American history, coming from where I'm from, Els' Rabbit Trails, Florida History, politics

In which I wax political but not too much.

This is as political as I am willing to go here, but this tweet is both funny and true:

Given the current state of limbo surrounding the Florida senate race, I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw that. It seems as this is the normal course in every major race our state has voted in since the Great Electoral Fiasco of 2000.

What many of you may not realize is that we have a history of election upheaval here that reaches back much further.

Our illustrious electoral history started at least as far back as 1876, when Florida, via a back room deal, handed her electoral votes and the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes.

Electoral shenannigans are as naturally Floridian as retention pond alligators and key lime pie.

Advertisements
American history, cookbooks, Food, nonfiction

A Square Meal, pt. 2

a suare meal

A Square Meal: A Culinary History of The Great Depression, by Jane Zeigleman and Andrew Coe. Published 2016. 336 pages.

Read part 1 of this review here.

So…what did people actually eat during the Great Depression?

In reality, a lot of people ate just fine. There were plenty of hungry souls, but the one drawback of this book is that without a working knowledge and full picture of the period,  you’d come away thinking that just about everyone in America was starving. Not everyone was, but as I noted in the first installment of this review, the hungry were caught in the middle of a political tug of war which spilled over into the rest of the country, changed the way the populace viewed economic security, and catapulted FDR into the White House.

The Depression, for both the destitute and those who feared destitution knocking at their door any day, ushered in a culture of extreme attention to thrift. This thrifty attitude was served up on plates of the employed and unemployed alike. Because the home economists and nutrition specialists who worked for the government wanted to make those living on relief as uncomfortable as possible with the prospect, the food allotments were bare bones and bland, as were the recipes they introduced to families as a way to stretch their food.

Recipes that would make most of us turn up our noses in disgust were prepared and received with thanks by people little else to choose from. Even then, according to Coe and Zeigleman, there were times when the lack of calories and necessary nutrients caused even them to complain of the substandard nature of the food they received. They made do dishes such as Ritz mock apple pie, where the buttery crackers serve as a stand-in for the apples:

2 cups sugar

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 3/4 cups water

Pastry for 2-crust 9-inch pie

36 Ritz Crackers, coarsely broken (about 1 3/4 cups)

Zest and 2 tablespoons juice from 1 lemon

2 tablespoons butter or margarine, cut into small pieces

1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1. Mix sugar and cream of tartar in medium saucepan. Gradually stir in water. Bring to boil on high heat; simmer on low 15 minutes. Stir in zest and juice; cool 30 minutes.

2. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Roll out half of pastry on lightly floured surface to 11-inch circle; place in 9-inch pie plate. Place cracker crumbs in crust. Pour sugar syrup over crumbs; top with butter and cinnamon.

3. Roll out remaining pastry to 10-inch circle; place over pie. Seal and flute edge. Cut several slits in top crust to permit steam to escape. Place on parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until golden brown. Cool.

The casserole made its debut during the Depression, but it wasn’t the tasty, cheesy, seasoned dish most Americans love in some way, shape or form. No. It was more along the lines of this ditty cooked up from the mind the well-intentioned Eleanor Roosevelt, spaghetti with boiled carrots and white sauce (from Ranker.com):

Made from spaghetti, boiled carrots, and a simple white sauce of milk, flour, salt, and butter, the first step is to cook the spaghetti for a sadistic 25 minutes, which in a sane world means Step #2 is to order the biggest pizza Domino’s will make. But this is the Great Depression we’re talking about, so the idea is to get the noodles mushy so they pair nicely with the boiled-to-death carrots and the pennies worth of creamy sauce. The result? A “vehicle for nutrition and nutrients” that probably made people want to eat their old Flapper hats instead.

The most unusual food stuff I came across while reading this book was the word “milkorno”, which I later learned was a mixture of milk, corn meal and salt that home cooks could use in various ways to stretch and pad their meals adding both a filling experience and superior nutrition. From Ranker:

Mad scientists at Cornell University in 1933 invented a gruel called Milkorno, a mix of powdered skim milk, corn meal, and salt, to help families in need “stretch budgets without sacrificing nourishment,” promising “Meals For a Family of 5 For $5 a Week.” The name comes from combining “milk” and “corn” with the surprised “Oh!” that guests of Eleanor Roosevelt probably made when she explained what she tricked them into eating at the White House later that same year.

There were also Milkorno’s step-siblings Milkwheato and Milkoato.

