Wednesday, November 30, 2016

After the Deplorable Fact of It: 'We will always have our poetry"

            Here are some of the reactions to the recent electoral disaster ("democra-cide" is my term for it) I've gathered from poets and writers, especially from the Verse-Virtual poetry community, and from other digital sources:
            "No one can stop me from becoming the most fully human being I am able to become. No one can stop me from believing. No one can force me to become intolerant or unkind to others who do not look like I do, talk like I do, believe like I do. I will not say I am unafraid, but today I will dance, and today I will love, and no one can stop me." -- Laura Kaminski, poet

"We refuse to disappear. We keep our commitments to fairness in front of the legislators who oppose us, lock arms with the ones who are with us, and in the words of Congressman John Lewis, prepare to get ourselves in some good trouble." -- Barbara Kingsolver, author

 "Everybody knows the fight was fixed The poor stay poor, the rich get rich That's how it goes Everybody knows..."
-- lyrics from Leonard Cohen's song "Everybody Knows," offered by poet Neil Creighton
"This is New York. Nothing about who we are changed on Election Day." -- New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio:

"We need more people like de Blasio to stand up and say, 'No. We will not accept. We will not comply.' ... [Others say we should] shut up and ensure a 'smooth transition?  Go fuck yourself." -- SemDem []
"Let's take some comfort in the fact that we still have our values and our community. And we will always have our poetry.  These things will not change." -- Firestone Feinberg, editor of Verse-Virtual, in his notes on the December issue

         While most of the poems appearing in the December 2016 issue of Verse-Virtual were written before Election Day, some of them refer to the results in varying degrees of directness.
             Here is an excerpt from a poem in December's Verse-Virtual by Sonia Greenfield titled "American Parable":

Throw your
rocks at those people, he said.
They are to blame, he said, so stones
flew at people who shared their land,
who kissed the faces of their children,
who raised their flags, who loved
their dogs, but who were different. 

         Anyone reading my poems in the December issue will have not doubt that these were written after the election. I began the poem "The Gift That Keeps on Giving (or: I'm Going to Yoga)" with the intention of writing on the idea of "a gift," a holiday season theme, but you can see for yourself what happened.
Here's an excerpt from the poem: 

I shrink my violets, hide in my trees,
wake in the morning like the last man
in a Twilight Zone episode stunned to find he is here all alone
Be careful not to step on your glasses
on the way to reading Sinclair Lewis's "It can't happen here"
Or that science fiction story
where the rich game hunter goes back in geological time, steps off the path, and changes history so that in his own day the fascist is elected President.

You can read the rest of this poem, and all the others in December's Verse-Virtual at:

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Garden of Moving On: Finding National Inspiration at Eleanor's Val-Kill

