Better Angels, Persistent Demons — Part II

China Heritage Annual 2021

Spectres & Souls: Vignettes, moments and meditations
on China and America, 1861-2021

Introduction, Part II


Spectres & Soul: China Heritage Annual 2021 has its origins in 1985. The lead essay in the November 1985 issue of Reading, China’s leading quasi-independent journal of ideas, was titled ‘Superfluous People’. Written by He Xin 何新 (and, I later learned, heavily revised by Hu  Qiaomu 胡喬木, the Communist Party’s ideologue-in-chief whose baneful influence from the early 1940s we previously noted) it bemoaned the parlous state of cultural and intellectual life in China. ‘In historical terms,’ He Xin opined:

‘whenever traditional values break down, or when a culture goes through a period of crisis, an attitude surfaces that casts doubt on, satirizes, and calls for a reevaluation of basic values, culture, and even life itself. … China has had these types since ancient times… All of them share the same cynical “hippie” spirit.’

from He Xin, ‘On Superfluous People’ trans. in
New Ghosts, Old Dreams, New York, 1992, p.263

I was struck by how similar in tone He Xin’s lucubrations about modern Chinese intellectual anarchism and how it supposedly threatened the country’s social cohesion and political unity were to the ideas of conservative American commentators like Norman Podhoretz who at the time was riding high because of the revivalist mood during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Shortly after reading He Xin’s lucubrations about the threat the ‘hippie spirit’ and intellectual anarchism posed in China, I read Neil Postman‘s Amusing Ourselves to Death, on politics in the age of entertainment and Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in 1988.

After the tumultuous events of 1989, He Xin frequently featured in my work, as did ideas about propaganda in Eastern Europe and the politics of commodification in the United States, in particular the work of Thomas Frank and other writers for The Baffler, which I read during long stints working on documentary film projects in Boston. All these informed my 1999 book In the Red: on contemporary Chinese culture. As the enlivening Kulturkämpf in China during the 1980s was quelled for a time after June Fourth (the activism of the literary critic Liu Xiaobo was singled out and his ‘national nihilism’ 民族虛無主義 was denounced as having paved the way for a politics of national betrayal 賣國主義), the culture wars in Australia suggested ways in which one could ‘compare and contrast’ the conservative strain of Antipodean thought with that of revanchist Chinese Communists. (See, for example, my observations on the ‘glum convergence’ between the patriotic preening of the right-wing Liberal-Coalition government in Canberra and the Hu-Wen government in Beijing in 2006: ‘Shared Values: a Sino-Australian Conundrum’, reprinted in China Heritage).

In turn, the ongoing American cultural war formed a backdrop to my understanding of how the story of the face-off between the Pacific powers was being told during the initial blush of globalisation. As I observed in 1999:

‘There’s a school of thought that argues that China is a story just waiting to happen. The headlines have been written, the outcome preordained. The only thing that’s missing is copy from the frontlines of the breaking media event, information that will fill in the fine detail, add a touch of local color here, a dab of poignancy there. For any marketable description of the endgame requires a dimension of personal tragedy and a measure of bathos that makes any good story just that.

‘All too often in the West, particularly in the United States, China doesn’t seem to have much of a chance; it barely even has a present. But it does have a future. If you restrict your media consumption to glib sound bites and headline one-liners, it’s a future that is the past of the Soviet Union or could just as well be the past of a swath of Eastern European nations. It’s supposed to be the future of all the defunct autocratic one-party police states that held sway during the twentieth century.

‘China’s tomorrow is, as they say, its yesterday. Or, as the Russian philosopher Mikhail Epstein put it when considering the denouement of the Soviet empire: “The ‘communist future’ had become a thing of the past, while the feudal and bourgeois ‘past’ approaches us from the direction where we had expected to meet the future.”

‘Caught between the dire historical fate of European totalitarianisms and the seemingly impossible future of Chinese socialism and communism, the present itself disappears, or at best becomes a stopgap diversion that keeps the progress of history on hold. The headlines from that frontline are about a story waiting to be told. Epstein calls this particular condition “post-futurism, insofar as it is not the present that turns out to be behind us, but the future itself.” [Note: See Barmé, ‘1989, 1999, 2009: Totalitarian Nostalgia’.]

