Nature’s Clocks

Millenium Clock, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

Millennium Clock, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

I see lines and dots. My face and body are sprinkled with freckles and bumps and moles and little spots, red and brown, with new ones popping up all the time. I see scattered patches of rough skin where innumerable sunburns killed its ability to heal itself gracefully. The surface of my face and body is not so smooth as it once was, with lines and little ripples appearing unexpectedly and with increasing regularity. My lips are a little less full than they were before, and there’s thickening around my face and body in different places than where the baby fat used to be, and of a different texture.

There’s a country song I love with a line that goes ‘I look in the mirror in total surprise, at the hair on my shoulders, the age in my eyes’. This doesn’t all apply to me. I keep my hair bobbed and it looks much the same as it always has: it’s still brown, and if there’s any silver, it’s in fine threads hidden among the darker ones, and doesn’t show. My eyes are still wide and wonder right back at me when I look at myself in the mirror, though there’s much more crinkliness around them than before. When I first noticed the signs of aging that have appeared so far, I was startled, disconcerted, and upset. I’m not nearly as immune to vanity as I’d like. But now, the process has become a familiar one and while not exactly welcome, I’m reconciled to it, at least for the moment. Though some would still call me young, I’m clearly, fully a woman, though there’s much more than a bit of girlishness left in my personality. I still have lots of energy and have the great fortune to enjoy good health, for which I’m very grateful.

Like a clock, these bodily lines and dots are accompanied by a tick-tock, tick-tock. For some, the lateness of the hour they reveal tells them it’s time to get married or have a first baby if they haven’t yet, or it’s time to make their first appointment with an aesthetician or cosmetic dermatologist. For others, like me, they say ‘It’s time to pursue those dreams yet unrealized, get cracking on those projects, accomplish more, go out and see more of that great big world, girl-no-longer-a-girl! Hurry up!’

Okay, okay! I’m up, I’m up! Time to get a move on.

Thanks, lines and dots. You really do come in handy sometimes, by driving me to do so many things and go so many places I’ll always be glad of. But do you really have to be so unrelenting?

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Does Death Rob Our Lives of Meaning? by Richard Pettigrew

Headstones in Gettysburg National Cemetery 2 (cropped), photo 2016 Amy CoolsIn the previous post, we met the argument with which Epicurus hoped to cure our fear of death and, with that, our fear of everything else. But we found it wanting. Epicurus assumed that only that which can harm you may be feared; and only that which causes pain can harm you. But we saw that both of these assumptions are false. Along the way, we met one specific reason to fear our death, namely, its effect on those we love. But I suggested that, while this might justify certain responses to the fact of our own mortality, it does not seem to support the sort of response that people often report – the halting existential terror felt in the pit of the stomach. This sort of response, it seems, comes from somewhere else. In this post, we consider a conjecture as to its source: I fear death, you might think, because the fact that I will die robs the things I do in my life of their meaning or their value or their worth. This, if it were true, would justify the feeling of vertigo and emptiness that comes when we reflect that we will die. To remind ourselves that all we have done is meaningless is to have the basis for all we do pulled out from under us.

As so often, Bill Watterson’s six-year old philosopher, Calvin, has been here before us. In the first pane of one comic strip, Calvin is at his school-desk: “Miss Wormwood, I have a question about this math class”; “Yes?”; “Given that sooner or later, we’re all just going to die, what’s the point of learning about integers?” Calvin’s thought seems to be based on an assumption that many of us make about what makes it worthwhile to do the things that we do in our lives. We assume that an activity can only get meaning or value by contributing to some larger goal that we pursue. Death, then, robs our lives of meaning or value by interrupting our ultimate over-arching goals before they can be fully achieved.

