Saturday, June 16, 2012

"An acme of things accomplished"

And what is yet untried and afterward is for you and me and all.
I do not know what is untried and afterward.
But I know it is sure and alive, and sufficient. 
                                        Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. - Ronald Reagan, 1981
Using Whitman as a guide through the thickets, I have been attempting to address what I believe is the central social and political fact of our current moment: an objectless fear that permeates our public life, rendering us incapable of addressing the serious imbalances in our institutions between the needs of the commonweal and the needs of particular interests who, through what amounts to legalized corruption, have distorted the functions of public institutions so much they no longer seem to serve us.

That there are many objections to the diagnosis, the possible course of treatment, and the prognosis should go without saying.  Precisely because I seem to elide so much that occupies our public time; seem to set to one side the vigorous objections, in particular from those who see in our current social and political structures effective barriers to any true populist democratic protest; because I seem to offer no place safe upon which we can stand to claim what has always been ours; because I offer no plan, no policy, no strategy, no ideology; all these combine to reduce the potential seriousness, the possible efficacy, any credible coherence of what I've been writing to nothing.  Like Whitman, it seems I revel in Romanticist idyll, celebrating vague word-pictures of the banal and carnal without saying anything that might show itself useful.

Certainly we are not without our critics who have clarity of vision both on what ails us and what should cure us.  We are told it is corporations or money or a lack of moral vigor or adherence to the Christian religion.  We are told those who conspire against us are evil, the embodiment of all that opposes the only true path out of our current nettle-infested way.  We are offered a vision of self-sacrifice, perhaps.  From whichever end of the largely phony and irrelevant public spectrum the voices seem to come, we are told again and again that we should only heed those voices whose words echo the world around them.  We must consider only those who have a plan ready in hand, a detailed policy that may yet save us from the wrath to come.

We have become lovers of plans.  We make a fetish of policy.  We all seem to bow before whoever insists theirs is the voice of reason, of single-minded, common-sense description and prescription.  Even though we understand, in some vague way to which we cannot yet give words this is all dumb-show, the mime-troupe of lies whose words deafen our ears to the emptiness at the heart of it all, we nod in agreement that, at least, someone gives us an object for our fear as well as a way to overcome it.  For too long, we have been told we must buy what others are selling in order to keep this beast alive, forgetting that this beast called America does not live on buying and selling.  We know it's all a surd, yet we seem to have lost the words that would make clear how that is so.

Which is why Whitman, more than many, is our best guide.  His is the anti-policy.  His vision sees no need to bow before any description of the world that doesn't celebrate who we are.  He reminds us that we Americans are an emergent phenomenon; greater than any sum of the things we call "American", it is we the people, in our variety, who are more powerful, thus more dangerous, than any weapon.  We can celebrate all that we are, yet never surrender who we are before any altar built by those who insist that only here do we find truth.  Before most anyone else, it was Whitman who recognized and celebrated and gave to us the only answer to the objection that what we need is a plan, a map, some kind of guide through the maze and haze:

I celebrate myself, 
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you
In the joyous celebration of what is, of seeing in all things no need of more than this upon which to found and move forward, Whitman offers us the chance to laugh and cry and work and raise our families and have sex and argue about politics and struggle over such things as race and slavery and religion without ever forgetting that, in all of it, we are alive.  Whitman saw no need to ground all this before moving forward because in its vitality, in the warp and weft of our lives lie all we need to find our strength and beauty and, perhaps, our greatness.

More than all the manifestos and monographs, the plans and party platforms, the researches and recommendations, Whitman sees America as transcending all those things that some among us would offer up to divide us.  Without ever once denying the multiplicity, the plurality that "America" really is, Whitman would insist this singular word holds within itself not only all that was and is, but most importantly and powerfully of all - all of what may yet be.  We need not fear, precisely because we may yet look around us and see . . . ourselves.

Rather than play the game of power, however that may be played, Whitman sneaks past and offers a different game: We are all what we are.  In that is all we need to know.  We need not be smart or talented or educated or moral; we need not be average or fumbling or illiterate or chaste.  These words only describe who we may be right now.  They tell us who we are as we are, and that is good enough. Not to judge, not to measure or limit so as to divide, this is what Whitman whispers in our ear, over and over again.

Should we heed his voice and play his game, our common life might yet look upon what passes for our public life and not so much protest against it as laugh at its pretensions.  To those who insist we must needs organize and criticize and valorize so as not to temporize, not to say lie defeated, we can only insist with Whitman that we first must recognize that we, in all our differences, in all that makes us who we are, we are united in just this - we are.  In that lies our power and hope.

For those seeking guarantees, Whitman doesn't even offer the grave as a place of rest, knowing as he did that death is nothing more than food for life.  Thus it is there are no guarantees.  Which is precisely why, even at his gloomiest, he could yet hold out hope for us.

Whitman offers us the greatest weapon those who feed upon fear despise: We need not fear because there is no end to the unfolding of the promise that America is.  Even now, in our fear, we are America as we have been, and are, and will be; the contradiction at the heart of Whitman's vision is the source of our strength.  Should we take a breath, laugh at ourselves, and embrace even that fear, that terrifies those who need that to sustain their own power.

Friday, June 15, 2012

How Firm A Foundation

What is known I strip away . . . . I launch all men and women forward with me into the unknown.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Philosophy and politics are not that tightly linked.
Richard Rorty, "Truth Without Correspondence to Reality", in Philosophy and Social Hope, p. 23
In a time dominated by discontent rooted in an unease that has yet to be named, we Americans look for answers wherever they might be offered. We turn to the consolations of family and friends, of work and routine. We look out at a world that doesn't work; we hear voices telling us this is the way things have to be, that their choices are restricted. We hear whispers that remind us to continue to fear. The ground shifts under our feet, and we wonder if there is anyplace we can take a stand.

We turn to the tender words of those who tell us ours is a polity rooted in nothing less than the Scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition. We hear the tale of their faith and trust in the same God in whom those who are speaking believe, and we feel assured there may well be a place upon which we can put our feet, to begin the journey away from fear if not to courage then perhaps, at the very least, comfort from those who remind us we have an eternal Protector and wise Guide who shall steer our ship of state through these rough waters.

These assurances, alas, are a lie.

If there existed no place we could turn to discover the source of our power and potential as a foundling nation, tossed upon the shores of an unknown continent, one might take some kind of solace in the reminders that we are the special children of a specific God. There are places we can turn, however, and we find in the words of those who helped forge from the chaos and violence of our beginnings something that might yet bode well for the coming ages. In The Federalist Papers and the transcripts of the debates of the Constitutional convention, we find those we hail as our Founders not the least concerned about God or the Bible or faith. We do not read a single sentence which consoles us with the presence of the Divine Blessing upon our national work.

