The Unimportance of Being Earnest

The Democrats’ characteristic form of cowardice is risk aversion. For the Republicans, it’s moral weakness.

The Rotten Core of Our Political System, by George Packer, The Atlantic May 18, 2022

George Packer’s two-sentence bon mot is as perceptive a summation of our present political ignominy as any out there, which makes it especially welcome in times like these, when two sentences are about as much punditry as anyone can stand. Does anyone still doubt that our pundits are as clueless as our politicians are about what’s coming, or believe that they have anything to tell us that we don’t already know? Yes, we’re aware that it’s coming. No, don’t bother, we’ll find that out when it gets here. In the meantime, we just found these truly awesome earplugs on Amazon….

Just So We’re Clear

A word to the loudmouths of the Republican Party:

We get it—the future scares you, and you want to make that our fault. You should think again. The future can’t be bullied into submission. Neither can we.

No matter what you tell each other, the cruelty and ignorance that govern your behavior wll never govern ours. We won’t allow it, no matter how many guns you have, or how willing you are to use them. If you doubt this, keep going the way you’re going. See how far you get.

Il Miglior Fabbro

Today in the Guardian, a number of Bob Dylan’s fellow musicians contributed to a celebration of his 80th birthday by naming their favorite Dylan songs, and commenting on their choices.

In her comments, Gillian Welch said this:

I bought my first Dylan record – The Times They Are a-Changing [1964] – when I was 17, but to experience those early records in real time as he was releasing them must have been like being around when Shakespeare was creating new plays.

Yes. It was like that. Exactly like that. Unexpected. Miraculous.

Nel Mezzo del Cammin di Nostra Vita….

Optimism is rarely a completely honest emotion, and pessimism often seems an order of magnitude too facile to be taken seriously. Realism, as practiced by its self-described and insufferably self-righteous adepts, lacks respect for those subtler aspects of reality that an attuned consciousness can perceive, but never adequately describe — except perhaps through the approximations of poetry.

What we need is a secular Vergil to guide us deeper into the sunlit hell we’ve made of the 21st century. If he does his job well, and we are truly paying attention, we should be able to find our own way back once the tour is over.

Being Careful What We Wish For: the Liberal Panic Over Social Media

Either you trust the people or you don’t. There isn’t any middle ground.

History has some bad news for the well-meaning: regulating Facebook and Twitter isn’t going to restore our so-called democracy to us. Freedom of expression means what it says. Any political system which calls itself a democracy while at the same time trying to ensure that genuine freedom of expression is granted only to those whose opinions manage to avoid offending conventional wisdom is engaging in a very dangerous form of sophistry.

Watching half the country succumb to the mass delusions of the past four years has admittedly been excruciating, but like it or not, the truth is that anyone can be fooled, and with the right technology, virtually the entire public can be fooled at scale. Is that really Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey’s fault? Should we now demand that the senile ratfuckers of the U.S. Senate bully them into pretending to fix with yet more algorithms what their existing algorithms have already been responsible for breaking? Does anyone really think that this is a good idea?

The truth is, these two accidentally evil geniuses, and others among their Silicon Valley peers, are singularly ill-equipped to do the dirty work of policing the world’s speech for us. Threatening to ruin their business model if they don’t seems a far too ham-fisted way to avoid confronting the real reasons why the Internet has become a sewer, armed mobs are assaulting our legislatures, and half the country believes Hillary Clinton is a satanic pedophile.

All of which is not to say the current fear among liberal Americans that a significant minority of their neighbors have fallen under the malign influence of weaponized troll factories or unhinged demagogues is irrational, nor attempts to do something about it entirely without merit. The danger I see is that any attempt to restrict the future of political discourse to the limits of a narrowly conceived civility will inevitably lead to the adoption of public policies just as dangerous to democratic governance as the chaos it seeks to suppress.

Even if the government persuades a majority that it should be the guardian of right thinking, there’s no way to accomplish such a goal without relying on a labor intensive internal security apparatus like the STASI once had, or a universal surveillance-based social credit ranking system like the one already under construction in China.

What liberals need to understand is that no matter how ignorant, how parochial, or how viciously expressed the grievances are which have split the United States in half, and incinerated the soi disant conservatism of the Republican Party, they aren’t imaginary. The people who share them aren’t going to stop probing the gaps in our political hypocrisies until they get answers they feel they can trust.

We leftists—not the commedia dell’arte caricatures of Fox News and the GOP, but the genuine kind—understand this, but so far we’ve lacked the courage to act accordingly. We need to make it clear that we support the efforts of all people to get what is legitimately theirs, even those whose political ideologies we disagree with, but not at the price of colluding with racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, or religious fanaticism. We can never accept the legitimacy of second amendment fetishism, or the idea that what freedom means is refusing to wear a mask or a motorcycle helmet, or to pay your taxes.

