22 December 2010

The Best that We Can Be

We Americans are a God-fearing nation. Or at least so we claim. (At present I think we'd be more exactly described as a God-hat-doffing civilization, or a God-pious-oath-muttering civilization.) And yet - whether one likes us or not, or likes our God or not - one must admit we Yanks have had an intense, far-reaching impact upon the world as a whole. Including those parts of it that most proudly proclaim their secularity. Even the most secular-minded, or the most politically correct, Europeans would be hard-pressed to deny that. Likewise the most up-and-coming Chinese.

At the same time that should hardly satisfy us. Near-perfect as we often seem when compared with the rest of sluggish humanity, even we Yanks can always do better. And so it occurs to me that this largely Yank-driven world would run a lot more considerately, honestly, transparently - in a word, a whole lot better - if certain new things were to happen to us. Or at least to our present way of thinking. Remember, we're Americans. We like the new, sometimes to the point of infatuation.

With that in mind, I'd like to offer the following suggestion: That, namely, this would be not just a new and a better world, but a literally more God-fearing one, if only we Americans took more seriously a certain curious notion we have. I mean this notion of the Divine origin of things we did not make. Including those creatures - you, me, other living things - that most of us believe did not evolve more or less by themselves, but were rather more directly and purposefully created by God. It would also be a better world if we Yanks lived a lot less seriously this other, often bizarre notion we have - of the Divine inspiration of things we do make. And in particular those purposeful things we call technological, and those things pertaining to what we call procedures, and systems, and organizations. And even ideas.

I understand that, like any clever, hardy and resourceful people, we can all too easily become enraptured with the works of our hands, and the products of our intelligence. But we also have an impressive body of sacred writings, in which most of us profess in some fashion to believe, which testify that there is much more to Life than either of those things. Indeed it's even suggested, in many divers places, that there are times when those two things can become rather marginal - if not positively detrimental - to something else we call Eternal Life. What I don't understand, then, is why we Americans of all people should be the last nation on earth to want to question the value, either of unbridled technological growth, or of the ideas that conduce to it. Still less do I understand why we should be the last country on earth to see the point of cherishing some portion of: (1) the created earth as it was given to us; or even of (2) our own natures as they were given to us.

In the first place, has "nature" in its given state really nothing of value to teach us, that we insist on teaching ourselves "better" by endlessly - and often thoughtlessly - reconstructing and reconfiguring it? It's true we humans are inestimably smarter than any other mode of life that presents itself to our attention here on earth. But hopefully we God-fearing Americans are also aware that our best smartness is as nothing compared to God's wisdom. And precisely because our best wisdom is as nothing compared even to God's worst foolishness, He is able to surprise us. He can do strange, paradoxical things, like calling forth sons of Abraham from stones, and releasing their pent-up energies in a chorus of praise. And He has been known to conceal, as it were, even in the lowliest things He makes - even in those creatures most brutely and grossly inferior to our august selves - subtle, yet stubborn, complexities, that may elude our best efforts to simplify them. Complexities that indeed may always elude us - or at least for so long as we continue to esteem our human wisdom and power more highly than our human createdness, and lowliness, and receptivity. Which is perhaps another way of saying if we want to become better - i.e., more God-empowered - masters of our earthly dominion, a good place to start might be to try becoming better servants. Or at the very least, more humble in the presence of those lowly strange things, and that strange lowly God, whom no amount of human superiority shall ever equip us to understand.

And that brings me to my second point: The exalted species we've fashioned out of what was once placed in the Garden merely to dress and to keep it. So what of it? What of the splendid job we've done on ourselves? Have we humans really so much to show for our endless self-reconstructions, that we should like nothing better than to "redouble the pace," so to speak, in our relentless overhaul of everything else?

Mind you, I've no doubt we Yanks will continue to love our gadgets and tinkering and systematizing. And no doubt the rest of the world will continue - with one degree or other of shame and hypocrisy - to love us for our love of those things. But haven't at least some of us been known to pride ourselves also on our love of God? My question, then, is how far it is possible to love anybody without taking seriously the things he has to say. And if you're going to take seriously the things he says, how much more those particular creatures - you and me, for instance - for the sake of whom, or perhaps even the salvation of whom, he says them? But if our Maker be such - no, if His words alone be such, that we can only receive them with the utmost seriousness, of what immeasurable value are those other words of His - His creatures - on whose behalf, and for whose blessing and strengthening, those same words were written down?

Suppose, then, that these works of God are also His words, and so also to be heeded. And not nearly so much for what we creatures think and say, as for what we are, and need. Why then do we treat these works as we so often do: as if they were nothing, and needed nothing? Why do we so often treat other human beings - including many of our fellow-Americans - almost as if they were works of our own, to be worked and slaved and lorded over, and then dispensed with, as we deem necessary? And not just the ones we lay off but the ones we keep on.

But please don't misunderstand me. I'm aware that any extensive rearrangement of these matters is likely to involve a certain degree of harm to the feelings of some highly - in a few cases even self-proclaimedly - productive people. People on whose entrepreneurial and managerial gifts we all depend. Nor am I entirely insensitive to the sensitivities of the more self-consciously self-made men and women among us. I can imagine what an abysmally humiliating thing it must be having to depend on other human beings, or having to accept even their paid help. And even worse being expected to acknowledge and appreciate it. Especially when, as in much of our modern organizational culture, you can so easily get away with acting like you don't need anybody - even as you squeeze everybody who's left twice as hard. (So much more dignified - don't you think? - to acknowledge one's dependence on systems and technologies and other things of our illustrious creation.)

Yet here I thought at least some of us modern Americans were trying to be just about the realest, genuinest, sincerest Christians who've ever lived. Why should we of all people fear humiliation, or loss of dignity? With 200+ years of practice, why, you'd think we could have written the book on humility. Or is that - now I'm beginning to get nervous - is that just one more traditional virtue growing steadily more obsolete in the glowing light of that revolutionary New World our Paines and Jeffersons only glimpsed from the far side of the Potomac?

Again, I can understand the atheistic likes of a Richard Dawkins or a Peter Singer fully embracing that proud Jeffersonian vision: - the dream of a fabulous, everything-is-possible new world, that runs dazzling, dizzying circles round the old fallen earth of Scripture. Or rather I believe our Dawkinses and Singers would embrace that vision if they were logically consistent. Indeed I can see the logic of Thomas Huxley's modern heirs waxing poetic about this unbounded New World. I can imagine them composing entire odes to the pride of the naturally superior and enterprising, or whole dirges confessing the sad but necessary expendability of lesser human specimens - to say nothing of other whole species - in the face of the demands of Endless Progress. Or even the endless demands of Beijing. But us Christian Americans? What's all that socially Darwinian posturing got to do with us?

And that returns me to the second part of my original question: Why so often do we treat those other, lesser works of God as we do? Much less, I mean, as our Scriptural dominion, and much more as our own divine creation, to be milked and ravaged and disposed of as we see fit? (Imagine our God treating us like that.) And why, on the other hand, do we so revere the works of our hands and brains - even ideas, and systems, and organizations - so much so that one might suppose we thought they weren't our creations at all, but rather gifts of God? Again, I can understand certain other nations being susceptible to these kinds of idolatry. But us God-fearing Americans?

But let's suppose for the sake of argument that all the things God has given to us deserve only our most ruthless and heedless exploitation. Including our own most humanly-unfathomable inner workings, and each other's. Just find an unguarded opening somewhere and drill away, so to speak. How much more worthy of exploitation, then, are the things we not only give but impose on ourselves and each other? And not just our organizations, systems, ideas - but even our ideologies? Why can't we Yanks be as unremorsefully pragmatic, as willing to pry apart and reassemble, manipulate and discard, in our use of the things we think and devise, as in our use of what Somebody Else has devised? Why do we tremble in the presence of these former things - especially we pioneering Americans, who got where we are (so the legend goes) by fearing no one and nothing? What midnight revelation-in-a-dream has all of a sudden made both our handwork and our brainwork quasi-sacred? Worst of all, why do our politicians insist on falling all over themselves, not to mention stepping on and reviling each other, in an effort to vindicate their particular vision of the quasi-sanctity of human innovativeness - whether of gadgetry, of systems, or of ideas?

Take a long, close, even a tender and pitying look (assuming anyone has the time) at our modern Palins and Pelosis. Both these political types are known for espousing a certain bold, often loud, clamorous and morally indignant, and withal not terribly nuanced, vision of the American Future. That, at any rate, is mostly what I get when I look at the two of them politically. What I cannot see, when I look at either of them humanly, is why a Sarah Palin deserves to be stereotyped, caricatured, anathematized, or reduced to something less than human, simply for failing to subscribe to some well-intentioned but possibly misguided politician's peculiar notions of Freedom and Progress. Or why a Nancy Pelosi deserves to be stereotyped, caricatured, dehumanized, etc, simply for failing to subscribe to some well-intentioned but equally misguided politician's peculiar notions of Freedom and Growth. And I'm even less able to see why any of us should waste energy - or even much thought - on either of these good ladies' respective visions either of Progress or of Growth. Especially when there's good reason to believe both ladies' agendas are mere variations on a certain very popular contemporary theme. I mean our obsession with a certain kind of More: More exaltation of what is done at the expense of the doers, of what is made at the expense of the makers, of systems and organizations at the expense of the organized and systematized, of ideals at the expense of those less-than-ideal human creatures - ultimately all of us - who must at all costs measure up to them.