Instead, we find practical men wishing, perhaps, to create a structure that ensures the continuation of their own power. We find men who know of the failings of Republics past, wishing to correct the errors that led to those collapses. We find men who argue passionately that the choices we face, as a nation, force upon all concessions of power and prestige for the sake, perhaps, that posterity will build upon the foundation they set. These were men who gave no care to thoughts of depravity or the grace of a just God. Believing, rather, that human beings could overcome their acknowledged fallibilities and, through on-going trial and error, make a land that honored the best of the past, while never resting comfortably, hoping the future would, perhaps, be far better than the present.

The great fear that we Americans are confident enough of our abilities not so much to be great, but that settling for good enough in a world where striving for greatness leaves trails of blood and piles of bodies leaves our current generation at a loss. How is it possible to step in to the future if there is no ground upon which we, in the present, can set our feet? Those who console us with the comforting lies of Blessedness offer no hope, yet they seem to soothe the fears of the moment.

We Americans in our current moment of fear must face the facts that we are who we are, unrooted, founded only upon the hopes of a group of men who saw in their own moment only the promise of what might come, should their fellow citizens not succumb to the fear that could lead to an end to their experiment in liberty. We have not inherited any Divine command; all the same, we are those who live in the shadow of those who held out the hope that we might live up to the vision, not so much of greatness, but perhaps goodness.

This part of our legacy is a source of anxiety, indeed. Many commentators, past and present, looked at America and wondered that we were settling for the mediocre benefits of commerce and the creature comforts that come from worldly security in the face of the threats of the everyday. Yet, it was Whitman who gave voice to the sneaking suspicion that the trade-off for which America's founders settled might yet yield more than just the comforts of monetary success; perhaps even there lay a seed that would yield, in the future, something not yet imagined. First and foremost, however, we must live with the tension that, founded upon nothing but a promise that good enough is the best for which we can find within our grasp, we need to look around us to really see that promise in our fellow Americans, as different as we all may be.
My words are of a questioning, and to indicate reality;
This printed and bound book . . . but the printer and the printing office boy?
The marriage estate and settlement . . . but the body and mind of the bridegroom ? also those of the bride?
The panorama of the sea . . . but the sea itself?
The well-taken photographs . . . but your wife or friend close and solid in your arms?
The fleet of ship of the line and all the modern improvements . . . but the craft and pluck of the admiral?
The dishes and fare and furniture . . . but the host and hostess, and the look out of their eyes?
The sky up there . . . yet here or next door or across the way?
The saints and sages in history . . . but you yourself?
Sermons and creeds and theology . . . but the human brain, and what is called reason, and what is called love, and what is called life?
It was enough for those who, rising from the hot room in Philadelphia, said to their fellow Americans then, and to each of us now, "This is how we can live as one people, even as we recognize that one comes from many." It has never been easy, but it is both our legacy and our hope, that we might yet set aside our fears that, resting on nothing more than words on a yellowing piece of paper in a museum, we have only ourselves upon which to rely. Only those around us, as different as all may be, only our own wit and sense and hope and fear, make us who we are. That was enough then, has been enough 223 years. It seems as good a place as any to start, again,

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Great Divide

[N]o matter how power originates, the crucial interest is in how power is exercised. What determines the quality of civilization is the use made of power. And that use cannot be controlled at the source.
Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion
Political equality - citizenship - equalizes people who are otherwise unequal in their capacities, and the universalization of citizenship therefore has to be accompanied not only by formal trainin gin the civic arts but by measures designed to assure the broadest distribution of economic and political responsibility, the exercise of which is even more important than formal training in teaching good judgment, clear and cogent speech, the capacity or decision, and the willingness to accept the consequences of our actions. It is in this sense that universal citizenship implied a whole world of heroes. Democracy requires such a world if citizenship is not to become an empty formality.
Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites, pp. 88-89
I have been considering the current state of the United States, its political and social state, in an attempt to make clear what I see as the defining challenge of our current historical moment. Simply put, I believe as a people we have become so consumed with fear from such a wide array of threats, real and imagined, we have, as a people, lost the capacity to consider threats not only as very real yet manageable, but as dire, absolute, existential threats not only to our persons, but to our national integrity. In short, the fears induced by a series of national traumas have metastasized in to a kind of generalized, yet overpowering, terror.

The consequences of this state of affairs is not only a shrinking of our view of possible alternative actions. For several decades, elite institutions and individuals have sought to circumvent the minimal legal and administrative checks placed upon concentrated power, resulting in our current state of affairs where elite institutions operate largely outside not only popular, democratic controls, but without even the pretense of concern for popular endorsement or validation. That we have allowed this situation to occur is, perhaps, inevitable. It isn't the first, nor is it the last time congeries of private and public power have united in mutually beneficial ways, introducing policies that benefit them at the expense of the commonweal. The closest analogy to our current historical moment, the Great Depression of the 1930's, saw vigorous popular participation in public life as well as the introduction of a whole series of measures to check the excesses of private power which had, then as now, brought calamitous events through a combination of incompetence and criminality. Unlike then, however, the many calls for a return to some minimal public checks on private power have not been met with vigorous action. On the contrary, our current President has made it quite clear he has no intention of pursuing legal action or supporting legislative measures that address the many imbalances in the system that resulted in the housing bubble and its collapse.

Nearly four years later, the divide between elite institutions and the public is wider than ever; four years later, the basic governing proposals of the major party candidates for high office are indistinguishable in their refusal to take a good, hard look at the abuses of power and their possible corrupting influence on our public institutions. The result is a potential voting public grumbling about both major party candidates for President as well as the current, sitting Congress, yet without the alternatives that would address and perhaps correct the imbalances that continue within the system.

Just as there have been times in our history in which powerful private interests have created a barrier for popular participation to the detriment of our common life, elite disdain for popular democracy is nothing new. Even the founders were wary of extending potential participation beyond those individuals who, as current lingo has it, were stakeholders in decision-making. Thus, it would be nearly two hundred years before most effective barriers to universal participation were legally dismantled. Once the franchise became available, in theory and to a greater extent in practice, to all adults, the movement to insulate seats of private, corporate, power from the threat of popular participation began in earnest. 

There have been few recent examples of elite disdain for democracy than a recent column by New York Times' pundit David Brooks. Setting aside Brooks' introduction and his attempt at a kind of profundity at which he is particularly ill-suited, the nub of Brooks' complaint comes at the end:
I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else. In his memoir, “At Ease,” Eisenhower delivered the following advice: “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.” Ike slowly mastered the art of leadership by becoming a superb apprentice. To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it. Those skills are required for good monument building, too.
The interesting thing about Brooks, his career as a pundit, and this particular column is the way it demonstrates the divide between the interlocking institutions of elite power and their immunity to popular disdain. There are many well-paid, highly-visible individuals whose documented history of error on a number of levels has not prevented their continued presence as the voice of elite opinion. Precisely because the punditry exists for the sake of the wielders of power, rather than as expressions of democratic opinion in all their variety, the criticism Brooks has received, such as these, is meaningless. Whether or not the people not operating within the interlocked institutions of private and public power agree or disagree with Brooks is immaterial.

