Thursday, September 22, 2016

A note to Friends of Henry Bemis Books

I am humbled by the concern a number of you have expressed in light of the events of the last two evenings here in Charlotte.
Your notes are a measure of the wonderful little community we are building here, around the coffee pot in our virtual neighborhood bookshop.
I am well, and safe.
Though I am but six miles from uptown, evenings here remain virtually silent in this semi rural enclave.
My windows and doors open to enjoy two wonderfully cool evenings, I heard nothing from the episodes so vividly, and shallowly, reported on television last night and the one before.
People mostly hired because they are pretty tend to make poor real-time analysts of events, and what we have gotten from our local TV stations- and their networks have amplified- is hours of live TV without explanation, just chatter. (Only WFAE, Charlotte's NPR station, and WTVI, its television sister, devote substantial blocks of time to programs to thoughtfully consider, and discuss, things that go on around us, as in a week like this I am ever more grateful for Jeff Rivenbark and his team Off the Record, and Mike Collins at Charlotte Talks).
Most of television news these days, regrettably, consists of standing the pretty reporters outside to tell is it's raining, and in front of darkened buildings to read intros to film showing what happened in them during the day.

They rarely know. They reach out. They demand answers. They are on our side.
When every story on the local news is "breaking" or "this just in" and pat-tense events are always described in the present ("Lindsay Thompson posts long screed yesterday; no one reads it, and many click "Hide All"), you don't need analysis. You don't need background knowledge. We all share in the Not Fully Understanding.
Too many are content to stay passive. Thinking about hard issues is hard work.

Talking about them with others is harder: many have forgotten that when someone else is talking, it is a time to listen, not a penalty box period to be endured before we can start talking again.
When you don't know much, if anything, about what you are looking at, and most of your days are spent talking to a camera about something that happened behind you from notes written by a producer, or a sheaf of stuff printed off the internet and handed you on the way out the door to Storm Van 7, it's easy to for viewers to fill in exactly what they believe they are looking at, and a lot more.
And they do. And then they fill gaps in the paltry news hole of our nine or ten hours of daily local TV news with what Facebooks sends them, knowing it will confirm everything they already want to think, if not about.
Especially when it's an unsourced meme, or a fake news site whose aim is, solely, to grab us by our preconceived notions and drag us off to see their advertisers. This is the age of React/Like/Share, but those options shed little light on events on the fly.
WSOC-TV withdrew all its reporters from the streets last night ("out of concern for their safety", but no other station did; Channel 9 did, however, lend a bracing sense of menace to the narratives in ther viewers' heads) by assembling their rescued staff in the studio for hours, talking to each other about how they felt on the street and what they thought was going via the live feed from the station's helicopter.
WCCB, Charlotte's CW, didn't distinguish itself, either.
Newsreader WCCB TV's Morgan Fogarty pouted through the 11:00 pm news. She could understand why the chief of police hadn't tweeted anything for hours, she said, but "Where is the mayor? I think we have to ask, where is the city's leadership?"
Poor Morgan Fogarty. She had real-time video on a giant monitor, and what she did best with it was to identify uptown street intersections. Little wonder she felt naked without being fed the news in 140-character spoonfuls.
Mayor Jennifer Watson Roberts, who had better things to do, nevertheless called in to calm Fogarty down. Charlotte has an experienced leadership team, and a good police department. They will get this sorted out.
Though where there has been trouble in Charlotte, it has been serious at times, it is not as if the city is under siege, even though our governor- under siege in his poll numbers- tossed more gas on the fire late last night by declaring a state of emergency and calling up the National Guard.
A longtime Charlotte City Council member and fourteen-year mayor, Patrick McCrory has turned on his hometown for trying to make its residents more equal than he believes is necessary.
Demands that we call events "riots" and "anarchy"- the better to meet them with armed forces- plays well in the parts of the state- and nation- where people scorn- and envy- "the Great State of Mecklenburg."
The governor is the sort of man who has called for dialogue over a law already enacted, with people he veers between calling elites and public safety threats, in forums where his staff hand out the questions they want the audience to ask him, on the topics he chooses.
These things will pass, even our current eruptions.

Charlotte is a city of faith, and there are those among that community who have been working these issues for years, decades even, because, regrettably, the underlying issues never seem to go away. As soon as the trouble started, I had an email from the John Michael Cleghorn, pastor at my Caldwell Presbyterian Church, on steps the congregation could begin as a group, and as individuals.
There are those in the business community as well, who are thinking hard and long. They are slow to act but when they do, their words command attention.
These are powerful forces. They need to be. There are powerful opponents who see profit in division. Just as we cannot talk about how to prevent the next mass murder until the last person has reached closure over the last one, we cannot talk about how to bridge the racial divides in this country until we sort out whose lives are the most important until they are dead.
We are stuck. James Baldwin wrote of this half a century ago:
Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.
But if we are stuck, there are alway those who believe the answer is to slam the gas pedal and spray mud.
A Univerity of Tennessee law professor, Glenn Reynolds, is a multimedia conservative commentator whose nom de plume is Instapundit. He did his bit for the Constitution and rule of law by posting last night, of the protestors in Charlotte's streets, tweeting, "RUN THEM DOWN."
Sometimes I think we might all do better taking a couple of deep breaths before popping off about things, but that's just me.
Twitter suspended Reynolds. Those who share his views are flooding his Twitter page with outraged, lower-brain-stem responses in his defense, and slurs like Blaire White's tweet:
The times- these times, and all times in a democracy- demand better of the citizenry than name-calling, zero-sum simplicities, Manichean motive attributions, and mouse-click slacktivism.
It's not enough to tweetstorm that you want change, and that somebody damn well better give you some, right now, so you can bitch later about how it wasn't what you wanted, or that no one asked you.
Readers know this. We recall Epictetus, who advised,

"Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and thoughtful person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents."

Book people read as others watch reality shows, where "real people" pretend to talk about things that have already happened as though they are yet to occur.
They think while others react.
They speak in sentences- sometimes paragraphs- as others shout and type IN ALL CAPS.
We can be missionaries for Reason in a world of tantrum-throwers, to the people who are happiest when most unhappy.
We may not make many converts, but we can try to calm the waters of angry online debate.
There is still a place for the still, small voice, and for humble meditation on the possibility even the most self-assured and strident might- just might- be wrong about something.
Robert Louis Stevenson spent his last years in the South Seas, and for the evening benediction of his household, he wrote prayers. This one seems apt as a guide for us all:
"Lord, enlighten us to see the beam that is in our own eye, and blind us to the mote that is in our brother’s. Let us feel our offences with our hands, make them great and bright before us like the sun, make us eat them and drink them for our diet. Blind us to the offences of our beloved, cleanse them from our memories, take them out of our mouths for ever. Let all here before Thee carry and measure with the false balances of love, and be in their own eyes and in all conjunctures the most guilty. Help us at the same time with the grace of courage, that we be none of us cast down when we sit lamenting amid the ruins of our happiness or our integrity: touch us with fire from the altar, that we may be up and doing to rebuild our city: in the name and by the method of him in whose words of prayer we now conclude."

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