Tag Archives: robert f kennedy

WRT III, Part 3: The Threshold of Freedom

5 Aug

My Yellowstone adventure concludes with a long goodbye. Amy and Bob bolt the next morning to catch their flights from Bozeman, while Rob, Alex, and I set out to deepen our explorations of the park’s highlights. We take more trails along the Grand Canyon, one down to a rainbow-enhanced view of the Lower Falls, one out to Point Sublime along its southern rim, and explore another set of thermal features at the putrid Sulphur Caldron and the explosive Mud Volcano and the travertine fountains at Mammoth Hot Springs. An attempt to plunge deeper into the Hayden Valley along the Mary Mountain Trail is foiled after two miles of hiking. We see a bison on the trail ahead of us, and while we try to wait it out, it prefers instead to plop down in place and wallow about in the dirt, seemingly taunting us. We’re forced to turn around.

Turning around was never an option for another group that made its way up this valley in the early years of Yellowstone National Park. The Mary Mountain Trail doubles as a portion of the Nez Perce Trail, the approximate route that Native American tribe followed on its five-month flight across the West now known as the Nez Perce War of 1877. Displaced from their native Oegon valleys after the U.S. government broke a treaty, the Nez Perce repeatedly outfoxed the army over the course of a 1,000-mile trek across the West. They first sought to join up with their old allies the Crows in eastern Montana, and the party of men, women, and children trekked across the young national park and disrupted a few pleasure-seekers. Later, rebuffed, they turned north to seek out Sitting Bull and his Lakota in Canada, and very nearly pulled off a great escape. Instead, they were surrounded and surrendered 40 miles short of the border, leading Chief Joseph to declare he would “fight no more forever.” The U.S. government promptly broke the terms of the surrender and sent the Nez Perce not to a reservation in Idaho, but to Oklahoma.

Today’s West bears little resemblance to the one that was a wilderness refuge for the Nez Perce. The road out of Yellowstone offers one of the park’s famed traffic jams in Mammoth Hot Springs. We revel anew at Bozeman’s development rush, enjoy a few final beers; Alex heads out on an early morning flight, and Rob and I have a more leisurely morning at a café before I start my way back east. Along the way, I take a short detour south off my route on I-94 to visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in southeast Montana. On these lonely hills overlooking the meanders and cottonwoods of the Little Bighorn River, a combined Lakota and Cheyenne force annihilated George Custer and gave the Native Americans their greatest victory of the Plains Wars. Like the Nez Perce flight across the Northwest, though, it only delayed the inevitable for the Lakota and Cheyenne.

Today, the Little Bighorn site sits on a reservation for the Crow tribe. (In a reminder of how complicated tribal alliances could be, Crows served as scouts for Custer and denied aid to Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce.) My stomach churns as I gaze upon the abject depression of Crow Agency, the town two miles from Little Bighorn: crumbling trailers, a few burned-out relics, desperately patched roofs. It is the most downtrodden place I have ever seen in America; Detroit’s destitution may be on a greater scale, but at least there one can see a difficult but plausible path forward. Here, it’s hard to find that hope, and a glance at the data later shows me that the Crow Reservation’s poverty rate is only a fraction of several other tribal nations in the West. Native Americans have kept the harsh land around Little Bighorn, but won no freedom to prosper here, and the rest of America shoots through it at eighty miles per hour, stopping only for gas or a visit to this reminder of the past. Little Bighorn now remembers the dead from both sides and offers up a few wishes for peace. Peace to what end, I wonder as I meander along the Greasy Grass Ridge and ponder the scattered gravestones. I can aspire to understanding and struggle for empathy, but the reality of Native American consciousness will always be beyond my reach.

The second audiobook I consume on this road trip is The Last Campaign, which follows Robert F. Kennedy’s doomed 82-day campaign for the presidency in 1968. Kennedy, amid the primary campaign rush, took far more time than his aides wanted to visit the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, often cited as the most poverty-stricken in the nation. Thurston Clarke, the author of this 2008 book, notes that Pine Ridge’s poverty and suicide rates had not changed since 1968; it is one of dozens of moments when RFK’s campaign themes, just like Joan Didion’s road trip, feel like they could have taken place yesterday instead of two generations in the past. Between the tale of the slaughter of the American politician I may admire above all others, ruminations on the plight of Native Americans, and a short, gut-punching novel on abusive family dynamics named One of the Boys with which I follow The Last Campaign, I am in a thoroughly morose mood by the time I pull into the Painted Canyon Overlook off I-94 in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic and the American racial reckoning that began with George Floyd’s murder, I’ve been struck at times by the jarring juxtaposition of the natural beauty of my northern Minnesota haunts with the fraying world around me. I’ve been busy enough to forget those plaintive thoughts on this trip, but they return here as I gaze out on my escape in the Little Missouri badlands once again. How can a world capable of such sublime majesty be so depraved? How can we preserve such beauty so diligently, share it with our families and cultivate an appreciation for it in our children, even as we neglect so many other lessons of our history? Is my flight into the wilderness in times of trouble a meek retreat, a dereliction of duty to meet the call that inspired Roosevelts and Kennedys? In my writing, I revisit an old fictional friend who shares these neuroses and have him wrestle with them all on his own trip west.

