Posted: January 18, 2015
By: Clay Cerny


I saw Ana DuVarney’s film Selma last night. It is a powerful, wonderful depiction of an ugly era of American history and the heroes that fought against injustice. While Martin Luther King is central to the story, DuVarney includes a wide cast of characters that stretch from the historically famous to people with names long forgotten. She also shows King as an imperfect man who still deserves our deepest admiration. The violence depicted made me wince at points, but that is necessary to make us remember what injustice and cruelty African Americans suffered for generations – and still face too often. There is a great debate over Oscar snubs for the director and lead actor. I’ve seen several of the nominated films and agree with those who ask why this great film did not receive more recognition. Some critics charge that it is racism and point to Oscar evaluators who are predominantly white, old, and male. That may be true. But, as King showed us, good can often grow out of bad. Hopefully the controversy will motivated more people to see this film. I also hope that Selma will be shown in schools for generations to come. Ana DuVarney has given us history – complex and powerful.

Tomorrow is the day the nation honors Martin Luther King. It will be a great day to reflect on what has changed and what hasn’t

Posted: November 10, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog looks beyond jobs and careers in “Sabbath.”]

The Man Inside the Hero

I just finished rereading David Herbert Donald’s biography of Abraham Lincoln.  I read the book some years ago and found it even more impressive on a second reading.  Donald states early in the book that his goal was to follow Lincoln’s voice and words, which he does to a great degree.  Every historian has to select examples and design a narrative.  Donald’s Lincoln is a struggling human, not a superman.  He wrestles with political as well as moral questions.  Most importantly, for most of his presidency, his peers see him as indecisive and a failure.

Many of Lincoln’s critics did not understand how his mind worked.  They were serious people who thought they had all the answers.  Lincoln was humble and often tortured by self-doubt.  At the same time, he was a leader who knew when to make a decision and take responsibility for his action.  Donald depicts Lincoln as often being too involved in decisions related to military strategy. Frustrated by his generals’ lack of success or aggressiveness, Lincoln would devise his own battle plans.  That all changed when he named U.S. Grant to lead the Union Army.  Lincoln put his faith in Grant, and, despite early setbacks in 1864, his final choice of generals proved to be wise.

As a politician, Lincoln had to balance a Republican Party that was divided on the question of Emancipation.  Many in the party agreed with Northern Democrats who want peace with the South even if it meant leaving slavery in place.  Lincoln himself wavered on this question.  He sought various compromises that included compensating former slave holders and colonizing the former slaves.  In the end, influenced by anti-slavery advocates like Frederick Douglass and inspired by the sacrifice of African American soldiers, Lincoln became a strident champion to end slavery.  Again, he adapted with the conditions of his time.

Lincoln’s genius was not so much his intellect or even his words as it was his lack of ego.  Where other leaders could only see one path, Lincoln kept an open mind and accepted the fact that he could be wrong.  When reporters pressed him to explain his policy, he answered, “My policy is to have no policy.”  Throughout the war, Lincoln changed his mind and tried different approaches.  Some, such as suspension of habeas corpus and shutting down opposition newspapers, were condemned as dictatorial.  However, as Donald outlines in his biography, Lincoln faced such opposition that he had to bend the law to save the Union.  Long before William James or John Dewey, Lincoln was a pragmatist who judged actions on results rather than ideals.

History never repeats itself.  It is useless to speculate about how Lincoln would address contemporary issues, such as health care, civil liberties, or political division.  The one lesson I think we can take from his life and political career is the need to balance principled belief with an openness to change.  Maintaining the Union was Lincoln's primary mission as President.  That never changed.  How he achieved that end in the face of so many challenges was the magic.

Posted: August 18, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog looks beyond the job world in “Sabbath.”]

Problems That Defy Solutions

Over the last week, we’ve seen terrible images from Egypt.  Hundreds have been killed in ongoing protests.  Meanwhile another civil war continues in Syria.  The death toll in that country is in the thousands.  The media often covers these stories as if they were covering a sporting event that had a limited scope and a clear victor.  The reality is far more complicated.  The problem for our political leaders and the media is that most Americans don’t want to hear about complexity.  We want problems that are simple and easy to solve.

What should the president do in such cases?  Clearly some action must be taken, but, as we’ve seen from past interventions, today’s solution can turn into tomorrow’s problem.  In the 1980s, the U.S. supported “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan.  Later, some of those people became vicious warlords who ruled by terror.  Others became the Taliban who were even more extreme in their behavior, especially in the way they limited the lives of women.  Another U.S. ally in Afghanistan was Osama Bin Laden.  His actions changed America and the world.  What seemed like a happy ending in Afghanistan – the expulsion of the U.S.S.R. – turned into 9/11 and an American war in Afghanistan that has lasted for more than 10 years.