‘In the 1980s and 1990s popular characterizations of mainland China readily invoked a grand narrative that told a story about that last bastion of recalcitrant one-party rule being undermined by economic reforms and the liberating pressures of technology, social change, and global markets. It was a view that presented us with an ineffable logic: market diversity will result in increased commercialization; the growth and strengthening of new social forces as well as of a general liberalization will in turn engender political, social, and cultural pluralism. While it is all too common to encounter Chinese thinkers and writers who gloat to Western analysts and observers that China and its politics are simply “too complex” (tài fùzá [太複雜]) and beyond the ken of outsiders to truly understand, Western masters of whither China scenarios are equally confident in their privileged knowledge about the globalized future of the world. For their part they argue that everything is really “very simple” (hěn jiǎndān [很簡單]). They reason that the mainland will inevitably go the way of Taiwan and sooner or later become a pluralistic market democracy. Their confidence is based on a linear view of historical change; they believe they’ve seen the future, and they claim it works, at least for them.

‘This comfortable Euro-American consensus is promoted variously by political pundits, economists, and media savants. It holds that eventually a regimen of international good sense will prevail, and as a result countries everywhere will fall into line as they promote free speech and democratic elections; everywhere prosperous multinationals will blossom to produce benign market-driven cultures.’

from my foreword to China Beyond the Headlines
edited by Timothy B. Weston and Lionel M. Jensen,
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, pp.xiii-xiv

It would be some years before the ‘Purblind Hopeful’ — people in an array of areas including politics, the media, the arts, business and academia — would end up as what I have elsewhere dubbed ‘The Disappointed’. In 2021, there is a new awareness among some of the need to take seriously the Communist Party ideologues when considering modern China, just as it is deemed important to understand the origins of the radical right in the United States, including the long tendrils of the conspiracy mania of fringe groups like the John Birch Society (which I had the displeasure of learning about as a teenager in Sydney in the late 1960s).

A more recent inspiration for Spectres & Souls was a stentorian series of anti-American broadsides published by People’s Daily from May to October 2019 (see ‘中國經濟行不行:看清中美貿易大趨勢’,《人民日報》 ). In over one hundred articles Party thinkers and propagandists addressed the Trump-era US-China trade war from various angles — economic, political, ideological and cultural. In the process they offered readers a broad perspective on how Official China sees both the recent conflict and its background, one that reaches back to the mid 1940s (for more on this, see ‘White Paper, Red Menace’). The People’s Daily diatribes also offer a focussed insight into how the Communist Party views itself and its future.

During two extended periods in the United States from mid 2019, I tried unsuccessfully to interest various groups in the northeastern tri-state area to join me in undertaking a close reading of the People’s Daily material. My appetite for  the topic was only further whetted when Jianying Zha 查建英 sent me the introduction to Freedom is Not Free — A New Decameron, her book-length conversation with the writer Katō Yoshikazu 加藤嘉一. A translation of their exchange appeared under the title ‘Adieu, China! — Jianying Zha’s Long Farewell’ (China Heritage, 10 November 2020), and is one section of the four-part preamble to Spectres & Souls.

We hope that Spectres & Souls — China Heritage Annual 2021 will provide a cross-Pacific ‘triangulation’ and retrospective, an approach that should by all rights encourage sober, and sombre, reflection both about the present and 未來 wèi lái, ‘that which is yet to come’.

‘Better Angels, Persistent Demons, Part II’ focusses on the United States. We will turn our attention to the haunted heritages of China in ‘Better Angels, Persistent Demons, Part III’.

Our thanks, again, to Lois Conner for her support and permission to use a work from ‘Shooting 5th Avenue’, a series made in New York during the 2020-2021 election year. The featured image is from ‘PA Pastoral’, work made in Pennsylvania, and the final photograph is from ‘Life in a Box’.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
31 January 2021


Spar Road, from ‘PA Pastoral’, a series by Lois Conner, 2020. © Lois Conner


Spectres & Souls


A Preamble in Four Parts:


An Introduction in Three Parts:

2021: Lieux de Mémoire
China & America


In ‘Better Angels, Persistent Demons — Part I’, the introduction to Spectres & Souls, we mentioned some of the anniversaries marked by 2021. Our broader argument is framed within a historical era starting in 1861. In May that year, a civil war broke out in the United States of America while, in November, the Xinyou Coup 辛酉政變 took place in Qing-dynasty China. The Civil War ended four years later, in May 1865, just as Qing China was recovering from the devastation of the Taiping Civil War, which had ended in August 1864, arguably the most deadly conflict in human history to that date. The ‘long tail’ of those civil wars has snaked its way well into the twenty-first century.

