16 September 2009

Of "Liar!" (and other blunt words)

For some time now, I've enjoyed a bitter running quarrel with today's political words. You know, those polite words that make up our ever-so-globally-enlightened modern public discourse. Nor am I in the least picky about which ones I don't like. They may be words Republican or Democrat; Tory or Labour; conservative or liberal - or libertarian. They may even be words whose message is radically individualist or collectivist. (I notice it is the radical varieties of these last two persuasions that seem to have the most Devil in the details).

Frankly, most of the time they all make me just a little sick - or at least a bit queasy. And I suppose that is because, for the most part, when I read today's public words, I seldom if ever get the sense that there's a decent human being behind them, such as tries to fear God and love her neighbor. And who allows, moreover, that occasionally even she may be mistaken.

I'll admit our modern words seem sharp and penetrating enough, until you try to use them to shed some real, living Light upon any living creature. It is then you discover that most of them are mostly worthless for the conveyance of any sentiment beyond rage, contempt and self-congratulation. Now this in itself need not be any reason for discouragement, much less journalistic despair. What it rather means, I hope, is that there's no telling what extraordinary things our commentators might discover, and write about - if for once they could step out of their ordinary verbal comfort zones. Imagine if any one of them tried to care half as much for real persons, places and things as for their own glorious ideas about them. Think what your own agenda for a particular country might look like, if for once you considered that - very likely - that place, and its people, have had a rich and busy existence well before even the birth of your agenda.

My own biggest issue with our modern public words is, I think, a very simple one. Somehow they never seem to go down deep enough. Seriously. Have you ever lived through a time, like these past 15 years or so, when political words made such a busy to-do of blustering and thundering about on the surface of life? When was the last time you read words that even scratched the surface of, say, Richard B Cheney? Or Michael Moore? Or William Jefferson Clinton? And not because any of these fellows is especially good or bad, or right or wrong, or politically correct or incorrect - but because they are all big, and troubled, and troubling human beings. Perhaps even men of Shakespearean dimensions. Not the sort of men whom Shakespeare necessarily would have much liked or admired, but ones he'd surely have found a great deal to write about. And about whom he would have chosen his words, and his thoughts, most carefully.

But how can we even think adequately about any subject, if we lack words human enough - and humanly encompassing, and compassionate, enough - to begin a civil conversation about it?

That is why, today more than ever, I believe we need big, excavating words - words that open up the things we are looking at, so that we may not only look, but descend, way down deep into the substance, and the mystery, of them. And here I mean the substance of . . . whatever it is we are talking about. Whatever thing, or person, or place. And I do mean human places here, as much as the human beings who inhabit them. Notice, however, I've said nothing about abstractions like ethnicity, or ideology, or religion, or civilization. Even a tiny, out-of-the-way, seemingly insignificant place is worth more than any of these big global things, because a place is where human beings don't just text and send, but live and die. It is, after all, the ground by which they came from God, and shall return to God. (And even the poorest human clay God saw fit to make is worth immeasurably more than the most infallible human ideology, or the most impregnable human civilization.) Above all, a place remains that setting where people can be most freely what God made them to be, most freely and abundantly human - in addition to all those later things (religion, ideology, technology, etc) they may try or want to make themselves. A place is the One Thing which demands that you learn to behave decently towards - and to think decently about - not just some virtuous like-minded person, halfway round the globe, with whom you sovereignly choose to connect, but also that possibly quite different person on the bus who just happens to be sitting next to you. Only in real space is there some reasonable hope of of there coming out of you all the Everything God first put in. Which is, in the final count, the only Way we shall ever be equipped to deal kindly with the people in front of us who fall contemptibly beneath our self-made expectations, and ideologies, and agendas. Yet once again, for that blessed result we will need not just any old mean, hard, kickass words, but the right ones.

But our public words aren't just too meager, and stripping, and bone-dry. They're much too severing - and binding. They chop here, they slice there, they tie and package everywhere. They do, in short, everything they can to get the specimen under examination most tightly crammed into the box of our preconceptions. Or worse still, of our ideological and - God help us all - organizational agendas.

Take two not-so-random examples from our recent political past: Adolf Hitler and H G Wells. Was the visionary, apocalyptic, futuristic Hitler only a man of the Left? or of the Right? Was he nothing more than a hyper-efficient racist, whose own personal Ku Klux Klan happened to seize the machinery of state? Or was he just a singularly single-minded patriot driven mad by the iniquities of the Versailles Treaty? And what of the supremely organization-minded, pro-business, anti-labor Wells? Was he merely a socialist? or a fascist? Or was he simply a frustrated liberal humanist, who could hardly be blamed if Man's Best Future had long ago outgrown and discarded capitalism and democracy? I doubt if any - or all - of these categories can even pretend to fathom the spiritual, the human complexity that was Hitler or Wells. Oh, I'm sure our clipped, tight, dismissive sentences can easily package and mail them both, and in less than a paragraph. But can they even begin to cut the strings - much less open the boxes - of who these two men were? Or of their real effects and influences, and legacies - and upon all of us?