The recipe which sent me on my search for the content and origins of this “superfood” can be found on page 183 of A Square Meal: Chop Suey with Milkorno:

2 pounds lean pork cut into cubes

2 cups sliced celery

2 cups sliced onions

3 or 4 cups cooked milkorno

salt and pepper to taste

Saute pork; add the seasonings and 1/2 cup water and simmer until tender. About 1/2 hour before the meat is tender add the celery and onions. If desired the gravy may be thickened by adding 2 tablespoons of flour to each cup of liquid. Pour this mixture over hot cooked milkorno, and serve.

Sounds yummy!

From our vantage point, 80 years in the future where food is plentiful, we have access to more variety and flavors of food any era, and more nutrition information than we ever needed, it’s easy to look at these recipes and see them as disgusting culinary gruel. These foods however, served to fill a specific need at a specific point in history. They also, whatever their limitations, illustrate an ability to adapt and make due under far less than ideal circumstances, a skill sorely lacking in today’s Western culture.

For those insights among others, I highly recommend A Square Meal. It exposes the reader to a lot of information and history that has been lost to all but the most avid history buff who would bother to seek it out. It’s not a perfect book, but it does manage to be both engaging and educational without bludgeoning the reader with the authors ideology. That latter alone makes it worth a read.

4 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

American history, cookbooks, educational, nonfiction, politics

A Square Meal, pt. 1

a suare meal

A Square Meal: A culinary history of the Great Depression, by Jane Zeigleman and Andrew Coe. Originally published in 2016. Hardcover, 336 pages.

After dancing around the review of this information loaded book, I finally concluded I could only do it justice reviewed in two parts. This is because the book delves heavily into two subjects, showing how they overlapped during the Great Depression.

In some sections, mostly the beginning, A Square Meal heavily explores the economic and political climate as the soaring, roaring 20s gave way to the austere and lean 1930s. Beginning with the differences in culinary and lifestyle attitudes between rural America and urban America in the years following WWI, these authors take pains to cover every base that contributed to Americans’ approach to food at beginning of a long economic winter that stubbornly refused to loosen its grip.

They assumed, rightly I believe, that it wouldn’t be possible to adequately discuss the latter without giving the reader a thorough understanding of the former. Because of that, I am going to use this part of the review to highlight some of the cultural, political, and economic themes they explore before getting to the ways this informed meals and Depression era cooking in part 2.

As the mid-1920s unfolded, there was something of a tension between the young people who were leaving the rural farms of their youth (particularly the young men returning home from Europe after the war), and the families left behind on farms in rural America who were largely deemed as backwards and inefficient by modern urban standards. There were whole disciplines, both academic and vocational, dedicated to rural reforms and increasing the efficiency of work for farmwives. This disconnect was largely based on the fact that time and productivity in the two places was viewed quite differently:

“In the great urban centers, the pulse of the factory served as a kind of metronome for the city at large. In the urban workplace, where wages were paid by the hour, efficiency was a measure of success. Factory hands demonstrated their worth by completing the maximum number of standardized motions in a given period. After the factory whistle blew, their time was their own. But even at leisure, city dwellers saw time as a resource, like coal or copper. The fear that time might run out, as every resource will, left them with the dread of time wasted.

On the farm, meanwhile, time was not something you stockpiled like firewood. Farm chores took as long as they took—there was no rushing an ear of corn—and the workday stretched to accommodate the tasks at hand. Time was elastic. The minutes and hours that mattered so much to city folk were irrelevant to the drawn-out biological processes on which the farmer depended. In place of the clock, the farmer’s yardstick for measuring time was the progress of the seasons. As a result, his view of time was expansive, focused on the sweeping cycles of the natural world. For city people, time was fractured into finite segments like boxes on a conveyor belt. On the farm, time was continuous, like a string around a tree, one season flowing inevitably into the next.

It was this rural inefficiency that that urban “efficiency experts” tackled with a fierce determination to eliminate. Even when farm wives expressed great contentment with their lives and lot, their passionate letters in response to magazine articles portraying them as “The Woman God Forgot” were ignored. The people who knew better were dedicated to improving their lives whether they felt they needed it or not:

To quantify what they already knew, in the early 1920s researchers from the Department of Agriculture equipped rural homemakers with pedometers, devices pinned to the women’s aprons or strapped to their ankles which counted their steps as they went about their chores. Among their findings was that one Montana woman walked a quarter of a mile in the course of baking a lemon pie!