The clear expression not just of disdain but hostility toward the democratic ideal, given voice by Brooks, displays the complete break even with the pretense of obeisance to that ideal. No longer content to parade their quadrennial fealty to the voter, the only elites who really matter - the intersecting persons and institutions who represent corporate and public authority without any democratic check or limit - once again feel no compunction about expressing their true feelings.

The problem would be insurmountable if not for the on-going complete and utter failure to govern in ways and through policies that are in their own interests. Even as corporate profits and managerial compensation rise to record levels, a sizable plurality of America remains unemployed, underemployed, or permanently outside the workforce. This large segment of people, unable to contribute to economic activity, create an ever larger hollow space in our economy that no amount of tax cuts or administrative reform will fill. In short, without people to pay for their products, corporations have created an unsustainable economic model.

Of course, this means we may well find ourselves in a situation in which we are in need of public officials willing to address the situation. As things stand, the elites of both parties, beholden to a system that rewards subservience to private money to maintain a career in public life, are incapable of giving voice to popular demands for systemic change that creates new barriers to corporate interests and institutions, and their desire to control our public bodies. The divide between elite and popular interest is wide and, as the system is currently arranged, nearly impossible to cross.

The undercurrent of faith in our democratic traditions and values, however, lies at the heart of recent popular protest movements. Whether expressed by the Tea Party or the Occupy movements, regardless of the influx of corporate cash to the Tea Party, they both demonstrate an on-going popular trust in democratic protest against elite usurpation of power. One may disagree with the overall ideological thrust of one or the other of these movements; one cannot doubt, however, that the millions who expressed solidarity with each did so out of a sincere desire for some kind of check upon the power elite institutions wield without accountability. For that reason, for example, while I disagree with the substance of much of the Tea Party movement, I celebrate their participation in our public life no less than I do the Occupy movements.

Neither, however, has been successful in curbing on-going distortions of our public institutions away from democratic norms. It may well be the case that only some collapse, far larger and more devastating than the one that occurred in 2008, needs to happen before democratic distrust of unchecked power finds expression in one or another of our major political parties. Precisely because the status quo becomes shakier by the day, this may yet be the case.

That this continues to be a source of public angst should be beyond doubt. Our ongoing inability even to pretend the system will respond to mounting evidence it no longer works even for those few institutions who benefit from it creates many hazards, not the least of them a disdain for public life in general that could very well leave us without recourse to a return to democratic forms serving as a check upon the abuse of power. Our fear may well be even more our undoing than our current, teetering, system. For that reason alone, we need to be clear about what is happening, and prepare ourselves to act for the common good should it come to that extremity. As it stands, the system clearly shows no interest even in pretending to hear the voice of the people.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The American Soul

Life is but life, and death but death!
Bliss is but bliss, and breath but breath!
And if, indeed, I fail, At least to know the worst is sweet.
Defeat means nothing but defeat, No drearier can prevail!
Emily Dickinson, "Rouge Gagne"

The only meaning of life lies in conscious participation in the making of history. One must range oneself actively against everything that diminishes man, and involve oneself in all struggles that tend to liberate and enlarge him. This categorical imperative is in no way lessened by the fact that such an involvement is inevitably soiled by error; it is a worse error merely to live for oneself, caught within traditions which are soiled by inhumanity. This conviction has brought me, as it has brought others, to a somewhat unusual destiny. But we were, and still are, in line with the development of history, and it is now obvious that, during an entire epoch, millions of individual destinies will follow the paths along which we were the first to travel. In Europe, in Asia, in America, whole generations are in upheaval, are ... [learning] that the egoism of "every man for himself" is finished, that private enrichment is no fit aim for life, that yesterday's conservatisms lead to nothing but catastrophe, and sensing the necessity for a fresh outlook tending towards the reorganization of the world. - Victor Serge*, Memoirs
Who are we, as a people? It would seem this question, which should have been settled long ago, still demands an answer. In a review of Morris Berman's Why America Failed, after rehashing some well-worn statistics on American idiocy, laziness, profligacy, and short-sightedness, George Scialabba writes:
Contemplating these dreary statistics, one might well conclude that the United States is, to a distressing extent, a nation of violent, intolerant, ignorant, superstitious, apathetic, shallow, boorish, selfish, unhealthy, unhappy people, addicted to flickering screens, incurious about other societies and cultures, unwilling or unable to assert or even comprehend their nominal political sovereignty. Or, more simply, that America is a failure.
What will become of us? After Rome's fall, wolves wandered through the cities and Europe largely went to sleep for six centuries. That will not happen again; too many transitions - demographic, ecological, technological, cybernetic - have intervened. The planet's metabolism has altered. The new Dark Ages will be socially, politically, and spiritually dark, but the economic Moloch - mass production and consumption, destructive growth, instrumental rationality - will not disappear. Few Americans want it to. We are hollow, Berman concludes. It is a devastatingly plausible conclusion.
An interval - long or short, only the gods can say - of oligarchic, intensely surveilled, bread-and-circuses authoritarianism, Blade Runner- or Fahrenheit 451-style, seems the most likely outlook for the 21st and 22nd centuries. Still, if most humans are shallow and conformist, some are not. There is reason to hope that the ever-fragile but somehow perennial traditions and virtues of solidarity, curiosity, self-reliance, courtesy, voluntary simplicity, and an instinct for beauty will survive, even if underground for long periods. And cultural rebirths do occur, or at any rate have occurred.
Berman offers little comfort, but he does note a possible role for those who perceive the inevitability of our civilization's decline. He calls it the "monastic option." Our eclipse may, after all, not be permanent; and meanwhile individuals and small groups may preserve the best of our culture by living against the grain, within the interstices, by "creating 'zones of intelligence' in a private, local way, and then deliberately keeping them out of the public eye." Even if one's ideals ultimately perish, this may be the best way to live while they are dying.
In the midst of the gloom, then, Berman offers the cold comfort to those like Scialabba who see themselves as willing and able to carry forward the candle of Enlightenment as darkness descends around our benighted, becalmed, and besotted fellows. Few, indeed, are those who might be willing to admit they see themselves as those who, seeing the coming collapse so clearly, might yet do nothing to avoid it, but perhaps carry a spark that might start a rebirth. Sometime.

