For Leonard Durso

1. Rick Perlstein’s oft-cited “The Long Con” is sobering reading. For years, American conservatism has had parts which are less “ideological” and more concerned with fleecing people. When Perlstein signed up for e-mails from campaigns and conservative publications, he quickly found himself deluged with other e-mails advertising miracle cures for cancer, once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunities, hysterical descriptions of the opposition. Regarding that last statement, Trump is the rule rather than the exception: for a few dollars, you can “indict” Hillary, because losing the election is obviously the same thing as a criminal indictment.

Still, as sharp as Perlstein’s piece is, there’s a problem. You can read his piece, and if you don’t know better, come away with the impression that there is nothing of the sort on the American Left. That there aren’t people preaching “awareness alone can solve all problems” or trying to sell New Age or hemp-based cures. I don’t want to be drawn into the trap of saying there is a perfect balance – right now, one part of America is clearly very problematic – but a little bit of attempted balance in this case opens a larger question. Does political life in general depend on something like conspiracy theory?

2. Blogging is dead, they say. I can’t remember the last time I responded to another blogger; that needs to change. What makes opinions important are their earnestness, their attempt to get at the truth, their articulation of value. When I went looking for that poem of Tu Fu I blogged about yesterday, I stumbled upon a post of Leonard Durso’s, entitled “on leadership” (sic). His thoughts merit a closer look; here’s the excerpt I’d like to focus on:

A true leader is one who is at times self-reflective so that they can see whatever faults they possess that might be the cause of the problems of the people they lead.

To point fingers and blame others is the easiest and least effective way of solving any problem and of leading the people in their care.

A leader “so full of themselves” as my grandmother would say is in fact doing more harm than good for a business, a nation, a religion, a community, an institution, any group of people they are chosen to lead. One needs to look inside first before looking outside because all problems tend to have their roots within.

None of us will disagree with his claims, as we have high expectations for leaders. Let’s list those claims one-by-one:

  • There are times a leader has to be self-reflective and recognize their faults as the problem.
  • Demonizing others is easy, the “least effective” way of solving problems, does not show concern for the ruled.
  • If you’re “full of yourself,” you do more harm than good.

Again, none of us are going to disagree with this; it speaks to our higher aims and can describe some amazing people at particular times. Some of us are going to jump ahead and mount a defense of these claims, knowing full well that it will be said that bad people have been very effective leaders, creating great goods for a people out of great evils. Our defense is going to be that if we don’t set high expectations – if we pretend expectations don’t matter – we won’t get any sort of humane leadership at all. Bad people doing good things, on that note, is the exception rather than the rule.

3. The trouble with this argument is how ridiculously circular it is. We’ve already arrived at the point where expectations are being used to defend other expectations. “If you don’t expect higher, you don’t get better behavior” is an assumption. It’s an assumption to which I’m partial, but it’s still an assumption.

Rule is not about self-reflection, unfortunately. Caesar was probably the greatest general ever. Plutarch depicts this behavior before he crosses the Rubicon:

When he came to the river which separates Cisalpine Gaul from the rest of Italy (it is called the Rubicon), and began to reflect, now that he drew nearer to the fearful step and was agitated by the magnitude of his ventures, he checked his speed. Then, halting in his course, he communed with himself a long time in silence as his resolution wavered back and forth, and his purpose then suffered change after change. For a long time, too, he discussed his perplexities with his friends who were present, among whom was Asinius Pollio, estimating the great evils for all mankind which would follow their passage of the river, and the wide fame of it which they would leave to posterity. But finally, with a sort of passion, as if abandoning calculation and casting himself upon the future, and uttering the phrase with which men usually prelude their plunge into desperate and daring fortunes, “Let the die be cast,” he hastened to cross the river; and going at full speed now for the rest of the time, before daybreak he dashed into Ariminum and took possession of it. It is said, moreover, that on the night before he crossed the river he had an unnatural dream; he thought, namely, that he was having incestuous intercourse with his own mother.