I’ll leave the irony of pedometers as a tool to measure steps for the purpose of decreasing them hanging there for you to consider. Efficiency apartments with their nonexistent kitchens, the proliferation of delicatessen, and the marked increase in working girls stood in stark contrast to the life of the farm wife.

Once the crash of 1929 took place, a slow equilibrium between rural and urban life began to gradually flow across the country. Initially the urban centers were the hardest hit, as the rural parts of the country were at least equipped to feed themselves with the fruits of their own labor. As the early 30’s began however, a severe drought overtook much of farm country. Hunger and subsistence living became a way of life in every part of the country.

It is at this juncture that the authors spend a fair amount of time discussing the political policies of the day. There was an outcry from many people for food relief, while the federal government balked at the very idea. Fear of creating a people dependent on the “the dole” was a paramount concern at the time. President Hoover was convinced that a combination of public charity and local government was the answer, not federal aid in the form of food relief.

The federal government’s abject refusal to offer aid in the form of anything other than seed for planting -not very useful during a drought- and copious literature with suggested ways to survive on less, cheaper food largely paved the way for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ascendancy to the presidency.

As governor of New York, Roosevelt embarked on what was at the time described as one of the greatest social experiments ever undertaken. Families in his state were given aid in the form of direct food relief, something that hadn’t yet been done beyond the local level and through the Red Cross, which was itself derelict in its distribution of relief to the starving.

Along with the distribution of coupons for a strictly chosen list of staple foods, the women who headed home economics departments throughout the country and in government agencies went to work producing menus meant to be a “living diet” rather than a ‘working diet”. These were complete with recipes for meal ideas meant to stretch the groceries as far as possible. Dishes for example, such as creamed spaghetti with carrots, just one casserole among many that was a popular way to deal with the monotony of ingredients that families were allotted through food relief programs.

That is but one among many culinary developments of the Great Depression with which I hope to share from the book in part 2. This book is a wealth of information and there’s no way I can possibly explore it all, so I do recommend you give it a read if the topic interests you.

I hope to be able to post the second half of this review by Friday.

American history, autobiographies, Classics, nonfiction, writing

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

frederick douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass. Kindle Edition. Original work published in 1845. Paperback edition, 82 pages.

I hadn’t planned to re-read this autobiographical work by the famed orator, abolitionist and escaped Frederick Douglass. It wasn’t in my queue for the fall. However our kids were assigned excerpts from it in a lesson on persuasive literary techniques and in the 20 years since my first reading, there were large portions I’d forgotten.

When unforeseen events found us on a road trip this weekend, I purchased the Kindle version of The Narrative for 0.99, using the travel time to reintroduce myself to Frederick Douglass’ brief but passionate recounting of his life in slavery, from his early years to his eventual escape and rise to prominence as a free man and respected abolitionist speaker and writer. I’m glad I reacquainted myself with it.

For myriad reasons, I long ago made the decision not to expend significant time reexamining nor ruminating on the history of slavery in America. To the extent that we want our children to understand the fruit of human sin as well as the blessings they now enjoy, we teach them the history of their ancestors, including those ancestors still among us who haven’t always shared the freedom they enjoy.

It means teaching the good as well as the bad. Those lessons however, are always balanced with the truth that they have enormous amounts of opportunities available to them as a result of earnest attempts at redress, no matter how imperfect. Their mission, should they choose to rise to the challenge of morality, industry, and integrity, is to seize it.

Frederick Douglass, with no opportunity, and only bitter yokes of oppression somehow seized the reins of his destiny and emerged not only successfully, but triumphantly. He wasn’t content with the achievement of his own freedom. He had a deep Christian faith which sparked in him the desire to see all men be free.

That is the moral of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, alongside his fervent abolitionist message. And his narrative is indeed an excellent example to use as a tool to teach the principles of persuasive writing. To that end, I will keep this short and sweet by ending with a few persuasive and eloquent quotes from Douglass’ narrative.

On how his master unwittingly sparked his passionate desire for knowledge and freedom when he was a young boy between 8 and 10 (Douglass never knew his exact age or birth date). His master discovered that his mistress was teaching him to read:

Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty — to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained.

On the importance of keeping the mind of the slave in captivity. This quote feels especially apt in our current cultural climate, regardless of race:

“To make a contented slave, you must make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate his power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery. The man that takes his earnings, must be able to convince him that he has a perfect right to do so. It must not depend upon mere force; the slave must know no Higher Law than his master’s will. The whole relationship must not only demonstrate, to his mind, its necessity, but its absolute rightfulness.”

