Brief Observations At the Still Point
I read the news today o boy, read the columnist and his
"progressive" screed o boy. Read the rants of the insane and inane; read the fears and hatred of the many. Read them
all in a single hour. They appear without fail; they are eternal and will return to whatever comes next on this
continent, tomorrow or a thousand years from now.
Was there a cultural reaction to the "polymorphous perversity," of
the 1960's era? Yes. Is the conservative dominance in our time a backlash against the rebellion by the dark children of privilege? I believe it is to an extent. Of course, a backlash that creates its own age must stand on its own and so, in turn, it
fails and crumples like the wounded soldier.
The liberals have this terrible dilemma that they, themselves,
can not solve: Americans never want a return to the welfare state. It may be forced on them if there is another
catastrophic depression but of their own free will they will not go down that road. Liberalism demands a strong public sector that
can "right the wrongs," of the past and help distribute capital to needed areas. But it can only do so with the consent of the governed;
of those who pay the taxes and they've lost those people for a generation at least.
The ranting columnist is angry because the society, as a whole, is not
"polymorphously perverse," as the columnist is. But, the truth is that the columnist can be as polymorphously perverse
as he wishes to be. The repressive, pent-up, slack-jawed, dumb, backward hick from Arkansas is not going to come
into the columnist's region and tell him to stop his polymorphous perverse ways. All the hick can do is tell his
congressman, "he can't do it on my dime." And that is politics and why any plurality must be sublime if it wants to make
inroads in this federal system. The polymorphous perverse provide a bit of entertainment, the dumb, backward hick provides
some sorghum and it all evens out. "Don't kill me and I won't kill you."
Liberals needs to let the past go. They need to get humble and go out
and learn about the society they want to change. They need to go to the hick and understand him and his way of life. They
need to view the country as a buzzing, lit-up challenge to an imagination that understands and appreciates the fascination of
normal human beings unleashed as never before in history. Anytime stereotype
enters the picture there is loss. The liberals need to understand this and understand why they have been defeated
by the lowly American citizen. And when they learn this lovely lesson, then, they can start that long road up
toward the high-road, standing high over the valley and make their grand insights that will lift the people from their misery.
* * * * * * * *
On the other hand, the right-wing evangelicals have revealed themselves
as the craziest cats in the barnyard and are deserving of a swift kick from the stage of history. One of the prominent leaders calls
for the elimination of a foreign leader by covert operatives. And when we look in the New Testament or the Constitution for this
precedence we find none. Ah, they are as insane as those we fight. And shouldn't that upset people in this nation? Shouldn't they be
concerned about the people they give their money and power to?
President Bush looked like a deer in the headlights as he scampered off to Idaho to explain his policies in Iraq. Rumsfeld looked
confident in policies he knows in his heart have failed. The "leadership class" in this nation is as low as it has ever been. The good people
need to rise up and wipe it from the center of the stage. They won't because, in large measure, it is a reflection of themselves; who they are,
who they have become. And they will not admit it. And the great fear that was sounded years ago will start to take place.
America will become the rogue nation that the rest of world puts in its telescopic view finder. It has not grown up. It was never ready
for the type of power it gained after World War II. The baby-boom generation failed miserably at understanding the experience of the time it is identified with.
The mess is palpable.
Often we tell ourselves, "as long as there is no shooting between
political parties, all is well. We may pursue our aspirations and not worry too much about things." This is true to a large extent,
as long as we have the courage to look into the structure of governance, at least once, and see how easily things can topple.
After all, in this era of private sector power we've seen companies destroyed by a few corrupt people. All of the nice
checks and balances, like law and regulation, couldn't withstand the assault of corrupt human nature. No appearance of towering, glittering
strength could mask the internal flaws that would, eventually, do the company in.
And the American must look, at least once, from the constituent level, all the way to the top where things are
obstructed by complexity and secrets. It is tied together. The constituent level shows a great deal more variety and human
complexity without a doubt. And every single person then must ask, "Am I proud of what has emerged from me? Am I proud
of what has emerged out of my collective self, called America?" These questions are typically made into political sausages and served up
when the political campaigns heat up.
There is a personal side to democracy and it must be articulate for
any of the checks and balances to mean anything.
When I look at Hiroshima, for instance, or Vietnam I ask myself, "how can the normal, decent
American recover their humanity from these events?" Something of themselves has gone into them. It does no good to feel guilt. How, though, does the human
being recover from these massive failures of humanity and go on? How does one say, then, "ah, well we are going to build a new world, join up, come on in...do the
deed with us!" How can that happen when we look deep down into the amount of suffering unleashed by our progress?