So I repeat: Today more than ever the need is desperate for big, generous, embracing words and sentences. Words hearty enough to do something like justice, and mercy, to the real amplitude of human nature - its unsearchable, unexcavatable variety - and that often in just one human creature! Else I see no hope of our being able to understand and prepare for the things that are coming: both the things that can help us, and the things that threaten us. And here I want to include even the ugliest of human threats. Our present grudging, labeling, pigeonholing words will never do more than a rough justice, either to the vast, richly mysterious evil that was Hitler or Stalin - or to the yet more richly unfathomable good of which, in the right Hands, both might have been capable.

Let us work and pray, then, that our best words may also be searchlights: not only throwing into sharpest relief what buried or residual goodness may yet peep out of a human monster's soul, but isolating and exposing all the worst our monsters have made of themselves and our world. And by "the worst" I mean the entire infection of evil, from tiniest root to tip of outermost leaf. I mean everything that prevents our "worst" men and women - and the not-so-much-better rest of us! - from living, and finding pleasure in, the inconceivable Purpose for which you and I were first made. It's a daunting project - but as with everything we can always start out small, and humble. At the very least, it will require words rather more attentively quiet - and quietly discerning - than those with which lately we've become accustomed to wage our loud, denunciatory wars of Light against Darkness. Words which know how to listen as well as speak, and that speak so much the better for having listened. After all, even the purest evil has been known to assume, on occasion, all the quietness and subtlety of a serpent.

05 September 2009

The Garden-room of the Heart

I must be one of the most horticulturally illiterate souls ever to venture a written word on the subject. I know the merest handful of plants and flowers by name, and the great majority of them not even by sight. Mind you, this is the same fellow who, not too many posts ago, presumed to give forth on the subject of the "best" (read: his favorite) English poets. And on the topic of "Nature," of all things!

Yet there is something about this business of quietly growing things that won't leave me alone. There is something in particular about flowers growing wild in places where we may least expect them - places that may seem abandoned, or run-down, or neglected. Or maybe just places whose peculiar loveliness - perhaps - has yet to be duly noted or appreciated. And yet see how they come to life, not just in the hands, but one might almost swear under the gaze, of the right Admirer. What is it about creatures like these, that when you allow them another kind of place, one inside your heart - a place where they can not only be seen for themselves, but can also, as it were, see you for yours (ah, but which Self?) - that makes you feel all of a sudden privy, even for a brief moment, to one of the oldest secrets of the Universe?

Eventually, of course, there will be nothing to stop us from manufacturing flowers in our own anthropocentric image: flowers of such mathematical perfection - of curvature and angularity and symmetry - as will make us wonder why we'd ever bothered with the old, nature-and-grace-dependent varieties. But then we will no longer be in on the Secret.

A Right Companionable Beast

However we may apportion the lion's share of blame for the conflict, Russia's incursion last year into Georgia was a reminder. Political and economic evil did not die with the Cold War. Neither did it simply retire into its cave for an indefinite hibernation. After all, collective evil is not just the lumbering behemoth we remember from the Soviet Era. We just happened to catch the monster on a bad day. Wait till we see what its good days are like. On the whole it remains a superbly eager, resourceful, enterprising, even chameleonic animal. Above all it is never blind to an opportunity. And while lately the Totalitarian Beast may be showing some rather abundant signs of life in Putin's Russia, that need not blind us to its penchant for wearing a Saudi - perhaps even a (winsomely smiling) Chinese - as well as a Russian, face.

Nor need we ever doubt the Beast's willingness to find a breeding-place in the bowels of religions and civilizations, no less than of nations and territories. Indeed I doubt if any civilization is wholly immune to the brutally simplistic charms of totalitarianism. Least of all one that places a high premium on efficiency. All the more reason, it seems to me, why we should be scarcely less alert to signs of the creature's track-marks upon our own, European and American - and Christian - souls.

04 September 2009

The Judges of God

I suppose nearly all of us do it. I certainly have. But it seems to me there are few thoughts we can entertain that are worse than looking at another human being, and wishing you were him or her. It has got to be the grossest of insults not only to yourself, but to your Maker. In fact there is only one thought we can have towards other people that I believe is worse. It is to look at a fellow human creature, in all that creature's richness and depth and storied complexity, and to imagine what it's like to be him or her, and to thank God you aren't.