How different is this from Whitman's survey of America. First, his prescription, from "Democratic Vistas":
America . . . must, for her purposes, cease to recognize a theory of character grown of feudal aristocracies, or form'd by merely literary standards, or from any ultramarine, full-dress formulas of culture, polish, case, &c., and must sternly promulgate her own new standard, yet old enough, and accepting the old, the perennial elements, and combining them into groups, unities, appropriate to the modern, the democratic, the west, and to the practical occasions and needs of our own cities and agricultural regions. Ever the most precious in the common.
Now, a description:
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine.
One of the great nation, the nation of many nations - the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A southerner soon as a northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable,
A Yankee bound my own way . . . ready for trade . . . my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deerskin leggings,
A boatman over the lakes or bays or along coasts . . . a Hoosier, a Badger, a Buckeye,
A Louisianian or Georgian, poke-easy from sandhills and pines,
At home on Canadian snowshoes or up in the bush, or wth the fishermen off Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of iceboats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians . . . . comrade of free northwesterners, loving their big proportions,
Comrade of draftsmen and coalmen - comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat;
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfulest,
A novice beginning experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and trade and rank, of every caste and religion,
Not merely of the New World but of Africa Europe or Asia . . . a wandering savage,
When Ralph Waldo Emerson read Leaves of Grass, he wrote to Whitman, in part:
I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire. I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.
Whitman understood himself not just as a poet for America; he was not content to be a poet of America. Leaves of Grass, for all its faults, is nothing more or less than Whitman speaking as America, of America, to America. Never once truckling, never once ignoring the coming near-Apocalypse, never once hiding behind the careless platitude, Whitman offered to us a picture of ourselves, strong in our diversity, alive in our struggle to make the democratic dream real. He celebrates the sensual, earthy realism of American life, a sensuality and earthiness that cares little for the refinements of the moralizers, but rather sees in that very amorality a special American morality that celebrates life.

In "Democratic Vistas", Whitman made his clarion call for an American literature worthy of the nation that nurtured it. Even more than our politics or commerce, it would be in the creation of a singular aesthetic that the American promise would find itself fulfilled. Oddly enough, the greatest of our literati were even then in the process of doing their best works. Emerson's essays, Twain's novels, and Whitman himself in and through his poetry were creating an American literary canon that the next century might meet on occasion, but certainly never surpass. The bar they set is, thankfully, quite high.

So, too, their vision of our country and its people. Few would call either Emerson of Clemens boundless lovers of humanity. All the same, they along with Whitman couldn't help but celebrate "the precious in the most common".  Many 20th century artists, such as Steinbeck and Barth and Ellison and O'Connor and Dylan continued in this tradition.  They speak for us when they name our  failings precisely so we can overcome them.  Never perfectly, of course, but all the more amazing for that very reason

More recently, alas, our writers have succumbed to the self-congratulatory pseudo-smugness of Morris Berman, fiddling while Rome burns. Jonathan Franzen epitomizes the narcissistic American, not shedding a tear as things crumble around us. In his novels and essays, Franzen makes clear the contempt with which he holds not only his fellow Americans, but women, minorities, and even members of his own family. In Franzen's eyes, the world that exists to serve him well has, by and large done so. He only wants to make clear who has failed in that regard: his mother and father, for instance; women who are just too pretty to write well or be taken seriously; those who fail to recognize the tiny patch of civilization he has scraped from the rubble.

It has been far too easy, I think, to surrender to the barrage that insists we are lazy, purblind ignoramuses who, perhaps, deserve the fate that even now is settling around us (please note that the title of Berman's book is in the past tense; we are perhaps too stupid to recognize even this reality).  A nation whose self-confidence, not to mention perhaps self-indulgence, was so recently shattered by the devastating terrorist attacks, two subsequent wars, two economic downturns in a decade, and the evident inability of our public institutions to cope with or correct our current flaccid state of affairs might indeed surrender to those voices who insist the end may yet be near.  Whether that end be in the neo-fascism of corporate oligarchy overpowering populist democracy or multicultural political correctness overpowering the natural state of white rule, or some other dystopian vision, we all fear we might well already have arrived at the bottom, from which we cannot extricate ourselves.

The late American pragmatist Richard Rorty, very much Whitmanesque in his invocation of American identity as something unique even while it recognizes its debts to an older world, says of the American experiment:
[M]aybe we should just . . . concede that democratic societies do not embody anything, and cannot be reassured by anything, larger than themselves (e.g., by “rationality”). Such societies should not aim at the creation of a new breed of human being, or at anything less banal than evening out people’s chances of getting a little pleasure out of their lives. This means that citizens of those societies who have a taste for sublimity will have to pursue it in their own time, and within the limits set by [John Stuart Mill's] “On Liberty”. But such opportunities might be quite enough.

I think it should be obvious that I do not believe we have, yet, failed.  I do not think it inevitable.  I also do not think we shall right ourselves without some effort, however.  We should be brave enough, first of all, to recognize our current state of affairs and call it what it is - perilous, indeed.  I hitch my wagon to Whitman's horse precisely because, in writing and singing the first and best American tune, he tells us not so much who we wish we could be so much as who we are.  We need not be exemplary to be excellent; we need not be perfect to be good; we need not be extraordinary to be courageous.  Precisely in our living, not merely our surviving, we are already, excellent enough and good enough and courageous enough to do what needs to be done.  We have no need either to justify ourselves to ourselves or anyone else or found ourselves upon the no doubt high and lofty ideas of others.  America is sufficient unto itself; for this reason, I shall grasp Whitman's hand as we move forward, confident he has seen the true American soul and, not fearing the shadow side of life that rests uneasily in our national sense of ourselves, bids us move onward.

*I owe to Scott McLemee my introduction to the life and thought of Victor Serge. Scott gave a lecture on Serge at last year's International Socialist Conference in Chicago which I was privileged to attend. For all his dedication to revolutionary praxis, as this quote makes clear, Serge was animated by a kind of compassion, a deep love for suffering humanity, that overshadows what one might fear would be dull, ideological cant.

In A Minor Key

We come on a ship we call the Mayflower, 
We come on a ship that sailed the moon 
We come at the age's most uncertain hour 
And sing the American tune 
But it's all right, it's all right 
You can't be forever blessed 
Still, tomorrow's gonna be another working day 
And I'm trying to get some rest, 
That's all, I'm trying to get some rest.
                                Paul Simon, "American Tune" 
If there is a single platitude that transcends the political differences of our short age of ideological discord, it is this: America's Best Days Our Ahead!

