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 seem reasonable to the average voter 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?

I think not. 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, and 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 simply 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. Precisely because they aren’t imaginary, the people who share them are not going to stop probing the gaps in our political hypocrisies until they get answers they feel they can trust.

We need to argue honestly with these people, acknowledge that their grievances aren’t entirely based on illusions, admit our part in lying to them about their prospects for the future, and commit ourselves to being honest about the limits of our willingness to help them face that future with less fear and more confidence. How hard can it be to demonstrate that we are not the evil Democrat liberals of their paranoid imaginations?

We who can genuinely claim to represent the historical left of the political spectrum most definitely do want to see them get what is legitimately theirs, but the price of our support is a renunciation on their part of racism, misogyny, homophobia, religious fanaticism, xenophobia, the sexualization of firearms, and the idea that what freedom means is refusing to wear a mask or a motorcycle helmet, hunting what’s left of our endangered species, using demeaning epithets whenever they feel like it, and waving Confederate flags in public.

They’d laugh or sneer at the offer of a deal so alien to their instincts now, no doubt, but what we’d be attempting to do by proposing it would be to make an honest investment in them, in ourselves, and in the future of our country. None of this is rocket science. 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

From 2008: A House Divided

This was written at the invitation of the founder of a Web site which unfortunately never saw the light of day. Waste not, want not, right?

 

A House Divided: Can Independent Thinking Flourish in the No-man’s Land of the American Culture Wars?

When I was asked recently if I thought that our increasingly vicious culture wars were stifling independent thinking in the United States, my answer was an immediate and unqualified no. Now that I’ve had time to consider the question a little more thoroughly, my answer is still no, but I no longer believe in dismissing out of hand the concerns which originally prompted it.

The truth is that human beings, those at any rate with the spirit and the leisure to work at puzzles or dream dreams, are always going to think what they think, regardless of whose agents are looking over their shoulders, or what orthodoxy of the moment is threatening to vilify or imprison them. The real question is whether or not all this thinking can have any lasting effect, beneficial or otherwise, on the civilization which spawns it.

Despite the several centuries which have passed since the first impact of the Enlightenment on our epistemology, this is still an open question. For all the recent furor which they’ve created in the United States, the culture wars declared by the right have in fact been an epiphenomenon, an engineered distraction acting not so much to prevent independent thinking per se, as to prevent that thinking from entering our political discourse, or finding expression in the policy decisions of our government. In that, of course, the right has until very recently been remarkably successful. Its success, however, has come at a price.

That price is blindness. The enemy of conventional wisdom and the status quo, and of its die-hard defenders, has never been the free-thinker, but reality itself. You can imprison the advocates of inconvenient discoveries, but you can’t imprison events. When the Spanish Inquisition institutionalized the search for heretics, and industrialized the lighting of autos da fé all over the country, smart people found a home in Holland, or England, or in the New World, and Spain entered a long decline which persisted, in one form or another, until the death of Franco. More recently, the fan dancers of unfettered capitalism have held not just the usual rubes in thrall, but our policy makers and soi-disant intellectual elites as well. Then, quite unexpectedly for them, reality turned up the house lights and set fire to the fans. Suddenly, we’re once again talking publicly about the responsibility of governments to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

Even if you accept, as I do, that politics broadly defined is the only effective instrument for mediating which ideas will become the currency of the realm, and which will be relegated to bric-a-brac in the museums of memory, it’s clear enough that no matter the necessities of human nature which force us to rely on politics for this mediation, there can be no blunter instrument for the purpose, nor any which affords us less comfort in the wielding.

Tyrannies are real enough, after all, and so are the ideologies which give rise to them. Even if you have confidence that they can in the end be overcome, the millions slaughtered and enslaved by them in the 20th century, beginning more than a hundred years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man, must give an honest person at least some pause to question that confidence. George Orwell understood this, and in 1984 presented us not only with a haunting butcher’s bill for the previous half-century’s devotion to armed isms, but also a warning that by adhering to them, we were flirting with an end to history, and not a happy end at that.

I found 1984 profoundly disturbing, but I remain an optimist nevertheless. Orwell was prescient in many ways, but in the end, his inner Jeremiah outmaneuvered his sense of history. No boot, however determined, however well-funded, can stamp on the human face forever. Other boots may in time come along, but they will always have to take their turn, and then, inevitably, pass into oblivion. There is such a thing as the dialectic, after all, even if, after all these years, its nature is still to a great extent a matter of debate.

That debate has interested me ever since I first discovered it as a young man. Even when I was still a child, the dynamics of my family were such that I quickly developed grave doubts about the sufficiency, if not the necessity, of a rational approach to problems, as well as a perpetually nagging curiosity about why what I was told, both by my elders and my peers, was so frequently at variance with my own experience.

Perhaps that is actually why, more than forty years ago, I went to hear a public lecture by Herbert Marcuse on the campus of UC Berkeley. At the time, it was the hottest ticket in town. Ronald Reagan had already accused Marcuse of trying to make communism safe for undergraduates — in the catechism of the right wing, the moral equivalent of dispensing poisoned candy to children — so of course the lecture amphitheater was packed, and not just with those who’d read his books, but also with the rebellious, the curious; all those passionate advocates of generational solidarity who were already fashioning the Sixties into either a revolutionary epoch or a silly season, depending on how you judged the culture wars which were already underway.

I don’t know what any of us expected, but what we got was an elf — a slight, decidedly unheroic looking man talking to several early arrivals in the pit below the stage. Already nearly seventy, he didn’t look it, except for the almost white hair cropped close over his ears. Very professorial, very European, I thought, yet as informal in dress and manner as his audience. Once the last of the late arrivals had arranged themselves around the edges of the room, and the sponsors had managed, with a flurry of hand waving and restrained begging, to quiet the crowd and make their introductions, the old man skipped up the steps to the stage, walked over to the rickety podium, and started to speak.

Most of what he said that evening I no longer remember. I was, in any case, already familiar with much of it from reading Eros and Civilization, and One-Dimensional Man. What I do remember, though, what has in fact stuck in my mind from then until now, was his opening line:

As I often seem to be doing these days, I shall begin with Hegel…and I shall end with…love.

Like Professor Marcuse, I also began with Hegel, and like the good professor, I very much doubt I’ll end up in the promised land. No one should assume, however, that I don’t believe it exists, or that, somehow or other, love will prove the key to getting there. I know very well that independent thinking, and thinkers, aren’t immortal, but they are eternal. All you have to do, if you want confirmation of that seemingly bold assertion, is to stop for a moment and walk away from the megaphones.