It’s terrible to hear about massacres and repressive behaviors of governments that we support.  However, as we’ve seen in Egypt, voters will select rulers and turn on them in less than a year.  First, enemies of the elected government took to the streets and the government was deposed by the army.  Now supporters of the deposed government have taken to the streets, and they have engaged in deadly confrontations with the police and military.  How can such a situation be solved simply?  While it will send a statement for the U.S. to cancel military exercises or cut off aid, how will those actions affect a conflict in which all parties are fueled by hatred and fear?

History plays out over months, years, and decades.  It’s not a TV program that where problems are resolved in 30 minutes or an hour.  Civil Wars, as America experienced, do not end quickly or peacefully.  While the U.S. Civil War lasted from 1861-1865, its aftermath has been ongoing and often subtle.  We still debate issues of racial equality and states rights. During the last presidential election, some commentators and politicians in Texas claimed the state had a right to secede.

150 years after the bloody battle of Gettysburg some Americans still consider secession to be the best way to solve our differences.  In that light, it’s difficult to be critical of people in Egypt and Syria – or President Obama.  Civil wars are horrible and complicated problems.  They cannot be solved with simple words or actions.  The people of Egypt and Syria will write their own history, hopefully with as little foreign interference as possible.  However these stories end, they will not be kind or clean or simple.

Posted: January 27, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that looks beyond the worlds of work and career.]

History Uncovered and Recovered

People who love urban spaces are often fascinated by ghost ads, faded wall paintings advertising a company long gone or a product that no longer exists.  In my neighborhood, we had something of a ghost ad wonder, a full wall that pitched a well-known brand, Coke.  When a building was torn down a few months ago, the ad was revealed.  Sadly, progress being progress, it will soon be covered as a new building goes up in the space.

Why is this ghost ad significant?  First, its quality is so good that it’s almost a time machine that takes us back to the 1920s or 1930s.  Second, it pitches the product as an energy drink of its time, something that “relieves fatigue.”  Finally, it tells us that Coke only cost 5 cents when the ad was paint.  Coke used that price for several years from 1886 through the boom of the 1920s through the Depression bust to the last nickel Coke, which was sold in 1959.  Signs like this one forced retailers to adhere to the manufacturer’s pricing model.

All of these factors are very interesting; however, it’s still just a sign.  We don’t mourn the passing of billboards or TV commercials.  On this popular commercial strip of Chicago (Andersonville) rents are high for businesses and residences.  No sane property owner will leave open space for nostalgia or coolness when there’s money to be made.  A new building will go up and the Coke sign will disappear.  It’s brief renewal made many of us think about a bygone era, simpler, but still a time when pitchmen pitched and kids enjoyed sugar-filled soft drinks. On second thought, maybe nothing has changed – except for larger bottles and higher prices.  [images below]

passages and ghost sign 002

passages and ghost sign 003

passages and ghost sign 004

Posted: May 13, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that explores life beyond the workplace.]

Exceptionable Men & Women

On Sunday, April 22, I had the pleasure and honor of attending the Nikkei WWII Veterans Tribute, which honored Japanese American war veterans from the Midwest who could not attend a similar ceremony in Washington D.C.  We’ve come to think of men and women from this period as the “Greatest Generation.”  They survived the Depression, fought the war, and built middle class America during the 1950s.  For Japanese Americans, the story has an extra element:  internment.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government forced Japanese American citizens living on the West coast to live in prison camps.  The popular fear of the time, similar to what we saw directed at Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11, was that these American citizens would give aid and comfort to the enemy.  Families and individuals were forced to leave their homes and property behind.

In 1943, the U.S. Army began recruiting Japanese American males for combat service in Europe.  The 442 Regimental Command Team, a segregated group of Japanese American soldiers, fought some of the war’s bloodiest battles.  It suffered a 300% casualty rate, and it earned 21 Medals of Honor.  In the Pacific theater, Japanese American men and women served in the Military Intelligence Service, working as translators and often seeing action in front line combat.  They also played an important role in the post-war reconstruction of Japanese society.

43 veterans attended the ceremony and received gifts in honor of their service.  More importantly, their story was told again, which reminds us that American history is complex and not always a simple story of men raising flags.  President Truman captured the heroism of the 442 and all the Japanese American veterans when he said:  “You fought the enemy abroad and prejudice at home and you won.”  In his proclamation, honoring Japanese American veterans, President Obama wrote:  “They bore the extraordinary burden of defending our way of life abroad while many of their families were interned back home.  Despite the sting of discrimination, their dedication to their country stayed true, and we are forever indebted to these veterans and their loved ones.”