Whether it's Pres. Obama:
The bravery, resolve, expertise and commitment of U.S. servicemembers proves that America's best days lie ahead, President Barack Obama said at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Dec. 3, [2010].
"Through your service, you demonstrate the content of the American character," he said. "Some people ask whether America's best days lie ahead or whether our greatness stretches back behind us in the stories of those who've gone before.
"When I look out at all of you, I know the answer to that," he continued. "You give me hope. You give me inspiration. Your resolve shows that Americans will never succumb to fear. Your selfless service shows who we are, who we always will be, united as one people and united as one nation, for you embody and stand up for the values that make us what we are as a people."
Or Mitt Romney:
 There was a time -- not so long ago -- when each of us could walk a little taller and stand a little straighter because we had a gift that no one else in the world shared. We were Americans. That meant something different to each of us but it meant something special to all of us. We knew it without question. And so did the world.
Those days are coming back. That's our destiny.
We believe in America. We believe in ourselves. Our greatest days are still ahead. We are, after all, Americans!
It might be the co-founder of Home Depot:
Despite rampant government spending and heavy-handed regulations, the country's best days do lie ahead, as the U.S. has shown a history of doing away with policies — and politicians — that don't foster an entrepreneurial spirit, says investor and Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone.

"Talking about America, let me tell you something right now — I am 100 percent invested," Langone tells CNBC's Squawk Box. 

"Our best days as a nation are ahead of us. I'm talking about great days. We are a great nation. Every once in a while we get a little foolish and we do things and we get through it. We'll get through this."
Or our only Muslim member of Congress, MN Rep. Keith Ellison:
America remains the greatest country in the world and we inspire millions struggling for freedom around the world. When the people of Libya stood up against brutal repression this summer, they waved American flags in celebration and gratitude. As the people of Egypt shape their new government, they are rightly turning to the American Constitution as a model.
So before anyone mourns the decline of America, they should look at our history. We're Americans--in times of crisis, we step up.
This particular theme was sounded most eloquently by that most American of writers, Walt Whitman:
America, filling the present with greatest deeds and problems, cheerfully accepting the past, including feudalism, (as, indeed, the present is but the legitimate birth of the past, including feudalism,) counts, as I reckon, for her justification and success, (for who, as yet, dare claim success?) almost entirely on the future. Nor is that hope unwarranted. To-day, ahead, though dimly yet, we see, in vistas, a copious, sane, gigantic offspring. For our New World I consider far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come. Sole among nationalities, these States have assumed the task to put in forms of lasting power and practicality, on areas of amplitude rivaling the operations of the physical kosmos, the moral political speculations of ages, long, long deferr'd, the democratic republican principle, and the theory of development and perfection by voluntary standards, and self-reliance. Who else, indeed, except the United States, in history, so far, have accepted in unwitting faith, and, as we now see, stand, act upon, and go security for, these things?
At a moment in time when we all feel unsure, it may well be comforting to hear that this moment not only will not, but perhaps cannot last precisely because we Americans have demonstrated our ability to overcome whatever obstacles barred, for the moment, our climb toward greatness.  Few things are more reassuring than the promise that the future will be brighter than the present.

Yet, I wonder.  For all that these platitudes and promises play upon a deep strain within the American cultural self-consciousness, what, precisely, practically, effectively, is anyone doing to bring about these better days?  What is the substance of these things hoped for, the evidence of these things not seen?  A couple days ago, I wrote the following:
We have become more than cowardly.  We, as a people, have become blind.  We have lost the ability even to celebrate that which is best about all of us as a people.  We stagger through our days, hoping only that the collapse will come tomorrow, grateful at the end of each day that we have reached it safely.
I am planning, over the next few days, to explore this contraction of our sense of our abilities, this nagging fear to which we dare not even give voice that in fact our best days do not lie ahead.  This is not a state of affairs I celebrate.  On the contrary, I am terrified that this fear may yet make itself out to be a prophecy fulfilled.  I do think it is possible to rescue ourselves from this state of affairs; the outcome, however, is never certain.  Something Whitman, in words immediately following the paragraph quoted above, states quite baldly:
But preluding no longer, let me strike the key-note of the following strain. First premising that, though the passages of it have been written at widely different times, (it is, in fact, a collection of memoranda, perhaps for future designers, comprehenders,) and though it may be open to the charge of one part contradicting another -- for there are opposite sides to the great question of democracy, as to every great question -- I feel the parts harmoniously blended in my own realization and convictions, and present them to be read only in such oneness, each page and each claim and assertion modified and temper'd by the others. Bear in mind, too, that they are not the result of studying up in political economy, but of the ordinary sense, observing, wandering among men, these States, these stirring years of war and peace. I will not gloss over the appaling dangers of universal suffrage in the United States. In fact, it is to admit and face these dangers I am writing. To him or her within whose thought rages the battle, advancing, retreating, between democracy's convictions, aspirations, and the people's crudeness, vice, caprices, I mainly write this essay. I shall use the words America and democracy as convertible terms. Not an ordinary one is the issue. The United States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time.
The challenges we face today are neither unique in our history, nor without solutions that are readily implemented.  As we look around us, however, we see the promised horizon retreat and we wonder: Are more than our institutions broken beyond repair?  Are we, perhaps, as a people incapable of doing what is necessary to right ourselves and continue moving forward?  I shall be employing Whitman as a guide through the tangle in the hopes that his vision may yet offer a way past our moment of doubt.

As a simple, yet terrible, example of the many failures with which we live yet find impossible even to deal: The many ways we have failed those who have sacrificed so much in our wars the past decade.  Just last week came news that our active duty service personnel are killing themselves at a higher rate than the enemy.
According to new Pentagon figures, 154 military service members committed suicide during the first 155 days of this year. During the same period, ending June 3, 136 U.S. troops died in combat in Afghanistan, according to, a website that tracks combat casualties.
In a decade that has seen so many reports of our failures to support our troops and veterans, whether it was proper body armor or vehicles that could withstand enemy IEDs to the scandals at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital and other VA hospitals, the current failure even to have a general discussion on what it might mean demonstrates, I think, the kind of nagging fear that plagues us.  How can we drag ourselves out of a years-long economic slump if we cannot even provide help for those who are serving to protect and defend us?  How can we face our problems if we cannot even acknowledge together the problem exists?

For all the rhetoric and even demagoguery that surrounds the support of American military personnel, the reality keeps coming back to haunt us: We have failed them, repeatedly.  Before we can begin to work through possible solutions, we need to admit this.

And there lies the beating heart of the dark beast whose presence we fear.  We have become so fearful we dare not even mention a failure so basic and profound because to do so might well expose the beast in all its ferocity.  That beast is our own cowardice, our fear that we might well not be up to the challenge to make good on Whitman's vision, a vision cheapened by repetition by politicians and business executives.