In Part I, we also noted that, in January 1961, nearly sixty years to the day prior to our launching of Spectres & Souls, that Dwight Eisenhower, the outgoing US president, spoke about the consequences of the ‘military-industrial-congressional complex’ that increasingly held sway over America’s political life. Meanwhile, in Beijing, Mao Zedong was reluctantly offering a garbled account of what had gone wrong with the Great Leap Forward, a radical policy launched under his aegis in the belief that through revolutionary enthusiasm the People’s Republic would soon ‘surpass Britain and catch up to America’ 趕英超美 economically, put the Soviet Union in the shade and realise communism.

This year, 2021, is a season of many other anniversaries, some worthy of celebration, others dolorous reminders of a dark heritage. In Spectres & Souls we offer vignettes, moments and meditations that may help cast the present fraught relationship between the two Pacific powers in a broader historical and intellectual context.

The year 2021 is also significant because the ten weeks from 18 March to 28 May will coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, a time when a revolutionary socialist, anti-religious government — what Karl Marx would hail as the first ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ — dominated the capital of France. Ninety-five years later, in January 1967, the Paris Commune inspired radical workers under the direction of Zhang Chunqiao 張春橋, the leading theoretician of the Cultural Revolution, to establish a ‘People’s Commune of Shanghai’ 上海人民公社. With the vague promise of grassroots worker participation and open elections, the notional commune soon inspired imitators elsewhere. Alert to the dangers posed by an unexpected outbreak of democracy, Mao Zedong had the new temporary Shanghai government rebrand itself as a ‘revolutionary committee’ 革命委員會. This ruling body would be controlled by established Party cadres working in concert with military men and politically reliable worker-representatives. During 1967, the nationwide imposition of revolutionary committees, a process that involved both considerable violence and loss of life, effectively brought an end to the quasi-utopian fantasies of Mao’s autogolpe.

The Red Guards that Mao had encouraged to ‘destroy the old world’ a few months earlier had in part been inspired by the Boxer rebels of 1900. In April 1901, after the disaster of the Boxer Rebellion (see Zi Zhongyun 資中筠, ‘1900 & 2020 — An Old Anxiety in a New Era’China Heritage, 28 April 2020), the New Policies 新政, a transformative political, economic and educational program, were launched. This last-minute renovation failed to slake the thirst for radical change and, in 1911, an uprising forced the abdication of the ruling house in early 1912 and the establishment of the Republic of China. When, nearly eighty years later, the Communists under Deng Xiaoping launched their reforms in late 1978 they were something of an unacknowledged echo of ‘managed change under autocracy’ essayed in 1901.

At best, the events of April 1901 will be passed over with scant mention, although a few months later the People’s Republic will clamorously hail the centenary of ceaseless struggle carried out under the aegis of the Communist Party, which was founded in Shanghai in 1921. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, although 20 April will signpost 150 years since the passage of the Ku Klux Klan Act in Washington in 1871, more significantly, 31 May-1 June will mark the centenary of the Black Wallstreet Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Then, on 11 September, Americans, and people elsewhere, will mournfully recall the casus belli of the ‘Forever War’ twenty years earlier, a global campaign that has become an ever-lengthening period in what the historian David Vine has called ‘the United States of war’. Finally, three months later, on 11 December 2021, China will feel well justified in commemorating the twentieth anniversary of its accession to the World Trade Organization.

The year 2021 also happens to mark the 2,200th anniversary of the founding of the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE, a regime controversial throughout China’s dynastic history that finally found favour, first under Mao Zedong and, more recently, with Xi Jinping. For more on this, see Jianying Zha 查建英, ‘China’s Heart of Darkness — Prince Han Fei & Chairman Xi Jinping’China Heritage.