Too often, our country’s history is simplified, given a plastic surgery that covers over any kind of wrong.  Some even praise this version of history as American Exceptionalism.  There is nothing exceptional about the wrongs done to Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Asian American, women, or gays/lesbians.  There is nothing exceptional about the war on workers and unions that started in the late 19th century and is alive and well today.  What is exceptional is that Americans from all backgrounds have fought and died abroad and at home to protect the country’s best values: inclusion, opportunity, and fairness.  The story of the Nikkei Veterans is an important chapter in that story.  They helped make America a great nation.

Posted: September 11, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog reflects on different types of work in “Sabbath.”]

The Work of Memory

For the past week, we have seen many stories reflecting on the terrorist attacks that took place ten years ago.  The event was shocking.  It shut down the nation for several days.  It also changed our lives.  We live in a world more conscious of security and risk.  We are engaged in two wars that our leaders have connected to terrorism.  The events of 9/11/2001 continue to affect us and will do so for years to come.

Now after 10 years, we have had time to reflect on what happened.  Where history once was the story of kings and the elite, now we tell the stories of families and children.  Regular people are not only the focus of the story, they now tell their stories through blogs, videos, and Facebook.

I remember walking to work ten years and passing a construction site.  The crew was listening to a TV news report about the president speaking.  I knew something was happening.  At work, I turned on a radio and heard that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.  There were reports of fires on the Mall in Washington D.C.  Then the second plane hit, and we learned that the fire in Washington was a plane that hit the Pentagon.

Fear and the unknown.  What would be next?  Big buildings in downtown Chicago and other large cities were evacuated as the government scrambled to land all of the flights still in the air.  One of those flights would be the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania when the passengers fought with the hijackers. 

I worked all day on 9/11/2001, and most the clients showed up for their appointments.  We talked about the news, but we also went on with our business, which was surreal.  I didn’t get home until after 6 p.m.  By that time, film editors had compressed the events of the day into something like a macabre music video, hours of horror reduced to seconds, which increased the terror as one nightmare scene rolled into the next, and the loop was repeated again and again.

Even as life returned to normal, many people were in industries that were impacted by the attack.  Some of my clients were laid off and had trouble finding new jobs. 9/11 became an obstacle for many people who lived far from the attack sites.  It still haunts many lives and has made others chronically fearful and angry.

I understand the anger.  In the first days after attack, I was angry.  I wrote stupid things in my journal about the need to raise a pillar of fire in Afghanistan.  Then I went to the Green Mill to hear one of my favorite singers, Kurt Elling.  This was still during the period when most of what was on TV was news, little or no entertainment.  Kurt didn’t do his normal set.  Instead, he talked a lot about art and healing.  He sang that night in a way that took away the hate and fear.  He also read many passages from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

I don’t remember what poems Kurt read that night, but I know that they were about angels.  When I look in my copy of Rilke, these passages are marked, and they signify how my mind changed:

“For beauty is nothing,

but the beginning of terror, we still are just able to endure,

and we are so awed because it serenely disdains

to annihilate us.  Every angel is terrifying.

.           .           .           .           .           .

In the end, those who were carried off early no longer need us;

they are weaned from earth’s sorrows and joy, as gently as children

outgrow the soft breasts of their mothers.  But we, who do need

such great mysteries, we for whom grief is so often

the source of our spirit’s growth - : could we exist without them?

(Duino Elegies, The First Elegy)

.           .           .           .           .           .

Above, beyond us,

the angel plays.  If no one else, the dying

must notice how unreal, how full of pretense,

is all that we accomplish here, where nothing

is allowed to be itself.  Oh hours of childhood,

when behind each shape more than the past appeared

and what streamed out before us was not the future.

(Duino Elegies, The Fourth Elegy)

.           .           .           .           .           .

Oh gather it, Angel, that small-flowered herb of healing.

Create a vase and preserve it.  Set it among the joys

Not yet open to us; on that lovely urn

Praise it with the ornately flowing inscription:

                                                            “Subrisio Saltat.”

(Duino Elegies, The Fifth Elegy)

[Subrisio Saltat translates as acrobats’ smile.]

I don’t know if Kurt Elling quoted these exact passages, but they reflect the spirit of that night, a time to heal, to move on, to trade the horror for beauty and life.  When I think of what happened 10 years ago, it is impossible to look beyond the horrible images of that day.  But we also need to remember the angels and their power to heal, the good things in our lives that let us move forward when our reality and security crumble as the towers did a decade ago.