This American tune has been played in a minor key for far too long.  I am not interested in partisan games.  I do not hold any individual or group at fault for our current malaise.  We all bear a measure of responsibility for the current state of affairs.  As such, we all also carry the burden of admitting our fears, and living together out of our hopes.  That is my wish, at least, in the next several posts: To give voice to those things we refuse to say, in order to move through them and perhaps, just perhaps, see a way we all together can make good on the American promise.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

In Defense Of Steve Almond

One reason I detest the preening self-righteousness that is so prevalent on the Internet is I used to engage in it. Back in the dim dark days of the summer of 2006, I had a comment-conversation with Glenn Greenwald about his use of the word "neoconservative". These were the days before he went big time. I made the not unimportant point on a post he wrote that he referred to pretty much anyone in the Bush Administration as a "neocon", yet the word actually meant something, referring to a specific group of political thinkers, with a particular ideology, and a history that had been well-documented by Garry Dorrien. Greenwald, displaying the same open-mindedness and willingness to stand corrected that is his hallmark, essentially told me he didn't give a damn what I said, or what anyone said; he was going to continue to call these people "neocons" and I would just have to live with it.

Back in those same dim, dark days, I thought it necessary to revive the notion of "heresy" because I kept running in to in so many places that called themselves Christian that were, in fact, awash in all sorts of historical heresies. Best way in the world, I thought. to teach these people about Christianity is to show them how they are not within any historical stream of orthodox belief. Right on!

Let me just say, mea culpa.

I was reminded of this particular deficiency this past weekend when some folks I respect made fun of a New York Times op-ed by Steve Almond.
Over the past few years, I’ve come to view my appearance as somewhat less heroic. I hadn’t spoken truth to power or caused anyone to reassess Secretary Rice’s record. I merely provided a few minutes of gladiatorial stimulation for Fox News. In seeking to assert my moral superiority, I enabled Hannity.
This, to be blunt, is the tragic flaw of the modern liberal. We choose to see ourselves as innocent victims of an escalating right-wing fanaticism. But too often we serve as willing accomplices to this escalation and to the resulting degradation of our civic discourse. We do this, without even meaning to, by consuming conservative folly as mass entertainment.
While I do not, as a rule, listen to right-wing talk radio or visit right-wing websites; while I do not, as a rule, think liberals and progressives who do so are masochistic or enabling; while I do not think doing this kind of thing is "ruining" America; all this, yet I do think there is more than a bit of honesty and candor here.

Many critics have taken Almond to task for the following, in particular the second sentence:
It’s for this exact reason that the left can no longer afford to squander time and energy engaging the childish arguments of paid provocateurs. We have to seek out those on the right willing to engage in genuine dialogue and ignore the rest.
They latch on to the very idea there might be some folks on the right out there who aren't, well, pretty much looney. I happen to agree with the critics here, only because I used to believe it possible to have discussions with folks on the right that might be productive. I discovered fairly quickly there are far too many who seem to think it far more important to win an argument, whether they actually do, than it is to actually hear what other folks have to say. So, the whole, "let's all sit around and chat" thing doesn't work.

All the same, the first sentence here is, I think, spot on. All of us who write on the internet want attention. We want folks to read what we have to say. The easiest way to do this, very often, is to be provocative in some way. Folks come running to clap you on the back, or troll your comment section, baiting you and commenters. Few benefit from these games. The internet's reputation as a sewer free from actual thought and discussion continues not least because of these nonsensical dick-waving contests.

While I think Almond gets much wrong in this piece, the general point that it would be far better if we worried less about what other folks were saying and far more about what we were saying is spot on. If we did so, we might actually accomplish something.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Without A Vision, The People Perish

I do not doubt that every traveller must remember the glowing sense of happiness which he experienced, when he first breathed in a foreign clime, where the civilized man had seldom or never trod. - Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle
Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man's desire to understand.  - Neil Armstrong
I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master passion, Gain, engrosses you. - Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Fifty years ago, Pres. Kennedy gave the commencement address to the students at Rice University in Houston, TX. He said, in part:
We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.
There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Just last week, Pres. Obama gave the commencement address to the students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He closed with a call to work for his vision for their future:
Look, here in America, we admire success. That's why a lot of you are going to school. We work and study for it. And if folks aren't willing to help themselves, we can't help them. But America is about more than just protecting folks who have already done well, it's about giving everybody a chance to do well. It’s about hard work and responsibility being rewarded. (Applause.) It’s about everybody having the chance to get ahead and then, reach back and help somebody behind you so that everybody has a chance. That's what makes us strong.(Applause.) That's what makes us strong.
So if you agree with me, I need your help. Some of these folks in Congress are a little stubborn. So, I need your help. You've got to tell Congress, don’t double my rate. Call them up, email them, post on their Facebook wall, tweet them. (Laughter.) We've got a hashtag -- #dontdoublemyrate. (Applause.)
Never forget that your voice matters. I know sometimes it seems like Washington isn’t listening. And, frankly, Congress sometimes isn't. But we're talking about issues that have a real impact on your lives, real impact on your futures. Making education more affordable, that’s real. Making homes more affordable, making it a little easier for you to make your mortgage payments -- that’s real.
Building an economy that works for everybody -- that’s real. So I need you all to stand up. I need you to be heard. Tell Congress now is not the time to double the interest rates on your student loans. Now is the time to double down on the middle class. Now is the time to build an America that lasts. Now is the time to work together, to put people back to work and strengthen our housing market and help our veterans. Let's get this done. (Applause.)
Let's remind the world why the United States of America is the greatest nation on earth.
Having just finished Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle, what struck me the most was the reality that we Americans no longer consider embarking on any kind of daring mission. The best we can hope for, it seems, is a promise that we might, some day, reacquire the wealth we lost in the collapse of the financial industry and subsequent recession.

Our politics, like so much else in American life, has become small. The visions we are offered in this Presidential election year are contrasting predictions of collapse should one or another party control the apparatus of government.  Even the state is viewed as some hostile force. Once upon a time, we Americans believed it possible to take up a challenge, knowing the dangers were all very real and very great. We did so, however, precisely because they were challenges. We did so because we had leaders who appealed to a vision of ourselves as rising above the technical, political, and economic challenges we would face.  Now, we are told we cannot "go to the Moon and do these other things" because they are both hard and expensive.

A generation that turned its back on Kennedy's vision had many good arguments on its side.  The role of the Cold War in the decision; the history of imperialism, American specifically but human in general; the demand of other issues much closer to home, not least the wasteful, useless carnage in Vietnam.  For all these arguments made some sense, there were other, far more compelling reasons to continue our space program.  Not the least of those reasons were those made clear by Kennedy himself: these are challenges, and we Americans do not shrink from challenges.  Even though this particular phrase does, indeed, hide much evil and death - the same appeal very often invokes our history of conquest and near-genocide over the native populations; our humiliation of defeated Mexico and what amounts to the theft of a third of their national territory; the on-going American Imperial projects in Latin America and the Pacific - yet it also appeals to a new vision of ourselves.  A vision of Americans working together on a grand project that will benefit the human race.  While we might chuckle at Kennedy's insistence that we Americans should be first because, well, we're Americans, what has the loss of this particular sense of ourselves gained us?