             What should we do, as human beings, to respond to the selection of a fool with the temperament of a tinpot dictator and the instincts of a bully for a position of infinite dangers.
            We should go on doing the things that make us authentic human beings with the instincts of a caring friend and family member and the ability to think for ourselves.
            And so last weekend we visited Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt's home and little piece of earth on the extensive Roosevelt family Hyde Park, New York property. The large home on the property, occupied by FDR, was "presided over" (as the National Park Service puts it) by Sara Delano Roosevelt, "Franklin’s strong-willed mother" until her death in 1941.  
            In the early 1920s FDR recognized that Eleanor needed some space of her own to entertain (and house) her friends as she wished. He proposed building her a house on a beautiful wooded site where the R's commonly enjoyed picnicking. This plan turned into two buildings, the Stone Cottage and Val-Kill Cottage.
            They put in a swimming pool, mostly for Franklin's benefit. The Val-Kill Cottage began as a shop for Val-Kill Industries, training workers and producing handmade furniture and other crafts. The building served Eleanor's vision of economic development based on social cooperation. Local farmers were taught woodworking skills and helped to set up a business to bring work and income to a rural region where few employment opportunities outside of farming existed.
            After the business lapsed in the Depression 1930s, Eleanor turned the building into her own residence, with comfortable, people-friendly furniture, pictures, a study with her desk, and a crowded dining room where she hosted foreign leaders and neighbors.
            The Stone Cottage served as the home for a couple of Eleanor's close female activist friends, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, who were partners in the cooperative craft business and the vision that it served.
             There are many reasons to visit Vall-Kill, and many kinds of goodness to take from it. The Park Service trumpets that it's the only National Historic Site dedicated to a first lady. But even before you set foot on the site, an important part of the experience is that anyone can go there because of what it is: a National Park site. The place is part of the national experience, part of America, and you and I and everyone else can go there because the government of the United States preserves sites and sources of civic inspirations -- places that show, to use the current phrase, what makes America "great."
            You don't have to go out West and visit the flagships of the National Park system, the famous nature palaces such as Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone, to benefit from the park system. We have plenty of sites on the East Coast, including Acadia National Park in Maine, the Boston harbor islands, the old fort in St. Augustine, Florida, Fort Sumter in Charleston, The Adams National Park in Quincy, the port of New Bedford, the Monuments of the National Mall.
            The second point of particular contemporary relevance is the preservation of a collection of small buildings created for a First Lady explores the importance of women in America's civic life. Women had been voting for only five years when the first stones were laid for Val-Kill. Political change was in the air, even as the somnolent Coolidge and Hoover administrations sleep-walked into National Breakdown.  
            The Park's website puts it this way:
            "In the 1920s, Eleanor Roosevelt joined a group of independent-minded women dedicated to shaping politics and policy.... [They] created jobs, influenced party politics, and advanced social reforms. Val-Kill embodies their pioneering spirit."
             Eleanor was not only the first politically influential First Lady, she was the first American woman to play an important public role in national politics. She addressed national party conventions. After FDR's death Truman appointed her as America's first representative to the United Nations, calling her "First Lady to the world." Candidates nervously knocked on her door, seeking endorsements. The National Park tour tells the story of young candidate John F. Kennedy anxiously visiting the cottage to seek support for his presidential run. Eleanor kept him on the hook until he agreed to take a stronger stand for civil rights.
            One of the place's best photos shows Winston Churchill at the cottage's modest doorstep, wearing a hat and holding a cigar and looking like he's wondering whether he was in the right place. ER turned Val-Kill into the right place for a wide range of people. Visitors such as India's Nehru and Israel's Ben-Gurion came there to talk international politics. Hyde Park neighbors were invited to dinner as well. Her homey, cramped, family-style dining room served heads of state and the local grocer at the same sitting. She had a resourceful, flexible cook, but the place wasn't about fancy dining. The park ranger's tour tells us, "She cared less for what was on the table than for the people sitting around it."
            In another room, her study, Park visitors see the desk where ER worked and wrote her daily newspaper column "My Day." Even when she was not touring a Depression-fighting nation or a new nation overseas, Eleanor had full days. The tour also shows the homey living room, packed with comfortable chairs, its walls decked with photos, paintings and mementos.
            You can also learn more about the Eleanor Roosevelt story though an exhibit in the roomier, handsome interior of the Stone Cottage, titled "Eleanor Roosevelt and Val-Kill: Emergence of a Political Leader."

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Garden of Verse: 'My America' Is a State of Mind

Reading the November 2016 Verse-Virtual poems in a post-election frame of mind (the most neutral description I can come up with for the state of "Twilight Zone" shock and desperation so many of us are feeling), the theme of "my America" either lying within or mounting a podium in many of these adds an even sharper edge of appreciation for them.
            Donna Hilbert remembers "the way things used to be" in our America for a working woman in her poem "Consciousness Raising." She writes of returning from sales calls 
back to the office where Hustler
fold-outs plastered the phone bank,
where my boss drank gin
from a flask at his desk
and daily asked
for a quickie in the showroom..."

           Steve Klepetar's "How Fascism Comes to America"
marches to a powerful beat, the driving rhythm of the poem's refrains matching the urgency of the subject. The poem's free, wide-ranging imagery further accents the ominous lock-step of its message. I'm particularly struck by the prophetic tone of these lines:
It comes waving flags and singing songs.
It rises from hills and towns;
pours from the sky in torrents of rain.
It hides in plain sight. I have seen it
on the riverbanks parading beneath willows
and pine. I have seen its bonfires everywhere.   

           The same ominous term appears in the title of Joan Mazza's "What did you do when Fascism came to America?" Good poems often rescue the minute particulars of human lives. This poem answers the title's question with facts both concrete and emotive:
I punched out little fishes and flowers in cardstock,
glued them to contrasting cardstock, added glitter,
and words like Peace in sparkly script.

...While my stomach
churned and twisted into knots, while people
protested and shouted, I read Spirals in Time,
learned of the imaginary museum of all possible

shells, wished for a calcified cave I could move into.

That cave or its equivalent, real or imaginary, may start looking good to many of us.