The work of memory at its finest is fed by imagination that lets us see the better day, the end of anger and sorrow.  May this day be another step in our nation’s healing.

Posted: July 17, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, Career Calling explores other aspects of life and work in “Sabbath.’]

John Keegan’s The American Civil War

I’ve always loved history, and for several years, the American Civil War has been a special interest.  I recently read a great book on the war by this generation’s leading military historian, John Keegan, who has also written on the First World War, the Second World War, and the war in Iraq.  Keegan writes in a concise style that educates the reader without being overwhelming.

While many factors impacted the outcome of the war, Keegan shows again and again how geography shaped battle.  Soldiers had to fight through forests, over mountains, and across rivers.  One factor in the North’s eventual victory was its ability to control the coast and rivers.  On the other hand, Robert E. Lee and his generals knew the land of Virginia and used that knowledge to defeat Union armies that were usually larger and better armed. 

Along with geography, Keegan focuses on leadership and character.  If history could be said to have a hero, this narrative’s outstanding figure would be Lincoln, a man who entered the war with little military knowledge.  He learned on the job.  The same could not be said for many generals from both sides of the conflict who often made mistakes that cost thousands of lives.  In the end, two generals, Grant and Sherman, changed the course of the war by fighting bloody, destructive battles with a ruthless will to defeat the enemy.  Keegan presents Robert E. Lee as a complex man, a great general who made great mistakes and trusted his subordinates too often, especially at Gettysburg.

Rather than follow a simple chronological narrative, Keegan covers several themes, which means certain topics are repeated.  In the hands of an unskilled writer, this approach would be a disaster.  Keegan moves from theme to theme in a way that keeps the reader focused.  It also helps the reader in remembering important details that are easy to forget if they are only presented one time.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the war’s first battles.  As divided as our current politics are, the Civil War reminds us of a time when the country was literally torn apart.  Our culture is focused more and more on the future.  We read less than previous generations.  When we do read, our goal is to be informed about something practical or to be entertained.  Reading history reminds us that other generations have faced challenges, many worse than our current problems.

The American Civil War was not a simple story of the North fighting the South between 1861 and 1865.  It is a complex story of people, economics, technology – and geography.  Keegan presents this diamond with all of its angles.  I highly recommend this book for your summer reading list.  It’s going to be hot in most of the country this week.  It’s a great time to sit in the shade, drink some lemonade, and read a good book, one that will challenge the way you think.

Posted: November 7, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, Career Calling looks at work and life beyond career in “Sabbath.”]

Time Change, History, and Nature

Last night I used my Daylight Savings Time extra hour to read poems by Wendell Berry (Collected Poems, 1957-1982).  A poem entitled “History” caught my eye.  It is set in late Fall, after “the crops were made/the leaves down.”  A farmer walks deeper into the woods than he ever has before, places “for which I knew/no names.”  Lost, he finds himself:

                            I stood

at last, long hunter and child,

where this valley opened,

a word I seemed to know

though I had not heard it.

In the next stanza we learn that the farmer returned in following years.  The travel is not literal, but metaphorical and philosophical.  He ponders how farmers and hunters conquered the land and came to own it: “the joyless horsepower of greed.”  Berry’s farmer wants a different life and declares:

Through my history’s despite

and ruin, I have come to

its remainder, and here

have made the beginning

of a farm intended to become

my art of being here.

By it I would instruct

my wants: they should belong

to each other and this place.

Until my song comes here

to learn its words, my art

is but the hope of song.

History is lived in the new farm and the farmer’s acceptance of a world where greed, innocence, violence, and peace live side by side. 

Now let me feed my song

upon the life that is here

that is the life that is gone. . .

Let what is in the flesh,

O Muse, be brought to mind.

Berry, always the philosopher poet, understands that our lives can never be separate from nature.  His sense of time and history accepts complexity and even chaos.  Our society – industrial, post-industrial, and post-modern – has no time for such thinking.  We need control and answers.  Day Light Savings time came out of an attempt to keep school children safer, so they would not be going to school in the dark.

Similarly, humans have always tried to control nature with our calendars and clocks, our machines and technology.  Nature does not care about human designs.  We have gone to the moon, but we can stop a hurricane or flood.  Berry’s concept of history accepts the limitations of human action.  Nature – nameless, wordless – is infinite, what Berry calls, “the hope of song,” a quest for re-creation and renewal. We need to turn our clocks back, way back, and find ourselves in and out of time.  If we could do that, we would write real history, and it would sing.