But this is based on a mistaken view of how things get their meaning or their value or their worth. Of course, some things get their meaning from how they contribute to some larger project (the philosopher Kieran Setiya calls these ‘telic activities’). I sharpen my pencil in order to draft this blog; and if I don’t finish the blog, the pencil sharpening becomes devoid of worth – doing it will have added no value to my life. I make a birthday card for a friend in order to make her laugh; if I drop it down a drain on my way to her party, there was no value in the making of it. But other things I undertake not because they contribute to a larger project – or not only for that reason – but because I value them as they are; they are, for me, sources of value in themselves (Setiya calls these ‘atelic activities’). For example, this blog might be part of a larger project I have to think through the effect on our lives of knowing of our own mortality. But I don’t value writing it only for its contribution to that goal. The process of thinking through these questions is itself something of value for me; something that gives my life meaning in and of itself. I might listen to my friend’s woes as part of a larger project of supporting her and living my life as connected to some extent to hers; but I value each particular part of that project, each evening talking to her, and not just because of their contribution to the whole; they are ends in themselves. What’s more, as philosopher Frances Kamm points out, much of what gives value to our lives is not any activity, such as thinking through a philosophical issue or connecting my life to that of my friend, but a way of being, such as being wise or being virtuous; and these ways of being are complete in themselves whenever you have them. The value that being wise or being virtuous add to your life does not increase the longer you live, though of course the longer you live, the more chance you have of achieving them.

In another comic strip, Calvin is sitting with his friend Hobbes, the tiger, under a tree. He turns to Hobbes: “I don’t understand this business about death. If we’re all going to die, what’s the point of living?” After a moment, Hobbes replies: “Well, there’s seafood.” And he’s right. Much of what we do in life – spending time with friends or family, taking in the beauty of the natural world, writing, reading, campaigning, or eating seafood – we value for its own sake. We don’t value it because of its contribution to some larger project that is curtailed by our death, thereby robbing our actions and lives that contain them of meaning. So, this aspect of death – that it truncates some of our projects, and frustrates some of our goals – gives us cause for sadness, perhaps, or disappointment or regret; but not fear, and not halting existential terror in the pit of our stomach. After all, there’s seafood.

~ Richard Pettigrew is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bristol. He completed his PhD in mathematical logic in 2008. Since then, he has worked in logic, philosophy of mathematics, the epistemology of uncertainty, and the theory of rational choice. (Bio credit: OUPblog)

~ This piece was originally published at OUPblog

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 2

Frederick Douglass standing in front of his home at 320 A Street NE, Washington, DC, in 1876. Public domain via NPS

Frederick Douglass standing in front of his home at 320 A Street NE, Washington, DC, in 1876. Public domain via NPS

Thirteenth Day, Friday, April 1st, continued

I leave the approximate site of Helen Pitts-Douglass’ onetime home at 913 E St NE, and head southwest to 316-18 A Street NE.

In 1872, Douglass moved his family here to Washington, DC. Since his beloved farm home on the hill in Rochester had burned to the ground on June 2, 1872, probably by arson, Douglass was bitter and in the mood to shake the dust of that city from his feet. He had already been considering a permanent move to Washington since his work with the New National Era newspaper (more on that to come), his political work, and his efforts to obtain a good government appointment often took him there, sometimes for lengthy stays. In fact, he was in Washington when he received a telegram notifying him of the fire.

Frederick Douglass house at 316-320 A St, Washington DC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Frederick Douglass house at 316-318 A St and the museum dedicated to him next door, in Washington, D.C.

So Douglass brought his family here, and after a stay in rented rooms, the Douglass family moved into this pretty Queen Anne brick house, likely in late 1872. I haven’t yet found a more exact timeline for where the Douglasses lived and when during their first months in Washington: sources vary on this. The plaque I find here at the house, placed in 1966, says that Douglass lived here from 1871 to 1877, though many other sources say 1872 and 1878, respectively. Perhaps Douglass had purchased this already as a second or investment home in 1871. In any case, the Douglass family lived here for about six years until they moved across the Anacostia River to Cedar Hill in 1878, though Douglass retained ownership of this house. I find an entry in John Muller’s Lion of Anacostia blog showing that Douglass applied for a permit to build onto this property in 1879, and his son Charles was living here when he died in 1920.

The restored house and the adjacent building at 320 A St now make up The Frederick Douglass Museum and Caring Hall of Fame, which is available for tours by appointment.

AME Methodist Church at 1518 M St NW

The Metropolitan A.M.E. Church at 1518 M St NW, Washington D.C.

Then I head northwest across town, a cross-wise route via Massachusetts Ave to the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church at 1518 M St NW. This historic church has many associations with Douglass, but I’ll focus on three main ones. In 1889, the Bethel Literary Society held a surprise 71st birthday celebration for Douglass here. Actually, the party would have been held at the church hall next door, since that’s where the Society met, where the ugly office building now stands to the right of the church. He was called upon to speak, and speak he did, of course, that was his specialty. The speech was written down by hand then typed; it’s at the Library of Congress today.