            Another America, the America of immigrant experience, is glimsped in Michael Minsassian's "Waking Up in America," 
a place where dreams are filtered through memories. The poet writes of an uncle:
his stories crowded with chance meetings
with beautiful women, dead Persian poets,
and philosophers who blossom like flowers"
and the color of the swimming pool in a backyard six thousand miles away from his birthplace.

           Thomas Erickson's "Blue," a poem about a black and white America puts the notion of two countries in stark terms. We all know that experience isn't, as we say in other contexts, all 'black and white.' But in our contemporary America it seems the public sphere so often is: 
I go to the jail and
pass by the white jailers
to talk to my black client
about the charge of the black
on black crime brought by
the white DA before we go
in front of the white judge
and eventually the white
jurors who live in their white
enclaves leading their white
lives and afterwards I’ll
talk to his black family
about the time he will serve...
 I was recently one of those white jurors on an all-white jury hearing evidence in a black-on-black crime case, with white judge and attorneys, and frankly found it hard to be sure that justice could be color blind. 
          My notion of America isn't black and white, but vigorously pluralistic and multicultural. Yet as the results from the election indicate, those of us who live on the coasts may not have a very clear picture of the rest of the country.  
          See for these poems and others.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Garden of History: What the Classic Theories Tell Us About Why Democracies Fail