From ‘Shooting 5th Avenue’, a series by Lois Conner made in New York during the 2020-2021 election year. © Lois Conner


 America: Souls, Angels & Demons


During the 2020 American presidential campaign, both Democrats and Republicans claimed that the upcoming election was nothing less than a ‘battle for the soul of America’. The battle was joined generations ago. As one commentator pointed out:

‘When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders formed what is now the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, they made their founding motto “to save the soul of America.” ‘

Elizabeth Dias, Biden and Trump Say They’re Fighting for America’s “Soul.”
What Does That Mean?
The New York Times, 17 October 2020

Dias concludes her discussion of the American soul by Patrick Roberts of First Baptist Church in Kenosha, Wis., a town shaken by racial violence. Reflecting on Biden’s campaign promise, Roberts said:

‘We don’t know the policies he will come up with… I think he is just talking on basic terms, getting back to terms of human decency, interaction that is respectable, regardless of your income, your ideology, your color.’

For Republicans and Donald J. Trump, their champion, the leader of the Democratic Party Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s declaration that: ‘This campaign isn’t just about winning votes. It’s about winning the heart and, yes, the soul of America,’ became a rallying cry:

‘Picking up on this, a recent Trump campaign ad spliced videos of Democrats invoking “the soul” of America, followed by images of clashes between protesters and the police and the words “Save America’s Soul,” with a request to text “SOUL” to make a campaign contribution.’

The struggle to redeem the ‘soul of America’ was the goal of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference established in 1957, the first campaign of which focussed on voter’s rights, which was sparked by the Civil Rights bill that was before Congress at the time. But for some, however, the battle for America’s soul had begun outside Xuzhou in Jiangsu province 江蘇省徐州市 in the Republic of China. In August 1945, shortly after the end of the Japanese War, a missionary and US intelligence officer by the name of John Morrison Birch was killed by Communist forces in the Liberated Zone of Jiangsu.

Only two months earlier, addressing the closing session of the Communist Party’s Seventh National Congress, Mao Zedong had warned:

‘Yesterday, in a talk with two Americans who were leaving for the United States, I said that the U.S. government was trying to undermine us and this would not be permitted. We oppose the U.S. government’s policy of supporting Chiang Kai-shek against the Communists. But we must draw a distinction, firstly, between the people of the United States and their government and, secondly, within the U.S. government between the policy-makers and their subordinates. I said to these two Americans, “Tell the policy-makers in your government that we forbid you Americans to enter the Liberated Areas because your policy is to support Chiang Kai-shek against the Communists, and we have to be on our guard. You can come to the Liberated Areas if your purpose is to fight Japan, but there must first be an agreement. We will not permit you to nose around everywhere. Since Patrick J. Hurley [an outspokenly anti-Communist American ambassador to the Republic of China from 8 January-22 September 1945 noted for his boorishness and cognitive lapses — one historian described him as ‘a drunken idiot given to Choctaw war cries’. He referred to Mao as ‘Moose Dung’ and Chiang Kai-shek as ‘Mr Shek’ (Mao’s associates called him ‘The Clown’) and he had only been in China for a short time before being appointed ambassador after having previously served in New Zealand, the Soviet Union and Iran. Hurley contributed to a conspiracy theory that Communist sympathisers and fellow travellers in the State Department ‘lost China’ in 1949] has publicly declared against co-operation with the Chinese Communist Party, why do you still want to come and prowl around in our Liberated Areas?”‘

from Mao Zedong, ‘The Foolish Old Man
Who Removed the Mountains’
, 11 June 1945

The Life of John Birch appeared in 1954. Written by Robert Henry Winborne Welch, Jr, a wealthy candy manufacturer from Boston who was an avid supporter of the notorious Joseph McCarthy, famous for an hysterical anti-communist witch-hunt. From his teens Welch had become a conspiracy theorist par excellence. In the 1950s, among other things, he argued that Dwight Eisenhower was a Soviet agent. In his fevered imagination John Birch became a martyr, a symbolic victim of the vast conspiracy behind the Communist takeover of mainland China. Welch believed that:

‘both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians. If left unexposed, the traitors inside the U.S. government would betray the country’s sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, managed by a “one-world socialist government”.’

