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In A Minor Key

N.B.: This post originally appeared at What Left In The Church?, June 13, 2012

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”

Our most American of poets, Walt Whitman.

Our most American of poets, Walt Whitman.

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].

–snip–

“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 icasualties.org, 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.

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Throw Back Thursday (#TBT): December 14, 2010

Since the whole idea of “Throw Back Thursday” has pervaded social media, and as I have a previous blog with over 3800 posts (man, I wrote a lot!), I thought, “What the heck?”  So, I not-so-randomly looked through my archives and found this post, here reproduced in full.

The Death Penalty As Religious Sacrifice

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has a magnificent review of Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition by David Garland in the latestNYRB. Among its many virtues is an idea that author Garland offers in evidence for the US on-going practice of capital punishment, viz., that ours is a culture fascinated with death.

[A]n important reason Americans retain capital punishment is their fascination with death. While neither the glamour nor the gore that used to attend public executions remains today, he observes, capital cases still generate extensive commentary about victims’ deaths and potential deaths of defendants. Great works of literature, like best-selling paperbacks, attract readers by discussing killings and revenge. Garland suggests that the popularity of the mystery story is part of the culture that keeps capital punishment alive.

Stevens doesn’t explore this facet of Garland’s work too much, focusing far more on the nuances of Supreme Court jurisprudence (which makes sense). All the same, considering that Garland is an emigre from Scotland, this particular observation seems to be at odds with the usual, radical, critique of much of American culture, that it is rooted in a denial of the reality of death.

Yet, in some ways, perhaps the phenomenon Garland writes about, and the focus of radical critique are two sides of the same coin. We fetishize death, obsess about it, in a vicarious way through fiction and through the detailed dissection of murder and the consequences to the perpetrator as a way of making clear and public our fear of death. We are fascinated with it because we fear it. We fear its finality. We fear the violence it does to our bodies, the lives of those left behind. Most of all we fear the meaninglessness that death brings to all our valiant efforts at living. We spend decades to make something of ourselves, to bring to the passage of time something substantive, and the reality of death, of our individual deaths, robs it all of purpose.

So, perhaps this cultural fascination is really a kind of expiation. The murderer, who brings the reality of death crashing home in a violent, intrusive way, becomes the sacrifice, his (or her) death nullifying the death he (or she) brought about. In a sense, capital punishment serves a quasi-religious function in our civil religion, where the perpetrator’s death becomes necessary to stave off the community-wide fear of death the murder has dredged to the surface.

Understood in this way, its on-going practice makes sense. As a society, we are loathe to consider any limits to our actions, and there is nothing more limiting than death. A murderer violates all our social and cultural taboos; the death of such a one becomes almost necessary to set the cultural karmic scales back in balance.

This might well become a feature!