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Glenn Arbery

Glenn Arbery: Should We Celebrate The 4th This Year?

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By Glenn Arbery, President Wyoming Catholic College

A statue of Abraham Lincoln is being removed from Boston this week even though it is a copy of the statue in Washington, D.C., paid for by freed slaves and dedicated by the great Frederick Douglass. The statue of Columbus is now gone from Columbus City Hall in the capital of Ohio, and Mount Rushmore is under attack. Surely, the total eradication of past injustice is at hand.

A Song for the Fourth:

Are we celebrating our independence this year? Whether we even should is an open question in many places—but not in Lander, Wyoming, where the parade will go on, albeit more modestly than usual: no folding chairs parked curbside a day ahead of time, no candy thrown from floats to the kids swarming the streets, no firetrucks spraying water two hundred feet into the air above Main Street in the grand finale.

The Wyoming Catholic College community will participate, and fireworks that night could very well make up for the relative restraint of the morning, but even in Lander the strangeness of 2020 will continue. It is good to remind ourselves, particularly this year, what America means in its noblest register. 

One-hundred twenty-five years ago this week, Katherine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College, published the first version of “America the Beautiful” for the Fourth of July that summer. Many phrases from her hymn have become part of our national memory: “spacious skies,” “purple mountain majesties,” “amber waves of grain,” “from sea to shining sea.”

The song’s emphasis is bracing. The lines that best address our current situation come at the end of the second stanza:

                America, America!

                God mend thine every flaw.

                Confirm thy soul in self-control,

                Thy liberty in law.

Difficult as it is these days to imagine addressing America as a single entity, Bates does so boldly in her hymn. 

After acknowledging “every flaw” of this beautiful nation and praying for God’s help, the song turns imperative. “Confirm thy soul in self-control,” writes Bates, and a great deal is compacted into the word soul. It evokes 19th century romantic heroes—great, striving, sublime figures impatient with all boundaries, like Napoleon or Melville’s Ahab.

As Abraham Lincoln wrote in one of his early speeches, “Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others.”

Bates has such heroes in mind, but she also draws upon the classical idea of magnanimity, “greatness of soul,” the crown of the moral virtues that Aristotle describes in the Nicomachean Ethics.

The tyrant’s way to distinguish himself might be to step over the usual moral thresholds with a larger-than-life excess, like the “extraordinary man” that Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov imagines. But the strongest soul overcomes its own unruly impulses and manifests its virtues through an inner equilibrium; it is like tuning an instrument.

“Confirm thy soul” in Bates’s poem means two things: first, to establish America’s nobility of soul beyond doubt before the nations of the world, and, second, to add greater strength to the national identity and make it firmer. The more America exercises the power and depth of self-restraint, as George Washington did, the more she confirms her greatness. 

The song also urges America to confirm her “liberty in law.” Liberty is sometimes construed to mean breaking free of all constraints, like an escaping prisoner. I am reminded of William Wordsworth’s poem, “Nuns Fret Not At Their Convent’s Narrow Room,” where he praises the demands of the sonnet form.

                In truth the prison, into which we doom

                Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,

                In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound

                Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.

As the convent is no prison for the nun who chooses it, or the sonnet for Wordsworth, so the law is no prison for those who exercise their liberty in choosing its restraint.

In fact, America confirms her liberty—makes it firmer, gives it a more established strength—through obedience to law. 

Bates’s song remains perennially appealing because it conveys the incalculable beauty of virtue that America can exhibit by exercising self-control and taking on the high responsibilities of self-rule. The same appeal applies to each individual citizen.

We ought to shine, especially on this day, among the nations of the earth. The prayer of Wyoming Catholic College for this Fourth of July is that the anomalies of 2020 do not overcome us and that our nation will recall itself and find again the greatness of soul that gave us our liberty.

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Is This The End? Or Is It Another Messy Beginning?

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By Dr. Glenn Arbery, President, Wyoming Catholic College

In a recent Daily Cartoon for the New Yorker, cartoonist Elizabeth McNair depicts an old bearded white man with his eyes closed — the familiar doomsday prophet — holding up a sign that reads THE END IS NEAR. Around the corner behind him comes an open-eyed and determined-looking young black woman holding up a sign that says ACTUALLY, THIS IS JUST THE BEGINNING. 

McNair presents a quick and simple interpretation of the national turmoil we now face. First of all, it is racially divided, old white man versus young black woman. Whiteness, very much including the white beard of old age, is an embattled order that feels a more or less apocalyptic dread of the end of civilization.

Given the biblical associations with prophecy, the cartoon hints at this benighted antique figure’s understanding of moral order. Note his closed eyes. Blackness, by contrast, is embodied in the determined countenance of the young woman. Her life matters. Forward-looking, wholly oriented toward the future, she does not anticipate doomsday, but some brighter and better tomorrow where her personal ambitions have been liberated from the oppressive past. Her race and gender will not hinder her. 

Looking at this cartoon, I am reminded of another one that I saw this week, this one by Pat Cross in the National Catholic Register.Playing on another familiar cartoon theme, the Titanic and the iceberg, Cross depicts a massive iceberg of which “Riots” are merely the small, visible tip. “Broken Families” are the massive, unseen part of the iceberg toward which a ship flying the U.S. flag is blithely steaming. 

Cross does not emphasize the peaceful demonstrations implied in McNair’s cartoon, but the symptomatic civil disorder that these demonstrations unleash. Race is not the overt reference of his cartoon. The hidden part of the iceberg applies across all racial divides, since (to cite the common statistics) 40% of all children in the United States are now born out of wedlock, and 50% of marriages end in divorce.

But in the current circumstances, Cross’s word “Riots” might easily be interpreted to mean “black lawlessness” and “Broken Families” might suggest the cause of lawlessness: the fact that 77% of all black children in the United States are now born out of wedlock.