Plutarch has no patience for the mockery Caesar makes of self-reflection. Yes, Caesar “began to reflect,” “communed with himself a long time in silence,” “discussed his perplexities.” But then he said “Let the die be cast,” and invaded his own homeland in order to install himself as tyrant, ending the republic. Hence, Plutarch adds the tasteful detail that Caesar dreamed he had sex with his own mom.

One might say Caesar was a terrible ruler, only concerned with his own fame and aggrandizement. That’s correct. He also pacified Gaul and extended Roman influence into Britain. Only if you are willing to say “good leaders aren’t particularly good at winning wars, in fact, they might lose them” can you argue that self-reflection matters more than sheer ambition. Good leaders are a double-edged sword. In my mind, Lincoln is our greatest President. The pictures of carnage from the Civil War could make anyone nauseous.

4. We Americans are relearning that unity is a virtue and not to be taken for granted. I cannot say I am displeased that unity is taken seriously. But partisanship is not necessarily a vice. In the case of some leaders, the majority has spoken through legitimate party governance. If the whole point of a democratic system is to make sure most people get what they have lawfully affirmed they want, how do we find any sympathy for minorities? It would seem rulers have a moral imperative to cater to their constituency, affirming the sanctity of an election and continuing to reject what the voters rejected.

The case for affirming minority rights depends on pointing out that a majority can be wrong, that those in the majority can be minorities at times too, that partisan politics is not as important as our shared humanity. This is most achievable when the end has already been achieved. If one is struggling to keep power or get one’s agenda passed, one needs to be more saint than leader in order act properly. Fighting for power, it turns out, is what you are obligated to do as a partisan.

5. Recently, a two-bit tyrant who is indeed “full of himself” has become all too visible. The case against him is specific. His larger aims are a disgrace, but we can condemn him based on what we have seen from his tenure so far. Attacking people’s freedoms, attacking his own people as they protest, enriching himself and his party at the expense of everyone else, harassing and marginalizing the political opposition through extra-legal measures.

When speaking generally of leaders, though, they do tend to be full of themselves, partisan to a fault, and not terribly reflective. They have been tasked with getting things done, and the assumption underlying most of their behavior is that they are expressing the values of the system. Caesar’s authoritarianism didn’t emerge in a vacuum: an accomplished general who gave Rome dominance, he appealed to the people for his power. The big lies stem from uncomfortable truths. Our expectations create a need for people to exercise power, and then we wonder why they don’t exercise that power exactly the way we would. The conspiracy theory governing notions of rule is that they’re just as moral as they are useful. On the contrary, our demand for utility is insatiable, showing morality itself a basis for power. The only way to create a genuine space for reflection is to appeal to something beyond politics, beyond the everyday. We need to force ourselves to be better, and I would not underestimate how difficult an undertaking that actually is.

Tu Fu, “South Wind”

South Wind (h/t Leonard Durso; from “A Book of Luminous Things,” ed. Czeslaw Milosz)
Tu Fu (tr. Kenneth Rexroth)

The days grow long, the mountains
Beautiful. The south wind blows
over blossoming meadows.
Newly arrived swallows dart
Over the streaming marshes.
Ducks in pairs drowse on the warm sand.

Comment:

Awake. Did not expect this place to become a melody, worth remembering, worth singing again. The days grow long, the mountains beautiful. Before, the mountains were simply there, aloof or ominous, depending on my mood. I didn’t bother to document my mood. The days moved quickly, punctuated by anger and sorrow. There was barely any time to complain, let alone bear witness.

The south wind changed all that. The south wind blows over blossoming meadows. I would have dismissed growth, “blossoming,” as the mere teeming of half-formed life. Now it seems beautiful. Newly arrived swallows dart over the streaming marshes. Birds come and go cyclically. Why celebrate their arrival, their newness as old as time itself?

I’m loving the arrival of the south wind. I love how it has filled this land with hope. I love how I have time to try to appreciate it. I also know that life takes away the reveries it allows. Ducks in pairs drowse on the warm sand. They’re full of love, in their “honeymoon” phase, drowsed. I’m the same way, alone. I need to keep the reverie somewhere, in hope of a future clarity.