John Birch would be regarded by members of what is known as the ‘paleoconservatives’ and din 1958 Welch founded a radical right anti-communist group devoted to small-government, a kind of American fundamentalism and opposition to the civil rights movement. (See Bart L. Verhoeven, The rearguard of freedom: the John Birch Society and the development of modern conservatism in the United States, 1958-1968, PhD thesis, University of Nottingham, 2015).

One the earliest members of the John Birch Society was  Fred C. Koch. An implacable enemy of all forms of socialism from the time he visited the Soviet Union to build oil refineries in the late 1920s (his collaborations with Nazi Germany in the 1930s were less troubled), Koch was against big government and long opposed the New Deal of Franklin Delanore Roosevelt. Having started out as a part of the radical right, and sidelined by mainstream conservatives for decades, the fringe ideas of the John Birch Society gradually captured the heart of the Republican Party. Two sons of Koch père, Charles G. Koch and David H. Koch (d.2019) — known as the ‘Koch Brothers’— have played an outsized role in the country’s libertarian and conservative politics since the 1980s.

Indeed, it is the 1980s and 1990s, during which what is now figured as the battle for the soul of America, that conservative and liberal views were in constant conflict. On 4 May 1991, George H.W. Bush introduced a new element to what was already a virulent clash of ideas:

‘…the freedom to speak one’s mind—that may be the most fundamental and deeply revered of all our liberties. Americans, to debate, to say what we think—because, you see, it separates good ideas from bad. It defines and cultivates the diversity upon which our national greatness rests. It tears off the blinders of ignorance and prejudice and lets us move on to greater things.

‘Ironically, on the 200th anniversary of our Bill of Rights, we find free speech under assault throughout the United States, including on some college campuses. The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.

‘What began as a crusade for civility has soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship. Disputants treat sheer force—getting their foes punished or expelled, for instance—as a substitute for the power of ideas.

‘Throughout history, attempts to micromanage casual conversation have only incited distrust. They have invited people to look for an insult in every word, gesture, action. And in their own Orwellian way, crusades that demand correct behavior crush diversity in the name of diversity.

‘We all should be alarmed at the rise of intolerance in our land and by the growing tendency to use intimidation rather than reason in settling disputes. Neighbors who disagree no longer settle matters over a cup of coffee. They hire lawyers, and they go to court. And political extremists roam the land, abusing the privilege of free speech, setting citizens against one another on the basis of their class or race.

‘But, you see, such bullying is outrageous. It’s not worthy of a great nation grounded in the values of tolerance and respect. So, let us fight back against the boring politics of division and derision. Let’s trust our friends and colleagues to respond to reason. As Americans we must use our persuasive powers to conquer bigotry once and for all. And I remind myself a lot of this: We must conquer the temptation to assign bad motives to people who disagree with us.’

from George H.W. Bush, ‘Remarks at the University of Michigan
Commencement Ceremony in Ann Arbor’, 4 May 1991

Thirty years later, these remarks remain salient, and ironic, in particular that some fifteen months later, during President Bush’s campaign for a second term in the White House, a strategically useful conservative by the name of Pat Buchanan (a Nixon loyalist, former communications director in the Reagan White House and later an economic nationalist described as ‘Trump before Trump was Trump’), declared that a religious war was tearing apart the soul of America.

‘The American people are not going to go back into the discredited liberalism of the 1960s and the failed liberalism of the 1970s’, Buchanan announced in his invited ‘Address to the Republican National Convention’ on 17 August 1992.

‘My friends’, Buchanan boomed,

‘this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe, and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.

‘… we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.’

— Patrick J. Buchanan, ‘Address to the Republican National Convention’, 17 August 1992

The radical insurrection that Buchanan started within the Republican Party in 1991 (gleefully reinforced by the evangelical lunacy of Pat Robertson), and which drove three unsuccessful presidential campaigns, eventually played a role in the rise of Donald J. Trump in 2016 (it also meshed with the trajectory of Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party). In a number of crucial policy areas, Trump’s presidency finally gave substance to Buchanan’s benighted vision, inviting thereby the bitter and wizened spirit of a man known as ‘Pitchfork Pat’ into the White House. Even still, Buchanan thought it was too late to save the country’s soul. Speaking to a journalist from Politico in early 2017, he made his misgivings clear.