And now take, if you can, an even longer, closer look at each of these two human souls: past what you may see as the present vileness of their respective errors, past even the growing rigidities of their early wrong turns and poorly-guided choices - all the way back to the humanity of each. And perhaps even something of what that humanity might be worth in - or how it once may have delighted - the sight of their Maker. Is either of these good women worth sacrificing, or writing off, or throwing over, or giving up on - even by each other - simply because of some ideology one of them happens to believe in, and the other falls short of? Is what God made them both from the Beginning - and what He may yet remake them - really of so little consequence, when compared to the wonders they've made and mismade of themselves, and each other? And that brings me back to you and me. Is either of us worth sacrificing, or dehumanizing - or demonizing - simply because of my "truth," or your "falsehood"?

It's true that our "truths" have often enabled us Yanks to do some stupendous material things, and that these have sometimes deservedly commanded the world's awe, reverence and - most sincerely - imitation. But can we be sure in every instance that the world's valuations are those of God? Can we be certain God cares more for Microsoft than for a monkey? Or that He is more alive in us when we are upgrading the former than when we are uplifting the latter? At least in the monkey's case it is we who are the trainers. Nor am I in the least suggesting the two kinds of skill are mutually exclusive, or even inversely proportionate. Who's to say the patience required to train a monkey - not to mention the wisdom involved in gaining his trust and respect - will be of no use in running a company? Or that the (dare I print the vile four letters?) love needed to coax and nurse the decidedly tentative gifts of this lower grade of primate will be of no help in shepherding the rather more explosive talents of our own kind?

Just think how much more blessed we Americans might be with the mystery, the beauty, the complexity of God-made things - not just in our zoos or backyards, but in our own brains - if for a change we took our Godly rhetoric seriously. And how we wouldn't get our feet, or our ships and tankers, stuck in those God-made things quite so often. And just think how much less infatuated we'd be with our man-made things - even humble loans, and stocks and bonds! - and how we wouldn't get our hands and brains stuck in them quite so disastrously. Because really, if we have a hard time taking seriously the words the Lord God spoke - and those from the morning of Creation onwards - is it any wonder we have an even harder time reading correctly and clearly the words we speak? And that therefore neither our businesses nor our governments are anywhere near as honest or transparent - or even as humanly (as distinct from corporately) considerate - as we would like them to be?

Anyhow, the older I get, the more it seems to me that every thing God made is a kind of strange literature, begging to be decoded, explored, savored, by the sympathetic reader, as distinct from the critic who is hyper-critical. A sort of livingly unfolding story, if you will, begging to be read humbly, and heedfully, for what that creature is and needs - as distinct from what you and I in our arrogance think it is, or think we may need from it. By sympathetic, then, I mean the sort of reader who respects - indeed delights in - a thing for being what it is, and not just for its merely human usefulness. And yes, any thing: even a small child: and for reasons quite separate from that over-loaded creature's learning-potential, or its purchasing-power, or its future productivity. The kind of reader I envision is one who would no more criticize a lemur for not being a leopard, or a lion, than she would fault Friday for failing to be Robinson Crusoe, or belittle St Peter because he wasn't St Paul. Much less take issue with John Paul II for not choosing to be J P Morgan. She knows it takes all kinds to make a better world. But if we cannot teach ourselves to be more patient with, and loving of, the specific thingness of various things - even the oceans-deep things we ourselves are - then I don't see how we shall ever learn to respect the unique personhood of various people. Including those persons we Americans think, in our inestimable business wisdom, that we have no use, or time, or work for.

In short (if I may put the matter in terms of a classic literature course), we need readers who are skilled at reading and exploring, and not just skimming or Cliff-Noting, the world of God-made things: readers who can "lose themselves" in the various books of Nature for the pleasures of the books themselves, and of their Author - instead of just crimping what they need in order to pass some course in Natural Resource Management. Or Applied Geo-engineering. Readers, in a phrase, who have in them a little more of the author Washington Irving, and a lot less of his character Ichabod Crane. Because no matter how passionately Ichabod may have believed otherwise, the truth is that what we humans make of things, and what we can get out of them, is by no means always the most important thing about them. Or sometimes, by God's grace, even the most useful. A chicken is not always better for having been folded comfortably into a pie. And neither are we always better for having eaten it. Meanwhile, just think of the great many humans - let alone other creatures - we discard, and overlook, and fail to use and employ wisely, in this Crane-like process of focusing solely on our own narrow uses, and ignoring the rather broader, more imaginative, more compassionate uses of, once again, Somebody Else.

On the other hand, if we Americans cannot learn to read more sympathetically this irreplaceable collection of books beneath our feet, that we so patronizingly call Nature, then I fear it won't be long before we lose both our skill and our joy in reading any other scriptures. Including not only, of course, the Book of Books, but those other, Divinely fascinating books we know as our Selves, and each Other. And then how much longer do you suppose we'll remain even a God-deferring civilization? Or even, for that matter, a world-leading economy?

The Worst Sort of Bad Conscience

Overheard: "My boss really does have a good side, you know. Unfortunately she's thoroughly ashamed of it."

21 December 2010

What Drives Us to Drink

"A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it's only human nature."

"Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above."

- The African Queen (1951)

Rise above nature? And here I was thinking only the Divinest of loves could even raise us to its pitiful level. Strange, though, how our own most widely popular means of lifting ourselves up - pride, power, empire, overwork, insomnia, sexual dysfunction - almost invariably drag us farther down . . .

19 December 2010

What Drives Us

I often think pleasure is ridiculously over-rated as a source of human motivation. Or at least of our modern human motivation. How many civilized human beings do you suppose there are today who do anything purely for pleasure - that is, minus the influence of some vanity project or other adulterating agenda? Certainly, in any case, it's not for those pure pleasures that are, in the words of Psalm 16, always to be found at the right hand of God. And perhaps even less for those rare pleasures to be gleaned from that music of words which, according to Proverbs 15: 26, are both pleasant and pure.

And yet the longer I live, the more I am amazed at the lengths to which human creatures will go - how much they'll exert and extend themselves, not just to others' hurt but to their own, and not just for the sacrifice of other people but of themselves - in the pursuit of something they call power. I wish I could see what they hope to gain by it. After all, our lust for earthly power and influence is such an infinitesimal - and worse of all, constricting - part of our makeup, compared to the vastness, the unsearchableness of those regions our Maker has planted deepest within us. Yet see how we think nothing of abasing the greater before the lesser; see how we revere this pompous little pinprick as if he were the whole show, or in any case the engine that drives the whole. Thank God we are, then - even the most driven among us - so much more than anything we do or make or own. Or even anything we leave behind. Thank God there's always something else going on inside us - a barely-there voice, I'll admit, that we may seldom if ever hear above all the raucous din of our doing. But just think how much better we'd do all sorts of things if for a change we tried to listen! Think how much more purposefully we'd do them, and thoughtfully; how much more heedful we'd be of our beholdenness to the Past, and of our duties to the Future. To say nothing of the enveloping, rumor-filled mystery that surrounds us everyplace we walk, almost as if we were skirting the borders of something lost and irretrievable, and yet vouchsafed for us - provided we walk respectfully.

Imagine, too, how boring we all would be, if our whole lives - or worse, our whole thoughts - consisted merely of the things we do or make or own. And think how oppressively dull we invariably become - how monotone, and monochrome, and even monstrous - when we live solely for that ultimately enfeebling thing we know as Power on Earth.

But perhaps you think a Lady Macbeth would have been an utterly enchanting person to know - and all the more so when in the throes of her latest intrigues, or at the summit of her latest triumphs! Maybe you imagine her as a thoroughly engaging and enlivening conversationalist - I mean, when her eyes are not darting every which way, or when she's not looking over her shoulder, or listening in on someone's conversation, or checking her iPhone and other twinkling things for the latest updates . . .

13 December 2010

How Far We've Come

Why is it, do you think, that some of the scariest, most heart-stoppingly terrifying dreams we have consist of things that we don't seem to be part of, but are rather watching on a movie or TV screen? Spectacles that place us in no immediate (dream) danger, and yet enable us to identify with the danger of a dream-character on a screen.

At least that's been the pattern of my experience. Moreover, not only do I know it's only a dream, but I know the dream is one in which I'm not in the least a participant, but merely a spectator. And yet there I am, grimacing and recoiling as if it were all happening to me. Funny, but I don't get anything like that feeling of Clintonesque pain when watching a real-life film, regardless of how much the characters may suffer, or how much their suffering may "plead" for my sympathy.

And certainly no one I know would dare accuse me of having cornered anyone's market on compassion.

