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Hindsight blog

Muse on participatory democracy and the roles of all citizens including students, artists, the media, and of course, politicians. Presented by the Weisman Art Museum with the exhibition "Hindsight is Always 20/20".

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December 27, 2008

The Highest of Arts

Last Sunday was the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. There were 8 hours and 46 minutes of sun. It was the first official day of winter, but here in the upper Midwest winter has already made itself known. I’ve shoveled the snow off my sidewalk 3 times in the past 36 hours and its 6 degrees below zero as I write.

Its midnight, the house is silent, and I’m thinking about that weightless place between joy and melancholy. The holidays always do this to me.

I’ll admit I cried three times in the last 24 hours. Once for close friends who are struggling; once for my mom, who died 27 years ago and who I still miss every day; and once at the Pantages Theater during the musical play, All is Calm, about the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914.

All is Calm chronicles an event which took place on the battlefield in Germany on Christmas Eve, 1914. In the dark of night, under a star-filled sky, a German soldier laid down his arms, walked out of his trench and sang Silent Night in the so-called No Man’s Land between the British and German encampments. Following his soulful lead soldiers on both sides laid down their weapons for the night, sang together, exchanged modest gifts and helped to bury each other’s dead. It was this last that brought on the tears. I instantly thought of the U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though their in-country experience bears little resemblance to the trench warfare of the past, they still suffer the sight of wounded comrades and mourn their dead. Their sacrifice is enormous.

War Redacted Single Casket CROPPED.jpg
Untitled, 2007, from the series, War, Redacted, by Camille J. Gage

Loss occurs every day and everywhere, not just on the battlefield. Over the past year I’ve watched friends and family struggle to cope with life’s challenges: serious health problems, a child’s debilitating drug addiction, financial insecurity, job loss, and the death of partners and aging parents – of heart disease, cancer and suicide.

Why do we so often feel stranded in our sorrow and alone in our grief? The presence of loss and experience of pain, while intensely personal, is also extraordinarily common. It’s the tie that binds us but is often buried beneath a silent and soul-stifling stoicism.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 brought to mind a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden. Thoreau wrote, “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look…To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.?

This holiday I will aim to channel the artistry of that German soldier, who walked on to the battlefield and sang Silent Night – who was willing to be shot at, to die – to bear witness to our shared humanity and yearning for connection.

For everyone who has lost a loved one – and that is most of us – the holidays are a bittersweet time. May we find the strength to abandon our trenches and sing together to the stars.

For Juliet

December 7, 2008

Hindsight From 2020

It has been just over four weeks since the election, and like many people I have been paying close attention to the news, analyses, and commentaries as President-elect Obama assembles his cabinet and begins to elaborate his vision for governing the country. Political scientists are typically concerned with trying to understand and analyze contemporary events and issues, but Luke DuBois’s work in Hindsight is Always 20/20 has me thinking about retrospective analyses and evaluations, in particular about what “hindsight? from the year 2020 will illuminate about Barack Obama's administration and about American politics more generally.

We already know some of the many criteria upon which history will judge Barack Obama’s performance as President twelve years from now: Were his policies and programmes able to curtail the recession and credit crisis, or at least alleviate their effects? Was he able to end the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan? Was he able to achieve sustainable national security, and to do so without compromising rights and liberties at home and abroad? What were the implications of his Presidency for racial inequality and race relations in the United States? The list will undoubtedly include these and many other important questions.

As a scholar of interest groups, social movements, and of the politics of race, class, and gender, I’d like to suggest three of the issues and questions to which I will be paying attention and upon which I will likely base my retrospective evaluations of and “hindsight? about the meaning of the 2008 election from and along the way to the year 2020:

1. Did Barack Obama’s victory reflect, or perhaps portend, waning racism on the part of white voters and/or a more progressive polity more generally?
2. Did the Obama campaign lay the foundations for a durable and broadly-based progressive social movement?
3. How “intersectional? were the effects of the Obama presidency? That is, did the benefits of his victory and administration benefit and empower less-advantaged and multiply marginalized members of disadvantaged groups?

I’ll begin my next post with some thoughts about the first question.

December 1, 2008

The Gift of Gratitude

Over Thanksgiving weekend I ruminated on gratitude, how it's a powerful state of mind and a touchstone in our lives, both individual and collective. How it appears to be inextricably linked to happiness.

Last week I read about a professor who is researching the healing power of thankfulness. In his study veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder are keeping gratitude journals, a list of the everyday things they are thankful for. So far the veterans report this exercise has allowed them to experience a greater sense of overall wellbeing.* It’s amazing such a modest act can help to antidote the nightmares of war.

I’ve kept such a journal for about five years. It’s a habit I adopted after learning of an earlier study wherein people who regularly recorded the things they were thankful for slept longer, exercised more frequently, and had fewer health complaints**. What a payoff! The study’s subjects were both healthier and happier for simply taking a few moments each week to be consciously grateful.

These little piggies made my gratitude journal this year.

Modest as my efforts are – usually just a few lines each week – I do believe it makes a difference. My micro-journaling creates a reflective moment, a meditation if you will, on the positive aspects of my life. Powerful stuff in a world where we tend toward the restless and acquisitive; toward a sense of never having enough; to wanting more, more, more.

Ironic, isn’t it, and painfully so, that the biggest shopping day of the year follows Thanksgiving.

As the winter holidays approach and 2008 winds to an end I plan to reflect and record thanks in my journal – and to spend some serious face time with the wonderful people who inhabit its pages and enliven my life.

* Research being conducted by Todd Kashdan, associate professor of psychology at George Mason University in Virginia. Information taken from the article, Give Thanks, in the December 2008 issue of Yoga Journal.

**Study conducted in 2003 by psychiatry professor Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis.


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