What do “broken families” have to do with the murder of George Floyd, the insistence that black lives matter, the charge of systemic racism, and the brutality of the police? For Cross, black lives matter so much that the restoration of families must be the crucial first step in acknowledging the great wrong that began with race slavery.

Why?

Because stable relationships between a mother and a father, their mutual trust, and their love of their children provide a strong moral grounding, a sense of ownership in the present, and solid expectations for the future. If, on the other hand, a child’s primary experience is abandonment and illegitimacy, he or she will have no deeply felt reason to respect law itself or enforcers of the law. If black people encounter “law” as an instrument of deprivation and violence, why not resist it? If “law” is merely oppression enacted by policemen who serve “whiteness,” then any so-called common good that law promises has already been denied to black people in advance. 

Pat Cross, looking at the reality of the rejection of marriage, believes that healing broken families is the least racist thing America can do. For McNair, on the other hand, “just the beginning” means that the defeat of the old doomsday prophet is the condition of personal liberation in the new America she envisions. 

I understand very well the appeal of being able to say, “Actually, this is just the beginning.” In fact, I say it about Wyoming Catholic College, both in its founding purpose and its future. I do not associate that new beginning with liberation from the best of the past, however, but rather with its deeper and more thoughtful recovery, with the acknowledgment of past wrongs and the genuine attempt at redress. What is permanently true will reemerge. Christ is risen. What is false or merely ideological will inevitably fall away.

There is much to examine in our own hearts about how we treat others, much to repent. But McNair’s young, determined, black woman is convinced, like many in my generation in the 1960s (or French Revolutionaries in the 1790s), that the old repressive human condition can at last be remedied through enlightened social action.

That action now appears to entail a great and growing contempt for America itself, our hard-won Republic, as inherently flawed; it appears to interpret the world’s greatest ongoing endeavor of self-government as an evil thing from the moment that Columbus set sail from Europe. A young writer in Brooklyn, Robert Jones, Jr., writes that “The United States of America is by its very nature, anti-Black…. [Anti-Blackness] is the foundation of every American institution and what animates every American person.” 

The title of his piece is “Let It Burn.” No wonder statues are toppled, churches violated, public officials derided or removed for trying to maintain public order.

If this is actually just the beginning, no wonder the old prophet, who has seen many a revolution like this one, says what he does. He closes his eyes because he sees all too well what is coming.

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Finding Hope Will Be Important As Coronavirus Crisis Deepens

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Column by Dr. Glenn Arbery, President Wyoming Catholic College, Lander

This past weekend, I got an email from one of last year’s WCC graduates. He said that he missed the Wyoming landscapes that I described in a recent column.

He also thanked us for making his class memorize W.B. Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming.” As he put it, “It’s been stuck in my head lately like a song.” That might sound heartwarming at first (a student fondly remembering a poem that moved him), but the reality is a little darker. 

Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” almost exactly a century ago in the immediate aftermath of World War I—that enormous refutation of the Enlightenment—when the Spanish influenza raged across the world and new, godless ideologies were rising to power.

Developing his own mythology of history, he anticipates the end of the Christian era as part of a complex series of interlocking “gyres” that represent the expansion and contraction of historical civilizations. He imagines a different and ominous “second coming” of an ancient Egyptian civilization, not the return of Christ. Like Nietzsche, Yeats recognizes the devastating consequences of the loss of God at the center of European civilization:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world….

In the poem, the falcon turns in the widening circles of his flight until he “cannot hear the falconer,” the central figure, whereupon “Things fall apart.” Political and cultural Christendom, which once heard Christ in the Church and the Gospels, hears Him no longer—in fact, is no longer “Christendom” at all, as the European Union demonstrates today. 

“Things have felt strange lately,” our alumnus wrote, “in the sense that, well, the falcon is spiraling too high and has temporarily lost his connection to earth.” It’s easy to see why this poem sticks in this graduate’s head. Within a few weeks, the world seems to have lost its way.

No one knows what will happen with COVID-19—whether it will spread and peak and go away, or whether it will stay around for years, even centuries, as the plague did in Europe. Whether the economy will recover depends on what happens with the virus. The political wrangling that recently occupied everyone’s attention has not stopped, but everyone’s focus now rests on Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is not running for anything.

So much has changed. Last night I was crumpling some newspaper to light a fire, and I glanced at the headline from September—the whistleblower, the beginning of what eventually became the impeachment proceedings. It was almost a nostalgic moment: Remember the impeachment?

I predict a great resurgence of hope and imagination after this crisis. Who knows whether it is not just for an occasion like this that our College came into existence—to find the unheard-of things preserved for a world that had forgotten them?

It’s good to remember how fortunate we have been not to suffer these massive disorientations more frequently; it’s also good to remember that true culture arises out of the joy and beauty we find anyway.

Our graduate also asked what books or poems I would recommend. As I said a few weeks ago, the great books of the Western tradition begin with plagues like the one in the opening lines of the Iliad. Look at the history of smallpox, and then read Dickens’ Bleak House, one of the great novels in the English tradition.

Reread the epics, especially those that center on a hero who lives for a long time in a condition of uncertainty and fear and who must give up even temporary security in order to accomplish some great task. I think of Aeneas, and there are many others. And Tolkien is not a bad companion when it feels like the shadow of Mordor is coming over the world. 

As for poems, it’s a small gesture, but I have started a blog, “A Ragged Patch of Glow,” just to look at a lyric poem a day—insights, glimpses of emotion, intuitions of beauty. I don’t have a program of instruction in mind, just a way to draw on the heights and depths of the capacities of language. I hope that the poems bring a moment or two of clarity.

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