So what do you think? Is sympathy - at least at the subconscious level of dreams - really all that strange to any of us humans ? Is self-identification, even with the sufferings and torments of an imaginary character, really as foreign to our natures as the Enemy - or any other economist - would have us believe?

But then again, which human nature are we talking about - the one that was given to us? Or the one we've re-set and re-configured, times beyond counting, in the interests of something we call Growth and Profit and Progress?

12 December 2010

A Critical Stage in a Writer's Growth

Whatever there is of good in what we write depends in some degree - at least if the fount is not one day to dry up completely - upon the patience, the indulgence, the hospitality of the reader. And in gaining access to that sometimes retiring, unobtrusive good, the "critical faculty," as we conventionally understand it, may show all the subtlety of a sledgehammer in detecting the unsuspected chords of a piano. The problem with the best in what we write is that it is often the shyest part of our repertoire. Shy creations, no less than shy creatures, require more than the glowering looks of the harsh critic for the discovery of their strengths. They require the sort of critic who, in judging any author, sees, yes, and does not spare, all the pride and pompousness, all the preening and pretension, of the warden - but also sees beyond them, to the dreams, the hopes, the longing, of the prisoner inside.

07 December 2010

The Temperamental Genius

Have you ever felt "damned if you do, damned if you don't" about something really big? I mean really big. Something that might conceivably have consequences that are lives-endangering, or even world-unsettling - at least in the hands of those folks who can actually make or break the world?

Suppose, let's say, you and your family were locked in a building, or marooned on an island, or besieged in a city, with a bunch of brilliant, aggressively resourceful people whom none of you trusts anywhere near as far as they'd like to throw you. A bunch of people who have ingeniously compelling ways of selling you absurdly cheap (and sometimes even absurdly bad) products, and loaning you (what will eventually become) ridiculously expensive amounts of money. And whom you would more than anything love to stop buying and borrowing from, if only you could afford it. And yet concerning whom you know, from long experience, that it behooves you to think twice about doing anything - anything, however otherwise reasonable - that might make them angry. And mostly it's not even because of the tightness of your mutual entanglement, or the apparently diminishing wiggle room available to you both. Mostly it's because these brilliant opportunists are, shall we say, temperamental, and extremely touchy, and still smarting badly from all sorts of past injuries and humiliations. It's not necessarily that in the long haul of their history they've suffered unduly worse than other folks. It is rather because any humiliation at all would be grossly incommensurate with their true worth and just deserts as a people and a culture. Because no Chinese (or American, or Briton, or German, or Pole, or Arab, or ________ [insert the superior nationality of your choice]) should ever have to suffer like that. Maybe Russians and Jews - after all, they're used to it, and certainly at least the Russians have done more than a little to deserve it. But surely no people of any real culture and accomplishment.

By now you've probably guessed that I'm no fan of the People's Republic. But it is for that very reason that I think we'd all do well to be leery of provoking them. Caution is especially in order when it comes to arousing what I call the collective stubbornness, and the collective impulsiveness, of the mainland Chinese leadership. I think it makes sense, regardless of whether you love or hate, or distrust, or simply want to get along with Beijing - much as wariness and caution made very good sense, many years ago, in dealing with a certain other nation who had a similarly high opinion of their own admittedly high worth. Right now I'm recalling how certain far-sighted Britons and Americans, who tended to know a thing or two about German history and German character, gradually grew more and more concerned about the stubbornness and impulsiveness of the German ruling classes over the first third of the 20th century.

My point is not that either the Germans or the Chinese are in any way savage, barbarous, uncultured or unaccomplished nations. No, if anything my feelings are quite the reverse. It's just that when I think about today's mainland Chinese in particular, and about all the various things they might or might not do, I'm reminded of certain individuals I've known, and the likes of whom maybe all of us have known. Men and women, often highly civilized, cultured and gifted, as well as ambitious and enterprising, who were very good at getting their way. I recall how these individuals, in the course of getting extremely big for their breeches, also got very much used to having their way with pretty much everyone (and then all the more despised and took advantage of those who tried to accommodate them). And lastly, I'm reminded of how extremely self- (and other-) destructive people like these can be, when they feel they're no longer able to get their way, and start thinking they have to take it.

30 November 2010

A Rant (Yes, I'm part of the wider problem)

Oh yes, make no mistake, my friends: We Yanks are in a pretty pickle whichever way we turn. And yet what a rare people of far-sighted vision we are, to be so courageously polarized just as things are starting to heat up round the globe. (But then who could have imagined our stalwart ally, the People's Republic, failing to keep a tighter rein on the North Koreans? Surely it wasn't for want of trying?)

And frankly I couldn't tell you which of our two most popular ways is the more pixillated: Our economically "libertarian" Right or our culturally "liberal" Left. Either way libertinism tends to take liberties, whether it's your neighbor's pocket or her brain you're picking, her soul or her "sexual" life (now there's a modern mockery of a good word). Either way, if history be any indicator - or at least history as far back as one can go (and remember, only Genesis can take us anywhere near that far) - then the upshot of our Future is fairly clear, and the Path well-marked. Moral license, unless arrested, tends to dissolve into moral anarchy, which sooner or later rigidifies into amoral tyranny: it being the nature of Supermen everywhere to (think they can) live beyond good and evil. Although, come to think of it, our Supermen-prototypes of the past 15 years - in banks and elsewhere - had already been doing a pretty fair job of behaving as though they lived in their own moral stratosphere, far, far above ordinary earthly notions of right and wrong.

Oh darn, here I am forgetting again what our New Economists have been prophesying the whole time, and what our pundits have all but proven. Namely that, right under our noses, our recent Present (the World since c. 1995) has been busy mutating into something unrecognizably different from all previous Pasts. Which can only mean that our latest Future will be yet more unrecognizably different from both! Evidently the world is changing at so unintelligibly fast a rate that there's nothing to prevent black from evolving into white! And so what was evil for us on the eve of the Flood may yet become a positive good - or at least a necessity for long-term survival, once, that is, we've devised the physical means of abolishing flooding, and keeping Hell from boiling over. In sum, history - Biblical or otherwise - no longer has much of anything to teach us. And soon enough, my children, it will have nothing to teach us at all.

Or nothing we mortals are able to learn, at any rate. The modern assumption being, as I understand it, that we humans can only make things meaningful and useful in the measure that we reduce them to schemes and patterns of regularity. And since you can never schematize human history to anyone's scientific satisfaction, much less reduce it to some pretty mathematically-governed pattern, why pretend there's anything whatsoever to be learned from it?

To which, frankly, I am tempted to reply: Why you presumptuous buffoon, you can't even reduce your friend - or even your boyfriend - to a pattern known accurately to anyone but God. Is that any reason to ignore him, or pretend he doesn't exist? Or that she has nothing to teach you? No, of course you can't schematize history. But you can sit and steep yourself in its presence, in the quiet shade of the Academic Grove. Or whatever parts of it have not yet been turned to concrete and glass, and plastic, and "profitable" education.

As to whether and how far Time can "heel" unredeemed human nature - why, you might as well pretend evil becomes less wicked the "better" we get at controlling physical reality. Oh, I'll admit wickedness may actually get more rational and efficient as we proceed down that road, in addition to seeming more abundantly profitable and "results-oriented." "See, we've even found a productive use for sin." But will that make it any less cruel, less heartless, less soul-destroying than it was, say, in the days of the Giants and "mighty men"? or of Nimrod? or of Tubal-cain?

I'll tell you what image comes most readily to mind when I think of this present generation of global leaders. It is that of a gang of precocious, irreverent, smart-assed, ingeniously destructive "kids," whose specialty is the vandalizing of cemeteries and monuments (with the "exception" of a select few from the 18th century: Thomas Paine's burial plaque in particular - "We have it in our power to begin the world over again" - assuming the reverently garlanded-and-graffiti'd look of a Jim Morrison-of-the-Doors shrine). A right promising pack of bright young thugs, who, having trashed the better part of the Father's Estate, and finding nowhere else to play, are now to be seen drifting - inadvertently but quite steadily - ever closer to the mouth of a certain Beast's cave.

24 November 2010

Getting the Most for Your Man: A "Holiday" Meditation

All of us use people, at some time or other. Even the best of us have been known to love others not just for who they are, but for what we can get out of them. Neither is the reason always a bad one by any means. We all have various times in our lives when we have need for people to extend themselves. When we suddenly or gradually need even the people closest to us - even those we most deeply love and care for - to show another side of themselves: a more energetic and strenuous side than the mere enjoyment of their natural and spontaneous personalities would readily supply. Moments when performance as well as presence counts. The key to making the most of these moments, I believe, is to coax that "something extra" gently into coming out of its hiding place, without getting hung up on it; without letting it become an obsession or a fixation; without making it a quota, or a target, or a performance level.

When the day comes that women love men less as one might "love" an employee, and more nearly in the way that women love each other - when they love men mainly for who they are, and not primarily for what they give, or do, or symbolize, or represent, or personify; when women love men principally as persons and human beings, and not as icons or idealizations or archetypes - when that Day comes, well, all I can say is there's no telling what extraordinary work they will be able to get out of us. And I suspect a fair majority of us will be actually happier to give it, too.