When the British Admiralty sent the H.M.S. Beagle on its mission, it did so with the understanding it would be long, and dangerous, and that the payoff would be even further down the road as new maps, new and better clocks, and new navigational charts would need to await both the return of the ship as well as an assessment by those who would need time to study them.  They made the investment, however, because they understood it would benefit the British nation in the long run.

There is no part of our globe left to discover, no empty spaces on any map to fill.  Space, however, offers possibilities not just for us Americans, but for all people.  We, the pioneers of successful interplanetary space flight, now sit on the sidelines.  We have no vehicles in production to return us to space under our own power.  We have no plan for returning Americans to space under our control, in our vehicles.  Even the mention of a return to human space flight is met with derision, as Newt Gingrich discovered during the Republican primaries this past winter.

I doubt very much it would be possible to offer a vision of a new American Space Program.  Our political class, as a rule, is terrified of anything that sounds like "government spending".  The guardians of our national dialogue are ready to pounce upon those who even suggest a return to space.  All the arguments - technical, political, economic - against such a thing would flash around the web and through newsrooms, all the while pundits chuckling behind their hands at such silly notions.

What does this say about who we are as a people?  Are we really that willing to laugh at the thought that the United States should picture itself at the forefront of new discovery and exploration?  Are we that willing to dismiss the possibility there may yet be places where many people might yet want to be the first upon which to stand?  Do we think those who dream such dreams are little more than the butt of sad jokes?  All we are currently offered by way of some consoling vision is the comfort of material gain.  We see so many threats around the globe, we no longer believe it possible to do much more than keep them at some arm's length, staving off the eventual disaster.

We have become more than cowardly.  We, as a people, have become blind.  We have lost the ability even to celebrate that which is best about all of us as a people.  We stagger through our days, hoping only that the collapse will come tomorrow, grateful at the end of each day that we have reached it safely.

Quite apart from all the other reasons a reinvigorated human space program is a great idea, it offers the possibility that we Americans might remember how much we can do so well.  For now, all we are told we do well is make money, a past-time that is thwarted either by the interference of corporate giants or government bureaucrats.  If this is all any of us, whether private citizen or public official, can offer as a vision of American greatness, it may be too late even now to stave off the inevitable end.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Once Conquered, A World To Discover: Charles Darwin's The Voyage Of The Beagle

Back in March, NASA announced a new satellite program:
[A] pair of satellites called GRACE (short for Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment) will open a new window on that hidden realm. GRACE, slated for launch on March 16, will peer beneath the oceans by measuring tiny changes in gravity -- changes caused by moving water and ice. "We'll be able to monitor things like water moving around in ocean basins and changes in deep-sea currents," says Michael Watkins, project scientist for GRACE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). "We'll even be able to weigh ice sheets from orbit."
The dry surface of the planet having been mapped so minutely, we are turning to satellites to peer through thousands of feet of water.

In 1831, the situation was very different. It was only fifteen years since the end of the Congress of Vienna, which sent Napoleon to St. Helena, tried to restore the ancien regime, and, by ignoring Great Britain, allowed it to become the dominant power for the next century. It didn't take long for the British to realize they were the masters of the planet. With their navy spread across the globe, territories acquired from the retreating French, and in need of far better intelligence on everything from longitudinal clocks to details on various naval moorings, the Admiralty had been, in the intervening years, sending out various expeditions to acquire as much information as possible on these matters. 

The British also needed information on territories they either had acquired, or might wish to acquire. There were a series of well-used stops for passage from Europe to South America - Cape Verde and Ascension - but the British also lay claim the the Falkland Is. and the South Georgia Is. In the Pacific, Tahiti, then the most remote of his majesty's possessions, while controlled by a small group of missionaries, was still an exotic question mark. In the mid-1820's a nephew of the great British foreign minister, Castlereagh, named Robert FitzRoy had been a Mate aboard a two-ship expedition to Tierra del Fuego that ended abruptly after the captain of the flagship, the Beagle, committed suicide. Still in his early 20's, FitzRoy took command and led the ships back to Portsmouth. The Admiralty had decided the time and expense of outfitting another such expedition outweighed any advantage that might be gained; FitzRoy, seeing little chance for naval advancement if aground, lobbied hard. After some more lobbying, rather than build a new ship, the Admiralty agreed to repair the Beagle, and set her two-year mission to achieve greater longitudinal clock accuracy, using Bahia Blanca in Brazil as both starting and ending point for a circumnavigation, with stops in between. Soundings and detailed mapping of the coasts and bays and, in particular, the Strait of Magellan, as well as Valparaiso in Chile, more detailed mapping of the Galapagos Is., and checks-in at Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, then around the Cape of Good Hope, and after a quick dash back to Bahia Blanca to check their longitudinal clock measurements, back to England.

Captains then were given much leeway and personal preference.  FitzRoy, a young man of privilege, longed to have someone accompany him on this long voyage that would be intelligent and entertaining, as he saw himself. The Captain also saw advantages, fancying himself a man of science, in having a schooled geologist along to examine in detail the physical and biological wonders they would encounter. After inquiring with several respected individuals, the invitation landed in the lap of a recent Cambridge University student of middling recorded abilities named Charles Darwin. Darwin accepted the appointment, sailing from Devon on December 27, 1831. He next saw England five years later.


Darwin's annotated journal is a marvelous document from a singular individual. Knowing full well both the uniqueness of the opportunity he was given, and the responsibility he felt toward the scientific establishment back in Britain that he fulfill their hopes for him, Darwin was a keen, knowledgeable observer on the geology, geography, flora, fauna (both living and extinct), and residents of the lands he visited, from Cape Verde through Chiloe and The Chocos to the Galapagos, Australia and Tasmania (which he called by its then given name, Van Diemen's Land), the Keening Atoll, back to Great Britain. Nothing was uninteresting to him, even if his recorded statements evince a disgust with the scenery, the paucity of a variety of life, or the conditions of life among the residents of Tierra del Fuego or the criminal element in Australia and Mauritius.

