Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #146. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Aug. 30, 2019; in print Sep. 1

No one (except maybe Google) can count the words that have been spent trying to make sense of where we currently are.

I have recently come across 21 words – three seven-word sentences – that sum it up:

  • “There will always be one more thing.”
  • “But there was always a next step.”
  • “Only you know if we did it.”

It’s from women that I heard them.

“There will always be one more thing.”

A tribute to the late Toni Morrison quotes a remark she made in a public dialogue at Portland State University in May 1975.

She noted that racism is a distraction – “It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. They say you have no language, you spend 20 years proving that you do. Someone says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary,” she concludes. “There will always be one more thing.”

The New York Times has a series analyzing the many ways in which our nation’s original sin, slavery, is woven through our lives today. By calling racism a “distraction,” Morrison is not minimizing or belittling it. She is highlighting its insidious pervasiveness and its irrationality. It is so deeply part of the fabric of our society that no evidence to refute its claims can persuade its defenders to change their minds.

It is precisely racism’s irrationality that accounts for its distracting power – a fire onto which President Trump dumps fuel nearly every day. There is nearly always, in his tweets, “one more thing.” Most recently, that “one more thing” has morphed into the rally chant of “Send her back!”

Toni Morrison’s seven words were spoken almost half a century ago. In the era of Trump and his enablers, the words sound prophetic. And as 2020 looms, the prophecy will prove even more ominous.

“But there was always a next step.”

In "Fascism: A Warning," former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright draws on her own life story, her experience as America’s top diplomat and her immense learning to connect the current dots.

She makes the case that Mussolini wrote the script. He claimed he would “clear the swamp,” he touted himself as having instincts that were always right and chose advisers who agreed, he and his followers mocked journalists.

With Mussolini, as with other fascists, the takeover wasn’t sudden. There were gradual moves, each making the next easier for the people to adjust to.

“But there was always a next step” – the seven scariest words I’ve ever read. President Trump seems to be using the “always a next step” playbook.

I will of course be reamed out by Trump supporters for branding their movement “fascist.” But they deserve it more than I and those like me warrant the term “socialist” that they, including very powerful members of Congress, so cavalierly throw at us. I support my claim not to be a socialist on the demonstration by Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman that no Democratic candidate for president is proposing anything close to actual socialism.

“Only you know if we did it.”

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland, in a New York Times column called “The Ice Is Leaving,” tells of a glacier, known colloquially as Ok, that in 1900 covered six square miles and is now a crater lake.

On Aug. 18 she joined a group of artists and scientists – along with the former president of Ireland and climate activist Mary Robinson – to bid farewell to Ok.

The farewell is commemorated on a memorial shield: “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Climate change deniers – including, preeminently, the president – couldn’t care less about what those descendants of ours in the 23rd century know. All that matters is maximum economic benefit right now from America’s stores of fossil fuel – the future be damned.

The Iceland memorial shield is prophetic in the most fundamental sense. It reminds us that our history and our present state will be judged by generations yet to come. “Only you know if …”

“There will always be one more thing” – Toni Morrison clarifies the weight of the past that pulls us down and keeps us mired in distraction.

“But there was always a next step” – Madeleine Albright clarifies the clear and present danger.

“Only you know if we did it” – Katrín Jakobsdóttir clarifies the challenge mirrored back to us by our descendants.