Douglass delivered another speech here five years later on January 9th, 1894. It was one of his greatest, called ‘The Lessons of the Hour’. In it, he speaks out against the lynching which had become rampant in the South. As you may remember from my New York account, Douglass was inspired by Ida B. Wells’ investigative journalism into the true nature and extent of lynching in the South, and had joined her in campaigning against it in 1892. Douglass blamed the accusations of rape used to excuse the lynchings as a new method of slandering black people and inciting white people to hate and fear them, since they could no longer use the excuse of a fear of slave uprising or black domination of white people through the vote. If it was true that black men were actually suddenly going around raping white women right and left, which mind you, hadn’t happened much in the South historically, why resort to mob violence instead of proving these cases in court? Because, Douglass charged, the lynchers and their apologists knew these accusations were lies. Metropolitan A.M.E. Church sign, Washington D.C. photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Photo of AME Metropolitan Church by Charles Frederick Douglass, 1900, via NPS website

Photo of AME Metropolitan Church by Charles Frederick Douglass, circa 1900, public domain via the National Park Service website.

One year later, Douglass’ funeral service was held here, on Feb 25th 1895, the first of two; the second was held in Rochester, where he was buried. This funeral was attended by huge numbers of mourners and dignitaries, including Susan B. Anthony and Justice John Marshall Harlan, the great Kentucky-born Supreme Court justice who had reversed his views on slavery to become a champion of civil rights. (A factoid of personal interest: Justice Harlan’s family home was in Harrodsburg, a town founded by an ancestor on my mother’s side; she’s a Harrod.) Justice Harlon famously dissented in the Court’s decisions in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 and Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896, which set back the cause of black rights for over half a century. Douglass, who believed in the perfectibility of humankind, would have welcomed Harlan’s moral evolution warmly, just as he welcomed Lincoln’s.

Obamas on Inauguration Day 2013 by P. Souza, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

United States President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend a church service at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day, Sunday, 20 January 2013, by Peter Souza, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t enter the church because there’s a man standing outside clearly discouraging drop-in guests, as they appear to be setting up for an event; I have the impression it’s a funeral. I curb my curiosity with some effort, out of respect, though I really, really want to see the inside of this great historic place. President Bill Clinton’s inaugural prayer service was also held here, and Barack and Michelle Obama attended a service here on the occasion of Obama’s inauguration in 2013 as well. What excitement for Douglass, if he were there that day! Well, I’ll make it inside next time I’m in D.C., I hope.

US Treasury Annex renamed the Freedmen's Bank Building, 1503 Pennsylvania Ave

US Treasury Annex renamed the Freedmen’s Bank Building, 1503 Pennsylvania Ave

Freedmen's Bank building plaque, on entrance of the building facing onto Madison Pl.

Freedmen’s Bank building plaque, on entrance of the building facing onto Madison Pl.

I find I need to move my car, so I head down the way a bit and find a good parking spot and walk south towards the Mall, to 1503-1505 Pennsylvania Ave NW. My destination is the U.S. Treasury Annex building, a marble edifice with classical columns off the pedestrian-only section of Pennsylvania Ave where it joins the southeast corner of Lafayette Square. It stands across from the north end of the main U.S. Department of the Treasury building to the left (west) of the PNC and Bank of America building.

I’m here because the Annex building stands on the site of the original headquarters of the Freedman’s Bank, and has recently been renamed the Freedman’s Bank Building to commemorate that institution’s 150th anniversary. Though the bank was headquartered here in 1867, the first branch had opened over a year earlier in Baltimore, Maryland, the site of which, as you may remember, I sought in Baltimore on my way back from the East Shore of Maryland. The 1874 newspaper article I referenced lists the Baltimore location as a branch office of the main one in Washington, though it still likely predates the main office.

Freedman's Savings Bank Building, Pennsylvania Ave, Washington DC, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Freedman’s Savings Bank Building in 1890 not long before it was razed, at about 1503 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington DC. In his Life and Times, Douglass wrote of this handsome, exquisitely appointed building devoted to the well-being of his people, ‘The whole thing was beautiful’.