18 November 2010

Faithless of Our Fathers

This post-Cold War United States leaves me nothing if not confused. All this breast-beating about the Founding Fathers and their last wills and testaments! As if we've only just recently recovered the real substance of what it means to be American, following a mysterious disappearance of our identity - along with, of course, the Constitution - somewhere between William McKinley (our last "genuinely American" president?) and Ron Paul. Or at very earliest, Newt Gingrich.

Yet surely we're no less skilled today at trashing our Fathers' legacies than we were on the eve of the infamous Progressive Era (c. 1900). Why, even as we mutter piously about defending the Pharisaic letter of our Founders' laws, it may be we've grown much better at killing their human spirit. And killing it, I fear, not nearly so much through our vices as through our virtues, and less by our addictions than by our ideals. Was there ever a time, for example, when we as a society came shorter of either the character, the wisdom or the hopes of George Washington, than in these past two decades? Or when we more expressly and accurately justified his fears? I don't say we have deliberately set about betraying his legacy, or that we've consciously rejected Washingtonian ideals of statesmanship as false or obsolete. It may be that we've simply outgrown - or become much too sophisticated for - rather a lot of what he and other Founding Fathers had to teach us.

In any case there is a way, it seems to me, that may help us to determine how far we either have or haven't outgrown our Founders. We can compare their most earnest reflections with those of other, less congenial but perhaps more relevant writers. Writers who might not initially hold up all that well under the scrutiny of our less informed prejudice. But whom we may find nonetheless far more pleasant - or even helpful - to read, were we free to consider their views more completely and objectively.

Take and explore, for instance, any of the post-"scientific romance" writings of H G Wells, starting with Anticipations (1901) - Chapter 8, "The Larger Synthesis," is especially rewarding - or A Modern Utopia (1905). Wash it down with a famous German contemporary of his, good old Oswald Spengler (but by all means avoid his best-known Decline of the West; no, for a really concentrated dose of Spenglerian savagery, venom and bombast, start with Man and Technics [tr. Atkinson, 1932], and then move on to The Hour of Decision [same tr., 1933] - Part 3 is a rare masterpiece of anti-labor vitriol).

As you get to know these two, in many ways quite different, modern sages, I ask you to pay the closest attention to certain recurrent themes and concerns nonetheless common to both. Concerns which may have a special relevance to our own visionary, early 21st-century quest for human perfection: - a kind of perfectibility that, while it may hardly aim at those particular human improvements most of us would call moral or material, assuredly has no qualms about seeking a human perfection that is mechanical.

Note, for starters, these writers' fiercely meritocratic elitism - and please observe that, as regards elites of the future, both Wells and Spengler had a much warmer regard for entrepreneurs and engineers than for politicians and bureaucrats, whom as often as not they warmly despised. Note especially in the later, more polemical writings of both, something that often sounds like an unabashed worship of human power and ambition, tempered by only the coldest, most "technical" - some might even say most inhuman - rationality. Notice their considerable impatience, if not outright contempt, of ordinary political processes and machinery, particularly when the methods are those of representative democracy. Note their dismissiveness of trade unions and of other lingering, "holdover" loyalties deemed unsuitable to the stresses and challenges of the Coming Age: sentiments attaching to nation, region, locality, or (at least in the case of Wells) even family. Note their faith, not only in the inevitable necessity of technological advance, but in its unique, almost saving power to harness and embody all that is best in human nature (or, in the case of Spengler, all that is most Western or "Faustian"). Above all, note their profound respect for LARGE aggregates of power - whether political or economic - and their insistence on the need, as "Man" or "the West" unfolds, for ever-larger scales both of political and economic organization and of economic activity.

My hunch is that as you probe these gentlemen's writings, you'll find, in not a few places, values and ideals far more consonant with the spirit of New Economy America (however remote from its Constitutional letter) than almost anything contained in, say, either of Washington's two best-known farewell addresses - his circular letter of farewell to the army of 1783, or his address to Congress of 1796.

Now I realize I've opened rather a large discussion, which to some tastes can only be advanced by the closest analysis of both speeches. But for the moment, let's settle for a closer look at the earlier of the two addresses, and at its final paragraph in particular:

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation [emphasis mine].

I can hear the amused chortles of Wells/Spengler: "Really now - never hope to be a happy nation? No, I suppose not. But we have every chance of success at building a dynamic, prosperous, world-beating civilization! Meanwhile, General Washington, it remains to be seen just what parts - other than purely regressive ones - either nations or happiness will continue to play in the great onward thrust of Life; or what conceivable use 'humility' and a 'pacific temper of mind' can have, either for the final unification of the West [Spengler], or for the great upward March of Mankind [Wells]."

Now I ask you to judge for yourselves how far - if at all - this closing prayer of Washington's diverges in spirit from the main thrust of his address as a whole. As I see it, either the General is speaking the truth from his heart, or he's doing a royal - and highly insulting - job of talking down to his audience. But assuming his sincerity and good faith in all of these petitions, is our soon-to-be first president saying anything here that either Wells or Spengler would have had the patience to sit through without sneering? or even laughing out loud? Oh, I'm sure both would have welcomed a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government as necessary enough for most people - i.e., for the great bulk of us "inferior masses" who hail from, and drag down, every nation, tribe, people and tongue. But this demeaning, canine sort of loyalty - what conceivable place could it have in the ambitions and objectives of the world's better class of people: those go-ahead, impatient-of-restraint-and-authority souls whom both markets and organizational in-fighting will soon determine to be the natural (not hereditary) rulers of any rational, forward-looking global society? By all means let Government be big, harsh and implacable for us lesser folk. It's only what we deserve for being such failures - and may be all that keeps us in line. But for the truly and deservedly Big, can government ever become small - or at least pliant and manipulable - enough?

For that matter, would either Wells or Spengler have found anything remotely commendable, or even rationally intelligible, in Lincoln's speech marking the institution of the national holiday of Thanksgiving? Or even, for that matter, would we - assuming, I mean, we could for a moment put aside these famous authors' identities, and examine both addresses coldly and rationally in the light of our real values, and not just our professed ones? Indeed I suspect we post-Cold Warriors - could we permit ourselves a moment's self-honesty - would have far less trouble understanding and even identifying with Wells and Spengler than with either of our two most celebrated Presidents. Maybe not with the former's very earliest writings, but certainly with their mature and final works. And in particular those works which put forth their most ambitious, dynamic and heroic visions of the human future - or their most misanthropically cynical views of ordinary human beings.

What a shame, really, that we can't create the conditions for a truly blind taste test of the merits of these four: Wells, Spengler, Washington and Lincoln. Frankly I'd be amazed if the bulk of our US leaders, from every walk of life, did not find some mix of Wellsian/Spenglerian values a good deal more bracing - rather like a strong iced latte, to say nothing of more relevant to our times and problems - than the tired old admonitions of George and Abe. Neither, I think, should we be too condemning of ourselves, simply because a majority of our movers and shakers find it much easier to honor certain "Founders' values" more in the breach than in the observance. It's hard to remind yourself of the value of, say, humility or prudence, or thankfulness, or even honesty, when you know you've done practically everything on your own, and by practically any means you can muster, foul or fair. And certainly with no help whatever from the likes of history, or tradition, or the cumulative moral wisdom of mankind.

Or none, at any rate, prior to 1776.

13 November 2010

Words of Life

Words, I keep reminding myself, are rather like musical notes and chords: you can never tell what musty old emotions they're liable to arouse, or what secrets, and secret treasuries, what lost memories and yearnings it lies within their ancient power to unlock. We all know of music so rich, and so unhurried, we can hardly be sure if its most abundant life lies in the notes themselves or in the pauses between them. Listen to almost anything by Ravel from his middle period - Le Tombeau de Couperin just now comes to mind. Try listening not just inside the notes, but between them, as it were. It's as if the music had enabled you to hear not just itself, but to hear, and see, so many other things besides - a withered leaf, a stairwell down an empty street, a gazebo in rain - things you'd normally never take the time to notice even sideways. But suddenly there they are, not only amplified front and center, but made purer and more alive, by the weaving stillness between the sounds.

In the same way, there are sounds of words, and word-arrangements, and whole word-compositions that can take you very deep into the heart of things: into the deepest, quietest part of the house, or the cave, or the garden - so deep, it is as if the space occupied by the words had suddenly become alive with things you'd have sworn only a moment ago were dead, or inert, so accustomed are they to being drowned out, or stomped on, or bullied into the obscurer corners of the Room of Life. But now hear them stir, roused and welcomed by the hospice of silence our words have created. Now see them, one and all, come edging slowly, gingerly, tentatively into someplace rather closer to the heart of that Room, and of its Maker - and alive, every one of them, with such frail or forceful spark of life as either dwells in them already, or as only God can enliven them with. (And may we never put limits on God's power to enliven anything - much less on His tenderness for even the shoddiest piece of wood's dream of becoming Pinocchio.)