Kay Ryan, “Venice”

Venice (from Smithsonian)
Kay Ryan

There is a category
of person eased
by constraint, soothed
when things cease.
It is the assault
of abundance
from which they seek
release. The gorgeous
intensities of Venice
would work best
for these people
at a distance:
sitting, for example,
in a departing
train car, feeling the
menace settle.

Comment:

1. Years ago, I was in a class on Machiavelli, hopelessly confused. – Yeah, I know. Some things never change. – A much better student, far ahead of me in knowledge and experience, confessed that the material was too obscure for him also. Machiavelli makes use of places and peoples to stand for other things; his strategy is difficult to grasp. “Isn’t Venice the City of God?” he asked rhetorically.

“Huh?”

I had no idea how a commercial republic, an oligarchy dedicated to the love of gain, could be holy. “The entire city is on water.”

“Huh.”

I don’t think I’m fit to comment on instances of “Venice” or “Venetians” in Machiavelli’s work, as I never bothered to confirm or deny the speculation. It was, in my mind, a perfect insight. With a bit of code, you could unravel the whole, see what he’s really talking about. Only to do so involves a horrible abstraction from the proper names, from what people thought about and felt.

2. “There is a category of person eased by constraint.” So why should I care? Why should you care? Someone feels better being told what to do, what not to do? They must not love freedom! They must be dodging responsibility!

– Ok. Let’s slow down. – “Category of person” is ambiguous. At different times in our lives, we’re different people. Nowadays it’s very fashionable to say “I’m an introvert” and say it like it is the law of non-contradiction or 2 + 2 = 4. In truth, we’ve got a fragment of everyone else in us, and we act out those fragments over time. Because we are everyone else, maybe the greatest irony of all emerges: we can be divided into distinct categories, there are human “natures.” A whole of sorts enables a respect for difference.

So “there is a category of person eased by constraint.” It’s both all of us and just a few of us. Why is it important that they, that we, are “eased by constraint?” What kind of person are we when we want limits?

3. “There is a category of person eased by constraint, soothed when things cease.” Eased by constraint, soothed when things cease. Ryan has this magical ability to invoke the topical, the current, while staying in her rarefied air. I can’t say for myself I’m “soothed when things cease.” “Eased by constraint” at first made me think of having limits in terms of needing a job, a sense of purpose given by others, a list of things to do. “Soothed when things cease” clarifies the “constraint:” she’s not talking about “constraint” as the world giving you things to do. She’s talking about constraint as a refusal to engage the world on its terms. When has any of us ever been “soothed when things cease?”

“It is the assault of abundance from which they seek release.” Again, when have we ever wanted this? What characterizes monks and hermits and the like is their otherworldliness. In a way, we don’t consider them mere mortals, and they don’t treat themselves as human beings.

4. “The gorgeous intensities of Venice would work best for these people at a distance.” I hope you remember that lovely Seamus Heaney poem about the monks visited by an apparition. A ship from the other side, exploring our world – as if the dead were utterly mystified by life – gets stuck on an altar.

If we’re on the outside, looking in, Venice is a miracle. It’s the most heavenly city and the most worldly city. Its business is that it floats. You peer into that murky emerald lagoon and it’s a frightening unknown, littered with the refuse of human life. And yet life rests upon it, thriving. “Gorgeous intensities” indeed, best contemplated at a distance. “Death in life and life in death,” as Yeats says.

5. “The gorgeous intensities of Venice would work best for these people at a distance: sitting, for example, in a departing train car, feeling the menace settle.” Neither a monk nor a hermit, she’s sitting in a train, moving away from what she just saw. It doesn’t haunt most people. They think of gondoliers and overpriced espresso at St. Mark’s and Vivaldi. You go into the interior of St. Mark’s, though, and it is a vision of heaven, Yeats’ “Byzantium.” Right on top of the primordial sludge are walls and ceilings of gleaming gold, all the angels and saints gathered. It’s weird to think of some kind of spirituality as profoundly materialistic, a forcing together of desire and goods, the dying and the dead. It is a gorgeous intensity, though, for what that’s worth.