In March 1874, Douglass was named President of the Freedman’s Bank. It was a private bank chartered by the U.S. government with Lincoln’s support, with Congressional oversight. It was supposed to help freed slaves and their families gain economic independence as well. The Bank opened to widespread popular support and for many years did just what it set out to do, and Douglass was a passionate fan of the project, depositing $12,000 of his own money. However, over time, poor management and corruption left it heavily in debt and on the verge of collapse. Douglass was asked to take over the Bank in hopes that his reputation would buttress the Bank’s own. But Douglass found he just couldn’t save it. Not only did he lack expertise as a banker, he learned only after he accepted how deeply the Bank was in trouble. Even a personal loan of $10,000 could do little to contribute to the Bank’s solvency. From this experience, as Douglass told it, he learned a great deal about how corrupt the political system had become as well as the unfortunate selfishness and greed of too many people.

Douglass also learned that he was not particularly adept as a businessman in many ways. He well understood the importance of economic independence for achieving full political and social equality, and succeeded financially due to his hard work, his prudent investments in safer ventures such as real estate, and his prodigious array of skills in other areas. As he admitted, however, he lost a lot of money when he helped found the New National Era paper and could not save the Freedmen’s Bank because, in both ventures, he failed to look into and secure their financial underpinnings himself before putting his own money in. In both cases, he simply took other people’s word for it, for how the venture was doing or likely to do, and his advisors were not disinterested parties. So the New National Era and the Bank failed as his North Star had nearly done before Julia Griffith’s tenure there, through poor financial handling. In business matters at least, Douglass’ idealism tended to win out over his more pragmatic approach in other areas.

The White House, Washington D.C.

The White House, Washington D.C., looking across the South Lawn and President’s Park fountain

Next, I head south on 15th St, and turn right on the pedestrian walkway that E St becomes as it passes between President’s Park and the South Lawn of the White House, and the Ellipse.

Late in July of 1863, Douglass visited the White House for the first time when he requested, and was granted, an audience to address President Abraham Lincoln directly. His mission was to obtain better treatment of black soldiers. When they were first admitted to the Union Army, black soldiers received less pay and less and poorer quality equipment than their white compatriots. This, though they faced greater danger at the hands of hostile Southerners, especially if they were captured.

Lincoln told Douglass, regretfully, that he could not yet guarantee equal treatment of black soldiers given the strength of Northern opposition to enlisting black soldiers at all. He agreed, however, that Douglass’ demands were just and he would do as much as he could as the opportunities presented themselves, including signing off on Secretary of War’s commissions for black soldiers. Though he had often considered Lincoln a ‘vascillator’, not a consistent or even principled champion of black rights, Douglass left this audience with an impression of Lincoln as ‘an honest man’ and, personally, ‘entire[ly] free… from prejudice against colored people’. On the basis of this meeting, Douglass decided to resume recruitment of black soldiers into the Union Army, which he had stopped for awhile in protest over their treatment. However, over time, he still found himself often frustrated at the slow pace of reform in the President’s administration, and his old doubts about Lincoln stayed with him, enough for him to join in an effort of Radical Republicans to replace Lincoln in the next election. Douglass met Lincoln a second time about August 25, 1864; Lincoln had asked to meet Douglass again since he heard Douglass was unhappy with his policies. As I described in my Chambersburg account, Lincoln and Douglass concocted a plan for the latter to lead efforts to help slaves flee north behind Union lines, a plan very like John Brown’s original one before Harper’s Ferry. Douglass agreed to this plan but it never materialized.

Douglass returned again to the White House many times. On March 4th, 1865, he attended the reception held here following Lincoln’s second inauguration. When Douglass tried to enter, he was stopped by two policemen who tried to trick him into leaving. He stood his ground and got word in to Lincoln, who ordered that Douglass be allowed in. When Douglass entered, Lincoln strode across the room, shook his hand, and loudly greeted him as ‘my friend Douglass’.

Andrew Johnson in 1860. Yes, I agree, he looked a lot like Tommy Lee Jones

Andrew Johnson in 1860. Yes, I agree, he looked a lot like Tommy Lee Jones

On February 7th, 1866, Douglass arrived here again with a delegation, which included his son Lewis, to meet President Andrew Johnson. They discussed and debated Johnson’s Reconstruction policies. Johnson protested that his South-friendly, anti-black-suffrage policies were designed to prevent race wars, while Douglass argued that since his policies perpetuated the same old hatreds and bigotries, they would result merely in prolonging the conflicts. The year before, on the Capitol steps just before he delivered his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln pointed Douglass out in the crowd to then Vice President Johnson. Douglass noticed that Johnson looked at him with ‘bitter contempt and aversion’ when he didn’t know Douglass was looking. But when Douglass caught Johnson’s eye, his faced smoothed into a friendlier expression. Douglass would go on to write that he knew then that Johnson was not a sincere friend of the cause for black rights.