The best words are always like that. The best words are always those which awaken silence, or bring us into those places in which silence can be heard with the most liquid clearness. And remember, without silence there is no sympathy, no understanding, and ultimately no mercy. Perhaps you think it's a hard, daunting thing to empty yourself of mercy towards another creature. Not in the least. All you have to do is talk over somebody loudly enough, arrogantly enough, and I promise you, in a very short time everything she needs - everything her soul pines for - will be drowned out by the roar of your agenda. (Maybe that's why, nowadays, we have such a devilishly hard time imagining each other's Selfhood: grasping what it's like to be you, or to be me. Or finding words that actually let that Self breathe, instead of making it choke on its own importance.)

Of course our loud talk has other practical and edifying uses, too, like deafening our hearts to the various muffled sounds going on inside them, or the various things desperately trying to get their attention. Loud bluster in particular can be most efficient at cowing not just other people, but other parts of ourselves - and especially those parts of us in which Imagination is not (quite) dead, but, like Jairus' daughter, only sleeping. Though I'm told that, even when asleep, it can on occasion hunger simply for the sound, the wind, the cry, of someone or something - perhaps, again, the sound of anything to which God can give a voice, and words. Indeed I'm sure there are not a few rooms, even in our busiest, most callused hearts - rooms seldom visited, perhaps never cleaned, but nonetheless of an exquisite quiet - in which, you'd almost swear, you can not only hear the pin drop, but half-hear its desire to climb back up again.

A New Prosperity - or Not

It occurs to me that certain kinds of success contain within themselves the seeds of their own failure. In fact, I often wonder if some of our most extraordinary human successes aren't also some of our shortest-lived.

I say this because it appears to me that, in the 15 or so years building up to Mega-recession, we Americans and lovers of America managed to achieve an altogether unique kind of success - one perhaps quite as extraordinary as anything we've ever done. For we succeeded in creating an economic culture not only historically unprecedented, but unprecedentedly sick and confused. And sick not just in those moments when we felt tired and broken-down - assuming there were any - but even more in those ways in which we were (or thought we were) robust and vigorous.

Note that, in every other period of human history, extravagant and recurrent indebtedness was most often a measure of what a wastrel you were, of how poorly and fecklessly, and reluctantly, you worked. So far as I know, however, only in the Nasty Nineties did it begin to become a solid mark, not only of how titanically successful you were, but of how zealously and innovatively you were working, and how well.

But now wait a minute. Can I accurately describe our most recent Gilded Age as unprecedented? Weren't the Roaring Twenties - at least in the place where they roared the loudest, America - a period of similarly unbridled, bare-knuckled optimism? Weren't they also a time in which Americans ever-so-trustingly embraced a gospel of visionary debt as the key to wealth and growth?

But I need to tread carefully here. Because if I in any way denigrate the business culture of the American Twenties, I also risk impugning - however indirectly - the reputations of those two very different presidents who presided over far the better part of that decade. Never mind, of course, about Herbert Hoover, the vile crypto-socialist who all but singlehandedly created the Great Depression (with a little help at the front and back ends from Wilson and FDR, if not also Teddy). But dare I question the judgment, competence or compassion of Hoover's two Republican predecessors - those bright stars on the national horizon who, at least until the sun of Reagan appeared, were all that managed to illuminate a century of otherwise unrelieved Presidential darkness . . .

11 November 2010

Looking Back to See Forward

There are so many pressures in the world today - economic, cultural, perhaps even spiritual pressures - that invite Americans to forget they ever came from somewhere, that they were ever European, and Europeans to forget they've ever gone anywhere, that they were ever colonizers. And these pressures make a good deal of sense, if we assume that (1) up until very recent times, Europe has been largely if not entirely a very bad place; (2) on the other hand, Europeans are most unlikely to do much of anything really bad in the future.

But I suspect neither of these are very wise assumptions. And so it seems to me that today more than ever Americans and Europeans both need the Atlantic Alliance, or else something very much like it. Regardless of what precise form it may take, some sort of Atlantic compact, or fraternity, or commonwealth is a thing they will always have need to maintain; and if they ever dispense with it altogether, they will sorely wish they'd kept it. The Americans need it because they need to keep looking eastwards, to remember where they've come from, and to recollect that the stupendous fact of being American can never make them more than human, or better than sinners. The Europeans need it because they need to continue looking westwards, to remember where they've gone to, and to recollect that the stupendous fact of being post-colonial will never make them cease to be political, or incapable of exploitation. In short, they both need to keep facing each other, if they're ever to get some semblance of a handle on their present mutual contempt, on their current mutual superiority complexes. Above all, both need to accept that even they do not stand outside of history, even now; and that they can never escape it.

Which is all the more reason, I think, for them both carefully and quietly to recall, and to ruminate on - and to teach their children (of whatever ethnic origin) to reflect on - everything that has passed between them from then until now. And also everything that has passed between them both and the rest of the world. Because so much evil - as well as much good - has taken place in that long intervening period. Which is to say we have so much to learn from, and be heedful of, and humble about. And of course there have been other exploiters in the world besides us Westerners, and some of them much worse. And others worse yet will surely follow. But I defy anyone to show me a civilization that has thought more about what it is to exploit, and that knows better what it means to be an exploiter - how it corrupts not just the "city" of Man but the soul - than we very first unifiers of the globe.

Naturally, too, the "inexorable" economic laws of Mexican labor and Chinese capital will go on beckoning Americans, just as they did President Polk and the first Anglo-Californians. And the "inestimable" economic opportunities promised by Russian and Caucasian and Central Asian resources will continue to draw Europeans, much as they did the likes of Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler. All the more reason, again, for us to keep somewhere near the forefront of our minds the memory of our mutual pasts, and not just the anticipation of possibly opposite futures. Nobody - not even globally enlightened Americans and Europeans! - has so thoroughly recovered from the Addiction of Exploitation that he's in no danger of becoming an exploiter all over again, in new pastures and fresh fields. And nothing better justifies a further, deeper, more unashamed exploitation than the feeling that you are, after all, being counter-exploited in your turn (and perhaps even by Mexicans and Chinese). And all the more so when that feeling is true.

To forget is only to repeat. And neither of us has any hope of of understanding - of remembering - either the ongoing nature of the World, or how low our own human natures have fallen, except as we continue to embrace the humility of standing face to face, and resist the temptation to turn completely back to back.

01 November 2010

A Culture of (Walking) Death

How fitting, that this most righteously indignant, apocalyptically angry election should come on the heels of the most luridly decorated Halloween in memory. Or at least in my adult memory. (Could they possibly have been worse when we were kids?) Indeed I doubt if anything could be more revealing of the real condition of our times - or of the true direction of our country - than today's adult culture of Halloween (which may be our children's culture of tomorrow). Anyhow, I'm sure our modern Hallows' Eve is a far more telling and accurate revelation of who we are, and of where we're going, than any fashionable jeremiad pouring forth from either Tea Party, NPR or Nancy Pelosi.

Now I know that, in some quarters, the extreme fury and ferment surrounding these elections have been touted as evidence of the Nation's hunger for moral renewal. I want to suggest that our present Halloween habits may be no less proof of an equally mighty moral renewal - one very different, I'm sure, from most Americans' conscious intentions, but perhaps for that very reason far more consistent with the underlying logic of our common positions than any of us realize. After all, whatever their differences, most media-visible Americans are all but united in extolling values like human self-reliance and opportunity, and the need of the self-reliant in particular to embrace the Future by throwing off the dead hand of the Past. What better way, then, to represent this harrowing end-time conflict of Future vs Past than with the dramatic themes celebrated by today's adult version of Halloween? And what better way to depict the suppression of a creeping, vile and malignant Past than by dramatizing the need, not just to throw but to chop off, a hand not merely dead but clutching and clawing?

But now here is a very disturbing thought, even to the unlikely likes of me. I'd like to think that Americans of, say, 100 years ago had considerably more time and patience for the dead than we more let's-get-on-with-it souls of today. But it's just possible that our American culture, what with its glorious tradition of the Alzheimerization of historical memory, has never really been comfortable with this business of ancestors. It may be that America has always regarded the dead in all their forms, both recently-deceased and long-term buried, as more or less of an inconvenience, a burden. And burdens of their nature can be very dull, inactive things, and doubly so when dead. In terms of entertainment and excitement you can only get so much mileage out of the deceased, at least this side of eternity. If anything their very ghostliness keeps most ghosts from being really formidable. How appropriate, then, to the challenging, dynamic Age we live in, that a truly ground-breaking innovator and prophet should have emerged not a second too late for our enlightenment! How fitting that, in the fullness of time (1968) a George Romero should appear, bringing in his train how many dozen other exponents of his today-thriving-as-never-before genre, to take all the dullness and burdensomeness out of being recently dead, and make even our dearest late-departed into something really challenging and dynamic! That is, into a horror and a terror. And then we go and further honor their memory by dressing up like them. O that we should live to see such times! in which our screenwriters see visions, and our film-makers dream dreams.