Humility and Glory in Shakespeare

A key point to remember in Shakespeare's plays:
Everybody who is Anybody falls, and Time - almost as much as it is in life - is the great fallibilizer. In the tragedies big people fall in big ways at the end or near-end of the story. In the comedies little people fall in little ways, more or less around the middle to the end of the story. So far as I can tell, that is the principal Shakespearean difference between tragic and comic. In what are called the romances the fall, or descent, is as much spiritual as it is visible; it is usually accompanied by insight and repentance; and it is often followed by something that I think can best be described as transfiguration.

01 September 2009

Exporting "America"

Rule 3 of Twenty-first-Century Global Politics:
Never underestimate the ability of Great Powers to combine - and in some cases even merge - their resources.

There is fervid debate in high circles these days over whether the United States is in permanent decline - and if so, which if any of its principal contenders is best positioned to replace it.

My question: Why talk about replacement at all? In a globalizing era, isn't there room at the top for everybody, provided they're big and oafish and mean enough?

Since when are mutual jealousy and vindictiveness always the topmost sentiments among Great Powers? Powerful states have long found all sorts of reasons to combine as well as compete. Recall the growing warmth between America and Britain at the beginning of the 20th century. And between Britain and Russia in the course of the same decade. I can think of periods, too, when nothing has done more to produce fraternal feeling among the "Great" than a common loathing of the small and weak. Remember: It was the perceived strength of the British Empire, and not its actual weakness, that made Britain an attractive possible ally to Hitler in the late '30s (and in particular its ability to keep "all those colored races" in subjection). And if I'm not mistaken, more than a few on the appeasing side in Britain cherished similar hopes of Nazi Germany. To say nothing of the hopes of the delusionary
Stalin . . .

Even now, in this still-globalizing age, there is no Iron Law decreeing that the Globalizers must inevitably collide rather than collude. So . . . anyone up for a Sino-Euro-Saudi-American axis? Personally I can't think of any combination of powers more likely to show real tenderness of heart to the world's "lesser" and "declining" nations. Unless of course it be Putin's Russia. And speaking of the former Soviet Union, I wonder if it isn't so much globalization itself that has derailed, but merely the Trotskyist first phase of its career. "Worldwide globalist revolution" may have reached the end of its road. But who knows what chances yet remain for a Stalinese "globalization-on-one-continent"? And think of it: Our own beloved America may yet go down (in this case literally) in history as its midwife . . .

"And what, pray, is your first rule of 21st-Century Global Politics?"
Never take for granted the unity and power of the American Nation.
Let's face it: Many if not most politically articulate Americans would much rather hate each other than confront an enemy who genuinely hates and wants to destroy them both. Apparently it's much more fun to play soldiers in a domestic War on Error than it is to prosecute intelligently a global War on Terror. In any case, serious engagement with an enemy whose aim is to destroy our sense of common citizenship is not a thing to be undertaken lightly. Good heavens, it might actually increase our sense of common citizenship! And with God knows what irreparable consequences for our decidedly uncivic-minded American civilization -

"Yes, yes, and your second rule?!!"
Never underestimate the exportability of the American Model.
In other words, what 19th-century Americans did to the North American interior can be duplicated, albeit with some difficulty and much blood, on other continents. Maybe even - who knows? - on the biggest of all continents: The one comprising those places we call "Europe" and "Asia." And once again, just as the Western Powers were able to combine c. 1900 for the joint exploitation of Imperial China, so I don't think it's beyond the resources of today's globally-minded Europeans, Arabs, Chinese, etc, to collaborate peacefully - at least with each other - in the development of their common Eurasian frontier.
And all of it, perhaps again as in early 20th-century China, under the most generous American auspices. And why not? We Americans have been not unknown to encourage fair play and good sportsmanship among the Goliaths of the world, however bullying we may be towards its Davids. In this case however - unlike the coasts of Imperial China - the region to be exploited would be all but entirely inland. And America would be alone among the interested powers - Europe, Russia, China, etc - in having less-than-direct physical access to the Eurasian interior.
The unintended(?) effect may be to create such an overwhelming pan-Eurasian global preponderance as will sideline the US on the world stage - politically, economically, militarily - for generations to come. If not for ever. In which case the United States will have the further glory of being remembered as the Nation that sacrificed its own sovereign place and influence in the world - for good or ill - for the sake of its "idea".

Once again, God heal America.