Thursday, July 31, 2008

Discipline and Hope

Having no need to account for anything they have done, our politicians do not find it necessary to trouble us with with either evidence or argument, or to confess their errors, or to subtract their losses from their gains; they speak like the gods of Olympus, assured that if they say they are our servants anything they do in their own interest is right. Our public discourse has been reduced to the manipulation of uprooted symbols: good words, bad words, the names of gods and devils, emblems, slogans, flags. For some the flag no longer stands for the country, it is the country; they plant their crops and bury their dead in it.

There is no better example of this deterioration of language than in the current use of the word "freedom." Across the whole range of current politics this word is now being mouthed as if its devotees cannot decide whether it should be kissed or eaten, and this adoration has nothing to do with its meaning. The government is protecting the freedom of people by killing them or hiding microphones in their houses. The government's opponents, left and right, wish to set people free by telling them exactly what to do. All this for the sake of the political power the word has come to have. The up-to-date politician no longer pumps the hand of the prosperous constituent; he offers to set him--or her--free. And yet it seems to me that the word has no political meaning at all; the government cannot serve freedom except negatively--"by the alacrity" in Thoreau's phrase, "with which it [gets] out of the way."

. . . Free men are not set free by their government. Free men have set their government free of themselves; they have made it unnecessary. Freedom is not accomplished by a declaration. A declaration of freedom is either a futile and empty gesture, or it is the statement of a finished fact. As I understand it, freedom is a personal matter; though we may be enslaved as a group, we can be free only as persons. We can set each other free only as persons. It is a matter of discipline. A person can free himself of a bondage that has been imposed on him only by accepting a bondage that he has chosen. A man who would not be the slave of other men must be the master of himself--that is the real meaning of self-government. If we all behaved as honorably and honestly and industriously as we expect our representatives to behave, we would soon put the government out of work

-Wendell Berry "Discipline and Hope," 1971

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Democratic Vistas 2008

Closer yet I approach you;
What thought you have of me, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance;
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.

Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry -Walt Whitman (1819-1892)


"I say we had better look our nation searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease." - Democratic Vistas

"Look for me under your bootsoles."

On Long Island, they moved my clapboard house
Across a turnpike, & then felt so guilty they
Named a shopping center after me!
Teen-agers call me a fool.
Now what I sang stops breathing.

And yet
It was only when everyone stopped believing in me
That I began to live, again-
First in the thin whine of Montana fence wire
Then in the transparent, cast off garments hung
In the windows of the poorest families,
Then in the glad music of Charlie Parker.
At times now,
I even come back to watch you
From the eyes of a taciturn boy in Malibu.
Across the counter at the the beach concession stand,
I sell you hot dogs, Pepsis, cigarettes-
My blond hair long, greasy, & swept back,
In a vain old ducktail, deliciously
Out of style.
And no one notices.

Once, I even came back as me,
An aging homosexual who ran the Tilt-a-Whirl
At county fairs, the chilled paint on each gondola
Changing color as it picked up speed,
And a Mardi Gras tattoo on my left shoulder.
A few of you must have seen my photographs,
For when you looked back,
I thought you caught the meaning of my stare:
Still water,

A Kosmos. One of the roughs.

Leave me alone.
A father who's outlived his only child.

To find me now will cost you everything.

-Larry Levis (1946-1996)

Happy Independence Day . . . enjoy it while it lasts.