He discovered an enormous fossil bed, containing many complete skeletons of extinct megafauna from South America's prehistory. He discerned the feeding habits of the giant ground sloth Megatherium from the size of the hind-quarters and tail, ending a long debate on how an animal the size of an elephant yet known to eat only the leaves of trees, accomplished such a feat. Assisting Capt. FitzRoy in returning to their home three natives from Tierra del Fuego, Darwin exposes his familiarity with European racism, ignorance of and contempt for native populations, all the while on occasion noting that it might well be possible his judgments are completely wrong. While crossing the Andes, he finds a horse, frozen to an ice pinnacle, standing upright on its head. From this he deduces it had fallen in to what had been a crevasse from an overlying ice field that had since retreated, exposing the corpse, preserved well above 16,000 feet, in eternal ice. While in Chiloe, he experienced a massive earthquake that devastated not only that island, but parts of the Chilean mainland as well. Observing the way the earthquake created a massive uplift along the Pacific coast of South America, he wondered aloud concerning the possibility that such events might well demonstrate, in graphic, dramatic moments, what was the otherwise gradual, unnoticed uplifting of at least parts of the land from the ocean. Observing the structure of the surrounding geography, he noted that it showed the effects both of long-exposure to tidal pressures as well as occasional moments of faster uplift, creating step or terraced patterns. These observations went a long way toward confirming Lyell's theories about geology, then still much in debate and discussion.

It was in the Galapagos, however, that Darwin found himself confronted by a series of anomalies that would, in time, percolate toward a complete revision of then-existing theories of evolution by acquired characteristics. After visiting Mauritius, toward the end of his journey, he notes the many places he visited had been ravaged by introduced species, both floral and faunal. Unique, perhaps, of the places he visited, the Galapagos had not yet suffered the ravages of rats, mice, goats, pigs, or gorse. Much taken with the distribution and uniqueness of several species of finches and large tortoises, these curious features would move him toward understanding the change and development of life not as a result of acquiring certain habits or attributes; rather, external pressure in the struggle for survival toward procreation would create opportunities for specific advantages to emerge, branching the tree of life over time. There are hints, even within the editions of his journal, that Darwin is moving in this direction.

Yet, he spends far more time attempting to settle the question of the creation of atolls than the creation of new species. Arriving at Keening Atoll in the Indian Ocean, having seen The Low Archipelago in the Pacific from a distance, he offers a theory of island subsidence as an alternative to the view that the atolls are created above existing, extinct, volcanic calderas. Not conversant on the details of current understandings, I found his arguments, the wealth of detail as well as personal experience (the Pacific earthquake through which he lived was an object lesson in the way the land rises and subsides over time) to be a marvelous example of how to persuade others in a scientific community.

Finally, while Darwin's voice shines through each and every line, it is precisely so that reminds readers that he was not anything other than a man of his time and place and class. The prejudices and presumptions of his time and place and station are glaring, sometimes with a light that exposes some real ugliness. We should take care in our judgments, however. For all that Darwin could no more escape his time, neither can we. How many of us, putting our views on the Internet, available for generations of our posterity to read, would feel secure that we are free from the worst of our own bigotries, no matter how hard we try to imagine we are enlightened? Darwin was not a person of any other age; he was, along with Dickens and Tennyson and Gladstone, representative of a kind of high-minded moralism so typical of mid-Victorian Britain. That he could be so a generation before that period actually began (roughly speaking, the year both that he published The Origin of Species and the year that marked the death of Prince Albert, 1859) only demonstrates how deep that particular vein ran through the British bourgeoisie.

A marvelous work, filled simultaneously with wide-eyed wonder and a species of hautuer common enough among those who fancy themselves the rulers of the world, a world whose exact proportions and details were yet to be discovered, Darwin's work is of a kind that cannot ever be written again. With detailed satellite photographs of the land surface of the earth available at our fingertips; with NASA about to map the floor of the ocean as well as underwater currents, there just aren't any blank spaces on the map at which one might wonder he or she is seeing that which no one has ever seen. It is, perhaps, a glimpse in to a world that will be forever lost.

It's My Vote And I'll Waste It If I Want To

Summer has yet to begin, and folks to the Left of the President are hearing the same thing we heard after the 2000 election: If Obama loses it'll be our fault.

For the record, I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and I don't regret that vote one bit. If there was such a stark difference between the candidates, why did Gore win the popular vote by fifty thousand out of some one hundred million cast? If Gore would have been such an awesome improvement over Bush, how do these folks explain such an inept campaign that still managed to win the popular vote, albeit by such a slim margin? Given the historical circumstances in the following year, how would a Gore Administration have differed, substantially, from Bush? Would Gore have managed to eke out a second term, given the pasting he would have received both from Republicans in Congress and the slobbering minions on the right who think anyone to the left of Robert Taft worships Josef Stalin's memory? 
Considering how quickly so many liberals (*coughcough* MattYglesias *coughcough* KevinDrum *coughcough* JoeKlein *coughcough*) became enamored of our eventual invasion of Iraq, I'll just let the shouting of that particular word pass over me before I continue.

Here's the deal. Mr. Obama has failed to act decisively, through a variety of means both at his disposal and through fellow Democrats in Congress, to counteract the worst effects of the depression. He has more than flirted with an irresponsible deficit fetishism, rather than make the banal point that, were the economy righted through specific actions Congress and the Executive could take, the deficit would take care of itself. He allowed the Congressional debate over the Affordable Care Act drag out far longer than was necessary, vacillating at key points, while surrendering to rhetorical threats from the Republicans. He has failed to make clear to the American people why the Keystone XL Pipeline is not a good deal for the American people, in the process alienating potential supporters in the heart of Red America, Nebraska. The President has used his personal feelings for sexual minorities as an excuse for a failure to act more swiftly to support marriage equality, the repeal of DOMA, and the end of DADT. 

President Obama has escalated the war in Afghanistan without a clear strategy; he has moved the war in to Yemen and Somalia, without so much as a serious Congressional debate; the expansion of the drone program to become one of war by remote control alters any understanding of what constitutes a combatant or a front line; he has explicitly targeted individuals, taking advantage of gatherings that include non-combatants, and defended his choice by claiming that these civilian casualties may well not be innocent; finally, he has arrogated to himself the decision to kill American citizens overseas, without so much as a fig-leaf of judicial action.

Finally, let me just say that as long as we continue to work within the current political status quo, we shall find ourselves shrugging our shoulders and accepting the candidate who sucks less. They insist we do the same, and call this realism. I, on the other hand, consider it realistic to accept that neither major party candidate is, or will be in the foreseeable future, worth a tinker's damn. As such, I am going to use the one precious thing I have to contribute to this whole thing, my vote, and give it to the person who actually deserves it. Others may do as they wish. Please, however, do not pretend that you are somehow more grown-up, more hard-headed, more realistic, or more anything because you are going to vote for Obama when, at the end of the day, the best argument any supporter seems to come up with sounds an awful lot like, "He won't be as bad as Romney!"

I'm not even sure that's true.

When November comes, I'll cast my vote for someone else for President, and the next morning, regardless of the outcome, I'll know I did what was right. Now go call Glenn Greenwald names and leave me alone.

Virtual Tin Cup

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