Douglass returned to the White House more than once in the mid-to-late 1880’s at the invitation of Grover Cleveland. But likely not to dinner, as some had said, despite what alcoholic-turned-prohibitionist preacher Sam Small wrote. Small was also quite the racist, and used the rumor to try and discredit Cleveland, writing ‘[he] invited that leader of niggerdom, Fred Douglass, to his dinner table. I might excuse him…, but when he invited the low wife to go there, it is more than I can stand’. (What a creep!) Douglass himself wrote in his Life and Times that he and Helen were invited to many receptions by the Clevelands but didn’t mention a dinner with them. Douglass expressed approval of Cleveland as a person, though they were divided over politics, because Cleveland treated the Douglasses with courtesy and respect despite Douglass’ efforts against him in the presidential race. Perhaps Douglass was more disposed to friendliness because of his disillusionment with the Republicans and their abandonment of the black rights cause at this time, and as always, he was very proud that he was now a man that presidents rub shoulders with. But I don’t find evidence that Cleveland did much of anything to show he cared about black rights either. In later years, he even took to protesting to the House of Representatives that he had never done such a thing as invite a black person to dinner at the White House. Douglass’ flattering picture of Cleveland, sadly, appears to show a weakness. Always a proud man, Douglass let his personal pride overcome his convictions somewhat in this instance.

J. Edgar Hoover Building at 925 Pennsyvania NW, Washington DC

J. Edgar Hoover Building at 925 Pennsylvania NW, Washington DC

Metzerott Hall, 1873, 925 Pennsylvania Ave, public domain via LOC, and the Hoover Bldg today

Metzerott Hall in 1873 at 925 Pennsylvania Ave, public domain via Library of Congress (above), and the Hoover Building today (below)

I head southwest along Pennsylvania Ave to 925 NW, the former site of Metzerott Hall now occupied by the humongous and hideous J. Edgar Hoover Building. Once called Iron Hall, its facade collapsed in 1894, presumably due to the massive weight of its iron portions.

On February 20th, 1895, Douglass addressed a meeting of the National Council of Women here. This address was his last act of public service: at about 7 that evening at home, as he described the events of this meeting to Helen, he fell to his knees and died suddenly of heart failure. Douglass’ friend Mark Twain also spoke here, and as we can see from the postcard at the left, the Equal Rights Association met here too. As you may remember, Douglass was a member. On May 15th, 1871, Douglass was appointed to the brand new Legislative Council of the Territorial Government of the District of Columbia by Ulysses S. Grant, who both Twain and Douglass admired. However, Douglass only kept the post for a little over a month. He resigned on June 20th, citing pressing engagements elsewhere, but I suspect Douglass might have suspected this legislature was flawed. Exactly 3 years after his resignation, the Territorial Government was abruptly disbanded for financial irresponsibility. As you may remember, while Grant was personally honest as far as historians can tell, his administration was infamous for its corruption and waste.

The Capitol Building with its dome under reconstruction

The Capitol Building with its dome under reconstruction

Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, March 4, 1861, photographer unknown, public domain via LOC

First inauguration of President Lincoln, March 4, 1861, photographer unknown

I continue east on Pennsylvania Ave to the Capitol Building, and go around to its east facade off East Capitol St NE and First St SE.

On March 4th, 1861, Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address on the steps of the not-quite-finished Capitol Building. Douglass did not attend but he read the Address and critiqued it sharply in Douglass’ Monthly, the successor to the North Star and Frederick Douglass’ Paper. He described the address as ‘double-tongued’ and ‘…but little better than our worst fears, and vastly below what we had fondly hoped it would be’. Douglass viewed Lincoln’s refusal to take a strong stance against slavery as a betrayal of principle. He accused Lincoln of being as cowed by the slaveowners as previous administrations had been, as Lincoln stated his intention not to interfere with slavery where it already existed and promised to uphold fugitive slave laws in the North. Over time, Douglass realized that Lincoln personally hated slavery and that this conciliatory stance was a pragmatic way of attaining the presidency so he could save the Union and reform it gradually. But Lincoln’s caution and reticence went too far even for the pragmatic Douglass, who had lost his faith that slavery could be ended without force.