On the unprecedented and unparalleled cruelty of those oppressors who claim to be Christians:

“For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.”

Further:

“We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen, all for the glory of God and the good of souls. The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand.”

None of this spoiled Douglass’ fervor for and belief in Christ and the Christian faith:

“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the
corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical
Christianity of this land.”

This indeed is an excellent piece for exploring the power of persuasive rhetoric, and a powerful narrative of an important period in American history. I could go on, but the only other option is to paste the whole narrative here, which I don’t think is feasible.

It’s worth a read.

5 out of 5 stars.

American history, coming from where I'm from, educational, Florida History

The Highwaymen Murals: Al Black’s Concrete Dreams

al black highwaymen book

The Highwaymen Murals: Al Black’s Concrete Dreams, by Gary Munroe. Published in 2009. Hardcover, 160 pages.

Despite being officially 160 pages, The Highwaymen Murals is only 27 pages of text, all the author needs to detail the turbulent life of unlikely artist Al Black. The remaining 133 pages are color photos of the murals Black painted throughout the two prisons where he served time in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s for drug possession and fraud. The particulars of this book must necessarily be preceded with a short introduction to the Florida Highwaymen. Gary Munroe’s book opens with this paragraph:

In 1960, in Ft. Pierce, Florida, a group of young African-American men virtually stumbled into lucrative careers as landscape painters. These men had no schooling, nor were they part of any art movement. At night, because they had no studios, they painted feverishly in their own backyards, often with barbecues flaming and beers flowing. By day they would peddle these scenic paintings up and down the Atlantic coast. Actually, they did not care that much about art, and they cared even less about the recognition that they might receive as artists. What did motivate them was basic to their very survival- financial gain.

That’s the short version of the story of the artists known as the Florida Highwaymen (the group did include one woman, however).  This book is the third of several books that author Gary Munroe has written about the artists. His first book, published in 2001, catapulted these men, their story, and their contribution to the arts into the spotlight when the New York Times devoted a lengthy piece to them in its Lively Arts section:

Wind-bent palm trees, sand, surf, billowing clouds and vivid sunsets were the essentials of Florida landscape painting that emerged following World War II. Occasionally moss-draped cypress trees in the still water of a marsh presented a more contemplative view, while a royal poinciana in full, flaming red bloom or a storm-tossed shore provided dramatic relief.

From the late 1950’s into the early 80’s these colorful landscapes were ubiquitous decorations in Florida homes, offices, restaurants and motel rooms. They shaped the state’s popular image as much as oranges and alligators.

Little known, however, is that such paintings were largely the creations of a loose-knit group of self-taught, African-American artists from what was called Blacktown in the little east coast city of Fort Pierce, about 55 miles north of Miami, said Gary Monroe, professor of visual arts at Daytona Beach Community College. (The writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston died in poverty in Fort Pierce in 1960.)

Munroe’s first books highlighted the classical, more artistically pure work of Alfred Hair and Harold Newton, the first highwaymen. During his research and travels he discovered the story and prison murals of Al Black, and couldn’t rest until he had written this book which tells Black’s story. He recounts his rise, fall and redemptive work painting murals on prison walls which injected a dose of hope into the life of his fellow inmates and brightness into the shifts of the correctional employees who spent their days and nights supervising their charges.

Al Black’s Concrete Dreams explains how Black, who initially didn’t paint at all, went from  the smooth talking, silver-tongued salesman for the Florida Highwaymen, to becoming a celebrated artist in his own right.

Because the Florida Highwaymen painted as much for volume as aesthetic value, Black often stacked his cars full of paintings that were not completely dry. He is actually quoted as saying he “never sold a painting that wasn’t wet”. When he arrived at office complexes, banks, hotels, medical facilities and other places to sell the paintings, he’d often find that the paintings had been smudged or damaged in transit. As a result, he learned to carry art supplies with him to fix the paintings while he was on the road.

He was never much interested in painting because he was making a handsome living selling the paintings of the Highwaymen. Over time however, he became quite skilled. He did paint on occasion, and on occasion passed off unsigned works by other artists as his own work.