July 4th, 2016

Welcome to America, home of thinkpieces entitled “Are our best days behind us?” and “Is the republic doomed?” Here, everyone believes they know the identity of Belshazzar. Did Belshazzar soil the magnificent vessels of holy welfare reform? Or did he have the temerity to challenge Russian aggression? Either way, an ancient, sacred doctrine was violated, some kind of hubris was demonstrated, and the writing on the wall, following Daniel, is entirely in monetary terms, as if money is the only thing any of us can understand.

Doomsaying is a curious business. We readily understand it as a plea for moral reform. But we also recognize it as the domain of the blowhard, those who need to be right about everything, bad pundits and forecasters, the embittered, and the paranoid. Curiously enough, these are distinct groups of people. I know plenty who talk too much and need to assert their knowledge all the time. They’re not always blowhards: in a few cases, they’re trying their best to crack down on this tendency, as they genuinely don’t want to fill the room with their ego.

Still, the problem of “everyone’s a prophet” hits too close to home for many of us. I had two relatives that could never stop with the doomsaying. The economy was always going to collapse; no one knows any math, so we’re going to nuke ourselves and go broke simultaneously; there was a break-in ten years ago, so crime is skyrocketing. No one wanted to talk to them, and they utterly failed at making friends. Now that I’ve grown older and met thousands more people, I’ve been introduced to a whole new bunch of cranks. Take the hype of the news and increase the hysteria exponentially: this is our real domestic product.

The answer of the moment to this problem is asserting blather such as “America is already great.” You, dear reader, know the problem lies far deeper than our current situation. No less than Jefferson had to respond to this nut who argued that in the early 19th century – remember, back then there wasn’t any Social Security, no Medicare, no drones, no Federal Reserve, no welfare – the government of the US was too big. So instead of saying “we need more optimism,” I tend to say we Americans lack an appreciation of the value of things public. By that I mean we overvalue the private. Our house is our castle and we can do as we like. Since what we like “works,” why isn’t everyone like us? To value public things would mean being a bit more grateful for generic statements of value which can reach more people. Or emphasizing social and rhetorical skills. For Aristotle, friendliness was something to aim at, as opposed to being a grouch. Having some kind of social grace mattered too, because not having that grace risks boorishness. On a deeper level, we Americans really do lack class. It’s pretty clear we think we’d rather have some kind of emotional honesty.

I don’t know that we even have that, though. Doomsaying has a especial viciousness if done wrongly: it rejects everyone else’s claims as quickly as possible. I remember one relative in particular saying “that’s irrelevant” as soon as anyone gave anything other than “you are completely right” to him. We don’t have emotional honesty, we have emotional dishonesty. I’ve never seen angrier people accuse everyone else of not being happy or grateful. Yet here we are. As for myself, I’m well aware that pushing a reevaluation of the things held to be public or private is like putting a band-aid over where your arm used to be. I’ll be the first to admit my ideas are nowhere near a panacea, just something that might help in select situations.

Doomsaying can be so vicious because it attacks other people’s perspective, experience, knowledge, and questions. It works for bullies and infantile adults because it ties into some sense of received value. In short, it’s an attack on wisdom, but coming from where? One blowhard abusing everyone around him isn’t the real source of doom and gloom. Even with money and some kind of authority, he alone isn’t the source. No, his opinions have a credibility from leaning on something else. We all agree that the most practical thing would be best, and that this would set our minds at ease. We all agree that one crime is one crime too many, but that justice should be proportional, not cause for zealotry. We all hate war, yet we want freedom for all and protection from enemies. Our amateur prophets have their wisdom lent to them by our political order. Without realizing it, they’re articulating the expectations to which various political institutions cater. That the ends of those institutions don’t add up coherently (a mild example: that government gives subsidies to the tobacco farmer while running an anti-smoking campaign, that this is not a mistake in a way) doesn’t really sit well with us.

My wish is for a calmer America, one where we see and appreciate more Americans as life goes on. Years ago, Bush Sr. was widely mocked for wishing a “kindler, gentler” America. Maybe he was a hypocrite, given the Willie Horton ads he used against Dukakis. Maybe the wish has a value greater than any one of us, being the sum of all of us.