So it is a fair gauge, I think, both of our modern idealization of ceaseless mobility and change, and of our modern loathing of anything suggesting finality or lasting peace, that respected film artists like Romero have found their own exhilarating answers to the age-old questions of whether the dead are raised, and with what body do they come. Observe how they're not content merely with desecrating the unburied dead, or demonizing their apparitions. But no, they won't even let their bodies rest. They won't even let their physical remains bide in peace till their Savior come. And no surprise to anyone there, I should hope. Indeed, as I've suggested elsewhere, our American civilization has its own cocky, nasty, turn-everything-on-its-head rejoinder to just about anything one finds in Scripture - yes, right down to Revelation and the Resurrection of the Body. So then let's - why not? - let's imagine our bodies, not as awaiting an unspeakable glory at the hands of God, but as drifting into a state of travestied hideousness at the whims of a presumably Godless Nature. Ah, now there's an end-time struggle for us self-reliant Yanks! There's a final reckoning worthy of Stan Lee-scale superheroes, in which lonely Man is pitted against elements not only merciless but actively malignant. In short, against a universe both godless and evil. And a mighty good thing too, since that way both the resources and the saving resourcefulness are all placed right back where they belong, and where they've always been: On ourselves.

Lastly, how fitting that these strange visions, both of resurrection-as-nightmare and of radical self-deliverance and self-redemption, should have arisen in so progressive an Age as ours - one that prophets and angels of Progress longed to see. An Age filled to all fullness with every manner of dietary and sleeping disorder (proof positive of our greater productivity, no?), along with boundless dreams of human (worker-)perfection through mechanization. Because please note that, in St Romero's Apocalypse, the resurrected dead are not just compulsive eaters, but essentially sleepless eating-machines. In a word, supremely efficient for the task to which they've been appointed. And, from what I gather of the latest installments, becoming ever more efficient - and faster! - all the time. Now that's what I call time (and Progress) well-accounted-for.

31 October 2010

The Punishment and Proliferation of Error

These days we're so beastly afraid of being stupid and inept. And not without good reason. Indeed I doubt if there's anything this present efficient globe considers more shameful, more grossly indicative of a want or failure of moral character, than stupidity and ineptitude. I'm reminded of the great Ayn Rand of blessed memory, berating her poor aging husband for his stubborn and willful dementia.

Not that our own recent attempts at wisdom-through-intimidation have been any less barren of results. Or rather are the results no less easy to predict. The upshot, anyway, is that our present global society drives out of us precisely those kinds of stupidity and ineptitude that are least self-conscious, least ashamed, and so most easily corrected and overcome; while it only more deeply ingrains in us those core incompetencies that are the hardest of all to detect and uproot, because they are rooted in that most crippling and debilitating of all forms of cowardice, the fear of making a mistake. But imagine a society even marginally less judgmental of the slightest slip-up. Who can tell what other kinds of government leaders we'd elect, and what other kinds of business leaders we'd promote, if only we weren't so deathly terrified of looking stupid - and not just in our organizations and on our jobs, but in sometimes even the smallest, most unsupervised moments of our daily lives. Almost as if we were afraid somebody important might be watching or listening, who would then use it as damning evidence - as reason not to hire us, or contract with us, or even have anything to do with us. You really can't be too careful these networking days.

But then think how much easier to employ we might be, and how much more productive of good results our employment (at anything) might prove, if only we tired, depressed, preoccupied 21st-century souls were even intermittently free of this albatross of fear. And then, just think how much less real stupidity we'd be guilty of.

29 October 2010

A Boldly Multicultural Foreign Policy

You don't hear much talk about the Western Alliance these days. And to think barely a generation ago, such language was not only still common but - in view of the great common enemy we all understood ourselves to face - quite vigorously employed. Yet how many of us today would argue that even the linchpin of that alliance, the United States, is fundamentally the same country it was back in 1985 - whether in its internal demography, its place on the world stage, or even its perception of itself?

One point at all events seems clear to me: Over the past twenty years in particular, we Americans have made certain interesting choices of policy and alignment, which in turn have worked powerfully to shape not just our self-perceptions, or even our demographic makeup, but something still more essential to who we are. A certain "something" I find easiest to describe not as our historical, or traditional, but rather as our emerging, self-identity. But what have we been emerging from?

It seems to me that since the end of the Cold War, we Americans have been understanding and defining ourselves less and less as one Western nation among others, and more and more as a singular and unique post-Western civilization. One so unique, I would argue, as to be utterly defiant of comparison even with younger English-speaking countries like Canada and New Zealand. Mind you, I'm not saying there is no comparison; only that more and more of us - and especially our pundits and policy-makers, both Left and Right - are talking and behaving as if there were none. More and more we're being defined, in effect, as a microcosm of every nation on earth - and so by implication as not just a but the immigrant nation. And occasionally even, by some of our bolder visionaries, as not just the salt of the earth, but the cream of its crop too.

Naturally, many global economists and others would like us to see these recent choices we've made, and this bold new self-identity we're forging, as powerfully self-limiting factors - i.e., as arrangements both binding all our present moves and constraining all our future choices throughout the world. And particularly in matters of trade. After all, they say, we're a multicultural nation now, and so must choose our trading partners accordingly. Indeed, I'm sure many of them would not unwisely urge us that, at least in these abstruse and difficult commercial matters, the outcomes of the pending elections have been largely decided in advance, regardless of which flavor of tea or party we choose on Election Day.

And yes, at times it does seem all so completely sewn up, long before the first absentee votes have been cast. Yet I keep wondering how it got that way. Just what was it, I wonder - what radically new definition of national interest (or civilizational ambition?) was it, that made us Americans practically break our necks hoop-jumping, over the past two decades, to accommodate the agendas of countries so profoundly different from ourselves? And different not only in language and recent history, but in longstanding and deepseated political traditions and culture? Imagine if, just fifteen years ago, we'd applied the same urgency and substance to our strategic ties with, say, Britain, Australia, or India, that we've since been according our commercial ties with China, and Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. If I'm not mistaken, our present tight nexus of economic alignments dates largely from the period 1995-2005. All part of our project to "stand taller and see further" - if I remember correctly. Why yes, all the way to Bremer and Rumsfeld's Baghdad.

Neither, since then, have the prevailing arrangements, much less the visible outcomes, been to everyone's liking by any means. Yet today, popular outcry notwithstanding, we seem to be more closely than ever enmeshed in the affairs, aims and problems of these three - more or less sacred - multicultural trading partners. More closely than ever, I'd say. But are we, or they, or the world any stabler - any safer - because of it?

I know, for the thousandth time: It's not about mundane, pettifogging things like stability and safety. It's about productivity, and growth, and the unimaginable glory and power of untold future generations. (It surely isn't present ones we're thinking of.) In that case, allow me to rephrase my question . . .

16 October 2010

A People So Good They Don't Need Good Leaders

Without fuel, as they say, the engine won't run. No amount of even the most American hope or optimism is likely ever to change that. And so I keep marveling at all the various things human optimists think we can do without - or even throw out the window - and still be a more or less healthy society.

For one thing, on the whole I'm much too pessimistic about human nature to believe even we Americans can manage things well without fundamentally decent people occupying our political and business leadership. And here I mean an almost tenderly human, ungimmicked, unpretentious kind of decency. One that isn't just humble, or considerate, or conscientious, but all these things combined, even to the point of the closest self-examination. And even, on occasion, to the point of self-distrust. And not just in private relationships - as in being faithful to and caring of one's spouse, but also in public affairs - as in being faithful to and caring of one's constituents and clients. Including, if I may add, those among them who aren't all that well-connected, or up-and-coming, or ideologically of your own persuasion. After all they're your voters and your customers too. But above all, I mean a kind of elementary decency that adamantly refuses to look down on, or string along, or otherwise take advantage of, your average man or woman - no matter how miserably either may fail to live up to your most exalted American expectations.

"Excuse me?" you gasp, mildly appalled. "Average?" Why yes, you know - the kind who aren't quite so politically astute or well-informed, or ambitious for power and influence, or bold and entrepreneurially-minded, as our obviously more enlightened leaders in politics and business. The fact that certain people seem more stupid than you or I (they may simply be more worn-out, or broken-down, or just plain confused and discouraged) is no excuse for either of us taking them to the cleaners. I keep thinking it was Chesterton(?) who wrote - in so many words - that a society which believes its chief moral function is to punish slowness and stupidity will soon find itself rewarding the most accelerated, arrogant and ultimately destructive forms of stupidity. In any case, superior initiative doesn't give you or me rights of ownership or exploitation over anyone - any more than the Biblical Cain, hard-working and enterprising as he was, had the right to take things out on his, let us say, more contemplative brother Abel, simply because his own honest efforts weren't getting the Divine recognition he knew they deserved. And if you think Cain overcame a bad start to finish up a roaring success, just consider how things played out over the next twelve generations (Genesis 4: 23-24; 6: 5-7). In fact, much like nowadays, the time-tested Cainite method of global management was to put only the must ruthless and unscrupulous people in charge of affairs (Genesis 6: 12-13). It must have seemed like a wonderful idea at the start. But I doubt if that was any great help or consolation to the bulk of mankind once a certain unprecedented - and alarmingly steady - rainfall began. And let's not forget that even now there are floods in human affairs that have nothing to do with water. My own best guess is we've been through at least four or five of this latter kind over just the past decade.