Abraham Lincoln delivering 2nd inaugural address as President of the U.S., Washington, D.C., photo Public Domain via LOC

Abraham Lincoln delivering his Second Inaugural Address on the steps of the Capitol Building, Washington, D.C.. This photo was made especially famous when historian Ronald C. White identified John Wilkes Booth among those standing on the platform above and to the right of Lincoln, to the right of the statue and just to the left of the tall man with the bowler hat

As we have already seen, however, Douglass did attend Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, held here on the steps of the then-finished Capitol Building on March 4, 1865. Douglass was far, far, better pleased with this one, to say the least. Lincoln, at last, had taken a firm stance against slavery, and the line ‘every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’ surely resonated with Douglass’s sense of justice. He was ambivalent about violence throughout his life, but had come to believe it was sometimes both justified and necessary. Later that day at the White House reception, Lincoln asked Douglass what he thought of this Address, presumably because he knew Douglass had so thoroughly and publicly excoriated Lincoln’s first.

Douglass was here at the Capitol Building one last time on the morning of his death. According to his obituary in the New York Times, he was dropped off at the Congressional Library (Library of Congress) which was located in this building until it was moved across the street to the beautiful new Jefferson Building two years later, in 1897. More on that in tomorrow’s account.

The Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin among the cherry blossoms

The Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin among the cherry blossoms

It’s a beautiful early evening when I end my Douglass explorations for the day here at the Capitol Building. I make my way to the Jefferson Memorial to watch the sun set over the Tidal Basin through the cherry blossoms now in full bloom. Tomorrow will be my last day in D.C., and my last day following Douglass on this tour. To be continued….

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Sources and Inspiration:

Baist’s Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia: Volume 2, Plate 21. By Baist, George William, William Edward, and Harry Valentine Baist, 1909. Via Library of Congress website

Blight, David W. ‘Lincoln, Douglass and the ‘Double-Tongued Document’’. New York Times Opinionator blog, May 6, 2011.

Blight, David W. ‘“Your Late Lamented Husband”: A Letter from Frederick Douglass to Mary Todd Lincoln‘. In The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website

Death Of Fred Douglass: Obituary‘, February 21, 1895, The New York Times from On This Day, nytimes.com

Douglass, Frederick. Address … January 9th, 1894, on the Lessons of the Hour. Press of Thomas and Evans, Baltimore, Maryland. From the Library of Congress website.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Re-published 1993, Avenal, New York: Gramercy Books, Library of Freedom series.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Douglass, Frederick. ‘Speech at a Surprise Party on Douglass’ 71st Birthday. 1889‘. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress website

Douglass, Helen, 1838-1903, ed. In Memoriam: Frederick Douglass. Philadelphia: J.C. Yorston & Co, 1897

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Gayle, Margot and Carol Gayle. Cast-iron Architecture in America: The Significance of James Bogardus. WW Norton & Co: New York, 1998.

Harris, Gardiner. ‘The Underside of the Welcome Mat‘, The New York Times, N0v. 8, 2008

Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress‘, Library of Congress website http://www.loc.gov

King, Gilbert. ‘The Great Dissenter and his Half-Brother‘. Dec 20, 2011, Smithsonian.com

McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Muller, John. ‘Francis Grimke tells story of “The Second Marriage of Frederick Douglass” [The Journal of Negro History, 1934]’ In Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia blog

Muller, John. ‘Frederick Douglass’ “Application for Permit to Build” for 316 & 318 A Street NE’. In Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia blog

Muller, John. Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia. Charleston: The History Press, 2012.

Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass. Washington D.C.: The Associated Publishers, 1948.

Roberts, Kim. ‘The Bethel Literary and Historical Society‘. Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Literary Organizations Issue.

Roe, Garrett W. Frederick Douglass’ ‘Homecoming’: Funeral and Burial, visual presentation, May 23rd 2014

Stiller, Jesse. ‘The Freedman’s Savings Bank: Good Intentions Were Not Enough; A Noble Experiment Goes Awry‘. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, U.S. Treasury Department website

Treasury to Commemorate 150th Anniversary of Freedman’s Bank,’ 12/29/2015 press release of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Press Center

Veroske, Ariel. ‘The Feather Duster Affair of 1874‘, June 20th, 2013, from WETA.org

The Washington Times. (Washington, D.C.), 18 Feb. 1895. From Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress.

Thank You, Khan Academy!