And so we hit a central nerve that has been zapped the past sixty years. Progress, the fear of progress, the disgust for progress, the need
for it even against all rational sense that says, "any progress you make will be destroyed many times over by the
sheer power you bring into the world." Do we, then, simply turn against progress and try to construct a
There has been progress in the past sixty years. There has been progress along many fronts. The adventure into
space has moved in stages toward colonization. The computer has gone from a huge and expensive oddity to a necessity in
the modern world, health-care has improved even if the system of delivery has not. Individual people progress, they get better through time, they correct
themselves, they make peace inwardly. In fact, one can say that when there is no progress what happens? Decline sets in; any institution or person or nation
that doesn't progress is in danger of believing its decline is its halcyon day.
Of greater interest, perhaps, is the case when one aspect of things progresses while all other aspects
stay the same or is neglected.
August 7, 2005
I have been reading the wonderful Pulitzer Prize winning book, "Original Meanings," by Jack Rakove. He
mentions in his chapter, "The Madisonian Moment," that James Madison was convinced that, "A still more fatal if not
more frequent cause (of injustice), lies among the people themselves."
Madison, like most of the framers, did not trust human nature especially when it was coupled to
power. He had served in the Virginia assembly and cynically observed why legislators ran for office: "ambition, personal interest,
and a regard for the common good," with heavy emphasis on the first two.
At all points in their construction of this document the framers saw the implications of rotten human nature.
They placed checks and balances at every level, had no belief in direct democracy, but wanted at least one
part of the legislature to be perfectly reflective of the people.
We raise this question because in all of the conversations about democracy very few circle around the
problem of "the quality of the democratic people." There are exhortations for better education, more stable
families, safer neighborhoods and so on, all of which imply a "people getting better in themselves."
But the real question is, "what does it take to be a liberal, democratic citizen in the 21st century?" In
their discussions the framers keep going back to three distinct groups who made up society in the late 1700's:
professionals, merchants, and those who worked the land. All three had distinctive roles and all three were
dependent on each other. So, politics was often the art of melding the interests of these together while maintaining
the integrity of each group.
This changed during the 20th century to economic classes of people: wealth, middle-class, and poor. It changed because the
goal of democracy was to produce happiness in the people and most people are happy when they are surrounded by goods
they own. Will these
classes be sufficient for the politics of the 21st century? Politics is hugely shaped around these classes and will for a long
time. But, still, what needs to be inside a citizen of the 21st century for the liberal, democratic values to survive?
The question is raised because there are all kinds of threats against the integrity of the person. For one thing, the
glut of information now is dividing people into two camps: those filled with inane gibberish and those who are seeking
ignorance as a great refuge from having to think about all the things put in front of them. We could ask simple questions
like, "is a life dominated by machines conducive to a liberal, democratic culture?" There are no easy answers.
"Is the liberal, democratic life a leaping off point to the undiscovered future? Or, is it a vast compromise, defeated by
the forces that make up the world today?" "What is the relation between today, the beginning of the 21st century, and all that
has preceded it? And if huge discontinuities are spotted what do they imply for the development of free, liberal,
democratic people?" And we even ask literary questions. "What is the difference between a citizen formed by working the land
and a citizen formed by working in a corporation?"
These questions are at the heart of a problem as old as Adam. What good is a powerful world if it destroys the constituent
elements? What good are all the massive effects of modern life if the individuals are ruined? What good is a powerful
economy if the environment is destroyed?
Is the modern mind a kind of insanity that ranges over so much material, so many perceptions that it easily
destroys what it wishes to destroy? When does freedom lead to its very opposite? And why?
These are some of the questions opened up by the type of world in place. A world that can be quite good and pleasant but
one, too, that can turn on a dime.
In reflecting over the past few decades one comes to a startling conclusion. Things change in American society, new
values are created, the society recreates itself. Reading some material about the infamous 60's and 70's and all the
nuttiness that went on, still, prime values were created. Equity between races and genders, at least as a stated value;
husbandry of the environment among them. And in the last two decades, one of which, the 80's was a complete backlash
against the first two, one thinks of the definition of a "society" again in the form of good citizens, good families,
good communities and the taking down of "big government." And I think the last term is very important. Government is
big anyway you slice it but the psychological tie between the citizen and his feeling that government is way beyond him
or, conversely, accountable to him makes all the difference in the world. The 90's were a melding of these values.
Things change rapidly. We believe the change is rather epochal in nature. The last 40 years will fall from us
like the first stage of a booster rocket. Those of us still aware we are hurtling through unknown space will have
all those values intact but we look out into the distant black stars for the new challenges. One of them we know: the
threat of terrorism. The other is the global workplace. Another is the changing of the fuel systems in transportation and
the production of electrical power.
August 1, 2005
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