If we’re serious about our politics, we should be able to live with getting laughed at or sneered at in the short run, if in the long run we can make it clear to all and sundry that we have a case to make, and that no matter what happens, we aren’t going anywhere. If we want to recover any semblance of political legitimacy, we can’t avoid a face-to-face contest with the right, now matter how unpleasant or personally dangerous we believe it to be. It’s the only honest way to invest in ourselves, and in the future of our country.

None of this is rocket science. The key is a recovery not of bipartisanship, but of a genuine political dialectic. If the MAGA faithful really want to make America great again, they’re going to have to accept the fact that engagement with people like us, and with the rest of the world, is the only realistic way forward. If we want to help make that possible, we can’t farm it out to someone who promises, for a price of course, to protect us from any unpleasantness. We’re going to have to do it ourselves, and risk something of ourselves in the process of doing it. The principle of equal justice for all demands it.

P.S., the tl;dr edition:

The philosophical difference between the Fairness Doctrine and Orwell’s Ministry of Truth is a matter of degree rather than kind, no matter how much the sophistries of liberal convenience would have it otherwise. The only way out of our present political meltdown is to take one another seriously, and to stop indulging in the administrative fantasies of liberal dirigistes.

The Arrangements

First
dust in the air
a dog
yelping
and circling its tail
behind the fence

A small house
behind a chain-link fence
a dog snapping at itself
and then the dust
along the ground
rising

Past a torn screen door
half-open
a woman in a sun hat
and braces on both legs
over worn coveralls
coughing
and working herself
crabwise
down the steps
to the yard

A woman in braces
with a hoe
pivoting
and levering up weeds
Or is it the grass
she’s ripping at
blade by blade
in clumps

In a sun hat
in the dust
I am
there to see it

Me
laid out on the steps opposite
full of things
I did last night and liked
only half watching
her hoe across the street
arcing
her braces
locking and unlocking
and the dust

Why tear up all that grass
for Christ’s sake?
Why with a hoe?
It’ll take months
Someone ought to
let her know
about the dog

“It looks
good like that”
I say
“the grass
it’s beautiful”

“Too much trouble”
she says
“beautiful or not
I’m sixty-two years old
and crippled
I don’t have the time”

And never did
I guess
which is why
forty years ago
she gave it up
because there’s no strength
or thrift in it
beauty
nothing we can
decently use

It lights up the eye
and leaves the hands idle
which is sin
It attracts men
and sent one away again
whistling
with his hands in his pockets
the right or wrong of it
small enough comfort then

She tried it again
in the mirror
and
when her eyes cleared
she looked at her hands
opening
and let it go

I see it now
watching the hoe
waving away the dust
“Hard case”
I think
“hard case”
with last night gone
this morning too
almost
I have things to do
and my ears ringing
What to make of Della?

Dust
at least
that’s what I can
tell people
about the dust

And when the dust settles
thirty by forty feet of
scalped grass
a snaked length of
dog chain
crossing it
between fence and house
and the trees

I like the trees
One in particular
always
green at dawn
and still
if only for
a moment

And after that moment
one morning
in the parted branches
of the same tree
Della
crippled
lopsided
goddess of
protestant horticulture
Della
waving her discount pruning saw
and
looking for the serpent

“Sweet Jesus
Della
get down
You want to
kill yourself
or what?”

“Will you look at these loquats
I can’t even
give them away
I’ve got a kitchen
full
and the ground
still covered with them
I can’t be
picking up loquats
all summer

Not now
not with Jim
the way he is
I want it down”

She runs a hand
over the saw teeth
I pull a leaf
tear it
into two halves
along the vein

She tells me
he’s dying
about the house
they just bought
bad plumbing
bad wiring
and him inside it
choking on
sawdust and
cancer trying
to fix things

“For me”
she says
“No matter what happens
he wants me to
go on living here
And I want the yard cleared
I want
something I can
keep up
No telling how I’d
pay anyone enough to
do all this gardening”

I know
I know

I tell her I know
and go on
sweating and
working the saw all morning
pulling at
amputated branches

It seems
we’ve made a pact
about this tree
the delicate fruit
seed
most of it
but sweet
the bark like grey silk
wood white
unexpectedly white
where the blade
opens it to view

I’ll help her
send it on
ahead of him
agree
that love
is her excuse

She’ll offer me
a bowl of loquats
when I leave
go in to him
believing
I’ve accepted