GRE study materials, photo 2016 by Amy CoolsI’m hard at work these days studying for the general GRE and have found that maths, other than practical arithmetic, have a way of slipping away from memory with utter thoroughness if they haven’t been practiced in awhile. And as is often the case, my restless habit of constantly piling new projects on top of others I’m already working on led me to start studying in earnest far too last-minute.

The Princeton Review GRE books are pretty helpful (found in the reference section of any good library), but they seem to me to focus more on ways to game the test than they do re-instilling a thorough understanding of the mathematical processes and ideas behind the questions. This may work well for many people, but it was leaving me feeling lost and confused at times since there are so many kinds of gaming techniques that it’s hard to remember them all, especially if you don’t feel you have a good grasp of the kind of problem you’re solving to begin with. I expect this is the same for many of you as well: my memory won’t hold onto a fact or idea unless it fits into some larger idea or system. If I don’t understand the why, I just can’t seem to remember the what.

So I was feeling pretty stressed out by the feeling of working very hard but gaining too little, and decided I needed to back up and get a good solid grasp of the basic concepts again. The company that creates and administers the GRE has a list of Khan Academy lessons and practice sessions that pertain to the test posted on their website. They are so well designed, so well-explained, and they’re free, hooray! I feel so much better now about the progress I’m making, and re-discovering the fun of basic and intermediate algebra. Once I had gotten the hang of it, it had always seemed more like games than work to me!

So thank you from the bottom of my heart, Sal Khan and the good people at Khan Academy, you are the best. And yes, I will donate to your Indigogo campaign to fund courses on American government.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Empathy for Immigrants

M.S. St. Louis, 1939, which carried 930 Jewish refugees who were turned away from the U.S, Canada, and Cuba

M.S. St. Louis, 1939, which carried 930 Jewish refugees who were turned away from the U.S, Canada, and Cuba

Here’s a very short piece I published almost exactly three years ago, and with the anti-immigrant rhetoric of a certain presidential nominee, I worry more than ever about the fate of those fleeing danger, severe want, and persecution. So many people in dire circumstances do not have the time or the money to wait around until they can emigrate legally. So it’s a matter of stay, suffer, and perhaps die, or go. The Smithsonian featured another article after I had originally posted this piece, about the U.S.’ history of hardline policies against refugees in the interest of national security: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/us-government-turned-away-thousands-jewish-refugees-fearing-they-were-nazi-spies-180957324/. But the larger question is this: if we are committed to protecting human rights in general, are we ever justified in preventing people from picking up and moving anywhere they wish to seek a happier and safer life? Last year, I shared an excellent podcast episode by Freakonomics which explored that very question: https://ordinaryphilosophy.com/2015/12/27/o-p-recommends-freakonomics-is-migration-a-basic-human-right/

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M.S. St. Louis, 1939, which carried 930 Jewish refugees who were turned away from the U.S, Canada, and Cuba

M.S. St. Louis, 1939, which carried 930 Jewish refugees who were turned away from the U.S, Canada, and Cuba

To those hard-liners against amnesty for people who immigrated here illegally:

Remember that many, perhaps most, have done so because they’re rescuing themselves and their children from dire poverty, from murderous drug cartels, or from other dangers. They aren’t able to immigrate legally, even if they wanted to, due to the long wait times, high cost, and stringent requirements.

Do you think that all people, morally, should always place a higher value on obeying immigration laws than on the lives and well-being of themselves and their children?

This brings to my mind a famous example of people denied entrance to this country who were fleeing danger and oppression, and were forced to return to Nazi-terrorized Europe. Untold numbers of people died as a result.

Think of your own children, family…

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To Achieve Freedom Of or From Religion, Equal Protection is a Better Strategy Than Separation of Church and State

Dear readers: as I study for the GRE (oh, maths, I’d forgotten all about you!), I’ll be posting new pieces a little less frequently for a couple of weeks, though I’m still hard at work on the rest of the Douglass series. Here’s a piece I wrote about one year ago today, still a matter of concern though the recent spate of violence between police officers and enraged citizens has taken precedence in the news. We could all use to take a deep breath and commit ourselves anew to that generous-minded tolerance that makes us the envy of the world when and where it’s practiced. The spiraling rise of polarization around the recent shootings of citizens by police and vice versa, and around the presidential run of a self-worshipping fear-mongering pop-celebrity whopper-spouting icon, is undermining that great American tradition.

