What all of us can learn from T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)

All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph

Thomas Edward Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia
Thomas Edward Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia

I am finishing reading a fascinating biography on Thomas Edward (TE) Lawrence called Hero, by Michael Korda. It is a great study of how a 5’5’’ illegitimate son of an undistinguished, upper middle-class Englishman and Irish nanny became one of the most influential men in history.

Today Lawrence (1888-1935) remains one of the most celebrated and controversial figures of the 20th century. He was both a liberator of the Arabs against the crumbling Ottoman Empire and a sharp instrument in the militarism and diplomacy of the colonial powers—England and France—to carve up the Arab lands into pliable territories that became nation states. As time has shown, these countries had no religious and ethnic cohesion, and it now seems they may not stand the test of time.

For me, however, Lawrence was so many things. A certified hero and brilliant military tactician in guerilla war. A born leader of men. A charismatic fighter. A scholar and linguist. A consummate and tough-as-nails explorer. A great writer. A global celebrity, before there were celebrities, thanks mostly to a multimedia show after the war about his wartime exploits by the brilliant American publicist Lowell Thomas. An innovator in military strategy far ahead of his day.

Perhaps even as important as any other influence in his life, he was also a bastard—an illegitimate child at a time when such stigma had far greater stains than it does today. As a bastard myself (I was adopted), it is a link I have in common with Lawrence, as well as having visited places in the Middle East where he fought, including Aqaba, Wadi Rum, and the Sinai (all as a tourist in my case).

Winston Churchill, himself both a great World War II leader and controversial apologist for the colonial system he defended much of his life, called Lawrence “one of the greatest beings alive in this time.”

Aqaba a Feat of Imagination:

Of all his many exploits, Lawrence’s role in the Arab conquest of the port city of Aqaba, on the Red Sea, in July 1917, remains one of the singular most amazing feats of arms, logistics, and unrestrained imagination.Aqaba Is Over There

In 1917, when it appeared the Allies could lose the Great War, Lawrence and his band of Arab fighters travelled 600 miles on a weeks-long trek was through terrain so inhospitable that the Bedouin called it al-Houl (the Terror). The Arabs numbering 2,500 men entered Aqaba without a shot and lost just two men. Their opponents melted away. Lawrence then crossed the Sinai to Cairo to inform the new British commander-in-chief, Gen. Edmund Allenby, of this history-changing victory.

The event is the centerpiece of the 1962 epic film Lawrence of Arabia. For me, the scene that defines Lawrence and dreaming large is when he stays up all night and envisions how to change the tides of a war. In the morning, Lawrence convinces his ally, Sherif Ali, to join him with just 50 fighters, with the taunting line, “Aqaba is over there. It is only a matter of going.”

To this day, I keep a picture of that scene on my Facebook page as a reminder of acting boldly and dreaming impossible dreams.

What We Learn About Lawrence from Korda:T.E. Lawrence Posing

Korda’s depiction of Lawrence provides keen insight to the real man’s complicated life. As I read it with multiple lenses, I am impressed by many things that come through that have relevance to anyone today:

  • Lawrence followed a classic pattern of mastery: apprenticeship as an archaeologist with a master, multiple areas of intellectual interests, rigorous training and self-directed study, curiosity, open mind, willingness to take great risks.
  • Lawrence achieved military greatness by not being a soldier, but by being atypical and an anti-soldier, which was the right strategy for the right place at the right time. He did know how to shoot and use explosives too.
  • Throughout his life, Lawrence built and used powerful networks. This included the British intelligence-gathering for the Middle Eastern theatre, top cabinet officials in London, the Foreign Office, the Secretary of War, Arab tribal leaders, and military officers. Lawrence built his networks by leveraging the importance of what he could do for them and say to them. And vice versa.
  • Lawrence was supremely confident in his views, which were grounded in rigorous personal experience with first-hand encounters in the field, in dangerous situations, and with an expert understanding of multiple disciplines (cartography, language, military history, religion, and culture).
  • Lawrence never wasted time doing thing that were not of interest to his curiosity and imagination.
  • Lawrence was never afraid of pain and embraced it as a means of understanding limits he always tried to break. Great leaders have always been able to respond to and even master their pain and suffering and not be bent or broken by it.
  • Lawrence was a good judge of character, and understood who to align himself with in his career path–always choosing the right master, such as Gen. Allenby.
  • Lawrence always made his work stand out, and the quality of his work caught the eye of wise superiors, from his work analyzing the Arab revolt for his military peers in Egypt that was keenly followed to his Oxford thesis on Crusader architecture in the Middle East that opened doors to field work in the desert.
  • Lawrence relished the outdoors, adventure, drama, the myth of a hero’s quest, and creating links where others failed to see what he understood.
  • Lawrence fully understood the importance of symbols, such as the knife he bought in Arabia, the Arab dress he wore, and his physical place in a march among leaders of the revolt.
  • Lawrence mastered theater and stagecraft in his actions to influence opinions and motivate and inspire people in a guerilla war.
  • Lawrence inspired others by taking great personal sacrifices and showing he was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the larger mission.
  • Lawrence never disowned his upper middle-class upbringing, and he used it to navigate his way out of some early young mistakes to positions of power afforded only to the privileged.
  • Lawrence realized that ideas with deep historic and religious roots are what motivate movements, not weapons and tactics alone.
  • Lawrence recognized the importance of storytelling and myth making, and he used all of his talents to control his story and brand.
  • Lawrence was a shape shifter, who could be different things to different people, but always himself.

Becoming Great on Your Own Terms:

T.E. Lawrence fully understood the value of appearances in working with other cultures.
T.E. Lawrence fully understood the value of appearances in working with other cultures.

I think one of the most telling periods of his life came after he graduated from Oxford and spent four years in the Syrian/Turkish desert at Carchemish on a dig, where he learned his craft (1911-‘14) under the auspices of Sir Leonard Woolley. (That relationship would be revived when Woolley became part of the Arab Bureau in Egypt that Lawrence was assigned to.) Lawrence used his time well on this project. This experience meant organizing projects, motivating workers, settling cultural disputes, finding friends in all ethnic groups, studying the larger political world around him, and seeing the chances this knowledge could bring.

Every one of these skills he employed later in his more active setting at war. Lawrence took what appeared to be useless skills and made them his strongest attributes that no other person in the British army had. He had made himself indispensable by following his own path.

For anyone looking for a bit of a reboot in their life, in terms of making more of a mark with their job, their relations, their purpose and meaning, I say, give Korda’s book a look on a long trip or holiday. You may find some lessons to be learned from someone who truly dreamed his life in daylight, and then died young.

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So, You Want to Know More About the Motor City?

(Ed. Note: Dozens of links are provided below, after the introduction.)

Miichigan Central Station
Miichigan Central Station

Detroit’s unwanted celebrity status nationally and internationally continues to fascinate me. Detroit is now known as a failed American urban experiment. For the more cynical or the painful realists, it represents the dark end to America’s middle-class dream, and the embodiment of the decline of American power and even its civilization.

Detroit rose like a phoenix at the beginning of the 20th century and then experienced the near death of the American automobile industry at the start of the next one, culminating in the taxpayer-funded bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler during the Great Recession. Once the nation’s fourth largest city, the population has fallen from 1.8 million to less than 800,000 in 50 painful years.

Since the violent Detroit riots of 1967 that killed 43 and burned more than 1,000 buildings, the community has transformed into a nearly all-African-American city. Sadly, it now ranks as the country’s murder and arson capital. Multiple factors, well beyond Detroit’s control, spurred these changes. These include white flight and suburbanization, along with national racial politics and globalization.

From a public health perspective, there are not many major cities doing worse. Entire neighborhoods have been vacated. Burnt out shells of homes and businesses dot the urban landscape that now is turning to seed. Nearly half of the city’s children live in poverty. Once glorious buildings that were testament to the confidence in industrial capitalism, notably the ghostly Michigan Central Station, stand vacant as monuments to a past glory. They are our America’s modern-day Roman Colosseum, symbol of a dying or dead empire.

