of cynicism as she considered humanity’s path forward toward a safer, saner, more equitable world in a June 1946 op-ed for her school paper, published under the byline “Ruth Bader, Grade 8B1” and included in My Own Words (public library) — the collection culled from a lifetime of writings, selected by Justice Ginsburg herself and her official biographers, Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams.

Reflecting on the “four great documents” that have shaped the world since its beginning — “great because of all the benefits to humanity which came about as a result of their fine ideals and principles”: the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta, the 1689 Bill of Rights, and the American Declaration of Independence — the young Ruth writes:

Now we have a fifth great document, the Charter of the United Nations. Its purpose and principles are to maintain international peace and security, to practice tolerance, and to suppress any acts of aggression or other breaches of peace.

It is vital that peace be assured, for now we have a weapon that can destroy the world. We children of public school age can do much to aid in the promotion of peace. We must try to train ourselves and those about us to live together with one another as good neighbors for this idea is embodied in the great new Charter of the United Nations. It is the only way to secure the world against future wars and maintain an everlasting peace.

Later that month, as Hannah Arendt was examining the aftermath of the Holocaust and incubating the ideas that would become her epoch-making treatise on the only viable antidote to evil, Ruth picked up the subject in another op-ed, titled “One People” and published in the bulletin of her synagogue:

The war has left a bloody trail and many deep wounds not too easily healed. Many people have been left with scars that take a long time to pass away. We must never forget the horrors which our brethren were subjected to in Bergen-Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps. Then, too, we must try hard to understand that for righteous people hate and prejudice are neither good occupations nor fit companions. Rabbi Alfred Bettleheim once said: “Prejudice saves us a painful trouble, the trouble of thinking.”

Artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustration for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Echoing Bertrand Russell’s memorable admonition that “even the most orthodox of us may find himself in a minority some day, so that we all have an interest in restraining the tyranny of majorities,” she added:

No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again. We cannot feel safer until every nation, regardless of weapons or power, will meet together in good faith, the people worthy of mutual association. There can be a happy world and there will be once again, when men create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance.

Complement with Walter Lippmann — another rare visionary whose writings shaped the ideals of Ginsburg’s generation — on the antidote to prejudice, then revisit Eleanor Roosevelt reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — the next great document paving humanity’s path toward true humanness, built on the foundation of the Charter of the United Nations.

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“I Go Down to the Shore”: Natascha McElhone Reads Mary Oliver’s Spare, Splendid Antidote to Melancholy and Personal Misery

Consolation for the waves of sorry from the waves of the sea.

“I Go Down to the Shore”: Natascha McElhone Reads Mary Oliver’s Spare, Splendid Antidote to Melancholy and Personal Misery

“Let us… seek peace… near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies,” Mary Shelley wrote two hundred years ago as she envisioned a world ravaged by a deadly pandemic and weighed what makes life worth living. “The setting sun will always set me to rights,” the melancholy John Keats wrote in the same era, a century and a half before Lorraine Hansberry considered the mightiest remedy for depression and observed that “hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries.”

To divert the beam of your attention to nature, to take in the staggering scale of spacetime under the starlit sky or the miniature cosmos of aliveness on the scale of moss or the blooming of a single potted flower, is to step beyond the smallness of your own experience, beyond its all-consuming sorrows and its all-important fixations, and into a calibrated perspective that arrives like a colossal exhale from the lung of life.

“Skybreath” by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

That is what Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) offers in her spare, splendid poem “I Go Down to the Shore,” found in her 2012 collection A Thousand Mornings (public library) and brought to life by actor extraordinaire, my dear friend, and voice of Figuring Natascha McElhone at the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day — a hallmark awakening of our ecological conscience, inspired by Rachel Carson’s work — as Earth was being stilled and disdayed by a deadly pandemic that suddenly made the interconnectedness of life and lives viscerally real. Against this backdrop, Oliver’s poem sings quiet, powerful consolation for the fear- and sorrow-contracted pinhole of our perspective.

I GO DOWN TO THE SHORE
by Mary Oliver

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Complement with Mary Oliver’s equally, differently perspectival poem “When I Am Among the Trees” and Natascha’s enchanting narration of Hermann Hesse’s 100-year-old love letter to trees, then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: Patti Smith reading Emily Dickinson’s ode to how the world holds together, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, a breathtaking animation of Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,” and astronomer-poet Rebecca Elson’s staggering “Antidotes to Fear of Death.”

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Proust on the Essence of Creativity and the Hallmark of Artistic Genius

“Genius [consists] in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.”

Proust on the Essence of Creativity and the Hallmark of Artistic Genius

The word empathy entered the popular lexicon in the early twentieth century as a term to describe the imaginative act of projecting yourself into a work of art, into the subjective world of the artist, where you encounter yourself afresh and emerge with your own world enlarged, your own experience enlivened. Every transcendent song or painting or poem that enchant us has sprung from some element of its creator’s life — some profound event or some mundane moment, which one subjective consciousness has endowed with a supranatural halo of meaning and encoded the meaning into music or color or image that staggers another with its beauty, its private resonance, its elemental truth. That, after all, is why art moves us, what art is — the transfiguration of the personal into the universal, of the mundane into the miraculous.

Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871–November 18, 1922) explores this transcendent transfiguration with characteristic sweep and splendor of sentiment as he contemplates the essence of creativity and the hallmark of artistic genius in a passage from Within a Budding Grove (public library) — the second volume of his colossal seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time, which has helped artists survive prison camps and prompted philosophers to consider the ultimate test of true love.

A century after Schopenhauer made his classic distinction between genius and talent, Proust writes:

Genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them. To heat a liquid with an electric lamp requires not the strongest lamp possible, but one of which the current can cease to illuminate, can be diverted so as to give heat instead of light. To mount the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful of motors, one must have a motor which, instead of continuing to run along the earth’s surface, intersecting with a vertical line the horizontal line which it began by following, is capable of converting its speed into lifting power.

In a sentiment Charles Bukowski would echo decades later in his magnificent poem “so you want to be a writer,” Proust argues that genius is similarly not a matter of ideal conditions or optimal power, but of transformation by way of unselfing:

The men* who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be socially and even, in a sense, intellectually, is reflected by it, genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.

Complement with Beethoven and the crucial difference between genius and talent, then revisit Proust on why we read, how the mind can obscure the heart’s wisdom, and what art does for the soul.

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