Over time his fast-talking, risk-taking, high-life way of living  cost him everything, including his freedom. During the resurrected interest in the Highwaymen’s art, the warden of the Central Florida prison where he was incarcerated recognized his name, and that was the beginning of Black’s return to art and the celebrated prison murals which adorn the walls of two Florida state prisons.  Most are not available for public viewing except in this book, but a couple were published in Florida newspapers. This is one example (photo credit):

al black mural

Black’s ascendancy, free fall from grace, and re-emergence from the ashes is a fascinating tale. What I enjoyed more than the short biography however, was the art, so I am glad that this book was composed chiefly of Al Black’s artwork.

As for how the Highwaymen art lost its grip on the imagination of Floridians old and new, the answer is actually pretty simple. As the Florida landscape changed, bulldozed and covered with more concrete and overrun with more cars, the idyllic natural beauty that drew the likes Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone to the Sunshine State gave way to Mickey Mouse and mass marketed tourism efforts. The magic captured by the Highwaymen paintings was not within the imaginative reach of new generations of Florida residents and visitors. Their time had come and gone.

four out of five stars.

 

American history, coming from where I'm from, educational, Florida History, homeschool

The Life & Times of Joseph E. Clark

joseph E Clark book

The Life & Times of Joseph E. Clark: From Slavery to Town Father, by Olga Fenton Mitchell and Gloria Fenton Magbie. Published in 2003, 112 pages.

This is the biography of the man who founded the oldest incorporated black municipality in the United States of America. It is definitely a niche book and topic, one that interests me on a purely personal level. I almost declined to review it because I know there is no universal appeal attached to it. However, it matters to me, so I decided it was worth reviewing.

Joseph Clark was born into slavery in the year 1859. He was the son of slaves, but his father William was a man of keen sense and a deep desire to see his children be as successful as life would allow. So after the Civil War ended and his family was freed, he moved them to East Tennessee (a Union friendly southern area) and began working in earnest to see to it that his children were educated. Always a man of hard work and frugality, the authors of the book recount that 1870 census records list William Clark as a drayman with a net worth of $400, a financial feat rarely accomplished by the newly freed African descended slaves!

With this as his legacy, Joe Clark grew up and stepped into the part of his story that I was mostly already familiar with. The founding of Eatonville was a momentous and ground breaking event in the South. Joe Clark’s dream of a town founded, inhabited and most importantly governed by freed black men became a reality in 1887:

 

eatonville-founded.jpg
Joseph Clark 4th from left. Photo Credit.

Covering every aspect of Joseph Clark’s life including the tragedies and hardships as well as his victories, The Life & Times of Joseph E. Clark filled in some of the blanks of his history that I was unaware of. Knowing much of the information beforehand didn’t make the book any less enjoyable to me.

This was a good little book. It covered a lot of ground in a very succinct and matter of fact way. It eschewed political commentary and stuck to the facts, and was well done overall. I am glad I stumbled on it while doing some research in our local library branch.

5 out of 5 stars.

American history, Culture, marriage and relationships, nonfiction, philosophy, politics

Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community

sex economy freedom community book

Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community: Eight Essays by Wendell Berry. Published in 1993. 208 pages.

I have always loved the commentary and writings of the insightful, prolific Wendell Berry. Reading his book, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community”, it became clearer why I find his perspective so refreshing. How often have we heard the connection made between our culture’s predilection to specialization and compartmentalization with the destruction of the economy, sexuality, marriage, family, community, and the nation?

Very rarely I submit, although it’s a connection which is hard to deny upon serious observation and even harder to address as our culture succumbs more and more to the seduction of the “me first” mentality. A mentality which is largely driven by our increasing focus on individual rights at the expense of everything and every one, up to and including our own parents, our own children, and their children.

In the book’s title essay, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community Berry attempts to piece together how our movement away from interdependence and local community standards and toward a tendency to think globally has impacted our most intimate relationships, and how sexual love in general and marriage in particular have been irreparably damaged as a result:

There are two kinds of sexuality that correspond to the two kinds of economy. The sexuality of community life, whatever its vagaries, is centered on marriage, which joins two living souls as closely as, in this world, they can be joined. This joining of two who know, love, and trust one another brings them in the same breath into the freedom of sexual consent and into the fullest earthly realization of the image of God. From their joining, other living souls come into being, and with them great responsibilities that are unending, fearful, and joyful. The marriage of two lovers joins them to one another, to forebears, to descendants, to the community, to Heaven, and earth. It is the fundamental connection without which nothing holds, and trust is its necessity.