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Generally, I’m a big fan of such organizations as the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The former, founded in 1978, is headed by Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, enthusiastic and principled atheists who believe that true religious freedom entails freedom from religious interference in matters of government or public goods. They carry out their mission in two main ways: through letter-writing and litigation when the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”) is violated, and through public awareness campaigns via social media, network news appearances, a radio show (also available as a podcast; I’m a regular listener), billboards, and ads.

The latter, founded in 1947, is headed by Reverend Barry Lynn, an ordained United Church of Christ minister. The AU pursues many of the same goals as the FFRF…

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Our Present and The Past, by Ben Alpers

Millenium Clock, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2014 by Amy Cools

Millennium Clock, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

At times of great political upheaval, people suddenly start paying attention to history, grasping to find past events that might provide a kind of road map for what the world is going through in the present. The last several months and weeks feel extraordinary in so many ways. The steady stream of mass killings around the world, many of which are connected to ISIS. The nomination of Donald Trump, whose candidacy is clearly unusual and seems to many unusually disturbing. Norbert Hofer of Austria’s Freedom Party nearly becoming the first candidate of the far right to win a western European presidency since World War II … and getting a second bite at the apple when the election results get thrown out. The Brexit vote and the apparent meltdown of UK politics. Cops caught on video killing African Americans in this country with seemingly little cause. The shooting of five cops in Dallas. And today an attempted military coup in Turkey. On and on it goes.

1968 seems to have emerged in recent months as the go-to historical analogy for our current global political upheavals. In the spring, it was often raised by Democrats made nervous by the Bernie Sanders candidacy who wondered if this year’s convention in Philadelphia might fall apart like their party’s 1968 convention in Chicago did. Donald Trump, too, brought back memories of 1968, though more of third-party candidate George Wallace than of Republican Richard Nixon.

As things seem to have fallen apart around the world, the ’68 analogy has been extended beyond the presidential race itself, though most Americans who lived through that year remember it as much worse. “What’s happening now is terrible. 1968 incomparably worse: RFK & MLK assass, 17k US deaths VN, LBJ steps down etc,” tweeted James Fallows last week.

Over the weekend, Vox published an interview with the journalist Michael Cohen, who wrote a recent book on America in 1968. Acknowledging that the political unrest we’re experiencing leads to the analogy, Cohen, like most others who have tackled the question in recent weeks, thinks that 1968 was much worse, both because it was significantly more violent and because we have made so much social progress since then.
But what fascinates me about this whole debate is that it misses half of what 1968 was about. 1968 is such a painful memory because it was a year of dashed hopes. Johnson’s stepping down was a triumph for the anti-war movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. began the year planning a Poor People’s March that would broaden the scope of his movement. RFK emerged as a candidate who seemed potentially capable of bringing America together and end the war in Vietnam. Of course none of these things worked out.

1968 was a year of dashed hopes around the world, as well, The Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Student movements in France and Mexico. The sense of political defeat that set in by the end of the year was so strong precisely because the hopes had been so high.

For 1968 to stand only for things falling apart, for political promises unfulfilled, is something that could really only entirely emerge in hindsight. And there’s nothing particularly unusual about this. In fact, that’s why we do history. In the middle of a string of events, one simply doesn’t know how things are going to turn out.

And that’s very much the case for our experience of 2016. So far at least, if the political violence and despair, at least in the U.S., seem less acute this year than they did then, so too do the hopes for change. But we really don’t know, can’t know, how 2016 will turn out, let alone how we will remember it. There is an odd comfort in reaching for analogies, even when those analogies are very negative. If 2016 is 1968 redux, if Trump’s movement is fascism, then at least we know what we’re dealing with. But history never really repeats itself. We can certainly learn from the past. But this year, however it turns out, will end up being something new.

Ben Alpers is Reach for Excellence Associate Professor in the University of Oklahoma’s Honors College, whose faculty he joined in 1998. His primary teaching and research interests concern twentieth-century American intellectual and cultural history, with special interests in political culture and film history. Among the courses he offers in the Honors College are colloquia on World War II in history and memory and film noir, and Perspectives courses on American social thought and politics and culture in the Great Depression. Alpers is also affiliated with the History Department and the Film and Media Studies Program. He is the author of Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s-1950s (UNC Press, 2002) (Bio credit S-USIH.org)

~ This piece was originally published on July 15, 2016 at U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!