Through him, I revisit one of my favorite columns of all time, Roger Cohen’s Ways to Be Free. A phrase he draws from William Finnegan on surfing gnaws at me throughout this trip, a description of a cathartic encounter with the natural world: “ferocious ambivalence, the threshold of freedom.” For adventure-seekers out in the wilderness, ferocious ambivalence describes the power of the elements that can overwhelm them, the way those elements can come to life and take on personality traits, at times loving, at times vengeful, indifferent to human comfort and even life, always imposing their presence. To feel that power of nature is to be liberated, if only for a moment. But that phrase can describe a very human way of moving through the world, too: the raw power that courses through the surfer taming the wave, the hiker powering to the summit, the writer hitting upon the perfect phrase. It captures both the intensity of the feat in the moment and the coolness one attains by making such conquests routine. This, too, is a form of freedom, a culmination of pursuit as fulfillment.

My earliest experiments in writing were obsessed with idea of freedom. What did it mean to be free, to live in a free society, to have political freedom? Freedom became a philosophical term, a question of will or escape from coercion or realization of potential. Lost was that raw feeling, the knowledge of the power its pursuit can bring. I realize that, in recent years, I’ve felt precious little freedom. Freedom, in its commonly understood sense, is not the end goal: lives need guard rails and direction, and while there are occasional twinges at loss, many decisions that close off options are mature moves toward a life of purpose. But freedom remains a delectable treat, and humans need to feel it; not in some Western myth of a clean slate free from the past, but through a push that knows we can learn from it and transcend it.

I spend the last night of my trip in Jamestown, North Dakota (home to the world’s largest buffalo!), in a hotel room that overlooks that agent of empire known as the interstate highway. I collect my notes and gaze out at my fellow travelers shooting across the country in the night. I head home from there, exhausted, box up my apartment and plow through work emails, lapse into the usual routines, any immediate lessons forgotten in an everyday slog. How quickly the freedom fades; how quickly the usual annoyances return.

Freedom is never a permanent state. It comes in quick jolts here and there: a first night in a new bed in the house where I’ll write the next chapter of my life, the freedom of a back road after a wrong turn through a construction detour, a jaunt to the Twin Cities that gives me a moment on a bench beside Lake Harriet and a wistful gaze out of an apartment window at a lit-up Minneapolis with raw, fresh scars on its skin. I set out on this road trip to find something, but that ferocious ambivalence never needed finding on some distant plain. It’s been here all along. I just need to live it, to cross that threshold with the imperative that such ferocity demands.

Good Journalism, 4/19/18

19 Apr

Here is week two in my attempt to collect a smattering of semi-related pieces of good journalism on topics that I think deserve more attention than anything in the regular news cycle.

From Franklin Foer, one of the Atlantic’s most fascinating writers, comes a discussion on the end of reality. It should leave you quite concerned about our virtual future, and the past couple of years show just how much it can threaten a traditional understanding of truth and, yes, reality itself. As a defender of reality, it’s a timely call to arms.

From something called The Educators’ Room, which is dedicated to teachers’ empowerment, here is a list of ten things that teachers today have to deal with that they didn’t ten years ago. The timing here is apt, as I close in on my own 10-year reunion. Sure enough, few to none of these things existed when I walked out of Duluth East ten years ago, and just about all of them leave me saddened or frustrated with the state of education. Some of them key off the concern over virtual lives that comes out of the Foer piece, but others deal with safety, a decline in authority conferred to teachers, and broader social forces that affect home lives. My own profession is often complicit in #10, and while I do think there is very good work being done in better aligning curriculum with realities of a changing economy, whenever I get caught up in these discussions I just want to yell at people to stop and make sure we’re not thinking about education or childhood in a strictly utilitarian way. The journey should be just as important as the destination, both here and in the testing culture the author rightfully decries.

Spinning out of our theme of losing touch with the world around us, here is David Brooks on loneliness. From my own travels and observations, I would wholeheartedly concur that this epidemic is as dangerous as any afflicting contemporary American life. One line sums it up well: “the clans have polarized, the villages have been decimated and the tribes have become weaponized.” We will either find some way to heal these wounds or we will continue to crumble away from reality.

Next, some notes on the political journey of a man who, while facing long odds, had as good a chance as anyone to heal the wounds of a fractured nation: RFK goes to Pine Ridge. There have been some timely RFK reflections of late, including a number on the 50th anniversary of his Indianapolis speech following the assassination of Martin Luther King, and I expect they will continue as we close in on the anniversary of his death. I’m not sure there’s a more haunting figure in American history.