Our present sexual conduct, on the other hand, having “liberated” itself from the several trusts of community life, is public, like our present economy. It has forsaken trust, for it rests on the easy giving and breaking of promises. And having forsaken trust, it has predictably become political. “Losing kindness” as Lao-tzu said, they turn to justness.” (p. 134-135)

This is sadly correct. Sexual politics is a dominant and lucrative industry in America today. Divorce law, child support enforcement, abortion rights, contraceptive availability, health departments to deal with communicable diseases, sexual harassment, and on it goes. All of these institutions have grown in our misguided attempt to interject perfect justice and the semblance of safety into the necessarily murky business of male/female interpersonal relations. As a result, most women view every man as a potential aggressor and many men have grown to view every woman as a potential accuser of anything form date rape to dead beat fatherhood. This is supposed to liberating? Berry continues:

The difficulty is that marriage, family life, friendship, neighborhood, and other personal connections do not depend exclusively or even primarily on justice-though, of course, they all must try for it. They depend also on trust, patience, respect, mutual help, forgiveness-in other words, the practice of love, as opposed to the mere feeling of love.

As soon as the parties to a marriage or a friendship begin to require strict justice, then that marriage or friendship begins to be destroyed…(p.135)

And this of course, is exactly what has happened on a grand scale. As sexuality has become a commodity to be consumed (think of the quest for hotness at all costs), coupled with the right to do whatever feels good to us without regard for anyone else, and we have all but destroyed the beauty of sexual love and marriage. Sex sells. There is even a new term for the atmosphere in which people pair off: the sexual marketplace. No longer are the terms “husband” or “wife” adequate to describe the person we share our most intimate relations with. The term is now sexual “partners” and we gauge others’ sexual morality not by their fidelity in marriage but by their “partner count.” The language of intimacy is now the language of the marketplace.

People enter into marriage under the spell of sexual infatuation, failing to recognize that the practice of love, rather than the mere feeling of love, is what keeps a marriage alive, growing and fulfilling. The values of the marketplace, of quid pro quo, has usurped the place of love and forgiveness, reducing marriage to nothing more than an arrangement that lasts as long as our arbitrary and fickle senses of satisfaction are appeased.

Sadly, Berry notes, we have moved into a culture that can only be described as nihilist, one where most people are not interested in or able to be contented with this diffusion of love. They want to continue to have love focused myopically on them and them alone, as this is what society has groomed us to believe that marriage is all about.

A society whose members are concerned only with themselves, their individual needs, and are slaves to their passions with no regard for the greater good can be described no other way than nihilist. Churchgoing, “civic minded” nihilists, but nihilists nonetheless because a life spent pursuing personal pleasure-no matter what euphemisms we use to make it seem otherwise- is a useless, hopeless life. Our selfish greed can never be truly satisfied. Fulfillment is found through service and love executed in practice, not as the pursuit of sensations. And it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference if we call ourselves liberal or conservative, as Mr. Berry so eloquently states:

“The conventional public opposition of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ is, here as elsewhere, perfectly useless. The ‘conservatives’ promote the family as a sort of public icon, but they will not promote the economic integrity of the household or the community, which are the mainstays of family life. Under the sponsorship of ‘conservative’ presidencies, the economy of the modern household, which once required the father to work away from home – a development that was bad enough – now requires the mother to work away from home, as well. And this development has the wholehearted endorsement of ‘liberals,’ who see the mother thus forced to spend her days away from her home and children as ‘liberated’ – though nobody has yet seen the fathers thus forced away as ‘liberated.’ Some feminists are thus in the curious position of opposing the mistreatment of women and yet advocating their participation in an economy in which everything is mistreated.”

Most contemporary rhetoric about service and duty is nothing more than the demagoguery of hypocrites, playing on our emotions for the sake of their own ambitions:

There is no denying, of course, that “community” ranks with “family,” “our land,” and “our beloved country” as an icon of the public vocabulary; everybody is for it, and this means nothing. p. 132

Now that we have stated the problem, the next step is to work toward a solution. The question then, is how do those of us who yearn for community, family, respect for the land and love for country achieve even a semblance of either while surrounded by a culture for whom these things are nothing more than feel good rhetoric at best and obstacles to personal desire and ambitions at worst?

Berry offers solutions, but they are hard solutions for a culture of people comfortably entrenched in an easy, resistance-free way of life. Here, he gets credit for trying.

5 out of 5 stars.

I originally wrote this read and reviewed this book in 2012, but it seems more relevant today than it did even when I first read it, so I’m featuring it here. Reviews for more recently read books are in draft and forth coming.