        The 2016 election raises a question political philosophers have been asking since ancient Athens: whether it's possible for a democracy to sustain itself over the long run. We tend to think that 227 years of Constitutional government means we're a solid gold success in the democracy business and will never go bankrupt. As systems of government go, we've surely had a good run, but in human society as in other fields of human endeavor, past performance is no guarantee of future success.
            Nor can we run the clock from the beginning of The United States of America, because the Constitutional framers never intended us to be a democracy. The consensus of the framers, as is clear from the beliefs of James Madison and the others was, one, democracy was inherently unstable and would lead to 'mob role' that in turn would produce tyranny; and two, that political partisanship, or "parties" as we know them, is bad for self-government.
            Before Washington's first term was over, the Constitutional system of government had already given rise to parties -- Jefferson and friends on one side, Hamilton on the other. In fact, an interesting irony, Hamilton's (and John Adams's) gang, known as Federalists, began defaming Jefferson's followers as "Democrats," a slur word used to caricature opponents as believers in the outrageous idea that "everyone" should be able to vote. Giving the franchise to all -- all adult white males, that is -- would inevitably lead to pandering, demagoguery, vote-buying, uninformed voting, the election of unsuitable candidates, and (ultimately) mob rule. If you had no qualification for voting, how would you get informed, thoughtful, responsible decisions at the polls? No qualifications, no quality.
            Jefferson and friends did not seek universal male suffrage. They did not call themselves democrats; they called themselves "Republicans." The term meant a government chosen by an electorate who would put the "res publica" -- public matters, from the Latin -- ahead of personal gain or private interests. But history shows that your enemies get to name you (as in "Obamacare").
            Universal male suffrage, supported by people who came to adopt the term "democracy" for the belief that the right to vote should be extended to all adult males, and no longer reserved for property owners, did not arrive until the Jacksonian wing of Jefferson's party gained control of their movement. The power of newly enfranchised voters succeeded in electing Andrew Jackson President in 1828 over John Quincy Adams, the last gasp of the old Federalist party.
            It is fair to say that Jackson's "common man" supporters were not qualified to participate in political decision-making in the sense the Constitutional framers themselves were. They had not studied the Classical thinkers of Ancient Greece and Roman times and the Enlightenment political theorists of England and France. The US Constitution is an 18th century document, the product of an era when educated men studied Greek and Roman history and read the founders of western traditions of thought, Plato,Aristotle, Cicero, and the Roman Stoics.
            For Western civilization Plato wrote the book on political philosophy. It's called "The Republic." His spokesman, Socrates, analyzes all of the known systems of the Greek city states, plus examples from the rest of the world his time had knowledge of, and discovered flaws in them all. The one-man rule of kingship suffers from the weaknesses of any imperfect human being and the contingencies of succession. Rule by a monied class, called Oligarchy, breaks down as power corrupts and declines into decadence. Democracy, a natural stage in political development, falls into chaos as ordinary, unphilosophical passion-driven men place their own interests and desires over the good of the whole, fragmenting the state. The 'mob' of uneducated, uncultivated ordinary men is easily swayed by the demagogue's appeals to the lower passions of their undisciplined nature. They give power to the demagogue, turning him into a tyrant, and we are back to one-man rule.
            This fear is directly responsible for one of the arcane features of the US Constitution that plagues us still, namely the Electoral College. Since the framers feared a pure democratic expression of will for the chief executive would not lead to the best choices, the Constitution placed several filters for voters to pass through. The first is that we would not vote as a nation, but as states (we are still, anachronistically, the 'United States'). Even then we do not vote directly for our state's choice for President. We vote for 'electors.' These would be wise people who would meet with wise colleagues from other states and collectively choose a President. There was no 'George Washington' on your ballot when you voted for Prez in 1788.
            The practice of voting for a set of electors who favored a particular candidate for that office came after Washington's eight years in office. By then the groundwork for the party system had emerged, Adams heading one group that favored a strong central government, Jefferson leading those who favored restraining federal power. Strictly pledged support for a particular party's candidate came still later, tied to the 'Jacksonian democracy' movement that significantly broadened the voter base.
            The electorate was broadened further when former slaves, male adults, were granted the right to vote by the 15th Amendment and women by the 19th Amendment. The voting age was lowered to 18 in the sixties. But even then no one in America has ever gone to the polls to vote directly for President. We're still stuck with voting for "electors" in a system that gives disproportionate power to smaller states, as it was always intended to do. Hence, the system can give the victory to a candidate who receives fewer votes than a rival, but wins more electors by victors by small pluralities in more states.
            In terms familiar to students of political philosophy Americans last week elected a demagogue who manipulated their passions and resentments and appealed to their lower natures, just as Plato and the traditional school of political philosophy suggested would happen. Arguably it's happened before. Universal suffrage has put poor choices in the White House; voters did not know much about Warren G. Harding, but 1920 was a Republican year so he was elected. Voters were exposed to large doses of George W. Bush in mass-media 2000, but they voted for him anyway.
            But how is that the American system of government has survived so long without suffering the breakdown into tyranny foreseen by the classical theory. Philosopher Cornell West provided a theoretical answer in a timely essay published recently in the Boston Globe during the latter stages of the campaign. He cited American philosopher John Dewey, of the 'pragmatist school,' who replied to Plato's critique of democracy and developed arguments for how American democracy could avoid the pitfalls the ancients foresaw. Here's West's summary of Dewey's position:
            "For over a century, the best response to Plato’s critique of democracy has been John Dewey’s claim that precious and fragile democratic experiments must put a premium on democratic statecraft (public accountability, protection of rights and liberties, as well as personal responsibility, embedded in a fair rule of law) and especially on democratic soulcraft (integrity, empathy, and a mature sense of history)."
            And while Plato argued that the lower elements of human nature -- "hedonism and narcissism, mendacity and venality" -- would destroy democracy, Dewey proposed democracies could fight back by "robust democratic education" and "courageous exemplars." These exemplars would rise from a political environment fertilized by what West called "the spread of critical intelligence, moral compassion, and historical humility."
            Here's the link to West's op-ed:
            West links his thinking in other ways to the philosophical tradition. Since Plato's great work "The Republic" sought to establish the ideal state, what system of government did he ultimately favor? In brief, a small group of qualified counselors would train and choose rulers who could be trusted to govern from what Greek philosophers called the rational part of the human soul. This theory has been called rule by "the philosopher king."
            Interestingly, West's prescription for a better future for American democracy relies on superior individuals as well. While our current politics exposed our 'spiritual bankruptcy' in our leadership and values, he proposed a solution. Here's the quote:
            "Instead we need a democratic soulcraft of wisdom, justice, and peace — the dreams of courageous freedom fighters like Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel, Edward Said, and Dorothy Day."
            An interesting list, far from mainstream party politics. Only the first name is widely familiar. Heschel was a Polish-born American rabbi, who left Europe in 1940 and found inspiration in the Hebrew prophets to advocate for civil rights and against the Vietnam war. Said, a Palestinian and Columbia University professor, was an influential critic of Western colonialism and of Israel. Day, an American convert to Catholicism, helped found the Catholic Worker Movement that used nonviolent direct action to improve the lives of the poor. 
            And remember West's list of essential democratic virtues:  
Critical intelligence. Moral compassion. Historical humility.
            Do any of these terms make you think of the new President-elect? Or the likely leaders of both houses of Congress?
            Lacking such virtues, and such exemplars, in our elected leaders we may be headed into the destabilizing times predicted for us by classical political theory. We will find out soon. If he follows the classic pattern, American democracy's newly elected demagogue will seek to consolidate all government power in his own hands.
            Let's hope there something the philosophers missed.