MWD56 - On Goodness

Or why individual freedoms require an eye toward the collective good

Welcome to Midweek DinnerThere’s a whole story behind that name, something about the way Wednesday creeps up on you, and you have to cobble together a meal out of whatever you can scrounge from the fridge. And yes, sometimes there is talk of food in this place. But mostly it’s about what I’ve been reading, in print and online; or what I’ve been thinking, in clarity and confusion; or what I am hoping, in fear and in joy. And you are always invited to join in.

—— The best conversations take place around the dinner table. — —

A few weeks ago, I got the chance to sit down (via Zoom) with Traci Chee, author of the Printz Honor title We Are Not Free. Towards the end of our interview, we talked a bit about an ideal version of freedom. Chee rightly acknowledges that there can be no fixed definition of the term; because we are always evolving, so too must our understanding of freedom evolve. We considered, too, how freedom might mean different things to different people, that every character in her book and every person we encounter will experience freedom in different ways. Even as she acknowledged this individual freedom, however, Chee pivoted to the collective, noting that

there is an element of an ideal freedom that includes equality and justice for all.

Naturally, my mind turned to the prevailing conversation of the day, as the delta variant runs rampant in my state, a state where lots of folks have refused vaccination. They are free to make that choice, of course, and I don’t presume to know or understand all the reasons that might govern their decision-making. In the face of the rising case numbers, however, some of those people have changed their mind. Perhaps they had to set aside individual concerns or anxieties in favor of the collective. They have vaccinated themselves or their eligible children, and there may still be elements of a self-protective fear, a desire to preserve their individual health or economic well-being. But perhaps the shift comes with a recognition that our individual freedoms are always part of a larger story. The freedom of another is affected by your freedom. Recognizing this reality, I think, is how we avoid harm.

In her brilliant and thought-provoking novel about Japanese American teens facing incarceration after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Chee brings this idea fully to life. She employs 14 separate narrators, each unique, each reflective of a sliver of this story, which is our story. And in giving them individual voices with personal definitions of freedom, Chee has built a collective. They stand, fully themselves and inextricably a member of a broader community, one that has been threatened and fragmented but a community still. In our interview, Chee explained that the thing uniting these disparate voices was love. Each chapter leads to the next, folding itself into the broader narrative, through the connection of love. Love between brothers and friends, romantic love, love of family and neighborhood and landscape and beauty — these are the things that unite us. Without love, can there be any such thing as freedom?

The other local turmoil swirling in my head has to do with public schools and teaching and so-called Critical Race Theory in the classroom. The legislative action taken by our leadership is slimy, reeking of fear and manipulation. And it is, like so many other political dumpster fires, based on little more than the maintenance of power. Those arguing against anti-racist teaching, those who think it is somehow harmful to acknowledge the systemic racism that permeates our society, have built their argument on the back of freedom. The Williamson County chapter of the national organization Moms for Liberty is leading the charge against a curriculum they see as harmful. The books they find so dangerous include Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story by Ruby Bridges. One point of concern for them is that the teacher’s manual suggests a lesson focused on vocabulary — define a mob and encourage students to brainstorm adjectives to describe the mob. They don’t think children should be exposed to such “relentless” discussions of racial oppression. They argue for liberty, but for whom?

They want their children to be free — free of guilt, shame, sadness, or anger over our shared history. And in the process, they’d like to impose that personal freedom on a collective, one made up of Black and brown children who also deserve freedom — freedom to learn, freedom from fear, freedom to see themselves as part of our shared narrative, beloved members of a collective.

Herein lies the difference: A mob is a group of individuals speaking in one voice. A collective is a group of individual voices, each unique and each valued. Some days, it feels like the mob is all that exists, crying out against perceived threats, issuing a call-to-arms in a battle that doesn’t exist. Or shouldn’t exist. But to ignore the battle cry is its own form of tilting at windmills, right?

All of this has left me bone-tired and sad. I’m drained by daily reminders of our collective selfishness (just because I’m vaccinated doesn’t mean I’m immune to selfishness), exhausted by the ways we seem to be grasping at ignorance as though it can somehow save us. And I’m angry. I want to fight and don’t know how or even how to choose. I can’t fight all the battles. It’s simply not possible. I want to do good in the world, in my state, in my city. I want to see goodness in others and celebrate it. I want to be good. I want us to be good.

Sarah Perry, writing in The Guardian, explores the nature of goodness and virtue in the face of the pandemic. I came to this piece via Alan Jacobs, who quoted a passage that concludes with her assertion that we “reach after goodness, as if we were all at sea and navigating, by whatever stars and instruments we favor, to a pilot light that’s shining in the dock.” And while I like that section (I like the whole thing. Go read it), I really appreciated this:

I think virtue contains anger — in fact, I think it must. Identifying goodness requires standing witness to its absence, and this is useful: the pilot light is brighter in the dark, and you’re more inclined to find it.

So for now, I suppose, I’m standing witness to its absence. And hoping towards shared goodness and collective love.

The Department of Unexpected Joy:

The language. The piano and the strings. The undeniable love these voices feel for these words. Ours Poetica, y’all.

Thanks as always for reading and thinking with me. If you have thoughts to share, just hit reply! I welcome your conversation and promise a response.