And speaking of the past decade, I'm aware that certain unique cultural pressures of our time (c. 1995 - present) are making the averageness of the average man or woman harder than ever to recognize. Indeed, I suspect the recent bent of our culture has been inclining more and more average people to pretend to be - or even worse, to become - far more politically aroused, and socially ambitious, and entrepreneurially aggressive than they are by nature. Or would be by nature, if allowed to follow a bent that was more natural and less culturally obligatory. But even our new self-assertiveness might prove rather a good thing if only these same folks were becoming more activist, ambitious, entrepreneurial, etc, in ways that were intelligent rather than just arrogant, and more considerate and respectful of the needs of others, rather than largely snide and mean-spirited and opportunistic. And even, on occasion, back-stabbing. In short, many of us have been doing our literal damnedest to imitate our political and economic leaders. And not because we've suddenly fallen in love with the rat race, but simply to keep our heads above (flood)water. And that, more than anything else so far, is what continues to amaze me: The extraordinary things we everyday folks are prepared to resort - or stoop? - to, when led to believe that not just our financial well-being but our economic survival is at stake. Like, for instance, taking out mortgages on homes we can't afford (I know, I know, "Where's your vision, man? Where's your optimism?").

But still more amazing to me is the next thing that happens. Because even when we average folks do embrace these "extreme" survival tactics, that in itself is no guarantee of greater respect from our public leaders. Indeed, if anything our leaders may feel all the more at liberty, and even morally justified, in "putting one over" on us. As in "Who cares how much the average jerk gets ripped off, or led down the primrose path? I mean, look at the way he lives. He's just a jerk anyway, right?"

Nor do I believe, even today, that our "newly assertive" average Joes are specially qualified to speak for all the rest of us. Even in these strenuous times, there will always be plenty of us regular folks who don't choose - or who fail miserably - to "better" ourselves in these demanding modern ways. And in that case my original question remains: Just who are even the smartest, most gifted, most driven politicians and businesspeople to step on the rest of us, or push us around, or hoodwink and sell us down the river? I mean, aren't they human too? And don't they therefore also have human - and by implication damnable - souls?

Next, of course, you'll be telling me:
"Why, eternal salvation's got nothing to do with it - that's just the way the real world operates! And all of us, without exception, must needs adapt or die."

But in that case you must admit, the real world has been really running itself into the ground of late. And then what becomes of the poor earthly souls who must needs both adapt and die? Who must needs risk losing not only their souls in the next life, but their shirts - if not their very skins - in this one?

And yes, I'm fully aware that, for at least three decades now, the supreme maxim of our American culture has been "Hey, you snooze you lose." But now really, think about it: Haven't our most energetic, aggressive, enterprising souls been losing enough sleep already? And hasn't their insomnia already produced quite enough loss to go around for one generation? If not for our children? and our children's children?

Finally, there will always be those who argue that, our country having chosen a bad path - and I believe with all my heart we have - we deserve all we get down the road, and worse. But that in turn only makes me wonder: If a fundamentally sick public culture deserves only the sickest, most conscienceless public leaders, how's it ever going to get well?

Some Ideas That Could Be the End of Us All

I'm always uneasy when I hear educated and rational people - among them such luminaries as Dennis Prager, or Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama - describe the United States as primarily an idea, or an ideal, which ideally it is the job of each and every American to embody and live up to. And what's supposed to happen to those who don't, I wonder?

I'm reminded of those 20th-century movements whose partisans came to regard their own particular country as not just a flesh-and-blood people, or a physical territory, but as also, or even above all, as an idea. I'm thinking in particular of those German Nazis, and Chinese Communists, for whom it was not enough to be born German, or born Chinese; it was also a choice that had to be made. And made correctly. These were par excellence the sort of fellows for whom the degree of your Nazism was the measure of how authentically German you were, and the degree of your Communism the measure of how authentically Chinese. And while no doubt this is a development that can happen far more crudely and savagely in other countries than in America, I emphatically do not believe it is something that can't happen here.

I've got nothing against ideas, so long as they know their place. A good idea is always modest and quietly attentive in the presence of anything really real. And especially in the presence of that particular reality it seeks to approach, and love, and serve. Or even of the reality it seeks to change. In that respect it's not unlike the handmaid of the Biblical Psalmist, whose eyes are ever-attentive upon the every slightest mood or expression or gesture of her mistress. Even if her intent is to reform the woman who owns her, she understands that no amount of reciprocal contempt, of "badness" on her part, is ever going to make a bad mistress better. She knows that, in the realm of real human affairs, impatience, cruelty and disdain are only overcome by their Opposite. Only in physical nature, or in the more ethereal realm of human ideas, does fire ever actually fight fire.

Above all, a good idea never imagines it can do anything like justice to the complexity of even the simplest concrete, real, living thing (and only its Maker knows what wealth or poverty of life - or love - may residually subsist even in a lump of coal). Justice is a quantity no good idea ever presumes to be on intimate terms with - any more than a good plot-synopsis pretends to do justice to the human intricacies of a novel, or the most detailed map to the human geography of the smallest country. And just as no good honest handmaid would ever presume to play proxy or "stand in" for her mistress, so the good honest idea is always keenly aware of its inferiority to the indescribable thing it is laboring to put into abstract words. Indeed, I doubt if at its best the whole labor of abstraction has ever been other than hit-and-miss; after all, even our boldest, brightest, most hell-for-leather ideas occasionally miscarry. And even when they've largely "succeeded" at their labors, just think of the sometimes hideous monstrosities, as well as improvements, to which they've been known to give birth.

Take, for instance, the idea of capitalism. Take it, for once, not as the omniscient explanation of everything that goes right in a society, and the omnicompetent solution to everything that goes wrong. Take it, rather, as a decent, sensible, fruitful way of doing business, as opposed to merely thinking or preaching or obsessing about it. Or take it as a way of getting business done, and for the time being out of the way - as opposed to pretending that business alone is able to do everything in a society that needs to be done, all the time. Even in churches - or families. At its best, capitalism is always busy making its own distinctive and invaluable contribution to what I call the truly Good Society - in other words, to that blessedly real, tangible time and place (we've all known them) in which human creatures have so many more important things to think about than the sacredness - or the omniscience - of capitalism. At its worst, on the other hand, capitalism sees nothing either distinctive or invaluable in anyone's contribution but its own: it simply equates itself to the Good Society, leaving no remainder to the equation - as if profitable enterprise were the one active and constant ingredient in a medicine to which all else that had gone into it was mere replaceable filler.

Except, of course, that in real human affairs ideas don't do anything of themselves; they have no life at all apart from our wisdom or our foolishness. In real human affairs it is human beings who try to make capitalism into something more ideal than real; it is human beings who do the actual equating of capitalism with everything that makes a society not just maintainable but worth maintaining. My point is that in themselves good ideas are no different from any other good tool: they are morally neutral. Ultimately even the best ideas are only as good as the people who use them, or as bad as the people who idolize them. And no good idea is so flawlessly designed, so revolutionary and state-of-the-art, that it cannot have criminal or other destructive consequences when placed in the wrong hands. Which I think may be another way of saying that ideas don't kill or oppress; their worshipers do.

13 September 2010

In the End was the Idea


There just aren't enough good writers these days. There just aren't enough writers who make you stand up, take notice of, respect not just what they say, but the words they use to say it. Almost as if the words themselves mattered. Writers who know that even the "cruelest," harshest message may sometimes find its way deep into the stubbornest heart, provided it can find words kind and pleasant enough to ease the entry.  

By "good" writers, then, I mean those few who care about the receptiveness of their readers, and not just the penetrativeness of their message. But much more than this, I mean writers whose words grow on you, almost like a living thing you've grown reluctantly fond of - grow in interest, liveliness, multiplicity of color and shade and hue - the more you read them, and the more closely you inspect them. The sort of writers whose practised verbal ear - whose patience, heedfulness, humility in the presence of even the humblest words - I find in shorter supply than ever during this cold-as-death post-Cold War "peace" we've been enduring.  

Though I suspect the technical reason behind the shortage is a rather basic one, and mostly unintended. In any age the best writers, the ones most worth reading, are also the most heartfelt. After all, if you don't really "care all that much" about what you have to say, why should I? But the most passionate of today's writers, even when they ambush and assault you (as is their usual custom) with their best points and themes, tend to come running out in full strength too quickly, so that soon there's nothing left of them to discover and explore. And unlike a conventional military assault, the whole purpose of a literary attack is that you the writer should be invaded and explored, and in being occupied, eventually occupy your reader.  

But worst of all is today's writers tend to pull the meanings out of their words and throw them at you, like hand-grenades, as if all the impact were in the so-called meaning or idea, and the "mere" word, together with all that words enclose - sound and lilt, voice and music - were simply a detonating-pin to be kept back from the reader, and then thrown away as quickly as possible.  