‘Sweeping change was needed 25 years ago, before thousands of factories vanished due to the North American Free Trade Agreement, before millions of illegal immigrants entered the country, before trillions of dollars were squandered on regime change and nation-building.’

‘He’s not unlike the countless Trump voters I met across the country in 2016,’ the journalist Tim Alberta observed:

‘[M]any of them older folks yearning for a return to the country of their youth, a place they remember as safer, whiter, more wholesome, more Christian, more confident and less polarized. The difference is that Buchanan refuses to indulge in the illusion that a return to this utopia of yesteryear is even possible. Economically and demographically and culturally, he believes, the damage is done.

‘ “We rolled the dice with the future of this country,” he tells me. “And I think it’s going to come up snake eyes.” ‘

 Tim Alberta, ‘The Ideas Made It, But I Didn’t’
Politico Magazine, May/June 2017

Nonetheless, Buchanan cheered on claims that Joseph Biden and his supporters had ‘stolen’ the November 2020 presidential election and he continued to agitate for Trump following the storming of The Capitol on 1/6. The headline of an opinion piece published by The Washington Post on 29 January 2021 declared:

The ‘civil war’ for the soul of the GOP is over before it began.


A Single Garment of Destiny

Jon Meacham

Nearly three decades after Buchanan’s 1992 speech, the war for the soul of America was being championed by the Democratic Party. Joseph R. Biden Jr concluded the speech he made when accepting the party nomination as presidential candidate on 20 August 2020:

‘Hope is more powerful than fear, and light is more powerful than dark. This is our moment. This is our mission. May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness begin here tonight as love and hope and light join in the battle for the soul of the nation.’

The historian Jon Meacham contributed both to that speech and to the acceptance speech that Biden delivered from Wilmington, Del., his first remarks as the president-elect on 9 November 2020. The author of The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (2018), Meacham himself spoke at the Democratic National Convention:

‘I’m historian Jon Meacham. In his final Sunday sermon, days before his death, Martin Luther King Jr said, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny. This is the way God’s universe is made. This is the way it is structured.” A single garment of destiny. We the people cannot escape that reality nor as Lincoln taught us, can you and I escape history. And we shouldn’t want to for many of us have been given much; liberty, opportunity, a sense of possibility. The task of our time is to make sure those gifts are available not just to folks who look like me but to all of us.

‘This is a grave moment in America. A deadly virus is ravaging us. Our jobs are evaporating. Our faith and the things that bind us together is fraying for our democracy is under assault from an incumbent, more interested in himself than he is in the rest of us. Extremism, nativism, isolationism and a lack of economic opportunity for working people are all preventing us from realizing our nation’s promise. So we must decide whether we will continue to be prisoners of the darkest of American forces or will we free ourselves to write a brighter, better, nobler story? That’s the issue of this election. A choice that goes straight to the nature of the soul of America.

‘Humankind has long viewed the soul as the vital center, the core, the essence of existence. The soul is what makes us us. In its finest hours, America’s soul has been animated by the proposition that we are all created equal and by the imperative to ensure that we are treated equally. Yet, America is a mix of light and shadow. Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall dwell in the American soul but so do the impulses that have given us slavery, segregation and systemic discrimination.

‘Often we’d prefer to hear the trumpets rather than face the tragedies but an honest accounting of who we’ve been, can enable us to see who we should be. A country driven by the best parts of our soul, not by the worst. A country informed by reason and candor, not by ego and lies. A country that’s big hearted, not narrow minded. The struggle to be who we ought to be is difficult, demanding and ongoing. Justice can be elusive and change in America has been painful and provisional. The civil war led to segregation. The new deal to right wing reaction, civil rights to white backlash, yet history, which will surely be our judge, can also be our guide. From Harriet Tubman to Alice Paul, to John Lewis from the beaches of Normandy, to the rendering of the iron curtain, our story has soared when we’ve built bridges, not walls. When we’ve lent a hand, not when we’ve pointed fingers. When we’ve hoped not feared.