Following up on last week’s theme, but closer to home: Jana Hollingsworth and Brooks Johnson at the Duluth News Tribune delve into a sexual abuse case in Itasca County. One can certainly throw some stones at local papers like the News Tribune, but something I’ve noticed in recent travels to smaller communities is the hole left by the decline of newspapers as a communal source of knowledge. Once upon a time, these places had a common source of information; nowadays, ask a resident where to catch up on local happenings and many of them will shrug, or admit they’re relying on Facebook gossip (which many hate but can’t escape) or just the good old rumor mill at the coffee shop or bar. Institutions like newspapers play a vital role. And I’m pleased to say that the DNT reporters who I’ve interacted with in recent years, which include Jana and Brooks, along with Peter Passi on local government and Louie St. George on hockey, are all in it for the right reasons, and do great work. May they continue to have the resources to do more of this.

And, staying local for my final piece, here’s an obituary that caught my eye this week. Mary C. Van Evera is a name I’ve heard around Duluth from time to time, usually as a donor somewhere in the background. I often wonder who these people are, and how they amassed their wealth, and what spurred them to grace certain causes with their patronage. With Mrs. Van Evera, it’s obvious enough: her maiden name was Congdon, and she was a granddaughter of Chester and Clara Congdon, the builders of Glensheen and the exemplars of Duluth’s golden age a century ago. Obviously few to zero people reading this blog will have Congdon-level wealth, and I can’t claim to have known her or how she operated. But when it came to civic involvement, and to commitment to a place while maintaining a global perspective, Mrs. Van Evera was exemplary.

I’m building some steam here. Let’s do this again next week.

Childhood Lost

20 Jun

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

–Robert F. Kennedy, paraphrasing Aeschylus

Happy eighteenth birthday, little bro.

RFK in Indianapolis, 1968

4 Apr

On Friday morning, I went for a run along Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis. It was a chilly morning, one that forced me to pull out the sweatshirt and the gloves, and a lingering winter sun provided little warmth. Later in the afternoon, a vigil and protest would take place here, but at this early hour, the streets sat silent as I approached an impromptu memorial. Ahead of me, a man and a woman crossed the street to ponder the collection of mementos to a dead man and snap a picture of themselves. I pushed on, past quiet midrise apartments and the Fourth Precinct police station, it too in an end-of-week slumber. Should it be reassuring to know we can soldier on as if nothing happened, or is it chilling that it can disappear from consciousness so quickly?

On Wednesday of this past week, Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, announced two Minneapolis police officers would not be charged in the death of Jamar Clark, a young black man killed in an altercation last November. Freeman cited DNA evidence and the officers’ testimony to justify the use of deadly force. He reviewed the case personally to avoid the anonymity of a grand jury, and released a mountain of evidence in a quest for transparency. The community along Plymouth Avenue and its allies, skeptical after competing claims from eyewitnesses and burdened by a long history of mistrust, did not buy the attorney’s tale. Hennepin County employees bolted the Government Center en masse to avoid getting caught up in a protest that afternoon, but I hung around, and it all remained tame. We’re Minnesotans, after all.

The march made its way to the plaza, and its speakers made their case. After my run on Friday, the protesters returned to downtown Minneaplis, this time taking their case to the skyways before heading back to the little memorial for another remembrance. They promise to continue their crusade, and additional investigations will carry on. To what end? To justice; to peace, whatever those may look like.

It is easy to dispense judgment and advice from an Uptown armchair a world away from North, a world away from the streets where young men try to carve out some safety, or the beat walked by police in an effort to hold it all together. Perhaps I’m ignoring an imperative for justice after a legacy of oppression; perhaps I’m shirking my call to uphold a fragile order that stands between this country and chaos. Two degrees in public affairs, countless debates, and ten thousand hours of reading get me no closer to an answer. I can offer only one unsatisfying bit of analysis: the Clark affair has pulled up the curtain on Minnesota Niceness and revealed a simmering tension that this state must reckon with. The collapse of that façade opens up a possible dialogue, but also threatens to tear it all apart at the seams, with everyone speaking past one another as each person attempts to impose one narrative on an uncooperative history.

At this, I recall the words of one man who tried to transcend these tangled narratives. Forty-eight years ago today, in Indianapolis, Robert F. Kennedy made one of the more enduring speeches in American history. In a few short minutes, he broke the news of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death to an unknowing crowd, pondered his role as a white man speaking to black Americans, and found, in ancient wisdom, a guide toward a common goal. His quote from Aeschylus is as haunting as any in literature, and he crescendos to this finish:

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’s true — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we—and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Two months later, RFK would join MLK in martyrdom. His ideal struggles on, often wandering in darkness, but never dead. Time to rededicate ourselves to that old Greek task. The stakes are growing higher.