Whereas good writers, I find, have a way of creeping up on you unawares just when you think you've got them surrounded. They are no less brilliant - or explosive - for being quiet and unassuming in their choice of subject matter, or uncontentious in their mode of delivery. Above all, they do their best to ensure that even their simplest words - words like dove, ripe, soft, wound, lamb, dust, wheat - are full of hidden surprises, if not of a seemingly inexhaustible depth and resonance of association. Even more strangely, this very richness of association can seem, at times, as much imbedded in the "pure" sound of the word as in what we call its meaning. Indeed, I have no doubt there are some outwardly unassuming writers whose secret power is such that, could we but read even their simplest words as closely, and as freshly, as they meant themselves to be read, we should be quite taken aback at what we'd find. Or rather, at what has found us. And sometimes even Who.


Take the example of a personal favorite of mine, Walter de la Mare - a writer whom not a few today might consider an essentially lightweight children's author and weaver of fanciful tales and verse. In any close reading of his critical prose, I wonder how many of us would be shocked to find that, for him, the relation between words and things need not be the usual modern one of arbitrary violence, in which our words are forever trying to impose themselves on things, and our things perpetually trying to wriggle out from underneath. To the contrary, in many places he gives the distinct impression that certain words, when used in their best settings - their native habitats, so to speak - are on such natural terms of ease and intimacy with the things they describe, you'd almost swear they'd been admitted into the very homes of those things, and allowed to explore every room, and forgotten shelf, and secret staircase, as opposed to being left standing (like most of our less violent words today) awkwardly in the doorway. And given the very run of the place, not just for a day or two, but for weeks and even months on end. Again and again I find this casual, easeful intimacy between word and thing cropping up almost everywhere I look. And even where the author hasn't found it you can nearly always tell he's been looking. Virtually everywhere in his critical prose, de la Mare suggests our very best words are those which, far from offering themselves as either harsh overlords or bloodless substitutes for the things they describe, actually give an enhanced - because more intent and appreciative - sense of the things themselves. And that regardless of whether the thing-in-question be a caterpillar or a cocoon, or a country; a poplar-tree or a politician. Or an economist. Almost as if the "mere" word itself were a kind of affectionately-remembered name - "decoy" I believe is de la Mare's own favorite term - to which the thing-in-itself was not only capable of responding, but actually happy to respond.  

Alright, so de la Mare was clearly no Kantian. But that's not half the strangest part of it. Most outrageous of all, he seems to believe that there are many such words; that we could find them growing in abundance if only we took the time to watch and wait, and listen; and that, once gathered, many if not most could be fitted, rather like gloves, to all sorts of topics covering nearly every human situation. That such words, indeed, could be used to enrich and illuminate not just his own familiar worlds of childhood, or imaginative literature, or that strange world - and word - we call Nature, but just about every human field of endeavor and aspiration. Perhaps even (one occasionally gets the hint here and there) human politics, and economics.    

 I can't be sure of this latter point, because these are topics on which he touches very seldom, and then only indirectly and suggestively. But if I'm right, then it's small wonder to me, given the ponderous ways in which we tend nowadays to write on these sacred subjects, that we take such slight academic interest in de la Mare; small wonder that, although his popular readership may be wide as ever, he has attracted so little serious critical attention since his death in 1956 - and much of that half-hearted and perfunctory. It's not as though we haven't allowed time for the dust to settle. 2012 will mark the centenary of the book that put him on the literary map of his day: The Listeners and Other Poems. But then a good deal else besides dust-settling can happen in a hundred years. And to the best of my reckoning, we of the latter half of that century have largely gone our own way, both in our tastes in poetry and fiction, and in our estimation of the strengths and uses of words. Right off the bat I'd have said ours was a far more modest estimation than that of, say, early 20th-century Britain. But then I remembered our own current, strangely passionate faith in the political - to say nothing of economic - manipulability of words. Or "spin," as I believe it's become known in recent decades.  

In brief, these days we pretty much like our words to stop complaining, sit down, shut up and do as they're told. "And no funny stuff!" Which is to say, we don't take any too kindly to quaint old reminders of how independently powerful and evocative, and echoing, mere words can be. And least of all the many basic, often one-syllable words that have come down to us, largely unchanged in sound and use, since Shakespeare's time, if not Chaucer's. Words that, across many centuries, and through untold numbers of stories, have somehow managed to lose neither their soothing loveliness nor their power to pierce and unsettle. Anyhow, here is de la Mare himself, in a quiet tribute to both  the Bible and its King James Version (in which, last time I looked, there was no shortage of monosyllabic words, and remarkably few "pure" abstractions):

All that man is or feels or (in what concerns him closely) thinks; all that he loves or fears or delights in, grieves for, desires or aspires to is to be found in it, either expressed or implied. As for beauty, though this was not its aim, and the word is not often used in it - it is "excellent in beauty"; and poetry dwells in it as light dwells upon a mountain and on the moss in the crevice of its rocks. In what other book - by mere mention of them - are even natural objects made in the imagination so whole and fair; its stars, its well-springs, its war-horse, its almond-tree?   

And here, introducing a professor of literature's 1943 lecture on "Shakespeare and the Dictators":  

The aim of this essay is to deduce from Shakespeare's treatment of his tyrannical characters his own personal convictions; to show also that the Plays are not only "experiments in human nature," but that they are illuminated also by "flashes of prophetic poetry" - which may be compared with those that may light up for their instant the region of waking dream, of the under-mind, of the mystical, and with other inspirations of genius. To imagine, however feebly, our latter-day tyrants as characters in a play of Shakespeare's is surely to be in no doubt as to their status as specimens of humanity, or of their fate. He [emphasis mine] would pierce to their essence . . .   

And again here, in exploring (what else?) our common human experience and recollections of childhood:

For most of us, strange veils almost completely hide away those "early days," though, now and again, some small experience may vividly evoke them: a glimpse, for example, of a horse, with its long tail, grazing in a field of buttercups, or a glance up at the towering boughs of an oak or an elm tree, or that first morning look through a window at at wintry morning in the hush of daybreak and deep in snow.

What I find astounding here is not just the vividness contained in so few words of such apparent simplicity, but the sheer presence, the composure, the peace. Doubly amazing to me is that this last passage was written in a world of quite unabatedly brewing and surging unrest (c. 1930). In other words, right smack in the the middle of a "lull" between two world wars.  

Not, of course, that this gets de la Mare in any way lightly off the great political hook of his day. Indeed one may argue that, for all the genuine giftedness of his generation - whether in the writing, the refining or the appreciating of children's literature - they were all dismal failures in one key endeavor: namely, the securing of that notoriously insecure peace of 1919. But before you get too high-mindedly denunciatory, I invite you to look a bit further down the road, to the achievements of some others at most half-a-generation behind: To the peacemakers of 1945 - Churchill and Roosevelt, Truman and de Gaulle (Stalin in my opinion having never been anything but the most brazen advantage-seeker). Whatever of good literature these later statesmen may or may not have enjoyed, I would submit that, in their essential views on life and politics, and on the political implications of human decency, they had far more in common with the generation of Kipling, de la Mare, Chesterton, Buchan, etc, than with those shining democratic humanitarians of our Modern Literature, Yeats and Pound, Lawrence and Eliot. And as for the political legacy of Churchill & Co - if I'm not mistaken - even we of the post-Cold War era are still drawing on some portion of that peace dividend.  

Meanwhile, do we global post-moderns think to consolidate their work? Do we presume to maintain and extend peace in the world, what with all our magickal G-2s and WTOs and b-i-NGOs? Why, we don't even know how to write it - no, not even to children.  

Though even if we could, we'd be hard-put to find a more arresting writer than de la Mare - and especially on his choice themes, like human innocence and weakness and wickedness, or the unimpeachable dignity of the humblest living things, or the strange, untraceable thread that binds imagination and compassion. And even more hard-put, I should think, to find a writer more kindly and unassuming in his manner of arrest. Which in turn makes me wonder if, when all is said and done, we global post-moderns don't take any too kindly to kindness or modesty either.  

There's no need to jump to conclusions, of course. But, again, suppose for the sake of argument that I am right about what I perceive to be our post-Cold War fashion of "cruelty to kindness." In that case, I think it goes a long way towards explaining much of the uniquely strenuous, angry and callous nature of our post-Cold War life, both public and private. And of course we may go on indefinitely in this merry way, seeing less and less practical point to what the Book of Proverbs might have called pleasant words that are pure, or soft words that break a bone - or cut to the heart. In which case we'll continue to bludgeon each other verbally, and wonder why all our vigorous scorn and venom and caustic invective keep failing to "get through " - keep having, in short, so little practical effect. For my part, I find it hard to resist the conclusion that nowadays either we're ashamed of the power of kindness to change hearts, and win souls - and yes, even profits - or we've grown stubbornly (i.e., stupidly) ignorant of it. And that more than explains to me the repeated failures of even our grandest, most comprehensive mere ideas - monetarism, New Economy, neoliberalism, the Chinese model, etc - to achieve anything like the economic paradise, much less the political peace, so triumphantly forecast at the end of the Twentieth Century.