How I’ve managed to avoid praying for a President I despise

As Christians go, I’m not particularly a standout. Too ornery, too desultory, too sweary. Pastoral instincts invariably overwhelmed by prophetic fire. Kind of a scorched-earth witness.

But when I go to church — something I miss, so much, during this pandemic — part of the service includes the “Prayers of the People,” and one part of that prayer time entails praying for the nation’s government and leaders. And for the last four years, that has been something of a challenge. But I’ve found a workaround. I think God would approve of my creativity.

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Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

I am an Episcopalian, not by birth but by choice. …


Social norms are a never-ending contest

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(Demetrius Freeman/Getty)

In one of the most gripping, visceral portrayals of human experience in all of cinema, Glenn Close makes the viewer feel what no one ever wants to feel: unalloyed shame.

The scene unfolds at the end of the film Dangerous Liaisons, set in the hedonistic courtly society of pre-Revolutionary Paris. Glenn Close’s character, the Marquise de Merteuil, to soothe a long-nursed grudge against a lover who had abandoned her, plots the ruination of her ex-lover’s virgin bride-to-be and enlists the playboy courtier Vicomte de Valmont (played by John Malkovich) to help enact her plot. Though he originally has designs on seducing someone else, his own wounded pride at being rejected brings him around to Merteuil’s plan. …


Do white students need more room for error?

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A few days ago, The New York Times published “A Racial Slur, a Viral Video, and a Reckoning,” a story about a high-school student’s racist act and its exposure by a fellow student.

Arc Digital’s Nicholas Grossman wrote about the Times story, as well as the consequences and criticisms both students have since faced, including the consequence of now becoming even more internet famous thanks to major coverage in one of the biggest newspapers there is.

For Grossman, the local story that became a national story could be summed up as adolescents making mistakes in an increasingly online world of hyper-scrutiny that does not give kids any room for error. …


Facing the ugliness of the past in print

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Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

With the very first submission for the very first number of my forthcoming magazine, I was faced with a problem: how to edit a piece that included the N-word in a quote from a historical source.

Now, American historians encounter this word very often in our sources—in newspapers, in letters, in journals, in written accounts of the publicly-shouted racist slogans from white backlash to Black activism for civil rights. …


Take a leap of faith with me into 2021

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Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash

Writing can be its own reward, but the workman is worthy of a wage. If you write, and you’re getting good at it, you should find a way to be paid for your work. Finding an outlet that pays for well-crafted, creative work, even a little, is something we all deserve in 2021. I have been looking for such an outlet. I couldn’t find exactly the right publication I was looking for, so I decided to make one: The Mudsill, with our first issue premiering on January 1, 2021.

Now, if you’ve followed me across various platforms on the internet, you know I’ve been writing on here for a while — for about ten years, now, as a matter of fact. And, like a lot of people, I’ve mostly been writing for free. I have been one of those people who write for the pleasure of putting words out into the world that, like Noah’s dove, find a landing place in the heart of even one reader. …


Should we take these big talkers seriously?

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Fort Sumter (Getty/Arc)

Some stalwart loyalists to President Trump have threatened — or “merely predicted,” as they might say if they were ever charged with sedition — a civil war over the results of the November 2020 presidential election.

More disturbingly, radical right-wing leaders in the Republican Party like Allen West, the Chairman of the Texas GOP, have floated the idea that “law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the Constitution.”

The attempt to steal the name of “Union” and affix it to this pathetic reincarnation of a secessionist-curious Confederation may just be, in the end, the most damaging result of West’s unhinged rhetoric. …


Joseph Epstein, “Cancel Culture,” and the Murdoch Shake and Bake

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Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

Today’s Wall Street Journal editorial responding to the public outcry over columnist Joseph Epstein’s most recent vile screed is as stupid as it was predictable.

No, not just predictable; PREDICTED.

I saw Epstein’s piece—saw the outrageous and over-the-top intentional cruelty and hatefulness of it (even by his debased standards)—and I saw and participated in the appropriately angry public response that his writing provoked, and I said, on Twitter, that we could expect Epstein to start pissing and moaning about cancel culture.

Then I thought about it for a second, and I realized that this was the plan all along. This is the one-two punch, the standard-recipe shake-and-bake from the fetid kitchen of the Murdochs’ culinary school of editorial atrocities: write something that is objectionable on all fronts—bad idea, bad argument, bad execution, bad-faith intervention—then wait before the perfectly appropriate objections roll in from all corners of the public square, then write the follow-up piece about how “the mob” just can’t handle the truth, or the free exchange of ideas, or whatever, and drop your mic and announce that you’re taking your delectable sour grapes where they will be appreciated by more discriminating palates. (We know they’re truly discriminating palates because they would never distinguish worthy arguments from unworthy arguments lest they inadvertently cancel someone.) …


Frederick Douglass, race science, and the fight for civilization

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Sounion Kouros, c. 580 BCE

In a previous essay about Frederick Douglass’s confrontation with race science in the 19th century, I agreed with him that there could be “no neutral ground for the scholar” in a political climate where scholarship was often dedicated to the express purpose of denying the full humanity and full equality of Black men and women. In the 1850s, such a denial, based on polygenetic theories of human origins, often served to justify or excuse the enslavement of Black people in the United States.

In a lengthy 1854 commencement speech, Douglass asserted his full humanity and rejected, on axiomatic grounds, the legitimacy debate about the essential equality of Black and white people. Instead, he spent the bulk of his speaking time combating a newly emerging scholarly thesis: the idea that Egyptian civilization had no connection to Black Africans, which was a roundabout way of making the argument that Black men and women in America had no connection to or capacity for a great civilization. …


Race science and Black equality in the 19th century

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Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) edits a journal at his desk, late 1870s. (Hulton Archive/Getty/Arc Illustration)

In the summer of 1854, Frederick Douglass spoke at a college graduation— possibly the first instance in American history of a Black man giving a commencement address. It was certainly the first time Douglass had done so.

As conscious as he was of the novelty of his presence, for his hearers and for himself, Douglass did not hesitate to lay an urgent charge upon the assembled graduates — scholars not only in name but also in fact, as this was a country in which not even two percent of those age 25 or older had a college education. “The relation subsisting between the white and black people of this country is the vital question of the age,” he said. “In the solution of this question, the scholars of America will have to take an important part. …


Thoreau’s studied contempt for popular writing

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A replica of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin in Walden Woods, Massachusetts

Not everyone thinks civilization is a good idea.

Take Henry David Thoreau, the nature lover, the Transcendentalist, the friend of Emerson, the author of Walden. For Thoreau, the term “civilization” was not a marker of cultural achievement, but rather a sign of cultural decay. We see this clearly in the most famous and most often anthologized chapter of Walden, “Why I Lived, and What I Lived for”—the chapter in which Thoreau says, dismally, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

For Thoreau, it was civilization itself that brought such desperation. The opposite of “civilized life” was not “barbarism” nor “savagery” but “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” He identified the idea of civilization with the “mechanical,” with alarm clocks and factory bells and telegraphs and trains and the “hurry and waste” they brought to life. …

About

L.D. Burnett

Essayist, historian, columnist at ArcDigital, editor of TheMudsill.substack.com. Published in Slate, Chronicle Review, Public Seminar. Book under contract.

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