‘If we live in hope, we open our souls to the power of love. We’ve been taught to love our neighbors as ourselves. As individuals and as a nation, however, we fail at following that commandment more often than we succeed. But when we fail, we must try again and again and again, for only in trial is progress possible. From Jamestown forward, our story has become fuller and fairer because of people who share a conviction that Dr. King articulated on that Sunday half a century ago; the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Bending that arc requires all of us. It requires we, the people, and it requires a president of the United States with empathy, grace, a big heart and an open mind. Joe Biden will be such a president. With our voices and our votes, let us now write the next chapter of the American story; one of hope, of love, of justice. If we do so, we might just save our country and our souls.’




The Soul of America
Jimmy Carter & Jon Meacham in Conversation

Related Material:


Conjuring Those Absent, 20 January 2021

Following Biden’s win on 3 November 2020, a stripped-down inauguration was planned for Washington on 20 January 2021 due both to the COVID-19 pandemic that gripped the nation, as well as the lingering threat posed by pro-Trump insurgents. During the events surrounding 20 January, the incoming leaders appealed to those much-celebrated better angels of which Abraham Lincoln had spoken at the time of his inauguration in 1861. They also gestured to ghosts and spectres, both past and present. On the day of the inauguration Biden also conjured:

‘the absent people through symbolism. He created three imaginary throngs. The first was the field of nearly 200,000 US flags laid out on the National Mall to stand for those who would have been there. The second was the one that always outnumbers the living: the crowd of the dead. Biden and Harris ritually summoned the dead of the pandemic in the ghostly form of four hundred lights set around the Lincoln Memorial’s reflecting pool, to represent what were then the 400,000 victims of the virus and of the malign misgovernment that so increased their number. Biden summoned them again in the pause for silence he called for during his inaugural address. He became the chief mourner at an imaginary mass funeral, calling up in light and silence those who have been lost in Trump’s dark clangor.’

Fintan O’Toole, ‘The Trump Inheritance’
The New York Review of Books
25 February 2021 issue


A Horse Whisperer Who has to Deal with Mad Dogs

As Fintan O’Toole also observed:

‘Biden the Irish pol is a revenant from a dead era. His skills as an operator, a fixer, a problem-solver, are finely honed – but they are redundant. He is a horse whisperer who has to deal with mad dogs. He is a nifty tango dancer with no possible partners. There is no reasonable, civilised Republican opposition with which he can compromise. There can be no such thing as a unilateral declaration of amity and concord. …

‘In that sense, the political Biden is not the man who can change America. It is that other, richer persona, the private self, shadowed by time and loss and a sense of tragedy, that must come into its own. His supporters understood this in November – they voted for him in unprecedented numbers, less because of what he said he would do and more because of who he is: a man of sorrow acquainted with grief.

‘Biden’s tragic self now rises to meet two American tragedies, one very immediate, one long and slow. The immediate one is the malign mishandling of the pandemic. Trump, at his inauguration four years ago, spoke of “American carnage”. He did not say that he would cause it. The most powerful country in the world, with vast scientific and logistical capacities, has allowed close to 400,000 of its people to die from Covid-19, very many of them because of lies and misgovernment.

‘Trump did not feel this pain, either personally or electorally. Biden does feel it. His own sorrows have made him deeply attuned to the meaning of death, but also profoundly resilient in the face of its depredations. If the purpose of tragedy in art is to allow us to look death in the eye and not be defeated by it, Biden’s life experience has uniquely fitted him to fulfil that purpose in public life. He can allow Americans to grieve, while also restoring their faith in science, reason and good government.

‘If he does this successfully, he will also have the authority to address the other, historical American tragedy: the irony of great republican ideals built on foundations of cruelty, oppression and structural inequality. He will have a moment in which he can confront the other truths that are self-evident: that gross racial, social and economic inequity has always disfigured the US. If the tumult of the last two years has made anything clear, it is that the denial of this truth cannot persist.

‘In this, his familiarity with the dark can be Biden’s great strength. In his own life, he has been there and come back. He knows that it cannot be denied, but that it can be transcended. He can invite America to encounter its own darknesses – the legacy of slavery, the persistence of official and unofficial white supremacist violence, the failure to provide the access to education and healthcare necessary for the equal dignity of citizens – while reassuring its people that after such acknowledgement can come real change for the better.

