One of the most influential books in my former life as a potential historian was James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Published in 1941 with multiple accompanying photographs by Walker Evans, it documented the devastation of our Depression by focusing on the lives of specific impoverished people. Although the book didn’t sell well initially, it inspired an Aaron Copeland opera (The Tender Land), reinforced a mode of people-focused reporting that came out of the WPA (note Eudora Welty’s WPA photographs of the 1930s in Mississippi), and has gone on to be a basic text for students of American history.
I first encountered Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in the early 1970s and have returned to it several times, partially for the poetry of Agee’s writing. The title comes from Ecclesiasticus, also known as the Book of Sirach, in a section called “a hymn in honor of our ancestors.” To me then and now Agee’s title held at least two meanings: that the stories of these people were due our attention and praise simply because of their perseverance and dignity, but also that the historically “famous men” of their times, the politicians and plutocrats, had tragically failed these people and deserved no praise at all.
Today (November 15, 2019) the LA Times featured a story about a young government lawyer named Doug Stephens, who is in the midst of ending his public service career. What did he do? He has refused to implement the Trump Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). Tasked with conducting interviews with asylum seekers who fall under the Remain in Mexico policy, he refused, after two days, to continue his assignment. In Stephens’ words: “I think they’re illegal. They’re definitely immoral. And I’m not doing them.”
Traditionally, asylum seekers have been permitted to remain in the United States until their hearings. MPP forces them back into Mexico to await those hearings, back into areas of Mexico that are fraught with gang violence. Why, you may ask, would our government do such a thing? Homeland Security admits it’s to discourage asylum seekers from coming here at all.
What Stephens encountered in his interviews was statement after statement of fear on the part of these people, often women and young children, if they were forced back south. There is ample evidence to support that fear. As Stephens said, we’re “literally sending people back to be raped and killed. That’s what this is.”
Stephens may be the first asylum official to refuse to carry out his duty. There are reports of other asylum officers calling in sick, taking early retirement or leaving the service, but Stephens’ disobedience has forced his employers, our government, to initiate disciplinary action. I have long thought that much of the better parts of our history have been written by people who refused to follow orders they considered contrary to our national interest and law.
Take for example, Rosa Parks, who refused to go to the back of the bus. Or the men and women who refused to testify before McCarthy’s committee and faced severe economic consequences. Or the young students who went below the Mason-Dixon Line to disobey Jim Crow laws, many of whom were beaten and some of whom were killed. Or a Virginia couple, the Lovings, who only wanted to cement their interracial love with a marriage. Yes, there was a time, a very recent time, when the government could tell you which consenting adults you could not marry.
We have a long history of Americans who have refused obedience to laws they considered contrary to our Constitution and who have been willing to lose jobs or go to jail for those beliefs. Were not courageous men and women around to commit such legal outrages, we would be in danger of the national failure in courage that afflicted many of the Axis Powers in World War II. As soldiers marched men, women and children onto trains bound for Auschwitz, they claimed they were “only following orders.” They were “simply obeying the law.”
It’s not easy to stand up, often as a lonely individual, to centuries of immoral tradition backed by dubious laws. And it’s definitely not easy, particularly if one has family obligations, to risk economic and personal safety in doing so.
Today was also the second day of the House impeachment hearings. One name mentioned during testimony in those hearings was Kateryna Handziuk. She was a Ukrainian activist who worked against corruption in her home country and for finding ways to help children whose lives had been disrupted by war. For her efforts, she was the victim of a consciously cruel acid attack, which ultimately took her life. And why an acid attack? Because it was so gruesome an event it would serve as a warning to others who might be inclined to end corruption, to speak truth to power, to assist the disadvantaged.
At our embassy on the very day in Kiev when we was honoring Handziuk with a posthumous award for courage, the final stages of the removal of today’s impeachment witness from her post as American Ambassador to that country were playing out. Marie Yovanovitch, today in the midst of her testimony, was condemned by our President in what was but one of several verbal attacks he has made on her without any supporting evidence. But it was not to Yovanovitch alone that he was tweeting. No, he had in mind anyone who came after her, anyone who might come forward, anyone in Congress who might decide that maybe there was something to all these accusations after all.
In addition to following President Trump’s advice and “reading the transcript,” I suggest our President and all of us also read Yovanovich’s opening statement. Its eloquence, patriotism, restraint and reason are worth the time. One of those two individuals has a history of lying; the other does not. One has a history of bullying; the other, a history of diplomacy.
I praise both Stephens and Yovanovich today; they reflect the best of what makes America work. However, in the second sense of Agee’s book title, I ironically praise members of Congress for their lack of courage, their willingness to “follow orders,” to stay on “talking points,” to turn their backs on obvious facts. We survive as a nation on the backs of those Oakies who worked their way to California, who endured. We survive on the backs of people who stand up for our common humanity, for decency, for an end to corrupt practices, an end to injustice. We begin the end of our American Experiment when such people are silenced, shouted down, slandered, and smeared.
We do, indeed, live in interesting times. I hope we are up to the task.