Detroit is also my home town, where some of my family have long roots as Michiganders. It is the place where my life story began, at the intersection of two stories of my adoptive and biological families, who all eventually fled or simply moved away.

To help others understand Detroit Motor City and why it matters, now more than ever, I have compiled some of my favorite links to resources, films, books, and online content that I have uncovered recently. Take a moment to learn more about this famous place that once was the world’s greatest industrial city.

Detroit, Enduring Icon of Decline and “Ruin Porn” CelebrityAndrew Moore Book Cover

  • Detroit Disassembled, photo book by photographer Andrew Moore (highly recommend)
  • The Ruins of Detroit, photo book by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre (highly recommend)
  • James Griffioen, Detroit photographer of decay (recommend)
  • Five Factories and Ruins (web site)
  • Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins, by Dan Austin and Sean Doerr, provides historic and architectural background
  • American Ruins and The New American Ghetto, by Camilo José Vergara, depict dereliction and abandonment in cities like Detroit, Camden, N.J., and Chicago
  • Julia Reyes Taubman, socialite ruin photographer of Detroit and subject of some blowback for photographing decay while protected by a wall of money
  • Detroit 138 Square Miles, website that accompanies photographer Julia Reyes Taubman’s photo book
  • Beautiful Terrible Ruins, art historian Dora Apel examines ways Detroit has become the paradigmatic city of ruins, via images, disaster films and more and notes that the images fail to show actual drivers in the downward spiral, such as globalization, neoliberalism, and urban disinvestment
  • Diehard Detroit, a time lapse video of many of Detroit’s famed architectural ruins, abandoned factories and homes, monuments, buildings, and freeways, with absolutely no perspective on the meaning behind the mayheim, just titilating entertainment with great technique and a cool drone toy (it is stunning visually, and thus classic “ruin porn”)
  • Detroit’s Stunning Architectural Ruins, and Why Documenting Its Faded Glory Matters (an article by the Huffington Post, a liberal blog which exploits unpaid “contributors” more than Henry Ford ever did his factory workers)
  • Urban Ghost Media, photos of the much-photographed and now infamous Eastown Theater

Detroit and Media Coverage

Must-See Detroit Documentary Film: Burn

The great documentary about arson in Detroit and the men who fight it.
The great documentary about arson in Detroit and the men who fight it.
  • Burn, a documentary film by Tom Putman and Brenna Sanchez, tells a year-long story of the year in the life of Detroit firefighters, who battle uncontrolled arson against all odds (amazing filmmaking!!! … from the firefighters interviewed: “That is how you burn a city down. One at a time.”)
  • Interview with filmmakers Putnam and Sanchez on their documentary Burn (great read on scrappy filmmaking with a purpose)
  • The Making of Burn—so, you want to make a great film no one in power gives a crap about, but you have to do it anyway

Must-Read Books on Contemporary Detroit

Detroit, The Former Glory

Pro-Detroit Media Coverage and the “Re-Birth” Branding

Detroit, Industrial IconDiego Rivera Mural, at the DIA

Nice Photo Essays of Before and Now:

Detroit Stories and Research of Interest

Detroit is dying and does this country give a damn?

Broken down Detroit Homes (Photos by Rudy Owens)
The River Rouge neighbhorhood is lined with broken and burned homes, like these.

As a native of Detroit, I present this first of several essays, with a profound sense of sadness. (See my photo blog for my first photo essay.)

Here's the proof if you need it--Michgian verifies I am a Native Detroiter.
Here’s the proof if you need it–Michigan verifies I am a native Detroiter.

It is hard to accept that my birthplace, this once great global city, has become a symbol for American industrial decay and capitalism’s larger ills. At one point, Detroit boasted nearly 2 million residents in the 1950s. Today is barely counts 700,000 residents. [Updated census figures, 5/5/2015.]