‘The great problem of American political discourse has always been – strangely for such a Biblical culture – a refusal to accept the idea of original sin. Tragic narratives are driven by some version of this idea: something went wrong at the beginning and, until it is confronted and expiated, it will continue to play itself out in havoc and pain. …

‘Biden has to create [a] … bold departure, away from the hollow promises of the American dream and towards a new awakening of real equality. He has, after all, little to lose, not just in the political sense of having no second term to win, but in the personal one of having already endured so much loss. He has the paradoxical freedom of knowing that nothing that lies ahead of him is likely to be as bad as what lies behind him. In that freedom lies the possibility of a courage adequate to the fight he has promised to engage in – a relentless struggle for America’s soul.’

Fintan O’Toole, ‘Can Joe Biden make America great again?’
The Guardian, 16 January 2021


The Capitol, seen from The National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2009. From ‘Life in a Box’, a series by Lois Conner. © Lois Conner


The Coalition of the Aghast Knows Best

‘It is the “duty” of American citizens, President Joe Biden announced in his inaugural address last week, to “defend the truth and to defeat the lies”. Much of Biden’s speech was an unremarkable stringing-together of patriotic platitudes, but this call for a great truth crusade stood out for its audacity. America is, after all, the homeland of the public relations industry, of televangelism, of Madison Avenue, of PT Barnum. Our leading scholars worship at the shrine of post-structuralism; our brightest college graduates go on to work for the CIA; our best newspapers dynamite the barrier between reporting and opinion; our greatest political practitioners are consultants who “spin” the facts this way or that.

‘…this is the mass-media business model of our time: the culture wars are with us all day, every day, because outrage and divisiveness build an audience, allow the media to sell candy bars and adult diapers. Start up your car and there’s a voice on the radio criticising an actor for playing an inappropriate part in a movie. Turn on the TV and there’s antifa out of control, throwing stuff at the cops and defacing a statue. Open up the Times itself and there’s a startling reinterpretation of the entirety of US history.’

from Thomas Frank, ‘Can President Joe Biden mend a torn America?’
Le Monde diplomatique, February 2021


The Breach and Its Repair
A Homily, 21 January 2021

Regardless of the avowed separation of Church and State in the United States, it is customary for an inaugural prayer service the morning after the formal ascension of a new president. On 21 January 2021, William J. Barber II addressed the host, gathered in person and virtually, at Washington National Cathedral. His homily took its theme from Isaiah 58 which talks about ‘The Repairer of the Breach’ and, in addressing the new president and vice president, he said:

‘… so the prophet gives the nation God’s clear guidance out of the jam it is in. Choose first to repent of the policy sin. Then, repair the breach.

‘The breach, according to the imagery of Isaiah, is when there is a gap in the nation between what is and how God wants things to be.

‘Transposed to our time, the breach is when we say “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” with our lips while we see the rich and the poor living in two very different Americas.

‘The breach would be knowing the only way to ensure domestic tranquility is to establish justice, but pretending we can address the nation’s wounds with simplistic calls for unity.

‘The breach is telling lies when we need truth, greed when we need compassion, fighting one another when we need to find common ground, and hating when we ought to be loving.

‘And every now and then, a nation needs breach repairers to take us forward.’

Barber, who coauthored a book titled The Third Reconstruction (2016), reiterated an appeal:

‘We must have a Third Reconstruction. We must address the five interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation/denial of health care, the war economy, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism. These are breaches that must be addressed, and according to the text, repairing the breaches will bring revival. …

‘No, America has never yet been all that she has hoped to be. But right here, right now, a Third Reconstruction is possible if we choose.’


Related Material:


In ‘Better Angels, Persistent Demons, Part III’ we turn to the haunted heritages in China and its troubled Third Wave of Reform, the origins of which, like that of a proffered Third Reconstruction in America, are also to be found in the 1860s.

The Editor

Then Shall Thy Light Rise in Obscurity

… If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity;

And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday:

And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.

And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.

 Isaiah 58: 9-12 (King James Bible)