In its heyday of bustling industrial production, Detroit served as a global icon for American ingenuity, industrial might, and economic power. During World War II, when the larger metro area produced the country’s war weaponry to defeat the Axis powers, Detroiters proudly called their city the Arsenal of Democracy. In the 1920s and 1930, about 40 percent of all automobiles were manufactured in the Motor City and the Ford River Rouge plant was the world’s largest.

Today, Detroit is known more as the murder capital of the United States, and the arson capital. All told, 90,000 fires were reported in 2008, double New York’s number—for a city 11 times larger—according to Mark Binelli, author of Detroit City is the Place to Be. It is the epitome of racial politics. Binelli notes, 90,000 buildings are abandoned, and huge swaths of the 140-square mile urban area are now returning to nature. Beavers, coyotes, deer, packs of wild dogs, and foxes are now reported in the city.

Photo Courtesy of Detroit Dog Rescue: up to 50,000 wild dogs roam Detroit.
Photo Courtesy of Detroit Dog Rescue: up to 50,000 wild dogs roam Detroit.

I just visited Detroit, and the trip had a more profound impact on me than I was prepared for. How is it that our country could undertake two overseas wars to conquer and rebuild nations—Iraq and Afghanistan—and yet abandon a city that helped to make the country the global power it once was.

National partisan politics have played a role, with Detroit becoming a symbol of the Democratic Party’s failure, as a black city and union city, in the eyes of white and conservative detractors. Then there are NAFTA (pushed by Bill Clinton) and industry fleeing the country for cheaper manufacturing from global suppliers and gross mismanagement of the Big 3 automobile companies, two of whom were bailed out by U.S. taxpayers in 2009.

White flight eventually followed long-simmering racial tensions. There have been Detroit race riots in 1863, 1943, 1967, and 1987. Those riots were stoked by historic racism, redlining, job discrimination, and the building of freeways that helped to destroy America’s inner cities. Today, some criminal fringe actors among Detroit’s mostly black residents are burning what’s left of their own city, for at times just the hell of it.

Burned home Detroit Photo
A burned and destroyed home is a common site. This one is near Livernois and I-75.

Charlie LeDuff, author of Detroit, An American Autopsy, painted a heart-breaking tale of the city’s self-destructive conflagrations through the tales of firemen trying to combat the arsonists. “In this town, arson is off the hook,” said a firefighter to LeDuff. “Thousands of them a year bro. In Detroit, it’s so fucking poor that a fire is cheaper than a movie. A can of gas is three-fifty, and a movie is eight bucks, and there aren’t any movie theaters left in Detroit so fuck it.” (I will do a photo essay of fire-ravaged homes shortly.)

That latest malaise, on top of repeated political scandals and corruption by the city’s bureaucrats and criminal politicians, was a crushing bankruptcy filing in the face of an $18 billion debt. In December 2014, after a year an a half in limbo, a grand bargain was struck with creditors, the city, the state, and private industry that prevented the city from selling its city-owned artwork (Rembrandts, Van Goghs, and more) in the world famous Detroit Institute of Arts.

Diego Rivera Mural DIA
The Diego Rivera Mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts highlights the brutal and still glory days that once were Detroit, the Motor City.

As I wandered the glittering white palace that is the DIA, I wondered, what’s more important, this art or the blocks and blocks of emptied neighborhoods that most of this country has forgotten.

Tweet After Returning to Portland From Detroit
Coming back to Portland was hard. I posted a comment on Twitter as soon as I arrived back home how bizarre it was to be back in the whitest city in North America, Portland, after spending time in the city that America defines as African-American.

Four images of the Holy Lands and empty, contemplative places

I took these four images on two separate trips, to Israel and Jordan, and later to Egypt, all in 2004. They all are special, quiet, and mostly out of the way places that speak to a deep, spiritual place inside.

Avdat ruins, Israel
The Wadi Rum, Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
Mary's Tomb, Jerusalem
Bishoi Monastery, Egypt